I discover a totally different kind of holiday – one where I burn off calories by bicycling by day and tuck into decadent suppers without a worry by night, on a self-guided bicycle holiday in Provence.
It’s all about wandering through wine country, meandering down country lanes lined with vines, taking time to taste vintages and explore hilltop villages at my leisure, all with my trusty bike as a precursor to chowing down on the cheese board *and* dessert at the end of each day…
‘We’ve been coming here on holiday for 37 years. There’s an award-winning rosé being sold for next to nothing at a winery down the road. My wife buys it, I carry it – and then we come back to the hotel and have a rest.’
This is pure gold for a nosy little eavesdropper like me.
The rosé-loving couple eating their petite dejeuner at the next table are English like me, and they clearly keep their wine cellar going on the back of this annual trip to France.
The audience for their story is a Dutch couple, and I gather the tip-off about that vineyard originally came from a Swiss guy, but no matter how much I tilt my head and sharpen my hearing I can’t glean the important detail of which of the Vacqueyras region’s many wineries offers this steal of a deal on wine.
It hardly matters, I haven’t had a bad drop to drink in the last 3 days, and I’m not likely to. Plus, there’s a limit to how many bottles I can take back by plane, or carry in my panniers.
I’m halfway through a Headwater Holidays 6-day cycling trip in Provence, but I’ve already promised myself I’ll return to this hotel in the Mont Ventoux area in my car just to stock up on wine.
When I chat to the hotel’s owner later I discover that this family-run hotel has been open for 38 years, meaning the British couple at breakfast have been loyal customers since he was a small boy and the place was being run by his father.
I gather this information as I’m given a lift into town for a wine tasting, probably the only time in a week that I need to go anywhere by car.
Aside from this ride and the transfers (which are included as part of this bicycle holiday in Provence), I feel quite delighted to be pedalling off each day under my own steam; the combined sense of purpose, excitement, freedom and virtue you get from swapping 4 wheels for 2 is, I have found, rather exhilarating.
After breakfast the hotel’s idyllic courtyard falls silent, as most guests climb into cars and zip off into the hills to discover their own new favourite vintages or explore small villages before the midday heat sets in, and the reassuring French routine of the next mealtime rolls around again.
This really isn’t like any other holiday I’ve ever been on.
Even though I’ve travelled the world I find most trips tend to take the same form. The destination may be different but it’s just window dressing for the same basic holiday drill: swim and sunbathe, visit shops, museums, restaurants. Indulge all day and then do some more indulging at dinner.
Yes it’s relaxing, but like most people I secretly aim to come back from my summer holidays a bit trimmer, happier and healthier and with a newfound sense of myself.
But on the usual package, with a buffet, a sun lounger and a hire car on tap, that never happens. It’s too tempting to laze around, buy things and gorge myself silly while the gym kit stays inside the suitcase, or more realistically, at home. Or, full disclosure, still in the shop.
And even though the distances on this circular cycling route are modest – no more than 30km in a day with optional rest days in between – I find I like getting myself from A to B on a bike each day, winding through wine country, via the sleepy country lanes and dusty back roads of the Vaucluse.
I prize the unusual sense of having earned the aperitif, the 3-course meal, the bottle of wine and the cheese board (have you SEEN the cheese board?!) which await.
And I’m not going to lie, you can’t help but acquire a killer tan when you’re out on a bike in the south of France all day long.
I had no idea that this part of Provence was so famous for cycling holidays before I arrived, via a flight to Marseilles and a short train ride to the medieval town of Avignon.
The glimpse I get of that walled city on my transfer makes me bitterly regret not having added an extra day to explore it, but there’s so much beauty in this area of southern France that it’s hard to know where to even begin.
Luckily I don’t have to do any planning of my own as I’m on a fully organised holiday to the area around Mont Ventoux, which turns out to be especially popular for cycling holidays.
That’s because there’s something here for all abilities – you can simply pootle around the vineyards in the shadows of the mountain and do the odd little climb around the Dentelles de Montmirail, as a preamble to evenings of edible indulgence. Which is certainly what I did.
But the more hardy cyclists are all here to ascend the area’s single 1,912m summit, made famous by its inclusion in the Tour de France, and you quickly become accustomed to the sight of small packs of lycra-clad folk who sometimes pop up to the top of Mont Ventoux a couple of times before lunch, the way I might cycle to Sainsbury’s.
If I’d chatted to the cyclist who considered a 120km ride an easy day out at the start of my trip I might have felt intimidated, but I quickly learn that there’s a nice camaraderie about being a cyclist around these parts, and being one of the tribe, even in some small way, feels fantastic.
The Headwater cycling holiday I’m on is at the introductory level – one picture of a bike wheel in the brochure out of a possible 2, and the little plus sign that suggests some harder bits in case you want a challenge.
It works well for fair-weather cyclists like me who can go weeks and even months without going on a bike ride, and want some semi-strenuous exercise to get back into the swing of things.
It doesn’t take long to remember why I fell in love with exploring places by bike instead of by car – I pull over constantly to take pictures of dilapidated farmhouses, rows of vines and pretty, painted shutters, to pick a peach dangling from a tree overhead, or to buy cherries by the side of the road, before continuing on my way with juice dripping down my chin.
I do my cycling in flip flops most days, because it’s hot and that’s what I’d do at home. I’m not wearing any special gear. I don’t look fancy – in fact I don’t really care what I look like for once, and I barely glance in the mirror most days. I’m too busy looking around me, as well as looking at the turn-by-turn cycling directions I’ve been given and which I get right about 95% of the time.
I arrive at each new hotel – the route takes you to 3 different bases, but your luggage is transported for you – in the late afternoon. I’m hot, sweaty, and tired and the idea of jumping in the pool and ordering an ice-cold beer injects extra energy into my legs just as they are about to give up.
At each chateau, I delight in the ease of the transformation, from country bumpkin to sophisticated lady, as I cast off the day’s clothes and brush up nicely for another decadent dinner.
The hotels are all so very Provençal, straight out of a postcard. One is the old family home of the Marquis de Sade, every bit as packed with history as you’d imagine, and all have first rate food served alfresco; I don’t eat a meal indoors for a week.
Sound travels well on terraces and I overhear a large ‘serious’ cycling group discuss the gradients of the next day’s ride over dinner and feel a wall of gratitude for my laid-back cycling trip wash over me.
As they’re served a digestif their guide asks if they can set off at 7.45 am the next day to get a head start on ‘The Bald Mountain’ before it gets too hot, but it’s clearly a rhetorical question and I note that nobody answers in the affirmative, but they shuffle off to bed a few minutes later.
It is lucky I have my back to them, as a huge grin spreads across my face and I think a lol even escapes my lips; having a guide isn’t really my bag (I am allergic to being told what to do) and the fact that I can cycle to the beat of my own drum on this trip makes it ideal for my own travel style.
They’re all back by the pool at 3pm, and I’m full of admiration, because I’ve been here all day. Today’s cycling is entirely optional for me, so I’ve swapped it for a full day of lounging and reading in the dreamy hotel grounds, and because I feel I’ve earned it, it is bliss.
On my last day of cycling I’m determined to find the perfect restaurant to savour my final French lunch before going back to a world where daytime food is consumed at a laptop.
I stop in a town where the pace of life clearly hasn’t changed for hundreds of years and isn’t about to. I spot the perfect place, and a Gerard Depardieu lookalike who appears to be two glasses of red deep into his lunch break sees me lean my bike against a railing, and as I put my cycle helmet on the table he asks with a wry smile if I will do Mont Ventoux this afternoon.
I don’t speak fluent French so I just say “non, je suis en vacance – Mont Ventoux ce n’est pas une vacance pour moi!’ – (roughly translated as ‘I’m on my holidays mate, and climbing a big mountain, well that ain’t no vacation!’) And I laugh, then order the 3 course menu du jour for lunch. I intend to be here for a while.
About This Cycling Holiday To Provence
Headwater Holidays offer cycling holidays all over Europe including 16 different options around France, with 4 different routes in Provence.
I chose the Côtes du Ventoux Cycling Holiday, a 6-night self-guided cycling holiday which departs every two days between 13 May to 14 October with prices from £1139 (tour only)/ £1349 (including return BA flights from Heathrow to Marseilles and onward rail transfers). All prices include 6 nights’ half board hotel accommodation, bike hire, luggage transfers, detailed maps and cycling route notes plus on call reps in the destination. Electric bikes are offered for a supplement of £50 per person per trip.
For further info see Headwater.com.
PIN & SAVE
Savoirthere was a guest of Headwater Holidays in Provence but all wine consumed, wrong turns taken and tan lines achieved, as well as opinions expressed, are her own.
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