Sixteen of us, from thirteen countries across six continents, ( No prizes for guessing the missing continent) looked expectantly at the glistening bikes on the trailer. We loved the beautiful bikes and instantly started choosing our favourite ones and started wearing our bandanas, helmets, and adjusting our seats with the excitement of school kids on a picnic.
We had every reason to be excited. We were on a five day cycling trip in the Provence region of Southern France, in spring. The temperature was a pleasant 10 to 18 degrees Celsius, with a forecast of all sunny days. We were visiting some gorgeous natural sites, medieval villages and historical monuments. We were staying at family owned chateaus and boutique hotels, tasting fine local wines, visiting organic farms, enjoying home cooked meals made from fresh local produce, and participating in some unique local experiences. All this, in the company of fifteen spirited travel advisors from across the globe, led and guided by two passionate professionals from the local tourist office.
I have cycled in Pune, a city in western India, some 30 years ago, where my cycle was a basic vehicle with two wheels, a seat and a brake. I love cycling, love the outdoors, and enjoy a bit of challenge. I am reasonably fit; yet cycling in Provence with a bunch of athletic cycling enthusiasts made me a wee bit nervous about my choice. Also, you cycle on the other side of the road in France (did not say wrong side), and have rear brakes on the right-hand side instead of the left, unlike in India. I was using E-bikes for the first time, it had gears, E support and a screen to help me monitor my speed, distance, and incline; my bicycle in Pune was a far cry from this modern piece of machinery. The doubts about my choice and ability were laid to rest after the first few minutes. The bike was beautiful sturdy yet light, and the cycle was skid proof, even when riding on gravel and pebbles. I was able to balance, steer, and climb with ease. I was now looking forward with eager anticipation to the rest of my trip.
Cycling transports you to another world, similar to platform 9 ¾ in Harry Potter; it is between walking and driving, keeping you close to nature, yet providing you speed and thrill when you glide down a slope. You feel one with your bike, like no other vehicle, akin to a dance where both partners move in graceful synchrony.
The average speed of about 16 km/h gave me an opportunity to smell the advent of spring, smile broadly at runners, wave happily at children, and take pictures of colourful flowers growing wildly in crevices of hillocks. Cycling is a wonderful way to explore the beauty of Provence, a region of myth and magic. 20 km of slow climbing on a striking road, marked with tunnels, overlooking a canyon by the Nesque, brought us to the view point of Castelleras, facing the Rocher du Cire where the canyon is 400m deep. It was an e xhilarating site, and I was thrilled to have made it.
The next day we rode leisurely along the rolling Valensole Plateau with stunning panoramas, unobstructed views and natural sites that weren’t tampered with. It was magical. The route was peppered with exciting heritage from Le Parage, the medieval town of Les Arcs and the “monument historique” Sainte-Roseline Chapel. We enjoyed the quiet little roads lined with oaks, lavender fields, olive trees, and almond trees. Although the lavender does not flower in March, the almond trees were in full bloom. It was stunning to see the almond field surrounded by hills, with rows and rows of dazzling pinkish white flowers. It was like a postcard. All the trees looked perfectly symmetrical, and a closer look at individual flowers magnified their differences and beauty. It was as if there was a magnetic force urging us to spend more time in the midst of these beautiful blossoms and breathe in the air filled with it’s delicate fragrance.
While we cycled through the mesmerizing landscapes of Provence, passing by quaint cities and chapels, we participated in some unique local experiences. In Sault, we visited a distillery on a 40-year-old family owned organic farm, specializing in the production and distillation of aromatic and medicinal plants. We learnt about extraction of essential oils right from harvesting of flowers to the distillation process and understood the difference between Lavender and Lavendin.
At the European Institute of Scents and Fragrances, the Cordeliers Convent in Forcalquier, we embarked upon a multi-sensory journey. We were introduced to the olfactory system and the history of perfumes, dating back centuries. I was amazed to learn that we get fragrances not just from flowers, plants and wood but also from animals. We settled ourselves in the intriguing laboratory, complete with weighing scales, beakers, stirrers, etc. to create our very own, fully customized, perfume. It was fascinating to know the parallels between music and perfume. The box containing essential oils is called an organ, there were 48 essential oils in our organ, and a professional perfumer may have up to 200 essential oils in her organ. A perfume is composed of three distinct notes; the Head Note, Heart Note and Base Note. Each note has different fragrances, and the perfumer chooses a combination of fragrances which touch and inspire her. An infinite number of compositions are possible and it is quite impossible for any two perfumes to be absolutely similar. We used a blend of 11 essential oils, of our choice, in varying quantities to come up with our bespoke perfume.
We had a well earned stop at Biscuiterie de Forcalquier, where biscuits were made using artisan organic flour. The large variety of flavours was more than welcome as we tried number of mouth-watering macaroons and biscuits.
In addition to tasting the fine local wines of Provence, especially the rose for which the region is particularly famous, we had another very interesting experience – sampling of local produce. We tasted almonds, almond butter, almond syrup, different kinds of olive oil, a variety of pastinades, lavender syrup, and honey. The tasting activated all our taste buds so much, that we could tell the subtle difference in olive oils made from different harvests of olives.
Aumps, is home to the biggest wholesale truffle market in France. Here we got a peek into the mysterious world of Truffle, The Black Diamond, so-called for its inimitable flavour as well as for its price. The black truffle is a mushroom which lives underground, mainly at the foot of oaks and hazelnut trees. Its distinctive perfume is made up of more than 70 aromatic components. An interesting cooking activity followed, where we made sushi and sampled some other delicacies prepared by the chef using truffle.
Our five days just flew by or should I say rode away. Our group was encouraging and looked out for each other. The sixteen of us came from different courtiers, backgrounds, cultures, and spoke different languages, yet in all our diversity there were more things in common than not. We all liked to talk, take pictures, laugh and make jokes. We swapped stories and personal experiences, ate, and drank merrily. We met as strangers and parted as friends, exchanging hugs and promises of keeping in touch and inviting the others to our part of the world. France, not only introduced us to some beautiful sites, heady fragrances, and subtle flavours but also to some lifelong friendships. It was truly an unforgettable and inspiring trip.
- Fitness is important, so build your stamina before a cycling trip
- Dress in layers, as you get warmer with the exercise
- Enjoy the journey