The Luberon is a protected mountainous mass in the département of Vaucluse, in the south east of France which shelters a huddle of charming villages.
The Luberon, adored by French author Marcel Pagnol, was also Samuel Beckett’s refuge during the Second World War and a favourite of British author Peter Mayle, who describes the area with justified enthusiasm in several of his books, particularly in the “Year in Provence” series. The area deserves attention not only for its natural diversity, for which it has been granted the status of Natural Regional Park, but also for its picturesque villages.
About 70 km north of Marseille, between the département of Alpes de Haute Provence on the east, and Vaucluse on the west, it is about 60 km long and 5 km wide. Its highest point is “le Mourre Nègre” at 1,125 metres, the peak of “le Grand Luberon”. The Luberon also includes “le Petit Luberon” which is 700 metres high comprising the areas of Cavaillon, Apt and Lourmarin and “le Luberon Oriental” on the east, which ranges from 280 to 976 metres.
The entire Luberon area is subject to seismic activity and has been hit by two earthquakes, one in 1887, the other in 1909.
Its chalky earth and dry Mediterranean climate produces a multitude of different ecosystems, irrigated by the Calavon River to the north and the Durance River in the south.
Its flora and fauna are half-way between the Alps and the Mediterranean combining olive, cherry and almond trees, vineyards, silkworm and goat breeding as well as beekeeping. Such diversity delights painters, hunters and ramblers. The Luberon has some charming villages which enjoy the title of “the most beautiful villages in France”, such as Gordes, Lourmarin, Ansouis, Roussillon and Ménerbes.
Cavaillon, at the entrance to the Luberon Natural Regional Park, is located 774 km from Paris. It is an old Episcopalian seat and also the self-proclaimed capital of melon production, though melons are no longer grown there but imported.
It is located at the foot of the Saint Jacques hill, which is 180 metres high, facing the Luberon and the Alpilles range in the south east.
Cavaillon has over 25,800 inhabitants and was until 1830 the only crossing point across the Durance (by ferry boat) when the suspension bridge was built. The crossing of the Durance at Cavaillon by ferry was known from the Ancient Times and its service only ended in 1943. Occupation of the area dates back to prehistoric times. The Saint Julien canal runs through the town which is full of roman ruins, such as the baths and the triumphal arch which dates back to the first century A.D. In the north, one can observe storage wells and crypts, and there are remains of old fortifications, the biggest of which is the Avignon Gate. Finally, there are Gallic oppida on the Saint Julien mount. A whimsical anecdote about Cavaillon is that Alexandre Dumas offered his entire book collection to the village in exchange for 12 melons a year.
The territory of Oppède is divided into three parts: the Luberon Mountain, the hills around the mountain and the bed of the Coulon River. The name of Oppède appeared for the first time in the 11th century; however occupation of the site can be traced back to early Roman times. Oppède belonged to the Popes until the 14th of September 1791 and its quarries supplied the stone used to build the Palais des Papes in Avignon.
Oppede has monuments which make the trip to the village worthwhile, such as the Saint Augustin oil mill, the Gothic and Romanesque church of Notre Dame d’Alidon, the ruins of the medieval castle, some town-houses dating back to the 15 and 16th century, two chapels and the beautiful gardens of “les Terrasses de Sainte Cécile”. Oppède celebrates the grape harvest on the third weekend of October.
The old village of Ménerbes is situated on a mountainous spur 230 metres above sea level. It reaches the top of Petit Luberon in the south and spreads downwards to the Calavon River in the north.
Ménerbes is famous for Peter Mayle’s bestseller book “A Year in Provence”, an autobiographical story which humorously describes his settling in the village of Ménerbes to escape busy London.
Ménerbes also houses a corkscrew museum (musée du tire-bouchon) as well as one of the only dolmens in the Vaucluse: the Pichouno dolmen, and a white chalky rocks quarry.
Find out more about Ménerbes.
Bonnieux is a village of 1,400 inhabitants perched on the north side of the Luberon, with breathtaking views of the plains of the Calavon River, the Vaucluse Plateau and the Mount Ventoux. Leading down to the village is the Bonnieux valley which is linked to the Lourmarin valley and the two valleys are the only route crossing the Luberon.
Occupation of the site dates back to the mid Palaeolithic age in 58,000 B.C. The village possesses numerous monuments such as two Roman bridges: Pont de la Combette and Pont Julien built in 3 B.C. By 972, the town was already surrounded by a fortress and walls.
Bonnieux was also pontifical land from the 14th century up until the 14 September, 1791 when it was annexed to France, along with the Comtat Venaissin County which belonged to the Pope. For a short time, Bonnieux was included in the Bouches du Rhône département before being integrated into the newly created département of Vaucluse in 1793.
Bonnieux also has a bakery museum (musée de la boulangerie), a church from the 12th century displaying both Romanesque and Gothic styles. Next to Bonnieux is the Claparèdes Plateau housing several pastoral rock huts (called ‘bories’) as well as an oppidum dating back to Neolithic times.
Bonnieux was originally built at the foot of its current location and moved up in the middle ages for defensive reasons. Finally during Roman times Bonnieux was crossed by the Cadiz to Milan route.
The charming village of Lourmarin stands at the end of the Lourmarin Valley (a passage between the Petit and the Grand Luberon).
On a hill slightly outside the village stands the Lourmarin castle which was built during the 15th century on the ruins of a medieval fortress.
It is also worth seeing the old windmill without its sails but just the village with its restaurants and picturesque paved street is enchanting.
South of the Luberon, on the northern side of the Aigues valley, surrounded by vineyards on a 375 metres high hill, is the village of Cucuron. A home to just over 1,800 people, its highest point is 1,040 metres above sea level and to the south of it is the Durance’s alluvial plain.
The origin of the name Cucuron is unclear. Some say it comes from Julius Caesar saying ‘cur currunt?’ whilst watching enemies flee (why are they running?), other argue it draws on the word ‘Kuk’ which means a site on a high mountain. The actual village dates back to the 11th century, before which it was just what its ancient inhabitants the Romans called a castrum. In 1720/1721 the village suffered a plague epidemic which had spread all the way from Marseilles (65 km away).
Cucuron is not only charming due to its picturesque atmosphere but also because of its monuments: the Notre Dame de Beaulieu and Notre Dame de Beauvoir churches, medieval walls and gates, castle ruins – especially the Saint Michel tower, an oil mill in a cave in the wall south of the village and the basin of a quadrangular pond, both from the 16th century.
The first Saturday after the 21st of May Cucuron celebrates “Saint Tulle Day” with the ritual of “l’arbre de main” (the hand-tree): a poplar is carried on the back of men across the village and erected in front of the church commemorating the saint, who put an end to the plague.
In between the Luberon and the Vaucluse mount, crossed by the Calavon, lies Apt. The little town was created in 45 B.C. on orders from Julius Caesar. Although habitation of the site dates back to prehistoric times, a long Roman occupation is evident from the amphitheatre and the baths. The town is surrounded by ruins of walls erected in the Middle-Ages and hosts the Saint Anne cathedral.
There used to be six gates to the city but now only one is left standing: the Porte Saignon with a tower called “de l’hôpital”. The town specialities are candied fruits and earthenware / china. Also it produces, like most localities in the Luberon, wine, olive oil and cherries.
The Colorado of Rustrel
Near Apt, the unexpected Colorado of Rustrel ranks among Provence’s most beautiful attractions. Situated on one of the largest ochre quarries in the world, the Colorado of Rustrel was, at one time, one of the best known producers of ochre in France. Today, the hues and the strange looking shapes of the outcrops, shaped by centuries of exposure to the elements, are simply breathtaking.
Find out more about the Colorado of Rustrel.
In the northern part of the Luberon, between the petit Luberon and the Vaucluse Plateau, is Roussillon, famous for its ochre quarries that were exploited from the end of the 18th century until the 1930s. Roussillon is a delightful Provençal village and the second most visited in the Luberon after Gordes.
Find out more about Roussillon.
The village of Gordes is perched on a rock at 635 metres high, on the south flank of the Vaucluse plateau, above the plain of the Calavon River and in front of the Luberon. It is the most visited locality in the Luberon and enjoys 300 days of sunshine a year.
Housing two abbeys (Saint Chaffret and Sénanque), the Saint Firmin palace, ancient paved streets, mills, chapels and washhouses, Gordes truly deserves the title of one of the most beautiful village of France.
Find out more about Gordes, the Abbey of Sénanque and the Bories.
On the bank of the Sorgue River, built around its source in a dead-end valley at the feet of the Vaucluse plateau, lies the village of Fontaine-de-Vaucluse. The locality is named after the famous and abundant water source nearby, it is surrounded by chalky hills 230 to 240 metres high.
Find out more about Fontaine-de-Vaucluse.
How to get to the Luberon
The Luberon is easily accessible by car from Provence’s main cities Marseille, Toulon, and Avignon, as well as from the cities of Lyon and Montpellier through an excellent network of motorways, the French “autoroutes”.
If you travel from Australia or America, you could take a flight to Paris Charles de Gaulle, and travel by TGV from the airport station straight to Avignon and rent a car from there.
The TGV from Paris-Gare de Lyon takes less than 2.45 hours to the TGV station of Avignon.
Check out the Tourist Information Board of the Luberon for more practical info.