For those of you who know me, I expect that you think I am pretty organized and like to get things done. But really, I harbor the soul of a procrastinator. I am great at making to do lists but those undesirable or difficult tasks can sit on the list for months on end before I finally chastise myself and do them. Since we have been home from France, I have intended to write one last post where I considered the trip as a whole, rather than each day or each place as a separate theme. We have been home for two months now, and as the New Year approaches, I finally have the time and more importantly, the inspiration to sit down and write.
The most common comment I hear from people who have read my blog on our France trip is that they can’t imagine how much work it was to write the blog at the end of a long cycling day. While that was true, I am more amazed at how impossible it has been, since I got home, to write some concluding remarks.
When we were in France, some days it was so easy to write a post. I was brimming with enthusiasm about the day and the words flowed effortlessly. Other days, it took some time for an idea to crystallize before I knew what I wanted to write. It’s amazing how, on returning from a holiday, daily life rushes back in and consumes one’s time. Depending on our lives, we become consumed with children or aging parents, or both, our jobs, or social commitments. Time wanders on and before we know it, our holidays, even the best of them, become less vivid in our memory.
So after two months of procrastination, here I go…….
A month is a long time to be away. It takes some thinking now to remember the first days; the sights, the sounds, the smells. It’s not so much that I have forgotten them as much as that they have been layered over with other memories. The blog tickles those mental pathways for me.
My favorite experiences? We had so many wonderful days but, surprisingly, it isn’t that hard to choose my favorites. The larger cities are spectacular but the peacefulness of the French countryside resonates more for me. Life seems simpler there, though it may just be the romantic eye of a tourist that sees it that way. We were so lucky to arrive as the grape harvest was happening. It brought a whole array of experiences. As we rode along the roadways, our bike tires would make the most remarkable sound – a kind of sticky, sloshing, gummy sound as debris from the grapes on the road would coat our tires. The air smelled sickeningly sweet with the fragrance of the grapes. I remember, in particular, sitting one lunch in a cafe along the main street in some small town, whose name I don’t even recall, and watching the grape-laden trucks drive by almost continuously. Every truck driver would honk and wave at a group of local people who were sharing the patio with us. For better or for worse, everybody knows everybody in these small villages.
We had almost flawless weather. In 30 days, we had one evening and one afternoon of rain. Luck was on our side, as we heard of heavy rains and even flash flooding in areas of France near to where we traveled which we just managed to miss. The temperatures were always comfortable. I recall few mornings where we had to wear anything warmer than a light jacket to be comfortably dressed. I wore my rain pants just once, to fight the early morning chill. The weather is, of course, outside our control, but greatly influences the overall experience. We couldn’t have asked for better.
We saw many châteaux, during our jam-packed week on the Loire River, but my favorite, without hesitation, is Chenonceau. Its smaller scale makes it easier for me to imagine what it was like in the time of François I. In my mind’s eye, I can imagine kings and queens, dukes and duchesses strolling the paths and gardens, or relaxing in the elegant salons. I can see boats floating down the river, and stopping at the château to deliver fresh produce and meats to the staff quarters in the lower level of the château. When we were touring the grounds, a tourist boat floated underneath the château on the Cher River. Made me think of yesteryear. For the full story on Chenonceau, see Touring on to Tours.
The French have a bit of a bad reputation for being uppity with tourists. It’s understandable, I think. France is the world’s most popular tourist destination. 85 million foreign tourists visit France each year. The United States, second on the list, has 70 million foreign visitors. In spite of the fact that these tourists have euros to spend, I can appreciate how it can be a bit exhausting to always show one’s best self to the ever-demanding tourist.
In any case, we never (perhaps almost never) felt anything but warmth from our French hosts. They patiently accepted my less than stellar attempts at French, offering much encouragement. We muddled through the French version of the menu, which we insisted on using even though they invariably had English language versions as well. It is a great way to learn new vocabulary. One night in Avignon, we decided to have Vietnamese food. Ordering soup, we asked whether the soup was “hot” (chaud). “Of course, it is hot,” was the reply in French from the befuddled waitress. “It is soup.” What I really wanted to know was if the soup was “spicy”, a word I know in French, but couldn’t find in my brain at that moment. (The appropriate French word is piquant which we would also use in English.) We all tend to speak in our mother tongue in a rather careless way and trying to communicate in a second language makes us more aware of the idiosyncratic way with which we speak.
So many funny little events peppered each day. Within the first ten minutes of our first morning of riding, laden-down with our panniers for the first time, I struggled with the weight of my load and the tried to become accustomed to the effect they had on the balance of my bike. While riding along the bike path, bordering the Loire River, the morning sun shining and the air still crisp, I had the humiliating experience of being passed by a nun on a bike, dressed in a full-length traditional habit and veil. I remember thinking, “Oh my goodness, what have I gotten myself into? Fully decked out in my cycling gear, with my brand new bike, I can’t even ride faster than a nun!”
Later the same morning, we passed a farm selling apples. We arrived at ten minutes before ten, only to be told that they didn’t open until 10:00. Seemed silly to me that they would make us wait ten minutes, when their bins were brimming with apples not five feet away from where we stood but they did. We opted not to wait, though in hindsight we should have. We missed out on experiencing fresh French apples.
The food and wine were a big part of our experience. A day didn’t go by that we didn’t enjoy some lovely local wine. We started out buying wine by the bottle in restaurants and then on the recommendation of one waiter, tried the carafes of house wine. It was always delicious and certainly less expensive than the wines by the bottle. When we were in St. Emilion, we were surprised (shocked?) at the prices of the wines for sale. It’s a little mind-boggling to think of spending €12,000 for a bottle of wine.
My favorite French food invention is the Café Gourmand. This is the dessert for people who can’t make up their minds and want a bit of everything. It features coffee and a selection of tiny desserts. Wikipedia tells me it was “invented” in Paris around 2005. It seems like such a perfect idea that it would have existed in French dining culture for centuries but apparently not.
It wasn’t all roses. The biggest problem was my unrelenting toothache. You may remember my post, “Today, I visit the dentist.” The toothache started a week and a half into our trip and lasted for about two weeks. There were a few days when I wasn’t sure that I would be able to continue. I was contemplating coming home so that I could get my tooth cared for. I am so glad it didn’t come to that. A course of penicillin and the relentless popping of pain medication eventually allowed it to heal enough for me to continue. The difficult part was that the pain would strike with a jolt, quite randomly. We would be riding along and I would feel fine, and then bam! Sometimes, it was something as simple as cold air passing across my teeth that triggered the pain. The upside, if there ever could be one, was that I ate so much wonderful fish. The heavier meats that the French seem to favor were too difficult to chew, so I ordered fish for dinner every evening for two weeks. The French prepare beautiful fish – tender, fresh and flavorful. As an aside, once I was back home, a hurriedly arranged dental appointment confirmed my worst fears and within a week, I had a root canal.
After logging 1100 kilometers, we really didn’t have any serious misadventures. We didn’t have a single flat tire. We never got lost for any great length of time, though coming into Avignon was a bit hair-raising. We somehow ended up on a very busy road. Not quite a highway, but the traffic was heavy and the shoulder of the road was littered with debris, especially glass. But we arrived in one piece.
We do need to do a little work on streamlining the whole process of getting our bikes to and from our destination. As you may recall, we partially disassembled them and packed them in cardboard bike boxes. This was fine for the trip to France but was too cumbersome for the trip home. We had to find a bike shop who would give us boxes, cart the boxes to our hotel, box up the bikes and then get them to the airport. We got many strange looks from people in the train stations and the airport. It was quite amusing. Most people rent bikes at their destination. I like the idea of having my own bike but, as I said, some work needs to be done on making this easier.
Dennis and I had rare disagreements about the route though Dennis often was game to ride further distances than I would have preferred. The five hill towns of Provence comes to mind. One day early in our trip, we sat at a crossroads trying to figure out if we should take the gravel path to the left, which the map and the trail markers suggested or the paved path to the right. After investing ten minutes making a decision and consulting with other cyclists who happened by, we opted for the paved path. We rode for, perhaps five minutes, on the paved path only to find that the gravel path terminated into the paved path at that point, in any case. We were fretting about nothing. There must be a French word for that!
We always managed to find a decent, if not lovely hotel, most often only booked a few days before. Out of 30 nights, we really only had one hotel which I would put in the awful category. It was our second night on the road and we had had a long day. We didn’t really have the energy to look for another place. It wasn’t dirty. Had it been, we surely would have found a different place, but it was hardly bigger than a broom closet. On balance, we had very comfortable accommodations. We found that sometimes it was easier to forgo the charming local hotel for the comforts and more reliable internet of the larger chain hotels. On the other hand, we liked to treat ourselves occasionally to something more luxurious. A lovely bed and breakfast in Vaison-la-Romaine called L’Évêché certainly comes to mind.
All-in-all, it was an life-changing trip. We have a great sense of freedom and accomplishment to know that we can navigate on our bikes in a foreign country, without too much preparation. (We really were under-prepared, I think). It is pure joy to travel by bike.
One of the French language learning CD’s that I really like is a program by a Frenchman, now deceased, named Michel Thomas. When he teaches about “au revoir“, he points out that it really means “until we see each other again.” The verb “to see” is voir, so revoir is to “re-see” or “to see again.” It is a much more sentimental way to think about saying goodbye.
When I think about leaving France, I like to think about saying au revoir as I know it is a place I long to see again. I hope you have enjoyed riding along with me. It has been my pleasure to write about our trip.