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A Month in Provence

01 June 2011

by Nikki Jackson

A month ambling around the South of France on our push bikes... scorching hot days, lazy picnic lunches, curious cafés and a generous helping of old world culture. We figured that June was a good time to escape the clutches of Christchurch's winter, beat the high season congestion in France and beat the rather non-ergonomic bulge growing in my tum - I would be six months pregnant by the end of our trip.

Our plan was at best ill defined. We left NZ with touring gear, airline tickets in to Marseille and out of Paris, the Michelin guide for Provence, a collection of 1:200,000 maps and the self-belief that we could sniff out a good time. To kick start the cycling and flee the muddle of Marseille, we hitched a train ride 50km north to the gorgeous town of Aix en Provence. My partner Guy found a shady spot outside the station and assembled the bikes and trailer while I mined the Office du Tourisme for local points of interest and camping options. It was a welcome relief to get back on the bikes after lugging both them and our gear around airports and metro stations for the past two days.

The "no plan" plan worked brilliantly. We'd nut out our general direction and then each evening pick a destination and route for the following day. The trick was to head for the smaller towns and villages while sticking to the minor roads. These are marked in white on most maps. The yellow departmental roads are busier and still okay, but the red "Routes Nationales" should be avoided at all costs. The Michelin maps also have handy icons denoting ruins, churches, campgrounds, nuclear power stations and other "points of interest". Scenic routes are marked with a green fringe and generally make for pleasant travel. Everything you need to suss out an interesting route. Being under Doctor's orders I was also considering how to best avoid over-heating my precious cargo. We were blessed with quiet roads, balmy evenings laced with evocative spring fragrances, and postcard-perfect scenery - vineyards, olive groves, plane trees and Peter Mayle stunt-double farmhouses around every bend.

Initially we headed west to the ancient cliff-top village of Les Baux in Les Apilles area. We suffered our only rain there - a biblical style display of thunder, lightning and assorted feral animals that had us confined to our tent for twenty-four hours. We then crossed the Rhone, stopping at the Pont du Gard (over-run with tour buses and postcards but those Romans knew how to build a decent aquaduct) before landing at Uzés. This was my favourite medieval town with narrow streets, a fabulous arts market and a quaint little hotel that provided a few indulgent nights away from the Thermarest.

Food is integral to any cycling trip - no more so than in France. Compared to the Pacific Rim "standards" served up at home, our restaurant experiences in Provence were both spectacularly average and expensive. The fresh produce however is a taste sensation. We would hit the markets, stock up with crisp veges, local stone fruit, assorted salad delights... and cook up a storm at our tent. Lunch invariably involved a baguette stuffed with avocado and banana washed down with a little wine or Orangina (the ubiquitous orange soda to which I quickly became addicted).

After Uzés we headed north into the Céze, Ruom and Ardéche Gorges to be water rats. The latter features a 30km canyon with a giant natural arch called Pont d'Arc. Each day while we were there, a staggering 5000 punters rented plastic canoes and floated down towards the Rhone. A spectacular trip, although most ended up with impressive "rock lobster" sunburn. It was unbelievably hot here - late 30's, even 40°. Not out to break any distance records, our pattern was to rise for a leisurely breakfast - a croissant plus the obligatory nose bag of jumbo oats, fresh fruit and yoghurt. We'd ride in the relative cool of the morning, make our day's destination a little after midday, pitch our tent and score some time by the pool before exploring the local environs. A favourite game of mine was sneaking "souvenirs" into the trailer, which caused untold grief when discovered the next morning!

Emerging from the Ardéche we then crossed back over the Rhone and headed east to the Drome area in search of nodding sunflowers and fields of sweet smelling lavender. We scored a bullseye on the sunflowers but a "close no cigar" for the lavender as we were a couple of weeks early. And then it was time to hit Paris for our fix of art galleries and museums. We had naively presumed that we would simply jump on a train, however this proved immensely difficult to do with bikes so we paid a small fortune for a rental car. It wasn't all bad though as we were "forced" to overnight in a 12th Century Chateau in the heart of Burgundy. A salutary reminder of the spoils of touring the "old world". Oh là là!

Nitty Gritty

  • Expect the good weather from June to September. July and August are worth avoiding - the whole of Europe is on holiday. Higher prices and fully booked facilities will hamper your spontaneity.
  • The Pacific Peso makes travel an expensive proposition but if you stick to campgrounds and minimise restaurant treats you could budget on a palatable NZ$50-80/day per person. 
  • Campgrounds in Provence can be amazing. Call in to the Office du Tourisme upon arrival in a new area. They have brochures of most campsites in that town and beyond. 3-4 stars gets you hot showers, swimming pool, a basic shop (although expensive) and café. They primarily cater for caravans and family tents so there are no cooking facilities and the turf is often bulletproof. 
  • It's mighty hard tracking down the healthy, hearty snack bar in France. Bring a stash from home or if you come via the UK, check out the Planet Organic supermarkets. 
  • In hindsight we made a couple of logistical mistakes. Instead of traipsing into Marseille we should have caught the bus from the Airport directly to Aix (similar distance and cost as the trip to Marseille). And we would have saved ourselves a wad of cash by finishing our trip close to our "final" airport - avoid bus, train or rental car connections if you can. 
  • Travelling with bikes will generally blow your luggage allowance. Flying via the USA allows each person two pieces @ up to 32kg. Via Asia restricts you to an impossible 30kg per person.