What is it that makes the Luberon so special? Is it the fields of lavender, the vineyards, the farmers’ markets and local cuisine, or the sounds of birds and summer cicadas that complement the cypress trees?
AN EXCURSION TO THE LUBERON
IN THE HEART OF
What is it that makes the Luberon so special? Is it the fields of lavender, the vineyards, the farmers markets and local cuisine, or the sounds of birds and summer cicadas that complement the cypress trees?
Located in the middle of Provence in South Eastern France covering an area of around 600 km2, the Luberon boasts valleys to the north and south scattered with charming towns and villages as well as agricultural land, and three mountain ranges from west to east – the Little Luberon, Big Luberon and Oriental Luberon – where the maximum altitude reaches 1256 m above sea level.
Of the thousands of foreign visitors who travel to France each year, many overwhelmingly visit the Luberon region. The area has attracted record numbers of tourists following the success of Ridley Scott’s 2006 film “A Good Year” starring Russell Crowe and Academy Award winning actress Marion Cotillard, where the life of a British expatriate who settles in the village of Menerbes and his interaction with the locals was depicted in an amusing way highlighting the differences between the Anglo-Saxon and French mentalities.
Irish author Samuel Beckett lived on a vineyard in the commune of Roussillon during World War II whilst in hiding from the Germans. An active member of the French Resistance, Beckett wrote primarily in French and his novel ‘Watt’ was written in the Luberon during this period. Beckett also mentions Roussillon in his famous play ‘Waiting for Godot’ (En attendant Godot) completed in 1955.
The delightful commune of Gordes in the Luberon is located about 38 kilometers east of Avignon. Settled by the Romans, the area is rich with evidence of their occupation which including a Roman temple which became a Christian temple in the 4th century AD, later destroyed by the Arab invasions of the 8th century.
In the 12th century the famous Senanque Abbey was founded by Cistercian monks under the patronage of the Bishop of Cavaillon and the Count of Provence. 30 years later the Abbey’s church was built as the community flourished and other structures followed suit which still stand today.
The territory of Provence was incorporated into the Kingdom of France in the 15th century as a “province royale francaise” (French royal province) but insurrections were thereafter common as the region strongly opposed French centralism.
It was not until my third trip to Provence that I discovered the magic of the village of Joucas located on the perimeter of the “Parc naturel regional du Luberon” (the Luberon natural regional park). Poised neatly on a hilltop, lying between the towns of Gordes and Roussillion, from this intoxicating site you can see the surrounding plains scattered with vineyards, fields of lavender and adjacent ochre hills. Historically this ideal location allowed inhabitants to see potential threats approaching from afar.
Hostellerie Le Phébus
The ‘Hostellerie Le Phébus’ in Joucas, is one of my favorite hotels in the entire South-East of France for many reasons. Built out of an authentic dry stone-walled farmhouse, where guests’ rooms overlook the calming waters of a private swimming pool, Le Phebus is a jewel of a hotel and the perfect place to take shelter from the outside world including the “midi’s” famous “mistral” wind. It is an ideal base from which to explore the Luberon, recharging when needed in the Hotel’s newly appointed Carita Spa. The Hotel houses a stunning Michelin star restaurant which offers traditional Provencal cuisine with a burst of new life, added to ancient Provencal recipes such as the superb “soupe au pistou”, a regional vegetable soup with basil, herbs and regional flavors.
The restaurant’s craftsman and owner, ‘chef extraordinaire’ Xavier Mathieu has talent equal to his good looks and style. Last summer I returned to his stunning Relais & Chateaux Hotel to spend two unforgettable weeks where I was able to savour the delicacy and fine flavours of his cuisine. Among my favourite dishes were signature pieces - “Filet d’agneau de lait roti aux cerises noire de nos campagnes’ (milk-fed roasted lamb filet with local black field cherries) and the unforgettable ‘Queues de langoustines et fleur de courgette de plein champ” (lobster tails served with Provencal zucchini flowers sourced from local fields) two dishes that I still think of when I drop off to sleep at night.
This year I enrolled in one of Xavier’s ‘Cours de cuisine’ (cooking classes) which I certainly needed. They take place over 1 1/2 days where Xavier’s expertise and attention aid cooking amateurs such as myself, to learn to prepare both savory dishes and desserts following a particular theme; participants also learn to marry wines with each dish, prepare a cheese platter that includes a variety of cheeses from different regions of France, and prepare a dish known in France as ‘gourmandise’ - small biscuits and chocolates served traditionally with coffee and tea at the conclusion of a meal.
I couldn’t end my stay in ‘Le Phebus’ without purchasing Xavier’s cooking book “Provence Voyage Culinaire” (a Culinary Voyage through Provence) for sale at the Hotel or online for around EUR 25 and available in either French or English. This elegant coffee table accessory explains the inspiration Xavier has sourced from Mediterranean cooking, reinterpreted across all of the four seasons as he combines textures, colours, associations of both the sea and soil to produce flavours strongly inspired by ancient recipes of his native Provencal land.
And I wouldn’t leave the Luberon without a visit to one of the best daily markets in the region, which takes place on a Friday, in the town of Lourmarin. For five hours the town’s centre is packed with what seems like an endless caravan of bright images, colours – blues, yellows, terra cottas – and intoxicating scents, as the market boasts a large variety of olives, spices, herbs, fish, meat, fruit and cheeses, dried flowers, prints, tablecloths and fragrant soaps.
HOSTELLERIE LE PHEBUS
Featured Hotel and Restaurant – HOSTELLERIE LE PHEBUS & SPA 84220 JOUCAS EN PROVENCE
Cover photo the ‘Abbey de Senanque’ by Mik Watkins via Wikimedia Commons
Provence slideshow – photos courtesy of ATOUT France
Hostellerie Le Phebus slideshow – photos courtesy of Xavier Mathieu & Le Phebus Hotel and Spa.