Smell the lavender in the Luberon Valley, soaps in Marseille and fresh juicy melons in Cavaillon – holidays in Provence are full of fragrance
For a safari in a wild, natural area that’s just an hour’s drive from Marseille, Aix-en-Provence and Avignon, head for the Camargue. This natural space has unique landscapes filled with reeds, lagoons and tidal marshes where you’ll find wild bulls and horses roaming about. Through your binoculars you’ll see a paradise of 400 species of migratory birds, including the largest colony of flamingos in Europe: truly one of Provence’s best-kept secrets.
The Camargue’s horses are the world’s oldest living breed, with a characteristic grey colour, love of salt water and ability to withstand extreme elements. Despite being semi-wild they are even-tempered and suitable for riding. Continuously living in the salty marshes has led to evolutionary advances including extremely broad hooves, which allow them better footing in the mud, water and grasses of the area. The Camargue is also the only place in France – and one of the few anywhere around the Mediterranean – where pink flamingos nest; the population can reach 20,000 couples grouped into flocks.
The wetlands of the Camargue are also home to local salt production in Provence. An ancient tradition, the sea salt pans are still in use today and indeed produce hundreds of tons of sea salt and its derivatives for cooking, as well as for the chemical and pharmaceutical industries.
Soap has been produced in Marseille for many years, and opening in the city in September 2017 is the MuSaMa (French website only), a dedicated soap museum. Here visitors will be able to learn about the artisan soap-making process through an interactive tour with video content. There are also several long-established producers with boutiques worth popping into for souvenirs – try Marius Fabre or Le Serail.
Herbes de Provence
This beautiful blend of Herbes de Provence will transport you straight to the heart of the Provençal countryside, where cooking pots slowly simmer to release the delicate nuances of the region’s favourite herbs. Made from a traditional mix of rosemary, thyme, marjoram and gently dried oregano, this is the dream accompaniment for rustic dishes. Think slow-cooked stews and one-pot wonders, all tied together with the fresh zing of aromatic Herbes de Provence.
Instantly recognisable with its bright yellow hue, mimosa (a member of the acacia family) is also instantly detectable on the Provençal breeze in January and February. Brought to Europe in the 19th century by aristocratic travellers, the delicate golden flowers have an unmistakeable fragrance and have greatly contributed to the growth of the perfume industry in Grasse. The best way to experience the fragrance is to walk or drive a section of the Route du Mimosa, which stretches for 130km from Bormes-les-Mimosas to Grasse.
Provence’s fragrant purple fields are in full bloom between June and August in the Luberon and Mont Ventoux areas, as well as around Sault and Valréas. The delicate fragrance of lavender is known for its uses in cosmetics and soaps – but it can also be consumed in Provençal cuisine, in the form of lavender honey and lavender sorbet. One of the most spectacular displays of lavender can be seen at the Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque in Gordes.
The dedicated ‘Route de Lavande’ (Lavender Route) contains a number of beautifully perfumed itineraries that crisscross Provence and offer total lavender immersion. The flowers are in bloom from mid-June to mid-August but there are things to see on the route all year round, including distilleries and perfume workshops. Meet passionate professionals, discover the benefits of lavender essential oil and taste unusual dishes.
The Provençal town of Cavaillon thinks of itself as the world’s capital of melons. Its speciality is the Charentais: small and round with a blue-green striped rind, deep orange flesh and an irresistible perfume. Cavaillon’s dedicated festival in July features melon tastings, melon markets and melon-themed menus. To find a ripe one at the market, count the stripes – there should be 10, of a deep blueish-green colour (nine or 11 stripes could indicate the melon being tasteless or past its best) – or feel the weight, as heavy fruit are perfectly engorged with juice and sugar. Above all, the melon should be richly perfumed around the base.