The Luberon is the playground of Europe. Located in central Provence, the Luberon is surrounded by three mountain ranges, the Petite Luberon, the Grand Luberon and the Luberon Oriental. Within this valley lies several famous hilltop villages surrounded by quality agricultural land. Key crops farmed include Cherries, Olives, Lavender and of course grape vines. The Luberon has been home to many famous people, including Samuel Beckett (Roussillon) and Peter Mayle (Menerbe)
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Roussillon is ranked as one of the most beautiful villages of France and is totally unique. Roussillon is located in the very heart of the biggest ochre deposits in the world and is distinguished by a wide palette of flamboyant colours. The village developed from an original castle which was built in 987.
Ochre has been used since prehistoric times and was mined by the Romans during the era of the Roman settlement of Provence. However, ochre only became a widespread, industrial product in the late 18th century (1785) when Roussillon native son Jean-Etienne Astier put forward the idea of washing the ochre-laden sands to extract the pure pigment. The ochre pigment was made redundant by modern synthetic dyes and mining ceased around 1930. The last mine in the region closed in 1950.
The Saint Michael Church, whose origins go back to the 11th century, originally faced the castle, inside the fortified walls. The church underwent countless renovations over time, necessitated in part by its location by the cliff. Note the 17th century façade, the 18th century choir, and late 18th-century works by Potevin, including the baptismal fonts, statue of Saint Michael, and Christ on the Cross. Opposite the church, Place de la Forge may have been the courtyard of the former castle, built in 987. A small crucifixion scene and a few ruins of the castle remain. The Belfry is the ancient entrance way into the fortified protected area called the Castrum. The belfry was renovated in the 19th century as a bell tower adjoining the church. The first street on the left takes you along the former watchman’s walkway, which ran between the two towers on the rampart wall. This explains the name of this area – “Quartier de la Bistourle” (Two Towers).
The Place du Pasquier was first grazing land, then the site of seven annual fairs. It became the schoolyard, then the pharmacy, prior to serving as a car park and as access to the Social and Cultural Centre, Salle de Fete. Opposite the Ice Cream shop, Place de l’Abbé-Avon also called the “back of the oven”, for the baker’s oven was located in the hollowed-out rock here. This small square is named after the Abbot who cared for the people of Roussillon during the plague of 1720. In front of ancient grape vine, Place Pignotte named after the alms which were distributed to the poor here. The alms were little loaves of bread in the shape of a pine cone, and were known as “pinhotte”. The practice of distributing these alms was instigated by Pope John XXII in 1316.
Bonnieux is one of the many historic “hill villages” in the region.
Due to its strategic position, Bonnieux was a desirable place from the very early ages. There are indications that the area was inhabited from the Neolithic age. In Roman times, the region of Bonnieux was a most important thoroughfare for the Romans, travelling from Cadiz to Milan. In the Middle Ages, Bonnieux became a Papal enclave, through a bizarre chain of events. This meant that the town was a tax-free haven in the centre of the French kingdom. Smuggling was rampant and the town prospered. Only the French revolution was able to put a stop to the special privileges of the townspeople. Next to the village is a Cedar forest that began with trees imported from North Africa during the Napoleonic era.
A monastery was first built on the top of Bonnieux in the 6th century, and walls were in place by the 10th century. The monastery was abandoned in the 13th Century.
The original 12th century church, from where the Knights Templars set off for the crusades, is to be found at the top of the village. A second church (the so called “new church”) was built in 1870.
The town reached a maximum population in the mid-19th century, with 2804 people in 1841.
Lacoste is best known for its most notorious resident, Donatien Alphonse Francois comte de Sade, the Marquis de Sade, who in the 18th century lived in the castle, Château de Lacoste, overlooking the village. Following a series of incidents involving local women and the police, the Marquis fled the country but was eventually imprisoned. His castle was partially destroyed in an uprising in 1779 and was later looted and plundered by locals. It is now owned by fashion designer Pierre Cardin, who has partially restored it and holds cultural events there.
The vernacular architecture and cobblestone streets give the impression of a village where time has stood still. The oldest building in the town, the Maison Forte, dates back to the 9th century
During the first half of the 19th century the village saw a brief time of agricultural and economic prosperity from the Roman quarries, but soon hit a slump in the second half of the century and a large portion of the upper village of Lacoste fell into disrepair and ruins.
During World War II, the French Resistance took their foothold in the steep Luberon Mountains around Lacoste, and trenches and barbed wire still exist in the forested area in the valley, where resistance fighters prepared to square off with German troops.
Ménerbes is a commune in the Vaucluse department in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region in southeastern France, a walled village on a hilltop in the Luberon mountains, foothills of the French Alps.
Rural Vaucluse was described by author Marcel Pagnol in such novels as Manon des Sources, a hardscrabble peasant life in a declining economy. In the years after 1945 the region offered cheap holiday homes. By 1960 Ménerbes was half depopulated but was the residence of Dora Maar, an artist as well as a lover and muse of Picasso, and the widow of artist Nicolas de Staël, and holiday homes of a London art dealer and a French diplomat, whose visitors to Ménerbes thus included many artistic notables. The region grew lavender, mushrooms, truffles and harsh red wine. Within sight of Ménerbes are the ruins of the Chateau de Lacoste, country residence of the notorious Marquis de Sade.
Ménerbes became known in the English-speaking world since 1990 through the books of British author Peter Mayle, tales of a British expatriate who settled in the village of Ménerbes. One of his books was made into the film A Good Year (2006), directed by Ridley Scott and starring Russell Crowe, which was filmed nearby in the region, largely in the nearby town of Bonnieux. Mayle’s best-known book was A Year in Provence, and this put the Luberon region onto the tourist map.
Siege of Ménerbes
The city of Ménerbes and its citadel were the site of a major battle between Huguenots and Catholics, called the Siege de Ménerbes, which lasted from 1573 to 1578 during the French Wars of Religion. Following early battles across France, Protestants decided to intentionally antagonize Pope Pius V by establishing a stronghold in Ménerbes, initially with 150 soldiers and followers led by Scipione de Valvoire, Gaspard Pape de Saint-Auban, and a baron from Germany. General mobilization on both sides followed, with Catholic forces led by Henri d’Angoulême for the Pope.
Despite the balance of power being strongly in favor of the Catholics, the fighting dragged on, increasing in force as time passed. Surrounded by trenches with opposing soldiers, the citadel suffered more than 900 blows by cannonballs, assaults by 14 tons of lead bullets, and barrages by incendiary weapons leading to destruction of its towers.
The Protestants finally agreed to negotiations, surrendering on 9 December 1578 to a “glorious capitulation.” The battle, which lasted five years, two months, and eight days, had been costly, draining the coffers of the towns in the Comtat Venaissin and putting a heavy financial burden on papal accounts.
Named as one of the most beautiful villages in the Luberon, Gorde is famous for its stone buildings, 11th century church and castle, which sits proudly in the centre of the village.
The name “Gordes” derives from the Celtic word “Vordense”. Vordense was pronounced Gordenses, then Gordae/Gordone, and finally Gòrda then translated into French “Gordes”.
Gorde was occupied by the Roman empire. In the 8th century, a Benedictine abbey known as Saint-Chaffret was founded by monks of the Abbey of Saint-Chaffre in Monastier-en-Velayon the site of an ancient cella (Roman temple) destroyed during the Arab invasions.
In 1031, a castle was built and the Latin word “castrum” was added to what thus became “Castrum Gordone”. The castle was re-enforced in 1123 to become a “nobile castrum“, the only one known among the many castles nearby.
In 1148 the Sénanque Abbey was established under the patronage of Alfant, Bishop of Cavaillon, and Ramon Berenguer II, Count of Barcelona, Count of Provence, by Cistercian monks who came from Mazan Abbey in the Ardèche.
After the death of King René of Provence, the territory of Provence was incorporated in 1481 into the kingdom of France as a “province royale française” (French royal province).
Second World War
During World War II, Gordes was an active resistance village and was later awarded a medal, the Croix de guerre 1939–1945.
On 21 August 1944, almost a week after the beginning of the Operation Dragoon on the Provençal coast, a German patrol was attacked by the resistance. The day after, 22 August, the village was subject to violent reprisals. The Germans forced the inhabitants to enter their homes, shooting those who were late or that were not cooperating, and started to shoot from the rock on the other side with a canon and destroyed a dozen houses. On the other side of the village, the rest of the troops set fire to a chariot, pieces of wood and houses, blocking potential followers. More than twenty houses were destroyed. After the Liberation the resistance destroyed another part of the village, including the notarial house with all the archives. All this destruction brought the municipality the sad privilege to appear amongst three “stricken cities” of the Vaucluse department. By war’s end, thirteen persons had been killed or executed in Gordes, twenty inhabitants had been shot by the enemy and five inhabitants were deported.
Saint Saturnin Les Apt
Saint Saturnin is a relatively “big” village, located in the “Parc Naturel Regional du Luberon” with a population of approximately 2800. History suggests the site of St Saturnin was first populated in 869 by tribes fleeing the Sarcens and these tribes established a fortress on the rocks and later built a church in 1056 dedicated to Saint Saturninus.
Successive ramparts were built between the 13th and 16th Century until the old castle was abandoned and the village spread outside the walls to the valley below. The ruins of the Chapel and Ramparts can be seen today.
At one end of the village, the street passes out through the 13th-century “portail Ayguier”, an arched defensive entry through the fortified corner building of the old fortifications. Behind the village, paved steps and pathways go up through the remains of 11th-century walls (with interesting herringbone stonework) to the ruins of a massive defensive castle on the high end of the cliffs.
The Eglise St-Etienne was built about 1860, to replace the Romanesque church at the same site. Inside is a 14th century wooden statue of the Virgin and child (Le trésor de Saint-Etienne) and a few fine paintings from the 16th century. The church also has a 6-bell carillon.
The Chapelle Castrale Saint-Saturnin was consecrated in the middle of the 11th century, making it one of the oldest around. It was enlarged in the beginning of the 18th century.
Three windmills once stood together above the village. The windmills (moulins) and the medieval castle (now in ruins) date to the 17th century. Today one is a restored tower and the second a nicely restored windmill, with the wooden blades intact. From the windmill site there’s a fantastic view out across the plains to the south.
With the oak-forested hillsides, this is obviously a truffle region. In the centre of the village is a life-sized statue of a kneeling man holding out a truffle. The statue is dedicated to “Joseph Talon, lou rabasste, Pére de la Trufficulture”. Joseph was considered the “father of truffle raising”, called lou rabasste in Provencal.