If you are looking for an undiscovered part of Provence, then you can forget about Le Barroux. Apart from the fact that both Petrarch and Pope Clement V spent their summers nearby in the 14th century, the pretty hilltop village topped by its disproportionately large castle has been the holiday destination of members of the British social stratosphere for generations. The Anglo-French descendants of Axel Munthe, the Swedish author of the spectacularly successful Story of San Michele — perhaps the first example of escapist travel literature — have a very beautiful house in the village, as did Prince Charles’s godmother. The Dowager Marchioness of Salisbury is just down the hill.
It is not difficult to see why. The département, Vaucluse, derives its name from vallis clausa or ‘closed valley’, the name given to the largest spring in France at Fontaine de Vaucluse nearby. But the term is also understood to refer to the numerous subterranean grottoes which provide water even during the summer. Irrigated as well by rivers large and small, from the Rhône to the Sorgue and the Nesque, and rained on profusely by the clouds which gather over Mont Ventoux and the stunningly delicate Dentelles de Montmirail, Le Barroux and the surrounding countryside are as green and lush in August as on a fresh spring morning. They have none of the heavy and dusty stillness of the neighbouring Var, where the dog days of summer are more a source of suffering than pleasure.
Even before the 14th century, the area was celebrated and coveted. The Comtat Venaissin, as it is known, was ceded to the Pope by the King of France in 1274 and remained a papal fiefdom until its incorporation back into France at the French Revolution. The memory of this long association with the See of Peter is kept alive to this day by the crossed keys on the area’s official flag, and it is from this name, and not from Venice, that ‘Venise’ derives in ‘Beaumes de Venise’, Le Barroux’s neighbouring village, which is famous the world over for the sweet wine it produces.
Discovery is also the clue to what gives nearby Avignon one of the most charming small museums in the world. Known principally for its gigantic Palais des Papes — into which tourists flood to this day but which is in reality an empty and rather ugly bunker, having been repeatedly sacked and then used as a barracks — Avignon is also home to a wonderful collection of Italian primitives housed in the neighbouring Petit Palais.
The history of this collection is as fascinating as the pictures are beautiful. The hundreds of Sienese and Florentine masterpieces on display are but a fraction of those amassed by the greatest art collector in history, the Roman banker the Marquis of Campana (1808–1880). At its peak, his collection included hundreds of thousands of objects. Campana was the head of the papal loan institution, the Pietà, from which he made an immense fortune, not least by using his own collection as collateral to advance his bank’s money to himself. He was convicted of fraud in 1857 and, though he was later exonerated, his collection was sold off and now forms the basis of the Etruscan and Greek sections of the Louvre, and of the collections of the V&A and the Hermitage. Since the Italian primitives attracted little interest at the end of the 19th century, they were dispersed around French provincial museums by a careless and incompetent curator of the Louvre. It took most of the 20th century for this man’s sloppiness to be discovered and corrected and, in the 1980s, what remained of the collection was splendidly housed at Avignon.
However, what really puts Le Barroux on the map today is the Benedictine monastery constructed there in 1987. The Abbey of St Mary Magdalen, the patron saint of Provence because her relics are housed in the region, is almost unique in being a late 20th-century monastic foundation and an extremely beautiful one at that. The community was founded in 1970 in the nearby village of Bédoin, where Dom Gérard Calvet sought refuge from the liturgical vandalism which was then wreaking havoc in the church. He started to pray the traditional divine office and to celebrate Mass according to the 1962 Missal in a tiny but exquisite 11th-century Romanesque chapel in the grounds of a local big house. At first the monks were housed in the stable block but, as the community grew, they lived in caravans in the garden. This situation being untenable, Dom Gérard, with supernatural determination and energy, raised the necessary millions to buy 30 hectares of hilltop in Le Barroux, commanding spectacular views, where he and his fellow monks built a new abbey with their own hands: you can see photographs of them in blue denim cassocks operating ditch-diggers. The project was so successful that the community is now building another monastery, near Agen, while a convent sprung up in Le Barroux shortly after the main monastery was built.
The result is that Le Barroux is a regional and even national centre for Old Rite Catholicism and all that that implies sociologically, to wit: endless Renault Espaces (‘cathomobiles’) drawing up on Sunday to disgorge armies of little smartly dressed and perfectly coiffed children, all blonde, and their slightly harassed parents. There is the usual babble one associates with the upper middle classes, and it reaches a peak after Mass when the flock flocks into the monastery shop, which is effectively a luxury boutique. The monks cater for physical nourishment as well as spiritual and sell excellent bread and brioches, jams, honeys, spirits, wine, coffee, sweets, biscuits and other delicacies made by them and other monasteries. The Barroux monks have their own olive press and last year their top brand won first prize in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur region. The monks are so worldly, indeed, that you can download a Barroux app to your iPhone, which lets you follow the monastic hours as they are chanted and be texted a weekly meditation on the gospels. I affirm without fear of cliché, therefore, that the village of Le Barroux is heaven on earth.