Six days walking in Provence. Sound like a stroll through the vineyards? Not so. We had no idea how much natural country remains in Provence, and how rugged some of it is. Combining hikes through the Alpilles and Luberon mountain ranges, this walk was a real education!
Day 1: St Remy – Alpilles Crests – St Remy
We previously visited St Remy, as a day trip from Arles to see the town. This time, it was as a base for a hike into the Alpilles. Literally translating as ‘Little Alps’, this chain of limestone peaks dates to the same geological era as the Alps. Nowhere near as high, but jutting straight up from the otherwise flat Rhone valley, they are dramatic and, as we discovered, there’s some tricky climbing involved.
From St Remy we headed out, passing the archeological site of Glanum, settled by the Romans in the 1st century BCE.
The path climbed steadily up through the Saint Clerg Valley. Emerging from the forest, we scaled a rough track to the crest of the Alpilles, with an expansive view across the countryside.
A further short walk brought us to Rocher des Deux Trous (The Rock with Two Holes). Here, the crest is thin and millenia of weather has worn two huge holes through which there’s a view back to St Remy.
From here, walkers have two choices: a steady walk back down to St Remy, or a ‘challenging’ detour on the crest. It was early. We took option two. After dropping down, the next several kilometres were a gentle ascent.
We scaled a scrubby slope with no path to reach the GR60, one of Europe’s grand randonee hiking trails. The narrow track climbed steeply through oak forest, emerging above the tree line at the top of the ridge. Down on the valley floor we could see some of the vineyards from which those luscious rosé wines are made.
Then came the ‘challenging’ part. We picked our way along the exposed, narrow crest, alternately steep up and steep down, following paint marks with no specific trail. This is not for anyone with vertigo, a fear of heights or poor balance. And definitely not to be attempted in anything other than perfect weather. Wind or water would make this far too risky. Here’s a shot we took later, looking across to where we’d come from.
The ridge eventually meets a plateau from which there is a view back across to Rocher des Deux Trois. You actually get a better sense of the holes from a distance.
And then it was just a long slog down to rejoin the loop back to St Remy. Our hotel there is worth a mention for its eclectic design. John loved the faux sheep in the garden. Julie loved the alligator in the foyer playing a cello.
Total walk distance: 18km
Day 2: St Remy to Les Baux de Provence
We left St Remy via a different route, out past a historic cemetery with a tribute to Spanish political refugees who came following the Spanish Civil War, and 10,000 French who fought in that conflict as volunteers.
A pleasant walk through the forest brought us to Lake Peiroou. The Romans built history’s first recorded arched dam here to supply water to the city of Glanum. The dam is gone but for a few stone remains.
From the lake it was a gentle ascent up a disused forestry road to the ridge of the Alpilles. As we neared the top, we spotted a side track along a spur of the ridge which looked like it would lead to a view point. We picked our way along and indeed it reached an end point with 280 degree views across to the ridge we’d climbed yesterday in one direction, and the back of the ruins of Les Baux castle in the other.
Returning to the main track, we continued on, stopping for a picnic lunch on the edge of the ridge. We’d circled around and now had a side view of the castle and the town of Les Baux.
We took a detour to the ruins of a fortification constructed 3,000 years ago by the Celto-Ligurians, an ancient tribe who resided here before the Romans. It’s all that’s left of the first known settlement in the region. Perched on the very top of a steep ridge, it would have been a prime defensive position, but just to be sure, they even surrounded it with a moat.
Then we wound our way down and then up to Les Baux, one of Provence’s celebrated perched villages. It’s one of many, so named because they perch on rocky outcrops.
From the castle fortress built in the 11th century, the princes of Les Baux ruled a feudal fiefdom which covered 79 towns and villages in the area. They claimed to be descendants of one of the Magi, the three wise men who travelled to Bethlehem to present gold, frankincense and myrrh to the infant Jesus.
Their supposed biblical lineage didn’t save the dynasty. They lost their lands in war and the last princess of Baux died at the end of the 1500s. In a quirk of history, Les Baux was granted to the Grimaldi royal family of Monaco in 1642. Still today, the title Marquis Des Baux is held by the heir to the throne of Monaco, currently Prince Jacques, although the land was annexed back to France during the French Revolution.
The castle ruins are now a museum and there’s a fine view over the whole area.
Few people live here, but it attracts lots of tourists who clamber up to the castle ruins, wander the town’s cobbled streets, buy some lavender products or herbs de Provence and, after all that excitement, lounge in cafes or slurp on ice creams from one of the many artisan ice cream shops.
Total walk distance: 12km
Day 3: Fontaine de Vaucluse to Gordes
Today we started our walk from Fontaine de Vaucluse. The town owes its existence to the waters which well up here and feed the Sorgue River. The exact source of the waters is unknown. Jacques Cousteau descended in a submersible in the 1950s but could not reach the bottom. More recently, a radio controlled exploratory device found a sandy bed at 308 metres down, but the water rises from somewhere further below. No one knows where or how deep. It’s a mystery.
Wherever it’s coming from, the water is crystal clear and the area is tranquil and attractive.
After passing through the village, we entered a trail through the forest. In 1989, a fire here destroyed 338 hectares of forest. Two years later, school children from communities across the region replanted 4,000 trees and in honour of their achievement, this section of the walk was renamed Sentier á L’École de la Forêt (Forest School Path).
Leaving this trail, we followed a stone wall built in 1721 to keep out the plague. In 1720, a ship arriving in Marseille from the Middle East brought plague which killed half of that city’s population and spread into the interior of Provence. The Mur de la Peste (Plague Wall), manned by 800 men from the Royal and Papal troops, was constructed to prevent anyone entering the lands owned by the Pope.
Not sure how high it was in those days, but in its current condition it would be about as effective at excluding people as Trump’s ‘big beautiful wall’ on the Mexican border.
Looking carefully, you can also find a few stone markers engraved with the image of a doctor wearing a plague mask. The beak of the mask was filled with herbs which it was believed would prevent the wearer contracting the plague. They proved to be about as useful as the average herbal remedy.
Via more paths through the forest, we were headed to Gordes, but first, a detour to the Village des Bories. Bories are dry stone buildings constructed by piling stones upward and then off-centre to close the roof, using no cementing agent. The art is in the way the stones are stacked and it’s been in use since the Bronze Age.
Bories are very much a part of Provence’s traditions. Over the centuries, thousands of tonnes of stones were cleared from land to enable farming and grazing. Using the stones as a building material made perfect sense. With walls up to two metres thick, bories remained cool in the blistering summer heat and provided protection from the mistral, the freezing wind which blows through the winter.
The Village des Bories was built at the beginning of the 17th century. Sheep pens, ovens, wine cellaring rooms and houses were all built using the dry stone technique. The village was abandoned in the mid 1800s and fell into ruin. It was forgotten until the 1960s when Pierre Viala, a poet and visionary purchased the land and set about having the village restored to preserve the heritage of the bories. It’s now a declared National Monument and is owned and managed by the local municipality.
We finished the walk in Gordes, another perched town. Like the others, the site was chosen for its defensive position, high on a rocky spur of the Luberon mountain range. The castle dates from the 15th century and in the 17th and 18th centuries the village was a centre for leatherwork, tapestry making and wool and silk weaving.
Gordes is one of France’s Beaux Plus Villages (Most Beautiful Villages) and in recent years has become an upmarket destination favoured by the rich and famous. We didn’t see any celebrities, but the benefit for we mere mortals is that the restaurants here are fabulous!
Total walk distance: 16km
Day 4: Lacoste to Aiguebrun Gorge
With a short taxi transfer, we began today in Lacoste. This medieval village is topped by a castle built in the 11th century. By the 1700s it was owned by the Marquis de Sade’s grandfather. De Sade hunkered down here for three years after fleeing Paris where he was in danger of being hauled before the courts because his writings were considered too scandalous.
The ruins of the castle loom over the town which cascades down the hill beneath its walls.
Four hundred people live in the village, with many more from other parts of France owning second homes here. It’s got an arty vibe. Pierre Cardin runs a theatre festival here in the summer, and the School of the Arts draws an international student population to its courses in painting, sculpture, film, art history, design and the performing arts.
Exiting the village we thought we might have finally reached the ‘stroll through the vineyards and lavender fields’ part of the walk.
It was picturesque in the morning light, but the vineyard walking wasn’t to last. The trail headed back into the forest. We weren’t complaining. It was very pretty.
We emerged at the town of Bonnieux. Yes, another perched village with authentic charm, not as touristy as some.
Across the countryside we headed, stopping for a picnic on a ridge overlooking Buoux Castle. Built in the 17th century, it was never finished. Nowadays it’s used as a centre for outdoor education programs for children.
The trail dropped down and around the castle and after more forest walking, eventually into Buoux, population 113. A pretty village, but absolutely silent. The only activity was a young boy hitting a ping pong ball against a wall with a paddle.
After Buoux, the trail led to the edge of the Aiguebrun Gorge. From here we could see Auberge des Seguins, a historic hotel at the base of the gorge, and our destination for the night.
The gorge is a magnet for rock climbers. The steep, bare walls look really challenging. This photo is looking up from the bottom, taken when we eventually reached the auberge.
Part way down we had watched, heart in mouth, when this fellow slipped and fell about 10 metres before his safety rope arrested his fall. Not a recreation for the faint hearted.
Total walk distance: 17km
Day 5: Aiguebrun Gorge to Apt
Today’s was a relatively easy walk. Leaving the auberge, the trail followed the river along the gorge floor for a kilometre or so.
Then a steady climb out brought us to the village of Sivergues. According to local lore, the village was settled by a monk and six virgins. That invites so many comments. None of them are printable.
After Sivergues, the trail passed through truffle oak plantations surrounded by electric fences. We weren’t sure if they were to keep out human thieves or hungry wild boar.
What’s next? Another perched village of course! Saignon. Like Bonnieux, it feels like people actually live here. Its narrow lanes and slightly run down houses don’t have the ‘perfect’ artificiality of the reconstructed stone villages. We liked it a lot.
Then we dropped down to Apt where we stayed for the night. Apt is a large, working town but on a Sunday afternoon, it was totally comatose. As John said “picturesque Provençal village is not an Apt description”. Ha, ha.
Total walk distance: 14km
Day 6: Saignon to Rustrel via Colorado Provençal
This morning we returned to Saignon for our last day’s walk. We had arrangements to be picked up by taxi in Rustrel and wanted to detour to the Colorodo Provençal on the way, so we headed off at pace through the countryside.
We made good time and reached the red hills before lunch time.
Ochre, a mix of sand and iron oxide used as a pigment in paint or as a protective wash for buildings, was mined in the area for centuries. Le Colorado Provençal is a private property where a walking path winds between and up to the top of cliffs of white, orange and red ochres. Hardly the scale of the Colorado in the US, this place could be said to be a little over-hyped, but it’s nevertheless worth the detour.
Then on to Rustrel with time to have a good look around before our pick up. The town is small and we even had time for a beer or two to celebrate the end of our hike.
Total walk distance: 20km
L’isle sur la Sorgue
We spent the last night of our walk in charming L’isle sur la Sorgue. Literally ‘the island in the sorgue’, the town is built on a small island in the Sorgue River in the locale of Comtat. Canals criss-cross the town leading, inevitably, to the nickname ‘Venice of Comtat’.
It’s famous for its antique shops and flea markets. There’s 26,000 inhabitants and something like 350 antique and bric-a-brac stores, as well as a weekly flea market with more than 300 vendors.
We didn’t get much time to explore, but it looked like a fun place.
And that’s it for Provence. For now, anyway…