Une Journee en Provence II
Today will not demand especially tough cycling, mostly along vineyard-lined rural roads. It is a detour day that will bring me to Carpentras for the evening and then tomorrow I will head back to Avignon. So I ride northeast to Vaison-La-Romaine with its Gallo-Roman ruins. This is yet another one of the extraordinary towns (permanent population under 10,000) that dot the map of southern France. It's the type of place that has tourists but is not dominated by tourist culture (unlike Avignon, Domme, st. Remy, Les Baux or rocamadour). The type of place that could well serve as a base, from which to take a week's worth of excursions. There are a lot of French village/towns that are mostly off the tourist trail. They are the real gems of Provence.
I don't stay in Vaison long; I find a supermarket, the ruins and the tourist office for directions. I observe that the town has recovered from the 1992 devastating flood. I head out of town and turn off on the side road (D938) that one of my internet itineraries suggests. It lifts me up into the hills to the midieval hamlet of Crestet. I meet some American tourists who are on an individualized package that provides them a house for a week, a car and a map of off-the-track locales. This village is sort of abandoned. I meet a resident who kindly fills up my water bottle and explains that her neighbors are German, British, Parisien and Swiss. Village properties have been bought up by foreigners who use them as holiday retreats. Not many French left. There is one restaurant, no hotels, only 1 store that I saw. It's a remarkable village whose cobbled paths snake up the hill, and the whole town can accommodate not a single four-wheeled vehicle. The town is layered into a hill, sort of a mini Rocamadour or Conques, without many tourists (or residents). I am given directions for continuing the day's route. Left,right,left, then left at the intersection with the 3 cedars. Or was that right,left,right? In any case I never find the 3 cedars and the surfaced road deteriorates into smooth rocks. I descend instead of ascending and before I know it I am not only on the wrong side of the mountain, but I am back to where I got onto the D938. So much for this route. I vow to try again when I return to Provence; the map gets sorted into an ever growing pile of future hopes.
I have a pleasant enough downhill into Carpentras, find the campground, do laundry and think about dinner. Lunch was tabouli and another salad from the supermarket. Dinner, dinner, dinner. If there were ever a country for the cyclists to dream about eating, it would have to be France. It is France. In 3 weeks I have put back on the kilos I lost. I have never had the same dish twice even when the name of the dish is the same. Restaurants so individualize their presentations. I consult my guidebook for the best restaurant in town, Le Marijo, which the book says closes Friday evenings. Guidebooks can be wrong. I check out the restaurant; the guidebook is indeed wrong -- Sunday are dark days -- and I have an excellent meal.
French meals work like this. You can order a la carte, course by course, and pay a small fortune. Or you can choose one of the menus, set meals, that offer choices within the categories (you get one from A, one from B, et cetera). Menus are identified by the price tag and name -- speedy, regional gastronomique, e.g. Beside the infant's menu, which this restaurant does not offer, there are usually 3 menus priced around US $15-20-25, wine and coffee extra. Wine runs about $3 a glass. I usually order a half bottle (375 cl) of local red, but tonight I want to try both a regional white and red (Cotes de Rhone) so I have a different wine with each course.
It's a 4 course menu, 4 or 5 choices per category. For a starter, I have pate of eggplant with truffle oil. I have had truffles several times now and still am unable to discern their flavor, except by price. This course is exciting; I soak up the last drop of truffle essence with the liberally restocked bread. The next course is rabbit stuffed with thyme. Provence cuisine does not skimp on seasoning. Wedged inside the rabbit is a bundle of thyme twigs, several dozen, so that this excellent dish could be known as rabbit flavored thyme. Anyone who says rabbit tastes like chicken has not tasted this dish. The cheese course at this restaurant is not the usual cheese cart with several dozen hunks to sample to one's stomach's content; it is the restaurant's speciality -- a local goat cheese, creamy not dry, rather mild, doused with some sort of distilled spirits, made locally, perhaps cherries, a local fruit of reknown. Then there's sweets. I choose something that comes in a tall glass, has cherry sorbet, chestnut ice cream, honey, almonds and whipped cream and a cookie. Coffee follows. All this with tip comes to about US $30, worth every centime. I waddle the 2 kms back to the campground, while it is still twilight. With a day like today, one really does look forward to tomorrow, for the challenge of getting an even better day.
In Provence, actually everywhere in France, almost all my days have been this good. I enjoyed the Basque region, the Dordogne and Lot river areas just as much. What I appreciate most is the way the French do things with class: the food, the wine, the museums, the roads (although they are very speedy drivers) and tourist information.
On to Burgandy with my nephew, then Switzerland and northern Italy.