It occurred to us during our journeys near where we live and on our frequent rides to surrounding towns that if we could do this here, we could do it anywhere.
And that anywhere, we decided, should be France.
After searching the Internet, we found a great deal of information about cycling through France - the high regard for cyclists, the food, the close proximity of the towns and the fantastic scenery gave the country high marks for a self-propelled journey. We found a book of general cycling directions which promised to keep us off the busiest roads, when possible, and on the quieter and more scenic secondary roads.
On our way through our research, we discovered Provence, the sunny southeast quadrant of the country. We didn't know much about it at first, but over months of preparation and study, a tantalizing picture emerged of a regional culture that is to Paris as the Alabama we live in is to the bustling northeastern United States.
What we discovered about Provence made it our destination. The area is a land where shimmering olive groves and orderly vineyards stretch as far as the eye can see, where food is one of the most important elements of life, and where the disposition of people and plants is infused with the temperate weather and the colors that have attracted artists and poets for centuries.
Street of Tombs, Arles
Provence seemed to be a perfect place for our interest in history to come face-to-face with some of the best preserved Roman antiquities in the world. Ever since the Greeks introduced the olive tree to Provence in the fifth century BC, the great powers of the Mediterranean have maintained a very visible presence in Provence. The Roman arenas, patterned after the coliseum at Rome, are still host to bullfights and rock concerts. The Roman temple in the center of Arles could have been built a century ago, by the looks of it. In Arles' Alyscamps district, one can walk through a cemetery lined with the above-ground stone sarcophagi where the Romans placed their dead, and are said to have been so superstitious about entering after dark that the early Christians used it as a night-time gathering place. And the Pont-du-Gard, an aqueduct that the Romans built to bring fresh water some 60 miles from the mountains into the homes and fountains of Nîmes, simply can't be described in words.
As we further researched our trip, our expectations were heightened when we read about the natural beauty of Provence and the beauty that the Provençal people brought to the table in the form of the region's traditional food. Provençal cuisine is quite different from the heavy sauces and fussy preparation you might find in northern French food - not that there's anything wrong with THAT.
Provençal cuisine is a blend of influences from all around the Mediterranean: Greek, Arab, Italian and French cooking traditions come together on the tables of Provence. If you don't like olive oil, garlic, olives and a mind-boggling variety of fresh seafood, don't go.
Finally, we must admit that some of our decision to visit Provence was helped along by the lower prices there. The French franc was going for about 6 to the dollar when we went there, and prices in this laid-back land are far less than travelers to Paris would suspect. We never paid more than $45 or so for the two- and three-star hotels we stayed in. And these weren't out-of-the-way places, either. In every case but one (Arles was booked full and we had to commute into the city center on a number of bicycle rides through the crazy but respectful traffic there), we stayed within the ancient wall of the old towns where a walk to a restaurant took only minutes at the most. Breakfast topped out at $5 US, and the picnic lunches we gathered in small towns and ate along our daily routes were less than that. During our nine day stay, we ate nine of the best meals of our lives in the evenings, with a four course meal never costing more than $20 per person. Wine in a Provençal restaurant cost about the same as the bottle would in a store here, far less than US restaurant prices. One surprise was the quality of vin ordinaire in the region; we once bought an entire liter for about $6 and it was great.
So, the problem of where to go was solved: Provence.
The third problem was making sure that we could get around in a place we essentially knew very little about. We had heard that the September weather in Provence was likely to be between 60 at night and 78 during the day (it was) and there would like be very little or no rain (there was none). But we were going to be literally living outdoors except to sleep, and pedaling up hill and over long distances with whatever we were to have with us on our trip. Our back-packing gear and experience came in handy as we agonized over what to take and what to leave. In preparation for the trip, we loaded our panniers (the saddlebags that bicycles carry) with everything we were taking and set out as often as we could to get accustomed to the heavier loads. Also, we needed to know how our average speed would be affected by the extra weight and wind resistance.
At first we were dismayed by our sore muscles and slower average speeds. The hills of Madison seemed terrible under the weight of the loaded panniers. What would the Alpille mountains be like? We decided that we would not ride an unloaded bike anywhere in the month before our trip. We went out fully almost every day, either around noon or in the late afternoon, in temperatures between 80 and 95 degrees. In the period of a month, we had overcome the extra weight and were chugging up hills about as well as we head before the weight was added. We knew that however wonderful the trip might be, we could always look forward to coming home and shedding those 25-lb bags.
An unforgettable picnic
We arrived in the city of Avignon at about 6:30 in the evening, giving us just enough time to get a room, put our bikes together (they have to be partially disassembled and boxed for the trip) and have a meal and a walk in the town. We went to bed early and got up early the next morning. Neither of us will ever forget our first chilly ride out of the ancient gates of the city, across the Rhône river on a bridge that offers a spectacular city view, and into the countryside of France. Though we had a long day ahead of us, we were so captivated by the small towns like between the cities that we took to lingering in them, as the day warmed, sacrificing some of the major attractions in the cities for a closer look at everyday life in the villages. We gathered a picnic lunch in such a town and headed south for Nîmes via the Pont du Gard, an aqueduct built by the Romans in about 56 BC. We pedaled out on the more-than-200 foot tall arched bridge and selected a picnic spot with a view of kayakers floating below. We introduced ourselves to the fruits of the patisserie in Remoulins where we had purchased a baguette, cheese, a couple of slices of Provence's traditional pizza, and a couple of fruit tarts. Then is was on to Nîmes through a series of dizzying climbs and breezy descents that lasted for miles. It was on one of these descents, whizzing side-by-side down the near-deserted mountain roads that we began planning our return to Provence.
We entered Nîmes through its bustling northern industrial suburbs and easily found our way to the cool, tree-lined boulevards of this cosmopolitan town. We found the Cat Hotel (no, it wasn't spelled the French way) and the friendly people who ran it by checking in at the tourist office. Once we had changed and rested a little, we went downstairs to ask recommendations for a good restaurant. We were encouraged to eat where the locals like to eat in that part of town, Le Magister. Since the restaurant wasn't on the beaten tourist path and was a little hard to find, one of our hoteliers walked with us there, introduced us to the owner and bid us bon appetite. We walked back to the hotel tired, happy and ready to get up the next day and do it again.
Nîmes features several mediaeval neighborhoods such as the well-preserved dyer's district near Les Halles (nearly every town has a Les Halles street, meaning a covered market in ancient times).
A word of caution about this city: it's big and bustling but not particularly well-signed. The boulevards are so wide you'll need binoculars to see the signs that do exist, and many of the streets curve so through the town that a watchband compass was the only way to know where we were on the map.
The second day of our trip took us out of the country of grapes and olives and headed us to the sea and sand. With the strong wind at our backs, we made that day's 20 miles with plenty of time to shop at fruit stands for a nice picnic lunch and a long chance to eat it in the small town of Generac, where we watched the locals engaged in an emotional game of petanque. Must have been the playoffs.
Our destination was Aigues Mortes, a perfect little 13th century town still held within its unbreached and ancient walls. The whole town is about the size of a Walmart parking lot. Its name means dead waters in the Provençal language (the residents of Provence are only fairly recently French, historically speaking) as the town, once the thriving ocean port from which the first crusade was launched by sea, is now land-locked from the inexorable deposits of silt that the Rhône brings with it on its way to the Mediterranean.
Our room in this pleasant but touristy little town looked out at the ramparts a few yards away. We are astonished that such a place really existed, the subject of conversation during a wonderful meal.
Our third day took us a short 17 miles from Aigues Morte to Saintes Maries-de-la-mer, or Saint Marys of the Sea. Local legend has it that the two biblical Marys and Martha escaped to this town after the crucifixion, and that the Romanesque church here houses their relics. The Queen of the Gypsies is crowned here every two years, and a place in town is set aside for the ceremony which ends in a procession into the sea.
Probably the most amazing thing about this town besides the incredible bouillabaisse was the room we got through the tourist office. We stayed on the second floor of the Hotel Camille, in a gigantic (by European standards) marble-floored room which featured a window and a double-doored balcony over the Mediterranean. And for $50 US.
Our fourth day took us north through the Camargue, a region of rice, cowboys and horses, and the famous black bulls of the region. The cloth we know as denim, by the way, was originally called De Nîmes (from Nîmes) and was made to clothe the cowboys of the Camargue. We pedaled a flat road past white farm houses and pink flamingos, stopping for a picnic lunch under a shady tree by a field of black bulls. We caught up on our postcard writing, finished our bread and took a nap in the shade before setting out again for the city where Van Gogh came to paint the Provençal colors of sky and field.
Arles is a mid-sized Provençal city with the greatest existing Roman presence in the region. Lovers of Roman, Romanesque and Mediaeval architecture will go wild in Arles (pronounced like "owl" with a slight "r" between the o and w). Van Gogh went wild here and sliced off his ear and was sent north to St. Remy to convalesce. What might he have done if he had seen the hamburger sacks strewn throughout the unearthed Roman houses across the boulevard from the town's McDonalds? This sight stood out to me because it was the only trash I saw in over 200 miles of cycling, not counting two broken bottles in one place and two more in another.
By this stage of our trip, we were beginning to feel like we belonged in Provence, and rightly so. The French love to see people traveling on bicycles and never fail to greet a cyclist with "bonjour." It seemed that everyone was interested in our travels and had stories to tell about theirs. We encountered no rudeness in a country where cycling is a way of life, and the morning streets are dotted with riders of every age bringing their warm baguettes home before preparing the noon meal.
The fifth day of our trip took us out of Arles and north to Tarascon, a nearly tourist-free city on the Rhône river. The trip between the two towns isn't long as the crow flies, but we had decided to go out of our way to see Les Baux de Provence, the long-dead hilltop fortress and castle where the Lords of Baux ruled southern France for centuries from this rocky spur.
Aluminum was discovered in the rocks of Les Baux de Provence, and the ore, Bauxite, still bears its name.
The Alpilles, or little Alps (where Les Baux de Provence is situated), didn't seem little to us as we pedaled upward and upward through the long and breathtaking ascents to Les Baux. We passed right by the Moulin de Daudet, the title topic of Alphonse Daudet's "Letters from my Windmill," a collection of stories and tales about people and places in the writer's beloved Provence. Daudet is one of France's most well-known writers and has been called the Mark Twain of France. His windmill is a national shrine for writers.
A word of encouragement to others who would travel this part of Provence by bicycle: when we say an ascent was steep, we mean that it gains a lot of altitude and you have to work very hard, for a long time, to get to the top. But there's none of the "let's run this road straight up the hill because it's shorter and anyway everyone's in a car so who cares" mentality that pervades much American road planning, especially in the south. These climbs may be arduous, but they're not impossible. And besides, the view from the top is breathtaking and the trip down the other side is exhilarating.
After fighting the crowds at Les Baux for several hours, we reaped our reward and began the long descent to the flat pedaling that would lead us along the Rhône to Tarascon. We made Tarascon in good time, but had spent so much time at Les Baux de Provence that the tourist office was closed and it was time to consult the Michelin Guide again. We found a three-star hotel for less than fifty dollars and made our way there, thrilled with the beauty of the hotel and the charm of the town.
This turned out to be a huge mistake, as our bikes were gone when we came downstairs just half an hour later. We were meeting a friend from Marseilles for dinner, and he discovered the loss at the same time we did. Needless to say, the evening meal was excellent and despite ordering more than the usual amount of wine, wasn't the happiest of our lives.
But it is a testament to the success of our trip that the loss of our bikes was, in the scheme of things, a minor setback. We discussed what happened with each other and our friend and concluded that since nothing had happened to us, it wasn't a good reason to go around feeling sad for the rest of the trip. There would be plenty of time for that when we got back. but that never happened, either.
The next day, we walked the town (with one eye open for our two bikes) and visited the museum of the Souleiado company where the happy patterns of Provençal cloth are printed in centuries-old design. We visited the chateau of Good King René, a splendidly-preserved giant of 14th century architecture. We climbed to the top of the ramparts for the dizzying view across the Rhône to Tarascon's twin city of Beaucaire and its equally enormous chateau, built in an apparent stone-for-stone rivalry centuries ago.
One of the most intriguing aspects of Tarascon was well-submerged from view, and that is the way that the town came by its name.
The name Tarascon comes from the Tarasque, a mythical monster that inhabited the Rhône in ancient times, leaving its watery home long enough to eat fishermen and the town's children. The residents sent to Saintes Maries de-la-mer for Sainte Martha, who was called upon to provide a miracle. The miracle was delivered, the Tarasque was killed, and the town celebrates is liberation in an annual parade where a very old wooden model of the monster is paraded through the streets to scare the children. Maybe it was because Tarascon is not a tourist mecca, or maybe out of a twinge of embarrassment about the legend, the Tarasque is virtually nowhere to be see. We had to ask about it to find the tiny souvenirs we brought back.
I had to have a replica of the monster to remind me to put our bikes away next trip.
We continued the last 17 miles of our loop back to Avignon with our panniers in hand on a 20-minute train ride. The walk to our hotel from the Avignon station was a short one which took us past a bicycle rental located in the same building as the city's excellent tourist office. We returned the next morning and picked up two bikes, determined to visit Chateauneuf-du-Pape and see for ourselves the domains of that famous wine.
This, our last day of our trip on the road, was one of the very best of the entire trip. The mild sunny weather and spectacular scenery got better and better as we pedaled through the endless vineyards to the ruins of the Pope's chateau perched atop the region's highest peak.
There actually were Popes here in the 13th century. The popes left the feuding and riot-torn Rome and settled in Avignon, building for themselves and their Cardinals fantastic palaces and bringing great riches to the region. While the great Palace of the Popes still stands in Avignon, most of the great country chateaux are in ruins. The hilltop manor we chose for our picnic lunch this day was damaged by fire centuries ago and suffered further damage during allied bombing of the area during World War II, though it's difficult to get any specific information about this.
We ate our lunch in the window seat of the Pope's great hall, taking in the vast panorama that spread beneath us. Since we had arrived in Chateauneuf-du-Pape during grape harvest time, virtually no wineries were open to the public. That had not stopped the tourists from pouring in, however, and this was one place where we saw plenty of Americans who had come to pay homage to their favorite French wines. We spent awhile sampling the peppery-tasting fruits of several vintages and made our selection, packing our panniers with a case to take home with us. The return trip to Avignon was a little slower than the trip out with the heavy load behind us, but all twelve bottles made it back to Madison in our panniers, well-padded with our clothes and souvenir Provençal tablecloths and napkins.
Meal in front of St. Pierre
Our last evening meal in Avignon was a treat, as we wandered through the narrow streets of the city and came suddenly upon a splendid gothic church with the most exquisitely carved doors we had ever seen. The church, St. Pierre's, and the square before it appeared as if out of nowhere, and the sight was so overwhelming that it took us a few moments to realize that we were standing in the middle of a restaurant's outdoor table area. One glance at l'Epicerie's menu told us we had found what we were looking for. We spent the next several hours enjoying one of the best meals of the trip, a four-course meal from the 114 franc menu. That's about 19 US dollars.
We had a few hours the next morning to do a little more exploring and say goodbye to one of our favorite cities. Then it was time to drag ourselves to the airport for a long day of travel.
Every hotel has some kind of secure accommodation for bicycles, either in the hotel or in a nearby garage.
If you want to save money on calls, go to a post office where the call can be place for you by an operator. You simply show the operator the number and sit down at a private phone to make your call, then pay before you leave. Be warned, though, that you'll have to make your call during the post office's business hours, and the latest call you can make before close of business in France will ring in the US at about 10:00 Central Time.
Regional restaurants often have the food pictured on an outdoor menu, especially in Avignon. A popular way to eat the evening meal is off of a prix-fixe (fixed-price) menu, where the restaurant will list, say, a 78 franc menu, a 110 franc menu and perhaps a more expensive one. You'll be presented with probably three courses on the least expensive of these and work your way up to five or more courses. Cheese may be served before desert or may be served instead of desert. On a prix-fixe menu, you'll have a choice between several appetizers and several main plates, then several deserts or cheeses. Remember that an entree, which is the main course in the US, is literally the entree in France, where it is the starter.