Pedals in Provence

In this scenic region of southern France, Mount Ventoux challenges cyclists of all levels, including the Tour de France riders who will face it today.


Cover Story

July 21, 2002|By Michael Hill | By Michael Hill,SUN STAFF

The view from near the summit of Mount Ventoux is stunning. The mountain rises almost its entire 6,263 feet from the vineyard-covered landscape of Provence, so its barren upper slopes offer an unimpeded vista of the charming splendor of this region of southern France.

Not for me. My view consisted of the front tire of my bicycle and the asphalt road that was flowing so very slowly beneath it as I laboriously pushed down first one pedal, then the other. When the leading riders of the Tour de France pedal this route today, they will be trying to win a bicycle race. All I was trying to do was survive. And on Mount Ventoux, that is an issue -- it once claimed the life of a top cyclist.

The Tour de France route changes every year. Two years ago, the riders headed up Ventoux for a mountaintop finish, the American Lance Armstrong and the Italian Marco Pantani pulling away in the last mile. The tour is riding up this mountain again today, challenging what Armstrong, in an interview published in the program for this year's race, calls "the most difficult climb in France, without exception!"

So when my wife, Nancy, and I decided to return to this part of France -- taking our two teen-age boys who had not been born when we last came here in 1980 -- I knew my bicycle was coming along, too. Partly that was because I wanted to stay in shape riding through this wonderful countryside. Mainly, it was because I wanted to climb Ventoux. Or at least try to.

After four days in Paris, we took the high-speed TGV train to Avignon and drove our rental car about 45 minutes to the small town of Venasque, where we had stayed 22 years before. It perches on a narrow ledge about 800 feet above the surrounding countryside.

One end of the old part of town is dominated by a 13th-century cathedral, which is connected to a baptistery that dates to the seventh century, one of the oldest Christian sites in France. The other end of town is guarded by medieval ramparts. In between are impossibly narrow streets and loads of ancient charm, as well as a baker, a small general store and a number of artisans' galleries.

We were sharing a house with the same friends we had traveled with in 1980. They've been coming back ever since and now rent a place that lies just outside the town walls. We had a splendid view down the valley toward the town of Carpentras, where a weekly Friday market filled our shelves with fruits and cheese.

A brief walk to the Vanasque ramparts reveals the view to the north that is dominated by Ventoux's whale-like profile, topped with the spout of a weather and broadcasting station at its summit. Ventoux is called the Giant of Provence because it hovers over the region, at times benignly, other times earning its name -- which means windy -- by seemingly generating the mistral, a powerful wind that can blow across Provence incessantly for days.

My bicycle stayed stowed in its traveling case in Paris, so I put it together after we got to Venasque. A short spin to see if everything was in order turned into a delightful hour's ride as I found a group of four French cyclists pedaling by and joined them for a tough climb up a stark valley.

I turned back at the summit, and they descended down the road that leads to the 14th-century Abbey of Senanque, a beautiful Romanesque monument surrounded by the delicate hues of lavender fields that we visited with the kids a few days later.

There were all sorts of similar sites in the area. Avignon, a walled city, contains the Palace of Popes, a magnificent remnant of the 67 years in the 14th century when the papacy moved from Rome to this city on the Rhone River.

We got away from the crowds by going to Villeneuve dez Avignon on the other side of the Rhone where the ruins of a 14th-century Chartreuse abbey were impressive and evocative. The order gave its name to the color of a liqueur it produced.

Not far from there, we visited a bridge built 2,000 years ago by the Romans to carry water along an aqueduct serving the city of Nimes. The Pont du Gard is a monument to Roman engineering: three levels of arches rise 150 feet above the Gard River. We also spent an afternoon at the ruins of the Roman -- and earlier Gallic -- city of Glanum, located outside St. Remy de Provence, next to the asylum where Vincent Van Gogh spent most of the last year of his life.

Van Gogh is hardly the only artist to come here. In Aix-en-Provence, we visited the studio of native son Paul Cezanne. A view of one of his favorite subjects, Mount Saint Victoire, was available just up the road.

The countryside showed Provence's artistic appeal, its special light and colors, the delicate dabs of red poppies, the gentle sweep of a field of lavender, the stunning display of rows of sunflowers. Vineyards are all around, and the region produces excellent wines.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.