A map of Provence.
Global lifestyle editor Jason Oliver Nixon hits the pavement (on a bike) in southern France, home to lavender fields, vineyards, olive trees and Peter Mayle. But how does he fare on the mountainous byways and seemingly endless uphills? Here, a taste of his bicycle diaries.
When my mom calls to see if I would like to join her and my dad for a six-day bike trip through Provence in southern France, I nearly spit out my gin martini. Not because I’ve never tackled serious biking: As a teen, I once cycled northern Spain on the switchback-prone pilgrimage route of Santiago de Compostela. It’s just that I haven’t taken an active vacation in several years (unless you call walking to a beach bar for a glass of rose wine “active”). But while I haven’t seen the inside of a gym in years, I am careful of what I eat and I do hit the treadmill in my basement occasionally—after first removing the dry cleaning, of course. And because I am also one-half of an interior design business, I’m constantly moving chairs, sofas and tables. So, I take stock . . .
The pros? Provence. Fields of lavender. Sunflowers. Olive oil. Mistral winds. And biking! I have been trying to get back into shape for a while, and maybe this is just the jump-start I need.
The cons? Hills! There are mountains in the South of France. And hill towns. Plus, lots of Spandex.
After mulling all of this over, martini in hand, I decide, “Why not?”
A Pastis, S’il Vous Plaît
I fly into Nice and catch the TGV high-speed train to the charming and once-papal city of Avignon. My parents will arrive a few hours later from Paris, so I check into the apartment that we have rented in the city center. We rendezvous that evening for aperitifs near the pope’s former palace.
“Are you ready?” I ask my mom.
“No,” I retort. “For the biking.”
My parents are longtime cycists and often jetted off during my adolescence for trips through the hills of Tuscany, Umbria and Burgundy. Granted, they aren’t 40 or 50 or even 60 anymore, but they still have it going on.
“I hear it’s more uphill than I thought,” my mom sighs. “Your father didn’t really read the brochure.”
My father rolls his eyes.
Meet, Greet and Get in the Seat
A few days later and dressed in biking gear, we catch an early morning cab from our apartment to the Avignon TGV station where we meet up with the group and team leaders. We are a motley crew in bright, clingy Spandex, clickety-clacking about the pavement. My father and I assess the crowd and decide that we are perhaps a 7 on a fitness scale of 1 to 10. After cursory introductions, we pile into a coach bus for lunch at a nearby restaurant and then an afternoon bike ride to our first overnight near the “charming hilltop city of Les Baux.” (That’s our chirpy guide speaking.)
“Wait. Hilltop?” I think to myself. “On Day One?”
My mother pokes my father.
Over the course of the day, we meet everyone and think up mnemonics to remember names: Pat rhymes with “flat,” Lil sounds like “ill,” etc. Our fellow bikers—there are 21 of us in total, 8 men and 13 women—include an interior designer from Florida who is celebrating her birthday with gal pals, a very fit newlywed duo from Manhattan, an engaging husband and wife from Texas and another couple from Michigan, three stylish Brazilians with varying degrees of English-speaking abilities, a Brit and her partner from Colorado and a few other Americans, as well as our guides who hail from upstate New York, Canada and London. We range in age from 32 to 70.
But let’s backtrack: The group settles in for an al fresco lunch and the conversation kicks in as the wine starts flowing. “Where are you from?” “What do you do?” “Do you bike a lot? And how did you prepare for the trip?”
Meanwhile, I’m wondering just how much wine I can drink and still follow a straight line. It is Day One after all, and I can’t be that person from the get-go.
Lunch wraps up after a safety discussion, and we fill our water bottles, grab snacks, don our helmets, review our route maps, hop on our bikes and begin our first ascent. Destination: Les Baux-de-Provence!
Day One is an 18-mile warm-up, a taste of what’s to come. The scenery is stunning, thanks to pine-filled valleys, stone-clad villas and fields of sunflowers. Ability-wise, I fall somewhere in the middle: I am slightly ahead of my parents (at times) and just behind the Naples, Florida, birthday crew, but I’m far behind the New Yorkers and the gent from Colorado who will arrive everywhere hours before anyone else.
I pace myself, enjoy the ride and chat up the Brazilians, who visit New York often. I’m grateful for a long downhill and thank the sun, moon and stars for my bike’s “granny” gear when I hit the outskirts of Les Baux, a stunning village situated atop the Val d’Enfer (the Valley of Hell).
After various switchbacks and numerous check-ins with the sag wagon that keeps track of the riders (and totes the luggage from inn to inn), I finally reach our first night’s destination, the casual-chic Auberge de la Benvengudo inn. I find my luggage and cozy room and set out to explore Les Baux’s winding streets, galleries and fortifications on foot.
That night, dinner at the hotel is fun, and we all drink too much and congratulate each other on a job well done. We learn who has been training to prepare for the trip and how (lots of spin classes) and who has not (me).
Up With People
By 8 a.m., we are on the road. Not enough coffee, and my legs are on fire. Day Two is a 22-mile route through the market town of Saint-Rémy. We learn that there is a longer option, too, but when the Nixons (and a few others) face the first steep incline, we instinctively—and collectively—decide to stick to the basic route.
The group reunites at a picturesque monastery where Vincent van Gogh lived as a patient after cutting off part of his ear (the alpha bikers—aka the New Yorkers—arrived an hour before us, and one of the Brazilians is lost). After our tour, we pedal through Saint-Rémy where the morning market is in full swing. We stop and stock up on candy-hued baskets that we tie to the back of our bikes with bungee cords. We travel a few more miles through flatlands populated with cypress and olive trees toward an atmospheric olive oil mill where the guides have pulled together cheeses, charcuterie, fresh breads and dessert. Happily, there is rose wine on the menu, too.
After lunch, we and the Brazilians revisit Saint-Rémy instead of following the assigned route, and the guides give us revised directions back to the auberge near Les Baux where we are staying another night. We settle in at a charming café in Saint-Rémy before pedaling back to the hotel. The Nixons decide that we will set our own pace, and we will leave it to the New Yorkers and the Coloradan to take the extended routes that all seem to involve mountaintop abbeys and fortified citadels.
No Pain, No Gain
Day Three is a killer. Even though we have chosen to take our time and be leisurely, the uphills through the Luberon range on the 28-mile route to Robion are really tough. I take plenty of breaks and justify my vast consumption of M&Ms with the excuse of plummeting sugar levels. My parents are troopers. Finally, we all reach the quaint village of Eygalières huffing and puffing.
We gather bread, cheese and fruit at a local bakery and take our time before hitting the road again. We skirt the industrial city of Cavaillon and pass through the towns of Cheval-Blanc, Robion and Oppède-le-Vieux before arriving at our second hotel, le Roy Soleil. We check our bikes and walk somewhat bowleggedly up the hill to the postcard-perfect town of Ménerbes, home to Peter Mayle, author of A Year in Provence. It’s time for a cocktail—or three.
King of the Hill
On the fourth day of the trip, my leg muscles seem to be kicking in. And the bowleggedness has disappeared, too. I feel refreshed and am ready to tackle the day’s 24-mile route to Roussillon. My parents are feeling great, too, and we brave the uphill climb to the village of Lacoste.
Once home to the infamous Marquis de Sade, Lacoste has been largely renovated by fashion force Pierre Cardin, and the revived town now boasts numerous galleries and artists’ studios. We climb uphill on foot and explore Sade’s former castle, now owned by Cardin and filled with exquisite sculptures and furnishings. The vistas from the chateau are incredible.
More hills and climbs lead up to the nearby town of Bonnieux. Upon arrival, we explore the bustling al fresco market where vendors sell honey, vegetables, soaps and colorful linens. From there, it’s on to Roussillon, a town renowned for its red-hued ochre deposits. I check in at a local café and decide to take the van back to the hotel with several other members of the group so that I can catch up on emails. My reenergized parents bike back from Roussillon to Ménerbes and meet up with me by the pool some hours later.
Tonight’s dinner is on our own, so we call a cab and head to a nearby bistro for steak frites and local wine. We are glad to have a night on our own and enjoy talking about anything but biking.
What Goes Up Must Come Down
Today is the final biking leg of the trip, so we are excited to tackle the morning’s uphill ride to Gordes, a spectacular village that clings to the Vaucluse Plateau and offers terrific views. From there, it’s a long, long ascent and, hallelujah, a miles-long descent through a stunning and craggy ravine. We stop for lunch in vest pocket-sized, beautiful Venasque and bike through miles of vineyards before finishing our grand tour at the sumptuous Chateau de Mazan, another of the Marquis de Sade’s former villas. The guy really did get around.
That night, the group convenes for cocktails and a festive goodbye dinner at the hotel. In the morning, we will be dropped off at the Avignon train station to head our separate ways. We take photos on our iPhones and swap email addresses and Twitter handles. The Brazilians invite my parents to São Paulo, and the New York couple suggest we meet for drinks soon.
The next day, my mom, dad and I pile onto the TGV bound for a few nights in Paris and take stock. “Would you do a biking trip again?” my mother asks.
I stop to ponder:
The pros? The biking was a test of my abilities, and I was pleased that I could still tackle and overcome a physical challenge. I met great people, saw wonderful scenery and drank terrific wines. Best of all, I had fun with my parents.
The cons? The trip was more about endurance than enjoying the various villages and stopping to enjoy the scenery and smell the sunflowers. (“There wasn’t enough shopping,” one of the Brazilians confided in me.)
My parents decide that the next bike trip will be an obvious choice: Holland. “At the very least, it’s below sea level,” my mother quips. Count me in, I say. I am very A-OK with tiptoeing through the tulips. //
Editor's Note: Biking with Backroads
My parents and I chose to bike Provence with Backroads on its Casual Inn Trip, a six-day/five-night journey that included bikes, guides, accommodations and most meals (but not most wines, cocktails or gratuities). The hotels were charming auberges, not five-star accommodations. If you are wishing to stay in grand chateaus, this is not the trip for you. The included dinners were communal and most of the group was traveling in pairs, so you might feel like the odd man out if you’re traveling alone.