Arabella Byrne

Nothing beats a vélo in the Vaucluse

Provence's La Coquillade combines wine and cycling

Nothing beats a vélo in the Vaucluse
Cyclists travel through Gordes, Provence (Alamy)
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Michelet may have called Northern France 'la vraie France' and the wild and rocky outpost of Provence the 'rude pays', but for me, France is in Provence, in the dusty and strange contours of its angular landscape, in the rhythms of the day dictated by the heat. This is a feeling as much as a place; a subterranean and unformulated attraction for the land of Cézanne, Sade and latterly, Peter Mayle. 

You can imagine my unformulated joy then, when my sister and I found ourselves most unusually without small children, husbands, or dogs in the lush surroundings of La Coquillade Provence in the Parc du Luberon. Once a hamlet tended to by the monks of the neighbouring Sénanque Abbey in the eleventh century, La Coquillade sits high on a ridge amidst a patchwork of vineyards from which vantage you may see the villages of Lacoste, Ménerbes and Roussillon. Bought by hearing aid tycoon Andreas Rihs in 2008 and lovingly invested with 70 million euros, La Coquillade is an ode to Rihs’ passions, the three Vs: vin, vélo and the Vaucluse, the region where he intended to see out his days had he not died suddenly in 2018. Rihs lives on in his concept – still managed, Succession style, by his family – and his portrait is proudly pointed to by staff in the lobby where it sits amongst the copies of his relation Herman Hesse’s works, also proudly displayed. Via these rather unlikely Swiss-German accents, La Coquillade Provence achieves a sense of the very best of France, all the more poignant perhaps, since it was created, Mayle-like, by an outsider.

La Coquillade was formerly tended by monks

And what could be more notionally French than le cyclisme? As two rather tired mothers on parole, I cannot say that the idea of a bike tour up precipitous hills hugely appealed when mooted. But this is before we discovered we would be astride e-bikes, the velocipede equivalent of a horse: find yourself in steep terrain and simply press a button to experience the joy of the surroundings without any of the sweat or burn. This being the Vaucluse, home to the legendary Mont Ventoux – the Everest of cyclists – we were frequently overtaken by lycra-clad cyclists, very clearly not on e-bikes. Luckily, our guide Francois got the joke and gamely led deux anglaises on a leisurely jaunt around the villages of Ménerbes, Lacoste and Goult, past Ridley Scott’s vineyard and John Malkovich’s villa before stopping outside Sade’s derelict castle, Chateau de Lacoste. Over lunch at the hotel’s Aureto winery, I pondered the greatest Libertine of all time whilst my sister was plied with the vineyard’s red, white and rosé before pondering on some libertinage of her own.

Whilst the Vaucluse has not typically been known for the excellence of its wine in comparison to, say, Bourgogne or Bordeaux – blame the searingly hot climate says resident hotel wine expert, Hippolyte – under the Rihs’ family’s watchful investment and enterprise, the vineyard has started to produce award-winning wine, hand-picked and re-branded for the Instagram-era by Rhis’ children and named Aureto (meaning breeze) in a nod to the famous Southern breeze – just don’t call it the Mistral. Over dinner in one of the hotel’s three restaurants, staff are knowledgeable and keen to pair the food to the Aureto wine with a menu which includes all the Provencal favourites made from fresh ingredients from the hotel’s kitchen garden.

Dine amid the vines

Previous experiences of Provence have typically involved jumping head-first into various rivers, but if it’s luxury you’re looking for, then La Coquillade has it in spades. With a 20,000 square-foot underground spa offering every kind of treatment under the sun, three swimming pools and a concierge service, you begin to understand why there is also a newly-installed helipad for the hotel’s starriest guests, who, I am told, like to spend the day on the Riviera before flying back to the privacy of the Vaucluse. You can bring your dog or your children – there is an excellent kids' club and the restaurants amply cater for younger guests – although we were very glad we brought neither.

As we left for Marseille airport in the late afternoon light, we thought we saw a boar’s snout in the far corner of a vineyard. Or maybe we didn’t, but that’s Provence for you: constantly shapeshifting, always operating, as Michelet said, on the borders of the refined and the risqué. No wonder Sade loved it so much.

Coquillade Provence Resort & Spa will offer rooms from 340€ per room, per night including breakfast. www.coquillade.fr / +33 4 90 74 71 71