The Plateau d’Albion: Missiles and Michelin Stars

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What makes a perfect dining experience? Perhaps a combination of good company, a nice restaurant and a little something extra to make it memorable and unique. Whatever it is Lillian and I found it in our recent visit to Provence.

We go to Saint-Saturnin-lès-Apt, one of the small towns in the Luberon region of Provence, most years and thought we knew all of the roads in the area; however on this visit we discovered not only an excellent new climb but also the fantastic restaurant at the top of it.

This is my Strava heat map of the region; there is so much good bike riding but it’s still nice to discover new roads.

Lillian had heard from some friends there was a Michelin starred restaurant up in the hills near Lagarde-d’Apt so when I suggested that we ride up the D34 to that village she was as keen as I was. The only problem was that the weather was overcast and somewhat grim, our legs were tired from having ridden up Mont Ventoux the previous day, and unlike other climbs in the nearby hills this one was long… considerably longer than we expected. We climbed for around an hour on a narrow road winding through scrub and forest. There was some cycling related graffiti on the road which piqued our interest; subsequently we found out that the climb had been part of Stage 5 of the 2018 Paris-Nice stage race.

It was nice to see Julian Alaphilipe’s name on the road especially as he rode to victory in the Flèche Wallonne the day after we took this photo.

There were some nice views of the Luberon from near the end of the climb, which topped out at 1106m.

As we reached the top we came out onto a straight and very wide smooth stretch of road. It seemed odd as there weren’t many houses up there and I wondered if it had been built to serve as an emergency runway. On the left was a squat stone building next to a field full of solar panels. Ahead the wide empty road rolled into the distance across the windswept plateau. There didn’t appear to be anything open in the village of Lagarde d’Apt a kilometre of so further along, not even a cafe let alone a restaurant. As it was starting to rain we turned around and had a cold descent back down to the valley.

Some further investigation once we were back in our little apartment revealed that the restaurant was constructed on the site of an old military facility, and had in fact been the nondescript stone building at the top of the climb. Two days later we up there again, this time having driven up for lunch in the restaurant, the Bistrot de Lagarde. I’m pleased to say that it was much more hospitable from the side that was hidden from they road and Lillian and I had a lovely meal there.

The Bistrot de Lagarde; it would be nice to have sat outside but the weather was not cooperating.

This was the 65 Euro set menu. There was an Asian twist to it with some dried bonito flakes in the soup and mouth and gum numbing Sichuan pepper in the rabbit main course. I had the cheese course and Lillian chose the two deserts… which after I’d tried I regretted not ordering.

Outside the restaurant we read that the site had been where a nuclear missile silo had been located until 1996. Intrigued I read some more about it on-line and found that it was the site of one of 18 missile silos that had been built on the high plain, known as the Plateau d’Albion, in the 1960s. It was the sole location of France’s nuclear deterrent and had been chosen because of its geology which enabled deep tunnels to be carved out in the limestone making resistant to a nuclear strike. The 18 silos were split into two independent networks each controlled by a firing post 500 metres underground.

A map of the launch zones was included in some information panels in the area outside the restaurant (which is at Site 1-1).

The development of the missile sites had a profound impact on the local economy with over a thousand workers being employed in the construction and a large ongoing military presence. 40 thousand square metres of concrete was used in the construction and the infrastructure in what had hitherto been a relatively underdeveloped rural area had to be enhanced; 120 kilometres of electricity lines were installed and a road network capable of bearing the weight of missile carrying lorries was built. So that was the explanation for the broad but empty roads that criss-crossed the plateau.

The missile sites were decommissioned in 1996 with all but one – where the Sirene Astronomical Observatory now sits – being completely filled in and recovered. One of the firing posts has been converted into a laboratory for experiments requiring conditions with very low external noise and although the military presence is much reduced a regiment of the Foreign Legion is based in Saint-Christol. The articles from where I found this information are here: Article on French Ministry of Culture website and Blog on the History of the Plateau.

The day after our lunch we returned to the plateau for a final time; this time on a clear but cold and windy day. Climbing 775m with a steady gradient averaging just under 7% made it perfect as a training ride. The reference to missiles in the title of this post was not in relation to the speed that we rode up the climb but we both felt good and smashed it. We crossed the plateau on more of the strangely deserted roads and finished our tour of the Plateau d’Albion with a descent to Sault where we had a welcome stop at a boulangerie.

Heading to the start of the climb. It was nice to see some blue sky after several days of cloud and rain.

Lillian reaching the top of the climb just before the ‘wide road’ started.

Looking in the other direction with the Bistrot de Lagarde on the left where the lorry is being unloaded.

On our descent off the Plateau as we soon as we passed Site 2-3 we were back on small Provencal roads again (Mont Ventoux is above Lillian’s head).

About to reach Sault, the village on the right.

The massive fougasse that we bought in Sault!

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