Encore France – Part 2

Friday 30th August – Rilly sur Loire to Chateauneuf sur Cher

My plans for an early start were thwarted this morning. Although a notice in my room stated that breakfast (for what it was!) would be available from 7-30 onwards when I came to go downstairs I found a rope across the stairway with a note warning me that an alarm had been set down below. Somewhat frustrated I sat and sulked at the top of the stairs until a bleary-eyed proprietor appeared from another bedroom at 8 a.m. to go down and immobilise the alarm system. Without a word of apology, of course!

When I eventually got under way I was determined not to cram in another long mileage. Just south of the Loire I came to the river Cher, which, I noted from my map, ran into the Loire at Tours. In may ways I found the area around the Cher more attractive than that near it’s big sister, certainly on the bit that I traversed. The two rivers give their names to the Department which is “Loire et Cher” and then, during the afternoon I passed into the Department of “Indre” which also gets it’s name from a river, another tributary of the Loire.

En route today I met two British couples (motorists), one pair at elevenses when I stopped for a beer and the others at lunch time. They all assured me that as I travelled further south I would encounter better terrain. It took some time to arrive but, as I travelled further south, roughly following but just to the north of the Cher, there was a marked change as it became more wooded and rolling. The weather had also improved. Not sunny but at least the cloud was not skimming my head and it began to warm up a little.

About 4 p.m., with about 65 miles on the clock, I stopped in a large village called Reuilly and partook of a pot of tea. I know that the French are coffee drinkers but I love my tea, as coffee does absolutely nothing for me when I am on the bike. On leaving the café I spotted a small tourist information, which was quite a surprise for such a small place and I went in to enquire about the possibility of finding somewhere to stay in the small town of St. Florent sur Cher, some 15 miles to the south. The young lady manning the office replied “oui” and on my asking if there were several hotels she assured me that there were.

This would have made my mileage 80, more than enough after two days of 92. To my amazement, and disgust, when I arrived in the fairly substantial town of St. Lorent sur Cher I discovered that although it also had a small tourist information office there was not one hotel in the entire town! So much for the quality of the staff in these small tourist offices. It reminded me of a quote by Anne Mustoe, the intrepid, middle aged, round-the-world cyclist who, when recounting her adventures crossing China, said that it was important to phrase any questions put to the locals in such a manner that they could not reply “yes” as that was the easiest thing to say and was unlikely to offend any foreign travellers!

My chagrin was even more intense, however, when, on being told that I would find a hotel in Chateauneuf sur
Cher (there must be hundreds of Chateauneufs in France!) a further 12 miles up the road and enquiring if she thought that I would find it easily, she replied “I don’t know because I have never been there”! Obviously, nowadays, a degree in tourism does not involve actually visiting places in the area. All done by computer, no doubt!

Oh dear, another 12 miles and with 80 clocked up already I am back in my rut of 92 miles per day. No doubt the mountains will soon sort that problem out.

A nice small hotel where I was the only guest, which is a bit off-putting, but it was reasonably priced and the dinner was excellent. On reading the various pieces of literature around the hotel I discovered that I was in the famous historical region of Berry, which to scholars of French history may mean something but it sounded very English to me.

Saturday 31st August – Chateauneuf sur Cher to Bellenaves

Overcast again but about 11a.m. the sun arrived and it became quite hot. As I progressed further south, in the direction of Clermont Ferrand the terrain became much more to my liking, hillier and greener, with small fields and lots of hedges, a little reminiscent of Herefordshire

At this stage I had in mind that I may, as I had promised on several occasions, be lined up to pay a visit to some English friends who lived outside a small village called Bellenaves, in the Auvergne, just to the north-west of Clermont. Twice during the day I popped into a phone box (I am still resisting the mobile phone craze) to call my friends but there was no reply, leaving me unsure whether the were on a trip to England and also unsure if I would find accommodation in Bellenaves, as it looked a very small village on the map.

With 72 miles covered I reached Montmarault, a village to the east of Montlucon and just on the northern edge of the Auvergne which is well known for it’s cheeses (what area of France isn’t?) and for it’s traditional folk songs.

It was only 3-30 p.m., a bit early to stop for the night but I gave it serious thought as I was feeling a bit weary and, just as I arrived in the village, a heavy thundery downpour started. I was also a bit narked to discover that my computer had stopped working. It is surprising how, on a long lone journey, I get attached to silly little modern gadgets. A quick “recci” round the village revealed three hotels, one was closed for annual holidays, another bore a sign which said “back at 6 p.m.” (two and a half hours to wait?) and the third looked most seedy and uninviting. As I stood and pondered I spotted a signpost which indicated “Bellenaves 22km.”

By the map, the route appeared a bit lumpy, rising to about 1500 ft. but I took the plunge, hoping that, on arrival, very wet and with 86 miles covered, I would find a bed for the night. Despite the rain it turned out to be a super, twisting and wooded route and it was topped by my spotting a tiny auberge as I entered the village. A room was found for me, a bit basic, but for the equivalent of £18 it was fine.

After a shower and a meal I again phoned my friends to find Dorothy at home but hubby John was over in the U.K. I arranged to call round after breakfast next morning and spent a nice hour chatting over a cup of tea and inspecting what had been a very basic and semi-derelict farmhouse but was now well on the way towards a cosy country retreat. Retreat being a good description as the spot was very isolated, not everyone’s choice.

Sunday 1st September – Bellenave to St. Juste en Chevalet

The weather was once again depressing with very low cloud and rain threatening. I would normally avoid going through a big city like Vichy but the route round it looked very messy and, since it was Sunday morning I did not expect the city to be too busy.

Vichy stands on the river Allier and the town had made great use of a very wide stretch in the central area. Here it was given over to a huge watersports centre with canoeists, wind surfers, water-skiers and yachters all appearing to mix successfully.

En route to Vichy I encountered the first proper “col” of the trip. Only a “mini” of 1800 ft. but just to be doing a bit of real climbing helped to dispel my weather induced gloom.

Pausing to watch all the water activities in Vichy I came across the one and only touring cyclist I was to meet on the whole trip. He was obviously interested in watersports and, on chatting to him I learnt that he sailed a catamaran during the summer, being based in Torbay. He was a well built, fit looking bloke, about 50 years of age and his bike was piled high with front and rear panniers with lots of additional pieces of luggage strapped on. In all my cycling life I have never seen a bike so loaded.

It turned out that each September he forsakes his boat and takes off on his bike for two months cycle touring and camping. He outlined his planned route and I was astonished to hear that, despite being loaded up to the “gunwales”, he was intending to do all the alpine cols, then head for the Mediterranean, retracing westwards via the Gorge de Verdon and the Ventoux! After that little taster he would the head for the high Pyrenees and through into Spain to sail back home from Santander. What a toughie. I felt positively wimpish with my two little panniers!

After an interesting chat I bade him farewell as he was intending to picnic and I had to find a café for lunch.
Later in the afternoon, however,I was to encounter him again about two thirds of the way up a long climb (in heavy rain) up the Col de St Louis which stood at 2800 ft. Visibility was poor in the rain and low cloud but I could just make out some very attractive terrain, the best so far. The valleys were steep and thickly wooded, a bit similar to the Vosges, but more interesting as the trees were deciduous (mostly oak and beech) unlike the Vosges which are coniferous, making it dark and forbidding.

From the summit it was a long descent to the village of St. Juste en Chavenet where my companion left me to find a camp site and I found a bed in the very cosy Hotel de Londres. During a conversation with the patron I learnt that the region was known as “The Forez” and was a very popular area in the summertime for walkers.

Monday 2nd September – St. Juste to Le Bessat

At last! I awoke to sunshine. The first time since I had left the ferry in Normandy. I could finally appreciate the scenery and feel that I really was on holiday. As I continued to head in a south-easterly direction I could see that my next obstacle was St. Etienne, a larger city than Vichy, and it appeared by the map to be a bit tricky to circumnavigate. Much against the grain I opted to go through the centre. This caused me a fair amount of angst as, trying to be clever, I ignored a number of “route barree” and “deviation” signs and got myself snarled up in a wilderness of motorway feeder roads and industrial estates, just at a time when I should have been sitting down for some lunch.

By the time I sorted myself out, having put in an extra 5 or 6 miles, and was on the run into the centre it was nearly 2 p.m., the danger hour for finding lunch in France as most restaurants start serving at midday and cease by 2 p.m. On a very busy traffic island I spotted a “transport” café and hurried in. The place was full of diners with empty plates before them, having already finished, but the patron took pity on me and rustled something up (even cooking some fish specially for me when I declined meat)

Fortified by my lunch I found the final leg into the centre quite easy and was rewarded by spotting a large tourist information centre which had, amongst other things, a special feature on bikes and also stocked an excellent selection of cycling post-cards.

Getting out of a big city and finding a particular minor road can often be quite difficult as most of the signing indicates only major destinations. On this occasion, however, it was a doddle and I was soon heading south-easterly again up a long and picturesque climb of about 15 miles into the Parc Regional du Pilat, which boasted as it’s highest point Mont Pilat at 4400 ft.

The last village before the summit, Le Bessat, looked a likely place for an overnight. It was obviously a popular little place in the French holiday seasons (July,August and the winter months) as it had two shops which hired out bikes in the summer and cross country skis in the winter. An excellent small hotel provided a bed and sustenance (and also peace and quiet as I was the only guest – the summer season really does come to an abrupt end once August has passed)

 Tuesday 3rd September – Le Bessat to Crest

Leaving Le Bessat about 8.30 am, on a cool but sunny morning, I had a super traffic free descent through some impressive terrain to the town of Annonay which lies 12 miles west of the river Rhone. My objective was to cross the Rhone at some suitable spot and to pass into The Vercors, the range of mountains which lie between the Rhone and the Alps.
Computer problems again caused me to shop around in Annonay for yet another battery, assuming that the one supplied by my friend a few days earlier was quite old and did not have much life left in it. I had reasoned that, since it was still indicating the time, the problem lay with the transmitter on my forks (it was a cordless job) and not with the unit on my bars.

Armed with a new battery and a working computer I climbed out of Annonay looking for a turn off onto what looked, on the map, an interesting very minor and wiggly road down to St. Vallier, which straddled the Rhone. It was such a minor road that I had great difficulty in finding it. The Michelin 1:200,000 series are fine in open country but nearly impossible to follow in a built up area.

My persistence was rewarded when I eventually found my planned route, as it was a gem, very narrow, utterly deserted, and it snaked along a small river called the Caunce, ultimately taking me into St. Vallier. The Rhone Valley, of course, is a very busy conduit, carrying lots of north-south traffic along two major roads and a railway (including the TGV).

Shunning busy spots like the plague I pushed off, again south-easterly, towards the Vercors, taking a picnic lunch in St. Romans sur Isere. The Isere is another major river with it’s source in Savoie, giving it’s name to the well known ski resort of Val d’Isere and also to the Department of Isere. It flows through Albertville and Grenoble to eventually join the Rhone just north of Valence. After lunch a fairly quiet route took me southerly through the foothills of the Vercors to the town of Crest, standing on the river Drome, another river which gives it’s name to a Department.

My arrival in Crest coincided with the arrival of an almighty storm. It was, of course, early September which is the time when the weather in Provence enters it’s stormy phase after a few months of very high temperatures.
Fortunately I found a hotel quite quickly as torrential rain with spectacular thunder and lightning followed for the best part of two hours.

It was the next morning, at breakfast, that I had a conversation with a British couple who had been parked up in a car on top of a 3000ft col when the storm had broken. I could sense the terror in their voices as they recounted the experience, fearing that they would be washed away down the mountain or fried to death as the lightning was all around them.

Little did I know that their experience was a taste of what was to follow for me a few days later.

Wednesday 4th September – Crest to Vaison la Romaine

With the previous evenings storm out of the way I set off on my final leg as I only had about 70 miles to cover to my destination. In warm sunshine I headed south through the delightful western foothills of the Vercors and noted that the terrain and the vegetation began to take on the “Provencale” appearance, with evergreen oaks gradually replacing the deciduous oaks more common to the north, and more and more vines appearing.

A fifteen mile stretch, climbing to 1700 ft., brought me to the quaint village of Bourdeaux, not to be confused with the more famous Bordeaux which is to be found about 600 miles away to the west! Another small col climbing to about 2000 ft. height and I arrived in the picturesque, but bustling village of Dieulefit (which, translated from old French, means “god made it” If he did, then he made quite a good job of it.

All morning the roads had been dead quiet but I was surprised by the number of people in Dieulefit, and I hoped that they were not all heading along my chosen route in the afternoon. A quick beer and a light lunch and I was soon travelling south again in the direction of the small town of Valreas. It was on leaving Dieulefit that I began to encounter the aftermath of the previous evening’s storm, as many small roads were flooded and, making cycling a bit tricky, were strewn with rocks and sediment which had been washed out of the fields. A testament to the force of nature when it turns nasty.

After Valreas I was in “home” territory as I had cycled round the area on my many excursions from our base in Vaison. At last I could stow away my maps (and my reading specs.) and follow my nose, arriving “chez moi” about 4-30 pm., having had another rewarding and interesting bike ride.

Postscript

Several days later, after the arrival of my wife Joan and our two friends, Mike and Anne Workman, and after four days of warm sunny weather another storm began to gather. We had driven to Vaison centre and climbed on foot up to the “Citadel”, which is a disused old fort perched on a rocky outcrop above the medieval part of the village – the “Haute Ville”.

As the thunder and lightning commenced we assumed that it would be just another storm which would soon pass over. How wrong we were! As we beat a retreat and drove back to the house, the roads rapidly turned into rivers and it was touch and go whether the car would make through the flood waters. Fortunately it did but, safely ensconced in the dry, we were holed up for 36 hours whilst the longest and most spectacular storm we had ever experienced hung around and emptied fathoms of water over northern Provence.

Vaison la Romaine emerged from the ordeal relatively unscathed except for a lot of damage to vines and other crops. The town lies at an altitude of 800 ft. and, as a consequence, the floodwaters swept downwards and westwards towards the Rhone valley.

When the sun eventually emerged we learnt that, tragically, around the Avignon area 23 people had been swept away and hundreds of homes, farms and livestock had been destroyed. One small village, Aramon, about 7 miles from Avignon, and standing on the Rhone, lost eleven of it’s inhabitants.

A grim reminder that, even in western Europe, man is at the mercy of the elements. With Climate Change/ Global Warming watch out you no mudguard guys!

Part 1

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