Medieval hill towns of Provence manage to maintain their charms

LA Times | Travel

Some people say it served Peter Mayle right when a fan tracked him down in Provence and walked into his sitting room uninvited. The English writer's books -- \"A Year in Provence\" (1991), \"Toujours Provence\" (1992), \"Encore Provence\" (2000) and \"Provence A-Z\" (2006) -- turned the village o...

By Susan Spano // 08.14.09

Some people say it served Peter Mayle right when a fan tracked him down in Provence and walked into his sitting room uninvited. The English writer's books -- "A Year in Provence" (1991), "Toujours Provence" (1992), "Encore Provence" (2000) and "Provence A-Z" (2006) -- turned the village of Ménerbes and the beguiling Luberon Mountain region around it into tourist central, complete with crowds and souvenir shops. For a while Mayle's Ménerbes must have seemed almost as overrun as the Italian hill town of Cortona, visited by hordes since it served as the setting for bestselling author Frances Mayes' "Under the Tuscan Sun" (1997).

Honestly, though, you can't blame Mayle, because artists, writers, French high society and English-speaking expats have long been drawn to the rocky Luberon Mountains of northern Provence. Besides, the Luberon's medieval hill towns -- Ménerbes, Saignon, Rousillon, Lacoste, Gordes, Bonnieux -- are just as dreamy as ever, its country roads just as winding, its markets just as lush.

For more information

French Government Tourist Office, 9454 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 210, Beverly Hills, CA 90212;

Apt Tourist Office, 20 Ave. Philippe de Girard, 84400 Apt, France; 011-33-4-90-74-03-18,

La Ferme-Auberge le Castelas, Sivergues, 011-33-4-90-74-60-89, is down a dirt road near the mairie in Sivergues.

Jane Eakin House, Monté Sainte-Barbe, 84560 Ménerbes, 011-33-4-90-72-22-05,

So Mayle did not spoil the Luberon or reveal all its secrets. I know that for sure because last month, while visiting a friend there, I discovered three more.

The Apt market

On Saturday morning people with shopping baskets converge on Apt, a town about 40 miles east of Avignon in the valley between the east-to-west trending Luberon and Vaucluse mountains. It's a likable place on the Calavon River, colonized by Romans and later the seat of a bishopric, but of no specific interest to visitors except when market day rolls around.

Of course, every little Luberon town has its market, including the antiques center of L'Isle sur-la-Sorgue on Thursday. But the Apt market, stretching along pedestrian-only streets between Place St. Pierre and the mairie, or town hall, draws tourists and locals alike for its dazzling array of regional merchandise -- handmade lavender soap, lotion and sachets, olives and olive oil, wine, artisanal honey and liqueurs, cheese, herbs, flowers, candied fruit, pottery, baskets and fabrics in all the bright, beautiful patterns of Provence.

French homemakers know to get there as early as 8 or 9 a.m., before parking becomes a problem, long lines form at fish and poultry stands and navigating the narrow streets is harder than threading a needle without your glasses. Locals also know when to buy what: strawberries in May, cherries in June, melon in July and August, then an autumn harvest of chestnuts, wine, sausage and truffles.

For visitors, it's a bacchanal of Provençal merchandise, along with cheap imported jewelry, clothing and housewares. When my friend and I were there, we bought stylish linen place mats, freshly dried lavender, almond cookies, natural stain-removing soap, wool shawls and a reversible coat designed and made by a man from the nearby village of Bédoin. As he rang up the sale, he reminded us that the Tour de France was embarking that day from Bédoin on the tough 13-mile climb up Mt. Ventoux, which we could see in the distance.

Afterward we drank espresso at a cafe with our purchases piled around us, happy to have shopped rather than biked to exhaustion.

La Ferme-Auberge le Castelas

A network of steep, sinuous country roads heads up from Apt to Luberon Regional Park at the plateau-like crest of the massif. One of them -- the D232 -- passes fields of lavender, farm structures (or bories) that look like stone igloos and woods of scrub oak before it dead-ends at Sivergues.

Long ago the village was home to a convent but is now a sort of Provençal ghost town visited chiefly by hikers and bikers traversing the mountain through the wild, cliff-lined valley of the Aiguebrun River.

Don't stop there, even though the paved road does. Instead, veer right at the mairie along an unmarked dirt track. You'll know you've reached the Ferme-Auberge le Castelas when you hear the clinking of bells from the goat pen.

In a warren of farm buildings on the side of a rocky hill, le Castelas is a rustic barbecue restaurant with its own borie and an open field as a front lawn. On a fine summer night, you eat outdoors at long, rickety tables.

As my friends and I arrived, took seats and dipped into a pitcher of sangria, a herder released the goats from bondage, delighting the children who'd come with their parents to feast. Immediately, the goats enveloped the terrace and stone grill, clanking, bleating and walking on the tables. Then, as if at a cocktail party, a dozen pigs mingled in, far cleaner than one is led to believe by children's books and clearly cleverer than the goats.

We watched the livestock show -- which, in a way, was also the menu -- while sampling an antipasta course of mashed eggplant, red peppers in olive oil and a salty, local ham.

Provençal red wine in pitchers eventually replaced the sangria, accompanying platters of chèvre that tasted like the farm and was a contribution from the goats. By then, the Sardinian owner, Gianni Ladu, who has dark, piercing eyes, was presiding over the cutting board where slabs of pork were being attacked with knives.

The entrée is not for vegetarians, or pacifists, for that matter. But it was triumphant -- bits and pieces of roast pork, with tatters of singed fat clinging to them and crusty bread for sopping up the grease.

Obviously, we're not talking about La Tour d'Argent. We're talking about eating some of the best food in Provence with your fingers while watching the sun set over the Luberon.

The Jane Eakin House

This year's opening of the Jane Eakin House in Ménerbes shows that, far from selling its soul to tourism, the hilltop village has retained its values in the wake of the Peter Mayle-generated onslaught. In this case, that means cherishing a friend and neighbor, American painter Jane Eakin, who lived in Ménerbes for nearly four decades before she died in 2002.

The little row house near the heart of the village exhibits many of her sweet, still landscapes and portraits and shows the airy, top-floor studio where she worked with a stunning mountain view. On the first floor a collection of memorabilia, photos and clippings tells the story of her life.

Born in Pittsburgh in 1919, she joined the group of American artists and writers who gathered in Paris between the two World Wars. Gracious and beautiful -- a cross between Ingrid Bergman and Katharine Hepburn, according to photos -- Eakin attracted friends and admirers, including violinist Isaac Stern, Gen. Charles de Gaulle and the painter Joe Downing, who introduced her to Ménerbes.

A quiet group of artists settled there, along with Dora Maar, Pablo Picasso's longtime model and mistress whose house is a five-minute walk from the museum. Eakin clearly thrived in the Luberon. Her paintings of its people and places were exhibited in galleries all over Europe, even though she never became famous.

She is, however, famous in Ménerbes, where tourists are invited to walk into her sitting room.

Meanwhile, Mayle has moved to nearby Lourmarin on the southern flank of the Luberon massif, most likely with fans in hot pursuit.