"Lavender is the soul of Provence,” wrote the French author, Jean Giono.
This beautiful part of the world, in the south of France, is a to-die-for destination at any time of year, thanks to its climate, food, charming villages and picturesque countryside.
But from the end of June to the beginning of August the countryside becomes even more spectacular – not to mention fragrant – when the region’s famous lavender blooms (it all depends on rainfall and temperature, so times can vary slightly from year to year).
One of the best places to see lavender is the Valensole plateau in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence region. Covering around 800 square kilometres, it's the biggest area in France devoted to growing the dusky purple flower. The name Valensole stems from vallis and solis – Latin for ‘valley of the sun’ – and is very aptly named, as the sun shines for 300 days a year here. It's why the lavender thrives.
Valensole is about an hour’s drive from Aix-en-Provence, 75 mins from Marseille and two-and-a-half hours from Nice – just the right distance for a day trip or weekend away from any of these popular destinations. Jump in a hire a car and meander through some of Provence's most sigh-inducing scenery, finding the lavender fields and enjoying the prettiest, most fragrant drive of your life.
Vast fields of purple stretch as far as the eye can see, with the occasional borie (dry stone hut) or perfectly positioned tree adding an extra element of interest in the hundreds of photos you're bound to take.
And when you've had your fill of flowers and fragrances (or hayfever kicks in!), make your way to the medieval village also named Valensole, located on the edge of the Verdon Regional Nature Park. Here, traditional Provençal houses tumble down a hill overlooking plantations of almond and olive trees and, of course, fields of lavender.
At the top of the hill sits the 11th-century St Blaise church, topped by an enormous bell tower. Within the village are restaurants, cafés and numerous shops and boutiques offering lavender-based products, from honey, and essential oils to soaps and home fragrances, and even lavender ice cream. Not to mention another local speciality, truffles.
There are even more events and activities dedicated to lavender: traditional distilleries in the region offer a chance to witness the process of making essential oils from the purple plant; the Tourist Office runs guided lavender tours while the flowers are in bloom; and the village of Valensole holds its annual Lavender Festival on the third Sunday of July.