Unique Provençal Treasure

France is the world’s number one tourist destination, with 82 million tourists visiting last year. July and August are, of course, the busiest months, and Paris the most visited site.  Provence, in the South East of France, is not far behind. It has been a Mecca for holiday makers for decades, with names such as St Tropez, Nice, Aix-en-Provence, Arles and Avignon to draw tourists to the area. Provence is a glorious region with over 300 days of sun per year, and the Vaucluse area is at the heart of Provence. It abounds with exceptional natural sites amongst its hills and mountains, ochre cliffs, lavender fields and wild gorges. It is quite a contradiction in landscape –  dry, rocky soil, yet an ocean of greenery with gnarly small oaks on mountain sides, and a mass of olive trees, grape vines and fruits of all variety. This lushness is due to the amazing number of natural springs throughout the area.

So, how does one holiday in Provence during the peak months, avoid the crowds, and get a taste of real French village life? Simple! Find a beautiful perched village, slightly off the beaten (tourist) track that no one seems to have heard of! I discovered Venasque quite by chance on the Internet while searching for a house to rent.

Venasque is perched at the summit of a rocky outcrop and is classed amongst “the most beautiful villages of France” by the French Government. It is one of the oldest villages of the Comtat Venaissin, from which it takes its name; the Comtat itself referring to the former name of the region around the city of Avignon. It is small and compact with three lovely restaurants (ranging from very reasonable to expensive, and all excellent), a Post Office, Alimentation (grocery), a couple of Art Galleries, an Office de Tourisme, and a Boulangerie (bakery). We found the Boulangerie to be one of the high points of the village –  right in the small square with its fountain. We called there for our daily baguette, or glace on a hot day, and a chat with “Madam” who spoke no English, yet dealt with our minimal French with a smile of encouragement and made us feel part of village life. The people of Venasque are friendly, helpful and like most French villagers, very polite and well-mannered. The pace of village life is relaxed, just like its inhabitants – it is a little like stepping back in time to a gentler era.

Venasque is wonderful for history buffs. It has a very beautiful baptistry, classified as a Monument Historique and believed to be the oldest in the region. The three Saracen towers and the 12th century church are also classified. Walking through the village, you can see the remains of the ramparts, which once surrounded the village. The narrow streets of Venasque are not wide enough for car access, and even Rue Grande, the main street, can only accommodate one car at a time. The beautiful old stone houses are magic – hopefully this quality will be preserved, as Venasque houses must be rebuilt or renovated to original specifications creating a special atmosphere in this truly authentic Provençal village.

The house we rented at the top of the village dates back to the 12th century and was the original Gate House, nestled behind the ancient ramparts. Only metres away, through the stone arch, is the Bouledrome where we watched the local villagers playing Pétanque most evenings. From the roof terrace, where we spent many relaxing hours, there is an uninterrupted view of the Luberon Mountains, Provence’s famous Mont Ventoux (1912 metres high), rocky gorges, cherry orchards, and vineyards as far as you can see. Closer at hand are the eclectically sloping Roman tiled roofs of the village. I particularly liked the owners’ written instructions for the terrace –  which is three stories above the narrow street:  “The terrace is not suitable for young children or the inebriated!” What a joy to stroll to the local Alimentation, purchase a more than reasonably priced bottle of local wine, then enjoy drinking it on our lovely terrace whilst looking down to the vineyard where it was produced.

If you wish to wander further afield, the beautiful village of St Didier, with more shops, cafés and a wonderful weekly market, is only four kilometers away. Another five kilometres brings you to Pernes les Fontaines with over 40 fountains and a great weekly vide grenier (literally an attic sale). For busier and more well known sites, it is only a 20 minute drive to reach Gordes and its renowned example of monastic architecture – Sénanque Abbey, Avignon – the Papal residence for much of the 1300’s, or Isle-sur-la-Sorgue with its world famous Sunday Antique Market. Ninety minutes will get you to Arles, Aix-en-Provence and the fabulous beaches of the Camargue, Cassis and Marseille.

It is wonderful to visit all these places, but the most enjoyable part was our return to Venasque each evening to be enfolded within its walls and feel part of this Unique Provençal Treasure.

Vital Statistics for Venasque:

Altitude: 137 to 639 meters

Population:  966 (including outlying areas)

Department:  Vaucluse

Region:  Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur


Web sites of interest: (Gate House in Venasque)  (Mairie site, in French)


By Lee Bower

Gigi a la maison


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