Wednesday, July 23, 2008

July 16, 2008 – Olive Country

After my big ride to the top of Mount Ventoux and with my ride in two days up Alp d’Huex, I knew that today was all about taking it easy. We had a long ride planned – about 60 miles – so I decided that today would be a day of site-seeing and going slowly.

I started my trip leaving from the campsite near Vaison headin for Menglon for the evening. I was amazed with how agriculturally productive the land was in the area. I saw trees with apricots, nectarines, cherries, peaches and olives. Even though we were traveling through the mid-south part of France, we were still fairly far north in terms of latitude – and inland quite a ways. I was surprised with the lush bounty of fruit I saw as I rode by.

My first stop would be Nyons, where I hoped to find an Internet connection. Internet access had been either non-existent or very expensive at the past two campgrounds. I hadn’t heard an update on my cat for a few days, so I was eager to find Wi-Fi (or wee-fee as they call it here).

As I stopped in Nyons, about 10 miles down the road, I asked the visitor’s center where I could find Wi-Fi – and the woman told me the name of the place in a blue building. I rode around and couldn’t find it. I saw some bikers with Nyons jerseys (part of a bike group?) and asked them for help. One directed me to a small store less than a block away. I checked my email – the cat had still not come home – and then I headed on the route.

A few miles out of town, I remembered that Nyons was famous for its olive production, so I stopped by a bike shop that I passed and asked for some help. Eric didn’t speak much English, but he was very patient with my French. He told me that I should go to the Musee d’Olivier to find out more about the olive growing in the region. Eric gave me a juicy and sweet apricot before I left.

I turned back to Nyons and tried to find the museum, which wasn’t obvious, despite the map that Eric had prepared for me. I rode up the hill and found some construction workers, taking lunch, and asked them where the Musee d’Olivier was. They were amused by me in my biking outfit and told me in French that I was in the wrong place. The Tour de France was in the Pyrnes! We all laughed together. One man spoke English, and he told me that the museum was by a cathedral that I could see to my right. I wished them au revoir and tried to find a road toward the cathedral in the maze of narrow one way roads.

My journey was unsuccessful, and I asked someone else where the museum was. He told me it was in the opposite direction but was closed over the lunch hour. (In the French countryside, lunch means closed between 12 and 2 p.m.). So I stopped my an open air restaurant and ordered lunch. (I don’t think I mentioned but universally, in every town that I have traveled, virtually every café and bar has outdoor seating. I preferred this so I could park my bike nearby and savor the open air and people watch.) I ordered the salad special – a ham (the French sure love ham) salad with tomatoes, cheese and a thick olive oil dressing (which had a deliciously rich taste), served with bread and a café au lait. I would have to wait for the museum, as it was about 12:30, so I also ordered a half carafe of rose wine. (Another point to mention, the rose wine here isn’t like white zinfandel in the U.S. It is truly light, delicious and refreshing – especially on a hot day, which it was that day.) At about quarter after 2, I headed toward the Musee d’Olivier – and found it! Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be open until 2:45. I waited outside in the heat with a family. At exactly 2:45, a car pulled up and out walked an older man with white hair and a purposeful stride.

I paid my 4 Euros and asked if he spoke English. He said, no, but he gave me a copy of the English version of the museum items. I walked around, taking photos, and occasionally, I would ask him a question. One I asked him was whether Italian olive oil was better than French olive oil – he shook his head and said. “C’est tres complex.” (It is very complex.)

We sat down as a group, and Rene (as I would later find out was his name) told us all about olive production. Olive oil is grown is regions that are among certain climate zones. Production stretches throughout France, Italy, Spain and even in California in the U.S. Much like wine, the land determines the taste of the oil. (Spanish oil is bitter, he lamented.)

Rene knew no English, and I was challenged trying to figure out the words he was using since they were so precisely related to olive oil. The man with the family (who was French) spoke some English and then some Dutch people joined the discussion, and one of the men also spoke some English.

Rene claimed French oil is some of the best in the world. He talked about the standards used by the certifying board – the AOC. The AOC is the same board that calls a Bordeaux wine a Bordeaux. They not only look at the region where the olive (or grape) is grown, they also measure the levels of certain elements contained within the oil. In order to be called Nyons olive oil, it must have a certain level of lipids, vitamins, etc.

It was a pretty funny scene. Rene would explain something and then ask me if I understood. I would get part of what he was saying, but not the whole thing. So the French man would try to explain and the Dutch man would fill in the blanks. This took a long time, and after an hour and 15 minutes, I had no more time to spare. It was 4 p.m., and I still had 50 miles to ride. I told Rene and the group I had to leave. Rene was disappointed, and asked me where I was going. I went outside and got my map for the night to show him. Then he told me I should stay because the Dutchman had found me charming. (Rene had asked me if I was single earlier.) I bid farewell to Rene, the Dutchman and the rest, and hopped on my bike for a very hot ride toward Mengion.
I had thought that riding 50 miles would take 2 ½ to 3 hours - even going slowly. I was mistaken. It was hot, I had to climb up a 700 meter col (mountain peak), and I was tired from my climb up Mount Ventoux.

I rode strong the first 25 miles, but when I started climbing, I could feel my legs were weary. I slowed down and just focused on getting through. I traveled on isolated mountain roads, and the scenery out of the lush valley of Nyons was all forest, rivers and mountains. The trek seemed to take forever, and there were not many villages to stop for water. At a bar, I asked for water, and they pointed me to a cistern (with water spouting from the mouth of a man!) Later, I was out of water once I had descended the Col, and I asked a boy selling fruit if he had some water, and he directed me to a public spigot a few blocks away.

By the time I neared camp, I was exhausted. Not only had the ride took it’s toll, I was also energetically depleted since I hadn’t eaten since my salad and bread at lunch. The last town before camp was Menglon. I was excited when I saw the town, but I couldn’t find the campground. I went down a hill to where I thought the campground would be located, but when I didn’t see any signs, I went back to town. I saw a girl, who was about age 10 in town, and I asked her is she knew the way to Camping at L’Hirondelle. She said, “I don’t speak English.” But then she told me she would get help. Soon she was running out of a house with a woman. I rode my bike toward them, and the woman, in an American accent, explained exactly how to get to the camp. (Why was she living in Menglon? I wondered, but didn't want to stay there and ask.) I couldn’t imagine trying to understand if she had told me in French that I had to pass by the concrete mixers!

I found camp that night, and it had taken me nearly 4 hours. I was late for dinner, so I changed clothes and met the group in my disheveled state. I was a little crabby because the directions weren’t clear – but soon I forgot about my annoyance, and laughed as the others asked about my trip to the Olive Museum (Ann had stopped at Eric's bikeshop to see if I was OK.) I ate a mediocre lasagna and bread and drank some more rose wine. After dinner I walked to the shower house – at least a quarter mile away from my tent. I was tiring of camping, and was glad that there was only one night of camping left!

Total miles: 65 (approximately – mileage computer stopped working)

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