It's been a week since landing in Paris where I arrived, jet-lagged, hungry and feeling like a lost child. I figured out where I needed to be to catch my train to Provence and sat down, exhausted. An older woman sat down next to me said something in French that I couldn't understand. I just smiled, shrugged my shoulders and said the little French I knew, "je ne sais pas" (I don't know). She smiled and then pulled out a fresh plum from the bag in her lap, which she polished with a napkin and offered to me. I graciously accepted it sputtering out "Merci" before devouring it down in about 3 seconds. She quickly offered another which I also ate. My hunger must have been apparent because she insisted on offering me a third. I shyly accepted and ate that one too, more slowly this time. Sometimes the right person comes along at just the right time and offers you exactly what you need at that moment.
The leader "villa" in Pernes is not bad at all. There is plenty of space, a nice kitchen equipped with an espresso maker, plenty of coffee and milk, and a big patio and yard that looks out to olive trees. Shortly after arriving I met a couple of other leaders, Liz and Mikel and the 3 of us went on a full day bike touring adventure, stopping along the way in little villages called Venasque and Gordes, and others that I can't remember or even pronounce. Mikel played tour guide and was able to answer my recurring question, where are we now? We felt like guests on a Backroads trip, riding along all the narrow, winding roads picking fresh figs from trees and spoiling ourselves to a long, relaxing lunch on a terrace, before heading back into the sunset and taking in the views of the vineyards. It hit me that we were riding through prime wine country, at the southern tip of the Rhone Valley. Oh, how I wish I had more time to explore!
After our day of fun, it was "game on" and we were busy finding our way around the grocery store with a limited budget to buy ingredients to prepare a picnic typical of the area (to be evaluated by our French trainer). The majority of our time was spent driving the van and trailer down narrow roads in the little villages, while following pages of directions and not getting distracted by our trainer, Florent, who found amusement in trying to break our focus by berrating us with questions. Several times I worried that I was driving up a one way road (the only way for cars to pass each other on some of these roads is for one to back up to the widest point). At one point I missed a turn in the directions and found myself turning the van and trailer arouund in a tight spot between a ditch and a brick wall. It took about 5 minutes for me to figure out my way out of that one. As my heart was racing Florent didn't bat an eye or offer any help. Insteaad he continued talking and asking questions about my life back in Colorado. Trying to keep focus under that kind of stress was mentally exhausting, but somehow we made it through and celebrated with a big potluck dinner back at the leader house.
After driving school I caught a ride to Italy with an Italian leader, Lorenzo, who drove us first to Liguria to spend a day with his friend who lives there, and then down to Tuscany (where I am now). Liguria is the "Italian Riviera" with dramatic hills right next to the sea and beautiful houses, churches and towns built up on the steep hillsides. It was so beautiful dirving in as the sun was setting. I think Lorenzo became tired of me gasping "wow" over and over again.
Visiting little european towns with a van and trailer and 30 bikes creates interesting challenges. When we pulled into the little town of Chiavari we drove on a narrow road along the boardwalk, looking for Lorenzo's friend, and then eventually the road came to a dead end and we had to turn around. That's when I learned the European trick of unhitching and moving the trailer by hand (the trailers in the US are too big to do that).
We spent the next day riding bikes up in the hills and ended up that night in a little hilltop town called Pianeza, where we drank cheap wine and had our ears blasted with the music of a local heavy metal band. Sneaking away from a mosh pit was the last thing I expected to experience in a mideaval village.
The next morning we were on the road again, Tuscany-bound. Tuscany is one of the most popular Backroads destinations, and there are multiple hiking and biking trips going out every week. During the peak months (September and October) there can be as many as 50 leaders coming and going. Lorenzo warned me; It´s going to be crazy. Here we go!