A rogue onion and a Tuscan Tourist!

After almost 1000 km of driving across France and Italy we arrived in the seaside town of Riccione on the Adriatic coast. So why travel all that way to visit a mediocre Italian resort on a cloudy weekend in May? Well it’s because the ‘Giro d’Italia’ was in town. It’s regarded by many as second only in prestige to the Tour de France in terms of cycle races. It is a 3 week race over a couple of thousand miles with many of the world’s best cyclists taking part. Where the theme of the Tour de France is yellow, ‘The Giro’ is pink, and the town was pink everywhere, they even painted part of the route pink!! Sarah being Sarah had to get involved and went to town with T shirt, cap, whistle and all.

Pretty in pink.

We had a great day watching the cyclists go whizzing past (with it being the Time Trial the bikes went past us one by one every two minutes), we even had sunshine for most of the day until the heavens opened near the end and it all finished in a downpour. We were surprised how close you could get to the action, we were even able to stand right next to the race leader while he did his warm up. With Steve being a big cycling fan it was real treat.

Into another country!

The following day we decided to follow the same route the cyclists had done up to the enclave Republic of San Marino, one of the smallest countries in the world and the oldest republic that still exists. It was a huge climb up to the top, but well worth the effort. There were great views and delicious coffee (and pastries) so Sarah was a happy girl! Unfortunately the ride back down wasn’t so good ….once back on the dodgy Italian road surfaces we had a very bumpy ride back to the car!!

Admiring the view from San Marino.

After our visit to the coast we headed back into central Italy towards the region of Tuscany. Enroute we called in at a supermarket on the outskirts of Riccione to restock on a few provisions. We have visited supermarkets all over the world and have been in some really big ones, especially in the States, and this one was right up there. It was immense, and seemed to sell everything you could need, including onions! We have bought onions in many places before and normally it’s an effortless process, but this time was different….

After making our way around the store we found ourselves in the fruit and veg section, which in itself was the size of some small supermarkets. “Can you go and get a large onion” was Sarah’s request so off Steve went full of confidence in his ability to complete the task in hand. He quickly found the onion section but this is where things started to unravel. First he was faced with a choice of over a dozen types of onion.  After finding a variety he recognized he fumbled through the crates looking for the perfect specimen, he soon became aware of some disapproving looks from his fellow shoppers and realised it was protocol to wear one of the plastic gloves provided when handling food. On went a glove, an onion was selected and placed in a bag. Steve was aware of the various ways of pricing fruit and veg, sometimes it is weigh yourself, sometimes an assistant is on hand to weigh it for you and sometimes it’s straight in the trolley and all sorted at check-out. This time it was ‘weigh it yourself’.  Steve searched around and found the weighing machine but instead of the expected picture of onions he was faced with a screen displaying the numbers 1 to 10 and a green button!! He stood back and observed and realised customers seemed to be putting in a code for each type of produce. Back in a dark corner of his memory Steve had some recollection of this system and made his way back to the onions to obtain a code. Unable to work out which code related to his particular onion, he guessed and made his way back to the weighing machine and joined the queue. Once at the front he went to place his onion on the machine, but while holding the plastic bag containing the onion with his plastic glove the onion slipped out, rolled off the machine, fell onto his foot and rebounded under the fruit and veg stalls!

The rogue onion.

Down he went on his hands and knees searching for the onion which was just out of arm’s reach. The queue behind him grew and the Italians, who are not exactly known for their patience, expressed their annoyance. Steve eventually gave up and went back to select another onion. Then back to the queue and once more he found himself at the front……”What was the code for my onion? S#!t”… apologising to the other customers he left his onion in situ, sprinted back to get the code, returned to the machine and punched in the numbers. At last, out came a sticky ticket for his bag containing the 68 cent vegetable, he pulled out the price ticket and went to attach it to the bag only to find it had attached itself to the plastic glove….Arghhhhh!  After one more attempt and one more sticker which was successfully attached, Steve met up with Sarah. “Where have you been?” “Don’t ask” was the reply!

What do you mean there is no room for my onion!

After loading up the car with shopping (with no spare space at all) we eventually made our way to Tuscany to our little apartment we rented for 12 days. It’s very ‘rustic’ (basic) but to us it is a little bit of luxury after all the camping we have been doing.

We have also had a visitor!! Sarah’s friend, Jo, has been to stay with us for a few days. This has been a great distraction for us and has forced us, and Sarah in particular, to have a little break from the bike. We have been doing more of the tourist things and have visited Florence, Siena and San Gimignano and a whistle stop tour of Pisa. Four places of very different sizes but all beautiful places, full of history and unbelievable buildings. We have visited all the places a few times in the past but we never get tired of strolling around in the footsteps of so many famous people including Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Donatello and others who haven’t had a teenage mutant ninja turtle named after them! Eating some of the best gelato in the world in the shadow of such fantastic buildings is a great way to spend a day or two.

A view over Florence.
The magnificent Duomo.

The weather hasn’t been at its best the last few days and although it is still relatively warm we have been caught out in some heavy downpours while out cycling and Sarah’s favourite expression has become “I’m soaked through to my pants” and that just about sums it up!

It wasn’t me. I didn’t touch It!

However the forecast is for blue skies, rising temperatures, more wine and plenty of gelato… and more hills! Happy days.

Ups and Downs in Provence!

After the Roman festival in Nimes, and before arriving in Provence, we decided to take a short detour to visit the Pont du Gard. This is a Roman aqueduct built almost 2000 years ago and still looks in pretty good condition. We drove up from Nimes and stopped in a small town called Remoulins where we planned to park up the car and go for a cycle taking in the aqueduct en route. Before we started Sarah was in need of a caffine fix so we decided to wander into Remoulins for a quick coffee. It was a short walk up to the town centre and across a pedestrian crossing towards the town square. Suddenly Steve heard Sarah scream “STOP”!! Over the next 1.6 seconds several things went through Steve’s head…. “why is Sarah screaming?”, “Why am I walking through thick mud?”, “Why are those men looking at me very angrily?” Then things started to make sense.  We had walked straight into a group of workmen laying new concrete across the town square. Sarah was ahead and had taken just a couple of steps but Steve had continued striding on and overtook Sarah…..a step too many!! The work men were shouting something incomprehensible to which Steve replied something in school boy French about there being no barriers. We quickly walked out of the concrete, totally embarrased, and back out of town …. No caffine fix for Sarah!! So if you ever visit Pont du Gard and stop off in Remoulin, you may see our footprints in the town square !!!

On the way to Pont du Gard.

We did manage to get our cycle in, part of which was across the aqueduct. It was a great experience in a beautiful area. Apparently the Tour de France will cross Pont du Gard later in the year, probably a bit faster than we did though as the concrete shoes were slowing us down a bit!

So it was off to Provence.  We’re not going to bore everyone too much with the detail of the daily cycling we have done here but to say it is a beautiful place is an understatement. It is easy to see why it is so popular, especially during the summer when you can imagine the roads being full of tourist traffic and the villages being crammed with people, but at this time of year it’s a paradise for cyclists. We encountered minimal traffic, the weather was perfect and the town’s were pretty much deserted  (except on market days).

Spring in The Luberon.

We based ourselves in The Luberon, which is a mountain range in central Provence. Initially we had a few days to the South of the area and moved to another campsite to the North to allow us various types of cycling routes. For anyone who has not been to the area before, we would describe it as a mix of rolling hills covered with vineyards, poppy fields, apple and cherry orchards. Later in the summer the area is also renowned for its pretty puple fields of lavender which was just starting to show through. It’s so picturesque that Sarah could not stop taking photos! The area is also famous for it’s hill top villages scattered around the countryside, most of which have Roman origins but were developed significantly in the Middle Ages and are full of characteristic narrow streets.

“If he hasn’t got me cycling up hills he’s got me walikng up them”

We spent a lot of time cycling between the different villages including Loumarin, Bonnieux, Rousillon, Lacoste, to name a few. Sarah once again used her colourful language as Steve favourite saying became “Just one more hill and then we’ll head home” One day we cycled 69 miles and climbed over 7600 feet…. Sarah is no way as fit as Steve and had good reason to use the colourful language when she got off the bike after being in the saddle for 6 hours!!!

Please please, no more hills.

Without doubt our favourite village was Gordes. It is really stunning both close up and from a distance with a castle, several shops and there is a cafe that sells great ice cream right in the centre, with all the normal flavours plus a few extra….. lavender ice cream, tastes like it smells!!

The town of Gordes.

During our time in Provence one thing has loomed large and that is the beast of Mont Ventoux! Wherever you go its there, looking down on you, The Giant of Provence, The mystic mountain, The bald mountain, it has many names. Made famous by epic encounters in the Tour de France including the death of a rider near the summit, one thing is for sure Mont Ventoux, is big and steep, very big and very steep. It tops out at almost 2000 metres and has gradients of 10% and more. So when our campsite was so close to the base it was inevitable Steve would cycle up. In the past he has done many of the major climbs in The Pyrenees and The Alps but Mont Ventoux is his favourite, he has been up 3 times in the past. He loves the cycle up but it’s also an incredible decent as it doesn’t have as many hairpin bends as some mountains so it is consequently a bit faster. Steve hit his fastest speed ever on a decent a few years ago when he passed 100 kph. These days he’s a little less reckless and feathers his brakes around 90 kph! After 1 hour 39 minutes from starting the climb he made the summit (not his fastest time, but not far off) he is getting on a bit these days! Then 25 minutes after leaving the summit, he was back down. Job done!

The only way is down!

While Steve was messing about on the mountain Sarah was out on a cycle of her own along the Gorge de Nesque, yet another incredible route. She bumped into a large group of cyclists from a French cycling club and promptly joined in the middle of their ride. They were very friendly and although none of them spoke a word of English (and Sarah’s French extends to “Où est la bibliothèque”) she cycled with them for over an hour and had a great time. When their paths parted, they all stopped and took photos of the crazy English cyclist out looking for the library!!

Sarah with her new friends.

Our campsites in Provence have been exceptional and as a special treat to get us away from sleeping under canvas on one of the sites we rented a “pod” for a couple of nights. This was great fun and although it still had no toilet or shower it did have cooking facilities, lights and a real bed! It looked like a cross between a Swedish sauna and a hobbit house and we loved it.

Our little upgrade.

We have had an absolute ball in this part of Provence, and for sure we will return again sometime, possibly in July one year to see the lavander and sunflowers in full bloom, but for now it’s time to move on. Next stop Italia!

Steve running on the lower slopes of Mont Ventoux.

“Sarah, if you ever got to the library, what would you do? Surely all the books will be in French”!!

Earthquakes, Emporers and Electric bikes.

After a short drive across the Rhone from Valence and with the sound of the Formula One car still ringing in our ears we arrived in The Ardeche. We were both excited about being here, everything we had read about it seemed to say it was our kind of place. We booked ourselves into a fantastic campsite in the picturesque village of St Martin d’Ardèche, for 4 days, which is at the very start of the Ardeche Gorge.

St Martin d”Ardeche

There seemed to be an never ending list of activities to do in the area from kayaking, canyoning, zip wires, cycling, swimming, hiking and so on. We could imagine that in Summer it would get pretty hectic, but in early May it was very quiet, in fact at times it felt like we had the whole gorge to ourselves. Our main reason for being here was to cycle and get some miles into our legs, especially Sarah’s. After three months off the bike whilst in South America and her not being entirely 100% whilst back in the UK, she felt like she was a bit behind on her cycling fitness, she was determined to get on with it!

Sarah takes in the scenery at the top of a big climb!

We spent two or three hours each day cycling up and down the many hills surrounding the Gorge. Wherever we went the views were incredible. On one occasion Steve was cycling along a road which runs close to the edge, where you can look down the vertical cliff (almost a thousand feet drop) into the river below. As he went around a corner a huge bird of prey soared up on a thermal right next to the cliff and appeared right in front of him.  By the time he stopped and got out his camera out it had sailed away along the Gorge. He said it’s wingspan was about 8 feet!! “ Yeah yeah, just like the piranha you almost caught in Brazil” replied Sarah.

Steve hard at work in the kitchen!

At the end of some exhausting days it was good to come back to our lovely campsite as the facilities were excellent and we enjoyed cooking, playing scrabble and chilling out in the fabulous games room.  One thing which is common in many French sites is communal unisex showers and toilets. On one morning Steve got up and made his way over to the toilet block. He was attending to his morning ablutions when all of a sudden there was a deep rumbling sound which gradually became louder and then the ground started to shake. “It’s an earthquake” he thought “I’d better get back to Sarah”. Then he realised the sound was coming from the next cubicle! “Poor man, his insides must be rotten”. Steve exited and went to one of the sinks.  He heard the door open on ‘the earthquake cubicle’, and in wild curiosity Steve watched in anticipation to see what poor man could make such terrible noises…….. out walked Sarah!!!!! “What have I been married to all these years?”

After a couple of days we were enjoying the area so much we decided to extend our stay for an extra few days. Sarah’s legs however started to suffer a little after all the cycling and she noticed the campsite rented electric assisted bikes. These were not the sort of electric bikes we had seen before.  They looked like full-on competition Mountain bikes so she decided to give it a go. Steve had found a really good hilly 50 mile route around both sides of the Gorge. We did the first half of the route together as Sarah got used to the bike, then with 25 miles left we decided to have a race! Basically, on the flat and down hill Steve had the advantage and the electric bike worked its magic on the hills for Sarah. Off we went…. Steve powered on taking an early lead, then Sarah came past on a steady climb, then Steve was back in front cruising downhill. Then we hit a big climb with a 10% incline for just under 2 miles. Steve dug in with his serious climbing head on knowing that if he could reach the top in front he was home and dry. Then, less than half way up, Sarah flew by at 18mph…. up a 10% climb!!!  The sign she gave as she passed is not for printing! Steve tried in vain to catch her but Sarah held on for a 2 minute victory. We were both pretty shattered at the end. Although it was an electric assisted bike Sarah still had to work flat out to hold Steve off. There was a short discussion at the end regarding whether Sarah should get an electric bike for our upcoming cycle from Canada to Mexico but the conversation was ended when Steve returned the sign Sarah gave him on the hill!

Pont d’ Arc. One of the many sights on our cycle routes.

Whilst in the Ardeche we also managed to get our inflatable kayak on the river. It extends for about 20 miles….. (the river, not the kayak!) and has many sets of rapids, not ideal for an inflatable kayak!  We put in near to where we were staying and kayaked up to the first set of rapids where we turned and allowed the flow of the river to bring us back down. It was an amazing place to be on the water, in the bottom of the Gorge, with the precipitous cliffs at either side and the medieval village of Aigueze literally embedded into the cliff edge, which was a great sight from below.

Sarah floating down the Ardeche.

We also did a couple of walks around the area. During one of them we ended up at the local Bread Festival. Essentially, a few years ago the locals discovered a bread oven in the woods, restored it and then to celebrate they have a festival each year where they cook bread in the oven, have a few stalls selling local crafts and produce and lay on entertainment for the children. Sarah went to watch the bread being made and came back with something resembling what should have been left in that noisy toilet cubicle! “We can have this with dinner” Steve thought the 12 inch Nutella crepe and one Euro glass of red wine was a better option!

Out for a walk.

We were both a little sad about leaving the Ardeche as it really was a beautiful part of France with so much to offer but we felt we should explore some more areas of France.  We were lucky as we had good weather and I’m sure we will return again.

Our next stop was the city of Nimes. We had heard about a Roman festival going on there in what was supposed to be the best preserved Roman amphitheatre in France. It was very impressive.  Built almost 2000 years ago it still retains most of its original structure and has a capacity of 24,000 people (stone seats for the majority of the full capacity crowd including us!). The festival was an exhibition of gladiators fighting, chariots racing, Roman invasions, battles against The Barbarians and even a Roman Emperor. Some of the participants were very enthusiastic and at times the fights looked quite real.

“Let the Games begin”!

To be honest it was an odd thing to watch, sometimes it was very serious with senate meetings and serious speeches (well they sounded serious, our French isn’t that brilliant) and sometimes it was quite comical with a trojan horse made out of what looked like paper mache, a sectional Roman fort on wheels and huge model ships that wouldn’t go where they were supposed to!  Steve described it as a cross between a Shakespeare play and ‘It’s a Knockout’. Very entertaining and well worth going to see.

Ben Hur ?

Next we are heading for Provence for more cycling…….no more electric bikes though Sarah.