Source: The Guardian
Author: Adam Ruck
The Tour de France reminds us that there are two kinds of cyclist. Racy ones, who measure satisfaction in rivers of sweat and breathless panoramas savoured from hard-won mountain passes; and the rest of us, whose reward at the end of a long morning in the saddle is a good lunch, later to be followed by a slap-up supper. The bicycle is our carte blanche for greed without guilt.
For the gourmet cyclist, the road that leads south from Paris to the sun has irresistible appeal. The defining French migration route of the modern era is the road more travelled – by Grand Tourists, impressionist artists and Parisians on their way to and from holiday. It is also a foodie pilgrimage that comes with an invitation to taste the fruits of the earth in Burgundy and raise a glass of red at Hermitage and Châteauneuf-du-Pape, sacred hills beside the Rhône. There are other hills, and many rivers, to cross, but no mountain range, and with luck a mistral will blow you down the Rhône to Avignon.
The heavily beaten path got its hymn in 1955 when Charles Trenet’s song “Route Nationale Sept” celebrated the longest main road in France – the Nationale Sept (N7) stretches 1,000km from Paris to Menton via Lyon, Avignon and Aix-en-Provence. Despite the arrival of the autoroutes, the N7 and the other main artery south, the N6, are too busy for enjoyable cycling these days. Instead we shadow them (and the motorway) on empty back roads.
Part of the fun of a long ride is watching the country change and enjoying the moments of transition. Coloured roof tiles on the bishop’s palace at Sens confirm our arrival in Burgundy, and we buy our first picnic wine of the trip there, a Chablis Vieilles Vignes from the grower’s stall in the covered market. The first vineyard is another happy moment, a few miles north of Chablis.
On a bike you feel every crease in the land beneath your wheels, and we recognise Burgundy for what it is: the spine of France, its bones separating the Atlantic and Mediterranean. After sweating our way over the Montagne de Beaune we hurtle down to a carpet of priceless vineyards, rolling the famous names around the palate: Pommard, Monthélie, Meursault and finally Puligny-Montrachet, where an unusual wine-tasting lunch awaits.
Olivier Leflaive is an entrepreneurial local wine négotiant with a boutique hotel-restaurant where the food is no more than a platform for the main event, a fixed-price wine menu to accompany it. “Now for the real test,” says our waiter-cum-guide, lining up the bottles to compare and contrast premier cru wines of Chassagne, Puligny and Meursault.
Residents can go for a lie-down after lunch. For the rest of us, breathalyser kits are available from the bar. The problem with these gadgets is focus. Finding it elusive, we sober up on the towpath of the Canal du Centre and manage not to fall in or mow down any pedestrians.
Saying goodbye to Burgundy, we cross the Saône into the Bresse, home of blue cheese and the Rolls‑Royce of poultry. The time is right for a chicken lunch at Vonnas, the gastronomic theme-park village which has become the personal fiefdom of superstar cook and one‑man brand Georges Blanc.
On the village square of the self‑styled “premier village gourmand de France”, Blanc offers customers on different rungs of the spending ladder a pick’n’mix gastronomic and lifestyle experience – shops, hotels, health farm, heliport, serious restaurant and a simpler auberge for the Blanc-lite experience. It may all seem a bit gastro Disney, but the proof of the poulet is in the eating, and we find no fault with ours.
Down the centuries the tramp of travellers has fostered the art of hospitality. Ambitious chefs set out their stalls along the road, their Michelin-starred pit stops – étapes gastronomiques – springing up to delay the traveller like healing shrines on the road to Compostela, with names from the pantheon of French gastronomy: Meneau at Vézelay, Bocuse at Collonges, La Mère Brazier in Lyon.
While Trenet was immortalising the N7 in song, a hotelier near Montélimar was giving serious thought to the future of the étape gastronomique in the age of the motorway. Assembling a group of like-minded establishments along the road from Paris to the Riviera, Marcel Tilloy founded the Relais de Campagne in 1954, with “La Route du Bonheur” – the happiness trail – as its slogan. All shared a commitment to a new style of gracious country‑house living marked by soigné decor, culinary excellence and peaceful rural surroundings. Tilloy’s idea caught on and bred a new kind of traveller for whom the hotel is the destination and the journey the holiday. The prestigious Relais & Chateaux association, which evolved from Tilloy’s Relais de Campagne, still uses the “Route du Bonheur” slogan.
“The French call the path we are following the Route de Bonheur,” wrote American travel editor Jerry Hulse. “It could also be called L’Avenue du Poundage.” His first stop was the Poste in Avallon, a classic 18th-century coaching inn where the imposing René Hure was one of only 10 chefs in France with three Michelin stars to his name. Even allowing for journalistic exaggeration, Hulse’s grande bouffe (blow-out) dinner seems incredible now: “Goose soaked in Meursault, ham stewed in rare Chablis, curried chicken with cream, chicken in Chambertin wine, duck cooked with orange, woodcock flambée à la riche, pancakes flambés in three liqueurs, and a five-layer cake which when squeezed will fill a quart bottle with booze… M Hure’s approach is subtle. Get them to the table and they’ll stay the night. No one can read the road signs after eating dessert.”
The Poste at Avallon still stands, boasting of its “timeless charm”, but the decor looks tired now and the Poste lives on its memories. The Relais & Chateaux banner has passed to Marc Meneau at nearby L’Espérance, a stylish bolthole beneath Vézelay’s famous pilgrimage church. “We could never serve food like that today,” Meneau had told us earlier in our journey. “No one would eat it.” That may change in the postmodern age of the gourmet cyclist who brings serious hunger to the table. We’d warned Meneau that we were cyclists, so the chef served up a special reinforced menu, beginning with a thick soup, as he explained, “to rebuild your strength at the beginning of the meal”. It worked.
Now rolling down the Rhône, we stop for wine tastings at Tain L’Hermitage and the rival house of Chapoutier. Further on, friends are waiting for us at the foot of the Col de Tartaiguille, and we find them sipping pastis under a plane tree, beside the village fountain, with a plate of olives and a refugee Parisian philosophe-hotelier wearing jeans and intellectual Rive Gauche hair. If only there was a boules game in progress, this southern scene would have all the hallmarks of Provence.
Later, it is a warm ride over the hills to Nyons, with lavender and cicadas for company. At this point the cyclist on a mission would retire early in preparation for the Mont Ventoux, a famous cycling challenge to rival the Galibier and other nightmarish Alpine climbs. We also retire early and sleep soundly, confident in our mission to ignore the Ventoux in favour of the wine road that takes us down the western flank of a beautiful miniature mountain range, the Dentelles de Montmirail, through Gigondas and Beaumes de Venise. After a picnic beneath the Dentelles and a cooling-off period in the shallow stream of the Ouvèze, our final approach to Avignon is a dusty stretch of the old N7. The old stones of the Papal city are glowing in the heat of a balmy summer evening.
The morning train ride back to Paris will take less than three hours. We watch our ride race by as if on fast rewind. We flash through the Tartaiguille tunnel – an hour’s hard cycling – in a few seconds. The cows have changed from brown to white, so we must be in Burgundy. It is good to get the return journey done quickly: heading north is no fun at all.
Adam Ruck is the author of France on Two Wheels (Short Books, £8.99). To order a copy for £7.19 with free UK p&p, click on the link or call 0330 333 6846. For more information, go to france2wheels.com