On a gloriously sunny summer’s morning, the weekly Friday market in the Provençale village of Lourmarin is in full swing. Men carry their tiny lapdogs through the winding streets as women, locals and tourists alike, fill their baskets with floppy headed lettuces, ripe cherries and fragrant soaps. Others sip tiny espressos in pavement cafés, untroubled that the local cash machine has momentarily run out of money, while a band trumpets jaunty ditties through the geranium-scented air.
It’s an idyllic scene, totally fitting of Lourmarin’s status as one of the most beautiful villages in France. Of the 150 or so communities deemed worthy of the title, five of them are in the Luberon.
While house prices are eye-poppingly high, the area more than lives up to its picture-perfect reputation and a few days spent browsing the fabulous antiques and interiors shops here is hard to beat.
The big tourist draw of the region is the internationally renowned L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, about 30km northwest of Lourmarin. The bustling Sunday fleamarket lining the river Sorgue, which gives the town its name, has something for every pocket, with blue soda syphons, old beach parasols and embroidered linen vying for your attention with vintage advertising signs and bright ceramic bowls.
But more joys by far are to be found off the main drag, in the hidden ‘villages’ of chic shops and galleries beyond. There are 12 to discover, so you could pick up the guide des antiquaires, but aimlessly wandering is all part of the fun.
Le Patio (complete with a shop selling nothing but antique doors and another specialising in painted furniture and pottery from Alsace), Passage du Pont – a lovely courtyard space fringed with wrought iron furniture, bottle driers, railings and glazed earthenware jars. Inside, the gallery is home to 40 or so dealers, with prices as varied as their wares. M. Macaudière of CBO Antiquités counts stallholders from London’s Alfies and Portobello markets among his regulars. ‘’Ere everything is laid out to inspire people that they could do this at home,’ he says with a charming Gallic accent.
Look out especially for straw-seated chairs – a speciality of Provence. Jean-Jacques Bourgeois (who reckons he’s the only dealer born in the town) has a good selection too in his charming little shop Memoires d’un Ane, (5, avenues des 4 Otages) just around the corner.
A few steps away, Le Carré de l’Isle is away from the crowds on the main streets and home to an eclectic selection of dealers, selling everything from club chairs, leopard skins and framed pressed flower montages to paintings and altar candles.
Look out for the huge wooden picture frames, artfully arranged like a controlled explosion in L’Authentiqeand the turquoise-painted pharmacy chests and enormous venetian glass mirrors in the funky Objets de Hasard.
Dramatic though these are, nothing can prepare you for the sheer opulence and variety of some of the town’s best ‘permanent’ shops.
Entering interior decorator Xavier Nicod’s (9, avenue des 4 Otages) extraordinary boutique is like walking into a fantasy land, with trees lining the entrance, gravel on the floor, and otherworldly flower displays in a huge copper bath. More realistic, but no less inspiring, is the range of objets on sale in the imposing La Maison Biehn (7, avenue des 4 Otages). A riot of colour, it’s awash with handblown blue glass, contemporary pottery and exuberant jewellery.
Textiles are a particular speciality: Asian ikats, embroidery from the Punjab, Anatolian wool blankets, Uzbekistani cushions, 18th century Provençale quilts in cotton and silk and exquisite multi-coloured cashmere shawls.
The best places to find clay ceramics
More antiques shops and brocantes (and a fabulous Saturday market) are to be found in Apt, a short drive away. It is famous for two things – its clay and, by extension, its earthenware, tiles and ochres; and candied fruits, of which it is still the largest producer in the world. Ceramic production began in the city around 1720, when Abbot Moulin opened a factory. At a time when the king was requisitioning all silverware for the war effort, their moulded ceramics adorned with finely carved decorations were an immediate success.
The town museum, Musee de l’Aventure Industrielle (14, place du Postel), a former candied fruit factory, boasts a good display of Apt pottery including its star form – terres melées – literally ‘mixed earths’ in which six or seven different coloured clays combine to give a marbled effect. First produced in 1776, they are unique to Apt and just how they are made is a closely guarded secret. M. Rigo of Atelier de Faïences Rigo (98, rue de la République), one of only two remaining producers, certainly isn’t giving anything away – self-taught, he reckons it took him 22 years to approach the standard of work produced in the 18th century.
A few streets away, Grossi gallery (5, place de la Cathédrale), a leading specialist in Provençale painters, has a small selection of antique Apt ceramics for sale. Pieces by Léon Sagy, one of the best-known makers, can now sell for around €2,000 – but it’s not unknown to find good pieces on the vide greniers (literally ‘empty attics’ stalls) for a couple of euros.
Of course, the other use to which the area’s clays have been put is in the classic Provençale terracotta tile. Track it down at Carreaux Vernin (R.N.100, nr Bonnieux), a short drive out of town. Established in 1870, this family business is the last factory in France to hand-make tiles, which are often used in the restoration of historical monuments such as Lourmarin castle and the Pope’s Palace in Avignon. It also produces an extraordinary range of contemporary designs and visitors who express an interest will happily be shown around.
Watching a burly chap churning out tiles using only a deftly wielded cheese wire is mesmeric but not quite as spectacular as seeing the clays in their natural state. A wander around the russet cliffs of the Sentiers des ocres (a former ochre quarry) at Rousillon is a lovely way to spend the afternoon, particularly if you follow it with a walk through the village. Every house wears an attractive coat of ochre, from pale, pinky yellows through to caramel and salmon. If you’re inspired to follow suit, you can buy the ochres at ôkhra (Ancienne usine Mathieu), a 15-minute walk away. Natural and non-toxic, the rosy tones are the perfect way of keeping post-holidays blues at bay.
Travellers’ 4 top tips
Flybe operates flights from Southampton and Exeter to Avignon from £54.99 one way. flybe.com
Where to stay
Where to eat
L’Intramuros, Apt. A fantastic restaurant stuffed to the gunnels with kitchenalia and other flea-market finds.
Most L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue antiques dealers open Thurs-Mon or just at the weekends.
Apt tourist office (20, avenue Philippe de Girard, Apt) has a list of all the antiques fairs in the region.
Lourmarin market Friday mornings
Apt market Saturday mornings
For more information visit provenceguide.com