Fall in Provence is a magical time. The weather is usually crisp and clear due to the mistral winds blowing hard from the northwest. The usually silver-green hills turn a vibrant reddish orange and the air smells of smoky olives as farmers burn the cuttings pruned from their crops.
I was lucky enough to find myself in the south of France last October working at Backroads' European headquarters. In addition to marking my arrival, fall also meant the beginning of season-end maintenance at the office. Hundreds of vans and thousands of bikes returned from across Europe to get tuned up before being stored away until the following season. Along with equipment, leaders from across the continent, each with fascinating stories and endless laughter, emerged from the incoming vans, weary but smiling after their long journeys and seasons.
While it was great to be in the office and to enjoy the company of so many new and friendly faces, my favorite memories from Provence come from my time on a bike. On my second day in the office, my host for the week took me on a beautiful ride along quiet country roads up to the perched village of Venasque. After making the customary coffee stop that our Classic Luberon to Secret Provence trip enjoys, we relished the stunning views of Mt. Ventoux before enjoying a thrilling downhill back to the office. As the week went along, I was slowly convinced by my new friends to take on one of the most iconic rides in the region, Gorges de la Nesque. Setting out just before sunrise on my last day in town, I made my way along rural roads, passing by ancient farmhouses and foggy fields complete with woolly sheep. On a whim, I took a detour north towards Crillon-le-Brave, the tiny hilltop town home to the world-class Hotel Crillon le Brave, one of Backroad's longest-standing partners. Upon reaching the end of the spiraling climb up to the town square, I relished a quiet moment of victory as a nearby church tolled nine o'clock.
After fueling up with some much-needed cheese at the town's weekly farmers' market, I made my way down a beautiful switchbacking road, taking in more views of Mt. Ventoux's world-renowned southern climb, made famous by the Tour de France. Another hour of cycling brought me past more olive groves and fragrant lavender fields before I reached Villes-sur-Auzon, where the road leading into Gorge de la Nesque begins. Rejuvenated with a strong coffee and a steaming pain au chocolat, I began my slow ascent through the limestone cliffs. Although the gorge's grade never rises above 5%, the route's length and exposure provided a greater challenge than I had anticipated. Just as I thought I had bitten off more than I could chew, I happened upon a local honey shop, cut into the cliffs of the gorge. A pause for this tasty treat along with some encouragement from Joelle and François, two friendly locals who always welcome Backroads guests taking on this climb, helped give me a much-needed boost to power through the rest of the climb to the mountain town of Sault.
Feeling reinvigorated by the stunning views and a chilled glass of white wine, I pointed my handlebars downhill and began to retrace my route back through the gorge. Enjoying views of the rugged cliffs below, I relished the thrill of passing through not one, but three rock tunnels. On a high from the downhill, I was suddenly surprised by a family of mountain goats searching for lunch. Fortunately, my furry friends quickly clip-clopped out of my path in search of something tastier to eat. After finishing my downhill through the gorge, I rallied my strength with a quick stop at the local bakery in the town of Mazan, where our casual Provence bike tour stays. A little more than an hour later, I found myself in the town square of Pernes, enjoying a celebratory glass of rosé while reflecting on my amazing ride. My epic day made it so clear to me why Backroads guests fall in love with this beautiful corner of France. The friendly locals, amazing cycling and the postcard views around every corner make it a truly unforgettable place. It's magical there and I can't wait to go back.