Every village that we set out from has some climb or other. It is hard on the legs so early in the day. It could be much worse for goodness sakes, there is blue sky, no wind and the joyous sounds of skylark by the dozen. The world has moved to a more vibrant area of the paint colour chart. One more cheerful, more generous of spirit, easier. So, it is a bit of a deflation to the feeling of bon-home when a touring cyclist goes by without responding to our cheerful greetings.
We are on the route of the Santiago de Compostella, pilgrimage route. It can be done by bike or on foot and is very popular, which is wonderful indeed. That this is the third touring cyclist to pass us on the route without returning our cheerful greeting is worrying. Do they not know the lore of cycling “all passing cyclist must be acknowledged unless they are triathletes “. Have they taken a vow of silence or something, the miserable sods?
It is still early in the morning, and as we take the bends to drop 400m it goes from warm and bright to cold and shaded. There is enough of a drop to make our ears pop. The fun ends as we start up what will mirror the descent we have just come down. Geology is clearly on display, with Basalt columns forming the roadside hills. Up we go at 5% towards the dark stone houses of St. Private de Allier. It looks to us like a Lancashire mill town, but with pavement cafes.
We sit having ‘first coffees’ and watch as people greet each other. Here it appears to be three kisses, where elsewhere it may be two or even four. But, what is most wonderful about France, and frankly that good an idea that other countries should follow is that everyone says “hello”, as they enter a cafe. This is quite definitely an inclusive hello, and is wonderful.
We sit there happy as can be and Esther points out some other quirk of France ” Those petrol pumps are less than a meter from the tables and people are happily smoking”. We have gone down and back up to 1147m in the 26k we have pedaled, so we have a second coffee and risk the place exploding.
We have reached a high plateau and have easy biking in near perfect conditions, followed by a long descent into Le Puy. It is a World Heritage Site, which I guess you would have guessed by now. The campground is busy, with many Pilgrims of ‘ The Way ‘. Not many look very happy. Some have large shells on their bags as a sign of their earnest quest. I do wonder ‘ if God is omnipotent, do you need to follow a designated route ‘.
Our campground is overlooked by St. Michael’s Church, which sits on top of a Vertiginous peak. Now, that is without doubt, impressive. Rain on the fly sheet of a tent always sounds like a terrible storm and it is worth throwing the flap open for a visual. It is early when we are making Porridge as a group of Russian Pilgrims just could not get up quietly. Esther claims that none of the Slavic languages can be spoken quietly.
We ride onto the D15 and along the banks of the Loire. It is Armistice Day, and therefore a Bank Holiday. In what is a Pan European tradition of such things, it is raining now, and quite hard. We are keeping warm though, climbing at 5,6, and 7% up to 1,200m, where it is just 11’c. We turn left onto the D500 and drop down to Mazet St Voy. Chilled to the bone we have to eat and get into dry clothing. The restaurant, where we manage to do both of these is full with locals who have been at the war cemetery in one of the thousands of Armistice Day Ceremonies.
Were it not for the triple figure room rates we would have stayed put. Out we go to shouts of encouragement from fellow diners. We are not on the road long before we get some rewards for such stoicism. Orchids, large and yellow and new to me and Campions by the roadside. There are rainbow circles of Diesel on the wet road every few meters and we descend carefully.
On another day we would be going ooh and aah with the landscape here. It could be stunning. We go over a bridge into the village of Tence. We assess the situation. Cold, yes and a climb without any obvious camp ahead. Then we see a sign for the Municipal Campground. We go back to where we had seen two camper vans and set up the tent. We have a brew of tea on and as the camper van people wave and leave we realise that we are not on the municipal. Again, this is part of the route of the Compostella and they were support. Oh well, we apply rule 1) It is always quicker to ask for forgiveness than for permission, and stay put.
” Did you see the line of mountains and the snow?”. Esther claims that towards the end of the day she had seen the Alps ahead. Blimey, are we that far across France. It rains all night but is dry for porridge production in the morning. Then France does what it does a lot of and was the reason why we decided to bring a gps with us in Europe. We are after the D18, which is two other numbers that are not on our map first, before it settles down and becomes the D18. France has been a navigational hell in the past for us, particularly finding your way out of towns and villages.
We are riding amongst Pine for the first time in many kilometres which makes a change for the senses. There are clumps of Shamrock under the trees. Yes, you thought it was Irish, but no, it is called Wood Sorrel and works well in a salad. It is all starting to look very Alpine, as well it might. The D105 and now even the houses are looking Alpine. Down 500m to the town of Vocance and it is 4’c warmer, which is welcome. Another 13k and we have lost 1,000m and have had a very good view of the Alps across the plains. They are huge, covered in snow and are not far away at all.
We cross the river Rhone at just 143m in altitude and enter the flat lands that separate the Massif Central which we have been in, from the Alps. WE are doing a long day and follow signs for a campground. Now you should know a few things about signs to campgrounds. If it says 2k from the road, expect to cycle 3k at least. The third sign for this site said 600m and so 2k later up a big hill we were there. It looked like a big imposing chateaus that had taken the fortune of several generations and then ruined this one. Think of any of the haunted houses for an episode of Scooby Doo and you are there. It also looked closed, and for a very good reason.
Back down the hill and in 10k time after looking for another proper campground without finding it at all. We give in and wild camp. The air is crisp with a view to the Alps. They are being turned first orange then red and finally in a bit of a flourish, pink. There is deep snow cover. I think we are here at the right time.
A Nightingale sings its heart out in the dense bushes by our tent. The Avian equivalent to ‘ Rave Culture ‘, he keeps up the whistling all night and then much of the day. Well good for him, and yes it is a him as it is only the males that are so stupid. We on the other hand do not feel full of energy at all. Within 7k we find a Municipal campground at the town of Beaurepaire. Within a few hours the reason for my lack of ability becomes evident when I am violently sick and worse. In Vietnam the GI’s often lived under such appalling conditions that the quote is “Happiness is a dry fart “. For the last three days now I can see what they mean. The grass may be yellowing slightly under the tent, but the road will have to wait.