By writer Paul Kirkwood
I’ve been on cycle tours around the Scottish islands that, without exaggeration, have taken longer to plan than to ride. I enjoy the research to a degree but the opportunity to have someone else do all the legwork (in an organisational sense at least) had considerable appeal especially for my first foreign foray. That’s how I came to book the Impressions of the Camargue holiday with cycle hire, accommodation and luggage transfer all included.
The pack that was sent with confirmation of my booking really whetted my appetite. The copious notes were like an ultimate, personalised Rough Guide, covering off every possible practical query that might arise and also providing some well researched and authoritatively written background to the region. The great joy of this style of holiday is that you feel like an independent traveller but still have that sense of security that comes with a package holiday.
The starting point, Tarascon, provides the base for a first-rate day ride to St-Rémy-de-Provence, one of the region’s oldest towns. First, though, I got to know the Mistral, both the man and the wind named after him that blows from the Alps down the Rhône valley. I had a breezy send off but the wind was intermittent and died down after the first day. Frédéric Mistral, a poet and keen exponent of the Provençal language, once lived in the village of Maillane which is passed en route and has a museum in his honour.
A stretch of old railway path led me to St-Rémy. You could spend all day wandering around the network of alleys in the small, compact, walled city which includes the birthplace of Nostradamus. A short ride up and out of town took me past panels showing 21 scenes of the area from the 150 painted by van Gogh during his stay at a mental hospital in a former monastery. On the other side of the road is the Roman town of Glanum. From the viewpoint overlooking the ruins I could see a jumble of baths, temples and pavements. Looming behind were Les Alpilles, a range of precarious pinnacles that look like the surf of a wave about to engulf the plain and, in the far distance, I could just make out the outline of Mont Ventoux. At 1,900 metres, it is a notorious climb often included in the Tour de France. I barely encountered a hill on my whole tour which suited me well.
My return trip to Tarascon ran along the base of Les Alpilles past olive groves and freakishly slender Italian cypress trees, their tops tickled by the wind and sufficiently tapered to take a Christmas fairy. As I neared Tarascon on my return, I passed a tanned old man on a bike who carried a baguette across his rear rack. There was no mistaking where I was.
The next day I was on the move to my second overnight destination, Arles. The morning stop-off was in Fontvieille, a quieter town compared to St-Rémy but just as picturesque. As I cruised in at 11 o’clock tables were being laid outside the restaurants and the smell of roast lamb (a regional speciality) seemed to waft from every open window.
My cycling notes had suggested a walk in pine woods linking four windmills associated with the writer and former resident Alphonse Daudet. Not wishing to be parted from my bike I tried cycling the trail which was viable other than a short push up a rocky lane at the start. A rare hill, downwards, took me to a Roman aqueduct which was a foretaste of the artefacts to come in Arles.
The ancient city makes a fantastic rest day. I wandered around its many architectural and archaeological treasures including the huge amphitheatre (used today for bullfighting), spooky, dripping catacombs, and thermal baths, winding up with a dinner of the juiciest steak (see bulls reference, later) I’ve ever tasted. My accommodation, Hôtel du Musée, was exquisite too. It was very central within the old town but remarkably peaceful. A real oasis, in fact. The view over the courtyard from my second-floor window was partly obscured by a huge pink rose bush, a profusion of blooms tumbling down almost to the tables where I had breakfast.
The final leg of the journey was the highlight. After the hamlet of Gimeaux grass grew in the middle of the lane, the reed beds on either side giving a hint of what was to come. I was heading further south into and across the Camargue delta, a vast and environmentally unique nature reserve of lagoons and salt flats that stretches as far as the eye can see. Having topped up my water bottle at the last watering stop at a sort of ranch attraction, I set out along an eight-mile stony track right through the midst of all the flora and fauna. I’d soon seen the big three: white horses, Camargue black bulls (distinguished by their up-curved horns) and scores of flamingos. A pencil line of trees on the distant far side of Étang de Vaccarès was the only way I could tell which blue belonged to water and which to the sky.
After a mile or two most of the tourist four-wheel drives had turned back, leaving me blissfully alone. The ride had become an adventure. While resting all I could hear was the lapping of the tiny lagoon waves and the distant honk of wildfowl. The Carmargue is a twitcher’s paradise and, with all the horses, ideal for both types of rider.
The safari feel of my Camargue trek extended to my hotel, Les Arnelles, in the lively seaside town of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. The rooms are imaginatively and stylishly designed as chalets surrounding reed beds with boardwalks connecting them, the main building and hotel’s riding centre. In place of a watering hole there is a mini-lagoon. As I dined, pecking ducks created concentric circles in the surface of the water and the setting sun glowed through the manes of the white horses. You can almost swim with flamingos; they’re in one pool and you’re a few yards away in another.
On my final day I ventured out through the lagoons along the coast on another traffic-free track. With the tide out you could almost forget which side the sea was on. A lonely lighthouse doubled up as my destination and official finishing post at the end of a grand tour of the history, culture and wildlife of western Provence.
Images © Paul Kirkwood