Vacation rentals in France (farms, cottages, gites, apartments)
Hiking in the Luberon
Kathy Wood (Kaydee)
Our family really enjoys hiking. On our travels in Europe, we've hiked in England, Scotland, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, and France, including several long-distance hikes of 50 to 190 miles. We think hiking is a wonderful way to explore a region, to see places most tourists never see, and to personally experience the unique beauty of the countryside.
During our six-and-a-half month stay in Provence (October 2004 to mid April 2005), seeing the Luberon on foot became one of our major priorities - actually, our passion! Charley and I hiked over 30 times, probably racking up over 200 miles. During our last six weeks we hiked about three times a week. Our daughter Kelly (age 11) attended the village school in Bonnieux, but she joined us at least once a week. Our hikes ranged from one hour to six hours. We hiked on the Luberon Mountains and the Vaucluse Plateau and in the valley and hills in between. We hiked through small villages, by ancient ruins, up narrow gorges, through farms and vineyards, and along the edge of cliffs. We enjoyed some of these hikes so much that we returned a second time and even a third, bringing others with us on these repeat visits.
As we look back on our magical time in the Luberon, we realize that one reason we connected so much with this area is because we got to know it intimately on foot. Experiencing an area on foot, in slow motion, really is the ultimate "slow travel."
On the Falaise at Lioux
The Luberon is a great destination for a walking vacation. There is an extensive and accessible network of walking paths and trails, linking villages that are often just a few miles apart. Many organizations sponsor guided or self-guided tours in this area or you can put together your own backpacking or inn-to-inn walking trip. Other serious walkers may want to base out of a rental house and plan a series of circular day hikes.
But you don't have to be a "serious" walker to enjoy hiking in the Luberon. We encourage all visitors to the Luberon to experience this area on foot. There are trails for people of all abilities, including many hikes which are very suitable for families with younger children. Step away from the other tourists for a few hours, forget those colorful markets, leave the beautiful villages behind. Enjoy a picnic on a rock instead of a three-course lunch in a restaurant. Spend a morning or afternoon in countryside and you'll experience another dimension of Provence.
Why We Love Hiking in the Luberon
When to Hike
Winter, spring and fall are the ideal times to hike in Provence, since mid-summer can often be too hot with temperatures up above 100. If you do hike in the summer, try to hike in the early morning or late afternoon, focus on shaded routes, and be sure to take plenty of water. Summer is typically a very dry time of year, and some areas may be closed for hiking due to risk of fires.
We did most of our serious hiking from mid-January to mid-April, partly inspired by the book of Luberon hikes I gave Charley for Christmas! We decided that we would complete at least half of the 25 hikes in the book before we had to leave the Luberon. (We actually ended up doing 15 of them and are determined to finish the rest in future visits to Provence.) We hiked during the week and on weekends. We did hike in winter weather that required coats, hats and gloves, but there were also winter days (as early as January 25th) when we hiked without jackets in the early-afternoon. One day we hiked in a light drizzle, but it really didn't rain (or snow) much in Provence. The weather is usually fairly mild.
We didn't encounter many hikers while hiking during the week. Many days we didn't see anyone at all. The one exception was the day we hiked over the Petit Luberon from the Gorges de Regalon to Oppede-le-Vieux and ran into what must have been a hiking club of senior citizens, sixty-eight of them, all headed enthusiastically up a very steep path! Sunday seemed like a very popular day for local people to hike (I suspect because the shops are all closed), and we often did meet pairs, small groups, and families on the more popular trails.
Hunting is a major sport in Provence, and the hiking season runs from mid-October into February, depending on the type of game. You can safely hike at this time of year, but you must be very alert for hunters and be sure to stay on the main trails. The hunters we encountered were polite and seemed safety-conscious. We'd suggest nodding, smiling, and saying "Bonjour, Monsieur." Most of the hunting dogs wear big bells, so you will likely hear hunters before you see them. (The first time we heard these bells in the woods, we thought they were sheep being herded across the mountain!) During hunting season you should always wear bright clothes; a red jacket instead of a brown jacket.
Types of Trails and Trail Markings
There are over 110,000 miles of major walking trails in France! I don't know how many mile of trails there are in the Luberon, but it's very substantial. There are many, many marked trails.
Walking trails are marked by small slashes painted on trees, rocks, utility poles, fence posts, even buildings. In the Luberon there is also a system of signposts with bright gold signs at key trail intersections. You may also encounter informal signage that someone has erected to help point people in the right direction. The trail or route is often very clear, but you must still always watch the markings very carefully.
Trail markers painted on a rock
Sometimes the markings (called fleches in French) will simply indicate you are headed in the right direction, but in other places they are painted with an angle and indicate that you need to turn. When you see the markings painted in a big "X," that means the trail doesn't go that way. (See samples of the French trail markings here.)
It's risky to go on a hike relying just on the markings. Trails change, vegetation covers the marks, paint fades away. There may be long stretches of trail with no marking whatsoever, or your route may even head off the primary trail. Where several trails coincide, you'll often encounter more than one set of colored markings in the same place. So you need a good map and ideally some written directions as well.
There are several different kinds of trails in France.
Many of the villages and towns in the Luberon have developed and maintain local trails, usually through an association of volunteers. If you are staying in a village with a tourist office, we suggest you stop there first and ask for any information or suggestions about hikes that originate from your village. We were especially impressed with the trail system outside of St. Saturnin-les-Apt where several different routes up on the Vaucluse Plateau were identified and marked. There are also several trails that lead out of the village of Goult, several of which focus on a recently-restored area demonstrating terraced farming.
Hiking sign post in the Luberon
Look for the signposts with gold signage that mark many of the major routes in the Luberon. These signposts are placed at major trail intersections (sometimes in villages or on roadways). The signpost gives a name to the location (often the name of the closest nearby farm or other landmark) and the elevation. Directional signs then point the way to the next signpost(s) with the distance in kilometers.
We made several inquiries to try to determine who was responsible for these yellow signs and also if there was a special map available that included all the sign locations and the routes between them, but were never able to get any information.
One word of caution-the trails are not consistently marked between the gold signposts, so don't assume that if you head off in a particular direction that you will easily find your way to the next signpost.
One resource for simple hiking routes and maps is the local tourist office. Early in our visit we stopped at the Tourist Office in Bonnieux and asked for a map of hiking trails. They gave us a little sheet with a couple of short hikes in the immediate area. We got a similar sheet at the Lourmarin Tourist Office. I really wanted the information from the St. Saturnin office (since they have a fairly substantial network of trails), but we didn't get there during their open hours in the off-season. Some areas have a big map posted in a parking lot showing various trails leading out from that location. I saw these at the Colorado Rustrel and St. Saturnin.
If your hike has any kind of complexity, you must have a trail map. The Institut Geographique National (IGN) publishes 350 different hiking maps of France. The Luberon is mapped with the following three maps with a blue cover:
We bought one of our maps at the tabac in Bonnieux and the second map at a bookstore in Apt. You can order these maps prior to your trip, but they are widely available in the Luberon towns and villages at bookstores, tabacs and other tourist shops. (We paid 9.50 euro for our maps in October 2004.) These maps are to a scale of 1:25,000 and show the towns, villages and hamlets; major roads, gravel roads, and tracks; GR and PR trails; and many large farms by name. (For example, we could easily identify the property lines of the farm where we lived on the map, though it wasn't specified by name.) The IGN maps don't correspond perfectly to the "gold signs," but can be used in conjunction with the signs to identify your location and direction.
I'm confident that you'll be able to get the maps you need once you are in Provence. But if you feel that you need to have the maps before you go, Omnimap is an on-line American resource (located in North Carolina) where you can apparently order the IGN maps for $14.95 each.
We also had two good books of hikes in the Luberon, which became the main resources for our hikes. Both of these books are in French and unfortunately are not available in English. My French was good enough that I was able to work with these books pretty easily, though I always translated and wrote out the directions in English before the hike. On one our early hikes, I didn't do this and just took the book with me. We misunderstood a critical part of the directions, guessing incorrectly at the translation. We ended up getting very tangled up and lost a lot of time trying to figure out where to go. After that, I always used my dictionary to go over the directions before the hike. One side benefit is that I did improve my French skills and now know a lot of the hiking terminology!
Our two guidebooks are:
Choosing a Hike
There are many options if you want to hike in the Luberon. You can go out for an hour or two or for most of a day. You can do a difficult hike or something much easier. You can hike up high or down low, in the middle or nowhere or through a village. Unless you are skilled at using an ordnance map to design your own hikes, it's really best to go on a hike that has been documented and described in detail using a guidebook or some other resource. We give you directions for a couple of really good hikes here and also include internet links to a couple of hikes documented (in French) on the internet.
The best hikes are circular hikes that begin and end in the same place and don't involve doubling back on the same route. Hikes that begin in one place and end up several miles away are much more complicated and involve coordinating with a friend or a taxi service.
In this area, the more challenging hikes involve a combination of distance and elevation gain (climbing). We went on a couple of hikes that were very challenging (even potentially dangerous) that included minor rock climbing, sometimes even requiring the use of ropes, chains and small metal footholds. These were great fun, and we even returned with our 11-year old daughter, but we don't recommend this level of hiking unless you are experienced.
If you're looking for an easier hike, don't try to climb "up" one of the mountains, even though they're not really all that high. Choose a route like the Foret de Cedres near Bonnieux where you gain elevation in your car (and walk once you're at the top) or do one of the many beautiful hikes down in the valley.
Father and daughter on an easy hiking route
What to Wear and Take with You
You do need to be in reasonable physical condition to hike in the Luberon. Although we have seen elderly people with canes, families with toddlers, and well-dressed women in spiky heeled shoes in the strangest places, these seemed to be local people who somehow know what they are doing. You don't want to have an accident out on a hiking path in a foreign country and don't want to run the risk of ruining a special vacation. We recommend good socks and sturdy walking shoes for any walking (even in the villages). You should wear hiking boots whenever you hike on rocky or mountainous trails.
Regardless of the time of year, be sure to take plenty of water, a first-aid kit, and an extra layer in the event of a change in temperature. even on what seems like a short walk. You may also want to take a French telephone card, your phrase book, and definitely a snack. (We always like to hike with candy bars.)
And don't forget your map and guidebook information!
Despite the presence of hunters in the autumn, we didn't see any wild animals in our 200 miles of hiking in the Luberon. (Nor did we ever see a hunter who appeared to be carrying something he had shot!) The one animal you could possible encounter is a "sanglier" or wild boar, which do inhabit the forests and fields of the Luberon and are a major target of the hunters. We did see evidence of the sangliers on our walks-mainly tossed-up areas of terrain where the boars had rooted for food, but we never saw one of the animals. We also saw a couple of watering holes which hunters had constructed to try to attract the sangliers while they laid in wait. Sangliers do most of their roaming at night.
The only other animals we encountered were dogs. Hikers and dogs sometimes have a cautious relationship, as dogs don't always like you to get too close to the house they're protecting. But our two encounters with dogs were both positive. One big black dog (with very strange yellow eyes) met up with us at the Chappelle de Saint-Veran, and much to Kelly's delight, followed us on the entire hike. We decided that he probably waited at the chapel every day to hook up with a hiker for his daily exercise. The second dog, also a big black dog, decided he liked us in the village of Lioux. We allowed him to tag along with us for several miles and even to share our lunch, thinking that he'd finish the circular walk with us and end up back at home. Unfortunately, several miles into the walk, we ended up hiking down a narrow gorge that had several very steep drops involving ladders and footholds. The poor black dogs couldn't get down, and we couldn't figure out how to carry him. We ended up leaving him at the top of a drop, hoping desperately that he would find his way home. The morale of this story is to not adopt strange dogs, no matter how much they want to be your hiking companion!
Many people in France do hike with dogs. We took care of the owners'-of-our-house black poodle Juno for several months and often took her on our walks. Juno was blind, and it was amazing to see her confidence on the hiking trail. "I'm being led down the trail by my blind dog," I would sometimes say to Charley.
A Few of our Favorite Hikes
We've chosen four of our favorite hikes that are described in detail when you click the link. These are hikes we recommend for people who are visiting Provence for a week or two and want to dedicate a couple of hours to hiking. All four hikes are relatively easy and provide a unique experience and usually a fabulous view. You don't need to be a highly experienced hiker, but you do need to be in reasonable shape and able to use a map. We've provided some basic directions, but you will also need the designated map.
On the south side of the Petit Luberon
Other Great Hikes in the Luberon
Here are a couple of other hikes we really enjoyed. They are all described in either Randonnees en Provence - Luberon or Balades en Luberon.
Luberon Hikes on the Internet
We found descriptions of several hikes in the Luberon on the Internet. These are all in French, but you might find this a helpful way to improve your skills.
baladeenfamille.free.fr/villes/cavaillon/colorado.html - an easy walk in the brightly-colored Colorado Rustrel.
baladeenfamille.free.fr/villes/buoux/buoux.html - an easy walk at Fort de Buoux that includes prehistoric caves; 9th century stone burial tombs; the ruins of an ancient fort, village and chateau; and the tiny village of Sivergues.
baladeenfamille.free.fr/villes/cavaillon/cheval_merindol.html - an easy walk south of the Luberon near Merindol.
www.luberon-apt.fr/ballades/pieds_mourre.htm - a hike to Mourre Negre (the highest point in the Luberon mountains) from Auribeau, a small village near Saignon.
www.lagnes.fr - a couple of hikes originating from the village of Lagnes, west of Gordes.
Other Resources - Walking in the Luberon
The headquarters of the Parc Naturel du Luberon is on Place Jean-Jaures
in the center of Apt. The park office has a small museum and also a lot of
resources on the park. You can buy maps, booklets, and guidebooks (in French)
www.franceonfoot.com - The best resource on the internet about walking in France. The website is managed by the author of the book of the same name. There is some information here on walking in the Luberon, but the website cover all of France.)
www.beyond.fr/sports/hiking.html - General information about hiking in Provence.
www.walkingontheweb.co.uk/countries/France.htm - A British site with a variety of information and resources for the serious walker.
www.luberon-news.com/randonnees/ - More information about hiking in the Luberon, including a list of Tourist Office addresses (in French).
www.traildatabase.org/countries/france.html - An international hiking website (originating from the Netherlands). This is the page with links about France.
www.ffrandonnee.fr - Website of La Federation Francaise de la Randonnee Pedestre (in French).
www.ign.fr - Website for the Institute Geographique National (in French).
baladeenfamille.free.fr - Website on family hiking in France (in French).
Resources for Maps and Books
Beyond Provence - A list of guidebooks and maps for hiking in Provence. This list is in English.
www.web-provence.com/livres-randonnees.htm - A list of books that include hikes in the Luberon. (The list and the books are all in French.)
www.bestwalks.com/france/provencebooks.htm - British site that includes Provence maps and hiking guidebooks.
francewalkingtours.com - North American resource for maps and guidebooks related to walking in France.
Other Luberon-Related Hiking Books You May be Able to Find
France on Foot (from amazon.com) - Published in the USA. Excellent general resource for the serious walker with a little information on Provence.
Le Parc Naturel Regional du Luberon pied - FFRP guide (from amazon.fr) - details 24 walks in the park.
Holiday Walks in Provence (from amazon.co.uk)
Walking in Provence (Cicerone Guide) (from amazon.co.uk) - features 24 walks in all parts of Provence, including the Luberon.
FFRP topo-guide #PN04, Parc du Luberon (in English) - it appears this book is now out of print.
52 Balades in Provence (Petites Traces Vertes) - published by Didier Richard
Les Guides IGN: GR 9, 91-92-97: Tour du Luberon et du Ventoux (ref. 905) - several hikes and multi-day loops in the park.
Les Guides IGN: PR Dans le Parc Regional du Luberon (ref. 615) - 20 circular hikes near Merindol, Lourmarin, Viens, Oppedette
Self-Guided Walking Tours in the Luberon
After reading this or after a day hike or two in the Luberon, you may decide you'd like to do a more substantial walking trip. We've done four "self-guided, inn-to-inn" walking tours in other parts of Europe, including a 50+ mile walk in the Alsace region of France. This is a wonderful way to experience a region and get some great exercise too. Although we haven't done a self-guided walking tour in the Luberon, I think it is an absolutely wonderful destination for a walking vacation like this.
We like the "inn to inn" tours where you walk every day from one village to your accommodation in another village, typically eight to 15 miles away. Some tours base you in one or two locations for a week and give you the option of doing various walks each day. We like - or maybe we need - the discipline of having to walk every day. The tour operator provides you with the route, map and directions; books your accommodations (normally including breakfast), and arranges for your luggage to be transported each day to your next destination. Most of these tours allow you to start on any day of the week in a certain period of the year, and you might also be able to organize variations to the standard route. You are free to leave every morning on your own schedule, eat lunch at your leisure, cheat and take a taxi on a rainy day, and even to get lost if you don't follow your directions well. At the same time, you're very likely to meet up with other walkers following along a similar route and enjoy some very positive camaraderie along the way.
Here are some resources for self-guided walking tours in the Luberon. The routes are similar and there are some differences. This is at least a starting point if you want to investigate a self-guided walking vacation.
Sherpa Tours - A British tour operator that runs self-guided tours in Europe and other parts of the world. We have done three of our four self-guided tours through Sherpa and highly recommend them. This route in the Luberon is a new offering and travels through the Gorge de Regalon ultimately ending up in Apt. I like the looks of it! (Note, they specify they do not operate in July and August due to the heat.) Slow Travel is an affiliate of Sherpa Tours.
World Walks - This is another British tour operator based in the Cotswolds. We did our first long-distance walk through them (in the Cotswolds) and found them very flexible and responsive. Their Luberon route travels from Fontaine-la-Vaucluse, through Gordes, Roussillon, and Bonnieux to Lourmarin.
HF Holidays - Yet another British company. Their walk takes you from Cereste (north of the Grand Luberon) through Rustrel and Apt, across the mountain to Lourmarin, down to Merindol, then back over the Petit Luberon to Oppede-le-Vieux. 7-1/2 to 11 miles per day with about 1500 feet of ascent each day.
Hidden Trails - An outdoor adventure company based in Canada. Their trip takes a route from Rustrel to Viens, Saignon, Apt, Buoux and Bonnieux.
Sentiers de France - A French company. Their Luberon walk begins at Fontaine-la-Vaucluse, then onto Gordes, Roussillon, Rustrel, Viens, Cucuron, Bonnieux and Apt. Some transfers are made by taxi.
Discover France - A diversified American-owned tour operator offering bicycle and hiking tours in France as well as tours and hotels in Paris. Their route seems to be the same as Sentiers de France, so I suspect there is some affiliation.
La Ligne Verte - a French tour operator offering bicyle and walking trips. Their Luberon route begins and ends in Apt, including Cereste, Viens, Rustrel, Auribeau, Buoux, and Bonnieux.
Other Walks and Travels with the Wood Family
A Hike in the Luberon: Our walk across the Petit Luberon, from the Gorges du Regalon (south side) to Oppede-le-Vieux (north side). A Slow Travel postcard.
Our 50+ mile Walk in the Cotswolds: Our first long-distance walk, part of a two-week trip to England in May/June 2002. A Slow Travel trip report.
Alsace in Slow Motion: Our 50+ mile walk in the vineyards and mountains of Alsace, France in May 2003. A Slow Travel trip report.
England in Slow Motion: 190 miles on the Coast-to-Coast Walk: Our most difficult walk from the west coast of England to the east in August 2004. A Slow Travel trip report.
www.slowphotos.com/photo/showgallery.php?cat=3425: Hiking in the Luberon (Bonnieux to Lacoste)
www.slowphotos.com/photo/showgallery.php?cat=3769: Hiking in the Luberon (The Falaise at Lioux)
www.slowphotos.com/photo/showgallery.php?cat=3770: Hiking in the Luberon (Saint-Veran)
www.slowphotos.com/photo/showgallery.php?cat=3771: Hiking in the Luberon (Gorges de Regalon)
www.slowphotos.com/photo/showgallery.php?cat=3783: Hiking in the Luberon (Other Great Hikes)
Woods Family Grand Tour of Europe: List of articles and photo albums by Kathy Wood
© Kathy Wood, 2005
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