We mentioned last week that a fortnight ago we took a short four-day break over to the west of us. We were based just outside Arles and the second day there we decided to make a trip into what many people consider to be ‘typical’ Provence, but which is reality only the western part. This is the area that is grumpily referred to by many residents in France as “that bit that Peter Mayle ruined with his books”. That’s probably a little unfair but it does seems as thought it went from being absolutely unknown to being almost submerged by house-hunters, German camper-vans and gawping tourists.
Although we had been to this part of Provence about seven years ago, one place we had always missed visiting was a village that appears in the tourist guides as ‘must see’: the spectacularly perched hilltop settlement of Gordes. From the viewpoint on the ridge approaching the town (at the top of a cliff with no guard rail), it’s easy to see how Gordes became one of the “most beautiful” villages of France. The view over the Durance valley is just as spectacular.
In high expectation we then went into the centre of the village. If you’ve not ‘done’ many Provencal villages you’ll probably be delighted with Gordes. Maybe we have slightly jaded palates, but we didn’t think a great deal of it. If you want the experience of medieval streets and what the French call dépaysement – that sense of being removed to another place or time – there are other villages that do it better.
Inextricably linked with Gordes is the Cistercian abbey of Senanque, which is a charming place, made even more attractive by the wisdom – or was it the folly? – of the monks of putting lavender fields in front of it. The result is at this time of year a wonderfully photogenic view of ancient stone amid vibrant imperial purple. It is one of those places where there is a desperate battle between the existence of a religious community and a tidal wave of tourists. And even in this year of COVID it was quite difficult to take photos without including people posing among the lavender.
We then when on to what was the discovery of the day, L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. It is only strictly an island because here the river Sorgue briefly splits into two, but the central island has lots of attractive buildings, some very tempting restaurants and a charming ambiance. We didn’t find a lot of tourists there and, at the risk of annoying those responsible for the town’s economy, long may that state last.