Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Mont Ventoux, Giant of Provence

There is so much beauty, history, good food and wine within 90 minutes of Sablet that we have not yet seen or tasted. We are hardly in a rut but we return frequently to the same places because we usually have visitors and we take them to our favorite and the most renowned spots in Provence.

This fall we didn't have visitors and wife Shirley and I agreed that we would go to some different villages, eat in different restaurants and see new sights. When we have visitors, we don't go to places where we have not been because we want our friends to see the best of Provence.

One of the most prominent sights in the Vaucluse, that's our part of Provence, is the 6,266 foot high white-capped peak of Mont Ventoux visible from miles away across the countryside. Since we had never been to the top of Mont Ventoux we decided to drive up one day after lunch.

We had been to the base of Mont Ventoux at Bédoin to watch the peloton arrive from the start in Montélimar and begin the climb up to the summit during the 20th stage of the 2009 Tour de France.

We have had several guests ride bikes to the summit but we were definitely not in shape to attempt this feat so we headed to the top in our car.

There are three ways to get to the top of Mont Ventoux:

* East from Sault up 3,970 feet over 16.1 miles. This is the easiest route for road racing enthusiasts;

* North-west from Malaucène up 5,151 feet over 13.3 miles;

* South from Bédoin up 5,305 feet over 13.5 miles. This is the most famous and difficult ascent. The road to the summit has an average gradient of 7.43%.

Since we had eaten lunch in the village of Puyméras northwest of Mont Ventoux, we decided to drive up Mont Ventoux by way of Malaucène and come down by way of Bédoin.

The first few miles of our ascent was past fields of lavender but unfortunately, the lavender had already been cut. After the lavender fields, the road wound its way through forests of pines and other trees, with picnic tables sitting amongst the trees here and there off the road.

On the north-side, Mont Ventoux borders the Drôme Department and you can see the Alps on a clear day. Mont Ventoux is the largest mountain in the region and is nicknamed the "Giant of Provence".

As the name suggests (venteux means windy in French), it can be very windy at the summit especially if the Mistral is blowing. Wind speeds as high as 300 km (200 mph) have been recorded and the wind blows at 90+ km (56+ mph) 240 days a year.

The top of Mont Ventoux is bare limestone without vegetation or trees which makes the mountain's peak appear from a distance to be snow-capped all year long.

Mont Ventoux stands alone to the north of the Luberon range and just 16 km to the east of the Dentelles de Montmirail, its foothills, which stand over Sablet (the village where we have our home).

The view from the top is superb.

Mont Ventoux is well known as one of the most gruelling climbs on the Tour de France. A climb up Mont Ventoux has been a stage on the Tour fourteen times since 1951; the peloton has raced to finish at the summit eight times and crossed over the summit to a finish in a town below six times.

Except for the first ascent in 1951 when the approach to the summit was from Malaucène, in all other years the approach to the summit has been from Bédoin.

There is small ski area called Chalet Reynard part way up Mont Ventoux. High winds and low elevation limit the number of days the ski area is open to the public.

Twice a year in Provence, sheep are transferred between low-land pastures and mountain meadows. In the summer, the movement towards the mountain destinations begins in June. When the first snows begin in October, the flocks begin their descent back to the winter pastures in the low-lands.

One of the mountains that sheep are brought to is Mont Ventoux. I am sure there was a shepherd or two with sheep dogs in the distance tending this flock of sheep we encountered on our descent.

Each sheep was marked with a different color or symbol so the shepards know who own the sheep.

We encountered a large number of bikers of all ages dressed in colorful spandex outfits pedaling their way up and down from the top of Mont Ventoux. After driving up to the summit, we have renewed appreciation for the amateurs and professional riders who zip up and down.

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