The French region of Provence needs no introduction and no detailed plan. Its every corner is permeated with a special southern spirit, one of nonchalance and tranquility. Pack light, you won’t need much. Just your open soul, curious eyes, and around five free days. This article serves a dual purpose: inspire a desire to travel and give a rough idea of a convenient route (my Google Maps plan is here).
Tracing the lavender fields
Provençal charm is inseparable from lavender, the region’s principal attraction. Rolling purple fields are scattered all over; some are well known among the tourist crowds, while others are still kept in relative secrecy. I give you a varied selection with three personal favourites:
- Senanque Abbey: arrive early morning to catch the gentle rays illuminating the neat rows, which bloom just outside the 12th century edifice. Note that you would not be able to walk around the lavender itself (the small field is fenced off), but the views are definitely worth the stop.
2. The open fields at the bottom of Saignon: their existence remains unknown to the tourist masses.
3. Valensole plateau: the hot spot! The fields here are seemingly endless, open to all, and hide a heart shaped tree Instagram addicts feature regularly in their feeds. Can I tell you a horrible secret? Forget Instagramble picnics in between the flower stems: buzzing bees are not keen for human companions.
BONUS: our visit to a lavender distillery was not at all a bore! Les Agnels boast a large, well-organised space with a very visual and self-explanatory set-up, which is complimented by the obligatory guided tour.
France’s most beautiful villages
Rural France is far from forgotten – it is celebrated. A big thank you to the association of Les Plus Beaux Villages de France, whose noble ambition has transcended decades to guide travelers around the most beautiful villages of the French countryside. True, there is a set of common elements. A palette of pastel colours. Cracked paint. Dry flowers. Tiny, cobbled streets. But I urge you to walk further, climb higher, and look closer.
The official list of the most beautiful French villages contains over one hundred fifty stops, with fifteen villages in Provence. I give you my top six:
- Les Baux-de-Provence: a tiny village with a panoramic view over the mountains. Come here for sunset, but don’t drag out your dinner plans as most restaurants take their last orders around 9 P.M.
- Gordes: one of the most popular villages, which sits right in the middle of a picturesque valley. While you’re there, grab the opportunity to visit the Village des Bories, a collection of twenty dry stone huts representative of an era gone by.
- Saignon: is almost unknown, which means you can come here to escape the crowds. The village itself hides one of Provence’s prettiest squares decorated with an ornate fountain.
- Roussillon: most known for its red hills, coloured by the rich deposits of ochre pigments. Beware of the closing hours and give yourself at least 1,5 hours to explore the national park. The village offers a decent choice of dinner places.
- L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue: a lively town where you will be spoiled for choice of restaurants, terraces, and bars. Culture buffs, don’t miss the Villa Datris Foundation, a beautiful old mansion with an open garden, which houses contemporary sculpture and modern art exhibitions.
- Oppede-le-Vieux: one of the most atmospheric villages, whose winded streets hide ceramic ateliers and cosy terraces with coloured parasols. Dare the small hike to find refuge in the beautiful Notre-Dame-d’Alydon, a church dating back to the 16th century. The blue ceiling, rich in religious symbolism, casts an invisible softness and wraps you in solemn tranquility.
Worth the penny
A trip in Provence is your chance to stock up:
- Natural soap bars (they last very long and do not dry out skin)
- Honey of all sorts
- Intricate mixes of herbs and spices for cooking. A great farmers’ market can be found at the village of Coustellet. The stalls are set up every Sunday morning and Wednesday evening, starting from 5 P.M.
- Dry flowers and lavender to display in dainty vases around your home.
- The flowering season for lavender begins mid June and lasts until around early July (my own trip was mid July). As you go higher, around the town of Sault for example, the colder weather postpones the blooming season until early July, which means you can catch the purple magic until early August.
- The best way to get around is by car. If you are coming from Paris, my advice is not to repeat my own mistake of driving down from the capital. Book train tickets in advance to avoid an exhausting ride of 8 hours and nights in hostels by the road.
- If you want to extend your holiday, the Verdon Gorge river canyon and its lake of Sainte Croix are great options. You can also combine your trip with the lake town of Annecy, which is not far from the Swiss border.
More Provençal inspiration
Provence is much more than just a holiday destination: it is a way of life. There are two people, whose insights on this region are exceptional. The first is Jamie Beck, a successful photographer from New York, who settled in Provence for a year of self-discovery that she captured in a series of breathtaking self-portraits (more on her blog and Instagram account). The second is Peter Mayle, a British author who has written a timeless classic about his move to the continent: A Year in Provence.
Text + photos : Lena