Editor's note: Vincent DeSantis of Gloversville has been traveling in Europe for several months. In July, he wrote about his experiences staying on a farm on the Mediterranean island of Sardinia. In this dispatch, he describes his late-summer trip from Italy to France.
Early August brought my transition from Italy to France and the beginning of serious cycling. In Umbria, near the city of Perugia, I bought what is popularly known here as a "city bike" for 180 Euros (about $230). It is by no means a light racing bike, but a rather substantial touring cycle used generally for transportation to work, shopping, etc.
Wine is made on the Andre family’s farm in La Rochelle, France. DeSantis stayed and worked on the farm for more than three weeks.
DeSantis’ touring bike, complete with its saddlebags, is seen with the Ligurian Sea in the background.
Residents of St. Maxime, in the South of France, are dressed in American military costume during a celebration on Aug. 15, the anniversary of the 1944 landing of the American forces there in World War II. The French celebrate their liberation each year with parades.
One of DeSantis’ hosts on a farm in La Rochelle, France, works during the bean harvest.
It has fenders and a rack, for which I bought saddle bags for my clothes. I left most of my belongings at the last farm in Italy and took only the bare essentials - probably less than 15 pounds. I took it all on a train to Genoa and from there cycled westward along the Ligurian Sea.
Keeping the sea to my left, I traveled through village after beautiful village. The weather was hot and sunny, and the coastal road often climbed steeply between villages and then plunged to the next.
This region is known as the Maritime Alps, and the land becomes increasingly steep and rugged the closer you get to the border.
Though each city and village is at sea level, between them the road winds and climbs up rocky cliffs and then plunges down. The intense workout in the summer heat made me thankful I had been in Fran Lefevre's spinning class all last winter at Fit Happens. But here, the spectacular vistas and the ability to dive into the sea when it got too hot made working out a rare pleasure.
Crossing into France presented me with my second linguistic challenge. I now had to jettison all the Italian I had grown accustomed to and reacclimate myself to French. The first major city I entered was Nice, which had a beautiful port at its center, surrounded by historic architecture.
August is vacation time for many Europeans, so each day it became more difficult to find a hotel with a vacancy, so when I finally arrived at St. Maxime on Aug. 15, I decided to leave the sea and go inland. It happens that Aug. 15, 1944, was the day of the landing of the American forces in the south, and St. Maxime was a major beachhead. The French celebrate their liberation each year with a parade of real American tanks and military vehicles from the 1940s, perfectly preserved along with re-enactors in U.S. Army uniforms. The stars and stripes were flying everywhere.
As I cycled inland, I noticed monuments commemorating the day and time each community was liberated as Allied forces advanced, and many villages would have a similar parade. At night, there would be fireworks. The liberation must have been such a joyous event for the French that it is celebrated each year by people who, by and large, are too young to remember the actual event.
At Dauguignon, the summer heat of Provence and the absence of the sea prompted my decision to take a train westward to Bordeaux near the Atlantic coast. From there, I cycled northward to the end of a long peninsula. This region was cooler, less crowded and thankfully flat. Of course, grapes were growing everywhere, and each village had an open market where vendors sold produce and baked goods.
At Soulac, I found a beautiful beach where I finally swam in the Atlantic for the first time from the other side. At the end of the peninsula was Point du Grave, where I took a ferry across to the mainland and continued north to the city of Rochefort. This is the port city on the Atlantic from which the Marquis de Lafayette set sail for America to aid the colonies during the revolution, defeating the British fleet near Baltimore. At present, an exact replica of his flagship, L'Hermione, is being constructed using traditional 18th century methods. The work is all open to public view, and when finished in a couple of years, the ship will sail to America to commemorate the event.
From Rochefort, I cycled to La Rochelle, an ancient Atlantic port with a medieval defensive wall and lighthouse. After staying two days, I cycled northward 90 kilometers (55 miles) into the Vendee and the village of Les Essarts.
Here, I found a beautiful farm that has been organic since 1965 and still is going strong. Guy and Genevieve Andre, the owners, are great farmers with lots of experience and a demanding daily routine. It was a pleasure working with them. My intent was to stay for a couple weeks, but I ended up there for more than three.
They and their extended family speak only French, so I learned really fast. My high school French really paid off.
Most of the work was a labor-intensive harvest of two kinds of dried beans, but the last day was spent picking grapes and pressing them for wine. The fresh juice is put in wooden barrels to ferment into wine naturally. Not for sale, this wine is only for family and friends. It was a privilege to be part of a French tradition that goes back to Roman times.
From the Vendee, I traveled eastward along the Loire Valley which was the best cycling of all. There is a separate bike path that follows the river all the way to the city of Tours. Much of it runs through a wildlife sanctuary that co-exists nicely with the wheat fields of local farmers. And, of course, there are the famous chateaux and medieval villages of the Loire Valley.
During this whole journey, I never made reservations in advance at a hotel or chambre d'hotes (bed and breakfast) because I was never sure exactly where I would be by the end of the day. This gave me the advantage of complete freedom of movement. The disadvantage is that I would often be left wondering as the day neared its end where I would eat and sleep that night. As it happened, I was always able to find accommodations, though sometimes only after a time of uncertainty. As exciting as this all was, I have to confess that there were a couple of nostalgic moments when thoughts of my own kitchen and my own bedroom in Gloversville raced fondly through my head. This brought home one of life's abiding truths: Increased liberty comes only at the price of decreased security.
I finally reached Tours where I spent the night and boarded a train the following morning for Amsterdam; and that puts us at the threshold of the next adventure.