Travel around Provence and everywhere you will see the famous ‘perched’ (villages perchés) or hilltop villages dotting the landscape. High up on rocky crags, most were originally defensive, commanding the route along a valley or the surrounding rich countryside. Most villages were built around castles and have fortified walls surrounding the community. They were easily defended; in case of attack the entrance to the town, usually through a narrow doorway, was blocked and there was always fresh water.
Many of these villages are delightful to visit and most of them are in the Plus Beaux Villages de France (Most Beautiful Villages of France) classification. Wander through the steep cobbled streets enclosed by pretty stone-built houses with tiled roofs leading up to the castle. Often the church is up here as well, its iron belltower making a distinctive landmark. Some villages have arcaded narrow passageways, great for walkers in the summer heat and the winter rain. There’s usually at least one square with a fountain gently splashing in the center, surrounded by pavement cafes and terraced restaurant.
In the past life was hard for the locals. The villages were difficult to reach and the surrounding rocky hillsides gave little opportunity for vegetable gardens or orchards. Inevitably comunities began to decline as the villagers left for a better life in the local towns.
Tourism has saved the ‘perched’ villages from ruin and today many of them have superb hotels and restaurants carved from renovated buildings. In summer the art galleries and shops sell everything from good art to slightly dubious souvenirs, but take the time to wander away from the main street or square and you might well be rewarded with a potter that is making tiles that will fit your kitchen, or jugs, plates and pots that will look great back home.
The ‘perched’ villages of Provence are in three major regions in Provence, the Vaucluse, the Var and the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence.
Les Baux-de-Provence Village
In the west of Provence, Les Baux is one of the best known of the hilltop villages. It’s in the Alpilles range of hills, 15 kms (9.5 miles) northeast of the Roman city of Arles. The château, now ruined, stands at the end of the main street, its grounds housing a collection of medieval siege weapons giving an idea of the struggles from the 11th century onwards. Keep walking up for spectacular views over the surrounding countryside.
The Musée d’Histoire des Baux-de-Provence shows objects found here; the Musée des Santons presents a Provençal nativity scene with the famous handmade clay santons (figurines) produced in Provence.
Take the D27 north of Les Baux to the Carrières de Lumière, a huge natural quarry where larger than life-size images are projects onto the walls, ceiling and floor. Different every year, it’s an extraordinary experience and as the Michelin guide would say, well worth the detour.
Gordes in the Vaucluse
Gordes in the Vaucluse lies between L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue to the west, famous as a significant center for antiques, and Roussillon to the east. Gourdes is particularly attractive, standing high on a rocky outcrop. Dominating the village is the Château de Gordens, built in the 16th century on a much earlier fortress site. It’s an interesting castle, formerly restored and lived in by the Op Art painter, Victor Vasarely. Try to visit on a Tuesday when the market fills the village streets.
The nearby Village des Bories is now a museum where you can see how our ancestors lived. Hive-shaped drystone buildings of lauzes (limestone slabs used as roof tiles elsewhere in France) date from 2,000 BC, though were inhabited up to the 20th century.
Also nearby is the stunning 12-century Cistercian Abbaye de Sénanque. It stands peacefully in lavender fields, still a working religious building. You can visit the church, cloisters and many rooms and buy the monks’ excellent produce (they have had centuries of practice at producing liqueurs and honey.)
Roussillon in the Vaucluse
Roussillon in the Vaucluse is just 10ks (6 miles) east of Gordes. The village is a wonderful kaleidoscope of colours produced from the 17 shades of ochre that was once mined here. With such a background, it’s not surprising that the village is a favourite with painters, potters and sculptors.
The Conservatoire des Ochres et de la couleur in the old factory gives you an insight into the way ochre is produced. It holds good temporary exhibitions and has a shop that artists will find irresistible.
Walk along the Sentiers des Ochres past oddly shaped rocks all with different hues.
Ansouis in the Vaucluse
Ansouis in the Vaucluse is south of Roussillon, tucked away in the Natural Regional Park of the Luberon. Wander through its little streets and don’t miss what is the most remarkable sight, the Chateau which was built in the 1100s and lived in by the Sabran family continuously until the early 2000s. You see the grand staircase, vaulted rooms and kitchens as well as the great gardens which include the Renaissance Garden of Eden, built on a former cemetery.
Moustiers-Sainte-Marie in the Alpes de Haute-Provence is one of the prettiest villages in the area but also one of the most popular, so try to go off season. It’s a dramatic site, set high on a ravine surrounded by huge rock faces. The parish church stands in the center, with a path beyond up to the 12th-century chapel.
An iron chain, 745 ft long, holds up a golden star above the ravine. The story goes that it was put there by a returning crusader, celebrating the fact that he’d returned alive, in the 13th century.
Moustiers is best known for its fabulous ceramics. Visit the Musée de la Faïence for the history of these famous designs, then trawl the shops of the different pottery works. But be aware; they are handmade, delicate and very expensive.
Moustiers-Sainte-Marie is one of the stops on the Road Trip around the Gorges-du-Verdon.
Seillans in the Var
The pretty hilltop village in the Haute-Var near Fayence is a short hop from Nice and the Côte d’Azur (near enough for a good day trip), but it feels a million miles away. Winding cobbled streets suitable for horses but not for cars lead you in a circular walk taking you past the old ramparts and massive gateways built to defend the village, plus more recent buildings like the former house of Max Ernst and his wife Dorothea Tanning.
Seillans is a great place to stay to explore the surrounding villages of Fayence and Tourrettes.
It also has a lovely small music festival, organised by an English group in the summer. In 2016 it takes place between July 30th and August 13th.
St-Paul-de-Vence was already well known before Yves Montand and Simone Signoret bought a house there; it had become popular in the 1920s with painters like Pierre Bonnard and Modigliani, followed by the likes of Greta Garbo and Sophia Loren. They all came to stay, and eat, at the famous Colombe d’Or hotel. If you don’t stay here, try to book a meal to eat and to look at the paintings that cover the walls; payment by impoverished artists who gave an art work rather than pay the bill like Picasso (who lived in the chateau at nearby Antibes), and Braque.
St-Paul-de-Vence has plenty to do and see, but the major attraction is the Fondation Maeght, with its world-famous collection of art set in a glorious, shady setting.
Stay at the Colombe d'Or, or at the pretty Le Saint Paul.