The Lovely Luburon

This blogpost has been a tough one to assemble, although not for a lack of things to say about Provence, France. I have quite a bit to say – as does everyone else. Provence is one of those globally-renowned travel destinations that is regularly profiled in publications ranging from Conde Nast’s Traveler to Bon Appetit and from hiking guidebooks to airline inflight magazines.

This blogpost has been challenging for the simple reason that I have far too many photographs to choose from. Within hours of arriving to the Luberon region of Provence, I texted a photographer friend of mine and said, “I think I just landed in shutterfly mecca. You’d have to be an idiot not to get amazing shots here.” To prove my point, I attached a few low-resolution Iphone shots which looked like pictures I would gladly hang on my wall.

The Luberon is a hilly and predominantly rural area east of Avignon, France. There are several mountain ranges that criss-cross the region from east to west, housing peaks that reach up to 4000 feet. Between these rows of rockier terrain are rolling hills and fertile valleys that have, for millenia, provided the ideal conditions for cultivating wine grapes, fruit, and lavender.

The towns in the Luberon are, for the most part, small and built from stone, and most of them date back to at least to the Middle Ages. The climate is mild, the pastoral scenery is soothing, the villages are charming, and hiking and biking trails abound. What’s not to like?

The crowds, I’m guessing – although by visiting in the off-season, I managed to avoid them altogether. In addition to the buses of tourists that must infiltrate this place in the late spring and summer (I saw multi-acre parking lots outside of nearly every town), the privileged members of European society– and more recently American as well – have discovered the appeal of the Luberon.

Their presence is unmistakable; numerous three-hundred-year-old farmhouses have tennis courts and pools behind them along with Porsches and fancy motorcycles in their driveways. Internationally-famous restaurants dot these tiny downtown plazas, and high-end clothing and home goods boutiques are far more prevalent than they should be in hamlets with 500 residents. I got a little too much of a taste of this element in the first village I visited, Ile-sur-Sorgue, so I hopped back in the rental car and fled to the hills.

In those hills, I was dazzled by image after memorable image. The countryside is pretty to be sure, but what is most striking is the way the towns are nestled into it. Because the villages were built long before the advent of the automobile, their streets are incredibly narrow, making the use of visitor parking lots on the outskirts of town a necessity.

Once rid of your vehicle, you are forced to wander on tight cobblestone alleys flanked by Medieval rock walls – an inherently magical activity.

Everywhere you look, there is an interaction of light and shadow, a historic rusty hinge, or a perfectly-angled window shutter to check out.

On top of that visual experience, imagining seventh- or eighth-century denizens walking the same streets as the ones on which you find yourself is a compelling mental game. The depth of history in these communities is mind-blowing.

Most of the Luberon villages are light yellow in color because the buildings were constructed from locally-mined limestone. One town, however, stands out from this crowd – Rousillon.

Just outside of Rousillon lies an centuries-old ochre mine exploited for the production of paint pigments. The mine is set amidst some very Utah-like sandstone orange and maroon hoodoos, and the pigments that these landforms produce have been used to color the town’s buildings as well.

A lucky strike on Airbnb landed me in Rousillon for three days, in a studio apartment along a back alley. Because I was a mere twenty-five steps from the town’s small center with its hoodoo view and charming ochre buildings, I was able to make multiple trips per day around the village in search of different angles of light, new shades of orange, and more interesting varieties of shadow. In between my laps around Rousillon, I did visit other towns. But I kept coming back to same paths just outside my door to investigate the same assortment of lines, shapes, and structures.

In the process, I took heaps of pictures – a lot of which I actually like. The hunting and capturing of these images kept me so entertained that I didn’t participate in the two most common Luberon activities – eating out and shopping. I’m pleased to make that claim.

I could have been disgusted by this area; after all, the over-the-top show of opulence I first dropped into had me concerned. I was raised and educated in upscale white suburbs; I generally try to avoid them like the plague when I travel. Looking past this veneer was crucial to my appreciation of the area.

This is so often the case with travel. Sometimes you have to look amongst the piles of dirt and rubble to find beauty; other times, you have to look away from the glitter of money and power.

Either way, it’s there.

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