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INTERNATIONAL TRAVEL : Freewheeling in French Countryside

March 06, 1988|GERALD DELANEY | Delaney is a free-lance writer living in New York City

NICE, France — We are living out a fantasy. Got off the plane at Nice, unpacked and assembled our bikes, strapped on the saddlebags and pedaled off into the Mediterranean sunrise to begin a four-week vacation in southern France.

As my partner Kathy and I rode down the Boulevard des Anglais, between the legendary resort hotels of Nice on the one side and the blue Mediterranean on the other, we made a quick decision: a refreshing plunge into the cool water before we cycled on to the railway station.

The train took us west past the long, crowded, sun-soaked beaches of the Cote d'Azur to Marseille, where we changed for Aix-en-Provence and the final leg of our journey, a small village called Luynes, just south of Aix.

When we arrived at our apartment the landlady brought over cold meat, fresh fruits and vegetables from her garden, bread, cheese and a bottle of wine. The market would be open the next day, she said. We were hungry, sleepy, grateful.

We had found this one-bedroom apartment, which rented for the astonishing price of $113 a week, by writing to the Syndicat d'Initiative in Aix and asking for rental listings, then corresponding directly with the owner, Jean Urbach.

Ideal for Day Trips

During our first week in Provence we made several spectacular day trips into the countryside. A regional Michelin map enabled us to travel exclusively on quiet back-country roads.

One day we pedaled out to the Montagne St. Victoire, about 10 kilometers east of Aix, and compared the real mountain with the Cezanne painting we had seen in New York.

The real mountain appeared more stark, abrupt; but to see the countryside was to appreciate the origin of the Cezanne palette, the strong reddish-brown earthen colors.

We were lucky to have the first week to strengthen our legs on the hills around Aix and to experience the fierce afternoon sun in Provence. Lucky because I was no Greg LeMond, having bought my bike two years before at the age of 54 and prepared for the trip by riding around Central Park a few times on weekends.

Morning for Moving

We quickly found that the best strategy was to bike in the morning--explore, swim and rest in the afternoon.

The second week we were on the road, free to chart whatever course we wanted between Luynes and our next destination, about 45 kilometers north of Avignon. We set an easy pace, 40 to 50 kilometers a day, stayed on the quiet back roads and biked only in the morning.

Hilltop Village

The first day we set out west to St. Chamas, then north to Salon de Provence, taking time for a side trip to the village of Cornillon atop a small mountain that rises abruptly from the plains.

The village seems to grow out of the top of the mountain; two- and three-story stone houses encircle the summit, with windows and balconies that open onto long views of the plains.

The narrow cobblestone streets are silent and we feel we are 600 years from New York. I see a couple sitting on the balcony of their apartment sipping morning coffee, looking casually out over 100 kilometers of French countryside.

The perfect place to spend a year in France, I say, but Kathy demurs: What about the winter winds?

The second day we pedaled across the plains from Salon de Provence to Arles, with one detour to the mountain village of Les Baux, another arduous climb but again repaid with a grand view and a wild ride down the other side of the mountain.

Elixir of Freedom

To travel out into the open country on a bicycle is to realize a wonderful lack of constraint--the freedom, the feeling of sun and wind on your face and the stir of sedentary muscles in your legs.

In Arles, on the Rue des Arenes behind the old Roman arena, we discovered an incredible restaurant, L'Hostellerie, which served a four-course dinner for $20 for two, wine and tip included.

Generally, restaurants are not cheap in France, but when we took the time to look, we could find an excellent meal every evening for $20 to $25.

Turning to the Sun

From Arles we had an easy day's ride northeast to St. Remy, through magnificent fields of sunflowers. The French word for sunflower, tournesol, translates as "turn to the sun," and that is what these six- and seven-foot flowers do.

As we pedaled along a road, to our right was an immense field of sunflowers in which every blossom was turned in our direction--millions of big, smiling, sunflower faces. But across the road to our left, millions of others were turned resolutely away.

Friendly and Curious

The farther we got into the country the more warm our affair with Provence became. The people grew more friendly, more encouraging of our painstaking French, more curious about us and about the United States.

In Carpentras, a French agricultural center that attracts few tourists, we found the Hotel L'Univers, overlooking the town square, for $19 a night.

We found good lodging in most towns for $25 to $30 a night, sometimes with swimming pool. Each town also had a public pool that we often used in the afternoons.

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