The Tour de France is the pinnacle of stamina, strength and nerves, when nearly 200 lean and mean cyclists fix their sights on winning the ‘maillot jaune’ (the infamous yellow jersey). With its gruelling schedule of daily rides, each up to 200 km long, steep ascents, frantic sprint finishes, and with thigh and stomach muscles like reinforced steel, this is hardcore cycling.
By chance, our very own Tour de France in July 2021 (a small sliver of Van Gogh’s Provence) coincided with the timing of the big race. The peloton of two silver cyclists fixed their sights on lunch, afternoon patisserie and a 3-course dinner with a local vintage. With 4 gentle rides of around 45 km, mainly flat terrain, glorious views, plenty of rest stops, and thighs and stomachs with a bit of a wobble, this is Cycling for Softies.
Our starting point was Saint Remy-de-Provence, a picturesque town, buzzing with bars, restaurants, shiny streets, smart boutiques, and the very comfortable Hotel Gounod, our base for the first two nights. The town was also home to Van Gogh after he removed his own ear, and very sensibly admitted himself to the St. Paul Hospital (well worth a visit). Here he produced some of his most famous works, including Starry Nights, after which our tour was named.
Soon after arrival, we were introduced to our trusty two-wheeled steeds by our friendly Cycling for Softies local representative Marc. Even my inexpert eye could see that the bikes were high quality, well-equipped, relatively lightweight, and with a full complement of first-aid kit, inner tube, maps and water bottles. I had briefly considered taking the electric version, but I’m not that soft just yet, and the itineraries of around 24 miles each day looked manageable. What’s more, our luggage was being moved from one hotel to another, and all we had to do was pedal!
The next morning, fortified by a fabulous dinner arranged by Cycling for Softies, and a swim in the pool, we were ready for action and adventure. With the excellent route directions downloaded on the GPS app, we set off on a round-trip tour in the sunshine, which began along a cycle path through meadows of sunflowers and freshly harvested straw. It really can’t have been hard for Van Gogh to find inspiration here. If I had an ounce of artistic talent, I’d have been off that bike, whipped out an easel and pastels, and captured it on canvas too.
Our tour continued with an uphill climb to the top of the medieval fortress town of Les Baux, although with a fairly gentle gradient. It was well-worth the pedal for outstanding views across the Alpilles (little Alps!), and a wander through cobbled streets filled with boutiques and, most importantly, a wide choice of places to have lunch. I felt sorry for the Tour de France chaps devouring their energy bars at full-speed, as we relaxed into a lengthy calorific sojourn on a shady terrace. A lovely downhill ride was a further reward, and a gentle cruise back to St. Remy.
There was no rush the following morning, as it was Wednesday and market day in St Remy, a treat to be enjoyed at leisure. The entire square was a festival of clothes, linen, tablecloths, bric-a-brac and antiques, with the pedestrian streets of the medieval village centre dedicated to food and art with street music at every corner.
Deciding on a picnic lunch, we bought fresh bread, cheese, tomatoes and local nougat, and, like mad dogs and Englishmen, eventually set off for our 24-mile cycle to Arles at high noon. The journey, meandered through many huge fields of crops: wheat, melons, corn on the cob, lavender and more sunflowers. I discovered why they are called ‘tournesols’ in French, as they literally turn their heads around to face the sun during the day.
In the late afternoon, we arrived in Arles along the banks of the Rhone, almost like a lake it is so wide, and a welcome ice-cream in the main square. A wonderful treat was to find our hotel room directly overlooking the Arena where sadly no gladiators were to be seen, although bullfights and bull racing events were scheduled to take place a few days later.
After another fabulous dinner at a Softies choice of restaurant, the next day we cycled in a leisurely fashion around the Camargue. The sound of cicadas disappeared as we pedalled into the Rhone delta marshland where some of the roads are impassable in winter when the river floods, and in summer the freshwater wetlands are on either side of the road. On closer inspection, many of these are paddy fields which initially came as some surprise to me, but of course Camargue rice is to be found worldwide (or at least at Waitrose). Other farming abounds with melons, peaches, tomatoes and aubergines. And wildlife is abundant too: frogs, coypu (rodent-like water animals, similar to beavers), dragonflies, pink flamingos, many types of birds, wild ponies and bulls.
It was far too hot to go fast (goodness only knows how the Tour de France cyclists keep powering on), and a welcome pitstop came at what was the only restaurant on the circuit. Highly recommended, especially if you like bull steaks.
Returning back to Saint-Remy on the final day, our tour ended with a wonderful dinner at a backstreet restaurant, prebooked by Cycling for Softies and which we would never have found on our own, and a ‘religieuse’ dessert, which was a truly spiritual experience.
The Cycling for Softies formula is a winner, and has been honed and perfected over many years. It might be cycling with a soft centre, but it wins the ‘maillot jaune’ for me.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Cycling for Softies.