Gordes: Venus on the Rocks

Ester Laushway (September 2007)

We begin our series of Les Plus Beaux Villages with Gordes, home of the association’s President Maurice Chabert.

From afar, when you are driving towards it, Gordes is a spectacular sight: a jumble of stone houses piled artistically up the side of a hill, interspersed with fetching bits of greenery and topped by a majestic château-and-church combo, whose wrought iron bell tower is a final, fragile punctuation mark against the sky.

The trouble is, that panoramic view is the one good look many people take at Gordes. M Chabert is all too aware of how many visitors simply drive through his lovely village, on their way from somewhere to somewhere else. He cites the example of a friend of his from Avignon, who told him one day that he had come to Gordes twice and had been disappointed: “I said: ‘It doesn’t surprise me. You came by car, you stopped at the viewpoint, you took your photo of a superb site, then you got back in the car, drove around the château and that was it.’ He said: ‘You’re right!’”

To avoid making that all-too common mistake, M. Chabert recommends parking your car and taking about two hours to visit his village on foot.

Once you have left your wheels behind in one of two convenient car parks, go to the majestic château that dates in part from the Middle Ages, in part from the Renaissance and look for the tourist office hidden inside its walls. There you can pick up a bilingual leaflet for a self-guided walk around Gordes.

The imposing château, the beginning of your walk and of the village, was originally a feudal fortress, rebuilt in 1525, and beautifully restored in the 1960’s by the painter Vasarély, who had a house in Gordes and whose bright-blue, double-hexagon sculpture still marks the entrance of the village. Since 1997, the museum of Pol Mara, a Flemish artist, who also lived in Gordes, has been housed inside the château, at the top of a magnificent spiral staircase.

The château’s companion piece, in size and age, is the grandiose medieval church opposite. Your itinerary will lead you downhill past it, between narrow, tall houses, passing by fountains, along ramparts, under archways and through the last remaining fortified town gate.

The stone, out of which Gordes seems to grow organically, is omnipresent. So are splendid views, like the one of the village plain and the northern face of the Luberon that you get from the Théâtre des Terraces, a 500-seat open-air theatre on a rocky lip that was once one of the most populated parts of the village. Traces of the vanished houses – a carved lintel, a chimney -- are still visible in the rock, but nowadays their space is occupied by temporary bleachers, for a summer theatre and music festival.

Having walked up an appetite, you have the choice of any number of restaurants within Gordes itself, including Les Cuisines du Château (04 90 72 01 31; à la carte 15 € - 23 €) right by the château, which offers an impressive choice of wines. Open for dinner only, right by the car park on the Route de Murs, is the tempting Clos de Gustave (04 90 72 04 25; 33€) with a 33 € menu that changes daily.

Alternatively, you can drive a little ways out of Gordes, towards Roussillon, to the absolutely enchanting country auberge, La Ferme de la Huppe (04 90 72 12 25; closed Wed and Thurs, open for Sun lunch) to sample their 40 € gastronomic menu.

No visit to Gordes is complete without a tour of the Village des Bories, a collection of the beehive-shaped dry-stone huts so typical of the region. This stone hamlet, with its barns, sheep pens, ovens and wine cellars, has been beautifully restored and shows how, in the right hands, stone can be turned from an ordinary building material into an extraordinarily beautiful and lasting form of art.

Gordes Tourist Office : 04 90 72 02 75.

Copyright © 2008 Anglo-American Group of Provence