Une Journee en Provence I
I intend to recount (with a few contextual diversions) life on the road for a single day -- 24 May -- of my trip, which now finds me in southeastern France, in the area known as Provence. What exactly is Provence? As famous as this locale is touristicly, it does not have its own government region in the French scheme of 20 plus regions (it combines with the Alps and the riviera), and it comprises several administrative departements (e.g., the Vaucluse, Gard, Var), the borders of which I seem to cross and recross on almost a daily basis.
I reached Provence by cycling over the Pyrenees from Zaragoza, Spain, over to the Atlantic coast, across a corner of Acquitaine and Gascony, across the Perigord through the lower Dordogne Valley, to Cohors and through the Lot River Valley, through upper Languedoc and the Gorges of the Tarn and Jonte Rivers -- in all, about French 2300 kms, including Provence. It's more or less the route I picked up from information on the Internet. These are popular areas for cycling tours -- which provide subscribers with starred accommodation and cuisine, sometimes bikes. People pay US $200 and up per day to go on these organized tours which oftent offer vehicle transport for those riders who can't tackle all the hills. About 25% of my route was up hill, an average of three 5 km climbs per day. For the most part my maps, printed off the Internet, were adequate, but sometimes not sufficiently detailed. I also brought along photocopied pages from the relevant publications of Let's Go, Rough Guide, Lonely Planet and the Blue Guide. All this was supplemented by help provided by tourist information offices, which are abundant in France.
I have not been here long enough to know what exactly characterizes Provence, but I sense it has to do with language, food, wine and scenery and a shared history, at least from Roman times and certainly through the fights within Catholicism which resulted in Rome (the Church of Rome that is) being located here in Avignon for a period.
I am in Provence only a week, just scratching the surface, gathering ideas for planning a return trip. Originally I had intented to spend two weeks here and I had brought along maps that demarcate cycling routes. The abandoned week was in fact spent in Bayonne in the French Euzkadi (Basque) area in the far southwest of the country. This is why my plans changed:
By the time I reached Bayonne I was a physical wreck, so I found a comfortable family-run hotel (Paris-Madrid Hotel, US $15 per night) where I recuperated. The very night before Bayonne I had fainted in a campground restaurant as I was rushing to the toilet at the end of the meal. Once the restaurant's startled guests revived me, the condition that had sporatically plagued my insides for 8 weeks immediately returned. The next day I managed the 25 kms to Bayonne where I vowed to get well, or die trying. The next day after a most difficult evening (for me as well as all the hotel guests, for I imagine that old hotel equals old, noisy plumbing) I went to the emergency room, it being Sunday and not possible to consult a physician otherwise. I was weighed. Down from 70 to 60 kilos (154 to 132 pounds), I looked like I had indeed lost 10-15% of my body weight. I gave blood and stool samples, returned for the results and met with a specialist who replaced the antibiotics, which had apparently accomplished their job, with some pills called Ultra-Levure to build up the digestive process. The various tests and visits cost me US $30, maybe one-tenth or even less of what treatement in the US would run. I left Bayonne feeling mended.
The week I have in Provence is busy with taking in the sights, food and wine, during the cycling days that amount to about only 70 kms each. Today is not exactly a typical day -- all the days here are quite different; there's little monotony. First of all, last night I did not sleep in the tent. Except for the recuperative week in the Bayonne hotel, a night in a hostel in Sarlat (a treasure of a town), where a hail and rain storm swamped the campground, and the night in the home of a woman who had kindly translated (generally my French gets me where I want to go, but so many medical terms were making conversation difficult and, like so many other times, a by-stander offered help; the French are as nice a people as I would ever want to encounter) for me at the Bayonne hospital and then suggested I visit her and her husband on my way north, I have camped out in the tent every night in France. (I skimp on accommodation, splurge on food). Last night was camping of sorts.
I arrived at the Orange (a town north of Avignon) campground, after I had visited the city's remarkable Roman theater and museum, at 5 pm just as a thunder and lightening show began. It lasted several hours and along with a Dutch cyclist, I was permitted to sleep inside the unused bar/cafe (closed for the off season) rather than in the flooded campground. Rainiest spring in 40 years, they say. (My tent keeps me dry during a rain storm, but if it's raining, I cannot set it up dry.) In any case, foodwise it was a disappointing evening. I had ridden 89 kms in anticipation of a fine meal in a restaurant recommended in one of the photocopied guidebooks's pages, but town was 2 kms away and the rain continued. I resorted to emergency rations -- fruit compote recommended by the hospital specialist for my insides and a few high energy candy bars (the French equivalent to Powerbar). I slept well, but I wake up a bit hungry and still gastronomically disappointed. I breakfast in town on the usual cocoa and coissants, of which I have at least one a day (and in one 24 hour period I have eaten 10), and I am off for a day of cycling.
(to be continued)