Time to catch up. I’m a little behind so if you are waiting for the story of Mont Ventoux, please bear with me as I first update you on cycling day 32.
Even before I retreated to my tent at the end of cycling day 31, the campsite in Gréoux-les-Bains was being subjected to intermittent flashes a light that promised to deliver at some point. It wasn’t until 3am however that the storm really started and when it did, it did so in style with cracks of thunder and lightening to rival even the most hammed-up horror movie followed by torrential rainfall. When, I assumed that it was. I stayed in my tent praying that the gales of wind wouldn’t carry me away, Dorothy style. Only one thing could be heard over the thuds of rain drops on the tent and that was the over-excitement of many of the other campers. Upon waking and crawling out of the tent to a grey and dim morning, I saw nothing remotely on the scale of mass-destruction that the frenzied activity of some of the people who did get up at 3am would warrant.
I packed up most of my affairs while still sitting in the tent (a rather efficient way of doing things as you can’t really put an item to one side; you have to make a decision to do something with it) so when I emerged it was with just four panniers ready to be loaded onto the bike. The only thing that remained to be done was packing the tent itself and I gave up any pretence of drying the thing out. It just got rolled up soaking wet. I would deal with the drying out later.
My route had been a little up in the air until I looked closely at the map in Manosque where I munched my way through a croissant and a pain au chocolate (and then another croissant and another pain au chocolate from another boulangerie as the first two were so delicious). I had arranged to meet my French contact Nicolas, partner of the teacher I had stayed with earlier in the year in Caen on a school exchange visit in the town of Sault some 25km from the place where they were on a camping holiday with their two children and, very conveniently for me, just a few kilometres from the base of Mont Ventoux. The map suggested a route that took in two pit stops between Manosque and Sault at Forqualquier and then at Banon. Once again, my Michelin map didn’t supply sufficient detail to say with any certainly whether the route would be up, down, in, out or indeed shake it all about. Only periodic altitudes gave some indication as to whether I would be ascending or descending over a distance of ten or twenty kilometres. Manosque to Forqualquier was a pleasantly flat surprise and I couldn’t help but thank the quarrying company that seemed to be in the process of removing an entire mountain from my path. What was left of the rock edifice was neatly terraced, pyramid style, where successive slabs of stone had been prised away from the hill. Thank-you boys. Keep going Nd in another 300,000 years you may make cycling through the whole of Provence akin to a cycle through The Netherlands.
I took lunch in Forqualquier. A beautiful square surrounded by cafés on two sides and a church on a third provided a relaxing midday backdrop to sitting down a sipping a cold drink. More quarries were to be found just on the other side of Faorqualquier giving the slight impression of being in a Disneyland a pretty villages with occasional glimpses of the backlot that helped build the places.
There was a climb to Banon but nothing to distract from the beautiful Provençal countryside. It was now a much more gentle landscape than I had experienced between Nice and Castellane or along the Verdon gorge. Rolling green hills carpeted in sunflower seeds or, as I edged further west lavender fields where, if I stopped for a moment the buzz of the bees even edged out even the ever-present Mediterranean sound of the cicadas. I paused at Banon as both I and my mobile phone we desperate for energy although the flies in the café that I chose made me wonder how desperate I was for the filling up That my iPhone was receiving. My own filling up came from the boulangerie where I couldn’t resist the temptation of a ‘brownie’ (how do you pronounce that in French without sounding as though you are taking the piss?) and a fruit-filled almond cake.
I contacted Nicolas to say that I would be in Sault at some point between 5 & 5:3O and set off through the lavender fields, pausing far too often to take a picture that was even more beautiful that the previous one. And then I saw it for the first time. Poking above the fields like a bald over-bearing neighbour wearing a silly pointed hat sticking his head over the garden fence; Mont Ventoux & my destination for the following morning.
I found Nicolas sunbathing in the main square in Sault and we shared a drink before heading off along the road to the campsite in a village called Villes-sur-Auzon. Had I not met Nicolas, I would have headed along the main road – the D1 – from Sault. How glad I am that he was there to guide me on a short climb and then a long descent through an almost deserted valley called the Gorges de la Nesque. Never heard of it? Me neither and how glad I am that most of the tourist population of Provence had not heard to it either. A stunning valley, not quite as deep as that of the Verdon but just as jaw-droppingly stunning. A fabulous end to another fabulous day of cycling across southern France. Long may it continue.