For those reading the Sportswool Diaries, who have not been to France. I will introduce you to ‘ the French toilet ‘. Now i think from memory, the normal western design of toilet was, as much else, invented in China.
The rest of Europe and then the world looked on with quiet amazement and then produced something similar. The design must have been known about in France, but in what can be thought of as an example of Parallel Evolution, the French developed their own. You wonder why, and yet there are modern examples of the French going off at a tangent. The designers at the car company Citroen were thought to be kept for much of the 1960’s and 1970’s, in a locked room, away from humanity and fed through a flap in the door. Their car designs were unusual that is for sure. The French do things different.
Setting out from Banyuls-sur-mer, we were into typical coastal riding even before we had left the town. Straight up a hill, down and then up another. Many of the downs concluded with increasingly beautiful villages. Collioure was stunning and it knew it. A new ‘ most expensive coffee’ record was set. Colour was being re introduced into the palate for the first time since Portugal. The French love to use pastel shades and here they were using Pinks to good effect in Collioure.
As we closed in on the coast in front of Perpignan, the profile flattened. We were in a small gap between the Mediteranean and the Pyrenean mountain chain which was off to our left and still covered in snow. It is 23’c and we are on a series of bike paths that run by the side of the road. How good is this? Coffee may have risen by a quantum margin again, but France is good.
We go through a chain of sea-side villages. In one there is ‘Durand Cycles. I wonder if it belongs to Jacky Durand, exponent of that other French madness, the loan 180 kilometre breakaway. He had is own way of riding a grande tour, either 10 minutes off the front or 2 off the back waving at the camera ( he won the lanterne rouge for coming last and the combativity award! ).
We have looked at the weather forecast and know that the wind is to become first playful and then strong in the late afternoon. We have a thin strip of exposed land to cross in front of Perpignan and decide to push on and try and cross it from Port-Barcanes to Leucate. We make it, and camp at a municipal campground. All well and good. But the wind rises quickly from playful to something beyond terrifying. The tent is being blown over and the ridge pole bends to touch us as we lie in our sleeping bags. We are worried that trees will fall or the caravan behind us be tipped over.
I like to think that we got more sleep than we imagined, but we were in poor shape and the wind was still strong and coming straight at us in nasty gusts. Navigation to avoid the busy roads that squeeze through the coastal gap, was difficult. Thank heaven and Garmin for the gps, a feeling as close to that of being a ‘ smart bomb’ without any of the down sides. We go down rough and narrow roads that you would take to be going nowhere but a dump or fly- tipping spot. But it all works out. They are there on the screen of the Garmin and there they are. I have to admit that gps amazes me and probably always will.
We see Pink Flamingos in a lagoon to our side, which is a bit of a surprise. We take a slight curve as the road follows the coast and the wind is now from the side for a while. It does not last. We ride into Narbonne along the Canal de la Robine. With the Med to our right, there is nothing to protect us. The wind is now at a point where talking to each other is impossible. This is a flat day, an easy day and I am in stupid low gears and crawling along on the drops. Swallows are trying to catch the hundreds of insects a day that they need. They are having a hard day as well, being thrown around like black socks in a dryer.
Narbonne is very nice indeed but the highlight for us will be a quiet night in a hotel, with no Spanish door slamming and shouting. A quick look at the cathedral and then out along the Canal de la Robine towards the Canal du Midi for a ride north.
We had decided to have a look at Carcassonne as we had loved the area around there when we had biked here some years ago. We had loved it enough to want to move there in fact. There is a theory that you have two countries in your life. The one where you are born, and the one that you feel drawn towards. France does that for me since we first toured here and we had been scared about arriving here in case, like the girl in the fith year at school that you adored. She had put on 20 kilo and had not looked after herself one bit.
Plane Trees line the canal. There is less wind and what there is becomes a tail wind as we turn left onto the Canal du Midi and go back on ourselves a bit. This is gorgeous, with vineyards and fruit farms either side. We pull off at a village to buy coffee at a more reasonable €2.86 and butter rich croissants from a boulangerie. Back on the Midi, we see more cyclists in 10 minutes than the last 3 months. The canal is a World Heritage Site and is undeniably beautiful, but riding along, we feel we are missing the France that we pass through.
To be honest, the surface is very poor for long stretches even though it attracts so many hundreds of walkers and cyclists. Holes and tree stumps demand almost full attention. We use the gps, to pick out small roads running parallel. In the end we do much of the day on these side roads and to be honest, enjoy our time in wonderful countryside.
We end the day at a village called Rustiques, on a quiet campground from where we can see clouds tumbling to get over the mountains that surround Carcassonne. We did not enjoy our time with other cyclists on the canal. There is a little bit of ‘ not feeling special ‘, but also a strong bond and only wanting to ride together and with a person who you trust to point out the potholes and tree roots in front of you.
We are taking the canal into Carcassonne and ride down to it in the morning. We ride for some way before we check the compass and confirm that we are heading back towards Narbonne. Still the path is rough, but at least we are heading in the right direction now. It is grey today, which somehow emphasises the greens of the new spring leaves. One of the pleasure boats goes past with a guy wearing a captains hat. I hope it is being worn in an ironic way, but I think not. There is a great deal of waving from the boats and cheri ” Bonjour “. I think they are very glad we are there to break the monotony.
We get into Carcassonne and pitch at the city campground. It is 3.00 pm but I feel worn out and have a headache. Getting ill is horrible when you travel, but 15 hours of sleep sorted things. It is almost quiet, except for a group of tents next to us, who I take to be music students and possibly from Denmark. They spend the evening performing’ close harmony a cappella ‘ renditions of popular tunes. It could be much worse perhaps.
After a rest day of no singing we are fresh and back in the saddle and on the D203 into the hills. It is idyllic nice again. Joy of joys, the very strong wind that has picked up once more, is now a tail wind. Up we climb, to the bucolic village of Aragon. The 203 is following a valley as it climbs, with Cuckoo and Orchids.
It rises to 600 m and already the leaves are younger or not yet out. There are Cowslips and Lesser Stichwort. For the first time in Europe I can name many of the plants as we travel closer to the Uk and home. 700 m and it is now just 12’c and we are back in very early Spring. This is a hard day of climbing and what you do not want is a closed road and diversions up a big hill. This adds a further 5 k to the journey and nothing at all to our level of good humour.
I had forgotten how everything closes on a Saturday in France. We have gone past wonderful Boulangerie and Patisserie, all tightly shut. We drop like a stone down to Mazamet with the wind trying to rip branches from the trees and throw them on the road in front of us. It is wild and stays wild for much of the night. This was the first big climbing day in France and we have been reminded of just how lung busting, leg wearying it is.