Freewheeling through France

NIKI SCHUCK
Last updated 13:01 11/07/2012

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As the taxi winds up to the start of our self-guided biking trip at Vanasque, I can't help but see the fleeting looks of panic on my mother's face.

Only recently I re-taught her how to ride and despite the fact she's chatting away  "pleased" the day has dawned brightly, "thrilled" about the virtually new bikes, and "relieved" she bought those bike shorts with the extra padding  I can tell she's quietly crapping herself.

I whisper to my husband Ed: "Was it my idea to bring the olds on a six day cycling trip through Provence?"
Our charming driver is smiling and singing to himself, as we continue the climb through the limestone cliffs.

We stop on the cobbled forecourt of one of the oldest religious monuments in France  The Venasque Baptistery. Its cliff-top spot provided perfect protection for 6th century bishops when they weren't top of the pops.

Mum and Dad check their panniers a dozen times. The chatter is constant, as is the clicking of cameras. I read the itinerary for the day, set out with the attention to detail that is typical of tour company Peregrine.
"Right. Enough mucking around, let's go."

The easy descent from Venasque is through cherry farms, and it's harvest time. There are no fences and the odd bunch of windfalls make a delicious treat.

We are aiming for Methamis, a tiny village high on a rocky spur. Its population is only 400 but we wonder if it even amounts to four. We leave our bikes and visit the highest point, The Sainte Foy Church, with its spectacular views across the valley.

Back on the bikes we wind our way through vineyards. Locals are out thinning the vines and Dad's interest piques. He's as a hobby-winemaker. Women in skirts, aprons and scarves remove the leaders that are sheltering the small grapes in need of ripening sun.

Rural life morphs into the next town, Villes Auzon, where we pedal straight into Les P'tits Bonheurs. We are clearly in the right place: there is a "Cyclist Plat" on offer and bikes leaning against the wall.

After lunch, Ed and I opt for the suggested detour that adds 35 kilometres to our 26km day. Once we reach the summit we would have climbed 350 metres through the Gorges de La Nesque. I chew up the climb in my big chain ring, thankful for the hill work I did back home. The scenery helps  limestone tunnels and jagged cliffs against lush bush.

There are cyclists galore at the summit, but no commuter bikes with panniers, so we're congratulated heartily by the roadies. We arrive at Saint Colombe to find Mum and Dad relaxing in the courtyard of our accommodation sipping cold beers  the perfect finish to a fantastic first day in the saddle.

After our petit dejeuner of croissants and fresh bread, it's all downhill to Bedoin, a Tour de France town. It's ablaze with Lycra  tomorrow is a race to the top of Mont Ventoux, 1909 metres. I wish I could swap my commuter for an racing bike and give it a go ... maybe next time. There are kids, men and women of all ages on bikes and even two dogs  one in a basket on the handle bars, another in a small trailer  it even has a water bowl and pillow.

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With baguettes and pastries calling we adopt our two-by-two formation and head for Crillon-le-Brave following the Dentelles de Montmirail  the lacy formations of the limestone.

In 1970 two Canadians began the transformation of Crillon-le-Brave's seven buildings that had been abandoned after World War II. The luxury accommodation is now a popular location for weddings. Along with its stunning church and town square it's something special, and the views of Mont Ventoux are spectacular.

Home tonight is Beaumes de Venise, derived from the "baumo"  caves which dotted the hillsides behind the village. Historical sites, including a 12th century Romanesque bell-tower, greet us around every bend. We were relishing being in the land of Muscat.

We wander past the local charcuterie for some pate, crostines and stuffed peppers then into a wine-baumo. Armed with a couple of bottles of the local drop it's bon appetit and bon nuit.

I open the shutters to another sunny day. Mum and Dad are all smiles relishing the week's adventure. Lunch is to be our reward once we reach Gigondas, which involves a bit of a hill. We take the climb slowly and enjoy the views we would've missed travelling by car.

From below, Seguret looks snug on its rocky perch. We've been warned about the steepness of the last kilometre but even Mum and Dad are too taken with the breathtaking views across the Rhone Valley to notice the ache in their quads.

We stroll the cobbled narrow streets with flower boxes hanging on pristine buildings. It's so peaceful but this definitely wasn't always the case for Seguret. During the religious wars in 1563 it was invaded by Huguenots who scaled their way into the village, killing 130 people  about one seventh of the population.

Dad discovers the hotel boasts a Michelin-starred restaurant. It's pricey, but we're on holiday and there couldn't be a better place to experience such a delight. Unfortunately, it's fully booked. As is the only other restaurant in the village.

In broken French I explain my parents are 70 years old and that we are happy to eat in our room, but the officious maitre'd isn't having a bar of it. I resort to begging.

It works and we're grudgingly invited into the dining room and servee salad to Michelin standards, bread, cheese and another bottle of wine. Not quite replete but we retire.

Dad is in heaven the following day as we pass a Cyprus plantation. He's working out how to get some back home to Wanaka.

It's a short ride today, to the most significant Roman ruins in France, Vaison la Romaine. We spot the medieval city in the distance, its chateau the crowning glory. The village is buzzing and we wheel our bikes through the streets, across the Roman bridge through the ancient cobbled streets to our home for the next two nights.

Our tour company has saved the best for last. I'm in love with Hotel L'Eveche instantly. The walls are covered in bookshelves, artwork, photos and posters. The afternoon is spent exploring an archaeological site discovered less than 100 years ago. I've never seen such intact ruins outside of Rome and, thanks to the audio guide, we're transported.

Our last biking day see us complete a loop visiting villages in the surrounding hills. We bike past truffle and oak plantations, through small villages not normally frequented by tourists. The locals stare at us disbelievingly as we smile, wave and call "Bonjour".

We wine, dine and dance our last night away street-side celebrating the summer solstice with the locals. Quiet narrow lanes allowed us time - to absorb the beauty around us, to explore at our own pace, to chat and laugh and create family memories l will treasure forever.

FACT FILE

Peregrine is an Australian travel company which prides itself on authentic travelling experiences using local companies and guides in all of their tours, and operating sustainably.

The trips costs $1795 per person and include accommodation and breakfast for six nights, a transfer on Day Two, luggage transfers, detailed route notes and maps, bike hire, panniers, helmet hire and repair kit.

Your trip starts at L'lsle-sur-la-Sorgue, just 25 kilometres from Avignon (it is easily accessible by bus, train or taxi), you are then transferred with your bikes to Vanasque the next morning.

For more visit peregrineadventures.com.

- Stuff

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