Provence is a multifaceted region. From the sea, salt marshes, historic cities and farmland. With the summer heat, the fields inside burst with an explosion of amethyst blue and the air is impregnated with the scent of lavender. It is time to tour its picturesque villages and enjoy traditions, wineries, gastronomy and unique landscapes at their best time of the year.
Pays Bleu. This is how the inhabitants of the areas of Provence dedicated to the cultivation of lavender like to call their land. Blue country. An appellation that is recognized as perfectly justified when you walk through its beautiful fields in the flowering season, which, depending on the area, covers from mid-June to mid-August. Introduced in Provence by the Romans, today its cultivation reaches 90% of the land dedicated to aromatic plants.
Lavender accompanies every moment of Provençal life. It is used to perfume bath water or white clothing, which it protects from moths; also for exclusive soaps, bath oils and perfumes; in herbalism, due to its healing, diuretic and antirheumatic properties; and even in gastronomy, for haute cuisine dishes or in the humblest houses, giving flavor to bread slices with cheese and honey.
Getting to Provence is easy. Marseille International Airport is the main gateway, although you can also fly to Nice, Nimes or Toulon-Hyères. From there, it is best to rent a car to tour the region, with a network of roads in very good condition and perfectly signposted.
The region counts also with “lavender routes” to facilitate visitors to discover all areas of its cultivation. One of the most interesting is the one that starts in Cavaillon and ends in Sault, and it is highly recommended to make it coincide with the lavender festival that is celebrated in this last town on August 15. In addition, its 90-kilometer route passes through some of the fields with the most spectacular views.
From Cavaillon you can easily reach Coustellet, which has a Lavender Museum where you can find out everything about its collection and distillation in order to produce essential oils and natural cosmetics. Further on, between Bonnieux and Saignon you cross the Plateau des Claparèdes, with magnificent lavender fields, and you reach the Miellerie du Mas des Abeilles, where lavender honey is made.
In Apt, the Les Agnels distillery, open all year round, as well as the des Coulets, open in July and August, allow you to see the lavender distillation process. From there, head to St. Christol through a road that runs between immense lavender fields, until you reach Sault, called “the capital of fine lavender”, where everything that happens is around those flowers. There we find the Chemin des Lavandes, a walk on the flowery fields, about four kilometers long, with information panels on the cultivation and harvesting of lavender.
Despite being relatively close to the coast, Provençal cuisine is inland, with strong roots and very differentiated between winter and summer. In the cold season, stews with legumes, without forgetting the star product, truffle, the most valued mushroom in the world. On the other hand, in summer the heat prevails and we enter the kingdom of salads, with multiple varieties: with lamb’s lettuce, lettuce, beans, peas and, often, with anchovies. This is precisely the main ingredient of anchoïade, the jewel of summer cuisine in Provence. It is eaten cold, either as a starter or with other dishes. It consists of anchovies, garlic, olive oil and a pinch of vinegar, which are mixed and crushed in a mortar until a paste is obtained, and eaten by spreading it on toast, with grated Parmesan cheese and fine herbs. It can also be prepared as the base of another typical dish, the bagna cauda, made up of a mixture of vegetables, cauliflower, carrots, zucchini, radishes and celery strips, which are dipped in the anchoïade, in this case, warm.
Whether in restaurants or in any market, cheese lovers must try some Provencal specialty, such as Banon or Bistralou, both wrapped in chestnut leaves that give them a magnificent herbaceous flavor. Specifically, the Banon, originating from the town of the same name, is protected with a European Denomination of Origin. Without neglecting, of course, Roquefort, a world-famous sheep cheese made in the calcareous caves of Roquefort-sur-Soulzon, in the Larzac region, not far from Provence.
Much of the lavender growing region, such as the Vaucluse department, is also part of the AOC Côtes-du-Rhône territory. This Appellation d’origine contrôlée stretches across both banks of the Rhone River, hence its name, “Rhône Hills”. Like lavender, the introduction of vines in Provence is due to the Romans. The capital of this production area is Avignon, the “city of the popes”, an hour’s drive from Sault or Apt. Monumental city, it is a perfect urban complement to the lavender fields, with the Palace of the Popes or the St. Bénezet Bridge, the famous “Pont d’Avignon” of French popular song, both declared World Heritage Sites by UNESCO.
Near Avignon there are numerous wineries that can be visited, including the possibility of tasting wines.
Lavender is so important for the life of the region that, coinciding with the exquisite moment of the year, parties are held that have this plant as the absolute protagonist. In the Vaucluse area there are two towns that attract more visitors to enjoy the event. Sault, who celebrates its party on August 15th with a pruning contest and a parade of floats with floral decorations based mainly on lavender, while Valréas, whose festivity takes place on the first weekend of August, the flower floats are accompanied with folk performances. Similarly, in Alpes-de-Haute-Provence there are diverse towns with their own celebration dedicated to lavender, such as Digne, with a lavender parade in early August and a fair during the second half of the same month or Montélimar, with party during the first fortnight of July.
Text by Anna Tomàs