For the past seven or eight years we have spent the month of June in the France/Italy part of Europe. The weather is almost always superb, comfortably warm and sunny. Our accommodation rates had not yet reached their high season as the French school closings begin in early July. The late June sunsets arrive around dessert time (9:00 P.M.) at the region’s outdoor cafes.
I decided to enroll in my sixteenth and seventeenth bike tour with the Backroads Company. Although they weren’t cheap, I enjoyed my first 15 tours with them on five continents; these turned out to be just as good! The plan was to start and end my four weeks in Europe (the first week in the Bordeaux region of southwest France and the last in the northwest Italian Piedmont area). In between my wife, Joan, spent two weeks with me in Cannes and on the island of Corsica.
With the weak dollar/strong Euro and the poor recent performance of our investments, we had to develop a strategy for coping economically for the month abroad.
Using the internet and the Orbitz web site, I discovered I could obtain a round trip seat between New York and Paris for under $700.00, including tax (about $500.00 less than most other airlines). These flights went on to or came from India, so I assumed they were keen to fill the seats the India passengers would use from Paris. As it turned out, the return flight was five hours late from India; the decision turned out not to be a good one. Incidentally, a woman who worked with all airlines at Charles DeGaulle Airport said that the flights from India are usually late. In addition to that, typical French “manifestation” (short strike) by airport workers resulted in the security lines taking almost three hours. Fortunately, I had a long conversation (in French) with a Parisian woman behind me during this time, made the wait go more quickly.
I economized on accommodations near the train stations or airports while I was waiting for the bike tours to begin or when I needed to catch my flight home. These hotels were convenient, clean and cost between $100.00 US and 100 Euros ($160.00).
The Backroads Bordeaux Bike Tour was a five day/six night tour. It went through some of the world’s most highly rated vineyards and wineries. I cycled 200 idyllic and “rolling” miles. Our group included six couples from the U.S. and Mexico, plus myself and two highly qualified, well trained bilingual guides. I cycled most of the miles with one or more group members. The cuisine and wines matched the lavish hotels — among the best in the region!
We stopped en route to visit outstanding wineries and chateaus. The guides prepared gourmet lunch picnics. A highlight was a two day stay in St. Emilion, a famous quaint wine village. Cyclists were given the option of riding longer or shorter routes or to use the hotel facilities such as spas and pools. Almost everything was included in the tour cost. In retrospect I cannot think of any way in which it could have been improved.
When the cycling group disbanded on the last morning, I flew from Bordeaux to Calvi, Corsica (France) via Marseilles (France’s second largest city). The only flight to Calvi departed five hours after my arrival. I used the time visiting a cliff side restaurant overlooking the Mediterranean. To reach it, I had to climb for 15 minutes over chalky cliffs from the parking lot. From the taxi ride I was able to see much of this fascinating seaside city and its historical port.
Calvi is a small resort city in northern Corsica that offers history, a protected beach with calm swimmable water, many excellent restaurants, a port for frequent ferries to and from French and Italian cities, a modern international airport, wineries, farms and mountains for excellent cycling.
Our daily routine was to cycle about 30 miles each morning in various destinations from Calvi on a bike I rented locally and kept locked in the hotel’s garage. One route was along a long series of curved seaside cliffs on a lightly trafficked road. Other routes entailed climbing into ancient mountain villages, passing wild boar or herds of up to 300 goats crossing the road.
We passed the afternoons relaxing in our swimsuits at the beach or the hotel pool. Our pre-dinner walks took us up on Calvi’s ancient citadel which overlooked the city and harbor, along the piers and checking out the day’s newly arrived yachts. We chatted with some of the local residents and tourists from a number of European countries. Several restaurant managers remembered us from past years; one opened a new and popular mussel eatery.
Even with the weak dollar, both the accommodations and restaurants were slightly less than comparable ones in New York. (From what I have heard, Paris restaurants would have been more costly). Somewhat irritating was the high cost of small things such as a cup of coffee, a Coke, newspapers and taxis (perhaps partially because gas is almost $10.00 a gallon!). We took advantage of our room's balcony, terrace and refrigerator for picnic breakfasts and lunches. I have a hot water immersion heater with a European plug and current configurations for making hot water. A small grocery store in Cannes made delicious duck sandwiches on baguettes. Local and international telephone calls and most bakery goods were not expensive.
We planned our stay in chic Cannes in the days between two large conventions resulting in a substantially lower rate of 125 Euros at the American style Novotel, which had a large pool and garden area located about a 15 or 20 minute pleasant stroll from the beach and downtown.
From Cannes I cycled several times in an easterly direction along the fabled Riviera coast through Juan-Les-Pins and Cap d’Antibes to Antibes. These places included the haunts of Picasso and F. Scott Fitzgerald. I passed by some of the most luxurious hotels in the world; several reputed to have the best bouillabaisse. When I arrived in Antibes, I walked my bike through its daily outdoor market and selected a restaurant (with an interior dining garden) for our dinner that evening.
On other days I cycled in a westerly direction along the Mediterranean towards St. Tropez. After ten miles or so, I turned inland and climbed up into the Esterel Massif, a national forest that ran along a long series of mountains above the littoral. Traffic was light, there were exquisite views down at the coast and the sea.
We dined al fresco every evening for two weeks, usually overlooking a marina or beach. All the restaurants had a “prix-fixe” three-course dinner with several choices for each course. We washed the meal down with a carafe or half bottle of a local wine (some produced at a vineyard I had cycled by earlier in the day). The tax and service charge were included in the price of the meal. I left a small tip only at the one or two Michelin-starred restaurants we visited.
Without exception, the French (and Italian) people we encountered were friendly, hard working and courteous. No anti-Americanism. If I told a French man or woman that I was a resident of New York, their reaction was either “I recently visited New York and enjoyed it". or “My friend went and loved it". We obtained a special low rate at one hotel for paying ahead and agreeing to stay for a minimum number of days. Due to a change of plans, we had to leave a day early and the hotel cheerfully refunded the last day’s room charge.
I arrived in Torino the evening before my bike tour began with Backroads Piedmont (Italy). There were seven interesting members in my tour group and two capable guides. The highly enjoyable “routine” was similar food and scenery to the Bordeaux tour but hillier, hotter and humid, which made cycling more demanding. After riding almost every day for three weeks though, I felt strong and able to conquer the terrain.
We stayed at three luxurious and charming inns; two had beautiful grounds and swimming pools. We went on a truffle hunt with a farmer and his trained dog. His wife cooked the truffles as part of the pasta dish. There were wine tastings as well, a pasta cooking demonstration and visits to castles, churches and museums. The tour culminated with a gala dinner at the hotel's Michelin rated restaurant.
The following morning we were bussed to Torino where I caught a sleek and comfortable French TGV train for a six-hour smooth ride to Paris. I overnighted at Roissy, near Charles DeGaulle airport where there was a restored French village, “new” cobblestone streets, picturesque gardens and parks, perfect for a pre-flight morning stroll. After a perfect month of biking (600 miles on gorgeous French and Italian roads), beaching and tasting great food and wine, I was ready to return home!