My plans to create a boutique tour company were fueled by my nostalgic memories of discovering France, young and in love. It is a rare and truly special experience to gain entry to another culture, another country and it requires a guide, a gate keeper. For me it was my love. He opened doors that I didn’t know existed.
Everyone deserves the opportunity to immerse themselves in another world. It isn’t tourism. I’ve done A LOT of tourism and what I’m talking about here is very different. As a tourist, I only get a romantic superficial view of a place: I see the sites. I taste the foods. I have tons of fun and I love it. But, THIS is something that goes beyond the typical tourist trip. THIS is deeper. It is about being open to a different way of life and accepting someone’s invitation to enter places and practices that are not readily open to outsiders. THIS is as much about learning what defines my own culture as discovering new ways. Immersion.
There is something infinitely more extraordinary and life changing about doing what the locals find completely ordinary than going to the Eiffel Tower in a cultural bubble of my fellow countrymen.
It is unusual for travelers to gain access to the usual while visiting a foreign country. Many of my fellow study abroad students remained outsiders during their entire year in France. So, how on earth could I share what I had been so lucky to experience with people who would just be visiting for a short time? And might not even speak French? Was it even possible?
I wanted to fill the gap between what true travelers seek and what bus tours and cruises actually offer. No “drive-by photo shooting sprees”. No tourist restaurants.
This was a puzzle. This was the challenge I had been looking for. What a brainteaser! Puzzling over it brought me out of my funk like a rocket out of quicksand. I had found my new direction!!!
At first it was like staring at a blank wall blocking my path. No way up, over, or around it. It seemed impossible. And… I like the “impossible”. VERY MUCH. The seemingly impossible usually inspires me to dig deep for a solution. In my heart, I believe everything is possible, the only trick is figuring out how. I really enjoy the way my mind is engaged by finding solutions and figuring out these puzzles.
I couldn’t figure out a way to solve the whole puzzle at once, so I started small by just trying to figure out how I could I share with other people something like that amazing bike trip I’d taken with Francis to his grandmother’s village. And this is how that thinking process unfolded…
First I thought about that big hill. It had been formidable. We couldn’t do that. And the gravel pathes… they had been really rough.
What if we biked out of the city of Besançon along the river in the other direction?
I did some research and was delighted to discover that the path along the Doubs River happens to be a segment of one of the most popular bike routes in Europe, called the EuroVelo 6 which goes from the Atlantic Ocean to the Black Sea! (Who knew? –Not me!)
Even better, the path leading out of Besancon in the other direction is ranked at the “family” level of difficulty.
Francis and I decided to test it out. It is eleven miles to the first major village. One morning, Francis and headed out at a leisurely pace riding alongside the river on the smooth paved path that winds through the flat valley. The scenery was nice. Green hills rise up on either side of the valley… but, I was a bit disappointed by the industrial aspect of the area. We stopped at a half-way point in a village. His mother recommended a riverside restaurant there where she likes to go on nice days for a countryside lunch outdoors with friends. There with an attractive terrace, but the food was rather “ho-hum”.
It was definitely ordinary… but it didn’t have that kind of magic that I was looking for. That was when I realized that I wasn’t really after the banal everyday kind of ordinary… I was really after enchanting simplicity, the beauty of imperfection, the time-tested and beloved. I wanted to share the kind of thing that is charming and endearing even for locals. I suppose I would liken it to the American difference between going for a burger at a McDonald’s chain restaurant verses that old mom & pop diner with peeling paint and a patina developed through decades of wear. The difference between shopping at the generic supermarket and buying products directly from a producer. That kind of thing.
But that wasn’t all. No, that wasn’t enough.
I realized that I wanted to capture more than just the everyday charm of living in France, I wanted to let people experience those special moments that occur once or twice a year… like the celebratory outing to a really fancy restaurant, a special hike, getting to know an artisanal producer on a family farm, seeing scenery or architecture that is really mind-blowing.
It’s like that Oscar Wilde quote” To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.” –I was looking to share what it meant to really LIVE in France.
I didn’t want the banal. I wanted to share THE BEST, most authentic, most local experiences possible. I wanted to share the full range of life’s finest from the greatest of the simple everyday type experiences to most excellent special occasion of the year type experience.
I wanted to condense all the best of authentic France life and pack it into a week-long itinerary!
So, back to this bike trip…
Now, when you go another eleven miles to the next village, I discovered we pass along a stretch that is really picturesque because of the wooded hills with limestone escarpments. There was still industry, but most of it had the charm of earlier centuries unlike what we’d passed just outside Besancon. Later I would read that this is one of the “most beautiful” sections of the EuroVelo6 bike route! Perfect.
Except that 44 miles round trip was too far for casual cyclists to ride. Too long of a day. Too much work. I was looking to strike that perfect balance and hit the pleasant level of exertion which is rewarding.
Forty-four miles. Not perfect.
Francis said I should forget it.
But, I love this kind of challenge. I knew there must be a solution. I wasn’t going to give up that easily.
I thought about getting a driver to pick us up… but there were the bikes. What about a bus? Nope. Eventually, I found a local train that we could take back to Besancon that would let us bring the bikes aboard!
And restaurants? I found a place to eat well: a hotel-restaurant recommended by the Michelin guide… (I trust Michelin infinitely because they have high standards and they have not let me down yet). When you walk through the door, you have the impression of having stepped through a time machine and gone back about half a century… what outdated decoration! The food was done with care. There was dining on the terrace, so my guests could enjoy the weather and the village setting. This was my French equivalent of the “mom and pop” diner but with high quality, refined food. Yep, that would work.
From there, the planning was just fun child’s play… After lunch I would allow time for my guests to stroll around the village and peek in the church before hopping the train back to Besancon where they could rest and relax.
Now Francis was back in the game, he saw that when I put my mind to something, I make it happen (or go down fighting)…
Francis contributed by finding electric bikes we could rent if some of our guests were hesitant about the 22 mile length of the ride. I smiled when he confided that he might rent one for himself, just for the fun of it, of course!