Hubby and I spent a relaxing week in Provence in June, turning the second half of his work trip into a cheeky romantic getaway. (Which feels like it happened in another lifetime -since we got back, life has been like a whirlwind and things got insanely busy for both of us at work and also at home. In fact, writing this single post has taken me flippin’ two weeks). By going on this trip, I have managed to tick off one more item from my bucket list – namely, immersing myself into all things lavender!
Lavender, which is known since ancient times for its healing and soothing properties, is mostly cultivated for its essential oil which is then used in perfume, cosmetics, and also in aromatherapy. There are 150 (!) species of lavender in the world and two of them are growing in Provence: fine lavender and aspic lavender (this latter has a more camphor scent). Crossing the two has produced lavandin whose qualities are ideal for making soaps and other household products; whilst lavandin is used for luxury perfumes and aromatherapy products.
Where can you find pretty lavender fields (and other cool stuff)?
At the height of summer, from mid-June (in the lower areas) to early August (in the higher areas), lavender colours the landscape with its amethyst-blue and fills heaven and earth with its scent – so this is the best time to go. All around Sault, which is known as the capital of lavender, huge perfumed oceans stretch out across the countryside, making it one of the most beautiful places on the planet – so this is the area to stay in.
Depending on how much time you have, it is worth exploring the so-called Lavender-Trail, which is a touristic route to help you discover all about lavender and experience some exceptional scenery and the rich cultural heritage of Provence. The website is called Lavender Routes and here you will find a number of itineraries to suit all budgets and holiday types (whether you come for a cheeky long weekend or a whole week); you can also browse for accomodation and select your preferred travelling method (walking, car, cycle ride).
Simon and I only had a few days in this area, so we visited the following places which we can definitely recommend for you to stop by:-
A fabulous stone village standing on the edge of the plateau of Vaucluse. Many movie stars and artists have made their home here which is not surprising as it has an exceptional charm and is said to be one of the most beautiful places in France. A great place to stop for a light lunch or a drink and to admire the panoramic views.
This beautiful 12th century abbey lies in the hills of the Luberon, just north of Gordes (ca. 15 mins by car). It is one of a trio of beautiful Romanesque abbeys founded by the Cistercians in Provence. Its sublime, solitary setting, surrounded by fields of lavender, and the timeless serenity and honey-coloured stone of the monastic buildings, make it one of the most photographed sights in Provence. The monks who live here grow lavender and produce honey for their livelihood. Tourists can arrange a stay at the abbey for a spiritual retreat.
Sault is an old fortified village perched along the top of a high ridge overlooking a wide valley, with large lavender fields spread out below to the south and west. A long multi-arched road bridge crosses the tiny stream below, past the southeast end of the village. Along with the ancient buildings lining the high ridge are the remains of a huge feudal castle. Pick up a walking routes leaflet from the local tourist bureau to discover the area and the surrounding places on foot.
Simon and I did a 4km lavender field walk which started from the Aroma Plantes Distillery which can be found just off the road from Sault leading to the summit of Mont Ventoux. Sadly, due to the timing of our holiday, lavender was not in full bloom yet which was a slight disappointment, however, the gorgeous landscape and the surrounding views somewhat compensated us for the lack of ‘perfumed purple ocean of flowers’.
In the summer, both growers and distillers open their doors to visitors in the Sault and Apt areas. The essential oil is extracted by steam distillation in an alembic, a technique used for centuries. Simon and I visited Distillerie des Agnels in Apt, a family business since 1895, to learn more about the history and uses of lavender, and last, but not least, to see a demonstration of the distillation process (I managed to soak in a surprising amount of information, despite having only about a 10 word vocabulary in French LOL).
Roussilion and the Ochre Trail; Gargas and the Broux Ochre Mines
First of all, what is ochre? Provence used to be covered by the sea and when it dried up several million years ago, pouring rain slowly transformed the accumulated layers of limestone into ochre-bearing sands. Ochre was first used as a natural paint in the painted caves that prehistoric man embellished. It was later rediscovered at the time of the French Revolution, and was sold throughout the world for over a century and was used for building decoration, but also in painting and ceramics. Ochre is a natural pigment whose colours cover the full spectrum of red and orange.
Roussillon was the capital of ochre until 1945 and it is another one of the most beautiful villages of France, standing on the blood and gold coloured cliffs of the Luberon. It is worth stopping here for a meal or a snack and take a stroll following the Ochre Trail, a true geological wonder. If your time allows, do visit the nearby mines in Gargas, where you can discover parts of the 50km labyrinth and catherdal-like galleries the miners who used to work here sculpted from the rocks. (Don’t worry, you will be with a guide who will make sure you do not get lost!). Simon and I both agreed that the whole experience was like walking through the Mines of Moriah in the Lord of the Rings.
It is the largest mountain in the region and has been nicknamed the ‘Beast of Provence’, and with good reason – some say that is the hardest of all the Tour de France climbs and I believe they may be right: whilst Simon and I were driving up to the top, there was some kind of cycling competition going on and we could witness all the struggle and pain written on the competitors’ face as they were inching their way up to the top, from the comfort of our car. The top was so chilly I could only endure a couple of minutes wearing my shorts and a light cardi; it was so cloudy, grey and barren there that it felt like we landed on the moon!
So now that you know where to find lavender…Why should you get some?
According to Dr Josh Axe who is one of the world’s leading authorities on essential oils and other natural remedies, “lavender is the most used essential oils in the world. Ancient texts tell us that lavender essential oil has been used for medicinal and religious purposes for over 2,500 years: the Egyptians used it for mummification and as a perfume. The Romans used it for bathing, cooking and for scenting the air. And, quite possibly the most famous usage of all, Mary used it to anoint Jesus with her hair and and some believe spikenard was made from lavender essential oil” (Check out John 12:3!).
I regularly use lavender oil, mainly for its soothing properties: during more stressful periods (like now), I put a few drops on my pillow and wrist to help me fall asleep. My favourite shower gel Original Source has a lavender version, which I regularly pamper myself with after tougher workouts and runs – a real treat! However, lavender oil has various other benefits for your body:-
- Helps reduce anxiety & stress
- Heals burns and cuts
- Improves sleep
- Alleviates headaches
- Improves skin conditions such as eczema and acne
- Balances blood sugar
- Provides anti-oxidant protection
What else is lavender good for?
One new thing I have learnt about lavender is the fact that some varieties are edible! I have returned from our trip in Provence with a packet of this:-
After doing some research about how to use culinary lavender (post purchase), it seems that the most common uses are in smoothies, lemonade and other summery coctails and last but not least, in baking. I wanted to come up with a healthy recipe for this blog so after exploring a couple of options and flavour combinations online, I have concocted a wonderfully light and refreshing smoothie. What I especially love about this smoothie is the way blueberries lend their natural purple colour to lavender, so there is no need to use any food colouring to make it look ‘lavender-like’.
Without further ado, let me introduce you to the…
Blueberry – Lavender Purple Power Smoothie
Handful of fresh or frozen blueberries
One ripe banana
One tsp of dried culinary lavender
One tbsp chia seeds
Handful of spinach (or two frozen spinach balls)
Splash of unsweetened almond milk
Some honey/maple syrup/stevia to sweeten to taste
Optional: ice cubes (unless you are using frozen banana)
Whizz up the ingredients in a blender until smooth. Decorate the top with some grated lemon zest. Sip and be calmly confident!
Disclaimer: The above photo was taken from the Goodness Green website to compensate for my lack of gastro-photography skills.