A new bicycle route has opened up the beautiful Haut Vaucluse to cyclists. Leah Larkin discovers a world of grape vines and ancient stone villages
A new bicycle route has opened up the beautiful Haut Vaucluse to cyclists. Leah Larkin discovers a world of grape vines and ancient stone villagesIt’s a mini Mont Ventoux,” the woman said. “It climbs. It descends. It climbs again. But many cyclists do it. It’s very pretty.”We (my husband and I) were on bicycles in the Haut Vaucluse, a three-day trip past fields of grape vines, through ancient stone villages. We were about to venture off the marked route and head down a single track road through the forest which appeared to be a short cut to our lunch destination. We wanted to be sure it would take us there, so we stopped a car and enquired.Yes, it’s the right direction, the driver assured us. Up, up, and up we went. It seemed more like the real Ventoux, but we’re not in the Lance Armstrong category of cyclists. Not only was the terrain a challenge, the mistral was against us. Strong gusts of the fierce wind made pedalling even more difficult. And we were in a hurry to reach the restaurant before it closed which is why we opted for the short cut. We raced, we cursed, we almost gave up. At last, the lane finally headed downhill. We sailed into the tiny burg and made it to the restaurant in time. We were exhausted and famished, but we were rewarded with an incredible meal.Thankfully, most of the cycling on our harvest time trip in late September was at a leisurely pace. The fields were abuzz with activity as workers harvested the grapes which would produce C�te du Rh�ne wines. Many a vehicle passed us, overloaded with the purple fruit. The aroma of freshly pressed grapes – a pungent but pleasant, slightly sour smell – pervaded the towns all known for their wines: S�guret, Vacqueyras, Rasteau…Last summer a new bicycle trail, Haut Vaucluse � V�lo, opened with signs marking the route that leads through northern Vaucluse into the Dr�me. We began our venture in Beaumes-de-Venise. It was a frustrating beginning. We must have missed a sign and we ended up on a dirt path in a farmer’s field. We backtracked, but instead of going all the way back to Beaumes to look for the bike route, we rode along the busy highway, D7, to Vacqueyras. We found a restaurant at the edge of town where we enjoyed a menu express’ – lapin � la moutarde, rice and salad for €12. That, plus a few glasses of wine, lifted the spirits.We headed out of town on a road with less traffic. This was grape country – vineyards in every direction with the Dentelles de Montmirail mountain range as a backdrop. It was a climb to the hilltop village, S�guret, rated one of the Plus Beaux Villages de France, but not an overly strenuous ascent. We walked the bikes up narrow alleys of stone, past art galleries, a tea salon and a few shops, to a parking lot at the other end of the village that offered splendid views.Next stop: Vaison-la-Romaine, a lively place with castle ruins on the hilltop and Roman ruins in the lower town. We stopped for a refreshment break at an outdoor caf� where we watched a busy parade of people going about their daily business as folk have been doing for centuries in this medieval city. In addition to following the bicycle route signs, we relied on a detailed Michelin map of the area. We couldn’t find any bicycle signs leading out of Vaison to Entrechaux where we had booked a chambres d’h�tes for the night, so we consulted the map and followed D205 to the town, a lovely ride mainly along a river crossed by old stone bridges.Entrechaux is clustered at the foot of a huge hill crowned by a ch�teau. As luck would have it, our chambres d’h�tes, La Bastide de la Tour, was just below the ch�teau. The road to the house rose up steeply. I pushed my bike, while my husband pedalled. Martine Revy welcomed us to her gorgeous home situated at the edge of the mountain. Heavenly aromas from the kitchen were a promise of the dinner that awaited. Our room had a private terrace with a view of the distant Mont Ventoux (the real one) and surrounding mountains. We basked in the late afternoon sun and sipped a pastis. It doesn’t get much better than this. Madame Revy had prepared one of her specialities for dinner – chicken cooked with a mixture of honey and spices. It tasted even better than the aromas had foretold.
Market dayThe next morning we had to cycle back to Vaison en route to Rasteau where we had scheduled a walk through the vineyards. This time we found the bike route. It was market day in Vaison and a challenge to walk our bicycles through the streets crowded with shoppers. The stands laden with baskets, colourful ceramics, leather goods, soaps and Proven�al souvenirs were tempting, but how could we carry purchases on the bicycles? We charged on. We had passed many caves on our journey, but we chose the Cave de Rasteau for touring and tasting. Charlotte La�, an enthusiastic young woman who spoke perfect English, led us through the vineyards. The excursion with Charlotte was informative as well as enjoyable. We stopped to take photos of grape pickers and learned that rose bushes planted at the end of a row of vines are just for decoration these days, although in the past they were used to warn of disease. If the roses got sick, the vines would likely succumb and needed to be treated. The stone soil in the Rasteau hills captures heat during the day which continues to warm the vines – some of which are 50 to 60 years old – through the night, she said. “This is a territory of sun and wind. The wind is good. It cleans and dries the vines.”
Destination lunchBack at the cave, we tasted several Rasteau wines. Rasteau is best known for a sweet wine produced from 100 per cent grenache grapes. We tasted that, as well as dry reds. We lingered too long tasting. It was already noon, but we wanted to reach the restaurant Chez Claudette in Saint-Roman-de-Malegarde for lunch. That’s when we ventured up the killer hill in an effort to save time.Chez Claudette, we had been told, was a restaurant accueil v�lo with cuisine familiale. It was a bustling place, both indoors and out. We found a table on the terrace between a group of Belgians with two dogs and a British couple.The waitress arrived and told us the selections of the day: r�ti de porc or coq au vin. It was more than a meal: five or six different kinds of salads and a selection of charcuterie. We feasted. Then the main courses. Then cheese, then dessert: chocolate mousse or cr�me caramel. I chose the chocolate mousse, which was the best I’d ever tasted. I went indoors to pay and was told we owed just €11 each. Before we left, the waitress had arrived with another demi of wine. Apparently we could have drunk that, too, at no extra cost. Fortunately after lunch and the demi of wine, cycling was in the flats. We stopped for a walk around a pretty, medieval village flanked by thick walls topped by four towers. Richerenches is home to the recently restored Keep of the Knights Templar, one of the oldest and most important 12th-century garrisons of the Templiers de Provence.
A papal pastOur overnight stop in Valr�as was at a charming chambres d’h�tes, Les �cureuils, run by Michael Shardan, who is British, and his French wife Chantal. Mike showed us around the magnificent gardens surrounding an enormous pool, telling us about the area and its interesting history as part of the Enclave des Papes, an island in Vaucluse surrounded by the Dr�me. Its origins go back to the time of the popes
in Avignon. Chantal is a cook extraordinaire who treated us to a fabulous meal, beginning with a cake aux olives and spinach p�t�, followed by a poivron tatin, an unusual and tasty delicacy of peppers. Chicken curry with ravioli was the main course, followed by cheese and an amazing meringue dessert. Sights in Valr�as include an imposing Romanesque church, the remains of town walls, 17th-century frescoes in a ch�teau which is now the city hall and two chapels. The latter are usually closed to visitors, but Chantal can arrange a tour. After a town visit, we got back on the bikes and cycled for several hours in the Dr�me where the bicycle signs were more plentiful, hence less stress in the saddle. Back in Vaucluse, we ventured to Gigondas, a tiny village the name of which is synonymous with the best of C�te du Rh�ne wines. The leafy main square is surrounded by huge plane trees and numerous shops selling the prestige vintage. We tasted at Le Caveau Gourmet where, in addition to tasting, you can have a meal – pairing nine different foods with ten different wines – for €30. Erika Marre, who runs the shop, told us that it’s “exceptional earth with seven different soils” that makes Gigondas wine so special. We pedalled on to Sablet, another small village on a hilltop, for a simple lunch. Then back downhill and on to Beaumes-de-Venise and our car. We biked about 160 kilometres during our journey – a pleasant trek through picturesque surroundings with delicious breaks for fine food and wine. We even conquered a mini Mont Ventoux, but we’re happy to leave the real mountain for Tour de France riders. New route markers have now been added to the Haut Vaucluse � v�lo route. Even if you don’t follow the signs, riding in the area is no problem if you have a good map. There are numerous side roads with little traffic. You can choose to ride for several days, or opt for a short circuit. Tourist offices have circuit descriptions, in both French and English, with detailed instructions. If you are cycling for several days and do not want to bicycle with your baggage, transport can be arranged (see below).
GETTING THEREBy train: TGV Paris-Avignon, 3 hours 15 minutes. By air: See the Holiday Planner on page 88.
WHERE TO STAYLa Bastide de la TourMont�e du Ch�teau 84340 EntrechauxTel: (Fr) 4 90 46 04 08 www.bastidelatour.com
Les �cureuils13 Chemin de la Ribeyronne 84600 Valr�asTel: (Fr) 4 90 35 29 93www.rib84.com
WHERE TO EATRestaurant Le DoliumPlace Balma Venitia 84190 Beaumes-de-VeniseTel: (Fr) 4 90 12 80 00www.dolium-restaurant.comAdjacent to the Cave Balma Venitia,
Chez Claudette84290 St-Roman-de-MalegardeTel: (Fr) 4 90 28 92 23
Le Caveau des GourmetsLes Bl�ches 84190 GigondasTel: (Fr) 4 90 65 83 78www.cave-gigondas.fr
PLACES TO VISITS�guret One of the Plus Beaux Villages de France
Vaison-la-Romaine Both Roman ruins and those of a medieval castle
Valr�asPleasant town to explore with an impressive church
RicherenchesVillage of the Knights Templar
GigondasPretty place to taste the best of C�te du Rh�ne winesCave de Rasteau – vineyard tour, wine tastingRoute des Princes d’Orange 84110 RasteauTel: (Fr) 4 90 10 90 14www.cavederasteau.com
BAGGAGE TRANSPORTTaxi Cl�randVaison la RomaineTel: (Fr) 4 90 36 00 04www.clerand.fr
TOURIST OFFICESAssociation pour le D�veloppement Touristique du Haut VauclusePlace du March�84190 Beaumes-de-VeniseTel: (Fr) 4 90 65 06 41www.hautvaucluse.com
Office du TourismePlace du Chanoine-Sautel84110 Vaison-la-RomaineTel: (Fr) 4 90 36 02 11www.vaison-en-provence.com