Friday, October 8, 2004

posted on 10/08/2004

Provence 2004

Following up from the amazing experience which was California was never going to be easy but Provence really surprised me and turned out to be a fantastic destination for my next cycling trip. In this region of France, one of the most passionate countries when it comes to this sport, everyday there was an exciting discovery, a fascinating and stunning panorama was never far away and I was often left gasping at the beauty of being able to discover this part of the world on my bicycle. It would be hard to summarize a few highlights only as each day had surprises, unexpected places and landscapes that made my progress often slow as I had to continuously stop to get that next shot with my camera. What will remain would definitely be the warmth and contrast of colours that paint the landscape whether inland or by the sea. For any cyclist reaching the top of a tour de France Hors Categorie climb is always exciting and on this trip I was fortunate enough to climb Mont Ventoux, one of the most challenging and unusual of them all with its almost alien dry landscape of dust and rocks and its blistering winds! Often roads were perfect for a bicycle, narrow and very little trafficked, crossing incredibly beautiful sceneries. Clear example of this was surely the Corniche Sublime, a balcony around the stunning cliffs of the Gorges du Verdon. One is never far from views that inspired painters and artists and one is left in no doubt as to the reason why so much inspiration was found in this part of the world.

Nice - Cannes, 28th September 2004

A good flight to Nice apart from the small glitch of having lost my jumper with home keys at Luton Airport! This means that I have 12 days to sort the problem out before some pretty cold nights out back in London! At 16.00 local time we landed and by 17.00 ( I am getting better at this ) I had set up all my gears and was ready to go. After the usual getting lost in the wilderness of suburban Nice road system and sharing 3 lanes with maniac drivers I finally found route national 98 the road following the seashore of the Cote d'Azur. For the next 12 km to Antibes traffic was still pretty heavy but after Cap d'Antibes it is like awakening from a bad dream. The scenic road becomes narrow, traffic disappears and one can take in the first nice views of the sea. Mediterrenean pines and eucalyptus scent the air of a fragrant perfume, another world from the noise and bustle of big cities. Reaching Cannes I bought some groceries and as dusk was quickly setting looking for a campsite prooved harder than I thought. As I was getting quite desperate and resigning to 'tramp mode' and a wild pitch any old where I finally saw a big camping site at La Bocca right after Cannes. I set up my tent in complete darkness and ate the remaining Madeleines cakes for dinner crushing at an early hour!

Cannes - Taradeau, 29th September 2004

I left at 8.30 and cycled along N98 following the most scenic and beautiful part of the coast running from Cannes to St Raphael. Here the road twists along the rocky sea shore tugged between the Mediterrenean and the Massif de l'Esterel a striking mountain range of red rocky peaks rising from forests of fluorescent green pines. This and the intense blue of the sea and sky make for unforgettable images. After St Raphael the coast looses a bit of that magnificence but still makes for an enjoyable ride particularly since often a cycle way veers off and follows parallel to the National Route. After St Maxim I said goodbye to the sea and turned inland towards Grimaud where a bit tired and thirsty on my first real cycling day, I enjoyed a stroll around the ancient ruins of the castle and the typical little alleys of an old provencal village. I then followed D558 that became narrower and after the long climb to La Garde a long descent took me to Vidauban reached through D58 a must for anyone riding around here! A tiny road with hardly any traffic cutting through beautiful hills. I ended this day in Taradeau where the only open campsite in the area is.

Taradeau - Puyloubier, 30th September 2004

I left Taradeau direction Lorgues. The highlight of the day will be the Cistercian Abbey of Thoronet reached after 25 km. My lack of research made me think that it was still an active monastery and at the entrance I asked reassurance as to the appropriateness of my cycling clothes! The ticket office lady looked at me as if I was coming straight from Mars and confirmed that in a 1000 years those ancient Abbey's brick must have seen much worse! Despite having been left by the last monks in 1760 it retains the peace and contemplative mood it must have had then. A truly inspiring place, where Cistercian architecture can be admired in all its simplicity and beauty. Also being empty means that you are free to visit all the section of the monastery at your own pace. I continued along a secondary road along the thick 'foret de la Darbussiere' reaching Vin sur Caramy and Bras. It's been a rewarding but tough day as for all the way I had a strong headwind and I misjudged food supplies leaving me understocked for the afternoon shops closure between 12.30 and 16.00. Nutella and some stale bread proved to be life savers! Once in St Maximin the largest town met today I dived eagerly in the ailes of a supermarket and obviously overate in the town square unaware that the patient crowd filling the square was waiting for a funeral procession to the church. Next on my list and now few km away were the first sights of Mt St Victoire famously painted repeated times by Cezanne who use to walk there often from his home in Aix en Provence. I found the appropriatly named 'Camping Cezanne' in Puyloubier where tents are pitched at the foot of the mountain itself, highly recommended. From there I could also stare at a magnificient susnet with clouds burning like flames.

Puyloubier - Maussane, 1st October 2004

Another amazing day of cycling on the roads of Provence. I left the campsite with the omen of a clear blue sky and Mont Sainte Victoire's rock faces alight in yellow ochre. Route 17 along the valley was the nicest ridden so far, imagining Cezanne staring at the same views in search of inspirantion. It is narrow with hardly any traffic, cyclists paradise. I descended to Aix en Provence where inspired by those landscapes I headed to the 'Atelier Cezanne' the original house that was the painter's workshop. I managed to snap a few pictures despite the big signs forbidding it. After Aix I began the long straight of D17 riding through Eiguilles all the way to Salon de Provence. Worried about the state of my back wheel and without a properly functioning rear brake I found a shop willing to do the job in an hour. This gave me the time to sort out the key problem and finally forget about that. I reached Eyguieres thinking today I had seen it all when I took D25 the 'route de Baux'a scenic road along the 'Alpilles' mountain range. This was another outstanding ride uphill first and then downhill with great views of the craggy mountains and through forests of pines turning the road into a green tunnel of nature. This took me to Maussane where I found a good campsite to spend the night. Tomorrow is Van Gogh day as I am now only 10km from St Remy de Provence the mental hospital where he lived and painted in the last year of his life. Weather forecasts are still going my way!

Maussane - Bedoin, 2nd October 2004

Eventful day. A day on a bike gives time and the places you visit a totally different dimension. After the last look at the Alpilles on the way to St Remy I visited the 'clinique St Paul' the hospital where Van Gogh spent one of the last years of his life. Although the room he occupied is still part of the hospital another one has been reconstructed to reflect the original. Through the windows you can see some of the views that he painted while there as witnessed by some of his works. From St Remy to Cavaillon I took the main route D99 only a way to cut the road short but rather high on traffic and because a bit narrow, quite dangerous. The second beautiful sight was hard gained after the short but steep climb that takes to a terrace from where one has a great view of the village of Gordes perched on top of a hill. Surely the most characteristic village seen sofar. A few more Km uphill and after a short descent I caught the first glimpses of the Abbey of Senanque, much larger than I had imagined. Luck meant that a guided tour was about to start taking visitors to the heart of the monastery where currently 7 cistercian monks live. The place is magic and full of charme even though the lavander fields in front are not in flower at this time of the year. Left the Abbey I had a further steep climb to tackle. Idyllic views all around and after 30 minutes the long and entertaining descent to Mazan began. Mont Ventoux could now be seen in the distance, a ghostlike appearance, a giant in an otherwise flat land. I reached Bedouin at 19.00 found a campsite at the foot of the mountain that tomorrow I look forward to climb.

Bedoin - Forcalquier, 3rd October 2004

Finally climbing Mt Ventoux. The mythic giant of Provence and merciless judge of many Tour de France. The climb is any cyclist dream despite the steep grade that relentlessly climbs from the plains to the 1912m of its arid bold top. Despite being friday it was a procession of bike fanatics I don't think to exagerate in saying that at the same time that I was riding it so were at least 200 other cyclists. The landscape could not be more dramatic as the first half of the climb through green forests suddenly gives way to the most desolate landscape of stones battered by strong winds and too inhospitable for any plant to grow. The last 6 km to the summit were dominated by the deep blue sky and the dirty white of the stones cut through by the black tarmac curling up the mountain side like a snake. The last part was really tough with painful legs, steep ramps and a strong and chilly headwind making every pedal stroke a challenge. Lunch was at the top with a grand view spanning for hundreds of km all around, from the Alps to the hazy horizons leading to the sea. I started the long descent to Sault and then followed D30 to Simian a 3 lane big road where in one hour I crossed 3 cars, what a waste of tarmac! Between Simian and St Michel I took a most scenic tiny road D18 and then D5 to St Michel with unspoilt nature at its best and hardly any traffic at all. Here I also crossed a couple touring on bikes, a dutch girl and a danish guy and we could exchange what to expect on our respective directions. I reached Forcalquier and set camp next to a couple of Swiss pensioners riding their bike and camping around southern France, very nice and good natured people. They must have been in their sixties and I wish I am as fit as them at their age and still able to enjoy this.

Forcalquier - Castellane, 4th October 2004

Surely the best of all rides today. I had great expectations as far as the Gorges du Verdon are concerned but little did I know that each of the 100km covered in the day would be so beautiful. I started early which meant that between St Croix and Aiguines where the Gorges begin, the road was deserted of traffic so much so that in the first 2 hours I only crossed 3 cars! The early morning mist on the lake also added to the wild beauty of it all. Between St Andrieux and Aiguines the ride was flat until D699 where it rises in a regular climb. At Aiguines I was welcomed by a sign of doom, 'road works, road closed 2 km ahead' and it didn't sound any nicer than that in french! Determined to not miss this unique chance I went ahead anyway ready to walk it should the worse come. My gamble was a success and in fact being on a bike I was the only one left through while all cars and motorbikes were kindly asked to stop and get back to where they had come from! The 'Corniche sublime' as this road is called was superb although hard work with lot of climbing up to 1200m. Views were breathtaking and I couldn't help stopping each time a new panorama was appearing behind the next bend in the road. It hangs like a balcony high up on the gorges I guess about 600 m from the level of the river down below. Leaving the Verdon I reached Comps sur Artuby where I stopped for a drink before taking D955 and D952 to Castellane. To my surprise this was as beautiful as what had preceded it. The road after a long descent reached the river level and wound its way along stunning narrow canyons always parallel to the river Verdon giving an opposite perspective.

Castellane - St Paul, 5th October 2004

Having covered most of the tour I had planned all is left is two leisurely days approaching Nice where I will have 2 days to spare before the return
flight. I left later than usual aiming to cover just 65 km. The start was brought quickly to a halt by some bad karma that made a pin dropped on the road find a sweet spot on my tyre! It pierced it so well that had I not removed it no air would have leaked and I might have made it to St Paul at the rythmic beat of metal. Repaired the tyre and another one punctured few days before I followed the 'Route de Napoleon' through some pretty deserted places, climbing three successive cols the highest being the 'Col de la Valferriere' at 1169m. There I took a right turn on a charming road going through Mons and Faience, a road I had previously ridden in the opposite direction few years back. Another provencal bike heaven in a one lane road and hardly any traffic. I stopped at Mons a typical old village perched on a hilltop, had lunch on the square with grand views dominating the valleys and mountains all around. I proceded to Faience and ended the day in St Paul en Foret where I found a campsite in a farm, cheaper than traditional campsites but surprisingly of almost better quality. Surrounded by fields of olive trees it seems the quietest place on earth. At night one could really hear what silence means before nature wakes up in the early morning at the first cockrel's crows.

St Paul en Foret - Cagnes, 6th October 2004

Final riding day I decided once more to cycle the 'Corniche d'Or' the road along the coast. I am sure in full season due to traffic one cannot really enjoy it but now it is surprisingly quiet. I got to St Raphael from where the nicest part starts. Cycling towards Nice means this time the lane is on the sea side with great views all the time. Not only the mediterranean to admire but also soon after St Raphael the red rocky peaks and pine forest of the Massif de l'Esterel begins. St Juan les Pins and the peninsula of Cap d'Antibes were the last treat before civilisation took the upper hand at Villeneuve Loubet. I decided to stay in Cagnes sure Mer due to its closeness to Nice airport and as the locations of my last visit 'Les Collettes' the house turned museum where Renoir spent his winters for the last 20 years of his life.