As the Tour de France peloton rides adjacent to Provence’s famed fields of lavender, I thought I’d explore the French and Italian Riviera’s lavender heritage, when and where to see lavender in bloom, plus where to buy lavender-based products.
Think of lavender and your mind inevitably goes towards the South of France. While the areas around Valensole and Sault concentrate most of the lavender production in Provence, the Riviera also has a strong tradition of cultivating this aromatic flower.
The city of Grasse, located about 20km inland from Cannes, was for centuries the centre of Europe’s perfume industry. Even today, its perfumeries are thriving, and the cultivation of lavender and other flowers continues to be a significant activity in the surrounding areas.
The small village of Gourdon, a steep climb 15km north of Grasse, is the gateway to the plateau de Caussols, a vast area of limestone and shrub sitting 1,450m above sea level. These are perfect conditions for growing good-quality lavender, which requires porous soil, high altitude and plenty of sunshine. Some lavender farms can be visited just outside Gourdon, and the village itself has numerous perfume and soap makers.
Even outside lavender season, there are plenty of reasons to visit the town. The views from the village across the Loup valley are stunning. There is also a splendid chateau (not currently open to the public due to restoration works) with terraced gardens designed by none other that André le Nôtre, the famous head gardener of the Palace of Versailles.
Flower cultivation is equally important on the Italian side of the Riviera. The hills around Sanremo, Bordighera and Ventimiglia have so many greenhouses for flower cultivation that the area is dubbed the “Riviera dei Fiori” (Riviera of the flowers). To find lavender, however, you have to go high up the valleys to places like Seborga, a small town which has lavender as its symbol. Every summer they hold a lively festival celebrating lavender-scented products including the famous lavender-flavoured biscotti made in nearby Vallecrosia.
Further east, in the valley Argentina, the hamlet of Agaggio Inferiore (just outside Molini di Triora) is home to the famous Cugge distillery, where you can find artisanal skincare and essential oils for aromatherapy. You can also explore the town of Carpasio, which even has a small museum dedicated to lavender cultivation and distilling.
To really witness how important lavender is to the culture of the Italian Riviera, visit the city of Taggia on the 22 July, the feast day of Mary Magdalene. In the late afternoon, the confraternities of the town will be coming back from a 24-hour pilgrimage to a remote chapel in the hills behind Taggia. Legend has it that the chapel was the location where Mary Magdalene spent the night on her journey from the Holy Land to Provence (she is said to have lived and died in Provence). In order to prove that they succeeded in reaching their destination, the confraternities of Taggia enter the city on horseback carrying lavender…… tons and tons of lavender bouquets, which they then toss in the air as a gift for the cheering crowds. This is truly one of the most colourful and beautiful festivals in the whole of Liguria, and one that shows the strong connection between Provençal and Genoese traditions which make the Riviera such a fascinating region.
If you want to see lavender fields in bloom, the season on the Riviera and in the rest of Provence normally runs from mid-June till the end of July. Festivals tend to be held immediately after harvest, ie from the end of July until mid-August.