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An article about one of our Provence tours.

An article about one of our Provence tours.

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    Cyclomundo Ny Times Cyclomundo Ny Times Document Transcript

    • REPRINTED WITH PERMISSION Travel SUNDAY, JUNE 14, 2009 Seeing Provence From the Slow Lane CHRISTOPHE MARGOT FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES Cyclists climbing a hill near the Moulin de Daudet, about seven miles from Arles on the way to St.-Rémy-de-Provence in the south of France. A self-guided bicycling tour includes opportunities to make wrong turns, to head up grueling climbs and to discover scenes that can only be experienced on two wheels. By JOE NOCERA memories of the region: the Roman ruins by day and then all pile into a five-star near Orange, the magnificent Palais des hotel for an over-the-top communal dinner T HE plan was a simple one. In the Papes inside the walls of Avignon, the olive by night. I was yearning for something middle of a weeklong trip to France groves and lavender and fields of sun- smaller and more intimate — and, given last July, a trip prompted by an invi- flowers that clotted the Provençal country- the times we live in, less expensive. On the tation to a friend’s wedding celebration, we side. She, however, had never been there. I Internet, I had found Cyclomundo, a five- would swing down to Provence for a sweet, would be her guide. I liked that idea. year-old company run by an amiable 44- romantic, three-day bicycle trip. I had I’d wanted to avoid the typical luxe bike year-old named Bruno Toutain, who had been to Provence several times in my life, tour, the sort of trip where a dozen or more turned his passion for cycling into a and I had intoxicating, if somewhat faded, strangers are led by a professional guide business that offered something called
    • CHRISTOPHE MARGOT FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES The Palais des Papes in Avignon, the one-time seat of Christianity and home to popes for much of the 14th century. “self-guided” cycling tours. each night of our trip, with dinner included. back roads, not pressured by traffic or “I used to work as a guide on guided bike And, of course, Cyclomundo would pick up time, able to take in the sights and smells tours, and it wasn’t really satisfying,” Mr. our luggage at each stop and deposit it at at our own pace. “We do a lot of honeymoon Toutain told me when I called to get his the next hotel well before we arrived. All trips,” Mr. Toutain said. That sounded story. “It was one notch above a bus tour we had to do was get there . . . whenever. about right. company. The people are not part of the Though Cyclomundo offers bicycle Our friends’ wedding luncheon was in landscape. They weren’t enough of an trips in Spain, Italy and Switzerland, its the Jura, a region in the eastern part of actor in their own trip. There was too trips through France are its bread and France, and we got a late start to Avignon. much guidance.” butter. Most of the trips last five or six It was dark when we arrived. And here I His approach was a little more do-it- days, on routes with varying degrees of confess, dear reader, my plan began to go yourself. Instead of pedaling behind a difficulty: “We can give you something awry. In my eagerness to show her old guide, we would be given laminated maps close to the Tour de France, if you wish,” Avignon, the historic town inside ancient that laid out each day’s route, along with Mr. Toutain boasted. Truth to tell, she fortress walls, I had booked, via Orbitz, an highly detailed route instructions. (Typical could probably have handled that, but one inexpensive two-star hotel in that part of direction: “At the crossing, there is a loop around Central Park is usually town. A bad mistake. bakery. Follow the street right next to it enough for me, so I asked for something a The cobbled, claustrophobic streets, so +- 0,2 km.”) The bicycles we rented had little less taxing. glorious when you’re on foot, were stands attached to the handles, allowing Mr. Toutain assured me that he had the hideous in a car at night. Narrow, one- the maps to be mounted like sheet music perfect three-day trip for the likes of me: way, twisting and turning around ancient on a music stand. We could take as long as Avignon to St.-Rémy-de-Provence the buildings and modern shops, there was no we wanted getting to our daily destination first day (15 miles); St.-Rémy to Arles on way I could make sense of them. The — nobody cared. For a fixed — and quite Day 2 (29 miles); and Arles back to fortress walls blocked my GPS. Because reasonable — price, Cyclomundo also Avignon on the last day (35 miles). For the annual Avignon summer arts festival booked either three- or four-star hotels for most of the trip, we would be on small was in full force, we couldn’t find a place
    • to park — or even to slow down to look at street signs or ask for help. “Do you know where you’re going?” she asked with a sigh. “I know it’s right around here somewhere,” I said. In its confirmation e-mail message, the hotel had informed us that they locked the doors at 11 p.m. We had been driving the same handful of streets for more than an hour and it was nearly 10:45. Then she spotted the parking space. “Park there,” she commanded. She leapt out of the car and swung into action. Affecting a sweetness she most certainly did not feel, she explained our dilemma to a barkeep who was standing across the street. He smiled, called the hotel, got the directions, and pointed us on our way. We left the car right where it was, and got there with minutes to spare. I wish I could say that that was the worst of it, but it wasn’t. The hotel I had booked turned out to be something out of the Addams Family, dank and dirty, and our room — in the attic! — was a horror show. A ratty air-conditioning unit barely worked, and when we threw open the windows for some desperately needed air, we discovered that the windows opened up to the inside of the hotel. She went downstairs to demand an upgrade, but it was too late — there was nobody at the desk. After a fitful night of tossing and turning, we checked out at 6 a.m., practi- cally gasping for air. So much for showing her Avignon. We spent the next four hours waiting for the bike shop to open so we could rent our bikes and get out of town. I parked her in the lobby of a hotel — a modern one, thank goodness, outside the fortress walls — where she sipped coffee and freshened up in the bathroom. I, meanwhile, got hauled off to the police station for making an illegal U-turn. (Note to travelers: No matter how frustrated you are, don’t say “Oh, c’mon,” when the gendarmes pull you over.) “Where have you been?” she asked when I returned. Now even I couldn’t wait to get out of town. The young man at the bike shop had our hybrid mountain bikes ready for us when we arrived a few minutes after 10. He handed us a little repair kit in case we had a flat, helmets and three days’ worth of maps and directions, which, I later discovered, had been drawn up by his boss, the bike shop’s owner. (Later, when I asked the owner to give me copies of the routes for this article, he resisted: “They are my business advantage,” he kept saying.) We handed him our luggage. In our flip-flops PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHRISTOPHE MARGOT FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES TOP An outdoor restaurant in Eygalières. MIDDLE Produce for sale at a roadside stand near St.-Rémy- de-Provence. ABOVE The Roman amphitheater in Arles.
    • and shorts, we were on our way. there. We’ll still be in St.-Rémy by 2 Fifteen miles on a bicycle — the distance p.m.” She shot me a dubious glance, but Orange to St.-Rémy — is not a long trip, even for off we went. me. The point of the first day’s ride, it Did I mention that Les Baux was high LANGUEDOC PROVENCE would seem, is to get yourself acclimated. in the mountains? There was a reason Avignon It was confusing in the beginning. On the Mr. Toutain had not included it in the main road out of town, there were plenty route he gave us. This was not a smell- Graveson of signs to St.-Rémy, and it took me a the-lavender kind of ride; within a few Maillane while to realize that I had to ignore them. minutes we were climbing straight up, FRANCE St.-Rémy-de- The point was to follow the map and the and it was brutal. I finally had to get off Provence directions, which kept us off the main my bike and start walking it up the hills. roads as much as possible. She gave me a disdainful glance as she Arles Aix-en- pedaled on. Provence A T first, though, that had its own set of By the time we spotted Les Baux, the difficulties. The maps and directions magnitude of my error was manifest to were on different sheets of paper, both of us. Having ridden to the top of the but you could put only one of them on the mountain, we could see the magnificent stand. She was perfectly content to let me contours of the old fortress — on the next BRITAIN Marseille juggle both, but I found myself constantly mountain over. To actually get there stopping to look at one and then the other. would require going down the other side Paris When we stopped to sip water, I would try of the mountain we had just climbed and Mediterranean to memorize the next three or four steps. up another one. FRANCE Sea Eventually, though, I got comfortable with Area of the directions on my stand, and began to detail pay more attention to the scenery than the Miles 20 route itself. Touring by bike is different from touring Touring by bike, you SPAIN THE NEW YORK TIMES by car — you see more, for sure, but in a deeply sensory way, you experience more. can see how happy It was warm the next morning, but There was nothing on this route that was especially earth-shattering — and yet well-fed Provençal there was a crisp wind. After saying our goodbyes to Mr. Dimeux, we set off for from the vantage point of our bikes, it all was. The perfectly rolled hay. The acres cows look up close. Arles. Just out of town, with her riding a little ahead of me, a sudden gust of wind of sunflowers. The stone walls. The sweet blew my directions off the stand. “Wait,” farmhouses. We passed our first farm, I yelled. But she didn’t hear me. I ran back and remarked to each other how happy “So,” she said, “What do you want to to recover the directions; once I retrieved Provençal cows looked up close, well-fed do?” I took out my camera. “Let’s take a them, I realized she was nowhere to be and well-tended. We stopped to inspect few pictures and go back,” I said. She seen. “She must have just gone ahead,” I our first olive grove. We pedaled past a gave me a look that said, “I’m glad thought. So I continued along the road. lavender field, and soaked in the sweet you’ve come to your senses.” We sped And yes, dear reader, it happened aroma. We biked through Graveson and down the mountain, and got to St.-Rémy again. In fact, she had seen a sign for Maillane, two small Provençal towns, tak- around 1 p.m.— only to discover that the Arles and set off, while my directions had ing pictures of churches and cemeteries, open-air market was shutting down. Oy. taken me in the opposite direction. When I where we read the inscriptions and wonder- Then on to the hotel. My assumption was finally realized she wasn’t there, we were ed about lives lived. She had brought some that after we checked in and had lunch, miles apart. We had made the conscious cheese, and as we passed a farm with we would head back out again to tour the decision not to take our cellphones on this pear trees, she jumped off her bike, and city. Not a chance. Seeing our bags in the trip, but that also meant that now we had grabbed two pears. That was lunch. Within room, she rummaged through hers, and no way of getting in touch with each other. an hour on the bike, the travails of Avignon pulled out a bathing suit. “I’m not I rode down various roads looking for her. were forgotten. We were happy again. moving,” she said. I waited at the point where I thought she Still, even taking our sweet time, we On the other hand, why would we move? must have turned off, thinking she would were almost in St.-Rémy by noon. She had As it turns out, Mr. Toutain was much eventually return. I doubled back to St.- somehow learned that every Wednesday, better at choosing hotels in Provence than Rémy. She wasn’t there. I finally decided there was a big open-air market in St.- I was. Le Mas des Carassins, where we to follow my directions to Arles and hoped Rémy, and she wanted to see it. But then I stayed that night, was an old farmhouse, she got there. saw a sign: “Les Baux,” it read, “9 km.” slightly off the beaten track, that had been And sure enough, she did. When I And here, dear reader, I did it again. converted into a stylish, modern hotel. The arrived at our hotel in Arles, a pleasant Les Baux de Provence is another one of two owners, Michel Dimeux and Pierre enough place called Le Calendal, right in the great French tourist spots of my Ticot, were refugees from the corporate the center of town, she had been there for distant memory. High in the mountains, world who had bought the place in 2000 and more than an hour. She was waiting atop a beautiful medieval town, and spent three years renovating it. They put in anxiously for me. “I’ve been so worried,” overlooking a steep cliff, sit the ruins of a the swimming pool, created a series of she said. I’ve had worse reunions. once-great fortress — as well as other gorgeous gardens, and hired a first-rate As it turns out, she had had her own ancient, excavated ruins that go back as chef. It felt secluded, even though it wasn’t. adventure that day. She had waited for me far as the first century. It is, to me, a We spent the rest of the afternoon sitting at the place where she turned off the road magical place, and I remember taking under an olive tree, reading, sipping a — which was a different spot from the one my children there when they were young lovely local rosé. She had ordered massage where I had waited for her. For much of and watching their glee and awe as they service ahead of time, and we both got the time, we were probably no more than climbed around the ruins. outdoor massages. At night, after a lovely 200 yards apart. Eventually, a man had I looked at my watch. “Les Baux is dinner of local veal, we could hear a wolf stopped to help, and had let her use his great!” I said to her excitedly. “Let’s go howling in the distance. cellphone to call Cyclomundo. He had then
    • driven her in his truck to the main road, and laughed about the day we’d both had. talk to us. As we raved about the meal, he which she took to get to the hotel. And we stumbled upon a restaurant told us he had worked for Alain Ducasse, “Let’s walk around,” I said after she that night called Le Cilantro, where we had and had spent time in the United States, told me her story. I had never been to a meal as memorable as any I can remem- his last stop being the Meridien Hotel in Arles before, so instead of trying to be the ber: caramelized frogs’ legs, stuffed saddle Boston. But Arles was home. “I grew up guide, I discovered the great Roman of lamb, lobster in a stunning emulsion. here,” he said. “My parents live across the amphitheater of Arles with her at my The young chef, Jérôme Laurent, who had street.” Lucky Arles. Lucky us. side. We sat in the stands, contemplating started the restaurant in 2004, was And then it was our last day of biking in gladiators and bullfights (the latter still holding court with some customers, but Provence, and nothing went wrong, not take place there). We poked our heads during dessert (white and yellow peach in even for a second. It was the longest day of into art galleries and shops. We talked a citrus-flavored soup) he came over to biking, but we only wanted it to be longer. We stopped every few miles, to take pictures or soak in the scenery. She saw an olive farm selling olive oil, and we pulled in to buy some. The proprietor came outside with us, and took our pictures together. A half hour later, we weren’t on any road at all — our directions had put us on a path so narrow that no car could ever get down it. On one side ran a canal, flowing with cold water. On the other side was a series of farms where horses grazed. We were stunned at the beauty we found ourselves in. “Can you believe this?” I kept asking. All she could do in response was giggle and take more photos. We were seeing something no tourist could see without a bicycle — that, and a map drawn by a man who viewed this path as his intellectual property. I knew right then that this would be my memory of this trip. Or rather, it would be our memory. We finally arrived in Avignon late in the afternoon. There was still plenty of daylight left, and I suppose we could have CHRISTOPHE MARGOT FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES wandered back into central Avignon, A lake near St.-Rémy. perhaps even visited the Palais des Papes. But I’d learned my lesson. I no OVER THE HANDLEBARS longer wanted to show her my Provence; GETTING THERE lodging with breakfast, some or all WHERE TO STAY I now understood that the point of this trip To get to Avignon by plane from New lunches and dinners (as stated in the Les Mas des Carassins (1, chemin was to discover our Provence. It was York can mean connections and airfares of $1,400 or more for travel this summer, tour description), luggage transfers, maps and itinerary. According to the Gaulois, St.-Rémy; 33-4-9092-1548; www .masdescarassins.com). Prices (if you better that way. The bikes had given us a based on a recent Web search. A better company’s Web site, accommodation are not on the Cyclomundo package) for new way to experience a very old place. option is to fly to either Paris or Mar- seille and then take a train to Avignon. options range from “four-star hotels on a standard room start at 126 euros, In St.-Rémy, Michel Dimeux had told us deluxe tours to ‘bivouac’ on some breakfast included and 212 euros for a From Paris, direct TGV trains from mountain-bike tours, and everything in suite with breakfast. about a town called Gordes, where he and Gare de Lyon take about two and a half hours, and one-way fares start at between.” There are almost a dozen Hôtel Le Calendal (5, rue Porte de his partner had put in a second hotel. I had around $78 for a restricted second-class self-guided options offered in Provence, ranging from the three-day, two-night Laure, Arles; 33-4-9096-1189; www.arles .com). Prices for double rooms range never been there before, and knew nothing ticket and at around $252 for a refund- able first-class ticket. Trains depart fre- “Short Escape: from Avignon to Arles” from 109 euros to 159 euros, depending about it. It was, he said (correctly, it turns quently from Marseille, with some jour- journey, with prices starting at 275 on size of room and outside view. out), a spectacular village built into the side euros (about $400 at $1.45 to the euro) a neys taking as little as 30 minutes and one-way fares starting at $25. For train person, to an eight-day, seven-night WHERE TO EAT The Cyclomundo package includes of a mountain, which had been transformed information and reservations, go to tour of “Gastronomic Provence,” with meals at several excellent area restau- into an artists’ colony and tourist mecca. www.raileurope.com or call (800) 622- 8600. prices starting at 775 euros a person. At Provence Bike (7, avenue Saint- rants, but if you feel like striking out on your own, one good option is Le Cilantro We got in our car and headed off to BIKING AROUND PROVENCE. Ruf, Avignon; 33-4-9027-9261; www (31, rue Porte de Laure, Arles; 33-4- Gordes, without so much as a glance Cyclomundo (33-4-5087-2109 or 212- .provence-bike.com) you can rent bikes for 15 euros a day for basic bikes and 30 9018-2505; www.restaurantcilantro backward. 504-8368; www.cyclomundo.com,) of- .com), run by Jérôme Laurent, a young euros for higher-end bikes, and the own- fers guided or self-guided bike tours in France, Spain, Italy and Switzerland. er will provide you with detailed route chef who once worked for Alain Ducasse. Dinner for two, including JOE NOCERA writes the Talking Self-guided tours usually include daily maps. wine, is approximately 170 euros. Business column for The Times. (#20064) Copyright © 2009 by The New York Times Company. Reprinted with permission. For subscriptions to The New York Times, please call 1-800-NYTIMES. Visit us online at www.nytimes.com. For more information about reprints contact PARS International Corp. at 212-221-9595 x425.