Thursday, June 2, 2005

Arles, France

Friends: After scouting stages 11 and 12 of this year's Tour de France route through the Alps, I am now in the midst of stage 13, which skirts the Mediterranean starting in Miramas and finishing in Montpellier. It is the longest flat stretch of road I have encountered so far in my month here in France. It will be most welcome to the peloton after several days in the Alps and then a horribly long transfer of about 100 miles from the stage finish in Digne-les-Bains on Bastille Day to the next day's start in Miramas.

Usually such long transfers are reserved for the two rest days during the Tour. At least most of this transfer for the race entourage can be made on the high-speed Autobahn, but for me, riding the secondary roads of Provence, it took two days and 150 miles to get from one Ville Etape to the next. I did take several detours to visit some token tourist attractions, including a venture off on a truly back, unpaved road. Even with the many tourists in Provence, some even on bikes, the roads have been blissfully traffic-light. There are signed routes recommended for cycling, though all roads are just fine as long as one doesn't object to climbing, as there is plenty of that, some that go on for miles.

I have yet to experience a single horn toot or any other sign of impatience or hostility from a motorist. On the narrow, windy roads that predominate motorists seem to be happy to momentarily slow and vicariously soak in a few of my pedal strokes before passing. And never do they tail me so long that I have to concern my self with what they might be plotting. France has lost none of its luster from last year. I only wish there were more libraries with the Internet and that the ones that I do find were open more than just three or four days a week and for more than a few hours when they are open.

Finding Internet access remains a challenge. Even Ville Etape Miramas, a city of 25,000, had no place offering the use of the Internet. It did have a McDonald's. But most importantly it had a 4,000 square meter space capable of hosting the Tour de France village. This is the first time in the 102 year history of the Tour that Miramas has been a Ville Etape, a great event for the city. I was a week early though for the Tourist Office's brochure celebrating the event and listing all the activities it will be hosting during the week preceding the Tour's arrival.

One of the tourist attractions of Provence I sought out was the nature preserve Colorado de Rustrel. It had been recommended by the German cyclist I met last week. It is a pocket of red hued rock formations with various clusters of jutting spires and sails of stones. I would have been much more impressed by them if I'd never been to Arches and Zion and Canyonlands National Parks in the Western U. S. These were just thimbles of wonder compared to the striking majesty they offer. Rustrel didn't even merit mention in my 1,200 page Lonely Planet guide to France. Instead, Lonely Planet heaps high praise on nearby Roussillon, one of those centuries-old, charming French villages built on a hilltop to ward off invaders. There were busloads of tourists wandering its streets and walking through an area that once was mined for ochre. The world's largest vein of ochre runs through the area. I was most enraptured by the view of bare-topped Mont Ventoux off in the distance.

I then detoured to the small hilltop village of Menerbes, also in the vicinity. Englishman Peter Mayle bought a house on its outskirts and made it famous in "A Year in Provence" and subsequent volumes. Its not always obvious that such towns are on the tourist route until I spot stores with racks and racks of postcards out front. None of the stores though carried any of Mayle's books. There was a truffle and wine museum with lots of books devoted to those subjects and general travel books on Provence. Menerbes and its 900 year old church was included in a picture book of all the quaint towns of Provence. Many of its cobbled streets were too narrow for cars. The town was surrounded by vineyards. Like Roussillon , it also looked out upon Mont Ventoux.

I've remet the Rhone River here in Arles, last seen on my way to Cannes. I have the hospital where Van Gogh spent some time to visit, as well as assorted Roman ruins, including an amphitheatre seating 20,000. From here I'll head west to Montpellier, then turn north into the interior and the mountains.

Later, George

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