Cycling through the glorious Provence countryside, Alison Stewart discovers the hard way that those venturing downhill must go up again.
A perched village rising gold and ochre from Provence's Luberon plains is a majestic sight. Try cycling up its near-vertical slopes on a 35-degree midsummer's afternoon. We were warned but it is only human nature to misjudge the gap between ability and reality. As it turns out, we are all-too human.
And so it is that four middle-aged Australians are cycling - I lie, trudging - up the 3.5-kilometre hill to the battlements of Gordes. Our bikes, that morning so light and malleable as we sped gaily downhill on our first day, have become stubborn mechanical mules to be hectored home. Who knew how fiercely the sun would reflect off the pale stone ramparts of one of the "plus beaux villages de France"?
But because we are human, we also appreciate the sweetness that comes when the pain ceases. And how sweet it is to sit still at last on the terrace of our lovely mas (19th-century farmhouse), aperitif in hand, watching the sun turn Gordes tawny and drain the colour from the Luberon valley below.
And it is only now that we can fully appreciate the adventure into which we have blundered. We have airily brushed aside cycle tour company Discover France's gentle suggestions to delay our trip until the Provencal summer heat eases. But at least we're persuaded to avoid a town-to-town cycle, with specific daily distances to cover.
And so we have picked the Gordes Provencal Escape - a self-guided, four-night, flexible cycle trip based in Gordes. We can choose from a variety of itineraries. These include the moderate, 50-kilometre valley of the Luberon loop south of Gordes; the moderate-to-challenging 67-kilometre Roussillon loop east of Gordes; the easy (ahem) 39-kilometre L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue loop west of Gordes; or the Bedoin/Mont Ventoux loop north of Gordes, where people of sterner stuff than us tackle a punishing 89-kilometre slog.
By the end of day one, we are far more interested in the loop around the swimming pool.
Fortunately, we do not also have to contend with equipment problems. A New York couple at our hotel are battling their tour company over bikes with faulty brakes and dodgy gears. They eventually hire new bikes. Discover France's equipment is impeccable. Bike rep Julian collects us from Avignon and drives us 38 kilometres to Le Mas des Romarins, our Gordes hotel, where he introduces our hybrid bikes and sat-navs, and explains our program.
While this is a self-guided cycle, we are not alone. Eight detailed itineraries are programmed into our sat-navs and road books contain maps and comprehensive written guidelines for each itinerary. Any idiot would be able to follow them. You would think.
We'll worry about that in the morning, for it's time to stash our bikes in the hotel's dry-stone borie or shepherd's hut, the symbol of Gordes and the Luberon, then head off to enjoy one of the two dinners included in the package. Substantial daily breakfasts are also provided.
We have opted for the standard package, staying at the three-star mas, a few minutes' walk from the centre of Gordes and with unsurpassed views to the fortified town with its 10th-century castle. The dry-stone walled mas, with its heavy-timber-beamed ceilings has 13 renovated bedrooms, each named after Luberon villages. Some have views of town and valley, Provencal colours and decorations dominate, and there are numerous fragrant, terraced secret gardens.
The pool has views down the valley but the piece de resistance is the terrace, with its green wrought-iron furniture shaded by a 200-year-old mulberry and with a view to die for. Warm weather means outdoor three-course meals - seasonal produce cooked by a rather fine chef. As we wait for our king prawn entree, slow-cooked lamb shanks, cheeses and sorbets, washed down by a fine Cotes du Luberon Chateau La Verrerie, we toast the late-setting sun. We sleep deeply, as yet untroubled by heatstroke or muscle spasm.
The next morning we lazily tear ourselves away from breakfast and amble off at 8.45am (not the 7am Julian has suggested) on our first day's "easy" ride.
This is a country of plenty - grapes still young on the vines, apricots, baby olives, roses, figs, the scent of lavender and wild herbs of the garrigue (Mediterranean scrubland), and all penned by miles of dry-stone walls, honey-coloured villages and an unbelievable sky. And everywhere there is evidence of Provence's rich history and culture derived from the Celts and Ligurians, Greeks and Romans, Frankish and mediaeval dynasties.
The itineraries favour back roads. The temperature is still in the 20s and we handle the first two-kilometre hill with ease, before dropping steeply past pine groves and limestone crags into Fontaine de Vaucluse at the foot of the Vaucluse plateau. Suddenly, time is of the essence. Emerging from the shade of the town's plane trees, the heat strikes as the light cloud cover has burned off.
Seven kilometres to L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue sounds like a spin in the park but remember that plunge into Fontaine de Vaucluse? What goes down must, naturellement, come up.
So far, we are doing brilliantly with the sat-nav, which is ably assisted by "tar-nav" when one of us discovers handy little arrows painted on the road that, like Hansel and Gretel's forest crumbs, point the way.
Later, when all else fails, we will resort to sun-nav, then ask-nav in our muddled French and finally, Discover France's emergency number. More of that soon.
The lovely 14th-century island town of L'Isle-sur la-Sorgue is slightly less lovely due to the crowds for Sunday's antique fair. We head for Lagnes with its mediaeval atmosphere and 13th-century chateau; you guessed it, on top of a hill with panoramic views of the Luberon. I slip a chain on the hill and calm myself with a cassis sorbet from the only shop still open in Provence. For it is siesta time and soon it is only us and the cicadas awake, though we do pass some enviable bucolic scenes of locals picnicking in the apple and pear orchards. Oh, that we had listened to Julian. A third of the way up and even the shade has slipped indoors for a nap.
Home at last at 5.30pm and we are wobbly with exhaustion. But recovery arrives with a swim and a stroll into town for the €36 menu du jour at L'Artegal - fromage frais wrapped in zucchini and chives, lamb fillet with herbs and garlic and caramelised apricot puff pastry with vanilla cream.
Don't get me wrong; we are loving our Gordes Escape. Without the Gordes climb, the cycling would be a breeze, but we are what you might call Sunday cyclists.
We decide that day two will involve a long walk to the Abbaye de Senanque, which dwells in a valley between the forests of the Plateau de Vaucluse, north of Gordes. We leave our bikes leaning forlornly against the mas hedge, promising them a ride on the morrow.
The steep, well-marked walk takes us high into the mountains and our first glimpse far below of the mediaeval Cistercian abbey, still a working concern for the silent order of monks. This is one of the best places to see Provence's famed lavender fields.
Another excellent meal that night on the hotel's terrace - wild asparagus, honeyed duck breast, cheese and dessert - inspires us to devise a cunning plan. Day three dawns clear and beautiful but with a mid-30s feel to it. We call Discover France's ever-helpful David Renvoise on the emergency number and he organises a taxi to ferry us and our bikes up the last hill to Gordes - don't laugh.
We set off relieved, free to enjoy our day's cycle into the Luberon valley. We whiz down the Gordes hill and immediately, incompetently, get lost. Even tar-nav is useless as there are so many lovely rides within the Luberon Valley that a veritable shoal of little arrows swims in every conceivable direction.
We make it to pretty Goult and cycle in circles enjoying the countryside rich with fields of sunflowers, melons and cornflowers, with perched distant villages.
The 2000-year-old Roman Pont Julien orients us (north of Bonnieux and west of Apt) and we stop to lunch and marvel that this ancient structure was on the main route from northern Italy to Gaul (Provence) and was used by Roman armies.
The pretty town of Roussillon is next, rising from one of the world's biggest ochre deposits, but the heat has struck. We pedal back towards Gordes where we are met by the glorious sight of a jolly man from Luberon taxis who hauls us up the hill. That night, we chance upon the final rehearsal of the Orchestre de Chambre des Cevennes in Gordes's church, the soaring tones of counter-tenor David Senequier nicely rounding off our Luberon holiday.
The writer was a guest of Discover France and travelled with the assistance of Singapore Airlines.
Getting there: Singapore Airlines flies daily from Sydney to Paris via Singapore, from $2661 return. 13 10 11. TGV from Paris Gare de Lyon to Avignon, first class from €45 ($53). 2½ hours.
Touring there: Discover France's Gordes Provencal Escape standard cycle tour: Five days, four nights in three-star Le Mas des Romarins, two dinners, four breakfasts, transport/baggage transfer from Avignon to Gordes return, bikes and equipment including sat-nav and tailored itineraries, detailed pre-tour information and 24-hour access to local support and emergency services. Good family option. €867 a person, double-occupancy. +1 800 929 0152, discoverfrance.com, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tips for pedalling Provence:
- Practise your sat-nav skills to save arguments about directions.
- Learn to fix a puncture and to replace a slipped bike chain — the emergency number is only for life-threatening or injury-related problems.
- Start early even if it means requesting an early breakfast.
- Try to go in September when the weather is perfect.
- Water, water, water — you can never have too much.