Archive for France

13 Sep 2012

All roads lead to the Pyrenees

2 Comments France

We arrived in Narbonne expecting great things and it was … well, incomplete: The gigantic Saint Just Cathedral — the centrepoint of the city — construction of which was started in the 12th century and to this day is still unfinished. The main canal, lined with restaurants was also boarded up — under construction. Let's hope it doesn't take 700 years to complete. We'll make a plan to come back in a few years (decades maybe) and see how they are going.

Next stop Leucate. A quaint B&B smack in the main old town square. Nice, but being September, even though the weather was perfect it was like someone turned out the lights. Hello, is anyone there? Hullo? The silence was deafening.



The following day was a dedicated beach day. We appropriated a towel and lazed on the warm mediterranean sand, occasionally plunging into perfectly calm waters, then cycled out to Port Leucate for the famed fresh seafood. It's a bizzare place. About 30 seafood restaurants line both sides of a pretty canal. The restaurants face out onto the carparks and only serve cold, freshly caught seafood: mussels, oysters, clams etc. No cooking is permitted. You choose your selection from a giant trough of water — Oui, oui, oui, non and oui. S'il vous plait. Merci. There's no beer or coke or coffee — only red or white wine. And you sit back, washing down delicious oysters with a glass of vin blanc and counting the Renaults, Peugeots and Citroens in the carpark. I hazard a guess it's every French mechanics idea of heaven.



And now here we are in Collioure, weary from the final mountain climb. Ol' legs of steel (his words) cursed a lot today — its lucky I have woolly ears. On the way up we met an old man, looking tired and wheeling a heavily laden bicycle up a mountain pass. We stopped and said bon jour (for the 632nd time this week) and he pointed in the direction we were headed and said one word; Espańa. It was irresistible; to which Paul replied non. You should have seen the look on his face. How do you say only joking in French or Spanish?




The whole way into Collioure, there they were like a Leviathan rising from the sea — the Pyrenees. For most of the day the tops of the Pyrenees were hidden in thick black cloud. At about 5pm the clouds lifted and Paul began cursing again.

Everyone has been whispering, you must go to Collioure, it's very special, and it is. The only problem is everyone has been whispering it to EVERYONE and now EVERYONE is in Collioure.

09 Sep 2012

Séte sail

2 Comments France

Séte (pronounced set) is short cycle from Montpellier. We have to share the highway for some of the way with trucks and cars, ducking off the road every now and then to let traffic pass or be squished. We have been trying to avoid the highways, but it is not always possible. By the time we arrive in Séte, Paul has an anxious expression, etched by the sun, that no amount of 50+ can hide.

It is a nice time to be in Séte. Most of the tourists have gone, but there is still enough life here to be interesting. Séte has a romantic feel about it. Bars and cafe's overlook canals (think Venice without the subsidence or Amsterdam minus the hashish). Locals sit sipping coffee or something stronger and when the weather is fine and the season is right, a spot of water jousting.

Crazy crazy French.

It's a sport originating in Séte in 1666 that rightfully should have ended there and then, but it hasn't. Two colourful rowboats face each other in the canal. A band strikes up … on the sidelines young women throw aside their champagne flutes and jump into the canal and bare their breasts to the oarsman and the crowd … the crowd roars … the boats charge. The jousters on raised platforms attached to the boats poise to attack. Their shields at the ready, their jousting sticks raised. They attack … and one or both of the jousters end up in the canal. This goes on ALL afternoon. If I have to watch one more bout I'll spit!



I'll say it again: Crazy crazy French.
What next, bicycle jousting on the streets of Perth? Hmmmm not a bad idea.

We are staying on Monty's yacht with Sonja and Monty for a couple of nights. Monty is undertaking a painstaking restoration of the yacht, having spent the past few months replacing great sections of the steel hull, and now has all the detail work to do: kitchens, bathrooms, cabins and decking, electrics — a never ending list — before she is back to her former glory. Like many projects it is taking MUCH longer than they expected. They hope to be sailing back to the Canary Islands for the warmer winter. We'll see!




We jumped into Monty's Zodiac one evening on a short ride to explore all the unloved and submerged boats in the harbour and came back on the last drops of fuel, the engine sputtering and failing constantly, to a fiery red sunset.



For the rest of our stay the weather is glorious and there is little to do: Pick up a book … read for a while … lunch up on deck … an afternoon siesta.

While we never actually set sail, it was still a near perfect weekend.


06 Sep 2012

Montpellier — an architectural extravaganza

2 Comments France


After skipping the entire French Riviera — Nice, Cannes, Sr Tropez, the beaches, the bikinis, the sunbathing — I promised Paul the Carmargue would be teeming with beautiful birds and it was. He is having a sulk now at my duplicitous ways, however secretly I think he enjoyed it; cycling alongside the Rhone Canal, nothing but the breeze, the sunshine on our backs, a million curious dragonflies and of course me for company. The Carmargue is flat as a crêpe. We spied Heron, Ibis, the odd grey Carmargue-horse and even Pink Flamingos.




It was easy cycling for some of us. I gave up on trying to get my bicycle fixed in Arles and Paul GRACIOUSLY offered me a ride. Yay, no pedalling! The elevated view was something else.



We took a detour to Aigues-Mortes, a walled town in Southern Provence. After the haphazard meandering streets of Arles the gridded layout of the town within the walls was something of a surprise. We wandered around sans maps with only the walls as our guide, found a shady table and stopped for a light lunch. Walled city. Tick.

Our apartment in the Esplanade de L'Europe building. Now which door was it?

It was late in the afternoon by the time we arrived into Montpellier. Our shared accommodation is in the imposing Esplanade de l'Europe building. From our apartment it is a two kilometre walk in a straight line along a blissfully car-free promenade. The entire promenade and all the buildings and open spaces that surround it were designed by Spanish architect Ricardo Bofill in the late 1970's. The design is neo-classical and grandiose, harking back to some bygone era. The promenade culminates at Place de la Comédie — the heart — of Montpellier. There the architecture changes; beautiful 18th century buildings, beautiful people, very parisian, and mile-after-mile of restaurant upon restaurant … we are spoilt for choice. Haute cuisine beckons us — and what does he order? A cheeseburger and chips. Sacré bleu!


Who needs Paris when you have your very own Arc de Triomphe in Montpellier?



04 Sep 2012

Une tragédie en Provence

2 Comments France


Before you all start shrieking, “Are you okay, Al?” I'm 100% fine now!

You can blame Google maps. Fair enough they do say their walking maps which we are using for cycling are in beta phase and not to be relied on, however you would expect a trail to be a trail …. and for a while it was. Then it got narrower and narrower, and rougher and rougher, and then it ended in the middle of a field. We were too far in; there was no turning back. We crossed the muddy field on foot, dragging our bicycles along, cursing and hoping not to attract the attention of an angry farmer keen on warding off trespassers by whatever means.

Once we got through the field it was kilometre after kilometre of rutted track again. One minute I was cycling along at a cadence of about 900rpm (you work it out) to keep up with Paul and the next minute it was lights out Al.

Apparently there was a branch down. I didn't see it … the rest is history. Don't worry, I had a soft landing. My bike, ol' yella terra, as you can see didn't fare so well.

Paul said I went all polyester (its a finger puppet thing) and was yelling “We, Oui, wee, wheeeeeeeeeeeeeee!”

Next thing you know I am here in Arles in a beautiful room twenty steps from the Rhone. We decided Arles was just too beautiful to pass up on and another rest day was in order.


Wow, what can I tell you about Arles that you can't read in Lonely Planet and save yourself the trip? Heaps.

  • Guy Pearce and Russell Crowe probably weren't here when they shot some of the scenes for Gladiator in the magnificent Roman Arena. They were in a studio somewhere on the other side of the world.
  • This other guy, Van Gogh, was though and it is here in Arles that he spent his last crazy ears … oops, I mean years!
  • Do you have any idea how difficult it is to get a replacement 2.5 cm “Mount-Bike” wheel in Arles?


03 Sep 2012

Two bastard tale

9 Comments France

Despite the fact that there are many public bicycle-rental stations at various locations in Marseille, there are few other bicycle riders on the streets and even fewer bicycle shops in Marseille. Almost a day was wasted —and I want it back now — traipsing Marseille in search of a bicycle for Paul. Eventually we stumbled into Extreme Bikes — the only shop with actual bicycles in stock — and a deal was done.

The conversation went something like this:

  • Bike shop guy: Bon jour.
  • Paul: Bon Jour (with Aussie accent).
  • Bike shop guy: incomprehensible French.
  • Paul: I want to buy bike… bici, no velo.
  • Bike shop guy: incomprehensible French.
  • Paul: Velo? Buy? Speaking slowly and loudly. Points to bike, then flashes fancy wallet.
  • Bike shop guy: incomprehensible French, then Oui
  • Paul: Excitedly, Si, Si, Si
  • Bike shop guy: indomprehensible French.
  • Me: Hehehe.
  • Paul: Is good bike?
  • Bike shop guy: Huh?
  • Paul: Grabs rack, pump, tool, tube, water bottle and lock. Plonks on counter. Por mañana. Grabs pen and paper and writes tomorrows date on it.
  • Bike shop guy: Grabs pen and paper and writes opening hours on it.
  • Bike shop guy: Incomprehensible French
  • Paul: Huh?
  • Me: Hehehe.
  • Bike shop guy: Incomprehensible French, pissed off expression, then flash of brilliance — hand gestures for payment.
  • Paul: Flashes fancy wallet.
  • Bike shop guy: Oui. Grabs pen and paper and writes down large number.
  • Paul: Mierde.
  • Me: Hehehe.
  • Bike shop guy: Hehehe.





Everyone meet Paul's new bicycle. It's a shiny black (with red go faster bits) Scott hybrid and no it is not as nice as MY BICYCLE. He was going to call it Scott but that would be tempting fate, not I mention obvious, so Amundsen it is.

After some panicked minor last-minute modifications when Paul's panniers wouldn't fit onto the rack we were on the road. About time!

The bastard mountains


The bastard wind


No bastards here



The Mistral bastard wind whipped up and and smashed us head-on, literally ripping right through me — at one point I was hanging onto the handlebars by a thread. It stayed with us the whole day and made going slow. The bastard mountains made going even slower.



By late afternoon we reached Fo-Sur-Mer our planned destination for the night, only to find it rather eerily unappealling. All the footpaths, instead of being stencilled with pictures of cyclists and pedestrians, were stencilled with people in wheelchairs and the one hotel we stopped at offered a complete package for seniors — presumably denture polishing was included. It seemed we had stepped into some sort of alternate world for retirees …. about fifty years too early for this alpaca. We pedalled like crazy to get out of there.

And so we arrived weary into Istres. A slight detour. What's another twenty or so kilometres? The bastards gave it their best.

Istres — not to be confused with iStress: temporary loss of iPhone in Marseille — has a quaint old central village dating back to the 12th century. A maze of narrow-winding streets with well maintained and colourful shuttered facades leading to several small town squares which are not really square, but you get what I mean. They are nice places to sit and watch the world go by. There is a lake which lays claim to having the largest fountain in France (50 metres high) and a purpose built Pétanque park by the lake.



All in all it is the perfect stress-free place for a rest day.