A Travellerspoint blog

July 2015

From Avignon to Salzburg

all seasons in one day

After a relaxing stay of good food and swimming, it's with heavy legs that my friend and I pull onto to the road, bound for the Med. Chilled has joined me for a 2 week cycle to Salzburg in Austria, traveling along the Mediterranean coastal road until Genoa, where we turn North, through the Alps and towards the finish line.

The first day is spent meandering through a quiet French road. In the heat of the day we settle down on the verge, next to a church. The midday heat is so intense, and there is little breeze to provide even the slightest relief, so we rely on heavy perspiration, shade, and naturally - Tea! Putting the heavily contested 'tea cools you down' argument to the test, we boil up a roadside brew. Certainly failing to convince the bemused locals, no doubt wondering why on earth these two wierdos are making a hot drink in 40 degrees, Chilled and I resolve on the perhaps stubborn belief that tea does cool you down, whilst also providing an excuse to knock back half a packet of biscuits.

The passing of the shade awakes us from an afternoon snooze, and we struggle back onto the hot French lane, further meandering through the arid but splendid countryside. Great precipices of rock shoot out of from the top of the dense Oak woodland, and the relentless buzz of the Cicadas surrounds us.

A irritating clicking sound slowly develops from my front wheel. We stop and borrow some tools from a local garage. After taking it apart we learn that the bearing cone inside the hub has cracked, essentially mangling the inside. Already on my second major mechanical failure, I wheel it into the next town. After trying every bike shop I finally source a cheap second hand wheel from a very friendly and helpful bike mechanic. Lovely! Wheel see how long it lasts.

With a fantastic tail wind providing an almost effortless leg to the coast, it is with a strong sense of relief that we escape the still inland heat, and reach the Med. A nice brew of Earl Gray and a swim. The agreeable water temperature permits a run and dive - no awkward, arms in the air looking like a monkey getting into the water. Though I admit the painful stony beach reduces the elegance slightly.

We spend the next 3 to 4 days traveling East along the coastal road. We share our views with mania a yacht, of every size and extent of extravagance you can imagine (including the largest of them all - the Russian owned 'A') - quite the contrast to our bikes, beards and token plastic bags rattling off the back in the passing breeze. Such is the wealth and popularity of this region that after not very long we notice a trend. We'd enter a town, our path lined with hotels on the left and an extensive army of beach goers on the right. As this subsides the road would then climb, traveling out towards the edge of the bay. When Chilled and I finally breached the top, drenched in sweat but excited by what was to follow, the road would then descend into the next bay, faced with another larger town, much like the one before.

Enjoyable for a while, but then enduring to escape this pattern we pushed hard for the Italian boarder, only to find that there is little difference. A rather nasty tunnel entrance leads us into Genoa. Pushing through we head North and inland. Knowing what's coming we charge ourselves with a hearty lunch of fruit, cheese and of course, bread, and head off at a slow and cautious pace. As the valley walls close in the road begins to climb. We stop and briefly talk to a local who tells us with a beaming smile that we are at the foot of a 16k climb. Aware that this is Chilled's first pass on bike, we begin slowly. Climbing together, we pass the second grave of a professional cyclist that I've come across. We bear down to it, and as time passes so does the tarmac. Many minutes and sweat drops later, the hill tops appear to be nearing, and the valley floor reluctantly vanishes behind the ridge of the road bellow. The sun is going down and the air cools as we get higher. Finally we slowly peddle to the top, and enjoy a camp amongst a pine forest, where the cool air provides a refreshing change from the heat of the Med. We rest our heads with the enjoyable thought that we start the day tomorrow with a long decent, down into Parma.

Well, not quite. The downhill is very gradual, and a frustrating headwind picks up with the heat, so we are faced with the disappointing task of having to cycle downhill - something I stubbornly believe I shouldn't have to do on a bike, especially considering the climb which was necessary to get us there. Exhausted we roll into the seemingly peaceful and picturesque town of Parma, stopping at Lidl's to refresh with a cooking tin of tea and a large packet of biscuits - I eat so many that I feel sick. Bluh ......

Onwards north through Italy, and we breach the Alpine boarder along the lovely lapping shores of Lake Garde, a huge fresh water basin that plays host to windsurfing, kitesurfing (getting itchy already), sailing, and a whole manner of activities. Sights of family's enjoying some summer time together; feeding ducks, relaxing in restaurants and trying to appease their screaming children with molten ice creams. As we are blown north by another tail wind, the bare faced, almost vertical slopes of the surrounding rock increase in scale, suggesting the onset of some nasty mountain passes - Clearly, a trip to lidl's is required. Post sugar binge, we peal ourselves off the wall from our heavy slump, head north, and are surprised, as much as we are delighted to find that a bike path, built along an old railway, provides us with an easy and traffic free route through the mountains.

Through Trento and Bolzano, we follow the valley East, and come across a charming little cottage, with a friendly old lady who hands us a bar of chocolate. There's a flat patch of grass, a picnic bench, a water fountain and well rounded pine tree to complete the scene. The ideal camping spot, we set up the kitchen and get going. Then we a joined by another cyclist, who is middle aged, drunk, and very annoying. He sits down and pours out some whiskey from his water bottle, clearly stating his intention to stay with us for at least a while. He shouts to us from across the picnic bench tales of his life, elaborating with gestures and acting. I realise that as my wine goes down I start to enjoy his lively and animated company. But our consumption is disproportionate, and we are soon back to our original difference, and he is annoying again. After stories of things stolen, we bunk down with bikes locked, and Chilled struggles to relax into a deep sleep.

A swift exit the next morning, we push on to the alpine town of Lienz. The day is warm, with blue skies filling the deep valley, contrasting with the lush green hills that climb up from both sides. A brief stop in Lienz, we head straight North to Salzburg, and an easy valley accent quickly turns a little more fraught. An approaching thunder storm chases us up the valley, with flashes of lightening and rumbles of thunder poking a big stick at us. The thought of riding a steel bicycle through a thunder storm adds to the sense of urgency to get to the top. The storm is winning the race, hiding the view of the valley behind it's thick veil of rain. We get to the top just in time, trundling into the top village where we await a lift through a 5k tunnel.

In the van, the sense of moving uphill faster than 3k an hour, with no effort required is a delightful novelty, where I watch the switch backs disappear behind land and rain. Delusional with visions of a clear weather valley on the other side, it is with sad realisation that we get out of the van into to the same storm that we left in the previous valley. We bed down on a tarmacked wind break, provided by a snack shack near the exit of the tunnel.

Awakening to another descent, we puff up with layers of t shirts and waterproofs and make a steep descent into a misty valley. Chilled is in Tour De France mode, as he races past me, head down and clenching the drops of his handle bars. I choose to enjoy the effortless sensation, freewheeling into the next town with a more upright posture, still feeling half asleep. Salzburg is an easy ride down a valley, so we spend a gloriously sunny day following the river and the railway downwards, reviewing the last two weeks with 'best and worsts'.

The last night is terrifying. What starts as another usual camp, descends into stormy chaos. Lying in my tent, my fingers are stuck in my ears as I can hear a thunderstorm approaching from over the ridge. The lightening illuminates everything, and I can feel the thunder ripple up the valley, rumbling the ground beneath me. I lye in my tent, wondering if I'm going to die, and I later learn that Chilled is doing the same. The sense of doom is aided by our foolish choice of campsite - directly under some electrical pylons. Just when it seems the storm has passed...........FLASH!! and CRACK!! A bolt lands no further than a few 100 meters away, followed by the most ear piercing crackle of thunder.... Convinced that that must be all the lightening in the universe spent, I collapse into a deep sleep, frail, aged and emotionally exhausted.

Happy to awake the next day we cycle out of the northern perimeter of the Alps, and finally into Salzburg. We are welcomed by a many great buildings, plenty of parks and novelty puppets of Mozart displayed in shop windows.

Here I say goodbye to Chilled, who has made the most fantastic cycling pirate I've ever had the fortune to spend two weeks with. Chilled's girlfriend Ellie has come to meet us, and we enjoy an evening in a restaurant together, telling tales of the road.


Posted by Banana Spokes 12:14 Archived in Italy Comments (0)

Tres Bon, Tres Bon

It's been a while since I've updated but apparently internet cafes don't really exist anymore! A big entry, but enjoy! (force yourself if you have to)

sunny 36 °C

Having arrived with time to spare for my ferry, I felt indulging in a large haddock and chips was an apt way to say 'farewell England'! Especially with the many miles which lay ahead. The ferry arrives in Dieppe at 4 in the morning, and with little sleep I wobble off the front ramp, through border control - where an unforgettably attractive border guard checked my passport - and collapsed in a bush on the side of the road. Having refreshed my optimism I grabbed my things and cycled south along some busy roads, headed for Paris. It took two days to get there. I managed to stray onto to the the l'Aveue Verte - the London to Paris bike route. With no traffic to worry about I meandered along its quite path, enjoying the passing of the beautiful French countryside. The rolling hills where punctuated with great church spires, scenic villages and a few grand chateaus.

Perhaps unsurprisingly since my arrival I've developed an addiction to Baguettes, and am averaging a glutinous 3 day. 'You'll ride it off' I here you say! But alas, that doesn't appear to be the case.............

I reached the Seine West of Paris, and followed it upstream, arriving in the capital after two days. It was incredibly hot and dusty, but of course, charming in it's detail and awsome in it's grandeur. I took a breezy ride alongside the river, enjoying a postcard experience of Paris amongst a setting sun; young couples indulging in a bottle on the bank, artists selling their tourist novelties on the side of the road, and the frequent opening of a square, offering a bench to sit on where I can have a bite and a much needed snooooze.......................................

THE TOWER!! After an exhausting but spirited cycle through the chaos that is Parisian traffic, I collapsed in front of the Eiffel tower, awaiting the light display which occurs on the hour. There was a great crowd gathered on the lawns, and every time the sparkling lights of the tower illuminated everyone would erupt in an impressive cheer. I was too tired and not drunk enough. Realising at this point I would not get out to a farmers field to set up camp, I had no choice but to slither off into one of the bushes, and after avoiding a few enclosed area's which had obviously provided an alternative to the overcrowded public loos, I settled down to sleep, with a spectacular view of the Eiffel tower beneath the stars.

Time to make miles. Head out of Paris in the rain, and after an eventual escape of the sprawl I was relieved to climb up onto an immense plateau of farmland - vast, flat and stretching way beyond my sight. I was heading directly south, towards Orleans, where I'd meet the greatest of French rivers - the Loire. I went to an internet cafe with the intention of writing this blog entry, but was defeated by a French keyboard and a short temper. Note to self - get laptop sent over. Across the bridge then onto the Loire bike path - one which would take me South East, towards the Alps.

I enjoyed the company of a few cyclists over the coming days, including an old French man who spoke not one word of English - this would be the test! Conversation was a struggle, but we managed a few brief episodes. I came to realise, comically I thought, that due to my hopelessly limited French I would always revert to the same ending detail, namely the the size of whatever was being discussed. 'Grande?' or 'petite?' I would say, referring to trees, fish, bridges, locks (we were following a canal); anything I could point at and say in French. He was a wonderfully humble man, and after exchanging a few items of fruit, he turned around and cycled his way back home. His house was 'petite', I seem to remember.

After an easy 4 days of enjoying the flat bike path from Orleans I reached Roanne, and after fruitlessly considering taking on another French computer, I headed for the first of many testing passes - the Col du Pilon, at 727 meters. Speeding down the other side and leaning into more hairpin bends then I can remember, I free-wheeled into the Rhone valley - considerably hotter, drier and more arid than then one I'd left behind.

'The Birmingham of France' is how my friend Tom just referred to my next destination - I trifle unfairly I should add. Lyon was as charming as it was necessary. The whole of my drive chain was completely worn down - something I failed to notice before I left, and something which needed to be sorted pronto. Unfortunately, as my bike uses an internal geared hub the tools which I required to the job where A. Not in my pannier B. Expensive, and C. Hard to find. Luckily I was able to locate a Rohloff specialist, who also happened to be a bicycle frame builder, and after taking me to the back of the shop to show me the impressive mechanisms and creations of his expertise, he sorted me out with everything I needed. I then proceeded to a relatively wide stretch of pavement, and spent the next 2 hours blockading the progress of pedestrians with tools, bike bits, and panniers.

Job done. Off to a park bench to make dinner. Whilst slurping down my usual concoction of pasta, raisins, curry powder and onions I was approached by a lady, and after taking a interest in my story she called up a German friend of hers who had a spare bed. The next thing I know I'm walking to his apartment, situated in center of Lyon, and am treated to a much needed (an understatement to say the least) shower and bed for the night. I wake to the glorious combination of a croissant and freshly brewed coffee, and after exchanging a few travel stories with my friend I head off again, south.

In a week and half I meet my friend Tom (Chilled to some), in Avignon - he's joining me for a few weeks on the road. But progress was quicker than expected, so I could afford a lengthy detour. Pondering exactly this as I cycled out of Lyon, I caught a glimpse of what I believed to be Mt. Blanc, off to my right. The great mountain passes of the Tour De France went through my head, and after stopping for a brief glimpse of my map, I have a route planned. Like a moth to the flame, I veered east, towards a great mountainous wall that is the Alps. My bikes dam heavy - makes perfect sense! The initial stages were long and flat, cycling up though a number of valleys; the looming threat and excitement of the winding roads growing ever closer. On my way out of the lovely walled town of Chamberly, a man asks me to the verge. The second of my showering experiences, they treat me to an evening of great company, champagne, and an introduction on map to the infamous climb that is Mt Ventoux.

Having enjoyed the luxury of a bed for the night, the next day I said farewell, and headed towards the pass of Cormet De Roseland - 1968 meters. On the map it's a small squiggly white line. Easy! Not. 5 hours after the start of the climb, the road was still weaving up ahead of me. Averaging 9 percent gradient, I'm climbing in the dark, amongst the silhouettes of pine trees and mountains, with a few doted lights scattered across the distant hills. My efforts were not helped by a bout of mild dioreah, but 6 hours later I reached the top. Too tired to put up my tent, I fall asleep just in my sleeping bag. There's a quiet, cooling breeze amongst a cloudless sky, and the faint clanging of cow bells...........bloody marv!

Second climb, and the beast - Val d'Isère. Charged up with 2 baguettes and half a liter of jam I take it on with fresh spinning legs. A lovely steady valley climb quickly turns into a ghastly series of switch backs, topping out into a steep valley which is funneling a head wind - every cyclists nightmare! After much swearing, cursing, and the occasional slamming of my fists on the handlebars I reach............ half way! Chewing on my third baguette a lovely bird shits on my head - I resolve to consider it a good Omen for the final push. It's on my head and hand. I finish my baguette. Off I go. A cyclist approaches me from behind and is clearly locked on to me. Determined not be overtaken I up my pace. He ups his. Then I can feel it - the jam kicks in! Adding a few mph to my pace I manage to out run him and reach the top, pride intact after only being overtaken by a few lycra clads (that's OK - they have carbon fiber bikes). 2770 meters and a tremendous victory for myself. The reward is a breathtaking view - snow capped mountains, with deep valleys falling away either side. A quick check of the brakes and I push over the threshold, whizzing down to a lovely pitch by the side of a river. Italy lies over the next mountain.

Next day begins with a relatively small 700 meter climb, followed by the most amazingly long decent across the boarder into Italy. Just in case there is any doubt of where I am, a group of about 10 Ferrari's is flexing to an eager crowd at the boarder - one of which is an Enzo, though rather sadly driven by an old man. Down into Italy the temperature rises dramatically, and I can't help but notice a red mist sitting on top of the valley. This only adds to the heat, and exhausted, I summon the energy to get on my bike and make a break for France. A climb later, I pass through the French towns of Briancon and Gap, descending back down into the Rhone valley. A nasty dry head wind hinders my progress, and I spend much of the next day collapsed under a row of trees, waiting for the heat, and hopefully, the wind of the day to pass. As it subsides I cycle to the next town for dinner. Following the usual display of food preparation - involving the use of an inappropriately large knife, a local lady comes up to me and hands me a bag full of fruit and vegetables - Thank you very much, just what I need! I head down the road and set up camp by the side of a big lake, and enjoy a fresh water swim.

The next day I spend meandering thorough hills. The sky's a clear blue, and I'm enjoying another day of sun. As evening falls the air cools, and the shadows from the hills grow across the road. The villages are quiet and the roads are empty. I spend the next few twilight hours cycling on, hoping to catch a glimpse of Mt. Ventoux. It's impossible to mistake. It rises up to just short of 2000 meters, with a huge lighthouse structure on top. After looking at my map I realise I'm further than I thought, so I go down a small path and set up camp in a field.

Right. stand up, stretch off, go through the usual morning ritual and head down the road. After a small climb, BAM! There it is. It looks like I've almost broken even with it's summit. But that would be too easy. Dam! It is with a sad heart that I enjoy another hair raising decent, only to ascend 1300 metres-ish, instantly afterwards. It's a steady, long climb, averaging 6 -7 percent for 20 kilometers through pine forest. Then again, BAM! the trees suddenly disappear, the midday sun appears, the road kicks up another 4 -5 percent and the summit is visible - and the distance is agonising! I put my face down, unable to look at the climb ahead. Sweat drips off my chin and onto my bike. A look up - the road gets steeper and the summit doesn't look any closer. Head back down, peddle on. Slowly but surely the switchbacks pass, and the tower at the top gets closer. I pass the memorial of Tom Simpson on my left - the English cyclist who died from a heart attack at this very point, 40 years ago. Last push, no gears or water left. aaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhHHHHHHHHHHH ........................ ARRIVE!! A very nice couple offer me fruit and nougat for my efforts, and the lady pours a bottle of water over me. The view is worth it all. The next mountain top looks to be half the altitude of where I'm standing, and visibility across the Rhone valley and the flanking hills is spectacular. A quick photo in front of the summit sign and I'm off! Down the steeper side, the switchbacks come quickly and sharp. I manage to overtake a few cars. 30 minutes later I wheel into the bottom town with a big grin and wet eyes, having ingested many flies on the way down.

All the passes done for now. I've spent the last few days relaxing with Tom's wonderful mad Auntie, Kim, her charismatic husband Pascal and her lovely family. Chilled arrived yesterday and discussions of our route have begun - Med bound then east towards Italy. But for now, great food, wonderful company and a pool! Time for a swim.....

As this is the my first lengthy entry I'm trying to refine my writing style -I know tenses are little all over the place, but I think that adds to the readability. Please send my any feedback, suggestions etc.......don't be shy, it all helps. I intend to update weekly, and thanks for reading!

Posted by Banana Spokes 03:13 Archived in France Comments (0)

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