Some French villages are real. They have prospered and struggled with the ages and the ebb and flow of humans – the traits of the inhabitants varying as much as the quantity. One century, a byroad brings trade and wealth. The next war and desolation. Children leave for the big smoke. Families return for the simple life. Epiceries and cafes open and close with the tides of population. The walls talk. The hotel de ville attends their chatter through time. The residents pass them in their daily routine without a thought, but once a day, somebody like me will stop and stroke the 800 year old mortar and tell the village it is still beautiful.
Some French villages are pretend. Like a gingerbread house, they are overtly coloured, marked in detail, unbelievably in tact, too good to be true. There are no unfashionable old folk, no weedy window boxes, no shaggy drunks lingering at the cafe de commerce. There are a profusion of cadeaux stores, ATMs and glacieres. It is possible to buy 50 varieties of caramel but none of toilet paper. Streets are smoothly cobbled and mortar stays neatly in it’s place, free of lichen and slovenliness. Flags line streets. War weapons with appropriate wood distress fill nooks. Restaurants with set menus, wicker chairs and Silver cutlery take up the best views. At midnight the bell tolls and the village disappears. Nobody lives there except the night guards, and the life and soul disappears until the gates reopen at 9am.
Gordes (pronounced gawd) is something in between. It’s walls are too even and facilities too perfect for it to be a genuinely evolved village. But people live there, and they treasure it daily. It’s reconstructed, but for love, not the tourist dollar. Much of the village was demolished during WWII, when it was an active Resistance area. The population dropped under 1000 at this point, but after an initial period of reconstruction and then its “discovery” by artists such as Chagall and Deyrolle, others flooded to reglorify the site.
Stone walls without glue line the narrow roads to Gordes. They look like baps or rock scones, stacked carefully. They appear fragile and simultaneously ancient – how they stay in place is a mystery. Occasionally a ‘borie’ interrupts the fence line – a little rock-scone house, with a doorway, without a door, with a window, without glass. They were constructed only about 200-300 years ago, but look stone-age in their simplicity. Only a kilometer or so out of town, a whole village of them exists, trapped in time like art on a canvas. Useless but unique, somehow inexplicably necessary.
Gordes itself is a warren of steep cobbled paths leading off a roundabout. The centre of most streets is stepped, aiding the precarious walkers and forbidding cars for the most part. As with most hilltop towns, a castle dominates, but more exciting is what can be found underneath – not only in the palace cellar, but other small private cellars open around the village. Their natural rock walls blend with man’s work perfectly. Builders have retained much of the shape, and moulded the needs of their underground rooms to suit. To my dismay, they contain in the main, olive oil, not wine.
My wine dreams were however answered at La Bastide de Gordes, just down the hill from the roundabout. It’s a hotel with a sublime wine shop next-door, specializing in local wines of course, but with a few staples like Chablis and Champagne to contrast. I discovered a Muscat de Baumes de Venise that changed my opinion on the variety there – now, I believe there are good examples. Alain Ignace, your Muscat actually tastes like muscat should – like nectar sucked from a jasmine stem. You need to put the price up – 10 Euros for a half bottle is way too cheap.
The wine store is next-door to the hotel, which has unassuming doors leading through to a terrace of insane beauty. We dined there under Mulberry trees sipping biodynamic rose and eating gazpacio de poivron avec gambas (My own tried and tested inspired recipe is linked here). Then we swiped pieces of the kids menu (and by the way, carre d’agneau – square lamb – actually refers to backstrap). The beef tartare had a welcome twist de la maison, and came fully prepared (it is often served unmixed so the diner may add their preferred proportions of egg, capers, spice etc.) Dessert was eaten before the camera lens was off. All of this was accompanied by friendly service despite the wealthy surroundings. We left full and satisfied almost to the point of tears. Even now, thinking back, I well up with joy.
What to do
- Market day is Tuesday, but (and this is one of the only times I will recommend this) is probably best avoided – parking is limited and walks are bound to be steep.
- Some would say the greatest attraction is in walking the streets, yet many of those are paved with danger – only of toppling, but danger none-the-less. Some of Gordes is easily accessible for those with disabilities or walking difficulties, but not all of it. Wear flats.
- Visit nearby Abbaye de Senanque (mentioned in this post here), a working Abbey and lavender farm. This is the place you see in all those prodigious purple provincial panoramas. Beautiful.
- The Bories – visit the Village des Bories, a series of dry-stone, igloo-shaped buildings remarkably similar to Hobbit-holes. Not as old as they look (18C), but very well preserved.
- Explore the caves – this is the french word, so actually translates as “cellar”. There are many in the village, and you may just stumble across one on your wandering. Caves du Palais is the one we found.
- Watch out for festivals. Check this page for details, but there is a great wine feast in January and August, Art shows and theater all year, and a summer festival that attracts some great french musicians (we missed out on Camille the night before)
- Extra information on Gordes can be found on their website here
Where to eat
- Les Bories – One-Michelin-starred Restaurant just out of town headed up by Pascal Ginoux. Historic buildings and expensive view, but the food is very good, with a strong regional slant.
- La Bastide de Gordes – where we ate, with a good value carte de jour despite its precious view, which drops over the craggy stones and into the valley below.
- L’Estellan – the best you’ll get for a little less (carte de jour starts at €19), cute and provincial, just out of town
Where to stay
- La Ferme de la Huppe – Rooms range around the €150 (plus or minus) mark depending on season. Both quaint and efficient with a very good onsite restaurant.
- La Bastide de Gordes – right in the thick of town, but not cheap if you don’t get it on a deal. €250ish is good, otherwise look elsewhere.
- Laclaree – this is the budget option. (B&B) No pool, and simple rooms, but gets the job done for around €55 pre room per night. 4km out of town.