Two Weeks in Provence - the Trike Tour
So, How Far Did We Ride?
For the Provence portion of the tour, we cycled 295 miles. In our other travel stories, I've been diligent about logging miles each day - and I did so during this trip, in pencil, in a little blue spiral bound notebook. That stinking little notebook. All my notes... in the backpack... on the plane home... got the pencil... where's the notebook?... 2 weeks later, found under the couch. Thus a haiku:
Log of our trip
Here, then gone.
Sunday, August 26: Avignon - Orange, 29 miles
Breakfast, then a meeting with the rep from France Bike (we're a bit concerned about the directions provided, and have purchased our own maps to supplement the France Bike directions), and we're off. Despite having spent a couple of days walking around the city, it still takes a little while to pick our way out of town, but eventually we're across the Rhone and on our way.
The terrain is mostly flat for the first few miles and passes through vineyards and orchards. Near noon, the road and temperature begin to rise as we approach Chateauneuf du Pape (literally "The Pope's New Chateau") which, in addition to housing the ruins of the chateau (we decline the visit, citing temperature, admission fees, and another bit of climbing), is also the home of a famous wine appelation, a legacy of the papal taste for good wine. Lunch options are limited, so we choose the 12 euro plat du jour of "The Pope's Mule", overlooking the square.
There's a nice downhill run out of Orange, which helps settle lunch, then we continue on through the countryside, which is rapidly approaching south Texas summer temperatures. Luckily, our hotel, L'Herbier d'Orange is air conditioned. Given the heat, we elect to do our sightseeing in our bike clothes.
Since Orange was a major center for the Roman administration of Gaul, and every town needs a draw for the locals as well as the tourists, the city houses one of only three Roman theaters that retains it's original rear wall. Though ravaged by almost 2000 years of history, the theater is a magnificent example of Roman art and architecture. It's not just a museum - the theater is still used as a performance venue, housing an annual internationally-acclaimed classical music series. Like many attractions in Europe, your admission fee provides use of an electronic guide. Points of interest are identified by a posted number. Enter the number into the guide's keypad, and you hear a description or sound effect.
Monday, August 27: Orange to Vaison la Romaine, 29 miles
Another hot day. Our route out of Orange passes another typical Roman relic - a triumphal arch. Navigation continues to be a problem, as the France Bike directions often bear little resemblance to actual conditions, and backtracks are common. Thanks to Jayne's innate GPS, we're able to keep on course, and make a number of stops to enjoy the shade and a cold beverage. Though the route is relatively flat, the dominant feature of the landscape is a chain of mountains off to our right anchored by the legendary Mont Ventoux, whose steep climbs are a regular feature of the Tour de France.
Vaison la Romaine is a picturesque village that straddles a small river - which flooded in the early 1990's, killing over 20 people. The upper and lower portions of the town are connected by a bridge dating back to Roman times (and survived the flood with no damage). Some of the stone work had interesting details.
During our walk around town, we meet a 60-something group of German (or maybe Dutch) men who had cycled Mont Ventoux, a 6000 foot climb. Considering that today's temperature was 39 degrees C (102 deg F) - well, they're better men than I.
Dinner tonight features a Provencal regular - some type of multi-colored tureen (this is an option on virtually every 3 course prix fix menu) - but we're really enjoying the rose' wines of the Cote de Rhone.
Tuesday, August 28: Vaison la Romaine to Isle sur Sorgue, 40 miles
No photos for this day... must be image overload. When you're on a bike, the slower speed gives you plenty of time to just sit back and enjoy the view (sometimes, when you're grinding your way uphill, wondering if you'll ever get to the top, you glance over and see something like the photo to the left, and you think "We came all the way from there? No wonder I'm so tired".
We stop at a wine co-op to buy a $5 bottle of Rose. They have a self serve station, where you bring your own bottles to fill your wine. The wine is priced by the liter. One of them is free (we didn't taste it, but how bad could it be? ). I love France!
Regardless, we make good time today, arriving at our hotel for the next two nights (a Best Western - with two swimming pools) well before our luggage. Since the hotel is about a mile from the center of town, we hop back on the bike and check out the old town. The central city is surrounded by a canal featuring several waterwheels that were once used to power mills and other machinery. Today, the canal is Isle sur Sorgue's version of the River Walk. Jayne picks up another phone charger and we have lunch at a cafe overlooking the canal.
Back at the hotel, still no luggage, despite calls to France Bike. Oh well, it's hot, we're sweaty, there are two swimming pools, and bike clothes work as swim wear. A dip in the pool, a couple of chapters in a cheap novel, and just about the time my shorts get dry, our luggage arrives. Tonight's dinner (included in our tour package) in the hotel restaurant is our choice from the standard 20 - euro 3-course (entree, main, dessert), that we supplement with a local rose'.
Wednesday, August 29: A Day Trip to Gordes, 27 miles
We'll climb a bit today on our visit to the town of Gordes - about 12 miles from Isle sur Sorgue. The first few miles are pretty flat, and there's even a couple of drops of rain (the only rain we'll experience for the entire trip), then the slope begins to rise. By the 10 mile mark, we're grinding along at 4 mph or so, but enjoying the sights. The area near Gordes is known for buildings known as bourres, constructed of dry stacked stone (no mortar or other binding agents), and used for housing and storage. Gordes is spread out over a couple of hill tops, and there are great views of the town (the lead photo on this page is a view of Gordes and the photo of us on the lead page was also taken at Gordes) and the valley below (sometimes you don't realize how much climbing you can do). After exploring the town for a while, it's nearing noon, but the dining options appear to be surprisingly limited, despite the continuous stream of tourists cruising the main square and tour buses disgorging their loads of geriatric Germans, so we decide to head downhill and look for other options.
The ride out of Gordes is loads of fun. With the upgraded brakes and lighter load, we can afford to let the trike pick up a bit more speed (we hit 42.5 mph on this run), so we cover a lot of ground quickly. Passing through a small village, we spot a small restaurant with it's front door open. There are only 6 or 7 tables, but it's cozy, and the waitress speaks fluent English. The plat du jour is excellent, and we linger over our roses for a while before continuing the return.
Dinner at the hotel is essentially a reprise of last night. Lucky we're only here two nights - one more and we'd be out of options for dinner
Thursday, August 30: Isle sur Sorge to Avignon, 28 miles
The ride back to Avignon is relatively easy, despite continuous misdirection courtesy of France Bike's cue sheet, and soon we're back in the familiar surroundings of the Hotel Magnan (this time in a room with a ceiling fan - at least it's a bit cooler today). Lunch is a great 10 euro prix fixe at a cat-themed restaurant, Le Chat Gourmand.
We'll use this stopover to prep for the next week of touring (laundry and more maps), and tour the Pope's palace. During the palace tour, we discover the need for another chore - our trusty Canon digital camera bites the dust, so a visit to the local FNAC (sort of a combo between Border's Books and Best Buy - without the large appliances) is in order. The Kodak is functional, but I miss the Canon.
Friday and Saturday, August 31-September 1: Avignon
Friday's dinner is on our own, so we decide to try something that is... not French. We had seen some Moroccan restaurants in the neighborhood, so decide to give one a try. The meal is OK, but the next morning, I wake up with GI distress, but I figure things will be better by the next day.
For our Saturday day trip Jayne has arranged for a Wine Safari. Mike Rijken, a former chef and winery marketing director, picks us up at our hotel. We'll start with lunch near the vineyards, then Mike will take us on a tour that will encompass the vineyards and wineries of the central Cote du Rhone. With Mike's insider access, we get up close and personal at the Tavel cooperative, watching the delivery and crush of freshly harvested grapes, and get a sample of the first run of juice. Following the cooperative visit, Mike takes us to two small wineries where we get to meet the winemakers and taste a variety of wines.
There's been a change in the weather. It's cooled off, with daytime temperatures now peaking around 80, and the wind has picked up. Well, "picked up" is a misnomer. In Texas, we'd call 50 mph winds blowing for days on end a Tropical Storm. In Provence, it's the Mistral.
Mistral – the Winds that Drove Van Gogh to Madness
The mistral are winds that blow from the north at 80-100 km (sustained) for 100 – 150 days a year in Provence. Winds so strong they rattle windows, slam doors, make buildings groan and drive the French away from their beloved outdoor squares and bistros. Winds that blow not only in the winter, as we believed, but all year around. Winds that blew us out of Provence.
Why do the vineyards of the Cotes du Rhone look like a briar patch? The mistral forces vineyards to thrive without trellising. The wind would blow them over and after all, French vines must suffer to produce their superior wines!
Why are there no church steeples for us to use as a compass from village to village? The mistral forces churches to be built without steeples. Wrought iron steeples are a local architectural detail, designed to withstand the wind, but not visible from 4-6 km as is the average steeple.
Why are there no window boxes overflowing with flowers in Provence? The mistral forces window boxes with flowing flowers to be abandoned to the wind.
How did we cycle into the mistral? Very slowly. Not quite as slow as a steep climb – but as unpleasant as cycling in the driving rain. Constant. Unrelenting. Miserable. After 30 miles cycling into a 50 mph headwind back to our base in Avignon, we decide to abandon Provence and the mistral for the remainder of our trip and head north to Burgandy with its trellised vines, tall church steeples, and window boxes overflowing with flowers… and no wind.
Sunday, September 2: Avignon to Arles, 31 miles
Sunday dawns with the howl of the mistral and continued GI distress, despite medication, but, the tour must go on. The route to Arles will include a significant climb (400 meters) to Les Baux. It's not an easy climb, but the views are great. Since it's a Sunday morning, we encounter a number of cyclists who make this hill a regular part of their rides. Of course, they're much faster than us, but are still impressed that we've done the climb on our trike. They cheer us on as we peak the climb. Part of the attraction at Les Baux are caves at the top of the hill. We decline the visit and enjoy a nice downhill run.
One funny thing about this part of France - you can be tooling along through the countryside, enjoying the vineyards and orchards, then suddenly you run into a 2000 year old Roman ruin, like this aqueduct.
Arles is another old Roman city, and features a restored Coliseum and remnants of the public baths. I miss a lot of the sights, as I just don't feel up to walking around - though I recall noting in my tour diary that I thought I felt better - little did we know...
The rest of the day is a bit blurry - I have no appetite, and am having chills and fever each evening. At dinner, one minute I'm chatting with Jayne after placing an order, the next, I'm coming to after fainting at the table. Jayne says there was discussion about calling an ambulance, but after a few minutes I'm able to wobble back to the hotel with a bit of assistance from Jayne. She puts me to bed and returns to the restaurant to finish dinner. The staff is concerned about me, and even sends some food for me (though I'm beyond eating).
Monday and Tuesday, September 3-4: Arles to Saintes-Maries, 31 miles
I'm able to eat a bit of bread at breakfast, so we'll push on south toward the Mediterranean. This coastal plain area, known as the Camargue is famous for its horses, bullfights, and flamingos. We'll see 2 out of 3 - the bullfights won't be held until the weekend. Our schedule calls for 2 nights in Saintes-Maries, and it's just in time. I'm not feeling any better, am unable to eat, have a fever, and diarrhea. It's time to see the doctor.
There are two doctors in Saintes-Maries. The hotel manager suggests I see Dr. Dinh Vo. Despite his name, he looks like a typical Frenchman to me. Though his English is limited, it's better than my French, and we're able to communicate. After a discussion of symptoms and an exam, he writes a prescription for some antibiotics and two other drugs. After paying his 22 euro fee, we drop into one of the local pharmacies and get the prescription filled. Cost for 3 drugs: 9 euros. For a few more observations on health care in France, click here.
Our second day in Saintes-Maries is dedicated to rest and letting the medications do their job, though we do walk around a bit. The crowds have diminished significantly with the onset of the mistral, the petanque players have put away their balls, and even the topless sunbathers have given up.
Wednesday, September 5: Saintes-Maries to Saint Gilles, 26 miles
Though not 100%, I feel good enough to ride today, so we set off into the face of the mistral. With headwinds gusting up to 50 mph, we make slow progress, and accumulate a thick film of dirt and sand. My appetite has returned somewhat, so we stop in a village for a nice lunch, which helps a lot. Saint Gilles doesn't have much to offer. A church, a square, dinner at the hotel. We're off again into the mistral.
Thursday, September 6: Saint Gilles to Pont de Garde, 28 miles
Our hotel at the Pont de Garde is very nice - actually a 2 room suite with a large bath - sheer luxury! Better yet, it is adjacent to the prime tourist attraction for our stop the Pont de Neuf, a portion of a 50 km long Roman aqueduct system that brought water to Nimes. The pont is an amazing feat of Roman engineering. The section that remains is over 300 feet long over 200 feet high of stone-on-stone construction. For over 500 years, masons and other skilled craftsmen who visited the pont would chisel their names and trade affiliations into the stone. The adjacent museum provides more information than you can imagine about Roman water systems and stone work - interesting, but after a while your eyes do glaze over...
Friday, September 7: Pont de Garde to Avignon, 21 miles
Our departure from the Pont de Garde begins through a tunnel of trees that soon give way to the typical Provencal countryside. I'm feeling much better, and the mistral has diminished a bit, so we make good time back to Avignon, where we receive a warm welcome from the staff at the hotel. It's lunchtime, and I'm famished (finally), so rather than sit down for a 15 euro prix fixe lunch, we opt for kebabs. The kebab guy takes pride in his product, and in a few minutes, all is right with the world - a tasty kebab and fresh fries- yum!
Since we'll end our cycling tour at this point, our first task is to prepare for the remainder of the trip. Jayne takes care of laundry while I disassemble and pack the bike, doing my best to keep weight down. Due to ongoing issues with luggage delivery, Jayne has negotiated a deal with France Bike - they will coordinate a hotel for us in Montpellier, our departure city, and transfer the bike and other luggage at a substantial discount. Eventually, we're set, and will continue the remainder of our trip with only a small roller bag and a backpack. The only question remaining is, where to go?