Still wearing his lid and his thigh muscles glistening impressively under the Provencale Colorado sunshine from the ochre outcrop, Roussillon Romain pointed to all points of the compass and indulged in some proudly Gallic long-distance celebrity spotting.
Romain tells me, “You’ve got Russell Crowe over there and John Malkovich that way. Where Richard Mayle used to live. Ridley Scott has a place in Bonnieux, and Pierre Cardin owns most of Lacoste, including the chateau, which was the Marquis de Sade’s old home.” He turned around and adjusted his chin strap, saying, “And this is where Samuel Beckett lived and fought in the Resistance. There are Mr. Bean connections too. Paradise is a very cultural place.”
Many people these days explore the hamlet of Luberon by bike under a 21-vent, hardened carbonate road helmet. The former sea community is now a popular cycling area. La Coquillade (meaning shellfish) Provence Resort and Spa in Gargas, an hour from Avignon and Marseille, is a hybrid luxury five-star hotel – a velo-only tourism location in the Vaucluse department of the Provence-Alpes-Cotes D’Azure region of south-eastern France. It has just been voted France’s top resort hotel by Travel + Leisure.
The brainchild of a Swiss hearing aid tycoon has vineyards, a winery, a cycling center, and a cycling team. Surrounded by three mountain ranges – the Petit Luberon, the Grand Luberon, and Luberon Oriental, the hotel complex is built around a ruined eleventh-century village once tended by the monks of the neighboring Sénanque Abbey. Lycra has usurped sackcloth and liniment liqueur.
With grey-blue shuttered bastides (country houses), herb pots, a traditional “non-potable public fountain,” 3,000 iceberg roses, totemic-clipped cypresses, rare chandeliers, two swimming pools, and 63 rooms. In addition, it has three restaurants, including Les Vignes, La Coquillade. It also has a spa offering derma-optimization for saddle-sore cyclists.
Romain is one of the cycle guides-in-residence. One of the bike routes he takes guests on is under the climbing sun among the olive groves, clementine orchards, and truffle fields to the region’s iconic medieval (1,000-year-old) hilltop villages like Gordes and Roussillon. Beforehand, bikers booked for some e-biking on a 4k Euro Stromer, will be tested by Romain as to their roadworthiness, balance, steering, and pedaling skills. The test also includes a general relationship with two wheels along the hotel’s impressive cypress alley entrance. E-biking is simple once you have learned to face the right way and ride with the Mistral winds at your back. Suppose you suddenly turn the color of an overripe aubergine, and your lips take on a violent lavender hue. In that case, Roman will alter the plans and take you out for a shorter, more sedate e-assisted, two to four-hour ride to ancient hamlets named after local families – Gros, Martin, and Cortasse.
Along the backroad routes, while checking your blood pressure as told by your skin pigmentation, Romain gives in-tandem lessons in ochre mining, noting, “The color lasts much longer than the stone.”
Roussillon is famous for the rich deposits of ochre pigments in the clay near the village. The large quarries of Roussillon were mined from the end of the eighteenth century until 1930. The “Sentier des Ocres” (Ochre Path) offers a walk through the old workings. Romain tells riders the romantic story behind the area’s amber red rockscape. The story goes like this, “Discovering her troubadour lover murdered by her jealous spouse, a queen threw herself to her death, staining the rocks with her love-lorn blood.” The cycle trips end in his home village of Goult at the hotel’s Aurelio (meaning, “breeze”) winery for a tasting of the local Aphelie, Solale, and Elyo wines and an unfeasibly generous charcuterie and cheese lunch.
Romain then hands riders back into the hands of the resort’s charismatic Swiss swimming pool attendant, raconteur, milkshake genius, acclaimed mixologist, and wild peach ice cream purveyor, Daniel Pleisch, at the 63-room resort.
There are literary connections at the resort. Petrarch wrote in Luberon and Albert Camus, the only football goalkeeper to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, lived in and is buried in Loumartin. The hotel is a shrine to German-Swiss writer Herman Hesse. Hesse is the author of Steppenwolf and the Glass Bead Game and the 1946 Nobel Prize winner. The lobby has his writing desk and houses the special Hesse library where visitors can indulge in their search for authenticity, spirituality, and self-knowledge while being served Apercol spritzes poolside by barman Daniel. Leisurely sipping a libation allows the bike-riding buttocks chafing and pedal power exertions to subside.
Elegant wood-beamed rooms are made from 11th and 17th-century stone, and ochre cottages were constructed in 2015 with Austrian bed linens, classy Pierre Frey fabrics, and objets d’art sourced from nearby L’Isle-sur-la Sorgue – the village of antique markets. Closed in January and February, La Coquillade is the place to recover luxuriously from muscle cramps and fatigue. A stay here is all about attaining the healthiest complexion you can. As Daniel and Romain agree, a concoction of the color of the local rose is in order. It is a mix of Grenache, Cinault, and Mourvedre. Cycling and wine holidays are all about balance. Ochre is perfect for achieving this balance.