France is not the only country to have a spectacle of purple flowers every year, there are some beautiful fields of lavender in Italy, too! Today I’ll take you to a little place in Piedmont where violet fields abound between mid-June and mid-July…
Although lavender is commonly associated with the region of Provence in France, Italy has its own share of violet fields. One of my favorites is a rather unknown area in Piedmont where fields turn into vibrant shades of purple between June and July. It’s called Piedmont’s little Provence and even if it’s close to the prestigious wine district of Barolo, it feels like being a million miles away from it.
Visiting this part of Piedmont during the lavender season is a true feast for the senses. The air is filled with the sweet scent of herbs and the gentle buzzing of bumblebees, while a vibrant palette of purplish tones covers the countryside. Pure magic!
The lavender flowering season usually runs from mid-June to mid-July, although it could vary slightly each year depending on the whims of the weather. Harvest starts around mid-July and the lavender flowers become dried bouquets and essential oils for the cosmetic and herbal industry.
Sale San Giovanni, the capital of Piedmont’s little Provence
The sleepy hamlet of Sale San Giovanni is the capital of this Provençal corner of Piedmont, thanks to its splendid lavender fields that stretch over an area of nearly 100 acres. These cultivations were introduced only a few decades ago in an effort to revamp the territory. The favorable weather conditions of the area and the use of sustainable farming methods did the rest, and now lavender is a precious resource for local farmers, as well as a powerful tourist attraction. Lavender flowers grow together with a variety of aromatic herbs and enkir, the world’s oldest grain variety, dating back to some 12,000 years ago.
The local municipality has put together four walking trails that allow visitors to admire lavender flowers from up close (here’s the map). They range from 7 to about 10 km and it’s highly recommended to arrive well equipped with comfy shoes and lots of water because temperatures can be really high at this time of the year.
The big event of the lavender season in Sale San Giovanni is the Non Solo Erbe festival (literally, Not Only Herbs). It takes place on the last weekend of June and fills the village streets with stalls selling anything from flowers to essential oils and lavender-based products. Don’t miss the lavender bread and enkirotto, a risotto made of enkir! During the event, it is also possible to join organized tours to explore the lavender fields. For obvious reasons, the event was canceled this year, but do take note of it for a future trip.
Local treasures to explore
If these purplish beauties are not tempting enough, there are also some precious artistic treasures to explore in Sale San Giovanni. One is the tiny Chapel of San Sebastiano, right at the entrance to the village. It’s a shrine built in the 14th century when the black plague was raging over Europe and feature splendid frescoes illustrating the idea that death spares no one, however rich or powerful!
A short walk from the chapel leads to Pieve di San Giovanni Battista, sitting on the remains of an ancient pagan temple. It’s dedicated to the patron saint of the village and its austere facade hides some stunning frescoes dating from the 13th-16th centuries.
Another great site to explore is the Chapel of Sant’Anastasia, perched high on a hill just a five-minute drive from the centre of Sale San Giovanni. A group of Benedictine monks built it around the year 1050 and its small apse contains a large fresco from 1493 centered around the Roman martyr Anastasia.
Sale San Giovanni is also home to the castle of the Marquis Incisa di Camerana that dominates the center of the village. The interior is said to be beautiful, but sadly it remains behind locked doors since the castle is a private residence now and cannot be visited. Not to miss is also the Arboreto Prandi, a stunning botanic garden with several local and exotic trees.
You can see beautiful lavender fields also in Demonte, about an hour’s drive from Sale San Giovanni, in the heart of the Stura Valley. Just bear in mind that lavender plants tend to bloom slightly later here due to the higher elevation. This means that they are likely to be just starting to sprout when in Sale San Giovanni fields have already turned purple!
In Demonte, you can see the oldest lavender businesses in the area, Distilleria Rocchia, which is still in full swing. Back in the 19th century Mr. Giuseppe, the founder, developed an innovative distillation process based on steam injection and today his relative Marco continues to produce high-quality essential oils using the ancient family method. The adjoining shop sells a variety of beautiful lavender-themed gift ideas and excellent herbal products.
The village is really charming and filled with Provençal touches, most probably due to its proximity to France (the border is less than an hour away). The main street is lined with attractive medieval porticoes that house small shops and cafés.
There are also a number of historical sites to explore that are a testament to Demonte’s interesting past. One of these is the 17th-century Palazzo Borelli, managed by a group of friendly volunteers who will show you secret corners while sharing the story of the noble family that used to live here. The palace is connected to the public gardens by a delightful corridor filled with antique pieces.
How to reach Piedmont’s little Provence
Genoa Cristoforo Colombo is the closest airport, about an hour away from Sale San Giovanni, while the drive from Torino Caselle airport is just thirty minutes longer. If you land at Milan Linate or Malpensa, it will take about two and a half hours to reach the destination.
The best way to explore the area is by car. Driving is easy and roads sneak gently across the landscape, making for a picture-perfect summer road trip in Italy.
The road that leads from Sale San Giovanni to Demonte is filled with great places to explore, such as Ceva, an elegant town famed for being the capital of mushrooms, and Mondovì, whose delightful historic center sits on a hill that can be reached with a pleasant funicular ride.
- Most sites are open to the public only on the first and third Sunday of the month, between May and September, or during special events like the herbal festival.
- A couple of good B&B’s in the area are B&B Magiche Langhe, a ten-minute drive from Sale San Giovanni, and B&B Il Riccio, a family-run bed & breakfast in Ceva. If you’re looking for a bit of action, then consider B&B Sant’Agostino in the historic centre of Mondovì, halfway between Sale San Giovanni and Demonte.
- For a truly unforgettable experience, head to Agriturismo Verdita in the town of Merana (about 1 hour’s drive from Sale San Giovanni), where you can sleep under the stars immersed in a lavender field!
- Local specialties include agnolotti del plin (ravioli with meat), tajarin (hand-made egg pasta often served with ragù sauce or truffles), brasato al Barolo (slow cooked beef in Barolo wine), and bonet (a sort of pudding with chocolate and amaretti biscuits). Oh, and of course lots of great wines (remember that the area is close to Langhe…). For a good meal, there’s Osteria delle Erbe right at the entrance to Sale San Giovanni. Otherwise, check out Lou Stau in Demonte or Ristorante Italia in Ceva (their vitello tonnato is super!). Oh, and while you’re exploring Demonte, get some sweet treats at Bar Agnello.
Big hugs from Italy,