I’m the fortunate friend of some inspiring athletes: an attorney who swam the channel from Alcatraz to San Francisco, an oncologist who attracts a crowd at the gym when she lifts weights, a triathlete who eased up only when he hit his seventh decade.
I needed to be in this conversation — but on my own slacker terms — so I came up with three weeks of travel that included well-hedged exertions, a triathlon of my own making. First, bicycling among the castle ruins and vineyards of Provence, in Southern France. Then a week in the same vicinity, hitting the water with a cruise down the Rhône River. Finally, a quick transit out of the gathering heat of late spring, and on to a week of hiking in the cooler, colossal Dolomites, North Italy’s Alps.
Another way to avoid work was to outsource the planning. The biking and hiking weeks were self-guided, inn-to-inn package tours, and the river cruise had optional day trips. Each of these three components also works as a stand-alone vacation.
My wife, Linda, and I took it fairly easy. Except, of course, for the need to weave a few thousand years of plague and exaltation, settlement, revolution and migration, art and aggression, of Roman generals, French popes, Cathars, Cistercians, Saracens, Lutherans, Lombards and Ligurians into a sort of grand unification tapestry that makes sense of the human condition. Oooh, that was hard, but it is, after all, the hidden agenda for curious travel.
The biking week began with loop trips around the small town of St. Remy, over the fer- tile landscape that makes much of Provence a big produce market for the rest of France. That soil is also soaked in the blood of centuries of warfare, from the Napoleonic back to the neolithic. They’re becalmed for now, the crooked, cobbled lanes of Bonnieux, Ventoux, Beaucaire, Maillane, Mazan … lyrical names for lovely stone villages, châteaux and fortified ruins along our cycling route maps.
With few exceptions, the food and the local wines we came across in these places were brilliant — so good we had to stop for more than one lunch some days, just to sample more diligently. After we granny-geared our way up a long climb to the ancient village of Venasque, for example, the view from our lofty terrace table at the Hôtel Les Remparts’ restaurant was rapturous. We gazed into a deep wild gorge, some ruins half-hidden in the forests on the far side. The near view: red mullet and sea bream filet with red cabbage sauce, paper-wrapped chicken with basil sauce, Provençal deer stew, quail preserve with anchovy sauce. We stayed hours.
This was the region where, in 100 B.C., Roman general Marius lay in wait for two years for their arrival, then annihilated the first vast wave of northern Teutonic and Celtic invaders. His victory over the barbarians didn’t matter much in the longer run. As you can learn among the extensive archaeological site of a Roman settlement called Glanum, just on the outskirts of St. Remy, the Romans were ultimately overrun.
Just across the road from Glanum is the St.-Paul asylum. It is a strand in a different story, a way station on the Vincent van Gogh pilgrimage route through Provence. This was where the anguished artist was committed after the “ear incident,” in 1888. Some of his most revered work, including “Starry Night,” was created here.
Nearby Arles, where Van Gogh and Paul Gauguin lived for a short time, is now the home of the new Van Gogh Institute, with a collection of the artist’s high-energy canvasses. Arles was at the southern end of our week’s boat trip down the Rhône.
Cruise down the Rhône
The route traced a southerly course through a series of locks and dams that have tamed this roiling river, one of Europe’s longest. We exulted in our first sighting of swans; hundreds more — even a black one — glided past on subsequent days along with a leisurely pageant of historic forests, bridges, villes and vines. Bring binoculars.
All this was interspersed with guided tours and on-your-own interludes. As we walked Lyon, France’s second-largest metro area, the feet grew weary, but the fascinations drew us on: for instance, a bombastic fountain in a civic plaza from the post-Napoleon era, featuring three rabid horses that look poised to trample tourists and pigeons alike.
The massive Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière, built in the late 19th century, nearly dominates the western skyline from a high ridge. A critic of the day said that it all cost too much and anyway, the design with its four tall towers looked like an inverted elephant (an image that suited so well I could not banish it whenever I looked in that direction).
The boat docked for an evening walk in tiny, medieval Viviers, up to a crumbling watchtower above the town, flanked by arches that framed the stars. Citizen street-sitters wearing undershirts and playing euchre (or maybe whist or belote) greeted us as we filed past. They looked as if they hadn’t moved from the spot since Cezanne was a bébé (his “The Card Players” sold for a quarter-billion dollars in 2011).
We spent a final day tramping through the historic market plazas and over the namesake nursery-rhyme bridge, or pont, of the city of Avignon, battered to a fragment over the centuries by the mighty Rhône. That night, our last of the cruise, we ascended in a grand arc over the city on a nearly deserted Ferris wheel. Through its spokes, decked in green and brilliant silver-blue lights, was the river view. On the other side, the brooding, shadowed Papal Palace also rose, then sank.
For 67 years in the 1300s, through the tenures of seven popes, the church’s headquarters were here, away from the hazards of Rome. The scale of the palace reflects its preoccupation with power and security. You could easily spend a full day among its great halls, absorbing an intricate and violent era.
Maybe there were clues to be gathered from this vantage as to, you know, the meaning of it all? What would Pope Clement VI, plotting and parrying and building the section of the beautiful pont that yet remains, have made of the sight of a gaudy, eerie Ferris wheel on the horizon of his high window?
Hiking in Italy
We took a short flight from Marseille to Venice the next morning and drove along narrowing Alpine valleys and up to the hamlet of Völs in the Dolomites — the start of a week of inn-to-inn hiking.
This is Northern Italy, but was part of Austria before World War I, and road signs are still bilingual. At a hütte (or utia) along a hiking trail, the history plays out at times in odd transcultural menu items. An order of minestrone soup, for example, arrived at our picnic table floating two fat tubes of wurst. Pickled cabbage cohabited with tagliatelle.
The Dolomites are all high drama, their shattered dentition rising vertically, and spectacularly, for hundreds of square miles above lush, slender river valleys. Trails here differ from, say, those in U.S. national parks. You can feel the burn with rapid elevation gains to the highest reaches, or veer to well-graded carriage trails at mid-elevations, all connected by a convenient regional web of ski lifts that run all summer. On rises along all but the most rugged trails, easeful wooden benches discreetly appear, each with a commanding view of the crags.
Every hour or so hikers encounter one of those weathered-wood utia, (the refugia variation also offers lodging), with outdoor terraces and kids’ playgrounds, 40-item menus of pastas and regional cheeses, prosecco and hugo, a light elderberry cocktail, and long wine lists. This was all pretty startling but hewing to our theme — long live indolence! — we just tried to adapt.
As for the philosophy of life, the pattern of meaning that I evolved during these distracting three weeks, and that you are avid to hear more about: All I can say is that somewhere between the Ferris wheel and a platter of pasta alla boscaiola on the trail, gazing out over the crags looming above Cortina, I decided that the whole subject calls for additional research. Which I intend to arrange soon.
Stephen P. Nash teaches journalism at the University of Richmond in Richmond, Va.