How an electric bike gives a whizzy new perspective on the beautiful byways of southern France

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A freak frost cut a neat line through the cherry orchard. One side the blossom was brown and dead, while the other was white and alive. 

In the aisles between the trees, fat candles burning pig tallow to ward off the night frost smouldered in the morning dew, but the arbitrary hand of God had still condemned half the crop.

I am cycling in the Luberon, along lanes where olive trees and clementine bushes have grown for centuries.

Worth the climb: Mark Porter cycles through historic Bonnieux, pictured, on an e-bike tour through Provence 

A gently undulating route takes me through the honey-coloured villages of Bonnieux, Lacoste and Ménerbes — made famous by Marcel Pagnol, and later by the more prosaic pen of Peter Mayle.

If Provence is the most beautiful part of France, the Luberon in central Provence, possesses its finest features.

The morning chill quickly gives way to intense warmth, and soon the cicadas are out to herald an Englishman on his bicycle.

'If Provence is the most beautiful part of France, the Luberon (above) in central Provence, possesses its finest features,' writes Mark

‘If Provence is the most beautiful part of France, the Luberon (above) in central Provence, possesses its finest features,’ writes Mark 

Pretty Lacoste (pictured) is one of the stops on Mark's cycling tour through the region's 'villages and vineyards'

Pretty Lacoste (pictured) is one of the stops on Mark’s cycling tour through the region’s ‘villages and vineyards’ 

Little wonder the Greeks and then the Romans were seduced. Their heritage is etched everywhere in Provencal stone: from Avignon to Aix, a still living and magniloquent vision of an ancient culture.

It is one of those heavenly days that starts in winter but reaches mid-summer by lunchtime. I cycle for a while along the Via Domitia, the oldest road in France but now a tad busy, so I veer off into Gargas for a chilled Perrier.

Here, I see pilgrims en route for Santiago de Compostela, with their scallop medallions, filling their flasks at the village fountain. The backdrop is a bright red cliffscape where the sandstone has been gouged out as if by a giant’s fingers. It is known locally as the Colorado.

I am staying at La Coquillade, which caters for cycle enthusiasts like me. It was the idea of a Swiss businessman, who also founded the famous BMC cycling company.

During his stay at La Coquillade (above), a hotel that caters for cycle enthusiasts, Mark gets kitted out with a 'splendid' mountain bike

During his stay at La Coquillade (above), a hotel that caters for cycle enthusiasts, Mark gets kitted out with a ‘splendid’ mountain bike 

The late Andy Rihs spotted a ruined hamlet while on holiday and had the vision (and capital) to convert it over many years into a five-star spa complex, in keeping with the surrounding architecture. His grandfather was the writer Hermann Hesse, whose paintings and writing chair are in the lobby.

There is a bike centre at La Coquillade and my guide, Gaëton, kits me out with a splendid (and electrically assisted) mountain bike.

Born and bred in the neighbouring village, Gaëton has a detailed knowledge of flora, fauna, history and wine, making for a fascinating outing.

Above is one of the suites at La Coquillade. The hotel was founded by Swiss businessman Andy Rihs, who spotted a ruined hamlet while on holiday and had the vision to convert it over many years into a five-star spa complex

Above is one of the suites at La Coquillade. The hotel was founded by Swiss businessman Andy Rihs, who spotted a ruined hamlet while on holiday and had the vision to convert it over many years into a five-star spa complex 

‘That castle over there once belonged to the Marquis de Sade,’ he says as we trundle past Lacoste. ‘It was bought a few years ago by Pierre Cardin.’ This is a renowned wine area, not far from the famous Rhones of Chateauneuf du Pape, so it seems only appropriate to stop for a light lunch at Aureto, the hotel’s own vineyard.

My route was a simple 30-miler, my first since major hip and knee surgery late last year, so I was grateful for the electric assistance. But the hotel caters for hardcore cyclists too, and you can do the circular tour of Mont Ventoux if you are up to it. This is as tough as it gets — 137 km and 4,400 metres of climbing, from the village of Bédoin. It’s advisable to have 4,000 km riding under your belt in the year before trying it, so beware.

Other trips like mine focus on the villages and vineyards of Luberon.

From La Coquillade hotel, you can do the circular tour of Mont Ventoux if you are up to it. Pictured is part of the route up the mountain

From La Coquillade hotel, you can do the circular tour of Mont Ventoux if you are up to it. Pictured is part of the route up the mountain

The Mont Ventoux cycling route is 'is as tough as it gets', Mark reveals. Above is the view of the Alps from the peak

The Mont Ventoux cycling route is ‘is as tough as it gets’, Mark reveals. Above is the view of the Alps from the peak 

Mark stops for a light lunch at Aureto, the hotel’s own vineyard (pictured above)

Mark stops for a light lunch at Aureto, the hotel’s own vineyard (pictured above)

After enjoying a massage at La Coquillade, Mark emerges from the pamper room 'a new man, ready for the outdoor pool, sauna and plunge pool'. Above is the hotel's indoor pool

After enjoying a massage at La Coquillade, Mark emerges from the pamper room ‘a new man, ready for the outdoor pool, sauna and plunge pool’. Above is the hotel’s indoor pool 

Nothing really prepares you so ideally for a spa session as a few hours in the saddle. After a herbal tea in a marbled foyer I am ushered into the sepulchral calm of Nicole’s treatment room. A soothing massage later, I am swept off into another world and emerge from the pamper room a new man, ready for the outdoor pool, sauna and plunge pool.

My splendid ‘junior suite’ has a terrace overlooking rows of cypress trees which lead down a sweeping valley past the vineyard.

France’s enormous network of cycleways and planned routes make it one of the most cycle-friendly countries on the planet. And what better way to burn up the calories of its fabulous gastronomic tradition?

TRAVEL FACTS 

Coquillade Provence Resort & Spa has rooms from €750 per room, per night including spa access during your stay and a visit to the Aureto Winery. For more information visit coquillade.fr

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