The weather in Provence, a region comprising some five départements in the southeast corner of France, is near perfect in spring and autumn, with mainly clear skies and temperatures in the mid-seventies. It's a land of scarlet poppies growing wild by the thousands, church bells ringing out from hilltop villages across countless orchards and vineyards, winding cobblestone alleyways, fabulous artists and authors, Cezanne to Zola...
As an editor, I'm lucky enough to do a fair bit of traveling in my search for stories. New model press gatherings, tire launches, bike comparison tests - sometimes it can seem like every other week I'm privileged enough to be jetting or riding off to another foreign clime, and I can't think of one of those assignments that I haven't loved. All of which include a recent, all-too-brief two-day trip to the south of France made even better by the wonderful motorcycling experience that Neil Thomas, the director and owner of Classic Bike Provence, put together.
After being picked up by Neil at the Nimes airport, it was back to his place in the village of Ventabren, near Aix-en-Provence (the birthplace of Cezanne and Zola). Some excellent local wine and a wonderful dinner prepared by Neil's wife Sarah followed. Then it was time to turn in - after all, I had some riding to be getting on with in the morning.
The next day dawned cool and clear, as they almost always do in Provence. Summer is hot, the winters cold, but good weather usually prevails, making riding viable and enjoyable virtually year round.
After the arrival of Andy, a keen biker and RAF officer stationed at the local French Air Force base, we set out for the Verdon Gorge, some 55 miles to the east.
I started out on a 1976 model Norton Commando Interstate, the electric start version. Neil has owned it since it was new, as he has most of the other classic British bikes he uses for his tours, including a 1967 BSA A65 Lightning, a 1962 BSA A65 Thunderbolt, a 1960 Velocette Venom, a 1972 Triumph TR6 and a 2001 Royal Enfield 500cc Bullet. Back in England I was a little concerned over the reliability of using classic bikes for a tour business, but as I found out over the next two days, I needn't have worried - all of Neil's bikes are in tip-top condition, meticulously maintained, and they run perfectly well as a result.
And I must say I got a big buzz simply from riding a Norton Commando, a bike I'd heard so much about through the years, but had never had a chance to ride. Big, heavy and torquey, it was incredibly satisfying to ride all the same. And so we set out, me on the Commando, Neil on the A65 and Andy on the Triumph, with our first stop only ten minutes away at the gigantic Roquefavour Aqueduct. Built in the nineteenth century, it's truly an engineering marvel, and as I was to find out, this jaw-dropping sight would set the tone for the rest of the trip.
From here we continued on to the Verdon Gorge, stopping frequently for photos and then dismounting for a cup of coffee in the charming market village of Riez, where more than a few people marveled at the old British bikes, with British plates, parked deep in the south of France.