By the second day we were already comfortable with each other. With a happy range of skill levels and ages--18 to 60--we were students, widows, accountants and lawyers, and hailed from California to New Jersey. After a typical breakfast of strawberries, juice, apple muffins, croissants and coffee at the hotel, we began our tour in earnest, peddling about 30 miles southwest from Beaulieu to Cha^teau de Roumegouse.
Few cars traveled the back lanes, and the pace of life matched the river's, easy and slow. Men stood on corners in hamlets, berets over one eye as they smoked their pipes and passed the time of day. I steered by a Frenchwoman in a dress and apron on her no-gear bike with a couronne (doughnut-shaped bread) over one handlebar and handbag over the other.
No one among us could resist pointing a camera at the fields ablaze with late-May coquelicots. Summoning her best French, Sara asked a man whose cottage stood in the middle of these crimson poppies if she could take a picture, \o7 "Puis-je prendre un photo des coquelicots?" \f7 The man looked at her blankly and said, "I don't understand English." So much for trying.
After pushing up and down hills all day, it was easy to fall under the spell of royalty at night. One evening, after stopping for the day at the Cha^teau de la Treyne, we strolled down river. Walking across a little bridge, we looked back on the chateau, bathed in gold from the shine of water and light. Even my husband, whose idea of heaven is to stargaze from a tent at the top of a mountain, was seduced. The day came, though, that erased my euphoria. It was Day 4, and I would have jumped in the van in a minute had I read my direction sheet in time. "Coming into La Roque-Gageac there is a steep downhill." Too late. I was descending the twisting road as the wind, the memories whipped in my face. There was another time, a downhill in a park in Anacortes, Wash., Mother's Day, 1982. On that day, as a speed bump loomed before me, I veered to the right. I don't recall a sound, nor any pain. I just remember cradling my chin in my white sweat shirt as I picked myself off the ground. A car stopped. People put me inside as I felt my fingers grow sticky, saw my shirt turn red.
Three months later and one week after my jaw was freed of wires, my husband, four teen-age sons and I set off on our own bicycle trip in England and Ireland. Much to everyone's relief, we modified the original plan. Mom rented a car.
Now, 12 years later, I reached the bottom of the hill intact. With effort, I pried my fingers from the hand brakes. I checked the direction sheet, "Look for the cross." How appropriate. As I rode to join the others picnicking on the grassy riverbank, I wanted to shout. I was in Dylan Thomas' poem, "Fern Hill": \o7 I lordly had the trees and leaves/Trail with daisies and barley/Down the rivers of the windfall light.\f7
And the elegant picnic that John and Kim had spread out was my just reward. Here was the gastronomic largess of the region: great rounds of country bread, cheeses (Brie, chevre, Carre Bleu, Chabichou, St. Marcellin, Tomme Blanche, Cantal), grapes, foie gras, rice salad with olives, fruit tarts, caramel bars, chocolate-covered walnuts and wine from Bergerac.
I could hardly count myself a martyr considering our recent visit to Rocamadour, where 12th-Century pilgrims climbed 223 steps on shackled knees to prostrate themselves before the Black Virgin in the Virgin Chapel. Carved of time-darkened wood, the small figure was thought to produce miraculous cures. The faithful still visit today, camping out in the valley below. The ancient abbey seems to defy gravity, jutting from a cliff face rising more than a thousand feet from the gorge below.
The afternoon we came into Sarlat-la-Caneda, a microcosm of medieval France, it had rained all day. I almost opted for a van ride along with others, but each time the van passed, each time John hollered out to me, I got an extra charge of adrenaline. It was like a safety net, a security blanket. Wrapped in my cocoon of Gore-Tex, hood to toe, my legs spinning around to the hiss of tires on wet pavement, I moved in my own watery capsule, past blurs of green and gold, the woods, the fields.
In every age the ennobled spirit emerges. We found it our last two days in the engravings and paintings of Cro-Magnon man. As we hunched through the antechamber and acclimated to the cool and dark of the Font-de-Gaume cave near the village of Les Eyzies-de-Tayac, a little horse startled to life under the flashlight beam of our guide. No childish pen scratching, this drawing that configured to the rock surface was created 15,000 years ago by a master who understood lighting, perspective, spatial relationships--techniques not discovered again until the Italian Renaissance.