July 10 – Aug 1, 2005
Chamonix – Annecy – Hautesrives – Annonay – Le Puy – Mende – Tarn Gorge – Millau – Albi – Montauban -Moissac – Condom – St. Jean Pied de Port
Getting to the top of Europe comes at a price and no sooner had we crossed the border than we were climbing our first French pass, Col des Montets, 1461m, for a breathtaking view of Mont Blanc.
From there it was a grand downhill with a panorama of the Savoy Alps to the beautiful Lake Annecy.
Sunflower and cereal fields meeting the horizon were a feast for the eye as we turned off the road to Annonay and climbed to Hauterives.
Hauterives, a one-horsetown, has been put on the map thanks to the Ideal Palace built by postman Cheval at the end of the 19th century. Facteur Cheval’s palace, built with stones collected on his 32km daily post run over a period of 30 years, is a wonderful example of how dreams can become reality when the will is there.
Leaving the Rhone again it was a long, long way up through the Massif Central (600 altitude meters per day) and its unique volcanic formations to LePuy-en-Velay, one of the 4 starting points for the Camino in France (Le Chemin de St. Jacques). An amazing setting with an extraordinary chapel and statue of Our Lady of France on huge rock outcrops right in town.
38 degrees Celcius is really a tad too hot for this cycling business…even at 10 pm there isn’t much relief. Yesterday, walking round town a couple of hours after a picnic of baguette and soft white cheese, our bodies decided it was just not wanted. Before we knew it, the Fire Brigade had arrived and we were whizzed off through the cobblestone streets in stretchers to hospital, for drips and blood tests. A prime example of food poisoning met by a chorus of ” What? Cheese? French cheese? Mais, non! Ce n’est pas possible!“
If there has ever been a doubt as to the origin of the word gorgeous, our week-long cycle along the Tarn river and its magnificent gorge leaves no question in our minds. The photos speak for themselves, and as most of the traffic is in kayaks, we had the road to ourselves.
Our paths did cross with Lance Armstrong and the boys on their Tour de France (Stage 18 – Albi-Mende – 189km). What a spectacle! The world and its granny were out to cheer them along in the 36-degree heat, even in the tiny off the beaten track village of Le Boyne, where we were. The lively, colourful carnival built up to a bit of a zoom-zoom experience as the cyclists sped through, but we did manage to capture the top 4 in our camera lenses. An interesting test would be to send them off up the same climb with our luggage loaded on to see how fast they’d be!
It may be Tour de France fever, but we’ve been getting wonderful support since our arrival in France. Racing cyclists have slowed down to cycle a few km with us and “Bon Courage” and ” Vous êtes chargés!” are shouted daily from shady spots on the grass margin. We’ve even got a few very welcome pushes along the way! Kurt’s luggage attracts extra attention with Où la la, vigorous shaking of the right hand in mid air and gaping jaws until he’s well out of sight!
As we were in the area, we decided to check out Lord Norman Foster’s Viaduc de Millau bridge – the highest in the world with pylons reaching 340m. The 2460m four-lane highway bridge is quite an impressive sight in the otherwise unassuming countryside.
Kentucky Fried Pigeon – how does that sound? Judging by the number of dove cotes or pigeon houses in the area it seems to have been quite the delicacy here in SW France.
This corner of France boasts numerous medieval and walled villages… all strategically positioned atop very steep hills.
The heat is unrelenting, so it’s no real wonder everything closes between12.30 and 3pm. Only mad cyclists get caught out at this hour and have to make do with magret du canard sandwiches from the exclusive local speciality boutique… Life is tough!
If Champagne is famous for sparkling wine, and Roquefort renowned for mouldy cheese, what then has Condom to offer? The sign at the entrance to town says it all…
St.Jean Pied de Port, set in the hills of the Basque country, is the meeting point of three of the four French Camino routes. It’s here the pilgrims recharge their batteries and stock up on supplies in preparation for what is described as the daunting climb over the Pyrenees.
This is the first time we’ve come across pilgrims in their masses – walking, cycling, with carts and trollies, cats and dogs. Coming from all corners of Europe, representing all age groups and demonstrating all stages of deterioration, these pilgrims show how will power can overcome oozing blisters and aching legs, even in this extreme heat.
Our evening entertainment here consisted of a two-hour long session of lads in gay costume evading raging, roaring and frothing heifers in an enclosed arena. This they did with a quick giration of the hips, a graceful dive over the beast… or simply running hell for leather to the boundary fence before jumping (with a lot less elegance) into the safety of the audience! As we face the Pyrenees four weeks, 1600km and one puncture later, we can safely say… that the fun will go on!