Some of the most iconic photos of Provence are of the lavender fields. Big, stunning, awesome, incredible, vibrant lavender fields. Row after row of deep purple blossoms that transform the fields into virtual works of art. When people think of Provence (especially people who have never had the opportunity to visit), lavender fields are one of the first things they think of. It’s no wonder. They are incredibly beautiful. If you’ve ever had the chance to visit some of the lavender fields in Provence you’ll know that they are even more gorgeous in “real” life. When I’m taking photos of lavender fields I’m always aware that the photo will probably never do justice to what my eyes are actually seeing. If you drive down a road where lavender fields are present you’ll see car after car swerving over to stop, admire the beauty and take some photographs. Even after you’ve spent days traveling down road after road (as I recently did) it’s hard to pass by even a single one without stopping. This is the story of my search for the perfect lavender field.
[click on any image to enter the gallery – more info after the photo gallery]
The Call of the Lavender
I’ll never forget the first time I saw a lavender field in bloom near Sault when I was biking there many years ago on a trip to Mont Ventoux. I was blown away. The color is simply amazing. Since then I’ve had the fortune to see lots of fields all over the south of France. Last year, after Carole and I moved here to Vence, one of the first trips we took was in late June to the village of Valensole to see the nearby lavender fields. The “Valensole plateau” is a large, flat area of land about two hours from where we live that is home to one of the largest concentrations of lavender fields in all of France (maybe even the world). I went back this year during the first week of July (Carole was worn out from our bathroom remodeling so she opted to stay home) when the fields were at their absolute peak.
I spent two days in early July roaming around the area near Valensole looking at every field I could find. I was looking for “the perfect lavender field.” Believe me, they are not all as stunning as the ones you see in photographs. Some are not well tended and are full of weeds and other plants. I call these “dirty” fields. You can see an example of one in the photo gallery. Some are not laid out well. Some have plants that just don’t seem to be healthy and robust. There are several things that help make a lavender field a real thing of beauty.
First off you want nice rows that are laid out straight with just the right distance between them. Too far apart and the big gaps between the rows look distracting and ruin the symmetry. Too close together and you lose the definition of the rows. I also look for fields that have a slight “roll” to them, where the ground isn’t completely level. This adds a nice dynamic to photographs. I love fields that end at the horizon with a view of the sky, without hills and mountains behind them. The blue sky (and hopefully some impressive white clouds) connecting with the purple flowers just can’t be beat. And then, as I mentioned above, I want big, vibrant, healthy plants that have been well tended. No weeds growing everywhere!
I’m happy to say that I found several fields this year that came very close to being perfect. I took a lot of photographs at varying times of the day and night. Some of the ones I took as the sun was going down turned out very nicely. I wasn’t able to find a field that I liked where the sun actually set into the lavender but I’ll keep trying. That seems to be one of the “Holy Grail” shots. I had planned to get up very early on the second day (5:00AM), before dawn, to take some photographs of the fields as the sun was rising, but alas, I had worn myself out the day before and just couldn’t make it up that early.
It’s not just about the lavender either. There are some amazing fields of clary sage, a beautiful pink flowering plant, that are often grown along side the lavender. You will also finds crops of sunflowers here and there as well and large crops of beautiful, honey-colored wheat.
About the Color
Why do we find lavender fields so damn breathtaking? The fact that they are purple has more than a little to do with it. When I taught web and graphic design in Nashville I would always spend some time talking with my students about “color theory” and the “psychology of color.” What different colors mean to different people and why. What effects colors have on us and why. It’s an important field of study that millions (if not billions) of dollars are invested into by businesses and marketing firms every year. How color is used to sell products, to influence people’s decisions, to make people feel comfortable or ill at ease: it’s a big business. It’s no accident that the Target logo is red, that the John Deere logo is green or that many doctor’s offices are painted light blue.
Purple is an especially interesting color. Throughout history the color purple has always been associated with power and royalty. When we see purple we intuitively think of money, wealth, extravagance and luxury. This is primarily due to the fact that centuries ago it was extremely difficult to create the dye needed to make purple clothes and garments. Only the very wealthy could afford this apparel. Nature seems to also reflect this high standard. If you think about the things in nature that we associate with the color purple it is usually things like flowers, wines and precious stones. Outside of that you just don’t see purple a lot in the “real” world. It’s not really used much in design either. Which is why when we see giant fields of rich purple blossoms we go crazy.
Where to Go
There are lavender fields all over Provence. The plants flourish best in dry, well-drained sandy soil with lots and lots of sun and good air circulation (Provence in a nutshell). There’s rarely any need for fertilizer. The flowers attract lots of bees and other pollinating insects. The truth is lavender is an easy shrub to grow and it is grown all over the world: in gardens, as hedges, as flower borders, etc. You will find lavender being grown and cultivated all over Europe, northern and eastern Africa, southwest Asia, southeast India and many, many other places. Still, Provence is where most of us think of when we think of lavender. Each year people come from all over the world to see the lavender fields for which the region is famous.
The three major areas in Provence where you will find lavender fields are: the Valensole Plateau, Sault and the Luberon. We live closest to the Valensole Plateau, so that’s where I’ve gone the last two years. Coincidentally, these are also some of the most famous, well-known fields in France (if not the world). That, however, is a double-edged sword. They’re famous and well-known for good reason: because they are so incredibly beautiful. But that means lots and lots of visitors and tourists as well. When Carole and I were there in 2019 some of the better known fields were insanely full of tourists with big buses were parked all alongside the road. They were everywhere! I mean, it’s hard to complain, we were “tourists” as well, but it was a bit disheartening to see so many people tramping through the fields with little regard to the well-being of the plants. Many people would tear off branch after branch of flowers from the plants to take with them, something that is just plain wrong. We were able to drive a bit off the beaten path and find some fields that we thought were even more beautiful. This year, because of the COVID-19 pandemic there were a lot less people. It really was quite noticeable and I was positively delighted to find so many fields with so little visitors.
The fields are very easy to find. Wherever you are just head for Valensole. It’s a picturesque little village in the southwest corner of the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence department. You can get there easily from Aix-en-Provence, Marseille, Toulon, Cannes or Nice taking some combination of the A8, the A7 and the A51. From Vence I like to take the back roads, even though they are a tad bit longer. It’s a much nicer drive than being on the expressway. I head northwest through Gréolières to Castellane, down through the Gorges du Verdon and up to Moustiers-Sainte-Marie and then straight into Valensole.
I make a big loop, starting in Valensole, a beautiful little village at the heart of the plateau. Drive northeast along the D8 and you’ll find a lot of nice fields. When you come to the D953 turn right (south) towards Puimoisson. At Puimoisson take the D56 and then the D952 towards Moustiers-Sainte-Marie. Turn right (south) on the small road known as “Route de Sainte-Crois” (the C3) towards Sainte-Croix-du-Verdon. This little road follows along the western side of the Lac de Sainte-Croix and features a ton of amazing fields.
Just before you reach Sainte-Crois-du-Verdon turn right on the C4 toward Riez which will connect with the D11. From Riez complete the loop by taking the D6 back into Valensole. There are also a few big fields just outside of Valensole on the D6 headed towards Manosque. These are some of the most famous fields, but to be honest, I don’t find them to be the best. And, as I mentioned above, during normal times they are absolutely swamped with tourists. If you have time they might be worth a look, but I’d stick to the fields on this main loop. That said, there was one field here that had an amazing crop of sunflowers as well, so that made the trip to these fields worth it to me this year.
Please consider this route as just one of many. There are lavender fields all over this area on many roads which I have not mentioned here. Feel free to head off into the wilderness and explore. If you find some great fields please let me know where they are! I’m always looking for new ones.
I was in Valensole on July 2nd and 3rd this year. The weather was good overall though I did get a bit more clouds during the day than I would have liked. I divided my time between the lavender fields and exploring the villages in the area. I think I got some good photographs but I’m always trying to get better ones. There are plenty of places to stay in the area, from hotels to gîtes to Airbnb. If you want to keep the prices down you can look for a place to stay a bit away from Valensole, for instance, Manosque.
A few notes: every time I have been to see the fields they are FULL of honeybees. This is a good thing! We need the bees, they are very important to the long term health of our planet. I walk out into the fields among the bees and they never bother me, not in the least. But, if you are afraid of bees or allergic to them just be aware and be careful. Be respectful of the plants and the fields. If you do walk out into them, walk between the plants, don’t walk on them. These plants are crops. They are someone’s livelihood. I think it’s OK to pick a few small stems here and there but don’t going pulling big branches to make bouquets when you get back home.
When to Go
Of course, the main thing everyone wants to know, is when is the best time to visit the lavender fields? Unfortunately, there’s no easy answer. It will depend on what part of France you are going to. It also changes a little from year to year based on the weather. In general though, mid-June to mid-July is the best time. However, it’s still possible to find fields in bloom as late as the first week in August if you head up towards Sault and Banon. For the most part the harvesting will start sometime in mid to late July. I was lucky enough this year to find a field where they were just beginning to harvest the flowers and I’ve got a short little video here for you to watch.
Even More to See and Do
If you’re headed to Valensole to see the lavender fields I would highly suggest that you give yourself a few days if at all possible. In addition to the fields there are a ton of things to do in this area. Moustiers-Sainte-Marie is one of my very favorite villages in all of France and one of the official “Most Beautiful Villages of France.” It’s definitely worth a visit. Riez and Valensole are also worth spending some time in. The Musée de la Lavande is located in Valensole and you’ll find many, many shops and boutiques spread all across the region, both in the towns and villages and along the side of the roads. The Sainte-Croixe lake is a beautiful area for boating, swimming, kayaking, etc. On the other side of the lake are Bauduen and Aiguines, two marvelous little villages that I really enjoy spending time in. And then, of course, there is also the Gorges du Verdon. A truly spectacular gorge cut through the area by the Verdon river. You could spend days and days just exploring the Gorges. Honestly, there’s so much to do and see here it can be a bit overwhelming. Make a plan ahead of time if you can.
I’ll be back next year, that’s for sure. I can never get enough of this area and of the lavender fields. I’ll keep searching for that “perfect” field, that perfect time of day, that perfect photograph.