The warm embrace of the sun and the soft kiss of the wind, the tastes of freshly picked cherries and wines from a dozen rare appellations are part of Provence I will always remember. Not to mention the warmth of the friendly welcomes wherever we went, the savory fragrance wafting from a field of fully blooming lavender, and the song of the cicadas - these are my memories from a week of touring the Vaucluse region of Provence, France, by bike.
The Tour de France it wasn't. We covered a mere 150 miles on routes researched and selected for the best Provencal touring experience by Virginie Biarnay, REI Adventures' guide extraordinaire in France. The route was a carefully blended melange of valleys and hills, charming stone villages and farms, and seemingly endless acres covered with grapevines. We had plenty of time to taste the fruits of those vines as well as shop in the markets and savor freshly brewed coffee in village cafes that have been in business for centuries.
|BIKING PROVENCE - REI Adventure's guided biking tour through Provence, France, takes you through charming stone villages, fields and farms. Here bikers cross a Roman bridge at the River Ouveze. CNS Photo by Carolyn Rice. |
|PROVENCAL FARM - A Provencal farmhouse and vineyard near Bedoin is part of the REI Adeventure's guided bike tour. CNS Photo by Carolyn Rice. |
|THE SLOW WAY - A bike tour through Provence gets you close to the green pastoral landscape. CNS Photo by Carolyn Rice. |
Our small group convened in Orange, a town celebrated for its well-preserved Roman amphitheater. We set out the next morning for Bedoin, a village on the lower slopes of Mount Ventoux. This 6,262-foot, limestone-covered peak stands apart. Going up and down this mountain is a popular challenge for cyclists and cars, and it is often included in the Tour de France. On our version of the Tour, we admired the mountain from its base, rather than make any attempt at the summit.
On day two we were delighted by the pleasant route over rolling hills covered with vineyards and cherry orchards. Occasionally the green fields were broken up with sections of golden spelt, a wheat-like plant. Mountains in the distance completed the beautiful scene.
At midday, Virginie loaded bikes and riders in her van to take us up a series of steep switchbacks to the perched village of Venasque. Built on the mountaintop in the fifth century, Venasque afforded its residents ideal views of the valley below to see any potential invaders. We enjoyed panoramic views without invasion anxiety from a restaurant aptly named the Ramparts. Under a canopy of flowering vines, we had beautifully arranged salads and baskets of fresh bread. After lunch we filled our water bottles from the town's pretty fountain and coasted down the zigzags.
Dinner that night back in Bedoin at the Restaurant Hortense was worth every pedal stroke. The starter of goat cheese crepe in a light tomato sauce was superb as was the entree of dorado over a bed of delicate lettuce, but the warm chocolate souffle was the highlight. From that point, I decided not to feel guilty about eating dessert while on biking vacations.
Day three was punctuated by beautiful stone villages, each one more charming than the one before. It seemed like we had barely pedaled a few kilometers and we were in another village that we had to explore afoot. In Beaumes de Venise, we stopped for coffee at a cafe on the village square where we met a cyclist from Belgium who had made it up Mont Ventoux the day before. We toasted his accomplishment with Perrier. We pedaled on to Gigondas, another fine village where we had lunch on the square. A French tourist at the next table asked us if we wanted our pictures taken and took the group's picture with every one of our cameras. The afternoon's ride took us around the granite-topped mountains known as the Dentille (lace) de Montmirail.
I fell behind the others taking my time for an ice cream stop in another medieval village. So I was on my own coming into Vaisson la Romaine, our destination city. I miscounted the number of roundabouts and became lost. It was an adventure getting directions in French and English from various passers-by. None of the directions quite meshed, but I finally found my husband standing on a street corner.
"Where have you been?" he asked. I wasn't quite sure where I had been, except that it was interesting.
No worries, I was in our hotel room in time to shower before dinner at the Bistro O, a brand-new restaurant in a centuries-old stone building next to a Roman bridge. The dessert was strawberry soup, a delectable concoction of fresh strawberries, mint and lychee sorbet.
The next day brought us the most challenging kilometers of the trip in terms of climbing. But there was hardly any traffic and the uphill grade was manageable. At the top of Col de Fontaube (2,700 feet), we found the reason for the lack of traffic - the road was blocked for construction. We had to ride down the same way we came. No problem, we had a splendid picnic under the fully laden cherry trees in the mountain meadow before heading back down to Vaisson la Romaine.
The shortened day's route gave us time to poke around town, shop and explore some art galleries. We climbed the staircase of a yellow building into the studio of Camille Leblond, an artist from Brittany whose move to Provence changed his palette from shades of gray to orange. We looked through many pastels and watercolors, purchased postcards and a book of prints, which he signed. He was shy about speaking English, but his wife, who ran the cash register, proclaimed, "We love American people." This was not the first or last time we heard this unprompted declaration of affection.
Dinner that night was the best of the trip: La Batleur. My starter was a gazpacho parfait that melted in my mouth. The main plate, grilled salmon with fennel and herbs, was perfect. This was all accompanied by a perfectly chilled Paridis Chateau Rose. And the dessert was a mascarpone pastry for me; a trio of chocolate for my husband. We were able to give our congratulations to Jean Francois, the owner and chef.
Our final two days of cycling took us into lavender country for some purple majesty. It was unusually hot in the afternoon, so we appreciated the country hotel in Valaurie with a stone-sided swimming pool. Our final stop was the village of Grignan, famous for its turreted Renaissance castle. In a quaint shop, I purchased a ceramic cicada, the Provencal symbol of good fortune. I tucked it into my bags, along with the lavender sachets and the red and white Cote du Rhone wines, so that I could experience again some of the sensory charms of my leisurely spin through Provence.
IF YOU GO
REI Adventures Provence Cycle trip is offered in May, June, July, September and October. Land cost is $2,499 including use of bicycles, most meals and seven nights in small hotels with private bath. Contact 800-622-2236 or visit www.reiadventures.com for further details.
© Copley News Service