Slow Tourism and Active Travel by bike in Provence

Over the last few days I have been asked the question ‘Why do you cycle?’ by a couple of people I’ve met and yesterday it was posted by one of the women’s cycling groups as well.

It got me thinking about the reasons why, and I thought I’d share them with you, so hopefully you can understand a little better what makes us want to get on the bike as much as we possibly can when we’re here in Provence or back in the UK. I know Andy feels exactly the same about it and cycling is so much part of our day to day life now that we really couldn’t imagine it being any other way.

Summer cycling… Stopping to enjoy the little things

To set the scene, I’ve not always been a keen cyclist. In fact in my early twenties I remember getting back on a bike for the first time in years and having to push it up even the most gentle of inclines. At that time I never envisaged that it would become my favourite activity and to be honest there was even a time when I would have been happy never to get on a bike again, how things have changed.

Our early cycling adventures that got us hooked

We ride for the sheer enjoyment of getting from A to B and appreciating where we are at every given moment. Although Andy would say I’m really competitive (I don’t know where he gets that idea from) I can’t ever imagine wanting to take part in a Sportive or other ride of that nature as I wouldn’t feel that I was in control of what I could do … I’m not sure it’s acceptable to stop and admire the view or build a croissant stop into the ride either and that is  what makes our rides so much fun!

Everyone rides for different reasons, whether it’s fitness, commuting, just popping to the shops or also importantly to help improve mental health. There is no right or wrong reason and it is just great to see people out on bikes, enjoying their own personal ride. I’m as happy just popping to the shops on my bike in Exeter, or popping along the Exe Trail in normal clothes, as I am doing a long ride in the hills of Provence, so I thought I’d explain what encourages me into my lycra and out of the door a bit later.

Over the years I’ve ridden a real hotch-potch of bikes, from a heavy old Mountain Bike that was far too small for me, to my trusty old Hybrid with its basket, affectionately known as ‘Miss Daisy’ and more recently being encouraged, by Andy and the boys, onto a road bike with clip-less pedals, which I now adore riding (who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks). I also have no doubt that in years to come, when I find the hills too much, I will happily move on to ride an electric bike, because the joy of cycling is just part of our life, ingrained so deeply it feels as if it is within our DNA and I can’t think of a time that we wouldn’t want to do it.

I even rode Miss Daisy to the summit of Mont Ventoux with her basket in strappy sandals

So what is it that makes this the case? What is it about heading off on the bikes so more attractive than getting in the car and driving somewhere, or simply going and exploring the area on foot?

Experiencing a place from a different level

There is something about being on a bike that means you get to know an area on a different level than just going from A to B in a car. Over the years we have explored The Luberon and the surrounding areas on the bikes and have got to know places that I’m certain we wouldn’t have visited if we had just been in the car.

Cycling along peaceful lanes through the vineyards, in the heart of the Luberon, but never a car in sight

On the bikes we’ve found we have a much better appreciation of the ‘lie of the land’,  how villages sit in relation to each other and the different routes we can take to get to them. We are acutely aware of which villages are at the top of hills and know which route up is better, depending on how we feel on a given day.

There are so many different ways up to Roussillon, it’s hard to choose which way to go

We know where we can ride if we fancy a superb view of the early morning light on The Luberon, when the shadows in the folds make it look like a giant piece of fabric has been thrown over it…

Early morning on The Luberon from Saint Martin de Castillon

We also know where we can find Lavender fields that are off the well-beaten tourist tracks …

Late summer lavender fields off the beaten track

Or perhaps those that are yet to be harvested when most of the others have been cut…

The last of the lavender near Banon

Sometimes we’ll catch a glimpse of something that looks interesting and stop to take stock of where it may be before heading off to find it. This happened last year when we caught sight of a splash of red on the other side of the valley, whist we were riding up to Bonnieux.  After a little bit of hunting we found the incredible poppy field on a road we had never ridden along before….

There is such a simple joy in exploring and getting to know the area so much more intimately than we used to before we cycled here

Nature

For me, this is one of the best things about being out and about on the bikes as we tend to see things that we would miss in a car, either because the noise would disturb an animal, or we would be passing something too quickly to notice it.

There are so many little things we notice as we’re cycling along, including the direction that the wind is coming from – as a result we’ve become quite adept at changing our route to ensure we have the wind behind us on the steepest of climbs or when we’re at our tiredest…..

Choosing which way to cycle across the beautiful Claparèdes depending which way the wind is blowing

We’ll notice there are snuffle marks in the banks where Wild Boars have been active overnight, turning the soil over in search of something tasty to eat, or even coming across the animals themselves, as Andy did once on a ride back from Gordes one evening when he thought there were rocks in the road. On hearing the bike approach the ‘rocks’ got to their feet and dashed off into the fields – I’m not sure which was more shocked the Boars or Andy…

A boar at the top of the Gorges de La Nesque

We love to hear the high, warbling cry of the Bee-eaters or as we call them ‘The Wibbly Birds’,  as they fly overhead seemingly calling to each other about the quality of wasps on offer and where to go to next. We’ve found that they spend a lot of time in the Olive Trees on the terraces below Menerbes and are always happy to watch them darting between the trees below us as we sit taking in the view…

The Bee-eaters are normally hunting in the Olive Trees below

On our early morning rides we’ve often seen deer, ambling through the lavender fields only disappearing into the hedgerows when they catch our scent on the air

I’ve often seen deer in the fields on the way up to Viens

Or we hear the scratch of something in a tree, stop to look up and see a Red Squirrel  looking down at us with its black, enquiring eyes, as if to ask what we thought we were doing disturbing its morning walk.

Cycling in mid June we wait to hear the first Cicada, tentatively starting to shout from the trees by the cycle path, those first hesitant ‘chirrups’ quickly giving way to that constant chatter that provides the soundtrack to our summer rides. We know that the patch of pines between Bonnieux and Lacoste are where they are at their loudest and the return to peace is the first sign that summer is nearly over.

A patch of pines near this view of Lacoste is filled with Cicadas each summer

Then there are the scents, from the warm pine, to the undertones of wild herbs growing in the rough ground at the side of the roads and even, surprisingly, the strong scent of curry plant in places.

And of course there is the unmistakable sight, noise and scent of the Lavender fields. In the Winter the sage green corduroy stripes show no promise of the colour and activity to come..

Winter fields, looking so stark

… but in June they really come to life. The vibrant purple flowers adding a vivid splash of colour to the landscape…

The mid summer lavender really is spectacular

The fields are filled with the sound of bees, busy on the flowers surrounded by butterflies, sipping on the scented nectar too.

Perfectly placed hives for bees busy in the lavender fields

Then as the summer progresses the incredible scent of the harvest taking place that literally stops us in our tracks or sees us chasing after a tractor pulling a trailer laden with flowers, aiming to breathe in as much of that perfume as possible.

The scent of the harvest is simply superb

On the bikes we also notice the subtlest of shifts as Autumn arrives and we start to head out slightly later. The valley has a different sound to it, there’s the occasional sight of smoke rising gently from bonfires and the scent of the grape harvest with the light becoming softer and the colours more vivid, even on a grey day. The slight chill in the air makes us happy to be able to seek out the warmth and cosy atmosphere of a village boulangerie, where we can sit with a coffee and croissant, enjoying the day to day burble of life taking place around us.

Vivid Autumn colours

All year round, it’s a truly wonderful place to be immersed in the natural world, which is so easy to do on a bike

The Views

We love views here in Provence, as not only are they stunning, but if I’m honest, they often give me a great excuse to stop for a breather on a hill, to enjoy the sight or snap a quick photo.

The pretty village of Auribeau, a welcome photo stop after a climb

Sometimes we catch the glimpse of something incredible through a gap in the trees, like here on the road near Viens, where the view opens up to show the valley at your feet….

Or there are spots that just make us stop and take in the beauty of where we are, from being able to see The Low Alps far in the distance, glinting with snow in early Spring, to the incredible view across the Canyon D’Oppedette and into the Alpes de Haute Provence ..

Looking out into the Alpes de Haute Provence from Viens

And of course the ever present sight of Mont Ventoux, standing proud against the skyline, high above the Vaucluse Plateau. It is almost as if it’s there just to tempt cyclists across to ride up its slopes and experience the absolutely jaw-dropping view from its summit.

Ventoux through the Cherry blossom. Near Flassan

It was this view that last year tempted us to get up at silly-o’clock in the morning and ride to the summit from Sault by the light of the full moon just to watch the sunrise. The whole experience from the sheer joy of being alone on the mountain as we rode, to the absolute peace and incredible beauty of watching the start of that new day will stay with me forever and I know the experience would have been very different if we had chosen a different way to arrive than on 2 wheels.

Cycling to watch the sunrise on Mont Ventoux

And of course we have our favourite spots to stop and sit or just stand and take it all in and the more we’re here, the more of these little places we’re finding, some well-known….

A moment’s peace at Chateau Lacoste

And others less-so…

The road behind the Gorges de La Nesque

The important thing for us is that being on the bikes we have more time to look, more time to explore and more time to enjoy what we see..

The Joy of Getting There

I can’t stress enough the joy I still feel at arriving somewhere, especially if it has involved a climb uphill. It doesn’t matter where we are or how fast or slow we go, the simple sense of achievement at having arrived somewhere under your own steam is just so lovely.

I still remember the first time I rode up the hill to Gordes over 30 years ago – it felt as if I was tackling Mount Everest and every turn of the pedal towards the top was an effort. I felt as if there should have been people clapping me on at the side of the road and a crowd waiting with Champagne at the top to celebrate my achievement!

This first effort seems a lifetime ago now

But just arriving at that viewpoint before the village, a tired, red-faced ball of sweat gave me such a sense of elation that I remember it to this day.

The ride doesn’t seem as challenging now, but that viewpoint is still very special and I can sit for ages watching people turn up, take their photographs and leave, whilst I just take in the sight of the shadows shifting across the valley, noticing the little details that others miss in their hurry to move on.

Even in winter this is a stunning place to sit

The more I think about it, the more I feel that we just enjoy the sense of ‘slow-tourism’ we get from cycling. There is never a great urge to have an itinerary or find something to do, as we fill our days very well just pottering between villages at our own pace. We have explored so much more than we would have done in a car and the active process of moving around the area is just so enjoyable for us.

We can (and do) choose certain days for certain rides if we fancy stopping at a particular market, enjoying the travel there and back as much, or perhaps almost more than we enjoy ambling around the stalls…

Bonnieux on a Friday… A lovely ride to à nice little market

We have even hitched up a trailer to Andy’s old faithful town-bike and headed off to local Brocante markets in search of bits for the house.

Andy turning heads on the way back from a brocante by bike

Or we will choose to ride to our favourite boulangeries if we fancy a particular breakfast. I must admit I have now started grading my rides according to the level of pastry I fancy – with Almond Croissant being my reward for the most challenging ….

Earning an Almond croissant at Simiane La Rotonde

As I wrote earlier, everyone has their own reason for cycling and although I never feel that we fit into any particular group of riders, we are fitter, healthier and happier for the cycling we do.

I suppose the simplest answer to ‘Why do you cycle?’ is ‘Because we love it’ ….. it really is that easy.

Cycling just makes us smile…

I know a time will come when we will find it more challenging, but after meeting a couple in their 70s, on their bikes at Cucuron last summer, I hope we can be like them – they had changed the gears on the bikes to enable them to tackle the steepest climbs and were still enjoying their rides together – the woman’s name was Barbara and I have every intention of being like Barbara if I can.

Breakfast stop at Cucuron on market day

If not then it’s an electric bike, or perhaps I’ll try to follow in the footsteps of the wonderful actress Olivia deHavilland, who was still riding her tricycle when she was well over 100.

In the meantime though – we will just enjoy every single turn of the pedal.

5 Comments Add yours

  1. David says:

    I enjoyed reading your reasoning, which is a lot like mine, don’t take it over seriously and love photographing the gorgeous pleasures that we are confronted with on each ride

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks..we are so lucky aren’t we .. Each ride is such a joy, it doesn’t matter how often we follow the same roads, every time is different and just so stunning

      Like

  2. that’s a lovely, meditative post. Thanks. x

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Dawn… Cycling here just is so calming 😊

      Liked by 1 person

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