Voyage in the Vaucluse

Due east of Avignon lies the classic Provençal landscape, a realm of perched villages, fruited plains, and consistently fine cuisine

"We must go to Castellet, where my petite amie lives," announces Maximilien Azzalini when I meet him one spring morning outside the Hôtel la Mirande in Avignon. "Her family has its own lavender distillery, which is very rare. And her grandfather—who must be 86—still goes hunting for wild boar! He's given up truffle-hunting only because his dog—his special chien truffier—died." To his left, in the thin sunshine, soars the huge gaunt fortress of the 14th-century Papal Palace, which became a prison after the French Revolution and a source of revenue for local entrepreneurs, who were still selling off bits of its murals to tourists as late as the 1920s. To his right, behind a grand 17th-century façade, is this extraordinary hotel which began life in the 14th century as a cardinal's palace; was half destroyed in a 1411 siege of the Papal Palace during the Great Schism; and has now been meticulously renovated around a courtyard which was once a Gothic square. It has a Michelin-starred chef; it has archival toile de Jouy wallcovering; it even has a Roman well in its basement.

Maximilien, though, isn't interested in all this. "We also have to visit Buoux and its Auberge des Seguins," he goes on without pause, as he bundles my bags into his little second-hand Renault. "The Auberge is named after a family which once farmed in the Aiguebrun Valley; and it's owned by the mayor, who's a great champion of the Provençal language. Then there is the market at Carpentras—the asparagus and strawberries have arrived; the antiques dealers in L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue; the Roman Theater at Vaison-la-Romaine; the ocher works at Roussillon. And you cannot go away without a visit to Gigondas and Vacqueyras for the wines and Ansouis for the château. There," he says as he slams the trunk and opens the passenger door for me. "You see? We have an awful lot to do!"

Maximilien—who is in his mid-20s, with a soccer-player's wiriness and short black hair—is a student in Marseille. But he's also the nephew of a friend of mine in London; and he's offered to show me round his family's home patch: the Vaucluse, the department that fans out north and east of Avignon, with an emphasis on the folded mountains and rivered valleys of the Luberon. Thanks to (or perhaps despite) Peter Mayle the Luberon has become identified, both nationally and internationally, as a working rural paradise, where the art of living, the very idea of Frenchness, is still cultivated in a very special way. Geographically speaking, the Luberon is a narrow, sizable strip of land running eastward from here toward Apt and Forcalquier. Named for the mountain range it's gathered around, it's the home of perched, fortified villages; of gorges, terraced olive groves, and vineyards; of gnarled old farmers and artists like Maximilien's father who were attracted to it from the 1940s onward. But the artists were soon followed by Golden Age seekers and simplicity hunters, second-home-buyers and tourists from all over Europe and the United States. Thus it's not surprising that the Regional Park of Luberon, which includes 60 communes within the Vaucluse and neighboring department of Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, was founded in 1977 to protect against the "rash of outsiders" and the "building madness that wrecked the Côte d'Azur," according to one guidebook. The ideal of the Luberon, which now has some of the highest real-estate prices in Europe, has today spread outward over virtually the whole of northern Provence. It's become a place of the imagination.

Maximilien—who's taking his role very seriously—clearly wants me to see it all. "Let's start at Cavaillon," I say when he asks me what should be our first stop. "It's market day today."

There's been a market in Cavaillon, southeast of Avignon, since the Middle Ages. By the time we get there, the squares and narrow streets around the town's 12th-century Romanesque cathedral are crammed with shoppers and stalls end-to-end. There are linen and fabric dealers, knife sharpeners and caners, cheese sellers, fishmongers, butchers—even an old organ grinder. Occupying a man-made defensive island in the middle of the fast-running Sorgue, L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, only 10 kilometers from Cavaillon, has a network of waterways that used to drive its textile mills; a church with a fantastically overwrought Baroque interior; and streets named for the species fishermen still come here for: Trout, Crayfish, and Eel. It also has—according to a booklet I get from the tourist office—250 antiques dealers who, after first taking over the shops and houses of the traders in carpets and fabrics, have now spread out into courtyards and the custom-built mini-malls all over the outskirts of town. "The antiques trade comes to L'Isle from all over the world these days," says Michel Biehn proudly, when we call in at his grand 19th-century carpet-maker's house across from one of the village's main canals. "They come from Paris, London, and New York—even South Africa."

Biehn, a boyish-looking bear of a man who was once a hat-maker in London, is an expert on textiles, particularly on Indiennes, the exuberantly colored, hand-block-printed fabrics first brought to Provence from India by traders in the 17th century. Side by side with antique clothing and 18th-century quilts he sells faithful reproductions of old Indiennes in silks, linens, and cottons made for him by hand in Burma, India, Syria, and elsewhere. The fabrics, which are used for upholstery and wallcoverings (as in one of his showrooms), are fantastically sumptuous and very expensive, but a good deal more subtle and restrained in color, it seems to me, than those introduced to the world by Souleiado, Les Olivades, and Pierre Deux—let alone the cheap garish versions of them that we've seen in the Cavaillon market. "Yes," Biehn comments gravely. "They got it wrong. In the book written by the two Pierres, for instance, they included too many interiors from the area around Nice—which are much more Italian than they are true Provençal."

Virtually next-door to Biehn's emporium is Vincent mit l'âne, the shop of Jean-Jacques Bourgeois, another of L'Isle's resident authorities, this time on Provençal chairs. (Bourgeois has written the definitive book on the area's basket-seated furniture, as Biehn has on textiles.) He shows us a number of examples from different periods, explaining variations in wood and ornamentation—and again they seem more delicate and stylish than their popular modern descendants.

"The problem is that they're increasingly difficult to find," says Bourgeois. So he too, he says, makes his own "simplified reproductions in exactly the old original proportions," which he takes us upstairs to see. In the room, though (rather taking the shine off the rush-bottom chairs), are a wonderful period daybed and chairs made of mulberry wood, a reminder of the silk industry that flourished in Provence in the 18th and 19th centuries. (Mulberry leaves are the mainstay of the silkworm's diet.) "Beautiful, aren't they?" says Bourgeois, fingering the wood. "But you really have to see them in the right setting." And he shows us pictures in a magazine of his own house in Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, a symphony of stone and wood, of sunlight and shadow and color. I ask him about the village. "Oh," he replies, snapping the magazine shut, "it's so overrun with people. The only time to see it properly is before eight o'clock in the morning."

By now it's midafternoon, but we drive to Fontaine-de-Vaucluse anyway. Built on either side of the headwaters of the Sorgue River, it's crammed with tourists. Once we find a parking place we walk up through the crowds of spring holidaymakers past an old working paper mill and museums of speleology and the Resistance toward the mysterious pool that's made the village famous. The Romans referred to the steep gorge that opens out beneath the pool as Vallis Clausa, or Closed Valley, which in French became Vaucluse. The deep-green pool, which changes color throughout the year, lies under a bleak cliff jutting out over the valley; and nearby the ruins of a 13th-century castle look down from a high crag over the village. As for the pool itself, "it was not until the 1980s that a submarine probe got to the bottom of the second chasm," says Maximilien quietly, as we stand amid huge boulders, backed by the rushing sound of the river as it streams from the gorge's walls. "It was over one thousand feet deep. But nobody's yet got to the bottom or found out where the water comes from—from the Alps, maybe." (Others say it's most likely rainwater draining through the Vaucluse Plateau.) After half an hour in this strange wild place we walk back to Maximilien's little car. Dusk finds us driving across the rich farmland of the Calavon Valley toward Bonnieux, where I'm staying this evening.

The pattern of this first day—with its odd overlapping syntheses of history and modernity, simplicity and sophistication, brute nature and mass tourism—sets the tone for all the journeys I take with Maximilien over the days that follow. I stay for two nights high up above the fortress-village of Bonnieux, which has traces going back to the Gallo-Roman period (45 b.c.), at the Bastide de Capelongue, a new hôtel de charme with extraordinary views across the Calavon Valley. And then I move over the mountain for a night to Le Moulin de Lourmarin, its sister hotel in the village of Lourmarin on the plain to the south, where young chef Edouard Loubet—with two stars from the Guide Michelin—cooks butterless and virtually creamless dishes of extraordinary subtlety, perfumed with the Luberon's aromatic herbs and fruits: with lavender and camomile, hyssop and almond milk, thyme and melon and vervain. I go to sleep each night in fine linen, amid wrought-iron sunbursts and expensive napped fabrics—inside an interior designer's dream of Provence. And each morning, at nine promptly, I'm awakened by Maximilien and his little Renault, as if I were the student and he my tutor, schooling me in some soon-to-be-sat exam. "Today we shall go to Gordes," he announces; or "to Roussillon"; or "to Ménerbes." And starting with a coffee and croissant from one of the bakeries in Bonnieux each morning, we explore one by one the perched, hillside villages that have been transformed over the last 50 years from rural backwaters into lifestyle cynosures, places where carpenters and shopkeepers rub shoulders with artists, politicians, and the rich (and sometimes famous) from capitals all over Europe. As we travel from village to village I begin to discover not only the topography of each one, but its modern social geography. In Bonnieux, for example, where we clamber around the 13th-century ramparts and the 12th-century church at the village's summit, we also take a peek at a beautiful terraced garden that used to be owned, Maximilien tells me, "by a stylist from Hermès. Now it belongs to an American lady who shares a secretary with former Minister of Culture Jack Lang." When I ask him who else lives in Bonnieux, he says: "Well, actors, I suppose. Emmanuelle Béart and Daniel Auteuil lived here until recently; and now there is John Malkovich and his family. His children go to the local school; he is very well-liked. They live here all year round."

We then move on to Roussillon—a cubist collage of stone houses set in piney red countryside, where the playwright Samuel Beckett spent much of World War II—and visit the old ocher works which produced the pigments (from oxblood to pale yellow) that decorate the outside of the local houses (and was once used as makeup by the ladies of Roman Apt, just east of here, and Tsarist Russia). We wander for a while through the little weekly market that every major village in the area hosts on its appointed day; and as we climb up through tourist shops toward Roussillon's fortifications we pass a little gallery, the Galerie des Ocres, which has some of the best paintings I see in the Luberon. "That," says Maximilien when I remark on it, "is because Roussillon is the painters' village—they come here for the special light. All around here there are painters and writers—oh, and Claude Berri, who made Jean de Florette and Manon des Sources with Yves Montand."

At Gordes it is the same—or, rather, a slightly different—story. An old wool and leather-tanning village on a rocky bluff above the Imergue Valley, Gordes is almost too picture-perfect for its own good. Once again, it was "discovered" by painters, led by the abstract artist André Lhote, who persuaded Marc Chagall to visit, and later the Hungarian-born Victor Vasarély. Today, though, it's as if a new and fake village had been grafted on top of the original. There are new houses and amenities; it's a bit like a high-rent suburb. And the reason, according to Maximilien, is simple. "People have been allowed to build here," he says, eyeing a Ferrari driving down the main street. "The reason is pure politics. This is where François Mitterand's daughter lives, and where his entourage used to come in the 1980s. They make the rules, so . . ." he says, shrugging his shoulders and turning away.

Each day we visit some of the longtime residents and craftspeople in this part of the Vaucluse. One morning we stop in the village of Goult at what was once a dilapidated farmworkers' house, long owned by a now-retired director of IBM, Michel Grobsheiser. We sit for a while in a bare, tiled dining room drinking Henri Bardouin pastis; and then Michel takes me on a tour of inspection, lingering lovingly over the extraordinary traditional ironwork on the shutters and doors that Maximilien's father, Daniel, has designed and forged.

Then we call on Gérard Aude at his Ferronnerie d'Art in St.-Pantaléon, which makes wonderfully graceful wrought-iron furniture; on Edith Mézard, who produces beautifully embroidered linens at her Château de l'Ange in Lumières; and on Brigitte Vernin at Vernin Carreaux d'Apt, outside Bonnieux, which turns local clays into enameled and terra-cotta tiles of every possible pattern and color. We go through the whole process of shaping, drying, glazing, and firing with the foreman, then talk for a while with Brigitte, the pottery's CEO and chairman. She hands me a brochure that includes a list of international clients, among them Robert Redford, Faye Dunaway, Pierre Boulez, and Brigitte Bardot.

We also, one afternoon outside Castellet, visit the lavender distillery of the family of Maximilien's petite amie. I'm soon presented with a small bottle of lavender essence and offered samples of lavender honey, and then she and Maximilien shyly take me across the road to the lavender still, a ramshackle open-air contraption of boiler, pipes, and cooling coils—a technology that the farmers of Provence learned from the Arabs. Near it are great heaps of stalks from last year's harvest, ready to stoke the fire; and the old grandfather's two dogs, tethered, barking, sniffing, anxious to be off hunting. Finally, as the sun begins to come down in an oratorio of pinks and oranges, we say goodbye and drive toward Bonnieux across the high Claparèdes Plateau—past oak copses and lavender fields dotted with bories, the mysterious little dry-stone huts built as shelter from the 16th through the 18th century. I come to think of them as historical milestones, the first personal strongholds here of those who were obstinately self-reliant enough to leave the protection of the hilltop villages for the valley, where they could work and prosper on their own.

To see this relationship between work and landscape in the Luberon, you have to climb as we do each day. It's the best way of understanding not only the area's dramatic topography—the complex interfolding of mountain ranges with gorges and fertile valleys—but also the history that has shaped its settlements and patterns of life. That is to say, going upwards here means going backwards in time, to a period when cultivating and clinging to the heights was the only way to survive.

The spreading orchards and vines and olive groves of the Luberon's flatlands, in other words, are rather recent phenomena, a product of the last few centuries. For plains dwelling and flatland farming both demand peace; and peace was a scarce commodity through most of the Luberon's history. Instead there were indigenous warring tribes and battling feudal chieftains, and on either side of the long Roman peace (roughly 100 b.c.­a.d. 400) there were invasions from Celts, Visigoths, Hungarians, Saracens, and Franks. As late as the 16th century warfare persisted, this time between Protestants and Catholics. Protestants pillaged Catholic churches, and the Baron of Oppède led a massacre of Waldensians (pre-Reformation heretics), acting on behalf of the Inquisition.

The only way to escape this continuous mayhem was to settle, as the Luberonese did, in fortified places as high up as possible. One afternoon we climb the huge rock that soars over the village of Saignon (from the Latin signum, or sign), where there are the remains of no less than three successive strongholds. So ingrained was the habit of living on high that it took centuries, long after peace broke out, for the process to reverse itself. It wasn't until the late 19th century, for instance, that the people of Oppède-le-Vieux, protected by then by a castle that was no more than a ruin, finally decided to leave their cramped huddle of medieval houses and find new lives lower down.

Almost all of the Luberon's early settlements were constructed around high fortresses, just like Oppède's. Some of these fortresses were destroyed during the French Revolution, like the 12th-century château above the little village of Lacoste, home for several years to the Marquis de Sade in the 18th century. Some of them have been restored and are still lived in, like the castle at Ansouis in the valley of the Durance River, which has belonged to the family of the Dukes of Sabran for the last 800 years.

But the strategy of local defense they enshrine goes even further back, as we saw the morning we clambered up to the so-called Fort of Buoux, not far from Bonnieux. It sits like a ship on a high tooth of rock above deep gorges, with ruined Dark Age houses and a fortress carved straight out of the solid rock. Traces of neolithic encampments have been found in grottoes at the foot of the fort, which in the Dark Ages protected a salt route below.

These climbs, of course, are a rather strenuous route into the secret of the Luberon's rugged beauty. But the paths along the way are often surrounded by wildflowers, and the smell of wild herbs is everywhere. There are also other compensations. For after we come down from the Fort of Buoux we drive to the Auberge des Seguins in the lonely Aiguebrun Valley, where we eat a meal—cold mussels, sausage, and rabbit—of stunning delicacy and simplicity. Everywhere we lunch, in fact—as the Luberon comes to a halt for the midday ritual—the food is wonderfully good: vegetables with aïoli (garlic and mayonnaise), asparagus, snails, and lamb from Sisteron—accompanied by the local raspberry-fruited, supple-palated red wine.

One evening we go off to Pernes-les-Fontaines, north of L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, to a little one-Michelin-star restaurant, Au Fil du Temps (which has only six tables), to investigate how much better it can possibly be. It is better, and more subtle, but happily chef Frédéric Robert still belongs to the same simple sodality. Pernes-les-Fontaines, too, is a real find: a delightful little town (virtually empty of tourists during my visit) with 40 fountains and a medieval tower containing some of the oldest frescoes in all of France.

Pernes is our first stop outside the Luberon. It is part of what was once known as the Comtat (or County) Venaissin, the long swath of Provence Philip III handed over to the Papacy in 1274, in settlement of an old dispute. (France only got it back 517 years later.) Maximilien and I now continue driving northward, deep into its heart to Venasque, which gave the Comtat Venaissin its name. Venasque is a high fortress-village like those further south; but most of the rest of the old Comtat is hugely productive farmland—the most productive flat farmland in the country, referred to since 1854 as the Garden of France. It produces cherries and table grapes, apples and asparagus; it has fully five percent of the country's vineyards. While the ecology of the Luberon seems born of stone and history and the human will to survive, the Comtat's has created a string of rich, contented plains settlements which seem this spring to be suspended in time, waiting for the sun to do its work for them.

I stay for the rest of my time at the Hostellerie de Crillon le Brave, a luxurious little inn at the brow of an old village of the same name (and known to the Romans as Crillonium) in the north of the Comtat. The inn, which now occupies four old village houses (one of which was the priest's home and village-school), clusters higgledy-piggledy around a swimming pool and garden; and it's an object lesson in how much tourism and new settlement, so often condemned, have actually done in the area to save it. At the turn of the century, some 800 people lived up here round the ramparts; over the years they ebbed away to the cities or to the prosperity of the plains. By 1989, when Peter Chittick and Craig Miller purchased the first two houses that would become the inn, the old village of Crillon le Brave was pretty much deserted. Now the Hostellerie owns several more houses in the village and because of it—and the British, Swiss, and Belgians who have settled in and around here—Crillon has both a new population and a new purpose. It's the same story everywhere else across the Comtat and the Luberon. In the 1940s and 1950s, for example, half of Venasque was a ruin, and half the houses in Roussillon were unoccupied and headed the same way. Now both have been restored and repopulated by newcomers, frequently as beautifully as the Hostellerie has been. Both tourism and second-home-buying have given the past here a future.

This is an oddly comforting thought—as comforting, in its way, as the copy of the International Herald Tribune I'm handed as I sit at breakfast, in a zinging yellow sitting room. Pinned to the outside of the Tribune is a list of exhibitions and events of interest in the region. It also gives an account of the expected weather (not good); and in a box at the bottom, next to the words Today's Market, it says Carpentras. When Maximilien appears, then, and asks me where I want to start the day (my last in the area), I have the answer.

Carpentras, the old and present-day capital of the Comtat Venaissin, has a mishmash of a cathedral, built between the 1400s and 1902; the oldest synagogue in France, dating from the 14th century; and a first-century Roman arch showing Gaulish prisoners being taken into captivity. The market spills out, as in Cavaillon, all over the center of town—and this time I mean to buy. The season for truffles, which are sold in the Place Aristide Briand, is over. But with Maximilien as quality spotter, I buy olives and olive oil, four kinds of goat cheese, three kinds of sausage, and a basket to carry them in. By the time we are finished, we've spent two or three hours (like Provençal housewives). So we drive hurriedly out of town, past a 17th-century aqueduct, north toward the mountains called the Dentelles de Montmirail.

The limestone Dentelles (the word means "lace") have been eroded by wind into a fantastical architecture of arches and columns. On their western slopes they shelter wine country: the home of one top appellation, Gigondas, and of one good one, Côtes du Rhône-Villages. The road passes between miles and miles of immaculately tended vineyards, past a string of famed villages—Vacqueyras, Beaumes-de-Venise, Gigondas, Sablet. We stop for lunch in Gigondas—named after a local Roman holiday camp called Joconditas (or Cheerfulness)—and I can't help thinking that the dark and fragrant wine gave rise to the name. We have a bottle of Domaine Raspail Ay over lunch; and when we're done we drive to the estate to buy a few bottles, by way of thanks, for Maximilien's father. And then we travel onwards again, to our last port of call, Vaison-la-Romaine.

By the time we get to Vaison (the Roman Vasio) a thin rain is falling, and most of the tourists have made for shelter. So we have the Roman ruins (excavated by a local cleric for close to half a century, beginning in the early 1900s) more or less to ourselves. Either side of the main street here there are the remains of fine villas; a shopping arcade, an enormous bathhouse, an exercise ground, as well as a first-century theater capable of holding some 6,000 people (the number of inhabitants then, as now) and still used for performances during Vaison's summer festival. There's also an interesting little museum of Roman relics, near which I see a little group of boules players, under umbrellas, doggedly getting on with their game.

But the big discovery for me in Vaison is its Cathedral of Notre-Dame-de-Nazareth. Just 10 minutes' walk to the west of the ruins, its superstructure dates from the 10th to 12th centuries. Among its marvels: an altar from the sixth and 12th centuries, an 11th-century bishop's throne, the 12th-century arcaded apse—and around it, in a semicircle, the benches where the monks used to sit, the earliest form of choir, as in the churches of Ravenna. In the words of one guidebook, "There is nothing like this apse in France; it is a place to muse on time and fate—the last surviving work of Roman Provence, the wistful farewell of a civilization that can be heard across the centuries."