Anyone who has read the book by Peter Mayle “A Year in Provence” or seen the movie version “A Good Life”, (sometimes called “A Good Year” movie) starring Russell Crowe, will be familiar with the names of some of the Luberon villages of Provence.
Images of rugged hills, fields of lavender and sunflowers, gnarled olive trees and grape vines, and Medieval villages perched on hilltops probably spring to mind when you think of the Luberon, and that is exactly what I found when I visited this lovely part of Provence.
Last year I had a brief introduction to Provence during my two night stay in Avignon with an afternoon visit to Gordes and Abbaye de Senaque. It certainly whet my appetite so I was really keen to return and explore more of the Luberon villages and towns this year.
Of course I couldn't visit all of the villages in Luberon, France but I did manage to explore quite a number of them and I was more than impressed.
During our week-long visit, we spent our days exploring the many lovely hilltop French towns in the area and below you’ll find details about which ones I regard as amongst the best villages in Provence.
Best Provence Villages (in no particular order)
Probably top of most people’s Provencal must-visit list is the hilltop village of Gordes. France has an organisation known as Les Plus Beaux Villages de France (the most beautiful villages of France) and it’s not hard to see why Gordes is amongst its members.
I first visited Gordes last year and I instantly fell in love with it. The views of Gordes as you approach the village are impressive enough but to actually wander the cobbled streets and admire the beautifully restored buildings up close, is something else.
The are plenty of things to do in Gordes, France. The village has all the things you’d expect of a popular Provencal village – plenty of souvenir shops, boutiques and art galleries, a 16th century chateau, gorgeous buildings, lots of cafes and restaurants – and LOTS of tourists. Visit early in the morning or late in the afternoon if you don’t like crowds.
Just a few kilometres from Gordes is another famous local site, Abbaye de Senaque, a Cistercian monastery built in 1148. Whilst the Abbaye is impressive in its own right, most tourists visit in summer in the hope of seeing the surrounding fields blooming with lavender.
Both my visits have been in mid-June and I’ve been a little too early to see the lavender at its best but the sneak peek I’ve had tells me it would be a magnificent sight in July and August .
The monastery is open for guided tours (in French only) and a shop sells all manner of lavender products, souvenirs and books.
Where to eat in Gordes:
Le Gordes Manger, seats just a few diners in a small courtyard away from the main town square. We enjoyed a nice lunch with mains priced at around €15.
Menerbes was the first village that we visited and it surpassed all our expectations and set the bar high. The hilltop village was extremely tidy with many well-preserved buildings, a few shops and a good selection of cafes and restaurants. It’s another worthy member of the ‘Les Plus Beaux Villages’ association.
Peter Mayle brought the village its fame when he wrote about his life here in his book “A Year in Provence” so I expected to encounter hordes of tourists when we visited on a warm day in June.
Luckily, the town was surprisingly quiet with only a handful of others wandering the streets and taking in the superb views of the valley below and this is probably why I regard it as one of the best Provence villages.
The tranquillity and beauty of the village blew me away and I could have easily spent days in Menerbes, wandering the narrow streets, resting in the cobbled squares and drinking in the endless views.
Where to eat in Menerbes:
We enjoyed the most delicious lunch in a pretty garden with views over the valley at Le Bistrot 5. Our ‘Plat du Jour’ was ricotta ravioli for €12 – divine!
Another evening we returned to Menerbes and ate at La Veranda which is owned by the same chef as Le Bistrot 5. We enjoyed a 3 course set menu for €39 per person. Bookings are essential at La Veranda as it is one of the most popular restaurants in Menerbes. Of course there is an excellent selection of Luberon wine to try, too.
Dominated by its 12th century church tower, Bonnieux is another hilltop village worth a visit. The village is a bit larger than Menerbes with a greater selection of shops and restaurants – and more amazing views.
We wound our way up the narrow streets and alleys to the top of the town where we were rewarded with views across the valley to Gordes and Roussillon.
The Tourist Office has lots of information about what to see and do in the area, including visiting the Boulangerie (bakery) museum, but we were just happy to wander and admire the lovingly restored pale stone buildings.
Another Les Plus Beaux Village, Lourmarin is a little different – for starters, it isn’t a hilltop village. Built on mostly flat ground with a few streets that wind uphill, it’s a very pretty and tidy town with plenty to see and do.
After the drive from Bonnieux, which entailed lots of hairpin turns and a couple of one lane bridges, it was a pleasant surprise to be on flat ground.
Again, the shops and houses were beautifully restored and brimming with colourful flower boxes and the town centre was buzzing with activity. We got the impression that Lourmarin attracts the more well-heeled – both tourist and local – and the menus displayed outside some of the restaurants certainly indicated that.
There are plenty of shops, galleries and boutiques in Lourmarin to please the most discerning of shoppers, and alfresco dining and eating was really popular on the day we visited. We’d already had lunch but we enjoyed a gelato as we gazed across to the 15th century Chateau.
Parts of the chateau are open to visitors but we opted not to visit, preferring instead to browse the shops and enjoy the ambience of the thriving village.
The Lourmarin market, which is held every Friday morning, can be found in the main avenue in the centre of town.
With its rich ochre-coloured hills and buildings, Roussillon (another Les Plus Beaux Village), is a show-stopper. The lovely buildings in this hilltop town are all built from the orange/red ochre that was quarried in the surrounding hills and they give off a warm, sunny vibe.
The village takes a bit to reach – motorists are encouraged to park in a large car park (€2) at the bottom of the hill and then walk about one kilometre uphill (on a sealed footpath) to the village centre as parking in the centre of extremely limited.
The walk is well worth the effort, though – you’ll be rewarded with superb views and plenty of shops and boutiques to browse in, many selling local specialties, art works and Provencal souvenirs. The ochre from this area is widely used as a pigment in paint so you may be lucky like us and get to watch a local artist painting a scene somewhere around town.
Whilst in Roussillon it’s worth walking beyond the shops and clock tower to the summit of the village where you get magnificent views of the ochre cliffs and the valley below.
Where to eat in Roussillon:
We enjoyed a lovely lunch at Café Des Couleurs where the food and service were great. Try and get a table on the terrace at the back (go through the restaurant) but if you are eating inside, ask for a table away from the toilets – there are only two toilets and there was a constant queue (near our table) on the day we visited. Our meal of 2 x mains, 2 x juices, 2 x café crème came in at €45.
Lacoste, another small hilltop village located between Menerbes and Bonnieux, is famous for its Chateau which was once owned by the infamous Marquis de Sade. Current owner, French designer Pierre Cardin, is now restoring the chateau to its former glory.
The tiny village only has a sprinkling of shops and restaurants but its narrow winding alleys and, of course, splendid views, make it another must-visit Luberon village.
From the top of Lacoste you can see across the Luberon valley to Bonnieux and Menerbes and to the impressive Mont Ventoux.
Fontaine de Vaucluse
Very different to other villages we visited, Fontaine de Vaucluse doesn’t attract visitors for its charming buildings or great views but to witness the spectacle of its natural ‘fountain’.
It’s here that every year, 630 million cubic meters of water flows out of a natural spring under the ground. The water bursts out into a pool and within a short distance is a steadily flowing stream – the River Sorgue.
The entrance to the town is reached by a narrow, winding road. The main car park (€2) is about 500 metres before the village centre where you’ll find numerous restaurants and souvenir shops alongside the river. After a further 500 metre walk beside the river, partly on a gravel path, you’ll reach the ‘source’.
The shaded riverbank makes a great place for a picnic on a hot day but only the very brave will venture in for a swim - the water is freezing!
More Provence towns to visit
L’Isle sur la Sorgue
With its many canals flowing through the town, L’Isle sur la Sorgue (meaning Island in the Sorgue River) could well be the Venice of Provence. Numerous branches of the Sorgue River flow through the town, intersecting in the town centre.
In the 1800's, Isle sur la Sorgue, along with Avignon, was the centre for Provence’s textile industry and the water from the river used to power the many waterwheels that you see around the town. They make a pretty backdrop to the waterside scene you see today.
A bustling town, Isle sur la Sorgue claims to be the biggest antique centre in France outside of Paris and it is said there are over 300 permanent antique dealers and second hand specialists that work in the town year round.
There are plenty of shops selling all manner of bric-a-brac and antiques and every Sunday the weekly antique Isle sur la Sorgue market, specialising in antiques, attracts thousands. This is one of the best towns in Provence to visit if you love markets.
As you’d expect, cafes, restaurants and gelato shops line the canals through town but be sure to venture through the cobbled alleys away from the main canal to explore further.
More places to visit in the Luberon
- You can discover the history of lavender and learn how its oil is distilled for use in perfumes, soaps and medicines at the Lavender Museum (Musee de la Lavande) at Coustellet.
- Just a few kilometres from Gordes, the Village des Bories makes an interesting detour. Visitors are able to wander amongst numerous arched dry stone huts built in the local tradition. The village was inhabited until the early 19th century and has since been restored.
- The Luberon is home to numerous wineries and visitors are welcome to taste the local drop at the wine caves (cellars) you’ll find throughout the region.
Where is the Luberon?
Covering an area of about 600 square kilometres in the centre of Provence, the Luberon is part of the Vaucluse department. Much of the Luberon is a national park and is dotted with hilltop villages built during the Middle Ages. Their lofty positions allowed villagers to keep watch for intruders but now provide fantastic view of the valley below.
With its warm climate, the Luberon - and most of Provence - is the perfect environment in which to grow fruit and vegetables and roadside stalls and markets are the ideal place to stock up on the local produce. You'll also find an abundance of olive and lavender products and lots of excellent wine.
How to get to the Luberon villages
Avignon is well served by trains, with TGV services available from Paris. A number of low-cost carriers fly into Avignon airport with Lyon and Nice being the nearest airports for international flights.
A car is essential to visit the Luberon villages as the public transport options are few and far between.
If you are staying in Avignon and are without transport, there are a number of guided day trips available. They include:
- Luberon Full-Day Experience - click here for more info and prices
- Best of Provence tour - click here for more info and prices
- One day Lavender tour - click here for more info and prices
- Provence Le Grand Tour - click here for more info and prices
- Provence Full Day sightseeing tour - click here for more info and prices
Where to stay in Provence
All of the Luberon villages mentioned above, as well as Avignon, make good bases from which to explore the region.
Highly-rated hotels include:
- Hotel d’Horloge in Avignon - click here for current prices
- Les Bories & Spa (near Gordes) - click here for current prices
- La Bastide de Soubeyras in Menerbes - click here for current prices
Best time to visit the Luberon
Both my visits have been in mid June and whilst this is too early to see the best of the lavender and sunflower fields, we did see a few fields of lavender in full bloom.
July and August tend to be the hottest months and temperatures can reach the mid-30s (Celcius) so if you’re not bothered about seeing the flowers at their best – and prefer to avoid the peak tourist season - May/June and September would be my recommendation for the best time to visit Provence.