Photos, from top to bottom: 1. Colorful Provencal street in Goult 2. View from terrace in Gordes 3. View from terrace street in Bonnieaux of bell tower and valley beyond 4. Town of Gordes from approach 5. View of Roussillon 6. Provence poppy field 7. Flower covered door in Goult and cobblestone street of Roussillon 8. Charming boutiques and tourist shops in Roussillon 9. Alley path in Gordes that leads to terraced views and lovely Provencal door 10. Roadside lavender field about to flower and Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque near Gordes 11. Entrance to stone Provencal building and another view of hilltop village of Gordes
Visiting the Hilltop Villages in Provence
Visiting Provence in the South of France was a dream come true, and it was every bit as beautiful as I imagined it to be. The Luberon sub-region of Provence (in the department/county of Vaucluse) is famous for the numerous picturesque medieval hilltop villages built on rugged limestone hills, for its natural French countryside beauty, and of course, for the swaying fields of lavender that bloom during the summer months. A number of the villages here carry the designation of “The Most Beautiful Villages of France,” and it is easy to understand why.
During our three and a half days whirlwind trip, we visited several of these hilltop villages, including Gordes, Roussillon, Bonnieux, and Goult and made shorter stops at others along the way. The hilltop villages, which date back 1000 years or more, were a dream to visit, with spectacular views from terraced streets, charming (but steep) cobbled streets, colorful streets lined with local boutiques and restaurants, bustling outdoor markets full of local treats, swaying fields of lavender, and beautiful stone Provencal homes covered with spring blooms. Wandering around Provence was like being in a beautiful fairy tale!
In addition to the hilltop villages, we visited and toured the magnificent Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque near Gordes, a 12th-century Cistercian monastery famously surrounded by lavender fields. It also has a great gift shop with numerous lavender-infused treats made at the monastery available for purchase. Three and a half days were not nearly long enough to explore and enjoy all that this region has to offer and we were very sad to leave.
Visiting in the spring is wonderful because the weather is generally nice with blue skies and moderate to warm temperatures even in the evenings, it is not peak tourist season yet, and the spring blooms that seem to decorate every door are so colorful and beautiful. Although the lavender fields are not yet in bloom, there are large fields of red poppies that are quite stunning as well.
Some of my most memorable experiences there are:
- Dramatic views of Gordes on top of the hills with the houses arranged in tiers around a Renaissance castle and church.
- The uniquely red/orange-hued buildings in Roussillon built from stones in the region. Roussillon is located in the heart of the biggest ochre deposit in Europe. The colorful town is like an artist’s palette, with endless combinations of house colors varying from yellow to orange and red.
- The local outdoor markets where we were able to sample local treats (honey and lavender products are especially popular here, as you can imagine!)
- The fields of bright red poppies that we happened across during our explorations.
- Enjoying delicious lavender-infused ice cream (multiple times!) while enjoying the sweeping views from the hilltop villages.
- The many many interesting and flower-covered doors in the area!
Hotels and Restaurants
As you can imagine, hotels in the Luberon area are limited since these are small towns and villages. There are some luxury spas in the area, but they tend to fill up quickly, so I definitely recommend researching and booking as soon as possible if you are interested in those. We stayed at Le Jas de Joucas, a fantastic hotel in the small town of Joucas near Gordes and Roussillon with very reasonable rates. It is more like a 5-star resort, run by a very warm and helpful hostess named Nathalie, and the grounds are large and beautiful with a great view from the pool area. We stayed in the Junior Suite and it was the best stay of our three week trip throughout France, with modern decor, a large and modern bathroom, hardwood floors, and our own patio with a small table and chairs. The breakfast option was also great and includes eggs from their own chickens and jam made from their own fruit trees. It was a great base for exploring the area.
During our stay there, we ate at a mix of casual eateries and sit-down restaurants. While the smaller eateries in Gordes and Roussillon were fine for quick meals on the go, our best meal was our dinner at Le Carillon restaurant in the nearby city of Goult, which was recommended by our hotel hostess Nathalie, who also graciously made the reservations for us. Goult was probably the least touristy town we visited and had several nice restaurants frequented by locals, and very pretty, well maintained streets to wander around and explore. The meal and service were wonderful and very memorable. It helps that we love French cuisine!
Provence Travel Tips
Here are some tips if you plan on visiting the Luberon region of Provence:
- If you come specifically to see the famous lavender fields, note that the peak flowering season is in July with blooms starting in June. I was there in late May, just before the flowering season.
- Bring your allergy medication if you are at all prone to allergies. I made the mistake of not bringing mine because I was only experiencing mild allergies in the Bay Area. I did experience moderate to severe allergies during my stay there, and I think it may have been due to the unusually high winds we experienced there at the beginning. (see tip #7)
- Plan your days around the limited restaurant lunch and dinner hours. I admit that I have become accustomed to being able to find food at any hour of the day here in the Bay Area, so it was difficult for me to adjust to only being able to eat during a few hours during limited lunch and dinner times. Most restaurants are closed in between, so if you have a full schedule, make sure that you end up near a restaurant or eatery before they close in the early afternoon. Roussillon is probably the most touristy town in the area and you are most likely to find an eatery there with somewhat extended hours. For a sit-down dinner, plan to enjoy it over 2-3 hours as is customary for the area.
- Also think about planning your days around the local markets, which operate at different towns on different days of the week. I loved sampling local treats and products in the markets that we went to. This website has a schedule of the markets.
- Book your hotel early. Provence has some nice spas but those fill up early. We were lucky to find a fantastic hotel, Le Jas de Joucas (see above) which was a great base for sightseeing and has a breakfast option, which is very convenient.
- Be prepared for occasional strong winds if you visit in the winter or spring. I was also not prepared for this, but it is apparently a well-known and inherent part of life in Provence and occurs most commonly in the winter and spring, and strongest in the transition between the two seasons. It is considered a beneficial wind that clears the atmosphere for clear, fresh weather, and plays an important role in creating the climate of Provence. There is a wikipedia article on Le Mistral, as the wind is called.
- Learn a little French if possible. Not as many locals speak English as well as they do in Paris. Our hotel hostess and waitresses spoke some English and made a lot of effort but it did help that I spoke some French that I somehow managed to retain from high school. Everyone we met were very friendly and willing to help though.
- A car is highly recommended if you plan on exploring the area on your own (without a tour) since this is a rural area and it would be difficult to find a bus or taxi to take you around. We rented ours at the Marseilles airport.
I hope this article has been useful to you!