Provence Cycling: An impressionist’s dream
Day 1 – Friday 20th June, 2014 AVIGNON
I’d always dreamed of going bike riding in Provence. For years I’ve read with envy articles about other travellers enjoying bike riding holidays in France while I slogged away at my job in real estate. I imagined the vibrant colours of the landscape and could almost taste the food and the wine. It’s my perception of heaven to pedal hard all day through beautiful countryside, then relax in comfortable accommodation and of course, indulge in good food and wine each night. Perhaps it’s a hangover from my days on the tennis tour. For me there’s nothing like the relaxation I experience after strong physical exertion.
But have I left it too late, I wondered? Especially since I’ve had Fibromyalgia for the last 4 years and need to have an afternoon rest. The WalkInn representative tries to talk my husband and I into electric bikes when they find out how old we are. (I’m 65 and my husband’s 67 with a crook right knee.) The Bike Hire Company then actually delivers the said electric bikes to our hotel in a last ditch attempt to entice us. Not being technically minded, I’m sure I’d be a danger on wheels on an electric bike. The alternative they then supply is a “unisex”/man’s bike. They advise that I’m too tall for a woman’s bike. I have to insist. And just as well! Early on in the ride I have a minor spill when I try to ride up a bitumen flap and have to jump out of the way of the bike when it tips over. If I’d been on a male/unisex bike with a high bar, I wouldn’t have made it and could easily have been seriously hurt. As it was, I escape with a few minor bruises, a loss of dignity and the wisdom not to mount any more curbs. The tyres, I realise, are not cross-country ones like the ones I have on my bike at home.
Our bike riding adventure starts off in style with a move from our 2 star accommodation in Avignon to Villa de Margot, a very upmarket Bed and Breakfast at the edge of the historic part of town. It is a very stylish, elegantly furnished home with Persian rugs and beautiful artwork. As we are travelling for 6 months we are on a tight budget. The bike riding trip is to be an exception. We really appreciate having the luxury of a huge room, a very comfortable bed, soft pillows and an impressive bathroom complete with a huge bath. I can hardly wait to get in it. We can also enjoy the luxury of being able to sit downstairs in a sitting room or out in the garden. Our previous budget accommodation has confined us mostly to our room.
Dinner is not included the first night. Our hostess recommends that we eat at L’Essentiel and it is a winner – right up there in line with the accommodation. My very fussy Swiss husband, Markus says that it is the best restaurant we’ve eaten in since we’ve been in Europe which includes 7 weeks in Italy.
However, despite all the comfort and wonderful accoutrements at Villa de Margot, I don’t sleep well. I worry about all the horrible things that could occur on the trip. Ambulance sirens haunt my dreams, as do the noise of mosquitos which are real and invading our beautiful room ferociously.
We have chosen to do a self-guided bike tour so as seniors, we can keep our own hours and cycling pace.
Day 2 – Saturday 21st June, 2014
Our exit from Avignon, which is quite a substantial town via the Magnanen gate is not as bad as I imagine. Fortunately it is a Saturday, so there is little traffic on the road at 8.30am. There are also designated bicycle lanes on most of the roads we make our departure along.
Very soon I am living my dream. After traversing the Durance River, we enter the magical countryside of Provence. We pedal down quiet, narrow lanes past vibrantly coloured oleanders, early roses, late spring wildflowers, fields of luminous, yellow sunflowers straight out of a Van Gogh painting, orchards of fruit trees, soon to be harvested fields of wheat and old stone farmhouses. In town squares of mediaeval villages, we peer through arches at castles and the steeples of Romanesque chapels. The only sounds I hear most of the day are the buzzing of cicadas announcing summer’s arrival and bird song. I feel like I’ve died and gone to heaven.
I am surprised at my level of fitness. One of the things I anticipated was that I’d be really struggling by the end of the 36k’s of our first day’s itinerary. Even though it is more than 30 degrees, I feel fine and very happy. I love being outdoors as my school reports always attested to. I also envisaged that there would be a lot more ups and downs in Provence. In fact, there is only a small climb up the Montagnette to the Saint-Michel de Frigolet Abbey, where I sing “Amazing Grace” in semi darkness in the beautiful old church which has the most amazing acoustics. The reward of our uphill toil is the journey back down with no pedalling involved. Although I do keep my foot ever ready to brake if I start going too fast for my comfort. I find about 23 k’s per hour is my max, but if the road is too curvaceous, then the brake really gets a workout.
Toilet stops are a problem. I notice that the French seem to no longer wee in public without even going behind a tree, as I remember they used to when I was travelling on the European Tennis Circuit. We find we have to search for some bush as there are no public toilets provided for water guzzling bicyclists.
We pass through the quaint towns of Graveson and Maillane, where we take a drink break and arrive at St Remy in time for lunch. All that peddling has given us a hearty appetite and we strike gold with our choice of La Gousse D’Ail (the garlic clove). The food is delicious. I have a rabbit terrine and salad. The restaurant lives up to its name with the very garlicy salad dressing.
Although there is a pool at our B and B, it is in full sun and I think I’ve had enough Vitamin D for the day. I retire inside for a lazy afternoon reading a very old Morse detective book which I find on their bookshelf. We dine at L’Estagnoll which is situated in a large courtyard garden and is a perfect venue for a summer evening. It also has excellent food. I feel very relaxed but not bone weary. Markus, my husband is a bit worse for wear, not having done any training. In typical male fashion, he is relying on his body to perform. As we wander back through the town a cacophony of sound from different types of bands broadcasts though the night. There is a musical festival on and all the streets have been closed off. All the surrounding cafés and restaurants are packed and the streets are filled with people.
St Remy is a town renowned for its artists, home to Vincent Van Gogh for a year. Much to my disappointment, we won’t have the time or energy to go and see where he lived and painted, nor the Site Archeologique de Glanum, a Roman city.
Monday 22rd June, 2014
Over 30 degrees is predicted again today so we leave early in order to escape the worst part of the heat around 2. By this time of the day we hope to be well and truly happily ensconced in a shady restaurant, eating lunch. The ride today starts well. Once again we pedal down quiet country lanes through more olive groves and vineyards for which Provence is famous for. The rich colours of the blue sky, the green of the fields and the vibrant yellow of meadows of sunflowers makes it easy to see why artists have been drawn to this area. Beautifully sculptured religious icons of Mary and Jesus stare down at me as I ride through village squares, reminding me of the deeply religious country that French has been in the past and still is according to my Swiss husband, Markus, who descended from the Huguenots. His ancestors who were French Protestants, were driven out of France during the 16th Century during a scourge against Non-Catholics.
But this reverie doesn’t last all the way. About halfway through our day’s ride, we are on busier roads, some of which don’t have a designated bike lane; my pet aversion. Unfortunately I have a tendency to wobble when cars whoosh by. At times I fear I’ll go off the edge of the road into one of the deep ditches which run too close to the side of the grass verge for my comfort. Fortunately, French drivers on the whole are a lot more respectful of cyclists than their Australian counterparts and give us a wide berth, except for one young bloke whose patience gives way waiting for me to get around the round-about. He nearly collects me.
We ascend into Les Baux, named after the family of that name. It is not as tough going as I anticipate and I only have to get off and push my bike on a couple of the steeper sections, my thighs no longer having the capacity to pedal up fairly minor grades, even utilizing all the available gears. Les Baux is a mediaeval town perched atop a rock face. Entrepreneurs have taken full commercial advantage of the site. Rentals are obviously high as are the prices of the wares for sale. Quality paintings, sculptures, giftware and clothes, the latter which I manage to resist. No room in my bag. If only I could get rid of some of the sensible drip dry items I packed as recommended by the travel agent, that I’ve found I don’t wear.
We manage to get lost just a few kilometres from the hotel where we are staying. I’m not sure if it’s the wine and the 2 beers Markus had with his lunch or as Markus insists, the instructions from WalkInn which are at fault. It is well after 2pm and the sun by this time is absolutely blazing down as we ride down a gravel track. In the end Markus has to activate his GPS to locate our accommodation.
We eat dinner in the village square. Eggplant and chevre tart followed by duck in fig sauce (I think I have duck coming out of my right ear) accompanied by an excellent wine. Markus insists that we have wine which we have to pay for, commensurate with the food but it’s not cheap. We stroll around the town afterwards. One thing I really love about being in France is ‘la promenade’ after dinner even after a long day’s bike ride.
Tuesday 23rd June
Our last day’s peddling is “parfait”- just how I like it. Except for our exit via the main street of the village, most of the day’s ride is down quiet country lanes through the beautiful countryside of Provence. We easily accomplish the last 20 remaining kilometres back to Arles by 11.30, and despite those dire warnings of discomfort from our contact at WalkInn, except for the odd case of cramps we’ve both been experiencing due to the overly hot weather, and with the exception of that minor spill on the first day, we arrive unscathed. Contrary to one of my father’s favourite expressions “Anticipation is better than realisation” I have to report that the trip far exceeded my expectations. I particularly love the feeling of total relaxation and well-being I feel at the end of each day’s exertions which doesn’t happen often these days at home in Narrabeen.
I am happy to report that my bike riding has definitely improved. By the finish I am going downhill around 30 k’s and can ride around 18 k’s on the flat. I also wobble less when cars go by, though for safety sake, when I am on a main road, I stop and stand on the grass verge when big trucks go by.
We wander around Arles, eat lunch in a courtyard restaurant then spend the rest of the afternoon in our hotel. WalkInn has come up trumps again with their selection. There is a pool, (but once again in the full blare of the sun) a shady garden, several beautifully furnished sitting rooms and an outside bar area. We eat dinner at another fabulous restaurant, which Markus now says is the best restaurant that he’s ever eaten at, then wander down the banks of the Rhone before we turn in.