I left Villaneuve about 4pm, later then I planned. The lavender industry in Provence produces a nice map of good routes for seeing lavender fields and touring distilleries. GPS and I had trouble leaving the Avignon area, because the entry ramp to our route was under construction with no alternate route signage. After a long detour, I tricked GPS into finding a new route. Finally on our way, we come quickly to a town with a lavender museum. I know most tourist attractions in France close at 6pm, so I seize the opportunity to visit, in order not to miss learning about the lavender from Provence. The museum was a delight. The woman at the ticket counter spoke excellent English and gave a nice presentation on the difference between lavender and lavendine. Then I watched a short 20-min video that explained lavender farming and essential oil distilling. My English audio guide allowed me to listen, instead of having to read subtitles. The museum houses a collection of lavender stills from the 18th century to present. With 24 explanations on history and process, it takes a little over an hour to complete (including the movie). I buy a couple of items in the shop.
A little after 6pm, I am on my way again. Ignoring GPS, I consult my map to route through the little towns. I see lots of fields, but no lavender. After 40 minutes, I pull over to consult the map again. I am going the right way and am on the suggested road. I look up to pull back onto the 2-laner, and to my surprise, there is a lavender field on the right. I laugh at myself. I am early in the season, so the buds are small, hinting at the rich blue-purple they will become over the next six weeks.
Motoring on, I spot a field here and there, some untended. At the museum, I learned that synthetic scent production, creating lower priced products, has driven down demand for fine lavender oil. Is this the reason for the untended fields? In one village, I see signs for a “cherry” road and festival in July. I am reminded of cherry picking in Washington State during a summer vacation roadtrip during the 1980’s. My parents owned a 2-toned green Chevy Beauville van. We routed from central California up through Oregon, Washington and across Idaho, then back down through Montana, Wyoming, and Nevada. Our French exchange student, Nathalie, was with us. As few years older than me, at a time when the maturity differences are large (I think she was 17 and I was only 13), my younger sister and I did not connect with her. Her English was not great an no one in our family spoke French. She kept to herself, likely isolated by language. We didn’t keep in touch for mor than a few months after her visit. I do not even remember what part of France she lived in.
Lavender grows only in Provence (I failed to ask why) and only at altitudes of 800M or higher. As I traverse through the cherry town, I notice I am climbing. Maybe the more prolific fields are in the Alpes-de-Provence. I selected one of the larger towns on the map as my destination for the night, Forquelquier. Unlike the Languedoc-Roussillon region, where the towns nest on the banks of rivers, these towns perch on mountaintops. The road passes in the valley, a few kilometers from each town, I am tempted to turn off to see many of them, but I remain focused on my destination. I have to take my little Peugot back to Cannes by noon tomorrow. I expect the drive will be 2-3 hours..
Finally, in the rolling mountains, I reach the lavender farms, where the fields blanket the horizon. Other crops too, and of course grapes, but mostly lavender. I imagine the blue-purple color of the blooms. Blue gold, the locals called lavender, before synthetic production affected the lavender industry. Stills we’re hand made, built of expensive copper. Most farmers could not afford their own still. In some towns, the farmers pooled their money and bought a town still. The stills were small and pulled on carts by donkeys from field to field. Enterprising men built stills and rented their use to the farmers. The annual lavender harvest occurs in early August. During the rest of the year, the stills were rented to make fruit liqueurs.
I reach my destination, Forcalquier, and cruise the town for a hotel. The only two-star I see is not inviting. There are signs for others, but I don’t see them. GPS tells me they are 1-2 miles from town. I stop to inquire at the 2-star, it is full. I head back the way I came, to a 3-star I passed on the way in. They are full, the receptionist explains they have a wedding party and there are not many hotels in town, would I like them to call another. It is after 8pm, gratefully, I reply yes. It is also full. She asks if it would be ok to go to another town, Manosque, about 10 miles away, of course, I reply. She calls and then translates to me, they have a room for 90€, but the ceiling, she doesn’t know the word. She asks her colleague and gestures, I think she means high. I really don’t care, I just need a place to sleep. I tell her yes and she makes my reservation.
Do I want dinner at the hotel?
I am not sure, maybe I eat before I go.
When will I get there, the lady is waiting?
Do you have a phone?
Yes, a French phone, I pull it out of my pocket and give her the number.
The call concludes, she hands me a brochure and explains how to get there, it has a little map. I have GPS, I tell her. Assured with accommodation, I enter the address into GPS. Twelve miles, off we go. GPS turns me off onto an isolated 1-laner. My gas needle hits red and then
Iight comes on. GPS indicates 6 miles o go. I pass a sign reading “private forest”. The light wanes as we curve and climb. An intrusive message keeps popping up on the GPS, I think it is telling me to get gas. The forest is thick with small trees. I become anxious, what if I run out of gas? I am I even going the right way? I stop to check the address on the brochure. It is correct in the GPS, but the road is not what the receptionist at the other hotel described. I chastise myself for not buying gas earlier. At least I have my French phone, the phone number to the hotel, and the car rental emergency number. Cognitively, I know that I should be able to go 6 miles before the tank is empty. But my emotions scream, you are in a foreign country, this is a Peugot, climbing mountains uses more gass, conserve, don’t accelerate too hard. Finally we summit, there have not been any cars on the road since we turn off. I do not see signs of civilization. GPS says 2 miles, at every chance I get, I shift into neutral to save gas. Does this work for a diesel engine, I wonder? I know it works for my manual BMW at home. When I coast in neutral, Peugot picks up some speed, a car pops up , I brake and move to the side. After we pass the car, the trees thin a bit and I see rooftops. GPS says 1.2 miles. We ease into a residential area, I continue to wonder if GPS is right. There is no town or gates, as described to me by the woman at the other hotel. Skeptical, I finally come upon a sign forthe hotel. I turn in, greeted by signs of life in the restaurant, Relief, I am safe. The parking lot full, I follow the drive past reception, up around the back of the hotel and park.