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Cycling in Provence - a travel diary

Stuart Sommers, 17 February, 2022
Inntravel route-finder Stuart Sommers very much enjoyed scouting our new cycling holiday in the Rhône Valley.
 

Even after living in Provence for twenty years, I still explore the towns and countryside with wide-eyed joy, and jumped at the chance to help Inntravel revisit its cycling holiday here. I live near to Avignon, a perfect starting point to explore Provence by bike. Avignon's 14th-century ramparts wrap the town in a snug circle, harbouring a treasure trove of culture and history that can be cycled across in all of five minutes: stunning medieval architecture, a wealth of museums, France's largest theatre festival, a fantastic food scene, and a labyrinth of cobbled pedestrian streets.

Ride 1 is a circuit from Avignon, and leads you to Île de la Barthelasse, an island caught between two branches of the mighty River Rhône. Avignon’s town centre almost immediately gives way to quiet farmland. A cemented promenade on the bank of the river offers what I think is the best vantage point of the town, with the famed bridge in the forefront, today eighteen arches short of crossing the Rhône. Old houseboats are permanently docked on the right bank, in absolute quiet, while only a stone's throw (a good throwing arm required!) from the bustling centre. If you want to taste some Provençal specialities while enjoying this tranquil viewpoint, Le Bercail restaurant's terrace is set right by the water.

Ride 2 leaves Avignon, heading southbound and crossing the River Durance. I'm always amazed at how quickly sizeable towns give way to farmland in Provence. Outside Avignon the water table is high, being at the confluence of two rivers. Vines are absent here for that reason, replaced by fruit orchards, and divided by massive hedges of cypress trees planted east-west, used to protect crops from the tenacious Mistral. Though this warm wind is one of the reasons why the region is so sunny, it can be the cyclist's greatest nemesis in Provence, but Inntravel has deliberately designed its itinerary so that you travel from north to south, in the same direction as the wind, meaning it will be at your back, pushing you forwards, as you head southward to St-Rémy-de-Provence.

St-Rémy is set on a slight rise above the Rhône Valley, enough so that vines and olive groves flourish, and each with their own protected AOP (formerly AOC) labels. It's easy to see why Van Gogh fell in love with the area. Ride 3 led me through these oft-painted landscapes, in a late-autumn's soft light, with olives growing plump on trees, and the vineyards turning hues of yellow and red. The ride took me alongside the jagged Alpilles – chiselled white limestone pinnacles that soar upwards towards deep blue Provençal skies. It's a colourful palette; Van Gogh furiously captured it on canvas during his year in St-Rémy.
 
Halfway through the ride is the pretty village of Eygalières. After walking through the medieval ruins that crown the hill-top village, I returned to the main square. It was a Friday, so the market was in full swing, with two-dozen or so stalls along the main commercial street. I could have collected some charcuterie, fromage and a baguette at the market for a picnic, but I decided on the plat du jour at the local café. There are choices in the village that range from crêpes to Michelin-starred cuisine. The return to St-Rémy was from the north, passing the sleepy village of Mollèges and endless apple orchards.

Ride 4 takes you to Arles and its Roman amphitheatre. But first there are the Alpilles to negotiate. Heading westward this time, you pass olive mills and wine estates nestled beneath the limestone peaks. The Alpilles olive-growing region is the most extensive in France, its AOP oils a blend of the five regional varieties of olives. One of the highlights of this route is stopping at an olive mill along the way for a tasting, experiencing for yourself the subtle differences between the Aglandau, Salonenque, Grossane, Verdale and Picholine varieties of this Mediterranean fruit.

Once the western edge of the Alpilles is cleared, it's a direct line south to Arles. But not before I had lunch at La Maison Penchée. The house is indeed penchée (tilted!), and for 14€, surrounded by locals, I had a weekday menu complet of swordfish tartare, veal with foie gras sauce, and Black Forest gateau. I thought of asking the waitress why the prices were so reasonable, but settled for complimenting her on the meal. Though I was very, very full, the ensuing cycle ride was pain-free: the long straight lines to Arles were Mistral-aided, on the tiniest of lanes, through open fields and the first of southern Provence’s rice paddies. Arles seems to come out of nowhere as you arrive via the banks of the Rhône, passing the exact spot where Van Gogh painted his Starry Night Over the Rhône. Though his Maison Jaune is now a roundabout, and the city's gaslights and old riverboats have been modernised, Arles looks much the same as it did in 1888. Certainly, Arles' Roman amphitheatre remains unchanged. The final 500 metres of the bike ride has you circumnavigate the monument to find your hotel, Le Calendal, in the very epicentre of the town.

An extra day in Arles is recommended to visit its monuments, meander along the Rhône, visit the fascinating Roman museum, and check out the Frank Gehry-designed Luma Tower, which is clad in thousands of plates of stainless steel, its floors twisted skyward.
 
Ride 5 takes you southbound on a circuit from Arles. Where the city ends, the delta of the Camargue begins: an endless landscape of salt-marshes, dotted with bull ranches and horse farms, all between just 0 and 1 metres in elevation. In my opinion, as a perpetual explorer of Provence, the Camargue is the most otherworldly of its landscapes. The salt-rich soils don't allow for much agriculture, and the settlements are few and far between – this final cycle ride passes lone farmhouses and tiny hamlets. I stopped for lunch at a restaurant seemingly in the middle of nowhere, set in a 300-year-old chapel. I took my time with my coffee after the meal, working up the courage to loop back to the north towards Arles, and into the Mistral winds. A stop along the Vaccarès marsh to observe flamingos further delayed my push into the headwind. The Mistral did cut down on my cruising speed, but wasn't as bad as I'd predicted. And as I returned to the Hotel Calendal, the afternoon light shone on the hotel façade, also highlighting the massive amphitheatre, a wonderful reward for my efforts.
 

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