The 18th to the 22nd June, with 1,993 kms in those calves of mine (my best asset they are!)
I have made it. Cheltenham to Ventimiglia by bike. Not exactly as we planned it, the exhilaration I felt as I powered down from the Alps into Cagnes-sur-Mer and along the Mediterranean seafront cycleway to Nice was coloured by that now familier feeling of disappointment that I was on my own. It was a moment I desperately wanted to share, denied by a simple slip on some steps. Kath and I have plans to try and salvage a bit more from the original idea. More of that later; here is how I got to Nice and went on across the Italian boarder to Ventimiglia.
The Edible Dormouse: I watched this thing ahead of me as I slowly chimbed up into the alps, and had no idea what it was. After a bit of a wikisearch I think I have identified it as an edible dormouse (I wonder if it is unsettling for edible doormice to have edible in their name? It would be a constant reminder of their vulnerability if nothing else?). It was bigger than a mouse but smaller than a rat, was a strawberry blonde colour and with a long fluffy tail. It was crossing the road on a telephone or power cable straddling the road. Not very well it has to be said, comically rather than with style. It struggled to get a good grip and kept slipping as if it were about to fall every few feet. Anyway it made it and turned the corner after reaching the post and was well on its was to the next post before it eventually dropped into the long grass. Another great picture missed!
I have also come across two western green lizards, what perilous lives they lead! My first encounter occurred on my ride up Mont Ventoux. This bright green thing crossed the road closely chased by a weasel. They were about the same size as each other and they snaked over the road as if joined, the lizard trying to outrun the weasel. They quickly disappeared into the verge so I can’t tell you whether or not the weasel went hungry. My money is on the weasel getting a meal. My next encounter was the following day when one stepped out on the road ahead of me before doing a double take and disappearing back into the verge again. I got beeped at by the driver behind asking me to steer a straighter course in the road! These creatures are very green.
I enjoyed my short stay in Forcalquier, a town built around a big mound with great panoramic views of the surrounding hills. It was on this hill I settled with a lunch of fruit, olives and cheese to write the lzst blog. After I finished I found a restaurant that sold veggie burgers and was open on a Sunday evening! Perfect. Actually the burger was very good, made with goats cheese and served with a green salad and home made chips. Set in the mediaeval sector of the town, the restaurant dominated the street corner, using three separate buildings for their trade. It was beautifully laid out too with lots of climbing flowering plants and pots of herbs on the table. [Note to self: must bring Kath here sometime soon.]
My next ride took me to the edge of the Alps, to a very pretty village called Moustiers-Ste-Marie. The village appeared to have been cut into the cliffs that lay behind it. It is clearly a magnet for tourists and rightly so, beautifully done out with craft shops, artist workshops, bars and restaurants. It also has a dramatic walk up the cliffs which I enjoyed very much. Mind you the 60km ride to the village was tough, relentlessly uphill. It was nothing to what was to come however.
Moustiers-Ste-Marie to Comps-sur-Artby. Certainly sounds innocent enough. It turns out to be a thrilling ride along the Gorge du Verdon. Starting where the river Verdon empties into the Lac de Ste-Croix, a remarkable turguoise lake coloured by limestone deposits that vividly reflect colours from the sky. The Gorge is like a huge knife cut in the alpine scenery, its sides are vertical for much of its 25 km length and the road has to rise high above it. I climbed up to 1,180 m above sea level, the highest point on the trip (not counting the windy mountain), and boy didn’t I have to work at it. The rewards though were fantastic, views of the dramatic gorge, vast open alpine scenery of mountain peaks and big open valleys. The high point was to stop and watch no less than 8 eagles gently riding the thermals right there in front of me, above me and below me. Seemingly close enough to touch.
The stage ended in the bed of the Gorge snaking up the path of the river with the high cliffs towering above. A day to remember. Fortunately the next ride to Castellane was much shorter and more gentle, giving me time to recover.
Another salutry lesson (or perhaps one I have already learned): Part of the regime established for this trip is to wash clothes at the end of each ride (especially the garment for contact point b). Regular readers of this blog will understand why I stopped using washing machines and dryers, it is all hand washing now. All well and good until I used up the tube of gentle hand washing soap provided for the trip. I bought another tube from a big supermarket that appeared to be similar. I squirted a dollop on to the cycle shorts, swished them about a bit with my t shirt and socks and rinsed, or so I thought. No apparent problems during the ride to Comps-sur-Artby but when I sat down for my evening meal both arse cheeks were on fire, and I mean sharp pain, making it impossible to sit down. It turns out my gentle hand washing soap is hardcore industrial strength detergent to add to washing machines to remove those hard to shift stains, and my rinsing the previous evening in no way took this into account. If only I had learned the language! Thankfully the ride the following day was short and gentle and a tube of Elizabeth Arden’s skin restoring cream has addressed the problem subsequently. No deturgent for the cycling shorts any more, just a rinse in water. Don’t fret I didn’t take a picture. I did download an app to turn my phone into a mirror though, I was that worried.
The plan was for a short ride to Greolieres and another night to camp. Even with two climbs, the highest up to 1,054 m, and which marked the last two climbs of the trip, I got to Greolieres in time for an early lunch. With the knowledge that the last 45 kms to Nice was all down hill, along another remarkable gorge, the Gorge du Loup, and out of the Alps to the Med, the lure of a proper bed easily won over the prospect of putting up the tent again. Off I set, and reached Nice by 3.30.
Now I know how you sceptical lot will view this, but the pics of me by the Med and in the heart of Nice are still on my phone, which died on me on the last section to Ventimiglia, and are currently unretrievable! You will have to wait for them. You have a selfie of me on the balcony of the flat in Ventimiglia instead. Arriving in Nice was a great moment but it was hard for me to celebrate on my own, and I still had 40kms to do, with a big hill to climb to get around Monte Carlo. So it was head down time again. After a total of 131kms completed in the day, I arrived tired but happy at about 6.30pm. What was the first thing to do? A couple of cold beers in Porta Nizza and then go in search of the flat keys.
Phoneless: Being without a phone was a surprising worry for me. I didn’t know what time it was, how far I had left of the ride, how to get hold of Carolyn for the keys, I couldn’t contact people to say I had arrived and was ok (public phones are very scarce and require phone cards – and how do you find either without using a phone?) Similarly where do I go to get a replacement phone, where is the nearest phone shop, how do you find out without a phone? First task the next day? Buy another phone! It settles you very quickly!
What to say for a final paragraph? I feel as if I have lived and breathed France and understand this great country like never before. Its people are lovely, no hostility at any time and most people are prepared to go out of their way to be friendly and helpful. I loved the different landscapes, the big open skies of agricultural north, the hills, the gorges, the valleys and spectacular roads; the forests and woodlands; the wild flowers and butterflies; birds, seeing the hoopoe, we also think we saw and heard our first nightingale in a park in L’Isle-Jordain, the stereophonic effects of owls call and response throughout the night and of course the dawn chorus; the animals; the smells, of wild herbs, pine trees, honeysuckle, yellow broom, the lime trees and the heat. Perhaps most importantly knowing I have the strength and determination to do something like this. Oh, and I have lost a bit of weight, a pound over two stone (if these Ventimiglia scales can be trusted). I feel and look fantastic, especially with the grey beard, although I accept I may be biased!
Next is to plan a route home, setting off in a weeks time. Home in time for Kath to be out of plaster and through her physio, then we thought we might do it all again together – this time by car.
For more pics use this link.