Freewheeling through France. Bicycle touring is not incompatible with comfort, cuisine
Twenty years ago, I toured France by car. With the help of post cards, I can recall a city or two. But the countryside itself remains a blank, like the space between the dots in a child's ``connect the dots'' drawing. This past summer I connected the dots: I traveled through France by bicycle.Skip to next paragraph
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Buses stupefy me; I tend to drift off to sleep. In a car, conversation distracts me from the view. Seeing a country through train windows is too often a neutral experience. However, bicycling is far from neutral. Every minute can be exciting.
It is midmorning in the Dordogne region of France. We bike along back roads by a meandering river. Sun and breeze wash over us. We pass through vineyards, orchards, gaggles of geese, strips of tobacco drying in barns. Medieval towns loom over us, hugging cliffs on either side of the valley. On impulse, we pedal up a steep, castle-topped hill, snacking on the wild blackberries that border all French country roads. The air is crisp and cool. At night we sleep in a comfortable inn, enjoy a five-course gourmet meal.
In Provence, we pedal this morning up the low Le Luberon mountain range, stop at its crest for lunch, cycle across the summit among fields of sweet-smelling lavender, coast down a miles-long hill. We camp at Lourmarin, a town of tiny, convoluted streets. Provence's famous wind -- Le Mistral -- bends our tentpoles at night. Townspeople tell us Le Mistral tales the next day.
Biking over rolling hills of Brittany, we pass old stone farms enclosing courtyards, fields of artichokes, a lone menhir -- a stone monument 2,000 years old. We greet each person we pass; everyone answers back. We stop at Ploerdut, dine on Breton cr^epes served with creme fraiche and cider. When we rise to leave, everyone in the restaurant says goodbye.
Bicycling may sound grueling, Spartan, and comfortless; skeptics may imagine sleeping in crowded hostel-dormitories, pedaling nonstop, or eating from sardine tins.
Cycle-touring is not incompatible with comfort and cuisine. You can choose the pace you go -- be it leisurely or strenuous. On one trip we averaged 40 miles a day; on the other 20. We always left time for on-impulse side trips. On a trip to Brittany and Provence, we camped nightly; this past September in the Dordogne, we alternated camping with staying at inns. Camps are well equipped; some are elegant. At one, we were asked to wait so our campsite lawn could be mowed. Even in August, when all French people go on vacation, you won't be turned away, although you may be packed in, tentpeg to tentpeg.
Our Dordogne trip focused as much on gourmet dining as on cycling and sightseeing. Each morning, we called ahead for reservations at the best restaurant we could find, using Michelin's star system as our guide. After a day of bicycling, we would change into our set of wrinkle-free dress clothes and dine on exquisite dishes of wild boar, goose, truffles, c`epe, morel, or pleurotte mushrooms.
Even lunches turned out to be gourmet events. Each day we picnicked on regional p^at'e and cheese, fresh fruit, French bread, and local patisserie specialties.
In fact, combining biking with gourmet dining nicely balances the cost of dining daily on rich Perigord food with the low-cost, energy-consuming exercise of bicycling.