(To see more photos and highlights of our trip, please visit our Instagram account: @sylsteveeurope.)
Steve laughs because almost every place we have been to so far during our 6 month journey, I will at some point say: “Gosh, I would really love to live here”, and we glance at property listings in local real estate windows and daydream about making a move.
But we truly fell in love with Provence.
I always imagined Provence to be a bucolic setting with rolling hills of farmland; quaint medieval villages with sun-dappled cobblestone streets and bleached stone houses covered in flowered vines; farmer’s markets with fresh produce and delicious food; warm weather and blue sunny skies; quiet, country roads for cycling; with people either in floral print dresses or linen clothing, and the ubiquitous straw hat.
Well, Provence is everything I imagined it to be but even better IRL. As we approach our last week here, we realize that Provence will be a highlight of our trip and we look forward to returning as often as we can.
Where is Provence?
Provence is an area in the south/east corner of France bordered in the south by the Mediterranean Sea (La Côte d’Azur) and in the north by the lower Alps. Its full name is “Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur”.
While planning for the Provençal stage of our 6 month European adventure we initially had some difficulty focussing on where we wanted to stay because it is quite a large area. We ruled out the Côte d’Azur since it really wasn’t the vibe we were looking for. We wanted more of a rural/village experience, not a coastal one. While researching the area, I learned about the “most beautiful hilltop villages” in Provence (Gordes, Lacoste, Bonnieux, Goult, Ménerbes, Roussillon, Joucas, Oppède-le-Vieux, Saint-Saturnin-Lès-Apt, Venasque, Saignon, and others) which persuaded me to focus on finding accommodation somewhere central to these villages so that we could easily visit them.
It turns out that all of these villages are located in an area of Provence called the Le Luberon. The area is predominantly agricultural with a patchwork quilt of fields, vineyards, rolling hills, cypress trees, olive groves, stone farm houses and villas, and stunning views everywhere you look. Every picture you take here looks like a picture postcard. It is an Instagrammer’s paradise!
Le Luberon consists of Le Luberon Nord (also known as the Luberon Valley) which sits in between the Vaucluse mountain range in the north and the Luberon mountain range in the south; and Le Luberon Sud which is just south of the Luberon mountain range (see map below):
Below is the list of our favourite perched villages (as indicated with red circles on the map 8 images back). Each time we visited one, we would climb up to the highest point to discover either a castle, fortress, church, graveyard or rock with a spectacular view. Sometimes we could bike to the top but most often we had to walk. These villages are all reachable by bike if you stay in Luberon Nord:
- Joucas (tiny)
- Oppède-le-Vieux (tiny)
- Saignon (tiny)
- Goult (small)
- Saint-Saturnin-lès-Apt (small)
- Ménerbes (small)
- Venasque (small)
- Lacoste (small)
- Gordes (largish)
- Roussillon (largish)
- Bonnieux (largish)
When to go:
May is the perfect month to be in Provence because the fresh produce is starting to become available and the local farmer’s markets are abundant with options; the poppy fields are in full bloom; the weather is warm but not scorching like in July and August; there are not many tourists; and you are not paying peak prices for accommodation. However, if you want to see the famous Provençal lavender fields in full bloom, you must arrive after mid-June (sadly, we will miss these). We heard from locals here that September and October are also great months to visit.
We searched for an accommodation that would give us a country experience, but within walking distance to a village with restaurants and small shops. We settled on a small stone cottage just outside of Gordes (VRBO). It has a gorgeous view of the Luberon valley in the middle of an olive grove humming with buzzing bees and surrounded with a constant chorus of birds singing. We loved it but we we were not crazy about Gordes which is quite touristy with many overpriced and expensive shops and restaurants, lacking the intimacy, personality and local flavour of some of the other Luberon towns we visited.
Which village to stay in?
We fell in love with Goult which is small town 9 km south of Gordes. Goult has a friendly local vibe, along with many family-owned shops and cafés where locals and expats hang out. The other area that we love is called Saint-Pantaléon which is in between Gordes and Goult. Saint-Pantaléon is more of a neighbourhood than a village because there is only 1 restaurant and no stores but the properties and landscapes are beautiful and it’s only a 5 minute drive to Goult (10 minutes by ebike). Ménerbes and Bonnieux are also good spots to stay. Saint-Saturnin-lès-Apt, Venasque and Saignon are also lovely but less central. Roussillon is nice but very touristy. Lacoste, Joucas, and Oppède-le-Vieux are beautiful but there are no shops and only one or two restaurants. We do not recommend Apt, Robion, Cheval Blanc, Coustellet, Cavaillon, Les Imberts, Les Beaumettes, L’Îsle-de-la-Sorgue, and Fontaine-de-Vaucluse because they are in really busy areas with busy roads.
Here are some websites to find holiday rentals:
frenchconnections.co.uk (search for town)
Also, if you know the town that you want to stay in you could do some research to find out if there is a real-estate office (une agence immobilière) there and contact them to see if they have any local rental listings.
If you decide to visit Le Luberon please feel free to contact me about an accommodation you are looking at and I will be happy to try to provide some feedback about the area.
There are a few major roads in the Luberon that create significant car noise so you want to avoid booking accommodations near them. Use Google maps/traffic when researching where the busy roads are (Layers > traffic). Avoid all roads with single or double red or green traffic lines on the map. Even avoid being close to them because car sounds really travel far here. The largest highway in this region is the D900, bisecting the Luberon from east to west. Avoid booking accommodation anywhere close to this highway.
Pool or no pool?
We debated this question while searching for accommodation. The average temperatures in May were reported to be in the low to mid 20’s. However, we have experienced unusually hot temperatures this month with several 30+ days. Unfortunately, our accommodation does not have a pool, so next time this will be on our checklist! Air-conditioning, on the other hand is not mandatory for comfortable sleeping (at least in May) as it really cools down at night.
Things to do in Provence
- Cycling: We love cycling and Provence is the Mecca for cyclists. The roads are quiet with very few cars and drivers are extremely respectful of cyclists. When planning cycling routes, you will quickly learn which busy roads to avoid (the Google maps/traffic feature comes in handy here, too – See above map). I spent a lot of time researching bike routes and buying cycling maps but we ended up using Google maps/cycling on our iPhones most of the time. (Tip: get a phone holder for your handlebars for easy map reading and a battery pack for your phone so that you don’t run out of juice).
- Google maps often directed us towards paths that were very rocky and non-cyclable, so consider using Komoot app as a back-up, because you can select routes specific to road-biking ie. on pavement. Another nice feature of this app is that you can download area maps for offline use (at an extra cost) which is really handy when you are out of a wifi zone (YouTube videos about how to use Komoot are helpful).
- Bike stores: There are many in the Luberon region. We rented ebikes (a must, unless you are a serious cyclist: the hills are intense here) from rentbikescooterluberon.com in Bonnieux. They gave us a reduced rate of 500euros/month for each bike (brand new Trek Explore E+2) and delivered the bikes directly to our accommodation. Ask for side bags/paniers (you will need two each, they are very small) and a phone holder for your handlebars.
- If renting ebikes, always bring the battery charger with you on your cycling trips in case you run low on juice. We often found ourselves covering long distances (5-6 hours) and climbing the seriously steep hills here chews through battery life. Most restaurants will allow you to plug into one of their outlets while you stop for coffee/drinks/lunch.
- Le Véloroute de Cavalon: There is a wonderful bike path that stretches 37km across the Luberon from Robion to Saint-Martin-de-Castillon (click here for map). It is a great way to get across the Luberon quickly, however, some sections of it are not as picturesque as other rural roads.
- Mont Ventoux: This is an epic climb that most serious cyclists will want to tackle while here. We drove up to the summit and stared in awe at the cyclists we passed slowly making their way up and then zooming at top speeds on the way down. It’s worth the trip even driving! Click here for more information if you plan on cycling to the summit. You can rent bikes (road or ebike) in Bédoin if want to do the climb and you don’t have a bike rack to bring your own bike (Google “Bike rentals Bédoin).
- Les Gorges de la Nesque: This is a stunning, winding road that runs along a canyon on the D942 from Monieux to Villes-Sur-Auzon. It is really meant for cyclists but we drove it and loved it, too. We would have preferred to have cycled it but it was too far from our accommodation to reach it by bike and we were not able to get a bike rack with our car rental (they seem to be impossible to get on car rentals here).
- You can easily ride from town to town in the North Luberon. One of our favourite rides is from Gordes to Venasque via L’Abbeye de Senanque, then take La route de Murs back. Thrilling descents/ascents and gorgeous views.
2. Hiking: Because of the mountains surrounding the Luberon there are hiking paths galore. However, our focus was on cycling so we did very little hiking. Here are some that we did:
- Les Sentiers des Ocres in Roussillon which is a short easy walk with great views of the Ochre hills of Roussillon. Gates open at 9:30am in May (check website for opening times other months). Very popular with tourists. Cost is 3euros/pp.
- La Forêt des Cèdres: This is a great bike ride and hike near Bonnieux. Bike as far as you can up the mountain, slightly past the parking lot for La Forêt des Cèdres, then park your bike and walk to L’Arche des Portalas which is a stunning viewpoint with a clear view of south Luberon, La Durance River and on clear days, the Mediterranean.
- La falaise de la Madeleine à Lioux: Great views from the top. I cycled to the Moulin (windmill: look for signs) and then it was just a short walk up the mountain. The path goes along quite a while on the top of the cliff, but apart from the views, it’s pretty boring. There is no shade so it gets really hot, too.
3. Road trips: Car destinations that we highly recommend:
- Apt: This town is the largest in the Luberon and has a very lively Saturday morning market (It is also reachable by bike if you are staying in the Luberon Nord).
- L’Île-de-la-Sorgue is a picturesque town with water canals and lots of shops and restaurants. Very touristy but worth a visit. Huge market on Thursday but best to avoid if you don’t like crowds. Antique market on Sunday.
- Fontaine-de-Vaucluse is a very touristy town near L’Île-de-la-Sorgue with restaurants that line the banks of the Fontaine-de-Vaucluse: a natural water source. Too touristy for our tastes but worth a look if you are in the area.
- Saint-Remy-de-Provence: Great market on Wednesdays in a beautiful town with houses covered with fragrant flowers and vines.
- Lourmarin: One of our favourite Provençal towns with many shops, art galleries, cafés and restaurants. The Friday market is a must-do. Unless you are an expert biker, we don’t recommend trying to bike here from Le Luberon Nord because there is only one way (via Bonnieux) and the road is quite busy (not to mention extremely long and steep).
- Cucuron is a little town near Lourmarin with a picturesque pond surrounded with restaurants. Made famous from the movie “A Good Year” with Russell Crowe. Tuesday is market day.
- L’Étang de La Bonde is a small lake near Lourmarin with the bluest water I haver ever seen. Bring a bathing suit on a hot day. Enjoy the view and a cool drink from Café du Lac (closed Mondays).
- Mont Ventoux: A thrilling drive up and incredible view from the top of this 1912 metres high mountain. While you are in the area, be sure to drive Les Gorges de la Nesque on the D942 from Monieux to Villes-Sur-Auzon.
- Carrieres-lumieres.com. This is a mind-blowing light and music show within an old bauxite mine and is a MUST-SEE. You can buy tickets at the door on online and you start the experience whenever you get there. The show lasts about one hour. Be sure to bring a warm layer of clothing because it is freezing inside. Afterwards, walk up the hill to Les Baux de Provence to see an amazing town built on top of the cliff. (Note: it is a very touristy town).
- Château Val Joanis: A winery near Lourmarin with a gorgeous garden, definitely worth visiting. 3 euros to enter which includes drop-in wine tasting. Closed 1pm-3pm.
- Cassis: This pretty coastal town is 1.5hrs from Gordes. We made the mistake of going on a busy weekend so it was extremely hard to find parking and it was too hot to walk around so we ate lunch, wandered down to the crowded beach and then left. We had a wonderful meal at La Poissonerie Laurent in the Cassis Port, Tel: 04 42 01 71 56. We also really enjoyed driving on La Route des Crètes: a thrilling, windy mountaintop road from Cassis to La Ciotat.
4. Markets: The Provençal weekly markets are wonderful however, some stalls are tourist traps with inflated prices so do some comparison shopping before buying. It’s best to go early in the morning (between 8am and 9am) before it gets too crowded. Most markets close around noon. Oh, PS, the French vendors do not respond well to haggling on prices, so don’t even try. Our favourite markets are marked with *:
- Coustellet (evening farmer’s market, starting at 4)
- *St Remy de Provence
- L’Isle de La Sorgue
- L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue (antiques)
We thought that it would be hard to beat the food of Portugal, but the cuisine in Provence is in another class altogether. The ingredients are super fresh and interesting, and the cooking styles are really creative, with complex flavours and sauces that delight the palette. We ate lunch at a restaurant destination every day and were hard pressed to think of a meal where we were disappointed. Even the not-so-great meals were pretty darn tasty, and only “not-so-great” in comparison to many truly outstanding meals we had over the entire month. It’s difficult to even describe the menu choices as they are wide ranging depending on where you are. You’ll see steak tartar in many restaurants, and we ordered it several times, but it was always remarkably different. Ceviches are outstanding and so flavourful. Grilled fish, but with such delicious sauces. And believe it or not, they do a mean hamburger in Provence. And the frites… don’t get me started: No one can make them like the French. As for desserts, well… check out some of the photos below for mind blowing yumminess.
First, some tips:
- Always call for a reservations ahead of time if you can, even if it’s the same day. Many busy restaurants will turn people away without reservations and the best tables are always held for reservations.
- Make a reservation for the earliest seating (usually noon) and arrive early if you want to choose a table with the best view. You can also try asking for a table with a good view when you make the reservation.
- Be aware that even with a reservation, you might arrive at a restaurant and point to an empty table that you would like to sit at and they will say that it’s reserved. There is some mysterious pecking order for table reservations that we haven’t figured out yet.
- Many restaurants will be closed for 1 or 2 days a week: Check their website or call to confirm it’s open on the day you want to visit.
- Many restaurants will often stop serving lunch after 2pm or so and reopen for dinner.
- Some restaurants will serve coffee/drinks outside of meal times but some will not.
- Tips are optional but we always tip 10-15% and the waitstaff really appreciate it.
- It’s always a good idea to check the Google ratings of a restaurant before you decide to eat there. To find reviews, search the restaurant in Google maps and you will see a rating out of 5 stars.
- If you enjoyed a meal a great way (apart from tipping) to show your appreciation is to leave a positive Google review (search the restaurant in Google, then tap on “Reviews” > Write a review.)
- When you are eating outdoors you will be exposed to smokers: lots of them (34% of French people smoke). For some crazy reason, smokers are allowed to light up in outdoor restaurant spaces, even jam-packed with people.
- The restaurants that we recommend below are all moderately priced. We have either had a full meal or just coffee and drinks. They all have incredible views of the Luberon because they are situated high up on a hilltop:
Restaurants with amazing hilltop views
Who doesn’t love a restaurant with good food AND a good view?
1. Saignon: Un jardin sur Le Toit. This is our favourite restaurant for both excellent menu items and the stunning view. Fabulous! Reserve online then call 04 90 75 63 81 and ask for table 202 (for 2) or table 201 (for 4). Be sure to climb up the Rocher de Bellevue while you are there for one of the best views of the Luberon. Also check out the cute square (Place de la Fontaine) in front of L’Auberge du Presbytère which is a great place for a coffee or cold drink.
2. Joucas: Bistrot La Terrasse, Tel: 04 90 75 17 98, Closed Mondays. Really good food in a quiet location overlooking a vineyard. Be sure to wander through the streets of Joucas while you are there because it’s a beautiful little town.
3. Lacoste: Cafe de France, Tel: 04 90 75 82 25. We had coffee and cocktails there but did not eat a meal, however the menu looks amazing. Be sure to walk through the ancient cobblestone streets up to the château to see some unique sculptures and breathtaking views.
4. Bonnieux: Café Le Terrail, Tel: 04 90 75 93 73 (ask for table 115 or 116) and La Terrazza di Bonnieux, Tel: 04 90 75 99 77. We love Café Le Terrail but only had coffee at La Terrazze di Bonnieux which has a nice view but it’s next to a busy street. While you are in Bonnieux, try to find Le Wine Club, a wine bar tucked away in a laneway. Also be sure to go to the top of the town to the old church (La Vielle Église de Bonnieux) for a magnificent view.
5. Gordes: Cercle Républicain (coffee and drinks only, no reservations needed) has a terrace with a great view but no sun. In fact, we were disappointed to discover that there are no cafés in Gordes where you can sit in the morning sun. Le Petit Palais D’aglaé (Tel: 04 32 50 21 02) is a stunning boutique hotel perched above Gordes which has a restaurant with amazing views. We didn’t eat there but the menu looks really good. It’s about a 20 minute walk from Gordes.
6. Ménerbes: Café du Progrès, Tel: 04 32 50 12 32, closed Mondays. Fantastic meal. Ask for a table on the terrace.
7. Roussillon: Café des Couleurs (closed Tuesdays); Le Bistrot, Tel: 04 90 05 74 45; Restaurant David, Tel: 04 90 05 60 13(stunning view but expensive). We have not eaten at these restaurants but have had drinks.
8. Venasque: Le Petit Chose, Tel: 04 90 66 66 07. Very good lunch.
9. Saumane de Vaucluse: Haut Perché, Tel: 04 90 90 77 59, closed Tues & Wed. Very nice lunch.
10. St-Saturnin-lès-Apt, Le Saint Hubert, Tel: 04 32 50 12 32 (terrace in back), closed Wed/Thurs. Loved our lunch here. While there, be sure to climb up to Chapelle du Château for another spectacular view. Try to go on a Tuesday (market day), when the village centre is closed to cars.
11. Baux de Provence: Restaurant Bautezar, nice lunch. Tel: 04 90 54 32 09; or Café du Musée, Tel: 04 86 63 15 01 (We did not eat there). Note: This town is very touristy. Must see Carrieres-lumieres.com while there.
12. Sault: O Pichoun, Tel: 04 90 64 15 93. We had a delicious meal, one of the best. Good place to stop during drive to Mont Ventoux.
Other restaurants (no hilltop view but really good food)
- Les Taillades: Auberge des Carrières, Tel: 04 32 50 19 97 (Closed Sun/Mon). They have a great 3 course menu for 26 euros.
- Ménerbes: Really cute café/patissérie Chez Auzet (closed Mondays).
- Saint-Pantaléon: Bistrot des Roques is really nice but pay attention to the additional costs of some of the plates in the “18euros menu”. Tel: 06 40 89 34 32, Closed Sundays and Mondays.
- Oppède-Le-Vieux: Two nice restaurants, L’Echauguette (casual), 04 90 76 83 68 and Le Petit Café (fancier), 04 90 76 74 01 (closed Monday).
- Apt: Les Valseuses is an adorable restaurant in a quiet square with delicious food. 07 66 63 52 61. Closed Sunday and Monday.
- Le Beaucet: Tiny town with a lovely restaurant single-handedly run by owner Andréa, Le Bistro du Beaucet, Tel: 04 90 11 77 02, closed Monday and Tuesday (highly recommended!). There are also some castle ruins with a great view that you can drive or walk up to: Le Château du Beaucet, open Tues/Wed/Fri. Click here for hours.
- Goult: Best coffee at La Cigale et La fourmi (closed Monday); Best restaurant: Le Carillon, Tel: 04 90 72 15 09, Closed Tues/Wed.
Many tiny villages in Le Luberon have no commerce whatsoever. In other villages you might find one or two restaurants only. In some larger villages there might be a boulangerie (bread), an épicerie (essential groceries) and a fromagerie (cheese). In other words, it might be difficult to buy grocery essentials in a small town and this is when the weekly village markets really come in handy. The larger towns like Apt, Coustellet, Cavaillon and L’Île-de-la-Sorgue have many more stores to buy groceries from.
There are a few Super U et Drive grocery stores scattered across the Luberon (map). L’Île-de-la-Sorgue also has a Hyper Intermarché. These super grocery stores also have home hardware sections. The produce, cheese and wine are all excellent in these super stores.
Additional tips for Provence
- Wifi/data accessibility is pretty sketchy here. If you buy a SIM card the internet provider with the fastest network in Provence is supposedly Orange, but we had Orange SIM cards and the coverage truly sucked at times.
- Abbey Notre-Dame de Senanque, just outside of Gordes, is a must-see (especially when the lavender is blooming). You can walk or bike from Gordes. There are daily tours in French only (with English on a tablet). Daily evening service in the chapel at 6pm with a small group of singing monks but they are really not very musical (!).
- Head to Roussillon or Lourmarin if you want to buy local art because there are lots of art galleries. L’Îsle-de-la-Sorgue Sunday market is where you can find the best antiques.
- Before you head to Provence, try to read Peter Mayle’s iconic “A Year in Provence”, or any other books he has written about Provence. They will give you a real flavour of the area.
- “Je suis rassasié” is how to say “I am full” in French (!)
- TheLuberon.com is a great website with loads of info.
- Click here to learn how to order coffee in France. It is all rather confusing because each restaurant makes their coffee slightly differently.
– “Une noisette” is a shot of expresso with just a thin layer of milk froth.
– “Une noisette bien blanche” is a shot of expresso with a bit more milk.
– “Un crème” is what used to be called “un café au lait” ie. coffee with frothy hot milk. Be careful because in some restaurants if you order one it will be humungous so you might need to ask for “un petit crème“.
– “Un cappucino” is more frothy and might come with a sprinkle of chocolate on top.
– “Un café frappé” is whipped iced coffee with no milk and is quite sweet.
– “Un café glacé” is another way to order iced coffee. It is unsweetened and normally has no milk so we ask for it “avec du lait froid et un peu de sirop d’orgeat à côté”. (“Sirop d’orgeat” is a sweet almond syrup).
– Add the word “déca” to your order to get a decaf of any type of coffee.
– We have not figured out how to order a coffee with cream. We suspect that cream is not an option here (unless you want “Chantilly” which is whipped cream).
Have you been to Provence? What were some of your favourite spots? Please leave comments and questions below, merci beaucoup! Sylvia and Steve