Gordes general view2Even among the showstopping hill villages of Vaucluse, Gordes is a stunner. Rearing up high on the slopes of the Monts de Vaucluse, the golden stone stronghold is a majestic sight.

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No wonder Gordes - one of the official Plus Beaux Villages de France, or Most Beautiful Villages of France - is a top tourist attraction in Provence. We discovered it in early April, when it was peaceful, relaxed and beguiling. In summer expect thick crowds, traffic and soaring prices.

A THUMBNAIL HISTORY

Gordes has always displayed a proud independent spirit. It was a centre of opposition when Provence was swallowed up by the kingdom of France in 1481. A century later it was in the vanguard of the Vaudois (Waldensian, Reformist church) movement.

During the Second World War Gordes was a major base for the French Resistance. The super Cercle Républicain café (see below) is another legacy of this long militant tradition.

As its mighty Château suggests, Gordes was for centuries a rich and thriving community. Apart from the standard agriculture, garance (madder), the pigment used to make les indiennes, the distinctive, traditional fabrics of Provence was grown here. Olive oil was pressed, silk and wool were woven, tanneries produced leather and shoemakers made shoes. In short, Gordes was a hive of activity.

Gradually, like so many villages in rural France, Gordes declined in the course of the 20th century (a series of major earthquakes in the region didn't help). And by the Second World War only a few hundred people remained.

But rescue was at hand. Seduced by its dramatic beauty, a group of artists, including Marc Chagall, Willy Ronis, Victor Vasarely and Belgium's Pol Mara moved in permanently or came to spend the summer here.

In more recent years swarms of tourists have followed suit, securing its prosperity. (Based in the Hôtel Simiane, a former 18th century hospital set in enormous grounds, the Mairie is one of the hugest village town halls we have ever seen.)

WHAT TO SEE

Gordes' houses, even the new buildings, are constructed using a variant of the dry-stone technique typical of this part of Provence (the nearby Village des Bories is a traditional example of how it was employed historically). Stones also pave Gordes' steep and narrow, arcaded alleys, known locally as calades, pictured.

Back street in GordesThese thread their way between the houses and you can wander up and down them at random to discover sudden, dizzying panoramas across the plain towards the Luberon Mountains.

Some calades lead down to the Théâtre des Terrasses, an open-air amphitheatre used for jazz and classical music and theatre presentations and an arts festival in August, the Soirees d'Été de Gordes. The views across the plain are so dazzling, though, that you wonder anyone watches the shows.

Slap bang in the middle of Gordes is its centrepiece, the massive Château, pictured below, the earliest, mediaeval parts of which date back to 1031. Like other châteaux in Provence, it was rebuilt in the Renaissance style in the 16th century and a swirling spiral staircase sweeps you up to the salle d'honneur (reception room) with a majestic and ornate fireplace: it's still used today for weddings.

Chateau de GordesEntrance to the Château is free and, even if you're not wildly interested in architecture, it's well worth a look inside just for the exhibitions.

The main one, a permanent installation about the history of Gordes and the region, is informative, illustrated and translated into English.

There's also a small but very fine collection of major artworks. Vasarely, the father of Op Art, rented and supervised the restoration of the Château after the Second World War and in 1970 created a Musée Didactique (Didactic Museum) there containing hundreds of his works.

Many of these disappeared during a bitter family squabble and the Musée closed down in 1996. The most spectacular Vasarely collection in the region is now at the Fondation Vasarely in Aix en Provence: click here to read about it and the family's troubled history.

News for Gordes ChateauSome major pieces by Vasarely have temporarily returned to Gordes! In 2015 five Aubusson tapesties and a large Rosenthal ceramic were loaned by the Vasarely Foundation to the Château, where they will remain on display in the salle d'honneur for several years.

You can also see work by Mara (whose real name is Léopold Leysen) and other artists who lived in the village. The Château additionally hosts temporary exhibitions.

A Romanesque church rebuilt in the 18th century, the Église Saint Firmin has a colourful, painted interior. The crack above the altar is a souvenir of one of the worst recent earthquakes, the 1909 tremblement de terre in nearby Lambesc which also left its mark on the Abbaye de Sénanque.

Almost opposite the church, the Caves du Palais Saint Firmin (the Cellars of the Palais Saint Firmin) offer a glimpse into a mysterious underground world. A fortified hill village where space was limited, Gordes developed an extensive network of cellars carved into the rock for use as storage areas and artisans' workshops.

Recently excavated and opened to the public in 1999, the huge cellars of Saint Firmin consist of over 50 troglodyte and semi-troglodyte caves extending over seven levels and linked by passages and stairways. Just a small part of the village's massive secret subterranean labyrinth, they include water cisterns, oil mills, a bread oven, storehouses and more - and also provided the inhabitants with hiding places and escape routes in times of trouble.

Gordes general viewThe visit of the cellars consists of a ten-minute documentary (with English subtitles), an audio-guided tour in a number of languages accompanied by atmospheric lighting and sound effects, and a small museum of objects discovered during the excavation of the cellars.

The Caves du Palais Saint Firmin are open from 1 May to 30 September only. Website for the Caves du Palais Saint Firmin.

Behind the church, the 14th century Aumônerie Saint Jacques welcomed pilgrims walking the Way of Saint James to Santiago de Compostela. The stonework decoration here and on the nearby rue des Clastres includes scallop shells, the symbol of Saint James.

At the entrance to Gordes the Chapelle des Pénitents Blancs or White Penitents' Chapel was once a fire station. Today it houses temporary art exhibitions.

Finally, in a lovely park on the route de Saint Pantaléon, 4 km / 2.5 miles south of Gordes, are two unusual museums. On a site dating back to the Gallo-Roman era, the Musée du Moulin des Bouillons has an oil press - reportedly the oldest surviving example in the world - made of a massive oak tree trunk, plus exhibits on the production of olive oil and Savon de Marseille (Marseille soap).

Glass panel Museum of GlassAdjacent but separate is the Musée du Verre et du Vitrail, a Museum of Glass and Stained Glass founded by Frédérique Duran, a distinguished stained glass artist who cast her own first piece at the age of five and went on to develop a life-long passion.

Her museum's mission is demonstrate the key role of glass in civilisation over 7,000 years, from ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia to the present day, through its decorative value and the essential role it had to play in technological innovation. The museum also aims to celebrate the medium's mysterious magic.

Its contents are a mix of ancient treasures gathered by Madame Duran on her travels, scientific exhibits and her own striking and unusual creations, both huge and brilliant stained glass windows (one of them is pictured above) and, outside in the gardens, monumental metal sculptures that revolve gently in the wind.

Mixing history, science and art, these educational, elegantly presented museums might not be as well known as Gordes' high-profile attractions, but both are great excursions to escape from the heat and crowds, particularly for families with older children.

The English-language labelling could be better, but ask for a multi-lingual tour. Both museums have disabled access and a combination ticket is available. Website for the Moulin des Bouillons and the Musée du Verre et du Vitrail

 

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

The Tourist Office is by the entrance to the Château, on your right as you go in. Here you can pick up a handy free street plan with a suggested self-guided walk (in several languages) round the village. Tel: (+33) 4 90 72 02 75. Website for the Gordes Tourist Office.

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

Gordes' weekly market is on Tuesday mornings on the square by the Château.

 

 

How to get to and from Gordes: Gordes is 39 km / 24 miles east of Avignon. It forms part of a small pocket of six of the Plus Beaux Villages de France or Most Beautiful Villages of France, the other five being Ansouis, Lourmarin, Ménerbes, Roussillon, and Venasque. If you were short of time, you could drive this entire circuit in under two hours.

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There's no train station in Gordes: the nearest ones are in L'Isle sur la Sorgue and Cavaillon, from where it's a 17 km / 11 mile taxi ride. The village is served by one rather infrequent bus route, no.17 from Cavaillon to Apt. Click here for the current timetable (look for the link marked "horaires des lignes", then choose the relevant timetable from the list).

The Grande Randonnée GR6 long-distance hiking footpath passes through Gordes. In the immediate area this section of footpath also leads to such nearby attractions as the Abbaye de Sénanque, Rustrel and its "provençal Colorado" and Roussillon and the ochre trail. Buy a large-scale hiking map IGN 3142 of the Gordes area.

Where to stay and where to eat and drink: We spent the night and dined at the Mas de la Sénancole, which was very good value, though somewhat outside Gordes itself.

The commune now boasts no fewer than three Michelin-starred restaurants. Pèir at La Bastide de Gordes, was a new arrival in 2016. Les Bories is on the road towards the Abbaye de Sénanque 2 km / 1 mile north of Gordes and the Hostellerie Le Phébus in nearby Joucas, 6 km / 4 miles to the north-east.

Cercle Republicain GordesFor drinks, we wandered by chance into the inconspicuous Cercle Républicain, pictured, on the main square It turned out to be an historic café founded in 1911 as part of France's network of Cercles Républicains.

These consisted of groups of revolutionaries and republicans formed to combat the influence of royalists and the Church. At one time there were over 700 such Cercles in Vaucluse, including 13 in Gordes alone. Today only 26 remain in the whole of France.

Though this particular Cercle Républicain is right next to a very posh estate agency selling multi-million €uro second homes, it still has, with its billiard table and no-frills interior, something of the feel of an unassuming workers' caff rather than a smart bistro.

View from Gordes across the valleyOccasionally it also hosts live music events. The prices are right, too, even including the small surcharge for service on the handkerchief-sized outdoor terrace perched spectacularly over the valley. Pictured: the view from the terrace of the Cercle Républicain in Gordes.

Photo credits (from top): © Thorston Brönner for CDT Vaucluse, RWS for Marvellous Provence, Gortyna for Wikimedia Commons, Eric Hossinger for Wikimedia Commons, Albane46 for Wikimedia Commons, SJ for Marvellous Provence (two images).

 

 

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