Provence – In the film Charlotte Gray, Cate Blanchett rides a rickety wooden train to rejoin her Second World War Resistance fighter lover, passing row upon row of deep purple lavender fields. The scene made me want to go to Provence in the south of France.
No sojourn in Provence would be complete without a romp in its fragrant flowering fields. Lavender blooms from mid-June to mid-July, and most harvesting takes place in the third or fourth week of July. True blue lavender grows best at high altitudes.
We set out from Avignon on a route that encompassed the Musée de la Lavande at Coustellet, the Sénanque Abbey, the perched village of Gordes and enchanting Sault.
Mauve lavender is just coming into bloom in the mountain valley outside the 12th-century Abbaye Notre Dame de Sénanque. You can tour the abbey and buy the monks’ lavender honey. I walk in the dry soil between the rows of bushy plants and touch the leaves to pick up some of their essential oil, inhaling the scent.
At Coustellet’s Musée de la Lavande, an ancient stone farmhouse near an easily accessible field of lavender, we watch a film showing how the plants are grown, in clumps that grow to be .6 metres high by .9 metres wide. The flowers are cut by a small tractor/harvester and distilled to concentrate their essential oil.
The boutique at the museum is a tour de force of fragrance and colour. I sample fine-quality products and appreciate how the Gel Circulatoire soothes the muscles of this roving traveller. It’s all here: perfumes, shower gels, creams, bubble bath, candles, diffusers, incense, sachets and pure essential oil.
Lavender comes from the Latin word “lavare,” which means to wash. The Romans used it to scent their baths and newly washed linen, and Provence was a favourite province of imperial Rome’s retiring generals. The pure essential oil of Lavandula angustifolia has medicinal properties and is used to treat insomnia, irritability, headaches, cuts, burns, sunburn, insect bites, colds, sore throats and rheumatism.
There are three kinds of lavender: true blue, spike and lavandin (a hybrid of the first two, easily produced in quantity). If you plan to buy essential oil, pay a little more to be sure it is from lavender and not lavandin. The scent is more subtle.
From Coustellet we drive through steep mountain passes and gorges, stopping the car to walk among the waving plants as bees buzz and cowbells ring in the distance.
Returning to our base in Avignon, we stop at Gordes, for me the quintessential mountain village – tiny, medieval and perfect.
There is such diversity of accommodation in Provence. The romantic in me chooses the 16th-century Château de Taulignan in the tranquil countryside outside Vaison la Romaine in northern Provence.
Our suite has two large rooms, blue brocade curtains, wing chairs and a canopy bed with gauzy white curtains that flutter in the breeze. The bathroom with its antique tub is in the round tower.
After a day touring lavender routes, I sink into a hot tub for a soothing soak in water scented with lavender essential oil.
After café, croissants and an omelette, we head for fields of true blue lavender outside the tiny village of Séderon, the “cradle of lavender,” high in the Haut Vaucluse.
When dried, bouquets of blue lavender retain their rich colour. On this route we see the first double plantings of lavender and olive trees. Even the distant mountains have a blue tint. At a pastoral scene of goats guarded by their faithful white mountain dog, we stop the car to listen to the clinking of bells as the animals graze.
At Séderon, a wedding is about to take place and everyone is there, the town shut tight save one café. Fresh sprigs of lavender tied with white silk ribbon adorn a balcony doorway.
At the Domaine de la Prevosse or the Domaine de Montine in Grignan, taste a full-bodied Côte du Rhone wine as the fragrant “blue gold” of Provence infuses the breeze.
The French have a way with beauty. Even the traffic circles in Provence are planted with emblematic rosemary, lavender and olive trees. It’s all locked in memory now along with the vivid palette of colours – electric blue sky, emerald vineyards, deep purple lavender – underscored by the rhythmic choruses of cicadas.