If you listened to Episode 015 of The Cycling Europe Podcast you will remember that Paul didn’t make it quite as far as Nordkapp, for fairly obvious reasons. But he did make it as far as Nice in France and will hopefully one day soon return to complete the journey. But here in the written world of these CyclingEurope.org posts (as opposed to the spoken world of podcasts), Paul has just arrived in France and is heading in the direction of Nice…
- To catch up on the story so far, take a few moments to read his previous three reports from the cycling front line:
…and here’s France, part 1. Over to you Paul.
I’d given myself the Sunday off of cycling to spend a bit of time exploring Montpellier, and to generally recharge my batteries and wash all my clothes while I had the rare luxury of a flat with a washing machine. I was particularly grateful for this day off, after the combination of discovering a few microbreweries Saturday night, and it raining all of Sunday morning. During the drier afternoon, I walked up to the Jardins du Peyrou, which had the Arc de Triomphe (like the Paris one, but smaller) at one end, and the Aqueduc de St-Clément at the other. The aqueduct, built in 1765 to provide the city with water, was an impressive construction involving two layers of archways – like a Roman amphitheatre that had been stretched out to run into a continuous line.
The following day I got to see an actual Roman amphitheatre when I arrived in Nîmes. It’s 2,000 year-old arena is one of the best preserved of its kind in the world. This seemed extraordinary considering it spent part of its life as a fortified castle with its archways filled in, survived a couple of sieges, and as recently as the 18th century had still sheltered an entire village – containing houses, wells and two churches. In its Roman heyday, 24,000 people could pile into the arena to see gladiators or animals having a scrap. These days, it held more contemporary entertainment in the form of gigs by global superstars such as Radiohead, Elton John, Massive Attack and, um, Shaggy.
Also housing several other Roman sites, like the Maison Carrée temple, Nîmes was a definite highlight at the end of a fairly grey and windy day of cycling. The drizzly monday morning escape from Montpellier had been fairly stress-free but not hugely exciting, although the afternoon was much nicer, mainly thanks to a great stretch of cycle path along a former train track, from Congénies to Caveirac.
I found myself on a similarly smooth and traffic-free path the next day too, which I joined at Cavaillon and followed all of the way to Tuesday’s destination town of Apt.
The same track took me out of town the following morning, usually with a river alongside me on the way, but that was the last totally flat stretch that I’d see for a while. I was in the Provence-Alpes region now, and the “Alps” part of that title soon started making its presence known, by some hillier terrain immediately in front of me, and much bigger mountains on the horizon to the north-east. The 12km climb up to Villemus on a quiet country road was tough but peaceful. The climb in darkness and on a busier road up to Saint-Julien-le-Montagnier later that day was less welcome, mainly because I hadn’t expected to be doing it that evening. I thought I was done for the day in the previous town of Vinon-sur-Verdon, but the hotel I’d booked cancelled at the last minute – so it was back on the bike!
When I awoke in Saint-Julien-le-Montagnier the next morning, I saw in the daylight that the village had a fantastic view of the countryside below, high above almost everything else for miles around, other than some distant Alps. I made an early start on cruising down the hill and back towards the flatter lands of the coast, keen to get lots of miles under my belt before the forecast rain started later that morning. The plan worked to some extent, I’d got the steepest downhill sections out of the way before the downpour began, but then had a very wet cycle through the otherwise-pleasant valley roads.
After drying off and warming up with a hearty (but not very French) Guinness and Beef stew that lunchtime, I had another former train track cycle path to take me from Salernes almost all of the way to Draguignan. This town got it’s unusual name from the legend that “pilgrims on their way to the monastery at Lerins were frequently frightened by a dragon in the misty marshes” according to informationfrance.com.
Compared to the destinations of the two previous two nights, Saint-Julien-le-Montagnier and Apt, which were utterly deserted with almost every bar and restaurant closed, Draguignan seemed to be in party mode for some reason. People were dancing on the tables and a band was playing in one bar. In another, a very drunk supporter of Marseille’s football team insisted upon buying me two bottles of beer, seemingly just because I was English, and so was his hero – Chris Waddle. I had to Google whether this was some type of national holiday in France, but it didn’t appear to be. Maybe the people of Draguignan just celebrate like this every Thursday?
It was a case of another day, another train track cycle path the following morning, as the lovely Le Vigne à Vélo de Dracénie took me out of town and past vineyards, fields and villages all of the way to Le Muy. The roads I found myself on early that afternoon weren’t exactly busy, and the Rocher de Roquebrune made for a good spot to stop for lunch. Sticking out of the ground like an iguana’s spikey head and towering over everything around it, the rock had three huge crosses on top, inspired by the legend claiming it had split into three at the exact moment that Jesus died on the cross.
The roads did get a little busier after that, but it wasn’t long before I was finished for the day and back on the coast at the cheery seaside resort of Fréjus. In complete contrast to the previous day, it was sunny and warm, without a cloud in the sky, as I sat by the beach with a lemonade and reflected upon the week.
Once again, it had felt very much like a Monday-to-Friday working week of cycling. The inland stretch through Provence, following the Sunday off in Montpellier, had felt like a distinct section of the trip. I’d just finished that chapter by returning to the Mediterranean on this Friday afternoon. Back at the seaside for the weekend!
You can also see Paul’s route via the website DataMinister.com.