Three Wheels in Provence... Triking Through the South of France
(And a Detour to Burgundy)
Since 2000, we've been able to cycle through several regions of France (Loire, Alsace, and Bordeaux), as well as other countries of western Europe (Holland, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland). For this year's tour, we decided to return to France, but with some modifications of our normal touring routine.
On our last two trips, the trike suffered serious mechanical problems that we attributed to a combination of weight (us and our luggage) and a lot of hill climbing. Mechanical upgrades to the trike (eliminating the internally geared rear hub, new brakes) coupled with my weight loss and the elimination of baggage solved the mechanical issues, and careful terrain analysis helped to reduce climbing significantly. The only other detail - where to go? Jayne put on her researcher hat and within a few days came up with the answer: Provence.
Of all the regions of France, writers tend to wax lyrical about Provence - history, art, climate, cuisine - it seems there's something for everyone. For almost 2000 years, since the Romans established Provence as the administrative center for Gaul, tourists have combed the villages and countryside for the sights and tastes of this unique region. Artists such as Van Gogh and Picasso lived and created there. For a time, Avignon replaced the Vatican as the seat of the Catholic church, housing popes (and a few anti-popes as well). The Cotes de Rhone is one of the premier wine regions of France. Of course, we had to go.
Because we wanted to avoid carrying 50-60 pounds of gear on the bike, we decided to eschew our normal touring routine of flying into town, loading up the bike and riding out on a semi-organized route, stopping in whatever town we happened to think looked interesting. For this trip, we would use a tour organizer who would give us a route with directions (hah!), pre-arranged hotel accommodations, and luggage transfers. All we would have to do is follow the directions, see the sights, and taste some wine, all while enjoying the wonderful Provencal weather. We would end up covering almost 300 miles of the Provencal countryside.
Selecting a touring company is not an easy task. Though there are many companies that advertise bike tours, most are brokers, in actuality there are relatively few actual tour companies. For our tour, we used the broker Bike Tours Direct, a US company. The tour logistics were handled by France Bike, based in Montpellier. Though overall our tour experience was positive, we had a number of issues with France Bike that caused significant concern - we would not recommend using them as a touring company (Click here for recommendations on selecting a tour operator).
The overall plan was pretty simple - fly to Montpellier via Newark and Paris, shuttle to Avignon, which would be our base for two one-week organized bike tours, then we would pack up the bike and decide what to do for our third week. While we were away, Jayne's mom Sandra would house sit for us and tend to the beasts. Not a bad deal.
As departure day approached, so did a hurricane, but despite our concerns that it would target San Antonio, it stayed south, so weather would not be a factor in our flight. We loaded up the car with the bike and the rest of our luggage and Sandra chauffeured us to the airport. Though I had made sure to print out Continental's policy on fees for bikes, I had missed one new wrinkle since our 2006 trip - the maximum weight allowance for luggage has been dropped from 100 pounds to 70 pounds. First problem - the bike box weighs 75 pounds. The Continental agent is happy to sell us a cardboard box (for $15), so I pull a couple of wheels out of the bike box, which lowers the weight enough to satisfy the agent (luckily, he also forgets to charge us the $85 fee for the bike).
Originally, we had planned to fly via Houston, but due to connections, this route would extended our travel time by about 8 hours, so instead, we chose to fly via Newark. Though we had a short connection in Newark, there was another flight to Paris that left an hour after our scheduled flight, so we figured, worst case, we should be able to get on the later flight. Of course, we failed to consider the ongoing problems with air traffic control in the Newark area. Our flight to Newark was delayed over 3 hours in departing from San Antonio due to air traffic holds, so we missed our scheduled flight. Since the delays impacted not only incoming, but also outgoing flights, we were able to catch the second flight - but just barely. By the time we reached the gate, the door to the plane had already been closed, but they let us on. Instead of a wide-body 777, we would fly to Paris on a 757 - and the only seats available were middle seats (at least they were in an exit row). Needless to say, our seat mates were not happy. Oh well, at least we had seats - all I needed to survive the trip was a seat and a sleeping pill. One Ambien, an 8-hour nap, and we're in Paris. We even make our connection to Montpellier - unfortunately, our bike and checked luggage doesn't. At least we have a change of clothes in our carry-on bags.
The Air France rep in Montpellier gives each of us a kit with toiletries and a t-shirt, and assures us that our bags will be put on the evening flight, and shuttled to our hotel in Avignon. Jayne calls France Bike to cancel their shuttle service (saving 120 euros) and we catch a taxi to the train station. There's a train leaving for Avignon in less than 30 minutes, so we purchase tickets and hop on the train. In about an hour, we're in Avignon, and after a short walk, we reach the Hotel Magnan, which will be our base for the next two weeks while we explore Provence, sample the cuisine, taste some wine, and even experience the French health care system.
Avignon is an interesting city. It's primary claim to fame is that for around 100 years, in the 1300's, several popes lived in Avignon when political conditions in Italy made it unhealthy for them to stay in the Vatican. The primary tourist attraction in Avignon is the papal palace, a combination of residences, churches, and fortifications that housed the popes and their entourages, In addition to the palace itself, there are other structures such as churches, bishops' and cardinals' houses, and other buildings that sprang up around the seat of power.
Saturday morning, after a traditional French hotel breakfast (croissants, bread, yogurt, cheese - 7 euros), we discover that our luggage has arrived. Jayne takes a walk into town to purchase a cell phone charger while I assemble the trike. In a couple of hours the cell phone is recharging, the trike is rideable, and we've stashed the bike box in the hotel's storage room.
After a leisurely lunch and afternoon nap, we return for an evening stroll through Avignon, trying to kill time until our 7:30 dinner reservation
We debated about where to go after finishing the biking portion of the tour. One option was to continue biking to some other areas of Provence, but since the mistral showed no signs of abating, we elected not to do that. Another option was to continue down to the Cote d'Azure and Monaco, or even take a side trip to Barcelona. In the end, we decided to check out another area of France that is famous for it's wine: Burgundy.