Nestled in the heart of Provence, the Luberon is an enchanting landscape of historic hilltop villages, verdant valleys and romantic luxury retreats
We’re in the South of France on the kind of balmy summer’s evening that demands an outfit that’s equal parts chic and carefree. Me: strappy linen dress. Him: crisp white linen shirt. Both of us: even hotter than the 28-degree air due to ironing out the deep creases in said linen. On our faces: hiked-eyebrow smiles that say: “Is this place even real?” Around us: one of the most astonishingly beautiful settings we’ve ever experienced.
We are dining alfresco in one of France’s most alluring villages – the fortressed hamlet of Gordes in Provence that was, by some massive human feat, built into the rock face of a 340-metre-high hilltop in the Middle Ages.
The restaurant, aptly called La Citadelle, at one of Provence’s most renowned and luxurious hotels, La Bastide de Gordes, is a quaintly arranged collection of tables and chairs on a gravelled terrace, neatly tucked behind a wrought-iron balcony.
The restaurant has freshly ironed, parchment-white tablecloths and napkins, gold-trimmed china, waiters that are just the right amount of attentive, and no bad tables. Here, every diner has spectacular views handed to them on a platter – a plunging panorama of lush, verdant valley stretching out for kilometres and flanked in the distance by a low-lying mountain range.
There is a four-piece jazz band playing my favourite style of dinner music, and the ambience is so romantic, the moment so perfect, my childish instinct is to giggle, like the person who inappropriately laughs during a sad story.
To top it all off, it’s ‘magic hour’ and the sun is creating a monumental piece of art out of setting tonight, painting the sky in fairy-floss swirls and streaks, its pink hues mirroring the colour of the top-shelf Côtes de Provence rosé in our crystal glasses.
There are moments in life when words fail even those who write for a living, and this is one of them. Because this isn’t just Provence, this is the Luberon, and it’s undeniably one of the most beautiful places on the planet.
About an hour’s drive from the tourist town of Aix-en-Provence and just 45 minutes from Avignon, the Luberon is a 600-square-kilometre massif comprising three mountain ranges and a patchwork valley of vineyards and orchards in between.
Also: walled, Medieval hill-top hamlets; delectable gastronomy; charming markets; dramatic mountainous horizon; fruit orchards and vineyards; lavender, sunflower and poppy fields; and of course that pretty, pale rosé that was filling Provençal glasses long before the days of trendy bottomless rosé lunches and Millennial pink.
This is authentic Provence in glorious technicolour, and its most vivid pigments can be found in the ‘Golden Triangle’ – what many consider to be the beating heart of the Luberon.
Here you’ll find the picturesque villages of Bonnieux, Gordes, Goult, Lacoste, Oppède, Roussillon and Ménerbes, so if time is in your favour, settle in for a week and village-hop and long-lunch to your heart’s content.
This is how holidays are done in the Luberon – just ask the savvy and sophisticated Parisian style set who have made this dreamy, unspoilt countryside their summer playground for more than half a century.
In the early 1990s, the region had an influx of tourists thanks to English author Peter Mayle’s bestselling book, A Year in Provence (1989), which documented his time living in Ménerbes, but mostly, this spectacular part of France has managed to fly under the radar to all but the ‘in-the-know’ few.
The majority of foreign visitors head instead to the well-known Provence towns of Aix and Avignon or the crowded beaches of Nice, thereby missing the verdant dream that is the Luberon altogether.
Lucky for me, this is my second time to the secret hills, valleys and whimsical villages of the Luberon, and so it is not in the slightest by chance that I’ve wound up at La Bastide de Gordes.
This is a hotel that has been etched into my memory ever since first stumbling upon its castle-like form back in 2015, and this time around, I’ve hunted down a reservation in the exclusive 40-room retreat with all the fervour of a Gallic bloodhound.
You’d think, then, that all this mental hype over a hotel would set me up for utter disappointment, but you’d be wrong. La Bastide de Gordes is still the exquisite jewel in Gordes’ crown, and walking its labyrinthine halls is like being transported back in time.
Built on 16th-century ramparts that kept Gordes fortressed and safe during the turbulent Middle Ages, La Bastide de Gordes’ enchantment is a product not only of its elevated position and views, but its deep history, which I learn more about at every turn.
There isn’t a rough-and-bare stone wall in sight that isn’t adorned with antique paintings and remnants of Gordes’ Medieval heritage, and I’m utterly captivated by the magical ambience that makes me feel like a princess in my own castle.
Having undergone a €20 million (about A$32 million) refurbishment in 2015, the hotel features an unfathomable 4,000 pieces of art, furniture, trinkets, lights, rugs, tables, sculptures, candlesticks and ceramics, all of which were painstakingly sourced from antique dealers and auction houses throughout France, Italy and Switzerland.
Our oversized suite feels positively regal and fit for a wig-wearing aristocrat, with printed fabrics typical of the region, antique portraits on the walls, stately wood panelling and harmoniously matched antique carpets.
Gifts galore await on our sumptuous king size bed, including La Bastide de Gordes cotton pyjamas, an Hermés fragrance, and a generous toiletries bag filled with luxurious Sisley products from the 800-square-metre spa downstairs. But the best part of all? That view, of course.
Two antique, mullioned windows open to lush terraces adorned with old stone benches and water features, the hotel’s famous cerulean pool – arguably the best place to spend blazing summer days in all of Provence – and a panorama over the Alpilles mountains scattered with yew trees, vines and lavender as far as the eye can see.
But it’s some serious, if efficient, village-hopping that I’m here for, so after reluctantly peeling myself off my poolside chaise, it’s back in the car to explore.
With the nearby, lavender-laced Abbey de Sénanque a photogenic pit-stop on the way, I make a beeline for my favourite villages in the Luberon: the cobblestoned towns of Menérbes and Bonnieux. Aside from the fact that I can’t help but enjoy the French-ness I feel when I say the latter’s name (“I’m just off to Bon-yer, mon cheri!”), Bonnieux is an impressive, bustling village on the larger side with an array of charming boutiques and those ubiquitous valley views.
On Fridays, the village holds a sprawling market typical of the region, and meandering through the colourful streets is an exercise in restraint. There’s the comforting aroma of freshly baked bread, the mouth-watering hit of pungent cheese and saucisson, and the spicy notes of that delicious regional sweet treat I fell in love with on my first trip – calisson.
“Ha! I can’t get this back home!” I triumphantly say to my partner, who has been reminding me at every stall that in fact, you can buy bread, cheese and salami in Australia. But I seem to win this particular battle, and by the time we get to the smaller and more residential-feeling Menérbes the next day, I’m feeling rather at home in the Luberon.
I’m bouncing on my heels as I traverse the village’s uneven, hilly paths, forming a fantastical plan in my head to move to the town for a few months next year. By the time I pass the village’s boulangerie I’m fancying myself quite the local and nod in recognition at a local woman, who appears to clutch her baguette more tightly in response.
I’m picturing leisurely café au lait and pain-au-chocolat mornings, followed by afternoons spent exploring whether I do, in fact, have a talent for oil painting like Provence’s iconic artists Vincent van Gogh and Paul Cézanne, when my appetite brings my fantasy to an abrupt end.
We drive down the hill from Menérbes for lunch at the charming hotel, La Bastide de Marie. Set in the valley with its picturesque-beyond-words outdoor restaurant, we take a seat in the terrace and look out to another brilliant, blue-sky day.
Three courses and two glasses of rosé later and I realise I’m having another one of those surreal moments. In front of us: rows of grapevines. To our right: the restaurant’s chef picks sprigs of marjoram from the herb garden. All around us: plane and lime trees, shimmying to the rhythm of the breeze.
Most of our fellow diners have already left to continue their village-hopping for the day, but we decide to stay a while – you really shouldn’t rush things in the Luberon. After all, this is the French countryside at its best, rosé-tinted glasses or not.