Friday, November 23, 2012

Provence, Day Four - Saignon, Ingenuity and the Descent into Aix en Provence

Patty and I got up early, whispering and packing so as to not wake Michele. We set off along the bike path without knowing where exactly to turn and weave our way up the prominent hillside to Saignon, but we lucked out, gaining altitude past vineyards and mown lavender fields. It was a more strenuous climb than anything the previous day that I was glad that Michele stayed behind. We'd be back in a couple hours, as planned, to take a bus through the Luberon.

From a distance, Saignon. Photo credit: Patty
We arrived in the hill town by 8:30 am. The early hour brought cooler temperatures, less tourists—in fact we were the only ones—and time alone with Patty meant we could catch up on girl talk. Hot afternoons drained me; there were distinct advantages to setting off early, but we couldn't make it happen as a threesome.

We wandered slowly, taking in the quiet streets, courtyards, fountains, a grotto with a rectangular pool of water. The water trickling, ivy covered walls, the pots of plants, flowers—all charming—and it lent a softness to the stone buildings.

 I have a thing for interesting door knockers.

 Climbing, watching our step. Just keep going. Turning wherever.

The church structure was fenced off and I wondered what lay beyond the barricade.

A beautiful stone stairway led uphill. Signs warned to proceed at your own risk, which was warranted. I don't like heights and exposure, but I kept to the inside and mounted them easily.

And, just like that were on top, with the summit to ourselves.

 We admired the view of Apt in the early morning haze.

Turn the other direction and stare onto Saignon's rooftops. It's an old world view: clay tiles, stone—so Romanesque. The pastel purple mountains of the Luberon beckoned us onward.

We couldn't see Mont Ventoux. Patty and I had been talking about ascending the famous mountain, known for inclusion on many Tour de France stages. Patty was keen to do it, but after cycling with her, I realized she had more energy than I did. The climb didn't make sense either; Mount Ventoux was a vast distance north of Avignon and would require a day's pedal or bus ride just to get to the region. I preferred to concentrate on the current itinerary. The 22 mile climb would require more effort and time than I was willing to part with, all to get to the top of a lunar landscape—not my idea of a relaxing Provence bike ride. But definitely next time.

Check out the guy leaning out the window. Right photo.
Back in the village a table on the street is inviting, which just happens to be a spillover from a room-sized boulangerie/patisserie. Provencal ambiance. Exquisite. 

Sip a foamy cup of coffee with chocolate croissant. Watch the village waken, duck inside for baguettes. A man leans out a second story window, chatting with a passerby. Yes, I thought, this is what I wanted.

It was a fast descent back to the campground. I was glad Michele had explored Apt in our absence. With time before meeting the bus, we wrote in journals and read the guide book. Often campgrounds provided WIFI; some cost money while others were free. Internet time all around!

Before 11 a.m. we headed to the terminal, but it became clear the buses were not equipped with bike racks—contrary to what we understood the day before— and couldn't possibly squeeze three in the limited rear compartment. A friendly Frenchman translated our needs to the driver, but it was futile. Disappointed, we headed back to the campground. Clearly, some ingenuity was called for. I suggested that we arrive at the start of the road through the Luberon and hitchhike—who wouldn't pick up three women? There was certainly a plethora of small-sized delivery vehicles, I reasoned: surely one could accommodate us and there was safety in numbers. I was immediately voted down. Patty looped the campground, hoping to find a traveler packing and beg a ride. Meanwhile, Michele and I spoke with the receptionist and had her call a taxi to see if they could handle our gear. For $35.00 Euros they would take us through the Luberon, which didn't sound bad when split three ways. Within a half hour, we had the front wheels removed and were helping the taxi driver place bikes and baggage into the back of a van.

I was concerned the driver would zip around the curves, and not only scare the heck out of us but that I would become nauseous. He was very safe, though, and pleasant. Michele conversed a little in French; her school years in France finally kicking in. I enjoyed the forested hillsides, the villages off in the distance. The incline wasn't too bad and I wished we'd ridden bikes. On the other hand, the descent followed some nasty blind curves, which could've placed us in jeopardy had we met a vehicle at just the right moment.

Behind heavy traffic in Aix en Provence. Photo credit: Michele or Patty
We had the driver drop us off in Lourmarin. We whipped through a Provencal market just as they were packing up, but the selection of olives, citrus, cheese, sausages, and honey tantalized our tasted buds; the aromas were heavenly in the hot afternoon. After a not-so-discreet squat in a field (my bladder was ready to burst) we descended the remaining miles to the Durance River, detoured to fill water bottles at a campground, then climbed a long steady hill.

Unfortunately, I missed a turn that would have put us on a better road into Aix en Provence, but the direct route wasn't too bad. Every turn displayed a sign for a different vineyard and eventually the road swung downhill for several kilometers. We turned onto a side road, enjoying once again, the solitude of narrow lanes. A stunning lavender cliff appears on the eastern horizon, captivating us for a long time. Then my pannier fell off shortly after a pit stop. Our bikes didn't have kick stands and sometimes I laid the bike on its side. The bag had jostled and come unhinged. Thereafter, whenever I stopped, I checked the pannier it gave me no further problems.

Michele's head (sorry Michele) and the evening craziness at the fountain.
The ever downhill cruise was a delight at first, but continued on for several more kilometers past roundabouts on into the Information Center in the heart of the city. Nearly 6 pm. and the traffic was a raucous cacophony  swirling around a beautiful fountain. Aix en Provence was much larger than I expected. Directions and maps helped us ride the final 4 kilometers—still descending—until the finish line at a cozy campground. I was happy to have found our temporary home. 

The campground was oddly right beside an interstate, though amazingly quiet, tucked behind a security gate. It was a walled oasis: pots of flowers everywhere, fountains, twinkling lights, clean bathrooms, a bridge over a stream filled with ducks, a game room, reading room. A young lady leads in a a golf cart to show us a site. Immediately, I dipped in the pool for instant cool down.

After dinner we convene in the reading room with a bottle of wine and study the map. Because of the morning's transit difficulty we decide to fore go a bus/train ride south through Marseille's urban sprawl. Patty had wanted to dip her toes in the Mediterranean, but was now gladly willing to alter course. Dealing with public transit might easily delay us further when the time could be better spent riding west toward Arles. I am thankful for the change in plans. 

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