Ever since Vicky gave me a copy of Adam Nicholson's Long Walks in France I have fancied spending a few days walking through the French countryside. What a great thing to do when you are retired! For a first attempt I let a travel organizer do the hard work and booked a unaccompanied walk in Northern Provence through the hills and vineyards of Cote du Rhone wine country. On Foot Holidays book the hotels, supply maps and backup if required, and arrange taxis to take your luggage to your next stop. All you need are a pair of boots, water bottle and lots of sun screen.
My walk starts in Venasque - a pretty fortified hilltop village that looks out over Mont Ventoux and the Rhone Valley. In fact I can see Mont Ventoux throughout the four days. Each evening I end up in a fortified hilltop town like this one. Les Remparts is a tiny hotel - my room is a garret with spectacular views - I pick up the key from the local cafe and a decent restaurant is just next door. In the morning I leave my bag in the cafe and a local taxi takes it on to my next stop where it is waiting in my room when I arrive.
The route was designed by a local guide for On Foot and follows footpaths, including GRs (Grand Randonnées), and minor roads. Above left I am approaching Malemort-du-Comtat on day one. The footpath above right is very characteristic with loads of flowering broom (Cytisus Villosus) which is so rampant that you can understand why it is a very unpopular weed in New Zealand. Day 1 is pretty gentle - 16km and about 360m of ascent. Farms, vineyards and orchards line the route and I end up in the fortified town of Mazan.
Day 2 is more serious - 22km and 750m of ascent. The walking is also pretty spectacular. Highlights of the morning were a climb up and along a narrow ridge, Le Limon (top above), which gave amazing views over the valley below Mt Ventoux, as well as the arrival in Crillon-le-brave (above) with its fortifications built between the 14th to 16th Century and now being seriously restored. The castle is now privately owned and a very smart hotel sits at the top of the village. It is also pretty hot and after exhausting my water bottles I welcome a cold beer in Le Petit Crillon at lunchtime.
The walk after lunch is pretty serious too. It includes several long climbs as I work my way through the hills north and then west towards Le Barroux. After a particularly long climb I am rewarded by a view of Le Barroux with its imposing castle (below) and the limestone towers of Les Dentelles which I will be walking around on day 4. Fortunately this climb is the last of the exertions and is followed by a long descent through woods and past the Lac du Paty where families are swimming in the very green water.
My hotel in Le Barroux, Les Geraniums, also has fantastic views, particularly from its pleasant terrace. After cooling off I explore the town and its chateau. At dinner back on the terrace I sample a very decent wine from the Mont Ventoux appellation. I know Vacqueras and Gigondas but have never noted the Mont Ventoux wines before and am pleasantly surprised.
Day 3 is a bit shorter than the day before but with a similar amount of ascent. I head north for quite a long way through woods and fields following the GR4 before turning left along limestone ridges to Gigondas. The paths also follow old stone terraces. The climate is pretty hot so these thick limestone walls were build to conserve water and provide flat fields and orchards. As well as the vines and olive trees this is a big cherry growing area and I come across a team of cherry pickers as I come out of a wood (below left). In addition to the seas of flowering broom there are also many other wild flowers. I see quite a lot of wild peas in the woods.
As the trail swings west I climb onto a spectacular ridge - the Crête de St Amand - which provides a great spot for a picnic as well as amazing views. Dropping off the end of the ridge the path then ascends another ridge with views across to Les Dentelles - named because their shapes are supposed to resemble a strip of lace. From here a steep descent brings you to Les Florets - my final stay for the next two nights. This hotel is clearly popular with food and wine lovers and a great place to sample the local Gigondas wine.
On my last day of walking I set off on a circular route around Les Dentelles. The highlight of this is a scramble up a steep path from the Col d'Alsau to the foot of the Dentelles cliffs. The path then winds around the rock faces with some amazing views down through the holes in the rocks that I had seen from below (above right). I also get great views of the ridge that I had followed the previous day (above left). Thankfully the path is well marked with blue paint blobs on the rocks as it follows a tricky route. There is quite a bit of scrambling and a number of crosses telling you not to go that way - unless you want to fall off a cliff face! At the end of the traverse you descend towards what looks like another cliff edge but in fact is a passage to the other side of the cliffs where a slightly easier path leads back along the rock walls before dropping back to the col.
The next day I go wine tasting (and buying) in Gigondas before heading back to Avignon and from there back up the Rhone to Geneva and Champery. This was a great trip. You could probably do the same without going through a tour company but arranging taxis for your bags in rural France might be tricky. Also the detailed route descriptions were terrific and I didn't get lost once. click the Le Barroux black cat for a few more photos.