Saturday, July 3, 2010

Avignon, Parc National des Cévennes, and Millau to the Pyrenees

We stumbled out of the Hotel Les Quatre Dauphins and onto the streets of Aix around 10am, worn out from the previous day’s extremes of heat and rain and likely still a little jet lagged. The sidewalks of the Cours Mirbeau were filled with street vendors offering racks of clothes, shoes and jewelry. Fortunately, we sat at a cafe for petit dejuener long enough for the high noon Provence heat to prevent too much shopping.

And when we got on the bike around 1, the heat was still building. Yeah, we’re slow learners. Two days of midday departures and it finally sunk in that we needed to cover our miles (sorry, kilomiles or whatever) in the mornings. By the time we followed backroads through farmland west of Aix, we were about to wilt. Not even a blast on the autobahn could cool us down enough to continue and we dripped our way into Avignon only an hour or two after leaving.

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A hotel room and a stroll (in shorts and flip flops) inside the medieval walls of the city started to sound pretty good and before too long, we were booked into the last available room in the Hotel Splendid. It was splendid that they kept the reception chilled to an arctic 60 degrees; Not so much that half way up the first staircase to our third floor room we hit a wall of heat that was only mildly inconvenienced by our floor fan. 

Of course, we had to unplug the fan if we wanted to charge anything like the computer, iPhones, bluetooth headsets, digital camera, video camera or GPS and getting all those on one socket would be tricky… for a lesser man, anyway.

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In these old French villages, you can walk three blocks in any direction and find a square filled with tables and chairs and a waitress to take your order though she will typically think you want two of everything. What are we doing wrong?! No problem, on more than one occasion, I’ve been quite willing to drink the extraneous cafe noir or biere.

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We returned to the room to cheer the fan on in it’s struggle against the heat and ended up taking an extended nap that would later come back to haunt us. We woke up about 8 pm and got a quick dinner at an Irish pub across the street after deciding Ireland was closer to France than the US and yet we ate at Irish pubs at home all the time so it wasn’t that weird. Funny how calming a burger and fries can be after a few days deciphering menus and hopping for the best. Then, to continue the trend of comforting indulgences, I fired up the VPN back to the home office to trick into letting us watch some cheesy reality TV from outside the US. It really is nice of them to shield the rest of the world from the evils of “The Bachelorette.”

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I wanted to go to the movies but Ann said no.


I spent two hours waiting for our 6am alarm to go off. The nap, the heat and a not-so-Splendid bed all conspired to get me up early to pour over the Lonely Planet book, Motorcycling in the Alps, and the GPS to plan a route that would get us out of the Rhone Valley and into the mountains before the day warmed up. I had it all worked out when the iPhone vibrated to life, and we were on the bike and heading out the gates of the walled city minutes before 7.

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We followed rural roads angling northeast towards the hills and passing through countless small towns. We’d see the town name on a white sign with a red outline and a 50km/hr sign, ride through one main street sometimes with a raised crosswalk that acted as a speed bump, then see the sign on the other side of town showing the name with a red line through it and the speed limit surging back up to 90.

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Once again, Monsieur Garmin chose the best roads for us including this one marked as a bicycle route sneaking up the back way into a town where we stopped for a morning croissant.


Doesn’t make a lot of sense to me that the patisseries are strictly bread. Not a coffeemaker to be found. To get a cup of coffee, you have to look for the tables out on the sidewalk and sit down to place your order. 30 seconds later, the espresso comes out. 20 seconds later it’s down the hatch. 3 minutes later you get the waitresses’ attention to request the bill (l’addition) and feel like an unappreciative heel who can’t sit for an hour and enjoy a coffee like everyone else seems to.


The plan was to head via Ales to Florac just inside the Parc National des Cevennes and see how we felt. After a 10am coffee and some salami and brie on a baguette (yes, I had to walk down to the separate patisserie to get it), we decided to continue on to Millau (pronounced “me-yo,” like a gangster cat would say) for the night.

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The switchbacks leading out of Florac and up the cliff behind me (above) top out on a high plateau leading down through the Parc National des Cevennes, a lesser known destination in the Haut-Languedoc region. I’ve seen Languedoc referred to as the underappreciated sibling of Provence to the east but the jagged limestone spires and deep canyons cut by the Tarn, La Jonte and Dourbie Rivers rivaled the Gorges du Verdon. Yeah, I said it.

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In St. Enimie, we got lured by the brochures we saw in Florac for the grottes (caves) of Aven Armand and Darligan which claim to have the largest number of stalagmites in the world. Anyone can do stalactites, the hard part is getting them to grow UP. But after admitting that a 30 minute railcar ride down into the depths of the earth wasn’t going to be just the ticket for Ann’s preference for controlled environments, we continued on towards Millau via the Gorges de la Jonte.

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Millau sits at the confluence of the Tarn and Dourbie Rivers and at the base of the Causse Noir and Causse du Larzac. Having seen countless campgrounds with amazing looking swimming holes on the ride in, we walked down to the river and found a place to cool off just under the bridge entering the city. The water was nice but the shopping cart just downstream of us seemed to indicate that more care was taken to keep things clean higher up in the gorges.

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We watched an early World Cup game and wandered the streets at the unfit-for-a-meal hour of 7pm contemplating how to say “Are you open for dinner yet?” to the apron-clad folks wiping down tables under awnings. After lap 20 of the center of town, we saw someone else being seated and follow suit as if we’d just thought of it.

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Ann gets very serious about her bleu cheese when we’re within 20km of Roquefort.


We had a HUGE platter of meat (the cutting board is actually a stool) and yes, there was some wine involved.

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The next morning, we got another early start for a blast across the lowlands surrounding Toulouse on our way to the Pyrenees. Just outside of Millau, the Millau Viaduct holds the record for the tallest bridge tower and pylons in the world as it carries the autobahn between Paris and Montpelier.

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While we did actually drive through the town of Roquefort, the day was mostly a high speed effort to make some time south. The miles on the autobahn are much harder than the backroads mentally and physically.

Because someone at some time said they saw the Virgin Mary in Lourdes at the foot of the Pyrenees, 6 million visitors a year come to this holy site, many with ailments they hope will be cured by stripping naked, being wrapped in a white sheet and walking through a pool to kiss the foot of a statue. Weird, nowhere, NOWHERE could I find their miracle-cure vs. HOAX statistics published, but I guess people need something to believe in. Just a little hard to see literally lines of the old and disabled being wheeled in and relieved of their money at the sanctuary or any number of chachki shops.

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But from Lourdes, we climbed into the Pyrenees proper to reach the hiking/skiing village of Cauterets. Quite touristy compared to the other towns we’ve been in but it has a mountainy feel a little like a Telluride. With the bike safely tucked away, we caught one World Cup game in the room and the exciting Spain/Paraguay game at a local bar before getting some sleep. The next day, we would ride some of the highest passes in the Pyrenees, many of which are mainstays of the Tour de France route.