New Friends And Local Favorites
ExperiencePlus! Riders Find The Perfect Dinner
Though it may sound counter intuitive, one of the most important elements of tour design and pre-trip planning is making space for spontaneous exploration and discovery. After all, it is sometimes the surprises and exploratory nature of traveling abroad that make for the fondest memories.
ExperiencePlus! traveler Jon Lueker recently returned from cycling on our Bicycling South of France Plus! and shared what we found to be the perfect example of why we invite people to explore and dive into local culture. Being the great story teller that he is, we asked if he wouldn’t mind sharing his tale.
Having taken our time enjoying St. Guilhem le Desert and its gorgeous abbey, Cathy and I had to push a little to get to the oyster and wine tasting in Séte by 4:00. After the wine tasting and a boat tour of the oyster beds, we were hungry and tired. Along with our friends, Mike and Sara, we decided that an early Italian dinner with lots of pasta would hit the spot. I had a little French from high school (slightly rusty after 40 years of neglect), I was assigned the task of finding a good place based on recommendations from our tour leaders and locals.
Our group walked a few blocks from the hotel and found ourselves surrounded by restaurants, but none were quite what we were looking for. While the others waited nearby, I entered a corner fruit market and, in my limited French, asked the shopkeeper if there was a good Italian restaurant nearby. She looked puzzled, trying to decipher the noises coming from my mouth. I tried the usual tourist trick – I asked again a bit louder. The woman gave me a compassionate smile, perhaps assuming that I had some kind of impairment that caused me to speak so incomprehensibly. Then, to my surprise, she asked a customer to mind the shop for a few minutes and she gestured for me to follow her.
I wasn’t quite sure what we were doing as we walked down a few narrow passageways, eventually we stopped in front of a small, noisy bar. Could this possibly be her recommendation? She gestured for me to wait at the door while she went in. A few moments later she came back out with an expression of triumph, leading a very jovial and intoxicated group of men. She pointed to one of them and happily exclaimed “He’s English!” And with that, she smiled, said farewell, and returned to her shop. She had left me in safe hands.
After some joking and discussion of our bicycle journey, the Englishman turned to the business at hand. He said he knew just the place for us. Chez Luigi. Would we like him to lead us there and join us for dinner? I replied that he was too kind, and that directions would be more than sufficient. He laughed and gave me excellent instructions. After a bit more joking and handshaking with his group, I returned to where Cathy, Mike, and Sara were waiting.
We had no trouble finding Chez Luigi and getting a great table – it was early by local standards. Feeling practically bilingual, I took charge of translating the menu for the group and speaking with the waitress. Sadly, she gave me the same look of concerned confusion that I had gotten when speaking to the shopkeeper. (I guess they both spoke some odd dialect of French.) Speaking louder didn’t help here either, and we reached an impasse. So she smiled, asked us to wait a moment, and went into the kitchen. That’s when Luigi appeared.
Luigi was a tall, muscular man with graying hair and a matching beard. He came out of the kitchen wearing an undershirt and jeans. At first glance he looked a little intimidating, but it turned out he was playful and quick to laugh. He had some English and tried to resolve our communication challenges. But after a few failed attempts, he pulled a chair up to our table and leaned in closely to speak with us in hushed tones. I’ll tell you what, he managed to convey. He would just make us a good dinner. We’d love it. So we said OK.
And what a great dinner it was! We were served a huge, beautiful salad with fresh greens, cheeses, vegetables, sliced meats, and balsamic. Fresh bread on the side. A variety of delicious pasta dishes. Inexpensive carafes of a nice red wine. And tasty, light desserts. After all of which Luigi returned from the kitchen to sit with us and to ask about our bicycle tour and to learn where we were from. When we left his restaurant, we felt like we had made a friend.
I love it when memorable experiences unexpectedly emerge from unlikely circumstances. To me, this is travel at its best.
Needless to say, we now have an Italian restaurant on the Tour Leader recommended restaurant list in Sete.