Un Tour Gastronomique de Provence
21st- 25th May 2003
A concise narrative of food and drink, and yes, a little cycling as well.
K1, K2, Dave, JR, Mike
If this were a ‘food and drink’ article for a Sunday colour supplement, the reporter would make copious notes on menus, cellars, gourmets, vintages etc. and probably provide a few recipes for you to try at home. However, your reporter, a man unable to remember the correct Friday night pub, took no notes and hence details may be sketchy or downright wrong. No matter, like the Salade Monet, it’s the impression that counts.
Gatwick airport’s rather nice but Servisair do their utmost to make it otherwise, this time by belatedly providing a tractor with a driver trained only to reverse (probably the guy who went forward over the bikes last year). Anyway the arrival at Nice airport, considerably nicer than Gatwick, was delayed by a mere half-hour and the boxed bikes, even the DIY cardboard jobby, survived the ordeal and were rapidly and sweatily re-assembled.
Nice to Thorenc
Basically an uphill grind of 1250 m, with highlights being the Col de Vence immediately following a gut challenging first lunch, and a further grind following afternoon tea (beer!) in Greolieres. Certainly brave to try out the andouilettes, a food recently described as a mysterious French obsession. The final steep climb to Thorenc was most unwelcome.
Auberge de les Merisiers, Thorenc
Dinner: As above
Well, it was pretty fortunate that this was pre-booked as Thorenc was a ghost town of shuttered hotels and bars and my guess is the patron opened especially for the English Tasters and a French couple, the only guys in town. The restaurant was set for 50 but only 7 showed up. Yet again the tour commenced with the UEFA Cup final and spookily it was 3-2 again. JR and Mike went to bed for a sleep, leaving the other 3 Tasters to sleep in front of the TV. Wednesday night in Thorenc – buzzing!
Thorenc to Moustiers Ste Marie
Starting at 1250 m is a definite advantage, even if you are required to tackle a 400 m ascent immediately after an unwise 3 course ‘light’ lunch. A brilliant restaurant location where it’s almost worthwhile having a skinfull so one can go the biggest spit! Let’s not be churlish here, this is some of the best cycling anywhere – the cruise down the valley from Thorenc, the Pont de l’Artuby, the Grand Canyon du Verdon, the 750m descent through Aguines to the Lac de Ste Croix and the final climb to Moustiers. Unmatchable? Contrary to prior warnings, the weather was ace as well.
Hotel le Baldaquin, Moustiers Ste Marie – Part 1
OK, so now the author knows why there were communication problems with the patron and femme – the guy specialised in abstract conversation in a strange accent (maybe think Geordie) including puns and general wordplay, especially over breakfast when the brain struggles to cope with conversation in English. However, the hotel was very pleasant and Moustier is a picturesque village sited in the mouth of a steep gorge. KA had the four-poster, a pale imitation of Mike’s Pollenza special. Thursday night in Moustiers – buzzing just like Thorenc.
Moustiers Ste Marie to Moustiers Ste Marie round Lac de Ste Croix
Rest Day! 44 miles
A rest day, so let’s set off early and do 44 miles round the lake. If it hadn’t been a rest day we would have tackled the rive droite circular route by the Gorges du Verdon, comprising a serious early climb and, no doubt, some vertigo-inducing views followed by an exciting descent. Your author was optimistically confident that the day would commence with a serious steep descent, completely at odds with the visible topography. The early climb, a steep version of Ditchling, was therefore rather a surprise. At the top of the hill is the Plateau of Valensole, which slopes gently down for miles and permits the best type of cycling, where the pedals are redundant and the scenery is excellent. Dave had a pre-prandial swim as training for the later early-evening main swimming event. JR had the one accident – that of the wrong foot out variety. Afternoon brought some seriously hot conditions causing Mike to take a rest five metres from the high point of the road to Aguines. Dave, JR and KA enjoyed a replay of the descent from Aguines, this time without the German bus. The gorge swim was superb although maybe excessive distance-wise. JR, swimming in a birthday suit, provided some excitement for tourists on the bridge and in the boats. Lac Ste Croix boasts transparent turquoise water, recently ice and snow but strangely warm.
Hotel le Baldaquin, Moustiers Ste Marie – Part 2
Excellent Provencal restaurant
Friday night in Moustiers – buzzing? The main bar at the top of the town was shut by 7 pm! The restaurant was really good except the sudden onset of a food-cooling mistral. The local late night Friday bar was located but was far from exciting (think the Bricklayers on a quiet evening?). It must be stated that the breakfasts at the Baldaquin were quality, although a breakfast-time joke about the French ‘Royal Family’ somehow led to the production of an atlas and a lecture on the geography of the Channel Islands!
Moustiers Ste Marie to Fayence
This was the day of the ‘unpleasant’ militarised area! However, no tanks or squaddies were sighted and the scenery was again excellent. A particularly nasty hill was encountered on the main road where John again demonstrated his prowess on the long hard climbs. The final climb to Fayence (the towns are always at the top of a hill) was again most unwelcome. Was this the day that Mike cooled off by immersing his head in a cattle trough?
Hotel Sousto, Fayence
Provencal Restaurant, Place de l’Eglise
After the climb to Fayence it was worrying news that there was only one hotel in town, with the others located in the valley from whence we’d just ascended. No problems – after some inexplicable procrastination by the patron, top rooms were secured at the Sousto where all had double beds and Mike had a super panorama. After the restaurant it was Saturday night at the Café de la Gare (no trains but it was definitely the station buffet) where Dave finally got his game of table football. The ‘pub’ ambience was lacking and hence off to bed early again. The early zeds were interrupted by some squeaky-bed activity in adjacent rooms. Mike having a rub-down with the Sporting Life? Maybe not – ideas of offering some encouragement (cheering and clapping) were curtailed as it may well have been the patron indulging in a game of ‘cacher l’andouillette (hide the sausage)’ in celebration of having paying punters in his hotel; a late-night eviction was not advisable.
Fayence to Nice
Another great day after encountering a rare section of poor French road with a car on its roof. John confirmed his prowess for the long grinding climbs, and KA a penchant for sharp sprints at the summits. The main navigation problem was the inability to locate the high road near Grasse and a consequent dispiriting loss of altitude. The Gorge de Loup is spectacular and Gourdon a famous tourist location, with recommended restaurants (see website). Unfortunately the website was only consulted after the event! From Gourdon you can literally roll 24 km downhill to the sea; this, of course, did not occur as a downhill section requires breakneck descents and even a downhill breakaway attack. The author, a mere distant spectator, is reliably informed that KA was the downhill speed king. By the way, the Pont de Loup ‘Roman aqueduct’ was a bombed-out railway viaduct.
Nice Airport again
restaurant that was open before 7pm
The French Riviera – splendour and luxury! You must be joking. The swimming was nice at Cagnes-sur-mer but the scenery is not outstanding – a permanent traffic jam and a dusty beach that requires a good hoovering. A fraught search for the final nosebag was successful at the last. Some frantic dismantling of bikes and problems for Dave, who had generated so much power that he couldn’t get his pedals off. Structural Analysis Exam for airline check-in staff: Question 1 - A bike container forms a simply supported beam. If the reaction at A is 23 kg, determine the reaction at B and hence the total mass of the container? Difficult to keep a straight face!
Your author has a personal trainer and cycling advisor who has cycled Europe and beyond; Cliff was reasonably impressed by the 250 miles in 5 days. “So Cliff, that area of France is pretty damn impressive for cycling. Where do we go next that can match or better it?” Slight pause. “Well, you don’t really.”
Bin there, done it, bin wished a happy birthday many times, got the photos to prove it and written the report.
F I N