A new spin on France’s Provence


Six friends from Fairfax County, Va., biked across Provence, taking in the landscape, traditions and tastes of the French countryside, Tour de France-style. The group at Mont Ventoux, shown. (Tom Edmunds)
March 13

Our travelers share tales of their rambles around the world.

Who: Tom (the author) and Peggy Edmunds, Dave and Debbie Fogg, Tim and Janie Switzer — dedicated biking buddies from Fairfax County, Va.

Where, when, why: A self-guided bike tour of Provence on Sept. 1-7. We were inspired by the Tour de France coverage on TV.

Highlights and high points: From the town of Sault, we climbed to the summit of Mont Ventoux, 6,200 feet above sea level. This ride was a bucket-list check-off for all of us. We had trained for months, and on our last day in Provence, after five days and more than 150 miles of strenuous biking, we felt that we were ready. The ascent starts with fields of lavender and climbs through a beautiful alpine forest. Halfway up is the famous Chalet Reynard, where we were greeted by hundreds of European road bikers on a charity ride. The party was definitely on, with a DJ spinning Euro-disco and plenty of wine and beer. The five-mile ride from Chalet Reynard to the summit passes through a moonscape of limestone rocks above the tree line. After several rest stops and plenty of “bon courage” shout-outs from local bikers, we made it to the top. The feeling of accomplishment and pure elation was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. With a thunderstorm threatening, we only had a few minutes to enjoy the view. We raced back to Sault, descending 16 miles in about 25 minutes. We loaded our bikes and jumped into our rental cars just in time to beat “le deluge.”

Cultural connection or disconnect: Road biking in France is a national pastime. We met bikers of all ages and backgrounds from all over Europe. Shopkeepers, hotel staff, waiters and just plain folks greeted us warmly and were sincerely interested in our journey. The weather was very hot and dry, and we even experienced an autumn mistral wind during a ride through the vineyards of Côtes du Rhône. We found comforting shade under ancient plane trees in pretty medieval town squares.

Biggest laugh or cry: On the second day, a Monday, we decided to ride from our hotel in Bedoin up through a wilderness area called Les Gorges de la Nesque, the Grand Canyon of Provence. Passing through the town of Villars Sur Auzon, we noticed that the town bakery was closed, as were most of the other shops. We reached the top of the gorge around lunchtime, with empty water bottles and no food and had to make a decision. The town of Monieux was about a mile away but would involve a 1,000-foot descent and a climb back to the top of the gorge. We decided that the exercise was worth it. In Monieux, the whole town appeared to be closed, including the market, the cafe and even the church. Apparently, the stores and restaurants close every Monday because they’re open Sunday. The only source of water was a dubious fountain with tadpoles and minnows swimming in the algae-coated pool. A trickle of water streaming from the mouth of a stone fish was marked “eau potable.” We took our chances and drank deeply, filling our bottles for the ride back to Auzon. We arrived famished but with spirits lifted as we parked our bikes at the open Cafédu Soleil. Tim ordered a beer and a baguette, only to find out that with the bakery closed, there was no food that day and only beer, wine and soft drinks. After all, this is France, and it was a Monday.

How unexpected: After our climb up Ventoux, we returned to Avignon for our last night. We headed into town for a celebratory dinner in the famous town square. After dinner, we noticed crowds lining up to enter the Palais des Papes for a late-night showing of the “Illuminations,” an outdoor laser light show projected on the walls of the palace courtyard. We were able to secure last-minute admission. The show was breathtaking — a fitting end to our journey.

Fondest memento or memory: Traveling in the open air while covering 200 miles at an average speed of 15 mph allowed us to absorb the light, the tastes, the smells and the romance that are uniquely Provence.

To tell us about your own trip, go to www.washingtonpost.com/travel and fill out the What a Trip form with your fondest memories, finest moments and favorite photos.

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