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  • Jamie Shannon

Marseille, meeting friends and the French Riviera

Having booked into the hotel, I thought I might go out outside to explore the surrounding neighbourhoods and see what the city was actually like, having heard so many mixed opinions about it. The thing is, although I do have an incredible urge to go out and see a place when I do finally arrive there, I’m honestly almost always quite literally shattered and I don’t always realise this until I actually start doing a little walking.

Although it was a hotel, they had a dormitory in the basement and it was this that I obviously took. It wasn’t pretty though, and to be perfectly honest, it was probably the worst one I have stayed in; there was no kitchen or any area for that matter to relax and thus meet other people, the rooms were quite filthy, with the odd cotton bud sitting idly on a random shelf and there were hairs on the beds. To make matters worse, a French guy in my room, obviously not used to hostel etiquette was watching some kind of cartoon on his laptop but with no earphones. I left it and left it for as long as I could but by half eleven, I yielded to my better judgement and told him to turn it off. Quite surprisingly, it worked and I managed to get a somewhat comfortable nights rest.

I left at around 3 pm the next day, having walked around the harbour and surrounding streets again and headed east through the city’s suburbs and into the heart of the region.

I must say that the whole area surrounding Marseille, both to the south and north is one of extreme beauty and ruggedness. The mountains literally tower over the outer suburbs and lush forest clings to any available horizontal surface. I would have loved to have watched it with a more potent stare but I had to keep both eyes glued to the road as the streets were pot holed beyond belief.

As I made it to the first town, I had a choice to either take a road leading south along the coast and thus up and over the mountains or one heading north which would take me tantalisingly close to where my friends lived. For this reason, it was an easy decision. I thus found myself cycling north along the more important roads but which wound their way through lush valleys and deep gorges for 30 or 40km’s. The views of the surrounding land were simply staggering. I never knew this would be the case so it was a pleasant surprise.

I stopped off at a bakery, and upon the man seeing my bike, received a large bag of pastries for free. How awesome is that? Whilst cycling and eating some of these, a man on a road bike started cycling beside me, and with his quite excellent English, began to ask me the usual questions along with some not so usual ones. For this reason, I came to enjoy his company and we we cycled together for a good half an hour.

By half eight, I had arrived to Saint Maximum and decided to head straight through to the centre and on to a McDonalds that I had seen signposted. Once there, I sat outside and connected to the wifi in order to send David a message and to get his phone number. After a half an hour and with no reply I decided to head back into the pretty main square in the hope of finding someone that would allow an unshaven, dirty and generally bedraggled Englishman to use their phone.

Surprisingly, and on my first attempt, it worked with a young family. I am a polite guy you know. Within ten minutes, I was following David in his car through the streets to his house. It was so good to see a face that I already knew as opposed to answering and asking the same questions over and over again which is the reality when always meeting new people.

I hadn’t seen either David or Myleesa for over four and a half years since New Zealand and so it was with great happiness that I found myself there.

I stayed two nights in Saint Maximum and was thoroughly grateful for a real bed and a home cooked meal. It’s been too long! I ended up actually sleeping on the wooden floor as I just couldn’t sleep on their bed. I’m not entirely sure why I was so uncomfortable as it was a nice bed. It must have something to do with sleeping in a tent most nights.

Having said goodbye to David, Myleesa and Nina, I headed east, intending to take the main highway all the way towards the coast, and hopefully with some luck, reach Saint Raphael by the day’s end.

I passed through the pretty town of Brignoles after 20km’s where I just couldn’t get rid of an old man whom had taken it upon himself to decide that I was his new best friend. I only stopped to take a picture, but he thrust his hand onto my arm and insisted I follow him further on into town. I’m a nice guy generally and so this is exactly what I did. It’s just that we couldn’t understand each other at all and with him being a little drunk, this process wasn’t going to improve even if we could find a translator.

Shortly after, just as I was making my way out of town, a huge dog jumped over a fence and onto the highway right in front of me at which point, I swerved to my left in order to avoid it. The car behind, anticipating what was about to follow, slowed down and allowed me to make my way rather quickly out of its territory. Luckily nothing serious but man alive. I'm just not having a good relationship with dogs.

By the time I arrived in Frejus and then Saint Raphael, it was already quite late. What with the wall to wall development, there were very few places in which to camp.

Having wound my way around another bend though, I could see in the distance around a bay, an area of rocky embankments with a surprisingly well cut lawn behind it. After cycling up, I realised it was the entrance to a golf course, but the edge of it down to the road had no markings or fences and so I decided this was good enough for me. I pushed my bike onto the grass and was greeted by several bunkers built into the area and lots of trees and bushes in which to hide quite stealthily.

With my tent up and dinner served, everything seemed great and I slept quite soundly for the next hour or so. I was then awoken by music blaring from cars and several locals enjoying the night air with a shed load of weed and beer. How I wanted to be a part of it! This is true, but I also really wanted some sleep and hoped they wouldn’t see me which I was quietly confident about.

After about an hour, the voices faded and I returned to my slumber happy in thought that I would be in Monaco and eventually Italy at some point the next day.

I cycled along the spectacular coast to Cannes passing small and decadent towns built into the bays along the way. There was a steady stream of racing cyclists out with all but a few saying hello. I stopped for breakfast at a small shaded area and just as I was about to tuck into my porridge, two other long distance cyclists came over whom were on their way west to Spain.

Just outside of Cannes, I headed to a large supermarket in order to procure some new earphones, my third pair of the trip so far. The cost of these little things including my now numerous pairs of shades are starting to add up.

Cannes is very plush. With its boutiques, fancy shops and grand hotel’s, It was a real change from the small coastal resorts I had been cycling through. Although there are still some tacky souvenir shops, they aren’t quite as prolific as many other places. After a while spent sitting on the promenade though, I felt it time to press on as other more important and interesting places awaited, namely Monaco. I was very excited to see it and to hopefully drive its narrow streets on my bike.

After some steep and punishing stretches along the coast and through Antibes, I actually managed to find a lovely wide and smooth cycle path most of the way into Nice that forms part of the Euro route 8.

Just outside of Nice, I watched a young gypsy family who were taking refuge under the trees. I don’t know about you, but if you can’t afford to buy your children shoes then stop having them. They had five of them running about, all with no shoes on and not much else to be honest.

When I arrived in Nice, I had the strong desire to stay there as it looked like a quite stunning city, set alongside the blue of the Mediterranean. I also realised that I now had only a select number of weeks in which to get to Munich, my preferred end point. I wanted to be back in England in around six weeks time in order to go to a friend’s wedding, and had now decided that I would winter in England rather than continuing on through Turkey.

As I approached Monaco, the small towns became even more pristine, the houses ever more lavish and the cars more luxurious than anything I have seen before. I didn’t really know what to expect of Monaco; whether or not I would pass through a formal border or even if someone like me would even be allowed in. I was genuinely worried that they would tell me to go away as I didn’t look like your average tourist ready to throw away money.

As I exited the last French village, I was directed down into a series of tunnels where it seemed, the traffic from all surrounding roads converged into an underground labyrinth of roundabouts. It was very, very busy being about 5pm and I had to think hard and fast about which turnings I had to make as it was really quite dangerous, for a bicycle anyway.

Eventually I happened upon an exit and found myself amidst the huge high rises and elegant streets of Monte Carlo! I couldn’t quite believe I was here to be honest. Having watched the grand prix so many times before, it was incredible to think I was now on the very same streets where so many crazy things have happened.

I made it my mission to cycle at least part of the track as a kind of rite of passage I guess. This turned out to be quite difficult as it was bumper to bumper traffic and the streets were steep beyond words but I tried anyway.

On my way out, and with the traffic heavily congested, I made my way around the cars with dexterity I didn’t know I possessed but in the process, when a nice big Mercedes broke hard suddenly, I nearly went into the back of it. I was about two inches away from leaving my signature on its shiny black paint. The guy driving it was not happy to say the least.

I wanted to linger but I just felt far too exposed, dirty and unkempt to feel free and easy about walking around. It’s not easy being the odd one out among thousands of ever watchful people and so after an hour, I was back cycling along the coast and on towards Menton, the Last town before Italy

I cycled high along the cliffs, higher and higher before finally gliding all the way back down and into my final French town. It was very nice in the late afternoon air. As good as this felt, these feelings didn’t last much longer as the inevitable happened moments later just as I was coming to a stop at some traffic lights. I felt the unmistakable scrape of metal and tarmac. It was a flat tyre. And in the last town before the border, just like back on the border between Spain and Portugal. I mean, you couldn’t right this stuff!

This took me more than an hour and a half to fix, and once I had done this, I was so happy that I cried out “yes!” to three Polish skinheads whom had just arrived. I was finally on my way. Cycling around the pretty harbour and leaving the distant twinkling lights of France behind me, I crossed over into Italy at about 10pm, and although thoroughly happy about this fact, now needed to consider where I was going to sleep for the night.

The border was awash with police and security forces and just across in Italy was a huge area dotted with tents and sleeping bags where hundreds of migrants were camped in the hope of crossing over into France.

I pushed on along the coast and just before a tunnel 2km’s on, saw two young guys walking alongside the road with backpacks on. Knowing that they were probably hitch hiking, I pulled over and asked where they were camping. When they said, “ in the nature”, I sort of invited myself to camp with them.

They were two French guys who were indeed hitch hiking around and so I told them to wait there whilst I rode on ahead. I saw some trees on exiting the tunnel and some cliffs too, and thinking that that might work, cycled back and told them to follow me.

In the end, we had to hike down a steep and rocky path along the cliff down to a tunnel than ran underneath the railway lines and then up again to a small outcrop on the other side, no easy feat with a bicycle and seven bags let me tell you.

Thoroughly exhausted, I made myself some cous cous with vegetables and chorizo whilst they ate some soup and a tin of garden peas before we climbed in for the night. We all make our own choices.

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