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.

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