I remember so clearly the first day I saw Bonnieux, seven years ago now, in early June. It was our family’s first trip to Provence. We rented a cottage in a tiny village for what was truly an enchanted week. On Sunday afternoon we took a drive from our village across a lonely plateau, and I saw a sign showing a right turn to Bonnieux. I had read about Bonnieux in my guidebook and thought we should take a look.
We rounded a sharp curve in the road… and suddenly there it was, cascading down the hillside, surrounded by sky.
We parked our car and wandered around the village, climbing steep steps to an old church surrounded by cedar trees. Later we stopped in a boulangerie I’d read about. I remembered the baker’s picture in the book. I mentioned the photo to the baker; he was so welcoming and especially friendly to our nine-year old daughter. We bought postcards at a shop across from a fountain, where a restaurant seemed to be carved into the rock. That Friday we went back to Bonnieux for the weekly market on a shady square. A couple was singing as I wandered among the colorful stands. I bought a pottery bowl and enjoyed the music.
Fast forward just a few months later. I couldn’t get Provence out of my mind. My husband Charley and I began to seriously discuss a plan to take a year off to travel in Europe, including living in Provence for about six months. I spent that Labor Day weekend on the internet, looking at rental houses and sending off inquiries. The most appealing possibility was a 17th century farmhouse just outside of Bonnieux, with owners anxious to find someone for a long stay in the off-season. The house had a piano, two fireplaces, a bright yellow kitchen, and a black cat… it seemed to call out to us. We remembered how much we had liked Bonnieux. Within a week we had sent off a deposit, setting in motion a major change in our family’s lives.
In October 2004 we arrived in Bonnieux for 6-1/2 memorable months: autumn, winter and the beginning of spring. It was a charmed time in our lives. Our daughter Kelly, then 11, attended the 60-student village school, the only English-speaker in her classroom. Every day at noon and again at 4:30 we waited outside the school gate, striking up acquaintances with other parents and then making some friends. Several days a week, while Kelly was in school, Charley and I went hiking and got to know the countryside intimately. We shopped at the outdoor markets, explored nearby towns and villages on the weekends, celebrated the Christmas traditions, and became regulars at a couple of local cafes.
The beauty of the area, the warmth of the local people, and the relaxed lifestyle worked on our hearts and spirits. I had just left a 27-year career in demanding corporate jobs. Unemployed for the first time in my adult life, I relaxed and enjoyed simple pleasures, savoring the experience of living in a rural environment. Our family didn’t want to leave the USA to move to Provence, but we wanted to keep Provence– and especially Bonnieux– in our lives.
In the five years since our long stay, we’ve visited Bonnieux as often as we can. Although we don’t own a house there, Bonnieux has truly become our second home, and definitely the place that holds our hearts. We spent three spring breaks in the village and were thrilled to enjoy two extended summer stays, housesitting for friends. Through our Luberon Experience trips we now bring other people to Bonnieux and share the village we love with them, five weeks each year, in May and September.
Many of our closest friends are in Bonnieux and the Luberon, and through these friends we’ve made other friends. (One of our friends is the baker Henri– just recently retired– who we met that very first day.) Several local friends are involved with our groups. It’s a bit funny, but our social lives are more active when we’re in Bonnieux than in our normal lives at home. I usually see at least 20 people I know at the Friday morning market, including many of the regular sellers. This is the same market I visited on that first trip as an awestruck tourist. And we’re now welcomed warmly by the owner and the fun waiter Khalid when we eat at Le Fournil, that restaurant carved into the rock.
Bonnieux’s history surrounds us, woven into the fabric of what we see in the village today. The official history dates back some 2000 years to Roman times when a major road ran through the area, still marked by a well-preserved 2000 year old bridge. (This bridge, the Pont Julien, was still used for daily traffic just a few years ago.) The early Bonnieux was called “Bitrona” and was located in the valley. In the 10th century the settlement moved up on the hillside for defensive purposes, and fortifications were constructed, some of which still remain. The oldest part of the church at the top of the village dates to the 12th century. But the history of this area extends back much further. Many traces of prehistoric settlements have been found within just a few miles.
With an official population of about 1400, Bonnieux is still a simple place in many ways. Farming (grapes, cherries, vegetables, lavender) is a major activity, carried out on small, privately-owned farms. Many residents are members of long-established families, living on properties that their ancestors farmed hundreds of years ago. Parents walk their young children to the school, waiting outside the gate at the end of the afternoon. People gather for coffee or a pastis in the local bars and play petanque at the village court. enior citizens get together to share a meal and play cards. There’s a surprisingly good library and an active program of social activities. And everyone finds their way to the local market on Friday morning, for shopping and to catch up with friends. The lifestyle in Bonnieux is typical of what goes on in small rural villages all over France. I absolutely love it.
I appreciate how heritage and traditions mix with the modern day in Bonnieux. Bonnieux (like other celebrated Luberon villages) is also a very sophisticated place, attracting expatriates, artists, secondary home owners, and visitors like us. Property is expensive here; just check out prices in the immoblier’s window. On the tiny country lanes there are multi-million dollar estates alongside the working farms. And Bonnieux includes fine restaurants and upscale shops and galleries that definitely aren’t typical in many more-isolated rural villages, where young people have moved away to find jobs and excitement. Modern technology is also very visible, as many households in the village have satellite television and wireless internet, and everyone seems to have a cellphone.
Two different perspectives of Bonnieux: simplicity and sophistication. We do like the sophistication, but we most enjoy the simplicity of daily life in this small village in the sky. This is what we hope to share with our groups in our Luberon Experience weeks. We want our travelers to experience this village in a personal way, to learn something of its history, to connect with local people, to savor and appreciate the different pace and rhythm, to discover something unique for themselves in the old stone walls and narrow passageways.
Even though it’s now so familiar, I think Charley and I will always approach Bonnieux with a sense of awe and discovery. On every trip we learn something new or make a new friend. We wander down a little road we somehow didn’t see before and discover a little chapel. Or we learn something about the history or hear an interesting story about one of the residents. And although some aspects of the village never change, every year Bonnieux is a little different. There’s some new rule being enforced, a new shop that’s opened, or a crumbling fountain that’s now restored.
I’m now counting the days until I’m back in Bonnieux. We couldn’t go for spring break this year, and it’s been a very long seven months. But in just nine days Charley and I will be in Bonnieux, enjoying the beautiful days of May with three groups of Luberon Experience travelers.
It’s a bit more than an hour’s drive to the village from the airport. We’ll likely come up from the south and take the twisty road through the Luberon mountain. We’ll round the corner, and there it will be again, just as it was the first time we saw it, just as it’s been for hundreds of years: Bonnieux!
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Kathy and Charley Wood lead The Luberon Experience, a week-long “slow tour” in the most beautiful area of Provence, France. Their popular trips are offered five weeks a year, in May and September. They also now offer one or two trips a year to other special places in Europe. Their 2009 European Experience weeks are based in the Salzkammergut area of Austria and the Bavarian Alps of Germany.
Kathy and Charley describe themselves as “passionate European travelers.” Often traveling with their daughter Kelly, they have made 21 trips to Europe, including a 14 month “grand tour” in 2004 – 2005. Trip number 22 is just a few days away. Read more about Kathy and Charley here.