In a lavender field on Provence’s Valensole plateau, I’m having one of those hyper-real moments. To the horizon, where late-afternoon sunbursts glimmer, a haze of purply blue extends, linear lavender bushes merging into one glorious mélange. The air is soft and sweet, fragranced with the plant’s pulse-slowing aroma and buzzing with the low, dull hum of bees.
Lavender is the lifeblood of this region. It grows on the arid Provencal mountains above an altitude of 800 metres and became known as the “blue gold” when sought out by perfume manufacturers for its delicate fragrance. Medieval locals knew it to be an effective antiseptic, soaking sponges in its oil and burning them to ward off the plague. They also believed it warded off evil.
The flower is seen in a thousand gardens and churchyards during the French summer but if your aim is a critical mass of aromatic purple, the Plateau de Valensole wins for sheer scale. Valensole literally translates from the Latin as “valley of the sun”, so sunniness is de rigueur. At the end of the day, the lavender segues from pale violet to deep violet, exuding a bluish tinge as the sun slips below the horizon.
There’s nothing quite like this part of southern France during lavender’s blooming period from mid-June to mid-July. I’m here to imbibe good smells – as well as good food, wine, blessed landscapes and exquisite villages, of course. The town of Valensole itself, where I have spent the afternoon, is pleasingly unspoiled. Shuttered medieval stones houses, ornate fountains, pretty chapels, shaded squares and ancient gardens offer beauty for the eyes. The shopping is great, too; everywhere, artisanal stores sell lavender-based products. Truffles, honeys and nougats add to the gourmet smorgasbord. Lavender also creeps into the food, scenting the crème brûlées and the homemade ice-creams.
I’m staying south of here in Le Petit Luberon, near Ménerbes, the erstwhile home of the late British author Peter Mayle, who penned A Year in Provence. After his memoir’s success, Mayle got so fed up with tourists appearing at his front door, he finally moved. But his Provençal landscape hasn’t changed much. The valleys, mountains, vineyards and lavender fields remain, there are just more restaurants, shops and chic places to stay.
Ludicrously idyllic La Bastide de Marie is a case in point that had me at “bonjour”. Part of the Maisons & Hotels Sibuet group of five-star boutique hotels, it exudes a rustic but knowing beauty. This 15-room-and-suite 18th-century Provençal mas (farmhouse) down a cyprus- and lavender-banked driveway is blessed with an abundant wine cellar (some from its next-door Domaine de Marie winery), a spa and pretty little clothes and accessories boutique. The house is decorated with elegant objets d’art and there are two swimming pools enclosed in stone walls.
The restaurant (sample evening menu, not for those on a diet: duck terrine followed by pigeon) nestles under shading trees, and is banked by topiary and glistening vines. My home is the Roulotte – an eccentric little gypsy caravan set on the cusp of their 23-hectare vineyard.
I snake around country lanes in my hire car, or through lavender fields on the hotel’s free e-bikes in the 40-degree heat, agog at the villages of Goult, Lacoste, Coustellet and Gordes. I wander through the markets at Bonnieux, Lourmarin and Roussillon, with their scented strawberries and peaches, their Provençal herbs and breads. At Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, overlooking emerald-green river waters, I drink citron pressé. (For the uninitiated, that’s a tall glass filled with ice, along with a pitcher of water and some sugar cubes. The waiter squeezes an entire juicy lemon into your glass and then strolls off, leaving you to figure out the rest.) At the Abbaye Notre Dame de Sénanque, where a Cistercian order of monks has prayed seven times a day for 900 years and cultivate lavender, olives and honey, I sigh at the clouds of lavender whose fragrance fills the balmy air outside.
In search of untouristy Provence, I head west, to what some now refer to as “Provence Occidental”– that is “Western Provence”. Here, a new hotel has opened which is strictly over the border in Langedoc-Roussillon but only five minutes from “official” Provence. It is on the cusp of Avignon and the Ardèche, but while you won’t be able to move in Provence proper during summer, Château de Montcaud, an old silk merchant’s pile, is quiet and restful.
Here, Swiss hotelier Rolf Bertschi and his wife Andrea have created a miniature version of a world-class hotel, painting impeccably process-driven detail and standards onto a gorgeous Southern French canvas. He’s obsessed with amazing produce, presentation and kitchen talent and he scoured his connections to find Matthieu Hervé, a rising talent and former protégé of world-renowned chef Daniel Boulud, to head up his kitchen.
At their al fresco fine-dining restaurant, I have possibly my favourite dish ever: arctic char with horseradish, salicornes and caviar, with a granny smith emulsion. There’s also a low-key bistro with a villagey atmosphere. Rolf once argued with Matthieu about being allowed to stage brunches – €65 with champagne and coffee included – but he won and Matthieu now agrees it’s a lovely institution, with tables under the chestnut trees and live jazz.
Rolf has great affection for his adopted corner of France. “Life is still slower here,” he tells me. “It’s more like France 20 years ago, with no other luxury hotel within a 20-kilometre radius.” And Andrea, whose family has connections with eminent perfumiers, has conceptualised an exclusive perfume project inspired by the chateau’s roots, with the fruits of her labours available to buy here and only here.
I swim at the spectacular Cascades du Sautadet, where waterfalls plunge into in the river Cèze, in and around limestone cliffs eroded into strange shapes, and visit the Monastery at Chartreuse de Valbonne, popping round the corner to a lovely lavender producer, Domaine de Vilgoutrès. The dreamy domain of Jacqueline and René Frach, Vilgoutrès has been in their family for more than a century. They grow lavender next to their farmhouse and have a shop within a cave where they sell essential oil and local products of the region, from olive oils to organic toiletries.
She asks for cash, as there is no credit card machine. And when I ask her if she has a website, she raises her shoulders, turns out her palms, narrows her eyes and pouts her lips in the French pouf! “We sell things,” she says, kindly dismissing me. “People come.” I’m reminded of what Peter Mayle wrote of life in Provence: “Time passed in a haze of well-being; long, slow, almost torpid days when it was so enjoyable to be alive that nothing else mattered.”
FIVE OTHER PLACES THAT WILL OVERWHELM YOUR SENSE OF SMELL
The Valley of Roses, Bulgaria
The heavily scented Damascene rose has given its name to Bulgaria’s rain-blessed “Rose Valley” where it flowers from mid-May to mid-June, before being harvested for its exquisite oil. The best place to experience the joy of harvest is in the town of Kazanlak, where they have held a rose festival since 1903. A local girl is crowned “Queen of Roses” and there is much parading, folk dancing and general merriment.
Fete du Jasmin, Grasse, France
Jasmine is a key ingredient for Grasse's famed perfumiers and a festival to celebrate this fragrant flower is held each August. There are parades, flower stalls and fireworks. The exquisite fragrances of other blooms grown here also linger in the air – roses, mimosa, lavender and orange blossom.
Phool Mandi flower market, Delhi
The most magnificent flower market in Asia, Phool Mandi offers up everything sacred and scented, from lilies and tuberoses to chrysanthemums. Even the unscented marigold flower, heaped in vast piles of tangerine orange, lends an earthy petal freshness to the dawn air. Flower vendors open up when the sun rises and sell at a frenetic pace: by 9am they’re done for the day.
Frangipani Festival, Rabaul, Papua New Guinea
This peaceful community get-together celebrates PNG’s independence as well as the rebirth of the city of Rabaul that was devastated by the volcanic eruptions of Mount Tavurvur and Mount Vulcan in 1994. Frangipani perfumes the streets of this town and was the first flower to bloom through the ash in the wake of the eruption. Expect live gigs, floats, canoe races and intense fire dances.
Flower shows, London
Every May since 1913, the grounds of the Royal Hospital Chelsea are transformed by out-of-this-world displays by renowned designers, florists and nurseries from around the world. Gardens aside, the floral artwork is beautiful. Its competition is the RHS Hampton Court Palace Garden Festival, now the biggest flower show in the world – it differs from Chelsea in that you can buy plants to take home.