Progress is being made on the book about 2022’s Grand Tour. The drat should be finished by the end of the year and then I can think about getting this fourth travelogue published for all the world to read. In advance, however, here’s another extract – in draft – that I have just completed. It recounts the day after the night before! There had been a storm at the end of day 46 and here I am picking up the pieces and getting my journey back on track as I cross the border from France and enter Switzerland…
Day Forty-Seven: Excenevex To Aigle (67 km)
Thursday 18th August
It rained much of the night but, such is the design miracle of the modern tent, the inside continued to dry. At around 6am I dared peak outside and there were glimmers of hope. The rain had abated in the preceding hour and now stopped. The sun had yet to rise but the clouds above me were no longer pregnant with precipitation. There were even a few patches of gloomy blue. I coughed. My throat was sore. I remembered the incident with the fly. I suspected that some of it was still lodged in there.
By 7am I was up and pondering the scene around me. The designers of quick-drying tents have yet to turn their skills to wet clothes which have been sitting in a pile all night so I draped my cycling gear over poor Wanda. She had spent her night in the elements. At least she was now spotlessly clean. And at least we had survived the ordeal. Close by I could see a mangled pile of tent poles, guy ropes and man-made fabric. One family’s holiday had come to an abrupt end at some point during the previous 12 hours.
By 8am I had packed everything away and had pulled on my wet shorts and a sweaty, stained t-shirt that had been relegated to the washing bag a couple of days earlier. But needs must. It was at least dry. Well, dryish. Carrying the damp odour of a vagrant I set off back towards the reception area and the adjacent exit. There were few people out of their tents, mobile homes or campervans to see – or indeed smell – me. The minions of the Camping La Pinède corporation were equally thin on the ground. Just a refuse collector chugging from bin to bin in his converted golf cart and the cleaner of the nearby wash block. She was refilling the paper towel dispensers and had a puzzled look on her face. I tossed her a quiet ‘bonjour’ as I cycled slowly by. She eyed me suspiciously and didn’t respond…
The route of the ViaRhôna kindly passed the gates of Camping La Pinède so it wasn’t a challenging start to the cycling day. Initially a segregated cycle path guided me away from the shore of Lac Léman before a deserted country lane took over the reins and sent me in the direction of nearby Sciez. Above me the sky was perhaps 50% grey cloud. Or, rather, 50% blue. Ever the eternal optimist my heart clung on to the latter statistic but my head had already worked out that the former was a steadily increasing number. The bank of cloud to the south-west was travelling in the same direction as me and it seemed unlikely that the day would be completely dry.
I was keen not to repeat the evening scramble for accommodation of the previous day so, as I ate breakfast in the café area of a roadside boulangerie, I attempted to hatch a plan. My second foray into Switzerland was now only 40 km away at the point where the ViaRhôna finished on the French side of the border-straddling town of Saint-Gingolph. I could no longer consider campsites in France an option and would need to bite the financial bullet of finding accommodation in Switzerland. One way of blunting this outlay to the point of it disappearing altogether was to secure a night with a WarmShowers host. I located two possible members in the area where the Rhône re-established it course heading south at the eastern end of Lac Léman and dispatched a couple of messages. If nothing came of those requests I would explore the camping options.
Another concern was power. I could usually survive up to a maximum of three days once my iPhone and 20,000 mAH (1) battery pack had been fully charged. I’d done this back at the campsite in Seyssel by creeping into an unoccupied glamping tent and pilfering some overnight electricity. (I’ll come quietly if the Gendarmes start asking questions.) That was only 36 hours ago so I shouldn’t yet be suffering from charge anxiety but when I attempted to plug my battery pack into my phone in the tent at Camping La Pinède, nothing happened. Either my phone or the battery pack had been affected by the water thrown down from the sky during the storm.
I dearly hoped the issue was with the battery pack but feared it might be my phone. If this turned out to be the case it would pose serious questions regarding my ability to keep travelling. Although the world would no doubt survive without my regular tweets, Instagram photos, Facebook posts and blog updates, my ability to go online and find accommodation or work out the route when I couldn’t find a sign beside the road would be curtailed significantly. How would I record audio for the podcasts that I was continuing to publish as I cycled? How would I record the videos that I intended to use for a post-trip film? And how would I manage to board the ferry home from Rotterdam when my tickets were stored on the phone? Oh to live in the 1950s when phones were still ignorantly stupid and wired into a box by the front door. The modern-day mobile phone has become the portable electronic Behemoth of the 21st century.
At least my phone was still working, for the time being. The level of charge was around 35% (a level that back home in the UK would have me in a cold sweat) and all I could do is wait. Wait until the battery dried (and hopefully started working again) or until I could plug in the phone to mains electricity to see if that was where the problem was to be found.
This stretch of shoreline on the southern side of Lac Léman was dominated by the spa towns of Thonon-les-Bains and Évian-les-Bains. Perhaps they could sooth my woes by simply cycling past their therapeutic institutions. This would have been tricky in Thonon as the cycle route kept well clear of the town centre adopting a route close to the water. However I did pause in the town’s port area. Its dozen or so piers were home to several hundred modest yachts. (Nothing remotely as vulgar as those I’d seen in Switzerland.) More exciting to this landlubber, however, was the tourist office kiosk and the availability of some benches in a small park sandwiched between the lakeside road and the quayside.
I started to explain my battery / phone predicament to the tourism woman in the large wooden hut but she was clearly a bit bored by the tale I was recounting and interrupted me:
“Would you like to try charge your phone here?” she offered, keen for me to shut up so that she could move on to serving someone who at least intended spending some money in Thonon.
“It’s charging!” she declared from under the counter where the socket was located. Somewhat relieved, I went to sit on one of the park benches to wait for 30% become at least 80%. The problem was with the battery pack, not the phone.
It was actually quite nice sitting on the bench for 45 minutes watching the world go by without the distraction of the phone. The old folk chatting politics. The young couples walking hand-in-hand along the promenade. The families buying ice-creams from the parlour on wheels. The kids screaming in excitement as they played in the fenced-off pirate-themed playground. And me, still drying out… Perhaps, I thought, it might one day be interesting to set off on an epic cycling journey with only an old style Nokia ‘brick’ or ‘burner’, a film camera, a notebook and a pen. Just like they did in those Cyclists’ Touring Club films from the 50s and 60s (without the Nokia…). They were always smiling, having fun. A fit and healthy bunch who were living through the final decades of a world without access to instant information, push notifications and breaking news. No weather forecasts refreshed by the swiping down of a finger. No online dating by swiping left. Prime Minister Harold Macmillan told the country in 1957 that “most of our people have never had it so good”. Perhaps he had a point. (2)
With its town centre sitting firmly beside the water, it was more difficult to avoid Évian-les-Bains. Its main attraction – the large Casino complex – was semi-hidden behinds boards erected to keep out anyone apart from those involved in its restoration. Beyond its future regained charms, large Belle-Époque mansion blocks jostled for position amongst the more modern apartment complexes. Chief amongst the older buildings was the turn-of-the-century splendour of the Palais Lumière. Behind its ornate façade a small army once administered ‘up to 1,200 treatments a day; baths, showers, massages and electrical treatments…’ I hope they were more careful mixing water and electricity than I had been. The consequences for them would surely have been somewhat more serious.
My attention, however, was focussed further ahead. 15 km ahead to be precise. That would be the end of my journey along the ViaRhôna at the border with Switzerland. Most of these 15 km were on the busy lakeside road. There was no cycle lane beyond Évian and it didn’t make for the most pleasant of cycling conditions. Until, that is, I arrived in a small village called Locum. It was here where, for the final 3.5 km, the cycle route moved off the road and onto a delightful twisting and undulating cycle path running parallel(ish) to a disused single-track railway line that itself shadowed the route of the busy road below and the shore of the lake. Perhaps the authorities hope to reopen the line one day as it remains in tact, complete with its original rails, rusting gently away ever since the last train passed this way in 1988. This was one abandoned railway that hadn’t yet been handed over to the greenway cycle planners.
By the time I descended the few metres back to the shore as I approached the centre of Saint-Gingolph – I wasn’t sure of the pronunciation – I had cycled around 50 km and it was just after 2pm. The official end of the Via Rhôna was next to the lake and very close to the border. It was marked by a wooden bus-stop-like structure under which an electronic display had been installed. It set out, interactively, the route ‘au fil du Rhône… du Léman à la Mediterranée’. I recognised many of the locations that flashed up in front of me on the screen. It had taken me eight days to travel from the Mediterranean to Lac Léman. I’d cycled around 600 of its 800 kilometres with the remainder being travelled on the two trains, from Montpellier and then from Tain l’Hermitage. It was a moment of satisfaction but not one I could dwell upon for long. Although I’d reached the end of the French-administered ViaRhôna, I’d not yet completed the route of the EuroVelo 17. That finished in Andermatt, some 200 km further along the valley of the Rhône and beyond the Furka pass. And then there was the small matter of the Rhine. I had just 16 days remaining to travel some 1,700 km and I had only three of my ten train journeys remaining. It would be close run thing.
Of more pressing concern was tonight’s accommodation. One of the two WarmShowers hosts had replied to my request, but it wasn’t with good news. They were themselves away on a long cycle. There was no news from the other person. I sat under the roof of the ‘bus shelter’ and searched for a campsite somewhere along the Rhône valley in Switzerland no more than 30 km from the French border. I found one quite quickly, in Aigle. I’d never heard of the place before. Why would I have? It was just another small town along the way to Rotterdam. I gave Camping de la Piscine a call and booked myself a pitch for the night for a relatively cheap (by rumoured Swiss standards) €23.
Leading off from the ‘bus stop’ was an angled metal walkway that protruded slightly over the lake. Bunting made up of alternating flags of France and Switzerland was attached to the railings. They fluttered vigorously in the breeze. At the Swiss end of the walkway was a pile of rubble and a makeshift tarmac path leading back to the road. This was an international frontier where the French had clearly made much more of an effort than their cousins in the confederation of Helvetica.
Switzerland is blessed with a network of top-notch active-travel infrastructure. It goes by the name of SwitzerlandMobility and I’d first encountered it whilst cycling from southern England to southern Italy in 2010. On that particular occasion, I had crossed the country from Basel to Chiasso via the Gotthard Pass and followed the signs for Swiss cycle route number 3, the ‘North-South Route’. 12 years later I was back and preparing to follow cycle route number 1 no less, the ‘Rhône Route’ which would take me all the way to Andermatt. My expectations were high and it was only a matter of moments before I spotted my first distinctive light blue sign for, as it is called in French-speaking Valais, La Route du Rhône.
I found it geographically curious that a river that flowed from its source in the mountains to a lake as large as Lac Léman – 70 km long, 15 km wide and over 300 metres deep in places – could still be considered the same river when it exited that lake at its other end. But it did. This was, from the perspective of geographers, the very same river that I had been following since Avignon, and who am I to question their judgement? But that didn’t prevent me from thinking it strange.
I rejoined the path of the Rhône after a further 5 km back on the busy road along the shore of the lake. When I did, the contrast with the road was stark. The river snaked across the wide patchwork of fields that made up much of the four-kilometre-wide flat plain of the valley and the cycle route followed it loyally on a high quality path of its own. With high mountains to my left and to my right, I couldn’t help but think how fortunate I had been to follow the river in the direction from sea to source. I hadn’t made a conscious decision to do so, it just happened that way. I had of course made a decision to cycle anticlockwise around France but in no way was the direction I would cycle the Rhône a factor in that decision. But this was the spectacular end of the route, heading into the Alps. I could only imagine that arriving at the roundabout in Sète might be somewhat of a disappointment. That said, any celebratory swim in the Mediterranean would surely be more pleasant that a glacial swim in the Alps. If the opportunity arose, I would restrict myself to a short paddle.
It was only mid-afternoon when I was approaching Aigle but, with my weather app predicting more rain from about 4pm, I might have arrived just in time. For those of you who did their French homework at school it will come as no surprise that Camping de la Piscine was located next to the town’s swimming pool. And, indeed, the town’s crazy golf course but Camping du Minigolf has less of a ring to it I feel. Good choice. The site was everything I needed after my uncomfortably damp night at Camping La Pinède. The tent was erected before any rain fell and it set about the job of drying out in anticipation of me moving back in.
As I waited I took up residence at one of the trestle tables that had been set up in a small marquee that was for the exclusive use of cycle-campers. I used the opportunity to sort through my things, do some washing and, after a trip to a nearby supermarket, rustle up an evening meal. Just as I had feared, the food prices were high to the point of me considering whether the checkout woman might accept kidney donation as a valid method of payment. Kidneys still in situ, I resurrected a technique honed to perfection whilst cycling through pricey Norway in 2015; find the cheapest food in the supermarket and eat it every night during your stay. Just as they had been in Norway all those years previously, a packet of spaghetti and (admittedly fake) pesto seemed to be priced within range of my budget. On a calorific level, they were at least very cycling-friendly.
No rain had fallen by 5pm and even by 6pm when the BBC weather app was telling me that there was a 99% certainly of it raining in Aigle, it had yet to do so. Even by 9pm, despite the cloud, it was still dry. Perhaps here in Switzerland, unlike in Spain, the rain really didn’t fall on the plain.
(1) mAH – milliampere-hour: a measurement of how much energy charge a battery can hold. A single Duracell AA battery typically holds a charge of around 3,000 mAH.
(2) He didn’t, at least not from the perspective of the 2020s. Once we stop gazing back through the the rose-tinted spectacles of time, living in Britain during the 1950s wasn’t as wonderful as we might think. A 2007 report on the BBC website lists the following ten things that make the reality abundantly clear:
1. Post-war austerity. 2. Widespread racial discrimination. 3. Food rationing. 4. Smog / pollution. 5. Diminishing world status. 6. Bomb sites. 7. The Cold War. 8. Sporting humiliation (England 3, Hungary 6). 9. 80% of men smoked (and half of them were killed by the habit). 10. Sexual expression frowned upon and often illegal. Welcome back to the 21st century!
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