Hiking the South of France Is a Once-in-a-Lifetime Experience

April 15, 2019

We were up early enough on a June morning that the doves hidden in the cypress trees across the street were still cooing when we made a quick stop at the Boulangerie Alais in Bonnieux, one of the prettiest villages in the magnificent 30-mile long Luberon Valley east of Avignon in Provence in the south of France. A bath of puffy fougasses garnished with black olives had just come out of the oven. They were cooling on the counter and filling the air with a mouthwatering  scent of herbs de Provence before joining other freshly baked versions of the same bread garnished with lardons (chunks of bacon), tomatoes and goat cheese in the display case of this friendly little shop.

As a longtime American-in-Paris who’s been lucky enough to spend many happy hours hiking the Luberon over some 25 years, I’ve learned that these delicious brioche-like flatbreads, the French cousin of Italian focaccia and a typically Provençal food, beats trail mix by a mile. Why? Not only are they delicious, they give you an energy boost and some needed salt after you’ve been walking for a while on a warm day.

There are very few places in the world that offer a setting more charming for hiking than the Luberon region. A superb web of well-marked public access trails, paths and farm roads makes it easy to discover on foot its mesmerizing landscapes of forests; fields of wheat, lavender, sunflowers and other crops; vineyards; and orchards of apple, olive and other trees. A good walk is also a great way to build up an appetite for an impromptu picnic shopped from one of the weekly markets held in the Luberon’s delightful villages or a relaxing meal in one of its friendly bistros.

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There are very few places in the world that offer a setting more charming for hiking than the Luberon region. A superb web of well-marked public access trails, paths and farm roads makes it easy to discover on foot its mesmerizing landscapes of forests; fields of wheat, lavender, sunflowers and other crops; vineyards; and orchards of apple, olive and other trees. A good walk is also a great way to build up an appetite for an impromptu picnic shopped from one of the weekly markets held in the Luberon’s delightful villages or a relaxing meal in one of its friendly bistros.

I hadn’t decided which of my preferred hikes I’d take Kit and Alice, friends visiting from Hartford, Conn., on until I was sipping a second cup of coffee just as the sun came up that morning. They had said they were keen to get up close to Provence, to really hear it—bird song, the wind in the trees, rushing water, a distant tractor, a dog barking, maybe even a donkey braying—and smell it—thyme, rosemary, lavender, arbutus, pine and wildflowers, among other scents—the way you can only do when you go for a walk. But, I suspected that like many people at the beginning of a vacation, they were doubtless more tired than they realized. Also, in good shape though they both might be, I was aware that this pair—he’s the vice president of an insurance company, she’s an architect—probably spend most of their time at their computers.

So on our first day out, I wanted to give them a good time without running them into the ground, which is why I settled on a relatively gentle three-hour circular walk from Goult, one of my favorite Luberon villages because it hasn’t been completely gentrified by Parisian weekenders, and it’s just a five-minute drive from the house we were staying at in Bonnieux. In Goult, we met Jutta, a delightful German woman who’s my regular hiking pal, and after running through the checklist necessary for any hike in Provence—map, compass, sun- tan lotion, hats, well-charged cell phone, water, small first-aid kit, plus snacks of fougasses and oranges—we were off.

Our first stop was the Moulin de Jerusalem, a windmill that once belonged to the Marquis de Donis, the last seigneur of Goult. Restored by the village of Goult, this circular stone windmill is a rare surviving example of the many windmills that were once strategically placed on ridges in the region to grind grain.

Following yellow arrows, we began our walk and 40 minutes later reached two beautifully preserved bories, or igloo-shaped dry stone huts. Bories are found all over southeastern France and the oldest date back to roughly 600 B.C. In the Luberon, the earliest bories date to the 13th century, and they were still being built by farmers and shepherds up to the beginning of the 19th century. Archaeologists attribute the development of this building style to the necessity of clearing stones from fields and the fact that few other building materials were readily at hand.

A half-hour later, we made a detour into the little village of Lumieres to stop at Château de l’Ange, where Edith Mézard, one of the most stylish and best-known home furnishing designers in Provence is based in a handsome old château next to a stream. As I suspected, Alice loved the beautifully embroidered sheets, tablecloths and other goods on sale here and immediately decided she’d come back later for some proper shopping. After a snack in the shade of the century-old chestnut trees outside Madame Menard’s château, our walk took us through a mixture of forests and fields for the next hour or so.

During this part of the ramble, Kit was fascinated by the dry stone retaining walls we occasionally came across. “These old walls really give you a sense of what an ancient and settled land this is,” he observed, adding, “They make New England’s stone walls seem brand new.”

Returning to Goult around 12.30 p.m., we arrived at the Café de la Poste, a simple restaurant in the heart of the village that’s popular with the locals and offers good, solid Provençal cooking at lunch- time, when the outdoor terrace is almost always full. I ordered a bottle of chilled local rosé and translated the chalkboard menu.

“Boy, does that taste good,” Kit said after a first sip of wine, and then we tucked into roasted cod with ratatouille, steak tartare with salad, tagliatelle with cep sauce and salad and a daily special, les petits farcis (baby vegetables, including onions, tomatoes and zucchini, stuffed with ground veal and bread crumbs and a specialty of Nice). Equally enjoyable was the high-contrast people watching offered by a place where a table of local farmers in overalls sat next to a quartet of ladies in carefully ironed linen dresses and designer sunglasses.

Back at the house later in the afternoon, I wasn’t surprised to find Kit and Alice pouring over my three favorite French hiking books—Le Parc Naturel Regional du Luberon à Pied by Topo Guides, Dans le Luberon by Glenat and Balades Nature dans le Parc Naturel Régional du Luberon by Dakota. All three of my guidebooks offer detailed maps and descriptions of some of the region’s best hikes, but I also always take along the appropriate map from the series published by the Institut Geographique National et Forestière (IGN), a French association that pub- lishes 350 hiking maps to France. The three books, which are useful even if you don’t speak French, can be ordered through Amazon, while the IGN maps are widely available at stationer’s shops, bookstores and cafés throughout the region.

The next walk we did together, the PR 12 from Le Parc Naturel Regional du Luberon à Pied, is graded moyen (medium difficulty) by the guide, which estimates that it takes four hours. It’s poetically dubbed “The Circuit of the Cedars,” since this 5-mile hike is a long, fragrantly scented up-and-downhill meander in the shade of forests punctuated by these feather-shaped dark green conifers. Before we actually hit the trail, though, we visited the Château de Lacoste, a spectacular 11th century stone castle perched on a crag over the village of Lacoste. I knew Kit and Alice would better appreciate the gorgeous views of the château we’d get later in our walk if they’d seen it up close first.

As I explained to the couple, the dramatically ruined château was originally built in the 11th century by the Simiane family but passed into the hands of the de Sade clan in 1627 when Diane Simiane married Jean-Baptiste de Sade. “Assuming there’s a connection between the Marquis de Sade and this château, I hope it’s not your way of telling us something about the walk we’re about to do,” said Alice. I assured her that despite the fact the Marquis de Sade had indeed spent time at the château—and wrote about it as ‘Château Stilling’ in several books—there was nothing about our impending hike that might be remotely construed as sadistic.

Today the Château de Lacoste is owned by French fashion designer Pierre Car- din, who has been meticulously restoring it for many years and who also sponsors a prestigious annual summer arts festival, Le Festival de Lacoste, in a theater created in a nearby quarry (festivaldelacoste.com). To further reassure Alice of my good intentions, I bought a small wooden box of juicy apricots from Lacoste’s intimate open-air market to take along with us.

If my friends were fascinated by the charbonnieres, the ancient and now abandoned stone charcoal-making kilns we came across during our earlier walk, per- haps the best moment of today’s walk were the superb views from the belvedere de Portalas, a look-out on the crest of a mountain. It was an exceptionally clear day; to the southeast we saw majestic Mont Sainte-Victoire, the mountain that so fascinated the painter Cézanne; Les Alpilles, low mountains where Saint-Remy- de-Provence and Les Baux de Provence are located; and to our surprise, a thin azure band of the Mediterranean sea on the edge of the horizon.

During a hearty lunch of a beets and feta cheese salad dressed in walnut oil, roast rabbit with olive polenta and licorice-flavored crème brûlée at one of my favorite local restaurants, Le Fournil in Bonnieux, I was about to tell Kit and Alice that they shouldn’t feel obliged to walk anymore during their holiday if they didn’t want to. After all, they’d come here to relax. But before I could let them off the hook, Alice chimed in with a desire to do a walk in the countryside around Saint-Saturnin-les-Apt the following day, and Kit asked if we could do a longer hike on Saturday after visiting the busy weekly Saturday morning market in Apt. With very little effort on my part, I realized I’d enlisted another pair of foot soldiers, but then the beauty of the Luberon when you get up close to it and make it personal is pretty hard to resist.