Day ride: Les Baux-de-Provence - An Autumn by the Sea - CycleBlaze

November 16, 2018

Day ride: Les Baux-de-Provence

It’s foggy and chilly this morning but the forecast is for a blue, warm day once the fog burns off.  This could be the last one like this - after five straight pleasant days, the temperature is expected to drop significantly and turn greyer in the days ahead.  We can hardly complain about the forecast though - here it is mid-November already, and the days have still been pleasantly warm.

We stay around  the room until almost ten waiting for things to warm up; but when we start biking it’s still below 50 and damp.  A few miles down the road I’m starting to regret leaving my warm gloves behind when the sun finally breaks through.

We haven’t seen conditions like this since we left Turin. It’s supposed to be fair and 65 today, but at the moment it’s damp, foggy and 48. I was sorry I hadn’t brought my warm gloves today.
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We have three goals today in the triangular route I’ve picked out: Les Baux-de-Provence, a famous highlight in the region; the ruined 12th century Montmajour Abbey; and the castle at Tarascon.  We visited all three of them back in 1996 on our September ride from Nice to Barcelona, so today’s outing is a ride of rediscovery.  I’m particularly keen to see Montmajour again.  Like the photograph of Menton’s Basilica, we had a photograph of Montmajour on our living room wall for twenty years.

Les Baux sits atop the western end of the Chaine des Alpilles, a short but dramatic limestone range that extends east to the Durance, ending at the cliffs of Orgon that we rode beneath yesterday.  It is essentially a continuation of the Luberons, broken by the broad Durance valley.  It is short enough that it would make a very attractive longer day ride to completely circle the range.

It is a short, not difficult climb up to Les Baux.  It is a very attractive climb, snaking upward beneath limestone cliffs with Le Baux intermittently visible just ahead.  The road is very quiet, which reflects the season - I imagine it is quite busy in the warmer months.  The video gives a good feeling for this ride.

Not fifteen minutes after leaving our room, the fog burned off. The remainder of the day was warm and beautiful. I wonder if this is the last day like this we’ll see this autumn,
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Les Baux, a ridgetop village whose origins go back almost six thousand years, is a premier tourist destination that sees over 1.5 million visitors per year.  Signs of this are abundant, and we start passing paid parking spots along the road well before reaching the site.  At the entrance to the village is a large parking area that today is virtually empty.  Unless you like mingling with masses, this is a great time to visit.

We remember Les Baux from our first visit over two decades ago, but not well.  I recall being on top, taking in massive views across southern Provence and the lower Rhône valley and being intrigued by its collection of catapults and other such medieval instruments of war.  I’d forgotten completely though that below it is a sparsely populated ancient village carved out of the mountain, its narrow streets lined with creperies and souvenir shops.  Today the streets are quiet, and the shops mostly closed for the winter.

At the entrance to Les Baux is the limestone quarry that was the source for building the village and it’s chateau.
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At the entrance to Carrieres de Lumieres, an artistic multimedia attraction set inside the decommissioned limestone quarry.
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The views from Les Baux are impressive in all directions. Here, we’re looking west toward the Rhône.
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By bicycle is not the ideal way to explore the village and its coarse cobblestone streets. We regretted forgetting to bring the lock, so we couldn’t leave them back at the parking lot.
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I found Les Baux a frustrating subject for the camera - too shadowy, too hard to find a perspective that showed its character well. So, I’ll show you this nice little dog that blocked our route instead.
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Saint Vincent Church dates back to the 12th century, and is partly built into the surrounding cliffs.
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Saint Vincent Church
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Saint Vincent Church
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We spent perhaps an hour poking around the corners of Les Baux, but skipped its two major and ticketed tourist sights - the light show that is staged inside an abandoned quarry and projects images of the old masters (Picasso is currently featured) across the face of the quarry walls; and the palace and upper level of the site, because we hadn’t thought to bring a lock and didn’t want to abandon our bikes for long enough to make a visit make sense.

About noon we coasted down, our ride plan right on track but soon to collapse into a minor fiasco.  After a few miles we passed through Fontvielle, a touristy village large enough to support multiple cafes.  It’s time for lunch, so we checked the menus of several; but finding none of them that appealing, we decided to just bike on to Montmajour Abbey, another two miles to the north.

A dumb decision, that.  It trashed the rest of the day’s plan.  It’s hard to say why we left town without a food plan, with the end of the lunch period not that far off.  Rachael’s thinking was that we’d just come to someplace else before long; and mine was that we’d only spend a brief time at Montmajour, which I remembered as a small ruin that we could just spend a few minutes walking through to refresh our memories.

We were both wrong.  Nothing else was open on the way to Montmajour, and the site is much larger than I remembered.  It’s a large, significant complex, and a paid admission site that would take much longer than anticipated to visit.  It was immediately obvious to both of us that we couldn’t visit the abbey and get lunch later - everything would be closed by then, and Rachael would be lying by the side of the road starved and whimpering.  

After more than a few frustrating words about what to do and whether to bike forward into Arles or backtrack, we decided to return to Fontvielle and force ourselves to choose a place to eat.  Assuming we’d come back this way afterwards, I didn’t even bother taking a photograph of the Abbey.

Dropping down from Les Baux, we biked the rest of the day at low elevation, alongside agricultural fields with the Alpilles on the horizon.
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We worked hard enough to find this meal. Might as well show it off. A wheel of melted Camembert, potatoes and assorted cold cuts.
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Back in Fontvielle, we found an attractive cafe we had missed before and enjoyed a pleasant lunch sitting outside in the warm afternoon sun.  By the time we were done though it was 2:30, and obviously too late in the day for us to visit the abbey.  With only about two biking hours left in the day, we decided to take a more direct way back to Saint Remy, skipping both the abbey and Tarscon’s castle.  I’ll have to be content with my twenty year old memories for a few years longer, it appears.

So, not the plan we started out with; but the ride home was still very pleasant, biking through the fields and enjoying the colors of autumn and occasional views of the Alpilles.  We got back to our room about 4:30, our new normal, once again arriving too late to visit the town we’re staying in. We’ve got quite a streak going.

We didn’t take any photos at all of the much more impressive Montmajour Abbey, so we’ll show you the modest Saint Gabriel Chapel instead.
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I wonder what the story is here - everyone looks so startled, and they all have huge hands and forearms.
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The Alpilles really is an attractive range, with a raft of fine cycling routes around it.
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It is liberating to know that Cezanne painted over thirty versions of Mont Sainte-Victoire. I feel free to include as many shots like this as I want now. And they’re even of different trees!
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Camargue cattle, near Fontvielle
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A view into a large, open sided greenhouse. Lettuce?
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Blessed are the pigeons, for they shall go forth and multiply.
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Another entry for the vinouring challenge. I’d better hurry - I think the season is about to end and I’m still a bottle shy.
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Ooh, ooh, Tiramisu!
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These small villages really quiet off season. After dark the streets are virtually empty.
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Shawn AndersonSo beautifully clean. Seems like everyone in the foreign countries takes pride in how clean their storefronts and streets are. Just amazing.
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3 days ago
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Ride stats today: 34 miles, 1,800’

Today's ride: 34 miles (55 km)
Total: 2,539 miles (4,086 km)

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