Home, James

Eastern Spain, Southern France

Paradise - the flat version (Castilla - La Mancha) 
The cranksets and hanging houses of Cuenca
Albarracin and its library of surrounding attractions
the Maestrazgo Villages - peace and sewing machines
All roads lead out of Reus
Shopping for instant soup in Andorra
Hunting for tomatoes in the Pyrenees
The water of Ax les Thermes
the Canal du Midi
Mister Bike France's bicycle tour
The case of the missing cloister
The Gite Experience
Castilla - La Mancha and el Maestrat : everything you want a in a bike tour, and nothing you don't.
Andorra gets mixed reviews from nature loving cyclists, but I loved it
Bicycle touring in France on a dollar budget can be difficult, especially on holidays
Carcassone - a perfect walled city and a bit of a tourist trap
another great flat cycling destination : the canal du midi
Surprise - Mister Bush is not a very popular American in these parts


Paradise - the flat version (Castilla - La Mancha)

In the guide book I was carrying, the region Castilla La Mancha receives less coverage than a part of the city Granada. It's described as a cultural backwater and the poorest part of Spain. Another book, the Rough Guide, talks about in terms of traveling through it, from Madrid to the coast, from Madrid to Teruel, and so on. All directions of nonstop travel are covered. Only a few stops are covered. For three days I had been trying to acquire a map of the new territory I was going to enter. No such luck. Everybody told me I had to go there to get one. The last map that would have shown Castile La Mancha, was all the way back in the intellectually curious university quarter of Granada. I have a map of Castilla La Mancha now, and apparently can use it as proof that I've been there. With such a lack of information, compared to other parts of Europe, I was wondering if my style of light bicycle touring was even feasible here. I didn't carry a tent, and only food for 2 days maximum. I was counting on sleeping in a bed in a room. Would I find this here ? When I say this now, I feel like a complete idiot, because I was right in the middle of the best part of the bikeride. The best touring routes have just the right amount of infrastructure, not too much, but just enough, just enough to eat and sleep and bike, with everything you need for your particular style of biking, eating and sleeping.

The first road in Castile carried the dreaded N prefix. It bypassed the Sierra Alcaraz and its towns, all the way to the village of Alcaraz. But besides having the feeling of missing attractions, it was a wonderful, quiet route with sweeping views. Later that day, I saw picture of the villages in the Sierra Alcaraz, and if I hadn't spent this many days on dayrides already, this would have been another one, at least one. Oh well. If it wasn't clear already, the world is big enough so that you can never see it all.

Surprise, Alcaraz had a tourist bureau. It was hidden away, under a colonnade in the central square. The plaza with its two unmistakable church towers could have looked at home in a major city, not a sleepy village with empty streets at the edge of a wild mesa. Since I made it just before siesta time, the tourist office was even open. No standing in line here. Whatever people were on the streets, were here for the mobile merchants who had set up shop outside of the city walls, overlooking the far plains I had biked in on. The market vans sold clothes, sewing machines, toys, shoes, most things a villager could imagine. It was a kind of  traveling WallMart without the guns and ammunition available at a US WallMart. Instead it also dealt in vegetables, and grilled chicken, which are more useful items for most bicycle tourers. So let's celebrate lunch with a grilled chicken and tomatoes, and see what the tourist department brochures had to say about Castilla La Mancha: "Castilla La Mancha situated in the heart of Spain, enjoys an amazing variety of geography ...It's one of the largest and most spectacular territories with a large surface dedicated to Natural Parks. Here unique ecosystems invite us to visit surprising corners, kept almost in an untouched state." That sounded better already. Let's see what it had to say about the town of Alcaraz .itself As it turns out, this fortified town played  a major role in the skirmishes between the Christians and Muslims in the 13th century. The economic importance of this fort and later city state of dry plains and mesas did not match its strategic importance. Paradoxically that's very often the reason why a town is such an appealing place to visit today. Later the 16th century was one of artistic progress in Alcaraz. That's where the two unique towers looking out over the mesa landscape date from. One is hexagonal, the other pentagonal with a Gothic cresting.

In a perfect world the wind would always be from the back. The sky would be the truest blue with a few white clouds added for richness of form.  The scenery floats by like a widescreen movie. Every scene could be a romantically stylized painting. In a perfect world roads would also have no ,shoulders because they wouldn't need any. That's because there would be no cars. Instead of  shoulders, roads would be lined with wild flowers, wild red roses and yellow flowering bushes. That's the kind of bicycling that was ahead of me, as I headed out of Alcaraz into the mesas above. In a perfect world these roads would also be perfectly smooth surfaced. But we don't live in a perfect world, and a few bumps and potholes are a reasonable price to pay for the above mentioned things. In this situation I often find myself riding on the left side of the road, as if to brag to myself that I've finally found a road that the cars haven't.

There is even a rational explanation why this bicycling paradise of tiny roads should exist here. The entrance to my sideroad direction Viveros was plastered with warning signs of its condition. It warned the motorist that this road was so substandard, curvy, potholed, and downright dangerous, that you were practically  taking your life into your own hands when you entered it. Spain has received enormous economic aid from the European Union to build new straight roads. That's also the reason why the overwhelming majority of rebuilt roads have large shoulders. Many old Spanish roads, as well as railroads with their stations are not torn down, but left to fend for themselves, and to decay at their own rate of speed. The roads are not closed. They're just low priority. These tiny, marginally maintained roads make paradisical mountain biking. Over 50 km, there were three cars and a moped. But instead of cars, one experiences millions of wild,  red and yellow wildflowers lining the road. The road slowly works its way up a gentle stepping plateau from Alcaraz, a welcome change after all the steep climbing over the last days.

The extreme variability of the landscape continued. Three days ago the dense needle forest of the Sierra Segura gave way to the semiarid stony mesas of the Sierra Alcaraz. A day later they were replaced by a high plain with picturesque semiglobal canopied trees scattered to the horizon. There's something about these trees. They stand alone. There are few enough of them that you can appreciate and study the almost globe shaped canopy, each one spreading shadow over its own little tiny part of the plain. Slowly the plain changes to agricultural land. Now abandoned farms start to make an appearance north of El Bonilli. The crops grow full force, but the farm buildings are just picturesque decay from a past time. What's picturesque and peaceful for the cyclist may be something very different for people trying to make a living in the area.

Al of a sudden I found myself on a thriving agricultural plain. Now I shared my potholes with tractors and lumbering vegetable trucks. The smell of nitrogen heavy fertilizer was in the air. Approaching Socoulkamos, the farm industry was present in full force, grain elevators, tractors, crops as far as the eye can see. I got a strange familiar feeling of riding at home somewhere east of Greeley, Colorado. But this is rural Castile - La Mancha, not rural eastern Colorado, nor the busy Spanish coast. Towns don't have the large modern Mercadona shopping boxes on the outskirts of town. My breakfast was half a box of spanish sugar flakes, bought from a friendly old woman in a hole in the wall store, not the muesli cereal imported for the coastal tourists. One of the shop keepers complemented me on my Spanish and told me about an interpreter job at the ayuntamiento. "Thank you , that's very nice but when it comes to beyond asking for Mortadella con aceitunas, leche and zumo de Melocoton, I get in trouble". Belmonte has an impressive castle looking out over the sweeping planes. It's bicycle surprises like these that make you glad you're riding one. Approaching Villeres de Saz, the fields become greener and the trees took on a more Northern appearance. For me it looses a little of the southern exotic look.

In Castile - La Mancha you can take small roads and make progress on the map at the same time. I picked the smallest thinnest lines on the map and still was able to cover a lot of distance. These roads often are shortcuts, not detours like they would be in the mountains. I always pictured paradise to be located in the mountains somewhere, an Eldorado ringed with rugged peaks. But maybe paradise is flat. This here could be it. - But no, this was still 21st century earth. Every once in a while, I crossed a large A or N road and saw an endless procession of trucks marching direction Madrid. God bless small roads. The fact that the sky was cloudless and wind pushed me along at an astonishing speed didn't hurt this feeling of biking euphoria.

The next day, a continued strong desire for roads with "poco movimientos" (few movements, or little traffic) set me on a path past churches on hills,  and delivered me to within 5 miles of the city of Cuenca on practically deserted roads. But I may have overdone it a little bit. The distance on the map was only 1/3 of what I had covered with the same 40 miles of bicycling the previous day.

The cranksets and hanging houses of Cuenca

In the relative metropolis if Cuenca I resolved to do something about my crankset. At the end of every day I had given it a little tuck to make sure it was tight, and every once in a while it moved several degrees. It was wearing, but it was still holding together just fine. It took 3 stores to find somebody willing to look at it, and even then only after the siesta. I had an appointment for 4 o'clock. As with many of the bikestores, the small store dealt in motorcycles and bicycles and displayed only 3 bicycles in the store. The back of the store must have been quite different,   because after some searching the mechanic did produce 3 cranksets that should work with my vintage frame. So out comes the bikestand and a respectable mature man starts working on it, undoing the cranks while 5 other customers  heap all sorts of demands, complaints and problems about motorcycle parts on  my bike mechanic. Still, he seemed to be quite knowledgeable about the 3 available bottombracket lengths, measuring the distance from the frame to the pedals several times. He also seemed to be impressed with the importance of my problem of having to tighten the crankset every day, and watching the little chainring creep ever closer to the frame on a daily basis.

Hours after the repair was done, I walked my bicycle by the store again. It was raining hard, and I was making my way down the sheltered sidewalk to find my pensione. The mechanic came running out of his store, with a wrench. He thought he had forgotten to tighten the pedals completely. In the pouring rain, he gave everything one more tuck to make sure that if fit tightly. "Es perfecto" I said, and hoped it was. Now that was one conscientious cycle mechanic, bi- and motor- alike.

Now I could turn my attention to the casas colgadas de Cuenca, the hanging houses of Cuenca. Again the reason for inhabiting the ridgetop is the moors who built a castle. They placed it on a limestone ridge that projects out onto the valley from the Sierrania Cuenca. But little if anything is left of the castle. In the mid 15th and 16th century, rich royals built houses hanging out over the cliffs, a magnificent church, arches and even a little Renaissance tower with an Italian look. The houses ring  the cliffs like a bird's nest. It's easy to find many magical little corners between the buildings, where you're surrounded by several of the following:  monuments, cliffs, angular hewn housewalls, benches facing even in the right direction, cars squeezing through medieval walls, dazzling bridges above a murky river.  Wherever there's a gap between the houses, a view squeezing between the housewalls opens up.

Most cars leave Cuenca by one of the valleys below. I took the road that stays up on the ridge and connects Cuenca with the beginning of the Sierrania de Cuenca plateau. The tourist information assured me that the road was very very bad. This meant again very very poco .movimientos A healthy climb leads to isolated villages, where you can't even buy bread, but take some interesting pictures instead. A pass climbs to a dense needle forest and the wooded tops of the Sierrania, and then delivers you to a dry limestone canyon, at the end of which lies Albarracin. When the road crosses into the state of Aragon, it takes on a 20th century appearance again, with lines and markings befitting the modern world.

When the traffic markings reappeared, I had spent about 4 days in Castilla-La Mancha, riding a little less than 300 miles. It started to look like I was starting to change my position on the map too.

Albarracin and its library of surrounding attractions

Albarracin stands on a small island like rock outcrop. It is surrounded on 3 out of 4 sides by moat like canyons eroded into the rock. It's as impressive now as it was defensible in the middle ages. There's not much room for the town on its perch. Yet this rocky ridge was the capital of a tiny kingdom of Azagras between 1165 and 1333.  The small outcrop manages to contain three piercing church towers, countless arches, castle towers now containing art exhibits, parks clinging to the edge,  and houses hanging over the edge. Because the town is relatively compact, there is a temptation to look down every alley, walk under every arch to check what magical little space with dangling windows and plants, waits around the corner. Many times you find yourself in a space you have been before, but it takes a while to realize because from a new angle, everything looks different.

The one side of the town, that isn't protected by a natural canyon, is protected by city walls. The walls climb high up on the mountain side, and tourists are free to walk the yard wide walls to test their vertigo. Far below the walls, a modern road approaches the town. It makes its way through a canyon, and then tunnels through the outcrop the town sits on. The only way you can get onto the rock outcrop, is to park half a mile away, and then walk up narrow steep streets. In this way the illusion of a medieval town is preserved. The town has the atmosphere of a museum town, no Vespa echoes in these alleys. Albarracin has been discovered by tourists, and it's no wonder.

I got to know Albarracin already well while looking for a place to stay. I hadn't planned it that way. But all the hostals close to the main road were "completo". I was there during a holiday weekend. That must have been why. But in the end there was no reason to complain about  the accommodations. I pushed the bike up onto the rock outcrop into the old town. There I was the only guest in a small hostal high up on the hill, nestling under the city walls. The rooms were very well kept. The wall paper displayed a natural rock wall and blended well with the real natural rock wall. Pictures of nearby attractions were tastefully framed. The polished wood floor in the bathroom was so clean, you were afraid to step on it. This hostal was run like no man could do it. Even for a single woman it would be too much. It took two women to focus so much attention on so many details and keep so many things so clean. The place was run by a mother/daughter team. They were in a very special location, and that evening I was the only person who had discovered it. All you had to do, was walk for half an hour or so away from the comfort of the modern highway up into the restored medieval alleys.

The two women liked where they were. They had a deep appreciation for the beauty of their little spot in this special location. They also knew the surroundings. I received pamphlet upon pamphlet of nearby attractions, directions to the best viewpoints on Albarracin, hiking suggestions for the nearby canyons. The girl's facial language showed that she cared deeply about this town. When I communicated more or less successfully, that I was still trying to figure out where to bike from here, she had suggestions on how to continue this meandering style of bicycling, that I had been practicing again these last days. From below a table she pulled out tourist brochure upon tourist brochure, covering comarca upon comarca. She planned a route for me, leading to a castle in Paracense on to Calnoche. "Te guste ?" (You like?) she asked, holding up a picture of yet another ferry tale castle over a medieval hill town. Yes, I did like !

When I rode out of Albarracin, very late the next day, I virtually carried a library of Spanish tourist brochures with me, and that's not a virtual library that ways nothing, but virtually a library that took up real space and weight, in a real pannier. But these booklet were not filled with useless advertising, like their US counterparts often are. They contained great photography and really were useful to the cyclist. I was very confused how to proceed from here. It looked tempting following the Sierra de Albarracin North, even if it was much less direct than I had in mind. Maybe it would clear my head if  I rode into the open valley to the large town of Teruel, and photographed Mudejar towers for lunch. But Teruel was an attraction it its own right, a major attraction. The Mudejar towers there turned out to be the my favorite architecture on this tour. From the 12th to the 15th century, Muslims, Jews and Christians lived here in cultural collusion. The resulting Mudejar architecture puts intricate muslim patterns onto arches, and other structural elements of Gothic and Romanesque origin. In addition, this town has some of the wildest aqueduct bridges you have ever seen.

But I had to decide where to go from here, even though it was tempting to just find a hostal, and pretend I lived here. After lunch the town became quiet, the streets cleared out, silence fell,  fiesta time. I could unfold my tourist library on a stone bench under the cathedral and study it in detail. Finally I had to make up my mind, at least about the direction in which to proceed from here. Here's another choice : the via verde Ojos Negros- Sagunto. Via Verde means greenway, the Spanish version of a rail to trail conversion, starting in Teruel direction Sagunto. It passed over solid, yet graceful stone viaducts and sliced through the hills like a rail  line - because that's what it was, a rail line. But this really would be more ideal for an unloaded mountain bike. The original plan was to continue east and a little South into the mountains towards Mora de Rubielos. So many great options, but only one bicycle ride ! In the confusion, I did none of the above and let the wind decide. I headed North with a strong tailwind on a large empty highway to Peral de Alfambra. But even this coincidental choice of a bicycle route turned out to be fascinating. The scenery was something from Utah or Wyoming, colorful badland bluffs on one side, a riparian stream zone on the other. Next to the road was yet another abandoned rail line, complete with all its magnificent, old stone viaducts, and its stations rotting in the sun until the whole structure resembled a roadkill porcupine - very picturesque decay. I still carried the whole library of biking possibilities of Teruel, the Sierra de Cuenca and Zaragoza with me for the next two days. Then I kept a selective amount of material and then sent it home with a parcel of paper that had accumulated

That evening I slept in a truck stop hotel. Speakers blaring the latest top 40 out onto the street welcome you. At least there are no speakers inside the room, like in some hotels in Mexico. The downstairs is one large bar, and asking for water constitutes asking for abuse. My library of surrounding attractions was there to remind me of Albarracin and the completely different treatment I had received there. When the morning came, my mind had cleared. I headed back into the mountains, away from the truck route, as fast as I could. I was too far North to go through Mora de Rubielos. But I could approach the original route through Alepuz and then ride through several Maestrazgo villages via the the "puerto de Soltavientos". On this route the very last reason that anybody could have found to complain about anything whatsoever, disappeared : the potholes.

the Maestrazgo Villages - peace and sewing machines

My library from Albarracin had nothing to say about the Maestrazgo villages. It covered the area north and west of there. What I knew about the Maestrazgo villages was this : Somebody had posted a link on the Trento Bicycle Touring pages, basically saying that "the Maestrazgo villages were suitable for bicycling". I was about to find out.  It was that time again. I was hungry, and I was out of food completely, and that on a Sunday - out of tomatoes, cheese, bread, cereal, vegetables, soup and chocolate. I needed to replenish supplies. Alepuz was the only town around. It clings to several steps of grassy terraced topography, natural steps of stone a few hundred yards from the modern new road up to the puerto de Soltavientos.

I rode through Alepuz twice, and couldn't find a single sign of any store selling anything. The streets were deserted, except for one single person, and he was a construction worker from out of town. He told me of a panaderia (a bakery), and where I could find it. Look as hard as I might, I couldn't find it. None of the buildings looked like stores. No sign of store windows, no sign of sings, no sign of shoppers, not to mention parking spots.  I retraced my way through the village and asked the construction worker again, and this time he gave me exact street by street directions. I followed them to the letter, and arrived at a house. At the entrance was a doorbell, and below it, where usually the name of the person who lives in the house is posted, it said "panaderia". I know that I wasn't in Las Vegas, where every business puts up signs that can be read from the next state line, only in clear weather of course. But this took getting used to. Without personal directions, one could never find this "store", if that's what it was. I rang the bell. Within 20 seconds, somebody came running and opened the door. Inside was everything I needed. Although my choice of what to put on my bacquete bread was limited to cheese without salt and cheese with salt. Not all villages in the el Maestrat area are that non commercial, but they all give new meaning to the term "bicycling infrastructure", that is, everything necessary for a bike tour, the way to eat and sleep. It's all there, but you have to ask for it. Prices in these little stores are remarkably similar to what you would pay in a small store  in the city.

Market vans fill a real need in these towns. They're not here to sell you fashionably natural homemade cookies at overinflated prices, because nobody has time to bake, and everything that's available in the supermarket is filled witch chemicals and trucked here from across the continent. There are no supermarkets, and consequently no trucked in chemical food. Baked goods are produced as locally as their consumed, down the street. The market vans that come to these towns sell things like fresh vegetables, sweets, clothes, toys to sewing machines. They come in large groups or work by themselves. Here in Mirambel, there was just one market van, selling sewing machines. The lonely sewing machine salesmen was smoking a pipe in a shady spot in the ayuntamiento arcade, sitting in front of his 5 sewing machines. Sofar he hadn't sold any of them. Who would he sell them to anyway ? A single old man sat silently staring. He made this timeless spot his shady home. Even the usual barking miniature dog would have been out of place here. Instead a silent cat crossed the stone square to the fountain. The salesman hadn't done any business, but then, "hay mucho paz acqui" (it's very peaceful here) he said, resigned to no sales, yet enjoying the peace. If I was a sewing machine salesman in search of a beautiful place, where to sell not so many sewing machines, this would be it.

A hostal is now called a fonda, and you can't tell you're standing in front of one, unless you ask or look very closely high up on the walls. It is always amazing how you enter one of these medieval structures, and on the inside find yourself inside a modern ultra clean precision tiled interior, the latest precision window fixtures, that one could only imagine in the US if one knows they exist, opening out on a truly medieval appearing street. In many ways they have the best of both worlds, the modern conveniences, appliances, double insulated windows that open like doors onto shiny balconies - without the worst of both worlds - the acres of parking lots,  the smog, signs and uncontrolled, ugly commerce.

That evening I went grocery shopping in Mirambel. "Casa Pilar-comestibles" announced a sign in discreet 3 inch high letters. After I rang the bell a gentle woman received me and advised me on the vegetables. The eggplants have a thick skin because it rained so much this spring. She cut one and showed me. Then I had to smell the tomatoes, because they really did smell good, she assured me. She was right.

On a practical note, the two towns with regular commerce along my particular route were Morella and Valderrobres. Cantoviejo also has a few regular store fronts. Just a few words about each one : Morella was a short return into a small modern city. The bus tourists were back. The walk to the castello really was quite a hike. But for the bus tourists it was a mountaineering expedition. The town looked spectacular on postcards, but I never did find the postcard views. Valderrobres has a few supermarkets, 3 hotels, and the view of an old rickety roman style bridge with a backdrop of  medieval houses and an imperial ayuntamiento above. It 's enough to make you call it a day and just stare at the rickety splendor of it all. I  guarantee it. Cantoviejo sits just north east of the highest and most scenic pass on my particular route, the "puerto de cuarto y pelado". This pass signaled the end of the forest and start of the decent down steps of limestone cliffs. Cantoviejo sits on one of these steps and looks equally impressive from above, as it does clinging to the cliffs from below, 10 miles after you rolled through it.

From the Maestrazgo villages, my route headed for the coast again. It passed the "puerto de Beseit", a rock formation that looks like a castle on top of a wooded hill, until you get to within 5 miles and get a closer look. That's what one has come to expect from tops of hills by now. But this time it's natural exfoliation that produced the regular rounded massive columns of rocks, and the dome shaped roofs. You might say, this was nature's anwer to man made castles, even if rock formations predate man made structures by a couple of million years.. The mountains containing these exfoliated formations, are covered by a verdant deep green carpet of needle trees, hiding the surface but not the shape of the sedimentary layers that make up these mountains. The forms of the puerto de Beseit are the exception, not the rule. A cool autumn like breeze pushed me along under blue haze free skies. Still, villages floated by in the distance with all signs of commerce safely tucked away into the medieval walls. The town after which this description no longer applied was Morea d'Ebre. It ended gradually, but end it did.

All roads lead out of Reus

I was under the impression that north of Tarragona, cycling along the coast might be possible with less traffic. I never made it to Tarragona, just to the adjacent city of Reus. After having crossed into the province of Valencia for a short time, I was now in Catalunya, Spain's richest province, where they speak Catalun instead of Castilian Spanish. That includes media, papers, TV and radio, city and general population, not just back country villages. But Catalun and Castilian do have a resemblance, and you can make yourself easily understood with Spanish. This city resembles more the cities to the north, than the part of Spain I had toured so far, evident in the number of stores and what they sell. The first large print media stores made their appearance, also the usual bewildering variety of businesses selling clothing, especially to fashion conscious women. Just the percentage of the population dedicated to selling shoes of various strange appearances is bewildering. But these things are only bewildering until you haven't seen them for at least a month, and are then reintroduced to them.

Reus has traffic signs that makes you think. It's a simple arrow pointing straight ahead and says "all directions". A little thought solves this apparent oxymoron puzzle quickly. The sign leads you out of the city, no matter where you want to go. Before you can get anywhere, first you have to get out of the congestion of the centro. Sounded like sound traffic planning to me. I followed it cheerfully through traffic lights, around corners to more traffic lights. I was so happy about all the "all direction" signs that followed them for miles and miles. Sometime, somewhere, surely signs would give me a better choice of exactly where I wanted to go, say north or south for instance. Reus was not really that large, and I had been getting out of the congestion in all directions for 8 or more miles.

As it turned, I had not thought the "all directions" idea through completely. I finally managed to comprehend it completely when I recognized a street corner. I had been riding in circles. "In all directions" is nothing more than a ring road around the city. Since its landmarks are rather nondescript, I can't say exactly how many times I rode around Reus, just that it took me about 8 miles to figure out that I did. I finally capitulated and asked a man on a racing bike for help. He was only too happy to let me hang on to his rear wheel to the turnoff I was looking for, the escape from "all directions", in one direction only.

The short reintroduction to the coast made me ride inland again. I had to work myself out of the coastal traffic all over again. By the end of the day I was on the open rolling plain many hundreds of feet higher and even had a cyclist for company. Ben was the first German I met on this tour, Bavarian to be exact. As we both sat in front of 2 liters of beer and smoked, he his cigarettes, me my tobacco pipe, Ben said  "I'm Bavarian, I'm used to it". He was talking about the beer. He was 60 years old and just tasted the first year of his retirement. His wife was in Italy on vacation. "We always do it like that" he explained. First we vacation a week together, and then I do something by myself for a week, so that I can get out for a while". Ben had an unusual method to plan his solo bicycle tour. He liked to plan the route in advance to the last detail. For that purpose he used software that is used to plan automobile routes. On a piece of paper resembling a bus schedule, each day was printed out with road numbers, a destination town, and mileage exact to the 10th mile. The fact that this program told him to ride main roads all the way didn't seem to bother Ben. He liked cities. He was heading to Lisbon via Madrid. But most of all Ben seemed to like to celebrate his stage victories, with royal liters of cold beer, cigarettes and classical music festivals that he saw along the way. "When they started singing Carmen on the streets of Lousanne, how could I possibly leave ?" We had 2.5 liters each for this stage victory, that's 3 liters less than usual for him. What a nice way to spend your retirement. The next day he rolled out onto the high dry plateau on a main road towards Madrid, and I started climbing into the foothills of the Pyrenees.

Shopping for instant soup in Andorra

The most impressive and unique view of the Pyrenees is seen as you enter them. A whole series of limestone cliffs form a huge convoluted staircase into the sky. The snowcapped peaks are still a long ways away, but here you twist your way through jagged vertical canyons. As you get further into the mountains, the hills become more eroded and rounded. That is until Andorra comes into sight, a long curving shopping city strung out along a deep green canyon. I rode past boxes of casinos into the capital "Andorra La Vella".

Andorra is an ancient Shangri-La in the Pyrenees. It's a region along the spine of the Pyrenees so isolated and rugged that it managed to slip through the hands of the powers that surround it. But it wasn't always easy. In 1278 the Spanish bishop La Seu d'Urgell and the French count Foix ended a long dispute, and granted Andorra semi autonomy. The tiny principality was now run by a general council of its 7 valleys. Small countries between big powerful neighbors develop, by necessity, a special talent in staying neutral, when the "big and powerful" become the "stupid and warring". Andorra managed to stay neutral during WW2 and the Spanish Civil War. It also developed a way to live from it's special border status. Smuggling between France and Spain evolved into a thriving duty free business. In 1993 Andorra held its first constitutional election. Andorrans pay no taxes, income, outcome, sale, purchase or otherwise. The government is essentially right wing. Andorra has always lived from the differences between Spain and France. The economic differences between Spain and France still have an enormous way to go, before they could be called anything that resembles each other. Still, as these differences approach each other, Andorra will find it harder to maintain its "business model".

Andorra is no modern Shangri-La in the mountains. Yes, it is on the spine of the Pyrenees. But, these days, it's about as isolated as Hong Kong and you can buy anything you want here. The only thing I really wanted to buy was another package of Maggi instant soup along and some fresh vegetables. Today the evening shopping experience for these dinner staples differed significantly. A well dressed man offered to watch by bicycle, so that I could shop in peace. He was jovial, spoke perfect English and an was all around "people person", who wanted to know all the details of my trip. He was very talkative, almost like an American talk show host. Imagine David Letterman watching your bicycle so that you could go shopping. In reality he was an employee of the huge Hyper market, whose job it was to entice customers into the store.

Inside the isles were stacked from top to bottom. To get to the instant soup I first had to get past the TVs, home electronics, then the tools, followed by perfumes and tobacco products. Clerks were busy restocking 15 kinds of brie cheese and a wall of chocolate products that one can only dream about living in the US. They also worked on beautifying a huge wall of cereals. It was enough to contemplate a change of diet for today's dinner, a Spanish tortilla perhaps con cebolla, maybe a glass of asparagus, or some beans asturian style, some frozen tortellini with a bottle of chateau moo ? It was a long and complex decision process.

Within three blocks to the three story hyper market, two bike shops stocked every imaginable Japanese and European bike, frame and component. It was the only place on the entire tour, where I could even have replaced my bicycle computer/altimeter combination. But I didn't want to allocate the funds right then and there. All these stores are squeezed in the bottom of the valley. Straight through the middle of it runs a wide channeled concrete stream, channeling thundering snow runoff. There are none of the huge parking lots that would accompany an American version of shopping complex like this, and cyclists don't miss them.

The few square feet remaining between the "street of ultimate commerce" and the vertical green walls of the mountains are put to good use. There's still enough space for a few medieval crooked streets, housing specialty bookstores and small hotels with 15 Euro rooms. Immediately adjacent is an ultramodern town square located mainly on a big overhanging balcony, for space reasons. Here they were celebrating the day of biodiversity with a percussion  group from the Andorra music conservatory. Apparently, there was no problem having a right wing government and making a big deal of celebrating the "day of biodiversity". We need more right wing governments like that. Andorra has come a long way since medieval times.

My route had exited Castilla-La Mancha on the day it reached Albarracin. Since then it had cut across edges of the provinces Aragon, Valencia and Catalunya to enter the small independent country of Andorra. This last part of the ride in the Iberian world covered  roughly 450 miles in almost 7 days. I would only be in Iberia half a day and a few handful of miles longer.

Hunting for tomatoes in the Pyrenees

For 3 days I had been watching the TV weather forecasts anxiously. A huge band of clouds was moving in my direction from the Atlantic - never a good thing. The weather forecast for today, when I  was planning to cross the highest ridge in the Pyrenees, was clouds in the morning, drizzle around noon, rain by afternoon. I stuck out my head overlooking the commerce strip of Andorra - still patches of blue - it's a go. Andorra commerce endured for 12 out of 19 miles of climbing, beer steins, garden gnomes, booze and tobacco, skis, clothes, snowmobiles, cars and motorcycles. If mankind makes it , Andorra sells it - commerce till well above treeline.

On top of the pass, I talked to an American woman cyclist with a red Backroads logo bike and a trailer. The red Backroads bikes usually appear in groups of at least 50. But she was all alone. Did the mega touring company  loose one of its flock. Far from it. She was a flock guide. She worked for Backroads, but was out on a vacation ride to Barcelona. She was the only American I met on the entire trip. Right after the first exchange of Holas, we knew the other one was from the US. This called for an extended lunch on the pass. She had been guide biking to support her independent biking for 5 years now, but expressed worry about getting a job to make enough money to retire on some day, a worry eventually shared by all US citizens.

Cyclists often have things in common, views of the world, political views, or a like for bananas or tomatoes. We carry varying amounts of bananas and tomatoes with us, fearing we will not be able to replenish supplies when necessary. This Backroads leader sometimes lost track of all the tomatoes in her panniers. Currently she was expressing anoyment at a tomato, that was hiding at the bottom of the panniers for 3 days, and was now in a most lamentable condition. - "You can buy tomatoes at any little town around here, and I've been carrying this one around for 3 days now", she observed. Little did we know, that while we were worrying about misplaced vegetables and recalling bicycling adventures, the clouds were brewing in the French valley of the Pyrenees. We rode off in a drizzle and soon disappeared under a thick cold cloud. I was glad I had carried gloves and ski hat along for 2500 miles, without ever having used them - till now. Somewhere in this milky soup was her turnoff point. Her route climbed back over col Puymrens to cross back into Spain to a village noted for its architecture, Picqucerda. Actually, I think she had the more interesting route, I could have ridden that pass too, and crossed back into France yet again later, very close to the Mediterranean. But I stuck to my original route. I had already spent much more time in Spain than expected and wanted to reach France.

On the other side of Paz de la Caza was yet another ski resort doubling as a huge general shopping centre. It was a whole city above treeline within walking distance form the French border. The tall buildings were closely clustered together, protruding from the rock, in a shape resembling a raw quartz crystal. It didn't have the cookie cutter condo carpet , spread out over square miles, like American ski resorts do. It gave a more urban impression, small street canyons within the large mountain canyons. I rolled through the border anonymously. Nobody even noticed me. But border posts noticed shopping bus tourists. I rolled past stopped tour buses with cases of confiscated booze lining the buses. The scared bus tourists were quietly looking on, as their shopping bus trip turned sour.

The water of Ax les Thermes

Finally - France ! I was in the belly of an icy cloud, but it was a French icy cloud. It made me wish that I had carried along even heavier gloves for 2500 miles, and two ski hats instead of one. Pretty soon that layer of winter clouds had all of the Pyrenees in its grip. I had started up the next pass, but soon gave up the idea. The snow was starting to stick to the road after a few kms. Back to Ax les Thermes, time to find a hotel room.

It was coming down in sheets and it never stopped. This was good time to recall all the things I already missed form the Iberian world. First there were fruit juices. All juices were less than half the price of what they were in France. It's not surprising juice is so much cheaper in Spain,  with all these forests of orchards. Any bicycle tourist can attest to that, after hundreds of miles of fruit orchard touring. My most favorite juice of all the juices of Europe, peach, was not widely available in France. Now, beer cost twice as much too. It was enough to make you start drinking wine. Everything else was cheaper too in Spain, except for the wine of course, camembert and pate du fois. No wonder Andorra does such brisk business.

But the price of overnight accommodations was the most substantial reorientation. In France, it took a lot longer to hunt down an establishment to call home for the night. I couldn't count on riding into the old historic center of a city and finding simple, clean, inexpensive accommodations in an old historic building anymore. My key to finding a room in France was to find one that had sufficiently few stars, 1 or 2 stars, since no 0 star hotels exist. But the star rating system is a great time saving device, as you cycle past rows of hotels and quickly figure out which ones merit a second look. Camping would have been a preferable alternative in France. Campgrounds are rigidly categorized by their own star rating. You can budget camp in one or two star provincial campgrounds, or show the world what luxury you can afford around your tent at a 4 star campground.

My planned route through France was straight west and a little bit north, so that I would enter Germany somewhere in its southwestern corner. This route traverses southern France in the province Langedoc-Roussilion. There it crosses the Rhone and enters the alps. Langedoc-Roussilion extends south to the busy coast, including the large cities Montpelier and Marseilles. To the north it reaches the edge of a wooded canyoned limestone plateau, the Cevennes. The plan was to stay between the two, away from the traffic along the coast, and not get too caught up in the long scenic climbs of the Cevennes.

My first one star search, here in Ax les Thermes, was successful. You pay your 25.33. The 33 cents is some sort of tourism tax. Then if you want to take a shower, you have to deal with a water meter in the bathroom. A 6 minute shower will set you back another 1.5 euros. They are very proud of their water here. You can drink it, you can sit in it, you can shower in it, and it costs money. After all, it's a "Thermes", a thermal bath.. To me personally, it's infamous for its water, weather it comes from the shower head or the sky. In both cases it comes from above.

For the next 2 days I opened the window at regular intervals to gauge the rain. After three days I must have opened that window about a hundred times, at least. When I closed it again I usually had a wet nose, from sticking my head up very far to see the sky. On the third day I had given up on the pass route and got dressed up to battle the rain over a valley route to Foix. That's when it stopped raining. Instantly the pass route returned into my itinerary. It was a cloudy, cold but dry ride over col Chiloula. Snow lined the road this weekend, which was memorial day weekend back in the US, a big day of long weekend rides for the bike club I rode with in past years. The mountains on this side were more rounded than the limestone stair steps on the spanish side, I realized as I rolled out of them. In this way my own experience disagreed with a book that I read later, saying that the French side offers steeper mountains. Maybe it was my particular route.

But French passes are something special. Here, the mountain pass is a recognized challenge for the cyclist. I saw cyclists on the road, even in this questionable weather, in groups of three or four, on racing bikes, with medium sized body contoured backpacks as luggage, on tours lasting several days, and without car support. Here, the road pass is a well documented cycling goal, worthy of effort, and bragging about it once you achieve it. Every single km there was another road sign, just for cyclists. Displayed on it was a small climbing bicycle, the current altitude, the grade over the next km, and the altitude of the summit. The cyclist hungry for more data could digest all this, and gauge himself properly, to ride the pass as if he were doing a marathon race, even if he was never here before. What spurred me one, was the newness of the surroundings, the villages disappearing in the fog below me, a new mountain pass, the first pass in the pyrenees where I could actually see where I was going.

I later found a series of atlases in a bookstore, geared towards cycling passes. It took 4 volumes just to cover the Pyrenees - we haven't even gotten to passes in the alps yet - and it was printed on thin paper like you would find in a telephone book - no glossy photographs, just cold hard data and maps. As far as well paved passes are concerned, those that can be cycled on a skinny tire bike, the French Alps and Pyrenees are the center of the universe.


From Quilan the route continued to Carcassone, along a route totally unsuited for relaxed cycling, due to too much traffic and no shoulder. Carcassone owes its existence to being on the crossroads between two trading routes in Visigoth times. Carcassone also played a major role as a stronghold for the Cathars. This was a sect who believed in a simpler purer form of Christianity. They were a minor portion of the population but held a large portion of the influential positions. As a result the catholic church became alarmed. Pope Innocent the third declared them heretics and started the Albegensian crusade in 1208. Under the abbot of Citteax, Simon of Montfort, and last they king of France, the Cathars were burned in communal conflagrations, often 200 at a time.

It's a complete walled postcard perfect medieval city. Well, at least it looks like one. A certain Vollet-le-Duc started restoring it in 1844 into something which is more perfect than perfect. It's now the most visited town in Langedoc. Carcassone is also a tourist trap. It was one of the those days when the public sector was on  strike, making life as difficult as possible for the general public. Post offices had signs saying "closed due to sickness" or if they were open they had very long lines. The inner castle walls were closed for no good reason given, except general strike. You can't climb the outer walls,  because tourists might hurt themselves. It would also keep them from wandering through the souvenir shops an spending money at the many fine bars an restaurants. Still, it looks impressive from a distance.

the Canal du Midi

I was threading my way through Langedoc Roussillon smelling the grapes, when I ran into the canal du Midi. Ben had already told me about this biking attraction. On the plains of the Aude river, this murky shipping canal is paralleled for a good distance by a small road. The main attraction of this muddy water is the regularly spaced arcade of  trees that line it. They filter the light creating a very long space of soft light and cool temperatures, perfect for little cafes from which you can watch the small docks in action, or the fine old houses lining the banks.

The canal du midi was an attempt to create a shipable channel between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. The idea belonged to a tax collector from Bezier, who managed to persuade Louis 14th of his plans. There was just one problem. We all know the Mediterranean is at 0 feet altitude. The other end of the canal in Toulouse was at 132 meters. But in between was a low pass of sorts, the col de Naurouze at 190 meters. The answer was to feed the canal at its high point from another source of water that was yet higher. A damn was built in the Montagne Noir and water from there was channeled to Naurouze. When keeping the canal full of water becomes such a major undertaking, keeping the water from evaporating in the canal also is worth considerable effort. Much of the canal is lined by the most perfect arcade of trees that one can imagine.

Mister Bike France's bicycle tour

A shady table at a restaurant in the old central square had persuaded a handful of cyclists to take a long lunch, and tie one on. This space had something very relaxing about it. Maybe it was the old trees, that have stood in a perfect line for centuries, to heap shade in generous amounts onto the hot cobble stones. Maybe it was the building fronts, which were not renovated into sterility, nor left to decay completely. It could have been the store fronts, which  looked neither open nor closed, but as if you would have to wake somebody up in order to sell you something. Or maybe it was just the upcoming heat of the afternoon, that was responsible for all that oozing relaxation. The bicyclists were a guided tour group of Germans. When I met them, I was confronted with the carefree group dynamics of a guided touring company trip.

I thought they might have some useful information, where I could find a least exorbitantly expensive room for the night. Since they spoke German, I could even understand when they would tell me.  "And you must be carrying a tent" said one woman as she eyed my heavily loaded bike. "No, usually I  find a gite, private room, or hotel" I answered. I felt like I owed an explanation for all that stuff I was carrying around with me, but wasn't fast enough. Another woman in the group corrected the first one and said. "No, my son did that. He carried four times as much". My earphones, which often provided me with a great soundtrack to the movie playing around my moving bicycle, also didn't fit in their concept of a bike tour. One man said "And that in your ear, that's a GPS right ?". No, it really wasn't a talking GPS that told me what turn to take next on my bike. But that's the sort of light hearted banter that bubbles up from the carefree atmosphere of a guided biketour, making a lunch stop, or a wine stop.

My question, regarding where I could find an economical room, was referred to their leader. He introduced himself as Bike France.  "So that's your name ? First name Bike ? Second name France ? I asked. "Yes, don't I look like it ?" answered the mustached pot bellied man. In truth, he didn't look like it. But then, the question was rhetorical, and did not require an answer. Instead he waited that somebody would laugh about his joke. He wore street clothing and didn't look like he even got here on a bike. It looked more likely like he drove here, in the sag wagon, just in case anybody else in the tour would want to do that.

"Bike France" apparently was the name of his one man company, that guided the group. I asked again where I could find a nice old hotel around here. Mister Bike France now got down to business. In his function as leader surrounded by his flock, he wanted to demonstrate expertise of the area. He recommended a hotel in Bezier. He said I should introduce myself there with the words "Bike France sends me". I left the touring group to its carefreeness, without much credence in Mister Bike France's recommendation. But, in the center of Bezier, there's a beautiful old hotel, with colonial appearing angular rooms, and balconies above the city, all for a very good price. Mister Bike France knows Bezier.

The case of the missing cloister

D-16 out of Bezier has its advantages and disadvantages. The disadvantage is that it has no shoulders. That doesn't seem to bother the hundreds of cyclists riding on it. The advantage is that it's lined with regularly spaced shadow spending trees for a good thirty miles. From the air it must look like extraterestrials have been here. A crop circle is small potatoes compared to this masterpiece.

Half a day North of Bezier, my route started to scrape against the southern edge of the Cevennes plateau. The hazy pastel colored, wine covered plain gives way to limestone cliffs, topped by a scruffy dry needle forest. The Gorge de l"Herault offers a way into the tilted layers of the plateau. This is a semiarid region with large cliff forming limestone wherever you look, similar to a few plateaus in northern Utah. The next village along the route however had no Utah similarity.

St. Gulhem is a 9th to 11th century village tucked away in a side ravine of the Gorge de l"Herault. Verdus Creek threads its way out of  500 to 1000 high foot limestone steps to the north of the gorge. Ancient two story houses, built from large natural stone, hug the narrow water path. The houses are medieval, but every last square inch is carefully tended, to make it fit today's idea of romanticism. Colorful flowers are part of every window. A perfect display of lichen adorns a waterfall next to the abbey. Water is diverted from the creek and flows down the sides of the ancient alleys. This mimics the medieval way of keeping the streets clean. Back then, that water certainly had a lot more dirt to deal with than today. Small unobtrusive signs hint at the presence of hotels inside the medieval walls. The cars of the masses are parked in a lot at safe distance, carefully tucked away under trees. From there, scores of visitors wander into the few blocks of narrow medieval alleys fixed up for them. There is no feeling of romantic decay left. In a way the town is a live sized model of itself. In manicured surroundings like this, a simple can of beer from the only store in town can fetch the proud price of 3 euros.

St. Gulhem was built by his namesake, a comrade to Charlemagne, around a 10th to 11th century abbey. The village is organized around its abbey. The abbey also used to have a cloister. But it is missing. So where is the cloister ? Everything else is here. With so much attention lovingly heaped on every square inch of this village it seems like a major oversight. Well, the cloister has moved. Actually it was removed. It was dismantled and shipped to New York during the middle of the 19th century. If you live in upstate New York and find a cloister 500 years older than your country being assembled in your backyard, you might well be amused. The emotion wouldn't go much deeper than that. If you see your 11th century cloister is crated up and shipped off to another country, you could  muster a deeper emotion - and a different one too. In the 1800s cultural theft like this was more common than it is now. But still today, English bridges seem to end up in Arizona somewhere.

The problem is, this cultural theft distorts history. A French abbey in New York has no historical context. It has no more significance than a Disney castle in Florida or California. People who visit a French abbey in upstate New York aren't interested in Charlemagne and St. Gulhem. Why should they be ? They would much rather visit some haunted house, or "Dracula Castle" in Disney World. If they really want to visit something historical, they would visit someplace that belongs where it sits, like maybe a Rockefellar mansion. Everybody else would find a one of Disney's creations more interesting. When Walt Disney created his theme parks, he wanted to create a world that would let the public experience the world without having to go out and see it. He also wanted to create a world "sanitized for the tourist". His creations serve the purpose very well. This way people don't have to travel all over the world, and more importantly the medieval abbey, cloisters and bridges can remain where they stand. A trip to Disneyland is much faster for the tourist. This is important for Americans on the standard 2 week vacation allowance, the smallest of any industrialized nation. Every day spent not working decreases the average productivity of the country as a whole, and with that the Gross National Product, and one might also mention the quality of life, as a side effect. It is in the national interest that vacations be taken as expedicously as possible. Disney did his part. He doesn't need an 11th century abbey from France.

The Gite Experience

Gites are hostels, with some differences. Just to be complete, let me mention that gites are not like Spanish hostales, which are regular hotels. Gites are group accommodations. They cost much less than a regular French hotel, but in the Iberian world you could still usually find a regular hotel (or hostal) room for significantly less money, than a bed in a French gite would cost. At least that's how it was during the summer of 2003. Gites are very numerous in scenic locations, in remote hill towns and historic spots. They are nonexistent in cities. English speaking tourist office officials will book spaces in gites, by calling ahead for you. Tourist offices are numerous, but as far as I could tell, closed in the afternoon. That limits their usefulness for cyclists.

I learned all this in St. Gulhem, a spot where I discovered, I had been hollidayed. It was one of those four day weekends, utilized by workers in modern countries to get out, hit the road, and sleep somewhere other than they are used to. Rooms were generally full, especially affordable ones. In St. Gulhem, a woman, working at the tourist information desk, called a good dozen of gites and private room establishments in the circumference of 50 miles for me. The result of this exhaustive search was not economically attractive.

So when I met an English man in St. Gulhem, telling me of a possible cot in a gite in St. Gulhem, I investigated and took it. In parting the Englishman said "And get rid of Bush when you go home".  Before this, the conversation hadn't covered anything political, but it gave me a preview of what gites would be like. "I would if I could" I told him, "but people who have their brother governor in Florida fix a national presidential election, and get away with it, are more than a single person can handle."

Staying in a gite has its advantages and disadvantages. I already mentioned the price advantage. For this you get to sleep with people, that go to sleep at 11.30 and others that get up at 5:00 am, and you might get a cot with water dripping on your head, when the girls are taking a shower on the top floor. That was my experience  A single meal in the St. Gulhem gite cost 12 euros. Mind you, this was not a restaurant. There was just one menu on the menu, you eat and drink what's in front of you. These may have been extra specially fresh potatoes, genetically unmodified and grown with real manure instead of chemical roundup, and that big pot may have contained an exquisite wine sauce, but 12 Euros or dollars was not a realistic option, after cooking the same thing for myself for 1 tenth the price for a month. I'll take a can of beans, thank you .

The advantage of staying in a gite is, of course, that you meet people. Here in St. Gulhem, it seemed that everybody was on 1 week trip, booked 9 months in advance. Some walked through the Cevennes, others biked. But all were on a rigid schedule. There was a group of 7 mountain bikers in their 20s, carrying everything they needed in backpacks on a grand tour of the Cevennes. There was a Yoplait executive, walking from town to town on trails in canyons and over mountains. He had worked in the states for several years, and remembered a vacation trip through US states, and his amazement upon finding about a dozen churches belonging to various sects in a small southern town. And of course there was the retired Englishman, now living in France, who had brought me here. They all had one thing in common. Every one of them hated Bush. In this way I fit right in, and was welcomed warmly in their midst. They still liked American culture, Charlie Byrd, Norman Mailer, Michael Moore, Frank Zappa and many others. They just thought the man who had currently elected himself US president was dangerous for the world. I couldn't have agreed more.

Since that was only the first day of the 4 day weekend, I suspected that the next day would contain another difficult room search. Surprisingly, the sideroads southeast of Uzes were deserted. But beware of the endless stream of cars, if you get off them for just 1 km. I began the search for the accustomed nightly bed at a "chambre d'hôte", a sort of bead and breakfast the way the concept is used in the US, that is - not a basic bed with a breakfast, like the English originally defined the term, but a quaint "rustic" overpriced farmhouse, where you pay dearly for being far away from anything you usually want to have around you, like stores, roads, people and industry.

The woman answering the door was very friendly. She welcomed me inside her spacious home and opened a bottle of mineral water for me. What to do ? what to do ? She insured me that there was nothing available for less than a 100 Euros, anywhere in at least a 50 km radius. She called several hotels around, apparently to prove her point. She seemed very happy with the touristic popularity of the area that she lived in. In the end, she did locate a hotel room in some 30 km distant town, costing "only" 42 Euros and reserved it for me. Very late that evening I ran into a gite owner who had pity on me and my budget. She unlocked a - this time truly "rustic"  - pony club building and set up a cot. I was tempted to consider myself very lucky, if I hadn't remembered a few spanish 10 Euro rooms, overlooking a plaza with statues, cathedral and mountains. But actually I was lucky.

The next morning I remembered why I picked this route in the first place. Nearby was a bridge built by the Romans in 19 AD, the pont du Gare. Three series of massive arches are set on top of one another. Their function was to guide water over the top to the town of Nimes. Today the bridge was guiding tourists by the busload across a river, which itself was practically dry.

A few days later, I had another gite experience. The town was "Buis les Barronies" in the western alpine foothills. A friendly girl in the tourist office reserved a spot in a nearby gite and drew me a map. In order to get there I rode up a ridge above town, with an incredible view of the surrounding limestone mountains, that I never would have seen otherwise. When I got there I was handed a key to a room with balcony, that was clean, quiet, scenic, unoccupied, perfect in every way, even relatively inexpensive. That too, can be a night in a gite.


Immediately after crossing the Rhone the very first impression of Avignon is formed. It's a picture of a large square sandbox shape, in which a busy city stands. The edges of the sandbox are perfectly reconstructed city walls with regularly spaced turrets, completely enclosing the city. Looking for a way to breach the walls, you have to ride part ways around the city. Cyclists and drivers alike learn quickly the few gates where they can enter and exit. For those not knowing these entry points, just look for the traffic jams. These walls don't look as imposing as when they built during the 14th century. That's because the moat is missing. During the excavations during the 19th century the moat around the city was not excavated. That would have doubled the height of the walls. But the full length and all the defensive towers along it have been reconstructed.

Avignon owes its most important tourist attraction to the decadence of the 14th century catholic church. During the time of the great schism, a total of 9 popes lived in the "palais de papes" to stay clear from their rival popes in Rome. Here they engaged in corruption, decadence of fat, feuded over mistresses, dealt in jewels, velvet and furs, were entertained by competing musicians, chefs and painters, had riotous banquets, and schemed in the corridors. That all sounds like great material for a popular movie, but the 17 Euro entrance still seemed high for a potential movie set of bare walls, even with so much decadence going on. The next morning I rode up to the palace of the popes one more time, fearing I had missed something. After all, somebody might ask me "had I been in it". But clearly the pressures of tourism are already much to high on this area, reflected by the exorbitant prices. It was wisest not to add to these pressures. The Rhone called. Somebody needs to build a bike path along the Rhone that actually goes somewhere. There is a bike path, but it dead ends after 15 miles on a several mile long jetty in the river. In order to get out of Avignon I had to return to it.

Since the border crossing from Andorra, the ride in France had lasted 5 and a half days and covered about 400 miles. Crossing the Rhone also meant from now on every foot climbed, was a foot up into the alps, even if they just started to be barely discernible at the horizon. The ride through French alpine provinces ahead covered another 4 and a half days over roughly 300 miles.



Home, James


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