We almost didn’t visit Gordes thanks to the bizarre car parking ‘arrangements’ with which this picturesque hilltown has chosen to force visitors to do battle. No one expects the parking to be cheap in Provence, but straightforward isn’t an unreasonable expectation. There were only two paypoints, at which long queues formed as bewildered Europeans tried to make sense of the machine’s demands.
It was market day and busy, people were becoming desperate. Rumours quickly spread of another, less well known paypoint. Partners were dispatched to seek the truth. Could we avoid standing under a baking sun for 25 minutes just to get a parking ticket? Many never returned. Were they attacked by roving gangs of ticket thieves? Did they run out of water? Or hope? Maybe they were just stuck in another queue.
This is a village that earns a lot of money from tourists. How hard can it be for them to get their s**t together? We finally got a ticket and went off to discover one of Provence’s most acclaimed villages – a fiercely contested category. We quickly discovered why it’s inadvisable to visit on a market day. The central square and narrow streets were doing a passable impression of London during rush hour.
I don’t think we saw this many tourists collectively on the rest of our trip. It was a shame because Gordes is a beautiful and historic village with a stunning location in the Vaucluse mountains. I can imagine staying here is far more rewarding, especially when the day trippers have gone, the sun is setting, and the views over the valley below make the local wine you’re sipping taste just that bit better.
Driving the winding roads up into the hills, scrub oak and olive trees lining the route, Gordes makes a sudden, dramatic appearance. The ancient stone village seems to be built into the mountainside, with the imposing 11th century castle and 12th century Eglise Saint-Firmin towering over everything. From here, you can understand why this is considered one of France’s most beautiful villages.
Today, there is no doubt this is a prosperous spot, and there are endless upmarket hotels and second homes dotted around the surrounding countryside. Yet, things weren’t always this way, and the village’s fortunes have fluctuated wildly over the centuries. Once the home of powerful Provencal aristocrats throughout the medieval period, its wealth came from agriculture and locally made artisanal goods.
Wool, silk and shoemaking continued to thrive into the 19th century, but by the start of the 20th century it had begun to decline. Its population almost halved from its peak of over 3,000 in the previous century. In part, this was down to successive earthquakes that caused much damage, and people migrated to other towns to look for work as the village became impoverished.
It was only from the 1950s onwards that this trend was reversed. A group of artists moved here and not long afterwards tourism began in earnest. What greets the modern visitor is a village that still feels authentic even with its heavy dependence on tourism. Away from the crowds at the market, the cobbled lanes became much quieter and we walked down streets that drop steeply through the village.
We strolled around for a while, visited the pretty Eglise Saint-Firmin, and decided it was too busy for lunch so set off for Roussillon where we hoped for fewer crowds. The drive is on quiet, narrow roads that pass through sleepy villages and beautiful countryside. We stopped in the hamlet of Murs, with houses perched steeply on a small hill that is also home to the privately owned Chateau de Murs.
There is very little beyond a 12th century church to delay you in Murs, but it is worth a stroll just to see what a workaday Provence village with virtually no tourism looks like.