Fountain in VenasqueA little to the north of the Luberon north-east of Avignon, elegant, golden-hued Venasque perches high on a hill overlooking Mont Ventoux and the rich valley of the River Nesque, with its vineyards and cherry orchards.

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A THUMBNAIL HISTORY

This region has been inhabited since the Neolithic Age (around the fifth century BC): Venasque owes its name to Vindasca, a Celtic-Ligurian word meaning "white rock". Later the Romans moved in, leaving their mark all over the village.

In the Middle Ages, by a quirk of history, the entire area fell under the control of the Vatican. Known as the Comtat Venaissin, it was a Papal enclave in the middle of Provence and continued to be so even after the Avignon Papacy had ended, for over five centuries from 1274 right up to the French Revolution.

Thanks to its near-impregnable location, Venasque was the original capital and still has a faintly Italianate feel. It gave the Comtat Venaissin its name and today the region continues to be referred to informally as the Comtat in commemoration of its curious past.

WHAT TO SEE

Venasque is very long and thin, like most settlements built on the crest of a hill, with superb panoramic views. It was anointed one of the official Plus Beaux Villages de France or Most Beautiful Villages of France in 1992.

Venasque and Mont VentouxBut it had already been restored and preserved back in the late 1960s, thanks to a far-seeing mayor, ensuring that the streets and houses remained relatively unspoiled and intact from ugly development.

The village itself is very pretty, of course, dotted with fountains and communal washing troughs (as with many rural areas in Provence, Venasque didn't get a mains water supply until surprisingly late, in this case the early 1960s).

It's generously decorated with plants and flowers and even the post office, with its vine-covered terrace, is a little gem.

There are three major historical sights. Just behind the church on the place du Presbytère, is the baptistère, or baptistry, pictured below, a serene and rather mystical chapel with commanding views across the valley

It lays claim to be one of the most ancient religious buildings in France: a pagan temple dedicated to Venus, Diana or Mercury stood on this site and elements of it were reused when the Christian baptistry was built in the sixth century.

Among the things you can see inside are an ancient, probably pagan altar, a fragment of white carved marble dating back to 420 AD and a large octagonal font where candidates for baptism were plunged in a ritual of total immersion.

BaptistryIt's open all year round except for a couple of weeks over Christmas and the New Year and is still used today to celebrate baptisms.

The baptistry was once connected to the adjacent church, Notre Dame, though you now have to go just round the corner to enter the latter. Like the Christian baptistry, the church was originally founded by Saint Siffrein in the sixth century.

Its chief point of interest - hanging in a little chapel right opposite the main entrance - is a very fine late 15th century painting of the crucifixion by an unknown artist of the Avignon school.

Influenced by both Siennese and the Flemish art, the piece is full of vividly portrayed characters. But it's most notable for placing not the Virgin Mary but Mary Magdalene as the focal point of the composition.

 

There's quite a cult around Mary Magdalene in Provence, who according to legend arrived here by boat at Saintes Maries de la Mer in the Camargue and was buried in Saint Maximin la Sainte Baume in the Var.

CrucifixionIt seems this crucifixion was considered significant enough to be the centrepiece of an exhibition in 1937 at the Louvre in Paris, which then "forgot" to return it.

It was only after pressure was put on the then-mayor of Avignon (who was up for re-election) that the painting was retrieved. Venasque is now justly proud of its treasure, and it's difficult to know what has delighted the locals more: getting one up on Paris or besting their own politicians.

The top of the village is dominated by the ramparts, a fortified city gate and the remains of three mighty, stubby Saracen Towers, originally built by Romans and reinforced during the Middle Ages to protect Venasque against invaders. Superb views over Mont Ventoux and the Dentelles de Montmirail are found here.

There are over 200 bories in the area around Venasque. This simple stone huts first appeared before even the Romans arrived, and continued to be used as housing until the 20th century, more recently as shepherds' shelters or sheep pens. Many are on private land but can be glimpsed from the road. If you want to find out more about them, the best place to go is the Village des Bories, a reconstructed village-cum-museum just outside Gordes.

Cherries have been grown in this part of Provence since the 17th century and it remains the largest producer in France. Those from Venasque are said to be the best: the village refers to its cherries as diamants rouges (red diamonds).

Established as an official brand in 1978, the Cerises des monts de Venasque are certainly monster-sized, 24-carat specimens: the largest ones have to be at least 28mm / over an inch in diameter.

Cherry trees near VenasqueThe orchards, pictured, are lovely in April - when we visited Venasque - though the village hasn't really capitalised on this season for cherry blossom tourism, Japanese style.

Instead, the big celebration comes when the cherries are ready with a Festival de la cerise in May or June. Venasque is also reputed for its muscat table grapes.

Two other adjacent villages belong to the same commune as Venasque, La Roque sur Pernes and Le Beaucet - they're both a short drive away though not really exceptional enough to justify a special detour. Almost deserted after the Second World War, La Roque was repopulated by immigrants from the Banat in Eastern Europe (now Romania) in the 1950s.

Their story is told in a painting hanging in the church. It also has a Château which isn't open to visitors. Le Beaucet is a postcard-pretty village with "troglodyte" houses built into the rock.

Some superb hiking paths begin, or pass through these villages: large-scale maps and a guide to ten recommended trails are on sale in Venasque at the Tourist Office. Venasque is also a good base for other sports and activities such as rock-climbing and half- or full-day donkey rides.

A number of artists' and artisans' studios can be found in Venasque and at Le Beaucet and can be visited by arrangement. In summer there's a craft market in Venasque on Friday evenings.

PRACTICAL INFORMATION

Manned by volunteers, the tiny Tourist Office half-way up the Grand rue is open from April to October only. The official regional website Vaucluse Tourism in Provence includes a guide to Venasque and other attractions in the area.

How to get to and from Venasque: Venasque is located 13 km / 8 miles south-east of Carpentras and 38 km / 23.5 miles north-east of Avignon.

It's the northernmost of a little cluster of six Most Beautiful Villages of France, all in Vaucluse, the others being Ansouis, Gordes, Lourmarin, Ménerbes and Roussillon. If you were short of time, you could drive this entire circuit in under two hours.

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There is no railway station or bus service to Venasque. The closest you can get by public transport is by bus (there are several routes and numerous departures a day) from either Avignon TGV or Avignon bus station to Carpentras, then take a taxi.

You can download the current bus timetables here. Look for the link marked "horaires des lignes", then choose the relevant timetable from the list. The new rail link connecting Avignon and Carpentras has made things a little easier.

Photo credits (from top): © Benoît Dignac for CDT Vaucluse, Dominique Bottiani for CDT Vaucluse, Gortyna for Wikimedia Commons, Crucifixion, artist unknown, at Notre Dame de Venasque, Alain Hocquel for CDT Vaucluse.

 

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