Lavender is big business in Southern France. From the Drôme River to the north all the way to Grasse near the Mediterranean, large swath of land is dedicated to growing the source of everyone’s favorite essential oil. Before the purple flowers are ground into oil, for several short weeks from late June to early August these lavender fields also serve as one of France’s biggest tourist draw.
You can easily spend days to cover the area, but visitors like myself who have limited time should stick to the route between Sénanque Abbey and Valensole. The itinerary works best if you are based in one of the villages in Luberon or Aix-en-Provence, although if you don’t mind a longer drive you can begin from Avignon. Lourmarin was my choice and the route took around four hours to cover.
Lourmarin – Sénanque Abbey 35 km (50 min)
Not sure if you even like lavender? Begin the day at the most iconic lavender patch at Sénanque Abbey and decide for yourself. If you can’t have enough of the purple flower, continue along the route, or escape to nearby Gordes if you can’t see what the fuss is all about. The best thing about the lavender route is you can detour to other points of interest after any stop.
Try to arrive early before the tour buses. We actually visited Sénanque Abbey in late afternoon on another day while doing our Luberon hilltop village whirlwind tour; the struggle just to find a parking spot reminded me of Sunday at a Costco. So do what we didn’t and make this your first stop of day.
After you have taken the mandatory postcard photos, should you shell out the €7.5 to see the interior of the 12th century Cistercian monastery? I felt a certain sense of spirituality and seriousness prevailing in the air when I visited, perhaps because the monastery is still very much in use. But for this route I would recommend skipping it – the tour is in French and takes an hour. Do it only when you are visiting on another day like us.
Sénanque Abbey – Sault 40 km (50 min)
If you are into market, try to do this route on a Wednesday when Sault, the supposed “Lavender Capital”, holds its weekly market. Not a big deal if you miss it – check out this list to find those that fit your itinerary. The bigger ones are those in Aix-en-Provence, Apt and L’ Isle-sur-la-Sorgue.
Don’t fret about the market – lavender is the reason you are here. Driving north along D943 it is easy to see how Sault got its moniker. The purple flowers are in full bloom for tens of kilometers until a hill abruptly rises up from the plateau with a pretty village sitting at the top.
Here you can gain a better appreciation for the cultivation of lavender in Provence. The scale is massive. So massive it makes its counterparts in Hokkaido and Seqium seem like child’s play. This is not a gimmick to attract tourist; for centuries these plants are planted on the same plot of land and have supported the livelihood of generations of growers.
Sault – Banon 35 km (30 min)
Prepare to stop often heading east to Banon. Just when you think you are growing tired of the purple stuff, this scenic stretch of D950 throws a different look at you. Sénanque Abbey has the momentous background and Sault the bird’s-eye view, but it is here along this nondescript country road where you can find rows of neatly planted lavender that resemble a L’Occitane advertisement poster.
Famous for its namesake unpasteurized goat’s milk cheese, Banon is an ideal place to break up the long drive to Valensole for a temporary diversion from lavender.
Banon – Valensole 55 km (1 hr)
You might be wondering, “I have already seen miles upon miles of lavender, what’s the point of driving all this way for the same thing?”
All those stuff written above – they are just appetizers – none of them can hold a candle to Valensole. Despite Sault’s claim, it is at Valensole where the highest concentration of lavender farms are located in Provence. Every direction you look are fields of lavender that stretch to the horizon. My only tip is not to waste any time on the town itself – it is one of the less attractive hilltop villages in the area.
If you have only a few hours, ignore all the previous stops and come straight to Valensole. You won’t regret it.