France

Col de Lombarde : My Italian pass

Starting at St Sauveur-sur-Tinee, (510m) I climbed to Isola village (871m) then to Isola2000 (2000m) and finally to the Col de Lombarde (2350m)
On the promise of free WiFi at Isola, I hung around trying to get it to work, but like most free WiFi points in France, it didn’t work. McDonalds is the only reliable free connection here and there are not many in the mountains!
Set off on the main climb at 12pm just as the sun popped out.
The hardest part was the cold.. gradually the layers went on for the last part the hat and gloves. I did have to stop on the way down to warm up and wait for the blood to return to the fingers as using breaks is somewhat less precise when you cant feel your fingers. 

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Times like this I miss by beloved tripod. Still, just got another from ebay..

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Top of Col de Lombarde (2350m)

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Time for a snowball fight?

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The crossing into Italy

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I feel somewhat robbed of the views on the way down. Not knowing if the drop at the edge of the road was a few meters of a few hundred meters made it a bit tense. Not any barriers in many places. Even so the barriers are only shin height, not much use on a bike..

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Alpes-Maritimes : Gorges and Mountains

There are not many routes to Italy. The coast is busy, the next pass inland, Tende, carries heavy traffic and the next one is a ski resort. So, even though I forgot to pack skis, Isola is where I cross.
The countryside route out of Provence is delightful and packed with sleepy villages, small hills offering sweeping views and empty roads

Provence

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Into the Alpes-Maritimes

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Gorge du Cians
I started this in the evening and camped up on a bypassed section of the old route. Pitched the tent at dusk. As night fell the fireflies turned on the most amazing light show I’ve ever seen. Trees and bushes around were twinkling with thousands of tiny pulsing lights. Quite often a fly would silently and gently float by right under my nose. Magical.

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The Alps

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Seaside, Hospitality and home cooked food

Although the sea has been looming in the distance over the last few days, I’m now finally on the beach at Cassis. To my left rising up 400m is the largest coastal cliff in Europe and since my next destination is on the other side of the cliff the incentive is to stay here and eat breakfast instead. The ride up to the cliff is steep and I came across a fellow tourer from Lyon with a burst inner tube due to overheated rims from excessive breaking on the way down. Being quite a warm day his glue simply melted and the patch would not stick. The glue from my repair kit did the job. He plays a very peculiar stringed Indian banjo / guitar cross. He twanged out a few rhythms by the roadside to satisfy my curiosity.

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Cassis

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Behind me is a very long 400m drop

The Watsons
Friends of the family who moved from Southport kindly offered a place to stay. In return I helped with jobs around the house… or tried to!

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Mike and Christines place near La Ciotat

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Mike and I on the bread run..

La Ciotat to Fox Amphoux

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National holiday celebrations

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14 July is a big day in the French Calendar. It involves fireworks and family

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The Lavour, once hotbeds of village gossip they are rarely used, but perfect for my needs!

The Cades
Two day bike ride away are more family friends, Mike and Chris. Mad keen on Tour de France, I fixed their printer while they watched the race.

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A Roman feast: Pont du Gard, Nimes, Arles.

In dry Mediterranean towns water is a precious resource. So what better way to display your wealth as a city than to have decorative water features and fonts gushing cooling fresh water to public places and private houses. The overflow even  cleanses the streets and drains. In 50AD, the Roman city of Nimes had such ambition and the Pont du Guard was one of the many engineering masterpieces that allowed this to happen. Built to carry a 200 million litres every day (that must be a misprint!) of pure water extracted from a spring miles away, it carries a channel large enough to walk through high up across a valley. The museum is very good, and focuses on research done to understand the whole aqueducts design, function, alteration and decline. It doesnt just concentrate on the Pont du Guard, which is a small section of its 50 km route.
The museum explains chemical analysis of the 30cm thick deposits lining the aqueducts walls similar to the lime scale that builds up in your kettle. Over its 500 years use a cross section of this stone charts date, water quality and flow rates over is operating life and links them to events at the time. It fascinated the nerd in me..

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One of the remaining sections of the aqueduct that feeds the Pont du Gard

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The museum explains chemical analysis of the 30cm thick deposits lining the aqueducts walls similar to the lime scale that builds up in your kettle. Over its 500 years use a cross section of this stone charts date, water quality and flow rates over is operating life and links them to events at the time. It fascinated the nerd in me..

Arles

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Coliseum in Arles dwarfs the small town. The whole place had a very laid back feel.

Aix-en-Provance

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Jean and his Moulton frame bike, a UK classic

Others

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A few good hills, with lots of good views

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Sommieres, another town that sticks to the Roman grid layout

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A view from the tent. i may look like an idyllic slice of country life, but the tractors make lots of noise..

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Tour de France copied my route.

I didn’t plan or aim for it but the dots on my map were the same as those for the Tour de France. Everyone thinks I know everything about all the teams and that I follow avidly, but I honestly couldn’t care less. Its far too much rushing about and hard work. Just think about all those vineyards that offer tastings and will fill your plastic bottles for a few euro – they are the ones who don’t know what there missing…
Since my way was blocked, why not stick around.
The circus passed through the village, or sponsors as they are known. Lobbing free gifts, tasters and flyers as they drove past on floats. Loudspeakers, music, video screens. All great fun but it is a mistake to assume the cycle race is not far behind as the streets suddenly emptied and marshals sat down in the shade for a picnic. “How long until the race?” I asked. “Two and a half hours”. Sod that.. With a diverted route I pressed on.

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Then camped next to a lake

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Garotte de Clamouse
The tour specialises in the chemistry and geology of cave formation. Its in in depth and explained how carbon dioxide dissolves into the rainwater that seeps into the limestone which then dissolves the limestone to create the voids. As the river carves deeper valleys the water table drops draining the chambers. there was so much more.. Creatures and fish adapted to conditions underground were pointed out, stone colouring, core sample analysis, chemical reactions.. If I was a kid I’d be soooo board. There was once formation in the shape of an eagle. “Look, there is the an eagle. Its actually created by blar action of blar blab blab blar..”, is probably how the average 10 year old would have heard it.
I was expecting 2 headed buddas standing on one leg holding an ironing board if you half close your eyes and tilt you head. I was so very pleasantly and unexpectedly surprised at this learning and visual feast. I recommend it to the nerds like me..

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St Guilhem le Desert
A UNESCO heritage sight right next door to the caves. I explored to cool dark interior of this Romanesque abbey

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The rest of the day was spent cycling the Gorges de l`Herault carved through the limestone valley by the action of the river.

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I can see the Mediterranean!

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First glimpse of the Mediterranean

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Me after a particularly hot day.. note the growth of a salt crystal beard!

From Carcassonne the landscape quickly turns from lush green to dry scrubland. Olive groves mix with the vineyards here in Languedoc. I’ve now found the Mediterranean climate, but without the planned gradual acclimatisation its a dizzying shock to the system. One day gloves, jumpers and waterproofs and now to 36 in the shade (according to my digital thermometer). Things are hot to the touch even out of the sun. This means I’m consuming 10 litres of water to avoid headaches and having to take sort breaks when I start to feel dizzy. Its going to take 2 weeks to condition myself, but after that I hope to resume my normal pace.

There be Romans
Near Narbonne is the Amphora museum. Its like a giant spaceship landed on top of the archeology dig site. There are excavations of kilns that fired vessels for storing wine and oils. It didn’t explain why they are such an awkward shape for stacking, but interesting to see how the kilns were built and operated.

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Even the footpaths were littered with pots

Its high season
Although much cheaper than the UK, camping in France has gone up considerably. The norm is 15 euros per night for me an the tent. Often manage to knock it down by quoting the minimum price.. “Its 15 euros for 2 adults and one car, how much is it for 1 adult and NO car?” Sometimes they point out 15 is the minimum price and often they knock the price down to 11. One site I was told its 18 euros minimum so I filled my bottles and camped in an overgrown vineyard, if anything more for the practice of wild camping than the cost. Had an outdoor shower, no tiny shower cubical with wet floor where I invariably drop my clothes. Nice grass patch instead of the usual gravel floor. No traffic noise from busy roads. No loud farting in the night from other campers. Bliss in fact.

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Carcassonne and the fairytale countryside

Its very pretty here. The small hills are a bugger to cycle up, but they do make for spectacular views over the countryside. Here fields of golden corn and barley are the feast for the eyes and to top it off, the snow capped peaks of the Pyrenees loomed in the distance.
The ride into Carcassonne was hot and for the first time I heared the popping of the tar on the road. The aim was to acclimatise on the way south, but this was out the fridge and into the fire! Arriving at  Carcassonne I met up with a retired French couple who had lived in lots of different African countries working as teachers. I asked about the lions.. they said don’t cycle through the national parks, they won’t let you anyway!

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Snow capped Pyrenees in the distance

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Corner of a village that is forever medieval.

Carcassonne
The citadel is a sight to see, from a distance. What I should have done is looked round in the evening on arrival, but the heat beat me and I sorted through photos and updated the blog instead. On a normal day its rammed with tourists and my visit was brief. East from here my next destination is Nimes and I have a selection of things to see on the way.

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Nothing Toulouse

Go to a city in France on a Sunday and you have the place to yourself. Go on a Saturday and you share it with the world. At its heart is a square surrounded by a maze of streets. A tour by bike located the major sites and I opted to visit the Museum of Toulouse, which housed an assortment of objects from the city in no particular context from Roman times to the 1900’s. Of interest were some old photos and the house that hosted the collection.

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Folk dancing from around Europe

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Toulouse space centre
One of the few sunny days and I spend it indoors in an air conditioned building. Its a sizable collection of outdoor exhibits and indoor interactive displays. The 3D Imax cinema is great. I felt let down by the exhibits and the content.
The exhibits
Mostly crude mockups. Solar panels printed by inkjet printers, fake panels slapped into places that looked blank.
The content
First question on a multiple choice about satellites.
Q: ‘Can satellites help blind people feel their way through space’.
A: True (but somewhat misses the point in my view)
Also, a whole room about applications of satellites made no mention of the military use or how technology found its way into civilian use.

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Ariane 5

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Models of the generations of Mars rovers

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So there does it plug into?

Spokes update:
Still having the odd spoke breakage every 2 to 3 days, although now is a 3 minute repair job. I don’t even take the bags off so I’m not that bothered now. All part of the challenge!

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Following the Canal Garonne Southwest

South from Bordeaux is the Canal du Garonne and a perfect route for clocking up miles away from the cold and wet mornings. Built in the 1860’s, it arrived just in time to be made obsolete by the railway that now runs alongside it for most of the way. The towpath is sheltered from the elements by lines of densely packed mature plain trees. Cycling a 100km is a day is effortless on this surface, a stark contrast to the tens of thousands of people that must have laboured for years to cut or raise its waters through this landscape.
At one of the many campsites on the way I passed a pleasant evening with a family following a similar route. They had two children, the eldest being four. Situated in the shadow of a crumbling old chateau, it was a fine setting to share my wine purchase from Jean-Marie. Finished off with Port wine and stumbled back to find the tent.

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Roadkill.. Lots of these about.. Is it dangerous? I've been warned about little shakes in trees..

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This one next to my Galaxy S phone..

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Passenger in the morning sun

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Canal crosses the river..

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Couldn't resist!

The hardest thing about this trip is keeping all my gear in one place. There are a number of rules, lanyards, clips and routines for making sure I dont leave anything behind and today my first major casualty, my camera tripod. As usual, it it involves a major backtrack to where it was last used, in this case the tower in St Emilion. A 3 hour round trip back to the tourist information office yielded nothing.

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Following the canal I rolled in to La Reole, my final destination. Staying here was not an option as the campsite had been flooded and the ground was ‘contaminee’ according to the posters. 8km later I was camped next to a French tourer on a recumbent trike. He was delighted to show me how he zips a hood to enclose the whole seat and luggage area. “It is very useful in this weather we are having”. He’s not wrong there!

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La Reole, where the campsite was flooded

Moissac is worth a visit for the street scene and Abbey. The carving on the entrance is amusing, the rich man on his death bed with the demons taking his soul and purse while his wife weeps.
Chatted to an Australian couple, Ginny & Geoff from Sidney, Ginny originally from Cornwall. We were even joined by a Californian couple who, get this, didn’t own a car! A very pleasant afternoon and a welcome break from the canal.

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Although the canal makes a great route, it predominantly features, well, a canal lined with trees. Sometimes a tree is missing, mostly not. Locks and not many boats. Roll on Toulouse

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Canal, lock, lock house, boat and trees. You've seen it all now

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Inventive alternative to locks, a boat lift powered by two full size locomotives. I wonder if you need two drivers?

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Bordeaux and wine country

Long after the pyramids have turned to dust, there be still be a lasting reminder of our existence on this planet in the form of the U-boat pens in Bordeaux.. With a roof made from reinforced concrete as thick as a house and space for 14 U-boat docks it is huge. The local authority wanted to demolish it, but a quick survey showed it was going to cost a very large sum to do so, so they turned part of it into and exposition centre and the rest lies unused. Its out of town in a very grotty area surrounded by squats, gipsy camps and hostels and not the sort of place tourists are encouraged to go. Although closed on Mondays the front door was open so I just walked in and looked around without a soul about.

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Then into the town centre for a tour of the sites. Again, being Monday, lots of places are closed so I cycled the backstreets searching out the gems. Back on the campsite I spent a plesant evening with Burkhardt and Uschi, IT workers from Stuttgart. They too had braved the weather from La Rochelle where we had previously chatted sheltering from the rain.

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Coming to Bordeaux and not tasting thr wine is like going to the pool and not getting wet. St Emilion is very pretty village nestled on the side of a hill overlooking the prime winegrowing area of Bordeaux. A climb of the clock tower requires the key from the tourist information desk and I was the only one up there. The views over the town and surrounding vineyards are stunning.

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The large chateau wine houses line the roads in and out of St Emilion, but my eyes were set on something a bit smaller and run by someone with a passion for wine, not just an employee. On a country lane I noticed Chateau Bonesperance and sounds of work from the rear. At once the owner and proprietor Jean-Marie Fritegotto had me tasting the offerings. I purchaced a bottle of his 2011 and 1.5 litres of the 2012 from the tap. Total bill, 5.50 Euro.

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