Green in Provence – Organic France on the Eco Trail
By Rupert Parker
With the threat of the Icelandic ash cloud grounding flights it made sense to look at alternatives ways to travel. France is easily accessible by rail and I fancied a trip to Provence. Taking the train would also reduce my carbon footprint, so why not go the whole green hog and explore everything organic in the region?
Let the Train Take the Strain
Getting to Avignon by rail is remarkably easy and much less hassle than going by air. It’s a two and a half hour hop to Paris on the Eurostar, then a quick change to Gare de Lyons and another two and half hours on the TGV to Avignon. What’s more, it allows you to appreciate the change in landscape, from the rich forests of Burgundy to the craggy Mediterranean outcrops of Provence. Total, six unstressed hours, and from June to September it’s even better, when there’s a direct non-stop service.
On Yer Bike
The association “Velo Loisir en Luberon” has created over 470 km of signed cycle routes and they’ll pick you up from the TGV train station and take you to your bike. They’ve also set up a network of accommodation with lockable cycle garages, special food and tourist information and will transport your luggage from hotel to hotel. And if you have a breakdown, they guarantee to have your bike repaired or replaced.
One great benefit of life in the saddle is the ability to stop off at vineyards and sample their wines. Jean-Pierre Margan of Chateau la Canorgue was one of the first wine makers to go fully organic in 1977, much to the scorn of his neighbours. He was ahead of the game and now Provence has the highest number of organic vineyards in France. He uses no chemical fertilizers or weed killers and he uses plant essences instead of pesticides. His 21 year old daughter, Nathalie is carrying on the tradition and guided me in a tasting their AOC Luberon reds, roses and whites. She explained that organic cultivation is just part the story. They also only use water from underground springs and use of machines is kept to a minimum. Gravity carries the grapes from the trailers to the tanks so they’re not damaged in the process, and they’re crushed by an inflatable pneumatic press. . Certainly these wines are high quality and have won many awards.
Provence has also introduced a new concept in its quest to go green. They’ve set up “Itineraires Paysans” where you get to discover the country by visiting the farms. The idea is to meet the famers, tour their lands and sample their products. In Haute-Provence near Sigonce, Thierry and Veronique Baurain have taking the idea of getting back to the land to extremes. They retired early to set up a 300 hectare organic farm and specialize in the production of “Petite Epeautre”, or Einhorn. This is an ancient ancestor of wheat, similar to Spelt, and is high in anti-oxidants and remarkably low in gluten. No surprise then that demand is high for everything they produce. Since the farm is so large, Thierry takes his guests for a roller-coaster tour on the back of his quad bike, bumping past fields of olives and vines, and finally coming to rest under the shade of his newly planted Oak trees. This is the icing on the cake – he hopes to find Truffles here in the autumn.
Confessions of a Twitcher
One major benefit of the reduced use of pesticides is the increase in wildlife. Bird watching has never really appealed to me, but there’s something about the calm of the Luberon which gives it an added impetus. A good guide helps, of course, and as Fabrice Teurquety showed us the way to the Durance River he demonstrated something remarkable. He picked out the sounds of the Nightingales and conducted a two way conversation with them, as he mimicked their song and they replied in turn. From the Merindol observatory we were lucky to see Black Kites, Grebes, Bee Eaters, Mallards, Aureoles and 7 different kinds of Heron. There were even a group of Turtles sunning themselves on the sandy shore.
A Load of Hot Air
Provence doesn’t just offer watching birds from the ground, but also allows you to get up in the sky with them. The town of Forcalquier has early morning balloon flights – you’re met at sunrise and taken to the launch site where everyone has to muck in to prepare the balloon and inflate it. Take-off is gentle and soon you’re soaring above fields of Lavender, carried by the wind. Even if you’re afraid of heights, as I am, there’s no feeling of vertigo, rather you have to resist the temptation to step out of the basket and walk on the clouds. What goes up must come down, however, and after about an hour you land back on earth with a slight bump. Fortunately this is France and there’s always the traditional “toast des aéronautes” to celebrate your maiden voyage. Now if only you could take the balloon all the way back to St Pancras…
Rail Europe Travel Centre provide return fares from London to Avignon and London to Aix en Provence starting at just £119 in standard class. All prices are per person and subject to availability. For bookings visit their website or call 0844 848 4070. Personal callers are welcome at the Rail Europe Travel Centre, 1 Regent Street, London SW1.
Atout France: Lincoln House, 300 High Holborn, London WC1V 7JH from Monday to Friday, 10am to 4pm
France Information Line: 09068 244 1, calls charged at 60 per minute at all times
What to Do
Organic Wine Tasting: Château La Canorgue – 84880 Bonnieux. Tel: 33 (0)4 90 75 81 01. E-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Bird Watching: Cavaillon Tourist Office – 84300 Cavaillon. Tel: 33 (0)6 22 12 09 04
Organic Farm Visit: Saveurs de Truques, Sigonce – 04300 Forcalquier. Tel: 33 (0)4 92 74 30 01
Balloon Rides: France Montgolfières, Tel: 33 (0)6 08 52 87 94
Where to Stay
Le Mas des Gres, Route d’Apt – 84800 Lagnes. Tel: 33 (0)4 90 20 32 85
Where to Eat
Le Cafe des Poulivets – 84580 Oppede-les-Poulivets. Tel: 33 (0)4 90 05 88 31
Chez Jules – 04700 Puimichel. Tel: 33 (0)4 92 74 98 10
Le Bistrot – 04300 Pierrerue. Tel: 33 (0)4 92 75 33 00