“We had been here often before as tourists, desperate for our annual ration of two or three weeks of true heat and sharp light. Always when we left, with peeling noses and regret, we promised ourselves that one day we would live here.” ― Peter Mayle, A Year in Provence
Admittedly, I have not yet read A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle. It is sitting on my Kindle with the promise of a future read, but, until this weekend, I did not truly understand the magic and beauty of this region.
We left Marseille early Sunday morning with no more of a plan than driving up to Sault and then heading back to Toulouse by way of Avignon. Our goal was to see the lavender fields and our hope was that some would still be unharvested this late in the season.
The drive to Sault took us out into the French countryside and the Alps grew increasingly bigger as we made our way to the Provencal town. The rolling valleys and farmland north of Marseille soon gave way to narrow, two-lane mountain roads that began to wind us up to the heights that had, less than an hour before, been on our horizon.
We took the road less traveled to get to Sault which meant cutting through villages perched on the mountainside and traversing the Parc national regional du Luberon. The Parc was filled with pine trees and mountain flowers and, once we climbed to the higher elevations, we discovered the lavender fields—some of which had not yet been harvested!
As soon as we found a field still violet with flowers, I asked Matt to pull over so I could take pictures. As we rolled down the windows, the heavenly scent of lavender wafted into our car. We both took deep inhales of the fragrant breeze, imagining what it must smell like when everything is in full bloom.
A scent of ripeness from over a wall.
And come to leave the routine road
And look for what had made me stall,
There sure enough was an apple tree
That had eased itself of its summer load,
And of all but its trivial foliage free,
Now breathed as light as a lady’s fan.
For there had been an apple fall
As complete as the apple had given man.
The ground was one circle of solid red.
May something go always unharvested!
May much stay out of our stated plan,
Apples or something forgotten and left,
So smelling their sweetness would be no theft.-Unharvested by Robert Frost
We decided to make our way to the Distillerie Aroma’plantes just outside of Sault, but not without first stopping to admire this view of the valley below us. This is a place I could live forever.
After a couple of wrong turns and a little detour through the village of Sault, we found ourselves pulling up and parking at a beautiful, converted French farmhouse and walking up a gravel driveway lined on one side with lavender plants still in bloom and large trees on the other.
We and one other family seemed to be the first to arrive for the day, so we were given a tour of the distillery in English. We walked in through a shop filled with lavender and other herbal products, made our way through an aromatic bar where they will happily make you crepes and hot chocolate and out to the distillery. Interestingly the process of distilling lavender (and other herbs) is very similar to distilling alcohol.
Everything at the Distillerie Aroma’plantes is locally sourced and handmade—most coming directly from the land owned by the company. The company has been family-owned for multiple generations and they use no pesticides and create their own fertilizer from compost (made of wood and lavender clippings). Following our tour of the distillery we were set loose to look at a small, but very well-done museum explaining the history of lavender in the region, how the lavender is harvested and what it can be used for.
Well, all this talk of herbs (and the image in our heads of freshly made crepes) was making us hungry and thirsty, so we wandered over to the little aromatic bar and ordered two lavender honey crepes, a lavender hot chocolate, a lavender espresso and a glass of fresh lavender/apple juice. We enjoyed our treats outside in the shade of a large tree.
Energy restored, we made our way into the shop where I loaded up on lavender tea, dried lavender, lavender water, lavender oil and a handful of other products to support my growing interest in essential oils and natural remedies.
If you find yourself in Provence and want to learn more about the lavender industry, I truly recommend visiting the Distillerie Aroma’plantes. The people working there were kind and friendly and we learned to appreciate local products and farming even more.
Our next stop was Avignon, a walled, ancient city on the left bank of the Rhône River whose name dates back to the 6th century BC! Being so old, it has a long history and has passed ownership many times—including to the Catholic Church. For all of you Catholics out there, seven successive popes resided in the Palais des Papes in Avignon, starting with Clement V in 1309.
Since we were there on a Sunday (and during the month of August), a lot of the shops and restaurants in the city were closed, but we did decide to tour the massive Palais. We were able to see the chapels, gardens, treasury, kitchen and private Papal rooms, which have all been restored and contain artifacts from the time of the popes living there.
We followed our tour with a quick dinner and then made our way out to Pont Saint-Benezet (there was a combo ticket to tour both this bridge and the Palais). This bridge, which used to span the Rhône, was built between 1177 and 1185. Flooding of the Rhône caused parts of it to collapse at times, so the bridge was eventually abandoned, but you can still walk across part of it and see the Chapel of Saint Nicholas perched on the second pier of the bridge.
We were up there right before sunset and were able to admire the river and mountains in the distance in the fading light of the summer sun.
Sadly we had to leave and make our way back to Toulouse after walking across the bridge as Matt had to work early this week, but it was a wonderful weekend and we learned a lot about the history and livelihood of the Provence region. I’ve been using my lavender products to scent my pillow before I go to bed so I can have sweet dreams of one of the most beautiful places I’ve been on earth.