Friday, May 27, 2016

Across Provence


Vineyards and roundabout art are just one of the many allures of Provence.  The terrain is also rugged and semi-mountainous, especially up from the Mediterranean.  It affords cozy and picturesque locations for small villages up the sides and atop the more spacious high points, some of which are among "Les Plus Beaux Villages de France."


There are 155 of them, mostly in the southern part of the country.  They are not annually selected by a highly secretive process as with Michelin-starred restaurants, but rather villages apply for the designation to a privately-run outfit.  Not only is there an application fee, but also an annual payment of three euros per resident of the village.  Not any village though qualifies. It must meet several criteria besides being willing to pay.  It must have less than 2,000 residents, be of a rural character and have some significant attraction.   My research didn't reveal if many villages are rejected or how many decide to withdraw after a period of time.  It may be a slightly contrived effort to attract tourists and give residents of a village a little extra air of pride, but I have yet to encounter a Plus Belle Village that wasn't, but I have also encountered many a village that was most beautiful that didn't have a sign proclaiming it.  The great charm of France is that most villages are attractive and alluring.

My first destination after two weeks at Cannes overdosing on five or six or seven movies a day was Seillans, one of those "Les Plus Beaux Villages de France" built on a steep ridge just thirty miles from Cannes.  It would have looked out over the Mediterranean in the distance if it weren't blocked by another ridge just up from the coast.  I had passed through Seillans on previous occasions, but only recently learned it had been the adopted home of Fred De Brugne, a Belgium cyclist who accomplished the rare feat of winning the Tour de Flanders and Paris-Roubaix in the same year--1957.  He was also a three-time winner of Liege-Bastogne-Liege, one of the other of cycling's Five Monuments.  His palmares also included six stages of The Tour de France.  In retirement he became a popular race announcer.  Seillans honored him by naming a small plaza after him.  No one could tell me though if it happened before his death in 1994 or after.


The plaza was now largely a parking lot, though at one time it was a hive of activity as it adjoined the troughs fed by spring water where locals came to do their wash, as most small towns had.


Dadaist Max Ernst also made Seillans his home in the late '60s and early '70s.  A street named after him led to Place Fred De Brugne.  Ernest wasn't a full-time resident though and elected to be buried in Paris, while De Brugne chose a modest, shared burial site in the town cemetery for his ashes.


My route through Provence also took me through the small village of Lacoste.  Upon its summit sits a chateau where the Marquis de Sade lived in the 1770s until he was forced to flee to Italy to avoid arrest when a number of his young female servants accused him of sexual improprieties.  He spent 31 years of his life incarcerated, including the final thirteen until his death in 1814 in an asylum for the insane.  The cheateau may have grand views, with Mont Ventoux, the Giant of Provence, in the distance, but it looked more like a bunker that Hitler might have designed than anything of magnificence.  What went on in there one can only imagine, as Pier Paolo Pasolini tried to do in his 1970 movie "Saló, or the 120 Days of Sodom."


It's interior no doubt must be plush, as it is presently owned by fashion designer Pierre Cardin. Among the sculptures in front of the chateau was one he designed called "Welcome."  Ventoux is under the right arm.  It will be the finish line for the Bastille Day Stage of this year's Tour.


Lacoste hadn't joined the alliance of Les Beaux Villages de France, though it certainly qualified with its labyrinth of narrow, steep, cobbled streets and remarkable setting.  Craftsmen were at work upgrading and renovating many of the buildings, implying this was similar to many small towns that are full of second residences of Parisians and others.

Just beyond Lacoste is Ménerbes, home of Peter Mayle, whose series of books on Provence earned him a Legion of Honor award from the French.  It is a Belle Village and has one of those oddball museums that turn up all over France.  It is devoted to corkscrews.  Bonnieux, just before Lacoste, had a Bakery museum.  The rare museum in rural America is usually nothing more than something devoted to local history, often in a former Carnegie Library. 

I was also able to pass through Pernes-Les-Fontaines, as I always happy to do, as it is the birthplace of Paul de Vive (Velocio), an early proponent of bicycle touring.  There is a plaque on his childhood home.



Several times in the past couple of days I have come upon gas stations with a long line of cars extending all the way to the road partially blocking one lane of traffic.  I hadn't been keeping up with the news so thought that the station must have had some ridiculously low price that brought people flocking.  It wasn't until Janina, who watches a French news channel, emailed asking if the striking petrol workers had effected me, that I learned of widespread strikes all over the country by workers protesting the government's proposed laws to limit their rights.  Over one-third of the country's 11,500 gas stations have run out of gas.  That's not something I'm going to be too upset about.  I asked a woman in a tourist office if she might go on strike.  She said she had a responsibility to tourists and would never do such a thing.  

I've been limiting myself to not much more than fifty miles a day as I recover from my sleep deprivation and lack of exercise at Cannes, rarely getting six hoursof sleep a night and now,ore tha a mile or two of biking.  It was a quick mile ride down from the apartment Ralph and I shared to the Palais for the morning's first screening at 8:30, which I needed to get to by eight to insure getting in.  I could have strained my legs a bit on the mile climb back at the end of the day, often not until one a.m., but I was usually accompanied by Ralph, who didn't have a bike, so I made a walk of it.  I have been through this recovery process before and know my legs will come round by the time The Tour starts in five weeks.  

Now it's on to Bourg-Saint-Andéol, along the Rhone,  start of the time trial stage after the Ventoux finish.  I will then scout out The Tour route into the Alps during its final week.


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