One of the things that every year attracts armies of tourist and caravans of travellers to Provence is undoubtedly lavender.
Lavender meadows in blossom have long become the symbol of the region, the synonym of its magic palette, agricultural prosperity and even its way of life. Before even knowing anything else about Provence, anyone can already formulate a good reason for going there – to see its marvellous lavender fields. And nobody can really be blamed for that, for the view in question is more than magnificent, it is simply unique.
But let us first look into the history of the herb and investigate how lavender arrived to Provence.
Lavender roots go deep into the history of the humankind. In the ancient Egypt the herb was used for embalming and the production of massage oils, cosmetics and medicines. The wealthiest citizens used it as an unguent to perfume their bodies. The Greeks were very eager to learn this use from the Egyptians, while the Romans went even further – they used lavender not only to perfume their public baths and private homes, but also recognized lavender’s healing and antiseptic qualities.
It is believed that the word lavender derives from the Latin ‘lavare’ that means ‘to wash’, or from ‘livendulo’ meaning ‘livid’ or ‘bluish’. And these were actually the Romans who, conquering the Gaul, brought lavender to the territories of the modern Provence.
In the course of the following centuries lavender managed to conquer the whole world. But this one is a different story …
While our story continues and comes to its climax answering the most important question: where, when and how is it possible to find lavender in Provence?
When I was making my habitual research before our on-the-road trip to the south of France, this was exactly the question that bothered me most of all. I found megabytes of information on the matter some of which was very detailed and precise. But maybe it was too much information for me, while I was largely looking for some practical advice, for a doable itinerary, not for a list of places but for a suggestion of how to visit them in the best of the ways. So here, on the basis of my own experience, I will try to mention and sum up some notions that I hope will help you not to feel too much disoriented and manage your trip a bit more efficiently. At least that is what I hope for.
- Choose carefully the period of your trip to Provence. It is largely claimed that it is better to avoid busy summer months that pour out tourists and unbearable heat over Provence. We went to Provence in summer, and I do confirm there were tourists everywhere and the weather happened to be unusually hot (the period between the end of July and the beginning of August 2017 is to be taken into consideration). Nevertheless, if your objective is to admire the Provençal lavender fields in blossom, you have no other choice. So summer be it!
- When exactly in summer? This one is a very good question, too. First of all, keep in mind that the major lavender fields of Provence are situated in the plateaus and valleys of its northern part, e.g. the Plateau of Valensole or high Vaucluse. Then everything depends on the area and on the actual weather conditions of the year. Generally speaking, the blooming starts somewhere around mid-June and finishes towards mid-July. In some areas it stars later in June and finishes at the beginning of August. Provence is actually a very big region and the phenomenon varies from one area to another depending largely on the changing rain and especially temperature conditions. So ones you decide where it is more convenient for you to go lavender hunting, you can check the usual blooming period of the place. Note, though, that a particularly hot summer can shorten it. Nevertheless, it appears possible to drive the following general conclusion: one of the best moments for seeing the spectacular Provençal lavender in blossom is around the beginning and mid-July.
- Let’s try to get more specific here. We went to Provence at the end of July 2017 and stayed there for almost two weeks. We chose Arles to be our headquarters for the biggest part of that period. So we arranged all our trips to make the best of this location and avoid getting too tired of too much driving around. Note also, that the summer in question proved to be a very hot one. To cut the long story short, here are the places where we managed to track some lavender:
- The Sènanque Abbey
It is an iconic place. If you try to look for ‘lavender Provence’ with the help of a web search engine, one of the images you will receive a reference to will be that of the lavender meadows of the Sènanque Abbey, incredibly charming and absolutely worth the fuss. Note, though, that the Notre-Dame de Sènanque Abbey has been a Cistercian monastery since 1148, so keep in mind that it is not a museum, nor a tourist site:
- No matter how hot the summer may be, to visit the abbey it is obligatory to have one’s knees and shoulders covered, both for ladies and gentlemen.
- There’s a fee to pay to visit the Abbey, an entrance ticket for an adult costs 7,50 euro. Here you can find more information.
- It is possible to wander around the Abbey free of charge.
- There’s a free toilet and a coffee machine at the entrance to the bookshop.
- The place, even if it is claimed not to be a tourist site, is very popular with those hunting lavender, so if you wish to admire it in relative peace and try to take some decent photos, it would be a great idea to come here early in the morning.
- The parking adjacent to the Abbey is free.
- If you do not notice those exaggeratedly bright coloures of lavender in blossom you got used to seeing on the web and, thus, expected to see in the real life, do not remain disappointed: no one is cheating here. With no saturation of colours, no adjustments available, light conditions variable and imperfect, lavender might seem to you ‘not bright enough’. Take a deep breath, smell the air and you will immediately recognize the beauty of the real lavender, even if different from that virtual one.
- After visiting the Abbey, take a walk in the town of Gordes and the Borries village that are only several minutes away.
Gordes will remain for me a town from a postcard, for that’s exactly what comes to one’s mind when one first sees it, and a wind city as well, for when we visited Gordes, the Mistral was at its best and its strongest.
The life in Gordes seems to have stopped somewhere in the Middle Ages. I think this impression is created especially by the stone used to erect the town’s castle and buildings and a very curious stonework characteristic of the whole area.
One more thing I will surely remember of Gordes is the cellars of Saint Firmin Palace, that in a limited time will take you back to the past and give a detailed insight into what the life of this gorgeous little town used to be from the Middle Ages to our days. In this mysterious underground world the visitors learn not only the history of the city but have a chance to discover many curious know-hows of the olive oil production process.
– There are several parkings in Gordes, we easlily found the one with the entrance from Route de Murs.
– The cost of the visit to the cellars of Saint Firmin Palace is 6,00 euro per adult.
– The entrance to the cellars is situated between the town’s belvedere and the church of Saint Firmin.
- Some 20 minutes away from Gordes, in 276 Route de Gordes, it is possible to visit the Lavender Musem, a gateway to the world of lavender all to discover.
2. The valley of the town of Sault on the way from Roussillon to Mont Ventoux
This trip is stunningly picturesque and exciting. First, after you leave the surroundings of Roussillon (some 20 minutes away from Gordes), the road starts climbing. It passes along a straight serpentine mountain path. It can also seem very scary at times, as it actually did to me, with an abyss to the right and a vertical rocky wall to the left. But once this dangerous piece is over, the marvellous waves of the grain fields and shadowed oak forests start, being a perfect introduction to the amazing lavender meadows that develop their bright palette against the background of Mont Ventoux, the summit of which dominates the surrounding landscape.
- There are some places in the whereabouts of Sault where it is possible to stop safely one’s car and take some nice pictures of lavender fields.
- Be very careful when you enter a lavender field. There are plenty of bees and hornets in there!
Once in Sault, take a walk along its quiet and peaceful streets, and don’t miss a chance to taste local lavender– and verbena-flavoured ice cream. Maybe, they will not satisfy your personal taste, but for sure won’t leave unsatisfied your curiosity.
- On the way to Sault there is an indicated view-point to admire Mont Ventoux, one of the most challenging Tour de France stages. This is also the reason why there are so many cyclists on the roads of the area. Pay special attention to them while driving!
Mont Ventoux is also called the Gigant of Provence, or the Bald Mountain. From a considerable distance, it seems that its summit, almost two thousand meters high, is covered with snow. But as you come closer you start realizing it isn’t snow, but the total and anomalous absence of vegetation. The name of the mountain itself, venteux means windy in French, suggests its other peculiarity – it is very windy on the mountain’s summit, especially when the Mistral blows strong.
Hunting lavender is an unforgettable experience, tough and tiring at times, sometimes disappointing, but full of hope and adventure, and when the time of reward comes, there’s nothing compared to it.
Lavender might be just a plant, an aromatic herb, a beautiful flower, but at the same time it is much more than that. It is the identity and the wealth of the whore region, the symbol of its beauty and prosperity, a kind of a magic potion and a cure to all evils, nature’s poetry itself. If you decided to go to Provence only for lavender, let it be so, there’s nothing bad in it. You are not the only ones, and despite it seems comforting but at the same time not that much, think about it in different terms: if you come to Provence because of lavender but at the end discover all the rest this amazing place has to offer and fall in love with it, it has to be seen as a victory. In this case the lavender hunting is an honest price to pay for such a discovery.
Photos credit: Machs Gut (c)