Stuart Sommers is a professional mountain guide who takes walking tours through his hometown of Provence:
Trying to describe the essence of Provence to my walking guests is next to impossible. In size it’s about a 3-hour drive across, from the Rhône River to the Italian border, or from the Mediterranean to the Southern Alps.
Provence’s diversity of landscapes is endless. I live just outside the town of Avignon in Provence, and within a tiny radius – say a day’s bike ride – I can visit any number of hilltop villages, lively towns, canyon roads, thyme-laden hills, caves, rivers and springs, centuries-old monasteries and chapels, even older Roman monuments that are still intact (they don’t build ’em like they used to), lavender and sunflower fields and a seemingly infinite vineyard.
As a walking guide in Provence I explore these landscapes for a living, and will no doubt spend a lifetime scouting its trails, its hills, and its medieval villages. But if I had to pick the one place in Provence I enjoy taking walking groups most, where the butterflies still get stronger every time I go… it would be Mont Ventoux.
Mont Ventoux’s 1912m summit stands alone in an otherwise flat Rhône Valley. The vegetation goes from Mediterranean at its base to alpine at its summit, and everything in between. The walking possibilities are endless, a veritable spider-web of ancient paths crisscrossing the slopes. I always try to take my groups to the top though.
The view is majestic: the entire chain of the Alps sprawling out before your eyes, including Mont Blanc. In the summer months it’s best to get to the top well before noon, as the afternoon haze blurs the horizon. But in the winter the display is always jaw-dropping, though you have to fend off the cold and the dreaded Mistral winds.
In the beech forest a layer of yellow and red paints the mountain in the fall, sandwiched between the greens of the cedars below and the mountain pines above. And at the very top the white of the bare limestone, often mistaken for snow in the warmer months. And above that the deep blue of the Provençal sky. At one time the mountain was forested all the way to its summit, but after years of deforestation the mountain became completely bare, and efforts to replant haven’t quite been successful all the way to the top: but slowly the mountain pines are gaining ground, dotting the highest parts of Mont Ventoux.
In the main photo of this blog I'm on a 1000m-deep rockslide on the northern slope of Mont Ventoux. It looks like a daunting walk but it’s actually quite easy, and I’ve taken many Peregrine groups along this path. This is the untamed slope of the mountain, the only one without a road, as it’s too steep. Along these rockslides I’m on the lookout for Ventoux’s wild mountain goats, or “chamois”. They’re most at home along the scree, a safe haven for an animal whose heart is twice as big as a human’s and capable of running up 100m in altitude in one minute. But the chamois aren’t very shy on Mont Ventoux. You can approach within 15 meters or so, such as in the photo I took below (plus the zoom of course).
I’ve been to the top of Ventoux at least 50 times now: four and a half times by bike (failed one attempt), at least 40 times by foot and several times by car. And the more I go the more I want to go back, which is why I always suggest to my groups to walk there.
Among other Peregrine trips, I lead the Hidden Villages of Provence holiday. For that particular holiday the Friday is a “free” day, set in the medieval town of Vaison la Romaine. But I always convince my guests to join me on a walk to the summit of Ventoux.
Have you been to Provence? Tell us about it in the comments section below. Or share your stories and images on twitter and Facebook. We love to hear from our community!