FROM THE ARDECHE TO CORSICA
We feel that we may have won our race south to beat the weather as we are now sitting in a balmy 9c on the island of Corsica. After managing in temperatures of -8 we now feel that anything above freezing is just ok.
We got “stuck” in the Cevenne when the UK and most of Europe seemed to be experiencing heavy, disruptive snow. It was comforting to see that French TV made as much fuss as we do with reporters muffled up in scarves, snow in their hair reporting from some small town where cars slithered along the road and children whooped because they could sledge down hills rather than go to school.
We were in a hotel in Langogne for 2 days and then decided that we really should try and get going. We got as far as the post office where we met an elderly lady who asked us what we were doing. When we told her she started rolling her eyes and waving her hands about and I felt tears starting to prick my eyes in agreement and self pity. Tears are always a good decider and when they started to freeze on my cheeks we headed back to the hotel with our tails between our panniers. We were disturbed to find that the hotel was full for that night but sent us off to another hotel that was full of motorbikers. So we had a raucous but jolly time still looking out onto the grey skies and swirling snow and wishing it would just go away.
Local information is always good and the following day the consensus in the bar seemed to be that we could leave and follow the main road which would have been cleared and gritted. Added to that it was a Sunday when lorries are not allowed on the road so it would be quiet and relatively safe.
We met Prudence along the way and she stayed with us as we climbed up out of the valley into a winter wonderland of ice and hoar frost.
We were heading into the Ardeche to stay with our friend Vincent who has a honey farm high up in the mountains. My bike was on its last legs due to its fractured rim so we rather limped down the Ardeche river stopping for two hot chocolates along the way to defrost.
We had a wonderful four days with Vincent in his gorgeous house surrounded by chestnut forest and thankfully no snow. His wood burning stove worked overtime, we ate mountains of food and even celebrated Pete’s birthday.
My bike went into hospital for 2 days and came out fit and well and then just needed a good clean.
Counter intuitively we had a long climb up when we left Vincent and as usual left too late. After 19 km of climbing we came to a col where we once again hit the snow line. There was a biting wind and it was now dark but we had to keep going as there was nowhere to stay. As we swooped down from the col I saw Pete hesitate and then stop and my heart leapt for joy as I saw the lights of a hotel and neither of us needed much persuasion to find out if they had room. It was a small hotel but the thing that made it very special was that it had a bath, with a plug. That bath will remain in my memory for a long time.
The slowness of travel on a bicycle makes you very aware of the changing scenery and as the Mediterranean climate approached we were entering the land of vineyards and rocky gorges and in Provence miles upon miles of lavender fields.
The Rhone valley was busy and we cycled for miles along the side of a nuclear power station. We drank chateauneuf du pape in Chateauneuf du Pape and thought it rather over rated and over priced – but what do we know? We stayed at a B&B where the foundations of the house were 600 years old and surprisingly we had to walk through Madames bedroom to get to our own. We visited one of the most popular and biggest book shops in France, La Bleuet in the ancient village of Banon. Through Provence we got the occasional whiff of lavender as we passed the fields which in the summer must look gloriously purple. We met smelly goats on the road and saw evidence of wild pig in the forests. We camped undisturbed in woods and laybys and were by now feeling we were getting used to life on the road but would certainly be grateful for a bit of warmth from the sun.
We have been through three major gorges and our experience of each one was quite different.
The Ardeche gorge was deep and distant but the road was away from the gorge so every few miles there would be a “belvedere” from which we looked down to the river hundreds of metres below. Our guidebook told us that it was very popular with kayakers and that we would enjoy seeing their colours on the river below and the sounds of people having fun, but for us all was quiet and when we camped at the beginning of the gorge all we could here was the plop of the fish as they hunted for their supper.
Our second gorge was the Gorges de la Nesque which we approached in drizzle and mist. Despite the weather we had a lovely day along a quiet and gently climbing road. Only two vehicles passed us all day, one, rather disturbingly, a snow plough which we reckoned must have got lost on its way to Wales.
The road here clung precariously to the side of the hill and I found myself cycling for most of the time in the middle of the road and only able to look down into the gorge when I had stopped and had both feet planted firmly on the ground. Pete however continued to swirl around the bends as if there really wasn’t a few hundred metre drop to one side and I had to avert my eyes and just not watch him.
At the end of this gorge the rain got really heavy and we threw up the tent and climbed in just hoping that the rain would have stopped by the next morning. It had, but the temperature had plummeted and everything which was soaked the night before was frozen solid including the tent which creaked and crackled as we emerged.
Our final and probably the most dramatic and beautiful gorge was the Verdon, 25 km long and 700 metres deep and according to local publicity second only to the Grand Canyon in the USA. It caused gasps around every bend and was great to cycle as once again we had the roads to ourselves.
Our guide book told us that by now we should be feeling some warm air rising up from the Mediterranean but for some reason we never did.
We were looking forward to meeting Bernard and Evelyn who live in Valbonne in the hills above Nice. We first met them four years ago when we were walking the GR5 and stayed with them then. They are so warm and welcoming and treated us to a pre-Christmas lunch which traditionally includes oysters and snails. A gastronomic first for both of us.
The ride down to Nice was exciting and emotional. We have made it this far, from channel to Med and have managed to get further than on Wall to Wall 1 so that is something of a Rubicon.
I am questioning my arithmetical competence. Well, we have now covered nearly 2900 kilometres. I reckoned that from Cumbria (wall number 1, Hadrian’s) to China (wall number 2, The Great) was about 10,000 kilometres give or take a few. So we should have about 7100 to go. But we are still in France! And France is quite close isn’t it? Alright, we are in fact in Corsica which technically is France though don’t suggest that to a Corsican. The other thing that’s slightly bothering me is that it was supposed to be about 800 kilometres from Hadrian’s Wall to the south coast and the route we will following down through France was supposed to be about 1600. If you add those together you only get 2400. Where has the extra 500 kilometres come from?
Talking of navigation you really can’t beat a paper map. We tend to do a bit of everything. We do have a little blue dot on a screen and sometimes it is useful but sometimes the best way to get out of a town is to steer by the sun!
We never know what effect we have on the world. We were cycling into a town the other day and passed the postie driving in the opposite direction and he gave us a pip and a wave and a smile and just that little wave brightened up our entire day. Another time we were slogging up to a snowy col and a van stopped and the driver asked us if we were ok, told us we didn’t have far to go and the road didn’t get any worse. On another occasion we were in a little restaurant in Chateauneuf du Pape – (I know – you can’t get much more poserish than that can you) – actually it was the same place that Chris was talking about where she had a glass of Chateauneuf-du-Pape. It was a little overpriced. I’m not even sure the food was that good. I found eight cloves in one small helping of beef stew. Sorry, boeuf bourguignon. Over spiced and over priced! However when we left, another diner leant over to me and asked where we were from and gave me a picture he had drawn of me on his table mat!
Bicycles. You can skip this paragraph if you’re not interested in things technical but having mentioned rims and things in the last post I thought I would finish the rim tale. SJS (St John Street Cycles) sent us two new (stronger) rims free of charge and thanks to a good bike mechanic in Valance these are now fitted and all is well with Chris’ bike. All is well too with my bike, or, at least it is now… About a week before Nice my bike was making strange knocking noises. Then, a piece of metal fell off from the underside of saddle and hit the road. I don’t like it when bits fall off my bike. Disquieting. However I tied it back on with string and it got me to Nice. I now have a brand new Brooks saddle that I have to ‘wear in’ – it’s very hard…
Christmas. In years gone by Christmas has generally got under way the day after Halloween. Mince pies appear in the shops and festive aisles appear in supermarkets complete with crooning cheesy Christmas music. The French don’t seem to take Christmas quite so seriously. There were Christmas decorations in the towns and villages we passed through but they were a bit half hearted, a bit sparten, lacking a bit of je ne sais quois…
So on Christmas eve when we arrived in Lama, a tiny Corsican village clinging to the side of the mountains where we’d booked an apartment for the Christmas period, we checked the church notice board to see if there was a service. There was! And to add to that good fortune our friends who had the apartment next door offered us a lift. ( We weren’t exactly relishing the thought of cycling up the near vertical roads to the church) After the service there was a huge bonfire and a glass of wine outside the church. Our Christmas had begun!
Christmas day saw us walking on the beach with Janet and Paul and then being invited by them to a fantastic Christmas lunch complete with all the trimmings – turkey, roast potatoes, the full works. Some even ate brussel sprouts.
Our rest is coming to an end . Soon it’s going to be time to clip on our panniers, wheel out our machines and set our faces to the south once again…
We didn’t really get the chance to wish everyone a Happy Christmas this year so many apologies and it doesn’t
mean that we weren’t thinking of all our friends and family at home. Both of us have admitted to feeling homesick over the Christmas period but we are hoping that those feelings will go with the thought of the new year ahead and adventures to come.
Happy New year from us both and may it be a year of peace and understanding and oodles of common sense.
Love from Pete and Chris xx