A week in Provence

24 May 2007

Cliffs above St RemySanta Barbara to St. Remy de Provence in 18 hours. Ug. The first thing I want to do, once checked in to my hotel is to move my legs. As we drove in to town I had noticed some peculiar rock formations north of us and I figured that was as good a direction as any. I got out my topo map of the area and saw there was a yellow road heading that way (On the French 1:100,000 maps white roads have the least (and slowest) traffic, then yellow, orange, red and finally blue for the autoroutes).

It’s been years since I last ran in France. I seem to be injured most Mays, so I’d forgotten what it was like. St. Remy is a big town, and it actually has sidewalks in the center (with a lot of traffic), the sidewalks fade after a few blocks. The French don’t believe in shoulders; there’s road surface and then there’s an irrigation ditch. Well, traffic isn’t bad, and I run on the road.

It goes up. I’m heading up into the Alpilles, a range of small mountains, not even as high as our coast range.

I had assumed that Provence would have hot and sunny climate. But it was raining as we arrived on the TGV in Avignon and finished as we got into the car to St. Remy. Then it was cloudy. Thereafter we mostly had May grey weather, morning clouds, clearing around three. And then there is the wind, le mistral, I guess. A fierce wind blowing steadily for the first four days.

Provence is criss-crossed with irrigation canals, and from these canals descends a network of irrigation ditches. There is a complicated series of sluice gates that control which ditch has water and where that water goes. Eventually it floods someone’s field.

So as I climb the hill I run beside a chattering ditch full of water and waterfalls — until I cross the main canal and then there is no more water.

I’m still feeling the effects of the race two days before. My calves complain bitterly as I climb up. Still it’s nice to be moving. And yes, here are those pecular cliffs. I note there is a hiking trail leading to them and decide I’ll follow it tomorrow. After 20 minutes I turn back.

Chateau at Les BauxThe next day I wander the countryside on my bike (and hiking to the cliffs, of course). Found a rather interesting chateau and walled village on top of a mountain peak called “Les Baux”. Down below this is “La valée d’enfer”, the valley of hell, a contorted landscape of rocks that supposedly inspired Dante’s Inferno (What Dante was doing in Provence to be inspired by it, I’m not sure). However I managed to lose my way at the end of the day (or rather I didn’t know where I was to go) and got to the next hotel quite late. I missed my run.

Gourdes on its hilltop La Coste on its hill

I wanted to be careful after that; the next morning I set out to look at more hill villages in the Luberon region, but made sure to return to the hotel in time for a long run. I ran 2km to the little village of Lagnes and thence on to Les fountains de Vauclus — a place where a huge river (or huge at this time of year) pops out of the ground — and then on under an aquaduct and halfway to the next village. It surprises me just how densely settled the French countryside is. After 45 minutes I turned back. Ulp. Between Les Fontaines and Lagnes there was a very steep hill — up now.

The city limit signs in France often have the names of sister-cities on them. At first I thought that most of the villages we went through were twinned with an Italian town with roughly the same name. A lot more consistent than one usually finds in twinning. And then I realized Provence has a second official language, Provençal, and I’m seeing the Provençal name of the town, not that of a sister city. And sprinkled through the area are many words and place names which are not French. We are staying now at the Mas des Grès or “farmhouse in the fields” in Provençal. I can get by in French but Provençal is an unexpected complication.

Roman Theatre at OrangeAfter that we moved on to Orange, a dull town with an intact, and awe-inspiring roman theater. The thing is huge. The arches must be designed to intimidate rather that for function as they are much taller than they could possibly need to be. The stones which make up the walls are great blocks three feet on a side. The Romans didn’t even have draft animals — and Orange is just a small town far from the center of the empire…

Grape bloomsOur new hotel is in a vineyard amid a bunch of untrafficked white roads. I go out for a 40 minute run to explore the area. There’s a stables near-by that seems to have marked off a course every kilometer — something that will prove useful for a tempo run later — only I can’t find the start and stop marks. Eventually I realize that a circled D stands for “Depart”, or start, and a circled A for “Arrivé” or finish.

French PoppiesAfter the vineyard are some fruit trees, and then fields after fields of wheat. There are poppies growing in the wheat, nodding red blooms just as high as the rippening heads of wheat.

Pont du GardMy father has rented a car this trip, and, I am sad to say, is not biking as much as he has in the past. He and my sister-in-law switch off between driving and biking. He convinces us to drive to “Pont du Gard” another work of monumental Roman architecture, an aquaduct still spanning the river Gard. It looks as though it would still function too. And then on to the arena at Nîmes.

Roman Arena at Nimes

This day there are no clouds. And it is very hot. A lot of wind too. I wait as late as I can to go running hoping it will cool, hoping it will calm. Neither happens. As I’m running about I find a small footbridge that crosses the local river and run over on the other side of that.

Because of the heat I run in the morning the next day. At 6am it looks like another sunny day, but no wind. I warm up for 20 minutes or so to get to the D mark, do some strides, and then start a 5k tempo run. A bit short, but I tired. My km splits vary by about half a minute (3:40-4:07) so I guess the marks on the road aren’t very accurate. Still I hope the errors do not accumulate and that I did run about 5k at a 3:50 (=~6:10min/mile) pace. Then I finish off with an easy 50 minute cool-down.

Chateau neuf du PapesI bike down to Chateau neuf du Pape. Dating from the time when the Popes lived in Avignon and Provence was the center of roman catholicism. Just a ruin. Two walls on top of a hill in the middle of a vinyard.

A different hotel. A very traditional one where the doors are locked at 6am and no one seems to understand that a runner might want to be outside early in the morning. Ah well. Our final bike ride is a short one and I get back to St Remy about 1 and can change and go for a short run.

The next morning I go for my final run in Provence. I trot out from St Remy in a different direction, past a 19th century chateau (I’d guess) through its beautiful entrance-way lined on each side with sycamore trees (ok, plane trees) to another road that goes up into the Alpilles. And I head up, this morning I have time to reach the top. After a bit I realize this has been part of a race. There are chalk arrows on the road and I see 5km in chalk, then 6km. Halfway up someone has written “Go” in chalk (but I’m in France, not England), at the top there is a line on the road with the word “Yes” beside it. I continue a little further and find a stunning view of Les Baux from the other direction. I wish I’d brought my camera for the morning sun is striking the hilltop village perfectly. Here someone has thoughtfully chalked in “view”, but I don’t need the reminder. Regretfully I must turn back now. (I learn later that there was a foot race up here a few days earlier, on ascension day, wish I’d known, might have been worth biking back for).

Palais des Papes, AvignonBefore my TGV ride back to Paris I have time to wander the city of Avignon. It’s about the size of SB in population but feels much more compact. The old city still is completely encircled by it’s city wall (the French word for which also means pregnant which caused me some confusion the first time I met a French city wall). But dominating everything is the Palais des Papes, the massive citadel build by the popes during the 100 years they lived in France. This one is not in ruins — why it’s almost a match for the grandure of Rome.

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