Monday, 25 April 2011

France - On route "North" - Central Massive

10th 75km

Once all are awake we pack up and join our friends for a morning coffee and a croissant.

At ten Richard and I hit the road. Despite the strong winds we both enjoy the riding. The countryside is beautiful - and quite reminiscent of the landscape back home. Meadows and rapeseed fields repeat over and over without becoming dull. Beech trees dazzle us with their vibrant new foliage. More and more wild flowers appear by the roadside. Every now and then we get a quick blast of fragrance from a blossoming tree.

We stop at several supermarkets to check the bins. Shops are closed on Sunday's and we had hoped that the bins would be filled Saturday evening. Not so.

In the afternoon I am troubled by a terrible tragedy - my iPod has stopped working. It doesn't hit me straight away. I expect that because I'm riding with Richard I'm not using it so much. I imagine the grieving process will begin soon...

Of all the things to lift my mood - I didn't think it would be a Carrefour bin. Richard and I drool slightly while tearing at the bin bags. With our panniers bursting with fresh baked goods and some slightly iffy dairy produce we seek out a place to sleep. Before crashing out we fill up on the evening harvest.

11th 83km

We greet several sets of dog walkers while eating breakfast. While breaking camp we enjoy a few cups of coffee – one thing I can never be bothered to do when cycling alone.

We climb gradually all day. At two o'clock we stop for lunch. We've done fifty kilometres and perhaps only two of which have been flat/downhill.

The supermarket bins serve us well once more. In the afternoon we get yoghurt and salad and in the evening bread more yoghurt and all kinds of sweet treats.

We crest a climb and reach a plateau at around twelve hundred meters. From then on the climbs are short. Fields dusted with wild daffodils stretch as far as the eye can see. As the riding is so nice we push on into the evening hoping to reap the rewards of the mornings climbing.

In good time we are indeed rewarded. Eight kilometres of winding downhill - helps to boost our daily distance.

12th 89km

The morning dew soaks our feet as we pack up. This the first day in along time that we are not greeted by blue skies. Instead we have grey clouds, fog and the feel of rain in the air.

We have another morning of fairly solid climbing. In Le Puy we pick up main road - our aim being to sacrifice some scenery for expediency. As we climb out of town we see the statues atop the hills at several locations in the town. All around us the ancient rounded mountains of Massive Central roll off into the distance. It's hard to imagine that millions of years ago they looked a lot more like their spiky neighbours the Alps.

I climb steadily. Richard has vanished off into the distance. As I ride three very healthy looking horses gallop across their field to watch. Not wanting their efforts to be wasted I park up and go to lean on the fence and stroke them for a while.

Back on the bike we eventually summit the col we'd be battling with. We are then greeted by a roadsign the likes of which would give any cyclist a three quarter chubb - 11km 7%. The persistent headwind ensures I don't reach record breaking speed - it's good fun all the same.

I've decided this will be my last mention of bin food. It seems to be a frequent occurrence - safe to assume most days are successful.

Find a picnic area to camp in - river on one side, fishing lake on the other. long as you ignore the no camping signs.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

France - Die and beyond

With the bikes packed Richard and I decide it's the appropriate time to changes our minds – we shall not leave in the morning but instead go to the concert in town and leave the following day.

It turns out to be a good call as the concert is great and the beer from the local micro brewery aint half bad either.

9th 63km Die to Pont de Bonnet

We tidy up Wim's flat while cooking up breakfast (dustbin pizza). We join Raff and Pierre at the town Market. After a brief peruse of all the lovely food we can't afford we say our goodbyes and roll on out of town.

We are both very excited to get back to the road - and this time with company. The day is bright and blue. The road is good and the scenery continues to astound us. Spring is becoming evermore evident - it's a real pleasure to see the gradual onset of the new season.

We stop in the town of Crest. The supermarket bins are not so forthcoming so we move on to the town centre for a look around. We are approached be two friendly locals. They invite us to join them for lunch. Back at the flat we meet more friendly faces. Lunch is a selection of meats with sourcroute. During the meal they tell us about their afternoon plans - a local music festival. A glance in Richards direction tell me he's thinking what I'm thinking - enough riding for one day. We get the directions and meet them there.

Pont de Bonnet is a small town set in a beautiful riverside location. The streets are filled with people. We pass many bars - all of which are putting on live entertainment of some kind. We spend the evening passing for bar to bar sampling all mannor of live music. Highlights for me are: the dancers on stilts, insane free-for-all dancing to jazz improv hurdy-gurdy music and two girls dressed as fairies doing what (to me) seemed like - erotic tree climbing while singing. Brilliant!

Thursday, 7 April 2011

France - Woof!


Wim leaves very early before I wake. He is going to study away for ten days or so. He very kindly lets me stay as long as I wish – and suggests I see some of his friends about some wwoofing (volunteering) opportunities.

Very relaxing day – reading and playing guitar. I speak to Fanny his neighbour. She has a pottery workshop and suggests that (as she need some help) I join here there and in return she will sort out my meals each day. Thanks to Wim my accommodation is sorted – and so I accept.

In the evening we drink beer in another neighbours garden. Bottles of Leffe disappear and eventually we are greeted by the stars (new moon). The pace of life here is perfect – I feel myself losing track of the days once more.

Later on Richard (from Istanbul & The Boat) arrives. I'm a little surprised (and impressed) that our vague plan of meeting up actually reaches fruition.


At eleven I go the workshop to meet Fanny. She gives me a tour of the workshop and the premises. An old cement factory by the river is now in the process of being converted into many small commercial units. I meet tailors, musicians, builders, artists and the like. Once the introductions are over I get to work making clay jewellery. While I do so Fanny and Cathy (with whom Fanny shares the workshop) teach me a little about the process involved. There is a lot more science in it that I realised – a goulash of colours, chemicals and temperatures. I feel a career change coming on...

Lunchtimes at the workshop are a social affair. Everyone sits at a big communal table in the courtyard and each worker takes their turn in cooking up a feast. It's a great opportunity to have a laugh and escape the office – or workshop in my case.

My three hours labour get me a free dinner – with a cheeky beer thrown in. Mellow evening film watching.


Richard and I rise reasonably early. Our mission for the morning in to head down to the supermarkets for some Dumpster Diving. The first bins lid we open reveals half a pack of biscuits – supplying us with vital energy for our activities. Then onwards to the supermarkets and the Premier League of discarded food goods. At Intermarche we pilfer three loafs of bread, goats cheese, butter a bag of salad leaves and the cream of the crop – two peppered steaks. All of which were sealed and in date. We were not so fortunate with Lidl as the bins had just been emptied – not a bad haul all the same....

We then head to the local market to meet our friends. After a quick walk around the market (all the food is natural organic goodness and therefore out of our pricerange) we all go down to the river for a picnic. Wednesday here is “the day for children”. The schools are closed and children spend the day with their parents – often to take part in art, play or outdoor activities. What a great idea.


The day kicks off with another Dumpster Diving session. It appears today is the day when they sling all the meat. We leave with more protein than we know what to do with and two cakes from the bakery – pear gateau and two huge vanilla slices. Scorchio!!

I join Fanny for the communal lunchtime meal. In the afternoon I prepare the bike and begin to load my luggage ready for the off tomorrow.

France - Couchsurfing in Die

1st 55km

Henry cooks me eggs for breakfast. I eat as the sun appears from behind the western ridge. Once my gear is dry I begin to pack up – I notice my reluctance to leave. I have a couchsurfing arrangement which I a keen to fulfil - this helps motivate me to get moving.

I say a big thankyou/goodbye to Henry and the start on the six kilometre climb to the top of the Col de Carabes (1261m). I make good time on the way up and so pause for a while to enjoy the views and the quiet from the top. From then on it's down hill all day – bliss!

I arrive in the town of Die (pronounced Dee) and decide to “just turn up” at my hosts house. It can be difficult to arrange couchsurfing without either a phone or regular internet connection. I find his house but he is not there. I meet his neighbours Pierre and Raffel. They give me a beer. I sit all afternoon in the garden reading in the hope that my host will return. He does – and he brings with him some friends and more beer – from a local micro brewery. A mellow night under the stars. My first French lesson in a long time. Good beer.


Lazy day. I play guitar outside while Wim studies. In the evening we go to a party. One of his neighbours has opened a pottery workshop and is throwing a party to celebrate. I gather from those I meet that this is quite an “alternative” community – lots of artists, musicians, organic farmers, outdoor enthusiasts etc. My kind of place.

Wim and I leave the party early – our plan is to go hiking this evening. His mother gives us a lift into the forest and from then on it's down to our legs. With the last hour of daylight we power through five kilometers of climbing up a plateau at sixteen hundred meters. It's some of the steepest hiking I've done, very enjoyable, but not the kind of place you'd want to take a fall. The star scape from atop the climb is spectacular. We make our way north until we come to the mountain hut – our accommodation for the night. We open the door to see four guys sitting around the table. One of whom happens to be Wim's friend. It's a great building and very simple. Five by five meters, flat timber roof, thick brick walls coated in a coarse pebble render. Inside there's a wooden bunk (for six or eight people), a picnic table, a wood burner, axe, saw and a few candles.

We throw another fat chunk of pine in the wood burner, cook up a feed, and chat around the table. We pass around a tiny (medicine sized) bottle containing a potent concoction – which I suspect even trumps the Georgians Cha Cha for alcohol content. The mixture of mountain herbs and vegetables comes out at brain cell popping 70%.


Thanks to the exercise and the night cap we sleep well. Simple breakfast and then we begin our walk of the ridge. Vultures have recently been re-introduced to the area and all morning we see them riding thermals. We are joined by Wim's friend Isabelle for todays hike. They are both training to be mountain guides and both take an interest in the local flora species. We make regular stops to admire and reference wild flowers. On the walk back down we take an off piste route along a ridge. Either side of us the ground drops away hundreds of meters. There are a few sphincter twitching moments but Wim, being the most experienced of us, comforts me with advice like - “this would be a bad place to fall”.

A tranquil evening with beers in the garden. Sleep very well...

France - Henry


30th 39km

Very slack start. I let the rain dry off the tent. I use the morning to chill out, do some chores, and just enjoy being outside. The facial hair gets a serious bashing – I enjoy it so much I almost forget about the compulsory comedy facial hair. I discover a rash on my chin. It could have been there for months - stealthily lurking in my nutella encrusted face pubes!

Once on the road a headwind stunts my progress. I'm learning to recognise when I'm going up a hill. Sounds stupid I know – but the landscape often causes illusions that have you wondering why your slugging away in a low gear when your eyes are telling you your going downhill.

I take a gamble and pick a “short cut” that isn't on my poorly scaled map. It's a col that looks more challenging and interesting – and appears to be more direct.

At the tiny village of La Piarre a man comes out of his house to greet me. After a brief exchange I'm setting my tent up outside his house. He says “I saw you coming up the hill, it was like you were coming from another planet. Something told me to come out and talk to you”. I'm glad he did.

My new host, Henry that is, leaves me to set-up in peace. Once that is done he invites me inside to join him in demolishing a bottle of 50% proof white rum. I meet his girlfriend Sohpia and we all talk the night away. I learn about his work as a painter, his previous drug addictions and his plans for the future.

31st surprise restday 6km

Habit of the road sees me awake before sun up. The bonus of this is that I get to watch my first sunrise in the Alps. While packing up my things Henry says it's fine if I want to stay another day. I do.

I read and do exercises all morning. In the afternoon I ride a small local mountain pass on the unloaded bike – and get to really make the most of my returning fitness. I take a walk and see signs of Spring all around me. Budding trees and wild flowers by the roadside. Lizards dart away form my clumsy footfalls as I explore shadowy woods. Several hours vanish – I spend most of the time just staring at the mountain views all around me. I love the Alps.

In the evening we play guitars, eat stew and make a million and one future travel plans.

France - Heading North

28th 73km

My breakfast of two bananas doesn't take me far. I stop at a patisserie for bread and a pastry – slipping nicely back into my old habits!! Contrary to the forecast the weather is good. And thanks to said good weather and the sweet treat in my gut I'm in a fine mood. On with the riding then.

At mid-day I stop at Entrevaux – a small village in the Alps set behind castle fortifications. A very pretty place (I add it to the “to come back to” list).

Disappointing news - Highest through road in Europe - closed!

Mid-afternoon I notice the clouds building and looking quite stormilicious. I throw on the rain clobber and let the sweat fest begin. I stop every so often in lay-bys to sulk and half heartedly look for campspots. I sit in a bus-stop and daydream for a while. Then I snap to and decide to “man up” - which I vocally repeat several times while remembering the multiple occasions on which I have given people grief for moaning about the rain. I'm rewarded with incredible views of gorges and mountain all afternoon. Better yet the rain dies away and the clouds let through a little blue sweetness. I top a mountain pass – the Col de Toutes Aures at 1124m. I'm happy that I stay below the cloud line as this way I get the views I've earned. On the way down I reflect on the day – a perfect example of a good days bike touring.

I find a campsite – real one this time. There's no-one around but I push my bike in and pitch up anyway. At around midnight I wake to hear some crazy animal noises in the hills. They sound much like the Jackels of Turkey – but I'm pretty sure France doesn't have such creatures.

29th 87km

I wake with a chill – caught out by a cheeky Spring frost. The campsite turned out to be closed (early season) and so I leave without handing over a cent – don't feel too bad though having only utilised their empty field.

I start the day wearing full cold weather gear – the same as I was wearing in the winter. Three months on it's not even below zero – seems I have already softened to warmer climates. Even my peanut butter protests against the cold – refusing to spread causing me to cut slithers off it and place them on my bread.

The riding is much like yesterday (no bad thing at all). Always following rivers, mountain pass becomes dreamy downhills becomes gorges and tunnels, there's constantly something to keep me entertained.

A storm creeps up behind me in the afternoon. I jump out of my skin at the first clap of thunder directly overhead. I duck into a mountain shelter but quickly lose patience and decide to continue on. I realise that it only feels good to get out of the rain if you know your not going to have to get back in. Otherwise it's best just to keep on pushing. And it makes the sunny days that much sweeter too.

Fairly naff campspot – an empty field on the outskirts of a small town. The rain breaks just long enough for me to cook up a warm dinner. I spend a long time cautiously setting up in the downpour. Everything is wet bust I do my best to minimise the discomfort regardless.

France - Cote d'azur

26th 44km

A pleasant start to the day. The ten kilometres downhill is over before I know it and then I start on another mountain pass. With more energy than last night I get stuck in without a second thought – my legs spinning to the rhythm of the tunes on my ipod. The climb is great and with every switchback I'm rewarded with new and interesting views. The colour is yet to come to the trees that dominate the hillside. Any accessible land seems to be used for olives groves or vineyards.

Another tunnel halts my progress but this time I decide to chance it. It pays off. The small amount of guilt I feel is removed when I see two racing cyclists pass through the same way – the rules don't apply to all it seems.

 Stunning downhill take me all the way to Menton. I stop periodically to admire the views – and on one occasion to watch some motorcross racing. I briefly explore the town but quickly abandon this in favour of the beach. I roll out the well tent and sleeping back, pick my spot, and spend all afternoon reading. Evening rolls in. I play my guitar until it's too dark to be seen and then roll out my sleeping bag under the decking of a beach bar (which is closed as it's a little too early in the season). Mediterranean beach bum life for me!

27th 59km

 I wake early and utilise the free showers on the beach. Ice cold water allows my nipples to reach Glass Cutting status. I stuff away my sleeping bag, inhale some banana/nutella sandwiches and then begin on the coastal road West.

I ride through Monte Carlo – figuring while I'm there I might aswell go and see what all fuss is about. I explore the streets for sometime – trying to recall the shape of the Formula 1 track as I go. Down at the famous waterfront there's a cycle race on so I sit and watch for some time. As I do so it dawns on me that little about my life is athletic – dispite my boasts of “so many kilometres this day” etc. Lycra shod men with outrageously chiselled calves throw me cursory bemused glances as they saunter past – the kind of look you might give that animal in the zoo that you know you should recognise...but don't. Aside from a few impressive looking boats – I'm a little dissapointed with Monte Carlo. Dont get me wrong - I'm sure there's some great restaurants with superb food and hotels with elaborate doilies and origami style folded toilet paper. But nothing grabs me...

I move on hoping Nice has more appeal for the vagabiker community. The heavens open and so I don't stay long in the city. A brief internet stop to get an idea of my route and then I make may way inland. I battle with the rain until the light begins to fail. With little in the way of camping (all the land is fenced off) I ask at a motel if I can pitch up outside. My French fails me and so I end up taking a room – and after six hours of riding in the cold and wet I'm very grateful.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Italy - Turin and onwards

22nd 24km

Easy morning ride into Turin. I stop on the way to steal some wifi for a city map. While I tap away two local mountain bikers pull along side. With broken Italianglish we establish who's who. A quick Bob Dylan number secures me a croissant and a coffee - result They take lots of picture of me and then, with some bear-like parting handshakes, they are on their way.

I cop out. Campsite. I spend the evening servicing the bike and doing laundry. The campsite is empty and beer expensive – two factors that drastically reduce the chances of a rocking night. Nice view of the city though...

Last minute I opt for a rest day. My first in a week. I attempt to catch up on the blog, do other internet tasks, and then actually get to explore some of the city. I had forgot the pleasure of sightseeing (by bike) in a bicycle friendly city. I park up in various cafes that take my fancy, drink far too much good coffee, and indulge in some laptop time. In the evening I find an Irish bar and treat myself to a stout – wwwwwwwwwooooooooooooowwwwwww (my taste buds are barely prepared for proper beer) it's been too long old friend!

24th 101km- Back on the ton!
I leave the city at ten in the morning – not my snappiest start. Riding out of town attracts a lot of attention – Italy is full of cyclists. While pedalling away I chat with various lycra clad speed demons. The morning passes quickly. Old faithful (Lidl) supplies me with three days of food for €10. I get my fruit from roadside stalls. The seller is miserable – but as I tuck into two kilos of prime oranges he grumpiness is forgotten. With a weeks worth of vitamin C pumping through my veins I return to the road.

I lost my sun hat long back and by mid-afternoon the sun is getting the better of me. I spot an outdoor store and get a new shade for my bonce.

All afternoon my gaze is fixed on the snowy peaks in the distance. It doesn't feel that long ago that I was surrounded by them in Turkey/Georgia – though it's been a few months now. I'm excited by the idea of mountain riding again – but I must admit I'm definitely getting comfortable with the warm Mediterranean Spring.

I spy a nice spot to camp. With thirty minutes of light remaining I hide in some woodland until no-one can see me set up.

25th 58km

All morning I climb slowly through the foothills of the Italian Alps. Along the way I pass several signs indicating that bicycles are not allowed on this road. I ignore them – seeing no good reason why not.

By mid-afternoon I find the reason for the road restrictions – a four kilometre tunnel linking Italy and France. I hop off the bike and take a water break. The line of car drivers all watch me as I explore the tunnel entrance, dimly lit, stretching on seemingly forever until my eyes fail me. It doesn't look good. A traffic light system sends cars through in fifteen minute shifts, at a set speed, with a set separation distance. There are no curbs and only one lane. I go for plan B. I take the bike apart piece by piece. Take a seat on the luggage pile, pull out the guitar, and flash my thumb at all who pass by.

It works!

France from James Rathbone on Vimeo.

In the evening I make a start on a mountain pass...but give up. Pussy! With little in the way of camping I decide on a different (more coastal) route.