(CNN) — Albert Van Limbergen cycled on June 28 from his home just outside Liège, Belgium, in search of a croissant.
But rather than head to a local store, he was on his way to the south of France. Two weeks later, on July 12, he arrived at his destination: Boulangerie Roy Le Capitole, the artisan baker Frédéric Roy, the modest neighborhood bakery one street from the Mediterranean in Nice.
Albert arrived in the middle of the afternoon to the applause of a small crowd including Frédéric and his wife, Katia. He was still dressed in the cycling gear he had worn for the last leg of his journey: a red cap, a yellow polo shirt and black cycling shorts, the colors of the Belgian flag. And he didn’t wait long to taste what he’d cycled more than 1,400 kilometers across two countries for: one of Frédéric’s signature croissants made from lavender grown on a wide limestone plateau high in the mountains. Riviera hinterland.
Admiring the slight purple tint (all that’s left once a layer of shiny food coloring bakes into the oven), Albert took a bite through the flaky crust and into the layers of buttery, feather-like dough inside. inside, noticing the subtle but distinct grass. flavor – the result of the lavender-infused water that is kneaded into the dough mixture before baking.
Frederic said his bakery was the only one he knew of that sold such a tasty viennoiserie, the French term for the group of sweet pastries such as croissants, pain au chocolat and pain aux raisins.
And when Albert, flipping through the TV channels at home, one day comes across a news program about a Nice baker and his lavender croissants, the seeds of his two-wheeled adventure are sown.
For someone who admits to loving everything about lavender “from smell to taste to fields of blue, green and purple”, Albert found himself galvanized.
This trip wasn’t the first time the retired transportation professional had based his travels around his favorite factory.
“If I had a few days off, I sometimes went to Ardèche in France to eat lavender ice cream in Vallon-Pont-d’Arc,” he says.
It wasn’t the first time he’d cycled long distances for fun, either. Previously, he had reached Perpignan, towards the Spanish border on the western Mediterranean coast of France.
It was, however, the first time he had gone on a bicycle in search of new flavors of lavender.
The lavender fields along the route gave a glimpse of the flavor that motivated Albert Van Limbergen to cycle in the south of France.
Albert Van Limbergen
False starts and finally, departure
On the Côte d’Azur, Frédéric first heard of Albert in early 2021 when one of Albert’s friends, half-jokingly, sent a handwritten letter to the baker.
“If at the end of June, you see Albert arriving on his bike, this will be the objective, the goal of his trip (reached)”, writes the author.
Soon after, another group of Belgian friends vacationing in the seaside resort visited the bakery and passed on Albert’s phone number. The couple soon spoke for the first time and a plan was drawn up for June of this year.
“There were a few things that got in the way,” says Albert – namely the pandemic-related travel restrictions. “But it all served as motivation to hit the road as soon as possible in 2022.”
Finally, a year later, he was ready to go.
Three friends had volunteered to look after his beloved rescue animals, a farmyard full of horses, cats, dogs and fish, while he was away. Packing little more than a sleeping bag, a tent, a change of clothes, tools to fix the bike and 7 liters of drink – and gym flip flops, his go-to shoes – he started pedaling.
The route he charted took him past the Belgian towns of Ciney and Dinant, crossing France near Charleville-Mézières. He headed south through the vineyards of Burgundy to Lyon, then followed the Rhône to Valence where he prepared to tackle the 1,180-metre (approximately 3,870 ft) peak of the Cabre pass.
Frédéric Roy and Albert Van Limbergen met at Roy’s bakery in Nice, France.
Once through, the lavender-colored landscapes of northern Provence were his reward. Closer to Nice, you had to navigate the red ocher gorges of the Mercantour National Park before finally rushing down the Promenade des Anglais and a view of the city’s famous Baie des Anges to accompany the last kilometers.
“I carefully planned a route along small rural roads to avoid motorways, busy regional roads and cars as much as possible,” says Albert. He averaged 12 hours (including stops) and 100 kilometers (62 miles) per day.
“I would stop for a plat du jour (plat du jour) for lunch and in the evening I would settle into a campsite,” he says. There were only a few hours of bad weather to contend with over the two weeks.
He kept in daily contact with Frédéric, sending photos and sharing his geopositioning.
“Frédéric followed me”, says Albert. “He knew when I stopped at a restaurant, for a beer, at a campsite, even on the side of the road. He just couldn’t see me.”
Frederic kept his nearly 10,000 Twitter followers up to date on Albert’s progress, posting his photos and often a map of the day’s route.
The afternoon Albert finally arrived, Frederic was ready to celebrate with local beer and red, yellow and black balloons – and, of course, a plate of fresh lavender croissants.
“We chatted for a few hours about lavender, nature and life in general,” Frederic said, speaking to CNN Travel by phone. “He came back the next day, and we talked for a few more hours.”
Lavender-infused water is kneaded into the croissant dough. The food coloring that gives them that shiny hue is mostly baked.
The Crusader of Croissants
Frédéric started making lavender croissants two and a half years ago, adding them to an unconventional range that includes raspberry, pistachio, choco-banana and hazelnut croissants that are sold in alongside the more classic assortment of Viennese pastries.
He’s been addicted to his craft since he started as an apprentice baker in his early teens, despite starting at 4:30 a.m. six days a week.
As France grapples with claims that up to 80% of croissants sold across the country today are ready-made, mass-produced and baked versions from frozen, Frédéric is to become the country’s croissant crusader, a character who defends the traditional homemade croissant that is an integral part of its culinary heritage. This is very appropriate for someone whose last name is a homonym of “roi”, the French word for king.
He has spent much of the last five years asking the country’s politicians for a growing label of French tradition, similar to what already exists for the baguette.
“Some bakers have never made a croissant in their life,” he says. “I just want people to know what they’re buying.”
At Boulangerie Roy Le Capitole, it’s a croissant that takes three days to make – the sweet spot for achieving the perfect consistency and a slightly nutty flavor, according to Frédéric – using only the best quality ingredients, including butter not 100% pure French salt. .
It can bake up to 1,200 all-butter croissants (100% butter) per day, depending on the time of year. Besides the freshly baked crates he hand-delivers to Nice’s legendary Hotel Negresco – the five-star beachfront hotel that hosts politicians, royalty and celebrities – for breakfast every in the mornings, it is usually full for lunch.
On weekends, it’s not uncommon for the queue in front of his bakery to turn around the corner.
Room for improvement
As for Albert, he spent two days visiting Nice before starting the long journey back to Belgium. This time, however, he only had to cycle the roughly 70 kilometers (43 miles) from Nice to the small inland village of Puget-Théniers, where a friend had picked him up with his bike.
And what did he think of Frédéric’s lavender croissants? Were they worth the two week trip?
“They were good, but I think they could still be improved,” he said. “In Belgium, we often put pastry cream in croissants. Lavender and pastry cream would be wonderful.”
Chrissie McClatchie is a Nice-based travel writer and guidebook author whose stories of the French Riviera and beyond have appeared in BBC Travel, Condé Nast Traveler, Lonely Planet and more.