I signed up for Igo's optional five-hour bike ride through the Provencal countryside, hoping our route wouldn't imitate any portion of the hilly Tour de France.
Two young guides from nearby Carpentras met our group in the bus parking lot outside Roussillon, and fitted us with bikes and helmets. Fleece felt great while standing around, as there was a cool breeze on this sunny May day. But before we pushed off I removed extra layers, not wanting the hassle once we were underway. Plus, I could use the added incentive to bike faster and work off the week's gluttonous calories. Goodness knows I'd certainly broken my five month fast from sugar here...
Starting at the bus park, we headed away from Roussillon and biked a 25km loop on country roads following road signs marked with a bicycle. We coasted over gently sloping roads past vineyards, lavender fields, cherry groves, thyme, and clusters of bright red poppies. Distant shadows of Luberon mountains formed a backdrop to fields filled with stubby vines. Biking past row after endless row of perfectly spaced plants created a definite rhythm as we swooshed by.
Relatively flat, empty roads allowed us to ride side by side and mingle with each other without huffing and puffing up steep ascents. We could wheel up to James, our travel writing instructor, and ask whatever we wanted. He welcomed our conversation and gave us thoughtful answers to our writing questions based on vast experience. I also enjoyed riding beside Igo's own Tony, and getting to know the person behind the smile.
Hubert, our guide, pointed out surrounding flora and fauna at impromptu rest stops, while we waited for others to catch up at intersections. Otherwise, we kept riding until we stopped for lunch. We followed Hubert up a strenuous hill to a tiny village, and settled into a shady spot near a park where men played boucle ball. Empty at 1pm, the only noise around us was faint sounds emerging from an elementary playground as we tore into sack lunches of sandwiches, apples, yogurt, chocolate bars, juice, and cheese.
Back on our bikes, we continued through the countryside. Houses or buildings were rare in the fields, which explains why a strange-looking mound of stacked stone with a little doorway caught my eye. I wheeled up to Hubert to inquire before it faded from view. He explained that structures such as that were used by shepherd, which was a tad confusing, as I hadn't seen sheep, or, for that matter, anywhere in France. Then it dawned on me. It was a borie! An ancient, leftover borie from who knows when – shepherds had abandoned them completely by the 18th century.
As we rounded a rural homestead of a beige stone home with bright blue shutters, an elderly woman standing in tall grass was spotted by a fellow Igo biker. The woman, wearing an apron made from the traditional French Provencal print fabric of sunny yellow and cobalt blue, was loading her pockets with purple irises.
A few of us biked over to chat. The sweet natured lady, happy among the wild blossoms, appeared content and relaxed. I looked at her, thinking of her simple lifestyle. I imagined her buying goat cheese, ham and baguettes at the village market, spending the remainder of her day outdoors, perhaps on her terrace, sipping rose, or traipsing through tall grasses to collect flowers to beautify her home. What a contrast to my typical day, racing around to accomplish a myriad of tasks. How often did I pause to collect, well, anything? Type A to the nth degree - France was good for me to see.
Down the road we passed a fenced quarry where majestic red sandstone rock was used to colorwash every home in Roussillon. Guides led us to another quarry toward the end of our loop. At the base of the large hill winding up to Roussillon is a former roadside laundry. We went over to see the long low concrete basins tucked under an overhang. Behind it, a trail led to beautiful rock formations of red, veined with streaks of black and gold.
We left our bikes and wandered down the forested trail, the red rocks towering above the tree line. We approached the rocks and felt compelled to touch them. The surface felt gritty and left a deep colored imprint on whatever we touched next. Our guide sprouted prominent peach cheekbones, informing us that the rocks once mined were also used to create women's rouge. The trail leading onward through the gorge looked appealing, but our guides reminded us that it was time to go. We got on our bikes and rode the short distance to the road (yea, a few yards of single track!).
Rounding the last curve of our journey was the steepest ascent of our trip. The sharp incline necessitated some to walk, but they cheered the rest of us up as we downshifted, click...click...click. It was no Tour de France, but rewarding just the same.
In the village square, we left our bikes to get ice cream at the corner stand (in my opinion, the best in Provence). Hmmm. Lavender, honey, toffee, strawberry...A sweet finish to a perfect day.