The Grand Canyon of Europe

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After a very long night without a single breath through my nose, I was ready for the day to start.  Sitting up did not prove a better position to clear my sinuses, though, so I headed off to take a shower at the block that actually WAS functional but nowhere near our tent.  I was thrilled to find that the hot water was not really hot, but a bare luke warm.  After the quickest shower as I could muster, I shivered all of the way back down the hill to our campsite, only to curl back up miserably in the cold tent with my new best friend Zyrtec in anticipation of the sun, pretty sure that I was done with our campground.
We had trouble deciding on what to do this morning (we always do better if we go to bed with a plan), since the kayak rentals did not open until 10 am.  After a lot of indecision, we decided that we would enjoy the cycling best in the morning  before the heat, and then cool off in the afternoon on the water.
Since we were a low on food for breakfast, we went down to the tiny supermarket just outside of our campground.  The market oozes coolness with its reggae music and young french dudes with dreadlocks and goatees selling dancing and selling flip flops, baguettes, and postcards of kittens in hammocks superimposed over pictures of the gorge.  We had a baguette and the most amazing croissants there ever were.  How is it possible that a little roadside shack in the middle of nowhere has fresher and better bread than our local grocery stores at home?
Cycling without our heavy load always proves quite enjoyable, even though our bikes feel a little squirrely since we are so used to the man-handling required for steering a loaded bike.  We flew up the hills that our Australian friend warned us about as we made our way to the rim of the gorge.  I swear that when a sign says “16% grade” here, someone just totally made the number up and posted it.  The hills never seem to be as bad as the signs make them out to be.
After riding 7 or 8 kilometers, we had climbed quite a few feet and finally entered the mouth of Gorge de Verdon.  The gorge was beautiful as we looked down on the river as it sliced thinly through the canyon walls.  They call this place the “Grand Canyon of Europe”.  While it isn’t as big or as deep as the Grand Canyon, it certainly has its own appeal.  The roads were a little scary, though as we looked way down at the water.  I would definitely not recommend them for anybody with a fear of heights.  Even Bree was a little nervous, at first.  The cars gave plenty of room and drove slowly enough, though, that we had plenty of space.

We rode along the north rim of the gorge for 11 kilometers.  By this time we could no longer see the river – only the green mouth to the cliffs of the gorge.  With the weather getting a little warm, we decided it was time to cool off in the river.  As we descended, the light finally filled the canyon and we got some great views of the gorge.

As any vacation would not be complete without kayaking, we rented a double kayak for 3 hours to explore the canyon from the water.  It is amazing how much faster it is to kayak up the river then to ride our bikes clear up the window road to the rim.

The water was a little chilly, but it felt nice against the hot sun as we paddled lazily up past the waterfalls and caves that litter the cliff walls on either side of the river.  We eventually hit some very weak, shallow rapids which prevented us from going further upstream, but that didn’t keep us from hanging out on a rocky bar and enjoying the beautiful canyon.

We got back to camp just in time to meet some fellow cycle tourists.  They are here from Sydney for one month, and are toting along several small children on their recumbent tandems.  Having seen the work and energy that goes into everyday life on the road, I can’t imagine doing it with such small kids.

We decided to once again move our tent from our hayfield in the trees to some drier, less fertile ground, we once again picked up our tent and hauled it down the road.  We must have looked ridiculous carrying the fully assembled tent down the road to our new site, but we didn’t care.  Fewer allergies, electricity (the box next to our campsite didn’t work), and even more importantly a bathroom that didn’t require a short hike made it worth the move.

Now we can journal, plan our route for tomorrow, and process our 174 photos for the day in peace as the sun sets over the lake.  Today has definitely been a highlight for our time in France.

Today began with 2 croissants, a bagette, and some cheese from our favorite mini market just outside of our campsite.  When I checked in at reception, I failed to note that we couldn’t check until after 9:00 am, which completely thwarted our plans to get on the road early which seems to be working out for us.  Leaving early allows us to avoid the heat of high sun and any afternoon winds that might crop up.  On an ideal day, we can know put 50 – 80 km in before 2:00, and have the rest of the day to explore nearby towns, do some grocery shopping, and finally make dinner, process our photos for the day, and do some journaling.
Rolling out right after 9:00, we were grateful for the intermittent cloud cover that kept the sun off of us for most of the day.  As our route now will attempt to follow a river basin up toward Grenoble, we of course first had to climb a mountain.  It was disheartening to retrace our steps from yesterday’s ride up the gorge with a full load – the going is much more slow with even more effort.
Just before we reached the mountain that we had to cross in order to reach the rolling hills and finally the river basin, Bree noticed a “campings” sign that we have been keeping our eyes out for in order to take a picture.  We think it funny that while in any other country we have been to there have been terms for campgrounds.  The French don’t seem to have such a word, and instead use the term “campings” to denote their campgrounds.
While stopped to take a picture, a tour bus full of Italians stopped right past us, just down the hill from Moustier Saint Marie.  Apparently the spectacle that we are proved more interesting than the city for many of the tourists, because as they spilled out of the massive bus, many of the old Italian men began to hover and swarm around me.  Bree, off in the distance a little ways, laughed as the men kept asking questions about my bike and talking amongst themselves about “cyclocross”.  They were particularly fascinated by the GPS, as most people seem to be.  One kept trying to convince me that I should keep my water bottles filled with whiskey – I had to reassure him that we wanted to ride in a straight line, since man-handling these bikes is hard enough as it is!  The questioning, photos, and applause from the curious Italians went on for quite some time.  The language barrier was pretty thick, so translation was done through a few that did speak some english, but finally Bree and I decided that we should get back on the road before it got any later.  We bade our new Italian friends goodbye as we rode off in the other direction, giving them friendly waves in response to their cheers and clapping.
Spirit lightened and legs spun out a bit, the lead that plagued my muscles coming out of Lac de Croix left and I was feeling pretty good.  Bree was still feeling our climb into the gorge yesterday, though.  As always, she kept pedaling and kept pushing her heavy load persistently up the switchbacks over the mountain and another set of steep hills.  I couldn’t help but admire how hard she working out here – I am so lucky to have a wife who would even attempt to not only leave home, cars, private bathrooms, mattresses, and reliable food sources, but to get on a 60 pounds bike and attempt to climb mountains with it.
With the worst of the hills out of the way for the day, the mountainous terrain turned to lavendar fields interspersed with expanses of grain.  The lavendar fields, since they are not yet in bloom, look an awful lot like sagebrush.  From a distance, the fields look almost uncultivated.  As you get a little bit closer and catch the right angles, though, the clean rows can be seen, making the fields actually quite pretty.  We even caught an occasional field of red poppies in full bloom!
As the hills became very smooth and undulating, the only thing that I could think was that this road is a cycling paradise.  In fact, the entire region we are in is one of those places that could be considered magical.  The road is smooth with gentle ups and downs, there is little to no traffic, and as the green and red fields of lavendar, poppies, and various grains are broken up by light forest and small, quiet villages, there is enough variety in scenery to keep things interesting.  The temperature was nearly perfect (about 5 degrees too warm for me, though slightly too cold for Bree).  If any of you are ever inspired to cycle through France, this is the place to do it.  The only thing that could have made it better would have been to do it unloaded with Wilbur and Bella.
We rolled into Oraison before I knew it, though Bree wasn’t feeling so hot.  Since there was an Intermarche in town, we decided to stop by and do some serious stocking up on food before we lost our chance again.  We really do seem to be in the middle of nowhere, and even grocery stores can be hard to find.  After more than two panniers of provisions were in hand, Bree still wasn’t feeling much better so we decided to adjust our goal to make it clear to Hippocampe and just stay in Oraison for the night so that we don’t burn ourselves out.  one carton of berries and nougat ice cream, a liter of milk, a bagette, some cheese, an apple, and 2 eclairs later, we were happy to be in our camp which overlooks the river basin which we will brave tomorrow.  Hopefully this new and relatively flat terrain sticks around – life is sure happier with it!


2 Responses

  1. Miara says:

    If you guys have never been to Glacier National Park on the border of Montana and Canada, that’s a definite must-see before you die. It looks a lot like some of these pictures except less green. And Bree we have matching tan lines! I wore that blue Nike tank top to ride bikes last week (I rode your bike which is ten million times better than mine and we got up to 25 mph. Super exciting haha) and we gardened and I was out in the sun for like three hours and ended up with probably the worst sunburn out of the seven I’ve ever had in my life. I basically didn’t want to wear a shirt for four days haha. Then it peeled. Now I have a tan line that hopefully will prevent more sunburns this summer.

    • Bree says:

      I totally want to go to Glacier National Park one day. Maybe you guys can come with us!

      Uh, that sounds like an awful sunburn. The best part about my tan from that shirt is that I haven’t even really worn mine outside this year. Most of what you can see in that picture is from last year! I got fried and it just kind of stuck!

      I hope you are loving my bike! I miss how fast it can go. Our touring bikes are a bit…cumbersome and it takes SO LONG to go anywhere. I swear we ride like nowhere in the day and I still burn so many calories that I am constantly trying to eat EVERYTHING IN SIGHT. I’ve never been so dang hungry in all my life!

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