We gave up our old lives in the UK to set up a cycling business in Saint Antonin, so we think it’s pretty special.
Saint Antonin is in the Tarn-et-Garonne department in the Midi-Pyrénées. It’s sandwiched between the better known (and more crowded) Lot and Tarn Valleys, with the Pyrenees visible to the south.
The Town itself has all the local services, shops and restaurants you’d expect to find in a small town, but there’s the added bonus that you can be out on quiet country roads within minutes. There’s no battling with suburbia or traffic here (though tractors are sometimes another matter).
This is an amazingly diverse part of France. The nearby Aveyron gorge is tucked between flat roads on either side, with spectacular cliffs rising from the valley floor (the most impressive section of the gorge is just a few kilometres from us at the Cirque de Bône).
Away from the cliffs, the valley is wider and gentler, lovely wooded slopes and oak forests giving way to vineyards. Within reach are the limestone plateaux of the Lot Valley (and more vineyards), as well as the much smaller Bonnette Valley, which has more watermills than anywhere else in France.
Once out of the valleys, the terrain is quite hilly, with fabulous views at every turn. The climbs are rarely steep though, so don’t be too daunted by the idea of riding through the hills (though we can find some real leg-bending climbs further to the east for anyone who’s up for a challenge).
But this part of France isn’t just about the scenery. The pace of life here is slow, and most local villages still retain the character and architecture of medieval times. The countryside is peppered with beautiful honey coloured farmhouses, extravagant pigeonniers and spectacular chateaux.
Within riding distance from our base are Cordes-sur-Ciel and Saint-Cirq-Lapopie, officially two of the most beautiful villages in France. But there are many other lesser known villages such as Najac, Bruniquel and Castelnau-de-Montmiral that are worthy of a coffee stop.
Part of what makes the area so great for cycling is that few people have heard of it (even though the Tour de France cyclist Laurent Jalabert grew up in the area and still rides these roads). So even in summer there are few cars around, and the ones you do see are generally very courteous towards cyclists.
Here, you can have the best of both worlds – diverse scenery and lovely, quiet open roads without the serious climbing of the Pyrénées. What are you waiting for?
We ride here all year round. Apart from the scenery, the weather is what makes riding in the south of France so wonderful. We get long, warm, reliable summers followed by short, mild winters.
However we have an added bonus: a lack of wind. If you’ve ridden in other parts of southern France, you’ll know that the wind can be ferocious. Here, we rarely get more than a light breeze.
We think the best times to ride are May, June, September and October because the weather is beautiful and there are almost no tourists. However this is still very much a hidden corner of France – even in high summer we see nowhere near the number of tourists our neighbours in the Pyrénées, the Lot and the Dordogne get. Whatever the time of year, the weather in Saint Antonin better than the UK or Ireland.
Saint Antonin has one of the largest and best-preserved medieval centres in France – and we’re right in the middle of town, so you can enjoy it all. You can lose yourself for hours in the labyrinth of streets that are too narrow for cars.
A few doors away from us is the oldest secular building in France which dates from the 12th century. We’re a bit spoilt, because the town is absolutely crammed with amazing architecture, mostly from the 14th to 18th centuries.
But don’t be fooled into thinking that it’s an over-restored chocolate box town for tourists. We do of course love to share the town with visitors, but it’s also a working town, so you’ll get to know the locals as they go about their daily business.
If you can, try and ensure your visit coincides with the Sunday market because it’s recognised as one of the best in France – a wonderful feast of French culture and food, it covers almost the entire medieval centre.
The town is also often used as a film set. Recently we hosted Helen Mirren and the cast and crew of The Hundred Foot Journey, while previous movies filmed here include Charlotte Grey, starring Cate Blanchett.
We think St Antonin is a fantastic place to relax after a day on the bike.
Our favourite haunt is the main square – it’s a great place to people-watch over a cold drink or an ice-cream. There are also plenty of restaurant options on and near the square – you could easily eat somewhere different every night.
If you feel like a gentle swim after a hard ride, the town has a beautiful open-air pool – or you could just do what the locals do and jump in the warm, clean waters of the Aveyron.
There’s also lots to do here off the bike (and for non-cycling friends and family). By far the most popular activity is kayaking down the gorge, but we can also help you arrange rock climbing, caving, paragliding, and horse riding. There are plenty of routes for walkers ranging from an easy stroll along the river to some challenging, hilly hikes (maps are available locally).
More information is available at the tourist office’s web site.