Mon 13th May
While I had been with Sebastien and Anne, they had passed on their love of the Pyrenees to me. Anne was from the Basque country, so considered it to be entwined with her home and people and Sebastian had spent much time cycling there, so they both had a different but shared love for the vast mountain range.
There were also many posters and images around the house, one of which that particularly stands out was an illustrated map that lived in the toilet, showing all the passes and the mountains in colour. My intrigue for the mountains began to grow. I spoke to Sebastian about the best way to pass the mountains on the way down to Barcelona, of which he had a few options, but seemed overly sceptical in the timeframe I had, opting to take a mountain train or go around them.
My original plan included the infamous Canal du Midi across the part of France, then through the mountains on the east side and down into Spain. Although an experienced cyclist friend in London had recommended going around the Pyrenees on the west side and entering Spain from there as the scenery was particularly beautiful. Then head down to Barcelona.
naturally I had two conflicting options, both equally attractive for different reasons, but the festival start was almost a week away. Finding a route through the mountains was more appealing, but I had no experience of mountain touring and little knowledge of the Pyrenees, if there would be shops around, cycling at altitude etc.
I chose the safer and original plan, stay on canal, perhaps saving a deeper exploration of the mountains for after Barcelona. Sebastian helped me plan a route and gave me plenty of information about trains and offered to would cycle with me for the first hour of the day.
The road out of Bordeaux was surrounded by green fields, vineyards and their châteaux. Sebastian told me a few stories about workers who used to live in the châteaux, although it isn’t so common nowadays.
After an hour, the time came for Sebastian to leave and his loop back home, he wished me well with a firm handshake and set off. He was a very peaceful man, I was glad my time in Bordeaux was with him and his family.
My road continued along the classic French roads, with tall green trees either side. I went through a town called Langon and then uphill to La Réole, a small, pretty town where I stopped to eat.
From start to finish of the break, there was a small yappy dog nearby on a balcony, barking at everything it saw on the streets below. I did my best to ignore it, but it was so infuriating that to do so was impossible.
It got me thinking that it’s owners didn’t care about this tiny stupid dog and that everybody around wished it didn’t exist. I wondered what purpose it served. Dogs were becoming increasingly unpopular and inconvenient to me.
I left the town, crossed a suspension bridge and began moving along the D roads. Shortly after what sounded like a bell ringing rehearsal in a nearby church (also becoming increasingly unpopular with me) in the town of Fontet, I joined the cycle path of the canal that runs parallel with the river Gironne.
Again, just like the Loire river, it was a break from the roads that I fully embraced. The roads were all I had been on, (except for the six days on the Loire) and they were tiring, boring and dull. They didn’t offer much variation for the eyes and imagination, nor make for pleasant cycling.
Here on the canal it was quiet, with a few other cyclists around and the odd boat going by, everyone waving and saying ‘Bonjour’ to one another. Like in the mornings when you walk around England.
On the canal, I felt like the reason for doing this had become clear. There’s a huge difference between cycling and cycling through an area of outstanding natural beauty. Once again, I had again found the latter. I pondered what it would be like to live nearby and have this canal to walk up and down or cycle on whenever you wished. What is it exactly about water that relaxes us so much?
As I continued, the canal changed abruptly and become much more striking. Evidence of French planning (trees plotted either side of the canal, one every 15m or so) was inherently present here as well as the roads.
The French love trees.
The floor, unlike many cycle paths in the world, was hard and smooth, perfect for cruising along slowly, unlike the loose gravel paths of regular cycle paths.
I’ve never been sure why cycle paths are like this. I’d imagine it’s a cheaper alternative that slows riders.
The sky was grey at this point, but as I continued along the canal the sun slowly began to shine. Within fifteen minutes the sky cleared and it was a brilliant blue with an abundance of light shining through the trees, illuminating a clear mirror image in the water.
The canal was remarkably straight and you coud see for a mile or so up ahead and the same the other way, and I had it all to myself.
I continued taking it all in, arriving at a lock where a few boats were moored up. I had worked by a canal for six months before leaving London, so barges and canal boats were a comforting sight. I imagined myself living in one, cooking, reading and writing. A life on the river.
The canal seemed to last forever, but the day didn’t. I wasn’t sure what the rules were with camping alongside the canal but I didn’t have many alternatives. I found a spot in a field full of trees, kept an eye out, then set up and got down, very glad that the next few days ahead would be on this canal.