Ewen Bell discovers art-filled laneways, Roman relics and fine dining on the back roads of France.
SALAD leaves, olives and goat's cheese served on a slab of slate, drizzled with local olive oil is the perfect reward for a day spent on wheels. We'd been riding for 30 kilometres to reach this auberge, following the map route through a gentle countryside of olive groves, ancient aqueducts and wild poppies. Goat's cheese has never tasted as good as when you've really worked for it.
Not every day is a push when you're pedalling around Provence, especially on an eight-day back-roads loop from Graveson to Tarascon, Arles, Les Baux, St Remy and Avignon, with a tour company carrying your luggage for you. However, a few challenges do help to punctuate the journey.
The final few kilometres of today's leg make a sharp ascent into the Alpilles mountain range and finish in the remarkable town of Les Baux. Approaching on any road, the dominating view is of an ancient fortress perched on a dramatic rocky ridge.
The cycling adventure we're undertaking is a self-guided tour that covers a minimum of 120 kilometres spread over seven days of riding.
Between Arles and Avignon, there are relics of Roman ingenuity, an endless supply of vines and groves, a mediaeval castle at Tarascon, the art-filled laneways of St Remy-de-Provence, a sprinkling of villages for espresso stops, plus a small but exquisite chateau in Graveson-Barbantane, where the marquee still resides to this day.
Then there's Les Baux, with its medieval stone streets and epic views across the Alpilles. Aside from the rustic Provencal platters at our auberge, we also found modern menus deep in the village. Le Cafe des Baux is a gastronomic highlight of the town and a showcase of contemporary cuisine from chef Pierre Walter. The building is a former olive mill carved into the limestone of Les Baux, now converted with tones of red, black and silver. Contemporary murals are painted on to a wall of tiles and worked-iron sculptures feature on the other walls.
Reputations of French restaurants are won or lost at dessert and Pierre's sweet signature is a journey for the taste buds. Petite creme brulee with a creamy lavender base is the centrepiece, supported by an ensemble of little pleasures. Chocolate in all its forms is matched with caramel, mint and fruits of the valley.
Working up an appetite helps you enjoy the Provence experience and how hard you work is up to you. The section from Les Baux to St Remy-de-Provence can be taken as a 12-kilometre ride along the most direct road, or a 30-kilometre meander.
The hardest part of these rides is navigating out of the bigger towns. Arles is a charming city possessing a refined mix of architecture, a deep affection for van Gogh and a network of Roman crypts hidden beneath the footpaths. Visitors come to Arles to trace the steps of van Gogh on foot, while contemporary art lovers flock here in summer to celebrate a photographic festival on the streets.
Leaving downtown Arles by bike is without drama because local drivers are patient with cyclists. Once you're out in the countryside the navigation is simpler and the roads suitably quiet.
Many routes use small farm roads, where the traffic is mostly local residents who have a generous disposition towards riders, offering a friendly toot and a wave when overtaking.
Arles to Les Baux is a half-day section that follows back roads before winding through Maussane Les Alpilles. The town was our 12-kilometre landmark, with an ample supply of cafes and auberges willing to serve weary riders. There are few good reasons to pass up a coffee stop on such a journey, even if the next village is only another 10 kilometres away.
I had left Arles after lunch and a headwind was on the rise. I discovered the hard way that getting going early is the best option. We were not just getting an afternoon sea-breeze on this day; we were being greeted by la Mistral.
Seasonal weather makes spring and autumn the prime times for cycling enthusiasts but la Mistral likes to pay a visit at any time of year. The pretty window shutters and rows of cyprus trees are not purely for aesthetics in Provence; they're an antidote to the powerful winds that race south from the alpine regions of Europe.
Unlike the wind, distance is rarely a challenge on this kind of adventure. The longest day is just more than 40 kilometres and there's a second night spent in St Remy-de-Provence so you can cycle a loop through nearby vineyards and follow a little more of van Gogh's trail through Provence. Most days the cycling can be completed before lunch so you have the afternoon to explore each town where you spend the night.
The major hurdle for riders is the hill climbs and a 250-metre blip on the topographic map is something to pay attention to. When you arrive in Graveson to begin your self-guided tour, a series of maps and routes with topographic data is supplied. Each night, we sit down with a coffee and amuse bouche to check the charts for the next day. This style of tour offers route choices, with the option of long diversions for those not satisfied with about 20 kilometres a day.
The value of self-guided cycling is in the local notes, quality of bikes and selection of accommodation. You could do it yourself, in theory, but this is easier and better. Your route is designed to take advantage of local knowledge from cycling experts and the luggage goes on ahead of you each day.
Many meals are included in the package and the recommendations for dining are excellent. In Graveson, the tour company even suggested a romantic dinner for two at a private kitchen that would compare favourably to a Michelin-rated establishment in Paris.
Cycling holidays are not really about reducing your carbon footprint - flying halfway across the planet will put a dent in your carbon budget, no matter how many kilometres you pedal.
The real attraction is the pleasure of slow travel and immersing yourself in another culture.
The author travelled courtesy of UTracks, Rail Europe, Thai Airways and the Provence Tourism Board.
Thai International flies daily from Sydney to Paris, priced from $2300. 1300 651 960, thaiairways.com.au. Take an overnight trip by train to Avignon or take a connecting flight from Paris. raileurope.com.au.
An eight-day self-guided Provence Backroads bike tour, operated by UTracks, includes rental, accommodation with breakfast and dinner and luggage transfer, priced from $1450 a person, twin share. 1300 303 368, utracks.com.
Le Cafe des Baux, Rue du Trencat, Les Baux. +33 04 9054 5269, cafedesbaux.com.
Bikes on board
ONE of the most popular biking areas of Europe is along the Danube River. Former tow paths at selected stretches on both sides of the river have become dedicated, paved bike paths. River cruise companies have been quick to incorporate both independent and guided bike tours in their itineraries. Scenic Tours' 15-day Jewels of Europe cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest has free guided bicycle tours along the Main River, a self-guided bike ride when the ship is docked at Wurzburg and a guided bike tour through vineyards. 1300 723 642, scenictours.com.au.
Every vessel in APT's European river cruising line-up carries bicycles; guests are equipped with a lightweight headset and a set of wheels for self-guided tours, or accompany a guide on other itineraries. On Danube cruises, a guided ride is offered between Durnstein and Melk, which means passengers can take in towns and vineyards, architecture and river life at a slow cycling pace. 1300 336 932, aptouring.com.au.
The ride from Luxembourg to Koblenz, Germany, is on bike paths most of the way, particularly along the Mosel River, where there is a signed path virtually the entire distance beginning in the ancient Roman city of Trier. eurobike.at/de/.
Mixing bike and barge travel is popular, too. Barges cruise canals such as the Canal du Midi in the south of France,
through the tulip fields of Holland or along the Caledonian Canal in Scotland. Cycling is generally available daily on multi-geared bikes. 1300 663854, ukandeuropetravel.com.
Avid cyclists seeking challenging routes will find plenty of pain in Italy, Slovenia, Croatia and Spain. The Adventure Travel Group hosts two- and three-night tours and can probably recommend a great masseur, too. www.adventuretravelgroup.com.
Feel like cycling across the Peloponnese? CycleGreece has self-guided tours of Crete and sail/cycle combinations aboard a wooden schooner. cyclegreece.gr.