Provence, France (part 1 of 4)

Visiting the Provence region of France during lavender blooming season was high on my travel bucket list. We recently returned from our trip (the last week of July) and it exceeded my every expectation.

Lavender
A lavender field in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence department of France.

The lavender blooms between late June and early August, depending on the year’s weather. Predicting the perfect time to visit for lavender season can be tricky. Mid-July is probably the safest bet. We were there the last week of July and the lavender was towards the end of its bloom. A lot had already been harvested.

Lavender
Lavender being harvested in Alpes-de-Haute-Provence.

We visited and took pictures of as many lavender fields as possible on our first night and day there to be sure to capture it before it was all gone! While the lavender color was not as vibrant as I had envisioned, it was still as lovely and fragrant as I had hoped.

Lavender
A lavender field in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence department of France.

“Provence” refers to a large geographical region of France, officially called Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, which encompasses the departments of Var, Bouches-du-Rhône, Alpes-de-Haute-Provence and parts of the departments of Alpes-Maritimes, Hautes-Alpes, and Vaucluse. (Thanks to Wikipedia for this definition, which based on our time there and other resources, I believe to be accurate!)

If you look at this region on a map, you’ll see it is huge. We spent our time in the departments of Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, Vaucluse, and Bouches-du-Rhône. Other than flying in and out of Marseille, we did not spend any time on the “French Riviera” (the Mediterranean coast) in places like Cannes, Nice, or Saint-Tropez. Maybe we can go back to those cities on another trip. For some reason, I associate those areas with fancy people and celebrities like George and Amal Clooney and I think I need to become more glamorous and sophisticated before visiting them.

General Impressions

I was pleasantly surprised by a lot on this trip. Nothing we did disappointed me. First, I was surprised by the size of the region. It was impossible to check everything off the “to-do” list we had created. Not only are there countless small towns and villages with things to do, they are very spread out and the mountain roads it takes to travel from one place to the next are slow and winding. We put a lot of miles on our rental car! Unfortunately, this meant that we often felt like we were running out of time to enjoy each thing that we did.

Saint-Michel-l'Observatoire
A street in Saint-Michel-l’Observatoire, a commune in France.

I was also surprised by the variety of terrains we encountered. I expected the rolling fields of lavender, but was also impressed by tall mountains, deep gorges, rough and dry landscape, and one spot that even felt like another planet.

This region of France also surprised me with its abundance of what I call “squatty potties.” I had encountered these before when we visited Beijing, China. They terrified me then and they still do. At risk of sharing too much information, let’s just say I have never been comfortable with the squat pee, even in my youthful days of outdoor campfires and boondocks country parties. But a lot of the public restrooms in Provence had them, and when you gotta go, you gotta go, even if it means taking off all your bottoms completely to avoid splashing. Yep, I went there.

It left me wondering, do French women have a trick to using these toilets gracefully? I found some advice from Rick Steves in this article, and additional tips in this article. My bottom line (ha, pun unintended) … do whatever works for you to be successful!

potty
A “squat” toilet in Provence.

A lot of bathrooms also did NOT have toilet paper. My husband said he thinks that some places expect you to carry your own, and the Rick Steves’ article I linked to above confirms this. Sometimes it did seem to be on purpose, but sometimes it just seemed like the bathroom hadn’t been serviced recently. Seriously, in one Marseille Airport bathroom, I checked EVERY STALL, they were ALL out of TP. Either way, it gave me a new appreciation for the fact that my grandmother taught me to always have a travel pack of Kleenex around, and my own insistence of always having Purell.

WC
I think someone got confused labeling this public toilet!

And that is the closest thing to a complaint I will say about Provence!

Getting There

We flew to Provence on Ryanair. We took a direct flight from Charleroi Airport (in Brussels) to Marseille Airport. This was our first time flying out of Charleroi as opposed to Zaventem in Brussels, and it was our first time flying Ryanair. We were happy with both. Charleroi seemed less crowded and easier to navigate than Zaventem. With Ryanair, we opted for a lot of the “add-ons” like reserving seats (kind of important to make sure you are sitting with your child) and checking additional luggage. Even with that, the prices were very reasonable. The flights ran smoothly, the employees were nice, and the equipment was clean. Well, as clean as this CNN article says an airplane is. See my above “I always travel with Purell” comment. I also like to fly with disinfectant wipes.

Where We Stayed

We stayed in a wonderful Airbnb rental in a small old village, Cheyran, just outside of the next biggest town, Simiane-la-Rotonde. I took it as a good sign that on our way to the house, we kept seeing signs indicating that we were on the Tour de France route, which had come through this region the day before we arrived. The tour passed right by Cheyran on its main road.

Cheyran
Our Airbnb rental in Provence.

To call Cheyran a “village” feels like an overstatement. It is a clumping of about 15 houses and an old church, that truly was (and is) a village on a very small scale. Our rental was attached to what used to be the village’s school, though the owner told us it stopped operating sometime in the mid-1900’s. When we asked her how old the house was, she said, “about 300 or 400 years,” a rough estimate! It was her great-grandparents and she and her family have restored it beautifully. It has all the amenities a modern family needs. From the kitchen, you can see a neighboring lavender field. I swear I could smell a hint of lavender on every breeze that passed through the house.

Cheyran
A lavender field and buildings near our Airbnb rental in Cheyran, France.

Our hostess owns the home with her husband and son. She was as sweet as could be and an excellent hostess. She gave us a suggested itinerary for every day of our trip, including lists of where each daily market is in the region, ideas for what to see and do, and suggested driving routes. This is something that is such a benefit to an Airbnb rental in a destination like this when you stay with a good host.

Ecole
The back patio of our Airbnb rental with a door to the village’s old school.
Cheyran
View from the back patio of our Airbnb rental.
Church
View of the church in Cheyran from our Airbnb rental.

We have been very lucky with Airbnb hosts. I felt like we were truly able to live like locals for our week in Provence, which made it so special. It was a lovely home in a lovely location. When we weren’t out running around trying to do things, it was a perfect place to relax and unwind, as you should do on vacation!

We enjoyed many meals outside, with the scent of lavender in the air and toasts with the local rosé wine our hostess gifted us. Rosé is popular in this region. I am always embarrassed to say I am not much of a wine drinker, especially not rosé, but I really enjoyed it. I may be a convert! To top it all off, a neighbor’s dog came to visit us often, especially at meal times. We love dogs so this was a fun treat!

Dog
The neighbor’s dog that often visited us at our Airbnb rental in Provence.

If you are interested in this rental, feel free to comment or send me a message and I will be happy to share the Airbnb listing and a referral code for a discount if it is your first time using Airbnb!

If you prefer to stay in hotels, our hostess works at Hotel Cezanne in Aix-en-Provence. If it is run at all like her home, I am sure it is wonderful!

Things we Missed

Usually I share “things we missed” at the end of my travel blog posts, but that is when I am able to contain everything about a trip in one post. We had an amazing week in Provence and since we saw and did so many things, I am going to post multiple blogs about what we did.

Despite doing so much, it felt like we ran out of time for a lot of things we wanted to do, or do more of. I will mention “things we missed” throughout my blog posts that cover what we did in Provence, but here are a few other of our “to-do/see” things that we missed that I don’t mention elsewhere:

  • L’Observatoire de Haute-Provence for astronomy.
  • The village of Avignon, which was in the midst of its annual festival.
  • The medieval hilltop village of Gordes.
  • The village of Lourmarin.
  • The village of Grasse, known as the perfume capital of the region.
  • The village of Saint Remy de Provence, near the hospital, Saint-Paul de Mausole, where Van Gogh asylumed.
  • The village of Cavaillon, known for its specialty melons called Cavaillons.

What We Did

We did so much in Provence! Because we were there for a week and tried to stay very busy, I have a lot to share. So much, in fact, that I am going to create separate blogs for each department we visited to make it more reader-friendly. Here are links to those blog posts:

I loved visiting this region. Looking back on our time there, I fondly remember it with senses – the heat of the sun and warm breezes; the sweet, thick scent of lavender; the gold hues that dominated the landscape; the calming, relaxed vibe. A wonderful trip!

Cross
A roadside cross between Simiane-la-Rotonde and Saint-Michel-l’Observatoire.
Cross
A roadside cross between Simiane-la-Rotonde and Saint-Michel-l’Observatoire.

6 thoughts on “Provence, France (part 1 of 4)

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