It's adored by artists, loved by literary greats and filled with crowds in summer – but Phoebe Smith finds a way to meander through the lavender in peace...
“You have to hand it to the monks – they really are savvy when it comes to marketing,” is perhaps a phrase you don’t imagine overhearing, particularly when deep in rural France. But in Gordes – and particularly when standing in a queue inside the gift shop of Sénanque Abbey, whose likeness adorns the cover of many a Provence guidebook, it really is all there is to say.
For here in what is arguably the most famous landmark in the entire region, the ecclesiastical residents know what people come for – and they’re not afraid to sell it to them. I should know: having stopped in on a three-day cycling trip around the lavender-rich province merely to get a photo, I now found myself in a line readying to pay for essential oil and ‘culinary lavender’ made from the purple flowers by the monks themselves – along with a packet of floral-flavoured artisan biscuits. I had somehow gone from cynical cyclist to trusting tourist, and all it took was a whiff of flowers.
Yet there is something about these plants that gets under the skin (not to mention the nose). Perhaps it’s the fact that you can’t Google the word Provence without thousands of images of fields of purple popping up on your screen. Maybe it’s the colour, which seems to glow almost blue under a thundery sky. Or, perhaps, it’s the fleeting spectacle. The blooms only appear between the end of June and August each year, so to catch a glimpse requires planning and the mental aptitude to deal with people – and lots of them.
But, as I was soon finding, there is a way to avoid the hordes: all it takes is some effort and a bike. Cycling has long been a hobby of choice in this part of France – indeed, the famous annual Tour comes through this region taking in the thigh-busting Mont Ventoux. While I certainly hadn’t come wearing lycra, I had wanted to find my own way through the small towns, stopping when I wanted, without being cooped up in a car or coach.
And so it was that I pedalled my way through small hamlets, living out every traveller’s dream of rocking up along a cobbled lane, calling out “Bonjour!”, with baguettes sticking out of my wicker basket (or canvas panniers, anyway). Unlike the tourists in cars, I could detect a lavender field was close by scent alone, finding secret pockets far from car parks and coach parties. I stopped when I saw a good view, rested when I found a pocket of shade, and explored the towns without worrying about parking charges. And when I finally reached my destination for the evening I felt I had earned every sip of local wine. Each day was my own personal treasure hunt, with ample riches found in fields of purple gold.
Start in the pretty little town of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence where the biggest claim to fame is the monastery where Vincent van Gogh was treated with art therapy after he cut off his ear (thankfully the ear is not on display). To see the room where he stayed – which inspired one of his most famous paintings – head around a kilometre south of the centre to Saint Paul de Mausole.
Here you can learn all about the life of the beleaguered painter, gaze upon his garden and see the landscape that featured in many of his masterpieces. History buffs should take a picnic lunch and visit Glanum just a few minutes further up the road where the recently-unearthed Roman ruins nod to life before the Provence we see today.
End with an afternoon getting lost in the maze of cobbled streets in the centre, and trying the locally made lavaunte (lavender) ice cream. Dinner is best taken at Le Café de la Place; enjoy the sunset, before retiring to well-positioned Hotel Gounod.
Top tip: Don’t forget your padded cycle shorts: they’ll make your trip much more comfortable. Women can opt for a ‘skort’, which handily covers the ‘nappy-like’ padding when you are strolling around town.
From Remy, head north-east making a beeline for Fontaine-de-Vaucluse. The distance is not short – around 48km – but the route is mainly flat, meandering through pretty hamlets and vineyards. It’s worth stopping at the town of Eygalières, the village of Mollégès, and – to pick up any supplies – the comparatively bustling town of Cavaillon.
From there things become increasingly rural, on minor roads and dirt tracks, passing farm stalls selling fresh local produce and a tantalising array of vineyards.
The highlight comes at your destination: the little village of Fontaine-de-Vaucluse. It’s worth getting there early as there is plenty to see. Follow the walking trail to the remains of the chateau on the small hillock above the town for incredible views of the surrounding area. Wander through the village looking at all the lavender-infused crafts, pay a visit to the old papermill which is still in use today, and end with a stroll to the chasm – the source of the River Sorgue, which flows through the town.
Enjoy dinner at Restaurant Philip (+33 4 90 20 31 81) on the water’s edge, then spend the night at Hotel du Poete.
This final day is shorter (around 28km), but what it lacks in distance it makes up for in hills. The first is tackled immediately – and there’s no shame in walking your bike up (unless it’s an electric model, in which case crank up the ‘Sport’ mode). Woodland soon gives way to farmland, vineyards and lavender.
The main stop is Gordes – perfect timing for lunch. Boulangerie de Mamie Jane (+33 4 90 72 09 34) offers a mean baguette. From there, a worthy detour takes you (downhill, then back up again) to Sénanque Abbey. Make your way back to Gordes, then descend into yet more picture-perfect countryside on some winding small roads.
Just before the hill up to Roussillon, look for the lavender fields – these are the wonderful ones that the tour buses can’t stop for. Have your fill, then tackle your final hill up to the village. Once there, check in at Hotel le Clos de la Glycine, then just before sunset take a stroll around Le Sentier des Ocres, whose russet-coloured landscape glows bright as the light fades.
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