France en vélo 2013

Finally I find myself putting fingers to keyboard about our cycle trip with fellow WMC / Geriatrix Cycling Club members, Jean Cookson and Pam Rumball.  It is interesting that fly-fishers and marathoners should show interest whilst from the Geriatrix, not a peep; C’est peut-être déjà vu for them!

A wee story to start.  I first met Jean and her husband Frank at Wellington Marathon Clinic over 30 years ago. Older WMC members will have fond memories of Jean’s husband Frank. He was the nicest guy you could ever meet, always a kind word, encouragement to those in need etc.etc. but years ago when Jean said she wanted to go home to the UK Frank dug his heels in, so reluctantly she went alone… Frank arranged to kayak down the Wiohine Gorge with me the following Saturday but never made it.  By Wednesday he had booked his fare and was off to the UK.

Once he had broken NZ’s shackles he & Jean embarked on what seemed to me endless overseas bicycle adventures.  They came back with great stories of their rides from Dubrovnik to Manchester, along the Pilgrim’s way to Santiago de Compostella, Italy, France, Sweden, France, Bali, Germany, UK, France, Holland, Tasmania, Belgium, Ireland, & France.

After Frank passed on Jean went to ground for a year or two then she continued her trips, including France, Land’s End to John o’ Groats and back to France again and again.  Now she was off for a second trip with her friend Pam so I asked, “please, can I come too?”

Because Jean had told Pam I can be a bit of a whinger, their agreement to include me was perhaps begrudging; a charity for which I will always be grateful. Not that I whinge all that much; only when it is raining, the terrain is uphill, it is too cold, I have nowhere to sleep, I want a rest, it is too hot or something is causing me either mild discomfort or irritation. The rest of the time I hardly ever whinge unless I am hungry or the food is not to my liking.

So, to start with some basic information;

Emirates flights:
Wg-Ak to Melbourne, Dubai to Nice >57 long hours.
The return the same except from Lyon to Dubai. Another >50 hour trip
Bike + 1pannier about 24kg; Emirates has a 30kg weight allowance. The heavy pannier is taken as a cabin bag.
Cost of internal transportation; an “E” for effort.Travelled by bicycle, the only cost a single puncture repair patch.
Distance 1,600 kilometres (give or take)

Accommodation:
2 star hotels; clean; quiet and mostly good.
Chambre d’Hôtes; a bedroom with ensuite in peoples’ private homes.
Gêtes d’etape; dinner b&b with ensuite, again in peoples’ private homes.
Hostels / back-packers, uniformly well managed, cheap and clean.

Costs:
Typically bed with petit déjeuner 25.00€,
With  repas du soir perhaps another 15-20.00€.
Hostels under 17.00€ including breakfast.
Plat du jour in a standard restaurant 12-15.00€ or pizza heaps less.

Daily expenses:
Breakfast mainly supplied, otherwise what we could buy in the a market; maybe 3.00€.
Lunch: baguette, with a selection of tomatoes, cheese (to die for), saucisse, sardines and tomatoes; all up, 3.00€ max each. Forget the women, forget the wine, forget the song; pour moi la France is all about le fromage!

Budget max.  50.00€ a day; including entry costs to things like le Palais des Papes, Forte Saint André & La Chartreuse du Val de Bénédiction at Avignon, tous les trois pour 8.70€; about the same as a adult entry to Wellington Zoo! Trams, buses, & metro; cheap as a baguette – 1.50€; a really really really good cru cheese 4€.

So how does one “briefly” describe a trip of almost 7 weeks that took us from Nice and Monte Carlo, into the Alps, Luberon, Vaucluse  the Camargue across to the mid Pyrenees, the Ardeche and on to Lyon? Impossible, so I will write about just 3 of the places we visited:

..1..

After what seemed an endless climb up the Gorges du Verdon we arrived at La Palad sur Verdon, and, deserving a ‘rest’, the next day rode the Chemin de Cretes. Lots of belvédères with views into the deepest canyon in Europe, the habitat of eagles and vultures that circled endlessly on the updrafts above us, and gave us a view over the mountains and valleys we had cycled.

By chance we had lunch with a group of young French Canadians complete with dread locks, tats, ring-enlarged ears & smoking dubious substances. They treated us to a display of slack wire walking over a deep ravine; our own personal circus act. On another wire they had a bungee which left them dangling at the end of a rope, a tiny dot almost invisible it was so deep in the gorge.

From the bottom of the plunge it was an arduous hour plus, metre by metre, rope climb back to their starting point.  The next day the down-hill ride seemed endless.  From memory I think it was over 17 kilometres.  I thought the tyres on my bike would tear themselves from the rims.  NZ’s mountains are equally spectacular but in France they are much higher & they build roads where we have tracks fit only for experienced trampers.

Gorges du Verdon

..2..

Mayday was a rest day.  We were in the Carmargue at Arles staying at the YHA hostel.  It was warm and we walked the short distance to town just in time to join the crowd to watch the parade of the Guardians of the Camargue, complete with their families and Camargue bands where minstrels played a flute with one hand & beating a drum with the other.

Carmargue family at Arles.

On to the Church of Sant Jorge for the blessing of the Guardians, and then on to the Féte de Guardians held in the 1st Century BC Arenes d’Arles Amphitheatre.  For 10.00€ we watched bull fights; the bulls in less danger than the young men that tried to place tags on their horns; brilliant rodeo horsemanship on their white horses and finally the crowning of the Queen de la Féte.  The Romans built their stadium to last.  The equivalent would be if Westpac still stands in the year 4226!  We did not plan this, we just happened to be there on the day.

Mayday, Roman Arena @ Arles

..3..

The Cirque de Navacelles. A “cirque” is best described as Jean described it to me; a hole in the ground, shaped like the mould of an inverted mountain.  Arriving at the top the day before, and passing numerous signs warning of the hazard of the ride ahead, we plunged down and in a breath-taking 20 minutes we arrived in the most gorgeous village imaginable, complete with a Roman bridge, the most curious church with a bell that rang 13 o’clock, “pour une raison inconnue,“ and shops that were actually open.

Cirque de Navacelles.

In the villages of France this is a rare occurrence as lifestyle considerations seem to override the need to generate income. Shops open at irregular times and often are closed all day.  Monday morning? Nah!  Wednesday? Nah! Sunday? Vous plaisantez!

Pont-d’Arc Ardesch

Next morning the day started with another sharp descent & then the climb began.  Somebody in a car called, “Courage! Courage!” which daunted me further but like a marathoner, step by step, one pedal at a time & 7 kilometres later we arrived at the top where an old man cheered, Bravo! Bravo!”  I felt 10 feet tall & treated myself to an extra suck from my water bottle while I we chatted. He said he was too old to cycle; he was 65, 13 years younger than Jean.  Over the crest we looked for the road down, but all we saw another hill!

The rest of the morning was taken up with two mountain passes, not particularly strenuous but they had a cumulative effect on tired legs. Between the two passes, & completely unexpected was a prehistoric stone circle, about 70 meters in diameter with stone sentinels of varying heights but averaging about a metre above ground.

Using Stonehenge as a yardstick they had stood for probably 5,000 years & were buried as deep as they were tall.  I resisted the temptation to souvenir one!  A gentle 5k down-hill ride took us to Alzon, a town where we were greeted by a sign with a NZ flag proclaiming the town as the antipodes of the Chatham Islands!  Another 5k’s uphill bought us to a nondescript town with a forgettable name.

It was now 1pm so it was time for lunch.  Typical of the (expletive deleted) French the boulangerie was closed and neither the Casino (dairy) or the Tabac (cross between a tobacconist, a bar and a café) were open either, so we sat in the sun by a broken fountain and shared a pique-nique of baguette, 3 sardines, a single tomato and a very small cheese; the worst but the cheapest meal of the whole trip. (The cheese as usual was fantastique!)

The day was beautiful as we stopped by a lake at St.Jean de Bruel for a coffee.  By now we had travelled 36k’s for the day, exactly half way to our destination.  The rest of the afternoon was a gentle down-hill through France’s beautiful “Canyon Vert” and we arrived in Millau, still in the sun, seeing the famous Millau Viaduct on the far horizon.  A wonderful day; the magic of the Cirque; a challenge overcome, the surprise of the stones, lunchtime laughter, the “green canyon”, and finally that amazing bridge bathed in the evening sun; memories to cherish forever.

Jean, Pam & me @ the Millau Viaduct

….

There were so many unexpected surprises wherever we went.

The opulence of Monaco; Vers Gourdon with its views back to the Côte d’Azur; d’Aigues-Morte where the Crusades left for the Holy Land; the tiny church with an inspirational atmosphere, le Chapelle Notre Dame de Beauvoir at Moustiers;

le Chapelle Notre de Beauvoir.

the gargoyles on the Cathedral at Rodez, at the medieval Estaing frightening the Pilgrims following in the footsteps of St. James by riding quietly up behind them as they strode out holding their staves & with cockle shells dangling from their necks, and shouting, “God be with you!” in the stillness of early morning. As they picked themselves up off the road, I was pedalling away with a parting shout of, “Ozzi Ozzi Ozzi, oi oi oi!”

I suspect Pam did not approve but I cannot resist any opportunity to enhancing our neighbours reputation;

the festival of the Olives at St.Cezaire sur Siagne; Oppède le Vieux a picture book village where I bought 3 beautifully sculptured owls; the Roman engineering of le Pont du Gard; the home of the Marquis d’Sade at Chateau de LaCoste with its terrifying but eloquent bronzes; le Pont du Avignon, the waterwheels of L’Isle sur la Sorgue; the mighty Pont-d’Arc over the quiet flowing Ardeche and on and on; on, and on.

Bronze sculpture at Chateau de la Coste.

Water wheels of l’Isle sur la Sorgue.

Would I go again should the opportunity arise?

In a heartbeat!

La vie est belle!


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