It was not the first time my husband and I had driven down this particular road high in the Vaucluse mountains of Provence, France, about seven miles northwest of Gordes. That first time, it was a mistake, a wrong turn. But we ended up beside a wondrous canyon, a geological timeline of millions of years, the result of eons of water cutting through mountains and leaving a gorge in its wake.
The road was barely wide enough for one car. With no place to turn around, we drove on, hugging the gorge’s limestone walls around a series of tight, often blind, curves. When we stopped pretending we weren’t lost and didn’t think the road would ever end, it did. Only afterwards, when we knew we were safely out, were we able to talk about the incredible landscape we had driven through.
This year we traveled that road again – intentionally. Remembering the unique beauty of its wild – and survivable – setting in the Forest of Venasque, we wanted to revisit it. To take our time, marvel in the vertical cliffs above us and the gorge deep below us. Its floor was deep and lushly green. Its rocky sides, shades of gray and ochre. We imagined it was what we might see if we could drive through the Grand Canyon back in the States. And, like before, we reached road’s end – with a choice: go back the way we came but riding the rim of the canyon instead of hugging its walls, hoping we were alone and wouldn’t have to share the road with a car, or worse, a van coming the other way. Or heading to the town of Venasque, a place we had yet to explore.
Happily, as it turned out, we chose Venasque. Dating back to 5000 B.C., this tiny hilltop hamlet was built on top of a huge rock outcrop giving it a strategic advantage and rugged profile against a wild portion of the Provençal countryside. While archeological research in nearby caves gave evidential support of its age, today the village is more modern, dating back to the Roman Empire. Its impregnable fortress dominated an ancient road protecting an important route through Provence.
Vital in ancient times, Venasque was eventually abandoned and allowed to fall into ruin, only to be rescued and restored in more recent times. Today it’s considered one of the most beautiful villages in France. And a walk around showed us why. First, the 7,000 year-old view from Venasque. Looking out from any direction, you can see the peaks and valleys that surround it. Dominating the distant background is Mt. Ventoux. Called the “Giant of Provence,” this 6,273-foot mountain is one of the most famous in France. From a distance it appears snowcapped. But what you’re seeing is white limestone absent of vegetation – it’s nearly impossible to grow anything there with winds that can reach 180 mph whipping over its bare surface. Although part of the Alps, it appears separate from them, like a volcano towering over the Rhône valley.
Then there’s the history of the village, including a 6th century Baptistry, thought to be the oldest in France, an 11th century Church of Notre-Dame and parts of the village walls, ramparts and towers built by the Romans and rebuilt during the Middle Ages to protect Venasque from the risk of Saracen invasions.
But mostly, Venasque is an incredibly picturesque village with narrow streets that meander up and down through the village and around the walls. They pass by an 18th century fountain, and a couple of restaurants and some shops; but mostly by the stone housesrestored meticulously to original specifications by the villagers. Adorned with colorful flowers cascading from window boxes and adjacent gardens, the houses, streets and entire village looks like a movie set designed for one of those lushly cinemagraphed foreign films. We arrived at road’s end on a late Friday afternoon, just in time for the village’s weekly evening market, where a small number of vendors sell everything from just-picked produce to locally made wine, chocolates and cheeses. Like the little streets of Venasque, we meandered, stopping to talk with some of the vendors and for an espresso at the local café. It’s a place where you can linger. A place where you’d like to spend a few days. A place that might only be discovered by taking a road less traveled. But as they say in France: “C’est vaut le voyage” – it’s worth the trip
Judi Janofsky and her husband Rich Steck host small-group tours in Provence and Dordogne, France, through their company Provence Escapes (www.ProvenceEscapes.com).
If you go
HOTEL LES REMPARTS
Built on the old walls of the village, this small yet charming eight room hotel is open mid-March through mid-November. Rates include breakfast and wifi access. The hotel also has the best restaurant in town and it comes with amazing views.
Hotel Les Remparts
Rue Haute, Venasque,
In France: 09-90-66-02-79