The time was the end of June, the place Valensole in the Hautes-Alpes region of northern Provence. (Just as a means of orientation: Marseille sits on the coastline to the southwest, Cannes lies on the coast to the southeast.) What we didn’t know — read: hadn’t properly researched — was that Valensole is the beating heart of the lavender industry … and we’d arrived at the height of flowering season. Serendipitous.
A gîte on the smallholding La Petite Campagne was our temporary home (gîte is the French word for a holiday apartment in rural France); the aim was to live like locals, investigating village supermarkets (most days all open to 8 p.m.) for our meals. We became such frequent visitors we were rewarded with discount coupons. And so we conjured up home-style picnics of crusty bread, gourmet cheeses, smoked meats, fresh greens, and … French wine. Hirsh was a quick learner, earning his stripes as a local by learning to drive like a Frenchman. Soon he was taking sharp curves at speed, pulling into curbsides with no warning and a whooping “Allez-oop!”, and executing three-point turns on highly trafficked roads.
The name Valensole, interestingly, is of Latin derivation (even though there’s no real known Gallo-Roman history), “vallis” and “solis” together translating as “valley of sun”. And, indeed, all around us roadsides were brightened by sunshine-yellow gorse and broom, rolled hay bales formed polka dots in shorn fields, grasslands were splashed with poppies and white and purple summer flowers. And then there were, in every village, those Provençal lilac-blue shutters.
And, of course, lavender.
Violet, lilac, amethyst, mauve … all these colours could be used to describe the deep hues of the lavender here. These days, in addition to the traditional deeper-hued lavender, a hybrid species called lavendin, in lighter bluer shades, is grown prolifically. Lavendin is used in soaps while lavender is used in perfumes and cosmetics.
The traditional flower was first cultivated in the 19th century on the high Valensole plateau that climbs vertiginously above the valley, and today the town still produces 80% of the world’s lavender. Our jaws dropped at the volume of Asian visitors who come to wonder at this purple marvel every July. Each day there were new cars, buses, bicycles parked at the roadside, with masses of people wielding their cameras and wandering among the flowers. The girls always dressed up in flowing, gauzy dresses — often white — paired with ribboned hats, twirling in the backlight and posing coyly for the cameras. It was quite fascinating. Okay, so we were also utterly mesmerised and were also to be found crouching in the fields, among the bees and pollinating insects. Certainly, the air was heavy with fragrance and a constant hum carried across the breeze.
On one morning visit to Valensole to reconnaitre what the boulangeries and patîsseries had to offer, we discovered … La Fête! The entire village was out, sitting at tables under the oaks and plane trees, listening to a local brass band blast (very competently) on their trumpets, trombones and saxophones. Very cool. The lavender-petal-infused cookies at the patîsserie weren’t half-bad either. I couldn’t think of a better way to spend a Saturday morning in the lavender fields of Provence.