View Full Version : My week in Provence

04-24-2007, 04:20 PM
Or, It's Not About the Bike

Here's my long-winded trip report from my recent bike tour in Provence. I don't have any good pictures to include here, but my album is here (http://s173.photobucket.com/albums/w66/aka_kimj/France2007/Bike%20Tour/?start=all).

Background: in mid 2006 my newbie cyclist mother decides, with urgings from my brother, that she and I need to do a European cycling vacation since it's "the only way poor Kim (me) will ever get to see Europe". Poor (literally and figuratively) Kim somewhat grudgingly agrees to a tour by Euro Bike & Walking called "A Taste of Provence" (http://www.eurobike.com/biketour/2007/tasteprov.html?SESSID=1efef35b0ddec3f77898db4cbffc0e5a) set for April 2007.

Why is my agreement "grudging"? I work for a small software startup and haven't had a real vacation in several years. I really wasn't sure about taking two weeks off to do a luxury cycling tour with a difficulty rating of "easy", with the catalog describing the shopping but not the cycling. If I was going to take the time off, I really wanted to do another "real" cycling vacation - something more about biking and less about luxury. But, I agreed anyway, after all, how else would poor pitiful me ever get to Europe :).

A third generation is added when my brother's 13 year old daughter, Claire, wants to join us for some sort of multi-generational bonding adventure.

Monday - We're in Avignon at the amazing 5 star Hotel d'Europe (http://www.heurope.com). We'd met the whole group the day before for a tour of the Palais des Papes, drinks in the Place de l'Horloge, and dinner. Dinner was a seven course affair, and not exactly vegetarian-friendly. So meaty, in fact, that both my mother and niece become vegetarians for the week. Oh, how happy this must make everyone, we now have 3 people whining about the food. Oh, and everyone, sauf moi, dressed for dinner!

There are two Canadian couples - the guys are friends from school turning 50 this year and their wives are a year younger than me - between them they have 8 (!!!) daughters (!!!). They are not cyclists but all very fit and active. With me, my mother and Claire that brings the group to a very small 7, with two female tour guides.

After breakfast we get our bikes. 35 pounds of metal, what's not to love? How can aluminum possibly be so heavy? The front end of my bike must weigh at least 10 pounds, and as I later find, if I don't hang on to the handlebars when stopped, can drag the whole bike over very easily. One positive, the stem is super adjustable so I can bring the handlebars down to a comfortable level. One negative, which will haunt me all week, the damn saddle, which I can't figure out what to do to improve. I've brought my Eggbeaters, so my first test for the guides is to see if they can install them, since the Eggbeaters take a hex wrench not a pedal wrench. Test passed! Everyone else is using platform pedals, and all but one are using flat handlebars. Also, attached to our rear racks we have trés chic little orange flags with our names. It's okay, though, it's not about the bike.

This is Easter Monday, and we head out from Avignon on quiet roads with overcast skies. Drivers are amazingly considerate to cyclists - they willingly
yield, they don't gun their engines, they don't yell. It's wonderful. We're heading west on back roads to picnic at the Pont du Gard, the 2000 year old Roman aqueduct. Wow!

We've hit a few stiff hills along the way, and my mother soon finds that her lack of hill training is a problem. I think she's a little discouraged that she can't keep up too - since we mostly ride as a group. I ride off the front, the couples and Claire - who by day 2 they will have adopted - and a guide ride together, and mom trails behind. As the day goes on, getting quite warm, she hastily enters the support van whenever the grade tilts beyond 0 percent. I'm also starting to feel sick, with the cold I'd felt coming on for the previous few days finally hitting. We stop at the Musée de BonBon in what to me now feels like 95 degree weather (Il fait chaud, il fait trop chaud.) - a kitschy candy "museum" that would fit well in the US.

We then head out on tiny one lane roads in the foothills towards the medieval duchy town of Uzès and our hotel for the night, the amazing Château d'Arpaillargues (http://www.chateaudarpaillargues.com/). Ride stats - about 50k and 300+ meters for the day.

I mix cold medicine and local Rosé wine, and am well cooked before dinner. Add a few (or more) glasses of wine, and I don't care that my vegetarian dinner might as well be grass clippings. I do care that the others get ice cream for dessert, but since vegetarian = vegan in France there's no glace pour moi ce soir. (I am not vegan.) Oh yeah, everyone, sauf moi, is dressed for dinner!

Tuesday - We're to ride a little and canoe a little today, but I opt out of canoing due to a shoulder problem. The guides find a climb for me to do while the others canoe. I'll do a short climb in the hills above Collias, then cross the valley and head back to Uzès and the château - all without support. This has my mother frantic - OMG, her 46 year old daughter might get hopelessly lost in the wilds of Provence! I'm reminded why traveling with my mother didn't originally sound like such a great idea.

I leave on my own with a cell phone borrowed from a guide, a map, and my French vocabulary now expanded to include "Je suis perdu, pourriez vous m'aider ..." in case I need help. Despite my cold the climb feels great, and I can stay in my middle chainring. Several road cyclists, in full cycling attire pass and say "bonjour". This is something I notice throughout the trip - the roadies greet fellow cyclists, even ones with orange name tags hanging from the rear. The many casual cyclists we see just stare at us - like why are those people on dorky bikes wearing helmets and road gear?

After the climb and before heading back to Uzès I have a coffee with our guide from Amsterdam. Turns out she did the BikeCentennial across the US in 1976, and has traveled extensively. She plans to retire in a few years so that she can play and travel full time. How cool is that?

I complete a very pleasant ride of about 45k and 450+ meters under overcast skies, and return before the paddlers.

We're on our own for dinner tonight in Uzès, and the Triplettes, as my mother, niece and I are now known, due to our, uh, princess-like ways, chow down at an Italian restaurant in the Place aux Herbes. Thoroughly fed up with grass clippings, we're all starving and eat huge bowls of pasta, with three kinds of chocolate for dessert.

Wednesday - I'd told the French guide I was trying to learn French, but why does she have to pepper me with French first thing every morning? Does she not realize that a) imbibing healthy quantities of alcohol + b) lack of sleep + c) a sinus headache, does not equal even basic comprehension of the English language, much less French, without a large quantity of strong coffee and more cold meds? She asks if I'm "Toujours malade?" this morning. Hmm, does she mean still sick, or always sick? Due to my blank stares each morning she stops attempting to help this poor student any further.

And about the lack of sleep - the entire trip I was unable to get more than about 5 hours sleep a night. Maybe it was due to sleeping on a cot in a room with two other princesses, I don't know. But by this time I'm also starting to equate new gray hair with sleepless nights - like each less than optimal night means one new gray hair. (I came home with alot more gray than when I left! :( )

Today we are supposed to drive to the morning market at St Remy-de-Provence, then drive somewhere down the Camargue delta to bike about 20k back up to Arles. The market is a treat, a farmer's market on steroids - with more soaps, herbs, cheeses, sausages, artwork, handcrafts, etc than you can imagine, all with the lyrical sounds of French everywhere.

Queens for the day, the Triplettes refuse the biking and insist on being dropped off at Arles to have more time to see the ancient city. Glad we did, we apparently didn't miss anything on the bike and Arles is amazing. We're staying at the very nice Hotel Jules Caesar in Arles for the night.

Dinner? I don't quite remember. I do remember drinking other people's wine as well as my own, all in the name of its medicinal properties. Claire's new adoptive parents also make another try at hooking her up with a nice French boy, in this case the apprentice pastry chef. And, everyone, sauf moi, dressed for dinner!

Thursday - We're to ride from Arles to St Remy-de-Provence, about 40k. It's cool, windy and overcast. We stop at the very cool medieval Abbaye de Montmajour, then start heading out to the Alpilles. I hang back with my mother, and we're soon dropped entirely from the group. She's really been taxed physically all week, and we take a leisurely shortcut through the beautiful hamlet of Paradou before she gets in the van when the climbing starts. The climb from Paradou up the Alpilles to Les Baux-de-Provence (http://www.lesbauxdeprovence.com/index1.htm) is quite fun and a bit challenging. Les Baux is an interesting medieval hill town, which due to rain and a restaurant mix-up we really didn't explore much. 400 meters on a slight uphill past Les Baux is the very cool Cathedrale d'Images (http://www.cathedrale-images.com/) - an old bauxite quarry turned into a multi-media experience - this year it's Venice.

After a stiff climb that only the 2 guys, the guide and I try, we have a long twisty and wet downhill in the rain to St Remy. Along the way, while riding on narrow roads among the farmhouses we have a close encounter with a herd of newly shorn sheep, as interested in us as we are in them. A brief command from the shepherd, and his border collie soon has them back under control.

We're spending the next two nights at the amazing Hotel les Ateliers de l'Image (http://www.hotelinprovence.com/modules/edito/content.php?id=1) in St Remy. Dinner is on our own in St Remy.

Friday - A loop from St Remy of about 30k is planned for our last day. It's overcast and cool, with quiet cycling through the countryside to Eygalières (http://www.provenceweb.fr/e/bouches/eygalieres/eygalieres.htm), where we find another Provençale market in progress. On to a picnic hosted by the guides at Domaine de Valdition winery, then a ride through wind and rain back to the hotel. This turned out to be many people's favorite day of riding, and really was quite pleasant even with the rain.

After riding we all did the van Gogh walk around St Remy, also in the rain, and also a lot of fun. In St Remy we found what my niece and I call "the world's best chocolate, ever" at Durand Chocolatiers. Yum.

At the "farewell" dinner, which for once was finally non-vegan and actually satisfying, we celebrated the impending 50th birthdays of the guys (the two guys were surrounded by 7 women all week), and Claire's 14th birthday. And, everyone, sauf moi, dressed for dinner!

On Saturday, it was off to Paris for the Triplettes.

Overall - I would not generally choose this type of trip for myself, but despite the lack of "serious" cycling it was really quite enjoyable. Since we did the "luxury" tour the trip was quite costly, but you do get everything you pay for (well, maybe not if you're a vegetarian). The routes are well-chosen and cycling friendy, maps and route sheets are comprehensive, and the hotels are spectacular. The guides were great - knowledgeable, helpful, patient, and strong! - they lifted those 35 pound bikes into and out of the van and on and off its roof many, many times. :p

04-24-2007, 04:34 PM
Kim - Wow! What a wonderful trip write-up, and the photos are great! How fun! How long did you all stay in Paris?

04-24-2007, 04:35 PM
Finally! Sounds like it was an interesting trip. But why did you get the cot, not your niece?


04-24-2007, 04:46 PM
We were in Paris for 4 days. Altogether with travel days (ugh, how do people do this transatlantic stuff?) I was gone 14 days.

I got the cot because I'm really just a lady-in-waiting to my niece - a true princess :rolleyes: . I really wasn't wild about the 3 in one room thing, either before or during the trip. I finally got my own room once we got to Paris - yippee!

04-24-2007, 04:53 PM
thank you for your travelogue and your fotos! gee, I feel like i even learned some french (but no idea how to pronounce those words!)
welcome back. You guys had quite an adventure. Your mom needs to work on hills ya think?

04-24-2007, 05:00 PM
Wow - great report and photos!! Good for you for taking full advantage of the opportunity to sample local wines....

04-24-2007, 05:14 PM
Mimi - Mom actually said this was her first and last cycling trip - on like the second day!

MP - I think of sampling local beverages as almost a sacred duty. Maybe it was what I was born to do.

04-24-2007, 05:16 PM
Wow. I think we share a calling, Kim.

We just had a bottle of Cotes de Ventoux brought back from our first trip there in 2003. It was great!! I can't believe it actually lasted four years. Maybe that's because we gave it to my in laws as a gift and they hung on to it. Wine doesn't last long here.

Adventure Girl
04-24-2007, 05:53 PM
That was GREAT trip report. I really enjoyed reading it and following the links. And, Kim, do you have something against dressing for dinner?:p

04-24-2007, 05:54 PM
Thanks for the posting your trip report....I smiled, chuckled and read portions outloud to DH....brought back memories of France. I loved the cycling and, alas, trying to communicate vegetarian to the French was all you described it to be. Loved your tales. Such fun.

To digress, oddly, some of the best and some of the worst vegetarian food we've had was in France. In one case, we had a hotel that included dinner. When we checked in, we made sure that the message that we were vegetarian, no fish, was in the reservation. It was. When we got to the restaurant, we verified when we were seated. It was. The first course arrived. Clams. When we explained we were vegetarian and did not eat fish, the waiter did the stereotypical french waiter hrrrmmpph and muttered, in French, "they are not fish, they are crustaceans". Dinner that night was the most pitiful mushroom omelet. I swear the mushrooms came out of can.

But, the next day, we found a restaurant in a town of 10 houses, a school and the restaurant. The chef came out with the most beautiful fresh woodland mushrooms. He told us how he wanted to cook them up with a beef cut. When we told him we were vegetarian. He paused for moment then said, "I can do something." 30 minutes later we were eating the most decedant mushroom cream sauce over freshly made pasta I've ever eaten. All bad memories from the previous night were converted into something we could laugh over now.

Some get it; some don't. Glad you found enough that do. But, as you say, one must always taste the local vintages!

Thanks again for the report...

04-24-2007, 09:15 PM
Great report Kim. Love the pics.:)

04-26-2007, 08:33 PM
Oh no! Everyone, sauf moi, has found this and laughed their way onto the floor, sans vin. I am so disappointed you didn't take my advice of finding that perfect little dinner outfit about 2 sizes too small. I was just waiting to hear about your mom's reaction.:p

I have to go look at all the pictures now. Are they as funny as the story?

Did you learn any good whines in French?

04-26-2007, 08:50 PM
I only know how to whine in French about the weather, but I'll work on it.

What is with the 2 sizes too small thing? Major butt crack and camel toe sightings everywhere you looked. :eek:

04-26-2007, 09:03 PM
Fashion capitol of the world, eh? How about muffin tops? :cool:

04-26-2007, 09:04 PM
Great report Kim, I laughed all the way through it and I enjoyed your pictures too!

Your report is so timely for me right now. DH and I are planning our trip to France (in July). We're can't afford a bike tour, but are looking into renting bikes for 5-6 days and doing our own trip in the area you toured. We're looking for easy - medium riding so we can enjoy the countryside. Hope to stay in small hotels or B&B's along the way and carry what we need in panniers (storing our suitcase at the airport.) Haven't got the details nailed down yet so if you have any advice, please PM me.

Later we're hoping to rent road bikes for one day and climb Alpe D'huez. Got any suggestions on that? I'm been doing a bit of surfing to find a place that rents road bikes for one day only...

04-27-2007, 06:43 AM
Wow kelownagirl, that sounds like fun, can I come too? :) (Two weeks away and I already miss it!)

We never really veered from the tour maps and that one small area of Provence - all of which is easy/moderate riding. I can scan and send my trips maps if you'd like. I never saw a bike shop, and the places we stayed are too spendy. It will definitely be a fun area to explore on your own!

06-01-2007, 05:49 AM
I appreciated your travel report very much. It is exactly what I thought the high end tour would be like.

I've been tussling with my husband for weeks over my desire to avoid a tour and bike in France independently with my 18 year old daughter. He'd like us to sign up for a Backroads tour, which is a lovely high end operation. I was going nuts trying to comb through all the tour companies and bike rental companies to find what I wanted.

I'm going through the hassle of bringing 2 bikes on the plane with me (my daughter is currently living in Geneva, Switzerland) because I couldn't find bikes to rent that I was confident I'd want to be on for a week. I'm using tour books and bringing panniers and planning to stay in little b&b's as I don't want amazing hotels and huge meals. We're also planning to bike 50 - 70 miles/day, and most tours have 20 - 30. We're going to the Burgundy region (Lyon or Dijon as starting/ending point) in late June/early July as it is a little less known, beautiful countryside with rolling hills and during those times Provence and the Loire Valley will be full of tourists. We're also planning to ride around Lake Geneva.

Now I'm feeling more confident I'm on the right track. My only worry right now is how the heck I'm going to manage pulling two bike cases through the airport along with my suitcase!

06-01-2007, 06:28 AM
Bikerbarb - I don't want to complicate your decision making, but you should know that some of the Backroads trips have longer options than 20 - 30 miles a day. We did an "epic" Tour de France trip a few years ago and it was great. Riding was up to 70 - 80 miles a day and hard. I think even if the "planned" rides are shorter than you want, the guides can also always give you suggestions for a longer ride. One of the guys on our tour had done an easy trip the year before and was able to get in a lot more riding than advertised.

I do think doing it on your own wuld be fantastic, though. You have the independence to stop anywhere you want, turn down any road that looks interesting. If you have the equipment to do it, I would do it self supported.

The logistics of the bike boxes is always the tough thing! :rolleyes:

Have fun. I So wish we were going again this year. Maybe next year.

06-01-2007, 09:56 AM
Yes, I know they do have longer mileage options, but the the ones they sent us kept you in the same hotel for a few days while you do loop rides. I really don't want to stay in fancy hotels, I want to experience local people and have a less Americanized experience. Also, I don't want to deal with small group dynamics. The last 3 summers we did week long tours in the US with organized biking that had us sleeping in tents or on the gym floors of schools. Little b&B's will be a step up--and yes, we are so looking forward to the spontaneity of being on our own. And self sufficiency in hauling our own gear. My daughter is now fluent in French, so I want to take advantage of that, too.
I'll be sure to post the pros and cons of how it turns out. I'm going in 3 weeks.

06-01-2007, 10:42 AM
If you get down near Carpentras, go to this nougat factory: http://www.nougat-silvain-freres.fr/01/nougats.php

They have the most wonderful (funny in a way) movie about the brothers making the nougat and stuff, and the candy is great!!