Gordes looks spectacular as it tumbles down the hillside towards the Luberon Valley. The houses and hotels appear well-kept and largely unspoilt with clumps of trees and the occasional swimming pool breaking up the sporadic pattern of buildings. Gordes doesn’t immediately strike the visitor as a place where wealthy people live, but that is probably the appeal. Gordes is classified as one of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France, one of just 156 French villages with the classification.
Around a hundred years ago, Gordes would have looked very different. Dilapidated houses were being abandoned by the villagers and the whole village was falling into ruin. This began to change slowly once Cubist painter André Lhote discovered Gordes in 1938 followed by Marc Chagall, Victor Vasarely and other modern artists who visited and spent the summer in Gordes. Gradually, Gordes became the place where painters, musicians, and film directors wanted to be seen. The houses were restored and the prices soared as artists took a second home in Gordes.
Today, Gordes is one of the most visited places in The Luberon with some of the most costly housing on the planet. The art shops are expensive as are most of the places to eat. However, most visitors seem to amble around the castle and main square, so the back streets tend to be almost deserted allowing the lucky visitor to sample the quietness with just the bees buzzing in the bougainvillea and birds singing in the sunshine. There is a chance to admire the cobblestones, the lovingly restored walls, and the intricate chimneys and roofs.
There is a view over the valley towards the village of Roussillon, which is built on ochre. In between Gordes and Roussillon are some of the most photographed fields in the world. Here is grown lavender in lovely lines disappearing into the horizon. Surely there is no other place in the world with such vibrant and contrasting colours as ochre and lavender in this close proximity. However, all is not sweetness and light. When the lavender is blooming there is a stampede of photographers to certain places with views of the purple-streaked fields, so much so the police have to restrict access. In 2015, one photographer tried to mow down with his car some people he felt had deliberately got in the way of his potential prize-winning photograph. Luckily, he missed the people and hit a telegraph pole instead. There are murky, hidden depths even in the loveliest countryside.
Roussillon is another beautiful village teeming with tourists drawn by the ochre cliffs and the colours of the village houses, which reflect the seventeen different ochre tints once quarried here. However, after I passed the shops selling lavender products for all occasions, the streets were nearly deserted and I was able to admire the semi-detached houses with shutters painted in strikingly different colours from their walls and doors. A funeral cortege was making their way through the village and a book of condolences was open on a pedestal by the side of the road. Local people stopped and nodded their head as the procession passed them on the way to the church.
The ochre quarry is close to the centre of the village and there is a trail around it called the Sentier des Ocres. There are two actual circuits, one shorter than the other, taking visitors through the multi-coloured former quarry, which was of the main contributors towards the tens of thousands of tons of ochre exported around the world between the early 1800s and 1958. Production then stopped because the quarrying was undermining the village – there are limits after all. There are still other working ochre quarries in the area, but their output is low compared to the heyday of 1929 when 40,000 tons of ochre was transported around the world from the quarries of Provence.
Les Baux-de-Provence, north-east of Arles, occupies one of the ridges of the Alpilles hills. Visitors have to leave their vehicles outside the village and walk up to the historical centre. Entrance to the fortress above the town is at the far end of the village. The buildings are almost all 16th- and 17th-Century churches and mansions hosting museums such as the art in the Hotel de Manville and the nativity figures in the Musee des Santons.
The main attraction in Les Baux is the Chateau, the fortress above the village, which was razed to the ground on Cardinal Richelieu’s orders. Siege engines and catapults lie around on the bleak plateau, skeletal reminders of the weapons of war of the 17th-Century, although these replicas are used for occasional re-enactments of the brutality of sieges four hundred years ago. The views over Provence and towards the Mediterranean are worth lingering over with many olive trees in the fields closest to Les Baux.
The ruins are fun and enough of the fortress has been recreated to give the visitor some idea of the size and defensive strength of the place. The Coat of Arms on the flag fluttering from the highest tower is that of the Lords of Baux with the 16-point silver star of the Nativity. The village became a centre of Protestantism in the early 1600s and tried a rebellion against the crown. In 1631, tired of conflict, the people negotiated with Louis XIII for the redemption of the castle territory and the right to dismantle the fortifications.
The name bauxite – aluminium ore – is derived from Les Baux where it was first discovered by geologist Pierre Berthier in 1821. The mines were in the area named Val d’Enfer to the north of the village. Dante visited this area of twisted rocks in around 1307 and drew sufficient inspiration from the weirdness he had seen to write the Inferno. The mines eventually closed at the end of the 20th Century and now they form part of an audiovisual experience using the post-industrial landscape to great effect. This attraction is called Carriere de Lumieres and as visitors proceed through the exhibition images are constantly projected on to all the surfaces. The theme of the imagery changes from year to year.
St-Remy-de-Provence is inextricably linked with Vincent van Gogh because of the year the artist spent at the St-Paul-de-Mausole psychiatric hospital in the town. 150 of his most famous paintings were inspired by the surrounding area. He was not confined to the hospital, but couldn’t go more than an hour’s walk away. The places where he painted some of his most famous work are indicated, although the subjects of the paintings as Van Gogh painted them are not always still there. St-Paul-de-Mausole is still a hospital and art therapy forms part of the treatment of the patients.
Near to the hospital, and separated from it by a road and fields of sunflowers, are two Roman structures called Les Antiques, which originally marked the entrance to the Roman town of Glanum. One is a triumphal arch commemorating the Roman conquest of Marseilles and the other is a mausoleum to two grandsons of the Emperor Augustus. Greek colonists from Marseilles built a town at Glanum between the second and first centuries BC. Then the Romans came along and built another town which lasted until the 3rd Century AD. The main reason for building a town here was a spring, which not only allowed people to bathe in its health-benefitting waters but also meant water could be used to feed the Roman baths and to provide underfloor heating in their houses. Those Romans were so clever and, once again, all of this was done 2000 years ago.
This extract is from the book Travels through History : France by Julian Worker