Exploring the History

Over 30 years ago, when we first visited the Luberon, we took to our bikes, cycling the back-roads to explore the beautiful, historic villages, and we remember riding over an old bridge across the Calavon river, below Bonnieux, when we were making our way to Roussillon. What we didn’t realise at the time, was that this was the Pont Julien, which had been built by the Romans in the 3rd century BC and had been carrying vehicles ever since.

The Roman Pont Julien, now part of the cycle trail
Fossilised footprints at Viens

Following those early visits, we have continued to find out more about the history of the area, which has a truly fascinating past, from the fossilised footprints of prehistoric hippos and other animals near Viens & the earliest Paeleolithic sites, to the efforts of the Resistance during WW2 and everything in between.

It is hard to imagine now, as you explore the beautiful villages and potter through the stunning countryside, that the area has ever experienced conflict, or any significant change. But the more you explore the history of the area, the easier it is to understand what has shaped and influenced this corner of Provence to become what it is today.

Beautiful Arles

I had always been aware of the Roman sites at Arles, Orange and Nimes, but had never really understood how important the Luberon Valley had been to the expansion of the Roman Empire, and I certainly was totally unaware of the importance of Apt, following its establishment in the first century BC.

I suppose that we have always known Apt as being a pretty town, with a beautiful Cathedral and a network of narrow, pedestrianised streets. What we hadn’t appreciated until recently is its rich history and just how much of the Roman city of Apta Julia is hidden just below the streets and houses; from ancient walls and shops to even a basic, 1st century mosaic on the floor of our friends’ cellar. It was an important city for the Romans, taking its name from Julius Caesar and had all the trappings and buildings that you would expect, including a Forum and Baths, arcaded shops and of course theatre, the remains of which can still be found in the cellar of a house just off the Place Carnot, in the heart of the old town.

The rooftops of Apt
Stunning Roman Marbles

Some of the artefacts from this period that have been recovered from the town are now on display in the local archaeological museum, where you can see the exquisite detail on some of the stunning marbles found in the remains of the theatre, together with beautiful mosaic floors that have been saved from destruction. It is a fascinating place to visit.

Exquisite embroidery in the Cathedral

After the Romans, Apt continued to be an important city in France, with the Cathedral, founded in the earliest days of Christianity, housing the relics of Sainte Anne (mother of Mary), the patroness of unmarried women, housewives, women in labour and those who wish to conceive.

These relics are linked directly with the birth of King Louis XIV, after a parcel of them was sent to Queen Anne, who after a number of miscarriages, was desperate to provide an heir to the throne. After several more years, the relics had the desired effect and King Louis was born, with Queen Anne making a personal pilgrimage to the Cathedral in 1660, marking her son’s marriage, and donating some incredibly precious and beautiful artefacts to the church, in recognition of the help it had given her.

Simiane and its Rotonde

At this time, Provence as we know it now, was a number of different areas, controlled by powerful families, such as the Agoults, who owned many of the chateaux, including Simiane La Rotonde .

There was also the dramatic fortress at Les Baux de Provence, the seat of the princes of Baux (said to be descendants of Balthazar (one of the three Wise Men), who had a formidable grip on Provence for many years.

Up at Les Baux de Provence

During the 1300s, the Popes were also installed for a number of years in Avignon, at the heart of the Papal enclave, the Comtat Venaissin. They brought their own influence too, further developing defensive castles, including the one that dominates the village of Chateauneuf-du-Pape and directing the construction of the Mur de la Peste, in a desperate (and unsuccessful) effort to protect the papal enclave from the plague that ravaged Provence in 1720.

The dramatic Palais des Papes in Avignon

It’s hard to believe now, but this was a time of great conflict across the area, with religious wars laying waste to villages and costing many lives too. Menerbes , which is now a now a peaceful and beautiful place, classed as one of ‘les plus beaux villages de France’, was subjected to a five year siege by the Catholic forces, after it was captured by the Huguenots in 1573. During this time, the village, which was said to have had towers and a skyline to rival those of San Gimignano in Tuscany, was badly damaged by the bombardment from below, before the Protestant troops finally surrendered in winter of 1578.

Following the French Revolution the map of France was re-organised into departments, in an effort to split traditional provinces and break down the powerful allegiances that had existed in the ‘ancien regime’, and as part of this process The Vaucluse was formed, taking its name from the ‘Vallis Clausa’ (closed valley), site of the source of the Sorgue.

Saint Saturnin and its memorial wall

Like the rest of France, the area was severely impacted by WW2, and as you explore the villages you will see memorials to some of the atrocities that occurred during that time. There was a highly active network of The Resistance operating across the region and you can explore some of the history on the Chemin Des Memoires, where signs explain the relevance of specific places and people and the impact they had in helping to overcome the Nazi forces.

Staying in this period, in a valley near Simiane La Rotonde, you will find a particularly poignant memorial to 5 British airmen, who tragically lost their lives when their crippled Wellington Bomber crashed into the narrow gully. It is one of those terrible twists of fate during the War, which also involved the celebrated poet Rene Char, who lived in nearby Cereste and who was serving as a Captain in the Resistance, commanding parachute drop zones in the area at the time.

The bomber memorial, created from the wreckage

Of course, it isn’t simply power struggles and conflict that have shaped the area. It has a strong industrial heritage too, from the paper mills that were powered by the river water, near L’Isle sur la Sorgue to the world renowned production of Fruits Confits, based out of Apt and the mining of Bauxite (discovered at Les Baux), which is used in the production of aluminium and other products.

Water wheels along the Sorgue

However, probably the most evident is the mining of ochre from the colourful cliffs and land around Roussillon and Rustrel, including the dramatic Mines De Bruoux at Gargas. The bright ochres were refined into pigments for artists and house paints, but were also used in the early production of rubber too, before being replaced by synthetic materials, which led to the closure of the local industry in the mid 20th century, although there is still one producer, the Societe Des Ocres, which has a quarry at Gargas. The industry left a bright mark on the landscape and the old workings can now be explored on foot at The Colorado Provencal as well as Roussillon and the dedicated museum Conservatoire Des Ocres

The Mines de Bruoux
Perhaps the ochres aren’t simply a geological delight?

It is a truly fascinating area, steeped in history with wonderful local legends that continue to be passed from generation to generation, including how Roussillon got its colour, which is a superb medieval tale of love and jealousy…

And the more delicate and traditional tale of the nymph that uses 7 diamonds to control the flow of the River Sorgue, from its source at Fontaine De Vaucluse

How many diamonds were removed for this?

Even just scratching the surface of the local history here, gives you a different perspective on this beautiful part of France. It has had an incredibly turbulent past that helped shape the towns and villages into the places that we know and love now., but I always find that a little bit of knowledge enhances my enjoyment of an area, and I hope you find that too. There are often guided village walks, when you can explore buildings and spaces that are a little off the beaten path, whilst learning more about how the village has developed, but equally there is a lot of information available through the local Tourist Offices, that will enable you to explore too.

Worn steps at The Chateau De Mille

There is always something to connect you with the past here. Whether it’s climbing up steps that have been worn smooth and uneven by the passage of people, over hundreds of years….

…or walking along ancient cobbled trackways, bearing the grooves formed by cartwheels that would have been carrying crops away from the nearby fields and stone-walled terraces. You may stand under the roof of one of the village lavoirs, where local women would have come to wash their clothes and heavy sheets, gossiping about what was going on, as they toiled. I can only imagine the sidewards glances or laughter at a particularly juicy bit of information being shared over the soap-suds

The village washing place

Or perhaps you will simply find yourself standing on the rocky outcrops above Saignon, absorbed by the view, just imagining the legions of Roman soldiers making their way towards Apt along the Via Domitia in the valley below, or sit on the wall at Menerbes, gazing across the valley, considering what it would have been like to have been in the village, whilst it was under heavy bombardment from the troops camped below.

Hard to imagine this as a battlefield

It’s so easy here to make a simple connection with the past, wherever you are….

If you are visiting and want to explore a little more of the history of the area, whilst you are here, then we can help you do this as part of our personalised planning service for your stay in The Luberon. If you would like to know more about this, then please get in touch and we’ll do what we can to help you get a little further under the skin of this fascinating area.

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