Archive for month: February, 2012

What’s a Tandem Without a Partner? Arles and Le Camargue

Categories: Adventure, Biking, France, Health and Fitness, Horses - Tags: , ,

Our tour’s final ride leaves Arles on Sunday morning for a route through the Camargue; a national wildlife refuge on the Rhone River Delta. Jan and Bill report that on their scouting trip they spotted wild horses, pink flamingos, mammals related to woodchucks, storks and various birds of prey. They also passed farms where they saw the Camargue breed of bulls grazing. They’ve made an optional unpaved loop which passes two lighthouses and offers views of the Grande Rhone Delta into Mediterranean.

From the Camargue we will ferry across the Rhone and reach Port Saint Louis; where the Amadeus Symphony will be waiting with lunch in time to pack our tandems on the top deck, cruise back upriver to Arles for a farewell banquet.

Jim and I have a 6 AM flight tomorrow from Marseilles so we have to wake up at 2:45AM for a 3AM bus from Arles to the Marseilles airport.  This promises to be a very full day—but I am really excited to ride and especially to see the wild horses of the Camargue.  There’s a fantastic YouTube video floating around the web in which one of the Camarge cowboys harnesses up six of the grey-white ponies—two in the back and four in the front—and rides them at full gallop along the tidal surf of the delta—He rides by standing barefoot, one foot on each of the two back horses.  It is extraordinary to see these beautiful beasts, flying fearlessly along the tide line, in total harmonious connection with their cowboy rider/driver.  Soon, he signals to them to head into the sea and swim.  The video ends with the image of the six horses heads only showing above the water line—manes wet, powerfully pulling forward, swimming in the surf, with their rider standing barefoot on the rumps of the two last horses.  Clearly magical.

Do I dream of coming here to the Camargue and seeing the place where this amazing horseman and these magical horses live?  Of Course!  So waking in the 6 AM darkness to get up and get dressed for the day, I am SO disappointed to hear Jim croak, “I’m not riding today.”  It doesn’t sound negotiable.  Tandem riding is wonderful, but it does have this one major problem.  It takes two riders, both desiring to ride.  Suddenly, with great disappointment, I realize that we are/ I am boat bound today and my dream of riding the Camargue will not happen.

But wait, maybe somebody else on this boat, another captain of a tandem, may be hearing the same message from his stoker, that she has caught the cold that is going around everywhere and is opting out for today.  I decide to “dress for the dance” even though I don’t have a dance partner or dance invitation, just in case there’s an extra captain in the dining room at breakfast.  Jim encourages me to do that and after our morning ablutions, at 7 we head down for breakfast .  I head straight for Bill and Jan McCready’s table to let him know I am available to stoke.  Then, realizing that a river delta is going to be totally flat, I head over to find Wolgang, the German psycylist, figuring how dangerous could it be on the flats with him?  But his partner is pertly dressed and ready to ride.  I look around the dining room and, typical tandem style, there are pairs and pairs of matching jerseys, indicating green light for all the tandems, except in the case of those who aren’t suited up to ride at all.

I circle the dining room three times, asking around and feeling exactly like an awkwardly gangly 7th grade wall flower at an excruciatingly painful school dance with no partner.  Oh, well.  Not meant to be.  Best to make the best of it.  I can write my blog and pack very calmly.  As I am eating breakfast, I hear Bill pick up the microphone and announce, “Any of you captains out there without a stoker today, Harriet Wrye is a small very strong stoker, looking to ride…..” I am so embarrassed at being singled out like this, but it actually works. Loren from near Houston, Texas is hale and hearty but his wife Kelly has succumbed to the cold, probably from overstressing up Mt. Ventaux.  But she DID Mt. Ventaux, and Loren looks a lot younger than me.  Nevertheless, I am thrilled to be able to ride, so off I go to get my waterbottles, rain gear, camera and helmet.

Man, what a ride it was!  Just about the last ones to leave the boat after adjusting the seat and pedals to fit me, and with the wrong map loaded on Loren’s Garmen GPS unit, we sail out of town in the wrong direction.  Not a problem.  Loren is in fine fettle and he and Kelly have a tandem microphone setup so they can talk to each other.  What a great idea!  Plus, they have the most comfortable bike seats I’ve ever ridden.  With Loren’s youth, strength and my gratitude and gumption, we fairly fly the thirty miles across the Camargue, stopping for a few photos of horses and egrets.  What a fun finale, and to boot, when we make it back to the boat at Port St. Louis, Jim has been feeling well enough to disassemble our “Pandemonium, Commotion Tandemonium” and pack her up in her two bike cases.  All that remains is for us to enjoy a final delicious lunch and for me to pack up our personal gear.  Soon, this amazing trip will become a shadow of a sweet tandem memory. . . .

At our farewell lunch, we just serendipitously happen to land at the “dog” table—everybody is talking about their dogs—and puppies—and this gives me a wonderful chance to refresh my rusty memories of puppy training—and to share our good news about going home to pick up our new Poodle puppy, “Monsieur Bon Bon de Beau Beaune” this week, or Beau for short!


“Pique-nique” in Arles

Categories: Biking, Conscious Living, Dining, France, Gourmet, Travel - Tags: , , , , ,

The ride today is out and back from Arles to the foot of the Alpilles, en route to Saint Remy de Provence, where Vincent van Gogh hospitalized himself for thirteen artistically productive months after cutting off part of his ear. Then we ride on to the same spots that inspired some of van Gogh’s finest works. The next stop on the ride, dozens of feet beneath the olive groves that Van Gogh painted, is where archeologists more recently unearthed Glanum, a Roman regional capital dating from 100 B.C.  Finally, routed on this memorably promising day is Les Baux, the massive castle where knightly chivalry was practiced and the art form of the troubadour was refined. There’s also a display of classic “engines of war” that include a full size catapult and trebuchet. Although the castle (portions of it dating back to pre-Roman times), was pulled down for religious reasons in 1632 (it had become a refuge for protestants!) the village survived, and is as intriguing as the fortress.

All this is so exciting because Jim and I took our first tandem trip here in 1988 and I remember this route as a high point of that trip.  However, as Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote, the “best laid plans of mice and men are aftly gang awry.”  At breakfast, Jim starts sneezing uncontrollably and then, turning to me ruefully, says, “I’m coming down with a cold.”  Of course spending eight days on an air-conditioned boat is like being confined within an airplane cabin for days.  I hadn’t realized it, but cyclists are dropping like flies from colds.

Well, actually, not bad timing, Jim!  The boat will be staying overnight again here in Arles and today being Saturday, we have in Arles Provence’s largest outdoor market.  We’d already suited up in our bike clothes, so after the rest of the still-healthy cyclists take off for St Remy En Provence, we change from our cleated bike shoes into more comfortable footwear and head into the center of town to the huge blocks and blocks long street market.  We’ve been cycling so much, it’s really the first time I’ve had any free time to browse for gifts for the kids at home.  Jim quickly tires of this hunter-gathering mode and returns to read, rest and nurse his cold on the ship, leaving me to scour the market for Provencal bibelots for friends and family.

There are the most delectable offerings in the food department, but I know there’s no way the extraordinary selections of cheese, pates or olive tapenades can make it home with us, so I take lots of pictures and head, just slightly downcast, into the part of the market that sells Provencal linens, fabrics, olive oils, lavender soaps and sachets.  I fill my basket, enjoying brief conversations in French with the merchants and turn toward home.  But it is already noon and there is no lunch scheduled on the boat today, so I spin around with zest and fresh culinary purpose and return to the market.  Voila!  I will buy some of those amazing cheeses, tapinades, olives and bread and make Jim a picnic!

Back on the boat, I lay out the booty on a table in the deserted lounge of the boat, invite Jim to join me, and we have probably our favorite meal on the whole trip.  It’s intimate, delicious, beautiful and fun.  Bon Apetite!

I pray Jim can breathe well enough tomorrow to ride, because tomorrow promises to be perhaps the most unique day of all—riding our tandems across the Camargue—the flat delta of the Rhone, so rich with wildlife, it abounds in pink flamingos, wild horses, mammals related to woodchucks, storks and various birds of prey.  Oh, la la!

The Bull Games of Arles

Categories: Adventure, Animals, Biking, France, Travel - Tags: , , , ,

While we were cycling to Rousillon, the ship moved downriver to Arles, famous for its Roman Coliseum, Vincent van Gogh paintings and the distinctly French version of a Spanish Bullfight. After the buses take us to the ship’s new location, we have no time to clean up before a guided walking tour leaves the ship for and the Roman Arena in the ancient center of Arles. We top off this fabulous day in Provence at the “Bull Games”.  Having seen and developed deep aversion to bullfights in Spain, Jim and I are both apprehensive, but within moments settling into our stone bench seats in the arena, we relax.

Here, the lean and athletic black bulls of the Camarge seem to enjoy the games.  In each round, a young bull enters the arena.  Surrounding the ring is a red wooden wall with a step up at the bottom—behind that is a three or four-foot passageway, then behind that, another fence made of white painted horizontal pipe rails.  Behind the red fence in the passageway are twelve incredibly fit young men wearing tight white Tee shirts and tight white pants.  As soon as the bull has had a chance to survey the scene, they jump over the red fence into the arena and begin to tease the bull, running, shouting, gesturing at him to coax him into chasing them.  The bull has to choose which of the twelve guys to chase, but when the chase begins it gets exciting.

As the bulls, like the young boys are very athletic, they can really run.  The chased one races to the nearest wall, hits the step with one foot and vaults over the red fence, leaping onto the outer wall, catching himself on its bars, like a monkey acrobat.  The closer the bull comes to the taunter, the more the crowd loves it.  If he is able to pull a tag off the bull’s horn before he escapes being impaled, then he has achieved a real coup.  In Arles this day, the bull seems always to win, and always lives to fight another day.  When each ten-minute round is finished, the strains of Carmen are piped out and the bull appears to know he can find the open door to the exit.  Walking back to the boat after the “Bull Games” we all agreed that the bulls seemed to be having a good time; I was reminded of how our dog Tashi loves to chase anything that moves.  For him the chase is as splendid a game as this whole day En Provence.

Meeting the Mayor of Roussillon

Categories: Adventure, Biking, France - Tags: , , , , , , ,

Because Avignon’s inland suburbs stretch for miles, this morning we use a bus and truck convoy to reach Provence’s Luberon villages to start today’s ride in the hilltop village of Gordes, nearly a thousand feet higher than our afternoon finish at the Lavender Museum which we must reach by 3 PM.

From Gordes, we climb over a 200-foot ridge to visit the Abbye de Senanque, surrounded with fields of lavender in the valley below.  But then we climb back up the same ridge to return to Gordes, where we’ve planned to call Florence and Camille with an ETA in their neighboring village of Roussillon (famous for red cliffs and ochre quarries).  Bill has indicated that because we started high and descend 1000 feet, the climbs aren’t much, but we quickly disagree with him on that point.  The sunny villages soon reach the 90s and high humidity and we are drenched, climbing back up to Gordes, so we stop in a bar for ice-cold cokes and plan to rally chez Servan-Schreiber at noon.

Camille and Florence with Phillipe (“The Blue Mustang Mayor of Roussillon”),

As we descend down the zigzag back route from Gordes, we make a wrong turn and get off our GPS “pink” route line, losing fifteen minutes.  Worrying about keeping Florence waiting in the hot sun on a street corner in Roussillon, I call her again, but when she asks me where we are, I can only dumbly reply “on the pink line” as no road numbers are visible in the scale I use on the GPS.  If I scale out to see a larger view, I can’t see the turns coming in time to warn Jim, so it means we’d have to stop, get off the tandem and make the call.  We opt to keep following the pink line. Florence and her husband decide to get in their car and try to intercept us on our route.  I ask her what they are driving and she says, “A Blue Mustang.”  Who ever heard of a Mustang in France?!  But this is a confirming clue: everything about them is engagingly different.

Unfortunately, they are never able to find us on the road; to avoid most traffic Bill has mapped a course on tiny usually unmarked back roads, so we churn, sweating, up the steep switch backed route to Roussillon, arriving nearly half an hour late through the “back door” of the village.  Camille, Florence and Philippe have been waiting to greet us in front of the old church.  Their children got hungry waiting for lunch so Camille’s husband has taken them home. We enjoy a joyous reunion, each remarking on the other’s costumes and conveyances.  Philippe, Camille and Florence marvel at our tandem and our matching “RAMROD” bike shirts (Ride Around Mt Ranier in One Day”) while we marvel at their Mustang and their jolie vetements and especially at the news that Philippe is the unofficial Mayor of Roussillon.

From him we learn lots of village gossip including the information that the proprietress of the café where we stop for cold drinks, the elderly woman with the long white braid, was once the town hottie, and since then has existed quite happily on practically nothing but white wine from morning to evening.  She appears quite steady on her feet and well preserved, and greets us convivially in her charming sidewalk cafe.

The visit is way too short as we suddenly realize we’d best be worrying about missing our waiting bus twenty miles and two more hill top villages down the road for the hour drive to Avignon.   We hug, exchange vows to meet again at Rancho La Puerta, or in California, and jump back on the tandem.

On the hill descending the other side of Roussillon, we drop a chain and Jim has to stop the bike.  As I haven’t had a toilette stop for hours, I seize the moment and dart into a narrow passageway between two houses next to the road.  I pull down my sweat sticky bike shorts, squat down and start to pee when I hear a lot of honking and shouting.  I glance up and see the blue Mustang barreling down the road bearing Camille, Florence and Philippe, shouting to see if Jim needs help with the bike.

“Merde!” I try to creep sideways deeper into the narrow passage way but they notice I am missing and slowing down, spy me in my most compromised mode—bike shorts around my knees and very very very embarrassed!  Only ten minutes earlier we have been hugging loving good byes not wanting to part and suddenly I am waving at them to GO AWAY!!  I can hear them giggling uproariously as they fly past and I scramble to get my shorts back where they belong.

Chuckling on and off for the next half hour, we finally reach La Coste (still dominated by the dark Chateau of Marquis de Sade and purportedly owned in its entirety by either Ralph Lauren or Pierre Cardin, we’re not sure), and then Menerbes (where Peter Mayle resided while writing “A Year in Provence”). But really, we hardly have time to sightsee before, just in time, we roll into the Lavender Museum and reunite with our tandem group.  Nevertheless, our highlight “Visite Avec le Presidente de Roussillon” is plenty for one day.



Avignon: Visite Surpris Avec Notre Cher Ami

Categories: Adventure, Biking, France, Health and Fitness, Travel - Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Quelle bonne surpris!  With sore butts and quads of newly forged steel, we’ve decided to ease up on our distances today.  We get up early to wave goodbye to the group’s stalwart Mt. Ventaux tandem riders (NOT Co-Motion Tandemonium), especially our hardy Alaska friends Karen and Mike with whom we’ve ridden in the San Juan Islands, Prague to Budapest, Barcelona to Lisbon and now following the Soane/Rhone.  Until the 11th hour they wavered about whether to do the really big col,(French for peak) the epic climb included in 14 Tours de France, and finally just this morning at breakfast decided to go for it in celebration of their 30th anniversary.

Early this morning the ship tied up a dozen miles above Avignon. They got off and loaded their bike for a bus ride to the base of Mount Ventoux to begin pumping fifteen unremitting miles up the col. They joined hoards of other avid cyclists and soon began to feel like members of the elite “Club Ventaux”.  Actually, it was the downhill they dreaded most and with good reason because tonight after everybody’s safe and triumphant return, we began hearing the real stories about burnt out break pads, pinch flats, warped wheels, cramped hands and “brake cooling” descents of speeds up to 67 blood-curdling miles per hour.

Thank God I attended to the Swiss voice of reason, opted out and that Jim curbed his enthusiasm enough to decide not to stoke with Wolfgang, the German “psycylist” who, like him, has survived a few testosterone-driven near death cycling accidents.  What a team from hell they would have been.  After that downhill roller coaster route the Ventaux riders passed through Chateauneuf du Pape and continued the final flat ten miles along the Rhone to Avignon. Most folks chose a less strenuous ride with a few more moderate climbs up through a beautiful valley to Pont du Gard, but since Jim and I had cycled there together on our first tandem trip in 1988, and I had been to Pont du Gard on the “Grand Tour” the summer of 1959 after my freshman year at Vassar, we decided not to spoil those beautiful memories with the prospect of modern development.  It gave us a chance to take a very easy ride option to pedal straight to Avignon.  We got there by 9:30 and realized we had been so preoccupied with the Ventaux departure this morning; we had made a serious tactical miscalculation.

Avignon is a medieval walled city with narrow winding streets. For the turbulent 70-year period from 1309 to 1378, Rome was considered too unsafe for the head of Western Christianity. During that period seven successive Popes (all born in France) shunned Rome and ruled from Avignon. There they used the church’s wealth to create an amazing palace, making it a very popular tourist destination in August when practically everyone in France takes their vacation.  Our miscalculation was that we now have three hours waiting for the ship to arrive in Avignon. The old village is so crowded with vacationers, there is no room to even walk our tandem around, and it is not safe enough to leave our valuable bike even locked.  So it looked like we were going to have to sit here by the side of the river, cooling our jets and guarding our bike in the hot sun for three hours.  These are three hours I could have enjoyed at leisure for writing, but of course my laptop is on the boat.

Just then, my cell phone picks up a signal and I see that I have a voice mail from Florence Servan-Schreiber from Paris.  Jim and I met Florence and her sister Camille at Rancho La Puerta two years ago.  Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, Mexico is the original health spa in North America, founded in the 1940s on principles of growing and healthy moderate eating organic food, diverse exercise including yoga, hiking, Pilates and swimming, plus spiritual grounding and practice—all way before spas became vogue.  Over the years, Jim and I have enjoyed several visits as invited guest lecturers there.  Jim offers a fascinating workshop on the native uses of local plants and flowers and together we’ve given slide show presentations about some of our various travels (the sort recounted in detail in Pulling Up Stakes: Stepping Into Freedom, my upcoming book) including climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, and trekking into the Baliem Valley in Irian Jaya, New Guinea to stay with stone age tribes where the men only wear penis gourds. During one such visit we met sisters Florence and Camille and fell in love with their French charm, freshness and intellect.  Camille is a documentary filmmaker living in Berkeley, California, and Florence is a writer living in Paris.  We’ve been keeping in intermittent email contact ever since.

I listen to Florence’s message eagerly hoping to somehow at least be able to catch up by phone on France Telecom.  She tells me she is with her entire family at their summer enclave in Provence in the Luberon villages.  Excited, I call her right back and she answers immediately.  “Where are you guys?” she says.  “In Avignon” I reply—“Mais, Non!  Ce n’est pas possible!  Je suis aussi!”  She is driving her teenaged son to the train station in Avignon for summer camp.  “I’m less than ten minutes away.  Don’t move!”

 So in precisely ten minutes, we see her materializing like a little French angel—Though she has three adolescent children 12, 18 and 20, she looks like an adorable petite jeune fille herself.  She is wearing blue and white espadrilles, a very chic white linen sleeveless top and a pair of blue and white Provencal print bloomers with gathered legs trimmed in white eyelet.  Talk about jolie!  She is tres jolie.  We fall into each others’ arms; she arranges for us to lock the tandem hidden behind a Rhone-side boat restaurant, and the three of us jauntily walk like Alice entering Wonderland through the small passageway in the walls of the ancient city where we find a café and spend nearly three hours excitedly jabbering and catching up over several cups of café au lait.

It turns out that the book about pathways to happiness (Trois Kifs Pour Jour~ “3 Tokes Per Day”) Florence was working on when we originally met, was just published in January and has become a bestseller here in France.  She has successfully navigated all the steps of publishing I’m in the very midst of going through myself: selecting cover design, finding good representation, editing, making a You Tube promotional video, joining Facebook, blogging and making a web page.  Since our friendship started discovering we’re both writing similar books, this chance meeting at this time and place in Avignon is truly serendipity. We study our bike route and discover that if we time it right, we’ll be cycling through the Luberon Village of Rousillon around noon tomorrow, just where their family compound is—so we can meet up again, this time with their husbands and perhaps some of their kids. Oh, la la!  Such cherished path crossings are indeed the great joy of travelling.