In lieu of a birthday present, I chose to walk for five days from inn to inn in the Provençale region of France. I should have noticed something was amiss when, after my announcement, my husband Rich didn’t blink, didn’t ask how much it would cost, or how we’d get there. Although it was strange, I didn’t dare question it.
The more I read about it, the more excited I got. The tour package included meals, luggage transfer, lodging, a map and written directions of each day’s route. No guide, no group. Just the two of us.
I was hooked simply by reading the title of the walk: Colours and Scents of the Luberon. Continuing to read, “…you walk through the thyme and rosemary scented hills, passing isolated farms, before reaching the hamlet of Saint-Pantaleon.” In a description of another day’s walk, it says, “Dipping back into the valley, you make your way to Bonnieux, a picture perfect Provençale village, on top of which stands a 12th Century church surrounded by century-old cedars.”
It went on to explain that no day required walking more than 13 kilometers (9-10 miles), supposedly to be accomplished in around four hours, even for slow walkers. This outfit, Walk Inn Provence (http://walkinnprovence.com/en/index.html), rates the walks by difficulty, with Level 1 being the easiest and Level 3 the hardest. The Colours and Scents of the Luberon was rated Level 1. Herein is the description of Level 1:
You like to walk to get exercise and enjoy strolls in the countryside. You don’t need to be an athlete to enjoy these trips. Walks generally from 2 – 4 hours on easy terrain, with some climbing up to perched villages.
The Web site points out that “levels of difficulty” vary according to a person’s country of origin. “In some countries, like France,” it says, “it’s part of the culture to go on family walks on the weekends, and children, even at a young age, get used to walking all day in the hills.”
I love to walk. It was late September. Whatever could go wrong?
Thankfully, nothing dire. But by lunchtime on the first day my hair was welded to my head, stiff with sweat. My cheeks flushed with heat exhaustion despite regularly drinking water, and my bra was so soaked, the slightest breeze gave me shivers.
The paths were indeed beautiful, taking us up hills with breath-taking views, and off-road to a trail in the backwoods. Parts of the path were so steep I was forced to grip tree trunks to keep from tumbling down rocky dried-up gullies. Occasionally, I sat and scooted to the bottom of a treacherous part on my behind. Considering how I already looked, who cared if my pants got dirty.
For a good portion of the trek we saw millions of unsecured stacked stones, said to protect the 17th C. papacy from the plague. Apparently guards sat out there in the middle of nowhere keeping the germy outsiders from crossing the stone barrier. What a job!
As it turned out we trekked all day and did not see another soul. We carried our lunches in day packs, passed through towns with houses but nary a sighting of life (unless you count an ostrich in a pen). Even when the occasional town provided a place that could conceivably serve a cold beverage, it was closed.
Toward the end of our first day, as the sun was setting, we saw in the distance the town of Gordes rising out of the Calavon valley and perched vertiginously on a rocky spur. It looked so close, and yet, once we arrived at the foot of it, a long climb awaited. At least we’d been forewarned.
Once in the town center, I sat and rested by a fountain and observed the townsfolk going about their business. It was good to be in civilization again. So what if the walk took more than four hours? Or even six or seven?
Rich looked up from the town’s map. “The hotel is up there,” he said, pointing. “Another six hundred meters, uphill.” With effort, I stood up and heavily clomped up the paved road. At least there weren’t any loose rocks. Once we checked in to the B&B, we took a quick shower and a dip in the pool (as spectacular as advertised) overlooking the valley. We asked for directions to the restaurant where reservations had been made for us. I should have known. Six hundred meters, this time downhill.
While dining, Rich conceded he was surprised I’d chosen this walking tour as a birthday present. “Why?” I asked. “Don’t tell me you knew it would be this hard?”
“Why didn’t you say something?”
He shrugged. “Why would I discourage you from something so invigorating? You know I like to see other cultures, try new foods.” After a moment he added, “Besides, if I’d planned something like this, I’d have been in deep dip with you.”
Of course he was right, as annoying as that always is.
The next morning, I wondered, “Has anyone else taken this tour?”
Apparently Norwegians and other Americans had, we came to find out over breakfast. A Norwegian couple, close to our age, joined us at the table. After exchanging niceties, I asked, “Did you find yesterday’s hike difficult?” hoping they’d been tortured by it. “No, not at all,” the woman replied. “Although,” and here I leaned forward, “we did get lost, and that cost us an extra hour.”
I sensed “Navigator” Rich sitting a bit straighter. We didn’t get lost once. I slumped back into my chair. OK, so this was an easy trek if you’re an obscenely tall or fit person, like the Norwegians and my husband.
The following morning we met a couple of Americans, at least thirty-five years younger than we are. “Did you find yesterday’s hike difficult?” I asked. They both nodded vigorously. “It was awfully hard,” the woman gushed. Her husband added, “Yeah, we’re taking today off.”
Poor Rich. I nearly broke his ribs when I elbowed him.
In our room, while getting our luggage ready to be transferred, Rich said, “I don’t think they’re taking the day off because they’re tired.”
“You don’t? Why then?”
“Because they’re newlyweds.”
“Seriously? In this day and age you think newlyweds still spend their honeymoons in bed? No way. I think they really found the hike hard.”
I looked up at Rich, a grin across his face.
“Honest to Pete,” I said, “they did too think it was hard! That woman would not have been so emphatic if it hadn’t been difficult. You want to know what I think?” Not waiting for an answer, I said, “I think the Web site lied. I have yet to see one French person hiking in those hills, much less a child of ANY nationality.”
Knowing my bra would be soaked within an hour, I threw it into my suitcase and slammed it shut, ready for another day on the “easy” trail.