Experiencing Southern France on a Velo Couché
By Steve Friedlander
“It’s a tough job, butsomeone’s gotta do it,” I said to myself as I opened the gate to our rented villa in the heart of Provence and pedaled my Bike Saturday onto the narrow country lane that lead to the bakery in a nearby village. As the only person in our party of four that was crazy enough to schlep a bike all the way over to France, as well as being the first one to get up in the morning, it was my solemn duty to ride into the village early each morning and pick up fresh croissants at the local bakery. The route took me along narrow country lanes, barely wide enough for cars and bikes to pass one another, and through lush, green fields growing a variety of different crops.
It was the third time thatI’d experienced the pleasure of cycling in this delightful part of theworld. My first encounter with southern France occurred on a self-supported bike tour along the French Riviera and into the heart of Provence back in 1996. The second experience came in 2004 when I was part of a large group that rented canal boats and cruised along the Canal du Midi, which traverses southern France.This time, I was spending a week with a group of friends in a large stone house – commonly described as a “villa” – a few miles west of St. Remy in the midst of southern France’s historical Provence region.
Each of this diverse set of experiences had been enjoyed from the seat of a recumbent – what the French call a “velo couché” –derived from the French words for bicycle (velo) and lying down (couché).Even though recumbents are quite rare in France (I have never seen any other ‘bents during the three times I was there.), the French affiliate of the IHPVA (International Human Powered Vehicle Association)does have a website (www.whpva.org/chapters/france/), and a quick Google search revealed a shop located south of Nimes that rents out Ice trikes and Sun E-Z1 recumbents. (Le Barjonaute: www.lebarjonaute.info/index.php)For those willing to put up with riding a wedgie, uprights bikes are generally available for rent in most towns of any size. (The guide book we used, Rick Steve’s Provence and the French Riviera, indicates where bike rentals are available.)
From Nice to Avignon
In September of 1996, I had the opportunity to join three other riders on uprights for an eight-day self-supported ride that started in Nice and finished in Avignon.Christopher, the most experienced cyclist in our group, had mapped out a250 mile tour and had also booked rooms in small two and thee star hotels along the way, relying on Michelin’s regional map #527 (Provence-Alps-French Riviera) and the book France by Bike by Karen and Terry Whitehall.I chose to take my fairly new LightningP38, since it would be easier to transport than my other bike, a Tour Easy.
The adventure started at the Nice airport, where we drowsily unpacked and assembled our bikes and mounted our panniers after the all-night flight from New Jersey. Within a few minutes of riding we found ourselves in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the French Riviera on a glorious Sunday morning – cruising along Nice’s celebrated Promenade des Anglais (Englishman’spromenade), the promenade that runs between the beach and the wide,traffic-filled boulevard that leads from the airport to the center of town. An easy five mile ride brought us to a small hotel, located near the city center a few blocks inland from the promenade. Lunch was at a nearby snack bar named “Good Food,” followed by a stroll around town and a much-welcomed rest at the hotel.
Our first day of real biking was mainly along the coast, experiencing the world famous French Riviera. After taking care of a few last-minute preparations in Nice, we headed west along the Promenade des Anglais and continued along the blue Mediterranean past the resort cities of Antibes, where we stopped for lunch by the beach, and Cannes with its many hotels and condos strung out along the beach. Traffic thinned out beyond Cannes as we rode along the Corniche de Esterel that winds its way between coastal mountains and the sea. Were it not for some afternoon showers and low-lying clouds,the scenery, featuring views of inland peaks, scattered mansions tucked among the hills, and red cliffs dropping into the sea, would have been truly spectacular. After 48.7 miles, we arrived at our next hotel in the town of St. Raphael.
The rest of the tour took us inland away from the hustle and bustle of the Riviera, as we cycled along quiet country roads through small towns and villages, past olive groves and vineyards. Daily rides of 48 miles and 41 miles brought us to our overnight stops in Brignoles and Aix-en-Provence. One of the high points of the trip occurred when we stumbled upon a local festival in the village of Puylobier a few miles east of Aix, where the natives offered us a free lunch and filled one of our water bottles with wine.The next high point was our brief stay in Aix-en-Provence, where we strolled along the tree-lined Cour Mirabeau – considered the perfect main street in the perfect small city – and had dinner in one of its many outdoor restaurants.
The trip’s low point came onday three when it rained heavily during the ride from St. Raphael to Brignoles, but it was not as bad as it could have been. Because of some mechanical problems, one of the guys had taken his bike to a shop for repair and rented a car for a couple of days. With the car serving as sag wagon, he was able to find our soggy bikes parked in front of a roadside inn, where two of us had stopped to warm up over hot soup, and gave us a ride to the next hotel in Brignoles – saving us from having to bike another 20 miserable miles.
After leaving Aix, the next few days of pedaling brought us to the famous historic sites of Provence, as well as into more hilly terrain. The 49.5 mile ride from Aix to St. Remy included a stop to see the Roman ruins at Glanum, consisting mainly of an arch and tower, a few miles south of St. Remy. The next day’s ride from St. Remy to Pont du Gard included a major climb up to the medieval ghost town of Les Baux, where we wandered among castle ruins and checked out the huge medieval siege weapons. From there we continued to Pont du Gard, one of the largest and best preserved Roman aqueducts. Considered one of the seven wonders of the world, it is one of the most impressive surviving Roman ruins to be found anywhere. We checked into the Vieux Moulin (old mill) Hotel built on the riverside adjacent to the aqueduct.
The next day started with a visit to the aqueduct followed by a 19 mile ride to the city of Avignon,where we spent the next two nights. The main attraction in Avignon was the Palais des Papes, the grandiose palace that housed the Popes during the fourteenth century. After touring the palace in the morning, I took a 27 mile ride out to Chateau Neuf-du-Pape, the most famous of the Rhone valley wine villages.
In Avignon our small group split up, with Chris and Phil heading north to conquer Mt. Ventoux,which has gained notoriety as one of the more challenging climbs in the Tour de France, while Bill and I rented a car for the drive back to Nice. After picking up our bike boxes at the Nice airport and checking into a hotel, I figured I’d squeeze in one more ride before packing up the bike. The trip’s final treat was a leisurely 6 mile ride along the beach-side promenade and around the yacht-filled harbor of Nice, which looked magnificent in the late afternoon sun. The next morning we boarded a plane for the flight back to New Jersey.
Le Canal du Midi
The next experience in southern France came in 2004 when my fiancée Ellen and I were part of a large group that rented canal boats for a week-long cruise along the Canal du Midi, part of a canal system that crosses southern France from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. Built from 1667 to 1681,construction of the 150 mile long canal was considered by people in the17th century as the biggest project of its time. With 91locks and a total elevation gain of 620 feet, the canal is still considered a masterpiece of both hydraulic and structural engineering.In recent years it has become a tourist attraction where people can rent various types of boats and cycle or walk along its towpaths.A guide book for biking along the canal can be purchased at http://www.midicanal.fr/guidegb.html.
I went with a group of 48 people that rented several boats for a week and cruised leisurely along the canal for about 100 miles. The trip started with a flight from New Jersey to Toulouse via Paris. After spending a couple of days sightseeing in the medium-sized city of Toulouse, we boarded a charter bus for a one hour ride eastward to the quaint little town of Castlenaudery, where the boat rental company CrownBlue Lines has a base. From there we spent a week cruising eastward as far as another quaint little town called Portiragne, located near the Mediterranean coast.
High points of the trip included a visit to the medieval walled city of Carcasonne and, of course, riding a recumbent through villages,vineyards, and along the canal’s towpath.I took my folding BikeSatRday, packed neatly into its suitcase, along for the trip. The BikeSatRday is a compact short wheel-base recumbent with 16 inch wheels that was made for several years by Bike Friday, a company known for its folding bikes that cater to world travelers.
Our boat was a comfortable cabin cruiser that provided transportation and room and board for a group of eight, as well as serving as a sag wagon for bikers. The boat charter company had a motley assortment of cheap mountain bikes available for rent that many of the people took on board.I was the only person in the group who had brought his own bike.Assembling and disassembling the Bike SatRday, as well as schlepping an extra, fairly heavy suitcase through airports, on to busses, and into several hotels, seemed like a lot of extra work at first. But after trying one of the rental bikes for a few miles and hearing others complain about their bikes, I concluded it was well worth it.
The main feature of canal travel is that it’s rather slow. The boats chug along at jogging speed – about 6 mph – and the existence of numerous locks on the canal can make the boat’s average speed comparable to that of walking. This provides boat passengers with numerous options for doing their own thing. Sedentary types can sit back and relax on the boat, while others get off and walk or jog along the towpath to the next lock or village. With the boats having to spend a fair amount of time waiting at locks, a good walker can usually keep up with the boat.
Bikers can cruise leisurely along the towpath or venture away from the canal into nearby towns and villages. More ambitious cyclists (which I wasn’t)can ride up into the neighboring hills and visit old castles and fortresses that were built by a religious sect known as the Cathars back in the middle ages. One of the advantages of canal travel is that you can be as active or inactive as you please. It helps, however, to have at least one person on board who is into boating to pilot the craft; and depending on the size of the boat, one or two other people are needed to hold the boat in position while it’s sitting in a lock. A diverse group of people can thus travel together on the same boat while each one does his own thing during the day.
The entire canal is bordered by a towpath that’s lined with shady trees. But its surface varied considerably – from smooth asphalt to course gravel to narrow dirt paths lined by tall grass. The rough sections of the towpath were not much of a problem, however, as it was usually more interesting to bike away from the canal, where there are plenty of back roads leading through vineyards and quaint villages. It was generally easy to meet up with the boat again (without using our cellphones, which didn’t work well in France back in ’04) by riding along the towpath for a few miles until the boat was spotted.
Atypical day would start with a couple of hours of cycling in the morning, followed by lunch on the boat and then perhaps a nap in the afternoon or turn at the helm as the boat cruised on to its destination for the day. The day’s destination usually consisted of a small canal-side town – places like Bram, Carcassonne, Trebes, Homps, and Capastang – where there would be an assortment of other boats tied up tospend the night. For dinner, there were plenty of cafes and restaurants in the villages, with many of them overlooking the canal. The high point of the trip, both literally and figuratively, came after two days of cruising when we reached the larger town of Carcassonne. After tying up the boat, we took a cab up to Old Carcassonne, a walled medieval town that dates back to the 3rd and 4thcenturies – considered to be the largest reconstructed fortified city in Europe.
After spending a week on the canal, we enjoyed a couple of days in Paris before flying back to New Jersey.
LaVilla en Provence
After 6 years of sitting idle in the garage, my Bike SatRday was eager for another adventure. The opportunity came in June of this past year when a friend located a villain Provence that we rented for a week. The trip started with an overnight flight from New York’s JFK Airport to Nice, with Delta Airlines charging an extra $55 for the suitcase containing the bike.After arriving at the airport, Ellen and I rented a car and spent the first two nights in the nearby town of Vence, a lively little town tucked away in the hill country above Nice, and the next night at a funky hotel perched at the edge of the Gorge du Verdon, France’sversion of the Grand Canyon, where we enjoyed a good dinner on the hotelterrace overlooking the deep canyon.
The next day started with a rigorous 90 minute hike down into the canyon, followed by more spectacular views as we drove westward along the canyon rim, a lunch stop in the charming village of Moustier, and another 2 hours or so of driving until we arrived at the villa.
The villa turned out to be in an ideal location – about 5 miles west of the quaint but tourist-filled town of St. Remy and about 15 miles south of the city of Avignon. The large stone house was on a narrow country lane surrounded by fields containing a variety of crops, with the small village of Mas Blanc des Alpilles less than a mile away. The area is blessed with an abundance of historical sites within 20 miles –remnants of the Roman empire in Arles, Nimes, and St. Remy; medieval palaces and fortresses in Avignon, Les Baux, and Tarascon. It was a good opportunity to revisit some of the places I had visited back in ’96.The combination of quaint villages and bucolic scenery has inspired artists for centuries and has also made Provence a popular destination for bicycle tours. For instance, VBT, a leading provider of bike tours, uses St. Remy as a base for one of its tours of Provence.
A typical day at the villa started with a one to two hour bike ride before breakfast, depending on how early I got myself out of bed. Using the Michelin map as a guide, I pedaled along bucolic country lanes, many of them lined with neatly spaced sycamore trees, from one village to the next. The villages of Mas Blanc, St. Etienne, and Maillane were all within five miles of the villa, as well as the larger towns of St. Remy and Tarascon. Extending the perimeter a few more miles, brought me to Graveson, Eyragues and Chateaurenard. The terrain was mainly flat to gently rolling hills, as I avoided riding south into the chain of hills known as the Chaine des Alpilles that extended east-west just to the south of our villa. Each ride included the mandatory stop to buy fresh croissants at a local bakery, the busiest place in the village at that time of day.
With fresh croissants, as well as a variety of cheeses, yogurts, fruit and cereal spread out on the kitchen table, we enjoyed leisurely breakfasts as we planned the day’sactivities. These included car trips to see the ancient Romanamphitheaters in Arles and Nimes, the Roman aqueduct at Pont du Gard,neat stuff from the middle ages in Avignon and Les Baux, and a longer drive to explore Bonnieux and Rousillon, two of the hill towns east of Avignon that inspired the book and BBC TV series AYear in Provence. Many of these attractions were located within 20miles of our villa and could just as well have been visited by bike for those energetic enough to do so. The evening entertainment generally consisted of visits to one of the nearby towns or villages to indulge in the Provencal cuisine.
The week’s longest ride came on Wednesday, which was the market day in St. Remy. The three ladies in our group decided it was time to head into town for some serious shopping at the extensive outdoor market place, while I figured this would be a good opportunity for a longer ride to see more of the surrounding countryside with its picturesque villages. I was accompanied on this ride by Eva, the neighbor’s dog who had befriended us for the week. She followed me out the gate and along the narrow road that lead to the village and a larger highway. Eva didn’t seem to have any trouble keeping up with my 10-11 mph pace along the somewhat bumpy back road, and I began to wonder how much longer she would accompany me. And would she then be able to find her way back and get around the locked gate that stood in front of her home?
After about three quarters of a mile, Eva left me at the village and I continued on alone, heading north toward Avignon through the villages of Maillane, Graveson, and Rognonas,then turning westward through the charming hillside village of Barbentane. I continued southwest along the Rhone River passing through Vallabregues and stopping at the larger town of Tarascon, where I interrupted the ride for a one hour visit to the Chateau de Tarascon, an imposing medieval castle built around 1400. After a satisfying lunchnear the castle, the ride continued eastward along the edge of the Alpille hills into St. Remy, where I cycled around the town until I found a bike shop and purchased a new pump. At St. Remy I found a bike path that took me part way back to our villa. The path had a posted speed limit of 20, but thanks to a nice tail wind, my speed was more like 20 mph than 20 kph.
After finishing the 47 mile ride, I was looking forward to spending some quality time relaxing at the villa’s pool. When my partner Ellen informed me that our neighbor had come over and was searching for his dog Eva, I began to fear the worst – that I’d find myself entangled in the midst of a local crises for which I was responsible. I figured I’d better go over and tell the neighbor how his dog had followed me to the village that morning. As I walked over to his house, I pondered about how to explain the situation using my rather limited French vocabulary. When I met the neighbor in his yard, it sounded like he was apologizing to me(in French) for his dog’s behavior, and much to my relief, Eva showed up in the yard. I never did find out how or where she was found.
After spending a week at the villa, Ellen and I headed for the coast, spending a night in La Ciotat,a small beach resort near Marseilles frequented by French people rather than foreign tourists. Our last four days were spent in Villefranche,another small, seaside town located between Nice and Monaco. Most of the roads along the hilly south coast of France seemed to be better suited for driving a Porsche than riding a slightly overweight recumbent.Nevertheless, I did enjoy a couple of short rides amidst magnificentcoastal scenery – first along the beach-side promenade in La Ciotatand then from Villefranche to the nearby peninsular of Cap Ferrat.
All in all, taking a recumbentto France was definitely worth it, I thought as I grudgingly paid theextra 55 Euros (about $75) to check my bike onto the return flight.