ROUTES DE LAVANDE

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Provence-Alpes-Côtes d’Azur (PACA) is the South-Eastern administrative region of France that includes six départements (districts): the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence (04) with Digne, the Hautes-Alpes with Gap (05), the Alpes-Maritimes with Nice (06), the Bouches-du Rhône with Marseille, the Var with Toulon and Saint-Tropez, and the Vaucluse with Avignon.

PACA is the third richest region in France mostly because of its attractiveness in terms of tourism. With a diversified geological landscape from the Alps Mountains to its plains and coastal sand beaches, it is indeed one of the favourite worldwide touristic destination welcoming about 34 million foreign tourists each year.

The in-land Lavender Routes are proposed to the lavender enthusiasts, who seek to discover this symbol image of Provence travelling through a thousand kilometres of roads with exceptional sceneries and a rich cultural heritage. From the north to the south, one may enjoy:

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  • The Drôme Valley, on the edges of the Vercors cliffs, with the locally famous Clairette-de-Die fresh white wine and the Picodon goat cheese;

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  • The Drôme Provençale and the northern Vaucluse, with the earth ware village of Dieulefit, the lavender-surrounded castle of Grignan and the small black olives of Nyons;

 

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  • From the Provence Barronnies to the Ouvèze and Buech River valleys, where the cicadas sing among lavender fields and orchards, west of the antique city of Vaison-la-Romaine on the way to Sisteron;

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  • From the Ventoux and Lure mountains in the north to the Natural Park of the Luberon near the Valley of the Durance in the south-east, with the “capital of the lavender” village of Sault;         MAP HAUTE PROVENCE

  •   From the Haute-Provence plateau of Valensole covered with lavender fields to the village of Sainte-Croix where the Gorges-du-Verdon canyon starts, with the picturesque village of Moustiers famous for its earthenware and superb view on the valley;

 

The choice of the route(s) you follow partially depends on the season: the higher altitudes induce later flowering seasons, with a harvesting period starting mid-July in the Drôme Provençale east of Montélimar to mid-August near Sault and Valensole. The lavender varieties and the local climate also influence the harvesting periods.

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HARVEST OF LAVENDER

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We are now in July whereby the lavender are ready to be harvested. The producers observe their flowers to gauge their maturity and then fix a date for the harvest ‘campaign’. Fields that are situated in the low altitude have been cut since a couple of weeks ago. All the local producers are at their busiest time of the year. Tractors are now out every day harvesting the lavender which is ready.

The flowers are then left in the fields for 2 – 3 days to dry before transporting them to the distillery. If rain does not interrupt their work, the harvest campaign will last over 15 days. Extra manpower is recruited to work in the distillery. The process is still much manhandled like in the old days. No automation.

The maturity of the lavender in the higher altitude is always around late July. One of the biggest lavender growing area in Provence is around the Plateau d’Albion which is bordered by the department of Vaucluse, Drôme et Alpes-de-Haute- Provence. Surrounded by the Mt Ventoux the highest mountain in Provence and the chain of Lure mountains, this area has the idea terroir for the lavender and spelt agriculture that dates back centuries ago.

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Situated at an altitude of about 765m, Sault (which name means ‘mountainous and wooden place’ in Latin) is a village of about 1,400 inhabitants (2,800 in the year 1850) and is named as the capital of lavender. We can visit many picturesque villages like Simiane-la-Rotonde, Aurel, Saint-Christol, Banon etc. The Lavender Museum of Coustellet has their property there; Château du Bois in the commune of Lagarde-d’Apt.

It’s an experience to come and visit now, as we are able to share the highlights of the distillation process by the local producers.

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Gordes

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The village of Gordes (2000 inhabitants today) is located at the entrance of the Apt Valley, along the steep calcareous Northern side of the Vaucluse Mounts, and looking southward to the “Petit Luberon” Mountain. It is among one of the most beautiful villages of France, thanks to a superb site, dry stone-built houses and walls, and a typical Provence touch.

P1020661It is built around an 11th Century castle (rebuilt and expanded at the Renaissance, 16th century), which shelters local art exhibitions, and used to be the headquarters of the Vasarely painter’s foundation. It is since 1996 showing the work of Pol Mara, a modern Belgium painter.

The historical wealth of the village is due to the presence of two rivers: the Senancole and the Veroncle, allowing watermills for grinding flour and wool spinning, dams and irrigation canals until the end of the 19th century, when an earthquake made most of the water disappear underground. The watermills were then replaced by windmills over time. Until then, Gordes was known for cultivating grains, olives, garance (a plant which roots produce the rubis-red dye, used in the military uniforms until the First Word War), figs and almonds, together with silkworms. The work of leather was also famous in Gordes, with numerous shoemakers. Today, the traditional agriculture focuses on olives, lavender, truffles, cherries, honey and vineyards.  P1020617

The village was badly hit at the end of the Second World War (the retreating Germans did bomb the village from the “Roc du Bel Air”, the place where today most tourists take a picture of the village), and during the reconstruction time, many artists came to Gordes such as Marc Chagall and Vasarely. Since then, the economy of the village is centered on real estate and tourism, focusing on the conservation of the site, high-class hotels and home-gîtes for tourists.

P1000406The “Village des Bories”, these drystone huts used by shepherds just west of the village, is also an interesting visit, together with the Sénanque Abbey (2 km north-west).senanque 1 A local market taking place every Tuesday morning around the Gordes castle is a big favorite among the tourists as well as the locals. . A festival, “Les Soirées d’Été”, is organized with jazz music and theater during the first two weeks of August.

Distillation of Lavender Oil

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Summer is officially here.  The mercury of the thermometer is climbing and the flowers of the lavender is blooming almost fully.  The scent of the flowers are attracting the bees in the lavender fields.  LAVENDER BEE

This is also the moment that the distillers are getting their distillery ready : checking the distillation stills, contacting their seasonal workers, etc….

 

A sharing experience from a guide :

Distilation_Santal,_AlambicLast summer, I’ve discovered the way to distillate lavender essential oil. What a great experience ! Surrounded by a golden and purple patchwork of wheat and lavender, we turned on a little car track. Guided by a plume of smoke, we kept going till a kind of open-air hangar. Even being in the car, we already could smell the strong perfume exhaling from the still.

A tractor was carrying giant bales of lavender towards a vase 500 kilos each, told by the workers. Smiling but working hard, there were about 4 people trying to fill the vase with the “straw” of lavender. First, they put one bale, quickly joined by a second one. How could this quantity of flowers and stems enter into the vase ? lavande 1

The answer came with a huge tyre (like on the monster trucks) hanging from chains. It was filled with concrete and must weigh tons ! The workers placed it above the bales and jumped on it to press the lavender. Finally, everything was inside the vase and they could close it tightly.

The next stage was warming up the water at the bottom of the still. The dry lavender, already passed into the vase from a precedent distillation, was burnt into a big oven to boil the water and make it evaporate. I don’t know how they can work at this hot temperature all day long in the middle of summer !

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The steam then passed between the flowers, brought the essence of lavender and arrived to a tube (swan neck) going down. The producer asked us to follow him down the metal stairs as we could see the completion of  this activity : the essential oil. Turning on a little tap at the top of a small vat, he collected the liquid in a bottle. Keeping it still, we could observe the separation into two parts. The essential oil was much lighter than water, therefore it floats  to the top. So they could collect only the essential oil.

So easy to understand but so hard to do ! Thank you guys for this nice demonstration !

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Notre-Dame de Senanque Abbey

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The Abbey of Notre-Dame de Sénanque is a Cistercian monastery lying at the bottom of a deep canyon behind the village of Gordes, where the Sénancole River flows in the middle of the scrubland, dry oaks and lavender fields. It was built in 1148 by a community of 12 monks coming from the nearby Ardèche region, and is part of the “Three Provence Sisters” of the Cistercian Order, with the Abbey of Silvacane on the way to Aix-en-Provence and the one of the Thoronet closer to the Riviera.

The Cistercian Order is the major catholic monastic order of the 12th century in Europe, and comes from a branch of the Benedictine Order at the end of the 11th century inspired by the Gregorian Reform of the popes Leon IX and Gregory VII (1020-1085). It focuses on the improvement of the lands, agricultural work, rigour and an ascetic way of life.

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The success of the Abbey is such that it becomes richer and richer, to the point that during the religious wars (16th century), monks are hung and the convers building (where the agrarian monks live) is burnt. It is sold to a private family during the French Revolution, and by chance, it is maintained and consolidated. It is bought back by the Abbey of Lerins (near Cannes) in 1857, and returns to its original mandate with a congregation of 72 monks. Through a 1969 sponsorship contract with the Berliet Company (French luxury cars and heavy trucks), the monastery is further consolidated, and opens to public visits.senanque 4

The current community of monks works on a 10 ha exploitation of lavender, on beehives producing honey, and olive trees producing olive oil. They offer these products for sale at the bookshop near the entrance of the site.

The monks make their own bread, and eat essentially the vegetable they produce in their vegetable garden. They also welcome pilgrims (800 per year), who want to retreat during a few days and share the active monastic life of the community. The monastery can be visited only through a guided tour organized a few times per week.

The community of monks have catholic mass open to the public, which are on occasion with Gregorian chants.

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Your dreams come true ….

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Getting married in Provence is a wonderful sensation of being surrounded by nature, history and culture!  The lavender fields are the symbol of romantism and so many couples want to be the lucky ones to get a wedding picture in the fields.

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As a guide,  I have been witnessing the happiness of those couples that  come to visit us in Provence in the summer to tie the knots. I must say that our region has so much varieties to offer from June to August.  PHOTO 3

My biggest souvenir is a charming couple from Asia that was travelling for their first time in Provence.  I went to pick them up in their hotel, I knew from that moment that it was going to be an unique day not only for them but also for me .  They were just so excited !

I drove them to the lavender fields with the 2 friends that were with them. I remenber the eyes of those 4 persons as we are getting closer to the lavender fields. They were bewitched by the beauty and elegance of the landscape !

PHOTO 5We have spent about 4 hours driving around and stopping at diffèrent locations to catch the best light and the best shot in the lavender and sunflower fields. The joy was clearly shown in their expressions and I’m sure the photos that they will  have at the end will definitely make their dreams come true. We had time also to visit the village of Valensole and enjoy the local experience.PHOTO 8

I can not express the joy it give us as a tour guide to see the happiness of the people whenthey visit our wonderful region.  We welcome you at any time of the year to experience the extraordinary heritage whether as in historical sites, culture, wine and nature; there’s always something for you to do.

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Guiding through purple fields ..

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While the sun is still rising in the sky, I pick up my clients at the Aix-en-Provence Tourism Information Center near the beautiful Rotonde fountain and the journey can begin on board of our minivan.

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We’re heading north on the highway where fields, lakes and sunflowers bid us welcome in the high Provence region. We’re exiting the highway in Manosque where we turn east towards the Valensole Plateau. We drive alongside fields of apple trees abundantly getting watered before finally approaching the plateau.

Our eyes were just adjusting to the bright light from the deep blue sky of Provence when we got hit by the seemingly endless purple ocean of the lavender fields finally appearing. I park the minivan on the side of the road and my clients: 2 Americans and 3 Chinese find a perfect photo opportunity as the perspective of the field seems infinite and is only confronted by the far away Alps in the north.

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Just next to us is the Angelvin distillery where we stop to listen to some explanations about the harvesting process as well as the distillery mechanism of lavender.

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We then continue our journey further east in the middle of countless lavender, wheat and almond fields and orchards before reaching the picturesque village of Moustiers-Sainte-Marie, city of faïence, where waterfalls, narrow streets of cobblestone and cozy restaurants awaits us. The shade that we find in this village is most welcome as the warm Provencal sun is approaching its zenith.

Once lunch is over and we believe our eyes are accustomed to the beauty of the place, we continue our day in the Verdon regional park to the mouths of the Verdon river where the water exits the deepest canyon in Europe and flows into the lake of Sainte Croix. We stop on a bridge with the canyon on our left and the lake with its unbelievable blue color on our right for an unmissable photo stop! Swimmers, kayakers and hikers fill the rest of the landscape.gorges-du-verdon-moustiers-sainte-marie1

We continue the afternoon up on the plateau on the north bank of the lake in the middle of more lavender and wheat fields where yellow and purple confront in an unlikely mix, until we reach the village of Sainte-Croix du Verdon for an amazing point of view on the blue water of the lake.

It’s now time to come back to Aix-en-Provence while the setting sun is telling us that the day is over and that he is finally done to spread its warm light on Provence for today.

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Matt

Valensole and Gorges de Verdon

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Between Manosque and Castellane, amid the rolling hills of this vast 800 km² plateau and an ocean of fine lavender and its hybrid species ‘lavandin’ is situated the town of Valensole.

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The etymology of Valensole is ‘vallis sollis’ or ‘Valley of the Sun’. It is a commune in the Alps de Haute-Provence. The landscape changes according to the seasons. The snowy peaks of the Alpes and almond blossoms in March give way in July with vast lavender fields alternating with golden wheat and sunflower fields.fete de lavande valensole 1

fete de lavande valensoleFor over 20 years, the village celebrates the harvest of its lavender and cereals. It will be a whole day of festivities with traditional folk parade, music and dance, distillation demonstration and sale of local crafts and foods.

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Further east of Valensole lies the charming village of Moustiers Sainte Marie. It is located at the west entrance to the Gorges du Verdon. For centuries, this charming village is well known for its pottery especially ‘faience’.faience.png

The Gorges du Verdon is a river canyon and is regarded as one of the most beautiful and deepest canyons in Europe. The gigantic cliffs of calcareous rock are the result of the erosion of the Plateau of Haute-Provence by the Verdon River and in some parts, it has cut out a ravine to a depth of 700 metres through the limestone. At the end of the canyon, the Verdon River flows into the man-made lake of Sainte-Croix de Verdon. It was constructed between 1971 and 1974. Lake of St Croix and its turquoise coloured water has attracted thousands of people to come and enjoy the outdoor activities like swimming, sailing, windsurfing.

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When you are in Provence, this spectacular site offers a memorable souvenir for your holidays.

Book your lavender tour…www.provence-reservation.com

Spring is here …

cerisiersThe season of spring is here. In spite of a period of rainfall in early April, we feel the weather warming up gradually. Just like Easter, when we celebrate the resurrection, the spring is also the time of the new beginning. It feels like everything is waking up and coming out of its hibernation from winter. At this moment, one takes account of the task that he will be confronting. Spring cleaning in the house, buying new annual plants for the garden, bring out the outdoor furnitures and if courageous enough – cleaning up the barbecue.

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In the south of France, the sunshine is generously shining with a spell of Mistral southbound wind from time to time, clearing out the clouds. Olive trees must be pruned in such a way that, according to the local saying; « a swallow can fly through it ».

printemps2The white and pink blossoms of the almonds, cherries, apricots, peaches are so refreshing and the landscape is so picturesque in the provençal countryside.

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aspergesFarmers are busy getting their fields ready. Many are ploughing their land to grow new crops for the summer. Asparagus, radish, spinach are already for sale in the market. Strawberries are ripening nicely to be picked up too.

lavandeIn the lavender fields, this is the time when the weeding is done with a ‘griffon’ rake attached to the rear of the tractor to pull out the weeds between the rows of lavender. For the younger plants which are less than 3 years old, this operation is done with a hoe, It’s also during this time when organic fertilizer is added to the soil.

 lavender in LuberonThen, we just have to wait for the flowering of the lavender plants in early June. Plan ahead and reserve your lavender tour.

ROUSSILLON

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A small hilltop village of around 1,500 inhabitants situated at the foot of the plateau of Vaucluse in the region of Provence Alps Côte d’Azur, Roussillon ranks among the most beautiful villages of France.

roussillon 2According to a legend, the Roussillon ochreous cliffs owe their colour to the blood of Lady Sirmonde, the wife of Lord Raymond of Avignon, who was so grief-striken by the assassination of her lover by her jealous husband that she jumps off the cliff and committed suicide.

About 40 million years ago, the green sandstones that had been formed during the time Provence was still submerged by the sea became altered by abundant rainfalls of the then – tropical local climate. This weathering led to the formation of the red and yellow ochreous sands.roussillon 3

The ochre lodes in the Luberon are among the richest in the world. Due to the density and variety of their colours, the ochres that are produced in Roussillon are greatly sought-after. 17 different shades are listed: pigments ranging from yellow and orange to red. All the houses in the village are painted with different colours of ochre.

roussillon 5Known and used in handicrafts for paintings, decoration, textile, pottery and construction; it is also used industrially as a colour additive incorporating with other raw materials.

At its peak, there were many quarries operating with thousands of workers from the late 18th century to the 1930s. With the invention of synthetic dyes, the demands for the natural pigment diminished greatly. Nowadays the mining of ochre is prohibited here, in order to protect the sites from degration or even complete destruction.

Though the ochre is no longer exploited in Roussillon, its ochre trails attract thousands of tourists. Tourism is now the largest economy besides agriculture. Cherries, peaches and lavender are grown here as well as wine-making.

At the foot of the village, a landscape of patchwork interlacing with vineyards, olive groves, cherry orchards and almond trees and lavender fields offers the visitors an unforgettable souvenir.

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For the photo enthusiasts who are interested to join a photo workshop whereby you will be guided by the experts.  Check out Ian Ford’s Photo Tours Abroad.  Their workshop is timed for the best of the lavender blooms such that you can expect to capture glorious vistas of purple interspersed with traditional stone buildings and a backdrop of mountains.

http://www.aluxurytravelblog.com/2016/02/13/luberon-lavender-with-a-touch-of-class/

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http://www.provence-reservation.com