The Trip: London to Provence by bicycle

Peter Howarth wanted an adventure. He got one care of a two-wheeled odyssey from his home in south London to a holiday villa 1,200 kilometres away in Provence

The Château de Mesnières-en-Bray on the Avenue Verte

On day six of my ride, I found myself in a beautiful Provençal hilltop village at a bar enjoying a Coke Zero when my phone ran out of charge. I was 40 kilometres from completing a 1,200-kilometre ride from London to the South of France and, not for the first time on this trip, I was faced with the challenge of reaching my destination without the aid of Google.

This had become something of a pattern, despite my back-up battery packs. But when you’re in the saddle for around 10 hours and using juice that whole time to navigate the highways and byways of a foreign country, the one thing you need is batteries. Since returning I’ve invested in a bunch of the lipstick-sized chargers, on the advice that you want a few smaller ones rather than one big slab in case anything goes wrong – with four of the mini ones you’ll be covered.

Catching the Newhaven to Dieppe ferry

So back to the hilltop. Of course, in retrospect I should just have asked the waiter to charge my phone for half an hour and enjoyed a couple of ice cold demi pressions. This was, after all, the week in July when the world caught fire, and I had been cycling across France in temperatures pushing 40 degrees. That would have seen me nicely refreshed and charged up enough to find my way. Instead, for reasons I cannot explain, I headed off in the direction of a town whose name I recognised, figuring that I’d work it out.

the food and drink, are so seductive that for a keen cyclist it really is the whole package.

Big mistake. In the end, I came to my senses in said town and got a waiter there to help out with a plug-in for my phone. I finally arrived at the house my family was renting at 11pm. Having set off at 8.30am. Admittedly, I had travelled over 200 kilometres, and going dark had added a chunk to that, but even so…

London to Provence by bicycle had been an ambition of mine since before Covid-19 struck, and then scuppered by the same. So, this Christmas past, when it looked like things might be easing on the travel front, I determined to plan for a July trip. We’ve been renting the same house in the South of France for a few years, and the roads, the landscape, and let’s face it, the food and drink, are so seductive that for a keen cyclist it really is the whole package.

On the road near Fox-Amphoux

I planned a route using Google Maps, set to cycling, divided it into chunks of around 180-200 kilometres per day, and then went on booking.com to find hotels near the end of each stage. It turned into something of a Tour de France, and timing-wise would actually coincide with the real thing. The pros might cover the distance in less than half the time – well, being honest, less than that even – but they wouldn’t be carrying their kit. Or a few extra years. And kilos. But hey, this would be a great challenge and a good way to get in shape for the summer. I’d also use it as a means to raise some money for charity.

My training took a few months of cycling to work, attempting ever-longer distances at the weekends, and, crucially as it turned out, doing a load of regular stretching and knee-strengthening exercises. I say crucially, because in the end I was astonished to find I didn’t suffer a single ache or pain over my six-day journey. It was a bit tiring, sure, but fatigue is one thing, discomfort quite another. (I should also here thank my wife for the present of a small portable massage gun that I used before and during the trip on my leg muscles and back.)

The first part of my journey couldn’t have been less Mediterranean, as it took in Crystal Palace and Croydon.

The six-day timeframe was, I admit, a bit punchy. But it was imposed on me by the holiday booking at one end, and at the other, a dream press assignment to cover the actual Tour de France – Stage 8, Dole to Lausanne. So, I found myself on the Saturday before my own Tour, in Switzerland cycling part of the stage with Tissot watches, who is the official timekeeper of the race. We covered a section of the Alpine route a couple of hours ahead of the real competitors, and it was a blast. And also, a great hors d’oeuvre for my main course a couple of days later. I returned to London on a high on Sunday night, threw my things into a bike-packing set-up (Apidura saddle pack, handlebar pack, and top-tube pack for batteries) and tried to grab a couple of hours sleep. Then at 3.50am on Monday morning I set off for Newhaven.

The first part of my journey couldn’t have been less Mediterranean, as it took in Crystal Palace and Croydon. The hour meant that the streets were deserted, and the heatwave was already gearing up, so it was pleasantly balmy. The city gave way to the countryside as the sky became stained with pink and by the time I was in Sussex, passing through pretty Lewes, the day was here. An 8.30am arrival in Newhaven meant I had time for a half-hour fry-up at the West Quay Cafe, across the inlet from the ferry before boarding at 9. This saw me directed to queue with the motorcyclists, and us two-wheelers were allowed on first. I left the bike in the hold and went to find a reclining seat to catch some more sleep.

At 4pm French time, we disembarked in Dieppe. The ferry docks minutes away from the town centre and, cycling through, I was instantly and thoroughly aware of having reached the CONTINENT. Bars, restaurants, cute bobbing yachts in the harbour. British artist Walter Sickert painted here (and even lived in the port for nearly a decade), as did his mentor Whistler, and you can see why. I would have happily stopped off for some people-watching and the late lunch I would have much preferred to my ferry fare, but I was on a tight deadline. The first hotel was north-west of Paris in a town called Gisors, and I had to get there by nightfall. So, I set my phone to navigate and headed towards the celebrated Avenue Verte.

The river Loing

This is the cycle route from Dieppe inland, and it follows an old railway track. It was initiated in 2012 to be a route that avoids traffic, running from the London Eye in the UK to Notre-Dame Cathedral over the Channel. In France, the rails and sleepers have long since gone, but many of the stations remain along the way, marking the progress of the old line. On a bike, it’s the perfect introduction to France: leafy, flat, no cars, and at least one spectacular chateau (the Château de Mesnières en Bray). It runs for miles – or I should say kilometres – and by the time I was nearing my destination, I felt I’d made a good start to my ride.

This was the first test of my plan to simply stop off, sit outdoors at bars, restaurants and cafés with the bike propped nearby and enjoy simple steak frites and the like. It worked like a dream.

It was dusk as I approached my stop for the night, and I was surprised to find it a deserted château (the Château de la Folie in Trie-Château) with an old Citroën Traction Avant parked outside. I had a text giving me the code for the big gate to the grounds and instructions to find my key in the door of my room. I ran into a British man who was cycling the other way with his wife – from Paris to Dieppe – and it turned out we were the only guests. The building was elegant, and the room pleasantly modern. But there was no food. My fellow guest informed me that McDonalds down the road was doing a roaring trade, but I was exhausted and passed up a visit to the Golden Arches.

The first hotel, the Château de la Folie in Trie-Château

The next morning, the château owners’ father served a good French breakfast, and having polished off everything on offer, I set out for Paris, which I reached in time for lunch in a café on the outskirts. This was the first test of my plan to simply stop off, sit outdoors at bars, restaurants and cafés with the bike propped nearby and enjoy simple steak frites and the like. It worked like a dream.

Early afternoon, I turned into a boulevard and was rewarded by the sight of the Arc de Triomphe. There was something exhilarating about cycling past such a famous landmark, carrying my kit with me and realising I’d got here under my own steam. My sense of conquering the French capital grew as I made it down the Champs-Élysées – who knew, it’s cobbled, so a bit rough on a vélo – past the Place de la Concorde and along the right bank, flanking the Louvre. I’ve walked this many a time, but today I would keep on going along the Seine right out of the city into the countryside. Having crossed the river, it was south east to hotel number two, an elegant family villa run by a private landlord, in Paucourt (hotel Domaine de Bel Ebat), who greeted me at the gate, showed me a barn to park my bike in and apologised that no, there was no food, as that had to be ordered in advance. I was learning the hard (and hungry) way.

At the Arc de Triomphe, in the Place Charles de Gaulle, Paris

Much of day three was spent following a cycle path that bordered the Canal de Briare. It was easy going and very picturesque, the route punctured by locks and their requisite lock-keepers’ cottages, with one sporting a bright red 2CV parked outside. Lunch was a pizza and cake bought at a patisserie in the village of Bonny-sur-Loire and consumed at the Bar Loiret next door that didn’t do food, but didn’t mind you eating something bought elsewhere, and did do Coke Zero, which was becoming my new favourite tipple. I had stopped drinking alcohol several weeks before the trip and intended to stay dry until my first glass of rosé on arrival. But a beer would have been nice. 

It was really hot, and I’d been wearing lightweight Castelli arm- and leg-covering sleeves with UPF (ultraviolet protection factor), and a cap that also provided the same. Important to remember: cycle helmets have holes in them, so you’ll get a latticework pattern on a bald head like mine if you omit the extra headgear. As it was, my hands took on a dotted pattern as my gloves were perforated. Of course, though the coverings were sensible in view of the glaring sun, they meant I was cooking, and by late afternoon I was fantasising about a cold beer when I reached my destination. There’s only so much water with electrolyte tablets you can take, and I was gulping quite a lot from my bidons, as the French call water bottles.

Riding along the Canal de Briare

Naturally, I reached the hotel in the village of Bourbon-Lancy very late. Day three had been slated to be my longest at 220 kilometres, and I was discovering that with water (and Coke Zero) stops I was adding significant time to my planned schedule. Not to mention Google’s occasional attempts to divert me onto paths that were not very suitable for a road bike – one even leading me to the edge of a small river that I would have had to wade across (I turned back). Over time I became expert at judging the advisability of taking a scenic route, and when choosing not to, relied on the navigation to re-adjust, which it did.

The Logis La Tourelle du Beffroi (literally, “the lodging of the belfry”) looked like something out of The French Dispatch, and as with my first night, I had been emailed an entry code and informed that my key would be waiting at reception. Once more there was no one on duty. The part I’d not read informed me there was a bike storage place on the first floor through a courtyard; but instead of heading there, I carried my bike to my room, which, of course, turned out to be on the top floor. I didn’t know that all this was captured on CCTV and it was my good fortune that the next morning the staff merely thought this amusing and not inappropriate. Which reminded me of what a friend had said to me about cyclists in France: ‘If you’re on a bike there, people love you.’ 

So far this had proved to be true. And that evening I had further evidence. Now desperate for my first beer for weeks, I wandered out to a nearby restaurant where they were stacking the chairs and begged. They were only too happy to let me sit at the bar and down two deliciously chilled demi pressions. I was no longer in a Wes Anderson movie, but instead in the closing moments of 1958’s Ice Cold in Alex.

The next day saw me cross the Loire and cross it back again. So far, the route had been easy on the legs, being mostly flat. After lunch in view of the impressive Château de la Clayette (a fine salade Niçoise), that was about to change as I began to hit some climbs. None were too onerous, but with a fully-laden bike they were still tiring. And hot. After one, at the top of the Col des Écharmeaux, I came across the Bar des Pilotes. Translating as “the bar of the racing drivers”, this oasis had a big black-and-white picture of Steve McQueen on a motorbike inside, in a recess in the wall so it looked like a type of shrine, and judging from the bikes outside it seemed to be a favourite stop for a different sort of (motorised) rider. But for this one, sans engine, it was a welcome refuelling stop, made all the more attractive by the prospect of a lengthy descent to come. That’s the great thing about hills. What goes up must come down.

Near Serans

That evening’s hotel was to be my only posh stopover of the trip, La Pyramide in Vienne, which boasts a two-Michelin-starred restaurant (chef: Patrick Henriroux). Getting there proved tricky as I ran out of phone charge in what looked like a lorry park a few kilometres outside the city. But I was rescued by a lady on a bicycle with a bucket strapped around her waist and sitting on a rack above her back wheel. She offered to take me through the back routes to the town, and I discovered she was a gardener, hence the bucket contraption. She also explained that the city might be blocked off as it was 14 August, Bastille Day, and there would be fireworks. When we got to the bridge over the Rhine that led into Vienne, it was indeed barred by police, but I managed to explain where I was looking for and not only did they let me pass, but also looked up the hotel’s location on a phone when I explained mine had run dry.

Vienne is a fine town, on the banks of the Rhone, and in preparation for the evening’s pyrotechnics, traffic had been banned from streets. There was a festival atmosphere, and knowing I had missed supper – again – I stopped at a bar in a square where a band was about to start their set on a small stage. On closer examination the rockers looked like a bunch of parents at a school gate who’d just discovered a cache of guitars and drums. But they launched into a creditable rendition of the Stones’ Under My Thumb, though the front-woman’s French accent rendered it ‘Under my tum’, which added a whole new layer of awkwardness to what are already fairly problematic lyrics.

The nice people at hotel La Pyramide were expecting me, and seemed unfazed by my sweaty Lycra and cycle shoes with scraping cleats. I was helped to a garage to store my trusty steed and informed that though I’d missed mealtime, having been informed of my likely late arrival they’d kept some things aside for me. After a shower and change of clothes – I was travelling with some Uniqlo lightweight track pants and a Sunspel T-shirt, and even some flat-folding suede Mulo slip-ons – I tucked into a salmon tart, some cheese and a great chocolate pudding. Things were looking up.

Now, I don’t want to give the impression that I measured out my progress in meals, but on a trip like this it’s not such a bad way to mark the passage of time and distance. So, I admit here that day five saw me finally succumb to Burger King for lunch. There had been moments over the previous stages when BK’s siren call had tempted me, but I’d resisted. Now I cracked. I’d had a call from booking.com to say that my hotel for the night had informed them its boiler was broken and it would understand if I wished to go elsewhere. The hotel even offered a future stay for free, if I understood the helpful woman on the phone correctly. But I was past caring about such things, and anyway, it was a furnace under that sun. So, I snuck a quick Whopper – it might even have been a Double Whopper – by way of compensation. Gratifyingly, because I was wearing a cycling jersey I’d bought at the Tour de France the week before, which was branded with the race logo, a young man behind the counter asked me if I was a competitor. OK, maybe he was humouring me. Or just taking the piss.

Near Uchaux

Later that afternoon, I quite suddenly registered that I was properly in the south. It had crept up on me, I suppose, that being the natural consequence of covering every inch of a country on the ground. Whatever the reason, it struck me as I looked around from my saddle that the landscape was infused with the golden hue of Provence. And this was accompanied by the chorus of cicadas, which once noticed, sounded almost deafening. I rested the bike against a telegraph pole and took a snap to celebrate, long grass swallowing my machine, with yellowing fields behind, running back to a wooded hill topped off by the village La Garde-Adhémar. I felt I’d arrived.

It took a while longer to actually arrive at Orange, the striking Roman city where the Hôtel Saint Jean waited. It turned out it had a spa that I could use for a warm shower, but I was desperate to find a restaurant and set off into the centre where – joy, oh joy – there was a place serving late just by the enormous well-preserved and still-in-use Roman theatre. The food was excellent and the service friendly and I strolled home feeling everything was right with the world.

Saturday, my final day, began with the rude awakening of a cold shower. But it felt good. Then, bike tracks through vineyards and a coffee stop at Caumont-sur-Durance, where for the first time since Monday I caught a TV screen and realised from the broadcast that I’d been cycling through an extraordinary heatwave. I’d made a point of not using my phone for much apart from navigation. No music. No podcasts. No news bulletins. I wanted to savour the opportunity – the very rare opportunity – of spending day after day on my own in silence, really taking in the moment-by-moment snail’s pace progress across a country I love.


On a bike, you see things you would not travelling any other way. You go to places you would not in a car. On this last leg, come lunchtime, I turned off my route towards a village I saw on my phone screen. Charleval is a place I’ll never forget. It has a huge château on the approach road, and then, as you hit the centre there are two restaurants next to each other with outdoor seating. I chose one, leaned my bike next to my seat and ordered lunch. The clientele were relaxed, the food good, and the setting idyllic. It wasn’t so much off-the-beaten-track as off-off-the-beaten-track.

The rest of the afternoon I headed east towards the village of Callas, near which my family waited to – I imagined – cheer me home. I may have broken my no-alcohol pledge with a few beers, but that first glass of chilled rosé was calling. All was going smoothly, and I was just getting into the rhythm of passing through one postcard-perfect Provençal hilltop village after another when, pausing at one of these (Aups), I ran out of battery.

Which brings us to where we started. And my resolution to buy a small power station’s worth of back-up batteries for my next bike adventure. Because there will be another. Those six days rank as some of the most memorable of my life – and the benefits in terms of health and fitness were just a bonus. Incredible to think that all it took was a Condor Fratello bicycle, some bags strapped to it, a bit of planning and a week off work. Oh, and some battery packs

By Peter Howarth, the Editorial Director of Secret Trips. You can follow his further adventures, cycling and otherwise, on Instagram at @petershowmedia

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