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A perched village rising gold and ochre from Provence's Luberon plains is a majestic sight.
Try cycling up its near-vertical slopes on a 35-degree-Celsius midsummer's afternoon. We were warned, but it is only human nature to misjudge the gap between ability and reality. As it turns out, we are all-too human.
And so it is that four middle-aged people are cycling - I lie, trudging - up the 3.5-kilometre hill to the battlements of Gordes.
Our bikes, that morning so light and malleable as we sped gaily downhill on our first day, have become stubborn mechanical mules to be hectored home.
Who knew how fiercely the sun would reflect off the pale stone ramparts of one of the "plus beaux villages de France"?
But because we are human, we also appreciate the sweetness that comes when the pain ceases. And how sweet it is to sit still at last on the terrace of our lovely mas (19th-century farmhouse), aperitif in hand, watching the sun turn Gordes tawny and drain the colour from the Luberon Valley below.
It is only now that we can fully appreciate the adventure into which we have blundered. We have airily brushed aside cycle tour company Discover France's gentle suggestions to delay our trip until the Provencal summer heat eases, but at least we are persuaded to avoid a town-to-town cycle, with specific daily distances to cover.
And so we have picked the Gordes Provencal Escape - a self-guided, four-night, flexible cycle trip. We can choose from a variety of itineraries. These include the moderate, 50km valley of the Luberon loop south of Gordes; the moderate to challenging 67km Roussillon loop east of Gordes; the easy (ahem) 39km L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue loop west of Gordes; or the Bedoin/Mont Ventoux loop north of Gordes, where people of sterner stuff than us tackle a punishing 89km slog.
By the end of day 1, we are far more interested in the loop around the swimming pool.
Fortunately, we do not also have to contend with equipment problems. A New York couple at our hotel are battling their tour company over bikes with faulty brakes and dodgy gears. They eventually hire new bikes.
Discover France's equipment is impeccable. Bike rep Julian collects us from Avignon and drives us 38km to Le Mas des Romarins, our Gordes hotel, where he introduces our hybrid bikes and satellite-navigation systems and explains our programme.
Although this is a self-guided tour, we are not alone. Eight detailed itineraries are programmed into our sat-navs and road books contain maps and comprehensive written guidelines for each itinerary.
Any idiot would be able to follow them, you would think.
We will worry about that in the morning, for it's time to stash our bikes in the hotel's dry-stone borie or shepherd's hut, the symbol of Gordes and the Luberon, then head off to enjoy one of the two dinners included in the package. Substantial daily breakfasts are also provided.
We have opted for the standard package, staying at the three-star mas, a few minutes' walk from the centre of Gordes and with unsurpassed views to the fortified town with its 10th-century castle.
The dry-stone walled mas, with its heavy-timber-beamed ceilings, has 13 renovated bedrooms, each named after Luberon villages. Some have views of the town and valley, Provencal colours and decorations dominate and there are numerous fragrant, terraced secret gardens.
The pool has views down the valley, but the piece de resistance is the terrace, with its green wrought-iron furniture shaded by a 200-year-old mulberry and with a view to die for.
Warm weather means outdoor three-course meals - seasonal produce cooked by a fine chef.
As we wait for our king-prawn entree, slow-cooked lamb shanks, cheeses and sorbets, washed down by a fine Cotes du Luberon Chateau La Verrerie, we toast the late-setting sun. We sleep deeply, as yet untroubled by heatstroke or muscle spasm.
The next morning, we lazily tear ourselves away from breakfast and amble off at 8.45am, not the 7am Julian has suggested, on our first day's "easy" ride.
This is a country of plenty, with grapes still young on the vines, apricots, baby olives, roses, figs, the scent of lavender and wild herbs of the garrigue (Mediterranean scrubland), all penned in by dry-stone walls, honey-coloured villages and an unbelievable sky. Everywhere, there is evidence of Provence's rich history and culture.
The itineraries favour back roads. The temperature is still in the 20s and we handle the first 2km hill with ease, before dropping steeply past pine groves and limestone crags into Fontaine de Vaucluse at the foot of the Vaucluse plateau.
Suddenly, time is of the essence. Emerging from the shade of the town's plane trees, the heat strikes as the cloud cover has burnt off.
Seven kilometres to L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue sounds like a spin in the park, but remember that plunge into Fontaine de Vaucluse? What goes down must, naturellement, come up.
So far, we are doing brilliantly with the sat-nav, which is ably assisted by "tar-nav" when one of us discovers handy little arrows painted on the road that, like Hansel and Gretel's forest crumbs, point the way.
Later, when all else fails, we will resort to sun-nav, then ask-nav in our muddled French and, finally, Discover France's emergency number.
The lovely 14th-century island town of L'Isle-sur la-Sorgue is slightly less lovely because of the crowds at Sunday's antique fair.
We head for Lagnes, with its medieval atmosphere and 13th-century chateau - you guessed it, on top of a hill with panoramic views of the Luberon.
I slip a chain on the hill and calm myself with a cassis sorbet from the only shop still open in Provence, for it is siesta time and soon only we and the cicadas are awake, although we do pass some bucolic scenes of locals picnicking in the apple and pear orchards.
Oh, that we had listened to Julian. A third of the way up, even the shade has slipped indoors for a nap.
Home at last at 5.30pm, we are wobbly with exhaustion, but we recover after a swim and stroll into town for the € 36 (NZ$57) menu du jour at L'Artegal - fromage frais wrapped in zucchini and chives, lamb fillet with herbs and garlic and caramelised apricot puff pastry with vanilla cream.
Don't get me wrong - we love our Gordes Escape. Without the Gordes climb, the cycling would be a breeze, but we are what you might call Sunday cyclists.
We decide that day 2 will involve a long walk to the Abbaye de Senanque, which is in a valley between the forests of the Plateau de Vaucluse, north of Gordes.
We leave our bikes leaning forlornly against the mas hedge, promising them a ride on the morrow.
The steep, well-marked walk takes us high into the mountains and our first glimpse far below of the medieval Cistercian abbey, still a working concern for the silent order of monks. This is one of the best places to see Provence's famed lavender fields.
Another excellent meal that night on the hotel's terrace inspires us to devise a cunning plan. Day 3 dawns clear and beautiful, but with a mid-30C feeling. We call Discover France's ever-helpful David Renvoise on the emergency number and he organises a taxi to ferry us and our bikes up the last hill to Gordes.
We set off relieved, free to enjoy our day's cycle into the Luberon valley. We whiz down the Gordes hill and immediately, incompetently, get lost. Even tar-nav is useless, because there are so many lovely rides within the Luberon Valley that a veritable shoal of little arrows swims in every conceivable direction.
We make it to pretty Goult and cycle in circles, enjoying the countryside which is rich with fields of sunflowers, melons and cornflowers, with perched distant villages.
The 2000-year-old Roman Pont Julien orients us (north of Bonnieux and west of Apt) and we stop to lunch and marvel that this ancient structure was on the main route from northern Italy to Gaul (Provence) and was used by Roman armies.
The pretty town of Roussillon is next, rising from one of the world's biggest ochre deposits, but the heat has struck. We pedal back towards Gordes, where we are met by the glorious sight of a jolly man from Luberon taxis who hauls us up the hill.
That night, we chance upon the final rehearsal of the Orchestre de Chambre des Cevennes in Gordes' church, the soaring tones of counter-tenor David Senequier nicely rounding off our Luberon holiday. Fairfax
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