Thursday, November 1, 2012

Provence, Day Three - Gordes, Roussillon,
and Oh, Those Hills!

Thursday, September 6

We basked in the rapidly warming morning, sipping double espressos and tearing into baguettes. It had been a chillier night than my tent-mate, Michele, or I had expected and sometime during the wee hours of morning, I pulled on extra layers. With other cool nights possibly ahead, I now knew to cinch the drawstring and hood on my lightweight down bag. Michele, on the other hand, who'd brought a liner instead of a snuggly bag like Patty, for covering, promised to wear more clothing. Closer to the mountains and near the Sorgue River, I suspected the temperatures dipped well below Avignon's 60F lows.

So, we set off toward Lagnes, picking our way east on the blessed narrow lanes. Olive groves began to appear and with the surreal pastel coloring: sage and tan landscape, pinkish tile roofs, I could understand better Van Gogh, Cezanne, and Picasso's intensity of color and light. It was something I'd never considered, but as we traveled, and more so in the days ahead, the morning light, especially, was of great significance.

Squeezing into the heart of Lagnes—and that's what it felt like—coasting through long corridors of pastel painted stucco buildings, not unlike a stone tunnel; doors opening, closing, men leaning back on one speed bicycles, tiny cars puttering, shifting; a baguette under an arm or two, we eye the sign for Gordes and turn uphill. A pair of older women sit in white plastic chairs street side—their ritual, I presume. I smile and say "Bonjour!" and keep turning the cranks.

Then the first hill. I lead, clicking into the granny gear. If there's one thing I've learned over the years, it's to start easy when climbing an unknown slope, especially with weight. A five mile ride could turn into an hour's slog, so best to keep the legs as refreshed as possible. Patty and I were concerned with Michele's ability to handle the ascent—we presumed this would be the first of many. So by example, plus carrying the whole tent, it was the best I could do to encourage Michele to gracefully tackle the hills.

As it turns out, I shouldn't have worried. It was a relatively simple climb, maybe 2 kilometers. Patty used a helmet mirror and yelled when a car approached from behind. I was sorry I hadn't brought my own, but with hiking in Switzerland beforehand, and the inability to send gear home—like Patty and Michele were able to—I packed the bare essentials. I sorely missed the comfort it would've given me though, a window to not only view danger, but to also keep track of my companions.

A lovely breeze wafted over the pine tree-covered summit. We congratulated Michele. Gulped more liquid. Pumping brakes down the switchbacks. The dry climate plays tricks—as I found out the previous day—and it's critical to stay hydrated.

Climbing a busier road to Gordes.
A lofty tailwind carried us through another village. We comfortably take a high road, bypassing the main thoroughfare, choosing forks that propel us eastward. Vineyards burst with plump red grapes. I'm tempted to help myself from the vine, but instead rescue a fallen cluster, munching its sweetness.

Merging with a busier road to Gordes, it's a pleasing climb with ample room for bikes.

Old stone structures.

A bike path sign detours onto a side lane. Stone walls continually edge any road, serving as property borders. Gaps often reveal driveways, tile-roofed houses tucked behind fruit trees.

We take a breather at a pull-off. Photo credit: Patty
Then the perfect village of Gordes comes into view. Our guide book prepares us for hordes of tourists; indeed the traffic is a likely indication.

Patty and her first perched village..
Patty is in heaven. It's her first perched village, those landmark Romanesque hill towns strategically positioned above valleys. A check mark off her Provence to-do list. It's a longer climb to get to the village center, but once there we continue past the main junction, following Patty who seems intrigued because a road curves ever upward. I immediately follow, curious whether a castle is on top. Michele is quiet, but reluctantly comes along. I'm torn between insisting we take a break for Michele's sake—she's obviously fatigued—or continuing with my friend. Fortunately, within a half kilometer it's apparent only homes lie ahead. We turn and descend, locking bikes so we can wander on foot.

Homes and interesting buildings uphill from Gordes village center. Photo credit: Patty
Locking our bikes together; there are no racks.
I imagine sunset views are breathtaking.
Admiring the structures. Photo credit: Patty
Central Gordes is a warren of steep, winding stone roads—certainly unsuitable for vehicles. 

We wander, peek in alleys, marvel at windows.

It's a hot time of day. We walk with water bottles, sip often, refill at the tourist bathroom. Boulangerie  aromas invite us inward. We pick out quiches of choice for later picnicking.

I'm enthralled with the heavy doors, knockers, and elaborate decoration. One immense entryway stood ajar, its bulk supported by casters rolling on a metal track. We go inside. It's an 18th century church. The coolness is inviting.

Footing is tricky. I am constantly aware of where I step. To twist an ankle is to possibly cancel the bike tour. Much like hiking in Switzerland, we are cognizant of anything physical and try our best to remain healthy.

Looking southeast beyond Gordes is a reasonably flat plain, where we're headed next.

The stone is beautifully ancient, functional. Flowers are planted where stones are missing in the wall.

We refill all our water bottles and coast back through Gordes until the turnoff for points east.

Photo credit: Patty
But first, one more gander at magnificent Gordes. 

Quiche Lorraine.
We discover a delightful route through vineyards, lavender fields, olive groves. One tiny road leads to another, and in fact, if we follow all the white arrows on the pavement it leads us in the right direction. We can only guess it's marking an organized bike tour route. We are tickled and obligingly follow. But first things first, it's time for food. The sun is intense. We seek shelter near a tiny creek.

Roussillon uses rust pigment in the mortar of walls and buildings.
Then another ascent into Roussillon. Michele is slowing, but we wait and offer encouragement. Remind her to drink a lot. A few switchbacks later we enter a pine forest and enjoy some shade. I've always loved the smell of heated pine trees. Climbing the third hill of the day, I hope its our last; I could use lower gearing. The bike is performing well, with quick shifting, decent brakes, but I'm constantly in the lowest gear (bike at home is easier on my knees), occasionally standing to vary my posture.

Roussillon is another village on a hill. It's history stems from its beautiful ochre-colored dirt and rock, excavated close to town until recently when the stability of buildings was threatened. The paint pigment industry made a name for Roussillon. One can see the many beautiful shades today in its cliffs.

Paint pigments available in many hues, sold in stores.

The hot, sweaty mamas with Roussillon in background. Photo credit: Patty (via innocent bystander)

Unused Roussillon bike rack. It's uphill from where most riders want to stop
who are exhausted and relieved to have finally made it to the flatter center of town

From Roussillon we discover a velo-route that travels back roads past more lavender fields, by housing developments, a gypsy encampment complete with washer and dryer near a trailer, through another village losing elevation until entering dusty, dry, and much busier Apt.

A young lady at the information center hands us brochures, maps, and good directions to a nearby campsite. Often accommodation is away from city centers, but this one is a short walk over a dry riverbed to a good-sized grocery store and bus station. Patty and I would love to pedal through the Luberon, but are advised against it due to a narrow, dangerous roadway without an alternative. Our plan is to take a late morning bus southward, through the hills. We know this will make Michele happier too. After the long day, the heat, and too many ascents, Michele lagged most of the afternoon. She could use a rest.

We haul sacks of dinner fixings back to the campsite common room. I eat pre-made couscous, Nyon olives (coal black and flavorful), and goat cheese. Like the Camembert near Paris, choices of goat cheese are staggering—easily 15 varieties. And of course, more wine. Patty's choice is a Cotes du Rhone. Michele drinks little, not as much a vin drinker as we are—indeed, it becomes Patty's and my habit to finish a bottle every night. Cotes du Rhone becomes a favorite. The good thing is, I never feel any effects the next morning.

Day One - Avignon
Day Two - Fontaine de Vaucluse
Day Three - Gordes, Roussillon, and Oh, Those Hills
Day Four - Saignon, Ingenuity and the Descent into Aix en Provence
Day Five - Aix en Provence to Salon
Day Six - Adventures in Arles
Day Seven - Les Baux, St. Remy
Day Eight - Tarascon Castle
Day Nine - Chateauneuf du Pape and Avignon


  1. Great images.....brings back memories of some of my own French cycling trips..! Thanks for posting.


  2. What a beautiful day's cycling! I find sometimes the difficulty of a climb can be more about whether the scenery manages to distract me than the actual gradient involved.


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