Today was, at times, at many times, a frustrating day. The wind, the roads, the signage, the route, the tourist destinations. They all conspired together. Perhaps they wanted to show me another side to Provence before I departed for the (mainly) flatlands of Langudoc-Rousillon, a meaner, grittier, kick sand in your eyes side to what has otherwise been the most pleasant few days of cycling since I departed Sounio on the 1st July.
I had packed up and was almost ready to go even before Christel & Nicolas had emerged from their caravan next to the tent. I felt a little guilty that they had to get up a little earlier than I’m sure they would normally have done on a Saturday morning so I make a public apology to you. You we both great hosts and it was nice to see the whole family again in warmer conditions to those we experienced back in northern France in March. I look forward to another visit to Caen in 2014… We ate breakfast together and then I was off, initially to Carpentras and then Avignon, the Pont du Gard with my final destination planned as Nîmes.
Carpentras wasn’t far – perhaps 15km – and the journey was downhill all the way. It was windy but at that point it seemed to be assisting me rather than hindering me. The town itself was a little bit of a disappointment. My Rough Guide had bigged it up as a place of great beauty but unfortunately, compared to the other places that I had seen in the previous few days it felt bland and very ordinary. I did however spend a good hour or so sitting in a café opposite the cathedral writing up about the climb to the summit of Mont Ventoux (see previous post) & various other administrative tasks. Next stop was Avignon, a town I had previously visited on a camping trip around France during the ‘canicule’ (heat wave) year of 2006 (or was it 2004?). It wasn’t the temperature I needed to worry about today however; it was the wind for it had now cranked itself up several notches of the Beaufort scale since leaving the campsite back in Villes-sur-Auzon and was from the north. And this wasn’t any old wind, this was the Mistral that blows from the north along the Rhone Valley and straight into the panniers of my bike which was heading in a predominantly westerly direction. Not a great combination. It was, at times, terrifying, especially along the busy dual carriageway between Carpentras and Avignon that I was desperate to avoid but back to which I was continually directed by the signs in small towns and villages that I cycled through in a effort to keep out of harm’s way. The gusts of wind came close to knocking both Reggie and me to the ground and if that happened to be just before the passage of a large truck you can imagine what the consequences would have been. Eventually I took matters into my own hands and cycled down the quietest road I could find , in a southerly direction in the hope that the next road that I would meet heading west and into the centre of Avignon would at least be a little quieter. It worked and after a few kilometres of cycling through quiet lanes I met the D28 and followed signs for Avignon. The wind was still fierce but now at least if I did get blown off the bike my chances of being squashed under the wheels of a bus were somewhat diminished. I would just have the scars and bruises from hitting the roads. At which point a special mention for the roads of the Vaucluse department must appear. Were they built by the Albanians? They cannot have been built by the otherwise excellent French road builders. Even the British do a better job with their roads than the authorities of the Vaucluse.
I did make it as far as Avignon in one piece and bounced up and down along the suburban roads into the city centre where, for the first time in six weeks I had a beer at lunchtime such was the level of my frustration with the wind and the roads. Even the delight of bumping into a former student – Ellie Meyer – didn’t lift my spirits significantly as I knew that probably the wind and roads post-Avignon would be no different than those pre-Avignon. And they weren’t. In fact, as I turned to head in a north-westerly direction towards the Pont du Gard the wind was now not only trying to knock me off my bike but also stop me in my tracks. I had now also started following the route as prescribed in my ‘La Route du Sud à Vélo’ book. The cycle path starts in Menton and continues all the way to Béziers but due to my northern deviation along the Gorge du Verdon and then towards the Mont Ventoux, today was the first time that could make any use of it. I wish I hadn’t. Don’t get me wrong, the guide is well-researched and well-written but I’m used to working things out by myself rather than being told what to do so I did find it frustrating being directed towards every interesting nook or cranny along the way Nîmes.
The first nook (or was it a cranny?) was the Pont du Gard. Again, a place I have previously visited but too good an attraction not to miss if you happen to be cycling through the area. It used to be a case of turning up and having a wander around. Now they have slapped a 10€ charge on anyone simply wanting to pass over the bridge. I was waved down my one of the guides as I approached the barriers for the car park. No provision appeared to have been made for people turning up on one of those strange things called ‘bicycles’. I couldn’t go through the attire as I didn’t have a car ticket. Instead I had to haul Reggie up a verge towards the path that the now carless visitors were taking to reach the bridge. I was hoping to be told off for riding my bike as I was up for an argument. The attendants stayed clear. My 10€ bought me an expensive a passage over the bridge. I didn’t want to visit the museum or the multimedia exhibition so why did I have to help finance it? I would have been happy paying a nominal toll for the bridge but let’s face it that was never going to bean option…
Continuing to follow the guide book I left the Pont du Gard and headed across country (which included a large military zone that warned me that should I step foot in the area on either side of the road there was a ‘danger de mort’. Would it be any more dangerous than the wind and the condition of the roads I wondered? And then, finally, Nîmes came into view. A quick search for the municipal campsite told me that it was out of town to the south. I fancied a nose around the place so I didn’t need too much persuading to consult Booking.com again and I booked myself in at the 4* Impérator Hotel for what appeared to be a 3* price… After the wind & the roads, I need it.