Posted by: Jennifer Sage | February 21, 2008

Vaison-la-Romaine – a great hub for cycling Provence

Vaison-la-Romaine, Provence, France.

Vaison-la-Romaine, a small city located in the department of the Vaucluse, is a fantastic hub from which to access many great cycling routes in Provence. A bit touristy, but centrally located and it’s like three towns rolled into one, with three distinctive personalities. The first is the lively modern and vibrant commercial part of town is the largest portion, filled with chic provençal shops and outdoor cafés and brasseries under colorful awnings bordering tree-lined streets.  There are a few too many cheap touristy shops, but no one says you have to be lured into those! 

The second is on a hillock overlooking the river and town center – the highly fortified medieval village and castle ruins, dating from the 12th to the 17th centuries. Here you’ll find one of our preferred hotels, Le Beffroi, a charming 3-star renovated old house built in 1554, one that could easily be a 4-star (below is the view from the hotel). 

Le Beffroi Vaison-la-Romaine 

On the north side of the modern city is the 3rd ancient personality, the Vestiges Romaines, where a visit to these ruins is to delve into the lifestyles of the rich and famous of 2,000 years ago. The roman ruins were only discovered in 1907 by an amateur archeologist.  Careful excavations later revealed what is believed to be the long-lost city of Vasio,  covered over the centuries by alluvial deposits from the Ouvèze river.  Vasio was also known as Urbs Opulentissima, “richest city of them all”.  Some accounts claim that roman officers retired to Vasio after exemplary service with the Roman army. Think of this town as the Roman Palm Springs or Palm Beach of 100AD!

vaison-la-romain-ruins.jpg

Wealthy patrician houses and lavish villas reveal the lifestyle of their occupants, some with their own private baths and latrines, heated floors, enclosed atriums with fountains, pools and marble replicas of the owners.  Some houses were evidently built specifically as rental units.  Other aspects of the ancient city ruins include sidewalks, gutters, a public cistern and fountains, public latrines and a shopping district with small shops and bars located in the front entrances of more “middle income” households.  

The amphitheater, though not as well preserved as its neighbor in Orange, is dramatic in its location, built directly into the hillside with Mont Ventoux as a backdrop.  Still evident are the pits used for storing theatrical props raised and lowered during the performances.  One wonders how all this genius of architecture and city planning fell into obscurity as the world entered the fairly unsanitary and uncultured period of the Middle Ages. 

After the fall of the Roman Empire and invasions by the Franks in the late 5th century, the area went through a series of occupations.  In the 7th and 8th centuries, Vaison became an important early Christian bishopric. Later inhabitants of the town gradually moved up to the hillsides to be under the protection of the counts beginning in the 12th century.  Thus began the development of the fortified upper village.  The castle is in ruins but the views to the east towards Mont Ventoux and surrounding hillsides make the walk up through the narrow cobblestone streets worthwhile. 

Cycling around the Vaucluse 

From Vaison-la-Romain, you have access to a plethora of rides of varying abilities and lengths. Directly to the south, a fantastic ride circumnavigates the amazing mountain chain Les Dentelles de Montmirail, a small mountain chain with jagged ridges that resemble lace (dentelles means lace). On one side of the chain, explore tiny medieval villages and artist havens, including Séguret, listed as one of the most beautiful villages of France.  

prov-les-dentelles-de-montmirail.jpg

This is Cotes du Rhone wine country, and you’ll be cycling through some of the most famous vineyards of Provence, Gigondas and Vacqueyras, second only to the renowned Chateauneuf du Pape (and some say, much better and much more reasonably priced). You’ll also roll through Beaumes-de-Venise, famous for it’s golden-colored, sweet apéritif wine. Dont’ leave without tasting some of this delightful elixir!

Rides to the hilly east are true cycling gems for cyclists with a taste for challenge. This is unspoiled Provence, where very few tourists go, full of routes that local cyclists are hesitant to talk about lest too many people discover them! Ah, but I know the favorites of the locals – the tiny back roads to the sleepy ancient hamlets, and the location of the favorite climbs like the Col de Fontaube and the Col des Aires. Routes that follow clean and clear rivers, some with the secret swimming holes as you approach the end of your ride. These are narrow twisting roads that line some of the richest fields of lavender in this part of France.

 lavender-fields-east-of-vaison.jpg

The rides above are in the northern shadow of arguably one of the most famous mountains in all of France, Le Mont Ventoux.  This behemoth of a climb has three approaches (4 if you count the secret, little known unmaintained route).  The recommended ascent is from Bédoin to the south, the historic approach always taken in the Tour de France which also offers the best views of the summit as you approach the top.  You can expect 21 km (13mi) of climbing with 1,600m (5,248 feet) of vertical gain just on the face of the mountain.  Stay tuned for a post devoted exclusively to this amazing mountain!

steve-on-ventoux.jpg

Not everything in Provence is hilly.  Rides west of Vaison roll through lush vineyards and cute towns, with only an occasional hill. Wines from each of these little towns have a distinctive personality, and Rasteau is one of my favorites, with wines boasting berry undertones. Once you leave the vineyards, you’ll encounter endless fields of sunflowers. Other towns in this region include Suze-la-Rousse and its wine university, St. Paul-Trois-Chateau, the ancient market town of Bollene, and Rochegude, where you can find one of the most delightful luxury Relais & Chateau hotels, the Chateau de Rochegude. I stayed there numerous times in the early 1990’s while working for the luxury bicycle tour company, Travent International. I now have other luxury favorites, closer to Ventoux, but would recommend this hotel to anyone desiring a true luxe experience.

cycing-in-the-lavender-in-provence.jpg

To the north of Vaison are rolling hills covered in lavender fields and olive groves, and of course, more of the ubiquitous vineyards. Nyons, with its ancient market square, is a great little detour (though you want to avoid some of the busier roads to get there). This busy town is considered the olive capital of France.

Within a short drive from Vaison-la-Romaine to more phenomenal cycling routes you’ll find the Gorges de la Nesque, the Gorges de l’Ardeche, the famous vineyards of Chateauneuf du Pape, the Lubéron, the famous pottery village of Dieulefit, The Pont du Gard, and much, much more.  You can access these by car, taking your bikes with you, or settle into a new cycling Hub for a few days with more fantastic rides out your doorstep! 

And if you have any more sweet little towns or villages you’ve ridden through in the Vaucluse, please share it here! 

Bonne Route!

Jennifer

 

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Responses

  1. Can you recommend a cycling tour company in france? most interested in touring provence in july but open to other regions of france.
    thank you

  2. seeking france bike tour company referrals?

  3. Hi J,
    if you would like to know more about a self-guided tour in Provence, please contact me – I’ve got almost 20 years experience in the area. Currently we are offering a considerable discount to combat the price of the euro. For self-guided tours, we offer freedom and flexibility, and tell you everything you need to know to do it on your own in total confidence, and save thousands over a guided tour. However if you are looking for a guided tour, we do not have any scheduled for July. I would look at Backroads and Experience Plus, two companies I would recommend. Experience Plus is less expensive, but very experienced and they do a good job. July can get quite hot, so I would go early in the month if possible. You will see lavender and sunflowers though! Enjoy.
    Jennifer
    jennifer@vivatravels.com


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