Blissful Abandon.

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The word abandon would strike fear into the heart of a professional cyclist. For all the training you have undertaken, it’s an admission of defeat, a job unfinished. Thankfully I harbour no such worries.
Yesterday I rode just 32km before realising that I should never have started.
Everything ached. The eyes were swollen, energy levels at zero, and I was having great difficulty dealing with the cold wind. I learnt my lesson from Italy when I cycled all day in this condition, and climbed off the bike in Arnay-Le-Duc at lunchtime. No crawling into a wet, coffin-shaped tent; I booked into what transpired to be a very old and accommodating hotel/restaurant, where a friendly woman took me up two flights of ancient stairs to a room under the eaves. A bed and warmth has never felt so good, or sleep for that matter. There’s always another day, and no race to win.

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A tough choice

I have never felt driven to write a review of a campsite up until now. Why would I? In the last year I have visited many in Europe; good, bad, indifferent, expensive and cheap. Usually it’s a place to sleep, wash, eat and move on. After a while they all become one in your memory.
However, Tournus camping in the town of Tournus, north of Lyon, deserves a special mention. The business is owned and run by Lilian and Rene, ably assisted by Rene’s wife, who serves the fresh bread in the mornings, and made me a very good cup of coffee. Their pizzas aren’t bad either.
By their own admission they cater for people travelling through rather than long-stays, although it would be a fine place to base yourself. You are extended a warm welcome, and nothing is too much trouble. The facilities are immaculate, and the small eating area a useful place for a lone cyclist to sit on a cold morning. These things make a difference to a solitary traveller. I rate this campsite the best I have visited. Give them a try if you are passing.

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As if to rubber-stamp my choice, a nightingale sings in the dark hours close to my tent. A full repertoire and note perfect. These birds have been with me all along the two great rivers, calling from the banks as I cycled by. Heralds of Spring.
I have now definitely left the south.The landscape and vegetation is very different, and I am greeted with a huge temperature drop which came as something of a shock; I haven’t cycled in a cold head-wind since Scandinavia last year. Southern Europe has made me soft.
The road takes you through the village of St Loup de Varennes where Nicephore Niepce began the process of photography. The Museum unfortunately was closed, and the sign commemorating the history was easily missed. Couldn’t they have made it bigger?

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I had a choice, north to Dijon (mustard) or to stop in Beaune ( wine). Both have a route leading north west, south of Paris. The good thing about travelling alone is that you can please yourself. Beaune it was then, I can live without mustard.
This is Burgundy, the Côte D’or. As you ride into the area, the great wine estates slide past on your left under the hills, themselves covered in world famous vines. A noble profession with a great ancestry.

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Beaune trades on its location amongst the vineyards, and although this has become it’s main function it does have other attractions. The Hotel-Diieu was set up as a poor hospital and survived as such for five centuries. It was still operating in 1955, staffed by nuns. It now carries the most colourful glazed roof tiles

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A town surrounded by famous vineyards of necessity must have many bars and restaurants. There is certainly no shortage of choice, which attracts the tourists into this pretty unspoilt centre.

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I’m staying here for two nights to rest the muscles and infuse some atmosphere, and then my course changes to the north west. France still has plenty to offer.

Lyon and the Saone valley.

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Never have preconceptions, that’s what I keep telling myself, but I still have them anyway. I always imagined Lyon to be full of petro-chemical works and sink estates, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. It may well have these, but I rode right through the centre on a Sunday morning beside the river and it was delightful. Markets, music, cafe culture and a real air of contented ness. It’s probably different during the week of course, but France’s third largest city did not disappoint.

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It has some spectacular modern architecture. I’m not sure what this building was but it seemed as if it had just landed, and the green cube could have been doing anything. Good fun though.

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The more traditional buildings are here of course, and they seem to have managed to blend the two together very well. Many folk are living on beautifully converted river barges tied to the embankment sides, which must be very relaxing in a place like this.

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I could live here if I had a boat on the river, although it’s a long trip downstream to find the sea. Plenty of good bookshops though to while away the time.

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I have only travelled a few kilometers north of the city today because I spent so much time wandering along looking at the delights of Lyon. The Saone valley seems promising though, and I’ll probably head upstream towards Dijon before I turn north west. I’m low on mustard.

Riding the Rhone.

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This is a mighty river. It took me almost an hour to cycle across its flood-plain and meet its waters. As I said about the Elbe coming south, you can smell it long before you see it; they have a life of their own.
Born way up in Switzerland, this river is carrying huge volumes of water down to the sea below Arles and it is a very useful commercial transport system. Long barges ply their trade carrying all manner of cargoes. This bargee had not only his home with him but his car as well. He returned my wave, which always gives me a childish pleasure.

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Many tributaries feed the Rhone, including the Ardeche to the west which has cut a gorge through the hills, and it was here that they found some of the most extensive and best preserved prehistoric cave paintings in the World. Their integrity would be seriously compromised by the very breath of visitors, so the French have built a perfect replica, only just opened. I had every intention of visiting but it was south of my route, and I now have an excuse to come back to this wonderful place. Meantime, imagine the scenario in prehistory.

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Cycling the Rhone is made easier by the existence of a purpose-built cycle path, which when finished will link Switzerland to the sea. A relief to travel traffic free, although the French are very bike-aware. It must be in their DNA.

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These signs give interesting snippets of local history, and the story of this builder-postman really caught my imagination today. What endeavour!

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I’m starting to meet more bike tourists now. Yesterday I rode with Fabrice for a while as he tried out his new bike for future journeys.

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While today, Aymen had ridden down from Sheffield. A seasoned traveller, he had many trips under his belt. A good conversation was had.

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North

Although I have been creeping up the map of Europe since leaving Malta, today felt like the first time I was actually making progress northwards. I suppose this comes as a result of sitting on ferries, riding the Islands and generally idling in the Provençal sun (and rain).
Before leaving Bedoin, I said goodbye to a young Dutchman, Jochem, with quite a journey ahead of him. He is riding to Australia (no, that isn’t a typing error), via Italy, Greece, Iran, Pakistan, India, China, and countless other places. Just as a starter he decided to ride the Ventoux, because he likes climbing hills. I wish him all the best on his travels.

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My more modest journey took me along the foothills of the Rhone-Alpes. They have their own appeal somehow, very different from all the other mountains I have spent hours looking at.

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The day was hot, and as you pass through villages at lunchtime there is little activity. Lazy flies buzz by, and open doors let out the inviting smells of cooking and muffled conversations. Passing lives.

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Every village had a wash house where the women would gather, and some still give sweet water for passing travellers, some are now dry, and one today had fish in it as a feature. The stonework on the sink edges is beautifully smooth from the countless sheets and clothing rubbed on them. Imagine the gossip these walls have heard.

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Lunch for me was taken on a wall with a fine view towards the Rhone valley and baguette no. 529. Not bad, but I’m searching for the perfect one before the channel coast. It’s out there somewhere.

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A hard day ended in the town of Crest, which sits beneath the huge edifice of its castle guarding the crossing and mighty river, itself just another tributary of the Rhone. I hope to ride its banks at some point for some easy cycling.

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Fatal Attraction

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Provence is not short of picturesque villages, and some have become virtual parodies of themselves, driven by tourists like myself. However, many have managed to maintain a balance between a home for locals and visitor destination. Bedoin is one such village.
It has a Main Street lined with bars and restaurants, shaded in summer by the ubiquitous plane trees, so redolent of France. It wouldn’t be quite the same without them.

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The one big difference with Bedoin is that it has a cycling obsession, born of the fact that the village sits in the shadow of Mont Ventoux, the giant of Provence.

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This mountain has acquired a deserved status in the cycling world. The Tour de France has climbed it on numerous occasions and even the professionals view it with awe and some trepidation. With good reason. Tom Simpson died here in the 1960s within sight of the summit, and today a touching memorial marks the spot.

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You can see the Ventoux from many miles away, it’s summit white with frost-shattered limestone, often buffeted by the mighty Mistral. It sits there like some dozing mythical monster breathing cloud, while elsewhere the sky is blue, drawing you to its flanks. Taunting.
This bunch of jolly Frenchmen were just about to ride the 22km to the top. Perhaps they didn’t realise what awaited them. I wished them well.

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My brother and I came here a few years ago specifically to ride this mountain: moths to a flame. The D974 begins pleasantly enough, a gradual incline up to the village of Saint- Esteve, where it turns sharp left into a couple of hairpins. Within no time you are scrabbling for the lowest gears as the road goes straight up in front of you-a wall of tarmac. To a cyclist this is purgatory because you can see what’s coming ( more gradient).
It took me 2 hours 20 minutes to reach the observatory at the top ( hardly a record), where my brother was waiting looking annoyingly relaxed.
Why do it? Quite simply, after the heart rate has returned to somewhere near normal and the lungs lose some of that burning sensation, there is no feeling like it: you have climbed the Ventoux.
I felt happy to walk away this time with a clear conscience. I do however know one cyclist who could not have resisted the clarion call of the challenge. Chapeau.

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Moving a piano.

The plain of Valensole, famous for its wheat and lavender, dramatically gives way to the mighty Valley of the Durance river and canal. Geologically this is a very interesting area, composed primarily of limestone and eroded into a multitude of shapes, although basalt outcrops have left their features too.
This wall of ammonites was a seabed once, now tilted at a crazy angle.

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I decided to spend the night in the nearby town of Forcalquier. It has a beautiful square which on Mondays fills up with the weekly market. Bad weather kept me here, without which I would never have met Andreas whom I saw in a cafe very close to his beautiful rambling Provençal town house. He is a most hospitable person, and invited me to dinner along with two others who were coach-surfing with him. Very sociable.
As poor weather was yet again forecast, Andreas suggested I stay the night in his wonderful dwelling. How could I refuse?

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Andreas is very involved in music and the arts. He has five pianos at various locations, but decided he needed another. It’s rather like bicycles, you can never have too many. So we offered our services and drove off to Digne in the hired van to collect the instrument from a first floor flat. If you have never moved a piano, especially where stairs are involved, I can assure you it’s interesting. They are not only heavy, but a very awkward shape, and it’s a case of once you’ve started, you have to keep going. Still we managed it and delivered it to some people who didn’t know it was arriving, and Andreas did a sound test. Wonderful.

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As a celebration, we went out for a very good Moroccan meal, which was a perfect ending to my unexpected stay, although I steered clear of the absinthe because Van Gogh wasn’t looking too good on it.

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