topics: French cheese (food), Collège Internationale de Valbonne, Sophia-Antipolis, stereotypes, Massif de l'Esterei, Cogolin, Toulon, team cycling etiquette; jump to dispatch

BikeAbout Log


Rider Notes: June 2-3, 1998

Food of the Day: French cheese

Anywhere else but France, cheese would be a humble, simple food of the day. But we ARE in France after all, and while the people do have a history of overthrowing the nobility (and even of severing a head or two), over the years, everyone has come to the universal decision that cheese is king. The supremacy of cheese (even over the government) was best stated by Charles de Gaulle himself when he asked how it was possible to rule a country that had more than 300 different kinds of cheese (there are, however, more than 2,000 different kinds of cheese in the world which pretty much rules out the chance of their ever being a single world-wide leader, thank goodness). And in truth, few categories of food evoke as much passion in France as does cheese. So how can we discuss it here? It is difficult to decide where to begin. It is impossible to know where to end.

There is goat cheese - chèvre - with many different variations including crotin de chèvre, chèvre frais, and chèvre á la ancienne; there are soft strong cheeses like Roblechon, Epoisse, and Camembert; hard strong cheeses like Roquefort; soft mild cheeses like Brie; and hard mild cheeses like Gouda, Edam, Emmental and Morbier (which actually has a layer of ash in its middle); and, well the list goes on and on and on. Many French cheeses are regional and are named after the town or region in which they are produced (and with there being so many cheeses de Gaulle's statement starts to make a little sense). Not surprisingly, the best places to sample these cheeses are where they are produced (for example, for a truly stunning Epoisse, drop into the town of Epoisse and set your taste buds on fire - trust us on this one, it is heavenly).

While we certainly have not been able to sample all the different cheeses that France has to offer, it is not for a lack of effort; we are doing our best to get a representative sampling in the limited time we have.

Person of the Day: Joel Stratte-McClure, journalist extraordinaire click to view a photograph

Joel Stratte-McClure click to view a photograph is one of the people with whom we have been in email contact ever since the first months of our trip. It was great finally to meet this mythic figure and thank him in person for his ongoing moral and logistical support.

A North Dakota-born freelance journalist and adventurer, Joel has been writing and reporting for most of his life. One of his first big stories covered (for his local Burlington paper) events surrounding some silly peace and free love concert held near a farm in upstate New York (around Woodstick or something like that - Padraic is the only member of the team old enough to remember). At the time, Joel was so disturbed by the concerts unexpected enormity and what an organizational fiasco it was (not to mention how muddy it became when it started to rain) that he wrote a scathing editorial about it. At the end of his article, he declared himself so disenchanted with the hippie movement that he cut his long hair. Shortly after, Joel moved to France (with short hair) where he has been based ever since.

Joel amazed us with some of his travel stories, like the time he and a friend decided to drive to South Africa - from France - in a less-than-completely-reliable car (with two spare tires though), and how, during one of a multitude of breakdowns (during which they had three flat tires), they were "greeted" by an infamous Ethiopian tribe (the Danakil) known at the time for its sharp-pointed welcome of foreigners. At least he's still around to talk about it...

Joel doesn't play much with second-hand cars anymore. In fact, his current passion, other than writing for a number of international magazines, newspapers and Web sites, is a simple desire to go on walks. Long walks. Like the one that he intends to make all the way around the Mediterranean Sea. Yep, we said WALK all the way around (some 22 countries and 16,000 kilometers/9936 mi - and you thought we were dreamers...). We gave him lots of advice about the parts of the coast with which we are familiar, and tried not to think that he is crazy (in much the same way people have been trying to respect our dreams for the last 9 months - for a very, very long time we have wanted to be able to turn the tables). For the most part, though, Joel put up with our stares and kept on repeating his mantra "the path is the goal and the goal is the path" in response to our questions of "why?'' We're not altogether sure that we understand this mantra, but we have a great deal of respect and admiration for him, his goal and chosen path.

Joel plans on taking the next ten years to complete his journey, executed in small chunks and involving long interstitial breaks especially during the hottest parts of the year. So far the walk has come off without a hitch except for the nudist colony he was "forced" to navigate (and a few of the river mouths that have been tough to traverse). Joel's one commitment is to stay as close to the shores of the Mediterranean as possible. Thus he was forced to go ''au natural'' through the colony. The only problems there were that his tan lines gave him away as a "visitor." He also apparently had a difficult time figuring out where to attach his pedometer... We strongly encouraged Joel to work on his tan line before he hit the Croatian coast (the Croatian government actively promotes nudist beaches and they are quite numerous), although as far as the pedometer problem is concerned, we told him quite frankly that he is on his own.

Joel, who has already visited and written about many places throughout the Mediterranean, may one day "provide a contemporary appraisal of Mediterranean societies, economic developments, habits, cuisines and cultures in a book about his journey."

Aside from amazing us with stories of his travels and exploits, Joel also arranged for us to visit his son's school (see today's Place of the Day), gave us excellent directions for our next days' rides (avoiding any nudist colonies, much to Ethan's chagrin), and pointed out and accompanied us to some of the best Tex-Mex food in Cannes (see yesterday's Rider Notes for more info). In addition to this, he has thrice helped BikeAbout by putting information about our journey in the Côte d'Azur Development Agency Web news pages which he co-edits. (He even featured Ethan for his "Quote of the Week"!)

Thank you Joel for making our visit to Valbonne so delightful, and good luck on your current adventure - we will be watching!

[P.S. We have just had confirmation that Joel has finished the entire French Mediterranean coast from Antibes to the Spanish border. He is wisely taking a break - until cooler weather - before tackling the Spanish coast. Part of one country's coast - 923 kilometers (or 11,125,842 steps) - down and 21 to go. Good luck Joel!]

Place of the Day: Collège Internationale de Valbonne, Sophia-Antipolis

Sophia-Antipolis is rapidly becoming (if it is not already) THE technology center of France. What started out as a small complex of buildings owned by technology companies has today grown into a vast, landscaped area with dozens of businesses devoted to telecommunications, computer sciences, and medical research. Basically any company having anything to do with technology is drawn to the area, lured in by the tax incentives and buildings specifically constructed with the needs of the technology world in mind. Of course, all these businesses need employees, the result being a polyglot population of top-notch technology experts from all four corners of the earth. Along with these employees came their families so the Collège Internationale de Valbonne, our Place of the Day, was created with the unique needs of the employees' children in mind.

The first interesting aspect of the Collège Internationale de Valbonne, other than its extensive and excellent campus, is that only about half of the students are from France; the rest come from Germany, Spain, Italy, India, Brazil, Norway, Japan, etc. - literally the four corners of the earth. All of the students are bilingual (at least) with French being their common language (and English running a close second). In fact, classes are divided according to language, each student choosing a second language (after French) which becomes one of the foci of his or her section so much so that actual classes (in literature, math and the arts) are held in both French and the another language.

As you might expect, the educational is slanted slightly towards technology ("When in Rome...") but there is also a considerable emphasis on the arts. We had the misfortune of being a day early for a performance of "The Almost Full Monty," a somewhat scandalous, rumored-to-be riveting adaptation of the movie "The Full Monty" (with a few well-placed fig leaves and some flesh colored underwear) starring, among others, Luke, son of Kate Leconte and Joel Stratte-McClure (today's Person of the Day).

Tech Fact of the Day: the World War II Allied landing on the Côte d'Azur

The Allied landing on the Côte d'Azur (the stretch of coast along which we rode during this dispatch) is often overlooked in light of the larger and more significant D-Day Allied invasion that occurred in Normandy two weeks earlier. Nevertheless, on August 15, 1944, American and French forces landed on the French coast east of Marseille and pushed north along the Rhône River valley to Dijon where, in mid-September, they joined the American Twelfth Army Group under General Bradley's command. From here the combined British, Canadian, and French forces (which had just liberated Paris) pushed on towards Germany and, eventually, the end of the war in Europe. As we biked along the coast, we noticed several memorials to the often overlooked though strategically important Allied invasion. click to view a photograph

Group Dispatch, June 2-3
picture of Anthony

Waking early, the BikeAbout team assembled in our host Kate's kitchen for breakfast before loading the bikes, posing for one last picture click to view a photograph and then hitting the road much earlier than normal. Our goal for the morning was the Collège Internationale de Valbonne, today's Place of the Day, where Joel and our host's son, Luke, is a student. Joel (see today's Person of the Day) had been kind enough to arrange a visit with some of the students at the school. Our schedule called for us to be at the school at 9 a.m. sharp and to give our presentation to two different classes - the fifth and fourth French grades. (In France, the grade classification system is different from the way it is in the States. In France, the final year of school is called the first year. Thus according to the North American system, the students we met were in the 7th and 8th grades respectively.)

So, after saying goodbye to Kate, we rode the short distance to Sophia-Antipolis click to view a photograph (where the school is located) and rendezvoused with Joel. click to view a photograph Pausing only briefly to take care of formalities, we eventually moved into a presentation room where we set up our laptops and then even our bikes (in case there were any doubtful students who cared to question us) and waited for the first screaming hoard of students.

Actually, and not at all surprisingly, all the students we met were peaceful and very well behaved. They listened intently and politely as we made what is now our standard presentation. Then we opened up the floor to questions about our trip click to view a photograph since we had heard that some of the students had prepared for this! click to view a photograph Indeed they had!

But then we turned the tables and asked them questions about what it was like to study at the Collège Internationale de Valbonne. We were surprised to learn that only half of the class was in fact French. The rest of the students came from different parts of the world and many of them even possessed dual citizenship. Of course everybody was at least bilingual (spoke two languages). More generally, we talked quite a bit about the stereotypes that many people have about both America and France and were not surprised to find out that the students were experts on the topic - seeing as most of them came from other cultures. Unfortunately, before we knew what had happened, our time was up and it was all we could do just to gather everyone together for a group photo (there were so many students that we had to take two photos and splice them together, somehow loosing the best part of Anthony in the process click to view a photograph) before the students of the second class arrived.

This group of students was a little older. Nevertheless, after briefly touching on some of the same topics as we had with the first class, we decide to let matters spin (almost) out of control. How? Well, we brought up food, of all things. A topic that always excites the French and people living in France. More specifically, we asked the simple question "What sort of food should we try while in France?" Now while some of the students were not French natives, all of them have been living in France long enough to have a proper passion for all things culinary. click to view a photograph Growing more and more intense as suggestions were shouted out, the conversation moved with lightening-like quickness from cheese (especially Roblechon and chèvre - for more about French cheese see today's Food of the Day) to soup and desert. An emotional cry for "cassoulet'' was heard at one point and this started a whole new discussion about the cuisine for which Provence (the area of France in which we are currently biking) is famous: tapenade, pistou (the same as pesto), bouillabaisse, salade niçoise (a salad made with lettuce, onions, tomatoes, olives, green beans and tuna), hot chèvre salads... the list went on and on. More than once, a harried student who had been trying to get our attention would grab our shirts and say something like, "Really, you must try escargot (snails) before you leave! REALLY!"

Finally, before the students would have to head off to their next classes, we ended the discussion and moved outside for another group photo. click to view a photograph Of course, everyone was enthralled with our Casio digital cameras. This was best demonstrated when we almost lost Padraic in a crush as the group of three people to whom he was demonstrating the features of the camera click to view a photograph quickly swelled to something close to 50 million. click to view a photograph Pulling him out of the crowd by the scruff of his neck, we bid "au revoir" (goodbye) to the students, packed up our bikes, and readied ourselves for the road ahead.

After once more expressing our thanks to Joel for all he has done for us, we received some final directions, and, before we knew it, were headed back down to our friend, the Mediterranean coast. To no one's surprise, we did not get very far; it was already noon and we were starving. Stopping momentarily at a grocery store and supplying ourselves with delicious victuals, we headed down to the beachfront at Cannes and lunched, ever vigilant for the rich and famous or stray superstar.

Our first goal of the day was the Massif de l'Esterei. "Massif" is French for "massive" (well, sort of - it actually means "mountain range") and while, in general, we try to avoid anything "massive," we had been assured by Joel that the climb was not so terrible and that the views were worth any pain we would feel. The Massif click to view a photograph stretches along the coast to the west of Cannes and, as we biked, we agreed with Joel that the views were spectacular. click to view a photograph Even while we were forced to endure raindrops that kept falling on our heads (sing along with us now), we were entranced by the red color of the Massif's rocks. click to view a photograph Despite the subdued light, they seemed to glow. click to view a photograph Even the sand on the beaches seemed to be tinted a red color. click to view a photograph

Along the way, Corinne was waylaid by a suddenly deflating tire, but under Padraic's click to view a photograph and then also "Patch Master" Ethan's guidance click to view a photograph (it was a stubborn puncture), she was able to repair it and we were soon back on the road.

Our next goal was to decide where to sleep. The problem was that the Côte d'Azur - like all of the Mediterranean Riviera - is not exactly known for its affordable housing. Accordingly, we decided to head a bit inland for the evening (thus missing another beach paradise - St. Tropez) and ended up in the delightful town of Cogolin. We say it was delightful both because it was and because we (1) found a little hotel that was affordable, had a proprietor who was extremely friendly (especially towards bikers), and even has a Web site); (2) ate delightful food; and (3) slept like babies. We even discovered from the hotel manager that we had just missed a huge (5,000 people) organized regional bicycle ride for everyone from professionals, to cycling aficionados like Paul Belmondo (who apparently stayed in our hotel), to amateurs of all ages! As much fun as the ride sounded, we were a little glad to have missed it as we probably would not have found a hotel and, looking at their route, they would have lost us in the hills.

Waking the next morning we breakfasted on croissants, yogurt and fruit near a memorial to a French general who had landed with the Allied forces on the beaches nearby during the last stages of the Second World War (see today's Tech Fact of the Day for more information) and made an attempt to buy Ethan a new tire in a local bike shop. Unfortunately we were unable to find a tire, though breakfast was a smashing success.

The route we had picked out took us slightly inland and cut off several kilometers at the low, low price of a gentle hill. This was important since our goal for the evening was Marseille (more than 100 km/62 mi away) and because it was Wednesday, chat 'n' debate day. Thus, we were under a time constraint. With so much distance to cover and an unknown number of hills on our agenda, we were not sure that we would be able to cycle all the way in and still make the start of our online time. Fortunately, there was a very handy rail line that, starting in Toulon, followed the path we would take into Marseille. If we were running short of time, we reasoned, we would hop on the train in Toulon.

First things first though, we had a hill to conquer. It was not so bad really, a mere 200 meters up through the Forêt du Dom (Dom Forest), though it did seems to drag on a bit. Ethan managed to get yet another flat (he really needs new tires) but thankfully it was at the top of the hill. Anthony and Padraic provided moral support (mostly by napping) while Ethan patched his tube. Before we knew it, and while the nappers were concentrating on their snores, Corinne caught up with us. Apparently excited by the sight of one of our favorite road signs click to view a photograph, she continued right on down the other side without stopping.

We soon followed after, but much to our surprise we did not encounter her at the bottom of the hill. Usually, as we are biking, whoever is first to arrive at a turn or confusing intersection waits for the rest of the group. This works well to ensure that the group sticks together and spends the night in the same hotel (thus saving money by taking advantage of the group rate), while at the same time avoiding the unnecessary creation of splinter groups. Think about it: all it would have taken is one wrong turn in the first half of our journey for BikeAbout - the Mediterranean to have become BikeAbout - Botswana. It is also handy if, heaven forbid, there is an accident. (It has been scientifically proven that it is much more beneficial to have three untrained and only barely competent medical personnel on hand if the fourth is injured. After all, the only things we really know how to use in our trademark Adventure Medical Kits are the Band-Aids, aspirin, scalpel, and, uh, rectal thermometer).

Frankly we were perplexed (Padraic even tossed out a pet theory of his - alien abduction - but Anthony and Ethan ignored him). After some discussion, especially in light of Anthony's "disappearing" act during the ride to Genova (it is still strongly suspected by certain members of the team - namely Anthony - that this was a heinous attempt to separate Anthony from the group by hungry, "unnamed" forces - stay tuned for the X-Files movie or check out the dispatch for more info), we decided that Corinne had sped ahead and would meet us at an intersection further along or, at least, at the Toulon train station or tourist information office.

Somewhat consoled, we settled into a delightful ride. For once there was a helpful tailwind pushing us along (instead of trying to blow us back towards the Middle East) as we negotiated an excellent bike path that led all the way into the city. Thank goodness there was the bike path too as the main road certainly looked like a Road of Death to anything without a horn and steel-plated exoskeleton. Carefully weaving our way through the neighborhoods and villages on the outskirts of Toulon, we arrived in good time and rolled up to the train station. We were even more surprised than before not to find Corinne waiting for us. Nevertheless, we kept our eyes open as we checked on the train schedule. There were trains (that took bikes) leaving approximately every hour with the last one (that could get us to Marseille in time for the chat) in 4 hours at 5:30. So we sat down to wait.

After two hours without any sign of Corinne, we began to grow concerned. Ethan even rode down to the Tourist Office and asked if there had been any sightings of an American on a bike. After another hour, Ethan returned to the tourist office and they helped him call the police and local hospitals while Padraic checked in with our Marseillaise friends at DIA - from whose offices we would chat - to see if there were any messages. After receiving no news, we decided, somewhat reluctantly, to get on the last train to Marseille.

Arriving at the DIA offices just in time for the chat, we were relieved to hear that Corinne had finally called, but alarmed that it had come from a police station. But apparently, she was OK and headed over to meet us. We later learned from her that she had been enjoying the tailwind so much that she decided to ride all the way into Marseille without stopping anywhere in Toulon. Anthony, Padraic and Ethan were more than a little envious. Oh well. At least Corinne had a nice afternoon's worth of riding.

The rest of the evening was filled with chats as we answered questions posed both on the Internet and by the DIA staff. You may recall that we have been working with DIA ever since our time in Gaza City when we collaborated with their Diwan el Shabab. We also were lucky to enjoy the hospitality of the DIA Dobrinja (Sarajevo) Euroclub in Sarajevo. In the days ahead, there will be plenty more about DIA and the incredible people who make this association run.

Finally, after the chat, we were introduced to a wonderful woman named Florence. She led the way to her apartment, which she was graciously allowing us to use during the whole of our stay in Marseille. (For more on this angel of mercy, check out tomorrow's Person of the Day.) In short order, we changed into clean clothes and were ready for dinner. Together with Stéphane from DIA, and after a short walk, we found ourselves standing in front of one of Florence's favorite couscous restaurants where, before we knew what had happened, steaming bowls of yummy food were placed before us. Soon after, our hunger was sated (somewhere in there the couscous disappeared).

Returning to Florence's apartment, we showered and put ourselves in bed and were asleep in record time.

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