A Biker's Reverie

Rhtne River - Route Description
  |  Gorp.com
Cyclists on a dirt path through the Camargue
Some dirt paths through the Camargue are still passable on road bikes.
Rhtne River Route

Total Distance: 135-150 miles.

Terrain: Sometimes you cannot help wanting a little bit of everything. Sometimes you are lucky and you find a place that has just that. The Rhtne River Valley, especially when combined with some of the surrounding areas, is a rich and varied topological tapestry. From the more-or-less level stretches of riverbank runs and the saltbed-flat expanse of the river delta Camargue to the Tour de France steep challenges in the Ventoux and the Vaucluse, if you feel like flat ambling, you've got it, but if you feel like fighting gravity, you can do that too.

Season: You are in France's midi, an area blessed with a Mediterranean climate. What does this mean? Mild winters, hot summers, and a light unlike any other in the world. Try to avoid the area at the height of summer when the temperatures are too much for all-day exertion and the tourists are too many to miss. Spring and Fall, although sometimes wet, are excellent times. Winter can also be quite wet, but the tolerable daytime thermometer can make for nice rides through the Camargue and the inland hills.


 

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Take a stab at all or part of the following itinerary.

Orange - Carpentras (35 miles). Orange is justly famous for its intact Roman theater. It is a wonder to behold, especially when live opera is being sung on its stage. Head east from Orange and avoid some hills by visiting Vaison-la-Romaine, a town noted for its Gallo-Roman ruins and the ways in which they have been preserved. Grab a drink here before the climbing begins. When you leave town, you can see what the faint of heart would call Mount Everest. A high ridge stretches to the east. This is the Mont Ventoux. If you know what you are capable of, the 13-mile, almost-5000-foot climb to the Col des Tempjtes is something that you will never forget. Nor is the descent. Even if your pain threshold isn't quite that high, the views to which you still have to climb (although not nearly as high) are astounding. Drop back down to Carpentras, home of the beautiful St. Siffrein cathedral.

Carpentras - Cavaillon (20-35 miles). It is only 20 miles of straightforward biking from Carpentras to Cavaillon via L'Isle-sur-la-Sorgue. However, the secrets of the Vaucluse are yours to discover if you go for the long and difficult ride over the great and green Plateau de Vaucluse. From Carpentras, head southeast on D4 up and over the Col de Murs. Follow signs to Roussillon and Gordes to get you back to the lowlands at Cavaillon. Cavaillon is a sleepy Provengal town perched under a bluff with a pretty stone church on top. Literally the melon capital of France (and some would argue the world), do not leave town without trying a bite.

Cavaillon - Avignon (25 miles). This is a short day so that you will have time to enjoy Avignon. If Van Gogh is any enticement, head west from Cavaillon to St-Rimy-de-Provence, home to the painter when he was institutionalized. However, you should not linger. This is a day given over to the complexity and wonder of European politics and religion. Avignon was home to the Pope for 40 years in the 14th century and the magnificent Palais des Papes is a must-see. So is the famous pont d'Avignon where French nursery rhymers dance. Avignon also plays host one of the world's greatest summer theater festivals.

Avignon - Arles (25 miles). This is another short day of easy cycling along the Rhtne. Your destination is the day's primary attraction and the lack of real physical cycling challenge will be appreciated. You will need the energy for combing through Arles' star-studded list of historic sites. Arles was immortalized in the paintings of Van Gogh, but its spirit was already well established and durable. With an intact Roman arena and theater in the middle of town, as well as an intricately sculpted 12th-14th-century cathedral and other points of interest, you will have more than enough to do with your day. For those more out to absorb atmosphere, many historians claim Arles to be one of the most pleasant cities of the Mediterranean.

Arles - Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer (30 miles). Between Arles and your destination city on the Mediterranean is the swampy, low-lying Rhtne delta known for its otherworldly landscapes and as the location of one of Europe's best wildlife sanctuaries. Bounded by the two southern arms of the Rhtne River - the Petit Rhtne and the Grand Rhtne - this is a Regional Natural Park and a National Nature Reserve Camargue. There are small roads and bike paths crisscrossing the area and, if you and your bikes are up to it, you should indulge in some fun (and sometimes muddy) trail riding. All the better to see the wild white horses, the breeding bulls, herons, and acres of preserved natural beauty. Beware of midges! Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer is an excellent beach town renowned also for its fortified medieval church, pilgrimages and firia (Camargue festivals featuring horses... and bulls).


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