A Jug of Wine (More Jugs of Wine) et Moi
Can extreme pleasure and adventure coexist? Yeah, baby! Hop on a bike for a long, winding tour through the gourmet sweet spots of southern France.
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The Montanan has lost his way. This is not to say I’m lost. I know exactly where I am—sort of. Gasping for air, I’m crouched beside my bicycle after pedaling up a country lane to the crest of a hill above the Ouvéeze River in Provence, the former Roman colony in southeastern France famous for its golden light. The 17 other guests on this luxurious Butterfield & Robinson cycling tour aren’t anywhere in sight—they’ve finally discovered that although my sense of direction is rarely in doubt, it’s usually wrong, and are no longer eager to ride with me. Whatever. I’ll eventually find the elegant Château de Massillan, where B&R has booked us to spend the final two nights of our extravagant moveable feast. But what’s the rush? The point of doing anything in France is to kill time until the next meal.
Below me, vineyards, olive groves, and fields of lavender shudder in the mistral, the north wind that blows relentlessly for spells of three, six, or nine days, then evaporates. Towering a mile above is the luminous white limestone spine of Mont Ventoux, as startling and improbable a landform in this domesticated geography as is Ayers Rock in Australia or Devils Tower in Wyoming.
I’m pleased to see all this produce growing fat under the gauzy June sun. Over the past week, the bounty of northern Provence has supplied me with a dozen meals so lush with flavor and texture I’ve been brought more than once to the verge of tears. The most recent of these grand gluttonies was a lunch concluded an hour ago on the terrace of the Domaine de Cabasse, a hotel restaurant under the medieval hillside village of Séeguret.
Dining for two hours to the melody of frogs chirping in the courtyard pools, I started with a salade méelangée from the restaurant’s garden, laced with fresh red currants, then a diaphanous asparagus soup, a small rack of lamb, and a succulent breast of guinea hen, followed by a plate of cheeses, including a banon frais and a péelardon, made from goat’s milk. The finale was a sweet biscuit drenched in chocolate and drizzled with a raspberry confection. Each course was complemented by a blossomy-tasting jug of white wine called Les Primavèeres, made from grapes harvested in the fields next to our long table, and further larded by slices of baguette we dipped in a green sauce called anchoïade, made from anchovies, basil, and olive oil.
Now, my legs still burning from the climb up this hill, my face glowing from sun and wind, I decide that a little nap is just what the doctor ordered. Easing back into a bed of wild red poppies, I press my fingers against my happy, swollen belly and belch.
Last winter I was offered a choice of writing assignments. I could fly to North Korea and try to elude my government-issued handlers in order to sneak off and report on outdoor recreations few Westerners have ever experienced, or I could join a sensuous high-end cycling trip in southern France with the Toronto, Canada-based outfitter Butterfield & Robinson, the crème de la crème of upscale guiding services. Duh.
As the 180-mile-an-hour bullet train from Paris raced south down the Rhône River toward Avignon, I stared at the blur and grew wistful thinking about the sweet months I misspent in that ancient maze of a city in 1971, as a college student who sort of attended classes in French history at the local école. The next morning I boarded a bus B&R had chartered for a 15-mile trip to the village of Boulbon, where our bicycles awaited. I sensed immediately that our guides, Jean-Louis Doss and Libby Dalrymple, both patient and amiable 35-year-old bilingual Canadians, were going to be excellent playmates. And the itinerary looked like a bike ride in heaven: seven days of petit déjeuner, lunch, and dinner interspersed with moderately demanding bike rides of 20 to 40 miles through the dreamscapes of the Côtes du Rhône.
I wondered about the other guests. Because my fellow cycling gourmets were shelling out $9,790 per couple for the week, plus thousands more for airfare, incidentals, and shopping sprees in a vastly overpriced country where a shot of espresso can set you back six dollars, I assumed in my convenient, knee-jerk bias that they’d be stuffy, reactionary, middle-aged bores.
When Jean-Louis introduced me to my bike, I saw that it had a name, Dalmatian Coast, painted on the frame, next to a tag with my name printed on it. In fact, everyone’s bike was tagged and named. Testing out this tough hybrid road warrior, custom-manufactured for B&R by a British Columbia company called Rocky Mountain Bicycles, I adjusted the seat, shocked the shock absorbers, rang the bell, and fiddled with the buttons on the handlebars that quick-changed the transmission through its 27 gears. Then I sailed off on a shakedown cruise around the town square.
As I circled, I became the Dalmatian. Just as the Dalmatian was hoping that “Coast” was something he’d be doing a lot of over the coming days, he hit a curb and fell over.
The Dalmatian looked up to see a svelte blond landscape architect from California named Wonderful World and her husband, Working It Off, a regal, linebacker-size real estate investor, staring at him. In truth, the Dalmatian hadn’t been on a bike in 15 years. And this pair had the majorly buffed legs of people who ride hard every day. Wonderful World wandered over to my crash-up as if bearing a warning not to drag down Group with any more of this monkey business. But instead, smiling, she offered the Dalmatian a tube of Vaseline skin ointment. Veteran bikers smear this stuff on their thighs and butt parts to prevent the heartbreak of chafing. She wore socks that read YOUR BIKE SUCKS.
“An American businessman with VD goes to a doctor in Shanghai,” she told the Dalmatian, apropos of nothing. ” ‘Must amputate,’ the doctor says. The man goes to another doctor for a second opinion. Same advice. So he goes to a naturopath. ‘Oh, these doctors!’ the healer cries. ‘All the time chop-chop. You wait a week. It fall off on its own.’ ”
So much for the Dalmatian’s preconceptions. He examined Group again and saw that grown men and women who dress up in padded bike shorts, gaudy polyester shirts, little fingerless gloves, and silly helmets shaped like insect heads are probably not going to be rigid bluenoses. Besides, when you’re on the road, sweating like Britney Spears at an all-you-can-eat, it’s impossible to be imperious.
In a café water closet, the Dalmatian applied the chafing cream. When he emerged, Group had already hit the road. No matter. He freed his bike from a post, using the same bike-lock combination that was issued to everyone, and skimmed the day’s printed directions, given to him by Jean-Louis (or J-Lo, as Group began calling him, because he’d never heard of Jennifer Lopez). This first ride would climb through olive trees and evergreen forests and then descend into apple orchards to our first hotel, in St.-Rémy. There would be lots of stops along the way, including lunch at Oustalet Maïnen, in Maillane, which, like most of the eateries where we would gorge over the next week, is a premier restaurant listed in that bible of French cuisine, the Michelin guide. As the Dalmatian rode through Boulbon, he tried to calculate 200 meters, the distance to the first major turn. Let’s see, if a kilometer is 0.62 miles, and there are 1,000 meters in a kilometer, then … Damn this metric system!
Apparently his figures were off, because he soon found himself pedaling next to heavy traffic on the shoulder of the D35, one of the major arteries the guides had designed our routes to avoid. As he waited for the traffic to clear so he could turn around and head back to Boulbon, J-Lo and Libby drove up in the white B&R van. The Dalmatian would have to wait until the farewell dinner at the end of the week to find out why they were laughing.
Now on the right road, the Dalmatian paced himself. He took a two-mile detour to St.-Michel-de-Frigolet, a monastery built more than a thousand years ago, where monks still do whatever monks do. Heading back, he discovered that one of his shoes was untied.
The Dalmatian knew this because the lace had been sucked up by a sprocket and was so enmeshed he was brought to a skidding stop. He tried to remove his shoe, but it wouldn’t budge.
As he sat, J-Lo drove up in the van. The Dalmatian hung his head in embarrassment as J-Lo got him unstrung. Because Group was already at lunch, J-Lo suggested that they drive to the restaurant. As they wound through the Barbentane Forest, he explained that the Dalmatian shouldn’t think of it as the Van of Shame; guests opted out of bike rides to take breathers all the time.
While Group ate, Le Grand Fromage took digital photos of the food, which she would e-mail to friends. Dressed in skin-tight black spandex, the Fromage was a droll and petite Aussie jock married to the Ghost Rider, a Melbourne vintner and entrepreneur who was telling a story about the couple’s recent lunch back home with Geoffrey Rush, the star of Quills, a movie about the Marquis de Sade. The Great Sadist would be a leitmotif of conversation, because we would stay in Mazan at one of his former châteaus. After an hour and a jug of wine on the walled terrace and fork-tender beef in a dark espagnole sauce so complex it made me woozy, the Dalmatian was ready for the road again.
Throughout the afternoon the Dalmatian stuck close to the others, especially the Tuscan Twister, a California orthodontist, and his educator wife, the Fairford Flash, a couple who seemed like they understood directions. We stopped at Le Musée des Arômes and wandered around, uncorking perfumes and the essences of the many botanicals that flourish in Provence.
Our hotel, a newish establishment called the Ateliers de l’Image, was a superlative place to kill time until dinner. The Dalmatian soaked his aching body in an enormous tub of hot water scented with white nettle and fleur d’oranger, imagining himself a succulent main course marinating in a man-size tureen. Although he thought his training for the trip would be sufficient—tennis and horseback riding and an hour a day on a stationary bike while he watched the Cubs—his butt parts were telling him that he should have taken heed of B&R’s advice to ride an actual bicycle 20 miles on a real road two times a week for a couple of months.
After his basting, the Dalmatian padded in his flip-flops past the tree house and through the gardens to the large swimming pool, where he lay walruslike in a chaise next to the Czech Noodle, a thirtyish, black-haired Minneapolis lawyer who advises corporations about international law, especially the Chinese kind. His wife was there, as well: the Tryst, whose happy explanation of the financial work she did was over the Dalmatian’s head. As people laughed about the day and began to experience that kind of bond forged on only the most transcendent of vacations, the Noodle smoked an enormous Cuban cigar. The Ghost Rider turned up and showed us a Pilates exercise to stretch our spines and our minds. The Duchess of Sienna, a New Jersey builder, bought the pool people a round of drinks. Soon it was time for dinner. The Dalmatian underdressed in a blue blazer, khaki jeans, black T-shirt, and Aussie cowboy boots.
We took taxis through the countryside to a bistro called Chez Bru, in Eygalières, a village built on the site of a neolithic settlement. Dinner was mostly à la carte, a three-hour affair of several courses, including a perfect thimble of foie gras, suckling pig in a translucent caramel sauce, an aromatic goat cheese called picadou, and a chocolate mousse, everything escorted by a fruity red wine called Les Baux-de-Provence and other bottles from the nearby Domaine de Vallongue winery. Everyone sated, it was back through the herb-scented night to St.-Rémy.
The next morning, after prosciutto, goat-cheese omelettes, and croissants, the Dalmatian found his bike lined up with the others in a courtyard. The guides had left a foil-wrapped wedge of dark chocolate on our seats, and our squeeze bottles were filled with water and slices of lemon. As it turned out, the Dalmatian would need every calorie and every drop to tackle the afternoon’s ride, which was short in distance but vast in punishment.
We pedaled a leisurely couple miles to St.-Paul-de-Mausole, a mental asylum where Vincent van Gogh committed himself in 1889 for the most productive year of his suicide-shortened life. While we waited in the shade of a wisteria trellis for Mathilde, who would be our guide to St.-Paul, Wonderful World and the Dalmatian discussed how to smuggle home the seeds of this vine, considering then abandoning the idea of swallowing them before reaching customs. Mathilde led us around the public areas of the hospital, showing us the unchanged subjects van Gogh painted—the walled field, the hospital buildings, and the olive grove, where the mistral was beginning to toss around the limbs.
The Dalmatian was thinking about lunch when he heard the strains of some acoustic jazz that bore the flavor and cadence of Stefan Grapelli. This turned out to be a five-piece band led by the guitarist Coco Briaval and his brothers, who had shown up to entertain Group while we hunkered down on blocks of quarried granite and feasted on cheeses, breads, and salamis washed down with red Châteauneuf-du-Pape.
And then it was time to conquer Les Baux.
Les Baux was once a fortress atop an outcrop in the Alpilles Range. It became the headquarters of medieval lords who made life hell for everyone else in Provence. After leading a trusting foursome of bikers around the circular main drag of St.-Rémy, looking for the right road, the Dalmatian stopped to ask directions. These turned out to be accurate but not true; they led to the shortest route instead of the scenic one plotted by the guides. Off we went, the blindest leading the blind. However, as if the Dalmatian were wearing a radio collar, J-Lo in his inevitable white van found us in time to prevent a tragic loss of scenery. He turned over the wheel to Libby so he could pedal with us to the summit.
The grade increased from acceptable to unfriendly as we wound upward through the hills. We stopped to buy cherries at a roadside stand from women whose faces lit up at J-Lo’s apparently pleasing French-Canadian accent and his general brooding good looks. Pushing on, we had to slow down for a mini-parade bearing the Olympic torch and making its way toward St.-Rémy. The Dalmatian decided to practice Libby’s advice about steep hills: “Don’t think about what you’re doing,” she said. “Concentrate on something else. I think about the boys I’ve kissed.”
The Dalmatian tried thinking about girls. But besides his wife’s kiss, the other good ones were so long ago that the details of those lip locks had blurred.
He decided instead to figure out how many teeth he had (27). And finally he stood on top, happy to be alive. The fast coast back down the hill to the hotel was almost worth the effort of climbing it, although the Dalmatian missed a turn and had to stop for directions, which were true but not accurate.
That night, the Dalmatian lay in bed lulled by the sighs of a sultry breeze as it slipped through the shutters. His pulse slowed, and his mind cleared. A long-forgotten state of consciousness began to take hold, something intimate and tangible, a certain serenity it took a while to identify.
One uniform by day, another by night, nicknames, hanging by the pool, a goofy je ne sais quoi, and a constant appetite triggered by open air and sport—just enough of a challenge to persuade even the most stoic of Puritans to embrace the pleasures of the table. Suddenly the Dalmatian remembered why it all seemed so familiar. This was summer camp!
As a Boy Scout, the Dalmatian reported to Montana’s Camp Na’pi (named for the Blackfeet creator), next to Glacier National Park. Although his French safari was an adult affair concentrating on jugs of wine as much as sport, the banishment of pedestrian goals and life’s ordinary hassles was very Na’pi-like in the sensibility it fostered.
The summer-camp state of mind seized the Dalmatian completely as the week meandered from one flawless day to the next. Boy camp always ended with awards. Grown-up camp in Provence was no different. Before our final dinner at the Château de Massillan, a 16th-century castle used as a hunting lodge by King Henry II and his mistress, Diane de Poitiers, Wonderful World was presented with a tiny white thong in recognition of her 60-mile ride—along with Working It Off and Le Choiseul—to the summit of Mont Ventoux. (This feat occurred when the Dalmatian was taking a day off in Mazan, feasting on daube, a beef stew served with spaghetti, at a local restaurant called St.-Germain, and afterwards failing to get some euros from a device he thought was an ATM but was actually a dispenser of DVDs.)
The Dalmatian’s name was announced and his achievement lauded. This was his act of getting lost five minutes after the start of the trip, a new B&R record. The award was a small wheel of Camembert on a ribbon the Dalmatian proudly wore around his neck the rest of the evening.
The last supper moved from an asparagus salad to a luscious rack of lamb, then strawberries from the hotel garden marinated in olive oil, and jugs of wine from Gigondas and Rasteau, towns we biked through. The Dalmatian sat with Burgundy or Bust, the intense polylingual owner of an ad agency in Puerto Rico, and his wife, the Dante Piccante, an erudite psychologist who explained, over peach sorbet, the clinical definition of sadism.
When the Dalmatian woke up later between his lavender-scented sheets, he knew camp was over. But he wanted to extract the last possible taste of France. Padding across his room, he looked down three stories onto the château’s courtyard and the pool and the Renaissance ghosts moving to and fro in the light of a full moon. Then he went to the minibar and got out his cheese.