Pedaling Provence: A Cycling Tour of France
by KATE IMBRIE
When a friend told me she had just signed on for a cycling tour of Provence, something in my head shifted — rather like a bicycle gear clicking into place.
Though I’d never considered myself the sort of person who would enjoy a group tour (rightly or wrongly, I imagine a busload of overweight Americans ogling the Hard Rock Café in Paris), I had to admit that a cycling tour sounded like fun. I imagined myself pedaling past fields of thyme and lavender in the Luberon Valley, headed for Roman provincial hilltop villages like Roussillon, Gordes, and Les Baux while experiencing the countryside in an immediate, intimate manner.
Ready to Roll
Sign me up, I said, mentally calculating that I had just about three weeks to get my bicycling muscles back into shape before departing.
Our seven-day “Provence Loops” tour was arranged by Europeds, a California-based operator of European walking and cycling tours, and was classified as a moderate or “Level B” adventure — roughly 32 miles a day of cycling in flat to slightly hilly conditions. Categorized as “soft adventure travel” in the tour trade, this type of holiday is especially popular with people who, like me, are well past the age when something like hostelling seems like a good idea, yet are not yet eager to climb on a bus with golden-agers.
As the name of the tour suggests, the itinerary was unique because we stayed in just two hotels, rather than changing accommodations every night along the route. From our first hotel in St. Remy, and our second hotel in Gordes, we pedaled out each day in loops that would bring us back to our lodging at the end of the day.
Time to Smell the Lavender ...
What turned out to be wonderful about the Loops formula was that you didn’t have to pack up and move each day, giving you time to get a feel for the town you were staying in. I had the chance to dine at a different restaurant with the group each night, or spend a morning in places like St. Remy’s Wednesday open-air market.
Another benefit of the tour was its flexibility. Though all of us were cyclists of average ability who had no problem managing the itinerary, each of us was given a set of printed directions for the day’s route. This allowed us to ride at our own pace if desired, and to catch up with the group at a pre-set destination such as a café for lunch or a winery for a tasting. Jump-starting the morning with a breakfast of fresh croissants, coffee and yogurt, we were able to customize the pace for the ride ahead.
Though summer weather in Provence is hot, with temperatures regularly climbing near 100 degrees Fahrenheit, our fall weather timing was cool and somewhat unpredictable. We knew we were taking our chances with a trip in late October — the last trip of the Europeds season — and it did rain. Most of us cycled on gamely when it drizzled, and some of us soldiered on even when it poured. At some point or other, though, most of us took to the van for some relief.
But on those days when the sun shone, we gazed in awe at the fertile Luberon, striped with rows of dusky grapevines just after harvest. We shopped in village markets, inhaling the smells of fresh cheeses, herbs, olives, and sausages. On hilltops overlooking patterns of crops, we picnicked on a gaily printed Provencal cloth, hungrily packing our baguettes with brie and jambon bought by one of the guides that morning.
Huffing to Les Baux
Just as I’d imagined, those hilltop towns were worth the sometimes challenging cycle up. The white limestone pinnacles of Les Baux, laced with an ancient network of alleys lined with cave-like shops, yielded sweeping views of the rich lands below — a tapestry of silver-green olive trees, fading fields of lavender, and rich maroon vineyards.
Support was always in the wings along the route if needed. While stronger cyclists got to the destinations sooner, slower ones could either get there later or opt for a lift in the “sag wagon,” the Europeds support van. If a cyclist grew tired halfway up a steep ascent to a hilltop village, for example, he or she could ask the tour guide for a hitch in the van.
From our first hotel in St. Remy — the homey and comfortable Hotel du Soleil — we strolled the plane-tree-shaded streets of the old town where Van Gogh painted, exploring its many inviting cafés and shops. For three days, we cycled out on well-planned trips to see the 2,000-year-old Roman aqueduct Pont du Gard, the Roman coliseum in busy Arles, and Les Baux.
On the fourth day, we cycled to our second hotel, the Gordos near Gordes, the van arriving ahead of us with our luggage. It had been raining on and off all day, but as we approached Roussillon, the sun broke through the clouds, bathing the town’s famous ochre ramparts in rich Provencal light.
Fortunately, our guides were adept at massaging our schedule to adapt to weather changes: a leisurely lunch featuring plenty of good Cotes de Luberon ... a visit to the medieval Abbaye de Senanque ... a winery tour. We ate, we shopped, we bonded.
A New Family
These newly forged friendships were another benefit of the tour. There was real magic in cycling around France in the company of people who began the trip as strangers and ended up as friends. Most of us fit the classic “boomer” profile: well-traveled professionals in our 40’s apt to appreciate the finer things in life, such as an elegant French wine, or the occasional foie gras.
Thanks to my experiences, I’ve become a bicycle-tour convert. Gears are clicking away in my imagination as I scan the trip catalogs that I find in my mailbox, tantalizing with their itineraries in the hills of Tuscany, the lakes of Switzerland, or the green hills of Ireland.
It already seems perfectly natural to me to see helmeted, Lycra-clad riders astride their Treks in the foreground of photos of Italian cathedrals, French chateaux, and Alpine lakes. I wouldn’t want to tour Europe any other way.
The Provence tour — one of dozens that Europeds runs in France, Italy, Switzerland, and Ireland — was purely a cycling tour, but the company also offers tours combining hiking and cycling, or cycling and skiing (e.g. in the Swiss Alps), as well as “doggie walks,” in which participants bring their pets on guided excursions. Contact Europeds: Tel. 800-321-9552; Website: www.europeds.com.
For information on additional programs and operators, see the Activity Index under “Biking—France.”
Photo: Markham Johnson