Read extracts from Chapter 2 and Chapter 6 of A Slow Tour Through France below. Or, download them in PDF:
A SLOW TOUR THROUGH FRANCE
Extract from Chapter Two – The Beautiful South
Most cycle-touring books I’ve read are firstly, by solo cyclists, and secondly, about much longer journeys than ours, achieved in much shorter times. Thirdly, almost all of them feature a scene within the first ten pages where the writer is sitting with head in hands, with sore backside, usually in tears, wondering what they are doing. I’ll tell them what they are doing. They are cycling eighty bloody miles on their first day and they have to ride a hundred miles on their second day and already they can’t face it. Of course they can’t face it! How did they think they would not be crying?
No such problems would assail us.
‘We don’t want to overdo it and be miserable,’ Adi said, looking at the map over breakfast. I agreed, quelling the little voice inside me that said, Yes, yes, I do want to overdo it! I suspect it was my legs talking. I would have liked to test them. But it’s true that I didn’t want to be miserable, and based on our previous tours, eighty miles a day was not an option if we wanted to stay together. Besides, another voice in my head said to the first voice, we’re in kilometres here. Eighty kilometres was entirely respectable. Sixty would do to start. Sixty kilometres was what we expected to do that day, a leisurely, circuitous route to Apt.
The Luberon cycle route started in Cavaillon, about 25 km south-east of Avignon, and wriggled east to Forcalquier, 65 km away by the main roads, before winding around the back of the Luberon range and back to the start along the south-facing slopes of the mountains. ‘We’ll pick up the route between Cavaillon and Apt, and follow the signs from there on in. We’ll easily make it to Apt,’ said Adi, waving a casual finger over the map as we ate our late breakfast.
‘For God’s sake. I’m sure we should be halfway there by now.’
‘Don’t start that already.’
‘How far have we come?’
For answer, Adi rattled the map and frowned at it.
We’re never going to make it to Apt, I thought. I stamped on my impatience and tried to eat a banana. We were sitting in the shade in – I checked the map over Adi’s shoulder – Caumont-sur-Durance.
It had been nearly midday by the time we finally cycled through the walls of the old town and out into the suburbs, delayed by several chores we should have done yesterday. This was the source of mild tension fizzling in the heat between us.
‘I can actually hear you trying to be patient,’ Adi said. ‘You actually make a noise.’
I grinned and made myself relax. At least we were on our way.
Despite the behind-already feeling, the best bit of the morning so far had been pedalling up the small slope from the campsite entrance to the bridge over the Rhône, fully laden for the first time. I’d had no time to practise at home, so wobbling up and down the campsite’s alleys for ten minutes was all the preparation I’d had. But up that little hill I could hear my legs and the bike sighing happily. ‘This,’ they said, ‘is what we were born to do.’ After a pause, my legs added, ‘You could have paid more attention to packing. We thought you’d learned.’
As we’d cycled south-east out of Avignon’s centre the sun had come out properly, the wind had fallen to a brisk breeze and the sky was a blue-white dome. We fell into a map gap in the suburbs, that no-man’s-land where touristy town centre maps end and the Michelin regional road maps don’t show quite enough detail. We blundered for a while. At least, I blundered. Adi has an excellent sense of direction, and without a map I had no choice but to trust him. After some terrifying moments – a terror borne more of our uncertainty than any aggression or scary driving by the traffic around us – we negotiated a series of dual carriageways and found ourselves cycling in the safety of the broad hard shoulder of the D900, the equivalent of a British A-road, in approximately the right direction.
‘Exactly where I was aiming for,’ Adi said with satisfaction. Anxiety over whether we were permitted on this category of road was put to rest when we met other cyclists coming the opposite direction, friendly hands raised in greeting. Sun bounced brightly off the road surface; infrequent cars passed us at respectful distances. A low ridge of hills appeared in front and to our right.
And so we came to our disputed siesta a whole hour after starting off.
‘It’s hot. We have to stop for a bit,’ said Adi.
It was hot, true. But still. Only an hour… I tried hard not to bounce with impatience and took in our surroundings instead, which was a bit of a mistake. Caumont-sur-Durance looked like the set of a spaghetti western, and boasted a disgusting public toilet, a small, sweet fountain and an aged woman on the other side of the square doing verbal battle with a small crowd of be-scootered teenagers.
‘Can we go yet?’ I asked after ten minutes.
‘It’s still too hot!’
‘But I thought we wanted to get to Apt.’
‘We will, but we have to wait a bit. It’s still too hot.’
Adi’s positive nature can lead to an optimistically casual dismissal of terrain, heat and distance. I, on the other hand, am a worrier. I also had the uneasy feeling that we were being judged. A great P.E. teacher in the sky was marking our performance, and we were being marked down. We were not Proper Cycle Tourers.
Fortunately, Adi gets bored easily. When he suggested that maybe we’d find it easier to cope with the heat while cycling and making our own breeze, I leapt onto my bike.
There was gorgeousness already. Cycling into the bright sun, I rolled up my sleeves and the hem of my shorts and revelled in sensation of warmth on bare skin, the like of which I hadn’t felt except for brief not-freezing spells in March, fleeting half-hours of promise-of-spring that had never delivered.
Soon we passed a roadside vegetable stall, where we bought a huge ridged tomato and a bag of sugar snap peas from a pretty girl. A pair of ducklings with clipped wings quacked apprehensively inside a crate. What happened if you bought one: did you take it home yourself, to let it live or die, or would the pretty girl wring its neck for you on the spot? I wanted to ask, but the mechanics of translating my questions eluded me. The risk of being taken for a genuine customer loomed and the spectre of two vegetarians pedalling with a freshly slaughtered duck – or a live one – that we’d been too polite to refuse kept my mouth shut.
High clouds slid over the sky but didn’t damp the sun or our spirits. A friend texted Adi to let him know that May 14th, the day we’d left, had been the coldest May day in Britain on record. We did a little dance.
We picked up the Luberon cycle trail in Robion, a village of two halves, the lower a ribbon development along the main road, the older half set flush up against a greenery-draped cliff. Robion had what we would come to know as all the trappings of a Provençal village: towering town hall, war memorial and fountain surrounded by plane trees, and buildings and roofs of warm sandstone in shades of honey. The steep, rocky walls of the Luberon rose behind, clad in pines and trees unfamiliar to me. We sat for a few minutes, refilled our water bottles at the fountain and watched a shifty-looking little brown terrier slinking around the flower beds with half an eye on the old men talking on a bench in the shade. The reason for his shiftiness became clear when he cocked a leg and peed on the flower beds before scuttling away at speed.
The signed route headed east, with small and friendly blue signs pointing out the way at junctions. The roadside verges sang with colour, poppies, irises, barley, harebells and cranesbills. Sometimes there was a little ditch – bone dry with fractured plates of crusted mud – between the road surface and the fields; sometimes the flower-filled verges melted seamlessly into the fields and meadows with sudden blazing patches of poppies. Vines and olive trees stood in ranks, with no fences or walls between fields. Just a change in crops, from wood to meadow to vineyard to olive to cherry. Some of the lanes were lined with clawdd-type walls, a dislocating taste of north Wales in this totally foreign landscape, and so narrow my plump rear panniers almost scraped the walls.
We climbed up our first hill – 14%! – to Oppède Le Vieux, a picturesque hill-top village. Arcaded paths and warm stone cottages climbed up to the ruined chateau and twelfth-century church at the top. We paused in the square, admired the view upwards and the view of the valley below us. It was a gorgeous setting for our second minor row. It went like this.
Me: You said you wanted to get to Apt.
Him: You never want to stop and look at anything.
Me: What do you mean, never? It’s the first day!
This was over his wish to explore the village for half an hour. Yes, I’d love to, I thought, but did we have time to stop in every single village? But it was gorgeous, so we left the bikes in the square (unlocked – after three wobbly hours on mine I was already thinking, ‘You want to nick this? Good luck to you’) and headed up through tiny passageways to the old village and the ruins of the chateau. It reminded me of Robin Hood’s Bay, with its narrow stepped and cobbled streets, differing in that it wasn’t on the sea, was warm, and that in Robin Hood’s Bay you don’t turn corners and come face to bumper with a Smart car squeezing along an alley that would challenge a well-fed donkey.
The views north across the valley to the Vaucluse plateau and bald-topped Mont Ventoux in the far distance restored our slightly chafing tempers. We could still make it to Apt, we thought, until ten minutes after getting back on the bikes. Someone had removed my leg muscles and replaced them with goo. We weren’t going to make it to Apt. The P.E. teacher in the sky put a big cross next to our names but I didn’t care.
We got lost, found the route again, cycled on a little, but realised that the next campsite was 16 km away and that we were far more tired than we’d expected to be. I blamed the wind in Avignon. Adi reckoned we hadn’t eaten enough. We searched for a campsite in Oppède but failed, rode around a little aimlessly and ended up retracing our route in part to the lovely little village of Maubec, the nearest place where we were sure of finding a campsite.
We fell into our old familiar routine. Tent up. Into the showers. Adi cooked while I sorted out the bedding and made our pitch our home. Rain spat, but not until after the tent was up and everything was inside, and there was no venom in it. After a fabulous dinner of couscous with onions, garlic, tomato and petit pois with the remains of the fougasse bread, we wandered up to the tiny hill on which Maubec sits to a friendly pizzeria, for pudding and wine. It was almost dark as we walked back to the tent. In the indigo sky above was a plane flying east, and bats, and Venus. I fell asleep reading David Copperfield on my Kindle, after writing my diary. Only two disagreements. Win!
Extract from Chapter Six – Along The Med
Y’know, we could stay here another night.’ Adi passed me a plate with the camp-stove breakfast oatcakes. The last of the porridge oats!
‘Why?’ I managed not to scream. I blamed the sun. It had made him almost terminally mellow. ‘I think we’ve exhausted Saintes-Maries’ possibilities,’ I went on. ‘Unless we go for a walk out along the spit.’
‘Hmm.’ He looked up at the sun. ‘Might get a bit hot.’
‘Or pay for a boat trip into the Camargue.’
‘Sounds lovely. But… Budget?’
‘Budget,’ I said.
‘We’ll leave it till next time so.’
I cheered silently. Boat trips and long walks did have their temptations, but neither was as tempting at that moment as just getting into the saddle and cycling west. I was definitely itchy now.
One of the most contemptible habits of English-speakers abroad is that of tittering at English translations of official signage. I hate the habit myself, but had to scuttle away, doubled over to hide helpless giggles, after reading the following notice while Adi settled our bill at reception:
‘The animals must be tattoo and cowpoxes to stay on the camping site.’
It sent us off with a grin anyway.
We took the quieter one of the two roads out of Saintes-Maries, sweeping west and then north with the small Étang des Launes on our right. More Wild-West landscapes: huge dusty fields with a sort of succulent patchy heath-style vegetation, and little ranch-style houses. Herds of those graceful and muscular white horses and the black cattle too; poignant, as I thought how many of them were destined for the bullfights of Arles and Nîmes.
We passed a small sign marked with a bicycle and an arrow, informing us that we were on a circuit, Autour des Saintes Maries. Since we’d left the Luberon we’d been on the lookout for similar signed routes wherever possible. We kept tripping over signs for them, but had so far failed to find any information on them at the tourist offices.
We crossed the Petit Rhȏne on a small river ferry.
‘And that’s bye-bye to Provence,’ said Adi.
‘Really?’ I thought we’d left Provence behind at Arles, but the river is technically the western boundary.
The landscape changed once we crossed the river. Ranches and paddy fields declined, vineyards crept in. We stopped at a road-side stall, one of the large, permanent ones with shelves of local goods: bottles and jars of sauces and pickles, sausages, rice and spices. The stall-keeper gave us each a tiny plastic cup of a divine, vaguely apple-y alcoholic drink – delicious but lethal! I’m still not sure what it was. He also offered us a slice of a sausage. He took our decline with understanding – I’m always afraid of offending against such hospitality – but clearly he’d encountered vegetarian types before. We did buy a punnet of drool-inducingly fresh strawberries to make up for not being meat eaters.
We joined a busier road – busier by French standards, that is, which means not too busy at all – and followed it to Aigues-Mortes. Carried away with fidgety legs and the easy, open road, heading north around the massive waterway criss-crossed by what on the maps look like tiny flimsy causeways, I cycled far too quickly and ended up with a big purple face.
‘Drink loads of water,’ Adi said when he caught up with me, ‘and let’s stop for a while.’
Aigues-Mortes was full of American teenagers. It’s a strange place, fortified walls surrounding the old town centre. Built by Louis IX as the departure point for the Seventh Crusade in the thirteenth century, it became a centre for the production of salt. Great salt pans lined the dry Étang de la Ville, surreal beside the massive, almost perfectly preserved stone ramparts. Unusually, within the ramparts there were no trees to soften the glaring sun reflecting off the walls and paving stones. We bought sensible items first – bread and fruit for lunch – and then a frivolous purchase: a dress made from the most gorgeous Provençal cotton, entirely unsuitable for cycling. Sometimes you just need clothes that make you feel like a human.
We escaped the oven of the old town and sat down under a tree beside the canal to eat our picnic lunch. There’s a wide bend in the canal here and clans of swifts were calling to each other and swooping down to drink, impossibly graceful and balletic. They dive straight for the water, wings pumping, then bend their wings right up and back near the bottom of the curve; a tiny dip of the head and up into the air again. I could watch them forever.
All was lovely until we start cycling along the Canal du Rhône à Séte. We (I hope you understand by now that when I say ‘we’ with regards to any sort of preparation, what I really mean is ‘Adi’) intended to use it as a pleasant off-road route to the next bit of the Mediterranean.
It seemed innocuous enough at first. A narrow rutted path on the bank soon opened out into a wide gravelled bank – but what gravel! Huge, angular, pointed stones, horrific to cycle along. Fishermen watched us with interest as we bumped along, trying to protect our tyres. Poor Bike kept trying to fall over. My arms ached from gripping. Sweat trickled down my face. I was turning that attractive hue of purple again.
When we looked at the map later we realised it had only been a few miles. It felt like ten. The dismal, sweaty experience was partially alleviated by all the glorious bee-eaters we saw perching on fenceposts, blue of chest and yellow of throat. They were probably noting, along with the fishermen, how unusual it was to see idiots on those wheeled contraptions here.
After an age we escaped along a track. We had no idea where it went, but it was leading away from the horrible stony bank, so we sped gratefully along it, and found ourselves on a motorway slip road, just at the point where it peeled away from the motorway.
‘For Christ’s sake,’ shouted Adi over the roar of cars whooshing past. ‘At least it’s the slip road off. Okay, don’t panic, nice and calm. We’ll just wait for a gap in the traffic. Wait. Wait. Now, now – GO!’
He exploded out onto the slip road. I pedalled frantically behind him trying to grab his slipstream, purple in the face for the third time that day. I experienced real terror for the first time; the motorists approaching from behind would be slowing down but would still be doing seventy-plus and they wouldn’t be expecting any idiot cyclists…
Around the curve and up the slight incline, thighs pumping furiously, to a traffic-signalled junction, and suddenly we were in a different world. It was like sliding into a cool woodland pool. From the heat and discomfort of the canal, the roaring of the cars on the motorway, we were now cycling through wide, regular streets softened by huge lawns and flowerbeds. Tall trees dappled the light. The traffic was calm, the sounds muted. We reached a cycle path and followed it, not knowing where we were going. We slipped further into the relaxed, fairytale calmness, sounds becoming even softer. We passed a huge boulodrome divided into smaller playing areas, and it was full: old men playing each other, couples teaching their children, a young woman in shorts and bikini top practising by herself.
The path brought us to another track above the east-west road through Grande Motte. In front of us expensive-looking yachts filled a marina that stretched away in either direction. Blue sea shimmered to the horizon. To either side rows of crazy hotels stretched away. In a funny way, it was all cheerful and likeable. There was an immense feeling of space; nothing was crowded. I hadn’t particularly been looking forward to the rest of the Mediterranean – now that I’d seen pink flamingos it held no more specific attractions for me – but the good thing about low expectations is the capacity for pleasurable surprises.
We cycled towards the marina, then westward along the promenade underneath the huge white hotels. They were all very geometric and Sixties-looking, but somehow managed to charm: big white pyramidal structures, with round holes opening onto the balconies. They looked a bit like a game of Connect4.
We found the tourist office, where it was Adi’s turn to collect the necessary bumph. He came out with a grin.
‘The state of that towpath? It’s deliberate. A thick cyclist fell in a few years ago.’
In a strikingly un-French attitude to personal liability, the canal authority had forbidden any more cycling on it.
‘And they threw down that horrible stuff so that nobody would.’
‘No wonder the fishermen were looking at us oddly. What happened to the Gallic shrug and “But did you not see all the water and the big big drop, m’sieur?”?’
‘The police can give you a ticket for cycling on it. They won’t, the girl said, but they can.’
‘Change of plan so.’
He saddled up. ‘We’ll think about it after dinner. Let’s find our campsite.’
‘I love my card,’ said the campsite manager. While he took our details a huge, placid chow sniffed my sweaty knees. ‘This card is for the shower. It’s wonderful, you wave it and the shower it works!’
We were tired and hot and happy to have found this lovely place, an oasis in the middle of the ageing sun resort. He continued, ‘And for one night, am I right?’
‘You’re right,’ we confirmed. He noted it on his form, smiling. ‘The cycling people, always they stay one night and they are up early and gone!’
‘Well, you’re right about the one night.’
On the Mediterranean coast, in a leafy, lush, beautifully laid-out campsite with quality facilities, we had just paid the princely sum of €13.50 for our pitch. This was decidedly better than the €31 we had been on the point of paying half an hour before. After a trip to a supermarket, where Adi bought vegetables while I caught up on my diary, we found a group of campsites in a leafy, park-like area in the middle of the town. All traffic noise died away, muted by trees, shrubs and flowers. We headed straight for the one recommended by the Rough Guide and gamely swallowed our disbelief when the receptionist told us the price.
‘I bloody hate being fleeced,’ Adi growled as we cycled around the campsite looking for a pitch.
We went scowling through the usual pitch selection process: ants, shade in the morning, shade in the evening, proximity to showers, proximity to potentially noisy people (rare).
‘You’d better let her know which one we’ve chosen,’ Adi said as we grumpily started to unload the bikes.
The receptionist wasn’t in her booth. I was spinning the bike round to come back to Adi when I thought – shall I just have a look?
Back to the mini-roundabout where we’d seen the signs for four campsites. I rode down the leafy lanes to each of them in turn. One of them was for members of some camping organisation only, one was closed for refurbishment, but the third one had clearly displayed prices out the front and they were reasonable! Less than half the cost of our site! I quickly recce’d the facilities I could see from the gate. Pleasant bar with no obvious degenerates, no crackheads, no litter, just the usual monoculture of retired couples… I sped back to Adi, who was just about to thread the poles through the tent.
The receptionist, back on duty, frowned but was polite. How I love the pay-in-the-morning system.
The campsite manager and his chow were right: the showers were wonderful. It’s one of the many lovely things I remember of that night, along with the huge-bellied, smiling Frenchman in the tiny pair of shorts who came over to chat to us, the fact that we were the only ones in a tent, and that we were one of only two who didn’t come from France. (The other was the obligatory Dutch campervan.) And the hoopoe scavenging around the tent at dawn. You got a better class of scavenger down here.
The morning’s ride was long and hot but unexpectedly pleasing. With the Canal off limits we took a cycle path west along the promenade. Grande Motte faded away, leaving us cycling between sparsely occupied beaches and dusty dunes. This bit of sun-worshippers’ holiday-land is on a long spit separating a series of lagoons south of Montpellier from the sea, and the calls of unfamiliar waders came from the lagoons to our right, accompanying the gentle lap of the sea on our left and the hum of our wheels.
If you’d asked me beforehand if I’d enjoy cycling on a flat cycle path through Mediterranean sun resorts you’d probably have been answered with a snort. (It does, I realise, raise the question of how I’d been persuaded to take that route at all. This is what happens when you cycle with a companion. You compromise, people!) I’d expected these Mediterranean days to be a sort of endurance test, something to be got through before our return to verdant, hilly regions, so it was a treat to find myself taking pleasure in it. The cycle track clung to the shore for miles, rising up a little at times so we could enjoy seeing as well as hearing the birdlife in the lagoons. Little terns, black-winged stilts, avocets and pink flamingos wading and feeding. No binoculars required – they were just there. The lovely stretches of beach and lagoon were punctuated by the ageing, unfashionable but somehow likeable resorts of Carnon-Plage and Palavas-les-Flots. Everything shone squintingly, bright, white and sand-coloured concrete and gleaming white boats. At this early stage of the season there were very few tourists, even by my introverted standards, and there was something lovely and airy about cycling along the promenades, in and out of shade.
After a pause for mid-morning tea (still no teapot) in Palavas-les-Flot, we continued on a minor road west along the diminishing spit. Sometimes we could see the Canal running parallel to us through the middle of the lagoon, which looked bizarre: a waterway through water. We were both in good spirits. The Legs had nothing to complain about and Bike was stoic as ever. I had to remind myself to drink frequently; the cycling was easy but it was still hot and we weren’t dawdling.
The next couple of hours were full of sunshine and squabbles, the most acrimonious of which was witnessed by a woman who was completely nude except for a pair of blue-rimmed sunglasses. She watched our argument – she didn’t have a choice, we had it in a patch of undergrowth right in front of her – on a narrow, vegetated spit that went tantalisingly in the direction we wanted to go, with even more tantalising tracks heading through it in the correct direction, towards Frontignan and Sète. We’d seen lots of people heading down here, singly and in pairs, when we’d paused for a short barefoot walk on the silky-sanded beach. Back at the bikes, Adi squinted into the sun and frowned at the map. Here, at the last beach café and stand of showers, the road swung inland.
‘It’s a right pain, you know. The road goes all the way around the back of the lagoons, before it comes out again further on. Look.’
He showed me the map. ‘We could go along those tracks, look, there’re people walking along them.’
‘But there’s no track marked.’ The spit on the map, and right there in front of us, was only a narrow strip of dune and scrub.
‘But those paths are going in the right direction.’
‘But they’re tiny.’
‘We’ll just try for a little,’ said Adi, correctly interpreting my dubious expression, ‘and if it deteriorates we’ll turn back.’
For ten minutes our little path wiggled between the lagoons and the sea that we could hear just beyond the low brow of the scrubby dune. It got a little better and a little worse in turn, but with a perceptible slide down the average scale. The squabble ensued when I said I didn’t want to do it anymore.
‘But if it improves a bit it’ll be fine.’
‘But it already has improved and then dis-improved again, and it’s just getting too hard.’ It really was hard; I’d had to dismount twice already to shove the bike through puddles of sand, having come to a wallowing halt. With the sound of eyes very loudly not being rolled, Adi wheeled his bike round and set off back the way we’d come. There was a grim, hard-done-by set to his shoulders as he vanished into the shrubbery.
I floundered through a seven-point turn in a sandy patch, which was when I became aware of the nude lady, sitting with knees drawn up in front of her demurely. The low trees formed a little bower around her. You can’t ignore someone in France, whatever the circumstances, so as I passed close to her, hauling my sand-drugged bike, I nodded and said, ‘Bonjour, Madame.’ She returned the greeting with a slight smile.
The suspicion that she wasn’t alone, and a possible explanation for the number of people we’d seen disappearing in this direction, was confirmed in the form of an enormous, cheerful and entirely naked German man who I almost bumped into. He engaged me in conversation and we chatted in mutually broken French. All I can remember is him beaming when I said I was Irish. ‘Irlande! Il pleut en Irlande!’
‘Did you see any naked people?’ I asked Adi a few minutes later. He was slightly huffily waiting for me back by the beach showers and the little ice-cream booth.
We watched some more people disappearing down the little paths into the undergrowth.
‘Ah,’ he said after a couple of minutes. ‘They’re not going walking, are they?’
We’d read about Le Cap d’Agde, a huge resort forty or so miles to the west, incorporating the colossal Village Naturist, the largest nudist colony in France. We’d stumbled on an outlier.
Friends again, we visited the restored Cathédrale de Maguelone on an island in the lagoons. Inside was huge and light and airy, supported by tall pillars of coralline limestone, holey and cheese-like. Gentle music, a harp and soprano, floated into the space. There’s something wonderfully, achingly uplifting about being inside in a tall, narrow space. Another candle for my mother.
We rode inland, north along peaceful cycle paths up above the main road, through Villeneuve-lès-Maguelone, a big name for a little town. A community policeman who was shooing schoolchildren across the road spotted us as we had one of our frequent frowning-over-map breaks. He sprinted over to us.
‘Wait! I finish five minutes.’
Schoolchildren safely escorted, he asked us where we wanted to go and then cycled with us, guiding us through the village. ‘You enjoy La France? You see the, the Pink Floyd? Non, non, the, the oiseau – flamingo! You see the pink? Pink flamingo?’
He sent us on our way with re-filled water bottles and a photograph of the regional map that hung on the police station’s reception wall. Adi pointed to the spit we’d attempted to go along earlier and said, ‘There isn’t a track there?’
The startled expression on the policeman’s face and emphatic shake of the head was clear enough.
‘I just wanted to be sure that there wasn’t a lovely cycle track somewhere just out of our sight, winding its way between the nudist hotspots,’ Adi said after we’d waved goodbye and cycled off. ‘You never know. You have to ask.’
The cycle track took us for miles, all the way to Sète, squeezed between the sea and Mont Saint-Clair, a small green hill that had been on our horizon all day. We glimpsed expensive boats, incongruous in the narrow waterways between tall, Moorish-looking buildings. Scooters buzzed and traffic idled as we approached the centre of the town, which we had caught in rush hour. As the streets narrowed and the traffic thickened, Adi and I got separated while I was distracted by my ‘ciao’ moment.
Everyone should have one. As I pedalled slowly in the line of traffic, a pink scooter kept pace beside me for a few moments. When I looked up, the young dark-haired man on the scooter grinned widely and said ‘Ciao!’ before the traffic pulled him ahead of me. I was charmed.
Adi and I found each other outside the tourist office. It was my turn to collect the intel, as we were now calling it by way of variation. I went in and found out that the nearest campsite was eight miles away. I came out to find the bikes locked up, alone. Adi was up the street, talking to a couple on touring bikes. He and the male half of the couple were holding a map out between them, with much pointing and nodding and shaking of heads. When he returned it was with a grin.
The Dutch couple had just cycled along the Canal du Midi and had generously given Adi their map, barely holding together along the creases after ten days. We studied it over a slice of pizza on the square until the nutter-ometer klaxon started blaring.
‘Vous aimez la nature?’
Given our experience on the beach, I didn’t think this scruffy man was asking about our interest in birds. It was the only time I was impolite to someone. ‘Nous allons.’ Not even an au revoir. That told him.
‘Those people said the Canal was bumpy in parts and great in others,’ Adi said as we cycled out later, replete with pizza. ‘It’s good around the cities.’
‘Bumpy’s not bad. How bad can it be?’ I was in cheerful mood, squabbles behind, sea on our left and a broad lagoon, the Bassin de Thau, visible across the road on our right.
The first campsite was too expensive, a resort all by itself out on the edge of the the dunes, with barriers and a ‘complex’ look about it. We carried on. Camping Beau Séjour, at the end of a lane that ended by the beach in Marseillan-Plage, was much more our style, though we were slightly disturbed when the proprietress told us to make sure that our bikes were ‘bien-attaché’.
We bien-attached them and erected the tent, all the while bothered by mosquitos, which were vying with the baked ground to make pitching troublesome. By the time we got the tent up my hands were scored with red pressure marks from pressing the tent pegs into the ground, and Adi’s shoulders bore a scattering of bites. Walloping his shoulders like a self-flagellation fanatic hadn’t done much to dissuade them. They found him much more palatable than they did me.
Positioning our tablecloth and ourselves where we could watch the ant-highways without sitting on them, we ate dinner with the Mediterranean whispering over the dune behind us and examined our statistics. We’d cycled 54 miles that day, our longest of the trip, in baking sunshine, with a substantial break at rush hour, a visit to the cathedral and plenty of stops to see wildfowl and waterfall in the lagoons. Long bike rides and long hours spent exploring on foot – that was the way to satisfy both of us.
A walk on the beach in almost-darkness, fishermen silhouetted against an indigo sea. Sounds of good cheer from further down the beach, close enough to make us smile, far enough not to disturb. Breeze in the trees above. Swallows, and swifts, and bats.
END OF EXTRACT
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Print edition on the way, May 2016.
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