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. Here is the final part of his 2020 Tarifa to Nordkapp story, interrupted by the Coronavirus in Nice, where he races against the clock to return to the UK before lockdown arrives…
- To catch up on the story so far, take a few moments to read his previous five reports from the cycling front line:
…and here’s the final instalment; France, part 2. Over to you Paul.
The downside of taking the quick and easy route back to the Mediterranean at the end of the previous week, was that I had more of the coastal route to cycle from Saint-Raphaël than if I’d taken the Eurovelo 8 further across the country towards Cannes. Cycling along the coast would usually be a very big positive, but I was wary of the type of traffic I might be sharing these particular roads with. Although I don’t like to believe the stereotypes about a place before visiting, I was basically worried that the Cote d’Azur would mainly attract a lot of very rich people, sports car drivers, yachters, celebrities, people who like to spot celebrities and small dogs with expensive haircuts. Not groups of people traditionally renowned as careful drivers with a lot of patience for cyclists. Especially a cyclist trundling along very slowly in the Mediterranean sun, as I would be doing, standing in the way of people trying to get from the city to their yacht on the coast for a weekend of swanning around on the French Riviera.
As it turned out though, the ride wasn’t too bad. There were more cyclists than cars for a start. Often small groups who looked moderately serious, out for burn on light racing bikes. Occasionally an older couple going at a more sedate pace. There were still a fair few cars around, but not the constant stream I was worried about. The drivers were generally courteous too, even occasionally giving a toot of appreciation if I pulled in to let them pass during a narrow bit.
It soon became apparent that there wasn’t much of a break in development anywhere along this part of the Côte d’Azur. One town ran into the next, with very little countryside in between. Everywhere that hadn’t been made uninhabitable by the huge red rocks of the Massif de l’Esterel, had houses built on it.
I stopped for lunch in Cannes and was glad I had made my own sandwiches when I saw the prices outside some of the restaurants that lined the seafront. In one exceptionally swish looking palace of black marble and glass, a seafood platter for two had a price-tag that was a fifth of what my bike cost. This had been a small fishing village until the British Lord Chancellor Henry Peter Brougham visited in the 1830s. Brougham was so taken by the place that he bought a plot of land here, built a chateau, and helped to fund a new port and railway. So complimentary was he about Cannes in his letters and visits back to the UK, many of his friends began to visit too. Their demand for plush hotels, extravagant restaurants and expensive shops turned the town into the one I saw today.
The French Velo Tourism website had described this part of the journey as the “red carpet stretch of the Mediterranean Cycle Route”, although I hadn’t experienced much cycle path at all until reaching Cagnes-sur-Mer, apart from the occasional small strip painted on the side of the main road, so I’m not sure what they were referring to. After Cagnes-sur-Mer we did start getting the red carpet treatment, with a spacious path for cyclists and pedestrians running along the shoreline away from the cars leading onto the Promenade des Anglais (named after those wealthy Brits who started holidaying here in the 19th century) and into Nice.
I had booked into Nice for the Saturday night, and planned to cycle across the Italian border the next day, which was only twenty miles further. Although I had been keeping tabs upon the latest situation with the coronavirus outbreak that had been developing in Italy, up until now I’d been living in the hope that I would be able to avoid it. It had been two weeks since the virus started to really spread within Italy, and twelve towns in the north had been put into quarantine – no one was allowed to leave without good reason, and all public buildings, schools, cafés, etc were shut. Since then, although numbers of new infections were increasing on a daily basis, they were generally being reported in and around those twelve northern towns. The British Foreign Office was advising against all but essential travel to the twelve quarantined towns, but didn’t offer any warning about visiting the rest of Italy. Until recent days I had been very much of the mindset that I would carry on with my plan to cycle through Italy if it was still possible to do so, and the government wasn’t advising against it. As I’d learnt more about the disease now that it was appearing more frequently within both the UK and French media, I had started to question that mindset. I now understood how it was possible to be infected with the virus for as long as two weeks before displaying any symptoms, and that there was a good chance someone could spread the virus to others during that time without even realising they were infected. Understanding this made me start to think less about whether it would be possible to cycle through Italy, and more so if it would be sensible to do so.
The more I thought about this during the Saturday evening in Nice, and spoke to people back home about it, the less I thought it would be a good idea. The decision was soon taken out of my hands anyway. At 10pm the news broke that Italy would lock-down the entire Lombardy region in it’s north tomorrow. This would make my planned route near-impossible, even if I had still wanted to.
I already had arranged to be back in Nice for the following weekend to meet my friend Joe, who was flying over from London (I was planning to cycle into Italy east of Genoa over the next four days, and then get the train back to Nice). As it would be a lot trickier to carry on cycling anywhere else other than Italy and still get back to Nice for the following weekend, and because the European-wide restrictions around the coronavirus were changing frequently now, I thought the most sensible plan would be to book myself into an apartment in Nice for the rest of the week and see how things pan out from there. I booked myself into a small flat by the harbour and although I was hugely gutted about having to stall the cycle tour, I tried to make the most of being able to experience a new city, recharge my batteries with a proper extended break, and plan for the journey ahead.
Similarly to having unhelpful preconceptions about the drivers of the Côte d’Azur that had proved to be unfounded, I also had a suspicion that Nice might be a bit too posh for my liking. Full of expensive shops and restaurants, and people that could afford visiting them. Although there were a few areas like that, this was definitely an unfair description of Nice as a whole. The Old Town was the complete opposite, for a start. I was pleased to find lots of narrow alleyways with uneven buildings towering up on either side of them, with brightly coloured shutters over the windows or hanging baskets draped from a wrought-iron balcony. The alleys were packed with interesting independent bars, bistrots and street food outlets – more like the Gothic area in Barcelona, or the Old Town of San Sebastian, full of character and dimly-lit slightly ramshackle dens that looked fun and welcoming. Next to this was the Cours Saleya market. This started out as the world’s first wholesale flower market in 1897, where growers from the surrounding hills would come down each day to display their wares. Now the sellers have branched out and also sell fruit and veg, cheeses, olives, and the like.
During my first few days in Nice, people were talking about the coronavirus, but were mainly discussing how other parts of the world were becoming affected, and their concern for friends or family elsewhere. It very much felt like the virus was something that was happening somewhere else, but not here on the French Riviera, where life was carrying on pretty much like normal. It was almost unbelievable that we were only 20 miles from a country that had now been entirely quarantined (on Monday, the whole of Italy had been put into lock down, making me thankful that I hadn’t cycled across the border the day before as I’d planned).
The reality of the situation was certainly clear when I cycled as far as the Italian border on Thursday though. I was determined to at least cycle as much of my original route as possible, so I dusted off the bike and carried on cycling the coastline, through the attractive resort towns of Villefranche-sur-Mer, Beaulieu-sur-Mer, and Possibly-A-Few-Other-sur-Mers too, then stopped in Monaco for lunch. This was my third country of the trip, although it’s a tiny one (the second smallest in the world after the Vatican) so hardly even counts. Being lax on tax and hot on heat, Monaco attracts a huge amount of highly paid business people, celebrities and sports stars as residents. A bewildering 30% of the 39,000 people who live here are millionaires. It was fun at first to work out which three of every ten people walking past were, while I ate a not-actually-that-expensive sausage crêpe.
Before my legs had even warmed up from lunch, I found myself on the outskirts of Menton, the last town before Italy. Menton seemed a lot less formal than the majority of the French towns preceding it along this coast, and more welcoming as a result. The houses around the centre were painted in warm and bright colours – yellows, oranges and reds, and there weren’t as many ultra-modern slick glass blocks of hotels and offices. The sandy beach, with it’s archways full of restaurants behind added to the vibe of seaside fun.
You could see the first town in Italy, Ventimiglia, further around the coast. In between, the border posts which presumably stood deserted on a normal day, were heavily patrolled with policemen and what looked like army personnel too. Most of them were armed, and all were wearing surgical face-masks. Despite reports in the news a few days ago that there hadn’t actually been any border checks put in place since Italy had been locked-down, there certainly looked like there were now. I could see the officials asking drivers for some type of document and turning several away. If it was hard to grasp that a global health crisis was happening while sitting in a bar in Nice watching everyone go about their daily business, the scene before me certainly made the news stories more tangible now.
While Joe was sitting on the plane from London to come and join me in Nice, and I was strolling to the Old Town to meet him when he arrived, the Paris-Nice cycle race was cancelled. This was the main reason we’d decided to meet up in Nice on this particular weekend. Well, it was sort of cancelled. The last stage that was due to finish in Nice on Sunday was off, but bizarrely the penultimate stage that started in Nice on Saturday morning was still going ahead, so at least we’d still be able to watch that from a distance.
When Joe arrived, we went for a walk of Nice’s greatest hits – the Cours Saleya, Promenade des Anglais, Castle Hill and then back down into the Old Town for some ice cream and coffee. We then headed for the Musée d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain (MAMAC). I had been saving the museums and galleries until Joe arrived, as I knew he’d want to visit as many as possible during the weekend. With that in mind, we paid ten euros each on the door of the MAMAC, knowing that this would give us unlimited access to all of Nice’s museums for the next 24 hours. As we left the museum an hour later, the entrance door that we’d walked through now had a sign stuck to it, which informed us that this museum and all others in France would be closed indefinitely from tomorrow.. That 24 hour museum ticket didn’t seem quite such good value now.
There was also news of something else closing down, that was going to be potentially more damaging to my cycle trip. Slovakia had announced that all international travel by air and land will be suspended for non-Slovakian travellers. Slovakia sat slap-bang in the middle of the route I had planned to take up through Hungary, Poland and the Balkans towards Nordkapp. Poland soon decided to follow Slovakia in banning foreigners from entering the country, for a 14-day period starting on Sunday. That’s when the wheels really started coming off of the trip – it looked like I would have to change my onward route completely now.
With museums shut, on Saturday we went for a walk around the coast to Villefranche-sur-Mer instead, via the 220 metre climb of Mont Boron. I’d cycled through here on my way to the Italian border two days previously, and diving deeper into the village on foot today illustrated just how much you can still miss on a bike, even if it does let you experience your surroundings more so than any motorised form of transport. There was a 16th century citadel on the water’s edge that housed the town hall, and several small museums and galleries within its ancient walls – all of which I’d missed two days previously! We had some fish for lunch at La Trinquette, with the sun shining down on the port below, and mused that if the pandemic were to suddenly escalate and we got stuck in Nice, there may be worse places in the world to find yourself stranded.
France’s coronavirus restrictions escalated again on Saturday night. At 7pm President Emmanuel Macron announced that all bars, cafés and non-essential shops would close indefinitely from midnight. I knew then that my cycle tour was over. It would be near impossible with a lot of the shops and cafes that I relied upon for food and water now being shut, and it was almost inevitable that the frequently escalating lockdown was likely to extend even further too. We had our last meal in France that night and as we were leaving asked the waitress who had served us what she would do next, with the restaurant closed. She smiled and thought for a second, before just shrugging and saying “I don’t know”.
On Sunday, everything had changed. The restaurants and cafés on my now-regular morning walking route around the harbour and onto the Promenade des Anglais would usually have been brimful of people sitting outside at this time of day. Everywhere was shut other than a solitary cafe on the promenade, letting one person in at a time to order a takeaway drink or pastry. Payment by card only. The same place had been full of people sitting inside and out only twelve hours earlier.
We walked through the suburbs to the Cimiez area, knowing that most of the attractions would be closed when we got there, but hopeful that some would still be open, or at least visible, due to them mainly being outside. As predicted, the Musée Matisse was closed, but slightly surprisingly the nearby Roman amphitheatre, monastery, and gardens were all accessible. Back on Nice’s seafront a few hours later, we made an attempt to keep a few seats between each other and the rest of Nice when sitting on the benches next to the beach, although the rest of Nice didn’t seem to be taking the hint. As soon as we sat down a couple came and sat right next to Joe, despite there being plenty of free seats further along. After a short while, Joe needed to head back to his hotel and collect his bags before making the trip to the airport, and then back to London. As much as I hate flying, I half wished that I was going with him to make an escape as well. Instead I booked a route on the train up to Paris for the next morning, on some of the few remaining trains that hadn’t already been cancelled (many long-distance journeys weren’t running, as part of the government’s strategy to stop the virus spreading).
Finding a series of trains that would get me from Nice to Paris was made even more challenging by the fact that very few would take a fully-assembled bike on them. I would be mainly relying on the slower regional TER trains. I had booked on the first fast train from Nice to Marseille on Monday morning though, and this did accept bikes according to the timetable on the SNCF train website. I’d even paid ten euros extra for a bike reservation ticket. However, when I turned up on the platform, I found that there was nowhere to even fit a bike onto the train – the timetable must have been wrong. When I asked the conductor for help, he shooed me away and sent me to the ticket office, although that didn’t even open for another two hours. Missing my first train of the day meant that I would also miss every subsequent train that I’d booked to Paris too. This was quite a disaster, although at least I hadn’t booked my Eurostar ticket back to London yet. I had anticipated that something might go wrong at some point today and I may well be delayed, I just didn’t expect that to be everything and immediately!
I set about trying to find an alternative route to Paris, although this was even harder now as many of the remaining trains that hadn’t been cancelled, and accepted bikes, were now fully booked. There seemed to have been a last-minute rush by people hoping to make a journey immediately, in the fear that all trains may stop running completely within the next few days. Incredibly (and I still struggle to believe this, writing it six weeks later) the quickest way I could get to Paris now would be via Toulouse! With a seven hour wait in that city, before getting the overnight train to Paris, and arriving early on Tuesday morning. It seemed crazy, but was the best of a bunch of bad options. I had to change in Cannes and Marseille on the way, where it was nice and sunny, but predictably by the time I got to Toulouse it was raining heavily, and continued to do so for most of the seven hours I was there.
I did manage to push the bike down to see the Place du Capitole, Cathédrale Saint-Étienne de Toulouse, Garonne river and Pont Neuf bridge when the rain abated slightly. I think the narrow streets of Toulouse with their pink buildings would have been great to explore in better circumstances and weather, and if anything was open. In contrast to Nice yesterday, Toulouse seemed to be in full “distancing” mode now, and there were more visible signs of pandemic panic taking hold. Security guards stood outside shops shouting at large numbers of people to stand in line and wait until they were called in. Many more masks were being worn. Back at Toulouse-Matabiau station, there were A4 pieces of paper stuck to every other seat, telling people not to sit on those seats, and keep a safe distance from others.
I had held off booking a Eurostar ticket until this point, partly as I was still worried that the overnight train I’d booked from Toulouse to Paris may be cancelled or delayed, and partly because I couldn’t book a space for my bike on the Eurostar at this late notice. I’d been told over the phone that I’d need to go to the Euro Dispatch office in Paris in person and see if there were any bike spaces left. Listening to Emmanuel Macron’s latest speech at 7pm from Toulouse train station forced me into more urgent action though. Macron’s comments along the lines of “I have decided to reinforce the measures to reduce our movements as from tomorrow at 12 midday… it will only be possible to leave the home if absolutely necessary” and “as from tomorrow at midday the borders at the entry of the European Union and the Schengen space will be closed completely” particularly worried me. Although I thought that there would surely still be a way for a British citizen like myself to get back to England after midday, even with these new border controls and restrictions upon movement around France, it wasn’t 100% clear from the speech, and I didn’t want to take any chances. I also feared that the latest announcement might panic many Brits on the continent to try and get back to the UK tomorrow, so I got on the Eurostar website and booked myself a ticket before the President’s speech had even finished.
The overnight train to Paris went really smoothly, and shortly after 7am I was cycling through the eerily quiet streets of central Paris from the Austerlitz station to the Gare du Nord. I was on the 9:13 train out of Paris, meaning that I should arrive in London a few minutes before France’s lockdown measures were stepped up at midday.
Only six weeks ago, I was setting off from Continental Europe’s most southerly point, the day after the UK had left the EU. When it felt like my country was to some extent turning their back on Europe, I wanted to embrace it and celebrate travelling freely around the continent while I had the chance. Now I was desperately trying to get back to England as countries around Europe closed themselves off to each other. I wanted to meet other fellow Europeans and enjoy warm experiences with them, but now even on the same train carriage everyone seemed suspicious of everyone else. Above the facemasks that many passengers wore, no eye contact was being made. It was a sad end to what had largely been a fantastic six weeks of cycling, but I hoped to return one day and complete the journey.
You can also see Paul’s route via the website DataMinister.com.