Friday, February 1, 2013

Provence, Day Nine - Chateauneuf du Pape and Avignon

Funny how we're all dressed in blue clothing.
On our last riding day, Michele decided to pedal by herself five kilometers back to Bagatelle Campground (start of journey and where we reserved a room), rather than accompany Patty and me for additional miles. She was happy to wander around Avignon until we returned.

Again, we set out on some lovely back roads and, except for one mishap where we tried to ride on an island but were halted by a chain link fence near a dam without an exit to the mainland, we pedaled through orchards with a prominent escarpment as a guide of sorts. We'd pedaled on the backside of the formation the previous day.
I liked the right angle turns around fields, houses, and as long as the railroad was on our left we kept away from busy Sauveterre. Two local women pedaled by us in the quiet morning.

Patty spied these snails in other areas of our travels.
The tiny roads eventually headed off towards a peninsula and we turned towards Roquemaure. It was interesting to enter the city through the back door, so-to-speak. Narrow farm roads; a guy on an old tractor passes in the opposite direction and we wave (wish I could've snapped a photo); goats, horses, a few cows are kept in fields. Curiously, white snails cover fence lines and posts. Then, we cruise into neighborhoods where mothers are riding with children or setting off alone with a front basket attached to a bicycle for shopping. Eventually, we find a narrow main road lined with businesses and signs, getting our bearings to cross the Rhone River.

We were nervous about the crossing, not knowing whether we'd merge with a busy road or if there would be an adequate lane for bicycles. Patty and I start laughing as we round a corner, our mood instantly lifted. A boulangerie/patisserie sign plastered on a cement wall seemed put there for us, symbolizing our bike adventure in Provence. I'd wished that Michele had been there to appreciate it. We stop for a photo only, having already consumed breakfast croissants and baguette.

Encouraged by a passing cyclist, we enter an elevated roadway which leads to a beautiful suspension bridge over the Rhone with, fortunately, a wide sidewalk.

Pedaling into Chateauneuf du Pape.
The next several kilometers were a harrowing reminder of some of France's too narrow and higher traffic roadways leading to tourist regions, but  according to our map, there wasn't an alternative. I focus on holding my bike in a line while delivery trucks zoom past, wishing—not for the first time—that I'd brought a mirror. And though I missed having relaxed, even-keeled Michele as a buffer between my dear friend who's had a tough year, I'm glad Michele stayed behind. Patty and I were certainly more daring, and capable of riding longer distances, so a bit of discomfort was within our expectations. I imagined Michele had already ridden more than she wanted the previous day. In some respects, it took a load off my mind too. I wanted Michele's first bike tour to end with fond memories—not that we led her on dangerous highways, fearing for her life.

The traffic let up as we entered Chateauneuf du Pape. This is a famous wine region, named after the castle ruins, and high on Patty's list to visit. Large signs advertised numerous vineyardsindeed we passed many chateaus and warehouses before the city center. It's only 11a.m.too early to taste wine—so we lock the bikes and climb the winding allies and stairways to check out the ruins.

View from Chateauneuf du Pape ruins.
There is only one wall remaining. It's too difficult to imagine the entire structure in Roman times, rather disappointing compared with Tarascon Castle. But the view of the Rhone and surrounding landscape is spectacular.

Back in the village I buy souvenirs and Patty and I taste the region's specialty: red wine. I am disappointed, however; the alcohol content is 14-15%, much higher than the Cotes du Rhone I'd previously enjoyed. Not my preferred vintage.

The weather takes a turn for the worse. A chilling wind whips upfortunately it's at our backsand the temperature drops 20F. We pull on jackets and head out of town. I'd read about the mistral, a cold, northern wind that formulates inland and sweeps across the region, common in late September through November. We are lucky that only a sprinkle accompanies the wind. It propels us along at a good clip. Patty and I make good time past more back road vineyards with only one unintended detour downhill on a dead end road to a campground along the Rhone. Then we navigate through busy Sorgues, and with Michele's map, pick our way along a rail line and eventually manage a pleasant ride through high volume, but slow moving traffic on a marked bike lane. It leads us, amazingly, right to Avignon's walls.

It's 2 p.m. and Patty and I fantasized about galettes, delaying lunch until arrival in Avignon. We eat outside in the central square, sheltered from the wind by tent-like structures with clear walls that segregate each restaurant. The food is delicious. Buckwheat crepes form the basis, with simple fillings; mine is ham and Gruyere cheesea perfect ending to our ride. I eat it all.

Check out the low tire pressure and the guy's puffed cheeks. Suit coat, pants, sandals,
and loop frame—a classic Frenchman on a bike.
We've come full circle, starting and ending our bike tour in Avignon. Patty and I are by now comfortable with roaming the maze of streets. We have an hour until rendezvous with Michel. We buy wine, more lavender and olive oil soap, and chocolate covered almonds colored like ripe, green olives. I take photos, attempting to capture the essence of the city.

Avignon's velo bike share. Sadly, I didn't see any bikes in use.

At the campground we meet up with Michele, clear out the storage locker, do laundry and dismantle the panniers and prepare to meet the bike rental van at 6 p.m. for pickup. Michele and I wait outside in a chilling evening for 45 minutes, but no one shows up. We leave phone number and names at the Bagatelle's entrance and peck out e-mails to the rental company. Not knowing what else to do, we secure all three locks to the bikes and leave them in a visible place so they'll be picked up later.

Inside our hostel room, it's a flurry of unpacking, and oohing an ahhing over garments we haven't seen in nine days. "It's like Christmas!" someone mentionswhich it is, when you're used to minimal clothing for days on end. There are items of warmth that we now need, alternative footwear, a purse!, and unfortunately my stinky hiking shoes used in Switzerland that I have to store inside plastic bags so we won't have to put up with their smell.

We retire for a remembered meal on the terrace, though bundled more this time around. Wine warms us;  we chat, catching up on the days events. We also plan the early morning departure by train to Paris. The big city is our last hurrah, and with less than 24 hours there, should prove to be an adventure in itself before we each depart on separate airlines for home.

And the sun sets on Avignon.
Though we never got to the Pont de Gard nor ascended famed Mont Ventoux, the warm dry Provencal climate, the food, the wine, quaint villages, back roads, and campgrounds galore—the region is clearly set up for bike touring. I could see myself returning someday with my husband, who was forever with me in spirit on this women's-only adventure.

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

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