Driving Les Routes de la Lavande

As characteristic of Provence as heather is of the Yorkshire moors, lavender has played a major role in this region for hundreds of years. When it was part of the Roman Empire, Provence produced the flowers to scent the public baths. In the Middle Ages, villages burned piles of the plant in the streets, in keeping with the prevalent medical theory that disease was spread by vapors in the air. But it was during the Renaissance that the current industry took root, linked to the Médicis, who padded their wealth with trade in the distillation of the flower's essential oils.

The heart of lavender production lies in Provençal fields stretching from the foothills of the Vercors mountains to the Verdon canyons and from Buech to the Luberon range. Plants grown and distilled in this area are sold under the Haute-Provence label, renowned for its quality. A drive through the region is most scenic just before the midsummer harvest, when the countryside is a purplish hue from the blossoms of the lavender plants, spread out in seemingly endless rows to the horizon. Not only can you take in the sight and scent of the flowers, but you can also tour the distilleries and farms. Some of these facilities are open only during summer when the year's harvest is undergoing distillation. Those that are open year-round offer tours. They also sell the plants themselves, as well as the essential oils and dried flowers of the plant (used in provençale cooking), perfumes, honey, and herbal teas.

One of the best places to visit lavender farms and distilleries is Nyons, 42km (26 miles) northeast of Orange. From Orange, take A7 northwest for 3km (1 3/4 miles) to Route 976 and drive northeast for 13km (8 miles) to St-Cécile-les-Vignes, where the road becomes Route 576. Continue northeast for 6km (3 3/4 miles) to Tulette, turn right onto Route 94, and go 22km (14 miles) northeast to Nyons. Stop at the Office de Tourisme, place Libération (tel. 04-75-26-10-35; www.paysdenyons.com), to pick up the brochure Les Routes de la Lavande, offering a brief explanation and history of lavender production and a map of the region and its production facilities, with addresses, phone numbers, and hours.

On the outskirts of Nyons, start out at the Jardin des Arômes (Garden of Aromas), promenade de la Digue (tel. 04-75-26-20-51), with its collection of aromatic plants and lavenders; it's open round-the-clock throughout the year and charges no admission. To reach it from Nyons, follow the road signs pointing to Gap. After viewing and enjoying the scent of the living plants close by, go to Bleu Provence, 58 promenade de la Digue (tel. 04-75-26-10-42; www.distillerie-bleu-provence.com), a family-owned distillery founded in 1926, for thyme, rosemary, lavender, and "every other spice that's Provençal." A shop on the premises sells essential oils, soaps, and unguents, and the staff will take you on a guided English or French-language tour. If you walk around the premises on your own, the visit is free; to participate in the 45-minute guided tours, the cost is 3€ per person. You must call in advance for an appointment.

In St-Nazaire-le-Desert, northeast of Nyons, you can visit Gérard Blache, in the village center next to the Auberge du Desert (tel. 04-75-27-51-08), place de la Fontaine, a shop that sells all things lavender in July and August daily from 9:30am to 7:30pm. From here, head southeast to Rosans, where the distillery of the Cooperative des Producteurs de Lavande des Alpes (Lavender Cooperative of the Alps), on D94 west of Rosans (tel. 04-75-26-95-00), offers short guided tours and sales of essential oils July to August, Tuesday to Saturday 9:30am to 3pm, and off season Wednesday and Saturday to Sunday upon reservation. Southwest of here is Buis-les-Baronnies, where the Shop Bernard Laget, in the village center on place aux Herbes (tel. 04-75-28-12-01; www.bernard-laget.fr), includes lavender products among its medicinal and aromatic plants; it's open Tuesday to Saturday 9:30am to noon and 3 to 6pm.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.