What makes the south of France a popular tourist destination isn’t limited to its good weather and landscapes, but also to its dozens (if not hundreds) of small, picturesque villages dotted throughout. The department of Vaucluse is rich in such villages, and I had the great opportunity to visit two of the most well-known ones– Gordes and Roussillon– while in Provence this summer.
France certainly doesn’t fall short of villages throughout the country. In fact, there’s an association, les Plus Beaux Villages de France, that had been created in the 1980’s as means of highlighting rural towns in each region to expand tourism and cultural appeal. Of the 150-plus villages on the list, I’ve only managed to hit seven of them during my time in France.
The Provence region (particularly the Vaucluse department) is dense with many of the beautiful villages, including Gordes and Roussillon. That said, I was excited to check them out while on a day trip to the famous lavender fields — here are the highlights of what I saw:
With a population of merely 1800, Gordes is tiny. It also certainly doesn’t help that thousands of tourists stream through its streets each summer as part of their excursion through the south of France. As a result, the village is inundated with massive tour buses, rental cars, and people. While excellent for tourism, not so much for the peace and quiet!
Structure-wise, Gordes is very much set in stone. From the walls to the streets, the place is uniform in its granite look, all the while giving off that rustic charm that’s signature of many other Provencal towns nearby. Walking through the calade streets, you feel as if you stepped back in time, to an idler and peaceful period unlike today.
Gordes is situated on the hill-top that overlooks the sweeping greenery of the Luberon. Its château dominates at the top, giving rise to the village’s nickname as “the lighthouse of Luberon.” In addition, various buildings are etched onto the side of the cliff, appearing to tumble down. Besides offering dramatic landscape views, the design of the village itself is just as dramatic and gorgeous.
Due to the sheer volume of people, our tour didn’t stop in the village proper. Rather, our driver-guide drove past the center (where the weekly outdoor market happened to be on) and about two minutes out to the other side of the hill, where we stopped for the iconic views of Gordes.
The vantage point was basically a small parking lot that was literally on the edge of the cliff. One must be careful not to get too close to the edge, at the risk of falling and disappearing into the depths of the Luberon green. Our driver-guide was kind in taking our photos and otherwise giving us our “money shot” of Gordes before heading off to our next stop. While it would’ve been nice to have stopped and visited the village, it was understandable that we couldn’t because of time and massive crowds.
Just 12 kilometers east of Gordes lies the rustic village of Roussillon. First impressions upon arriving is that it’s red — really red. The village walls are absolutely covered in the earthy-clay color due to the abundance of ochres in the area, and one can spend an hour or so on the sentier des Ocres to see the former quarries of this distinctive mineral.
Due to its natural surroundings and earthy-red color, it’s no wonder that Roussillon is nicknamed the “French Colorado.” Having visited Colorado, I agree that the French village is reminiscent of the western U.S. state, and it felt surreal to feel a piece of my home country while abroad. Likewise with Gordes, the village is tiny and touristy with its 1300 inhabitants increasing ten-fold due to tourists in the summer.
We were given about an hour in town to walk around, and I used each minute to the best I could. Pretty much, I hastily went through its Old Town, with its slight incline carrying me to the top of one of its ochre cliffs. The Old Town itself was the epitome of idle and quaint, and I could imagine myself relaxing at one of the cafés with a glass of rosé in hand (if I had more time!).
I took a brief pause during my rush around town to buy a few postcards and magnets. Besides the usual, generic souvenir shops, Roussillon also had plenty of artisan shops that sold colorfully-detailed ceramics, handmade hats, and local jewelry. Especially with the growth of the manufacturing industry, having small local shops was refreshing to notice.
Just before we had to leave, I quickly raced to the other side of town for its views. It was lovely to see the red village from a distance, all the while capped with some of Provence’s signature lavenders in the foreground. Although I wasn’t able to check out the sentier des Ocres, I still saw a small part of it in town before we continued our tour for the day.
Overall, Gordes and Roussillon were short stops along the way to the lavender fields of Provence. While our time in both villages were extremely brief, I can say now that I’ve seen them, and they certainly didn’t disappoint. They lived up to their les Plus Beaux Villages de France statuses, and it’s no wonder people from all over come to visit them, especially in the summer. Should one decide to explore Gordes and Roussillon (perhaps ideally off-season in May or September), it would be 100% well-worth it!
Stay tuned for more adventures in Provence!