By Rick Steves and Steve Smith
The Luberon region, stretching 30 miles along a ridge of ruggeds hills east of Avignon, hides some of France's most appealing hill towns and sensuous landscapes. Those intrigued by Peter Mayle's books love joyriding through the region, connecting I-could-live-here villages, crumbled castles, and meditative abbeys. Mayle's bestselling A Year in Provence describes the ruddy local culture from an Englishman's perspective as he buys a stone farmhouse, fixes it up, and adopts the region as his new home. His book is a great read while you're here.
The Luberon terrain in general (much of which is a French regional natural park) is as appealing as its villages. Gnarled vineyards and wind-sculpted trees separate tidy stone structures from abandoned buildings — little more than rock piles — that seem to challenge city slickers to fix them up. Mountains of limestone bend along vast ridges, while colorful hot-air balloons survey the sun-drenched scene from above. The wind is an integral part of life here. The infamous mistral wind, finishing its long ride in from Siberia, hits like a hammer.
The region's top two towns are Isle-sur-la-Sorgue with good train connections) and Roussillon (pathetic connections). The Luberon region is ideal by car. For more information about transportation connections, see below.
This sturdy market town — literally, "Island on the Sorgue River" — sits within a split in its crisp, happy little river. It's a workaday town with too many cars and some unpolished edges, but makes a good base for exploring the Luberon and Avignon (30 minutes by car) and can work for exploring the Côtes du Rhône (50 minutes to Vaison-la-Romaine).
After the arid cities and villages elsewhere in Provence, the presence of water at every turn is a welcome change. In Isle-sur-la-Sorgue — called the "Venice of Provence" — the Sorgue River's extraordinarily clear and shallow flow divides like cells, producing water, water everywhere. The river is essential to the region's economy. The fresh spring water of the many branches of the Sorgue has provided ample fish, nourishment for crops, and power for key industries for centuries. Today, antique shops power the town's economy — every other shop seems to sell some kind of antique.
While Isle-sur-la-Sorgue is renowned for its market days (Sunday and Thursday), it's otherwise a pleasantly average town with no important sights and a steady trickle of tourism. It's calm at night and downright dead on Mondays.
The town erupts into a carnival-like market frenzy each Sunday and Thursday, with hardy crafts and local produce. The Sunday market is astounding and famous for its antiques; the Thursday market is more intimate. Find a table at the Café de France and enjoy the scene.
Parking is a challenge on market days. If you don't arrive early, traffic is a mess and parking is a headache. Circle the ring road and look for parking signs, or give up and find the pay lot behind the post office (PTT). There are also several lots just west of the roundabout, with roads to Carpentras and Fontaine-de-Vaucluse. You'll also pass freestyle parking on roads leaving the city. Don't leave anything visible in your car.
Start your tour at the church next to the tourist information office — where all streets seem to converge — and make forays into the town from there. The 12th-century church has a festive Baroque interior and seems overgrown for today's town. Walk in. The curls and swirls and gilded statues date from an era that was all about Louis XIV, the Sun King. This is propagandist architecture, designed to wow the faithful into compliance. (It was made possible thanks to profits generated from the town's river-powered industries.) When you enter a church like this, the heavens should open up and assure you that whoever built it had unearthly connections.
Breakaway streams run under the town like subways in Paris (one stream is visible 50 yards to the right side of the church as you leave it). Wander down rue Danton in front of the church to lose the crowds and find three big forgotten waterwheels. These helped put Isle-sur-la-Sorgue on the map in the 1800s — along with Avignon, this was Provence's cloth-dyeing and textile center. Those stylish Provençal fabrics and patterns you see for sale everywhere were made possible by this river.
Make sure to walk to the eastern edge of the town (four blocks behind the church), where the river does its big split at Le Bassin. Take in the pretty scene: the power-generating capabilities of even small rivers like this are made easier to comprehend.
Take a refreshing riverfront stroll from here. Cross the busy roundabout (incredible selection of tapenades — olive and herb spreads — at the shop across the street) and turn right, following Partage des Eaux and Hôtel le Pescador signs. The little road rambles along the serene course of the clear-as-a-bell river past waterfront homes and beneath swaying trees all the way to Hôtel le Pescador and a riverside café. The wide and shallow Partage des Eaux, where the water divides before entering the town, is perfect for a refreshing swim on a hot day.
With all the trendy charm of Santa Fe on a hilltop, photogenic Roussillon requires serious camera and café time (and a few euros for parking). Roussillon has been a protected village since 1943 and has benefited from a complete absence of modern development. An enormous deposit of ochre gives the earth and its buildings that distinctive red color and provided this village with its economic base until shortly after World War II. This place is popular; it's best to visit early or late in the day.
Thursday is Roussillon's market day, and every day is Christmas for thieves — take everything out of your car.
See how local (or artsy) you can look as you walk in what must be the most scenic village square in Provence (Place de la Mairie) and watch the river of shoppers. Is anyone playing boules at the opposite end? You could paint the entire town without ever leaving the red-and-orange corner of your palette. Many do. While Roussillon receives its share of day-trippers, evenings are romantically peaceful on this square.
Roussillon was Europe's capital for ochre production until World War II. A stroll to the south end of town, beyond the upper parking lot, will show you why: Roussillon sits on the world's largest known ochre deposit. A brilliant orange path leads through the richly colored ochre canyon, explaining the hue of this village (small fee, ask about combo-tickets with the Ochre Conservatory. Beware — light-colored clothing and orange powder don't mix).
Getting Around the Luberon
By Car: Luberon roads are scenic and narrow. With no major landmarks, it's easy to get lost in this area — and you will get lost, trust me — but getting lost is the point. Pick up the Michelin Local Map #332 or #528 to navigate. If connecting this region with the Côtes du Rhône, consider doing so via Mont Ventoux — one of Provence's most spectacular routes.
By Bus: Isle-sur-la-Sorgue is easy 45-minute trip by bus from Avignon, with several daily trips and a central stop at the post office. Without a car or minivan tour, I'd skip Roussillon.
By Train: Trains get you to Isle-sur-la-Sorgue (station called "L'Isle–Fontaine de Vaucluse") from Avignon in 30 minutes or from Marseille in under two hours. If you're day-tripping by train, check return times before leaving the station.
By Minivan Tour: The Luberon is made for driving and for travelers sans wheels or wine drinkers, a minivan tour is a great option. Several good companies will help you delve deep into this region for a half-day or full day tour.