Destination Gordes Provence: One day Peter Mayle came home to find Japanese tourists in his Provence swimming pool, so my tour guide told me. He was forced to move to a less conspicuous location. The new home of Mayle (the British ex-advertising exec who famously settled in the Luberon Valley and made a mint writing books about it) apparently isn’t far from Gordes, the mountaintop village in the picture, but I swore I wouldn’t say where.
His best-selling book was A Year in Provence, published in 1989, which sold 6 million copies over the next 20 years. Suddenly, travel writing wasn’t the privilege of the few any more – it went mainstream.
The village of Gordes has quite a history. In WWII the Germans slaughtered many of the inhabitants in the village which looks so gentile it’s hard to imagine the horror. Gordes, a centre for the French Resistance, was later awarded the Croix de Guerre medal. These days it’s full of discreetly disguised up market homes, and posh hotels including Accor’s eclectic brand M Gallery, but the French village, known as the acropolis of the Luberon, still retains a character faithful to its history. All new buildings must follow the stone style, with electrical and communication cables buried underground. A labyrinth of steep cobbled streets and tile-roofed houses with shuttered windows are traditional hallmarks of most villages in the area, but Gordes’ architecture is dominated by its church and castle. The Saint-Firmain Palace pre-dates the renaissance and was mostly destroyed by marauding armies, but was rebuilt in 1525 to its present style.
The weekly Gordes produce market is held on Tuesdays: veges, fruit, cheeses, bread, wine, olive oil, flowers and gift items. Other markets are held regularly, including the seasonal textile market with its vivid woollen garments, and fresh produce including preserves such as honey are available daily.
While the weather is summer warm during my autumn visit, the icy tendrils of the mistral often whip through the narrow streets and the winters are definitely cold. If you’re day tripping around the area, Gordes is a go-to point for an aperitif, where the setting sun bleeds into the horizon and washes the tall, pale stone buildings with a rosy glow. Le Cercle Republicain – a small bar in the main square – doesn’t have a view at the front but has a small patio at the back with a clear outlook across the valley.
The Luberon Valley is dotted with vineyards and excellent wine for as cheap as 5 euros a bottle. L’Abbey of Senanque is only a few minutes drive down the mountainside, where the meticulous rows of lavender provide one of the most famous images of the region in early summer. Nuns still live there producing honey, lavender essence, and liqueurs.
I visited Gordes as part of my two-week tour of Provence and the Riviera with Back-Roads Touring which only takes groups of up to 16 (ours was 12) through the winding country roads of this charmed land. Provence is well suited for the Back-Roads concept pitched at adventurous mature travellers who want to get off the well-worn track, although Provence is a magnet for tourists. But I thought the company was smart – you get to the best places early morning before the hordes do, it chooses small, intimate hotels and it avoids the main highways.
The region is ridiculously beautiful, and offers enough brisk walking up and down hills to substantially increase your fitness. Distances between locations are relatively short. You can see a lot in one day. Everyone on my tour was a keen walker, with one 73-year-old woman from New Zealand regularly out-walking us all.
Film director Ridley Scott, who has owned a home in Provence for many years, filmed part of the Russell Crowe movie, A Good Year (loosely based on the Mayle books), in the village in late summer 2005 . The ochre-coloured villa used in the film is about 10 minutes down the road. Peter Bradshaw of The Guardian called the film “a humourless cinematic slice of tourist gastro-porn”.
A trifle harsh, nes pas?
INFO FOR GORDES PROVENCE:
- Gordes is built 400m above sea level on the foothills of the Monts of Vaucluse, and 38km from Avignon
- Population about 2,100
- Weekly market on Tuesday morning. Get there by 8am to avoid the crowds
- Almond tree festival (beginning of March)
- Festival “Les Soirees de Gordes” (beginning of August): Theatre, music and dance
- Wine festival (beginning of August).
- Village Fete (beginning of October).
- Art exhibitions all year round.
More info: www.backroadstouring.com.au