Touring Provence by Bicycle

September, 2006

  Day 1--We arrive at Marseille-Provence airport and are met by Hans, our bike tour leader. We go by coach to Graveson and our first hotel, Hotel Mas des Amandiers. Hans and Henk (Hans' assistant and van driver) assign our bikes and adjust them to fit. Hans conducts bicycle school and skill tests. We all pass.
  Day 2--We pedal to the nearby town of St. Remy-de-Provence; park our bikes downtown and picnic on food bought in nearby grocery store. After lunch, a short ride to the ancient Roman city of Glanum, where a guide tells us about the ruins.
    Our guide then takes us to the nearby Monastery of St. Paul-de-Mausole, where Vincent van Gogh was hospitalized for one year. We see the olive grove and other scenes he painted many times while a patient there. After a brief look at the old Roman quarry, we get back on our bikes and ride back to our hotel in Graveson.
    As the sun is setting we gather in a circle outdoors and get acquainted with Hans, Henk, and each other. Then a delicious dinner and an outstanding dessert buffet.
  Day 3--The day begins with a lecture on Vincent van Gogh. Then, after six miles of tough, uphill pedaling, we arrive at the 13th century hilltop village of Les Baux-de-Provence. With our guide, we explore Les Baux and its chateau. We experience our first Mistral winds on the cliffs of Les Baux. Fortunately, the wind is behind us as we leave Les Baux on a curvy and shady downhill ride.
    Along the way to Arles, we stop to investigate the ruins of a Roman aqueduct. We arrive at our next hotel, Hostellerie de la Source, in Pont de Crau, near Arles.
  Day 4--In the morning, we ride a short distance into Arles, where we park our bikes and go on a guided tour of Arles, including the Roman amphitheater and the ruins of Roman baths. On our free time we explore Arles and eat lunch at outdoor cafes.
    We then head through the marshes of the Camargue towards St. Gilles. (The Camargue is a large, marshy plain in the Rhone delta.) Along the way we stop for a snack at the restaurant/bar at Paul Ricard's (of pastis liqueur fame) Mejanes Field. With a bit more pedaling, in perfectly flat terrain, we arrive at our hotel, Le Cours, in St. Gilles.
  Day 5--First we visit the old walled city of St. Gilles and its Abbaye de St. Gilles, a key stop on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. We explore the outdoor market near our hotel and pick up picnic supplies.
    On our way to Port Camargue, we stop at a nature preserve for a picnic lunch. Later one of the bikes develops a flat, so we take an impromptu break on a corner by several farm houses and vineyards. Hans takes this opportunity to explain the "Vin des Sables" signs to us. It is a loose federation of local wineries promoting their wines made from grapes grown in the sands ("sables") of the Camargue (most grapes are grown in rocky soils further inland).
    We then continue on to Aigues-Mortes, where we take a guided tour by tram of the walled town. Afterwards we continue south towards the Mediterranean, passing by flocks of flamingoes and other wading birds feeding in the shallow, salty waters along the road. We arrive at our hotel, Relais de L'ousteau Camarguen, in the modern resort of Port Camargue.
  Day 6--After breakfast, we attend a lecture on the Camargue and learn how to tell the difference between a Camargue bull and a Spanish bull. We also learn from Hans the reason breakfast starts at the late hour of 8 a.m.: That is when fresh bread is available. No one eats day-old baguettes; they are fit only as weapons!
    After the lecture, we take a short ride to the picturesque fishing village of Grau de Roi on the Mediterranean. Along the way, we stop for a closer look at flamingoes. We explore the sights and shops of Grau du Roi, including stops in sidewalk cafes for coffee and pastries. We then ride back along the Mediterranean shore to Port Camargue, park our bikes, and walk to lunch in nearby restaurants.
  Day 7--A busy day, also our longest bike riding distance (36 miles). Shortly after leaving Port Camargue, we ride around the walled town of Aigues-Mortes and then come to a restored tower that was originally a watch tower to warn Aigues-Mortes of approaching enemies. We climb the tight spiral stairs to the top for terrific views of the Camargue marshes, including some scattered bulls and horses.
    Continuing on, we come upon a group of people tagging young bulls. A number of young people are apparently in training for bull handling. It is quite a show!
    Further down the road we come to a small town where the church bells are ringing, not in our honor, though--an infant baptism has just finished. Next to the church is a small bull ring, where we sit and listen to Hans explain how Camargue bull "fighting" is done. (The bulls are not harmed, and, in fact, are the stars of the show. The sport is for a man to try to remove a wreath from the horns of the bull, without getting hurt or gored.)
    After coffee and snacks at an outdoor cafe across from the church, we proceed on. Next stop, a large grocery/department store where we buy supplies for a picnic, which we do at a discontinued lavoir (outdoor laundry) in a small town.
    On the road again we finally approach Nimes and the traffic picks up. After negotiating a final, scary round-about we arrive at our hotel, L'Orangerie, in Nimes.
  Day 8--We awake to a light rain. After breakfast, we ride a short distance into the center of Nimes, where a tour guide takes us on a damp tour of Nimes, including the Roman amphitheater, a Roman temple, and a park, Jardin de la Fontaine. On our own, we explore the indoor market and the many sidewalk cafes.
    Back on our bikes, we head out of Nimes in the rain. Soon the rain becomes very heavy and hazardous, so we stop at a bus shelter until the rain slacks off. Next is a long, steady uphill climb, followed by a long (5 miles), twisty, wet, and exciting downhill run, which ends at a bridge over the river Gard. From there we ride back across the Gard via the famous Roman aqueduct, Pont du Gard, and end up at our hotel, Columbier, in Remoulins.
  Day 9--In the morning we go on a guided tour of the Pont du Gard. Afterwards, the weather clears up, and we are on the road towards Avignon. Along the way we take a rest stop at a cemetery.
    After riding by many vineyards, we stop in a town for pizza for lunch. Further along, we stop at the town of Tavel and explore its narrow alleys and wineries. We come across an active lavoir, where a Spanish girl is washing her clothes. More pedaling, and we arrive at our hotel, Les Cedres, in Villeneuve les Avignon.
  Day 10--After breakfast, Hans has us all pile on a city bus for the ride across the Rhone to Avignon. There a guide takes us on a tour of the Palace of the Popes, the largest Gothic palace in the world.
    After the tour, we are free to explore Avignon on our own. Lunch at an outdoor cafe is a challenge due to the Mistral--the wind blows pieces of lettuce off our salad plates! We take in the long views from the park (Rocher des Doms) above the Palace of the Popes. The Mistral winds are especially strong along the bluffs overlooking the Rhone. After relaxing over coffee at a sidewalk cafe, we catch a city bus back to our hotel.
  Day 11--After a very windy night, we fear we will be challenged by the Mistral on the day's ride to Orange. However, the winds turn out to be very tolerable. Several steep hills make up for the slack winds.
    Along the way, we pass many picturesque vineyards, a few with workers hand-picking the grapes. We stop in the village of Chateauneuf-du-Pape to explore the ruins of the chateau, sample wines, and eat lunch.
    Back on the road, we soon arrive at our hotel, Saint-Jean, in Orange, where we relinquish our bikes. We relax in nearby sidewalk cafes and explore the area near the Roman theater.
    In the evening we are served a delicious meal of roast duck in the restaurant (Le Parvis) near our hotel. Afterwards, we have our official farewell meeting in a unique cave room in the rock wall next to the hotel.
  Day 12--On our last day, we awake to a colorful sunrise. After breakfast, we explore the area on our own, including a hike up to the park overlooking the Roman theater and the city. The plaza that was empty yesterday afternoon is a busy market today.
    We then go on a guided tour of the Roman theater and the Roman arch. Since most of us are scheduled for very early departures the following morning, our final gourmet dinner at Le Parvis ends early.

Website created by Wayne Matchett, 20 October 2006

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