Friday 5 September 2014


It began with the sparkle of lights on a distant hill. Every night we stared into the far distance from the terrace at the ripples of the Luberon ridge as it darkened and the lights coming on over the vast floor of the valley. With binoculars we could see Roussillon, with Gordes behind it on the northern rise towards Mont Ventoux. And on the furthest point of the Petit Luberon on the south side, was a collection of lights in the shape of a perched village - but which village was it?

At first, we thought it might be Lacoste, its castle lit at night for the summer arts festival with necklaces of streetlamps below. But that was geographically impossible; what we were looking at was a great deal further away. Maps were fetched and proved inconclusive, as did Google Earth. The only way to find out was to set a course west and go there.

We knew more or less where to start. First, to see a friend who lives in Murs, not far from Gordes, high on the hills opposite Bonnieux and Lacoste. From her garden, we strained our eyes into the rolling blue hills. We headed towards Les Taillades, which was our best guess; it was at the end of the Petit Luberon and was bolstered by some promising internet research. But when we got there, it just wasn't high enough to be a candidate. At Robion, also on the list of possibilities, the Vieux Village was higher than the part we usually dash through on the way to Cavaillon and Marseille airport, but again wasn't high enough. What we'd been seeing, was right at the top of the hill. A hill that had disappeared.

So we had lunch (always important on a quest) in Robion, and considered our options. The breakthrough was made when I asked someone to look at a blurry photo I'd taken. "That's Oppede-le-Vieux you're seeing, no doubt about it," I was told. "But what's the hill behind the end of the Petit Luberon?" I asked, "I'm sure that's where the lights are - but from here there doesn't seem to be a hill further on." This was true, and had been the subject of some heated debate. Perhaps it was another one of those French country mysteries, like the village that you never find again.

Another look at my photo. "That could be the Colline de St-Jacques at Cavaillon. It does have a chapel on the top and cliffs that are illuminated at night. But it won't be that - too far away. It's Oppede-le-Vieux." So that's where we went.

We did know the village, and it had been on our list of possibilities, though largely discounted because it wasn't in quite the right place, clinging as it does to the wooded cliffs of the Petit Luberon. A haunting place, with a melancholy atmosphere that still lingers in bright sunshine. It dates from the 12th century, when its position was defensive. In the bloody battles and religious turmoil of the middle ages, it was a stronghold as well as a seat from which atrocities were launched, but by the beginning of the 20th century it had been abandoned. It was north-facing: cold, dark and damp in winter, and too far from the farmers' fields.

Oppede-le-Vieux came back to life during the 1940s, when it was claimed by a commune of artists, including Consuelo, wife of the celebrated French airman and author Antoine de St-Exupery. These incomers began to restore many of the crumbling stone houses, but even now, as you walk higher and higher up the narrow cobbled paths to the ruined castle, there is a pervasive sense of mystery. What happened in this place of shadowy overgrown streets and steps that seem to climb nowhere?

The elegant 12th century church of Notre Dame d'Alydon is the reward at the end of the stony path, from where the panorama reveals the full expanse of the western Luberon valley and a sighting of the white stony peak of Mont Ventoux.

From here, you can see the village of Menerbes, with its characteristic shape of a ship run aground on the lower hills. The photo below was taken with a zoom - if you want to see it clearer, you can click on it to enlarge. At the far left end is Le Castellet, temporary home in 1950 of the cookery writer Elizabeth David as described in this previous blog post, and subsequently bought by the artist Nicolas de Stael.

However, it was at this point we knew the quest was not over. In the other direction is the end of the Luberon ridge, and beyond that, form this height, is just visible the hill we thought we had lost. It's a bit faint in this photo, but it is there on the horizon, far further away than we'd imagined. What we could see from our terrace couldn't be Oppede.

On the way down to the main part of the village, we discussed the implications...past this pretty small chapel, La Chapelle des Penitents Blancs...

...and this blocked-up doorway with the date 1721 carved into the stone lintel...

...until we reached the shady courtyard of Le Petit Café in Place Croix.

Some delicious mandarin and sharp lemon sorbets helped the thinking process. But it wasn't until we got home that the wonders of the internet helped us to the solution. Pictures found there of the Colline de St-Jacques that looms above Cavaillon, provided matching rock patterns and proof that this was what we had been looking for. On its summit is a chapel, lit at night above sheer rocky cliffs that are also illuminated. And amazingly, the night skies are so clear that we can see it from our west-facing terrace almost forty miles away.


Patricia said...

What an intriguing adventure! Thanks for taking us along!

Gill Edwards said...

fantastic photos, i love the one of the steps that go nowhere, must be a story in there somewhere
Gill x

Marcheline said...

I would love to take long-haired maidens there and photograph them languishing barefoot against those walls, wearing white dresses.

Wilkie said...

Love this post and your search! We spent a few hours there many years ago and hope to return some day!
And, Deborah, I finally downloaded your book on Kindle and started it on the flight home yesterday. Oh yes!!! I am really loving it…will let you know when I finish and report back to you! Enjoy the end of summer!

aguja said...

Agree entirely with Patricia.
I enjoyed every minute, every word and picture.
An excellent way to journey to foreign climes!

Juliet said...

Hi Deborah, I've just received your book the Lantern from Amazon and thrilled to see your post about Oppede le Vieux. We had a fantastic, dream-fulfillling 2 and a half weeks in Provence in August, staying in Isle sur le Sorgue and visiting Gordes, Roussillon, Menerbes, Avignon and also spending a meaningful time in the petits and grands Luberon. We have researched and followed the lives and deaths of the 'Maquis 'quite closely. But we never made it to Oppede le Vieux! So your photos and info are a real treat - thank you!

Tammie Lee said...

such wonderful glimpes
a wonderful place to be

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