From the Turks we meet, Kay and I often get the question, “Why did you come to Turkey?” This is a simple question with a complex answer, only part of which concerns affordability. It’s still cheaper to live here than in many other places we might have settled, yet it’s not as cheap as it was only a few short months ago. Not only is the dollar worth less, but the cost of living keeps rising as well. Turkey’s inflation rate is in the high single digits. Of course, New York is no bargain either; it never was. Still, we’re amazed on our infrequent trips back to that city at how much prices have gone up. Then there is travel in Western Europe’s Euro Zone, which these days tends to make all Americans, except the exceptionally well-heeled, feel the pinch.
I must confess, however, that I did travel in Western Europe this fall. Our friend Judy Stoner instigated the trip by signing up for a bike tour through the wine country of the Rhone Valley. Even though I hadn’t biked much lately, I have had an off-again, on-again love affair with France for the past forty years.
The trip sounded like a good idea, so I chose to join her and twelve other Americans on what turned out to be a pretty nifty week-long bike and wine-tasting excursion.
We enjoyed some of the best-known wines of the region and even stopped in the village of Chateauneuf-du-Pape.
This kind of ride was a new experience for me. The organized bike tours I’d done in the past had all been in the U.S. in the heat of the summer where we would ride 70 of 80 miles a day, eat a chuck-wagon dinner, then sleep on the ground of a football field behind some small-town high school.
This fall’s version was a departure from that pattern. Called by the somewhat precious name of the Wine and Lavender Tour, our ride began in a suburb of Avignon and ended seven days later in a village at the foot of Mt. Ventoux, the slopes of which are famous as a climbing challenge in the Tour de France.
Each evening we ate an elegant prix-fixe meal and lodged in a three- or four-star hotel situated in ancient towns like Orleans and Vaison-La Romaine. One night we slept in an 18th-century chateau, which, although it sounds too cute to be true, was really very pleasant.
I chose to drive to France from Istanbul, not only so that I could bring my old Trek 520 along, but also so that I could extend my trip in interesting ways and visit some other sights in Provence that I remembered from earlier trips or that I’ve wanted to visit for years. I may never get back to this part of France again, so I tried to make the most of the opportunity.
Driving the 2600 kilometers from Istanbul to Avignon alone (Kay would meet me later) was more tiring than I thought it would be. I had a deadline, so I stuck to the superhighways, which are often not relaxing. Nevertheless, on my way to Avignon, I was able to visit friends Laurence and Eric in Nice where we enjoyed a wonderful afternoon and evening together.
The charms of Provence aren’t exaggerated. The light is different, softer and more limpid than we’re used to. It’s a land naturally blessed with sunshine, rain and good soil. Much of the Rhone valley is given over to grape growing, with the vineyards interspersed here and there with fields of lavender. Although October was too late to see the plants in bloom, their scent lingered in the air.
Provence is an old, old land, settled first by the Greeks, who founded Marseille, and then further by the Romans. It’s a land that has seen a lot of history. The religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries were devastating to the countryside, and even before and after them, insecurity was a fact of life. The ancient villages and oldest parts of the larger towns are all situated on hill tops.
The architecture of religious buildings such as the Papal Palace in Avignon and the Church of Stes-Maries in the Camargue was dictated more by fortification than by beauty.
The medieval lords of Les Baux-de-Provence owed allegiance to no one and were all-powerful during the 13th and 14th centuries. Their ascendancy owed as much to the impregnability of their castle, built on a mountainside overlooking the Valley of Hell as it did to other factors.
Today, Provence is tame – too tame and well-organized for my taste – and yet when looking at the great monuments and ruins of the past, it is easy to imagine a time when the marauding bands of dismissed and unaligned mercenaries known as Free Companies pillaged the lands, terrorizing the peasants, who went running for protection inside the walls of the local seigneur’s castle.
At these times the lives of the peasants must have been hard indeed, sleeping in makeshift shelters alongside their livestock. Yet, the lords and the ladies of the castle didn’t have it so much better. Their stone apartments lit with smoky torches must have been as dark and dank as dungeons. A fireplace would have been a great luxury during the freezing winter nights.
Provence seems a very calm and settled place. In the villages we passed through, we saw were very few people. Shops were more often closed than open. Perhaps folks were taking time off with relief after the end of tourist season. The villages, particularly, have a quaint sameness.
Each has its central square with identical fountain. The old houses look alike, also, each made of local limestone. Many differed only in the color of their window shutters, pale green for some, lavender and dusty rose for others. Everything was incredibly well-kept and no place looked poor. Surrounding the villages are very valuable and productive vineyards. Farm machinery is modern, and behind the traditional window curtains I imagine one would find the latest in telecommunications and information technology.
Here are a few additional photos I took during the tour: