Would rural Quebec would be something like rural parts of the USA, but everyone speaks French?    With my friend Lyman and I set out to discover Quebec in eight days of cycling.

In planning this trip I discovered a basic fact:   Quebec has been built as a collection of settlements along the St. Lawrence River.    Quebec City stands at the point where the river narrows at a mountain range, offering an early seventeenth century military planner a perfect place for defending the river.   Two hundred miles further upstream, Montreal was built at the fall line, the limit, at least four hundred years ago, where ocean going vessels could go.   This map shows the bicycle ride we ended up doing.   Quebec City was about halfway.   After the bike ride we returned from Rimouski to Montreal in a rental car.  

 

Air fares to Canada tend to be expensive, and driving with the bicycle saves advance planning and causes less global warming.   With my Bike Friday in the back I drove our 2005 Toyota Prius up from North Carolina.   My friend Lyman had flown in from Austin TX and I picked him and his Bike Friday up at Baltimore’s BWI airport.  We then overnighted with my sister Betsy and her husband George in Princeton NJ.    She was not going to bicycle on this trip but she rode with Lyman and me in the car six hours up to Montreal so she could use my car to noodle around Quebec on her own.     We stopped for a beer at a brewery in Plattsburgh NY, just south of the Canadian border.

 

The three of us had a fine Moroccan dinner that night in Montreal.     The next morning Lyman and I fitted up our bicycles and headed out.  By Quebec standards it was going to be a hot day, high about ninety.    This turned out to be the hottest day of the trip.

 

Betsy was going to fly back home three days hence and leave the Prius for us at a lot near the Montreal airport.  This first day Lyman and I bicycled from the downtown hotel northwest through Montreal streets, heading downriver along the  north shore of the St. Lawrence.   It is about 200 miles from Montreal to Quebec City, and we hoped to make it in four days.

Quebec urban apartments have a consistent theme, steep outdoor staircases to second floor apartments.   In America the stairs are normally inside, not that I had ever thought about it all that much.   It is one of those things in a foreign country that remind you:  not everybody does everything just like Americans.

 

 

 

 

Quebec has a province-wide bicycle route system called La Route Verte (The Green Route)  I have not seen a state in the USA that has anything quite so well arranged for long distance bicycling.   (New York State and the Erie Canal route comes close.) Its design seems typically Canadian, not expensive but well thought out.   It spoke of a government that is trying to solve a problem and create something, rather than be at war with itself.   On La Route Verte you just have to follow the signs.

 

For the first four days we bicycled La Route Verte no. 5, which follows the north shore of the St. Lawrence river.  In urban areas it leads a bicyclist through webs of residential streets, but connecting those when necessary with mostly paved bike paths.

 

In rural areas La Route Verte is mostly just signage showing a bicyclist the safest routes, sometimes on rural back roads.

 

and much of the time on lightly used highways, virtually always with a wide shoulder.

 

On occasion Route Verte uses a design I do not approve of, a two way bike path along one side of a conventional street.  (I do not think it is safe going through intersections bicycling the wrong way against traffic.)

On this first day out we biked through the northeastern side of Montreal which is clearly the poorer industrial side of town.   Later on, a bike path followed along the St. Lawrence River with its ocean going vessels.

We rode a long way that day (59 miles), especially considering that the first part included constant stopping and starting through neighborhoods, and that it was about ninety degrees outside, and both of us are in our mid sixties.

There are not a lot of motels on this stretch of the north side of the river.   We exhaustedly pulled into this place at about five in the afternoon.

It is a Friday night in July, the height of the summer season.   Complet!    No rooms!   What do we do now?

The young woman at front desk of Villa D’Autray Motel spoke virtually no English and could not have been nicer.   While she turned us down for a room she invited the two of us to come swim in their pool while we sorted out our situation.

Lyman and I took the desk clerk up on her offer and we hung out for a while in the pool, in our bicycle shorts.

A couple of guys drinking beer in the pool were playing Appalachian / Irish sounding music, with French words, on their boombox.  I had vaguely heard of that Celtic music from Brittany sounded similar to American Appalachian and Irish music.   There are no words in this particular recording but when there were words, they were totally in French.

Still wet from the pool we got back on the bicycles.   I located a Days Inn three miles up the road in Berthierville, the only other hotel in the area, and I booked it on my phone.    The Villa D’Auhtray Motel we had not been able to say in was on a lovely two lane highway along the St. Lawrence River.  On the other hand, the Days Inn de Berthierville is next to the freeway where most of that town’s commercial buildings had transplanted themselves, just like in America.

Near the Days Inn there were no restaurant restaurants, just a collection of fast food places.   We got a to-go bottle of wine and ate outside at a chicken place, not sure if that was legal or not.   The dimly lit “lounge” of the Days Inn had gambling machines, just like those one sees in “Internet cafes” in obscure parts of North Carolina; we stayed clear.   The free breakfast the next morning was in the same lounge.

The Musee Gilles Villeneuve was almost next door to the Days Inn.   We stopped by when it opened at 9:30 AM.   We were the only visitors.

 

Yes, I had vaguely heard of Gilles Villeneuve.   He really made it to the big time.  Like so many Formula One drivers, he had died young in a fiery crash, him at age thirty-two in 1982.    He clearly was the young man from Berthierville who had made good.   Were the two people working the counter were Gilles’ relatives?

 

Before he got to Formula One Gilles had started racing snowmobiles, which up until this moment I had never known such racing existed.  How Canadian!  Apparently Gilles drove whatever he drove insanely and recklessly fast, until the danger ultimately caught up with him.

 

The museum had a slot car track, Lyman and I enjoyed racing each other.

photo by Lyman Labry

Back on the road, we headed northeast downriver, north side, on La Route Verte no. 5, on roads small and large.   We were dodging rain showers.

 

 

photo by Lyman Labry

 

Some of the towns were picturesque.

 

In this stretch the St. Lawrence River widens into Lac St. Pierre; it looks like an ocean.   We had seafood stew at Sea Shack.

We had had to stop several times to keep from getting wet, including about an hour on the porch of a semi-abandoned farmhouse.   The weather was finally clearing as we pulled into Trois-Rivieres, population 140,000, the largest city between Montreal and Quebec City.

Wikipedia describes Trois-Rivieres as a factory town struggling with closed factories.    This entire region seems to have been very much into paper and newsprint.   Arriving downtown Trois-Rivieres we looked around for a bar.  The Billie Jean sure seemed to be the place to be.  Everyone was drinking pitchers of Bud Light.   Les Quebecois clearly like to get outside the few days of the year that the weather is nice.   The waitress spoke no English but understood enough to bring us two local IPAs,  We looked for a hotel on our phones.

 

 

We found a nice hotel a few blocks away and biked over there along the riverfront.

 

Later on we went out to dinner to Le Buck just a few blocks in the other direction, in the historic part of town.  Almost all these towns along the St. Lawrence were settled by the French in the 1600’s.

It was a different vibe from the bar scene at Billie Jean.  Le Buck is a fancy restaurant with outdoor seating where both of us got steak frites, no appetizer, and a shared bottle of the lowest cost red wine.   It may have been the best meal of the entire trip.

 

 

 

 

Quebecois food is not French any more than American food is British.    In the major cities of Quebec there are certainly fancy restaurants that mimic fancy French styles.   Elsewhere the Quebecois eat in their versions of chain restaurants and diners.   In general, average Quebecois restaurant food is better than average American restaurant food.  The most famous Quebecois dish is poutine, a decidedly blue collar pile of French fries on a paper plate covered in gravy and cheese collards, something to cheaply warm the bones in typically freezing weather.

The next morning we biked through the streets of Trois-Rivieres before leaving town north on the highway along the river.   I suspect almost no one has air conditioning, people were hanging outside.

 

It was still two days cycling to reach Quebec City.     La Route Verte routed us mostly on the Quebec highway 138 (already paralleled by a freeway) but when possible on the even older road that passed directly through small towns.

 

Les Quebecois are heavily into motorcycles, RV’s, SUV’s, and muscle cars.    We had pizza for lunch at a restaurant advertising specifically for motorcyclists but it had a much fru-fruier vibe than the average biker-friendly place in America.  It was all very nice.

We stayed that night at an Airbnb in the small town of Portneuf.   This personable woman rents out bedrooms in her suburban house, her enormous but friendly dog lying all about the place.   The dog slept outside our room at night, as if to guard it.  Lyman and I were able to walk to a small restaurant.

 

The next day we cycled again on La Route Verte 5, which is mostly Quebec route 138 along the north shore of the St. Lawrence.

The terrain had gotten challenging, steep hills for the first time.   Lyman here is wearing his hooded Patagonia sun protection bicycle jersey.  The temperature was in the upper seventies with a really bright sun.

The Quebec City suburbs on the south side along the north shore of the river are clearly the ta-ta side of town.  We bicycled past miles of tract mansions, just like in America, except the occupants speak French!

 

Coming into Quebec City a serious bluff blocks the riverfront.  To stay on the bicycle route we had to push the bicycles up these stairs, which connects to a bike trail.

Bicycling further into the city it still looked like the average American neighborhood, even though it was not.  (We are in French speaking Quebec, right?)   We tried to keep up with this young woman as we all followed La Route Verte signs.

After biking in rural Quebec for four days, arriving Old Quebec is somewhat shellshocking.    Other than Campeche, Mexico, Quebec City is the only walled city in North America.

 

To quote Lyman, Old Town Quebec City is like the French Quarter in New Orleans, except here they actually speak French!

 

 

We had booked an Airbnb in but had to wait for the “owner” to show up and let us in.   It was an apartment in Old Town.   We got a coffee next door.   The neighborhood was full of summertime tourists, although it seemed like relatively few were Americans.   We watched people go by our open cafe window.

The Airbnb representative finally showed up and let us in.   She was colorful.

photo by Lyman Labry

 

The view from the back deck of the Airbnb apartment was in many ways as interesting as the front.

The view out the front window.

 

On this Tuesday night in July restaurants were busy!    My friend Joe back in North Carolina had recommended we eat at Le Lapin Sauté, but tables were unavailable.  On the phone a place called La Buvette did not have a table but could seat us at the bar at 8:30 PM.   It was hip and expensive and delicious and pretentious but somehow not totally memorable.   It might have been because I felt we did not get enough to eat!   (Lyman had gotten the “mozzarella foam” appetizer!)

 

 

 

Lyman (rightfully) was interested in the history of the city.  The French had not only walled the city, they had built a fort (the Citadelle) atop the hill that the city sits on, where the river narrows.   It seems like a perfect place to defend one’s territory.   In 1759 the English somehow lured the French out of their position and defeated them on the Plains of Abraham, a flat low spot just below the town.  That was the end of the French rule over Quebec.  The next morning Lyman and I walked up to the Citadelle.

Looking down the skyline is dominated, not by the Citadelle but by the huge hotel Chateau Frontenac built in 1890 by the Canadian Pacific Railway.

 

About lunchtime we checked out of our Airbnb and rode our bicycles to the ferry landing at the riverfront of Old Town.    We got a surprisingly good pasta lunch among the tourists and souvenir shops.

 

 

We were about halfway through our bicycle trip.    The next four days would again be along the St. Lawrence, but this time on the south shore.  North of Quebec City the north shore becomes mountainous while the south shore is more of a flood plain, sometimes with lovely views of the mountains on the other side of the river.  While there is a bridge near Quebec City we chose to cross by ferry, which leaves from Old Town.   We could join the crowd of people wheeling their bicycles right onto the boat.  The crossing took about fifteen minutes.

 

 

 

Starting here for the next four days we bicycled about 200 miles north of Quebec City along the south bank of the St. Lawrence River.   This region is now my favorite part of Quebec to bicycle.  Leaving the Quebec City suburbs there was a bicycle path along the river for several miles.

Eventually we bicycled north on Quebec route 132, also labeled as La Route Verte no.1.

 

La Route Verte signs sometimes diverted to the old road through towns.  The town of St. Jean de Bellechasse looked cutesy and properous.   We stopped for ice cream.

 

Maybe it was the weather but this whole stretch of road gave off a wonderful vibe, as La Route Verte meandered along the riverfront on a thin road with almost no traffic.   A few miles further there was an outdoor barbecue stand fronting the river, the mountains lining up on the other side.   We skipped the barbecue but got beers.    Eventually we started chatting with a nice couple also there enjoying the afternoon even though we barely understood each other’s languages!   They are from Quebec City, they drive out here sometimes just to enjoy the view.

 

 

Just a mile or two further, in an area called Bertheir-su-Mer we stopped and got a room at a motel that the couple had told us about.   In America this place might have been creepy, an aging motel on the riverfront with a faded sign along a two lane highway.   Here there is nothing creepy about it;  the rooms are clean and a nice locally owned bar and restaurant is attached.

We had a nice simple dinner watching the sun set over the river.

 

The next morning we had breakfast at the same restaurant, the Mont Sainte Anne ski resort visible across the river.

Maybe it is just me, but in America a menu might offer “two eggs any style with toast, hash browns and choice of bacon or sausage.”   Here they say the same, in French, except that they say  “bacon, sausage or cheese.”    Cheese?   So I got cheese.   This is a low cost restaurant but unlike America plastic utensils are nowhere to be seen and the bread is fresh.

 

All day La Route Verte no. 1 mostly followed Quebec highway 132 as we biked about fifty miles along the riverfront in lovely sunny weather.

 

 

There were a lot of other bicyclists on La Route Verte.   Most were not carrying luggage so we assume they were locals but there were lots of them.    We ran into this guy, English speaking Canadian from British Columbia, he had been riding for about a week starting in Ottawa.   He said he was going all the way to Newfoundland.   Unlike us, he was going on the cheap, camping every night, sometimes sleeping in the weeds,  and expected to be biking for weeks.   He said he was responsible for no one, he only had to text his daughter every few days to show he was still alive.

Quebec has lots of locally owned hamburger and ice cream joints they call a Casse-Croute.    Note that we were not the only bicyclists eating lunch there.

I saw his poster about the upcoming Chicken Festival while eating hamburgers at the casse-croute.   There are indeed parallels with rural America, even if people here do not speak English.   Demolition Derby!   Escape Games!   La Grande Debauche Gala de Lutte NSPW!  (professional wrestling!).   Polker Tournament!   Musical Gala!  Smoke Show!  Rooster lunch!   Flea Market!  Derby de la Releve! (I think another kind of car crash thing). 

 

We spent the night in a motel out by the highway next to the town of La Pocatiere.  Dinner was at the adjacent restaurant Mikes.  Mikes is a regional chain based in Montreal.   Breakfast was at the Tim Hortons next door.   Tim Hortons (“Always Fresh”) is named after a hockey player and is like the Dunkin Donuts of Canada.

 

 

Quiz question:  why do both Mikes and Tim Hortons not have an apostrophe after their name?

Answer:  BECAUSE IT IS ILLEGAL.   Public signs in Quebec must be in French, and French does not have an apostrophe.   According to Wikipedia, McDonald’s gets away with it because they are, well, McDonald’s.

Quebec has a well funded government office that English speakers derisively refer to as the “language police.”   This office goes over things like restaurant menus.   Restaurants in Quebec cannot use the word pasta, because that is Italian, not French.  Seriously.

This underscores the stress of trying to preserve French language culture in a democracy without being draconian.   Before the language laws were passed in the 1970’s French speakers felt like a persecuted majority, surrounded not only by the English speaking hordes in Ontario and the U.S.A., but bossed by an English speaking elite in Quebec.   Now, big cities like Montreal and to a degree, Quebec City, both look multicultural and multiracial and are populated with immigrants from French speaking places like Haiti, Algeria, Morocco, Cameroon, and Vietnam.   The rest of Quebec, not so much.   Outside of Quebec City and Montreal over eight days I saw a total of about four people of color or Asian.  I also saw over a hundred real estate signs and I started keeping tabs.   Only ONCE was did the selling agent have a last name (“Baker”) that was not obviously French.   Using real estate agents as a non-scientific sample, the overwhelming majority of people in rural Quebec have French language surnames.

I applaud les Quebecois for preserving their language.    But this does underscore how difficult it becomes, with often the devil in the details.

Most people in rural Quebec seem to be from Quebec.   In eight days in Quebec north of Montreal, with the hundreds and hundreds of cars that passed me on the bicycle I saw less than ten cars with license plates from other parts of Canada like Ontario or New Brunswick.   I saw a total of two cars with USA plates.  Two.

Leaving La Pocatiere we continued cycling northwest along the St. Lawrence River.   La Route Verte directed us through towns, along the highway, and along parallel bike paths., some of them paved, some of them fine gravel.    We got an early start.

 

 

 

By early afternoon we had completed 80% of the mileage for the day and we felt comfortable stopping at this microbrewery.   It sat by itself on a lightly travelled highway.   On this sunny Friday at 2:30 PM it was packed with people.   We sat indoors at the bar but the locals seemed to enjoy sitting in the sun.

Since I am from North Carolina and our state government practically shut down on this issue, I bring up public toilets in Quebec.   They seem much more forward thinking of this subject than in the USA.    Almost all public toilets in restaurants and gas stations were marked as being for both sexes.  Many places (like this brewery) had a shared sink with stalls open to all, a setup I have hardly even seen in the USA.

 

Back on the bicycles we cycled up to Riviere du Loup (population 24,000) which along with the upcoming Rimouski is one of the two larger towns in this area.   Both are college towns.  The Riviere du Loup downtown sits up on a bluff above the river.

We had no idea why these streets were blocked off.  It turned out it was for go-kart racing.  They were loud.

From the Hotels Dot Com website we had found the lowest cost accommodations on this trip; US$ 32.00 per night including tax for a university dorm room right across from the go-kart track.  Thankfully, the racing noise stopped by 6:00 PM.   Caveat: there was no air conditioning and the shared bathroom was down the hall, just like in college.  Unlike my actual college only a few rooms were occupied and the hallway was clean and quiet.  I guess it is summer break.

 

We had to bicycle uphill to get there but downtown Riviere du Loup on a summer Friday night was hopping.  They had a heavy metal band performing on the street downtown during the dinner hour, cover songs in English and a few originals in French.   We walked around before the music started.

 

 

 

 

We ate outside at a restaurant called L’innocent.   It was a few blocks up the hill from the heavy metal action; we could hear the music while eating but the sound was not overwhelming.   We also people watched.

 

The next morning we got breakfast at Cafe Van Houte which I later learned is a Montreal coffee chain.  There are a couple key differences from Starbucks.  These differences were true at every other coffee place we visited in Quebec, both chain stores and locally owned.   The croissants were absolutely fresh and delicious and were served on actual china plates with real silverware.

 

 

We bicycled out of town.

 

 

A few miles outside of Riviere du Loup we met a guy on the highway who on Instagram goes by the name Unicycle_Dave.    He lives in Toronto and had started unicycling 2000 miles west in British Columbia.  His custom made unicycle has a 36 inch wheel and a two speed gearbox.   It is a fixie, he cannot coast, he has to always keep pedaling.  He had been on the road 49 days and wants to go all the way across Canada to St. Johns, Newfoundland.   He regular job is in video production and despite the fact that he had little room to carry anything, he had all sorts of complicated photography equipment, including a video drone, which he said he used occasionally.   He wants to make a documentary movie about his journey.   With his I-phone Lyman filmed me riding with him down a hill, as well as a still shot of the two of us.

 

photo by Lyman Labry

 

 

 

We continued to bicycle along the riverside.    The St. Lawrence was now so wide that you couldn’t see the other side, it was like the ocean.

 

 

We had decided to spend the night in the small town of Trois Pistoles, halfway between Riviere du Loup and Rimouski.    Being on the waterfront it is very much a vacation town.

 

 

The next day would be our final day of cycling.   We were headed to Rimouski where we had a reservation for an Enterprise rent-a-car to drive back to Montreal.

These forty something miles were the wildest of our trip, the flatness of a flood plain on the south bank of the St. Lawrence evolved into rocky outcroppings reminiscent of pictures I have seen of places like Nova Scotia.

 

 

 

About ten miles of the ride is through Parc National du Bic.   We had smooth high pressure bicycle tires not well suited for off-road.   These gravel trails were not as challenging as we feared, the riding was actually quite nice.

 

 

At a mini-mart we ran into Graham Rush, a retired Canadian foreign service office living in Kingston, Ontario.    He was on a month-long solo bicycle ride, camping most of the time.   He has toured by bicycle all over the world.

 

Rimouski (population 48,000) is a surprisingly large almost sophisticated feeling place with  a waterfront bicycle path.

We dodged the rain just in time to haven a late lunch at this crepe restaurant where we had to wait for a table on this Sunday afternoon.

That evening we walked around downtown Rimouski where some kind of summer festival was going on.

I heard what I thought was live music, it turned out only to be a guy singing through a karaoke machine.    Still, the crowd all knew the chorus.    I have been playing and singing City of New Orleans on the guitar for forty years; obviously someone turned this around into a new song (in French!)

(click on any letter above)

The next morning at 7:00 AM I bicycled by myself through Rimouski to Enterprise Car Rental in the suburbs, right next to the Walmart.   Even in Canada the Walmart is safe harbor.   Just like in the USA people know that Walmart does not mind you parking there.   There were about forty camping vehicles that had stayed overnight in the Walmart lot.

We had four hundred miles and a six hour drive just to get to the New York State / Canada border!   I easily got the car and drove back to the hotel to pick up Lyman and his bicycle.

 

The weather was nice and Amtrak fares are low and refundable, so I took the opportunity to go down to Florida once more.   Tootie drove me and the folding bicycle to the Cary NC Amtrak station.

It was FOOD that seemed to be the center of all the major experiences on this trip.    Tootie and I rarely eat in restaurants when we are at home in Chapel Hill.   Even though we are surrounded by good places to eat the food just seems better if we cook it ourselves.  But I really like to eat out when I go on the road.   It started with dinner at the bar of Crosstown Pub, across the street from the Cary Amtrak station.   Rare tuna with quinoa and roasted vegetables is a pleasant surprise for bar food.

Coming in from the north the train was an hour and a half late, so I had to sit around the station until almost eleven at night.   I slept uncomfortably on the train. (the only savior: a full size pillow bought for $ 5.88 from Walmart; you can throw it away after the trip!) The next morning I got off the train at about 11:00 AM at the north Orlando suburb of Winter Park.

I put the bicycle together at the cutesy Winter Park station, new, built to look old.

 

My general plan was to bicycle in three days to my friend Bob’s house in Tampa, then tour Tampa and St. Pete for one day before catching the late afternoon Amtrak train home on the fourth day from Tampa.

Older parts of Orlando are actually quite attractive.  I got lunch at BurgerFi; hamburger and broccoli were good.  I read my Kindle.

 

Winter Park is northeast of downtown Orlando.  I pretty much skipped downtown Orlando and looped around the city, going through miles of African-American and Hispanic neighborhoods, often unpleasantly biking on the sidewalk next to a major road.    Eventually I was able to pick up West Orange Trail, an excellent bike path that extends twenty-two miles through this part of Orlando and its suburbs.  Sometimes the trail follows regular highways.

 

Other times it meanders off on its own.

Several hours after leaving Winter Park the trail ran through the town of Winter GARDEN.   I drank a latte at this local coffee house downtown.   The people seemed almost too well dressed, friendly, and polite.   I wish I knew what these people had in common.

 

I had booked an Airbnb in the town of Clermont, a little over thirty miles from my origin.   Clermont is an older town on a bluff overlooking a lake.

Seventy-five dollars plus fees for a room in someone’s house is a questionable deal, but the deal is better when the owner is out of town and gives you a code to get in.  I had the place to myself.   He must be a pilot; everything on the walls and the furniture is about airplanes.

 

I get the feeling the Clermont area is populated with a mix of locals, visitors, and retirees from somewhere else.   The downtown is off the main highway and struggling to keep relevant.   Walking downtown to dinner that night,  this shop was offering what it called Art.

 

Dinner was at the 801 City Grille, one of two restaurants in the downtown.

Eggplant Parmesan is troubling and frustrating to me because it was so good here in Clermont.    When I prepare it at home I am meticulous because that is what I read the Sicilians or Campanians would have been.    I only cook it July – November when I can get both local eggplants and local tomatoes.   I almost always use local mozzarella from Chapel Hill Creamery.    I dredge the eggplant slices in local eggs and with breadcrumbs I made from Weaver Street Market bread, and then fry the slices in extra virgin olive oil, before assembling the casserole and baking it.   Yes, it is delicious.  It is also a pain in the ass.  It takes hours to prepare and makes a huge mess in the kitchen of our Greenbridge condo.

But in Clermont at the 801 Grille the dish arrived at the bar about six minutes after I ordered it.   It was fearfully delicious.    I know how these restaurants produce this.  They have a pot of tomato sauce already on the stove.    They take two factory pre-breaded frozen hockey pucks of eggplant and throw them in the deep fat fryer.   After cooking about two minutes they cover the plate with cooked pasta, then the fried eggplant slices, then cheese, then tomato sauce, then more cheese.  Lots of tomato sauce.   Plated and ready to go.

Eggplant itself does not have much taste.  The dish is really about the quality of the tomato sauce and its interaction with the cheese and the breading.   The 801 Grille was firing on all cylinders this night.  I could not get enough of it.

Of course the bartender was helpful.

 

There were only a few other people in the restaurant.  They all seemed old, like me, but maybe more conservative.

 

 

Meanwhile, the TV blared Golf Channel with some older man patronizingly showing a younger blond woman how to swing a golf club.

I walked back in the dark to “my” house.

Biking out the next morning,  south of the older town of Clermont newer subdivisions continue to spread across the landscape, surrounding the lakes.   It seems the end of the line for the Orlando diaspora.   This subdivision, I think, is the one where my late friend Steve Johnson bought a house but then needed to sell it even though it had plunged in value following the 2008 recession.

 

The subdivisions pretty much stopped after this and for a long morning I rode through what seemed wilderness.  The second half was on the excellent Van Fleet Trail, paved and straight as an arrow.

 

Near the agricultural town of Polk City this Buick sat rusting along the trail.

By about one-thirty it was hot, the sun was bright and I had ridden a long way.   I was on the outskirts of the city of Lakeland and getting telephone calls about work.   On a dreadful and busy two lane road passing through junkyards I ducked into a dusty parking lot to take a phone call, hiding in the shade of a big truck.   The place looked exactly EXACTLY like the junkyard where John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson disposed of a dead body in Pulp Fiction.

 

In this depressing working class side of Lakeland I ducked into BubbaQue’s, lodged in a strip mall next to a gun store.   They wear their political opinions here openly, posting this next to the takeout menu.

 

All over the country in barbecue places, especially at lunch during the week, most of the patrons seem to be men.

 

Lunch was delicious, the $5.00 special; “small” pork sandwich with two sides, slaw and baked beans.

I will commit heresy and compare Florida barbecue to that of North Carolina.  North Carolina barbecue is so famous that even people in Virginia hold it as their standard.  I also had barbecue the next day at Johnson Barbecue in Plant City, Florida.     Just like at BubbaQue’s, Johnson Barbecue (since 1954!) had lots of choices.   North Carolina barbecue is great but I think it is stuck in its excellence. There are a couple places near my home that are branching out,  but most places in North Carolina would consider it heresy to focus on anything other than chopped pork with vinegar sauce.   Even the side dishes culturally are frozen in stone.   At Johnson Barbecue in Plant City even with its old-school blue collar atmosphere it seemed more inventive.   I got a beef brisket sandwich with pickles and slaw.

The crowd eating at Johnson Barbecue was similar

But back in Lakeland after lunch I still had to get downtown.   Coming from the east the city did transform itself; it was no longer just junkyards and gun stores.   I biked up to the Terrace Hotel where I had made a reservation (thankfully) a few days in advance, since this hotel was full that night.    Built in 1924 the tallest building in Lakeland it looks out over, what else, a lake.

 

Drinks and dinner that evening were a hit and then a miss.   The Lakeland Brewing Company sits caddy-corner across the lake from the hotel.   As the sun set over the lake, I talked to some of the other patrons in a fetching atmosphere.  The beer was delicious.   There were free pretzels.

 

The food menu at the brewery was pretty limited so I made the huge mistake of walking downtown for a proper restaurant.   There were only a few places to choose from.  The most popular place was so crowded that it seemed hopeless even to wait for a seat at the bar.   I went across the street to Posto 9, billed as a “Brazilian Gastropub.”   Being very tired and hungry I made a bad tactical decision.   At thirty-two dollars plus a twelve dollar glass of wine (not including tax and tip); it may have been both the worst, and the most expensive entree I have ever eaten;  a dried out piece of fish with some slop and some supposedly crisp potato chips.

 

I obviously was still hungry but certainly I was not going to spend any more money at that place.   I went back to the hotel room and made in-room decaf coffee accompanied by the items on hand in the front bag of my bicycle;  a Powerbar and the best deal of the night, a fifty-nine cent bag of peanuts.

 

The next morning on the way out of town I biked over to Florida Southern College, famous for collection of buildings designed by Frank Lloyd Wright and built in the 1940’s – 50’s.

 

 

The older parts of Lakeland are attractive.

It was about thirty-five miles to Helen & Bob’s house in Tampa.    I stopped for lunch at the aforementioned Johnson Barbecue in Plant City.      After slogging through miles of poor neighborhoods in east Tampa, I rode through older neighborhoods of Tampa, many being renovated.

 

Bob and Helen live in a nice house in a similar neighborhood that is within a long walk to downtown Tampa.

Bob treated me to the best meal of this trip.  In his car he drove both of us across the I-275 bridge to St. Petersburg.   In a dingy neighborhood near a freeway overpass was Eco-Village,  a large lot planted as an urban garden.   Bob knew several of the organizers.   This evening was Eco-Village’s first attempt at a field-to-fork dinner under the stars, combined with a tour of the garden.  This was a very impressive urban garden.   The level of agricultural expertise blew me away;  to grow so much in such a small space, using all-organic methods.  They essentially had to make their own soil, since in St. Petersburg the base is almost all sand.

The dinner was delicious and convivial.  I met all sorts of interesting people.

We drove back to his house in Tampa that evening.  I got up very early the next day.  Bob made delicious coffee and I left their house and biked off towards the causeway that crosses Tampa Bay to Clearwater and St. Petersburg.

Before arriving at the causeway I passed through a few areas of Tampa that seemed almost New Orleanesque.

The ten mile long Courtney Campbell Causeway in itself is one of the best bike rides in Florida.  There is a full-width separate lane for pedestrians and bicycles all the way across.

 

Being America, on arrival in Clearwater on the other side of the bay, this beautiful bike path dumps the bicyclist onto a busy high-speed six lane highway.    I sought refuge at a Starbucks.    Sitting outside for a good forty-five minutes, for the entire time I watched a multigenerational group speaking Italian stand in the parking lot.   They seemed relaxed.  They must have appropriated Italian coffee shop etiquette.

I biked through miles of suburban neighborhoods in Clearwater.

I will admit I am a sucker for 1940-50’s trailers; I have never been anywhere like Florida that seems to convert them so much to permanent housing.

I crossed over another bridge to the barrier island, hitting the gulf beach at the community of Belleair Shore.   For seventeen miles from there to St. Pete Beach I biked along the  gulf highway passing by motels, condominiums, and bars.   I wanted to take pictures but very little was memorable.  The best I can say is that there were many small motels that looked both prosperous, old school,  and family run.

After some fish tacos in St. Pete Beach, I turned inland for the ten miles to downtown St. Petersburg.  The last portion into downtown St. Petersburg was on the bike path Pinellas Trail.

Some older parts of St. Petersburg, like Tampa,  would qualify (by my rules!) as being a  quite nice place.     I had ridden over fifty miles that day; I rested with a latte on the sidewalk on Central Avenue North.   The street might be trying a tad too hard to be hip.

I ordered up an Uber to take me and the bicycle back across the bay to the Tampa Amtrak station.   I passed through parts of St. Petersburg I wished that I had seen by bicycle.   The train, scheduled for 5:30 PM was late, of course.