The unexpected pleasures of cycling through Provence

I’ve been keen on cycling through Provence in south eastern France for a while now. In 2012 I spent two nights in Malaucène for the sole reason of cycling Mont Ventoux. However once there I discovered that the area deserved more credit than being the jumping off point for climbing the Giant of Provence. I found that the hills surrounding Ventoux were gentle, covered in vines and dotted with little stone towns. It was just lovely scenery and perfect for cycling. I vowed that I would one day come back and spend time discovering what Provence had to offer.

So when planning our recent Nice to Milan cycling tour a visit to Provence was the first area I pencilled in to our itinerary. What I hadn’t realised was how large the region actually is. I’d presumed it was a small area with a few hilltop villages, but it actually takes in the whole coastline from Nice to Marseille and technically reaches all the way up to Briançon at the base of the Alps.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

As we were cycle touring with panniers it became obvious that we wouldn’t be able to cover the whole region in the time we had, so we were forced to choose a couple of areas to focus on. We were starting in Nice so we decided to cycle north through the Gorge du Verdon, then head west to the Luberon Hilltop Villages, then north east via Sault sweeping the base of Ventoux on route to Sisteron.

This took us 5 days, including a day to explore the Luberon.

I had high expectations - they were completely exceeded. This is the area you dream of when thinking of Summers in Europe. Even though I had an picture in my mind what cycling through this area would be like, I found it was full of unexpected pleasures.

1. Diversity of landscapes

As I mentioned above Provence is quite large (particularly if you are judging it by cycling distances). However by Australian standards it’s still pretty small. What blew me away was how different the landscapes were day by day.

We escaped the bustling and somewhat dirty city of Nice and rode up through the Alps-Maritimes and Alpes-Haute-Provence regions which you can probably tell from the names are quite hilly. We climbed around 2000m in elevation on our first day. We rode through forested valleys, up stark alpine climbs, over blisteringly hot plateaus and finished off the day rolling through gentle countryside (in a hail storm).

After this we hit the Gorge du Verdon (you can read my write up on that here) aptly named Europe’s Grand Canyon which was stark and rugged with sheer drops that were simply spectacular and unlike anywhere I’ve ridden before.

We then headed towards the Luberon via Valensole which is the heart of the lavender belt. The hills became gentler and opened out to plains that were covered in lavender, wheat and sunflowers.

We arrived in the Luberon on the third day, basing ourselves in a hotel 4km out of Roussillon. In each direction you see rolling hills covered in vines and lavender, dotted with warm coloured stone buildings. Small villages perched on hills look out across the plains. Some are a stark white colour, others are bright ochre.

On our final day we moved into the Alpes de Haute Provence region. The rolling hills turned into longer, forested climbs. We finished the route with a 30km gentle descent through an incredibly green valley to the town of Sisteron.

I just loved that every day we cycled in this area we experienced something different. You could easily spend weeks cycling around Provence and not see the same thing twice.

2. The Lavender

I generally do a fair bit of planning before I head off on holiday and this trip was no exception. However i’d been so focused on planning the route through the Gorge du Verdon to the Luberon, calculating the distances and the amount of climbing involved that I hadn’t realised we’d be cycling right in the middle of lavender season.

As we cycled into Valensole I almost fell off my bike when we came across purple fields as far as the eye can see.

At first we were completely on our own, just us and the purple. However we soon encountered the tourist buses and there were fields flooded with people trying to get the perfect lavender shot. I had no idea how popular it was. There was one particular area that had lavender and sunflower fields growing side by side that was absolutely packed with people all pointing their cameras in different directions trying to avoid each other.

We escaped the crowds and found a nice spot under a tree away from the buses to stop for a bite to eat next to the fields (until we realised where we’d stopped was covered in toilet paper….ewww.)

3. Gelato

Lavender and Violet Gelato. Need I say more? OMG it’s delicious. Where better to try lavender gelato than Provence? I’d book a trip just for this.

4. Bike Paths

I was surprised by the number of bike paths in the Luberon area. The area is well set up for cyclists, and cycling from town to town is actively encouraged. There is a complete circuit of the Luberon that is 236km long and is designed to take in some of the best sights on the way. You can design your own route based on the things you want to see.

A few options are:

The ochre route is a 51km circuit that takes you to the best places to see the ochre quarries and landscapes of the Luberon.

The Pays d’Aigues circuit:

This is a 91km (57 miles) circuit in the south Luberon and takes in the picturesque villages of Cadenet, Cucuron, Ansouis, St Martin de la Brasque, Grambois, Mirabeau, La Tour d’Aigues, La Bastidonne, Pertuis, and Villelaure.

Or you can create your own:

Perched villages:

Between Cavaillon and Apt - photogenic perched villages worth cycling to that also have a cafe or restaurant for a stop-off: Gordes, Roussillon, Bonnieux, Lacoste, Lagnes, Menerbes, Oppede le vieux, Lacoste, Saignon, Goult, Joucas, Murs

Castles route:

A selection of intriguing chateaux at Ansouis, Tour d’Aigues, Lourmarin, l'Abbaye Saint Eusèbe in Saignon

Lavender trail:

This takes you by fields of lavender to beautiful villages (the lavender flowers between mid-June and early August when it is harvested): St Saturnin les Apt – Sault – Lagarde d’Apt – Rustrel – Oppedette – Saignon

5. The food

I am so glad I was travelling through Provence by bike... otherwise I would have been so fat I would have had to buy two seats on the flight home.

In the Luberon we stayed in a gorgeous hotel about 3km out of Roussillon. They had a lovely restaurant on site that we ate at for most meals. Freshly made crepes, cheese omelettes and waffles, or as many fresh pastries as you could gorge yourself on for breakfast. Dinner included fresh salads (my particular favourite was one with little toasts covered in melted chevre cheese mmmm), followed by duck in cherry sauce or local fish in a cream sauce served with local wines of your choice. Get me on a bike so I can ride this off!

Other local Provencal delicacies include:

Bouillabaisse, Nicoise Salad, Aïoli, Olive Tapenade, Ratatouille, red mullet.

All in all Provence, particularly the Luberon area is as cliched as France can get. But despite the cliche is didn’t feel fake, or overcrowded or like it was trying to pull the tourists in. It just felt like people had been living in this area living this life for hundreds of years, and that we were lucky enough to experience a little of it.

I think it might be my favourite place in the world.

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