Arles, Provence - It's been almost three weeks now since I rode in a red motorcycle and sidecar between the Provencal towns of Arles and St. Remy, and I still can't quite delete the memory. Or the smile.
Maybe you have to have grown up in a motorcycling household, or have a pint or two of motor oil in your veins, to properly appreciate the experience.
It all started several months ago with a story in the National Geographic Traveler magazine about 26 offbeat things you could do when visiting Provence.
The ideas included going to a bullfight (where they don't kill the bull); "learning the language" of more than 150 local cheeses; experiencing the gossip and politics of the cafe culture; revisiting the French Resistance years, and following the footsteps of Impressionist artists such as Cezanne and Van Gogh.
The one idea that really got my attention was "Hitting the Road a la Provencale" - whereby you could rent a motorcycle, scooter, (or even an iconic four-wheeled Deux Chevaux) in southern France and tour the countryside either with a group or solo.
Alternatively, you could let someone else do the driving while you surveyed the passing countryside from an attached sidecar.
For a fallen-away enthusiast, who hasn't ridden a bike in more than 40 years but still has motorcycles in his DNA, the idea of revisiting an important part of my youth proved simply irresistible, especially when I discovered that the St. Remy-based Moto Provencale tour company was started by a fellow Brit with whom I happened to share some similar interests, history, and even an acquaintance or two.
At the appointed time, a bright red Siberian-built Ural motorbike and sidecar pulled up in front of our 16th-century hotel, the tuneful song of its engine pulsating off the walls, windows, and cobblestones of this Romanesque town.
David Griffiths, the fiftysomething owner of Moto Provencale - and my pilot for the morning - outfitted me with a full face helmet (a far cry from the primitive "skid lid" and goggles of my riding days) before plugging me into the Ural's spartan Patrol sidecar.
With a twist of the throttle and a last dramatic wave to my wife, we were on our way to St. Remy.
The 30-minute journey passed in a flash. It was a delicious blurring symphony of sound and scenery, part go-cart, part roller coaster.
From my precarious catbird seat alongside a thundering 750 cc engine - and mere inches above the rushing asphalt - I was instantly engaged, immersed, and mesmerized.
Oh sure, my sidecar wheel went airborne on a tight turn. I had to duck below the tiny windshield when David opened up on a long, tree-bordered straightaway. And I scarcely got to appreciate any of the must-see tourist sights that we passed, such as the mountaintop castle of Les Baux, the ruins of the Roman city of Glanum, and the main street of St. Remy, immortalized in Van Gogh's "Starry Night."
But no matter. It was all about the ride, and the chance to spend time at Moto Provencale headquarters looking over David's stable of bikes (Hondas, BMWs, Moto Guzzis, scooters, et al), learning the intriguing story of how he somehow went from marketing and mail orders to designing computer games and lotteries and setting up betting systems in Russia - with a former British boxing champion.
His epiphany came while touring Spain on his favorite BMW motorcycle and the sudden realization that there were lots of other tourists dedicated to two-wheeled touring who couldn't always take their own bikes abroad.
So he chose Provence, St. Remy in particular, as his base because of its good restaurants and hotels, less-traveled roads, year-round sunshine, and multitude of must-see attractions in every direction.
With the subsequent arrival of ultra-cheap European flights, bullet trains, and the high price of gasoline, his business took off as Americans, Brits, Australians, Scandinavians, and Germans flocked to St. Remy to tour the country in the way they love - from the saddle of a two or even three-wheeled motor bike!
For more information, check www.motoprovencale.com