square la roque dantheronLa Roque d'Anthéron sits at the hub of many of Provence's key destinations, from Avignon to the lavender fields of Haute Provence and Arles, Aix, Marseille and the calanques on the coast.

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In fact it seems to promote itself mainly a great touring base for a variety of other locations! Certainly La Roque d'Anthéron remains relatively off the beaten track and has (outside mid-summer) little of the touristy feel of many villages in the region.

Our impression, on a quiet afternoon in early spring, was of a place full of unrealised potential. Which, in our view, makes it all the more charming.

La Roque d'Anthéron boasts two outstanding attractions. One is the mediaeval Abbaye de Silvacane: click here to read about it.

The other, right in the heart of the village, is the 17th century Château de Florans (sometimes called the Château des Forbins).

It's now a private clinic, and closed to visitors. But the superb gardens are open for a month each year for La Roque's international piano festival.

In fact the Festival International de Piano de La Roque d'Anthéron, founded in 1981, has now become a major summer event in the European arts festival calender and features world-class artists as well as discovering new talents.

la roque dantheron piano festival2The festival specialises in piano recitals, but other instruments are also represented. In 2017 it runs from 21 July to 19 August.

The main venue is the park of the Château de Florans with its 365 ancient plane trees. In it, a special high-tech acoustic stage, pictured, that looks rather like a UFO is temporarily erected.

The festival has become so successful that it has spilled over to other sites in the village, including the Abbaye de Silvacane and La Roque's Waldensian temple.

And it now extends much further afield, to the Musée Granet and Grand Théâtre de Provence in Aix en Provence, the former quarries in Rognes, the Théâtre des Terrasses in Gordes, the Protestant temple in Lourmarin and so on. Many of these venues are open-air.

There's a choice of several concerts a night, some of them free, and the repertoire encompasses both classical and jazz. Masterclasses are held too each year by invited artists-in-residence. Website for La Roque's Festival International de Piano.

La Roque holds a country and western festival in early July called Country Roque. Also of interest: its Fête de la Cerise (Cherry Festival) in June.

But, outside these events, what is there to see? You can walk around the centre very quickly. There's a handful of shops, restaurants and bars, but little sign of those rows of boutiques selling "provençal" ceramics made in China and other tatty souvenirs.

But La Roque d'Anthéron has a secret history. In the mid 15th century the village was almost deserted. It was revived thanks to the lord of the manor, Jean de Forbin, who in 1513 invited 70 vaudois (Waldensian) families to repopulate La Roque.

 

 

The vaudois originated in Lyon in the twelfth century with Pierre Valdo, a rich merchant who vowed to give up all his worldly goods and observe a life of poverty and simplicity. Over the years he drew more and more followers.

waldensian quarter la roque dantheronThe Catholic church was quick to crack down and excommunicate the "heretics". Soon they were fleeing their homelands.

And these hard-working, God-fearing peasants were, De Forbin thought, just the people to help revive his dying village.

La Roque d'Anthéron was not alone in inviting the vaudois to settle on the land. Other communes such as Lourmarin, Lacoste and Pertuis also took them in. Eventually around seventy per cent of the population in the region was vaudois.

But Catholic pressure continued to mount and a few decades later, in 1545, there was a terrible massacre.

Three thousand vaudois were killed within a week. The survivors fled: to elsewhere in Europe and as far as South Africa and the Americas.

Today there's little obvious sign of this bloody history in the tiny vaudois quarter of La Roque d'Anthéron, a jumble of picturesque ramshackle houses and pretty squares such as the one pictured below.

But, on a private guided tour, we heard about its maze of underground cellars and tunnels (now blocked off) where the vaudois hid from their persecutors.

The alleyways, much too narrow for horses, were designed to enable them to escape more easily. In one pink-painted house, a tiny copy of a Bible translated into the vernacular (one of the projects funded by Valdo) was found hidden in the wall.

la roque dantheron squareAt the centre of the quartier vaudois is an austere little Protestant temple, with an incongruously splendid altar and font salvaged from a church sacked during the French Revolution and a superb Walcker organ

When we visited in spring 2015, a map was available at the Tourist Office. It traces out a self-guided tour which you can complete in around ten minutes.

However there's not much information in the leaflet and it would certainly be helpful to have a few explanatory plaques on the route itself.

Even the temple is normally locked! Perhaps La Roque will make more of this history eventually, but if you're interested in it, you'll really need to take a tour.

It seems cheating slightly to claim the eleventh century Chapelle Sainte Anne de Goiron as being in La Roque d'Anthéron. It's eight km / five miles south-west of the village and actually slightly closer to nearby Lambesc, from where it's a considerably easier drive.

From La Roque you get up there through a densely wooded area and a twisting, very narrow route with few passing places. If driving, keep your fingers crossed that you don't meet an oncoming car!

At the top of the hill, you are richly rewarded. This remote and atmospheric place boasts sensational views and terrific, well-marked hiking trails.

memorial la roqueAround the chapel are some graves and, if it's open, you'll see some ex voto offerings inside. Watch out too for troglodyte houses carved into the rocks, some of them decorated with and guarded by roughly sculpted, slightly menacing heads.

The inaccessibility of the place, its remoteness and dense vegetation made this a perfect base for the maquis (French Resistance) during the Second World War, and its fallen fighters are marked by a surprisingly enormous war memorial in an isolated nearby clearing.

Right by the chapel itself is a much smaller, simple and poignant shrine, pictured, to one Jean Soler, shot there by the Germans, aged 18. At least this young hero spent his last moments in a spot of exceptional beauty.

Note that because of the severe fire risk in summer access on foot and by car may be restricted by law between 1 June and 30 September.

During this period there are three risk levels: orange (access authorised), red (access authorised between 6am and 11am) and black (access banned).

The level varies according to weather conditions and is set daily at 6pm for the following day. It's available on the official helpline, tel (+33) 8 11 20 13 13, in English as well as French and published (in French only) on the Bouches du Rhône regional website.

Unlike many villages in the area, La Roque d'Anthéron boasts several nice family-friendly attractions.

Three km / two miles from the centre is the Park of Giant Labyrinths (Le Parc des Labyrinthes Géants), pictured. It claims to be one of the biggest permanent mazes in the world. Click here to read more about it.

Horse lovers should not miss the Launes haras (stud and training farm). Here, for over thirty years, two brothers, Christian and Gérard Philip, have been raising and training Lipizzaner horses.

parc_des_labyrinthes_la_roque_dantheronThese graceful pale grey beasts are famed for their elegant, ballet-like jumps and manoeuvres: the Spanish Riding School in Vienna is the classic place to see them perform.

The Lipzzaner haras at La Roque is one of the largest private breeding stables in Europe with over a hundred horses. It occasionally has open days but you can observe the horses at any time from the side of the field, where a picnic area has been set up, or make an appointment with the stables to learn more about them.

Elevage Philip, Conservatoire Français du Cheval Lipizzan, avenue Durance,13640 La Roque d Anthéron. Tel: (+33) 4 42 50 55 33 Website for the Lipizzaner horses stud farm.

Croq'Jardin is an educational garden on the outskirts of La Roque designed to teach children about organic farming. Quartier les Bouygons, 13640 La Roque d'Anthéron. Tel: (+33) 6 37 20 05 85

 

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

The Tourist Office is located in the former Musée de géologie et d'ethnographie (whose contents appears to have been dismantled). It's a cavernous building on two levels on the cours Foch.

As well as a collection of leaflets and literature on La Roque d'Anthéron, it hosts temporary exhibitions but was rather empty and underused when we visited. Website for the Town Hall and Tourist Office of La Roque d'Anthéron.

La Roque's small weekly farmers' market is on the cours Foch on Thursday mornings.

How to get to and from La Roque d'Anthéron: La Roque d'Anthéron is located 31 km / 19 miles north of Aix en Provence and 63 km / 39 miles south-east of Avignon.

By car: From the A51 motorway take exit no.14 towards Le Puy Sainte Réparade. From the A7 motorway take exit no.25 towards Cavaillon.

Note that La Roque d'Anthéron is in the département of the Bouches du Rhône, but close to the border with neighbouring Vaucluse. If approaching it from the Vaucluse side, you may not find it well signposted!

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By bus: Bus no.86 from Salon de Provence takes about 45 minutes. Bus no.250 from Aix en Provence takes about forty five minutes. Bus no.251 from Pertuis and Le Puy Sainte Reparade takes about twenty five minutes from Pertuis. Click here for the timetables (choose the relevant route number in the menu tab).

le grain de sel la roque dantheronWhere to eat: The obvious place is the Auberge du Castellas, a traditional gastronomic restaurant at 10 rue de l'Église in the middle of the village. However this time our local insider tip (merci, Lionel!) was Le Grain de Sel at 8 avenue de l'Europe Unie.

It's a short walk uphill from the Old Town to the modern part of La Roque where the restaurant is by the bus station and new Town Hall.

It appears to be an annexe to the Salle des Fêtes (municipal function room), and probably supplies its catering.

Behind the bland façade is a nice modern dining room, but the place to eat in summer is the large, shady outdoor terrace, pictured.

When we visited, crowds of workers were having lunch there to the sound of children playing at the neighbouring school. It has a lovely, informal atmosphere and excellent food.

The midday menu offers a very cheap set lunch (main course, dessert and glass of wine). We had a home-made burger and a vegetable and fish stir-fry, followed by a classy, intensely flavoured strawberry charlotte. The evening menu is even more ambitious.

If you're just after an ice-cream, the go-to place is Le Quillé at 3 cours Foch, a new outpost of the very popular ice-cream parlour of the same name in Miramas le Vieux.

Photo credits (from top): © SJ for Marvellous Provence, Festival International de Piano de la Roque d'Anthéron, SJ for Marvellous Provence (three images}, Le Parc des Labyrinthes Géants, SJ for Marvellous Provence.

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