The Provence is one of the most frequently visited regions of France, and that's very understandable: An excellent climate, spectacular scenery and a mouthwatering cuisine guarantee a delightful stay. Despite all the tourists this is an ideal cycling and hiking area; there are many picturesque roads and paths that you can follow to easily avoid car traffic.
Because of the varied landscape it isn't difficult to plan simple flat routes or more difficult mountainous routes, depending onyour taste. There is a beautiful biking area around the Mont Ventoux (1,900 meters), an impressive mountain that is visible from many miles away. Another highlight is the Lubéron, right in the center of the Provence. There are numerous picturesque villages to discover in the beautiful mountainous landscape. There is also a signposted circular cycling route with a length of 200 km in this area.
Real aficionados will conquer the Mont Ventoux by bicycle, but you can almost reach the summit by car. There are several trails to the top, for example the path starting from ski resort Mont Serein at a height of 1,400 meters.
From the pleasant tourist place Bédoin you can make a nice cycling tour with the Mont Ventoux visible in the north for the whole day. From Bédoin you take the route to Sault via Venasque along practically deserted roads (D4-D15), followed by a slow descent through the spectacular Gorges de la Nesque back to Bédoin. The mistral is untamed in this region and is a factor to take into account when planning trips.
At the foot of the Mont Ventoux lies the village of Bédoin. It is very popular with cyclists trying to measure their strength with this sturdy mountain. The village income is largely dependent on tourism, but it has managed to keep the authentic Provençal atmosphere.
Every Monday there is a market where you can buy all sorts of local products. There are stands that sell traditionally made cheese and sausages, and you can also find lavender soap, pottery products and other souvenirs.
The village has several good restaurants where the regional kitchen is served, accompanied by excellent wines from the local vineyards.
On one of the many clear days the Mont Ventoux is visible in the distance from Avignon in the Rhone Valley. Even in the height of summer the mountain seems to be covered in snow because of the amount of calcium in the sheer rock face. In the 14th century Avignon served as the Pope's residence after Clemens V was elected pope but refused to move to Rome. The pontifical palace in the centre of the city is a much visited and impressive building. The sad thing is that there isn't much left of what was here when the popes ruled. A walk through the city alongside the famous Pont d'Avignon and a visit to the picturesque rue des Teintures, where once the dyers practised their trade, is a must for every visitor.
East of Avignon there are several Provençal villages that are firmly in the grip of mass tourism. Gordes is one of them. It is situated on a beautiful hill and has many typical Provençal houses that are painted in authentic crayon colors, especially ochre. You will also find a lot of ochre in Roussillon, where once an important ocher quarry provided the villagers with an income. A walk through this sandy area with its bizarre colored rocks is definitely worth the effort. And when the mistral is blowing the swirling dust is definitely an extra attraction.
The Pont du Gard is officially outside the the Provence region, but no visitor should miss this Roman aqueduct over the river the Gardon, 20 km west of Avignon. The bridge is on the UNESCO World Heritage List and attracts over a million visitors a year, making it the most popular attraction from the Roman era throughout France. The Pont du Gard once was part of a 50 km long aqueduct that provided the Roman city of Nemausus (Nîmes) with water. When you take a closer look you can see that the bridge, which has a height of 49 meters, is slightly curved. That way the bridge can better withstand the water pressure. The brilliance of the Roman architects — who only had simple measuring instruments — is also proved by the fact that the aqueduct drops only 17 meters along the whole length, which comes down to only 34 cm per kilometer.
Apart from the bridge (free access, parking is € 5) the museum (€ 6) is worth a look. The museum has interesting lifelike tableaus that show the way the bridge was built.
Alongside the Gordon there are several beaches where you can lie down and cool off in the river. Canoeing is very popular here, which is no surprise because it is a very special experience to sail under the arches of the Pont du Gard.
To the southeast of Avignon is the Lubéron, a mountain chain of about 1000 meters height, dotted with picturesque villages in the foothills. The last couple of years these villages are becoming more and more popular, especially since the publication of A year in the Provence by British author Peter Mayle, who lived in the village of Ménerbes. He had to move out of his house because the tourists almost literally invaded his place.
The tourist agencies in the Lubéron area have designed a beautiful signposted bicycle route of 236 km that takes you around the mountain range. This route generally follows secondary roads with little car traffic and isn't too difficult. There are some steep hills but they're not very lengthy. Dutch Travelers completed the route in three days. The signposting is excellent almost everywhere. There's a cycling guide available at the local tourist offices (around € 20).
On the north side of the Lubéron there are very touristy villages such as Bonnieux, Ménerbes and Lacoste (where marquis de Sade once lived) with Provençal crayon colored houses, art galleries and restaurants. Nevertheless you can still find tranquil villages, where many of the properties serve as second home for wealthy city-dwellers.
The south side of the Lubéron has a somewhat different character. The climate is drier and the mountains rise steeply from the plains. You will encounter some nice villages, such as Cucuron, with a square pond on the beautiful village square, surrounded by really huge plane-trees. This is a touristy area, so there are plenty of lodging possibilities. But if you prefer to go camping, some planning is advisable. The distances between the campsites are rather large and sometimes they are quite far from the bicycle route.
About 50 km east of the Lubéron is the Grand Canyon du Verdon, one of the most spectacular and deepest gorges of Europe. For hikers, the Sentier Martel between Point Sublime and Chalet de la Maline is not to be missed! The route descends into the gorge, around 500 meters lower, and follows the river. Halfway down the route there's a difficult passage with 240 steps. The complete walk takes at least 6 hours. Put on your sturdy shoes and take plenty of water with you, and don't forget to take a flashlight for the tunnels. In summer and in weekends it is very busy in the gorge, and there are lots of large groups that hinder your progress on the narrow path.
Tip: Almost everyone walks from Chalet de la Maline to Point Sublime, but walking the other way around has many advantages. If you leave Point Sublime at 1 pm at the latest you will only encounter oncoming hikers in the first half of the walk. The last hours of the walk you will walk in complete peace. Finding a hitch or a taxi back to the departure point isn't normally a problem.
The atmospheric city of Arles certainly deserves a visit, especially because of the Roman amphitheatre. It is an impressive memory to the glorious past of the city. Vincent van Gogh lived in Arles from February of 1888 and made some of his most famous paintings here, but the houses that he lived in were destroyed in World War II. And to see the paintings, you will have to travel to a museum in Paris or Amsterdam.
Just under Arles is the Camargue, a vast plain that can be explored perfectly by bike. The roads are partially car free but often unpaved, so your speed will be limited, also because of the strong winds that often blow her. The marshy delta of the river Rhône is a bird paradise, and when biking alongside the Etang du Fangassier and the Etang de Galabert you will definitely encounter these striking pink birds. Almost as famous as the flamingos are the half-wild white horses and the herds of bulls which — with a bit of luck — you can observe from the side of the road.
Close to the Italian border is the seaside resort of Menton, a subtropical place in the southeastern corner of France. Because of the sheltered location bananas and lemons can grow here, just like palms and several other exotic plants that you won't see elsewhere on the French south coast. The city is famous for its subtropical gardens. One of the most beautiful is the Serra de la Madone in the Gorbio Valley, a few kilometers outside of the city. If you're interested in exotic gardens you should take a look at the Victorian style villa that was built in the 1930's, and its romantic garden with summer houses, classical statues and fountains.
In the 19th century Menton was one of the first places where North-Europeans escaped to for the winter. The city has maintained some of its calm, nostalgic atmosphere. There's a splendid view over the red and ocher-colored houses of the old part of the city from the road to the Italian boarder.