Seeing the lavender in bloom was the impetus for our trip to Provence in July. After much research, I discovered the best spot is just outside of Gordes at the Abbey Notre Dame de Senanque. We decided to take a train from Toulouse to Arles, but it’d be nearly impossible to explore this area via public transportation. As such, Alice and I started day two of our Provence trip with a walk to the car rental agency, where we picked up our ride.
It should be noted that I was listed as the primary driver for this trip. It should also be noted that until this day, the last time I had driven a car was at least two years in the past (and really I hadn’t been a daily driver since March of 2012). I wouldn’t say I was nervous (it’s like riding a bike), but I could understand if Alice was a little nervous, though she didn’t let on and served as quite the navigator throughout our trip. A superior navigator is key when driving in a foreign country, as you really do need someone else helping you with the roads, spotting parking, and serving as your second eyes with those blind spots.
Speaking of blind spots, I had reserved a car with an automatic transmission (to my mother’s chagrin, I never really took to driving a manual transmission) for this trip. Our friendly clerk set us up with a Toyota C-HR, which she said was “extremely popular” and continued to say why, “I think it’s because of the interesting shape.” Maybe. The clerk was incredibly friendly, but this car was not popular because of its shape, but for the automatic transmission. I can now say after driving this car for three full days, it might have the largest blind spot of any car I’ve ever driven – it’s a total marvel we didn’t get into an accident (though, we did almost witness our twin car get into an accident as a result of said blind spot). In sum, not sure I’d recommend this model.
Anyway, we started our morning with a drive out to Gordes, which was heralded as a lovely village where rich Parisians buy second homes with picturesque photo opportunities. As a bonus, there is a market on Tuesday mornings. Below is a photo of Gordes as we approached from Arles.
Our old pal Rick Steves had mentioned there was a great photo opportunity as you approached the village (see above), so we pulled over a nabbed a spot. After the whole trip, I think there are actually two amazing photo opportunities (see below for more on that later). Rick had also mentioned people often get lost in this area. Sadly, we were no different. Thank goodness both Alice and I can laugh, because we spent a lot of time laughing in that car. Alas, I’m happy to report there are about four (that we found) ways to get up into Gordes, each with varying levels of cliffs that drop off to nowhere. Once we reached the town we were met with incredibly tiny roads filled with cars. With the blind spot and a SUV type car (HUGE by European standards), I was not looking forward to parallel parking on a hill, at all. Luckily, Alice spotted a large open spot, all it took was a little driving in reverse down a hillside, a three point turn, and voila – we had the perfect parking space nabbed.
Once parked, we walked up the hill a bit more to find the Gordes market. To my surprise it was less produce/vegetables and more products and handmade goods (linens, soaps, clothing, shoes, spices, etc.). We wandered through the streets and settled on lunch at La Bastide de Pierres. Alice had a truffle pizza and I had an arugula salad (both were pretty outstanding) and afforded a shaded terrace lunch with a view of the market/village. If you’re there, I’d recommend this spot.
After lunch we wandered through the markets where Alice bought some soap and I searched for a bundle of lavender, which led us to a small church as well as some incredible views of the countryside below. Honestly, the terrain reminded me so much of Tuscany – really quite beautiful.
After lunch we hopped back in our car with lavender on the brain. We knew we didn’t want to drive through Gordes to get there (it looked like a mess), so we went back down the mountain and then up the mountain on the other side of Gordes (couldn’t NOT go through Gordes, I guess). This is where we were met with a STUNNING view of Gordes along with one of the worst traffic jams of our trip (this is that second view I mentioned above). You see, on the back side of Gordes there is an amazing view of the city with a 1.5 lane road for cars. This road is peppered with tourists, locals, and tour buses. It is also not signed for where to or not to park. As such, many a car parks on the side of the road and gets out to take photos. This, my friends, is apparently a big no-no (police were called, license plates were recorded). It took us close to 20 minutes to get through this street (essentially, a tour bus was stuck due to the illegal parking), and we were never able to get out and get a photo. It’s too bad. But for you all, please see the below. It doesn’t really compare to what it looked like in person, but it’s all I can offer. Pro tip – there are amazing views of Gordes on ALL sides. Once you find a parking space, be sure to explore all sides on foot as much as you can, as parking is tricky up there.
Once we made our way out of Gordes we started our descent down the mountainside and could see what appeared to be a purplish-gray plant as far as the eye could see. This drive from up above looking to down below is absolutely stunning. I only wish I’d been able to pull over to soak it up. You can see a bit of what I’m talking about with the below photos.
Enter Abbey Notre Dame de Senanque. It’s still an operating abbey and the fields are private property (though there are a few spots where you can walk amongst the lavender). It’s also forbidden to take any of the lavender with you (I found a few pieces on the ground [which is legal to take], which I carried in my pocket and are in our apartment now…they smell AMAZING). While it was a little overcast, the midday heat was strong and the abbey a bit busier than I might’ve expected (we saw a lot of the same people from Gordes walking around at the abbey).
Alice snapped a few photos (thank you!), we toured around the property, and I tried to get in as many smells as I could before returning to the car and our AC.
The drive out/back to the main interstate was also a bit interesting, as it was one-way and back up a mountain to then (later) go down again. This afforded additional views that were just stunning. As we drove past this area we remarked how pretty and compared it to a Cezanne landscape (it’s a little hard to see all the vibrant greens/oranges/yellow, but I promise you it looked just like a Cezanne painting). With a little googling, we discovered many of Cezanne’s landscapes were painted in this very region. There’s really something special about seeing real life and art together. Really special.
From there we started our drive back to Arles. It was a beautiful day full of gorgeous nature. It felt good to be back in the driver’s seat, and I couldn’t have done it without my co-pilot in Alice. My only regret – not getting a big, bushel of lavender.