Video by Robin Scott
Text and photos by Emily Benson Scott
Who wouldn’t want to spend a year in Provence like British author Peter Mayle? But it’s possible to sample the pleasures of Provence in much less time. We may not be experts on truffle hunting or repairing old Provençal farmhouses but we discovered you can see the best the region has to offer by taking brief side trips while spending the summer on the Riviera.
If the Riviera has the Mediterranean, Provence has its own sea of purple that spills across its plateaus—rows upon rows of lavender, tunneling off into the distance.
As we drove through Puimoisson, a town on the Valensole Plateau, lavender purpled our view in every direction. Often, along the route, we stopped the car to immerse ourselves more thoroughly in the fragrant fields, which droned with the steady hum of bees.
When we first arrived in Digne, after taking the Train de Pignes from Nice, we were met with an enormous amount of skepticism about whether we would see any lavender, as it was nearing the last week in July. “Quinze Juillet,” was the dreaded phrase we heard fall from everyone’s lips, like the final nail in the coffin. If they began the harvest July 15th, a full week earlier, surely we were too late. But then we saw the sickles. Had we suddenly been transported back in time to pre-industrial Europe? At this rate, we realized we’d have plenty of time to see the lavender.
In fact, we learned much of the lavender was harvested by machine, but that a fair amount was still cut by hand. The woman with the sickle was gathering lavender to prepare sachets for the market that people used to scent linens and pillows. One of the things I love about driving through Provence is finding road-side stands and shops that sell lavender sachets, lavender honey, lavender soap, and lavender oil. Below is one of my favorite shops:
Another thing I love about France is the token dog or cat that invariably appears in an array of business establishments, making it seem every shop or restaurant is merely a quaint extension of the owner’s home, rather than a crass commercial venture.
By the early afternoon, the sun was too hot to endure in the open fields of lavender, so we got back in the car and drove to the Gorges du Verdon. After an inundation of purple, the sudden turquoise of Lac Croix came as a refreshing surprise. The lake was surrounded by pine trees, and the color looked as if the essence of the trees had bled into the water.
While the Valensole Plateau remains our favorite for lavender and gorges, nothing beats Arles for Van Gogh.
In Arles, we found this charming old-world studio below, on the top floor of a stone building with pink shutters for only 35 euro per night!
From Arles we drove to Saint-Remy de Provence, where Vincent van Gogh spent a prolific year at the asylum, completing 142 paintings. After cutting off his ear in Arles, Van Gogh voluntarily committed himself to the asylum in Saint-Remy, but fortunately was allowed to paint, and even given a studio where he finished some of his most famous works such as “Starry Night,” and “Wheat Field with Cypresses.” The grounds were full of the very same olive trees, cypresses and golden wheat fields that inspired some of Van Gogh’s best work. It certainly seemed one of the more appealing mental institutions, compared to, say, the one in “One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest.” We learned it still functioned as a mental hospital and unsurprisingly, relied on art therapy as one of its principal techniques.
Probably the least French thing you can do in France is to visit the Camargue, a 360 square mile delta, where the two branches of the Rhone River meet the Mediterranean sea, and black bulls along with white horses can be seen grazing in pastures beside pink flamingos wading through salty wetlands.
After an easy 20 minute drive from the center of Arles, we spent the day driving through this surreal nature reserve, struck by the strange triumvirate of fauna.
For a picnic, we pulled over by a spot where flamingos waded together in the water. Thankfully, my meteorologically savvy husband had suggested a windy day so the mosquitoes, notoriously pesky in this delta, were almost nonexistent. But you could tell how hot it was by looking at the slow and listless flamingos wading in the salty shallows of the Rhone delta, their hooked necks bowed to the ground beneath the day’s blanketing heat. In the middle of our picnic, we watched the weary flamingos suddenly take flight, transforming into taut arrows of purpose, legs kicked back like switchblades, their hot pink wings capped with neat black tips slicing through the stagnant afternoon. It’s how I felt when I was traveling too, as if each day I was taking flight in a hot pink blaze of excitement to a discover the world afresh.
Robin in Roussillon
In my husband’s video, there’s a section where it looks as though he slipped in footage of the Grand Canyon. But this is Roussillon, famous for being situated amidst one of the largest ochre deposits in the world.
Miles inland from the coast, Provence can feel dry and dusty in the summer, especially in Roussillon. One soon goes in search of a source of water. L’Isle sur la Sorgue, which translates to “The island in the Sorgue River,” is one such oasis, a gem of a town dominated by the crystal clear green waters of the river.
Because of its fortunate location on the river the town is full of water wheels which once powered manufacturing of paper and silk and made this a prosperous town.
The thought of taking in Roman ruins in the summertime conjures images of heatstroke, boredom, and even horror at trying to envision gladiatorial bloodsports that ensued in various coliseums. After a hot August day at Pompeii outside of Naples the previous summer, I felt all too much empathy for those who had perished in spills of hot lava.
But spending the day at Pont du Gard is an entirely cool and refreshing way to be transported into the ancient past. The celebrated and well preserved aqueduct built in the first century AD was used to transport water across a river to Nimes from a spring 50 km away.
The fact that the three tiered stone bridge, which stands 160 feet high, crosses the turbulent Gardon River, makes it feel even especially aquatic and lively.
My husband and I decided to have a picnic lunch in one of the wooden cabanas that provide a merciful source of shade along the sunny banks of the Gardon. All the better to lay back and contemplate a masterpiece of beauty and engineering which, as the novelist Andre Dumas wrote, not even “the barbarians of the fifth (century) …dared to destroy.”
Furthermore the huts enabled us to dine in a luxurious reclined position, Roman style
as we ate fig and goat cheese bruschetta made with local fresh ingredients including the lavender honey which I had bought from a roadside stand.
Since we had limited time, we decided to save the kayaking for another trip, because we knew, like Peter Mayle, our brief trips had only whet our appetite for more of Provence and we were sure to return.