For many, the Vaucluse is the only true Provence—one vast Cézanne masterpiece, where sun-bleached hills and fields are tapestries of green-and-black grapevines and silver-gray olives, and rolling rows of lavender harmonize with mountains looming purple against an indigo sky. It is here, in his beloved Luberon, that British author Peter Mayle discovered and described the simple pleasures of breakfasting on melons still warm from the sun, buying fresh-dug truffles from furtive farmers in smoke-filled bars, and life without socks. The world shared his epiphany, and vacationers now flock here in search of the same sensual way of life.
As if an invisible hand had drawn lines dividing this region into three, the Vaucluse changes character dramatically from north to south, west to east. East of Avignon, you can find sun-scorched villages perchés (perched villages) that lord over the patchwork valleys—Gordes, Bonnieux, Ménerbes, and ocher-tinted Roussillon. Though mass tourism has given them something of a Disney feel, you need only wander off the main shopping drags to get a sense of medieval life in the labyrinthine back alleys and pollard-shaded squares resonant with the splashing of ancient fountains. The otherwise tranquil town of L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue has become a magnet for international antiques fiends, reaching its peak of activity on Sunday, when the entire town turns into a giant brocante (flea market).
Anchored by the magnificent papal stronghold of Avignon, the glories of the Vaucluse region spread luxuriantly eastward of the Rhône. Its famous vineyards seduce connoisseurs, and its Roman ruins in Orange and Vaison-la-Romaine draw scholars and arts lovers. Plains dotted with orchards of olives, apricots, and cherries give way, around formidable Mont Ventoux, to a rich and wild mountainous terrain, then flow into the primeval Luberon, made a household name by Peter Mayle. The antiques market in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue makes for a terrific Sunday excursion, as does the nearby Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, a dramatic spring cascade (outside drought season). But the Luberon and its villages perched high up in the hills are a world of their own and worth allowing time for—perhaps even your whole vacation. Note that the Pont du Gard, the superbly preserved Gallo-Roman aqueduct, is a 30-minute drive west of Avignon, and that Arles, Nîmes, and the windswept Camargue are a stone’s throw to the south and west.
Just north lies a wine-lover’s paradise, as the Côtes du Rhône produce some of the world’s most muscular vintages: Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Beaumes-de-Venise are two of the best-known villages, though the names Vacqueyras, Gigondas, and St-Joseph also give wine buffs goose bumps. Despite their renown, this area feels off the beaten track even in midsummer, when it’s favored by the French rather than foreign tourists. A brisk wind cools things off in summer, as do the broad-leaved plane trees that shade the sidewalk tables at village restaurants and cafés.
East of here, the countryside grows increasingly dramatic, first with the jaw-droppingly jagged Dentelles de Montmirail, whose landscape is softened by olive groves and orchards, then the surprisingly lush Mont Ventoux, best known as the Tour de France’s most difficult stage. Along the way, you’ll find villages such as Séguret and Vaison-la-Romaine, where you can sample the slow-paced local lifestyle over a game of pétanque or a lingering apéro. And all this lies a stone’s throw from thriving Avignon, its feudal fortifications sheltering a lively arts scene and a culture determinedly young.
No matter what sights are on their lists, vacationers love to retreat to lavishly renovated farmhouses with cypress-shaded pools or to the luxurious inns that cater to people fleeing Avignon’s smog. There are budget accommodations, too, in the form of cheerful chambres d’hôtes and modest but well-run hotels, which often have good restaurants. Given the intense summer heat and the distance from the sea, swimming pools and air-conditioning are de rigueur, with a few exceptions higher up in the mountains, where there is a refreshing breeze.
Geographically speaking, in fact, Avignon, as well as the Roman centers and papal vineyards to its north, lies in arid lowlands, and getting from point to point through these flats can be uninspiring. It’s to the east that the real Vaucluse rises up into the green-studded slopes of Mont Ventoux and the Luberon. Here, the back roads are beautiful—the temptation to abandon your rental car in favor of foot travel is often irresistible. Give in; the combination of the smells of wild thyme, lavender, wet stone, and dry pine can be as heady as a Châteauneuf-du-Pape.