Friday, 29 July 2016

Cycling In Provence: The Rhône Valley Outbound

Saturday -- the first 'proper' day of our holiday - dawned a little on the grey side. This was a blessing somewhat, as I had a migraine (triggered by a phone call that jolted me out of a deep sleep the previous evening). On my personal scale of 1 - 10 (with 10 being "shoot me now" and 5 being the threshold for "no longer able to pretend to function, must lie down in dark room"), this was running only about 3-4, so "bearable" but it certainly was casting a pall over my morning. 

Breakfast was disappointing in its lack of protein but the coffee ("American", our host said proudly) was strong and I drank two cups. 

Our bicycles had been stored in the garage overnight. It didn't take long to pack up and be on our way, with the plan being to find a grocery store on the way out of Avignon to supplement our meagre breakfast and buy provisions for a picnic lunch. 

First stop, however, was the chemists (pharmacy) around the corner from our B&B, where I bought extra-strength paracetamol + caffeine tablets to try and keep me going. 

a docking station for Avignon's city bike-share scheme

This chap scooted at speed ahead of us for much of the time we spent on this main road out of town.

On the very edge of town, we found a shop actually open that was selling food.
Turned out to be a Halal shop. Meat!

After a few miles cycling on the hard shoulder of a dual carriageway (not at all the ordeal this would be in the UK), we turned off onto quiet farm roads. Farm roads being farm roads, well, you never know who or what you might meet!

An hour or so later, struggling a little in the unaccustomed heat and with my head still pounding, we spotted a small municipal park, which looked perfect for a late morning break.

I loved seeing lavender just starting to bloom. It would be another 4-6 weeks (just about now, in fact) before lavender would reach its peak

Amazing how refreshing it can be to just take your shoes off!

The river did look very inviting...

On preparing to leave, we consulted the map, calculated our water supplies and plotted distances and timings to try and hit a suitable town with cafes open during the quite strict French serving hours of 12pm-2pm. We decided to aim for Jonquières for lunch. 

The Rhône River is one of the major rivers of Europe. It starts in Switzerland and passes through Lake Geneva before running through southeastern France. Near its mouth, it splits into two branches (the Great Rhône and the Little Rhône), with the delta in between constituting the Camargue region (which I only know about from my horse-mad youth, reading about the semi-wild Camargue ponies).

The Rhône Valley is wide, flat and incredibly fertile. I fully expected to see vineyards. What I did not expect was wheat, potatoes and every imaginable form of fruit in orchards covering vast farms. 

Oh yes, and my very favourite flower of all: poppies!

We arrived in Jonquières about 12.30pm. We were not actually hungry for lunch, which is just as well because a full circuit of the town revealed nothing open but a pizza parlour. Adam was prepared to simply carry on but the increasing heat and my pounding head leveraged my request to seek refuge under the awning of a tabac shop for cold Diet Cokes. 

Cold Drink Face Compress

It was also an opportunity to scope out the rest of our route for the day. Adam made further tweaks to avoid busy main roads while ensuring we could visit the two exceptionally scenic hilltop towns of Sablet and Séguret on the western slopes of a small mountain range called Dentelles de Montmirail.

I was aware all along of the ranges of mountains ahead and off to our right (as we very gradually approached it at an angle from the southwest). Very soon after leaving Avignon, however, I realised that one mountain in the range seemed set apart. It quite simply looms over the valley. Every which way you turn, you can feel its silent, watchful presence. 

This is of course Mount Ventoux, the legendary Giant of Provence.

It would be another day before the clouds drifted away to reveal the distinctive white peak, and we would cycle much closer to it later in the week. (Adam would, in fact, get up close and personal with the mountain the very next morning.)

We cycled on quiet roads running parallel to the west of the D977 as far as Violès (where we cycled on a brief stretch of cycling lane, just for fun). 

Soon after Violès, we crossed over the Ouvèze River. 

House in a Hillside

Cypress trees

Approaching Sablet, the ground beneath us took a definite turn upwards. Then we had the climb up into Sablet itself. The gradient was about 10% with a couple hairpin bends but I made it all the way up without stopping! My head pounded more than usual with the increased heart rate but a brief stop to catch my breath and drink some water soon restored me to the (mercifully bearable) baseline of my migraine attack. (We did not actually go to the very highest point as it would have meant negotiating a one-way system going the 'wrong way' from where we wanted to go.)

Looking down

Looking further up

Out of Sablet, looking back.

the clock tower in Sablet

No sooner were we leaving Sablet than we were looking ahead at Séguret. This hilltop village can be seen from the valley floor for miles around. The warm yellow stone from which it is built makes it look like a golden fairytale village. 

Approaching Séguret was all uphill. By the time we reached the first of several turnings toward the village, I was wholly concentrated on the rhythm of my pedalling. I had been struggling a little, following Adam, as the gearing on the two bicycles are very different and it was tricky for him to find a pace that I could follow at an even distance. I was either gaining on him... quickly! Or falling behind... quickly!  So I went in front and he adapted his pace to mine behind me. 

It was taking strong determination to keep the loaded Brompton going uphill in the lowest of its three gears at a speed that made it worth staying on and not walking! And we were back on main roads (D23/D88), which were well-surfaced and wide but were of course a little busier with faster traffic. When we reached the roundabout where the D23 and D88 join, the right hand turn is the last chance to go into Séguret. Adam shouted the question, I shouted back "Nope!" and kept on pedalling. I powered through the roundabout, bearing ten o'clock onto the D88 and Whee! A long downhill! 

A long, swoopy descent running along the edge of the slopes of the mountains with beautiful views out over the Rhône Valley. It was a shame the skies had clouded over again, but coasting along being cooled by the breeze was an appropriate reward for toiling up a couple of tough-for-a-Brompton hills without walking. 

The descent was interrupted when I hit a slight bump at speed and my camera bounced right out of the end pocket of my handlebar bag!  Adam went back for it. Whether it was that crash or something else, I noticed a few days later that the camera would not focus when the zoom was in use. (I didn't notice the blurry photos until I had a chance to scroll through my photos on a larger screen out of bright sunlight! After that, nearly half my photos were taken with my phone.) 

We enjoyed a few more miles of rolling terrain before crossing over the busy D97 dual carriageway and then picking up a backdoor route along the river into Vaison-la-Romaine. 

On crossing the river once again, from north to south, we had a long incline with fairly unremarkable (for Provence) houses and small businesses to our right.  

And then Adam indicated he was pulling over and dismounting, and I looked up out of my reverie to find that everything had changed. 

My state of mind all day had been a bit more about turning the pedals and enduring my headache rather than glorying in the scenery. Of course, I had enjoyed the views and our surroundings but somehow, I had been lured into a kind of complacency by the consistently lovely countryside through which we had cycled all day. I was therefore simply not prepared for the dramatic "out of place and time" setting of Vaison-la-Romaine. 

I must resort to Google StreetView again to give you a flavour for the sequence here, because I was travelling unsuspectingly into something quite extraordinary and didn't see it coming and so of course was not taking photos. 

Suburban outskirts of the modern city of Vaison-la-Romaine

Crossing L'Ouvèze yet again today, unaware that it separates
modern Vaison-la-Romaine from medieval Vaison-la-Romaine

Pedalling along the south bank of L'Ouvèze

My, that is very pretty indeed!

"Oh. My. God."

I posted on Facebook that night that I was suffering from some kind of sensory overload. It is hard to describe. Maybe the effect can only be achieved by cycling all day through idyllic countryside in the heat of a Provençal sun with a pounding headache. 

Whatever the explanation, I could barely take it in. The next day I realised the carving in the cliff was a memorial to those who lost their lives in a very recent (relatively speaking) conflict, but at the moment, in the moment, I felt as if I had tumbled down a rabbit hole into a very ancient place, surrounded by the hot stone of living history. 

Exhaustion, that's what it was. But at the same time, as we turned to the right and began picking our way up the steep mountain street, it was also a kind of exhilaration. My jaw had permanently dropped and I barely knew how to put one foot in front of the other, such was my sense of overwhelming amazement at this place. 

We met an American couple who took photos of us just before we reached our hotel. 

And then we had arrived at Hostellerie le Beffroi, our home away from home for the next three nights. 

This hotel (consisting of two mansions dating back to 1556 A.D.) only deepened my sensation of having stepped back in time. The friendly manageress was very real as she efficiently directed us to put our bicycles in "the garage" but in reality the unremarkable wooden door in faded red was a modern concession to security, disguising a medieval entrance into one of the hotel's courtyards. 

Some who have stayed at Le Belfroi say the rooms are small and the decor dated. I do not disagree! They are however clean and, I thought, rather charming. There is also no air conditioning! Thank goodness for 3-foot-thick walls, then. 

The views from our window, however, entirely made up for any 'deficiencies' in the accommodation.

Overheard references to Roman ruins in this richly textured city were finally penetrating my consciousness. Maybe not tomorrow but soon (migraine permitting) we would be off to explore everything we could see. 

First, though, there was the matter of dinner. 

my view from our table in the garden of La Fontaine restaurant,
which is attached to the hotel. 

salmon starter - very nice

I have forgotten the French name but this was rabbit wrapped in bacon, in a vegetable soup. Sublime!
So good, I had it again the next day - the list of vegetables in the soup varied
but the herbs and seasonings were unbelievably good. I could eat this every day. 

The food was rich and rewarding, as had been the day.

Tired and content, it was time to sleep. 


Maps to follow.


  1. Serving hours of 12-2pm. That doesn't sound like much. I would assume restaurants in larger cities are open longer hours.


    1. I've never been in Paris at lunchtime but have certainly found the restricted hours a consistent problem all over France during my travels the past 15 years. I always forget about it til I come up against it on the next trip! We don't always eat lunch but if you miss that window then you have a long wait til restaurants open in the evening - usually 7.30pm, sometimes 8pm, very occasionally as early as 7pm. Bars and tabacs are open all day serving drinks and packaged snacks but that's not always "enough". Very different from UK pubs and cafes!


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