Despite staying in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence department while in Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, we spent a lot of time visiting places in Vaucluse. It was in this department that we saw so many different and unexpected terrains. All the places we visited in Vaucluse had their own, unique natural beauty. Here is what we did there.
Le Colorado Provençal de Rustrel
The Luberon area in Vaucluse is home to many ochre sites, with terrain comprised of ochre sands. Ochre sands are vibrant shades of red, orange, yellow, and green. They have been used for centuries for their pigment for paints, washes, and more. This website has a listing of ochre sites that you can visit. I had no idea this kind of terrain was in Provence. My knowledge was limited to lavender. What a surprise, and what a unique sight! I have yet to visit the Midwest in the United States, so this was the first time I had seen land like this.
We visited Le Colorado Provençal de Rustrel. This site has 2km and 4km hiking circuits though ochre terrain. You can estimate these will take you between 1 hour 15 minutes to 2 hours to hike due to terrain conditions, with the longer hike having a steep upgrade and downgrade. A word of advice if you go, be prepared to clean your shoes afterwards, and know that the bright orange sands are likely to stain them! There are a couple of cafés and a public restroom on site.
We also visited the public swimming pool (piscine) in Rustrel. This was a nice break from sightseeing, especially on a hot day. It also provided us with some examples of how Europe is different from North America. First, my husband was unable to swim there because he was wearing “Bermuda” style swim trunks (standard American style men’s swim trunks). These are banned from many European pools because they are thought to be unsanitary. This was not news to us, but he hasn’t bought himself a tight suit yet, and probably won’t.
Additionally, while there was a lifeguard on duty, his presence was a reminder that European safety standards are different than what we find in America. We have found safety precautions and regulations to be much more relaxed in Europe than in the States, as society here is also less litigious. The lifeguard’s physique, much like that of the character Wade Garrett in the movie Roadhouse, made me confident that he could carry out his lifesaving duties if necessary. However, his occasional meditation breaks made me wonder if he was really watching what was happening in the pool. My hat’s off to him for finding some work-life balance. He was kind to us and everyone stayed safe.
There were also wasps swarming everywhere around the pool. I feel like if this happened in the States, parents would be up in arms and loudly complaining to the authorities, but not here. Maybe it was thanks to our lifeguard’s meditations, but at this pool, the wasps and the humans managed to coexist harmoniously and we all had a great afternoon.
Mont Ventoux is the tallest mountain in the region. It is often on the Tour de France, so it is a popular destination for cyclists. Due to its height, and the fact that it does not have (immediately) nearby mountain neighbors, it is also a popular spot for viewing sunrises and sunsets. We drove up to the summit one night in attempt to watch a sunset, but apparently mother nature didn’t want us to see her glory that night.
As we were driving up, we could see that the summit was under cloud cover, but we naively hoped it would pass. Instead, it seemed to just be hanging out up there and never did pass. The region was also experiencing “mistral” winds at the time, strong winds that the region is known for. We knew it was windy, but had no idea what it would feel like from the top of the tallest mountain in the area.
As we approached the top, I could feel the change in altitude and pressure. You reach a point where you are above the tree line and the landscape is barren limestone. It truly felt like we were on another planet – a cold, gray, windy one.
At the viewing spot at the summit, we could hardly get out of the car. The wind was so strong it was shaking the car and was hard to open the door against. We tried, just to feel it, but didn’t even get out at this spot. We watched a few other brave souls try and just laughed with them as they immediately pushed themselves back into their cars.
We drove back down the mountain a bit on the opposite side and stopped at another viewing area just below the cloud line.
Here, we did get out of the car and walked a little bit to take a few pictures, but the wind was still terribly strong and cold. It was scary to be up against a force of nature so strong. I don’t think we were ever in real danger, we stayed far from any edge, but it still made me tense! The wind was strong enough to knock a person down.
At that altitude and against that wind force, it was hard to move back to the car as quickly as I wanted to! We did not get the sunset view we hoped for, but we definitely have a family memory of “that time we almost got blown off a windy mountaintop” that we won’t ever forget.
l’Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque
The Sénanque Abbey has been a Cistercian monastery since 1148. The monks produce lavender and honey products. You can visit the monastery and take tours, but they make it clear, this is not a tourist site, this is a working monastery.
Okay, well, it is a tourist site, because tons of tourists are there, but I understand where they are coming from. It is, understandably, very clear that they hope that visitors respect the dignity of the monastery. They ask for silence, proper attire, and respect. A totally reasonable request in my opinion. It irritated me to see other visitors ignoring signs to stay out of lavender gardens. Come on, people, is it really worth angering monks in a centuries-old sacred place like this just to get a “great” photo opportunity? I got my requisite Instagram picture without breaking any rules, you can too!
Guided tours of the abbey are only available in French and are at limited times. Unguided tours are also possible, but also at limited times. Services are open to the public and offered at specific times. Visit the website for all those details, as they also vary by season.
Given the restrictions, and given our timing, we did not take advantage of any tours or sit in on a service. We just enjoyed the grounds and the bookstore and shop. I purchased a lot of lavender products here including a room spray and a pillow spray made by the monks. Now I have the smell of Provence with me at home, as well as a ton of Christmas gifts for family and friends already taken care of!
Fontaine-de-Vaucluse is home to the source of the River Sorgue. It is a beautiful little village with lots of natural beauty to enjoy. If you visit, be prepared to park in a public parking lot on the edge of town and walk in.
You can camp, hike, canoe, and kayak in Fontaine-de-Vaucluse. There is also a swimming pool. I wish we had made time to rent canoes. It looked like fun and the river was so pretty. Instead, we just walked along the river and went all the way to view the source. We also enjoyed a break at a riverside café and did a little shopping.
The river provided power for the paper mills in the village from the 16th century until the 1960’s. You can visit the old paper mill today, Moulin à papier Vallis Clausa, which still manufactures paper and sells products right there on site. You can watch the mill workers and equipment while they work before enjoying the shop. I loved this shop! They sell reproductions of maps, books, poems, notebooks, cards, and many other paper-related items. We found a few frame-worthy items, printed on paper made there, that will be great reminders of this trip.
Adjacent to the paper mill is an art gallery filled with more shops selling art, jewelry, glassware, candy, and more. It was nice to have these shops to browse as an alternative to the standard tourist shops that also exist nearby.
We really enjoyed visiting Fontaine-de-Vaucluse. We are in good company with that feeling. The 14th Century Italian poet Petrarch lived there for decades, inspired by its beauty. It was easy to see why.
I wish that we could have also gone to the nearby village Pays des Sorgues – Monts de Vaucluse which is supposed to have a lot of great opportunities for art and antique shopping. Also, nearby is L’isle-sure-la-Sorgue, which we only drove through. It is a small, canal village that we were told is reminiscent of Brugge/Bruges and Venice. It definitely looked cute as we drove through!
The Vaucluse department of Provence was full of natural beauty of varying terrains. We enjoyed all the places we visited there. You can read about the rest of our adventures in Provence in these blog posts: