Sunday, 26 July 2009

Cooling in the Tarn

Cooling in the Tarn

After saying goodbye to one of the few English couples we’ve met on the journey so far (from County Durham, on a ten week sabbatical), and picking their brains about sites and experiences, we set off on another big climb up Mont Lozere, a large mountain to the north of Florac. We’d set off in the cool of the morning, expecting it to be sweltering on the way back down. It didn’t turn out to be too hard until you got near the top and then it suddenly became quite steep. But thanks to my granny cog, I slowly but surely reached the top of another 1000m climb. Slowly but steadily, not thinking too much about the distance and incline ahead, or about Ian’s shape disappearing into the distance. We passed through a couple of lovely little villages, Le Pont de Mont Vert, and Cocures, but no time to stop and stare! It was getting hotter and there wasn’t a cloud in the beautiful blue sky.
A quick photo and then a wonderfully cooling first half descent. As we got closer, even the breeze felt very warm and the road surface started to become sticky! After 35miles we arrived back and plunged straight into the River Tarn. You can get into it from the campsite. Lovely cold clean water. It even smells nice. It must be clean because they bottle it just up the river! It was a new experience for us, as we’re much more used to the smell and feel of pleasantly warm sea water. Once we’d got our body temperatures down, we hunkered under the expensive but totally indispensible awning, one of the number of extras we bought for Tommy. More about the van later. Tomorrow we’re off to explore, in the van, the rest of the Tarn Gorge which stretches for at least 30miles. Then on to visit on ex-next door neighbours from Buckinghamshire, who are living in France for 6months. It will be lovely to catch up with them and talk about what they’ve discovered.

The Florac Railway Banquet

The Florac Railway Banquet
The Cevennes area, in the Massif Central, is one of the more inhospitable, poorer areas of France, famous for its importance in the Resistance movement, for its goats cheeses and dairy produce. Its soil is poor and it is sparsely populated. Tourists come here mainly because of its impressive, limestone gorges, through which the Tarn River flows.
We camped near a pretty, little town, called Florac, which got a favourable write-up in the Lonely Planet guide, as being “real”, and under-developed.
We had a lazier day today, just cycling to Florac and back, about 6km.
Experience has told us that, generally, it’s best to head straight for the tourist information centre, where we found out about and reserved two places at the “Banquet” in Florac that evening. All we knew was that there was going to be a banquet with live music. Ian did slightly have his arm wrenched up his back, as I’d just been moaning about the fact that we always seemed to be arriving outside the dates of well-advertised and exciting-looking fetes, in all the towns and villages we drove and cycled through! So here we were, going to our very own banquet, along with an expected 1400 others! We paid but were told to turn up at about 8pm to receive a seat number at the Guichet!
To fill you in, the banquet was a centenary celebration, for the railway line that was built to connect Florac with Saint Cecile, bringing with it all the workforce and skills, and subsequent wealth to the locality. It actually only survived for about sixty years, when the advent of the motor-car dispensed with its usefulness.
We walked into Florac, arriving uncustomarily early. The tables were in the process of being laid, set in the beautifully shaded surroundings of the old Esplanade. Either side of this street were beautiful little, old shops, butchers and bakery. Lovely old buildings with old, painted signs ageing and fading on the sides of slightly flaky, “lived-in” three and four storey buildings, some with severe structural damage, but standing in spite of it.
A fantastically intoxicating drumming group about 20 strong entertained the crowd with their rhythm.
There was a worryingly large crowd developing at the “ticket office”, everything having taken on a railway theme, down to the waiters and waitresses, dressed as engine drivers, complete with smutty faces. 8pm came and went and no sign of food, which was being provided by the local restaurateurs and wine merchants. People were starting to get edgy, with words like mal-organise being bandied about! I was starting to get a sinking feeling. How many times had I drawn Ian into some enthusiastic project, only to find that it had been organised by people who couldn’t tell their derriere from their coude! The ticket collector, panic-stricken, started taking individual names and trying to marry them up with tables, checking whether they had paid or not! With the prospect of not getting the banquet going until midnight, some independent monsieur marched forward and took command! He shouted out the table number and the list of names who were to sit at it. Fighting against the disdainful interruptions of the women, who weren’t pleased at having their painstaking system ruined, and were concerned about how they were going to find out who’d paid and who hadn’t, the monsieur struggled on, and people happily strained to hear their names and move to their tables! The band started up and still the man bellowed names and table numbers over the top of drums and trumpets.
What could have taken hours, took about 30minutes to get everyone seated. It was beginning to grow dark, and thankfully quite chilly. That’s the beauty of this area. Very hot during the day. Very cool night-time and morning.
The banquet was great. Local saucisses provided by local producers, leg of lamb and vegetables, local cheeses and fruit salad, and local wine and water bottled just up the valley. We were sitting next to a local lady who had lived in the Florac area all her life, and she had brought her husband, Michel, and friends, Corrine and Thierry and their son, with them. For two hours we managed to have a conversation about the area and their experiences. She was very impressed that we had chosen the Lozere area to stay in, and was very proud of her home town! She spoke with a very strong southern accent, which made it even more difficult to understand sometimes, but she was a helpful and encouraging listener. She said that this was a very special area because of the local peoples’ personalities, collection of skills, artistically and practically, independence of thought etc Thierry explained that, although he was quite young, he had never been to most of France, outside maybe 100 mls radius. I explained that I had an aunt in Brittany. He had never been to Brittany or even Paris!
A fantastic night. Thierry said he had learnt a new English word-“amazing”! Tap-dancing waiters and waitresses, dressed in 1940s outfits, singing and live music, culminating in a torch-lit (lampion) procession following the drummers to a firework display with accompanying train-themed music.
We kissed our new friends three times, as they do, and set off on our hour long walk back in total darkness, apart from the starlight. What a night!

Ian beats Bradley Wiggins to top of Mt Ventoux

Ian beats Bradley to summit of Mont Ventoux!

….mainly because the Tour de France doesn’t get here for another day! But, that aside he is a superstar. It was already boiling hot when Ian set off for Bedouin, at the start of his ascent up “The Beast”, as Mt Ventoux is known in the cycling fraternity! We parked the van near Malaucene, so that I could wander around a local village and Ian set off.
As it was, it was too hot to go wandering, so I joined the rest of the curious French people, who seem content to park their vans for hours on dusty car parks, in 30degrees of heat, and sit outside them! So I staked my spot under a scrawny tree, in an attempt to get some respite from the lunchtime heat. I sat and snoozed my way through a good chunk of a Terry Pratchett novel and a large bottle of water, wondering if Ian was whinging about the heat as much as me!
A mere three hours later, Ian returned having successfully climbed Mt Ventoux, 1600metres! I successfully brought back a large number of bottles of water, and very soon we were on our way again. We decided to head for the hills, to get away from the heat, the mass of camping-cars, and the crowds of spectators. It was all getting a bit too much, after the peace of the Haute-Savoie!
We headed for the Cevennes region, higher up. In particular, the Tarn Gorges area. My mate, Jude, had been there before, and if Jude and Ron thought it was a good place to stay, then that was good enough for us!

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Two tours

Two Tours De France!

We’ve only just set off, and already I’m on my own at the back! Ten miles and 3000ft of ascent to go and already I’m at the back of the “peloton”, who are forging ahead and looking strong. But you can only go as fast/slow as you can, so take no notice of what is happening ahead and just keep on plugging away at the climb ahead!

Let me back-track. Faced with the alternative of a mind-numbing drag of a walk up to Cormet de Roselend to watch the Tour come through, or a leap/crawl into the unknown and a cycle up the mountain, I opted for the latter! The last few days I’ve been surrounded by lean, mean machines cycling up mountains, returning to strip off to tight, lycra shorts, revealing taut, muscular bodies and heart monitors. Ian’s been a complete traitor and successfully joined them, making my cycling efforts feel totally inadequate! At 7am, determined not to be undermined and carried away with the building excitement, I made porridge and bananas for us, hoping that would make all the difference! Ian had found an English family from Luxembourg on the site, complete with little kids and women, who were up for cycling up the mountain. Right, so assuming the women were younger, then surely I cold keep up with, if not pass, the little nippers. WRONG! The little nippers, it later transpired, were under 14s regional club champions, and had recently been on tour to the Pyrenees! This I discover just after leaving the camp-site and starting the climb! Ah well, block all thoughts out, get into penultimate highest gear and grind away. Ian had done this climb two days ago in two hours, so only another two hours, fifty five minutes and forty five seconds to go!

Apart from an alarmingly loud wheezing noise and a very unpleasant strained muscle in the derriere, I’m nearly at the top. Left the nippers behind in the dust, mercilessly, and completed my first category one climb! Two hours, so about an hour ahead of schedule, and feeling exhilarated. Arrived at 10am, and the real Tour weren’t expected to come through until 1.30pm! But already the local gendarmerie were stopping cyclists and pedestrians from going any further. We later discovered that the Luxembourg family had had to go across country to get a good spot further up the road because the police had stopped them. But found a spot further down from the summit, hoping to catch the riders as they laboured up the mountain, rather than shooting past downhill.

Two hours later, the temperature dropped, the rain came and it stopped being fun. Then the “caravan” arrived to take our minds off it. Various vehicles, advertising their companies, decorated with life-size cyclists, kangaroos (Aussie “Roadsigns”), horse and jockeys and yetis, all chucking freebies at us. Free hats, key-rings, washing-up liquid, and Haribos!!!! Chucking is a very accurate description, as they seemed very disdainful of having to throw freebies to the marauding hoards. To cap it all, we managed to site ourselves near to the local loony, who played the Marsaillaise at full volume through his very own ghetto blaster, given even more impact, by feeding it into a loud speaker. He became progressively more animated/crazy as the caravan and support vehicles arrived. Thank god for the rain, which quietened him off, and sent him scurrying inside his little make-shift tent. A couple of English people had objected to his choice of muzak earlier, and received a tirade of gesticulations, so he was allowed to rant with impunity!
Finally they arrived, just as we were losing the will to live. Get a move on!!! I took a brief bit of video and one photo, which totally unexpectedly included a shot of the customarily scowling Cavendish/The Cav!

After an exhilarating high-speed descent off the mountain, and a beer watching the Tour live, we saw Wiggins knocked out of a staggering third place by the Schleck brothers from Luxembourg! They’d been on the road since 12noon and completed 3 category one climbs, taking a mere 45mins to climb up to Roselend. Contador and the Schlecks knocked a staggering five minutes out of Wiggins. What a shame!

Marmots and Mont Blanc

Marmots and Mont Blanc

Morning begins with a couple of chocolate pains and brioche, ordered with the owner the previous evening, delivered to the site, and ready to collect from 8am, about an hour after we get up! Brioche and coffee are brill! Why don’t I do sweet breakfasts at home? I’ll realise that when I’m on a diet again, when we get back home! They also do a Pain Beaufortain, which is a baguette stuffed with Beaufort hard, strong cheese, walnuts and lardons (like strong-tasting pieces of cured smoked ham).
After provisioning up in pretty Beaufort on our second gloriously sunny morning, and finding that the local Tourist Info does Wi-Fi, or as they say here, Wee-Fee!, we start on our first walk into the mountains.
Up the Cormet de Roselend in the van, along hair-pin bends, with breath-taking scenery. We walked up to the Crete des Gittes, onto the Refuge de la Croix Bonhomme, with views of ….well everything! Les Arcs mountains, the Aiguille de Grand Fond behind us, and Mont Blanc ahead! Absolutely superb. The previous day, quite frankly Ian had stuffed up! Bless him! He thought he’d found a cracking route up near the Lake. There were one or two discrepancies, but he was confident he could find a good route. Two hours later we were back at the van. We’d walked up the road for a mile, a couple of miles on a fairly uninspiring track, past an Acces Interdite sign, which should have told us something, up to a very big dam holding back a very beautiful lake. We wouldn’t know! We only saw the wall and had to walk back the same way! As you can imagine, Ian got his ear chewed off. Comments like “Why can’t we follow normal, if busy, routes like normal people do?” were bandied about!
Anyway, today we’d stuck to a well-known GR route, and the outcome was totally different. The best ridge route I think I’ve ever been on, with 360deg of breath-taking views, alpine meadows and flowers, cows with their bells tinkling about, even snow nearer the tops, in response to the recent downpour up here. And the Marmots. Cute, little, fat, alpine-versions of Meerkats, which bob up and down, squeeking vehemently when they sense danger. Adoreable!!
In addition, the natives are extremely friendly, and I think I’m so in love with the place I might even stretch to a cycle up to the Cormet de Roselend in a couple of days. Maybe it’s time to finish now as the wine is clearly starting to affect my better judgment!

First Stage for Ian

First Stage of Ian’s Tour de France!

Aforementioned gorgeous hunk sighted wheezing, sorry, weaving his way up to the Cormet de Roselend, which at 1967m, by anybody’s reckoning is a rather large hill!
He returned looking a bit tired, to say the least, but very chuffed! The following day we were to see various extremely athletic characters working their way up, with sun-tanned taut calf muscles and strained facial expressions. Ian pointed out that several of them were women, and I pointed back to him that most of them were less that 30yrs old, and around about a similar number of kilos in weight. Then just to prove me wrong a woman of at least 60 came past, or did she just look 60 because she’d punished her body so much!
Either way, with two days to go until the Tour de France nutters co,
me through, with Bradley Wiggins currently in third place, we’re starting to think about the best place to site ourselves in readiness. Do we cycle to the top of Cormet de Roselend and watch them coming up the last bit of ascent before they fly down? Do we take the van as near to the top as possible and walk the last couple of miles, past all the enthusiastic French Camping-Cars that have already begun to amass there, most of them within a few hundred yards of the nearest mountain-top restaurant?
I, personally, am making my pitch towards the latter, and you can guess what Ian’s twisted, little mind is thinking! Anyway, you’ll have to wait for the outcome!
Back at the site, the Sun’s burning down fantastically, although it does go cool at night, which is best. In the morning, it takes a while to get warm, because we’re in a superb spot, surrounded by vertiginously steep, pine-covered mountains, complete with gushing waterfalls, which drop hundreds of feet. It really is worth selling the boat for! And that’s the first time I’ve mentioned the boat!!

Pouring down in Beaufort

Pouring Down in Beaufort, Haute Savoie

Drove through Chambery and Albertville, in the direction of Bourg St Maurice, and arrived in the pouring rain in Beaufort, a picture-postcard village which could grace the cover of any desirable biscuit tin! The architecture’s completely different to the Burgundy area, with wooden chalets and brightly-coloured shutters, window boxes over-brimming with pink and red geraniums, and yet another place trying hard to win and award for the most beautifully floral place in France.
We pitched up on our site some miles out of Beaufort, a little site called “Les Sources”/ The Springs, and there was more rushing water than you could shake a stick at! Our host and his wife, very helpful and friendly, did not speak a word of English, and seemed bemused that we’d stuck by our reservation (made several weeks ago with French that had seen little airing since 1970- ah, yes, those were the days, walking down into Clitheroe town centre, in the hope of catching the eye of some gorgeous hunk from the Boy’s School, but I digress!!) I found out why the owner seemed unhappy about making the reservation using e-mail and credit cards. There is no signal here at all! Ian’s been trying, like mad, to get the update of the Tour de France, using the state of the art satellite that he bought especially for it!
Anyway, the weather’s just started to pick up, Ian went off on a reccy walk, and he’s thrilled to bits, because with an improvement in the weather, he’s managed to get BBC London, CNN and Sky News, only three out of hundreds normally available. But he’s a happy boy!

Monday, 20 July 2009

French Passion

Our First Experience of “French Passion”

No need to avert your eyes. For a small fee, we became members of “French Passion”, which is an organisation providing addresses of 1400 winegrowers, farmers and artisans, which offer 24hrs free parking. Very small locations, some offering only two pitches.
We set off in very different weather this morning. Extremely hot yesterday, followed by an electrical storm, and downpour, during which the side-awning, fully extended, stayed solid. We were impressed with the technology! The following day began very wet, with a miserable journey through what must be stunning scenery of the Ain, leading into the Haut-Savoie region, just south of Jura, where we spent some time in 2007 (and it p***ed it down every alternate day then!).
Passed through old towns and villages, which we discovered later in the guide were in a very unspoilt area of France. In fact so unspoilt that they are not even mentioned in the Lonely Planet Guide to France. How’s that for irony! May go some way to explaining why we can’t get a signal to send this blog, and you may receive a job lot of blogs all in one go!!
Anyway back to the passion! An amazing spot, high in the hills at the sommet of a little village, in the middle of nowhere is the Caveau Bugiste. Extremely well-maintained, full of flowers with pretty old buildings and narrow streets. Parking for two, and we’re on our own. Managed to run into the Caveau out of the rain, and organise our stay. No obligation at all, but we just had to sample some of the wines, visit the small museums, buy a couple of bottles to take with us to visit friends later, but there might be one bottle less in a couple of hours, if this rain doesn’t stop!!
There’s a steady stream of customers to the wine cellar which we assume must be locals, as it’s a bit out of the way, and they’re leaving with boxes of the stuff!
We’d love to explore the village and the medieval church when and if it stops raining!

La Belle Borgogne / Bu***red in burgundy

Cycling in Burgundy

It’s official. France is flaming massive! After two days in France, we’re still only about two-thirds of the way down, and in an area we’ve never been to before, namely Burgundy.
To take you back over the last two days. We stayed the first night near a lake in a backwater called Geraudot near Troyes. Couldn’t believe it but we met up with Steph, from Chatsworth gym, and she was on her way to Chamonix. What a coincidence!
The following day we called at the medieval village of Noyers, with its timber-framed buildings, honey-coloured walls and cobbled streets. It was weird driving the campervan through the tiny, narrow streets, but “Tommy” was unperturbed!! We sat outside a cafĂ©, next to a lady dressed in medieval costume. Since nobody else in the village seemed to be following suit, including her husband sitting opposite, Ian and I decided she was the local eccentric/ nut-case, and tried not to make eye-contact! By carefully listening in to their conversation, it turned out they were American and she owned the shop/gallery opposite, which specialised in Medieval Illuminations, and we were invited in to take a look around. I was fascinated. Ian was mentally on the road South, but politely took a look around for all of five minutes!
5euros lighter and the cheapest thing to be bought, a card with an illuminated cat, with the word, “Chat”, beautifully but expensively written near it, we were back on the road South.

We eventually pulled up at St Point in the Maconnais area of Burgundy. And so to today.
We set off about 10. 30 with a rough idea of where we wanted to go, and ended up doing about 43 miles, arriving back about 4.30, with lunch at Serrieres, and water stops at Cevnes and Cluny. A blisteringly hot day, not a cloud in the sky and not much of a breeze for the first half. We were either slogging up a big hill or free-wheeling down it, with very little in-between. Stunning scenery, a lot like Derbyshire with more hills, beautiful “fleuri”ed houses and villages, with bars which will sell you bread and honey, as well as food and alcohol. We both liked it so much, I’ve got a feeling we’ll be back. There are also incredibly old chateaux and auberges and vineyards. We cycled over the border between Burgundy and Beaujolais, with terraces of vineyards on either side of the road. We passed a spectacular chateau from the twelfth century, Pierre-clos, which stood high on the hill, surrounded by vineyards.

Remarkably, not a drop of alcohol had passed our lips, until we arrived back at the van, where we made up for it!
We really can’t get into the French language, preferring an enthusiastic form of Spench, a wonderful mixture of French and Spanish. We keep sounding as if we’re disagreeing with anyone we speak to, by adding “Si” instead of “Oui”! Ian excelled himself by asking for a “bocadillo de queso” instead of a baguette/sandwich de fromage”! Ah well we’ll never see them again anyway!
Just to make sure our friend, Checho, from C’an Punyetes, Mallorca, can access this blog, I just thought I’d mention him, tell him we missed him at lunch-time and look forward to seeing him and Pepe in October!

Anyway off Southeast tomorrow, towards the Rhone-Alps.
A Bientot!