Cycling Tours with UNESCO World Heritage Sites in France

Carcassonne – Photo: Unsplash

The ingredients for an enjoyable cycling holiday are essentially in 3 aspects.
(Good bikes and smooth logistics are a given!) 

  1. Routes
  2. Hotels
  3. Sights

In this article, we will look at some of the most spectacular sights on our tours. Discover France has many different cycling tours that visit UNESCO World Heritage sites. The World Heritage sites can sometimes seem ordinary to us – seeing them so frequently – but each one is actually quite remarkable. The more you know about them, the more fascinating they become.

In this article, we will briefly look at the historical context that gave birth to the UNESCO World Heritage site classification, and dive deeper into specifics about 10 UNESCO sites that are included in our cycling trips. Bear with us on this one. The article is long, but we guarantee that you will learn a thing or two, regardless of how well you know the subject. Entire books can and have been written about the subject. This is our 10 minute introduction to the rich history of UNESCO sites in Southern France. 

Brief History of UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Unesco World Heritage Convention logo

If the purpose of the classification would be summed up in two words, it would be protection and preservation.

The official website of Unesco World Heritage describes its purpose as 

“The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) seeks to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding value to humanity.” 

UNESCO was founded after the two world wars to learn from the devastation and destruction, encouraging countries to adhere to a joint effort to promote the protection and preservation of our cultural and natural heritage. 

New places are listed every year, and a total of 1,121 World Heritage sites were included in August 2019. What’s more interesting is the astonishingly low number of sites that are deleted from the list. From what we could find, only 2 places have ever been delisted, which in itself is a testament to the immense value of protection and preservation that the label has. 

How UNESCO World Heritage Sites Get Their Label? 

The selection process happens in three steps. 

  1. Countries that have signed the World Heritage Convention can nominate new sites to the UNESCO based on cultural and natural criteria
  2. If the nomination makes the first selection, an advisory board studies the merits and decides if the site can be presented to the World Heritage Committee that then votes on its inclusion. 
  3. If the vote is in favor, the nominated place is included in the yearly updated World Heritage List. 

UNESCO World Heritage Sites That Are Included On Discover France Trips

In this latter part of the article, we would like to present some of the less known facts about remarkable UNESCO sites that are included in our cycling tours. 

  • Tour of the Languedoc Region – Visit 5 UNESCO sites in one week. 
  • Canal du Midi from Moissac to Carcassonne – UNESCO labeled Canal du Midi and the majestic walled city of Carcassonne. 
  • Provence Classic 7 Night – Visit UNESCO labeled Arles, Pont du Gard and Avignon

Cycling Tour of the Languedoc Region

Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert

This tour is often overlooked as Provence is more famous than the Languedoc region. However, in 7 days time, the tour takes the rider from one UNESCO site to the next. The first part of the trip is along the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage route starting from Saint-Guilhem-le-Désert. Already on this first evening you can visit the ancient Abbey of Gellone and the Pont du Diable. Both were included in the UNESCO World Heritage as a part of the classification of the French side of the pilgrimage routes in 1998. 

Did you know that the pilgrimage route is not just one single route, but actually a vast number of different pilgrimage routes coming from all over Europe, leading eventually to Santiago de Compostela in Spain? The second Unesco heritage site is actually riding on the pilgrimage route itself. On the Tour of the Languedoc Region, you are on the most Southern of the route called “Via Tolosana”. 

The third UNESCO site is visiting the Causses et Cévennes was listed in 2011 in the category of “living evolutionary cultural landscapes”.  The site is the representation of Mediterranean agropastoralism – farms with livestock rather than growing crops. The high limestone plateau sets the stage for a very different environment that you would expect in the South of France. 

It is still a place where one frequently has to share the road with wandering sheep and cows. A great experience that really takes the mind away from everyday stress and worries. It is like time stopped some decades ago, and nobody is in a hurry to catch up. 

The remaining two UNESCO sites on this cycling tour is the Canal du Midi and Carcassonne. Those are both included and described in more detail in the next tour description. 

This tour really catches the essence of a slower pace of life that makes a cycling holiday in the Languedoc region so enjoyable.

Canal du Midi from Moissac to Carcassonne

Canal du Midi

This cycling tour starts from Moissac, a city that has the UNESCO listed Saint-Pierre de Moissac Abbey. It is well worth coming in early to have plenty of time to visit the city. The location by the Canal de Garonne River has always been an important stop for trade and transport between Bordeaux and the Canal du Midi. Moissac is also one of the stops on the Pilgrimage Route going to Santiago de Compostela. 

The UNESCO classed Saint-Pierre de Moissac Abbey is a place that needs to be seen up close. The main door into the chapel, as well as the delicately carved capitals of the Romanesque cloister, are a testament to patience and skills that are rarely seen in modern buildings. 

Moissac – Photo: Angel de los Rios

Towards the second half of the trip, the cycling itineraries take you from Toulouse to the Canal du Midi. The Canal du Midi was built into 328(!) separate sections over the course of 27 years. The work started in 1667 and was finished in 1694. For the mastermind behind the Canal du Midi, Pierre-Paul Riquet, the functional aspect of the channel was naturally the most important one – but he did not neglect the visual aesthetic aspect either. Over the years, nature has beautifully completed the work of Riquet, creating unique passages that display the desire to make the Canal du Midi into something beautiful. The Canal du Midi was included in the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1996, and is to this day an extraordinary display of civil engineering. 

Our cycling tour finishes in the walled city of Carcassonne, listed just one year later in 1997. The old city center is a fine example of a medieval fortified city. The construction started in the late antiquity, more than 1,500 years ago and progressed until the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659. By 1853, the years had taken its toll on the walls, and the architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc restored the city walls to their current state. 

Carcassonne – Photo: Rob Glover

Carcassonne is the final stop for this cycling tour, but also the starting point of our tour of the Cathar Country. This could be interesting for those fascinated by the history of Catharism. The Cathar Country area south of Carcassonne has seen an uptick in visitors since “The Da Vinci Code” with thousands of travelers visiting the mystical locations mentioned in Dan Brown’s bestseller.

Provence Classic Cycling Tour

Arles – Photo: Unsplash

There is a good reason why Provence is so popular.  Our Provence Classic 7 Night cycling tour is one of our most trips, and consistently gets a 5-star rating from our clients.  The varying scenery you ride through, combined with the Provencal lifestyle in the villages, is a truly relaxing and rewarding experience. In many ways it is amazing how Provence has managed to stay so true to itself despite the large numbers of tourists visiting each year. 

Avignon

This cycling tour starts in Avignon, where the old city center has been on the UNESCO World Heritage list since 1995. If you studied French in middle school, you may have learned the “Sur le Pont d’Avignon… on y dance” song. That very bridge, stretching half-way over the Rhone River, is part of the UNESCO World Heritage. The other significant buildings are the Palace of the Popes and other remarkably well preserved buildings from the Gothic era. 

The Palace of the Popes is fascinating, having been built in less than 20 years. It actually consists of two palaces, built by Benedict XII and his successor Clement VI. It is an interesting piece of history, having been the home of Popes in the 14th century. The 7 popes that resided in the Palace of the Popes were all under the French King. It would not be long before the papacy was returned to Rome, though. Another interesting piece of history worth an article in and by itself. The Palace of the Popes is still one of the most visited tourist attractions in France with 650,000 visitors per year. 

If you choose to do this tour with the upgraded hotels, you will rest your head in a hotel located right behind the palace. While this article is about UNESCO World Heritage sites, the Mirande hotel deserves a special mention as one of the most beautiful hotels in the region. 

Pont du Gard – Photo: Unsplash

From Avignon, your itinerary will take you to visit the Pont du Gard, before heading to Uzes. The Pont du Gard is a sight that is breathtaking to see. Instead of trying to find the words to describe it, you can watch this video made by the UNESCO, describing the aqueduct in a concise and visual way.

Uzes – Photo: Alehins

Uzes is less known than Avignon, but this small city with just under 9,000 inhabitants has a number of curious aspects. First of all, the city is one of 38 cities in France that still to this day has a duke. Uzes also has a vibrant Saturday morning market in the city square.  In the end of January each year, a weekend dedicated to truffels makes Uzes a bustling city, during an otherwise calm period of the year. (Le Week-end de la Truffe

The third and last UNESCO site of this tour is the old city of Arles. When we say old city, we mean old… The first recorded inhabitation of Arles was already by the Greek-Phoenicians in the 6th century BC. In the first century the city became part of Rome when Julius Caesar made the city the capital of Roman Provence. For 400 years, the city flourished as a trading center, and it was during that period that the UNESCO Heritage sites (Amphitheatre, Antique Theater and Constantin baths) were built. 

The history of the city is filled with ups and downs. Walking the city streets you can experience the contrasts between the splendor of the Roman era and the later years when the city was more known for the numerous North African immigrants that built much of the houses in the narrow streets of Arles. 

One historically important year is 1888, when Vincent Van Gogh lived in Arles and produced over 200 paintings. Many of them depict scenes from Arles and its surroundings. Van Gogh left a lasting impression on villages like Saint Remy de Provence and Baux de Provence. Galleries and exhibitions highlighting his work are still a semi-permanent fixture in both villages. Possibly influenced by Van Gogh, those same villages are today the epicenter of art culture in Provence, and frequented every year by a number of celebrities in search of the soft Provencal evenings in cosy cafés. 

Arles – Photo: Unsplash

Sipping rosé and having locally grown olives in the main square of centuries old villages doesn’t get old. It would be easy to write an entire article about why the soft summer evenings in Provence are at the very core of its charm. It really never gets old. As a foreigner that moved to France 10 years ago, I know that I have no plans of leaving. The Provence Classic cycling tour is perfect to experience that charm. There are just so many different beautiful places to see and special atmosphere to experience. The UNESCO World Heritage advisors agree as well. 🙂

Conclusion

As we stated in the beginning, the 3 ingredients to a successful cycling tour are routes, hotels and sights. France as the most visited tourist destination in the world needs no additional advertisement. What we at Discover France always aim to do, is to create cycling tours that mix places like the grandiose UNESCO World Heritage sites, with authentic hotels and itineraries that take you off the obvious routes to see another less known side of France as well. 

The end result is seeing and experiencing the connection between the history and the present. It creates cycling holidays that you will remember and want to come back for more. We hope that you enjoyed reading this, and we are always happy to continue the discussion one-to-one.

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Author Sakari

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