Venasque: Hilltop Jewel in Provence

Perched defiantly atop rock outcroppings that overlook the Vaucluse valley in the heart of Provence, the diminutive citadel of Venasque has outlasted waves of invaders for millennia. There were warlike Celtic hordes and Greek colonizers, Roman legions and proselytizing Moors, rampaging Visigoths and sitting Popes, not to mention French Huguenots bent upon burning the village’s eleventh century Romanesque church in 1562.

Venasque wasn’t even French until 1791, after the start of the Revolution, and that didn’t go all that smoothly (it had been Vatican turf since 1277). Reclusive by nature and fierce by necessity, its citizens were nicknamed “the wolves.” Daughters who ventured outside the clan to wed often found their unions disallowed.

Now a thriving destination for international visitors and second home owners, Venasque and its approximately 1,000 residents have risen above it all, including economic tribulations that lead to rack and ruin in the 1950s. Ironically, outsiders contributed mightily to a renaissance that began in the 1960s, in particular the American composer Gail Kubik, who catalyzed a real estate boom by buying and refurbishing a number of neglected but stately homes.

By 1993 Venasque had earned the official designation as “One of the Most Beautiful Villages in France.” Along its barely-one-car-width cobblestone lanes, inside its ivory-covered, centuries-old masonry homes that are capped with varicolored (mostly) russet tiles, around the eighteenth century fountain in the village center, no one is arguing.

The reasons for this consensus can be as simple as an early morning saunter to savor a citron tart, in nibbles, from the Clement Patisserie. Occasional murmurs of conversation escape from open kitchen windows, passing lightly over bright flower patches or creeping red trumpet vines to the street below. Varicolored village cats, not yet ready for another day of rigorous napping, yawn and stare with a soupcon of annoyance from doorways, sills and odd architectural nooks.

Where the road widens ever so slightly, one of those cute French mini-pickup trucks is parked absolutely flush to the masonry wall, in apparent defiance of the laws of physics. An elderly woman with an armful of baguettes passes, trailing the aroma of fresh baked bread behind her like the tail of a comet. Dignified nods and “Bonjours” are exchanged. Contentment fills the air like a morning mist. French Huguenots are no longer a threat, and yet at the same time it could well be 1562, or 1791. At home this mission to the bakery and back would five minutes, tops. Here it can take fifteen, easy.

Other short, slow walks about Venasque have similar savory endings, such as a shoulder of lamb with baked half tomatoes sprinkled with breadcrumbs and accompanied by a local Cote du Ventoux vintage at Les Ramparts – out on the restaurant’s terrace high above the surrounding green hillsides. Or perhaps the reward is a black current ice crème cone from the ice creme parlor, partaken while gossiping at the village fountain, which is something of a font of Babel as various languages mingle in the dusk.

Almost any stroll at some point affords a breathtaking view of Mont Ventoux across the valley, its green slopes and alabaster limestone crown standing guard over hillside villages that so many have coveted for so long.

The latest wave of intruders to wash over Venasque is a motley crew of Parisians, Germans, Americans, British, Dutch and such. In total disregard of their reputation, the townspeople have welcomed this international force by providing wonderful and varied accommodations, multiple dining and shopping opportunities, and a helpful, multi-lingual tourism office complete with an exhibition of local artists.

Arguable the most dangerous of the modern hordes is an American armed with a smattering of dimly recollected high school French. Relations between France and the United States were bad enough already this summer. And yet behind the patisserie glass a heart shaped tart with a luscious cherry center beckoned. The easiest solution would have been to point, because the buyer’s eyes were already expressively wide. Instead the patron cranked up his rusting French language mill, which hadn’t been used in decades, and put it into low gear. It wasn’t a pretty sound.

“Bonjour,” I stammered. “Un tarte de cuir, si vous plait.” Madame’s eyes were now as wide as mine. There was an uncomfortable pause that she broke with a thin smile of recognition. “Une Tarte de Coeur,” she corrected ever so gently, as she would do every day to follow. “Oui,” I replied ravenously, and obliviously. My wife informed me late in our otherwise idyllic two-week sojourn that I had been asking Madame each morning for a leather tart.

One of the charms of Venasque is its digestible size. A brisk walk from the church of Notre-Dame, which is open to the public and where mass is offered daily, uphill along the meandering roadways, through the long angled archway to the medieval towers that guard the village’s only accessible entrance, takes less than five minutes. For more ambitious perambulators the tourist office has produced a wonderful booklet available in English of ten walks in the countryside surrounding the village, past ancient oaks and grape vineyards, cherry orchards and limestone cliffs, crumbling ruins and musty caves.

Delightful itself, Venasque comes recommended as well for where it is: within easy day-trip distance to dozens of other worthy destinations. There is the city of Avignon, which the popes called home in the fourteenth century and where they built in course of three decades a palatial castle of majestic proportions whose lavish interior is filled with exquisite wall decorations, dramatic frescoes and colorful tapestries. There is Vaison la Romaine, where you can walk through acres of first century AD Roman ruins and drive across one of the few 2,000 year-old bridges still in use today.