Written by Catherine Crone
Our closest friends thought that we’d finally lost the plot. Hadn’t we realised that Provence in August could be hotter than Mauritius in May? Didn’t we know that only mad dogs and French men head to the hills rather than to the sea in high summer? Was our French not fluent enough to grasp that staying in pretty “villages perches” would require lots of uphill climbs?
Undeterred, we made our way south (exceptionally civilised 6-hour Eurostar journey direct to Avignon) where we spent our first night in the region in the former Roman garrison town of St Didier.
Right from the hotel door, the cycling was gloriously flat as we headed out towards vineyards, farming hamlets and thousand-year-old olive groves, always with the jagged limestone pinnacles of Les Dentelles de Montmirail as a dramatic backdrop. Despite its popularity, this corner of Provence is almost wholly unspoiled, combining rural tranquillity with the most stunning landscapes, and hardly seems to have changed in centuries.
We stopped for lunch in the mediaeval hillside town of Beaumes de Venise, famous for producing one of France’s best sweet white wines. (The Muscat grape itself was imported when the Greeks colonised the town as a spa.) With shady squares, stone fountains and tiny cobbled streets, it was easy to spend a couple of hours here before continuing on further through Grenache vine country near the majestic Mont Ventoux (1,912m).
From Beaumes, it’s a steady uphill climb to the pretty village of Suzette before a welcome downhill whiz through forests, vineyards and cherry orchards to the fortified town of Malaucene (where Pope Clement V once lived). The labyrinthine old quarter provides a good lunch stop before a flat bowl along country lanes to one of France’s most extensive Roman sites at Vaison-la-Romaine: 6000-seat theatre, baths, houses and streets. We spent two nights here – evening meals La Bartevalle were undoubtedly the gastronomic highlight of the trip!
Our next cycling stretch took us first to mediaeval Seguret, perched on the lower flanks of the Dentelles mountains and officially ranked as one of “les plus beaux villages en France”: glorious views from its C14 church stretch right across to the distant Massif Central. It was then on through cherry orchards and on to Cairanne, a pretty village in the heart of the Cotes de Rhone wine country.
From here you can complete the circular route towards St. Didier. This final stretch is particularly gentle, taking in ever-changing landscapes of forests, vineyards and cherry orchards. As we pedalled, we were engulfed by the heady scent of the garrigue – the rich mix of lavender, wild herbs and colourful flowers so unique to Provence. En route, we passed through postcard-pretty Pernes-les-Fontaines – famous for its 40 fountains, many of which are now listed monuments. It also boasts excellent grapes and produces the only bubbly in the region – the last lunch of the trip was invariably the finest and longest!
We return to St Didier in the late afternoon. During the last week, we’ve cycled around 150kms, and enjoyed the most glorious mix: gentle cycling, rich rolling countryside, magnificent historic sites, fabulous meals and world-famous wines. Yes, it’s been hot and, yes, there have been some hills, (but only short, get-off-and-push ones!) – we wouldn’t change a thing!
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