Generally when you think of the Luberon the villages of Gordes, Lacoste & Roussillon come to mind. It goes without saying that they are spectacular and beautiful places, but at the height of the summer their narrow streets are busy and I find that they can be far from relaxing places to visit. If like me, you sometimes just feel the need to sit quietly away from the crowds then I don’t think there’s anywhere better to find a sense of calm than the partially abandoned nearby village of Oppede-Le-Vieux.
Perched on the northern flank of the Petit Luberon, Oppede-Le-Vieux is a stunning mix of buildings sitting on a rocky fold that flows down from the long flat summit. The properties there range from grand houses decorated with elaborate stone carvings, to ivy-clad, skeletal remains of others that open onto the street, winding its way towards ruins of the once impressive castle.
Whilst most villages in this area have a polished appearance, Oppede-Le-Vieux has a natural, relaxed character that hasn’t changed over the years that we have been visiting and it remains an oasis of calm even in high summer.
No cars are allowed in the centre so it’s nice to arrive by bike, following the gentle, marked route, which meanders through lavender, oaks and vines from nearby Maubec. Stopping in the village square you’ll find two cafes and a fantastic pottery – L’Atelier Des Cendres,( http://www.denisbouniard.com ) where incredible birds and animals sit side by side with beautiful cups and bowls. Often, in the afternoon, the square plays host to ladies selling local fragrant melons and apricots, just what the Dr ordered after a warm cycle through the lanes. My boys also recognise this as a location from the film ‘Mr Bean’s Holiday’, which means they’ve always enjoyed visiting and happily don’t really moan at the hilly approach.
Walking through the gateway at the back of the square you start to get a real sense of what the village was like before it was abandoned in the 19th century when the residents moved down to the valley floor. The shaded, cobbled street weaves up the hill past the ruins of old houses. Here old doorways open onto spaces that were once someone’s home, but are now wild rooms filled with figs, flowers and brambles. Climbing further you may catch sight of an old cuddly leopard sat on a branch above the path, whether deliberately placed or a lost toy I don’t know but my youngest has finally recovered from the shock of first seeing it.
A last flight of stone steps brings you to the church, which has recently undergone major restoration and is worth a visit. However the main attraction here is not the church, but the incredible view from the open terrace in front.
There are so many magnificent views from the hill villages in the area, but this for me is by far the best. Sitting on the warm stone wall the whole of the valley is laid out before you, with its ever changing colours and shifting shadows. Immediately below are the tumbled ruins of the old village, then your gaze moves across the bright terracotta roofs of the renovated houses just beyond, before the view drifts away into the patchwork of fields that decorate the wide valley floor.
Views can be described in so many ways, perhaps dramatic or spectacular, but this one is simply expansive, stunning and calm with the ever present summit of Mont Ventoux, in the distance providing a tantalising sight for any adventurous cyclist (see previous blog). There are no nearby roads as even visitors have to park on the approach to the village so there is little man-made noise to distract you and how often in our busy and constantly connected world is that really possible?
When the rest of the valley is busy you can still find true peace here, although there is always something happening from birds swooping above the castle to the muted grumble of tractors working in the fields below. Breathing in the warm, herb-scented air that defines the area helps you slow down to the point when you can truly relax, so close to the realities of life, but yet so far away.
Some may say it’s ‘boring’ ( I regularly hear that from my teenage boys), but this is my ‘special place’ and I can’t think of anywhere that I would rather go to pass time and truly immerse myself in Provence.