Gear up for a tour of Provence

Cavaillon is a great base from which to enjoy the blue skies and vast panoramas of southern France. Paul Howard was glad of the cooling Mistral blowing along the way

It is late March, just after the clocks have been put forward, and I pedal idly along the lanes of the Parc Naturel Régional du Lubéron in the shorts and light jersey that befit a benign spring day. As I do so I find myself frequently hailed and then chastised by well-meaning, wrapped-up locals. "Englishman," they cry (in spite of my best efforts, my identity cannot be concealed), "you'll catch your death of cold dressed like that – it's still almost winter."

It is late March, just after the clocks have been put forward, and I pedal idly along the lanes of the Parc Naturel Régional du Lubéron in the shorts and light jersey that befit a benign spring day. As I do so I find myself frequently hailed and then chastised by well-meaning, wrapped-up locals. "Englishman," they cry (in spite of my best efforts, my identity cannot be concealed), "you'll catch your death of cold dressed like that – it's still almost winter."

"But it is like summer to me," I tell them, at which point they appear to think that I am taking the mickey and promptly leave me to my own foolish devices.

After a good number of such brief-encounters, and with only the fatigue of self-propulsion to show for my apparent folly, I return to the market town of Cavaillon, near Avignon in the Vaucluse. I ride past vineyards and olive groves, through peaceful hilltop villages with beautiful views, and the virtues of springtime cycling in Provence become abundantly clear.

For a start, the season from late March to early June is blessed with weather that suits British cyclists down to the ground. In spite of local protestations to the contrary, it is rarely too cold for shorts and a couple of layers on your upper-body. Rain is a problem only infrequently. Even when the Mistral gusts from an occasionally snow-clad Mont Ventoux (for the fit and courageous even this cycling icon is within striking distance of Cavaillon, but beware the cold on top) a wind-proof layer, a hat and perhaps some leggings are all that are required to continue to take advantage of the relentlessly blue skies and vast panoramas. By the beginning of June, the freshening effect of the wind can be very welcome as the temperature otherwise begins to mount.

A corollary of the benign weather is the springtime abundance of flowers and blossom, which rapidly makes obvious to the visiting cyclist the reason why the department of the Vaucluse is known as France's market-garden. It is nigh impossible not to ride through field after field of fruit trees that test one's horticultural knowledge with their subtly different hues of white and pink (apples, pears, peaches, apricots, plums and cherries to my limited knowledge alone). From mid-April, the old farmhouses, covered in thriving wisteria, turn a shade of lilac; by May, poppy-fields provide a vivid red foreground across which can be viewed acres of now succulent vines.

Back in Cavaillon, the Monday morning market offers a fine excuse to rest from the saddle and appreciate the local produce. It may be too early in the year to try the most famed local delicacy at its best – the melon for which Cavaillon is renowned in France – but the colourful display of regional farming endeavour is nevertheless a feast for the eyes as much as the mouth.

But enough of such sensual indulgences – what can Cavaillon and the surrounding area offer two-wheeled aficionados? The well-signposted Cavaillon-Forcalquier cycle-route, for example, which runs for 60 miles in the lee of the Lubéron mountain itself. The trail is easy to follow and makes good use of quiet country lanes, potentially providing the first half of a grand tour of the Massif. With a good map and some local advice any number of day trips or longer sorties can start from Cavaillon. The region's hilltop villages live up to their reputation and, in spite of their designation, are easily accessible to most cyclists. Gordes is regarded as the most attractive, although the number of people who share this opinion can be overwhelming as the season develops. Escape, perhaps, to the nearby Abbaye de Sénanque, a monument to the Cistercian predilection for beautiful locations. Quieter and equally alluring alternatives also abound – Goult, with a rather idiosyncratic windmill above the village, and Lagnes, overlooking the Rhône flood-plain, are rustic idylls which have managed to keep post-offices and schools.

For those with a cultural or historical bent the area has much to offer: Lourmarin, one of France's "hundred most beautiful villages", where Albert Camus came to philosophise and is now laid to rest. Or combine beauty, culture and gastronomy with a trip to Lacoste and Bonnieux.

Bonnieux does a near-faultless impression, when viewed from Lacoste, of a fairy-tale citadel, with a church on top – which is appropriate given that it once belonged to the Popes; its very name suggests virtue. Lacoste, on the other hand, is dominated by its fearsome, ruined castle which was the feudal seat of the notorious Marquis de Sade. In this context even the eccentricities of the art students at the village's art college seem tame.

Round off your visit with lunch at La Gare de Bonnieux – ex-station, latterly restaurant – where artists and truckers alike enjoy three-courses (with wine) for a miserly €15 (£9.30); arrive early for a table sur la terrasse, a glorious panorama of the two villages and a parasol (more necessary, even in March, than you might think).

If you tire of hills, the fertile and flat, Rhône valley offers a means to recuperate. Ride through fields blanketed in blossom to Le Thor, with its impressive Romanesque church and the intriguing Grottes de Thouzon nearby. Given that Provence is largely composed of limestone, it is surprising that these are the only show caves in the whole of limestone Provence.

Also close to hand is the attractive town of Isle-sur-la-Sorgue which is dominated by its Sunday flea-market and innumerable water-wheels. Three miles further, at Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, is the source of the river which gives Isle-sur-la-Sorgue its name and this is also worth a visit, in spite of the unappealing tourist snares that surround it. At the base of an imposing limestone cliff, bubbling up from 300 metres below the level at which you stand, rises the Sorgue river, which is in fact last week's or last month's rainfall from the vast catchment of Monts de Vaucluse.

Six centuries ago the poet Petrarch was entranced, and if the river is in spate and there are few enough tourists, you might be too.



Travellers' Guide



Getting there: Ryanair (08701 569 569, www.ryanair.com) flies from Stansted to Nîmes (with a £20 bike supplement). A bus runs from the airport to Nîmes town centre, from where trains run to Cavaillon via Avignon; the whole journey should take about two hours from Nîmes, including changes. Buzz (0870 240 7070, www.buzzaway.com) flies twice a day from Stansted to Marseilles. From the airport there are regular buses to Aix-en-Provence and to Marseilles itself, from where trains and buses run to Cavaillon in about an hour.

Accommodation: a basic double room starts from €18 (£11) at the Hotel Splendid (38, Avenue Germain Chavin, 00 33 4 90 71 68 69), or from €80 (£50) at the three-star Hotel Relais Mercure (601, Ave Boscodomini, 00 33 4 90 71 07 79, a little way from the town centre). The nicest, most central rooms are to be found in Hotel Bel Air (62, Rue Bel Air, 00 33 4 90 78 11 75 – from €35 or £21.50), Hotel Toppin (70, Cours Gambetta, 00 33 4 90 71 30 42 – from €38 or £23.50) and Hotel du Parc (183, Place Francois Tourel, 00 33 4 90 71 57 78 – from €42 or £26). More options for Cavaillon and environs from the tourist office (Place Francois Tourel, 00 33 4 90 71 32 01).

Food and drink: Few places can beat either the ambience or the lunchtime food at Le Fin de Siècle near the tourist office at 46, Place du Clos (00 33 4 90 71 12 27) – moules frites and a half-litre of rose wine cost about €10 (£6). In the evenings you can find a variety of different cuisines on Cours Gambetta – try local at La Ronde des Fromages (00 33 4 90 78 30 16) or Vietnamese at La Pagode (00 33 4 90 78 02 06). Don't neglect to try La Gare de Bonnieux (Quartier la Gare 00 33 4 90 75 82 00), a couple of miles downhill from the village of Bonnieux, just off the N100 near the Cave Co-Operative (excellent local wine). Call ahead to La Gare to reserve a table in the shade on the patio – that is the best place to best appreciate the three courses and wine for only €14 (£8.50) each.

Bikes: rentals and repairs at MP Cycles, known to all as Cycles Rieu, on the road to the station (25, Avenue Marechal Joffre 00 33 4 90 71 45 55); or Cyclix (166 Cours Gambetta 00 33 4 90 78 07 06). Hire charges are from €16 (£10) per day; weekly rates can be arranged.

Going underground: the Grottes de Thouzon (00 33 4 90 33 93 65 – a mile beyond Le Thor en route for St-Saturnin les Avignon) open daily 10am-12noon and 2pm-6pm, with visits every 40 minutes; English is spoken by most guides.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Ashdown Group: Print Designer - High Wycombe - Permanent £28K

    £25000 - £28000 per annum + 24 days holiday, bonus, etc.: Ashdown Group: Print...

    Recruitment Genius: Business Travel Consultant

    £20000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in London, Manches...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer and Brand Manager

    £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Customer and Brand Manager required for ...

    Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator

    £25000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator A...

    Day In a Page

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones