By Kerry Guglielmin
Last September I traded the bike paths of Ottawa for the back roads of Provence. Just after Labour Day, my husband and I arrived in Avignon with a GPS, a tour book and our panniers. Neither of us had been to Provence before, or spoke much French, but we had some previous bike touring experience and lots of enthusiasm.
We spent the first afternoon in Avignon recovering from jet-lag. Walking the narrow cobbled streets, we visited Roman ruins, the 14th century Palais des Papes and the famous Pont d’Avignon. We sampled the wonderful French baking that would become a staple of our tour. Baguette of course, at least twice a day, but also tarte au citron, pain au chocolate, croissant . . . good thing we were cycling.
Our hotel in Avignon was one we had booked on-line from home, chosen for its proximity to the bike-rental shop. The hotel was a little shabby but located within the old city walls and near all the sights. We had found the bikes on-line too, so our Trek hybrids were waiting for us the next morning. For 65 euros a week each, it seemed simpler than bringing our own bikes.
We made our way through the rush hour and numerous traffic circles, heading into the countryside north of Avignon. Thankfully French drivers are very considerate of cyclists, even the big trucks yielded to our bikes. It didn’t take long before we realized that the tour book I bought in Ottawa was a out of date and not totally reliable. Luckily we had the GPS, though it didn’t work quite right either. The maps were loaded onto it but the routes hadn’t transferred correctly so there were no turn by turn directions. We ended up spending time every day feeling a bit lost — but adventurous.
That first day we zigzagged along the back roads towards Carpentras where we could see Mount Ventoux, the “giant of Provence,” looming in the distance. Knowing our pannier-laden hybrids would never make it up that mountain, we were glad to turn east towards Rousillion. We rode through vineyards and idyllic villages where I wished I could spend the afternoon at a sidewalk café.
The terrain became more and more hilly as we cycled into the Alpille mountains, climbing the switchbacks near the village of Gordes and into the red hills near Rousillion. Late in the afternoon we arrived at our hotel, sweaty and exhausted. A few hours later after showers and dining on scrumptious Provençal cuisine: a black olive tapenade starter, lamb cooked with thyme, and ratatouille—accompanied by Côtes du Rhône wine and crème brûlée and fresh raspberries for desert; we had recovered enough to look forward to day two.
After our daily breakfast of café au lait and baguette, we were happy the next morning to cycle down the huge hill we’d struggled up the day before. We stopped in Gordes, which is perched on the edge of a cliff. It is one of the most beautiful villages in France with narrow cobbled streets, houses built into the rocks and an ancient castle. From there it was mostly downhill on quiet back roads, through the olive groves and cherry orchards.
The B&B that night was at a horse farm near the small village of Egalieres. Here our limited French was tested as we dined on the patio with the hosts and four other guests, all French. Très difficile, but the jugs of local rosé wine helped overcome language barriers.
Leaving Egalieres the next day, we climbed more hills. As the road wound its way through dramatic rock formations the air was pungent with wild herbs in the hot sunshine. We stopped at Les-Baux-de-Provence, another picturesque hill-top village. Riding on to Saint Rémy, we paused again to walk in the bustling market where we admired the work of dozens of artists. Our plan to cycle about 60 km a day allowed plenty of time for sightseeing, and there was so much to see.
The destination that day was the ancient city of Arles on the Rhône River. A world heritage site, Arles has Roman ruins dating back to the 1st century B.C. Our hotel was inside the old town walls in a centuries old hotel with a flower filled courtyard. That evening we had time to visit some of the Roman ruins and enjoy people-watching from a café.
From there we rode into the Camargue region, along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea to Ste-Maries-de-la-Mer. We cycled past the salt marshes, pink flamingos, wild black bulls and white horses famous to the region. Earlier in the trip while I was struggling up the hills, I wished that I was riding my own road bike. That day, however, we found a shortcut which involved 20 km of packed gravel along the top of a dike, and I was glad to be on the wide-tired hybrid bike. It was another hot, sunny day and we cooled off by swimming in the Mediterranean in our bike shorts.
When we left Ste-Maries-de-la-Mer the next morning we cycled beside the ocean and watched fishermen bring in their catch to sell at stalls in the harbour. We headed north to the free ferry across the Petit Rhône River to Bac de Sauvage and on towards Nîmes. Back roads took us through small villages and vineyards where the grape harvest was in progress. The ride into Nîmes, another ancient city with Roman ruins, was a bit daunting. The city is large and we had to cycle through heavy traffic to reach our hotel in the center of town.
On our last day as we headed north to Avignon, we decide there was time to make a detour to Pont du Gard, the Roman aqueduct that brought water from Uzès to Nîmes. We ignored our tour book and found the way, mostly uphill, to this world heritage site. Well worth the visit, the Pont du Gard is a spectacular three layered structure built nearly two thousand years ago.
That evening we completed the loop and arrived back in Avignon to drop off our rented bikes. I wished that I could keep cycling for another month—our taste of Provence made me hungry for more. Only the thought of three days in Paris before heading home could console me.
Photos: Phil Dawes
© 2009 Kerry Guglielmin