Monday, July 4, 2011

Detour to Provence: A worthy break from running

I’ve been absent from the blog for a while as I switched sports temporarily in preparation for one of the best vacations of my life – cycling through the Provence region of France. Reesa and I spent May getting reacquainted with our road bikes and riding hills, knowing we had a lot of that ahead of us and left from France at the beginning of June.

For the short version of our trip, watch this video.

I arrived in France via Barcelona where I was for work. I flew from there to Lyon, a beautiful large city in the south of France where I had but a few hours to look around. The town by the train station is rather uneventful but due east is the Rhone River which Lyon has adopted as a wonderful park. The river is lined on the West side with walking and biking trails, green spots for a quick game of tag and a fantastic public pool. Resting in the waters are a series of floating barges converted into wine bars, restaurants and night clubs. One, a rusty old storage ship, proclaimed to be an authentic Australian bar and grill called Ayers Rock.

I grabbed a glass of rose, which is everywhere here in the summer time and my first authentic French croissant of the trip while enjoying the sun and people watching.

From here I took the TGV down to Avignon in the hopes of arriving just shortly before Reesa so we could relax in town before the biking trip kicked off. But no such luck. Reesa’s flight from San Francisco had been cancelled due to mechanical problems and instead of a short flight to Chicago then direct to Paris, she had been re-routed SFO to Dallas, to New York, to London, then finally to Paris. Her short 15 hour trip would be elongated by 17 more. Here final arrival wouldn’t be until nearly 1:30am that night.

So I was on my own in Avignon for the evening. We stayed at a great little apartment hotel in a quiet part of old town, just steps from the Palais des Papes, the historic home of the pope during the 12 and 13th centuries. After settling into the apartment, with its cute little living room and view into a tiny French courtyard, I headed off to see the town. Gotta love summer nights as it remained light out until around 9pm.

I walked the gardens of the Palais, through the pretty town squares and out along the medieval town walls that are in surprisingly good shape. That night, our hotel owners pointed me to a great vegetarian restaurant in town, Terre de Saveur. I had a great tofu pasta dish and a half bottle of local red wine as I took in the local flavor, watched the sun set and waited for Reesa to arrive. Dinner was finished with a fantastic rhubarb crème brulee.

After picking up Reesa and bringing her back to the hotel we both slept soundly through the night. We were awakened by a 9am call from Stefan, one of our guides from DuVine adventures letting us know they would be by around 11:30am to collect us. I showered and headed out to Les Halles and a local bakery to pick up a quick continental breakfast.

At around 11:15am, a striking young American in a matching biking outfit bounded up the stairs to our apartment to greet us and help us with our bags. David, another of our guides was in his mid 20’s, with a perfect v-shaped body, broze tan, blonde hair and broad smile. He had the looks of a character from a romance novel or TV dramedy with the personality and back story that you just can’t make up. Born to an American father and a French mother, David split his youth between Provence and North Carolina. He came to DuVine fresh off a bachelor’s degree from UNC and a stint in the Peace Corps in Africa building homes and schools. And to make the picture even more perfect, he’s leaving in the fall for a Ph.D. program in environmental sciences at the University of New Zealand. Ok, ladies, now you can swoon.

Our cycling tour couldn’t have started out any better (see the album on Picasa for all the photos). DuVine took us to our first hotel of the trip, La Vieux Castillon in the cute little hilltop town of Castillon-du-Gard. This sprawling, historic hotel was a village within the village – a series of homes that were linked together to create the hotel. It’s right in the heart of town with big rooms, a sweet little garden courtyard where they serve breakfast and a pool built into the ruined walls of the village overlooking rolling hills covered in vineyards.

After unpacking and settling in, we headed down to the pool to greet our fellow travelers over a toast of local wine and olive tapenade. There were 14 people in our group, large for a DuVine trip but definitely not too large to enjoy the vacation. Six of our fellow cyclists were from within 50 miles of us, here in Northern California; one couple lived right on Canada Road where Reesa and I had been training each weekend for the last month. Along with them were two great young couples from Michigan, one celebrating their delayed honeymoon. And two more great couples from Miami who were long-time cyclists doing their second biking vacation.

After the toast we all headed down to the bikes. As we adjusted seats, helmets and as clip pedals were put on, the DuVine crew served up a crudité with fresh avocado, tomatoes, gazpacho, local artisan bread and cheese. If this sounds like a lot of food and wine before heading out for a bike ride, it was thematic of the trip to come. No one says you have to eat it! But how can you not!

Our third guide, the veteran on the team, was Justin and he gave us the verbal preview of the days ride. Justin is a trim, strapping guy from Colorado who has a deep love of France and had been guiding tours for DuVine for 10 years. Reesa said he looked exactly like a young Clint Eastwood.

That day’s ride was the easiest. We headed down out of town and out to see Pont du Gard an

original and mostly in tact section of Roman aqueduct built in 19 BC. We then headed out and through a couple small rural towns, Ledenon and Cabrieres before heading back up to Castillon. The ride up to town was the first of the hills and gave everyone a preview of what to expect in the days ahead. I couldn’t wait!

That night, before dinner was another wine tasting where we drank in a white, rose and red

from a winery you could see from the pool. We then went out of the hotel to dinner served by Mario, a local legendary chef and rugby player with personality appropriate for both passions. He took great pride in serving us himself and describing each sumptuous dish in great detail.

The following morning, I woke with the sun and ran down into the vineyards below Castillon-du-Gard and ended up, quite by accident, running right past the winery from the toast last night. After a great continental breakfast – someone please help me understand why croissants taste so much better in France? – we geared up on our bikes and headed down to the medieval town of Uzes. This is the town the benefitted from the waters of the Pont du Gard aqueduct. The result, lush fields growing pretty much everything you could desire. We had lunch on the town square under a warm sun before getting back on our bikes and down through the villages of Flaux and Valliguieres. That night was dinner in the restaurant of our hotel which featured an incredible chocolate and coffee dessert. It had a small espresso mousse in a coffee cup made of dark chocolate, truffles and a steaming cup of espresso. Yum.

The following morning I started the day with a brisk swim in that incredible pool (did I mention it is not heated – so brisk it was), breakfast and packing, as we were leaving Castillon-du-Gard for our second hotel. Gotta love these bike trips where they carry your stuff from hotel to hotel for you.

We cycled out of the Gard region, across the Rhone River and up a hill to the Abbey de St. Michel-de-Frigolet where we parked our bikes near a tiny tree-covered grove to discover an

incredible picnic lunch prepared for us by our guide David (yes, ladies, he is single). There were four kinds of salads, three types of olives, local breads, meats and of course a full flight of French cheeses. David expertly described everything, spending extra time on the cheeses as he said he is still in search of his personal cheese. He introduced us to his mom’s signature cheese a hearty, soft cheese, and dad’s a hard, sharp white cheese. I stopped listening after he displayed my signature cheese, French camembert. This soft, ultra creamy cheese is really, really bad for you but oh so good! You can get camembert in the US but not French camembert, due to export restrictions, so next time you are here you have to try it.

We gorged ourselves on the incredible spread, then took a tour of the Abbey as the food and wine settled; for we had a full afternoon of cycling ahead of us.

That afternoon we rode through the villages of Graveson and Maillane, saw some incredible fruit and grain orchards and got a look at les Alpilles, the tiny Alps. We then headed through

more gorgeous orchards and past fields with miniature horses grazing and then a flock of sheep being herded by a very friendly border collie. We stopped to take a photo and he gleefully ran over, posed for a picture and nuzzled us for a pet.

To the right of this field was our next hotel, Chateau Roussan, a palatial country estate which was built in the 17th century for Michel de Nostre-Dame, better known as the prognosticator Nostradamus. His mansion was surrounded by incredible grounds that included a front balcony, which could hold an entire Renaissance ball, and sprawling gardens including a pond filled with swans and goldfish.

After dropping our bags and looking around a bit, the guides offered the first of our extra rides, for those still looking for more challenge -- a 7km climb up to a view point overlooking Les Baux de Provence, a medieval village that once defied the local government declaring its independence from taxation by daring the rulers to scale its cliffs if they wanted to take it. This heritage is playfully honored with a display of medieval weapons including a catapult and a trebuchet which for 5 euros you could have a go at firing.

Justin and I led our small group up the climb where an absolutely incredible view awaited us.

Les Baux, from this height was a clearly forboding site. Behind it lie les Alpinnes to the South and the Val d’Infer (Valley of Hell) to its North. The Val d’Infer, a deep, sprawling valley of grey granite was supposedly the inspiration for Dante’s Inferno. I don’t think an invading army would dare take this route to Les Baux.

After overlooking the site we headed to Les Baux ourselves, passing a former granite mine that had been turned into an amphitheater, then walking the medieval streets of what our guides told us is the second most popular tourist attraction in France. It was definitely very touristy but had amazing views.

Day four started with a ride to nearby St. Remy where it was market day. The streets were covered with stands selling tons of local fare including some of the most colorful and stepford-perfect fruit and vegetable stands I had ever seen.

Huge flowers were displayed at several stands as were hordes of local sausages, sweets, breads, olives and more. One stand even had two massive pots filled with steaming Paella, the aroma of the fresh fish cooking in saffron rice could be smelled for several blocks.

We left St. Remy, passed a couple Roman ruins (they were actually monuments built to make the region appear loyal to the Romans, so they would be left alone) before heading out to the vast fields in the foothills of les Alpinnes. These fields were the inspiration for many of Van Gogh’s paintings, one of Reesa’s favorite artists. We then stopped for a late lunch in the cute mountain town of Eygalieres. Apparently a favorite of Brangelina, this cute town has a ruined church (St-Laurent) at its top harboring sweet views of the valleys surrounding the town.

The afternoon was a bit stressful as we had to go through a bit bigger of a town, Luberon, on our way to our next destination which meant riding on busy streets filled with tiny commuter cars and big trucks. It weared on us all and didn’t really prepare us for the long slow climb to Gordes. But when we got there, it was all worth it as this town was incredible! Another mountain town, Gordes is all packed together on a cliff’s edge.

Our hotel, a real stunner, was literally built into the cliff walls spreading out narrowly affording every room an incredible view.

The guides offered another extra ride from here, of which I was the only taker. It included a tough but fun climb through the hills surrounding Gordes and taking us right past the Abbaye de Senanque,

one of the most famous sites in all of Provence, and one often photographed with its spread of lavender fields before it.

That night we dined like locals in a great restaurant featuring regional foods. I was treated to a plate of steamed and grilled local vegetables with ratatouille and locally pressed oils. Dessert was a basket of local ripe fruit. We took it all in with incredible local wines of course, and were treated to a lunar eclipse breaking just above our table. Wow.

Day five was the final cycling day of our trip and was certainly the piece de resistance. It was a day filled with hill climbing, lavender fields, rapidly changing terrain and stellar views in every direction. This was my favorite day because of all the climbing but it was tough on others. The morning included a climb up to the red rock town of Russillon. Here another local market day was taking place but we left in short order after Reesa noticed a pickpocket strolling through the crowds. Good eye, Reesa.

We then climbed up to Menerbes, through Lacoste and up to the House of Truffles for a

leisurely lunch that included a pasta dish covered in fresh picked truffles, shaved paper thin. It’s a good thing the lunch was paced because the group was tired from all the climbing. I look advantage of a breezy overlook to rest my eyes too.

That afternoon was more climbing followed by a fantastic, fun downhill in some back roads where we barely saw anyone. We wound down the hill, then back up another that led us to an olive house where we got a tour of the pressing machines that make olive oil – and a taste of several varieties of course.

We got back to Gordes via the same long climb and everyone was greeted by the hotel preparing a classic French aperitif, pastis. This anise-flavored liqueur is prepared by pouring it over a sugar cube resting above your glass on a silver slotted spoon. Justin said this is a key

ingredient in the secret to French dominance in cycling - their EPO (eau, pastis and olive oil). Cyclists like this joke as it plays on the illegal doping that has tarnished professional cycling for years. French EPO, is of course legal.

We toasted our trip on the balcony that night as a light rain cooled off the evening before the hotel chef served us the final feast of our trip. It was an incredible six course meal that would make leaving the next morning very hard.

We said our goodbyes then spent another day in Avignon so Reesa could finally see the city before heading up to Paris for two days to celebrate our 20th anniversary reminiscing in the city where we had first started dating. Love you Reesa! I hope we have 20 (no 50) more!

Sadly all good vacations have to end but this one will not be soon forgotten.