Categories: EPTurns50

Celebrating the Best of Provence

by Carol Busch - Thursday, January 13, 2022

Note: Our 50th year celebration includes a special tribute to three Classic ExperiencePlus! tours: Bike Across Italy, Best of Provence, and Cycling the Camino de Santiago. We selected these tours for what they represent, where they are located, and why they appeal to so many. This article celebrates Best of Provence Plus! the Luberon and Aix-en-Provence and was featured in our January 2022 Rambler Newsletter. Join any departure of Best of Provence Plus! the Luberon and Aix-en-Provence in 2022 and be treated to a special on-tour experience and commemorative Best of Provence cycling apparel. 

At ExperiencePlus!, the reasons we develop a bicycle tour in one region or country over another are as varied as the destinations themselves. In our first years, once we had traction with Bike Across Italy, the decision to expand our offerings beyond Italy was based on a desire to help people see more of the world by bike.  

At first, ExperiencePlus! founders Rick and Paola Price chose destinations based on love and familiarity of place (Greece) and a desire to provide cyclists with a winter tour destination (Costa Rica). A custom tour request is what initially motivated us to head to France.

In 1994 a group of cyclists out of Boulder, Colorado who had already taken a number of trips in Italy and Greece, talked with Rick Price about touring the Dordogne region of France. Thus, the first iteration of Cycling the Dordogne Plus! the Vineyards of Bordeaux came to life the following year.  

Meanwhile, some 400 kilometers to the southeast, bicycle tour operators were already offering trips through the land of Van Gogh, lavender fields, Cezanne, Mount Ventoux, Camus, markets, mistrals and Peter Mayle, scribe of the popular memoir, A Year in Provence.  

“It is perhaps the most iconic region in France and one with a unique character and personality that sets it apart from the entire country,” says Rick Price.  

For centuries Provence was the hub of a transportation corridor from the Mediterranean into central Europe. Its famous outdoor markets featured – and still feature – products from throughout Europe: spices, fruit and vegetables, cheeses, olives and olive oil, and colorful printed cloth.  

Even more, or perhaps best of all, like the rest of France, Provence hosts a network of well-maintained roads that connect villages and are excellent for bicycling. And so, what could we do but be compelled to develop a bicycle tour? In 1996, 19 cyclists departed on (and completed!) the inaugural “Provence and the South of France” tour.  

According to Rick, the tour began in Aix-en-Provence with a two-night stay and a loop ride around Mont Saint Victoire. Then the tour went north into the Luberon, across Rhône and on to the west. Rick couldn’t resist including the Cevennes Mountains, the setting for Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey, which figured so importantly in Rick and Paola‘s 1973 travels with a donkey in Greece. The tour ended in the Mediterranean port town of Sête, the “Vencie” of France with a memorable oyster dinner for many people.  

Finding "the best" of Provence

Perhaps no other tour has changed as much over the years as the present-day Best of Provence Plus! the Luberon and Aix-en-Provence. And change not just in name, but also in route and itinerary. It takes time to expertly curate the right combination of places to visit, roads to ride, and hotels to use when a region’s history, towns, culture, architecture and riding are so plentiful, fascinating, and iconic.

But no matter the tour iteration, “the one constant has always been St. Remy,” says France Tour Manager Sabrina Moriconi, who started leading ExperiencePlus! bicycle tours in France in 1999.

St. Remy has become synonymous with Van Gogh, who painted several of his most famous works (The Starry Night, Irises, The Wheat Field and more) during a year’s self-admitted residency at the nearby Saint-Paul Asylum, a former monastery, from May 1889 to May 1890. St. Remy has also become a customer and tour leader favorite. Not only do we stay two nights, but the ride to Les Baux on Day three is considered one of the top 50 rides on any ExperiencePlus! tour.

By 2012, ExperiencePlus! had tweaked the original itinerary by splitting the route into two classic-style bicycle tours that allow for maximum enjoyment of each region’s culture, language, and history. The Best of Provence Plus! the Luberon and Aix-en-Provence reverses the routes original direction so that it ended in Aix-en-Provence and also includes an opportunity to summit Mount Ventoux. Meanwhile, parts of the itinerary that were left out of the new Provence tour were incorporated into a new trip – Bicycling the South of France – which starts in Nîmes and heads west-southwest into the foothills of the Pyrenees.  After all, a region that has so much to offer can’t be visited in one tour.

Homebase

Critical to ExperiencePlus! offering bicycle tours in France was finding someone locally based who could work behind the scenes to help design and launch news tours, as well as coordinate and manage hotel and restaurant reservations.

“As we were contemplating who might help, we were reminded that a good friend from Fort Collins – who was French – and her husband from Wyoming had retired and returned to France to live just a few kilometers outside of Aix,” recalls Rick.  “We contacted Josette and Sam to see if they would be interested in acting as our France country coordinator. They were excited about the prospect and we were delighted that they accepted!”

Not only did they take on tour coordination in France, they opened their home to us and it quickly became the base of our France operations. Sam and Josette played house mother and father to our French tour leaders who would gather at their rural villa to stage tours. They would feed us, coach us, pick us up at the airport or Marseille train station, and act as all ‘round cheer leaders for our tours in France.

Even tour leaders en route to Spain or Ireland from Italy with loads of bicycles looked forward to delightful layovers in Provence with Sam and Josette. They were simply indispensable collaborators for more than a decade.

Above all, though, Josette knew how to sweet-talk hotel keepers throughout France, finding beds when there were none in the Alps or Pyrenees during the famous French Stage Race, and negotiating some of the most wonderful meals with French restaurateurs.

“Food in France was of course always extraordinary,” Rick says. “But it varied a lot and our young customers, especially the younger men, would get hungry after a meal of fine French cuisine after a full day of cycling.”

Rick recalls consulting with Josette to ask restaurants that some carbohydrates be included in every meal. So potatoes and rice would occasionally appear on the menu. And yet customers were still hungry.

“We quickly learned that French chefs cannot easily be told what to serve,” Rick says. “A few chefs poured on the potatoes or were able to include some pasta in a meal.”

But their timing needed some help.

Rick says, “I can still remember one restaurant where we ate an entire five course meal and were nearly finished when the servers appeared with two huge bowls of rice just to satisfy our request.”

Photos From The Road

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