Yesterday we finally finished packing up our bikes and his and her saddle bags and said goodbye to home for the summer. Last night we slept on a plane en route from San Francisco to Dublin. Tonight we lay our heads in the Dublin airport. Tomorrow we tackle our long-dreaded logistical goliath: Getting both our bike boxes off of the plane and across the water in Venice (the one city in Europe that doesn't allow bicycles) where we'll be for two days before catching a train to Florence where we'll stay in a convent for two days. Then Tim will put our bikes back together and the real adventure begins. Tuscany, the Ligurian Coast, a taste of the Alps, the French Cote D'Azur, Provence, the Languedoc and Alpinnes, the Canal des Deux Mers to Bordeaux and the Atlantic coast, then across the Pyrenees into Spain and a pilgrimage along the famous Camino de Santiago, and finally a dash to Porto, Portugal. All on bikes, together.
And all while we watch Monique's tummy grow, reflect on our life and calling in SF, and make space in our hearts for a child. But so far it's been more about the stress of making it happen. We hope to shed that somewhere between Venice and Florence in the next couple days in order to let this 3-month gift of a journey be what it's meant to be. The real fun likely won't start until then, but the adventure began long ago. Long before us. We're here just to be sober to it for awhile.
"Life doesn't begin at conception," I once heard a doctor say. "It only continues." It's true. Pregnancy isn't the beginning of life. It is the gracious continuation of living. The life that is in us continues on in another form, a new life. Life begets life. What Love sustains daily in us Grace also creates through us. Life is given, received, treasured, and passed along.
To us this three months isn't so much a vacation or baby moon as we mean those words. It's about this transition. It's about savoring and rejoicing in and holding the weight of this divine flow of life through and beyond us. The life we have is currently creating a new person. Whatever life we don't have, nor will our baby have it. Whatever goodness and peace and tenderness and beauty we can carry in our own being, well then that will be the soil that this new seed springs up in. We cannot give what we are not and we cannot be what we do not receive. So this journey is about being, and receiving, and expanding our threshold for love. And so it's also about wine and food and mountains and monasteries and art and sun and flowers and swims in the sea and siestas. And God in all of it.
It's just another season in our already thoroughly abundant and adventurous lives of seeking the true life that Jesus, the king, offers. But it's one based in the awareness that we've already found it. And we can find it every day in every way. There's no desperate search here. What we seek we already have. We're just taking the time to be awake to it; to live aware and affected and awakened to Life, and waking daily into it.
The only souvenir we hope to bring home in October is life. And yet it won't be new. Indeed we've brought much of it with us. This life is old. Like water, it's been recycled through individuals and families and nations for ages. Life doesn't begin. It continues. But as we drink it in we carry it with us and pass it onto others. And for us indeed the life we breathe in now will literally shape the life of our child. What a wondrous invitation then to drink it in richly, to receive in order to give and to become in order to bless.
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind" (The Gospel of John, 1:1-4).
The Journey to the Journey
Our real journey is a cycle pilgrimage of sorts beginning with a loop through sunny Tuscany and eventually up the Italian coast and West through France and Spain. However, before we could do all that, we had to get our biciclettas (bikes) here from San Francisco. When we originally made the general plans that sounded easy enough. As our meager four weeks of travel prep wound to an end, it grew to a daunting challenge in our minds. By the time the project really got started over on this side of the Atlantic, it began to feel impossible.
First, there was taking our bikes apart and boxing them up back at home. Tim’s no mechanic and neither of us our cycling junkies, so this was new territory. And by that we mean Tim was attending bike repair classes at Sports Basement two weeks ago. So the beginning of this project looked like eight tense hours of Tim in the storage area of our apartment dismantling, padding, stuffing, packing, and even smashing some things into place. In complete transparency, at hour 4 he thought he was done only to realize he had completely forgotten the wheels. Eventually though, the bikes got boxed in a relatively safe arrangement and we didn’t have to pay anyone anything for it. That was a giant small first success.
Then Step 2: We had to get the boxes to Europe. Incredibly, Ireland’s Aer Lingus doesn’t charge for oversized baggage so it was free to get them to Italy via Dublin. We were concerned that they’d make us take the boxes during the 20 hour Dublin layover, but amazingly we found at the airport that they would check them all the way though. Success #2.
At the airport, Monique made the most important decision of all. She found a plastic fold-up luggage dolly for $20. We hadn’t really come up with a plan for how to transport the boxes once we arrived, so it seemed like a good call. After all, she is pregnant and Tim is coming off of three back surgeries. We are probably the last couple in the world that has any business bringing boxes that big overseas. It turns out that little dolly was the most important $20 we’ve ever spent. More on that soon.
As we said, the real journey was to begin in Tuscany. However, it was way cheaper to fly to Italy via Venice for some reason, and who needs an excuse to go to Venice? So, as we said, we decided to bring our bikes over via the one European city we know of where bikes are forbidden because of sheer impracticality. It’s a city on stilts in the middle of a lagoon where the only transportation is by boat or foot. Oh and it’s one of the densest cities and most crowded tourist destinations in the world. So our genius plan was to see Venice for two days and then take a train to Florence where we would begin the real journey. As our flight prepared to land in Veneto’s Marco Polo Airport, however, we frantically questioned the sense of all of this. Step 3 would be to get our bikes into Venice, to the disdainful surprise of every single person we encountered.
This leg of the challenge started with a half-mile walk from the airport exit to the boat ramps. Fortunately, we were able to use airport dollies, one for each bike. But then we had to get our bikes onto a vaporetto, or public water bus (read: hot, crammed little boat), without much extra room for large, awkward objects. It happened, though. We had to wait a bit and pay a fee but they got on and we chugged our way through the lagoon to the majestic island of Venezia.
An hour later when the boat docked, the real work began. We had to get the bikes and ourselves through famous San Marco Plaza to our tiny hotel. This is where the dolly began to payoff. The plan? Monique would stay with one bike and the two saddle bags (all our belongings) while Tim wheeled the first bike to the hotel. Then Tim would return for Monique, the 2nd bike, and the bags. This was all logistically sound except for one thing: Venetian bridges. They are everywhere and you can’t go more than a hundred yards in most places without crossing one, and they all have stairs. STAIRS. We hadn’t planned for this. It turns out that Venetians have developed their own unique 4-wheel dolly design to port cargo up and down the many stepped bridges. This was still incredibly tough work, especially in the midday sun and outrageous humidity that is simply oppressive to dry-weather Californians. Our little dolly, however, did not have 4 wheels. This meant every bridge required pushing and sliding and rolling and pulling each box up and over the canal only to strap it back to the dolly and move on to the next. It took almost two hours and about a gallon of sweat but somehow we did this without any injury (to us). Thus, the third great success, which felt more like our own death sentence: We got our bikes into Venice.
From there we got to seriously enjoy about 30 hours in what is fairly considered the most beautiful city in the world. We gorged on pizza and gelato, walked all over town, and slept outside on the balcony of our hotel with the mosquitoes just to feel some moving air in order to cool down a bit. It was exhaustingly hot, but fantastically fun.
Then 5am of day 2 rolled around and that meant it was time to move. It was now time to take on Step 4: Getting our bikes out of Venice. Fortunately, we got up early to beat the heat and the crowds. If we hadn’t, we might still be on the island today. Performing the two-part portage in reverse, we got our stuff back to the water bus stop in front of St. Mark’s Basilica. Hilariously, the same ticket agent we had bought tickets from at the airport was now working here. He had looked at us like maniacs then, and now he just nodded in dismay. Thinking we had literally brought them all this way just to have in Venice for two days, he must’ve thought we were the craziest American kooks he had ever seen. It’s a long story, we thought, and so we chuckled a sort of anxious chuckle and got ready to load onto the boat without offering an explanation. He probably wasn’t too far off anyway.
When our vaporetto arrived around 6:30 in the morning, it was blessedly empty. We got muscled into paying another fee but there was room. Literally two stops later the entire boat was full. If we hadn’t been at one of the first stops on the line and there so early, we may never have made it onto a boat. But as it went, we got our boxes all the way across town to the Santa Lucia Train Station on the landward end of Venice. There, we just had to figure out how to get the bikes onto our high-speed train, which Tim had already booked, travelling direct to Florence. This, however, turned out to be a completely laughable, or dismissible idea, depending on who we asked. The first info agent at the station simply nodded her said back and forth and exclaimed, “impossible!” The second, a man, didn’t seem so offended by the though but was just as sure in his thoughts: There was absolutely no way to bring our bikes on the high-speed train. Sorry.
Monique literally though we were going to be trapped in Venice. Tim laughed and thought, not the worst island to be stuck on, but then realized we’d be broke in a week if that happened. No time to lose!
It turns out that it was impossible to get our stuff on our train, the one we forked over a hefty nonrefundable chunk of change for, but not on any train. We could ride the smaller, slower regional trains. In fact, we had ten minutes to catch the next train to Bologna. If we made it, we could go from there to Prato just outside of Florence, and then from Prato into the city. Bada bing bada boom. Just like that. Kinda.
Ten minutes later we celebrated a massive surprise success to Step 4. We were sitting on a train containing all of our belongings, leaving Venice. We rejoiced, fell asleep exhausted, and then woke up with little time to recover before jumping back into action. Step 5, it turned out, would be just as important. We didn’t need to just get them out of Venice but also into Florence, two additional train rides away. The math then meant that there were five more train transitions (three getting off, two more on), two foreign stations to navigate, and still two giant bikes but only one small dolly. This meant every station required the same two-step back and forth transportation logistics with additional stairs, elevators, train-station scams and all the same sweat to deal with.
Somehow we managed Bologna, the gnarliest station we’ve seen, though it cost us six euros to an aggressive group of Italian luggage hustlers. At this point though, our technique lost all semblance of finesse. The trains don’t stop for long and they don’t make any special efforts for crazy fools like us. The window to get everything hoisted on and heaved off of each train was short. By the time we got off at what we believed to be the final station, in Florence, we were pretty much just shoving the boxes out of the train doors and jumping off. Our handling of our own stuff was far worse than any airline baggage handler could have done. Oh well. Desperate times call for desperate measures. That was our unspoken motto for these few days anyway. So when we pushed everything off that third train only to look around and realize we got off three stops too soon, we showed very little tenderness toward anyone or anything. Frantically, we levered and rolled and shoved the boxes back into the car and (this is what it felt like to us at least) dove back in about 4 seconds before the doors closed. Three stops later, we shoved everything out one last time, this time in the right place at the Santa Maria Novella Station in central Florence. Success #5. Both boxes, both bags, and both of us together at last in Florence.
Now, the final task: Re-assembly. This mini-journey was a basket woven together by strands of ridiculous grace and impossible challenge. This was perfectly and cheerfully encapsulated while we dragged the boxes down the final stretch out onto a sidewalk in Florence. The cardboard boxes were so ragged and beaten that several holes had formed. Though most everything inside was pretty well fastened, one thing was smashed loose. As Tim wheeled one of the boxes, an object bounced right out of a hole in the side and tumbled to the ground in front of Monique. It was our little Swiss Army pocket-knife – the one tiny thing in either of those boxes that we actually wished we could somehow get out in order to help cut everything open. Literally nothing else fell out or even came undone except for the one thing we would’ve loved to have. Even through the holes we smashed in our boxes somehow things kept bouncing our way. Not to over-spiritualize or say that God wanted to bless us or anything like that, but rather these few days felt like an exaggerated caricature of the life experience of finding grace in the midst of difficulty and we were incredibly thankful.
All the transportation now complete and armed with the little knife, we had simply to rip open what was left of the boxes and go to work putting the pile of bike parts back together. This all happened on the side of the road over the course of about two hours and we won’t spare you with the details, but only to say that this sixth step took on an additional layer once we assessed the damage toll. Tim’s bike, bigger and bulkier, was completely unharmed. Monique’s little bike, however, arrived with two bent wheels and a completely defunct rear derailleur. Tim did the best he could in the 98 degree Florentine sun, but the rest would have to wait. We got rid of our trash, ditched the dolly and the pedal wrench, and bobbled over the several-hundred year-old stone streets to our home for two days at a convent around the corner.
There, at the Instituto Figlia di Santa Anna, we were put up by the two sweetest nuns we’ve ever met. Neither of them spoke a word of English and we still only know about ten in Italian and yet we seemed to make great friends. They hugged us and kissed our sweaty faces and smiled sweetly when we didn’t understand a word they said. They and their convent home was the quintessential sanctuary rest between all that frantic lugging and the kind of peace-driven time we’re hoping to have. When we left, they took Monique into their humble little sanctuary to bless her on her way. We joked a few days later that we wish we could’ve strapped them on our bikes and carried them with us. In a cheesy sense, though, I think we did bring at least a part of them with us. Their love for strangers and Jesus-like hospitality is something that will continue to affect us as we migrate from place to place.
Inevitably though, the journey toward the journey was still incomplete. Two days later, when we began the real deal and took off riding into the Tuscan countryside, the whole chaos-and-mercy basket got a few more layers. Monique’s bike proved so banged up that she was limited to only one gear, essentially riding a wobbly single-speed over the first half of what would be 35 miles and 2800 feet of Tuscan hills. The beginning of the day was a near disaster at every turn. We crash-landed dead-tired and more than a little frustrated at a little wine town called Greve in Chianti late in the morning. At that point, we weren’t sure how any of this was going to pan out. But then we decided to jump on the café’s wifi and cast our net to see if there were any bike shops within an hour ride. Tim just about spit out his espresso when he realized there was a bike shop, still the only one we’ve seen, literally behind the café. Smiling and hopeful, he ran Monique’s bike over. Thirty minutes and only 10 Euro later, her bike was as good as new, with straight wheels and a completely readjusted gear-system.
It was then, at Ramuzzi bike shop in Greve, that the journey here ended and the real journey began. We’re on bikes and on our way in Italy. Success.
10 Days in Tuscany
That's 10 days of riding, and ten different places we've stayed. We've actually been in Toscana for 2 weeks, from the time we arrived by train in Florence. Today is our last in the famous sun-soaked region, rich in history and beauty, its hillsides carefully terraced with vineyards and olive orchards and its valleys aglow with wheat and sunflower fields. Every city and village on the map is a well-preserved relic of ancient regional, Roman and Etruscan roots, meaning 1,000 year-old castles, 1,500 year-old abbeys and cathedrals, and 2,500 year-old fortress walls and theaters are a regular sight. It's been hot, hilly, and wonderful.
Though today was set to be our last in Tuscany, we're making a bit of an expedited exit, taking a train this morning to Levanto on the Ligurian coast near the famous Cinque Terre (five hillside villages). We're taking the train because yesterday Tim's bike suffered some mechanical issues (the rear wheel is bending under the torque and weight) and there happens to be a bike shop in Levanto, a two-day ride ahead. It works out well and will also buy us some extra time on the Italian Riviera.
So here's the overview of our route through Tuscany. It was a complete out-of-the-way loop through the region beginning in the north in Florence, heading southeast through the Chianti wine region (the opposite direction of France and Spain) and then west through Siena and eventually north to Volterra, back east to San Gimignano, and north through the Garfagnana region of the Alpi Apuane mountains. At the north end of the Fiume Serchio (Serchio River), 40 miles up into the Garfagnana, is a little town called Piazza Al Serchio which will serve as our last stop in Tuscany.
Here's a basic map of where we've been, though the daily cycling routes are linked below.
Our first day on the bikes was anything but smooth. Bike troubles, mapping issues, app failures, and some butt-kicking hills made for a crazy introduction to this whole cycle touring deal. The short of it is that before then I still hadn't figured out how to map our routes and track the routes on a phone. Fortunately I do now, using Strava. And Monique's bike woes are now cured. So, we battled through the first half of the day en route to some incredible riding through Chianti wine country and the first big lesson: Hills in the Italian summer sun can be brutal, but the views are (almost) always worth it.
Also, we discovered how hungry the cycling makes us. Good thing for emergency roadside pizza. Sometimes we needed to take some extra with us.
More hills and some serious trouble finding our airbnb in the scorching midday sun. All worth it in the end, enjoying a sunset in the middle of an olive orchard.
Day 3: Castelnuovo Berardenga to Siena (for Monique's birthday!)
Monique's birthday!! And, the moment we'd both been waiting for...sunflower fields!
One of the many Tuscan "palios", or festival competitions, that we stumbled upon. This one in Casole d'Elsa involved a horse race between several of the nearby towns in the Valle d'Elsa. For the longest time we had no clue what everyone was piling onto this hill for, but we stuck it out long enough for the race. Afterward, they set off a pretty impressive show of fireworks from the garden of the town church, though we were asleep by the time it started.
Our first day off! The basic itinerary allows for about one rest day per week. Our first took place at a dirt cheap yet beautiful B&B attached to the castle of the tiny medieval town of Montecerboli. There was only one tiny market in town where we got to practice our Italian, ordering the basics for some fun meals on the terrace. This was our first decent dose of small town Tuscan living.
From there we conquered the biggest climb yet going up to beautiful hilltop Volterra. Our hostel was an old monastery, still attached to a neat old church.
Day 7: Volterra to Monteoliveto (just outside San Gimignano)
San Gimignano is dubbed the Manhattan of Tuscany because of its many stone towers. We stayed just outside of town on a little olive farm and vineyard where Tim got to savor some local Chianti (a gift from Lorens, the sweet owner of the B&B in Montecerboli) and olives.
Then it was up early to tackle the biggest ride yet: 55 miles north to Lucca. After a week of looping around Tuscany, we finally set ourselves in pretty much the right direction, heading northwest en route to the coast and beyond.
Lucca is an entirely walled medieval city with treed walkways atop the length of the wall. Perfect gelato spot.
After that we took to the hill country, heading to the Garfagnana region of the Alpi Apuane mountains. It was a gorgeous ride along the Fiume Serchio, capped off by a lazy afternoon in the river. The only bummer was not having our fly rods. There were big fish everywhere!
There next day it was further upstream to a tiny town called Piazza Al Serchio. Fortunately, this was a tiny town with a tiny train station as Tim unknowingly broke a spoke that day and bent his rear wheel beyond repair. From here we made an early exit via railway out of Tuscany and into Liguria.
From Sea to Mountains [and back again!]
From Tuscany, we headed to the Ligurian Coast, famous for its beautiful coastlines and rich cuisine (think Genoese salami and pesto). Then we would head north into the province of Piedmont to get a taste of the Italian Alps. From there we looped west and then back south through the Maritime Alps to the coast, crossing back and forth over the French border, dipping back into Liguria, and then crossing finally into France via the famous Cote d'Azure and the French Riviera. It wasn't easy, but it was certainly scenic!
From Piazza Al Serchio, we took a set of trains through La Spezia to Levanto, just north of the famous Cinque Terre. There, Tim was able to acquire a new rear wheel. While the bike was in the shop, we took a day off of riding and hit the dramatic coastal hills on foot. There is an awesome hiking trail as well as train route that runs between each of the five villages (terres). Thank goodness for the hot sweaty train because it turns out a mile of hot weather hiking is as difficult for Monique at this stage of pregnancy as about 25 on the bike. We took the train to Corniglia, walked to Vernazza, and then took the train to Monterosso and back to Levanto. The Ligurian coast is amazing, as you can see. But also incredibly crowded and hot.
The next day, after picking up Tim's bike, we left Levanto to make our way up the coast. This proved far more difficult than expected, due once again to route-planning issues. First, there was the massive climb up from sea-level to nearly 2,000ft at Framura. Then, what looked on the map like a long stretch of coastal highway similar to the PCH proved in actuality to be a series of tunnels, most of which rightly forbid bicyclists. The same mountainous coastlines that make for the awesome scenery proved seriously challenging for a bike tour. Alas we didn't understand the tunnel predicament until we were too far in to turn back, so we ended up riding through several miles of tunnels, about half of that with honking drivers on our rear wheel. After the tunnels we had another set of steep winding roads to climb up the coast to Rapallo.
The next day we ditched the bikes once again and this time took a ferry out along the coast past beautiful Santa Margherita and fanciful Portofino en route to an afternoon at the Abbey of San Fruttuoso. The abbey quickly became one of our favorite places we've seen thus far, though the difference between the current experience and what life must have been like there for several millennia is almost too stark. We walked through the abbey and then enjoyed some amazing swimming.
From Rapallo, we decided we'd had enough with difficult and congested coastal riding and yearned for a bit of fresh mountain air so we expedited our route up to Genoa. Taking the train once more, again with difficulty (stubborn conductors refusing to let our bikes on), we followed our original plan of skipping up to Turin (Torino) from the coast to get a taste of the Italian Alps. We were anxious to escape the coastal heat and hopeful for some quieter roads and smaller country towns. We celebrated the thunderstorm that arrived just behind us in Turin and danced in the rain like crazy people. From the one-time capital of Italy and the host city of the 2006 Winter Olympics, our mountain adventures would begin.
From our hotel near the train station in Turin, our route took us through the heart of the city and on a beautiful meander up the Valle de Susa (Susa Valley) into the Torinese Alps. The mountains got closer and bigger with every pedal and we celebrated the entire way. In addition to the natural beauty, the Valle de Susa is also home to an incredible array of ancient monasteries. On ancient Frankish pilgrim routes that run through the valleys between France, Italy, and Switzerland, there are several incredible abbeys throughout the area. Some are still active communities today. This made the ride even more fun.
Amazing farmers market selections along the way made for a seriously perfect picnic
From Susa we made our way further up into the mountains to a quaint little ski town called Oulx. This is where the real hill-climbing began, but with every foot of elevation gain the temperature cooled and the scenery improved. We even got cold for the first time and finally made use of our long-sleeves. Along the way we passed a huge medieval castle built in the 12th century. The fortress demonstrates just how crucial this mountain valley was as the primary transportation route between Provence and Piedmont for many millennium. It also makes a great picnic spot.
Leaving Oulx, we tackled our true Alpine test: A 3,000+ foot climb up the Colle di Sestriere (Colle means pass)to get across to the other side of the mountains. If you're worried about Monique's ability to handle such a challenge while pregnant, don't be. She was waiting for Tim at the top. As tough as the climb was, this was one of our favorite days. We really are mountain folk at heart. Sestriere at the top is a ski resort where the alpine skiing events were held in the 2006 Olympics. It reminded us a bit of Mammoth. From there, we began the epic 30-mile (!!) descent down to the Po River valley.
This was not one of our favorite days. It began with completing yesterday's long descent out of the Alps and then quickly turned into a race across the valley. We were on busy highways for most of the day just trying to get across the lowlands in order to begin the next day's ascent into another mountain range. It was long, hot, bumpy, and stressful and involved more than a few frustrating wrong turns. But at the end of the day we found our way and had a great evening chowing down on a record 3-pizza dinner.
Now this was a day. It will go down as one of the unforgettable adventures of our life together. All thanks to yet more route-planning issues, Strava difficulties, and cyclist-free Italian tunnels. It was also the day we left Italy and crossed into France (though we would cross back and forth again a day later).
The brief summary is this: Midway through our already hilly day, we discovered that our route once again headed through a tunnel illegal for cyclists, this time three-miles long, too long to race through. We then realized there was a three-mile tunnel because the road went through a mountain range, the Alpi Maritimes to be precise. And so to bypass said tunnel, we would have to improvise and ride up and over said mountain range. The route had more switchbacks than we're ever seen. The re-route added a 3,000+ foot climb onto our day. Nevertheless, we grunted through it, even enjoying the view. But then, to spice things up a bit, Tim decided to climb around on an old ruined building (against Monique's evermore maternal wishes) and slipped and fell (just as she predicted) resulting in a cut and a bruised rib. And then, when we went to enjoy the long steep descent into France, we discovered to our dismay that the 50+ switchbacks on the other side were on an unrideable dirt road. We had to walk down. This of course defeated the value of being on bicycles at all and made the day all the more laughable. In the end, we made our way into France via one heck of a back road and we won't soon forget it. In fact, I don't think we'd have it any other way.
The fateful maneuver. One second later the stone below him gave way, forcing Monique to practice her Mama first-aid skills.
After our big and painful day, we took a day off near Tende. Our first day in France didn't let us down. The bread and croissants are better than the stereotypes can portray. And an afternoon on a pretty creek to enjoy them didn't hurt.
Then we finished the decent all the way back to the Mediterranean, crossing briefly back into Italy and then heading west on the coast. Near Menton, we passed into France for good. We went for one last swim in the sea over lunch and then began climbing up into the coastal hills toward La Turbie, home of one of two remaining Roman trophy monuments in all of Europe. As we climbed we overlooked the haughty yachts and ugly skyscrapers of Monaco below.
From La Turbie, we passed around Monaco and then dropped back down to sea-level at Nice, which we found all too akin to Hollywood. After a 4-hour adventure to get an ultrasound in town (the baby is well and healthy!) because Monique wasn't feeling well, we said goodbye to the Mediterranean for good and made our way up into the interior of the French Riviera toward lovely Vence. There we took another day off in order to return a second time to our new favorite pizzeria (in France!!) and a whole slough of amazing patisseries and boulangeries.
Provence and the Languedoc
From Vence, we began our inland journey westward through Provence. We began by riding up and up through a pretty river canyon and then along a desolate, pine-covered plateau. We stayed in an auberge in a town called Thorenc Station in the middle of "nowhere" and were surprised to find that the hotel was the only food option for miles. No price shopping in such a small town. Fortunately, the hotelier is also an excellent chef!
This was basically a day off as we merely road a few miles away to a beautiful little B&B with an outdoor kitchen. We stopped at an outdoor roadside market along the way for groceries and then lounged in the woods and alongside the Artuby River for the afternoon. Oh and we played a bit of Bocce, or Petanque as the French call it. And once again Tim befriended a cat.
We were wise to take a day off beforehand because this proved a great but exhausting day. The previous climb up to the plateau showed its worth as we approached the spectacular Gorge du Verdon, the biggest river canyon in Europe, from above. We rode along the edge of the gorge for about 20 miles and then began a gritty ascent along its southern rim. The views got better with every petal. From the top, we dropped steeply down toward the reservoir on the other side of the ridge. Along the way Monique picked up a new friend, a butterfly that rode with her for a few miles, even holding on through the downhills. We stopped near beautiful Aiguines on the way down to the reservoir where we camped for the first (and maybe last) time. With nothing but one small wool blanket and two halves of a foam pad, we didn't exactly sleep well, but it was very refreshing to get a night out under the stars.
From Aiguines, we plunged down to the lake and then made our way past miles of lavender toward busy Manosque. The highlight was our breakfast stop in Moustiers Saint Marie, an ancient village designated one of the most beautiful in France. Built on top of a cascading stream and into the side of a ravine, it reminded us both of Tolkien's Rivendell.
Escaping Manosque, we took a bike path through mostly level countryside to the much smaller and more quaint town of Apt. Our Airbnb apartment looked out over the town's main plaza where we sampled some lavender ice cream (which tasted a bit too much like soap) and shopped for breakfast in the busy Saturday morning producers' market.
The next day we continued on the cycle path to a beautiful farm in the orchard land a bit outside of L'Isle-Sur-La-Sourge which means the island on the Sourge River. The town is dubbed the Venice of Provence as it is literally built atop the river and they even row their own version of standup gondolas, mostly for tourists. Breakfast at the farm was the best of the trip, including a homemade pear cake made with fruit from their orchard.
After a wonderfully lazy morning we rode a short way along pretty, quiet country roads before making our way into famous Avignon, the capital of Provence and the one-time scandalous home of the papacy. Well situated on the Rhone River, the city is a fascinating and beautiful monument to the wild world of European religious history. From 1309 to 1377 a succession of French popes moved the papal seat from Rome to Avignon, creating a huge scandal and divide in the politics of the Roman Catholic church. After pope Gregory XI abandoned Avignon and moved back to Rome, a line of "illegitimate" antipopes continued reigning and ruling in Avignon. The massive papal palace stands at the center of Avignon today as a testament to these power struggles. Perhaps even more fascinating, and troubling, however, were the scars of the crusades. Some of Avignon's most impressive early architecture was destroyed in the 13th century Albigensian crusades enacted, ironically, by pope Innocent III. The French crown, situated in modern day Northern France, essentially waged war on what is now Southern France in order to eliminate the so-called Cathars heresy. The impressive medieval bridge dubbed the Pont d'Avignon (pictured in last photo) once crossed the Rhone but was destroyed when the Albigensian crusade raided the city. What is left today is a partial span of four arches leading just a third of the way out over the river - a strange site marking a sad heritage. It was a fun place to reflect on history and faith before setting out the next day.
From Avignon we rode the long way toward Nimes in order to pass atop the 2,000 year-old Pont du Gard. The incredible bridge is a part of the Roman-built Nimes Aqueduct that carried water 31 miles from its source to the Roman colony of Nemausus (Nimes). Amazingly, the entire aqueduct descends less than sixty feet over its entire 31-mile course.
We stopped for a picnic and quick swim in the Gardon River below before carrying on to Nimes with its further impressive structures such as the arena below.
From Nimes, we left Provence and entered into the rural Languedoc (One Language) region. It was back to small town life for awhile. At our first destination in Sommieres we found an amazing chocolatier and some above-average (meaning not yellow) beer as well as more beautiful village scenery.
From Sommieres it was quiet country roads to another small town.
Beautiful routes, incredible villages, and a spectacular thunderstorm combined to make this a fun and adventurous day. As our road wound along a river, it began to drizzle lightly. Fortunately our panniers are waterproof. But by the time we stopped in Saint-Guilhelm-le-Desert, another of the Plus Beaux Villages de France, it really started to pour. We ended up waiting under someone's garage for about an hour, enjoying the spectacle of soaked tourists running back to their cars. As soon as the rain let up a bit, we made a run for it. We made it to beautiful Mourezes just before the skies opened up again and got to enjoy the rest of the storm from a dry room.
The storm finished up overnight so it was back on the road with perfect mild weather. Midway through the day we picked up a long bike path called the Voie Vert which took advantage of an obsolete train route. The quiet meander through the green hill country made this some of our favorite riding of the trip. We stayed with a sweet couple and enjoyed tea and some great conversation with Patrick, an English ex-pat neighbor, and Jean Paul, the man of the house who happened to be an English teacher in France. They were our first English-speaking acquaintances for awhile and we had a blast talking about faith, culture, and local land-use.
Leaving tiny little Brettes, we rode entirely along the Voie Vert to Mazamet at the edge of the Langeudoc plateau. Along the way we picked blackberries to our hearts' content, said hello to horses, and picnicked beside the path.
Leaving Mazamet, we climbed up and over the forested Black Mountain on the edge of the Languedoc and then coasted down a small river gorge to fairytale-like Carcassonne in the valley below. The walled medieval city was a fantastic site, and we even ventured to watch one of those classical cheesy jousting tournament reenactments.
From here we will pick up the Canal des Deux Mers (Canal of the two seas) bike path that runs along flat canals from Narbonne on the Mediterranean through Carcassonne, Toulouse, and all the way to Bordeaux near the Atlantic. This will mean flat, fast riding for a few days before we ditch the canals and head south into the Pyrenees before crossing into Spain.
Continue to Part 2 of our Europe Pilgrimage...