As I mentioned in my first post on Provence, one of the best things about our week there was the fact that we had so many beautiful villages within 20 minutes’ drive of our apartment. Each morning, we’d head out early before it got too hot and spend a few hours wandering cobbled streets, sipping café au lait in sunny squares and generally mooching about enjoying the peace and quiet.
The closest village to us was Gordes. It’s one of France’s plus beaux (most beautiful) villages – and it’s not hard to see why.
You get the best view of Gordes from the rocky platform on the D2 road just outside the village. There’s a little side road you can pull in to with a dozen or so parking spaces. We stopped there a couple of times and I’d definitely suggest aiming for early morning (pre-9am) or early evening if you want to avoid the crowds. We went for sunset one evening and gave up as the platform was rammed with a group on some sort of photography trip with tripods taking up most of the space.
If the main platform is busy, there’s a smaller one hidden in the trees just to the right of it – it’s lower down, but you still get a lovely view…
Another plus-point for a morning trip to Gordes is that you can avoid the parking charges. It’s 4 euros to park, no matter how long you’re planning on staying, but the money is collected in person as you drive in – when we arrived at 8am, there was no-one in sight, so we got out of it.
Time your visit for a Tuesday if you want to visit the market. At 8am, stallholders were still setting up, so we ducked into a café for a coffee while we waited for things to get a bit livelier (and for the torrential rain to pass – gotta love a summer storm).
Although there were stalls selling clothes, gifts and antique-y bits (mirrors, chunky silver cutlery), it was the food that I was after – and it didn’t disappoint. Just-baked pastries and croissants, jars of fruity jams and lavender-infused honey, spicy saucisson, huge wheels of cheese, and piles of fresh cherries, strawberries, peaches and apricots. Perfect for picking up a few picnic bits for our drive through the lavender fields!
Roussillon was the first village we went to – and what a way to start! Another of the plus beaux villages, it’s set on a hilltop and painted in shades of burnt-orange and terracotta to match the vibrant earth of the old ochre quarry next to it.
After parking up (2 euros, payable at a machine), we headed straight to the top of town to check out the views.
They were OK.
There are a handful of little gift and clothes shops and a fair few cafes – we had a quick pit-stop at a completely empty one which turned out to have an amazing terrace out the back!
The Sentier des Ochres (3.50 euros) is a must-do if you visit Roussillon. It’s basically a pathway that takes you down into the old quarry. You can choose to do the short route or the long one (which the leaflet said would take an hour, but we managed it in 35 minutes) – both routes take you right up close to the orange cliffs, which looked incredibly vivid next to the pine trees and blue skies.
Definitely avoid white shoes, though, as the orange dust gets everywhere!
Goult was very pretty, but unfortunately I was far too hungry to fully appreciate it – we visited on a Sunday evening hoping to get some dinner (we’d tried to go to the supermarket earlier and ended up having to turn back after failing to find a parking space – note to self, never assume you can just pop into town on a market day). The lady at our apartment had recommended a couple of restaurants, but despite being completely empty, they both turned us away. As did the only other restaurant open on a Sunday. Apparently booking in advance really is the done thing.
Luckily, Bonnieux saved the day for us on that fateful Sunday. We parked up (free – or at least it was in the evening) and ended up getting a table at one of the best restaurants, Le Fournil. It had the loveliest setting, in a little square with a fountain shaded by a huge plane tree.
The food wasn’t cheap (41 euros for a main and a dessert), but it was absolutely delicious, and the dessert was one of the best I’ve ever had (it’s the chocolate pudding – just say yes). It was my favourite meal of the trip, although Mr ST gave that award to the other restaurant we ate at in Bonnieux – Un P’tit Coin de Cuisine, on the road just below Le Fornils. We managed to snag the last table there on Bastille Day and had a brilliant time sampling the cheese and charcuterie platters and drinking rosé while local families chattered around us.
Bonnieux wasn’t all about the food, though. It’s another perched village, so the views are stunning, especially around sunset. The walk up to the top of the town is definitely worth it…
We were in and out of little Lacoste in under an hour, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t pretty (I would even go as far as saying it was the prettiest of all the villages we saw) – it’s just very, very small.
Free parking is at the bottom of the hill, but be prepared for a short, sharp uphill climb into the village. The streets are all cobbles and stone houses – very photogenic. At the top, you’ll find the ruins of a chateau, once owned by the Marquis de Sade. The views from here are fab.
Incredibly, a lot of the buildings in Lacoste are owned by an American University (the Savannah College of Art & Deisgn), whose students come over for a year to paint and photograph and generally do arty things. As campuses go, I think this ranks as one of the best in the world…
What do you reckon?
Anyone who’s read Peter Mayle’s ‘A Year in Provence’ will know about Ménerbes. The amazing-sounding farmhouse and vineyard that he restores during said year in Provence is just outside Ménerbes, and there are countless references to the village throughout the story. I devoured the book during our first two days in Provence, so I was very excited to see the village for myself.
We parked up (3 euros) at about 11am and Ménerbes was still lovely and quiet. We spent a good hour or so aimlessly wandering through the hilly lanes, admiring the shuttered houses and stopping for a pain au chocolat at a very cute bakery along the way.
We then ambled up to the church, where we were met by wide-angle views across the countryside.
As well as this strange little building that seemed remarkably like a prison cell (with a slightly better view).
We hadn’t actually planned to visit Oppède-le-Vieux, but after the Mistral winds appeared on our last full day, it was too chilly for the pool (seriously, those winds are freezing! Temperatures dropped more than 10 degrees in a day!), so we added it to our itinerary.
The ‘new’ town of Oppède-les-Poulivets sits at the bottom of a hill – Oppède-le-Vieux is up the top. Abandoned by its residents a hundred or so years ago, the village has now started to come back to life, and is a charming jumble of crumbling stone houses and cute cottages that have been turned into artists’ workshops.
Once again, it’s an uphill walk from the car park (3 euros), but on the way you get lovely views back across the valley – there’s a big grassy area that would be perfect for a picnic.
As you enter the village, you’ll walk along the prettiest little street.
And end up in the village’s peaceful main square. There are a couple of cafés, but we decided to tackle the climb up to the top of the village first. The path up leads through a beautiful old stone arch and passes a half-collapsed house and a little chapel on its way up through the greenery.
At the top, as well as the spectacular views, you’ll find a centuries-old church (peek inside – it’s lovely) and the ruins of an old castle, which is currently being restored by the locals.
The village is fairly tiny (even by Provencal standards), so I’m not sure I’d go too far out of your way to see it – but if you’re heading to Menerbes, which is only 10 minutes away, I’d say definitely try and fit in a quick stop in Oppède-le-Vieux as well.
We also visited some of the bigger towns and cities while we were in Provence, but I’ll save those for another day. I’m dying to go back and see even more of the area, so if you’ve got any recommendations for other beautiful towns and villages in Provence, let me know!
This post is sponsored by AVIS, who I hired my car through – take a look at their blogs on French holidays for more Provence inspiration. All opinions are my own and I paid for the car hire myself.