Though Canadian by birth, our newest route-finder, Stuart Sommers, is very much a Provençal ‘insider’, having relocated to the south of France in 2003. Ever since, he has dedicated his time to exploring this beautiful region on foot and by bike, and to helping others do likewise.
Stuart recently worked with us to create the routes for our new cycling holiday, Villages & Valleys of Provence
, which explores many of the beautiful hill-top medieval villages hidden in the Luberon mountains. Along the route there are a number of little-known gems to uncover, as Stuart tells us here:
‘Colorado’ and ‘Provençal’ may have very little in common generally, but in one lost corner of Provence they come together…
The sleepy village of Rustrel – as far off the beaten path as you can get – sits on one of the largest natural ochre deposits in the world. The almost rainbow-coloured sands here were quarried for pigments between 1871 and 1993, when the final washing was completed. Now in disuse, the open-air quarry is a wonderland of colourful dunes, paths, and chaotic cliff formations, with a palette running from pale yellow to deep red. While most tourists flock to the busier ochre trails of Roussillon, the Colorado Provençal in Rustrel offers a far larger and more impressive playground of sandy paths to get lost in, and is far from the crowds – I’ve walked here on days when I didn’t see another soul. Inntravel’s first cycle ride takes in this otherworldly site, with the option to park up the bikes and enjoy an hour-long walk into the heart of the quarry. And afterwards, in the village of Rustrel itself, the main square offers two local bistros with hearty Provençal fare and chilled rosé…
Candied fruit - Confiserie Saint-Denis
When I need to replenish my energy on a long bike ride, I crave fruits confits (‘candied fruit’). Actually, who am I kidding? When I want a sugary treat at any time, candied fruit tops the list. Preserving fruit in a series of delicate sugar baths is a centuries-old Provençal tradition, and one which takes upwards of six weeks to complete. The result is a sugar-rich, flavour-bomb of a fruit, soft and moist on the outside and with an ever-so-slightly glazed crunch as a coating. In other words: heaven. The Confiserie Saint Denis sits in the tiny village of Les Beaumettes, near the end of the second cycle ride. Inside you’ll find a 5th-generation confiseur, who continues to perpetuate the family business – open since 1873 – making fruits confits in the traditional way, using old cauldrons and in small batches. If you’re lucky enough to be there at 5pm on a Friday in the summer months, the confiserie offers tours of the atelier behind the shop, where all the magic happens.
The hill-top village of Oppède-le-Vieux
I remember visiting Oppède once in early spring. It’s not unusual in the colder months to have low-lying clouds in the Luberon valley, and on this particular day Oppède-le-Vieux was engulfed in an almost haunting fog, rendering this timeless medieval village, well, all the more timelessly medieval. Above the entrance gate, cobbled streets wind upwards, passing centuries-old buildings to reach the church and ruins of a 13th-century castle: no cars, no shops. Behind the castle a vertiginously sheer drop plummets to the valley, behind which the jagged western slopes of the Luberon mountains soar 500 metres high. Out of the four ‘perched villages’ of the Luberon visited on this third cycle, Oppède-le-Vieux is certainly the least well-known, the least transformed by modern tourism, and possibly the most spectacular of all.
La Maison de ma Grandmère
I first met Isabelle Nathan through a local guide: she runs the type of place you need connections to find. Set in the western Luberon village of Robion, La Maison de ma Grandmère is literally Isabelle’s grandmother’s house: where she cooks and serves homemade Provençal dishes that her grandmother taught her to make. In the colder months she serves meals on her cosy, cottage-like veranda, while in the summer her vast garden is dotted with small tables, and shaded by regal cedar trees. My personal favourites are her slow-roasted Provençal lamb and her chicken confit with lemon, though everything she makes is mouthwatering. It’s not a restaurant: it’s by reservation only, and everyone is served the same menu fixe, though Isabelle does accommodate allergies. Everyone I’ve ever taken here leaves enchanted by the memorable experience, and the warm encounter.
Rue Théophile Jean
The town of Isle-sur-la-Sorgue is the goal of Inntravel's relatively short fifth ride. The town offers so much to see and experience, whether it’s the world-renowned Sunday market, the fabulous antique shops, or the bistro-lined quays where you can enjoy a café – or the region’s best ice cream – while contemplating the emerald-green waters of the Sorgue River. But if you manage to meander along some of the smaller streets, away from the shops, other treasures await. My favourite street has always been Rue Théophile Jean. One of the branches of the Sorgue River runs alongside this quiet cobbled street, while ancient waterwheels – formerly a driving force of the town’s fabric industry – grace the canal.
The cherry orchards of Vénasque
I took my daughter to Vénasque for her first real walk once she was old enough to handle a proper path. We strolled through the pure-white cherry blossoms, and under the imposing silhouette of the medieval village. We then climbed up to the village itself, just a few cobbled streets clinging perilously atop a rocky spur. Vénasque is listed among the most beautiful villages in France, and sits above a countryside blanketed with cherry orchards (a popular cherry festival is held in the village at the beginning of June). Vénasque marks the halfway spot of this final day’s ride, which heads into the lesser-known Monts du Vaucluse hills. The restaurant Les Remparts overlooks the valley, and is the perfect lunch spot before freewheeling back down to the plains.