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Saturday, September 20, 2014

In the Land of Lavender

Have you ever had the urge to see for yourself the undulating fields of lavender in Provence?

Valensole Plateau, Provence, France
Row upon row of fragrant beauty disappears into the distance as you bask in the glow of the warm, Mediterranean sun and marvel at the crystal blue canopy above. You inhale deeply as you enjoy the pungent, floral aroma that surrounds you. Does it get any better than this?

I think not!

Any essential oil enthusiast would jump at the chance to travel to the mecca of lavender, and I was no different. This last July, I had the opportunity to visit a childhood friend who has a home in one of the most beautiful hilltowns in the south of France. Much like other medieval towns in the area, St. Paul de Vence is a walled settlement perched on the top of a small mountain behind the city of Nice.

Simiane La Rotonde, Provence
In addition to reconnecting with my friend, I also wanted to participate in a lavender harvest in Simiane La Rotonde, another ancient hilltown situated in one of the most prolific lavender producing areas of Provence: the Valensole Plateau.

This plateau (as you can see above) seems to consist of rolling hills of lavender with a few mountains WAY OFF in the distance, so from scouring many travel books before I left, I naturally thought this was what ALL of the south of France looked like. It was quite a shock when I got there last July to discover that the entire province, and the neighboring Haute  Provence, are filled with small mountains, singularly and in chains (the Alpilles). To travel from place to place often involves traversing twisty, winding roads with traffic that can be slow-going at times. What looks like a straight shot on a map might take twice as long as you planned because it involves navigating hills and valleys, one after the other!

Abbaye de Senanque
The famous Cistercian "Abbaye de Senanque" near the hilltown of Gordes is one of those deceptive places, hidden at the bottom of a valley and not easy to get to. The monks chose this location on purpose because it is quiet and remote. Monks need plenty of solitude, but they also work out in the abbey garden and in the lavender fields (some of the funds for running the abbey come from sales of products made from lavender, including their lavender honey, all of which are available in their store.) People from all over the world visit the abbey to appreciate the simplicity of the architecture and the beauty of the surroundings. Tours are conducted throughout the day but ONLY IN FRENCH.

Standing in the lavender fields near Simiane La Rotonde
I got my wish to participate in a lavender harvest, but it wasn't cultivated lavender. Though my daughter and I visited the fields at the foot of Simiane la Rotonde (above), and had the opportunity to tour the nearby co-op distillery, we arrived on location the day after these fields were partially harvested by the group we were joining. On the day we arrived, they piled into a large bus to drive to a more remote location to harvest wild lavender. We were given sickles and gloves and instructed to carefully cut the lavender in bunches and put them in our bags (also provided). By the end of the morning, we reached the top of the hill that overlooked the Valensole Plateau, where fields of cultivated lavender shared space with delicate, lilac colored Clary Sage.

Enjoying the heady scent of Clary Sage at the top of the hill
The next day, the assistant farm manager, young Nicolas Landel, packed a small copper still with the precious lavender buds that we had previously cut according to his instructions. Because our little group had to leave on the rest of our Provence expedition, we weren't able to obtain a sample of the fruits of our labor until we arrived back in St. Paul.

They sent us a TEENIE bottle of the most delicate, sweet lavender oil, very unlike the essential oil produced by cultivated lavender. The wild plants themselves were leggier and more delicate than their cousins that have plenty of water and sunshine. The fragrance of the essential oil matched the character of the plants from which it came. We were also gifted with a precious spray bottle of equally delicate floral water. Mmmm... feels so good sprayed on my face, but I'm cherishing it and trying to make it last until NEXT summer, when I hope to return to Provence with a group.

Here are some photos of other sites we saw on this, our first trip to Provence:

The lavender Museum in Coustellet

Flower and vegetable market in Nice

View of Nice and the beach from the park above Vieux Nice

Street scene in Grasse
Ancient perfume vials in the Perfume museum, Grasse
Exit door of the perume museum, Grasse
The ancient Roman town of Glanum near St. Remy
My daughter and I strolled out to the end of the half-built bridge across the Rhone river at Avignon. Together we had sung the famous song "Sur le pont d'Avignon, l'on y dance, l'on y dance, sur le pont d'Avignon, l'on y dance toute en rond" when she was a child. What fun to finally see it!

The Bridge of  St. Benezet or Pont D'Avignon
I'll be taking a group with me next year for a week long harvest experience and Provence site-seeing journey. Want to join me? If you'd like to be added to my "I'm interested" list, please contact me at lcmooredc@sbcglobal.net and check out our other trip to Sedona, too at Essential Oil Journeys.

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