Ooh la la La France

“Johnny England” and I are in France after a night ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe. We arrive at 5am, losing an hour, after about three hours of what can, at best, be called rest on the hard floor in an empty corner of one of many lounges.

We ride south under a cloudy sky spitting rain, stopping first in Rouen, where we park the bike and walk toward a cathedral that John wants me to see. I remind him of my vast exposure to cathedrals on the Camino and my lack of interest therein, but he assures me I’ll be impressed. Skeptical, I acquiesce. He’s right – this structure is magnificent in its size, complexity and detail – a composite of statues, engravings, stained glass, gargoyles, filigree and spires, so high it hurts my neck to look up and see the top of it. A picture would not do it justice; I can only say if you are in Rouen, check it out. Walking back to the bike, we pass a store with a poster in the window and we do a double take, then we both start to laugh and agree that she might have the right idea. IMG_0028

This part of France, north central, is mostly flat and farmland, with the predominant crop grown, from what I can see, being sunflowers – we pass field after field, giant golden faced soldiers all standing at attention in the same direction. IMG_0031 We drive through one charming village after another, the old stone houses adorned with shutters in some cases, Juliette balconies in others, and the small shop dedicated to one particular food group (patisserie, boulangerie, charcuterie, etc), is alive and well in the French countryside. In the bigger towns this is glaringly (and sadly to my mind) not the case – enormous warehouse-sized grocery stores meld with department stores, crowding out the local small guy, calling themselves “super” this, “mega,” “ultra,” or “hyper” that. The Walmarts and Costcos of France, they are so vast I am overwhelmed immediately by all the choices on display. John counts an entire grocery aisle 5 rows deep of rose wine, and there is twice that much space devoted to cheese. This is France so emphasis on wine and cheese is to be expected, however the entire store is this way, and I wonder…how many varieties of canned sardines, yogurt or bottled water does anyone really need? It’s a question I have asked myself in the U.S. for years. In the checkout line we spot a magazine for sale that reminds me of the English usage on store fronts and billboards I witnessed in Asia last fall, and how I used to smile at those clumsy yet endearing efforts – the editor in me wanted to correct the mistakes while the traveler in me wanted them never to change. IMG_0029

We stop for a cup of coffee for me, tea for John, but he is disappointed when they bring him something that he describes as smelling like cow’s pee. This is to be a recurrent problem for John – the French do not seem able to make a “proper cup of tea.”

Our destination, though we’re taking our time to get there, is the Pyrenees. We intend to ride from east to west, crossing back and forth between France and Spain. There are rarely border checks these days between EU countries, so it is easy to pass from one to the other without hassle or wait. We camp our first night, after riding close to four hundred miles, in the Auvergne region, just outside the town of Clermont-Ferrand. It’s late by the time we set up the tent and we’re hungry so ride back into town to find something to eat – amazingly the restaurants, while still open, are all done serving for the night. Isn’t France one of those countries, like Italy, where restaurants seat customers well into the night? It used to be when I lived in Montpellier 30-odd years ago. I can’t speak for the big towns and cities but in the small ones this is no longer the case. We encounter this situation again and again as we ride and only after about a week do we wise up and make a point of looking for restaurants (when we aren’t eating grocery store meals) before 7:30 or so. On this night the only place we can find still open is a pizza place, where we share a sandwich and a pizza topped with tuna fish and olives. Surprisingly tasty.

We camp each night for the next week but one, when we get into town later than expected and can’t find a campground (on which occasion we find a room sans bath over a restaurant for 32 euros). The tiny town of Sainte Enimie in the Gorge de Tarn is my favorite camping spot, at a small campground alongside the river. Our tent is crap, too small and thin; John bought it the day we left England and the only store he could find open was a general merchandise rather than outdoor store, so selection was very limited. In any event, it does the job, at least so far in the dry, warm weather we’re having, and the setting here is glorious. The moon is full and we ride the short distance into town for dinner shortly after dusk then walk around the cobblestone streets and across a high stone bridge where we can see the crumbling remains of ancient walls built into the sides of the mountain, lit up from below.

Soon it’s Bastille Day, French Independence Day. We see heightened security in places, road blocks and emergency vehicles lining the sides of the roads, and it could be on account of the Nice shooting last year on this day, or more likely because Donald Trump has chosen to visit France today. In other places the spirit of the day runs wild and free, and as we witness one celebration after another throughout the day, because today also happens to be my 53rd birthday I secretly pretend the fireworks and festivities are all for me. John, good guy that he is, won’t let me pay for anything today, though we’ve been splitting the expenses otherwise except for gas. (“I would be paying for it even if I were on my own,” he says.) We are now riding through more mountainous terrain, nearing the Pyrenees, as well as passing small villages that seem almost carved into the land and water, reminding me how much I love this country, and reminding me also how fortunate I am to be here, doing this. IMG_0027

We are driving south toward the Spanish border when we see smoke on the horizon from a forest fire – as we approach, the cloud billows wider and darker, until it resembles the picture of a mushroom cloud after a nuclear bomb explosion we used to see as children in history class. IMG_0030 I look back from the edge of Spain as night begins to fall to see a lovely sunset, made even more brilliant by the smoke.



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