Lourmarin: the Luberon’s Top Model Village

Ester Laushway (November 2007)

The third in our series on “Les Plus Beaux Villages de France”

Among all the beautiful villages in the Luberon – and there are five officially classified as les plus beaux villages de France - there is one likely to cause a twinge of jealousy among the others. Gorgeous, cultivated, wealthy and with a delightful character to boot, Lourmarin is so impossibly perfect that its pretty sisters must feel tempted to winkle out some small flaw, just to level the playing field a bit. Were Lourmarin human, she would be the kind of woman men find irresistible and other women deeply irritating.

Finding any fault, however, is not an easy task. Nestled in the midst of vineyards, olive groves and almond trees, Lourmarin is exceptional by its location alone. Strategically placed in the Combe, or valley, carved out of the limestone hills by the Aiguebrun River, Lourmarin provides the only passage from north to south through the Luberon mountain range, dividing it into the more rugged, but lower Petit Luberon to the west and the more massive, rounded contours of the Grand Luberon to the east.

Ensconced in that enviable position, where it will never be passed by, because everyone must pass through, Lourmarin has been attracting well-bred, cultivated people for a long time. Its past residents include the great statesman Raoul Dautry (1880–1951), who headed several government ministries and launched the Atomic Energies Commission, the Provençal author Henri Bosco (1888–1976) and Albert Camus (1913–1960), winner of the Nobel Literature Prize. Bosco and Camus lie buried in the little village cemetery, undisturbed by too many visitors.

Lourmarin’s château is its most notable landmark. Consisting of two parts, the 15th century “Château Vieux”, and the 16th century wing, called the “Château Neuf”, it was the first Renaissance building in Provence. Passed from hand to hand after the French Revolution, it gradually fell into a state of ruin, with its Renaissance wing used as a barn and gypsies camping out in its older part. In 1920, had it not been for the industrialist and historian Robert Laurent-Vibert, it would have been pulled down and sold as building material. He bought it, had it restored by local craftsmen and refurnished it. When he died in a car accident in 1925, he left the château, with his art and furniture collections and his 28,000-book library, to the French Academy for Art and Science, on condition that the château would become Provence’s “Villa Medicis”, playing host to young painters, writers, musicians and sculptors every summer. His wishes are still respected and every year young artists take up residence in the château. A rich and varied programme of exhibitions and concerts allows them to display their talents and take master classes from some of the top names in their chosen discipline. Even without its artists in residence, the château is well worth a visit, for its fine collection of old Provençal furniture and ceramics, its remarkable fireplaces, and the unique stone double-spiral staircase, which ends 22 metres up, at the top of the castle tower, under a curved cupola.

Beyond the château, which stands a little apart from the village, Lourmarin’s historic attractions include the austere 19th century Protestant church nearby, the 17th century “salt cellar” clock-and-bell tower and the Romanesque church with a splendid Gothic section.

Lourmarin’s most potent charm, however, does not lie in its monuments. It is a more diffuse, seductive atmosphere distilled by its fountains, its winding, little streets, its lovely houses with their restored Renaissance facades, its tempting boutiques and art galleries, and its mouthwatering collection of excellent restaurants and cafés. If you prefer to whip up delicious fare at home, there is a Friday morning market that is small but delightful.

Try as one might to find a flaw, Lourmarin is annoyingly devoid of shortcomings. So let us be magnanimous, assume that such perfection is burden enough to bear, and go and enjoy it! Lourmarin Tourist Office: 04 90 68 10 77.

Copyright © 2008 Anglo-American Group of Provence