WHAT is it about Provence that everyone seems to love so much?
Is it the food? Is it the rustic charm of a place seemingly forgotten by the 21st century?
Or is it the romantic notion of cycling down narrow country lanes bordered by plane trees under a golden Mediterranean sun?
For me, it's a combination of all of these things and much more. While I've never had the greatest urge to travel to this part of southern France, the minute I step off the TGV train in Avignon it becomes clear to me that this is a place I'd been longing to explore without even knowing it.
My wife and I have come to spend a week living like locals in the Vaucluse department of the trickily named province of
Provence, and it's our aim to absorb as much of the local scenery and culture as possible.
We begin by discovering just how rustic the roads are as we round the final bend to our accommodation: a perfect little cottage perched high on an escarpment in Menerbes.
The narrow lane presents an interesting introduction to the rural life in Vaucluse and while most locals aren't driving a car as nice as the one we have scored from the hire company, it's later revealed to us that rather than fold the wing mirrors in and edge the car through the gap, centimetre by centimetre, we should simply have put the foot down and raced through at 30kph.
We turn in to the parking area for our cottage and find the door keys stuffed into a nook in the wall. Once inside, we discover a beautiful, rustic apartment with a mezzanine-style bedroom and sweeping views over the village and vineyards to the south and north. This is the Provence we had been expecting.
The clear skies and breathtaking views confirm we've made the right decision to come here in mid-November, as it turns out to be the perfect time to visit for those wanting to mix with the locals, avoid the hordes of tourists in the warmer months and, above all, escape the notorious Mistral wind this region is known for.
As we open the shutters to our small balcony, the sights, sounds and smells of the Luberon national park almost overwhelm us as we try to take in the fact that actually being here, in the heart of the Luberon National Park, is infinitely better than even the most misty-eyed daydream of life in Provence could be.
After a morning spent buying baguettes, cheese, fresh vegetables, meat and some local wine, we head out for a drive through vineyards and olive groves to explore some of the other villages scattered over the hills.
First on our itinerary is the hilltop village of Gordes, which is seemingly just a larger version of Menerbes but with a more spectacular setting.
With more bars, cafes and restaurants to choose from than many places in the region, Gordes is a popular destination for lunch and dinner.
We weave our way through the hills to the north and roll into the ghost-town-like village of Venasque where we have the streets to ourselves. As night draws in, we return to our cottage to make dinner using our morning's purchases over a glass or two of wine.
Over the next four or five days, we discover the "Golden Triangle of the Luberon" - Menerbes, Gordes, Roussillon, Goult, Lacoste, Oppede, Oppede-le-Vieux and Bonnieux.
Even with only basic French, we are able to mix a little with the locals - especially those wanting to sell us their goods at the many markets. Even when we venture into the nearby towns of Arles, Avignion and Aix-en-Provence, we're met with cheery smiles.
What really makes the trip for us in the end is not the stunning scenery, quaint villages with their markets and fountains, not the imposing Mt Ventoux, nor even the food and wine. It's the people we encounter that really make us feel like locals for those seven short days we are lucky enough to spend in one of the most beautiful places on Earth.
GOOD TO KNOW
GETTING THERE: We flew to Lyon from Manchester (as part of an extended trip) with British Midland and took a one-hour TGV trip to Avignon, but Marseille International Airport is only two hours' drive from Menerbes.
ACCOMMODATION: We booked our cottage direct with the owner, Paolo De Paolis, after finding it on luberon-holiday-rental.com (he also owns a two-bedroom cottage in Menerbes). Prices for the one-bedroom cottage start at €650 a week.
CAR HIRE: We used a German company, Sixt, which has offices all over France, and were charged the same for a BMW 1-Series (diesel, automatic and with built-in GPS) as Hertz was going to charge us for a manual, petrol Holden Astra.
EATING THERE: Patisseries, cafes and restaurants abound in this culinary hotbed of France, but aside from all those home-cooked meals with local produce sourced from the many village markets, the stand-out was the meal and service we received at Le Galoubet in Arles: 18 rue du Doctor Fanton, phone +33 490 931 811. Le Petit Bistrot in Aix-en-Provence has a beautiful outlook over a quaint little town square, complete with communal drinking fountain, and is perfect for that very French pastime of people-watching: 4 rue Victor Leydet, phone +33 442 386 609.
MORE INFORMATION: A comprehensive guide to the Luberon region, plus accommodation options and details of things to do is available at theluberon.com.
The website also has a full list of market days and locations in the area to help you plan your stay.
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