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Medieval hill towns of Provence manage to maintain their charms

English writer Peter Mayle may have shined a light on them, but the cities nestled in the Luberon Mountain region are treasures.

August 16, 2009|Susan Spano

APT, FRANCE — Some people say it served Peter Mayle right when a fan tracked him down in Provence and walked into his sitting room uninvited. The English writer's books -- "A Year in Provence" (1991), "Toujours Provence" (1992), "Encore Provence" (2000) and "Provence A-Z" (2006) -- turned the village of Menerbes and the beguiling Luberon Mountain region around it into tourist central, complete with crowds and souvenir shops. For a while Mayle's Menerbes must have seemed almost as overrun as the Italian hill town of Cortona, visited by hordes since it served as the setting for bestselling author Frances Mayes' "Under the Tuscan Sun" (1997).

Honestly, though, you can't blame Mayle, because artists, writers, French high society and English-speaking expats have long been drawn to the rocky Luberon Mountains of northern Provence. Besides, the Luberon's medieval hill towns -- Menerbes, Saignon, Rousillon, Lacoste, Gordes, Bonnieux -- are just as dreamy as ever, its country roads just as winding, its markets just as lush.

So Mayle did not spoil the Luberon or reveal all its secrets. I know that for sure because last month, while visiting a friend there, I discovered three more.

The Apt market

On Saturday morning people with shopping baskets converge on Apt, a town about 40 miles east of Avignon in the valley between the east-to-west trending Luberon and Vaucluse mountains. It's a likable place on the Calavon River, colonized by Romans and later the seat of a bishopric, but of no specific interest to visitors except when market day rolls around.

Of course, every little Luberon town has its market, including the antiques center of L'Isle sur-la-Sorgue on Thursday. But the Apt market, stretching along pedestrian-only streets between Place St. Pierre and the mairie, or town hall, draws tourists and locals alike for its dazzling array of regional merchandise -- handmade lavender soap, lotion and sachets, olives and olive oil, wine, artisanal honey and liqueurs, cheese, herbs, flowers, candied fruit, pottery, baskets and fabrics in all the bright, beautiful patterns of Provence.

French homemakers know to get there as early as 8 or 9 a.m., before parking becomes a problem, long lines form at fish and poultry stands and navigating the narrow streets is harder than threading a needle without your glasses. Locals also know when to buy what: strawberries in May, cherries in June, melon in July and August, then an autumn harvest of chestnuts, wine, sausage and truffles.

For visitors, it's a bacchanal of Provencal merchandise, along with cheap imported jewelry, clothing and housewares. When my friend and I were there, we bought stylish linen place mats, freshly dried lavender, almond cookies, natural stain-removing soap, wool shawls and a reversible coat designed and made by a man from the nearby village of Bedoin. As he rang up the sale, he reminded us that the Tour de France was embarking that day from Bedoin on the tough 13-mile climb up Mt. Ventoux, which we could see in the distance.

Afterward we drank espresso at a cafe with our purchases piled around us, happy to have shopped rather than biked to exhaustion.

La Ferme-Auberge le Castelas

A network of steep, sinuous country roads heads up from Apt to Luberon Regional Park at the plateau-like crest of the massif. One of them -- the D232 -- passes fields of lavender, farm structures (or bories) that look like stone igloos and woods of scrub oak before it dead-ends at Sivergues.

Long ago the village was home to a convent but is now a sort of Provencal ghost town visited chiefly by hikers and bikers traversing the mountain through the wild, cliff-lined valley of the Aiguebrun River.

Don't stop there, even though the paved road does. Instead, veer right at the mairie along an unmarked dirt track. You'll know you've reached the Ferme-Auberge le Castelas when you hear the clinking of bells from the goat pen.

In a warren of farm buildings on the side of a rocky hill, le Castelas is a rustic barbecue restaurant with its own borie and an open field as a front lawn. On a fine summer night, you eat outdoors at long, rickety tables.

As my friends and I arrived, took seats and dipped into a pitcher of sangria, a herder released the goats from bondage, delighting the children who'd come with their parents to feast. Immediately, the goats enveloped the terrace and stone grill, clanking, bleating and walking on the tables. Then, as if at a cocktail party, a dozen pigs mingled in, far cleaner than one is led to believe by children's books and clearly cleverer than the goats.

We watched the livestock show -- which, in a way, was also the menu -- while sampling an antipasta course of mashed eggplant, red peppers in olive oil and a salty, local ham.

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