This was a self guided bike tour, booked through U Tracks in the UK. The tour was organised by Ruckenwind, a German company. They arranged accommodation and provided the equipment, instructions, and assistance if required. We experienced one or two glitches but broadly everything went according to plan. However, I would advise anyone else doing this trip to buy a road map of the area. The tour description/instruction book is quite clear but if you deviate unknowingly it can be very difficult to find your way back without a map. The tour company had posted waymarker stickers at key points along the route on road sign poles etc. with green E arrows about 10cm in diameter. This was great when you spotted them but they were not always present when we were unsure which turn to take.
We often found them reassuring but, once lost, difficult to relocate. The official tour distance was 250km. According to the trip computer on the bike we did about 300 but did not follow the route precisely for various reasons. The 6 day stages were as follows
- Sete to Montpellier
- Montpellier to Aigues Mortes
- Aigues Mortes to Arles
- Arles to Nime
- Nimes to Uzes
- Uzes to Avignon
Bed and breakfast accommodation was booked in all 7 towns but we stayed extra nights at the start and end to have more time to look around. On our night in Sete, before the start of the tour, we watched an extraordinary fish-based procession around the harbour. It looked like everyone was having a lot of fun.
Sete, until 1924 known as Cette, is effectively an island between the Mediterranean and the large salt water lagoon called Bassin de Thau. Sete lies at the end of the Canal du Midi and the start of the Canal du Rhone a Sete, or vice versa. Its main feature is a hill, Mont St-Clair; quite a long walk up but satisfying grand views at the top with a quirky chapel also worth a visit. Alternatively, the excellent buses provide a more leisurely approach.
In the evening before the tour started we had a briefing meeting with the German reps. They gave us our tour instructions, city maps, luggage labels (we had booked for luggage transfers between hotels), bike panniers, tool kit etc. In retrospect, I should have asked for another pannier or handle bar case, but I managed. They told us our bikes would be delivered to our hotel next morning at 09.30. We asked for an earlier delivery so we could make an early start and this was arranged.
Our first day of the tour, June 14th, and we were up at 06.40 before the alarm at 06.50 went off. The breakfast in the Hotel de Paris was standard fare but there was plenty of everything. Our bikes arrived even earlier than we requested and we had a very quick tutorial in the street before the rep had to leave because he was blocking up an entrance with his van. We said goodbye and set off in the bright early sun.
Riding through Sete was quite easy because it was early Sunday morning and few people were out and about. Our instruction book was in English but we found it not to be crystal clear and we made our first wrong turn shortly after Sete station, but quickly realised this and retraced steps to the correct route. There was a cycle lane alongside the road for the first 5km or so, beyond that, after some cycling along a track, we joined a cycle footpath along the coast with views out over an immense area of water: l’Etang de Thau, sporting numerous oyster “tables”. During a very brief shower we sheltered in a tunnel only to be warned that a triathlon was passing that spot in a matter of minutes ‘so please move on!’ The path ended at Bouzigues, a village reputed to offer unsurpassed seafood. We did not sample any as (a) it was early in the morning and (b) just as we arrived there it started to rain and we sheltered under the canopy of a filling station for about 20 minutes while it thundered and rained cats and dogs. The filling station had a good view of the “tables” in the Etang.
Our next notable stop was Loupian, with a very austere church and an ancient old town centre with city walls and gates. From there we crossed over the A9 motorway and followed a dirt track parallel to the motorway. This was not easy going after the rain. At the end, where the path joined a road we were ushered onward again by marshalls because a mountain bikers’ race was passing the same way.
Just before Montbazin we took another wrong turn just before a road bridge and had to retrace about 100m. This was just pure luck because as we reached the bridge again and were sheltered; the heavens opened and a very vigorous storm ensued. We stayed put for about 20 minutes then as it eased off we set off downhill into Montbazin hoping to find a cafe. We did not find one but the storm found us again and we sheltered, this time, in a church doorway.
We watched the most intense storm I have ever seen. Manhole covers were lifted and moved, all drains were overwhelmed and water was gushing up to 30cms deep downhill and across and into garages and house entrances. All this was accompanied by thunder and lightning. We were quickly joined by a small Jack Russell dog that stood with us shivering. When the storm abated a little we were invited into someone’s house to shelter; an incredibly generous gesture.
After about an hour it eased off enough for us to venture onward. But roads were flooded and those with hills were streams. At one particular place, as we were leaving Montbazin, we were told the road was flooded further along and once again invited in for tea while the water flowed away. We were keen to make progress though and took off shoes and socks and rode through the water. We were following the route of a Roman road, Via Domitia, along a track and periodically fording streams and crossing debris from the flood. Paying close attention to the track conditions. we missed a key turning point of the route. Anxious not to turn round when the going was so difficult we carried on and encountered one of my highlights of the day, seeing a large number of bee-eaters. Eventually the track ended at a road where we were able to locate ourselves on our road map and find a suitable alternative cycle route to Montpellier.
Our new route went alongside the A5 but the cycle path was tree-lined and nicely separated from the cars. By this time the sun was shining and heat rising so the shade was welcome. At the outskirts of Montpellier we found the green E waymarker signs for our tour again and started following them for a while. Then we lost them again! Eventually, we really could not figure out where we needed to go and stopped at a cafe and asked the way to our hotel. The waiter was very helpful and gave us complex directions. Later on, while pondering which road to take. a Dutch lady approached us and gave us more directions and chatted for a while. She was very helpful and friendly. Our hotel, Mercure Montpellier Antigone, was easily the most comfortable of the tour and the breakfast options were staggering.
This was a long first day, we arrived about 6pm. We had ridden about 60km and our muddy bikes were stored in a corridor just off the marble-tiled hotel lobby. By the time we arrived it had become very hot and we did not feel we had enough energy for a walk into town. Instead we walked around Antigone and found a restaurant, by the river, for our dinner.