The aim of these pieces is to try and get away from ‘brochure puff’ and to relate the reasons I like each of our tours. Not the reasons we decided to start each tour, but the reason I enjoy going back.
Many of you will have met Pete, an old friend and a Chain Gang guide since his semi-retirement a few years ago (he won’t like that!). His favourite tour is Provence, whereas my favourite (at least in France) has always been the Dordogne. So this month I asked Pete what were the reasons that he liked Provence above other tours.
1. The welcome from the hotels and restaurants.
It’s not true that every French region is the same, that once you’ve met a hotelier in the Loire Valley, Burgundy, Provence, etc. that they’re all equally friendly.
Of course we try to choose hotels with great owners, but sometimes we get luckier than others. In Provence we start and finish at the Residence les Cedres, owned by Christophe, perhaps our closest friend among all the hotels we work with. It makes a difference to us, as a company and as a guide, to feel that the whole hotel staff are part of the home team, and in turn that makes a difference to our groups. It feels like home, and we can act like we’re at home. It’s lovely.
Then we cycle to Orange to the Hotel Glacier, owned by Philippe. He’s less visible than Christophe, but behind the scenes Philippe is a consumate professional – anything we need, Philippe and his staff sort, and again it makes our lives much easier, and this means our groups have a better time.
On Monday night we’re in Uzes, with Rik Vergote. Like most of the best French people, he’s Belgian! We’ve known Rik since he and his wife bought the Hotel St Genies maybe 10 years ago. He’s a keen cyclist, and again arriving at the St Genies is like arriving at a home-from-home.
And so it goes on. I hadn’t really thought about this, but I do think Pete’s right. In Provence we cycle from one friend to another, and it makes a difference.
2. The weather.
I’m often amazed and delighted at the indefatigability of our customers. I remember asking Tom Mannis, after 4 hours of basically standing undera waterfall of rain “Tom, should I get everyone in a van and just give up on today?”. “Hell no, we’re on holiday!”. I’ve sort of loved Tom ever since.
But there’s no question that sunshine makes everything better. Provence isn’t immune from bad weather. There are always hints in the local cuisine. Provence is renowned, among other regions, for winter truffles, the aromatic tuber melanosporum that fruits from mid-December to the end of February. But without violent thunder storms in July, there are no truffles.
Likewise the French are not allowed to water vines, at least not in the quality areas with an Appellation d’Origine Controllée etiquette. And winemakers don’t like much rain in the last month before harvest. So you know that in theory an area that boasts appellations like Chateauneuf du Pape, Vacqueyras, Gigondas, Les Beaux de Provence and Tavel, they have to have some rain in June / July / August.
But Pete’s right, we mostly get great weather in Provence. You hear horror stories about the mistral, the wind that can race down the valleys of the Rhone and Durance river valleys, and we have cycled in the mistral in the past (don’t forget, if the mistral is blowing, and you’re cycling South, it’s like God is blowing you home, and unlike British wind the mistral doesn’t usually mean rain – wind ain’t always bad!). But basically if you want to maximise your chances of cycling in sunshine, I think Pete’s right, go to Provence.
3. The beautiful scenery.
Of course all our tours are in beautiful places, for example the south coast of Devon or the vineyards and forests of Chianti in Tuscany, but Provence takes some beating.
The highlights for me are the Alpilles and the Lubéron Hills. This goes to prove the old saying that “No hills means no views”, but these are pretty minor ranges, the climbs from St Remy to Les Baux de Provence, and to Oppede le Vieux, Menerbes and Rousillon are not that bad.
Few places that we cycle through are as beautiful as the Lubéron – maybe none.
We have some galleries of Provence on Flickr. Here’s the best one, have a look!