Day 2: Gordes to Rousillon
My first dreams of Provence came as a teenager, when I stumbled across a picture of a local market in one of my mom’s glossy magazines. The village was tiny and cobblestoned, dappled with a gentle light so perfect it looked like it had been painted onto the page. Everything in that picture seemed impossibly vivid: the Technicolor tomatoes and eggplants, the farmers with dirt still crusted on their fingers, the cafe on the side of the plaza with the chalkboard menu listing untold treasures du jour.
That picture drove me wild with wanderlust. I wanted to be there to smell those tomatoes, to pepper those farmers with questions, to wander back to a small country house with nothing but a dog-eared journal and an armful of ingredients. I’ve been carrying those images around in my head for the better part of two decades, waiting for the day when I could transpose them on to reality.
All of this sounds warm and fuzzy and ripe for disappointment, but the great majority of Provencal cliches exist primarily because it is exactly that fairy-tale region you imagine it to be. To paraphrase Bourdain, it’s what Martha Stewart sees when she closes her eyes.
Take the first 15 minutes of our walk on the second morning: The path heading out of Gordes winds down a narrow road with sweeping views of the village, past stone houses covered in ivy, past a movie-ready 1950s Renault, and down a long corridor paved in the fallen leaves of autumn. At the base of the ravine, a moss-covered fountain dribbles from sources unknown. Looking up, the history of the town—the roots of trees, the layers of dirt and stone that hold Gordes together—reveals itself to you.
A house is for sale, one with a tiny stone table under a tangle of grapevines and a sheer face that provides the residents with an unobstructed view of the ancient majesty of Gordes. There are grapevines and cherry tomato plants and a patio with thick stone benches. We stop to fantasize about life in the house, of the legendary dinner parties we’d throw and the heroic simplicity with which we’d lead our new lives. For 20 minutes—or is it 2 hours?—the world is frozen at the base of this Provencal outpost, as if every living creature in the area is holding its breath to see if we might stay.
But we don’t—Gordes has no need for a young couple who speak no French and know very little about making jams. Instead, we heed the calls from the valley floor, where the auburn vines and plumes of smoke signal a shift in seasons—one that feels so sudden, so fragile that a stiff wind might just blow winter in this very afternoon.
The more we work this trail, the more it becomes apparent that it is not just a trail: it is a timeline, a remarkable piece of yarn stitching together the history of southern France. The sheer diversity of paths and the sets of circumstances that created them are astounding, from the Camino de Santiago, which has been delivering pilgrims more than a thousand kilometers from Provence to Galicia, Spain for 1,300 years to more prosaic trails that served as commerce routes between villages in the region.
What emerges is a tapestry of terrains to rival any trail you’ll ever walk: the soft, mineral-heavy soil of a tiny vineyard, the grip of a composite court owned by a wealthy Parisian, the mud and stone of an untamed passageway, the squishy warmth of highway pavement freshly laid. It’s an amazing testament to the organizational powers of the French government—those masters of bureaucracy—and the issues they had to navigate (owner rights, shifting demographics, a thousand years of elemental impact) to keep these trails intact.
The many paths of the Luberon
Of course, the whole point of walking, beyond the fact that it allows you to justify the 2,000-calorie dinners you will inevitably consume each night, is that it brings you face to face with the details of life in the Luberon: the crumbling stone walls, the smell of burning leaves, the grimace of the farmer inspecting the season’s crops—breadcrumbs you’d miss in the comfort of your rental car. The trails do their best to keep you in the thickets, but it’s inevitable that your pastoral fantasies will be interrupted from time to time by the sounds and smells of modernity. Don’t fret: Soon you will be plunged back into a forest, or a meadow, or elevated to a ridge where you can take in the entire reach of the valley.
After two hours of moving from roads to highways to narrow, sheltered trails, we come upon a small vineyard. At the end of the driveway there is a hand-drawn sign directing us toward a tiny tasting room that looks to be built in the owner’s garage. Inside, a young winemaker with a fury chinstrap for a beard gives us the full spectrum of Domaine de Tara’s wine portfolio. We settled on two bottles, an effervescent bottle of sparkling rosé and a lusty, powerful red made of syrah and grenache. A few steps outside the cellar doors we decide it is pointless to try to carry so much wine up the hill to our final destination, a town that surely is in no great shortage of wine itself, and immediately lay our bags down adjacent to the withering vines and empty the bottle of bubbles into our bellies.
Maybe it’s the rosé talking, but there is something undeniably magical about approaching a town on foot. You are invariably greeted by a host of intense, deeply conflicting emotions: elation (over the fact that you won’t be sleeping under a rock tonight), exhaustion (because you haven’t exercised this much in many years), hunger (because that pack is heavy and bread and cheese and sparkling wine only go so far) and, above all, wonder (at just how beautiful and poetic it can be to watch a town towering on the horizon grow closer and closer until the road between you and it has disappeared entirely).
Today’s destination, Roussillon, makes for a particularly striking entrance, considering it is made almost entirely out of ochre and sits perched above a dramatic quarry from which a rainbow of pigments are made. It was here that Samuel Beckett went into hiding from the Germans in 1942. A longtime resident of France, Becket was working with the resistance movement during World War II when his unit was betrayed and his life was threatened. He fled to Roussillon with his lover (and later his wife) Suzanne, where he wrote, slept in haystacks, and stored armaments for his adopted compatriots. Some critics believe Waiting for Godot was a metaphor for the long walks he would take into town with Suzanne under the cover of nightfall.
The ochre buildings of Roussillon
We arrive to our hotel with the sun setting behind us and slip almost instantly into a deep, satisfying sleep, waking up only long enough to stumble downstairs to eat dinner.
How many small town hotel restaurants serve roasted chestnut soup with pumpkin gnocchi and seared duck breast? How often can you eat until you sweat foie gras and feel great about it? And, most importantly, if this is the reward at the end of the day, why have we yet to see a single soul on the trails of the Luberon?
Day 3: Roussillon to Bonnieux
And then, just when everything seems too postcard perfect, too roasted-chestnut delicious, the sky opens up and a great deluge nearly washes us out of the valley.
We had awoken to puddles on our balcony and a thick, brooding cloudbank gathered on the crest of the mountains. But emboldened by a three-croissant breakfast (and discouraged by the 40€—and immeasurable amount of pride—it would cost us to call in a cab from a larger town nearby to drive us to today’s destination), we blaze a quick trail out of Roussillon.
We are moving fast—past the ochre quarries, through a patch of pines, over the rocky outcrop before dropping back down into the valley, where blue streaks of sky began to peek through the gray cover above us. “So glad we decided to skip the taxi and do this ourselves,” I say to Laura with a stupid smile on my face.
And that was it, the overconfident assertion that nudges the weather gods from their slumber in order to remind us how truly tiny we are. The sky hisses and crackles like a freshly-lit fire and dumps buckets down upon us.
What was once so peaceful and innocent turns utterly savage in a matter of minutes. Puddles become ponds become lakes before our eyes as tree branches lash at our packs from behind. A sense of danger sets in. Fears of being stranded out here in the middle of the Luberon with nothing but a jar of tapenade and a crumbled up poncho start to gnaw away at us. As we walk we gain water weight, the rain absorbing into our backpacks and gathering in small pools on our jackets.
We lose our way more than a half a dozen times, our eyes more focused on the bodies of water forming at our feet than the tiny markings of the many intersecting trails. It goes on like this for two hours until our teeth chatter and our shoes slosh and our toes shrivel up like prunes.
Just as we spot the sign for our hotel ahead, in what can only be described as some type of cruel cosmic joke, the clouds that once seemed impenetrable open up to reveal a brilliant sun and a fiercely blue sky. The owner welcomes us with towels.