Explore Provence on a self-guided cycling tour

My travelling companion looked crestfallen as I stood over her demanding she remove some items from her luggage. "Are three chiffon tops, two dresses, beige suede mules, a Palm Pilot, a hairdryer, and a copy of War and Peace strictly necessary?"

We were about to set off from our base in northern Provence to head 40km east towards the Luberon hills, and would be staying at a rather smart hotel in the Vaucluse. But we would be carrying enough stuff for three days. On bicycles. And as we were quickly learning, transporting your own belongings on two wheels imposes a certain amount of prioritisation. Sun cream, rain gear and other vital effects stayed in. The beige suede mules stayed behind.

Of course, our dithering about what to put in the panniers and what to leave out was symptomatic of a deeper anxiety. The idea of a short break in Provence with some sunshine, but also built-in activity had long appealed. And Susi Madron who organises cycling in France for people who are not into hardship but love the outdoors - although perhaps love food and wine even more - had assured me her team would supply bikes, plan routes and book us into charming Provençal hotels and outstanding restaurants.

But even if all we had to do was show up and pedal, the pre-trip e-mail traffic betrayed our unfamiliarity with modern cycling with subject lines such as "Padded Lycra?" and "GLOVES!". Neither I, nor my friend Pat, could take issue with being classified unfit. So would our untoned legs let us down? Would the padding on our new shorts be enough to prevent lasting injury? Would we have to lug the bikes shamefully on to a train to get to our next gastronomic appointment?

Our trip would be "self-guided". Independence spelt freedom - freedom from trying to keep up with lean, competitive types. (I did not want the humiliation I had once suffered on a group trekking holiday in the Slovenian Alps when I had a hard time keeping up with two super-fit 70-year-olds.) And navigating for ourselves would be more absorbing and fun than passively following a guide. That, at least, was the theory.

Devoted cyclists would spend at least 10 days on this kind of trip, moving on to a different location every day, and no doubt fitting in a steep mountain ride before a frugal breakfast most mornings. But a three- or four-night break can easily be done, the best times being late spring or autumn. Our plan was to spend two nights in Saint-Rémy de Provence, 19km south of Avignon, where we would complete a local circuit through the heartland of Roman Provence. Then we'd move north-eastwards for two nights to take in part of the more challenging Luberon national park, before a return ride to base for the last night.

Charming St-Rémy, with its tree-lined squares, is rich with art, history, and, perhaps because it attracts well-heeled Parisian holiday-home-types and Princess Caroline of Monaco, is full of expensive boutiques and interior design shops. Van Gogh spent a year here. Between troughs of depression he found the light and the landscape inspirational and painted at least 150 works.

The market rolls into town every Wednesday and we found it hard to drag ourselves away, greedily stocking up on far more cheese, prosciutto, crusty bread, white peaches and cherries than we needed for a picnic. Then Geoff, a cheerful former factory manager from Lancashire, turned cycle guide and part-time tango dancer, showed us our six-speed lightweight bikes. He did all the adjustments, equipped us with such things as a pump and a repair kit, and stuck his mobile phone number on a card in the front pouch. For emergencies, he explained, not for punctures. Right. We hadn't thought about punctures. "Don't worry," he laughed. "Best thing is to do nothing. Two girls, in France, somebody in Lycra will sort you out..." Tentatively we wobbled out through the big wrought-iron gates into the traffic. Five minutes later I was walking sheepishly back to Geoff's workshop - for the maps.

Once out in the countryside around St-Rémy, we discovered the landscape is almost flat and, if you stick to the smaller tree-lined D-roads, free from heavy traffic. So we cruised along the languid back-roads in warm sunshine, cooled by the mistral, the only signs of life the white Camargue horses, and black Camargue bulls grazing in the fields. Five, 10, 15 kilometres was effortless. We pulled into a grassy lane adjoining a vineyard for our picnic and stole noiselessly past rambling old farm houses, exhilarated by fresh air and the aromas of wild mint, jasmine, garlic and lavender. No wonder Van Gogh's palette turned to mauves and blues when he lived here. Back in St-Rémy that evening we felt virtuous enough to stuff our faces with three courses at the excellent La Gousse d'Ail in the old town.

Next morning the mistral had dropped and by 8.30am the temperature was rising. "It'll soon be hot enough to leave," Geoff noted dryly.

We headed for Lagnes, around 40km north-east of St-Rémy. This takes you on mostly flat terrain. Yet the surrounding landscape is idyllic. The skinny jagged crests of the Alpilles mountain range rise up on your distant right, at its foothills are forests of pine, and all around as you cycle, there is nothing but open views of vineyards, olive groves, almond fields, cherry trees and orchards. Approaching Cavaillon, the heavily irrigated fields of charentais melons marked out with cypresses became more frequent.

Negotiating Cavaillon, a busy market town, was a little daunting but Geoff's personalised instructions took us efficiently through and safely over the river Durance.

It was early evening when we met the only real hill of the day and reached Le Mas des Grès, an old Provençal farmhouse (or "mas"), converted by Thierry Crovara and his Swiss wife Nina into a charming country hotel. It was worth every hot kilometre in the saddle. We prised ourselves off the bikes and swam in the pool set in the grounds of the house before an aperitif. At dusk the crickets struck up their evening racket and we moved to the main terrace for dinner. The other guests (who definitely did not look like they had arrived on bikes) were rather smartly turned out. "I told you I should have packed my chiffon tops," Pat hissed.

Thierry is the chef (he also runs cookery courses) and he drives into Cavaillon's food markets every morning to choose local produce for the evening menu. You don't get a choice but only a fool would want options when the offerings are this good. That night we had smooth asparagus soup; braised guinea fowl on a bed of green beans and new potatoes; local goats cheese, and probably the best crème brûlée I've ever tasted.

Next morning, feeling no pain on flinging back the shutters, I wondered if beneath my bone-idle appearance a fitness machine could be lurking? The more likely explanation was that we just hadn't done any hills yet. To the south of us, the foothills of the Luberon with their 200km cycle trail through all the prettiest villages beckoned. Signs bearing the symbol of a stick man on a bike mark much of the circular trail. You can do it in* *either direction but east-to-west is allegedly easier, or you can opt to just tackle a section, which was our plan.

The first few hours were manageable if hillier than anything we had encountered until now. The shock came with the very long, winding and extremely steep approach to Ménerbes, Peter Mayle's A Year in Provence village. After 15 minutes of panting we got off the bikes and looked upwards, horrified to see the fortified walls of the village towering almost vertically above us.

Of course, pretty medieval hill-top villages overlooking ridiculously beautiful countryside are what most people associate with rural Provence, and for the strenuous effort of cycling up to them you do get stunning views. But, thanks to Mr Mayle (who has long since moved out), Ménerbes also gets a lot of tourist coaches. So, after an overpriced salad we moved on, swooping down the hill at high speed.

We were off the bikes again soon enough on the perpendicular and shade-free approach to Oppède-le-Vieux, another spectacularly perched village built against the Petit Luberon. By now our cycling helmets had heated our heads like ovens so our faces were as crimson as ripe cherries.

We ought to have explored the 12th-century church but it was all we could do to slump on the terrace of a café and order a litre of ice-cold water.

The signs on the Luberon cycle trail are big, clear and no doubt designed to be idiot-proof, but due to carelessness born of freewheeling downhill whenever we got the chance, we managed to part company with it at some point that afternoon. Never mind, I insisted, we have our maps, and we speak French.

Several hours, countless crossroads, a railway crossing, a campsite, a river and a disused flour mill later, we had to admit we were lost. Even worse, we had no choice but to travel for some distance on the Route Nationale 100, one of the busiest, most abominable main roads in the south of France, at rush hour. We fled back to the D-roads as soon as we could, even though this meant a big detour and plenty of scope for getting even more lost.

When we finally limped back hot and sweaty to our heavenly hotel at twilight we felt like Ellen MacArthur after rounding the Cape of Good Hope safely. "At least you are alive," said Nina as we relived every turning of every D-road in the locality. I woke next day to find my legs still in motion and my thumb twitching involuntarily. Dreaming about near misses on the Route Nationale 100 would make us a lot more careful about map-reading on the way back to base.

Our final day in the saddle was so blissfully gentle, bothered only by the odd low flying insect and a rogue herd of goats, it was almost an anticlimax. But it gave me time to reflect on a few lessons. One of the most attractive things about cycling is how much ground even a reluctant cyclist can cover. Second, those of a nervous disposition around traffic might like to know that your confidence grows very quickly. Day one saw us in a crisis at every crossroads. By the end we were showing signs of assertiveness even on biggish roundabouts.

Riding back into St-Rémy, we were naturally overjoyed at completing our tour without having to call Geoff. But a little surprised to see the whole town out in wild celebration. It wasn't for us though. The under-18 football team were returning with the cup.

We celebrated too, ordering champagne with our last gourmet dinner in St-Rémy. Who cared if our limbs were aching as we handed back the panniers and lugged all the unworn clothes and unread novels back on to the Eurostar for home.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

The writer travelled with Cycling for Softies (0161-248 8282; www.cycling-for-softies.co.uk), which offers similar five-night cycling tours from £713, excluding travel to the region. The price includes three nights' half-board accommodation, one gourmet evening meal, bike and equipment hire and maps. The company also organises cycling holidays in Cognac and Charente, the Dordogne, Loire Valley, Garonne, Gascony, Burgundy and Alsace.

The writer travelled to Avignon by Eurostar from London Waterloo (08705 186 186; www.eurostar.com).

STAYING THERE

Hotel du Soleil, 35 avenue Pasteur, St-Rémy de Provence (00 33 4 90 92 00 63; www.hotelsoleil.com). Doubles start at €53 (£38), room only.

Le Mas des Grès, Lagnes, Isle sur la Sorgue (00 33 4 90 20 32 85; www.masdesgres.com). Doubles start at €80 (£57), room only.

EATING & DRINKING THERE

La Gousse d'Ail, 6 Boulevard Marceau, St-Rémy de Provence (00 33 4 90 92 16 87).

FURTHER INFORMATION

Provence-Alpes-Côte d'Azur: 00 33 4 90 92 05 22; www.crt-paca.fr

French Government Tourist Office: 09068 244123, 60p/min; www.franceguide.com

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