To venture to Provence in July is to be lost in a purple colored sea. Oceans of lavender everywhere – in patches, in waves, in perfect rows, field after field – the hillsides of the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence are daubed in blue, mauve, grey and violet by great swathes of lavender in bloom. This is harvest time in Provence’s lavender regions – the tractors are rolling, the distilleries steaming and lavender festivals are in full swing.
Lavender, the emblem of Provence, has been growing here forever. Its formal cultivation however is rather new, and has given rise to lavandin; a hybrid version used more for industrial purposes.
“Fine” or true lavender is grown for its essential oils. To qualify for the highly coveted AOC (Appellation of Controlled Origin) – France’s highest stamp of approval – the lavender must meet very strict criteria, its production limited to 284 villages and cultivated in regions above 800 m in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, the Drome and Vaucluse. Used for perfumes, in aromatherapy and medicinally, it must also meet olfactory tests, and special harvesting and distillation processes.
Under the blazing sun, this delicate plant is harvested by hand by families steeped in its traditions, who have cultivated it for generations. It is then dried for days before being distilled. The distillation process consists of passing steam through the dried flowers, which are gathered in bunches in a still to extract their essential oils. Various techniques are used depending on the lavender’s use. To produce 1 Liter of essential oil, 287 lb. of fine lavender is used; for perfumes, the process is even more complex taking over 2200 lbs. of lavender to yield 3 gallons of absolute pure oil.
Provence Lavender Country Offers Great Hiking Vacations and Biking Routes
Lavender conjures up breathtaking vistas of blue fields, punctuated by red poppies, a patchwork of gold grain and occasional strands of oak and pine which stretch into the hallucinatory blue horizon. This region is a cycling and hiking paradise – biking routes abound for visitors who wish to venture off- the-beaten-path on the “Route de Lavande” and hiking vacations on the “Grande Randonne” trails are an adventurer’s dream. The imposing Luberon Mountains and Vaucluse plain serve as the backdrop to the magnificent panoramas of ancient villages perched on hillsides; with the scents of rosemary, thyme, savory and not least, lavender.
The “Route de Lavande” leads visitors through swathes of fragrant fields, gardens, distilleries, museums and villages. The many festivals, the largest hosted by Sault, exhibit lavender floats and displays and offer not only bouquets and sachets, but every kind of lavender-associated product – creamy honey, scented candles and even aprons. Restaurants offer lavender inspired menus and spas offer thermal baths and massages with lavender oil.
This sun-drenched region, with its patchwork of olive groves, ochre, platinum and mauve fields, its scents, tastes and sights epitomizes the very best the South of France has to offer.