Friday, October 19, 2012

Provence, Day Two - Fontaine de Vaucluse

Wednesday, September 5

Day two dawned with blue skies. No surprise—this is, after all, the south of France. Patty was the earliest riser, while I got up next, followed by Michele. This pattern would continue for the entire trip. We all had nervous energy. Michele and I sucked down a cafe au lait; we finished breakfast; stowed extra gear in a locker to be retrieved upon return, then sat waiting for the bikes.

While Patty (50th birthday friend) dealt with EuRail passes and train logistics, my part involved choosing and setting up bike rentals. I went with BikeRentalsPlus, a sister company to ExperiencePlus! For several years I've received this tour company's catalog, and while I never went on their organized adventures, they appeared reputable. The cost of rentals was reasonable—but more importantly—bicycle quality remained the deciding factor. I wanted the bikes to function flawlessly at the start. Our plans involved pedaling approximately 30 miles per day. And, while we toyed with using standard hybrids, the shorter wheel base of the step-through style attracted Patty and Michele. I also wanted to try touring with this version, so thus our decision to all rent "girlies."

While waiting at the entrance to Bagatelle's property, I hoped the transfer would go smoothly, especially after doing business entirely through the Internet. But true to their word a small white van shows up, a handsome guy steps out (think younger looking Gerard Depardieu with wavy hair.) Hugo dispatches three blue Specialized machines then makes sure we're satisfied before promising to meet us at the end of our adventure. I wanted to kiss and hug this darling Frenchman, but propriety restrained me from making a fool of myself.

Photo credit: Patty
It took an hour and a half to set up the gear. Michele rented saddle bags so she merely packed, but Patty and I brought our own panniers and struggled from the beginning. All three racks were unique. Patty secured her panniers with straps while I wound the bungee-type bag attachment around the rack supports. Michele, Patty's friend, was the neophyte. We'd spent the previous evening helping whittle her clothing to a reasonable amount, lightening her load (she's a backpacker) so her inaugural tour might become a pleasant experience. We all left rain pants behind—without any precipitation in the forecast—but kept coats for insurance, which could double as wind protection should the mistral suddenly blast us.

Bike path outside Avignon's walls, somewhere in the southwest region.
With the campground residing in the northwest of busy Avignon and our intended route exiting from the southeast, the initial miles would test our tolerance in heavy traffic. On paper, major roads were like spokes radiating outward from the walled city. Ahead of time, Patty prepared a loose itinerary; she'd wanted to see perched villages, dip her toes in the Mediterranean, and visit Arles. Ten days was little time to enjoy all of Provence's highlights. I was happy to relax, eat local food, pedal some, and soak up Roman ruins, of which her itinerary was chock full. Michele was content to follow. She was only too delighted to return to France and travel by a different means. She made it clear that Patty and I determine the way, not wishing to interfere with our birthday plans. I did take note that Michele purchased a larger scale map than the one I brought from home. It would have later significance. I think we were all daunted by the traffic around Avignon, but Patty took the initiative and led.

Consulting the map after lunch. Note the bamboo-matted walls.
Photo credit: Patty
Riding around a pleasant pathway outside the walls, then onto a bike lane with cars trucks and buses whizzing past, we went through several intersections before turning southeast. Or so we thought. Patty recognized Beaucaire on a sign and we pedaled onward, crossing the Durance River. Michele and I deferred to Patty, because she'd studied the map before setting out. Plus, she seemed keen to lead. We were several miles outside of Avignon when the traffic lessened. Finally, we stopped to consult the map.

We were way off course. Southbound, heading towards Saint Remy. We briefly considered continuing that direction as it followed our itinerary, but in reverse order. I suggested we get back on track and head northeast. I didn't want to give up. Taking narrow lanes, I led, needlessly looping around a neighborhood, which didn't prove my worthiness as a guide, especially when I cited the back roads as the way we should go. Eventually we asked directions and got back on course. Back on a busy highway. After heading eastward, toward Chateaurenard, we all got sick of the crazy traffic and steered down a lonely road into an orchard.

Michele's map confirmed a maze of "grey" roads. As long as we continued east and north we'd eventually run into a main artery which hooked up with a bridge back across the Durance. Thus was our goal. In the meantime, we settled into a rhythm, ambling down single-wide country lanes. It was blessedly quiet. Roosters crowed. Roads threaded around ripening plum and apple orchards, lots of greenhouses, past reed/bamboo covered walls serving as privacy fencing for residences. We encountered the occasional automobile and pulled over to let them pass, careful to also avoid channeled water edging the asphalt—which we presumed—served to irrigate the farmland. The beauty of cycling the system of narrow paths was they were linked, without traveling into a dead end. This was the France that I remembered from our world adventure.

Patty and Michele easily adapted to the slower pace, and the tension and anxiousness that permeated the initial miles eased into delightful little conversations, like finding a tree for shelter from the sun. Time to eat up that stinky Swiss Alpenzeller cheese we'd stowed, too proud to throw it out, but ripening fast in the Provencal sun. I was looking forward to more Frenchified provisions.

Patty in Fontane de Vaucluse
Three hours later we cycled over the Durance and we're tooling through Caumont. The narrow streets, connected stone houses, flags and flowers coloring buildings, statues, fountains, at least one boulangerie, old men pedaling bikes, and a plethora of short white delivery vehicles, most by Renault in silly models like Jumpy and Nemo—this all would become a familiar sight in every Provencal village.

Tiny roads. Take one and see where it goes!
We plied the back roads, steadily moving through more apple orchards, sometimes on a designated bike route.

Near Isle des Sorgue we came upon a petanque tournament. We watched for a few minutes, while Michele located espresso from a snack bar behind a nearby building. Contestants use metal balls and hoist them after play with a magnetic grabber. I harbored fantasies of joining a game, imagining it's played like bocce, but the late hour begged us to push on towards a campground. I was pretty sure we'd encounter lots of other games over the following week. Reading Peter Mayle's books made it sound like it's a common pastime, but sadly we didn't stumble on any more ball fields.

Photo credit: Patty
Pedaling on towards Fontane de Vaucluse we were famished and ate baguette sandwiches at a riverside eatery.

That's me, Annie, cruising into Fontane de Vaucluse.
Photo credit: Patty
What's noteworthy is the almost eerie greenish color of the Sorgue River. The water is extremely clear and shallow, exposing grass green hues in the brilliant sunshine.

Patty at the Sorgue's headwaters.
Past the garish kitschy tourist shops, we lock our bikes for a short jaunt to the headwaters of the Sorgue. It's a captivating place as the river originates from a hole at the base of a tall limestone cliff. September sees the water at low level; it surfaces downstream a hundred feet. We saw pictures later of Springtime on the Sorgue. Water gushes directly from the cavern, bubbling over the rocks, making it a rippling waterway.

It's late, nearly 7 pm. when we arrive at the campground. There's a pool, an outdoor area with tables, a small store. We give an order for croissants and baguettes for morning. It's all so civilized. After showers and tent duty, we retire on the terrace and drink wine and lots of water. With the hot day I didn't consume nearly enough liquid and felt my energy severely lacking before gobbling the dinner sandwich, so I'll pay more attention tomorrow to double the water intake. Without insects and humidity, It's my kind of weather. Darkness settles around us and we switch on flashlights for the walk to the tent.


  1. Sounds like a perfect pace. Those little backroads were a blessing :-) Looking forward to hearing your views on the bike choice by the end of the tour.

  2. I'm equal parts jealous and thrilled that you're giving such a detailed account of your trip! Lord willing and the bank account fills, I'm hoping to do a bike tour in Europe (France? Italy?) in the next 5 years. Eagerly awaiting the next installment...

    1. Yes, this looks like a wonderful trip.

    2. Completely envious of your trip! More pics! More story! Am impatiently patient!


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