VILLAGES OF PROVENCE – PART 1
A large part of the appeal of Provence for us is the beauty of the countryside and the charm of the many Medieval villages that pepper the landscape. Unfortunately public transport options in the region are limited, so we signed up for a tour with a local company that specialises in small group outings (i.e. max 8 people) and set off to explore some of the best of Provence’s scenery.
Though known to be occupied since Neolithic times, it was the Romans that named Provence and put it on the map, so to speak*. Since then this has been a land of olive groves and vineyards; a dry county where sunshine reigns supreme (they get more than 300 sunny days a year), and agriculture is still the mainstay of the local economy.
*Provence was the first Roman province beyond the Alps and was aptly called “Provincia Romana”; over the centuries this evolved into the region’s present name.
Provence was an independent nation for many centuries after the Roman Empire receded; it was ruled by the Counts of Provence from their capital in Aix-en-Provence until 1481, when it became a province of the Kings of France.
Our tour took us North of Aix-en-Provence, towards the fields of the Luberon Valley. Sitting under the shadow of the Luberon Mountains, this is one of Provence’s prettiest corners. In spring it’s a mass of lavender, poppies, and wild flowers; at the moment, with summer fading and autumn fast approaching, it was a vision of grape-ladened vines, wheat fields lying fallow after the harvest, and sunflowers ready for the gathering.
Driving through the countryside we were often in shade, protected from the sun by the rows of trees either side of the road. These were all planted during the 19th century, on Napoleon’s orders, to provide shelter for his marching armies.
Our first stop for the day, about 90 minutes out of Aix, was the village of Fontaine-de-Vaucluse (i.e. The Spring of Vaucluse).
As its name implies this village is built around a spring and sits in a deep valley at the foot of Mt Vaucluse. The spring is the biggest in France and the 5th largest in the world with an annual flow of 630 million cubic metres (which works out to be about 630 gigalitres – that’s enough to fill Sydney Harbour with a bit left over).
This spring comes from deep underground – although nobody knows exactly how deep. In the 1950s, Jacques Cousteau came with a submersible to explore the depths but did not find the bottom. Since then a probe has made it to a sandy bed 308m down, but the spring itself comes from somewhere even deeper. It is believed that all the rainwater from the Luberon Mountains and other surrounding mountains comes out of this one source. This extraordinary phenomenon forms the crystal-clear Sorgue river, which soon turns a startling emerald, and it’s this vivid hue that dominates the town of Fontaine de Vaucluse.
The source of the spring was a short walk uphill from the village, situated at the feet of a steep cliff. At this time of year, with the dry heat of summer just ending and the spring rains a long way off, there was little water in the pool at the base of the cliff. Come April, however, and the pool becomes an ocean and the gentle stream we saw a raging torrent.
Archaeological evidence suggests the spring has been the object of worship for millennia, with divers venturing into the spring-fed pool retrieving a treasure trove of more than 1,600 antique coins dating from the 1st century BC to the 5th century AD.
As well as worshipping this life-giving water source, villagers in Fontaine-de-Vaucluse harnessed the power of the flowing water with a whole series of water mills. Many of these now sit idle in the village, though one is still in operation at the paper mill. Here wood pulp is mashed and then laid out onto mesh trays to make paper the old fashioned way. (As you would expect in a town where tourism is the main source of income, you can, of course, buy some of this hand crafted paper.)
Today the village itself is no more than a collection of souvenir shops and cafés catering for the hordes of tourists that descend every summer. We’re just outside of peak tourist season so the town was blessedly quiet. We sat by the river and enjoyed a snack, watching the ducks forage through the water weeds for food. From high above Fontaine-de-Vaucluse the ruins of the Château of the Bishops of Cavaillon (dating from the 14th century) watched over us.
We had a good 90 minutes to enjoy Fontaine-de-Vaucluse before it was time to hop back into our minibus and head a few kilometres down the road to the next picturesque Provencal village: Gordes. Along the way we passed through some of the wild scrubland typical of the region. Known as garrigue this is a mixture of aromatic shrubs such as lavender, sage, rosemary, and wild thyme that survive in the lime-ladened soils of the region. For such a dry landscape, the garrigue is surprisingly green.
Gordes is built on a giant rocky outcropping, facing the Luberon, dominating the valley and affording fantastic views of the surrounding landscape. It is listed as one of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France* (i.e. the most beautiful villages of France), and in our opinion is well deserving of the title.
*This label is not given out lightly; it’s given to villages who meet a strict set of criteria and are judged to be worthy of the title. Villages can apply for consideration and often do so as being tagged with this label virtually guarantees them a surge in tourist numbers – especially local, French tourism. As of 2015, 155 villages in France have been labelled as one of the “Plus Beaux Villages de France”.
Its houses of white and grey stone rise up in a spiral around the rock where the village is set, and its labyrinth of cobblestone streets are so narrow that they’re barely wide enough for 2 people to walk side-by-side. The central square in the village was like something out of a movies (which it actually is – the villages has been used as the setting for a couple of films and the town square features in them all).
From the terraces around the edge of village we got to enjoy some truly wonderful views of the surrounding valleys and hills of Provence.
At the very top of the village are the church and the 11th century castle which face out onto the hills of the Luberon (the castle acts the town hall today).
We stopped for lunch in Gordes, which, as we’ve mentioned before, is always a leisurely affair here in France. Eventually though it was time to continue on our tour, to the Abbaye Notre Dame de Sénanque.
This lovely Medieval Cistercian abbey is no doubt THE image you will see if you Google “Provence”. Located in a peaceful, hidden valley just North of Gordes, the monastery was founded in 1148 when the lords of the area donated the land for a monastery. The monks used the land around the abbey to grow food for themselves and, in the 14th century, began to grow lavender flowers from which they produced fragrant essential oil. Today the 8 monks that still live at the abbey still grow lavender and tend honey bees for their livelihood. They also let out rooms for those wanting to enjoy week-long retreats in the hills of Provence.
In spring the area is a sea of purple (and awash with coach-loads of tourists); today things were far more subdued as the lavender bushes sit flowerless and the tour buses were nowhere to be seen.
Like all Cisterican abbeys, Sénanque is lovely in its austere beauty. With no decoration to distract the monks per the instructions of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, its Romanesque architecture stood out as the main attraction.
After a short visit around the Abbey of Sénanque it was time to head home, back to Aix for a quiet afternoon in town and a lovely evening meal at one of the many brasseries in town. We enjoyed today and want more! So much so that we signed up for another tour with the same company tomorrow to see a few other villages in the area – so tune in demain to see what other wonderful Provencal villages we’ve explored…