East of Avignon lies one of the premier vacation areas in the Northern Provence, the Comtat Venaissin often referred to simply as the Comtat. Comtat means county in its original sense, that is the land belonging to a count and Venassin refers to the village of Venasque, the former bishop seat. Highlights are the historic town of Carpentras, the perched village of Venasque, Le Barroux on the southern slopes of Mt.Ventoux, the Nesque Gorges, the town of Sault and the many picturesque villages in between. You will find plenty of sunshine, clean air, blue skies, the scent of the Provençal garrigue and many hideaway type accommodations here.
The Comtat Venaissin belonged to the Holy See in Rome for more than 500 years - until the French Revolution that is. Alphonse, Count of Poitiers, died without heirs in 1271 and bequeathed the area to the Holy See. Together with Avignon, which the Popes acquired in 1348, it constitued the Papal Territories in France. Its inhabitants enjoyed tremendous privileges as compared to the rest of France, no taxes and no military service! The Papal Territories were a refuge for French Jews, who received better treatment under papal rule than in the rest of France, most likely for commercial reasons. In 1791 the inhabitants voted for annexation by France in an unauthorized plebiscite and the Papal Territories in France were subsequently incorporated into the Département Vaucluse. Only in 1814 did the Holy See recognize this annexation.
Here is a short description of the towns and villages we recommend in the area (in alphabetical order):
Halfway between Carpentras and Beaumes de Venise, Aubignan is a small market town, surrounded by partially intact ramparts dating from the 14th century. Walking through the Porte de France gate you will see the donjon (village clock) with its wrought iron campanile. Stroll through the narrow streets and visit the heart of the old quarter with the 18th century mairie building (town hall) and some pleasant village houses. On the Place du Château de Pazzis is the church, a mixture of Romanesque and Gothic styles. If it happens to be open take a look at several ancient religious objects behind glass encasings and the two cherubs by Jacques Bernus, a painter and sculptor from Mazan further south. Aubignan has a small but well stocked Provençal market on Saturday mornings from April to October.
Situated just 12 km north of Carpentras and a stone's through from Caromb, le Barroux is one of the prettiest sights in the Comtat. The impressive château dominates this picturesque village. From there you have magnificent panoramic views over the plains of the Comtat Venaissin. Park your car and stroll through the village with its beautiful old houses and fountains, meticulously restored. Take a look at the church of St.Jean Baptiste with its wrought iron campanile. Walking the narrow alleys and climbing numerous steps you will reach the Renaissance style château with its imposing walls. It was constructed by the le Baux clan in the 12th century. In the 16th century the fortress was converted into one of the most beautiful Renaissance homes of the Comtat. Damaged during the French Revolution it fell into disrepair and ownership changed hands various times. Finally, in 1929 reconstruction begun, interrupted by the 2nd world war with a devastating fire. Today it is owned by the descendants of André Vayson de Pradenne, a well known professor of anthropology, who died of carbon-monoxide poisoning with his family in 1939. The château is supported by a local association with some restoration still ongoing. Most of the parts of château can be visited. Opening times are 10AM-7PM (July to Sept.), 2PM-6PM (June and October) and some weekends the rest of the year. During the summer various cultural events take place here, check with the tourist office in Caromb.
Any serious biker and Tour de France aficionado knows about Bédoin. It is the starting point of the long and arduous ascent to Mt.Ventoux. A lovely little village and some hamlets spread out over a large area, it is a major tourist destination with many self-catering vacation homes and lovely B&Bs. Take a look at the village's Romanesque chapel of Notre Dame du Moustier and the église des Baux de Bédoin. There are a couple of good shops, restaurants as well as bike rental and repair shops. A respectable weekly market takes place on Monday morning. Bédoin possesses one of the largest communal forests in France with over 1,200 different species of vegetation on the southern slopes of Mt.Ventoux. Great area for hiking too!
Perched on a hill, you find this tiny, picturesque village with the 16th century Château de Bagnol (recently restored, privately owned). A 10 minute walk is all you need: tiny alleys with beautifully restored village houses, the 13th century église St.Sébastien and outside the village the Chapelle Notre Dame des Neiges going back to the Knights Templars times. From here you have magnificent view towards Mt.Ventoux. Great vacation area!
A historic town on the Southern slopes of Mt.Ventoux, very authentic and with some houses still being restored. Notable are the 14th century église St.Maurice. Inside take note of the beautiful triptych (1532) attributed to Thomas Grabusset, a painter of the Avignon school. The magnificent Italian organ dates back to 1701 and is in good working condition. This is one of the largest churches in the Vaucluse. Stroll through the narrow streets, ancient town houses leaning against each other, secret passages and the square with a beautiful fountain dating back to 1749. Its 4 stone mascarons represent the legend of King Midas, who was saved from dying of thirst thanks to a well found in the middle of the desert. Other interesting sites are the 17th century belfry with its wrought iron campanile and the Ursuline convent. The Chapelle des Penitents Gris is now a concert and exhibition hall. Exiting Caromb on Rt.D13 direction to Carpentras, you pass the Cooperative St.Marc, a good place to taste the excellent Côte du Ventoux wines produced in this region.
A small, formerly fortified village on a hill with lovely stone houses, a great place for a restful vacation. In the 19th century the village was named after Luis de Balbe de Berton de Crillon, the "Brave of the Braves", a well known general who fought the English under three French kings, Henri II, Charles IX and Henri III. Genral Crillon retired here - no wonder, it is an exceptional setting. His bronze statue is on the main square, which offers a panoramic view over the Comtat Venassin with the Plateau de Vaucluse as a backdrop. The small château is privately owned and little is left of the fortifications, except for the Porte Guérin.
The historic capital of the Comtat Venassin and its commercial center. Go to our separate section here.
A very picturesque village on the southern slopes of Mt.Ventoux with a number of ochre colored buildings. In the heart of the village is the romanesque Notre Dame church with its 13th century transept. Many self-catering holiday homes here and the surrounding bucolic countryside. A good base for some serious hiking and biking.
What makes l'Isle sur la Sorgue, the "Island in the Sorgue", special is its undisputed reputation as the place in Southern France to shop for antiquities. As an extra bonus it has one of the best Provençal markets, similar in size and variety to the famous markets in Vaison la Romaine and Carpentras. We like the historic center between the two arms of the river Sorgue, which flows through the town in various natural beds and canals. Pretty shallow for gondolas (they have some here), but crystal clear water all year ....... read more about it here.
The little village is surrounded by olive trees, cherry trees and vineyards. Some beautifully restored old houses, lovely arched doorways and the 13th century église Notre Dame de l'Assomption. You can still discover parts of a 12th century wall which surrounded the village. Three of the gates are still intact, the Grand Porte, the Porte de St. Félix and the Porte des Bourgades.
The cement company Lafarge runs one of the largest open pit gypsum mines in Europe between Malemort du Comtat and Mazan. But unless you are in the immediate neighborhood you won't notice it - the mine is surrounded by shrubs and trees and pretty much blends into the countryside. We have noticed no smell, dust or noise unless you are practically at the mine's front gate. After all nearby Mazan has one of the finest luxury hotels in the Comtat and there are some excellent B&Bs in the area.
A small and very authentic Provençal town on the Auzan river with about 5.000 inhabitants. The ancient "Villa Madazano" is rich in Roman and Gallo-Roman vestiges. Notable are the ramparts and town gates, the churches Notre Dame de Pareloup (12-14th century), Notre Dame de la Brune and Pénitents Blancs. The Allée des Sarcophages is surrounded by many stone sarcophagi from the 6th and 7th centuries, a bit like the Alyscamps in Arles. The 18th Château de Mazan, a former residence of the Marquis de Sade, is now a luxury hotel. Notable are also the Hôtel de Causans, an ancient residence as well as the numerous old town houses. The 17th century Chapel des Penitents Blancs houses the history and folk museum - worthwhile a visit.
The next "once in a generation" Carri Festival takes place in July 2010. This is when the inhabitants of Mazan let off their steam and frustration with a festival with floats, costumes and music mocking the authorities (nowadays the mayor). It has been going on since 1725 and we are looking forward to see it. Mazan has very pleasant surroundings - some excellent wineries here, producing the well known Côtes du Ventoux.
An ancient village wonderfully located on top of a hill. Beautifully restored village houses, the village church of St.Pierre & St. Paul, the 15th century Chapelle Ste.Foy and remnants of the pest wall. A quiet village in a beautiful countryside, good location to spend a hideaways type vacation here.
The river Nesque cut a 400m deep gorge through the limestone with steep cliffs on both sides. A favorite hiking area most of the year except during the summer, when it's a bit too hot down there. Driving East from Méthamis on D5 for 14 km you will reach the St.Hubert farm. We found this the best starting point for hiking down to the Nesque Gorge. Click here for a description of this 13 km hike (4 1/2 hours). If you don't feel like hiking continue on D5 towards Sault and have a look from one of the belvederes with impressive views down to the views to the Nesque Gorge.
Pernes of the many fountains, a pleasant historic town, the capital of the Comtat Venaissin until 1320. Its origins are Gallo-Roman and it was named originally Pernes. The Nesque river flows through the town and provides water to its many fountains. About 40 of them exist today and at some stage Pernes adopted the name of Pernes les Fontaines. The most famous one is la Fontaine du Cormoran, which shows the village coat of arms with a cormorant on top. Other fountains classified as historical monuments are the New Gate, Gigot, l'Hôpital and the Augustins fountains. The town has many 17th and 18th century town houses. View the impressive medieval ramparts and its three gates, the Notre Dame Gate with its bridge, the Villeneuve Gate (reportedly nearly sold to the US in the 1930s!) and the St.Gilles Gate. Notable are also the 15th century covered cross, the 17th century covered hall, the Tour Ferrande with its 13th century frescoes, the 12th century clock tower and 18th century bell tower. The Hotel de Brancas, the town hall, has wonderful 18th century paintings and a truly majestic staircase. Visit also Notre Dame de Nazareth, a 11th century Romanesque church. There are two interesting regional museums, Le Magasin Drapier (costumes from the Comtat Venaissin) and la Maison Flechier (local traditions).
Sanctus Desiderius, a former thermal spa with an idyllic plane shaded main street, Le Cours. You will find a 17th century church and a massive stone gateway with clock tower at the end of Le Cours. This marks the entrance to the 15-17th century Château de Thézan, nowadays a hydrotherapy center and closed to visitors. St.Didier is a great area to rent a holiday home and explore the Vaucluse.
A little market town surrounded by Southern Côtes du Rhone vineyards and fruit orchards. In the heart of the village you find some vestiges of its past: the ramparts, the 17th century St.Pierre et St. Paul church and some fine town houses. There are two fine châteaux in the area, the Château de Tourreau, an 18th century estate on 17 acres (luxury rental with 16 bedrooms) and the Château Brunelly. As far as we know both cannot be visited. Sarrians and the village next to it, Lorial du Comtat, are good choices to rent a holiday home and explore the Vaucluse.
Sault is known for its clean air, lavender fields and many hiking paths. Ideal area for hideaway lodgings in the Provence. The town sits on the edge of the Plateau de Sault. Stroll through the ancient alleys, the ruins of Château St.Jaume and the ramparts of the old village. L'église Notre Dame de la Tour with its Romanesque nave was an outpost of the Priory St.André in Villeneuve les Avignon. From the terrace of the main square you have a panoramic view over the valley with its many lavender fields and Mt.Ventoux. The wonderful historic store of André Boyer, Maître Nougatier, is worth a visit. They produce a wide selection of nougat since 1887. The store is located in a side street on the right side of Sault's main street, South of the main square. Other notable products in Sault are lavender oils and essences, lavender honey, as well as essences from other aromatic plants of the Provence.
Best time to see the lavender fields in full bloom is June. But this can vary by a week or two, depending on the weather conditions in early spring. Here is a short lavender tour we recommend: a visit to the Plateau d'Albion, which stretches from Sault South and East until a couple of miles before Banon and Simiane la Rotonde. The Plateau d'Albion is thinly populated, there are only two towns, Revest du Bion and St.Christol. It is the major lavender growing area of the Vaucluse. You drive from Sault on Rt.D950 East to Revest du Bion and from there down to Banon, renowned for its goat cheese, the Banon de Banon. Visit the shop of Chez Melchio, a well known Epicerie and Charcuterie on Banon's main square, and enter the land of Banon goat cheese and long thin spicy sausages, the Brindilles. From Banon drive South on Rt.D51 visiting the historic villages of Montsalier and Simiane la Rotonde, where you drive Northwest on Rt.D18 and Rt.D166 to St.Christol, with the 12th century l'église Notre Dame et St.Christophe (richly decorated interior). Continue Northwest on Rt.D30, which brings you back to Sault.
One of the most stunning and most beautiful villages of the Provence - like Eze on the Côte d'Azur but without the 20 or so busses parking in front at any time during the day. The village, an ancient bishop seat before it was moved to Carpentras, gave the name to the Comtat Venaissin. Contrary to legend the name is not connected to the cult of Venus, but probably derives from Vindos, a Celtic word for white; the village is located on top of limestone cliffs. The village is very, very picturesque! Park your car below the Romanesque Notre Dame church or on top of the plateau behind the village. It has a splendid altar piece and connects to a 6th century baptistery through a vaulted corridor. It is one of the oldest baptisteries in France and Venasque's pride and fame. In early Christian times baptism took place twice a year, the day before Easter and the day before Whit Sunday (Pentecost). Walk up one of two village streets and soak in the atmosphere. You will inevitably reach the Place de Tours beneath the Saracen Towers and the remnants of the medieval ramparts.
A village close to l'Isle sur la Sorgue with some lovely houses, the church Saint Michel and the former chôteau of the Crillon clan which now houses the mairie (town hall). Velleron is best known for its impressive farmers market on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays (starts at 6PM in the summer time, 4:30PM spring and autumn). One of the best places in the Vaucluse to shop for fruits and vegetables at bargain prices.
An enchanting village with ochre houses, old fountains, alleys and a busy Provençal market on Wedensday morning. It is a good starting point for exploring the Nesque Gorges.