Lost In The Vineyards of Provence

Trip Start Jun 19, 2009
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Trip End Jun 28, 2009


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Flag of France  , Provence,
Sunday, June 21, 2009

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The plan was supposed to be straightforward. 
Follow the directions and bike 46 km from Orange to Bédoin on the rustic backroads flanked by vineyards and sunflower fields. This, after all, was the "Warm Up Ride" of Day 1.

What do I do now? I wondered as I stood all alone, staring at the oceans of vineyards on all sides with no sign of life close by. My bike-mounted GPS displayed a labyrinth of roads so small that there were no names displayed. It was almost 6:30PM, and the sun was beginning to cast its tender, delicate glimmer of twilight on the horizon. Everybody had biked ahead of me, and now I was all by myself. They had probably all arrived at the first pit stop, gotten washed up, and were enjoying a massage or two. The instructions from our tour guide this morning were clear: everyone arrive at the hotel in Bédoin for dinner at 7:30PM. There was still one big problem. Looking at the paper map, I estimated another 15-20 km of biking left until Bédoin. But the roads looked very convoluted and confusing. Will I make it there on time or will I have to sleep in the vineyards tonight? And how did I get myself in the middle of nowhere?

The adventure all started like this.

Orange, Sunday Morning, 8AM  

After getting up, I rushed downstairs for breakfast and encountered a group of four tourists decked out in bike jerseys. Thinking they were with me, I asked if they were ready for a ride in the countryside. They responded yes. After introducing each other, I learned that the two couples were all from Norway, vacationing for two weeks in the South of France. We sat near each other, speaking in English at first. Then I nervously grasped the opportunity to practice my rusty Norwegian, which I had learned last year before going on a bike trip in Aurland Fjord near Flåm. It had been almost one year since my brain synthesized any sensible sentences in Norwegian. I took a deep breath and then began to inquire,

"Har dere noen gang vært i Frankrike før?" (Have you ever been to France before?)

They were surprised, putting both their orange juice and croissants down.

"Hvordan kan du norsk?" (How come you can speak Norwegian?), one person asked.

"I fjor før jeg gikk til Norge på ferie, hadde jeg lest en litt norsk hjemme," (Last year before I went to Norway on vacation, I had studied a little bit of Norwegian at home), I responded. 
I was a little surprised that I could still construct a comprehensible sentence in Norwegian after a year of no practice.

Mme Verbe, the person running the hotel, then came over and asked us,
"Est-ce que vous voulez du café?" (Do you want some coffee?)   
The Norwegians found themselves lost in translation, so I turned and translated,
"Hun spør, 'Vil De gjerne ha kaffe?'" (She's asking, do you want some coffee?)
They turned and emphatically answered, "Yes!" in English.
Turning to her, I added, "Oui madame. Et s'il vous plaît, apportez-moi de l'édulcorant avec le café." (Yes we do, and please bring me some sweetener with the coffee).

We continued talking, especially about traveling. I mentioned to them that one of the richest experiences of traveling for me was not only being able to see beautiful landscapes and savoring delectable food, but also being able to experience a new culture and learning a new language, which would allow me to connect to the locals abroad. I told them the story of my getting lost biking in the Norwegian woods outside of Flåm around midnight, but I asked a young villager in Norwegian for directions and was led to my hotel safely. Here in France, I was determined to improve my French by taking advantage of every possible opportunity to interact with the locals in their own language.

Time To Meet The Gang 

At around 9:30AM, all the people on the tour were going to congregate in the breakfast room for a quick orientation. Earlier I had met our tour guide, Virginie, a native of Provence, who seemed to be full of enthusiasm and vivacity. I introduced myself in French to her, and she responded back in French to me. Then the rest of the gang arrived. Diana, a Ph.D. researcher in biochemistry from Richland, Washington, brought her two children with her on the trip: Christopher, 18 years old and a recent high school graduate with plans of studying art at Grinnell College (a private liberal arts college in Iowa) and Michaela, 13 years old who was going to be an eighth grader in the fall. Both Christopher and his mother had previously biked from Prague to Budapest on another active vacation. Michaela was into track and field as well. The last person on the trip was Jerry, a urologist from Barbados, who was spending less time in medical practice but more time in the real estate business. As such, he would have 3 1/2 months a year of vacationing around the world. He also had done another biking vacation in Tuscany. 

In short, all of these people had the impression of being serious bikers or athletes. They also carried their own saddle (bike seat), cleats (type of cycling shoes with a stud that interface with a clipless paddle system), or cage pedals all the way to Europe. They appeared prepared, confident, and ready to ride like the wind on our first day of cycling. We were handed a set of directions and a big map of Provence with all the week's routes highlighted. The routes, designed by Virginie, would take us on the main road out of Orange and immediately guide us into the peaceful, quiet backroads of the French countryside with hardly any traffic. The directions were printed on different sheets of paper, which would be folded in half and placed one at a time on the stand. Luckily, I also had my Garmin GPS with a satellite-guided real-time map of our ride. Virginie was not familiar with this gadget from the US. I told her that if I had a chance earlier to input her directions into the device, I would then be guided to the final destination with a turn-by-turn set of directions. Rerouting was also possible if the satellites sensed that I was off the right path. She looked at it in amazement. This device had served me well in Australia, Norway, and Italy. Now the real test in France was underway.

Virginie summarized the safety rules of biking in France for us. She looked at me and sarcastically said with a wink that our eyes should be kept on the road instead of on a map. We would form a single file in the right lane of the one-lane country roads with a space between every two bikers, so that cars could incrementally pass by us. The French roads were either marked with an "N" (Nationale), equivalent to the US Interstate highway system, or "D" (Départementale), which was akin to the FM (Farm-to-Market) or small county roads. She also reassured us that French drivers were very safe drivers, as they would have to be tested on how to drive alongside cyclists on their driving exams. 

As we stood outside the hotel for a group photo, the wind gusts picked up, rattling our bikes. Today was going to be a very interesting windy day, riding with wind gusts of up to 30-40 mph. A Frenchman walked over and muttered that normally he would enjoy riding in the country but not on this particular day. It was too dangerously windy, he added. All of us looked at each other and took a deep breath.

Off We Go!

At around 10AM, we took off. Diana and her kids rode first and soon disappeared from sight. Jerry and I rode together. It was at first an unreal experience, as I was filled with excitement and a sense of adventure. Last week, I was riding in the shadows of skyscrapers through the mundane, modern streets of Houston on my routine 30-mile route. Now, I found myself whizzing past French bakeries and outdoor cafes lining a quiet shaded street in Orange. If I were to get lost, so be it, I thought, as that would make this bike ride even more exhilarating. Stirred by the beautiful fields of sunflowers 1km into the ride, I stopped my bike for a photo-op. Jerry was ahead of me, but he slowed down. Since he said he was on a mission to burn 2000 calories, and that meant continuous riding, he couldn't wait. Waving at him, I told him to take off. Now, I was alone to take as many pictures as I liked. Part of this trip was not only the physical exercise but also a photographic experience for me. This region of France, known to possess an immense treasure of natural and historical beauty, was going to be a goldmine for photography.  

Virginie then rode up in the support van and, seeing me stop, asked if everything was still OK. "Oui. C'est très joli ici." (Yes. It's very pretty here), I said while taking pictures of the radiant sunflowers. No wonder van Gogh went crazy with his artistic energy in Provence. The way the light bathed the sunflowers in an aura of soft luminosity was very inspiring. She made sure I did not need anything and soon rode off to catch up with the others.

I was now riding alone. 1 Km down and another 45 km to go. It was still not even 11 o'clock yet. We did not have to be in Bédoin until 7:30PM for dinner, so that meant another 8 hours to ride only 45 km or 28 miles, which was more than plenty of time. But thinking like this gave me a false sense of having superfluous time, so I decided to stop at every beautiful bend in the road, every typical French farmhouse, every creek that flowed beside the blooming flowers, every verdant, symmetrical rows of vineyards along the way, and every town with a church steeple. In short, I wanted to experience in depth the finer details of the ride with my camera. And was I trigger happy! The others, however, did not feel the same way. Like well-oiled machines, they rode continuously with an urgent mission to reach our first pit stop in Bédoin. Then, they could relax and do whatever they wished. But I wanted to explore each passing village, to touch the ancient buildings and medieval gates that withstood the ravages of time, to take a break and savor the delicious pastries and coffee in a quaint café, and to have the opportunity to interact with the locals and learn about their way of life and culture. This was, to me, a more complete experience of this active vacation.

6Km, Camaret-sur-Aigues

Six kilometers into the ride, I entered Camaret-sur-Aigues. Captivated by this large circular-shaped village with several gates allowing access within the ramparts, I decided to park my bike on the Grand'Rue and walk around with my camera. Looking at my watch, it was already 11 o'clock; time for some coffee and a snack. I spotted a boulangerie (bakery) and went inside to find a fine selection of pastries, including something that struck my eyes: a carré framboise, or small square-shaped pastry with raspberry filling. The pastries were just freshly prepared.
"Donnez-m'en deux, s'il vous plaît," (Please give me two), I said. A good aspect of this active vacation was that I could eat anything I wanted without guilt. One of the young women asked me where I was from. So I mentioned Houston. They had never really left this village, so I talked about skyscrapers, big freeways, NASA, and the big open spaces of Texas while they listened with wide eyes. Walking out of the store, I walked a little farther and saw an elderly woman carrying some grocery bags. I offered to help her. Shortly thereafter, she started to ask me if I wanted a short tour of this village. She pointed out the 12th century chapel and the Horloge gate and took me on a short walking tour of this quaint town. I learned that economic life in Camaret was centred around two main activities: food processing industries that had been established in the area, such as Nestlé France and Le Cabanon, a tomato and vegetable canning factory, and the second activity was wine growing. Camaret belonged to the Appellation Contrôlée area (or region granted the strict French certification for high-quality agricultural products) for the prestigious Côtes du Rhône and Côtes du Rhône Village wines. Looking at my watch, I had spent more almost an hour for this break, so I quickly excused myself and started pedaling to the next village 19 km away. 

Leaving Camaret, the landscape was seen to overflow with beautiful vineyards on both sides. It was like a snapshot of the Tour de France, where you'd see bikers dashing past rolling hills planted with symmetrical rows of vineyards. It was still so surreal to me. Although the winds were ferocious out in the open fields, there were no cars to contend with, and I often found myself meditatively alone on this winding backroad through the beautiful wine country of southern France.

25.1 Km, Aubignan

Less than an hour later, I biked into Aubignan, a small market town surrounded by ramparts dating back to the 14th century. The area surrounding this town was a mixture of gorgeously undulating hills and alluring vineyards. The village clock, topped by a wrought-iron campanile in front of Avenue Frédéric Mistral, led to the heart of the old quarter -- which was a maze of twisting alleys flanked by beautiful stone houses and blue shutters. It was almost 1 PM, and there was no one in sight. Although it felt eerily like an abandoned ghost town, I could hear some voices coming from inside the houses. After parking my bike at the main gate near some cafés and a bakery by the fountain, I walked around with my camera and absorbed in the history etched into the walls of the village. There were a few placards detailing how old certain gates were. After a very short visit, I got back on my bike and continued forward to our picnic stop at a certain chapel in the middle of a forest 5 km away. 

Perhaps one of the most beautiful experiences was riding on the serenely shaded Boulevard Louis Guichard after leaving Aubignan and making a right on D55 (Départementale 55) in the direction of Caromb. The street was covered with dense foliage, allowing pinpoints of sunlight to puncture through, which cast a dotted net of bouncing lights on the street. It felt so cool riding in the shade.

Picnic Al Fresco

After a few km, I spotted a tiny stone chapel, la Chapelle de St. Martin, resting near a rushing brook in the middle of a forested landscape. The late afternoon sunlight cast its intense aura on the chapel, creating a mystical ambience. Virginie was reading a book inside the van and was waiting for me. I was the last one to arrive for the picnic. Everyone else had finished their lunch some time ago and were probably somewhere close to the pit stop. She said she didn't mind. She started to bring out the bread, sun-dried tomato and olive spread, Camembert and Roquefort cheeses, and fresh strawberries and nectarines. We sat and talked, and she seemed to be a knowledgeable word traveler, having visited Algeria, Tanzania, Australia, Cambodia, India, Morocco, US, etc. and many European countries of course. She also shared with me about her interests in photography, and since she was more diligent than me in reading up on the technical apsects of photography, she also shared with me some tips about framing a picture and light control. The food was very replenishing, and the scenery was like somewhere out of King Arthur's idyllic backyard. I simply didn't want to leave, but I knew I had another 18 km to go.

Somewhere along the way, my GPS started acting crazy, telling me to make a u-turn. I actually obeyed its instructions and ignored Virginie's printed directions. Big mistake. The next thing I knew, I was in the middle of some strange vineyards as the sun was beginning to set. I then looked at the paper map and traced my deviated route out, realizing I was 10-15 km off the right path. I was supposed to have already arrived in Mazan by now. I looked at my GPS and tried to find a shortcut to Mazan. Then, off I went speeding down the one lane roads piercing through the thick vineyards. The green leaves on the vines were passing by me like a nebulous curtain of haze as I urgently sped towards Mazan. Eerily, I felt like I was lost in some cornfield in one of Stephen King's novels, Children of the Corn. Turning left, turning right, everything happened rapidly as my GPS kept on reorienting my current location on the map. Then, at last, I saw a sign, Mazan.

MAZAN

I slowed down as I approached this village of 5500 people in the center of the Vaucluse region. In 50 BC, Mazan belonged to the "Memini" Territory of the Roman Empire, and it was at the crossroads of an important centurion route before climbing the Alps. The name Mazan was first spelled Madazanum in 982 AD, which was thought to be derived from a Roman person named Matacius.During the Roman period, this town was thought to produce and export wine as its main economy. Today, this village continued its rich heritage of wine production, as its "crus" belonged to the famous Côtes du Rhône. Parking my bike at the town center, I noticed a huge festivity transpiring. There was a stage set up in the main square, and on a banner hanging overhead was inscribed, "Fête de la musique, 21 juin" (Music Festival, June 21). For a small town of 5500 inhabitants, there were a lot of bustling activities: music, food, karaoke contest, dancing on the street, and pure enjoyment of the longest day of the year outdoors by everybody. However fun it seemed, I was still on borrowed time. Taking a quick look at the impressively moving 14th century church perched at the top of the hill, I quickly got on my bike and rode towards the first pit stop another 11 km away.

Leaving on the main road out of Mazan, I turned left onto D 163, direction Saint Pierre de Vassols et Bédoin right at the corner where a Tabac-Presse (small newspaper and cigarette shop) stood. I instantly found myself on an empty country road flanked on both sides by countless vineyards. At this point, the wind started gusting violently. My bike was shaking, and I realized I was pedaling against strong headwinds. My leg muscles were beginning to ache as I actively exerted myself and pedaled onward while fighting against the tremendous force of nature trying to push me back. It was probably one of the hardest 5-6 km combat with the all-out headwinds, but I then made it onto D 974, 6 km away from Bédoin.

Lost Again!

At this point, instead of heeding the wise words of Virginie, I paid attention to my GPS and deviated from the route again, this time riding uphill against the headwinds at an incline of probably 15-20 degrees for 2 km to the town of Crillon Le Brave. I looked at my GPS position and found that instead of getting closer to Bédoin, I was now an extra 5-6 km farther away. Making the most of this oblique deviation, I toured the medieval town of Crillon perched on a hilltop. 

I ran into an American, a Texan born in the suburbs of Houston but was living and working for Dell Computers in Austin, while stopping in the middle of a street in Crillon for a photo break. He was on a short vacation in Provence ever since he got transferred to working in Vienna for Dell Computers. He told me that he actually was living in Bratislava, an hour's drive away from Vienna, and he commuted to work everyday across the international border between Slovakia and Austria. He added, "You probably see people living in Galveston and commuting to Houston, an hour away, too."  

The terrace at the top of Crillon le Brave provided a majestic view of Mt. Ventoux and the sweeping emerald valley of Provence below. I asked one of the waiters how to get to Bédoin. He pointed to a cluster of pastel-colored houses and a church perched on top of a hill in the distance and said in French, "Voilà. C'est Bédoin." (There! That's Bedoin). Exhausted but still determined to get to my first pit stop in time for dinner in 30 minutes, I jumped back on my bike and began the downhill ride. It was supposed to be an easy, enjoyable ride downhill. Instead, the headwinds were so strong that there was no momentum propeling me forward. If you did not pedal, the bike was not moving anywhere. Such was the force of nature I had to contend with on the last half of my ride today.

Bédoin 

Instead of riding 46 km, I rode a total of about 60 km today. The village of Bédoin had some very elegant shops, unlike the previous towns I had passed through. Some of the shops and buildings looked more like Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills than Provence, France. There also was some music festival that just finished, as police cars were blocking the main road filled with pedestrians and spectators. Finally I arrived at the hotel, and the people in my group were just walking outside to a café to get some refreshments. They seemed glad to see me. I checked in, quickly showered, then met up with the group in the hotel restaurant. While dining on duck and red wine, I shared my stories with the others. The adventures I experienced on this first day of my ride made me look forward to tomorrow's scenic, challenging climb up to the charming, medieval perched village of Venasque in the heart of Provence...

TO BE CONTINUED 

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Comments

Karen on

We stayed in Bedoin this fall and and your pictures bring back nice memories. We explored the same area - by car ( a bit lazy!). You are a good photographer.

I live in Ottawa and visit Houston often to see family.

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