Cycling in Provence

My trip to France this May wasn’t under the best circumstances – I was visiting my Uncle Yves who is in palliative care. Until recently he was running daily, playing golf, and cycling on the new road bike he bought last year, after I wrote off his old one 18 months ago. Given my track record I was delighted when Yves suggested I take his new bike out on some rides whilst I was there. After my cousin Charles lent me his seat-post bag, lights and GPS I was ready for an epic day out for the 12 Hours of May challenge.

Starting just before 7 one morning I cycled the short distance to the local station and boarded a TER (regional train) to Avignon along with an impressive number of commuters and their bikes. I had plans to meet Jean-Francois for lunch in the Luberon, a massif in Provence famous for its lavender fields and picturesque villages. Riding all the way there and back was beyond me so the 50km train journey was a big help.

I had last cycled through the Luberon on my first solo tour back in 2015 and I made sure to retrace parts of that route. One particularly memorable place was the woodland near Opede where I decided to camp 6 years ago. I was just drifting off to sleep when some nosy wild boar came to investigate, the grunts and eyes reflecting back in the torchlight didn’t seem in the slightest bit phased by my shouts or erratic arm waving. I picked up my bike and ran out of the woods. Knocking on the door of the first house I came to, a man leaned out of the window. “T’as peur des sangliers?!” he asked bemused. Nevertheless he said I was welcome to camp in his walled courtyard parce que oui j’avais indeed peur des sangliers. Mustering a bit of courage, I ran back into the forest stones in hand, picked up my pitched tent in one hand and panniers in the other before running away again to my new fortified camp. Fast forward 6 years and the walled courtyard is gone – replaced with a more open garden and parking area, which regrettably has no potential to provide refuge for cycle tourists from sangliers ever again.

The Luberon was even more spectacular than I remembered. The small roads climbed up gradually through idyllic villages nestled amongst vineyards and olive groves, or perched on limestone hills clad in pine and juniper scrub. Maubec, Oppede Le Vieux, Ménerbes, and finally Bonnieux. Passing the basin d’eau where I saw fit to wash last time, I found the artisan boulanger pâtissier and treated myself to a second breakfast of pastries – one of the pure joys of cycling in France. The fougasse aux olives looked irresistible too and that’s why I carry a big seat-post pack. It was hungrily devoured 100km later.

From Bonnieux a short ride took me to the Auberge des Seguins in the vallée d’Aiguebrun, a richly vegetated valley with signs of human habitation going back 100,000 years. There I met Jean-François who lives in a house built into a cave higher up the valley. It was the first time seeing JF in almost 3 years, having first met him 5 years previously in New Zealand as a WOOFing host. It was wonderful to spend time catching up over a veritable feast on the terrasse of the Auberge. 

Philospher, photographer, classical musician and author, JF is always up to something interesting and right now that’s preparing for ‘Rencontres d’Arles’, the most prestigious photography festival in France. His exhibition ÉVIDENCES is made up of abstract photos of water taken at Pupu Springs in NZ and the Aiguebrun so it was very special to be shown around the valley by him, having already been shown the former in NZ years previously.

After coffee and Brazil nuts in his humble home (a favourite combo from our NZ days), it was time for me to hit the road again as I still had a lot of distance to cover to get home before the curfew. Retracing my tracks back out of the Luberon, I headed south to Les Alpilles. Before starting to climb I chanced across a little café and boutique called ‘Gourmandises de To’, which I highly recommended as a destination in its own right. I had fresh apricot juice, bought a raspberry clafoutis to join the fougasse in the saddle bag, and before leaving the owner gave me some homemade provencale busicuits to power me home! 

The Val d’Enfer (valley of Hell) was a very pleasant winding climb in the shade, with gradients never getting beyond 7% or so, flanked by dramatic crags and rock formations. Cresting the col revealed a breathtaking view over the village of Baux des Provences and its castle - an eyrie overlooking the plains below. Unfortunately I was running out of energy, time and camera film by this point so photos were non-existent. 

The city of Arles and all its Roman remains were bathed in evening light by the time I arrived. Instead of photographing the amphitheatre like most tourists, I found a nice pastel shutter on which to lean my bike - the perfect provencale colour palette for one of my few remaining photos.

Camargue in the fading light was empty and mysterious. I saw no people and lots of wildlife. Glossy Ibis, black-winged stilts and grey heron were all wading and feeding in the river and inundated rice fields which stretched to the horizon. White Camargue horses kept me company as I celebrated the 100 mile mark by eating the long-anticipated fougasse which didn’t disappoint. By this point, I was acutely aware of why I usually cycle in padded bibs – baggy tennis shorts and an unfamiliar saddle is not a good combination. As curfew approached the sun and temperature dropped and I made good time on empty roads for the last 40k home, where a warm welcome awaited. “Golly, you have ridden my bike all day and not crashed once!” 

This was my first ever 200km ride, and hopefully the last time I ride that far in baggy shorts. The full route can be seen on komoot. All photos were taken on my favourite Portra 160 film with my Nikon FE and 50mm 1.8 lens.