The sun’s out but the cycling’s hard…
Since leaving Rochefort on Monday, rather late it has to be said… the campsite was lovely and the owners lovelier. I also had access to the mains for charging the various electronic gadgets and to the internet for catching up with everyone I’ve left behind.
Another reason for hanging around was that I thought I’d wait for the next service of the ‘Ponts Transbordeur’ in order to cross the Charente river between Rochefort and Echillais. The Transporter Bridge, an innovation of the French engineer Ferdinand Arnodin, was built at the end of the 19th century. It consists of a ‘cradle’ suspended by cables between two steel structures either side of the river, which would shuttle passengers without disrupting the river traffic.
However, I had itchy feet to get back on the road and so cycled across the newer road bridge. Once I hit the road, I got in the groove and just kept pedalling. The sun was shining and I was feeling fit and strong after the day of relaxing. I passed swiftly through numerous villages and small towns; Trizay, Pont l’Abbe-d’Arnoult, Nancras, Saujon and Cozes to name a few. Each with it’s own characteristic church at the centre, the spires of which could be seen well in advance and acted as a guide as to how I was progressing as they grew ever larger on the horizon as I got near.
All was fantastic, until I reached the Gironde river. I completely ran out of energy and still had some miles to go to the campsite. A brief respite, with bread and cheese, apricots, banana, chocolate and nuts (all the edible food I had with me), I pedalled off again at a rather more sedate pace. Unfortunately, this was the point at which I encountered my first real hill. A slog up at a snails pace, stopping two or three times on the way to take photos (this, I have found to be the perfect excuse for taking a momentary break to catch my breath), but I made it in the end. Through Saint Thomas de Conac with it’s pretty, wooden windmill and on to Saint Bonnet sur Gironde for the campsite.
I’m now very adept at setting up camp, and can have the tent up and everything organised in the space of about fifteen minutes, which leaves plenty of time for other things… whether that be little luxury like a bottle of red or a few beers if I’ve remembered to buy some and bothered to cycle with the extra weight (well worth it I think) or to read one of my books (also well worth the extra weight). That evening however, I’d decided to try out the new stove for the first time – I’ve been happily living off baguette with cheese, salami and salad or taboule (couscous) and plenty of fresh fruit to not yet be bored. I can’t say I was very hungry, but I had time on my hands to play and a little pasta in the mix wouldn’t hurt anyway.
The guy opposite me, noticing that I was having some difficulty lighting the thing, offered me his campervan kitchen, to which I politely declined. A little while later, still struggling with a problematic lighter, he invited me to join him and his friends for dinner…. freshly caught fish. Now I’d be a fool to turn that down!
Many hours later, we’d consumed a delicious six-course meal, plenty of wine to accompany each course and were happily chatting away, round the table (the only time I’ve eaten at a table, with a plate and knife and fork too, since I left St. Malo) with the dark night sky and countless stars for a roof. A thoroughly enjoyable evening and ended with me very nearly joining them to go to Pau for a festival. I checked on a map in the morning and didn’t really think I could skip cycling through half of France for a ride in a campervan to the Pyrennees, so I left them with a bottle of wine and was on my way once again.
The following day, was a bit of an epic – I crossed the Gironde by bacs (river ferry) from Blaye, having looked round the impressive citadel which overlooks the city and cycled through the loveliest countryside of Medoc. I passed countless vineyards and chateaus, but most impressively, I wasn’t tempted into one of them for a sampling of the regions wine. I was already dehydrated from the searing heat and the previous night’s events.
As I neared Bordeaux, the scenery began to change and soon I was cycling on the completely flat terrain of Gascogne, on roads that were completely straight for miles on end, surrounded by trees. There was nothing else. No wildlife (or roadkill). No church spires in the distance. No signs to distract. Nothing to give any indication of how far I’d gone or how long I’d been cycling. Only my cycle computer could do that. How hard it was to not look at it constantly and how depressing it was when I did look, to discover that only two minutes had passed and not even another mile cycled. Fortunately, with the end of the day and eventually arriving at another campsite, I could take a break from the monotony.
Cycling through the Gascogne has given me an insight as to how crossing the Sahara will be – just hotter, longer and with even less distractions. It will be tough. But I think I can, and am determined to, do it.
A third long day cycling brought me to Saint Sever, with a campground just outside of town. I would have had a rest day here, but I’d no food on me and there was no way I was going to cycle up the hill into town unless it was on my way out and onwards.
So the following morning, I selected the lowest gear and slowly made my way into town for breakfast and sightseeing. I finally left Saint Sever in the midday heat and my tired legs made hard work of the smooth road. And then I took the back roads and with them came more hills… This was just too much and with the first hill I was pushing the bike slowly upwards, sweating profusely, with my lungs severely straining with the exertion.
That night I stayed in Orthez, but the town, campsite and it’s owners all failed to engage. The following morning I therefore, made a short ride to Sauveterre de Bearn, where I am currently relaxing. It’s a lovely, little town; full of history and charm. With my tent pitched under the trees by the river, I think I’ll rest well here with the sound of gently flowing water and the soft rustle of the breeze through the trees as a tranquil background to send me to sleep.