The further south I venture into France, the greener the vegetation and the more sumptuous the countryside. There is no lull in its splendors. The rugged gorges and mountain peaks and fields of grains have been replaced by arcades of plane trees and meticulously nurtured vineyards. The roundabouts have an extra flair with sculptures and flower beds in heavily touristed Provence.
Before I began my home stretch run to Cannes, where I will spend the next two weeks, I had a nice dose of Chicago, thanks to a visit with Craig and Onni in Notre Dame de la Rouviere, the small village where they now spend seven months of the year two hundred miles west of Cannes in the Cevannes. It seemed so natural to drop in on them, it was almost as if I were stopping by their Chicago home just a mile from my former apartment in Wicker Park. Their blue-shuttered three-story home just a block from the town's small cathedral and monument to the WWI dead was a warm and familiar site.
Usually I visit them after Cannes so I'm in no rush to be on my way. Only twice before have I swung by for a brief stop on my way to Cannes, though once Craig accompanied me the rest of the way, one of three bicycling ventures we have done together in France. The longest was up to Mont St. Michel, the Grand Départ for this year's Tour. This was just the second time that I have descended upon them from the north over the 4,000 foot Col de la Serreyrede. I couldn't appreciate the views on that first ride as I was caught in a snow storm and swallowed up by the clouds. The snow alternated between heavy wet flakes and sleet. It was a brutal ride, especially the fifteen-mile descent, squeezing the brakes hard all the way down and shivering to the brink of hypothermia.
This time I had clear skies and could take in the vast panoramas. The only challenge was trying to make it to the summit by eight p.m. so I could reach Craig and Onni before the next day. It was still a chilly ride, especially the long descent. I warmed up on the final mile climb to Notre Dame. Before that warm-up I was hoping I'd arrive to a fire, as I did that first time. Craig said they'd had fires every night in their old stone house without a furnace up until the past couple of days, but it had finally started warming up.
I arrived right at dark, 9:15. I had been alerting them all afternoon on my progress, not sure if I would make it that evening, not remembering how steep the climb was to the 4,000 foot summit just below the weather station on Mont Aigoual, the highest peak in the region. Fortunately it didn't exceed five or six per cent and I reached the summit shortly before eight allowing me just enough time to make it to Craig and Onni that night. I was stopping to eat a few bites of my dinner of couscous and raisins every half hour or so to keep me fueled. The couscous were the last of a two-pound bag Janina had sent me off with. Usually I mixed them with cassoulet or ravioli, but it was a holiday and I hadn't come upon any open supermarkets. I still had half a bowl left when I arrived, which I supplemented with Onni's fixings of lentils and potatoes and lettuce from their garden.
Craig and Onni had acquired a terraced garden a quarter of a mile from their home since my last visit. It hadn't been maintained for over thirty years. It's walls had crumbled and was overgrown with all manner of bushes and trees and weeds. It had been a major project restoring it. Craig had enlisted the help of friends in the village and had been joined by a retired psychiatrist as a full-fledged collaborator. It was looking magnificent. Craig had become most proficient at reconstructing the stone walls.
He was most excited though of having just discovered a small spring after digging out a collapsed pile of rocks. He was uncertain though if it would produce water through the summer. In the meantime he has water from another source that he stores in large plastic cisterns. The gardening has been so satisfying he recently acquired an adjoining plot that he can likewise develop. The views from his terraces out over the mountainous terrain make tending to the work all the more fulfilling. I was sorry I had no time to spare and couldn't help with the day's bean planting or help haul a swing set he'd just scavenged up onto one of his terraces above the road.
I was able to take advantage of Craig's bike stand and his mechanical expertise to adjust my rear derailleur. It had been throwing my chain over the largest ring into the wheel. Unfortunately it wasn't simply a matter of adjusting a screw, but of bending the drop out. It had evidently been jarred in transit. Craig also has zipper expertise. He was able to figure out how to operate the zipper on my sleeping bag that the pull had jerked off on. We couldn't reattach it, nor thread a paper clip or piece of wire through it. It wasn't so difficult to pull the zipper closed, but it took some manipulation to open it.
I needed to leave by noon so I could reach Nimes, fifty miles away, before its tourist office closed. My first stop though was at a supermarket in Ganges, ten miles down the road, for a bottle of mint syrup. The big climbing was behind me, so I could afford to take on the three-pound liter glass bottle that would please my taste buds no end with every sip of the mint-flavored water that would now fill my water bottle. It would give energy along with great pleasure.
It was mostly downhill to Nimes on a fairly busy highway. I was drawn to its tourist office with hopes of finding out where Hannibal crossed the Rhone with his elephants in 213 BC. I had gone in search of the spot a year ago, having read in a Peter Mayle book that there was a plaque at the spot. I couldn't find it and had been told at the Avignon tourist office that Nimes had a museum devoted to Hannibal that ought to know. Nimes has some significant Roman ruins, but no such museum. An older gentleman at the tourist office knew nothing about a plaque but after several minutes on the internet could tell me Hannibal made his crossing at Pont St. Esprit where an island divided the river. I had no time to search it out immediately, but maybe after Cannes.
From Nimes I headed to Cavaillon, south of Avignon, to search out a bakery that was the subject of Mayle's book, "Confessions of a French Baker." It was one of several artisan bakeries in the city. The book was not on display nor was the baker on duty.
Then it was on to Vauvenargues, ten miles east of Aix-en-Provence, where Picssso lived from 1958 until 1962 and was buried on the grounds of the chateau where he resided after his death in 1973. The chateau is still owned by the Picssso family and is not open to the public. It was still worth seeking out. There was a billboard along the small road above the village and chateau advertising homes for sale with a view of the chateau.
I continued on the small rural road with more Sunday cyclists than motorists for ten miles before returning to the busy main highway through the region. After Brignoles I turned off onto another small road to Cabassa to pay homage to a square named for the cyclist Jean Dotto. He wasn't a Tour de France winner, though he competed in it thirteen times between 1952 and 1964 with his best finish a fourth in 1954 while winning the 19th stage. The following year he became the first French rider to win the Tour of Spain. He also twice won the Dauphinè-Libere. The square named for him was in front of the post office and a block from the large main square Place de la Libertad in front of the church. After asking two people, an older guy sitting on a bench just a block from the square and a young man on a bike, neither of whom had heard of the Place de Jean Dotto, I consulted my GPS device and lo and behold it turned up. I had actually been in the square, but hadn't looked high up enough to notice the plaque. All the other street and place signs had been lower down, two-thirds the way up the first floor level.
From Cabassa it was four miles back to the main highway and then fifty miles to Cannes, where I will spend the next two weeks being transported all over the world thanks to the marvels of cinema.