Less than two hours’ drive north of Aix-en-Provence lies such an area of histrionic beauty: the Gorges of Verdon, a miniature but magnificent French version of the Grand Canyon. The 20-km stretch of sheer cliffs plunges down to the emerald-green Verdon River, which snakes along the rocky bed it has carved for itself, as much as 700 meters deep and in its narrowest parts only 6 meters wide.
At the entrance to this natural wonder stands the extraordinary village of Moustiers Sainte Marie. It is built right up against a towering rock face, with a deep crevasse, through which a spring rushes, slashing dramatically through its middle. The tiers of stone houses with red tile roofs that stand on either side are linked by a series of bridges, and as a crowning touch, a little 14th C chapel is perched high up in the rocks overlooking the village. From a distance, it looks like a large-scale model of a Christmas crèche, and that illusion is reinforced by the golden star suspended on a 225-meter long chain reaching between the cliffs up by the chapel.
No one knows exactly when the chain with its ten-pointed star was first stretched across the ravine, but local legend has it that it was put there as a votive offering by a medieval knight, grateful to return home from the Crusades after being held captive by the Saracens. One thing certain is that it has been there for several centuries and is replaced every time a particularly strong wind breaks it. About ten years ago, one of those fierce gusts ended up making the village star shine more brightly than ever. The chain broke, the star fell to the ground and was found several hours later, dented but intact. Coated with a layer of pure gold, it has watched over the village with extra radiance ever since.
Besides its astonishing setting and star status, Moustiers Sainte Marie is famous for its faïence. The white earthenware with colourful glazes became popular in France in the 17th century, when Louis XIV had all silver and gold dishes collected and melted down to re-fill his royal coffers, emptied by several expensive wars. A monk from Faenza in Italy is said to have brought the secret of a brilliant blue glaze to Moustiers which, combined with the exceptionally fine local clay, resulted in a thriving ceramics industry.
It is impossible to walk through the village without getting your fill of faïence. Its shop windows are piled high with stacks of it and it overflows onto tables outside. Over a dozen workshops produce as much of the typical white ware with its delicate tracery of coloured arabesques, birds, flowers and fantastic figures as you can stagger home with. A museum re-traces its history, and every second year in May, the villagers dress in 18th century costume for an international faïence festival that culminates in a procession to the chapel for a solemn blessing of the local craft. Moustiers Sainte Marie Tourist Office : 04 92 74 67 84.