Fine wines and sore behinds

Susan Flanagan
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Confessions of a non-wine drinker in France

Sometimes the best thing parents can do for their children is take a break from them and rekindle the love that made them get together and have children in the first place.

That (and a seat sale) is how my husband and I found ourselves on a flight from Montreal to Paris six days before Easter.

From Charles de Gaulle Airport, we, along with our friends Heather Barrett and Chris Sutherby, took a Train Grande Vitesse or TGV down to Avignon, a medieval city that housed a half dozen popes in the 1300s for reasons I have yet to investigate.

Avignon, a World Heritage Site lined with narrow lanes and marble streets, sits inside medieval walls topped by the Gothic Palais des Papes and its magnificent golden statue of Mary. Sitting on the left bank of the Rhone River, Avignon is famous for its bridge: the Pont

d’Avignon, half of which collapsed in 1669 and was never replaced. More important to my fellow travellers however, Avignon is but a bike ride away from the vineyards that make the south of France famous among wine drinkers around the world.

The vineyards of Chateauneuf de Pape (the new castle of the pope, his summer home in the 14th century, destroyed in the Second World War) were our chosen destination. Despite protests from Chris Sutherby that this 50-kilometre bike ride would be his longest in over 40 years, a quick trip to a bike rental shop secured us four road bikes to whisk us to the magical land of grapes the next day.

The morning of our bike ride, a fierce head-on wind threatened to deter us, but being hardy Newfoundlanders we soldiered on. With my husband as our navigator we pedalled along tiny laneways parallel to the Rhone River past young vines and fields of wild poppies.

Following directions from the tourism bureau like “At the roundabout, straight on (old sign dead-end)” or “Ignore on the right the road with tree and a gate at the end,” we finally came the point at which we crossed the Rhone and the wind pushed us down a secondary highway to our first vineyard called Chateau de la Gardine. Here a lovely lady offered us eight different red wines with names like Lirac Confidentielle and Cotes du Rhone that caused my travelling companions to ooh and ahh and open their wallets. The wine tastings are free and the bottles to take home are far cheaper than what you could purchase here in Canada. The exotic bouquet and tart sanguinity of the wines however tasted nothing like a fine glass of amber Lamb’s rum, so I contented myself with translating.

Our hostesse had only started her job a couple of days before and seemed thrilled to have a practice session before the tour buses started pulling up. She explained how flat slabs of limestone or round river rocks (galets roulés) are added to the vineyards to hold the sun’s heat long after it had set, helping the vines ripen.

With three bottles of wine secure in backpacks, we saddled up for our ride into the town proper. Chateauneuf de Pape is chockablock full of wine tasting caves, but we wanted to be out in the field with the vines. We wanted to be where the grapes met their wine maker. So, after allowing Chris S. an espresso café and a bonne soupe in order to help him forget his aching derriere, we hopped onto our rental bikes once again. He was definitely a little hesitant about saddling up, but in the name of a good tipple, he did what a good wine drinker has to do despite protesting that his rear end felt “like a boil.”

Our second vineyard, Domaines Mousset, seemed deserted when we pulled in, so we rested amongst ripening artichoke plants until we spotted someone who alerted the owner who had been watching TV.

Don’t worry, we’re more interesting than TV, I told him. He smirked, yet unconvinced of this fact. When he let us inside for the tastings, he mentioned that bicycles and wine tastings don’t usually go together. But it’s not illegal, I countered. I’ll give you that, he said.

Once he warmed up to us, he seemed to have grand fun explaining the wine classification system developed more than 100 years ago and still used today. He also explained how difficult it is to export to Canada because each province has its own liquor control, and how they put wax on the young plants to protect them. Another couple of bottles hit the backpacks with a decision to visit one more vineyard before calling it a day.

At Chateau Fortier, the hostesse looked us over before announcing there’d be a fee for the wine tasting. Once she realized, however, that these bicycling Canadiens were going to lug purchased bottles through the countryside in their already overladen backpacks, she reneged and the tasting did not cost us a sous (or a euro as it were).

When it came time to head back to our apartment in Avignon, Chris S. announced he would sooner stick pins in his eyes than remount his bike. My navigator husband promised to lead him to a town called Sorgues, a few short kilometres to the south, where he could put his lovely rental on a train and ride in comfort back to Avignon.

Using a map that showed only super highways and railways, my husband led us on tiny back roads down a big hill to the train station. That’s where our stories split, but if you think the train ride went smoothly for Chris S., his lovely wife, Heather, and their rented bikes, you’d best think again.

Their adventure involved lugging their bikes on their shoulders up a steep set of stairs to the train platform, purchasing tickets for a non-existent train followed by a trip to the local bar where they secured a taxi for them and their rented bicycles.

“Limp,” said Heather to her husband when she explained how she told the barmaid her husband had hurt his “jambe” and couldn’t carry on.

As for my husband and I, after Sorgues we fell in with a group of yellow-jerseyed French cyclists until the outskirts of Avignon, where the peloton pointed right and bid us adieu. We veered where they indicated and found ourselves heading for a super highway.

Things looked bleak. We were tired and not in the mood for sharing the road with trucks travelling at 130 km/h. Plus, our Tour de France team wase no longer around for support.

We sat on the shoulder of the on-ramp and shared my apple (his pear had been crushed by the wine) to gather our thoughts.

That’s when I remembered why I married my husband, the man with the built-in homing device — a human GPS, if you will.

Once again he led me safely on small roads exactly back to the bike shop where we discovered there was no sign of Chris and Heather.

The rental man laughed at our descriptions of the other Chris’s discomfort and our separation at the train station in Sorgues.

“The next time your friend rents a bike,” he said. “He might like one of these.” He held up a gel seat.

I laughed knowing for certain there would be no next time.

Stay Tuned next week for Confessions of a non-beer drinker in Belgium.

Susan Flanagan is a journalist who learned to sing

“Sur le Pont d’Avignon” with Mme. Rice at Holy Heart. She can be reached at susan@48degrees.ca.

Boston Bound feedback

Lynda Younghusband writes: “So inspiring. I’m reading it in Sicily and I won’t complain about having to run on cobblestone streets again after reading this.”

Anne Fagan writes: “What a heartwarming and joyous story you wrote in today’s Telegram! It was much more than a story of family and friendship bonds. It was a story about caring and commitment; about facing your challenges; about enjoying life despite the most difficult of challenges. What inspirational and wonderful people are Keith, John, Dick and Rick. We all can learn so much from them.”

Maria Murray writes: “I am sitting here with tears on my cheeks and a smile on my face. What a beautiful story about John Grant and Keith Butler, their friends at Wood Gundy, and the Hoyts … the folks in your story make it clear (to me anyway) that life is short, it can change in a heartbeat, and the good stuff is worth working for.”

Susan’s note: Keith Butler and John Grant successfully completed the Boston Marathon in 4:05 and had the honour of meeting Rick and Dick Hoyt.

Science Fair feedback

Joseph Aubertin, who is retired from biochemistry, systems and economics, in Vancouver, B.C., writes: “Interesting article.

“Our children were also to assume that the home, the yard, and the rest of the universe was a lab ... I have several websites, but one in particular may be of interest: http://extrememadscience.blogspot.com.”

Organizations: Easter.From Charles de Gaulle Airport, Boston Marathon

Geographic location: Avignon, France, Rhone River Montreal Paris Rhone Canada Sorgues Boston Sicily Vancouver, B.C.

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