Mountains give way to vast gorges as we approach the Côte d'Azur
The skies are darkening we leave the café in St Martin d’Ardèche. No rain, just roiling clouds and a palpable build-up in atmospherics that add to the sense of drama as we turn onto the D290 along the Gorges de l’Ardèche.
The grand gorges of France are unlike any riding in the UK. They display the landscape on a huge scale, easily enjoyed on involving roads. The road along the Ardèche Gorge sweeps through scrubby land beside the river, climbing slowly until finally bursting out to run dramatically along the clifftops. The views are immense; naked rocks and rolling hills on the far side of the vast valley.
Then the road descends, in sweeping curves, to run beside the river at the foot of the cliffs. As trees close in on one side and rock walls pierced by caves loom on the other, it feels as we’ve moved from the big screen to the small screen. And that’s the real appeal of the riding here – it’s so varied, with every kind of landscape and all kinds of road.
PLACES TO STAY
A compact city crammed with heritage (including masses of Roman remains) but all the facilities you could need on tour. Hotel tip: Le Glacier
Sitting beside the A51 motorway, Sisteron is easy to reach and an ideal base for exploring the north of Provençe. Hotel tip: Hotel les Chenes
A perfect place for a taste of ‘traditional’ Provençe - handy for the tourist sites in Arles and Nimes, but packed with small-town charm. Hotel tip: Hotel le Mas St Joseph
OFF THE BIKE
What have the Romans ever done for motorcycle tourists? Er, the aqueduct… in this case, the staggering, must-see Pont du Gard. However, they’ve peppered the area with impressive ruins, including the theater in Orange and the enormous arena at the heart of Nimes, like Rome’s Colosseum but with the benefit of slightly saner traffic.
ART IN PROVENCE
Lots of people have come to Provençe to paint – most famously Van Gough and his chums (and there are plenty of painting courses if you fancy it). This means plenty of great galleries, many focusing on the Impressionists. Try the Monastere St Paul de Masoule, where Vincent was treated after the ear incident, or the huge Cezanne gallery in Aix-en-Provençe.
There are caves, then there’s the huge l’Aven d’Ornac system of caverns to the south of the Gorge de l’Ardèche. Packed with eye-popping rock formations (and pleasantly cool after the heat of Provençe) it’s a strange and fabulous place. Needs to be booked in advance.
Get the time of your visit just right and Provençe is a riot for both the nose and the eyes, with fields full of neat rows of purple lavendar in fragrant bloom. From June to August, the area around the foot of Mont Ventoux, especially between Sault and Manosque, is spectacular. If you need a gift to take back, top-end fragrance brand l’Occitane is based in Manosque, with an outlet shop.
All kinds of castles adorn the hilltops of Provençe. When the pope was based in Avignon, a particularly fine new one was built, which you can still visit Palais des Papes though you may prefer his vineyard – Châteauneuf-du-Pape. At the other end of the scale is the impressive ruined Château de Baux, north-east of Arles.
Britain has Dartmoor and New Forest ponies, but France has the wild white horses of the Camargue. Not easy to spot, but a splendid sight if you can.
Cars get more attention than bikes in the compact but still fun Provençe Motor Museum. A good, short break from the heat of the day.
Montélimar is the home of nougat and there’s nowhere better to taste it. There’s even a museum dedicated to it. Nearer the coast the pretty 1000-year-old village of Roquebrune-sur-Argens has a Chocolate Museum with 5000 exhibits – it also produces the local nougat and speciality chocolates.
A SIGHT TO SEA
Tucked away in the Luberon is the Extraordinary Museum of Georges Mazoyer. Georges was a diver and artist, so there’s an eclectic mix of shells, rocks and fish alongside paintings, stained glass and objets d’art from items found in the sea.
A few miles east of Aix-en-Provençe, Saint-Maximin offers something a bit different: the Hammanjana, a proper Turkish Bath offering steam rooms, baths and massages if you are feeling a little saddle sore.
A small hillside town that used to be a major tanning centre and is now left with more than 40 fountains and washhouses including the delightfully-named Fontaine des Limaces (slug fountain) as well as numerous art galleries and artist workshops.
Mixing motorway with interesting roads can make Provençe relatively accessible – though an overnight crossing to Caen or Le Havre (with the early start that gives) can save a day.
CALAIS TO SISTERON
Distance: 665 miles. Riding time: Three days. Overnight stops: Nanteuil-sur-Marne and Champagnole
Day one map, Download the GPX Day two map, Download the GPX Day three map, Download the GPX
OUR MOTORCYCLE TOURING ROUTES
Start/finish: Orange. Distance: 180 miles. Riding time: 5.5 hours
A stunning ride, over Mont Ventoux – the Giant of Provençe – through the Gorges de la Meouge and Gorges de St May.
Route map, Download the GPX
Start/finish: Sisteron. Distance: 230 miles. Riding time: 6.5 hours
Provençe has challenging, beautiful roads for adventure bikes – all on this thrilling route.
Route map, Download the GPX
ALPILLES AND CARMARGUE
Start/finish: St Remy-de-Provençe. Distance: 120 miles. Riding time: 3.5 hours
Heading out through the hilly Alpilles, through Arles to the Carmargue salt marsh. Watch out for the famous wild horses.
Route map, Download the GPX
Please note: This page contains the route files for The RiDE Guide To France which came free with RiDE magazine in July 2017. These website page are not regularly updated, so please check all critical information before you travel. All route files are in .gpx format. Garmin and BMW users can download the main file, which contains all the routes and our recommended hotels as separate waypoints. TomTom users can download the individual routes and use the Tyre software to convert them. For many routes we also have Google Map links. However, as Google Maps will not plot routes over seasonally closed high Alpine passes when they’re shut, these may not work for every route all year round.