Bikes and baguettes
French window ... Roussillon village atop ochre cliffs. Photo: Andrew Bain
Andrew Bain pedals into the wind — with children in tow — in lavender-laced Provence.
Provence. The first day of summer. Flamingoes streak the sky and the smell of the Mediterranean Sea spices the air. Ahead on the road, my wife pedals slowly on her bicycle, a freshly baked baguette strapped to its rack. It sounds like the start of a love story, a Provencal romance, except for the weight of the two children we tow behind us and the flapping of our three-year-old son's underpants as they dry in the breeze.
For the next two weeks we will cycle across France's land of lavender, from the rolling-pin-flat Camargue to the foot of Mont Ventoux, a journey from the so-called French outback to the mountain steeped in cycling legend, its 21 hairpin bends beckoning every cyclist who isn't burdened by the anchor of children in trailers.
From the beginning, as we pedal out from Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer on the shores of the Mediterranean, we face a foe that seems at least the equal of the mountain – the mistral. Generated on the mountains of central France, this fierce, chilly wind funnels south through the Rhone valley and rages into the Mediterranean at speeds of up to 90kmh.
The author of A Year in Provence, Peter Mayle, described it as a wind that could "blow the ears off a donkey". Vincent van Gogh stated more simply that it "gets on one's nerves badly", though some contend it was the mistral that sent the artist mad. It's an assertion that seems credible when you're pedalling north into its teeth but feeling as though you're being dragged backwards by a row of billowing underpants.
We've started in the Camargue, the delta of the Rhone River, not so much for its flatness – a rarity in Provence – as for its flamingoes. A curiously empty land so close to the glimmer and glamour of the Cote d'Azur, the Camargue is also the only nesting site in France for the pink, ladder-legged birds we hope will amuse our young passengers as we roll through the wetlands towards Arles.
Inevitably, the amusement of flamingoes spearing past on the wind is short lived. The kids switch their interest to song, a nonsensical chatter (“bob, bob”, “nom, num”) they label as French, the snails that our son Cooper insists on smuggling along for the ride and the cries that quickly become cycling's equivalent of "are we there yet?"
“I want to get out of the trailer,” Cooper moans frequently. We propel him forward less by our legs than on the promise of a coming playground or pain au chocolat.
We ride for an hour at a time when lucky, three hours at most each day, a creeping, crawling journey into country that becomes more Provencal as we go. Past Arles, cypress trees rise like pickets beside the road. Vineyards spill down rocky slopes, yellow fields are flecked with poppies and Roman aqueducts cut across roads. It's a dream French landscape set to an occasional soundtrack of whining and our own laboured breathing as Provence morphs from marshes into mountains.
In the Alpilles, a small range littered with boulders and bare rock slopes, we ascend 200 metres to Les-Baux-de-Provence, one of France's 150 listed "plus beaux" (most beautiful villages). Crammed among the rock, the one-time feudal home of Monaco's Grimaldi royal family has a glorious setting and, for cyclists, an equally glorious descent through the Val d'Enfer (Valley of Hell), a gully that, amid the Alpilles' skull-like boulders, seems appropriately named.
This day, however, the Val d'Enfer is a mixture of heaven and hell: a freewheeling descent marred by the headwind of the mistral. Along the foot of the range, on the busy and narrow D99, the wind tries to blow us off the road and the trucks suck us back on. It is our third day pedalling into this wind, which is now being forecast to reach speeds up to 85kmh. How long can it continue?
"Sometimes it can be like this for nine days," the manager at a camp ground in Orgon, at the eastern edge of the Alpilles, tells us. "This is the worst wind in France – we say that it's chasing away the clouds for the sun but that's just how we convince ourselves that it's not so bad."
Relief is near, however, because in Apt, 50 kilometres away and out of reach of the Rhone Valley, winds are forecast at only 10km/h.
In between Orgon and Apt is the Luberon mountain range, where piebald slopes of grey rock and khaki bush are sliced by deep ravines. With its cherry groves, olives and poppy-speckled wheat fields, the Luberon looks like a rural idyll, a time warp pinched between metropolitan Lyon and the Cote d'Azur, but in recent times it has also become one of Provence's most adored tourist destinations, brought to fame by Mayle's book, set in the Luberon village of Menerbes.
For cyclists, the attraction of the range is more in the presence of a roller-coasting 236-kilometre bike route that circuits the range, adhering almost entirely to minor roads where there's more chance of bumping into a cow than a car. To ride in the Luberon means to inflict more mountains on our legs and on Cooper, who already has no love for the slow pace of a hill climb, but that seems infinitely more appealing than the mistral.
Menerbes has come to be considered the classic Provencal village but it's only one of a string of such settlements crowning the spurs of the Luberon's northern slopes. After lunching in the shade of a cherry grove, we climb through Maubec, a village that seems to hover above fields of poppies, then begin our final and most difficult climb into Oppede-le-Vieux.
It's on such climbs that the weights we tow – children, camping equipment, toys, bedtime books – are felt most keenly and as my wife flags, she reminds me she's towing almost her body weight. After just 24 kilometres today, we should continue from Oppede-le-Vieux but we don't.
More than Menerbes, Oppede-le-Vieux feels like the quintessential Luberon town, a place built in defiance of the wild terrain but ultimately defeated by it. Pressed between deep ravines, the ramparted town was abandoned in 1909, making for a ghostly walk through the silent remains to its 12th-century church, high on the slopes.
Outside the walls, a few hundred people remain in residence, operating galleries, a pair of chambre d'hotes and a few restaurants, of which only one is open tonight, doling out a rich daube provencale (beef and red-wine stew) and the dish that graces almost every children's menu in France: steak hache (hamburger patty) and chips. Inevitably, French chefs create a unique, gastronomic twist even on such a bland children's meal, wanting to know whether they would like their burgers medium, rare or blue. Why don't they just torch them like the rest of the world?
If Oppede has satisfied our hunger for food, it has also quelled our appetite for big climbs. Beyond Menerbes – the village made famous by Mayle but also the resting place of Albert Camus and the one-time home of Picasso's mistress, Dora Maar – and Lacoste, set below the ruins of the Marquis de Sade's chateau, we descend into Apt. We have been cycling in the Luberon for almost three days, riding a section that last year took Tour de France riders little more than an hour. I don't feel humbled so much as convinced the pros missed the point of the Luberon's slow existence.
Apt is a town of only 11,000 people, though it feels somehow enormous and impersonal after the villages of the Luberon. We're chased out of town by traffic and storm clouds, which stalk us all the way into Roussillon, another of France's plus beaux villages. Its burnt-orange homes look like extensions of the ochre cliffs – Europe's largest deposit of ochre – atop which they're perched. The rain that follows is a boon for Cooper's growing snail fetish – at times now there's little room for him in the trailer among the escargot.
Suddenly, beyond Roussillon, we're back in the Rhone Valley, turning north into an imposing wall of the returning mistral and our first confronting sight of Mont Ventoux, the bald peak known as the Giant of Provence.
In Tour de France annals, two names stand tallest: Lance Armstrong and this mountain. One is a rider known for breaking mountains, the other is a mountain known for breaking riders. In 1967, British cyclist Tom Simpson died of exhaustion on the gruelling climb through its hairpins.
Its 1909-metre summit remains a cycling ritual. No cyclist can ride past tower-topped Mont Ventoux and not be tempted by the challenge – but has anyone ridden it while towing children, I wonder in a moment of lunacy – but as we inch along there's also the knowledge the mountain takes its name from the French word for wind. If it's windy down here, it'll be cyclonic up there.
We turn west, across the wide Rhone plain: the mountain slowly shrinking, the mistral quickly growing, the Provence sun warming the brie tucked inside the top of our panniers. Behind us, the cocooned children sleep and a string of drying underpants waves in the wind like prayer flags.
Thai Airways flies to Paris via Bangkok for about $1748. Swiss Airlines has a business-class fare for about $5930, flying a partner airline to Asia, then Swiss to Paris, Lyons or Nice via Zurich. From Paris it is a three-hour TGV train ride to Marseilles or 2 hours to Avignon. Lufthansa has a fare to Marseilles for about $2128, flying a partner airline to Asia, then Lufthansa via Frankfurt. (Fares are low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, including tax.)
For information and downloadable guides about the cycle-route network in the Luberon, see eng.veloloisirluberon.com. UTracks operates self-guided cycle tours in Provence suited to families, see utracks.com.