Monday, June 09, 2008

Training Wheels

There comes a time (or numerous times) to every blogger to admit that they have been terribly lax in their authorial duties and beg for mercy from the faithful few that still pop in every once in a while with ragged hopes for an update. Sorry about that. When summer vacation hits, we get a bit antsy, and tend to schlep ourselves around with as much frequency as possible, our usual routines happily upset by piercing whistle of trains departing and arriving. However, it does make it terribly difficult to keep up the writing. (Case in point: I’m drafting this on the Eurostar.) Let’s see what we can do to catch up.

Recently, realizing a long-time dream of both of ours, we decided to invest in some new equipment for bike touring on the continent. Through the wonders of ebay and Karl’s expert bidding wiles, we managed to land two remarkably good buys. Okay. At first glance, our slim road bikes with bulky paniers comically burgeoning from either side might temptingly call to mind a skinny, overburdened ass. However, we were hoping that our new acquisitions (bought sight-unseen, I might add) would fulfill something more like the role of trusty steed.

We picked up one bike in Paris and headed down to Aix-en-Provence, bound for a rendez-vous with the second vélo and its previous owners who generously had offered to bring it directly to the train station. The plan was to leave right from there and bike over to Montpellier. (See cute little sign on the right.)

However, we didn't have the privilege of the cute little sign until we were about 20 km within reach....three days later. Now, despite the values of intensive research involving Google Maps, it had somehow escaped both of us that nothing really can replace a good map. It wasn’t so much that we didn’t know where to go, but how to avoid finding ourselves on the autoroute, which are forbidden to cyclists in France, and rightly so. Apparently, on the Autoroute du Soleil -which takes depressed Northerners to the sunny south, one of the most frequented tollways in Europe – highway officials give pedestrians an average of 30 minutes’ life expectancy. Yes, we steered clear of that one, though not everyone is this prudent. (Apparently, the same weekend we were down south, a 44-year-old woman got a ticket on the Autoroute du Soleil for riding an "inappropriate vehicle"....her bicycle.)

In addition to the lack of cycle-friendly routes immediately available to us, our bikes began revealing their inevitable idiosyncrasies, which kept us overnight in Aix waiting for the bike shop to open. Of course, one must see these things as providential. We got a fabulous impromptu tour of the city from a local bike enthusiast, and quickly realized our error in rushing through such a pretty spot. Rose walls, blue skies, warm smiles, and narrow winding streets called to mind more Italy than France. We had definitely arrived in the Sud.

The next morning, we set off north towards the Luberon region. We crossed the Durance, which is evidently at record-high levels, chatted with a grocery store owner in Cadenet whose sign declared him as a type formidable (terrific guy), and tried to beat the sun to Cavaillon. By now, the trails were proper bike routes and wended their way through stunning bluffs (near Lourmarin), endless vineyards, and past a row of heavily-laden cherry trees ripening in the late golden sun, whose branches were somewhat relieved by our passing. Soon, it became apparent that a bottle of rosé was in order. Fortunately for us, the roadside cave was still open, and we nabbed a bottle of the first stuff we laid our tastebuds on. A marvelous wonder that cost 2 euros. Like flowers in the mouth. Anyway…

Having been detained by such important errands, we reached the sleepy village of Cheval Blanc at a late hour. Nearly the only soul who was still around was a man in his pizza truck, and even he was cleaning up. Still, last two slices of the evening were ours, along with some excellent advice. I asked (with as innocent a smile as possible) “if one were to sleep under the stars ‘round these parts, where would one do it, exactly?” His bemused reply involved a bouncy ride in his fragrant truck to the nearby wilds of Provence: lovely, windy, and quiet. We had found the ideal, isolated spot…except for a few local couples who had also tried to find the ideal, isolated spot. Ah well.

The next morning involved more sun, cherries, lemon yogurt, fruity bread, and coffee on a terrace in town – what better way to celebrate Abbey’s birthday? I can’t think of one. Except maybe continuing by riding through such beautiful areas such as Arles (important Roman city), Les Baux-de-Provence (a village carved into the rock), the Camargue (famous for its wild horses and its domesticated rice) and Aigues-Mortes.

We were both pleasantly surprised to discover that this last place was a medieval walled city, chock full of lovely restaurants offering mussels, fries, and other temptations to hungry travelers. I think the place we ate was even called the Wayward Traveler or something. We bedded down for the night just outside the city, next to the aforementioned wall. Unfortunately, we had not come prepared for the mosquitos and wild dogs, but somehow it all worked out. Ask me about it sometime.

Finally, early the next morning, we rolled into Montpellier. Three days, 220 kilometers, two flats, one bottle of wine, and who knows how many cherries later, we arrived. A bit road-ragged, but there. This city was my home for six months about eight years ago. We rode up and down the vaguely familiar and very familiar, and I moved as if in a dream. Unfortunately, our schedule kept us from exploring all of Montpellier's charms, but we were able to enjoy a drink on the famous Place de la Comédie for a while and rest our weary bones before grabbing another train to Lyon

And that is a whole other story.


Anonymous said...

Wow, it makes me ALMOST want to be on a bike, rolling down those French countryside roads with you! ALMOST...You two are pretty amazing in your energy - or tenacity.
It sounds like the payoff was a pretty amazing vacation.

Anonymous said...

Oops, that was my comment!

Anonymous said...

Good to have you back! Great pictures, I hope you can update more frequently! Jan