Posted by: Jennifer Sage | February 22, 2008

What is self-guided cycling the Vélo Concierge way? Part II

My husband is an avid cyclist like me but had never been to Europe, so for our honeymoon in 2002 I wanted to take him to Provence to experience what I feel is one of the greatest places to ride your bike and have a romantic experience at the same time. I also wanted to test-drive my new Vélo Concierge concept of self-guided cycling. This method is to take your own bicycles, be fully independent, rent a vehicle for full flexibility, and to stay longer than one or two nights at each location to get to know the area better. Most rides are right out your door, and some are a short drive away.

We flew to Marseille after 5 days in England, where we had cycled in Bath and explored London. Marseille is the second largest city in France with many international arrivals and departures, so it is perfect for access to Provence. We rented a station wagon, which was large enough to fit our luggage and two Trico bike cases. We later found out that it was even large enough to fit the luggage, bike cases AND the two bicycles, plus all the fun stuff, food and picnic supplies we acquired on the way! I was prepared to purchase an inexpensive rear bike rack, but didn’t need to.

packing-the-car-jeff.jpg

Notice how we easily slid our two bicycles (sans the saddles) on either side of the bike cases, and the wheels fit perfectly along the side of the door.  Luggage easily sat on top of the cases, and where Jeff is sitting. We have nice bikes, and never did we feel they were at risk in this position. But being experienced at this, I also knew what to bring along to make the packing, transport and care of the bikes much easier (including a floor pump, as you can see in the photo below).

Packing the bikes in the car

We stayed in two Hubs, just below Gordes in the Lubéron, and just north of Vaison-la-Romain, at two delightful B&Bs.  We only had 6 nights to spend in Provence (after 5  in England, plus visiting friends in Gap for 3 days afterward), so any more than two hubs would have required too much moving around and packing and unpacking. After so many years of bike travel in Europe, I absolutely believe that if you can minimize the amount of travel from place to place, you spend more time riding and enjoying your location and you heighten your experience. It’s not as fun, in my opinion, to do the point-to-point one-night stays at each hotel.

Arriving at the first chambre d’hotes (B&B, or ‘room of the hosts’) in the late-afternoon, we unloaded our luggage, put the bikes together, and went for a short ride up the two-mile climb to the village of Gordes and a few miles beyond to the Abbey de Sénanque, nestled in its narrow canyon.  Yup, I think Jeff was immediately bitten by the bug that has plagued me for so many years – this is freaking awesome!

That evening we drove back to Gordes for an awesome dinner overlooking the valley below. There are no taxis in this area (well, there are, but you’d wait awhile for them to get there, and they can add up in cost), so having a vehicle gives you total flexibility and freedom to stay at a charming inn that is outside of a town yet still have access to every village nearby and their reputable restaurants. Our B&B had a nice well-equipped kitchen for guests if we had decided to go to a grocery or outdoor marché and make our own meals. Some of the guests did just that, and we spent some time over a glass of wine meeting people from around the world before driving up for a late dinner in Gordes.

Gordes in the Lubéron 

Our first full day of riding was through the sublime Lubéron made so famous by Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence. I knew the route from my years of leading in this area, but we changed some of the roads to what I felt were better, quieter roads, and included some bike paths, meticulously recording the route so I can provide it to my clients (yes, it was a working honeymoon). Village hopping is what you are doing on this ride – Oppede-le-Vieux, Menerbes, Bonnieux, Roussillon (see photo below), each one vying with the other for the charm award, and of course, the ruins of Lacoste, made famous by its former owner, the Marquis de Sade. We wandered tiny cobblestone streets in each village to note the special things that visitors on a bike shouldn’t miss (because we cyclists have a tendency sometimes to ride right on through without stopping), including the best outdoor cafés for an orangina, café or lunch stop.

reds-and-ochres-of-rousillon-website.jpg 

Dinner that night was a very special restaurant that I had dined at on a tour a few years before. It was out in the boonies, and without prior knowledge or advice from a “concierge”, you wouldn’t know it’s there. It was our biggest splurge on the trip, but this was a very special event! The dining room was in a converted cellar, replete with arched ceilings and 2 foot thick stone walls. The service was impeccable, the meal delectable and the Cotes du Rhone memorable. Believe me, you want special restaurant tips like this for your trip!

Day 3 we loaded the bikes in the car and headed out early for the drive to St. Rémy, less than an hour away. With knowledge of where to park (you don’t want to get a parking ticket or get towed – I’ve done that too!), it’s easy to have good access to the cycling route. We planned the day perfectly – riding up to Les Baux, avoiding the massive crowds, then through olive groves and holm oak completely around the Alpilles mountain chain, stopping at a small olive oil farm en route. Lunch was in a cute little town called Eygalieres – we arrived a bit late for the nicer restaurant (1:45), but fortunately I knew of one that stayed open a little later. 

Following the ride, we triple locked our bikes in the car, backed the car to a stone wall to make access to the bikes very difficult, and parked close to where we could check on it easily (unfortunately everywhere in Europe, this is a must)! After changing clothes in the tourist office washrooms, we strolled the streets of St. Rémy, made some fun purchases for our Provence-style kitchen at home, and had an early dinner in a pleasant little brasserie brimming with Provençal charm before driving back to our B&B.

A little side story that proves how small the world is: on the ride around St. Rémy, we stopped at a few luxury hotels that I knew from my past to check out for my own tours. At one, the manager walked by, saw me in my bike clothes, stared for a moment and then came up to me and asked in French if I had worked for a bike tour company years ago. He recognized me from when I was with Travent International back in the early 90’s, 10-12 years prior! At the time he was a waiter with another luxury Relais & Chateau hotel that we had frequented, and it felt wonderful to hear him say that of all the bike tour guides from all the tour companies who stayed there (many), my frequent co-guide Peter and I were his favorites! He remembered that we were always jovial, often joking with him and the staff and really shared our joy of Provence with our guests.  He eagerly expressed his desire to work with me and my new company, and assured me he would take excellent care of all of my clients. Well now…I’m going back as soon as I have a chance!

The next day we had to check out of the inn, but I wanted to take Jeff on a very special ride I knew of in this area. We packed our bags and had the owners keep them in their office, and rode yet another beautiful loop in the Lubéron. In Fontaine de Vaucluse we enjoyed a relaxing picnic along the banks of the Sorgue river, then rode on to Vénasque, with its most beautiful village designation, where we stopped for a cool orangina in the shade of the trees in the ancient town square. We then climbed the long, gradual but somewhat exposed Col de Murs, which brings you by the Abbaye de Sénanque (below), and over the north side of Gordes.

Abbaye de Sénanque, near Gordes 

Even though we had already checked out of the B&B, we sat by the pool when offered a glass of wine from some of the other guests from Belgium and Australia, and excitedly told them about our day of cycling. Needless to say, they thought we were crazy but were very impressed (they weren’t cyclists of course). Part of the whole attraction of this type of travel is the people you get to meet.

Once the car was loaded, we drove to our next delightful B&B about 10 km north of Vaison-la-Romaine, about an hour away. I had found this place on a very special internet site, and spent a long time talking to him over the phone before booking. He’s an Englishman named John, married to a French woman. Getting on in years now, he was a strong cyclist in his day and has ridden most of the hundreds of miles of backroads and numerous challenging cols in the region, including Mont Ventoux many times from every direction. This was a golden opportunity for me to learn from the local cyclists where they like to ride to get away from the tourists!

Don’t miss my next post on Hub B of our trip, and how I put it all together for you on my Vélo Concierge customized self-guided tours!   

Ride on,

Jennifer Sage 

Owner, Viva Travels 

 

Check out my website at www.vivatravels.com  

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