Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Sunflowers, Lavender, and a Four-Day Bike Tour

Growing up, I'd see the occasional sunflower in someone's flower garden and it always looked so sad, as if it were desperate for companionship.  I'm not sure if it was the flower's solitude (there was rarely more than one) or the way the flower tilted itself -- it would open itself to the sunshine while being careful not to directly stare at it -- so I was taken aback when we came upon an enormous field of sunflowers on the second day of our bike tour.  These sunflowers looked as if they were mingling with their neighbors, commenting on the intensity of that days' sunshine. 
"Flowers have an expression of countenance as much as men or animals.  Some seem to smile; some have a sad expression; some are pensive and diffident; others again are plain, honest and upright, like the broad-faced sunflower and the hollyhock." ~ Henry Ward Beecher, Star Papers: A Discourse of Flowers
Our four-day bike tour was relatively low-altitude so we never encountered any lavender while pedaling across the countryside, although we more than made up for it during the drive from Avignon to Marseille.  

And every market we stopped at featured at least one stall selling lavender and lavender-infused products (honey, body wash, lotion, etc.) as well as huge burlap sacks of harvested lavender from which you could buy as much (or little) as you want..
Lisa, her father, and I preceded our four-day bike tour through the Provence countryside with a day in Nice and after the bike tour, we headed to Marseille for a night then back to Nice and Monaco to round out the trip.  The shoreline in Nice is beautiful and the Mediterranean an inviting blue, although the beach wasn't quite what I was expecting:  gravel and small stones instead of fine beach sand.  No worries, though, we were on the French Riveria!
"Shall we go in?"  "I don't know, what do you think?"  "I asked you first."
This trip was as much about the food as it was about the lavender and the bike tour.  Farm fresh fruits & vegetables were the norm and bread & croissants were standard breakfast fare.  

My lunches on day one and day four of the bike-tour barely qualifed (if at all) as French fare:  panini & (French!) fries on day one and a cheeseburger & (French!) fries on day four (both dishes were accompanied by a delightful French Rose wine, though).

"French fries, french bread, french dressing...and to drink:  Peru!" (Better Off Dead)
Surprisingly, one of the tastiest burgers I've ever had
It may be hard to believe, but the eating and drinking was bracketed by some actual cycling.  On the first day, we biked across the lower tier of the Pont du Gard, a dauntingly large Roman aqueduct that contains a watercourse capable of carrying 20,000 cubic meters of water per day (no longer in use, of course).  

Lisa and her father, Karl, on day two:
The Peleton
The open road on day three (and the landscape for much of the four days):
On day four -- our return to Avignon by way of the Alpillles (rolling hills version of the Alps) -- we passed through some vineyards (all that wine we drank had to come from somewhere!).   
After four days of bicycling and ~115 miles later, we dined at a restaurant in Avignon -- probably the best among many superb meals -- accompanied by a typical French apertif (aniseed-flavoured pastis):
I wasn't quite sure what to expect from Marseille -- the guidebook indicated that Marseille had a reputation as being a bit seedy but had undergone a massive makeover in the last decade -- and, as such, was prepared for a lukewarm impression.  Not so.  The city and coast are as beautiful, it not more so, than Nice.
The view from our hotel room
Sunset over the Mediterranean Sea
From the top of the Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde, a church with sweeping views of the city: 
We finished off the week with a detour to Cannes then to Monaco where we spent our last day wandering around.  I suppose this is the closest we're ever going to get to celebrity stardom and obscene amounts of wealth.  
Workin' it on the red carpet of the Cannes Film Festival venue  
"I'm here to catch a glimpse...of high society" (~Jerry, "Seinfeld")