La Coquillade is a spectacular estate set in acres of vineyards with a world class cycling centre.
Watching the last Tour De France I was struck by two things.
The Herculean strength and tenacity it takes to cycle up mountains at sprint pace for hours on end – and the mesmerising countryside the tour passes through.
Green, undulating hills dotted with chateaux, vast fields of lavender, their purple geometric rows fading into the haze of the horizon. Vineyards, cherry orchards and olive groves lining winding roads lit by the sun to a burnished gold.
I found myself Googling the Tour route to find exactly where the cyclists were passing through at that moment, determined to follow in their path.
It was, of course, the Petit Luberon in the heart of Provence.
The 2,200 mile cycle race, held each year in July, also takes in those gruelling mountain passes in the Pyrenees and Alps, with dramatic vistas over craggy peaks, and ends on the Champs-Elysee, that architectural stretch of Paris that affords a picture-perfect sight of both the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower.
But it was those ‘in-between’ stages I was drawn to: the transition phases through this bucolic bliss that takes the cyclists towards the big climbs.
I made my base for the trip La Coquillade, a beautiful vineyard estate in the heart of Provence.
The immaculately designed 63-room hotel is set on a 100 acre private estate, originally the site of a pretty 11th century hamlet founded by Cistercian monks of the Abbey of Senanque, much of which has been restored and remains.
Did you know?
The Tour de France was first organised in 1903 to boost sales for the newspaper L’Auto
The result is an appealing juxtaposition of historic Provence and contemporary design, with spacious, fresh white rooms and world class facilities set amid ancient stone walls and timeless countryside.
The estate itself is self-sufficient, with 36 hectares of vineyards and winery, a brand new state-of-the-art bakery and laundry rooms and perfectly labelled vegetable gardens that are a pleasure to explore, if you like that sort of thing (guilty).
Thanks to the fact the estate is owned by Swiss billionaire Andy Rihs, owner of BMC cycling team, it also happens to have a world-class BMC cycling test centre where conveniently, alongside top spec road bikes and mountain bikes is a selection of top-of-the-range (think £6k a piece) electric bikes – both road and mountain.
The hotel can provide a guide to take you on your very own Tour – ours was an experienced competitive mountain cyclist – and you can choose either electric or pedal-power to take you there.
Reader, I chose electric. Determined as I was to discover these unforgettable panoramas by bike, I had the distinct feeling I was writing cheques my quadriceps couldn’t cash.
So it was I found myself on a sunny morning zooming up a steep hill towards the terracotta town of Roussillon on the BMC hybrid bike in Turbo mode, only the lightest touch on the pedals and my heart rate resolutely at resting rate.
I felt like Lance Armstrong at his peak: I looked like I was doing all the work but everyone around me knew the truth.
We had planned a 40km route, starting at La Coquillade and traversing open countryside before hitting a long, steep hill up to the beautiful terracotta village of Roussillon, with its charming winding streets, picturesque cemetery and panoramic views.
Perched high on a cliff edge over a deep terracotta gorge, there is plenty to stick around for, but we stopped only momentarily for a walk around the cemetery, coffee and photos of the spectacular ochre cliffsides before descending, crossing the base of the valley through lavender fields and olive groves to ascend again up a long, steep climb of about 5km into Lacoste, the small village bought and transformed by Pierre Cardin into an artists’ enclave.
Refreshed, we saddled up and took on a speedy descent into the valley before rising again, this time an even longer climb, into the village of Goult, a very beautiful and little-known medieval village with a charming square, 17th century castle and ancient 12th century church.
The bikes have four settings – off, which requires the usual pedal power (though the bikes are heavier than a non-electric of the same price range, so take a bit more to get up hills with no assistance) through to Turbo, which puts in enough power to propel you up a steep hill with ease, as long as you pedal lightly.
A side benefit of the electric bikes: You can maintain normal conversation throughout, so as we effortlessly ate up the road, we could learn about the area from our knowledgeable guide.
It also means you can look around peacefully and take in the sights instead of focusing, teeth gritted, on the ground in front.
Provence inspires relaxation and reflection on a level unlike that of a beach holiday or a city break, with all the plans and logistics they involve.
You’re not compelled to tick off everything in the guide book, or cart things back and forth to the sunbeds. In Provence, you can be satisfied in the knowledge that you are surrounded by everything you came to see.
BACK AT THE HOTEL
On day two, I hired an electric mountain bike and took an early morning trail around the forested areas of La Coquillade before circling down into the vineyards, criss-crossing them as the sun burned the mist off the horizon.
As the sun rose high in the sky, I reached the highest point of La Coquillade, taking in spectacular views before heading through the trees to a sandy, rutted track with tracks through trees and scrubland perfect for either electric or non-electric trail riding.
The views from the vantage points are breathtaking. La Coquillade really is a gem in the Provencal countryside.
They are the driving force behind facilities including heliport, tennis courts, two swimming pools, table tennis, table football and pétanque spa with gym and fitness room – but they still find time to chat with guests at every meal, making this feel very much a home from home.
If you’re looking for a base to experience the Tour de France, or you just want to breathe in the Provencal countryside, La Coquillade should be at the top of your list.
Le Perotet, 84400 Gargas, France. Tel: 00 33 490 74 71 71. Visit coquillade.fr