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It's almost impossible to visit Provence without reading – or seeing someone leaf through – Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence. The book has certainly aged – it was published in 1989 when you could buy an idyllic Provencal farmhouse for a few thousand francs – but this life-affirming yarn has a rich, timeless charm. The same could be said for Menerbes, in which many of Mayle's epicurean adventures were set. Overlooking a sea of orchards and vineyards, it's a lovely medley of stone buildings, home to gems like La Maison de la Truffe et du Vin, a purveyor of tantalising dishes like truffle ravioli and fruity Luberon wines.
Menerbes' next-door neighbour is another enchanting Provencal village perche (perched village), with postcard-pretty streets, peppered with 16th-century mansions, quirky contemporary murals and delicious panoramas. On a clear day – and they mostly are in this neck of the woods – you'll glimpse Mont Ventoux, Provence's loftiest mountain, 70km away. Notable sights dot Bonnieux's outskirts: a sprawling cedar forest whose trees were imported from North Africa during the Napoleonic era; Pont Julien, a 2000-year-old Roman bridge; and Chateau La Canorgue, a key filming location in A Good Year, Ridley Scott's 2006 rom-com adaptation of Mayle's memoir starring Russell Crowe.
Year round, is there a more arresting sight in Provence than the one from the precipitous viewing point on Gordes' southern edges? Possibly not. Crowning a rocky, forested ridge in the Luberon valley, Gordes looks, from afar, like a marvellously preserved medieval-renaissance masterpiece. Yet large parts of the town – another to feature in Scott's movie – were cobbled back together after the Nazis attacked it in World War II. Home to fresh produce stores, artists' studios and even a branch of Sotheby's, Gordes is a popular pit stop for travellers, including hordes of cyclists and holiday-home hunters.
Like some of the hills in Provence, the Monday morning market of Forcalquier is a winding, seemingly interminable affair that'll take your breath away. Fanning out from cafe-edged Place du Bourguet, it snakes down side streets and even into car parks, showcasing everything from aromatic cheeses, charcuterie and olives to an assortment of soaps, jewellery and fabrics. For peace and quiet, head to the fragrant back garden of Forcalquier's old Franciscan convent – a complex that now hosts the University of Scents and Flavours, where students learn how to craft perfumes and essential oils from rosemary, sage, lavender et al.
Roussillon is, for many tourists, the most striking village perche of them all. Unlike the majority, which are typically a fusion of grey and honey-coloured stone, Roussillon is vividly ochre red – a pigment that permeates both the town's handsome buildings and the cliffs on which they're nestled. You can walk a trail to the disused clay quarries (which once yielded large ochre deposits) close to the town, but tourists tend to stick to the sloping, maze-like centre, where souvenir shops and restaurants shoulder stores offering tastings of local wines, honeys and pastis (an iconic Provencal liqueur).
Pretty much every Provencal hilltop settlement is capped by an ancient chapel, castle or defensive fortification that you can clamber up to. The semi-ruined chateau of Lacoste has a stronger pull than most. Fleeing the scandals that dogged him in Paris, the Marquis de Sade lived (and debauched) here for a spell during the late 18th century. In 2001, fashion designer Pierre Cardin bought the property, transforming it into an arts space, with modernist sculptures and summer concerts and festivals. Don't fancy the hike? Just chill out and lunch on the terrace of Cafe de Sade in the cobbled village centre.
Steve McKenna was a guest on Butterfield & Robinson's Biking Provence Tour (butterfield.com)