This post has been a while coming, but then it’s a long ride from the last entry in this list – New Zealand – to the foothills of the French Alps…
I came to the Luberon pretty much by accident. Partway through a five-month cycle trip across Europe, I was riding from France’s Mediterranean coast, angling towards Burgundy. But as I was crawling north, the mistral was blasting south. This great bastard of a wind is one of the most maddening in Europe – some suggest it was the nuisance of the mistral that caused Vincent van Gogh to lop off his own ear. Fittingly, as I reached the foot of the Luberon, after days of being lashed by the mistral, I was almost in spitting distance of the asylum in Saint-Remy-de-Provence where van Gogh was incarcerated.
To escape the winds on the plain, I decided to head for the hills. In this case, the Luberon. The day I pedalled in, valley winds were forecast at 85km/h, while those at Apt, along the foot of the Luberon were just 10km/h.
There’s a literary familiarity to the Luberon, for it was here that Peter Mayle set himself up in the village of Menerbes and churned out a bestseller titled A Year in Provence. There’s something far better than Mayle memories here though, and that’s the presence of the Autour de Luberon, a 236-kilometre cycling route that circuits the massif.
Signposting for the Autour du Luberon
My confession is that I haven’t cycled it all, for I came here towing my daughter and a shedload of camping gear in a trailer behind my bike. And the Autour du Luberon has climbs the equal of anything I came across in those five months through Europe – nothing too sustained, but sharp enough to fillet your legs. One day I’d like to go back and finish the loop.
The Autour follows quiet roads that thread between villages, vineyards, poppy-streaked wheat fields, olive groves and cherry orchards. It sounds idyllic until you look up the slopes to the deep, craggy ravines that slice through the bush…and until the roads ramp up into one of their many short climbs.
I cycled the northern slopes, where a progression of get-out-of-here-perfect Provencal villages crowned the massif’s spurs – if Mayle hadn’t romanticised the Luberon, somebody else eventually would have.
First village in the cycling rack was Oppede-le-Vieux, a ramparted town all but abandoned in 1910. Today, about 20 people live outside its walls, but inside it’s less a ghost town than a ghost imprint on the mountain. Menerbes – Mayle’s town – followed (Camus and Picasso apparently spent time here also, but the busloads still come to see the memory of Mayle), before the road curled beneath Lacoste, where the ruins of the Marquis de Sade’s chateau crowned the hilltop town.
In between, cherry trees bulged with fruit, lavender bloomed and poppies rose like suns. My four-year-old daughter was in flower heaven, picking bouquets each time we stopped and fitting them to my panniers so that my bike half resembled a mobile Swiss chalet.
It was all so magnificent, so storybook, you could almost forget your legs were screaming.
* Find details about cycling the Luberon here.