My Favorite Rides (#4): The Mont Sainte-Victoire Loop with Cezanne, Picasso & Zola

Mont Sainte-Victoire inspired the legendary artists Cezanne and Picasso, so it’s certainly good enough for me … to cycle around. And around.

The Mont Ste-Victoire loop from Aix-en-Provence is one of my favorite rides. It’s a quiet, beautiful ride, with a few climbs, the chateau where Picasso lived and is buried, and a scenic damn/reservoir designed by the father of the great writer Emile Zola.

Like so many things in Aix and Mont Ste-Victoire, this ride – and story – begins with Cezanne, the city’s beloved resident. From his studio, high up on a hill, he’d hike east to the base of Ste-Victoire and spend the day painting.

He painted and drew this mountain obsessively, and you can see how the changing light, shapes and shadows influenced his work over the years. It’s rather easy to become obsessed with this mountain, whether you’re an artist or a cyclist, or an artistic cyclist.

Warning: If you’re in Aix, you kind of have to visit Cezanne’s studio. It’s mandatory. However, be prepared to be a bit disappointed. The house/studio is somewhat interesting, but none of his famous paintings are here. The grounds are pretty extensive, and there’s usually a friendly cat or two hanging out or sleeping on a bench. If you walk a little bit further up the hill, there’s a wonderful view of Mont Ste-Victoire.

This mountain is a bit unique (like Mont Ventoux) in that it’s a solitary mountain, surrounded by valleys. This makes it possible to easily ride all the way around it.

Here’s the Ste-Victoire loop, it’s about a 35-mile ride …

From the heart of Aix, head east on the D 17, which is the Route Cezanne. This is the road the great artist walked, often stopping in the tiny village of Le Tholonet for lunch at a restaurant now called Relais Cezanne. And yes, a lot of things in and around Aix are named after Cezanne.

Already, it’s easy to see why Cezanne loved this mountain. On this early part of the ride, there are fields of wheat and vineyards in the foreground, with the mountain rising up and up in the background. It is mandatory to stop and take a photo – and to picture Cezanne setting up his easel by the side of the road and mixing up his paints as he prepared to paint.

Continue east on the D 17/Route Cezanne, along the valley below to mountain to the towns of Puyloubier and then Pourrieres. I like to stop in Pourrieres. There’s a little supermarche, so I’ll get some fruit and biscuits, maybe a prepared sandwich, some water (Volvic is my favorite), a Mars bar or two and have a nice snack. 

From Pourrieres, head north on the D 23 and … the climbing begins. As so often is the case, whenever and wherever you climb, the views get better and better. After 7 kilometers, go left on the D 223/D 10 and prepare for even more climbing.

Once, as I was making my way up this climb … clank! And then ping, ping, ping, every time I turned the pedals. I stopped, inspected and … Yep, a broken spoke. You can continue to ride with a broken spoke, but … be careful! The loss of even one spoke compromises the integrity and strength of the wheel and often leads to more broken spokes. And so, I was really, really careful. And headed to a bike shop as soon as I made it back to Aix.

After about 4 or 5 kilometers of climbing, you reach the summit of this climb (631 meters), and then … a long, steep downhill all the way into the small and somewhat isolated village of Vauvenargues. Picasso loved this area, bought a chateau, and was buried here after he died in 1973. This is the proper order of things: death and then burial.

The chateau is private, and closed to the public. You can peer through the iron gates and sneak a peek. I’ve heard that, from time to time, it’s open to the public, but never when I’ve been here.

A few kilometers later, make a left and head into the Zola and Bimont dams and reservoir. The Zola damn was designed by Francois Zola, the father of the Emile Zola. Cezanne and Emile Zola were great friends.

The water in the reservoir is amazingly blue. There are plenty of places to stop, take in the view … and finish off the snacks I procured in Pourrieres. You could and should spend a half an hour or more here.

Then, an 7 easy kilometers back into Aix, one of my favorite towns/cities. Yes, it’s a bit touristy, but has managed to retain its charm. It’s a city full of fountains, as well as hundreds of cafes and restaurants. Head over to Les Deux Garcons, where Cezanne and Zola would often meet to have a drink and discuss the important issues of the day. In my mind, they had a pastis, so that’s what I always order. Susan gets a kir. Others who have frequented Les Deux Garcons over the years include: Jean-Paul Sartre (I’d sure like to hear his point of view after a few drinks!), Picasso, Hugh Grant and George Clooney.

I hope you enjoyed this ride, thanks for reading.

Here’s the links to my other Favorite Rides: The Azay/Villandry Loire Loop; the Gorges de la Nesque in Provence; and my favorite Dordogne loop. And, finally, here’s the link to my five Biking France books, just in case you’re planning a trip to the Loire, Dordogne, Provence, Normandy or Bordeaux.

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