All of France is remarkably picturesque. It is a land of well-manicured fields, well-kempt stone buildings, pockets of forests and just a general sense of care for how all looks, from the garb of gendarmes to the trim on one's home. Much as I enjoyed my recent thousand mile ride from Atlanta to Chicago, it had no such aura. The French truly have an esthetic sense that casts a sense of well-being over all.
Provence was a splendid culmination to my ride. It is dotted with more charming villages than any other region. Each town unveils itself as a wonderful discovery. Some may boast a museum or a chateau or an ancient cathedral or an array of outdoor cafes or bed-and-breakfasts to attract tourists, but they mostly just remain true to their heritage of century old stone buildings and equally old plane trees. The entire region is a glory of plane trees. They line the roads in the countryside and through the towns.
They have a majesty unlike any other tree.
Very often they are only on one side of the road, as the advent of the automobile necessitated the widening of the roads and the removal of those on one side. A narrow lane to a chateau provided an example of what a magnifcent arcade they once offered.
Most of the lower limbs on the trees have been pruned, but a plane tree in the small town of Lamanon, less than fifty miles south of Avignon, demonstrated how luxuriant such a tree can be if left untended.
It is considered the largest and at 400 years, oldest, known plane tree. It takes thirty men with out-stretched arms to encircle the circumference of its foliage. It is on private property that does not offer visitors a closer look than beyond its gates. There were no signs to the tree. I asked at the local tabac shop for directions. I was told to go to the round-about and follow the sign to the stadium. It was across the road from it. As I approached the round-about a car passed me and the driver stuck his arm out pointing to the left. One of the customers in the shop had hopped in his car to make sure I found it. It was a good thing he had, as I wouldn't have recognized this giant tree with the hanging limbs hiding its distinctive trunk. It was another fine example of the French showing care for one who expresses an interest in something they hold dear, such as their Tour de France.
Unfortunately, I found no such person when I was in search of the spot on the Rhone River where Hannibal was said to have crossed it in 218 B.C. with 46,000 soldiers and 38 elephants on his way from Spain to Italy. This had some interest to me as I had recently read Richard Halliburton's account of riding an elephant over the Alps in the '30s, reenacting Hannibal's march. According to Peter Mayle's book, "Provence A to Z," the Rhone crossing was thought to be near the small town of Montfaucon. A woman in the town said it was about five kilometers south. I biked along a dirt path hugging the river but found no plaque or monument marking the spot, just a couple of places for boats to dock or launch. Twenty miles south I inquired further at the tourist office in Avignon. Three different agents knew nothing and searched the Internet without success other than finding that there was a museum devoted to Hannibal in Nimes, about fifty miles to the west, opposite the direction I was headed. I will seek it out another time.
Mayle recommended a musuem devoted to lavender that was somewhat on my route. Since lavender is as much an emblem of Provence as is the plane tree, I was happy to give it a look. There had been numerous small museums on my route devoted to someone's obsession or passion (ceramics, farm machinery, horse drawn carriages) that could have been fascinating, but I had resisted them all saving myself for the lavender museum.
It was beyond Avignon in the small town of Coustellet. There was no missing it, as official road signs advertised it, recognizing its popularity and importance.
It was opened in 1991 by a family who has grown lavender for over a century. Admission came with a small device that one held to their ear for a commentary at twenty-five different stations throughout the museum, including two videos. The word lavender is derived from the Latin laver, to wash, as it was initially used to scent water. Over the centuries its uses have expanded greatly--as a cure for insomnia, irritability, stress, headaches, sunburn, insect bites, cuts, burns, colds, sore throat, lice and more. The musuem boasts the world's largest collection of copper distilling devices, some dating to the 1600s. To insure purity, the conscientious distiller only uses rain water.
One of the videos demonstrated the planting of the lavender with a machine and a crew of eight. They could plant 170,000 plants in a day. It takes a lot to produce a liter of lavender oil--130 kilos of the purple flowers. It takes three years for a plant to reach maturity. After seven years of productivity, it is dug up and replaced. There were rows of the bushy plants around the museum, but they wouldn't begin to flower until July. Even unflowered, the rows and rows of plants, that can go to the horizon, are a spectacular sight.
From the museum I ducked down to Salon-de-Provence, where I came upon the oddest round-about of the trip. Many are dedicated to DeGaulle, but rare is the one honoring Françoise Mitterand, one of his successors.
As always, my travels through France took me past a few gypsy encampments on the outskirts of cities. If I didn't know what they were, I might have mistaken them for a campgrounds.
Even more common are signs for Emmaus--resale stores and shelters for the indigent comparable to the Salvage Army. Nuclear power plants are another object reminding me I'm in France.
And of course there is the occasional memorial to the Resistance, wholely unique to France.
I camped last night in a forest that I had all to myself twenty miles over a 1,200 foot ridge from Cannes in the same spot as I did last year. I almost didn't recognize the side road I'd taken to it, as it was somewhat washed out. I had to push my bike up it this year, further ensuring my privacy. With some ninety nights of wild-camping each of the past eleven summers in Europe, along with a previous couple months in Scandinavia, I'm somewhere around one thousand such nights in Europe to go along with my hundreds of others all over the globe. The world is truly my campground. I will miss my tent the next two weeks, as I'll be sharing an apartment with Ralph from Telluride once again during our movie bash. I'll enjoy our camaraderie, but not necessarily sleeping in a box.