A visit to the French town of Manosque is a voyage into the heart of the mythical region known as Provence. Far from the glamorous trappings of the Mediterranean coast, this earthy, lost-in-time destination will captivate you with its natural surroundings. This is the land of stonewashed villages, hillsides dotted with olive trees, and flowing lavender fields as far as the eye can see.
The residents of the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence départment, where Manosque is located, are fiercely proud of what the French would call their terroir—the regional specialties that make their lifestyle, and associated agriculture, unique to other parts of the country.
Nowhere is this more apparent than with Manosque’s most famous son, Olivier Baussan. Passionate about the natural riches at his doorstep, Baussan founded the highly successful cosmetics company, L’Occitane, in 1976. Counting more than 2000 shops worldwide, L’Occitane’s products are inspired by the Provençal landscape and the local plants found in the hills and fields around Manosque. Taking a cue from another of the region’s star products, the olive, Baussan later founded the premium olive oil company: Oliviers & Co.
Nestled between the Mont d’Or mountain and the Durance River, Manosque enjoys a Mediterranean climate with hot, dry summers and little rainfall. Due to its inland position, winters can be considerably cooler than along the coast—dropping as low as 30 F.
The nearest large cities include Avignon to the west and Marseille and Aix-en-Provence to the south. The closest airport is Marseille-Provence, and Manosque is also accessible by train. But if you’re touring the touristic areas of the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence, traveling by car is recommended.
Take in the Sites of the Pedestrian-Friendly Historic Center
Given Manosquins (residents of Manosque) pride in their cultural heritage, the historic center of town has been kept largely traffic-free and remains remarkably well-preserved. Three stone gates (the oldest, Porte de la Saunerie, was finished in 1382), circle the ancient ramparts of town and make for formidable photo-ops as visitors make their way to the heart of the city. Within the walls, important sites include Notre Dame church (reputed to host one of the oldest Virgin statues in France), L’Ecole de Musique (remnants of a Carmelite convent), and Saint-Sauveur church— characterized by its Roman-Gothic architecture.
Enjoy a Feast for the Senses at the Weekly Outdoor Market
Visiting an outdoor market is a must-do when you travel to the south of France. Here you’ll find the concept of terroir at its finest—the sights, the sounds, and the fragrances of Provence come alive among its cozy aisles. Colorful, handwoven baskets (paniers), bushels of dried lavender and their handcrafted sachets, and the freshest fruits and vegetables of the season are just a few of the products on display. Free samples are often given—from olives to goat cheese to tapenades—with no obligation to buy. Morning market trips are also a great way to socialize and catch up on local gossip. You can post-up at a market-side café and simply watch the world go by.
Market days in Manosque are on Wednesdays and Saturdays and markets take place throughout the town, including the following squares: Place du Terreau, Place Marcel Pagnol, Place St Sauveur, and Place de l’Hôtel de Ville. Opening hours are from 7:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m.
Savor the Best of Provençal Cooking on Marcel Pagnol Square
Polish off a morning at the market with a lunch on the sunny terraces of Place Marcel Pagnol. Life in the south of France is all about slowing down and savoring the moment. Usually, those moments involve long, gourmet meals elegantly chased with chilled glasses of rosé wine. A nice restaurant to try is L’Aromavin, where you can sample a grilled-steak seasoned with herbs de provence or seared tuna with wild rice from the Carmague region (near the city of Arles).
Tour L’Occitane Factory, Gardens, and Museum
One of the highlights of a trip to Manosque is certainly a tour of L’Occitane headquarters. Free guided tours take place seven days a week from April to October and six days a week (Monday to Saturday) from November to March. Conducted in French or English, the tour lasts one hour and takes visitors “behind the scenes” of the manufacturing process and includes opportunities to sample L’Occitane products. Leave time for a stroll through their well-maintained Mediterranean garden, as you experience the plants and flowers which make-up the fruits of the cosmetic line.
An on-site “museum-boutique” traces the history of the company and offers a 10% discount on L’Occitane purchases.
Admire the “Belle Vues” from the Mont d’Or Tower
To get a real feel for the surrounding landscape, known as the maquis provençal, head to the top of the Mont (mountain) d’Or and take in the 360-degree views of Manosque and the Durance valley. Free parking is available near the tower, and visitors can enjoy an easy stroll among the olive trees which surround the tower and hillside.
You’ll also catch glimpses of the Valensole plateau, the Luberon national park, and the Southern Alps.
Visit the Captivating Lavender Fields of the Valensole Plateau
Labeled “the breadbasket” of the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence region, the town of Valensole is the gateway to one of the most spectacular events to happen each July and August in the south of France. Along the Valensole plateau, you’ll find the world’s largest lavender fields—about 31 acres. Make sure to bring back-up batteries for your camera, as this is sure to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Besides the intoxicating scents and fields of purple for as far as the eye can see, there are also several charming villages to explore in the area—including Riez, Bauduen, and Moustiers-Sainte-Marie (classed as one of the most beautiful villages in France).
The annual lavender festival (Fête de la Lavande) takes place every July in Valensole. The trip from Manosque to Valensole will take you around thirty minutes by car.
(Here is a list of lavender festivals: http://www.fetesdelalavande.fr/)
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