A touring paradise

Provence really does have it all. The Alps, the Cotes d’Azur, the River Rhone and the Camargue, Mont Ventoux, Roman ruins, timeless villages, Avignon, Marsaille, the Verdon Gorge, van Goch, Cézanne, the food, the wine and of course, the sun.

With all this to choose from, it is difficult to know where to begin. Even in bike touring routes, there are several classic options – for instance the Canal du Midi, or a route following the Rhone. Having now driven through it, the area to the south of the Gardon river would make for some amazing riding. With our one year old daughter in tow (literally), we decided on a simple option – the Luberon loop, which is well marked and mapped along quiet hilly, but not mountainous roads. This takes around a week, and we also decided on a two day ride in the Camargue. On the drive home, I was able to ride up Mont Ventoux as well – it seemed a shame to be able to see it for so long and not ride to the top! If you have the time, there’s some very attractive riding in its foothills as well.

The Luberon

A lovely little tour, achievable for nearly anyone who has the bit of fitness required to get up a few hills: the route encircles the Luberon mountains, but generally does not actually climb them. It is around 240 km long with around 5000 m climbing. We took six days though it could clearly be ridden quicker.

The best site for planning is Veloloisirluberon, which has most of the information you require. The signage on the road is really very good, and this tour could almost be ridden with it alone. Take a map though – we bought the IGN 1:60,000 Parc Naturel Regional du Luberon which has the route marked. Campsites, unfortunately are not marked – they are on the 1:25,000 maps but then you need several.

Some tips and highlights

The route is typically described as starting in Cavaillon, and this is certainly the easiest point to get to by road from the UK. It is one of the larger towns on the route and is very pleasant, as is typical. If you take a car, you’ll probably want to leave it somewhere quieter. We chose Maubec, which has an excellent Camping Municipal and is very attractive town in its own right. The route is signed in both directions – we decided on anti-clockwise as there are side loops that can be added from Forcalquier and Apt. By leaving these to the end, we could see if we had time (and energy) to undertake them. As it turned out, we decided to move on and use the time to ride up Mont Ventoux.
The campsites we stayed at were:

  • Maubec, which was excellent
  • Camping les Argiles, which has a lovely pool and is perfectly pleasant, though there is some traffic noise
  • Camping a la Ferme, near Cucuron which was a new site and in the process of being signed. We found it only because we met the owner’s son en route. The family were very friendly and is really in the middle of nowhere so it almost felt like camping wild to us (we were the only people there). I loved it. Take the Chemin de Galon out of Cucuron and some time after the road turns into a gravel track, it enters some trees before turning back north (by which point it is barely a road, though still marked on Google Maps as such). It is on the northern side of that corner.
  • Volx, which was a pleasant but quite busy camping municipal; situated slightly further up a hill off-route than we’d anticipated at the end of a long day!
  • St Maime, which we would really recommend despite its size and general ‘holiday camp’ feel. The pitches are relatively secluded and there is little else in the area. We had a really good night.
  • Camping a la Ferme, on the D223 just before the D48 junction (Les Gaudins). We passed this, intending to ride into Apt and perhaps do the additional loop from there. It looked so good, we stopped for the night. We weren’t disappointed – the views are spectacular and it is a fitting end to a Luberon trip.

The Camargue

This was interesting – it’s an amazing place, best accessed by horse or bike. The Camargue is the marshy delta of the River Rhone. Rather surprisingly it is essentially a man-managed ecosystem, created in the 19th Century when both branches of the Rhone were dyked and the digue à la mer, (dyke to the sea) was built to reduce flooding. It helped the rice and cereal farmers, and has produced a wildlife haven. You’ll see flamingos, the white Camargue horses, shimmering lagoons and loads of birds, of which there are more than 400 species here. On the other hand, it is pan flat, very hot, and has lots of mosquitos and tourists. Coming from the quiet Luberon, it is a different world, and one to my mind that is not so pleasant! If you have the time though, it is worth a couple of days, and I’d certainly recommend taking enough time that you can do a loop rather than a there and back ride.

We left the car outside the Crin Blanc campsite, which is conveniently situated. There aren’t many options, but this was expensive and the owner refused to give me my passport back so we could leave before the designated 8.30am leaving time. This despite her sitting at the desk with my passport at 8 o’clock. The site itself was large, but clean and with reasonable shade. We intended to leave as early as possible in order to avoid riding with Elsa in the heat of the day. Over the years, we have discovered that we almost always end up riding at noon in the spirit of ‘Mad Dogs and Englishmen’. It is not intentional, just what happens if you don’t rush your morning. It doesn’t bother us particularly, but we did feel that Elsa should probably not sit in a covered trailer in the full heat of the Mediterranean sun.

Our route followed the ‘Route des Figares’, a minor road off the D37 running along the Petit Rhone, rejoining the D37 at Albaron and then taking the ‘Route des Méjanes’, a gravel road along the edge of the lagoon. This was excellent for seeing the wildlife as it had essentially no traffic. Our book suggested it would be a difficult, bumpy ride, but it was fine on slick 32mm tires and with a child-trailer.

We stayed in a very slick hotel in Stes-Maries-de-la-Mer, and found the town surprisingly enjoyable despite the crowds. Staying here allowed us to get an early start on the digue à la mer which was our main concern on this route as it is totally exposed and with no real shade or water. The terrain was similar – there were a few unrideable sandy sections where the beach had blown over the path, but otherwise it was a little bumpy, but easy enough riding. Of course, it is absolutely flat.

The loop can be completed in a variety of ways. With Elsa in mind, we took the shortest, stopping only at the Camargue visitor centre on the east of the lagoon and for a decent lunch in Albaron. It would, however be simple enough to extend the route to include a visit to Arles.

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