bonnieux2A classic provençal hill village (village perché), Bonnieux dominates the valley between the petit and grand Luberon mountains and provides a perfect base for touring the region as well being a lovely spot in its own right.

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A THUMBNAIL HISTORY

This land has been inhabited since prehistoric times. Later the Romans marched in and built a notable bridge.

In the Middle Ages, by a quirk of history, this entire area fell under the control of the Vatican. Known as the Comtat Venaissin, it was a Papal enclave in the middle of Provence.

It continued to be so even after the Avignon Papacy had ended, for over five centuries from 1274 right up to the French Revolution.

Neighbouring Ménerbes sits on the southern edge of the Comtat while Venasque was its original capital. Today it's still referred to informally as the Comtat in recognition of its curious past.

Several bishops lived in Bonnieux during this time and, as some of its impressive houses still attest today, it was a wealthy village. Later, from the 17th to the 19th century, silk worm production boosted the economy.

bonnieuxIn more recent times Bonnieux's profile was raised by Peter Mayle, who wrote about living there - in a house between Bonnieux and Ménerbes - in his best-selling A Year in Provence (1989).

Bonnieux was also a key location for the Mayle-scripted romantic comedy A Good Year (2006). It's now a mecca for summer visitors and second home owners.

Unlike some villages, Bonnieux doesn't shut down for the winter. It's one of the liveliest in this part of Vaucluse, with half a dozen buzzing cafés and as many restaurants - including a gastronomic one - plus basic everyday amenities such as a supermarket, butcher, baker, bank, post office, library and pharmacy.

 

WHAT TO SEE

To visit Bonnieux, the best starting point is, as always, the local Tourist Office. Here you can pick up a free plan showing the main sights. A self-guided walking tour takes about 90 minutes and illustrated plaques (in French) mark the points of interest.

Be warned: even by the demanding standards of provençal hill villages, the narrow cobbled streets of Bonnieux are steep. Very steep.

But if you hike up the 86 steps to the "old" church right at the top, surrounded by cedar trees, you will be rewarded by an exceptional view.

You can see across the valley to nearby Lacoste and points beyond, including, in the distance, Mont Ventoux. An orientation table indicates the main sights.

This beautiful church dates back to the twelfth century though it has, of course, been modified, expanded and renovated many times since. It hosts classical music concerts in summer and an impressive traditional crib at Christmas.

At the bottom of the village, the more accessible "new" church (actually dating back to 1870) is the main venue for religious services.

jardin de la louve bonnieuxOther historic buildings include the Hôtel Dieu (now used as the Town Hall) and the 19th century Hôtel de Rouvil.

We didn't have time to visit the Musée de la Boulangerie (Museum of Baking) but were assured it wasn't very interesting!

But there are plenty of fascinating sights both in Bonnieux itself and in the surrounding countryside.

On the chemin Saint Gervais a very short walk from the centre of Bonnieux, the Jardin de la Louve, pictured, has been officially designated one of France's "Remarkable Gardens".

It was created by Nicole de Vésian, a stylist at Hermès, who in 1986 bought a village house in Bonnieux. She spent ten years transforming the land around it into an elegant, highly sculpted space planted with cypress, bay, box, lavender, rosemary and many other plants from the region.

Madame de Vésian later sold the Jardin de la Louve (une louve is a she-wolf, incidentally). But it remains open to the public: advance reservation required.

Also on the edge of the village is the Église Louise Bourgeois, sometimes known as the Couvent d'Ô. The French-American artist, famed for her trademark spiders, has taken over this church and transformed the usual features - a crucifix, a Virgin, the baptismal font and the confessional - in her own inimitable style. On the rue Aristide Briand, the Église Louise Bourgois is open to visitors in midsummer only.

(In 2014 Pierre Cardin launched a new cinema on the site of the disused train station on the edge of Bonnieux.)

Pierre Cardin in BonnieuxRenovated at a cost of some two million €uros, the 60 hectare / 148 acre space can accommodate no fewer than 1,000 people and also contains a conference centre and a restaurant and large grounds overlooking the village.

Cardin explained that he has had a passion for cinema ever since Jean Cocteau approached him to design the costumes and masks for the 1946 film La Belle et la bête early in his career.

The cinema is all decked out in the couturier's favourite colour, green. It's not an everyday "working" movie theatre, but is used for premieres, festivals and one-off screenings as well as being a post-production facility.

Cardin has also purchased a lot of property in Lacoste including the ruined castle once inhabited by the Marquis de Sade, which hosts an arts festival each summer.

ALSO OF INTEREST

The surrounding countryside is full of gorgeous spots to explore, on foot, by bike or by car. Click here to read our guide to cycling in Provence.

The Grande Randonnée GR6 from Sainte Foy la Grande to Saint Paul sur Ubaye passes through Gordes and Roussillon, about 10 km / 6 miles to the north of Bonnieux.

The GR97 from Saint Saturnin lès Apt to Lourmarin passes through the Luberon mountains around 13 km / 8 miles south of Bonnieux. Buy a large-scale hiking map IGN 3142 of the Bonnieux area.

The Forêt des cèdres (Forest of Cedars) is a huge park of shady North African trees planted in the 19th century. Take the D36 south from Bonnieux in the direction of Lourmarin: the route through the Forêt des cèdres leads off on the right about 4 km / 2.5 miles outside the village.

Look out on the road for La Tour de Philippe, an odd-looking, top-heavy tower built by local eccentric Philippe Audibert in the late 19th century. His aim: to see the sea from the top on his tower; alas he died before the work was fully completed. The tower is not currently open to visitors but it looms over the surrounding landscape.

pont julien roman bridge bonnieuxAlso off the D36 south of the village, L'Enclos des Bories is a cluster of the region's distinctive dry-stone huts, restored by the current owner of the land.

There's a small charge for the visit. Click here to read more about bories and the larger Village des Bories near Gordes.

If you're hot on the trail of the Romans in Provence, you should check out the Pont Julien, pictured. Built in the year 3 BC by order of Julius Caesar, this simple but elegant bridge spans the Calavon river 5 km / 3 miles north of Bonnieux.

Lavender fields are all around. A recommended circular lavender route passes close to the north of Bonnieux. Click here to read more about lavender in Provence.

Set between the Ventoux and Luberon appellations, Bonnieux is also in the heart of wine country. Click here to read more about the wines of Northern Provence.

Just outside Bonnieux to the north-east, the Château La Canorgue starred in A Good Year as the dilapidated winery inherited by Russell Crowe's jaded investment banker. In reality it's a busy family-owned vineyard producing organic wines.

Dating back to the 13th century, the Château de Mille, 8.5 km / 5 miles north east of Bonnieux, is one of the oldest wineries in the region. Vins des Copains is a collective of some 60 local wine-growing enthusiasts, 8 km / 5 miles to the north west.

The weekly farmers' market in Bonnieux is on Friday and runs all year round. It starts in front of the new church at the bottom of the village, and spreads up the hill as far as the place Gambetta, where the food stalls tend to be found.

Bonnieux has a popular pottery market each year during Easter weekend. From early December to early January, it has a festival of several dozen traditional and contemporary Christmas cribs, including a notable display of santons in the old church.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

The tiny Tourist Office is in a picturesque house (formerly the village forge!) built right into the rockface at 7 place Carnot, 84480 Bonnieux. Tel: (+33) 4 90 75 91 90.

The official regional website Vaucluse Tourism in Provence includes a guide to Bonnieux and other attractions and events in the area.

Bonnieux has some useful everyday amenities: a small supermarket, butcher, baker, pharmacy, post office, library, internet café, bank and ATM.

How to get to and from Bonnieux: Bonnieux is in the heart of the Parc Régional du Luberon (the Luberon Regional Park) between the villages of Lacoste and Buoux, 55 km / 34 miles south-east of Avignon.

It is served by several bus routes. Routes no.9 from Aix en Provence or Apt and no.18 from Cavaillon or Apt both stop in the centre of Bonnieux. Note, however, that bus no.15 from Avignon or Apt passes 5 km / 3 miles outside the village, by the Pont Julien and former train station.

Click here for the current timetables (look for the link marked "horaires des lignes", then choose the relevant timetable from the list).

The bus service to Bonnieux is irregular, especially during the main school holidays, and you would be better advised to drive. There are several free car-parks at the bottom of the village.

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Where to stay: In the heart of Bonnieux, Le Clos du Buis and Le César both have rooms with fabulous views across the valley. The more upscale Domaine de Capelongue has a gastronomic restaurant, the only one in Vaucluse with two Michelin stars.

Where to eat and drink: Aside from Capelongue, Bonnieux boasts an excellent range of restaurants. Locals recommend L'Arôme, L'Heure bleue (for classic cuisine with a fusion twist) and the slightly pricier (but superior) Le Fournil.

La Maison de Bonilis is great for a glass of wine and a light snack. For ice-cream, Le Tinel is the essential spot.

Photo credits (from top): © Alain Hocquel for CDT Vaucluse, Jddmano for Wikimedia Commons, Valérie Biset for CDT Vaucluse, pierrecardin.com, eugen-de for Wikimedia Commons.

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