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Through the vineyards en vélo


Max Wooldridge explores the wine region of the Vaucluse on two wheels

Water, not wine, is what attracted the Romans to Provence, christened La Provincia by Caesar as Rome's first province beyond the Alps.


On conquering marches, the Romans found warm, sulphurous water spluttering from underground springs. Nowadays, for most visitors to this region of France, the lure of water has been replaced by wine. And what better way to explore the vineyards and wine-growing villages than by bicycle?


We left any climb of Provence's most identifiable landmark, the mammoth Mont Ventoux, to full-kit cycle gladiators in the cafés of Bedoin, wishing them luck with the savage 14 mile (22.4 km) climb to the 1,910 metre summit looming ahead of them.


There's no escaping this 'Giant of Provence', north-east of Avignon, where we disembarked the TGV from Paris. The mountain lurks on the horizon, always catching your eye. On cloudy days, it is Provence's burlesque dancer, offering glimpses of its lunar-like upper slopes behind shields of mist.


Our own cycling was a rather more sedate affair; to ride through the towns and wine villages of the Vaucluse, unmeasured against any clock, with no desire to test ourselves and plenty of opportunity to taste the local produce.


From Bedoin, we rode away from the mountain, along the quiet plain of the Comtat Venaissin and deserted country roads bathed in baking spring sunshine. We pedalled alongside cherry orchards and stunning fields of bright red poppies bathed in the bright sunlight. The silence was a world away from the relentless energy of home, only interrupted by the buzzing of insects. As the flat roads shimmered in the heat, small lizards darted across our path. Above us, an eagle turned in the hazy blue of the sky.


We rode through quiet towns like Caromb and Mazan, their avenues dappled in light under the shade of plane trees. It was too early in the year to see classic Provençal sights such as groups of men playing boules, or drinking pastis at roadside bars. Instead, we saw old men with faces straight off old Roman coins carrying fresh bread home under their arms. We heard tough-looking locals in sleeveless T-shirts with high-pitched Provençal accents. The broad vowels that flourished into a squeaky, almost helium pitch seemed incongruous with their rugged appearances.


Picnic at a chateau


On some days we'd stock up our panniers at roadside stalls for supplies of fruit, and markets for pâtés, jams, and pastries. On others, we had pre-arranged picnic lunches at gorgeous châteaux we could only dream of living in, like the ninth century Château Unang, close to the villages of Venasque and Blauvac, owned by ex-pat Brits Joanna and James King. The surrounding forest and hills protect their Côtes du Ventoux vines from the fierce Mistral and Marin winds.


Fortified by fougasse (Provençal bread), black olive tapenade and chèvre (goat's cheese) peppered with herbs or flowers, we stopped in Méthamis, a small, perched Provençal village that sounded more like a Dumas musketeer.


Set among rolling hills and terraces of vines, the village is built into a rocky promontory overlooking the stunning Gorge de la Nesque. A 12th century Romanesque church lords over the village, flanked by tall, blackish-green cypress trees that tower into the sky.


There was no-one about except three elderly ladies with their winter coats still on, embedded on a bench halfway up the hill. Their kind faces squinted at the same magical bright light that attracted painters such as Cézanne, Gauguin and Van Gogh to the region.


Somewhere around here lay the remains of the Mur de la Peste, the Plague Wall, built in the early 18th century to isolate the Comtat Venaissin area from a plague epidemic that started in Marseille. Judging by the name of one nearby town, Malemort-du-Comtat, the wall wasn't entirely successful. The plague ravaged the area via the Rhône.


En route to Sault we took a detour to the Abbaye Notre-Dame de Sénanque near the beautiful hill town of Gordes. The Cistercian abbey is instantly recognisable thanks to its picture-perfect purple lavender field out front.


In Sault, we were a few months early to see the lavender in full bloom. From July to mid-August, the area becomes a wash of fragrant purple-blue, scented fields under Van Gogh's unremitting yellow sun.


We followed ancient Roman roads to the north side of Mont Ventoux through picturesque towns like Malaucene, and Mollans-sur-Ouvèze. Locals here go by the unusual nickname of coides-traucats (the worn-out elbows) because they traditionally wore through their sleeve elbows by leaning on the bridge to gaze at the Ouvèze River.


North of the Giant, we noticed a dramatic shift in character. Suddenly the Mediterranean feel of its sunny southern slopes gave way to a rigid, Alpine character, with abrupt slopes, scarps and polar flora. In the Vaucluse you can travel from Africa to Scandinavia, it seems, in just a few miles.


ruby reds


West of Mont Ventoux, we rode from one wine-producing village to another, one fairytale hill town to the next: Gigondas, Vacqueyras and Beaumes de Venise and Séguret, all famed for their ruby reds.
We pedalled through the most famous crus and key Côtes du Rhône wine villages, following the Dentelles de Montmirail, the ragged chalk ridges so-named because locals believe they look like lacework (dentelle).


These Provençal villages cling to hillsides overlooking the plain. Each meant a bike climb to enter into, but each was well worth a visit. Although whether our faces turned red from the pedalling, the fierce sun or generous wine consumption, well, we were never quite sure.

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