Welcome to the lavender headquarters of the world. Provence has long delighted visitors from around the world with rolling hills, endless wine regions, blue skies and sunshine, and of course the famous lavender fields just begging to be twirled around in. I spent a few days exploring Avignon, Nîmes, Sault, Gordes and went on a stunning tour of some of France's best lavender fields. Read on for my insights into this enchanting French region.
How to Get to Provence
If you are arriving by bus - Ouibus routes arrive from all around the country including the capital Paris - you will be dropped off right outside the walls of old town Avignon. A cheaper alternative to trains, you can also travel overnight alleviating the need to spend precious daylight hours on the road. From Avignon, regional trains can be caught at the local Central Station. If your next destination is further out or international, it's the TGV station you'll need which is a bus ride out of town.
Where to Stay in Provence
Thanks to the draw of Provence in the middle of July, a combination of theatre festivals, Bastille Day celebrations and prime lavender season, you may find more luck just outside of town. I stayed in Nîmes, a quick train ride away from Avignon. For 60 euro per night I had a room at Hotel du Temple, a simple yet suitable hotel in the heart of town and in walking distance of the train station.
A Quick Guide to Avignon
After exploring the stunning views outside the old-town walls, follow the signs to the central square. Home on three sides to old and stunning buildings, this is the heart of the city. On one side, the Pope's Palace (12 euro per person) resides, where for 70 years Roman Catholicism was based out of. Next door, the cathedral is open for a quiet and free wander. The patio just outside at the top of the steps offers the best view of the bustle of the square. From the gardens, you can take in the panoramic view of the terracotta roofs of Avignon.
From the old town square, head towards downtown Avignon. If you're lucky it'll be alive with the theatre, film and music Festival d'Avignon. Time it with Bastille Day for a sensory stimulation!
A Quick Guide to Nîmes
Nîmes was where I stayed, home to many local attractions. My favourite was the Colosseum; one of the coolest things about Europe is noticing the cross-border cultural nuances. I also appreciated the quietness of the streets, especially in comparison to bustling Avignon.
How to Take a Lavender Tour in Provence
Before leaving old-town Avignon, I had wandered past Provence Reservation, a tour company 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 euro, I booked a 5-hour guided day-trip around Provence to see lavender fields, the high up village of Sault and the sweet little mountain village of Gordes. The tour left the following morning from Avignon Central station and I met with our driver and other tour members. 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 Provence: the nuances of Avignon, 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. Our first stop was a valley lookout providing for incredible views over the hundreds of lavender fields stretched out before us in the sunshine.
Our next stop was at a lavender farm where we saw the different stages of production including the farming of the lavender, then drying it out, heating it up to compress it and then separating the resulting oil and water. The old lavender stalks that were compressed for the oil are then put into the fire, meaning the entire production process uses only lavender and water! The air all around us was thick was the fragrant, sweet smell of lavender.
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.
A Quick Guide to 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.
A Quick Guide to Gordes
We stopped for a photo of the beautiful little village we had seen from afar. With no time left to explore, we settled for a panoramic view, much like the one from my Lonely Planet.