Back in summer 2010 it took me 30 cycling days to get to Brindisi in the south of Italy from my home in southern England. It’s now cycling day 31 on this particular trip. I cycled 3,311km three years ago averaging 110km per day. I’m currently averaging about 108km per day and have cycled over 3,200km. In my defence (if such a defence is needed) the terrain in 2013 along the Mediterranean has been far tougher than back in 2010 so I’m pleased to be coming up with statistics that resemble those of the Eurovelo 5 route. It remains to be seen if I can indeed keep up the long distances over the next three and a half weeks of my trip. It remains to be seen of course if I can indeed get to the Cape St. Vincent in Portugal without some kind of outside intervention.
Today I didn’t make life easy for myself. I had two possible routes to choose from along the valley of the Verdon river; the shorter northern one or the longer, more spectacular but probably more undulating southern route. I chose the southern one mainly as on my map it is referred to as the ‘Corniche Sublime’. The northern route needs to employ an advertising executive to get itself such an eye-catching name. I only made the final decision about my route this morning while sipping my morning coffee in a café in the main square in Castellane. I asked the waitress which one of the routes was the better and she gave a diplomatically balanced answer (almost giving the impression that she had never travelled on either route which could have been a possibility). She told me that I could read the information contained on a panel on the other side of the square where the ‘Routes du Verdon’ start. I referred to my Rough Guide instead and it too was uncharacteristically balanced. It did however state that any cycling in the area should be reserved for the ‘preternaturally fit’. What? I looked up the word to find that it meant ‘out of or beyond the normal course of nature’. Was that me? Oh bugger! Had I once again bitten off more that I could chew?
The southern route struck me as of greater interest simply because it clung more closer to the gorge itself. It turns out that it was built for the purpose of allowing people a good look at the plunging valley by a certain A.E.A. Martel in 1905. A plaque, hidden in a high gallery informed those who cared to look (and if you happened not to be on a bicycle it’s difficult to see how you might indeed have seen it) that he was the man responsible for the route. So thank-you Monsieur Martel for such an enjoyable journey. Despite heading in the same direction as the flow of the river, the route was more up than down and my progress was impeded significantly by the frequent opportunities – both formal (viewpoints etc…) & informal (stop bike and look over precipice) – to gaze at the view down into the valley bottom. I’m no believer in God but I did question my belief in the forces of nature to carve such a stupendous path through solid rock. It’s only when you consider how our own definition of ‘a long time’ is based upon human existence rather than planetary existence that you can begin to comprehend how such a place was created. If you do believe in God then you are, of course, at liberty to believe your own crackpot theory.
The climb above the gorge reached its peak at around 1,200m at which point something strange happened. The wind started blowing very strongly. I initially thought that it was a geographical quirk of the road I was now descending upon being at the very end of the Verdon gorge but it was an increasingly uncomfortable wind to be cycling through. I slowed significantly on the bike so as to not go flying (or more a accurately dropping like a stone) off the edge of the cliff and to the valley bottom far, far below. Eventually I arrived in the village of Aiguines and the wind continued to blow just as, if not stronger than before. I leaned Reggie at an angle against some railings while I ate a sandwich for lunch but even he was blown over in a great crash of metal against pavement. I was also beginning to feel quite cold so with rain threatening to fall I put on my rain jacket for the first time since leaving southern Greece in preparation for a drenching. I sat on my bench feeling just a bit miserable that the day had suddenly tuned in the way it had.
Chocolate was the answer to my problems so I went to the small (and bare) supermarket next to where I was sitting to buy the last remaining bar of chocolate in the shop. I asked the girl if the conditions outside were quite normal. She said they weren’t. I could see my end-of-valley theory flying away in the same direction as Reggie. I descended further into the valley to the man-made lake that now plugs the flow of the water along the Verdon and the wind continued to rage. It made even cycling downhill a great physical struggle. I’m not sure to what extent drivers were aware of the difficulties I was having ensconced as they were in their wind proof boxes.
Eventually as I moved away from the end of the gorge the wind did abate and I was able to return to a normal state of cycling. The weather does, however, continue to be unsettled here in Provence and as I sit typing this at the campsite the sky periodically flashes bright white. Someone not too far away is getting very wet.
A short climb to Moustiers-Sainte-Marie or ‘one of France’s most beautiful villages’ according to the sign was next on the agenda. I ventured a little of the way into the town but I could soon see why it had never won the title of Franc’s most beautiful village. It was certainly pretty but the hoards of tourists and the concerted attempt by the town to sell them any old tat for having made the effort to come there in the first place would have certainly disqualified it from the competition if I had been in charge. And then a long descent, to Riez (great name for a town; it means ‘laugh’ in French) and then to Allemagne-en-Provence with its castle that did look a bit German. The square and roads leading off from the square had all been renamed after people who had been shot during the war for acts of resistance. Once again, something into which to dig a little deeper.
My plan was to finish my cycle in the town of Manosque but when confronted by Gréoux-les-Bains and its long list of campsites I gave up after having cycled a creditable 107km.
Tomorrow I cycle to meet my French exchange teacher and her partner and children near Mont Ventoux and then Friday, the big bare rock awaits.