Welcome to the lavender headquarters of the world.
How to Get There
I took a Ouibus from Paris overnight via Grenoble to the bus depot right outside the walls of old town Avignon. Buses are a much cheaper alternative to trains, especially since I also didn’t have to spend money on a place to stay the night.
For regional trains, the Avignon Central station is right on the edge of town. The TGV national and international train station is a little further out – take a bus if you need to get there.
Where to Stay
Due to the high prices in central Avignon, a combination of the theatre festival and the prime lavender season, I instead booked a hotel out in Nîmes, a quick train ride away from Avignon central station. For 60 Euros, I stayed at Hotel du Temple, a simple yet suitable and central hotel within 15-minutes walking distance of the train station.
From the bus depot outside the old-town walls, I followed the signs to the central square, home on three sides to some old, beautiful buildings: the Pope’s palace, from the 70 years Roman Catholicism was based out of Avignon; the Petit Palace, now a museum; and a garden claiming to have the best views of the river.
Aside from the middle-aged man asking to take me out for coffee while I sat and listened to the live music in the central square, I enjoyed sitting and just enjoying the sunshine. The Pope’s palace costs 12 Euros to get in, but the cathedral next door is free to wander if you do it quietly. From there, you can also get a wonderful view back down to the square, which turned out to be the nicest in the whole place. Another little spot is in the gardens, where you can peer down on the terracotta roofs that make up Avignon.
From the old town square, I made my way into ‘downtown’ Avignon, ablaze with the Festival d’Avignon, a theatre, film and music festival. Every wall and fence is covered in posters, and flyers are thrown into your face by festival performers and artists trying to convince you to come to their shows.
I sat and enjoyed the street performers, but found that the Festival itself was too overwhelming and I craved somewhere less busy and less over-the-top. It was also Bastille Day, only adding to the fanaticism.
I only stayed in Nîmes for one evening; the map I received at my hotel detailed many interesting attractions that I would have taken the time to see if I was there longer. I saw the iconic Colosseum that is the local arena, and wandered the much emptier-than-Avignon streets enjoying the peace, the air and the space.
My favourite thing about Nîmes was the Spanish influences in the architecture, and the similarities to Italy, with the building choices as well. One of the coolest things about Europe is the cross-border cultural nuances.
Before leaving Avignon, I had wandered past Provence Reservation, a tour company based out of Avignon on the outskirts of the central square. Flyers for their lavender tours fluttered in the wind in the box outside their office, and with the realization that my main reason to be in Provence was to see the lavenders, and the understanding that you couldn’t actually get there by public transit, I stepped inside.
For 55 Euros, I booked a 5-hour guided day-trip around Provence to see lavender fields, the high up village of Sault, a photo stop at the sweet little mountain village of Gordes (one that was also highlighted in my Lonely Planet), and the Senanque Abbey where the most famous lavenders are. We didn’t end up getting to go to the Abbey due to time constraints, and I made sure to leave a note of complaint on my feedback form, as it may have been the one thing I was looking forward to the most! Ah well.
The tour left the following morning from Avignon Central station and I met with Fred the driver, Steve and Maureen, a lovely British couple, and Mr. Zhang. We loaded into a bumpy minivan, and as soon as we hit the road, Fred launched into a fact-filled and knowledgeable speech about everything Avignon, the nuances of Provence, the agricultural livelihoods (olives, asparagus, and of course lavender), the differences between fine lavender (one flower, light purple) and lavendine (three flowers, rich purple), the 300 days of sunshine that this region gets due to the strong winds always blowing away the clouds, and the history of essential oils.
We stopped to get out and stretch our legs and a valley lookout providing for incredible views over the hundreds of lavender fields. I had never considered lavender to be a farmed product before, so this was all very fascinating to me.
Our next stop was at a lavender farm, where we saw the different stages of production: farming, drying, heating, compressing, and separating the oil from the water. All the old lavender stalks were then re-used for the fire, meaning that the entire production process, passed down from medieval times, used only lavender and water. The air was fragrant with the thick and sweet smell of lavender, and I met the fluffiest farm dog ever.
We then drove through the Luberon valley, home to many more farmsteads and countless fields of purple. We stopped at a little field with a slightly different drying process to the one before where they simply left the stalks on top of their stems to dry in the Provencial sunshine.
My favourite stop was next, where we took some lovely photos of the bursting lavender just below the village of Sault.
We drove high up into Sault where little shops displayed all sorts of lavender products – from oils, to bath bombs, to potpourri and creams.
We stopped for a photo of the beautiful little village we had seen from afar – with no time to explore, we settled for a panoramic view, much like the one from my Lonely Planet.
*Including photos by Steve & Maureen