The perfect trip: Provence and the Côte d’Azur
Above us, eagles return to their nest, lifted by thermals, just like the paragliders. Bats, kingfishers and swallows nest in the cliffs. A few creatures who don’t have the benefit of wings live here too – we are not far from the Alps, and there are chamois, sometimes even in summer, and possibly lynx as well, although nobody’s quite sure. ‘We are in Provence,’ cautions Laurent. ‘People here like telling stories.’
Guided canoe trips cost £21 per person. Individual canoes, kayaks and pedalos can be rented on the shore of the Lac Sainte-Croix, by the bridge at the western end of the gorges.
Where to eat
Ferme Ste Cécile. All the dishes are seasonal at this farm restaurant with an outside terrace. Look out for the turn-off to the right where the D952 does a sharp double-turn about a mile south of Moustiers- Sainte-Marie, on the road to the gorges (three-course menu from £30).
Where to stay
Built in the style of a large Provençal manor house, the Bastide du Calalou has rooms furnished in classical French style and a good restaurant. It’s about 35 minutes by car from the western end of the gorges (from £110).
Luberon: Best for food
Saturday is market day in Apt, as it has been for 500 years. The town has the largest market in the Luberon region, and the locals make sure to get there early. The 300-plus stalls take over every street and square in the centre of town in a show of abundance.
Fat olives soak in tubs of brine, while fresh goat’s cheeses sit, redolent of Provence’s aromatic scrub. The orchards of the plains are the source of Apt’s famous candied fruit, and the hills of the Luberon provide a dozen varieties of honey. Sticks of saucisson are labelled ‘wild boar’, ‘stag’ and even ‘donkey’. And, most prized of all, truffles bide their time in airtight containers, in all their warty glory.
‘Without being biased, our truffles have the best aroma,’ says Robert Florent, the owner of one particular stall. At the moment, it’s the more affordable summer truffles which are on offer, but come November he will be selling black truffles at £600-£700 a kilo. ‘Our job is a little bit dangerous,’ Robert adds. ‘Your trufflehunting dogs can be stolen and sometimes you can even be attacked by robbers while you’re out searching.’
There is a guarded quality to much of the Luberon too, with two-dozen villages built on hilltops, each feeling like its own self-contained city state, staring out its rivals across a no man’s land of woods, fields and vineyards. While the landscape here is gentler and more fertile than many parts of Provence, around the village of Roussillon and in the hills to the northeast of Apt nicknamed ‘Le Colorado Provençal’, the earth is tinted in brilliant reds and ochres more reminiscent of the American Southwest than rural France.
The chefs of the region share a love of the best produce from this land, but perhaps none more so than Edouard Loubet, in charge at the Bastide de Capelongue, five miles southwest of Apt. ‘You must not mistake Provençal cooking for a general ‘cuisine of the south’,’ explains the chef. ‘It’s a cuisine which must be allowed to simmer, and which mixes all the traditions between the Alps and the Mediterranean.’ From the names of unfamiliar herbs on the menu, such as sariette (savory) and serpolet – a type of wild thyme – to the low rumble of the cheese trolley as the meal draws to a close, dinner is an instruction in the variety that the region can offer. Fittingly, there is even a small summer truffle, cocooned inside soft pastry, waiting to be revealed.