3 June (Sunday) – Bell-ringer reunion in Montouliers

This morning we spent about 2 hours finding the Canal du Midi from Vias. Ended up riding between farmer’s fields again before we found a canal with a mountain bike type track beside it – not what we were expecting (we thought it would be an easy ride). The track improved to a sealed path before Beziers for a while. But was very variable – in places lots of rocks and tree roots to avoid. This made for fairly slow going around 10km per hour.We saw many tourist boats on the canal, including some going through the eight locks at Beziers (3 boats at a time).

We left the canal before Capestang and went up the viewpoint of Oppidum d’ Enserune – a hill which was occupied around 6BC to 1AD. Great views of the surrounding countryside, including fields shaped like spokes draining into a circular depression in the centre (called the swamp of Montady).

From here we moved onto Capestang by road (still roughly following the canal) – here they were clearing up from the morning market. And then we found our way to the small village of Montouliers, where we were hosted by Derek and Mary Williams. Derek is the ringing master of the Wellington Cathedral of St Paul and Mary is also a Cathedral ringer. They spend part of every year in this French village – it was great to see some familiar faces and also to see their place in France.

Too bad the bells in the village church rung with an automatic mechanism!

Altogether we did around 70km.

Highpoints:

  • We spent a memorable evening with Derek and Mary. First they took us (by car) on a visit to the village of Minerve – a truly remarkable place. It stands on a ledge between two intersecting limestone river gorges. The city was a Cathar stronghold that was besieged by Simon de Montfort (under the authority of the Roman church) in 1210 – they shot at the place with catapults and prevented them from accessing their water supply. When the city fell, 180 Cathars were burnt alive by the Inquisition.  Derek is very knowledgeable on the history of the whole area and being with him was like having a personal tour guide. Back home Mary made us a lovely home cooked meal, followed with strawberries and cheeses bought at a local market – we were very spoilt.

Lowpoint:

  • The wire in my bike’s gear mechanism broke in the morning – so I had to ride the whole day with only 3 gears. Luckily there were not too many hills!

2 June (Saturday) – to Vias

An easy ride today – 74km including 5km into town and back at the end of the day.

Ride consisted of rolling farmland interspersed with regular towns – olive trees; vineyards; wheat fields, some dry river beds.

It also seemed a little cooler in the afternoon than in the previous few days – thank goodness.

We stopped St Andre de Sangonis for breakfast from the local bakery and coffee shop.

Then onto Pezenas where we arranged our accommodation at tourist info and spent an hour or so looking around the Saturday morning market – huge food market in the historic center. We bought a large bag of delicious cherries and also some bread and tomatoes. Leaving town I was pleased to find a big Carrefour Supermarche, where we shopped for the rest of our picnic and also bought a snack and coffee (nice and cool inside).

The road between Pezenas and Bessan was appalling for bikes – not enough shoulder and fast traffic. After running this gauntlet we were relieved to get onto a quiet road again and then not far to our accommodation just outside Vias.

The chambres d’hotes is on a farm – very well kept place. She has around 5 extra rooms built around the large house, each with its own patio. We enjoyed our picnic on the patio and then fell asleep for a couple of hours – indulgent!

Highlight:

  • Going into Vias this evening and finding a folk festival in full swing. Lots of people in traditional costume. Also a stage with folk dancing and some great singing (accompanied by fiddle and accordion). Mostly local people, and a stall selling a delicious smelling meal – meat that must have been cooked in red wine. Too bad we were too full to eat again!

1 June – magic ride to a legendary valley

After several days of frustrating cycling we had an almost perfect ride today.

It was a little shorter at around 65km but a lot of it was hilly.

We first made our way to Claret on fairly busy roads. Yes; we did pass a wine cooperative there. From there we went up a small mountain pass onto a high plateau area. It was hard work but well graded and we could make it in one go at our present fitness level. Wonderful granite outcrops and views of the farmland below. Obviously other cyclist like it as we saw quite a few on the route.

At the top it was reminiscent of the Cederberg area (in RSA). Very arid, not many houses or farms – think it may have been a nature reserve.

Eventually we came to the old town of St Martin de Londres – where we had some lunch out of the bakery and booked our accommodation through the tourist office. It was very hot again but as we were so high up it seemed drier and more bearable.

The journey from St Marten was first very up and down through wild arid country and then a huge down hill run or around 3km coming into Puechabon. Again the views of the countryside and towns below were awesome. After Puchabon there were lots of groves of olive trees and vineyards again. Kris said it reminded him of Israel and it seemed quite biblical to me, even saw some people having a meal under an olive tree.

We are staying in St Guilhem le Desert – coming into the town is amazing – you come from this arid country to a huge gorge with a fast flowing river. We later find out that the old bridge crossing the gorge is called the Pont du Diable – there is a legend about the devil building it in 3 days. We then rode up this gorge alongside the river for several km before we got the the town.

Our hotel is on the river at the entrance of the town. St Guilhem (William) founded a monastery here in 804. His cult grew around a fragment of the True Cross (which is still in the church). The town was founded in the 11th and 12th centuries.

Today the church has special UNESCO world heritage status. The town is largely a tourist town – just one street really with lots of craft and gift shops. We had a lovely supper at a cafe under a plane tree at the center planted in 1855. Very hot into the evening – we are glad that our hotel has air-conditioning, even though we usually prefer fresh air.

Highlights:

  • The church and monastery

Lowpoints

  • Kris broke a spoke again, luckily only about 10m away from our accommodation

31 May – too hot in Sauve

Today we did another long ride – 85km and really suffered from the heat in the afternoon again.

We started out going slightly to the north to see the town of Uzes that we were told was very pretty by our bed and breakfast host. Well, the old town was pretty, with a nice castle in the center and church- but spoilt by terrible roads for bikes (too narrow, lots of traffic)  for about 10km in and 10km out. Also full of traffic all around the old city and tourists – felt as though you couldn’t move.

We were relieved to get onto quiet country roads again mid-morning and have resolved to stay away from tourist centers and cities.

This was borne out by the town of Vezenobres which we passed through next with no expectations. Almost no tourists, but so much more interesting. The old medieval city is built on a hill so we had to work hard to get there – pushing the bikes part of the way, it was so steep. Also very hot by this time. The city has amazing views over surrounding countryside and some access between streets is through tunnel like walkways. The whole place is beautifully kept with roses climbing up walls and fig trees. Part of it is being restored.

We then pushed on to Sauve. Our rural roads took us through endless grapevines again. Also a little more hilly today, so harder work (but nice to cool down when you hit a long down-hill)

Sauve is another amazing little town. the tourist office guy was extremely informative. After sorting out our accommodation he told us all about the town in  broken English. The town is on the Vedourle river and a subterranean arm of the river resurges from underground in the town, next to the wall of a Benedictine Abby whose oil and flour mills it worked. There is also an underground river running under the town that caver’s dive in and is inhabited by a rare type of shrimp.

They also still manufacture a unique wooden three pronged pitchfork; from one piece of wood, that they have been making since the 11th century. they split the tree into three while it is still growing.

Highlights:

  • Walking about Vezenobres – would have loved to have spent an evening here.
  • A kind lady living in Vezenobres – we asked her for some water and she produced a large ice cold bottle of bottled water (looks like the tap water is no good). Would absolutely take no payment – also spoke no English at all.
  • Walking around Sauve in the evening, buying some groceries; and finding the pub where the locals drink. Discovering a new drink – pastis (aniseed flavored aperitif) – by pointing to what the locals were having and asking for one. One of these locals lived across the way from the pub and his wife kept on putting her head out the window to talk with him (possible as the street is very narrow). The other had his dog and cat with him (I think he told me they were his – they were pretty jolly and didn’t speak any English at all).
  • Again, no broken spokes – how long can this last?

30 May – to Remoulins and the the Pont du Gard

A long ride today in the heat.We started out heading to Orange to see the amphitheater there. Couldn’t really find a suitable bike path – at one point we road along a path by the river, where I got my bike all muddy, but it was too rocky to ride on for long. Eventually we gave up and rode on a busy road. Passing Mornas and seeing a castle overlooking it on the edge of a huge cliff was impressive.

Orange was crowded with traffic, so after examining the amphitheater, we headed out along quieter roads as advised by the tourist office. We crossed the Rhone again and went through a perfect little town called Cordolette – very prosperous looking with lots of hanging flower baskets and cobbled streets.

We made our way to St Laurent des Arbres; mostly through vineyards now and very hot. There we found the tourist office (which was in a small castle) closed until 3pm. The whole place was very quiet – maybe they were all having a sleep. We had a small picnic of bread and cheese and decided to head on to Remoulins to find accommodation. At Lirac we tried to get onto a rural road again and found ourselves on another rocky road and then in a vineyard. Looking up we saw a monks cell built into a cliff; which is probably where the road was heading. So we backtracked and went on the busy road again – it was ok for a while but unpleasant as we came into Remoulins.

Our accommodation is bed and breakfast just outside town – ok except there are mosquitoes!

So a longer than planned ride at 95km, but no spokes broken three days in a row now!

Highlight:

  • Evening picnic on riverbank at the Pont de Gard  – only about a km away from where we are staying. This is a Roman aquaduct built in around 50AD to carry water to Nimes. It was amazing with huge arches – as big as any modern bridge. It was lovely walking over it at dusk and seeing all the swallows fly around it and into holes where they nest. The river was still and beautifully reflective.

Lowpoint:

  • Prostitutes blatantly working on the road coming into Remoulins at 3 in the afternoon. Very high heels and skirts so short you can see their crotch. Must be very unsafe for them getting into trucks and cars on the roadside.

29 May – to Saint-Paul-Trois-Chateaux

Fresh cherries for breakfast on the farm this morning.

We had an early start at around 8am but the heat was already building up and we were sweating by 9am.

Kris took us on a route across the farmlands to avoid the highway – this was lovely while it was through rolling wheat fields, with mountains in the distance.

Once we reached Allex (small town with very narrow streets and stone buildings) we took an unintended route which took us up hill climbs again (I pushed much of the way – too hot). The road eventually deteriorated until it was so bad (rocky) we had to push our bikes. After a few hundred meters we came across a very smart house with amazing views. The road was marginally better on the other side. This road meandered on and on – shocking road, lovely houses, awesome views. Even though we were a bit off track in retrospect this was the best part of our ride.

Coming down off this hill was also interesting – the steepest road we have experienced in Europe – even worse than Horokiwi!

The rest of the route was not as much fun, as we were on the road most of the time – not such good bike tracks in this part of France.

We stopped at Montelimar to buy a bike part and also some nougat (and pastries). This is evidently the nougat capital of the world – a fact which is evident by every shop selling it. We bought ours from a nougat factory shop. We also drove through the old city (entering at city gates).

We crossed to the other side of the river at Viviers/ Donzere and marvelled at the old ruins on the top of the hills and cliffs next to the Rhone. Also some very nice cable suspension bridges. At Pierrelatte we found the tourist office closed till 2.30pm (from 12.30 – we find it curious how many businesses just close for large chunks of the day here), so we crossed the river again and went on to Saint-Paul-Trois-Chateaux, by which time their tourist office was open. In all we had done about 75km – it was frankly too hot to carry on so I was glad our accommodation was close.

Our accommodation is in the old medieval city of St-Paul, bed and breakfast on the top floor of a narrow house.  The outer houses are built into the wall and there are several gates. The old city is like a rabbit warren of narrow streets. We wondered around for quite a while looking for our accommodation until the owner came running after us – she was expecting two New Zealander’s on bikes so we must have been quite conspicuous.  The house looks very plain from the outside but has a lovely dining, kitchen area out back leading onto a patio area and swimming pool. Our room is big and has an adjoining kitchenette.

Once we had cleaned up we went for a walk around the old city and found a shop to buy supper. Ended up with far to much food – bread, cheeses, olives, salami, strawberries, tomatoes – and red wine – yum.

Highlights:

  • The Cathedral Notre-Dame-et-Saint-Paul in the old city – an ancient Roman Catholic cathedral, rebuilt in the 12th century by the Templars – it is beautifully plain inside – ancient stone walls. See http://www.art-roman.net/stpaultrois/stpaultrois.htm
  • Walking around the city after 9pm when it was starting to cool down a little – stopping at a outdoor restaurant for a beer.

Note – We have now traveled over 1500km over 20 days. Our daily average is 78km.

28 May – to Valence and then Etiole Sur Rhone

Had a nice early start today due to no breakfast at hotel. Instead we had coffee and yummy pastries from next door bakery.The bike paths were not too difficult but did disappear at times. We did around  85km following the Rhone.

We stopped for info and accommodation booking in Valence and then onto the supermarket before it closed for the afternoon, as it was a public holiday.

Our accommodation is out in the countryside on a farm – took a bit of riding around through wheat fields to find and also took us a bit off route. Still we got their nice and early just after two, with the heat just building up. We have a self contained room built from stone off the side of the rambling farm buildings. Lovely roses growing outside and chickens wondering around.

We enjoyed a bottle of red wine and strawberries on our patio before falling asleep for a couple of hours!

Quite a relaxed day as no spokes broken!

Highlights:

  • The early morning ride next to the river with the reflections of trees on the still water and an easy bike path: Passing two swans with cygnets.

27 May – Along the Rhone to Serrieres

I am writing this blog from the balcony of our hotel room, overlooking the Rhone river in the fading light. It is past 9pm but still light and warm – I am only wearing my T-shirt.

Today we only did around 65km and arrived here nice and early at around 3pm.

The Saone river joins the Rhone at Lyon, so we are following the Rhone down south from now on.

Our day started with a detour from the motorway which took us up a long hill climb of around 3km – a bit of a shock to the system after all the river rides. It took us onto a plateau with very prosperous looking farmland and farmsteads. This was the most scenic part of the ride. Kris asked directions from a old codger who was amazed to see us – the first time he has seen cycle tourists up there.

Once we came down the hill we made our way to Vienne  – another ancient town on the river overlooked by a ruined castle on the hill. Here we were surprised to find the tourist office open as it is Sunday – picked up a map of the cycle route south.

The cycle route south was pretty good – off road along the river most of the way to Serrieres.

Highlights

  • Passing through a nature reserve on the cycle route, forest type environment together  with hides for bird watching
  • Walking along the promenade by our hotel in the evening and then having a drink at the local pub
  • Seeing four swans flying together low along the still river at dusk

Lowpoints:

  • Kris breaking a spoke and then Jenny also breaking a spoke in the heat of the day. Kis spent at least an hour fixing spokes today.

25 May (Saturday) – Lyon

We had been debating whether to go round or through Lyon as big cities are no fun on a bike. Today we ended up going through it.

We started out without a bike path today and lots of traffic leaving Creches-sur_Saone. However Kris ably navigated us to some quieter country roads to the east of the Saone river and we had an enjoyable ride through some very picturesque towns – all ocher walls and old men tending immaculate vegetable patches. Roughly going south along the Saone, but not usually in sight of it.

Some of the hills in this area really remind me of the Western Cape.

We stopped at the tourist info at Trevoux, a beautiful town right on the river with ancient stone buildings. They were very helpful and booked our accommodation and provided maps.

Then onto Lyon. We navigated through along the river the whole way and out the other side without veering into central streets. Coming into Lyon was lovely – there was a bike path, albeit part of the road, and we traveled along the river looking at all the buildings; cafes; bridges; avenues of trees etc. Towards the center it became denser and denser – some parts very nice along the waterfront and others difficult to negotiate. It is a huge city. Caught sight of some stunning old buildings but also some very unusual modern architecture on the southern side.

Leaving was a bit of a nightmare with bike access disappearing and cars in all directions. Kris did wonders again guiding us onto back streets and then through to the town of Irigny on the outskirts.

In all we did around 85km. It was extremely hot in the late afternoon – the temperature seems to build up during the morning and peak at around 3pm – then not cool down until around 9pm

Highpoints:

  • Having a cold beer at the top of a long hill in Irigny, only a few hundred meters from our destination – very friendly garden restaurant-pub.
  • Our accommodation in Irigny -in a nice residential area – we have a flat at the bottom of a large home with it’s own entrance. There is a large garden. Full kitchen, bathroom and bedroom very nicely decorated. Very comfortable and private. Also full Internet access here (cable not wifi).

Lowpoints

  • Two spokes broken

25 May – The green route (Voies Vertes)

We completed the green cycle route today, doing around 70km from Givry to Creches-sur-Saone. We started fairly late at around 9am after a delicious breakfast with croissants. The first 50km or so were very easy – the best cycle route we have been on. It is so well graded, tarred throughout and totally separate from the road, you can make good time. Very gentle slopes. All through stunning countryside with rows of trees shading the way, fields of wild flowers, eventually also vines. It is at its most stunning when we were taken a little way up and had a vista over the surrounding farms.

We past Cluny and went into the town to see if we could see the Abby, but it was disappointing, very busy with cars on narrow streets: However the buildings were stunning – all made of old stone. (why don’t they make the center pedestrian only like so many other towns?)

After Cluny the bike path became a bit steeper in parts until it eventually ended. We made our way on to the town of Creches-sur_Saone at around 3pm (very hot by this time), which is a pretty bustling place with several hotels and large shops. We are in the Comfort Hotel – part of a chain and pretty standard hotel.

Highlights:

  • the Tunnel du Bois Clair few km after Cluny – it is only available to bikes or walkers, 1.6km long. It is pretty cold inside (relief from the heat) and lit by electric lights. There are bats which hibernate from Oct to March when the tunnel is closed, but we didn’t see any.
  • Talking with a Dutch couple on the other side of the tunnel who had cycled from Barcelona and were on their way back to Holland – quite a bit older than us and doing similar route.
  • Shopping at the Carrefour near our hotel – it is like a hypermarket with hundreds of cheeses and a whole isle of yogurts to chose from, quite overwhelming:
  • Eating hamburger and egg at a Belgian cafe in the mall – we were beginning to crave protein.

Lowpoints:

  • One spoke broken – at least the rate of breakage seems to be slowing
  • The computer keyboard is no longer working (at least a few keys aren’t) – must have taken a knock. We bought a cheap keyboard at a local shop and that works for now, but it is French so some of the keys are in the wrong places (a,w,m and .) which makes life difficult. Also one more thing to carry – we are wondering if we should buy a new netbook.