Destination: France: Provence
Like the delicious filling of a sandwich, the Luberon area of Provence lies between the Vaucluse Mountains to the north and the Luberon Range in the South. The easiest entry point is Avignon, about two and a half hours from Paris by TGV. And voila, you are in the land of irrepressible sunshine. The landscape changes with the seasons, from lavender fields, to cherry trees and vineyards. Hiking and bike paths in the regional park and outdoor markets abound, as do perched stone villages, whose charms support every delightful cliché about Provence.
You might base yourself, as I have many times, in the well-known part of the Luberon, extending from the town of Isle-sur-la Sorgue to Apt. My favorite seasons are spring and fall and rather than staying in a hotel, I like to rent a house. I never tire of this area, but I also seek less traveled roads. The villages of Cucuron and Banon are two options for day trips, one a little less, the other a tad more, than an hour’s drive from, say Gordes, centrally located in the valley. That said, something will undoubtedly arrest your eye, or your palate, along the way.
You may have heard of Banon, in Alpes-de Haute-Provence, because many of the menus in the Luberon feature a salad with “chèvre de Banon”, the local goat cheese. So adventure north over the Vaucluse mountains to Banon, and buy the cheese wrapped in chestnut leaves. To go with it, stop in the charcuterie, Melchio Clauvis (+33-0492 732305; www.charcuterie-melchio.fr) with, yes, sausages hanging like curtains. Located just off the main parking square, you’ll be drawn right to the door by the pungent aroma of the merchandise. Banon is also famous for its ramparts and medieval town, and Le Bleuet (Place Saint-Just; +33-0492 732585), a bookstore with over 75,000 titles, mainly French and a smattering of English ones. It’s unusual to find such a large stock in such an off track place. Just across the street, I loved the Les Bons Moments (Place Saint-Just; +33-0492 733994) an antique shop/tea salon featuring home made cakes, organic teas and sorbets. Almost everything in sight is for sale. You can leave with glasses, old books, furniture, cutlery and linens. Or just a full tummy.
The town of Cucuron makes a lovely day trip from central Provence. To get there, you will cross the Luberon mountains. These are gentle hills, not the Alps. On your way, stop to explore the narrow, residential streets of nearby Vaugines (about ten minutes away), whose Saint Barthelemy church was in the film, Manon des Sources. Cucuron, population about 2,000, is quiet, beautiful and historical. I found that the inhabitants, whether young boys on bikes or widows in black, are happy to give directions. The first sight is the breathtaking bassin de l’etang, a large, rectangular pond, edged in soaring, 200-year-old plane trees. To soak in nature’s grace, I like to sit at the Bar de L’Etang (+33-0490-772311) and have a citron presse, freshly squeezed lemon juice—you add the sugar and water. (Tuesday is market day around the bassin). Walking into the main part of town, stop in at the tourist office (Rue Leonce Brieugne; +33-0490-772837) for good maps, points of interest and history—in English. On the same street, I noticed a house that had a sign in the window, “confitures maison” (homemade jams), and so I bought jam made from the local grapes, prepared right on the stove in Madame’s kitchen.
Cucuron is made for wandering. I enjoyed the cluttered antique store, Antiquites N. Justum (rue de l’Horloge; +33-0490-772366) for glassware, Limoges, serving cutlery, decanters, and paintings, the Notre Dame de Beaulieu church, and the Donjon Saint Michel, which often has special shows. The Musee Marc Deydier (+33-0490-772615), housed in a 17th-century building, has exhibits tracing the daily life of the area and its history, with particularly good photos. The day I went, a note on the door said the curator was at the butcher shop. Cucuron is so small that I easily found it, and him, buying couscous, the plat du jour, for lunch, and we walked back to museum together. “People were here before cars,” he said, gesturing with impatience at the one car that passed us by. “They should wait for us.”
Olives and vineyards have grown for centuries around Cucuron. You can go to Moulin a Huile Dauphin (+33-0490-772617) Rue du Moulin-a-Huile, where they make and sell local olive oil. The wine cooperative has walking trails through the vineyards and it’s possible to taste and/or buy a variety of local red, white or rose. You should definitely plan your visit to include either lunch or dinner at La Petite Maison de Cucuron (+33-0490-682199 www.lapetitemaisondecucuron.com). You’ll feel immediately at home in the small house on the Place de L’Etang, a sober and cozy setting with beams, antique porcelain, and a tapestry on the wall. Chef Eric Sapet, who worked in such Michelin-starred, Parisian restaurants as La Tour d’Argent and Jacques Cagna, is a culinary magician. The menu, of course, changes with the season. I still remember the taste of the chicken in the pot with root vegetables. The ordinary is the sublime. Just like Cucuron.
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