The content of this course is two-fold and complementary to the spirit of the tour de France. On the one hand, we will gain an intimate knowledge of the places and people of historical interest. We will visit Arles, the “Rome” of France with its ancient ruins, the 30-mile Roman aqueduct known as the Pont du Gard, and the ancient village of Gordes considered “the most beautiful village of France.” We will learn about King René of Naples who inherited Provence and upon his death, passed the region to the French crown. We will discuss the French Revolution from the perspective of Mirabeau, a deputy from Aix who played a major role in the downfall of the Old Regime. We will discuss the life and work of the Marquis de Sade as we cycle through the village of Lacoste where he was a seigneur for thirty years. We will also discuss the role Provence played in the French Resistance of World War II as well as the role Provence plays in French culture. We will read the poetry of Frédéric Mistral and novels of Jean Giono. We will also discuss works by Van Gogh and Cézanne that were inspired by the region. Finally, our discussions of history and culture will always lead us to the present with topics that resonate within French society such as immigration, education, and politics.
The south of France is a region well known for its natural beauty and the fertility of the land. This relates to the second component of this course that will focus on health and nutrition. As students prepare for the rigors of biking an average thirty-five miles per day for an extended period of time (12 days), we will discuss basic exercise training principles and the positive physiological adaptations which occur as a result of cardio respiratory exercise (cycling). In addition to French activity patterns we will read primary literature on the health benefits of the Mediterranean diet including the landmark Lyon Health Study. We will take a comparative approach when we discuss differences in French and American lifestyles that will help explain the French paradox: why the French have lower rates of heart disease even though they consume more fat. We will also visit places of interest along the way such as outdoor markets, an olive oil mill and a bakery museum to learn more of these staples of the French diet.
Students will also participate in discussions about organic farming, buying local produce (as we will do in the markets each morning to gather cheese, bread and fruit for our daily lunches), and genetically modified foods (GMOs) – topics of great importance to Europeans as they are buying better quality foods that provide more energy. These topics will be discussed in relation to a number of related issues: the high level of subsidies for French farmers; the ban on American beef and the ensuing food trade wars; and the public sympathy for the farmer Jose Bové who destroyed GMO labs and a McDonalds in protest of globalization. We will also discuss access to affordable health care and a welfare system that stresses fraternité and égalité just as much as the third revolutionary ideal of liberté.
And, of course, our bicycle excursion will allow us to stop along the way to meet and talk with the people of the region. As a group cycling through France, we will partake in the spirit of the tour de France as we work together through a rigorous regime of cycling and learning. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that the French live in history like fish in water: “nous vivons dans l'histoire comme des poissons dans l'eau.” We will embrace this notion as we cycle the back roads of Provence and immerse ourselves in French society and culture.