What is the Luberon in Provence?
Close your eyes and imagine Provence - the chances are you're seeing the Luberon. If you envision a rich countryside of vineyards, olive groves and lavender; hill-top villages; daily markets; family-run wineries; eating outside for most of the year - and if you're seeing it all in the clear, saturated light of the south - then yes, you have the Luberon in mind.
To many people, the Luberon is simply the most beautiful landscape in all of France. There are no must-see attractions in the Luberon, it's more about the experience of having all your senses in a state of delight.
Visiting the Luberon is all about gentle strolls through winding village streets discovering a new vista or surprise round every corner; sitting at a café table and taking an hour to drink a coffee while a street market unfolds before you; buying fresh goat cheese, baguette and a bottle of wine for a picnic in the hills. The Luberon is relaxed and relaxing.
You could whizz through in a day, taking in a few villages, but better by far to stay a week, two weeks, or as many have done before you, become so enchanted that you stay a lifetime. After all this is where Peter Mayle came to write A Year in Provence and his other books about life in the Luberon.
Where is the Luberon?
On a map of France, put your finger on Marseille, on the Mediterranean coast midway across the bottom of France, and go straight up 30 miles till you're above Aix and to the left of Avignon. That is the Luberon. It's an hour from Marseille airport, 30 minutes from Avignon train station.
The Luberon is a natural park with the Luberon mountain running its length and separating the north and south. To go from one to the other you can drive round the Luberon mountain at its western end (Cavaillon) or cut through it between Bonnieux and Lourmarin.
'Mountain' is a big word, technically a pre-Alp, and tops out at 1256m/4121ft above sea level to the east. But in the bit of the Luberon where most people visit, to the west, the mountain is called the Petit Luberon and it's low enough that you can walk up to the top without being a climber, and high enough to give fantastic views from the path that runs all along the top.
Broadly speaking in the south there are fewer villages and more agriculture, especially vineyards. In the north, the western part of the Luberon between Cavaillon and Apt is a land of vineyards and villages, while to the east of Apt there are fewer people and villages, and the vineyards are replaced by hills, woods and goats.
In the Luberon you can find the bling of a '6-star palace' hotel in one village and 10 minutes away the absolute authenticity of a fountain gurgling in a dusty square as the single cafe table awaits the first customers of the day.
The Luberon is small but you can't take it all in on foot. Villages are 5-10 minutes drive apart so car or bike is needed. If you are worried about driving through narrow village roads designed for the width of a horse and cart, the good news is all villages have an easily accessed car park intended for you to leave your car and explore on foot.
An exploration of the Luberon uses the villages as waypoints, going from one to another and taking in the gorgeous countryside in between.
These villages are definitely up there in any beauty contest, but there is more beauty and delight to find in the Luberon villages than just these showstoppers, as you can see in my appraisal: The Best Villages of the Luberon.
There is at least one Luberon village market every day of the week, where you can stock up on fruit and vegetables, cheese and meat, wine and juices, olives and olive oil, and even clothes and household items depending on the size of the market.
Luberon markets happen in the morning, from early to noon. Then it's lunchtime and everyone packs up, until the next time.
Lavender in the Luberon
Apart from the famous lavender field at Senanque Abbey near Gordes, there are more and more lavender fields planted around the Luberon as the essential oil of the lavender plant is more profitable than other crops.
Drive north towards the village of Sault to see a concentration of lavender, or 90 minutes east to the endless fields of lavender at Valensole.
If you want to see the lavender in bloom, come between late-June and the start of August when it is harvested. When lavender is not in bloom you can still visit lavender farms and distilleries in the Luberon and beyond.
The food and wine
Luberon food and wine is characterised by the influence of the sun - superb fruit and vegetables, and full-bodied wines.
The cuisine of Provence is all about letting the ingredients speak for themselves. Restaurants range from simple village bistros beloved by builders to Michelin-starred gastro-experiences.
Vineyards of the Luberon
Luberon vineyards and wineries are everywhere in the countryside to the west of Apt. Most are small and family-run, and all offer the possibility of turning up unannounced for a tasting, as long as you don't turn up at harvest time when everyone is out in the vines helping.
You'll also find some bigger wineries here and there, with staff to welcome you rather than a grandmother or uncle. Head for these if you want to speak English or ship some wine home and, frankly, pay more.
If you have read the books of Peter Mayle, like A Year in Provence, or seen the movie A Good Year, you may be wondering - are the locals of the Luberon really these endlessly charming and eccentric characters? Or are they like the rest of us? The truth is somewhere in between.
There certainly are characters straight out of Peter Mayle, if you stay around long enough you'll get to know some. Most people are just like in any other particularly beautiful, rural part of the world: less stressed, more contented, and not in any great hurry.
If you are worried about the language, it is very rare for a restaurant or attraction not to have at least one English-speaker. And in other places, like the bakery, all you need to communicate fluently are hands and eyes.
What's close to the Luberon
The Luberon is also well placed for day trips to other Provence highlights. The sea is just over an hour to the south, and the amazing cities of Avignon, Aix-en-Provence and Arles are an hour or less.
To the east are the Verdon Gorges, France's version of the Grand Canyon, and also the vast lavender fields around Valensole. If you want it, the French Riviera is 2 hours away.
The Luberon climate is one reason it is so loved. For one thing it is rarely cloudy, with 300 days of sunshine per year on average. Even in winter there are so many days of blue skies that it is hard to feel down. It is often possible to have New Year's Day lunch outside.
The summer lasts from somewhere in April to sometime in October, if by summer you mean days of t-shirt weather. The real heat of summer starts in late June, and until late August you can be in the 30s celsius/80s-90s fahrenheit every day.
If you are not tied to school holidays times, the best time to visit is June and September for warmth, May and October for those that fear the heat, April and November if you want a feeling of having the place to yourself.
But many locals like March best - it's the start of spring, nature is on the turn, and there are magnificent days that can come out of the blue and shake you out of winter like waking up from a dream. And November is the autumn, which can be cold or warm days, rain and sun, and the leaves turning to gold on tree and vine.
Getting there and getting around the Luberon
When you're planning a trip to the Luberon, the two key routes for international visitors are either to fly into Marseille, an hour to the south, or to fly into Paris and take the fast TGV train down to Avignon. That's a 2.5-hour train ride from Paris, and Avignon is half an hour west of the Luberon.
The best way to get around the Luberon is to rent a car at one of the airports or train stations. The second best way is nowhere close. There are some buses that criss-cross the Luberon but they tend to be one in the morning and one in the evening, so no good for village-hopping during the day.
You can get around on bikes, as villages are a few miles apart, and especially with the advent of e-bikes to reduce uphill work. It's a spectacular place to cycle. But this is only viable if you are reasonably fit and into biking. Trains run out at Cavaillon, which is the gateway to the Luberon.
For biking you can make your own itinerary between villages or other landmarks, either on- or off-road, including the famed Tour de France climb of the Mont Ventoux just to the north.