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Postcard - A Hike in the Luberon

Kathy Wood (Kaydee)

Hiking across the Petit Luberon, from the Gorges du Regalon (south side) to Oppede-le-Vieux (north side).

The spring days have been mostly sunny and usually clear, and we've taken advantage of the warmer weather to accelerate our hiking activities. We love the physical exercise, but most of all, we love being right in the middle of this beautiful countryside - so wild and rocky, but also so lush and pastoral, filled with unexpected surprises: prehistoric caves, ancient mills, hidden bridges, an old chateau. Charley and I have been trying to hike three times a week, including Kelly more often these last few weeks. As we complete each hike, we mark our route on our ordnance map with a yellow highlighter. In our six months here, we've trekked a substantial amount of territory on the Grand Luberon, the Petit Luberon and the Vaucluse Plateau. We could continue our trend of three hikes a week for another six months and still have more trails to discover.

Our hike on Wednesday (April 6) was a milestone hike for us, one we have planned for several months. We hiked across the Petit Luberon mountain (about 15 km or 9 miles), from the Gorges du Regalon on the south side to Oppede-le-Vieux on the north side. This hike required some special coordination because it wasn't one of our normal circular hikes where we park our car and start and end at the same point. This time we planned to finish on the other side of the mountain and it would be too far, and too hard, to turn around and go back over again. Ideally we needed a friend with a second car to join us. We also talked about hiring a taxi to help us with logistics.

We've hiked several times with our good friend Kevin Widrow, and we were glad he wanted to be part of this special hike and that we could do one more major hike together before we left Provence in just ten days. We decided to hike on a Wednesday so Kelly could hike with us on her day off from school. We met Kevin at 9:30am in the parking lot at Oppede, left our car in the parking lot, and then drove with Kevin around the west end of the Petit Luberon. We parked at the entrance to the Gorges du Regalon near Merindol where our walk began.

Charley and I had hiked the Gorges du Regalon in early February, one of the first "challenging" hikes we did. You can't do this hike on a rainy day or a day after rain, because water pours off the rocks and rushes down the very narrow gorge. The thought is really rather frightening. I'd forgotten how narrow, and exciting, the gorge is. There are several caves on either side of the gorge and several tricky spots where you have to climb up 20 feet of rocks to get to the next level. I wasn't particularly graceful on some of those ascents. In one place you crouch for about 25 feet to pass under a rock roof. Kelly especially enjoyed this part of the hike, and Kevin put it on his list of future hikes to do with his son Thomas.

Preparing to ascend the steepest part of the mountain (photo taken by Kevin Widrow)

Preparing to ascend the steepest part of the mountain (photo taken by Kevin Widrow)

Because of several family events that afternoon, Kevin couldn't hike all the way over the mountain with us, but we hiked through the gorge together and then up into the open expanses of the south side of the Petit Luberon. Once out in the sunlight, we noticed that the rocky landscape was covered with miniature yellow daffodils.

"You need to hike around Mont St. Victoire," Kevin told us. "The wild irises are so beautiful there."

A few minutes later we spotted a clump of bright purple wild irises, growing at high altitude in the rocky soil. We didn't need to go to Mont St. Victoire after all.

We said goodbye to Kevin, who took another route back to his car. Kelly, Charley and I headed on up the mountain on a very steep and rocky path, a huge outcropping of rocks beckoning us from above. We could see at least 20 miles, our view to the south expanding as we climbed higher and higher. We saw the jagged Alpilles, the A7 highway heading down to Marseille and even the glimmer of the Etang de Berre, all now so familiar to us. On a perfectly clear day, we would have seen the Mediterranean Sea and Mont St. Victoire.

We stopped from time to time to catch our breath and admire the views. We watched Kevin move away from us on his path headed back to the south, and we watched him get smaller and smaller in the distance. We turned around every few minutes to check his progress, waving when we could get his attention, until he disappeared from sight about 30 minutes later. Then Kelly reminded us that it was time for lunch. We ate our sandwiches perched on some rocks on the side of the trail. We were alone on the Petit Luberon.

Jagged limestone cliffs on the south side of the Petit Luberon

Jagged limestone cliffs on the south side of the Petit Luberon

Kelly led the way on up the mountain, the path sometimes difficult to follow. We've all learned how to follow the various blazes that mark the walking trails in France. This particular route was a Grande Randone (GR) trail, blazed in red and white and also in yellow. We finally reached the rocky peak only to realize we weren't yet at the top. Our path continued upward, finally arriving at the forest track that extends along the crest of the Petit Luberon and our peak elevation of 704 m (2310 feet), just short of the highest point on the Petit Luberon. The top of the mountain is flat and covered with evergreen and cedar trees, a totally different environment that what we'd seen on the south slope. Just along the side of the track was a small mountain hut, the Bastidon du Pradon, containing a table and chairs and some simple bunk-bed shelves - a refuge for overnight hikers. We lingered briefly at the top and then began our descent down the tree-covered north slope. The path was very rocky and steep, actually trickier to go down than up.

Suddenly we spotted a few people hiking up the trail toward us - a few men, a woman, then more. They all greeted us with a friendly "Bonjour," and to our amazement the people kept on coming. We stepped off to the side to let the people pass. "Soixante-huit," several people said. "Sixty-eight of us." There were sixty-eight hikers, most appearing to be in their late 60's or 70's. They stretched out in a long line, making steady progress up the rocky path. Everyone was smiling, no stragglers or complainers in this group. I hope I can hike like that when I'm in my late 60's and 70's - actually, I wish I could hike uphill like that now!

Eventually our path opened up on beautiful views over a jagged canyon. We had a wonderful view of the village of Menerbes far below to the east, stretched out along a ridge and looking kind of like a boat. We spotted our own village of Bonnieux on its hillside in the distance, and the taller buildings of Apt even further away. On the opposite side of the valley, we saw Gordes and the busy commercial centers of Maubec, Robion and Coustellet. We thought we even could see Avignon far off in the west.

Headed down the north side; looking down on Oppde le Vieux

Headed down the north side; looking down on Oppede le Vieux

Directly below us was our ultimate destination - Oppede-le-Vieux. We've visited Oppede a couple of times and find it a fascinating place. The old village is impressively located on top of a rocky point jutting out from the Petit Luberon. This area was probably a refuge for prehistoric tribes, though the first evidence of occupation is from Roman times. In the Middle Ages Oppede was a very important place and by the 14th century had about 900 residents inside its protective walls. Then, primarily because of its inconvenient location, people began leaving the hilltop village and moved to a new Oppede village on the plain, closer to farmland and important services. By the end of the 19th century the old village was totally abandoned. After World War II a group of artists began to revive the village. It's now partially restored but still largely in ruins and mostly uninhabited. We've made several visits to Oppede during our time here. We normally park in the lot and then hike up the steep cobbled streets to the ruins of the chateau and the 13th century church. It's a strenuous climb from the parking lot to the base of the chateau ruins, but now as we viewed Oppede-le-Vieux from the top of the Petit Luberon, the village, which seemed so high when we were there, was way down below - not really high at all.

We continued our steep climb down, eventually reaching the village and then our car. The rotund, red-faced parking attendant who greeted us that morning was still on duty. We had been his first customers of the day. "Une tres bonne randone," we told him. "A very good hike." Our 9-mile walk took us about five hours. Although the distance wasn't that substantial, we had a lot of elevation to climb, from 115 meters (377 feet) at the Regalon parking lot to over 700 meters (2310 feet) on the forest road. Charley and I were exhilarated, but Kelly was worn out, mainly from the stress of walking on the rocks.

I've enjoyed all our hikes in Provence, but our hike over the Petit Luberon was the peak experience for me (pun intended!). Up and over the mountain on a beautiful day, hiking with our daughter, sharing part of the experience with a good friend, the panoramic view of both sides of the Luberon, the countryside we now know so well. For most of our walk we didn't encounter another person, just us alone in the vastness of the Luberon wilderness.

I realize how much I love it here and how very much I will miss our life in the Luberon.


Woods Family Grand Tour of Europe: List of articles and photo albums by Kathy Wood

The Wood family from Knoxville, Tennessee are veteran travelers who successfully pursued their dream of living and traveling in Europe. Kathy, Charley and daughter Kelly (then 10 years old) began their fourteen-month "Grand Tour of Europe" in June 2004 and returned home in August 2005. Their trip focused on four major areas: France (33 weeks including 6+ months living in Provence), Great Britain (11 weeks), Italy (11 weeks), and the German/Austrian/Swiss Alps (6 weeks). Kathy is a regular Slow Travel contributor and maintained an extensive blog during their travels - Our Grand Tour of Europe.

Kathy is a former Human Resources executive who now works as a consultant and part-time college professor. She and Charley also lead The Luberon Experience (www.luberonexperience.com), a week-long, small-group trip based in Provence.

© Kathy Wood, 2005

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