We found Provence surprisingly quiet in July (with the exception of a couple of crowded sights such as Senanque Abbey and the Lavender Museum). It didn't feel very overly touristy even with the attraction of lavender season, which makes it a perfect romantic get-away destination. Maybe one of the reasons is that the countryside roads here are winding and tiny (barely two lanes for some two-way roads) so big tour buses are rare. Though Provence is considered one of top wine regions in France, wineries here are fairly low-key (not commercial at all like Napa Valley ones). No official winery tours offered and tasting is typically free. We didn't feel pressured to buy bottles or join wine clubs either. We tried to tip at one of the wineres and the staff even refused our tip.
Provence could be unbearably hot in July between 1 and 5pm so plan morning/evening activities and leave the mid-day for resting or indoor activities.
A Travers Champs is a lovely bed and breakfast run by the hardworking owner, Christelle. We stayed in "La Vie en Rose", the only room on the second floor. It's very spacious and tastefully decorated with two large windows looking out to the vineyards. The spiral staircase leading up to the room is quite narrow though so not easy to manuveur if you have large luggage. We loved our room except it was a bit dark throughout the day (north facing) and there was only a tub in the bathroom... no standing shower. All the other rooms are on the ground floor and have private outdoor seating areas. If we return, we will probably pick the Les Copains d'Abord room next time.
Daily breakfast on the porch, prepared by Christelle's team, was excellent. Before setting out to explore Provence every morning, we packed our bellies with home-made jams, fresh squeezed juice, local melons, French toasts, home made yogurt, made-to-order eggs.
The owner prepared us a home-cooked dinner with their own wines. The dinner started with some very tasty sardine pastries as hour'deuves, then vegetable tartar and bull cheeks, completed with an assortment of local artisan cheeses. Everything was cooked with simple fresh ingredients yet had very sophicated tastes. We got to enjoy the dinner with a few fellow guests on the open porch with a beautiful view overlooking the vineyards.
You can find a market almost every day in Provence ... you just have to know the right town for the right day. The Apt market is one of the largest and it only takes place every Saturday morning. You will find lots of colorful local produce , as well as local crafts such as lavender pouches, home-made linens, etc. Side street vendors are typically cheaper than the main street ones so make sure you shop around (for example, the same white linen dress is priced €29 on the side street vs €40). It’s ok to bargain with the vendors.
Try to go earlier in the morning when it’s less crowded. Merchants start to pack up at noon and by 2pm, the whole market is completely emptied out.
A good lunch spot in a side street of the Apt market - the Mussle appetizer (Moule Fargies, green escargot like sauce) and the duck dish (Magret de Canette) were both great.
The Lavender Museum was founded by a local fine lavender grower/distiller to educate people on why fine lavender is superior to fight off his many competitors using cheaper laverdine. Fine lavender oil could cost 5-10x of laverdine one because 130kg of fine lavender produces 1 litre of essence oil while for the latter only 40kg is needed. The essence oil from fine lavender supposedly has medicine value while laverdine oil is only good for fragrance purpose. The museum is educational but small (basically houses the founder's personal collection of old lavender distillers) and a bit promotional. Fine lavender products will say A.O.P on the label (similar concept like champaign/wine labels).
Provence is considered one of top wine regions in France, but wineries here are fairly low-key (a different feel from the ones in Napa Valley as those are usually very commercial). No official winery tours offered and tasting is typically free. We never felt pressured to buy bottles or join wine clubs at any tasting.
Domaine Faverot was one of the wineries we visited during our Provence trip. We tasted a few reds and liked their 2013 Cuvée de General a lot. The girl who gave us the tasting was also a painter and showed us some of her paintings hung in the cellar. We were the only guests during our visit and spent a lovely afternoon in the romantic settings of the winery while sipping fine wine and talking about art. We tried to give a tip when we were about to leave (because we didn’t buy any wine and the tasting was free). She vehemently refused and said it would be an insult! We love Provence and French people!
You might not have heard Senanque Abbey before but you probably have seen postcards of the famous lavender fields in front of this abbey. As one of most popular sights during the lavender season, it's a must see in our opinion. If you want nice pictures, it's better to go in the morning as the sun shines in front of the abbey vs. behind in the afternoon. We got there around 10am and it was already pretty crowded.
L'Ecailler is a good lunch spot if you go visit the Sunday market in L'isle sur lar Sorque. We got river-side terrace seating because we called to make a reservation in advance (but they only guarantee river-side seating for 12pm reservations ... you can also go after 230pm when there will mostly likely be river-side seating available without reservation). Always budget at least 2 hours for every meal in France as services are slow here. Venders at this market stay a bit later than the Apt market ... we saw the last batch of vendors packing up between 230pm and 3pm.
La Bastide de Gordes is a fancy hotel facing the valley in front the village Gordes. The rooms could cost €600-1000 per night but having a couple of nice drinks wth a beautiful open view on its Terrace costs less than €50.
We had a fantastic home-style dinner at La Fontaine - one of the best meals we had on the trip. Don't miss their perfectly cooked steak with delicious sour cream/garlic sauce.
We decided to do a long lavender drive today (~9 hours). Given the long drive, we didn't have the time to stop at each town on the route. It was mostly just driving around and stop whenever we saw beautiful flower fields.
- Sault, the capital of the fine lavender, was the first stop on our drive. There is a tourist information office here where one can get a lot of information on history and activities related to lavender in this region.
- Gaec Champelle, a lavender farm right outside Sault. One can find quality fine lavender products here much cheaper than The Lavender Museum - Champelle sells 50ml fine lavender oil for €20 while similar products retail for €64 in the museum. Even with the 25% discount they gave everyone in the museum shop, it was still over 2x the price.
- Aurel: a cute little town with patches of yellow and purple fields
- Drove thru Ferrassieres: the town is pretty rundown but if you look back on your way to Revest du Bion, you can get a good view of Mont Ventoux with a large lavender field in front.
- Drove thru Revest du Bion: another pretty rundown town but came upon a sea of pink flowers (salvia sclarea or clary sage) right outside the town on our way to Banon
- Banon: stopped for lunch in this town famous for a special goat cheese. Unfortunately the famous cheese shop (Chez Melchio) we wanted to go during lunch hours.
- Drove thru Mane (the "walled city"): visited Jardine Salagon (a museum/garden converted from an old church dated back to 4000 BC during Roman Empire). An interesting place but the audio guide didn't have good English coverage with most of the content in French only
- Manosque: we took a 5pm factory tour at l'Occitane's headquarter in Manosque (prior booking required)
- Plateau de Valensole: we saw the highest concentration of lavender fields on highway D6 to Valensole (especially in the last 10 mins of the 20 min drive from Manosque to Valensole). Large patches of hill-rolling lavender fields started appearing one after another. We also came across one full-bloom sunflower field! It was a beautiful sighting except there were lots of Chinese tourists walked into the fields which ruined pictures for others. You can hear many bees around lavenders so I don't even know how those tourists were not afraid of being stun. We learnt at the Lavender Museum earlier that bees and lavenders are good companions for each other because honey produced from lavender will carry a special flavor and lavender polarized by bees will get a lift in the essence oil production by 10%.
Les Pastras Truffle Hunt is a really interesting tour offered by two exceptional hosts, Lisa and Johann. We learnt a lot about truffle on the tour and also got to taste a sampling of fresh truffle hors d'oeuvres made from the truffles we harvested. Truffle grows from truffle spores developed on oak tree roots. It takes spores 7-10 years to develop till its first "fruition" of truffle. Truffle fruit takes 4 months to mature and then a two-week window before it goes bad. During these two weeks, truffle fruit will send out a special strong aroma that attracts pigs or trained dogs to dig them out. When truffle fruit gets eaten by animals, their manure will help spread more spores. There are two seasons every year - the summer truffles start to grow in Feb and can start harvesting in Jun, and the winter truffles Oct and Dec. Winter and summer truffles are actually two different species. Provence winter truffle sells for $1K per kg and summer truffle sells for $200 per kg. We harvested in total 84g of summer truffle on our tour with the help of two lovely hunt dogs. The Les Pastras farm harvests about 5-10lb (2-4kg) truffle on average per week. The most expensive truffle is the white truffle from Alba (Italy) which costs $3k per kg.
We spotted beautiful sunflower fields on route D27 from Lourmarin to Cucuron and from Cucuron to Vaugines.
The dinner at Le Champ des Lunes was probably our best meal on the trip. All the seafood and meat dishes were cooked to perfect tenderness and the sauces were also creative and tasty. The restaurant is located in a beautiful hotel/winery property called Domaine de Fontenille (newly opened in Oct 2015). They even have an outdoor movie theater which we got to enjoy after dinner (it was playing Julie & Julia in English with French sub).
We have always wanted to do a hot air balloon ride and thought the lavender fields in Provence would be the perfect setting for that. We had to get up really early for the 530am ride. It was a 10-person group ride so they used a big basket. The ride itself was an interesting experience but not that exciting ... the balloon moved very slowly in the air and the view doesn't change that much over the course of our one-hour ride. We probably wouldn't do it again but were glad we got to check off an item on our bucket list.