Viet and his partner spent a month in southern France. Biking through the Provence countryside was an unforgettable experience!
Heading to Provence for the summer? This region in southern France is famous for its beautiful patchwork of vineyards, sunflower fields, lavender farms, and quaint villages. Whether you are a seasoned traveler or a first-timer to Provence, here are seven amazing villages to put on your must-see list! Called “villages-perchés” in French, these hidden gems are known for their dramatic locations—perched high up on a mountain ridge or sprawled across the hillside. Each boasts its own charm, beauty, history, and architecture. And all have stunning views!
Situated in the heart of Provence, this village oozes peace and tranquility everywhere you look! Climb up the stone steps to the top of the village for the breathtaking panoramic views of the countryside and visit the magnificent 12th-century Gothic Vieille Église church, standing in an ancient cedar forest. During the 16th century, Bonnieux and its surrounding fertile farmlands were owned by the Popes, and several wealthy Catholic bishops lived here in their petits châteaux (small castles). You'll find plenty of delightful cafés and restaurants around the village, as well as a bustling farmers market on Fridays, and the Musée de la Boulangerie—a museum dedicated solely to the joy of baking!
Must-Do: Rent an electric bike and go for a pleasant ride on the scenic country roads below the village.
Gordes is recognized by the French government as one of the “Les Plus Beaux Villages de France” (“Most Beautiful Villages of France”). The village sits imposingly on the edge of the Monts de Vaucluse plateau, overlooking the vast Luberon valley below and beyond. A medieval castle, originally built in 1031, with massive watchtowers and ramparts, serves as the village’s centerpiece. It has survived centuries of looting and pillaging, plagues, revolutions, and most recently, the bombings during WWII. Take a stroll on the cobbled streets, and explore the narrow alleys, stone gates, and hidden stairways. Look for local specialties like honey, olive oil, and dried spices herbes de Provence at the busy little shops on the village square.
Must-Do: Visit the picturesque 12th-century monastery Abbaye de Sénanque, about two miles north of the village, where the Cistercian monks live and work on their orchards and lavender farm.
This sleepy little village is utterly photogenic! A winding road lined with colorful stone houses—many with grapevine-covered façades—takes you from the base of the village to the top, where an old windmill sits. Things to see here include a Romanesque church Notre-Dame-des-Lumières with its huge entry archway and wooden door, and the 17th-century fairytale castle Château de Goult where you can stay overnight as a B&B guest. The small but pretty Saint Véran chapel is also worth a short hike to explore. Be sure to stop and marvel at the centuries-old olive trees and oak trees on the village square.
Must-Do: Take a coffee break on the flower-bedecked terrace of the Café de la Poste, sit back, and watch the clouds floating by in the blue Provence sky.
Of all the villages in Provence, Lacoste probably has the most interesting history. The infamous aristocrat Marquis de Sade lived here from 1763 to 1778. His 11th-century medieval castle (where he hosted many scandalous parties, mon Dieu!) is still standing on top of the hill above the village. It is now owned by fashion designer Pierre Cardin who purchased the partly ruined castle in 2001, did some renovations, and installed remarkable artwork throughout the castle grounds. The village itself is very charming and quiet. Visit the enchanted Saint Trophime church with its vaulted ceilings, stone balustrades and a bell tower dating back to the 12th century. From a scenic lookout spot above the church, enjoy the splendid 360-degree views of the lush green valley, lavender fields, and neighboring perched villages.
Must-Do: For a small fee, you can go inside the Marquis de Sade castle for a curious peep. As you wander through its chambers and corridors, imagine the wild erotic romps that went on here centuries ago!
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During the Wars of Religion in the 16th century, Mérnebes was the site of a long epic battle when the Pope’s army sieged the village and fought with its defiant Protestant inhabitants for more than five years! Today, it is a peaceful village, filled with charming old houses, cafés, bakeries and rustic B&Bs.
For the history buff, do not miss the Citadelle—one of the oldest fortresses in Provence—and the medieval castle Castellet de Ménerbes, with its own tiny chapel in the courtyard. For the foodies, head to the restaurant/boutique Maison de la truffe et du vin for wine tasting and gourmet foods made with truffles. Bon appétit! Ménerbes is also on the list of “Les Plus Beaux Villages de France” and was made famous by British author Peter Mayle (who used to live in the village) when his best-selling memoir A Year in Provence was published in 1989.
Must-Do: Purchase and take home some of the excellent red and rosé wines of the famed Côtes du Luberon wine region while you are here.
6. Oppède Le Vieux
Surrounded by thick dark forests, sheer cliff edges, and crumbling fortress walls, Oppède has the look of a Harry Potter movie set! In fact, numerous French movie stars, artists, and writers—drawn by the raw natural beauty of this area—have made their homes here in the village. Many of the medieval farmhouses have been converted into sophisticated residences (while the exteriors still look ancient, the interiors are quite modern and luxurious), some with glittering infinity pools! Fascinating landmarks include the ruins of a feudal château and the majestic Notre-Dame-D’Alydon church, with its hexagonal bell tower and well-preserved fresco murals. Classical music concerts and operas are held inside the church throughout the summer.
Must-Do: Explore the haunting castle ruins at the top of the village and take hundreds of selfies but watch out for the cliff edges; it’s a dizzying vertical drop to the gorge far below!
Perching on a mountain ridge, overlooking the sweeping landscape of the Parc Naturel Régional du Luberon, Roussillon is another spectacular village on the list of “Les Plus Beaux Villages de France." Its centuries-old houses have been skillfully restored and painted in vibrant shades of red, yellow, and orange. The earthy colors come from the ochre mineral found in the soils beneath the village. A labyrinth of alleys and vaulted passageways takes you to the main square where a tall 19th-century clock tower with its impressive campanile is situated. Be sure to visit the art galleries that feature gorgeous paintings, sculptures, and ceramics by local artists who used the natural ochre pigments in their works. In the late afternoon, go up to the village’s highest point where the lovely Église Saint-Michel church sits, for an unforgettable Provence sunset!
Must-Do: Take a short hike from the village to the nearby abandoned ochre quarry and gaze at the whimsical rock pillars and red ochre cliffs which are unique to this area.
- The best way to see these villages is with a rental car. Or you can rent an electric bike from one village (Bonnieux) and go for a fun and leisurely ride to visit nearby villages.
- There are no train stations in these perched villages. You must take the high-speed train from Paris to one of the large cities in Provence (Avignon, Aix-en-Provence, or Marseille), then rent a car from there.
- Or, if you are adventurous, rent a car directly from Paris and go for a fabulous road trip to Provence! Just remember to use a map because the directions given by your smartphone are NOT always reliable!
- Stay at one of the villages and treat it as your home base. From there you can make day trips to explore neighboring villages, farmers' markets, wineries, restaurants, and local attractions.
- Some of these perched villages have pedestrian traffic only. You must park your rental car (in a public parking lot) at the base of the hills, then walk up the steep road to the main village above. It’s worth the trek!
All photos were taken by the author with an Olympus Stylus TG-630 iHS digital camera and iPhone6.
© 2018 Viet Doan