The Diversity of Provence
When embarking on a research trip we try to cover as much ground as possible. As Macs Adventure have quite a number of different walking and cycling tours in Provence, and we are looking to add a few more, I wanted to see a lot in only 9 days! I had travelled to Provence before but only a small part of it, the cities of Arles and Nimes to be exact. Provence is BIG and covers an area from the Hautes Alpes in the northeastern part of the region to the area of Drome in the north-west and down through to the areas made famous by the Romans, Avignon and the Pont du Gard. Across to the Luberon with its incredible hill-top villages, Les Alpilles (little Alps), Vars, the Cote d’Azur on the Mediterranean and all the way to Haute Provence next to the Italian border. Phew! I am sure I missed some places, but you get the gist. Landing in Lyon we initially travelled south and east towards the area around Mont Ventoux, or the “Beast of Provence” which in early April was still covered in snow. As many of you probably know this is one of the most gruelling climbs during the Tour de France…..I feel my muscles aching as I write this, just thinking about what that experience must be like!
We arrived in Buis les Baronnies and “La Ancienne Cure” a delightful guest house that guests will stay in if they go on our “Lavender Way” Drive & Hike tour. We were greeted warmly with glasses of wine by Eric, the owner (who were we to refuse?). All the local wine here is incredibly inexpensive and even if you are not a connoisseur, you can’t really go wrong. The house whites were always crisp and light and the house reds delicious and velvety. One of the reasons that the wines are so good here is because of the Mistral, the cool wind that blows through Provence and helps with the viticulture. After taking a walk around the Crest of St Julien through fields of blossoming fruit trees and with views overlooking the valley we jumped in the car and headed for Montbrun-les-Bains a town right in the heart of lavender country. Even though the lavender was not blooming whilst we were there, the landscape here took our breath away…so when the lavender is in bloom I am sure that it is heavenly.
Cycling in the Luberon
Next, we headed to Isles sur la Sorgue, literally a town surrounded by a river. Here we were supplied with bikes by our team in this area and off we went out into the glorious countryside through little towns and villages of the Luberon. Once it started getting hilly my sister (who travelled with me) was glad to have an E-bike, which she described as something similar to when you are learning to ride a bike and your Dad is holding your bike and gives you a gentle push. As for me, I like a challenge and I managed the 39km and finished all in one piece, feeling very exhilarated…especially after the final section, which is all downhill!
Towns & Villages
A classic and well-known area of Provence came next…the towns of St Rémy and Les Baux-de-Provence, both interesting in their own right. Luckily we were in St Rémy on market day and I felt like a local checking out all the stalls, food, clothes, handbags, in fact, everything you can think of! I would have felt even more like a local if I didn’t have a camera strapped onto me, but what great photo opportunities! After the market (I just had to buy a handbag and stuffed it into my backpack!) we embarked on the days walk to Les Baux, a hill-top village with small cobbled streets. Admittedly we started talking, missed a turning and ended up walking further than we had to…..so arriving into the village we walked through the old gates, sat in the first café we came to and ordered a cold beverage! After a mooch around the town we arrived back at the town gates and there was a man with a sign waiting to give us a ride back to St Rémy so that could retrieve our car. (Pre-arranged and not just a coincidence!)
From the Mountains to the "Calanques"
St Baume Mountain Range…have any of you heard of it? I hadn’t, but as the initial walking region on our brand new “Mountains to the Sea” tour, I wanted to check it out. Because of time constraints we didn’t walk, but rather drove up and over the mountain pass to see the lovely little hotel in the town of Plan d’Aups. I nearly gave my sister a heart attack as it was a bit of scary drive with drop-offs. We thanked our lucky stars that no cars were coming in the opposite direction! The St Baume Mountain Range is a few kilometres from the Mediterranean coast and provides views to Mont Ventoux in the far north of the region all the way down to the Mediterranean in the south. Onwards to Cassis…a town with a colourful and vibrant harbour and set in the middle of the “Calanques,” fjord-like landscapes which you can walk around or take boat rides through. It’s unique because when you walk you can see the sailing boats up close without walking out onto a jetty. With a turquoise sea and not many other walkers around it’s hard to believe that we were just a few km from Marseilles, the second-largest city in France!
Perched Villages and Sparkling Coasts
Our last stop was Menton, a town which hugs the Italian border and is nicknamed the “Pearl of France”. It is overlooked by many perched villages, one of which is Sainte Agnes. Riding there on a local bus, my sister nearly had a second heart attack as the road winds up and up into the mountains behind Menton!! She admitted later that she was glad she had endured the ride as Sainte Agnes (pictured) is an adorable little town with magnificent views over Menton and the sparkling Mediterranean Sea. In Menton, we stayed in a delightful guest house called “La Petite Maison” located down a little alleyway in the old quarter and run by Beatrice, a woman with a story to tell! Born in Uruguay to French parents, she moved to Paris and married a Mexican. Two little girls later and after the demise of that marriage, she married an Argentinian merchant navy man, had two more little girls and moved to Menton. Unfortunately, that marriage didn’t work out either and now here she was running this gorgeous guest house and providing one of the best breakfasts we had ever had! So next time you think of Provence, don’t restrict it to a few hill-top villages. Provence is truly diverse and an inspiration for new walking and cycling ideas. Whilst giving our guests the “old classics” Provence really does have it all, great walking and cycling, fabulous cuisine, inexpensive and great wine, local history, great accommodations, the mountains and the sea. You don’t speak French? Don’t worry, times have changed in France and although the French like you to make an effort, you won't get a haughty look as if to say “What do you mean, you don’t speak French?!” J’adore France et j’adore Provence! You can watch my video here, or browse all the walking and cycling tours in Provence in Macs Adventure's collection.