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  • Jamie Shannon

Southern France and Marseille. Equipment breakdowns and sleepless nights

After passing through the small border town, I spent the next half an hour, and to my utter surprise and relief, gliding downhill all the way into Le Boulou.

I stopped at a fruit and vegetable stall along the way and bought a rather mushy apple from a lady that fit the arrogant French stereotype perfectly, though I haven’t actually met many of them thus far.

The rest of the morning was spent cycling along huge wide roads with beautiful backdrops into the town of Perpignan where I headed straight away to an outdoor store to get some fuel for my stove.

I cycled around the centre a little before following the road signs to Bompass, a minor town just north. My thinking that, being a minor road, I would be able to cycle it but alas it wasn’t to be and was shocked to find that it was only open to motor vehicles.

With this discovery, I thought that I might head instead to Canet, directly east along the coast. When I reached it however, I was again informed that it was a no go. I couldn’t fathom why all the minor roads had speed limits of 120 km\h and grew increasingly frustrated at my not being able to navigate out of such a small town.

I followed the one lane rural roads for an hour or so taking random turn in the vague hope that it would lead me some place north or east. I cycled alongside fields and vineyards and through a couple of farms. Eventually I came to a road that led me back onto the main highway to Canet which again I couldn’t cycle. I instead opted to cross over the roundabout and use a small road that I hoped led east too and was mightily relieved when a passing car told me it did.

Having stopped in Canet to pick up some food and to enjoy the beach for a while, I headed north along the coast to Le Barcares. The wind was extremely strong most of the way and I was having a very tough time cycling directly into it but I made it all the same, albeit thoroughly shattered.

From here, my choice of route became very limited. The road I had been travelling on again became a duel carriageway thus this was closed to anything slower than a car. Instead, I made my way along a lake but having cycled 2km’s along gravel, glass and sand, found that it was a dead end. Back I went then all the way to the centre of town where I eventually found signs marking a much smaller road right beside the coast.

This led me to Port Leucate further on but here, I was again left cycling aimlessly around the suburbs and port area looking for some path, any path that led north. After 40 minutes of trying in vain to find a small road or at least sign’s indicating a bicycle path, I grew so tired and frustrated that I just plonked myself down on a park to rest, eat and watch the local wildlife.

I asked some locals if they knew of a route I could use to head north but they had no idea either. I do usually find it’s quite pointless to ask anybody this type of mystifying question as usually they take only the main roads anyway and so I resolved myself to using the highway. By this point, I just didn’t care if it was allowed or not. I mean I may be on a bicycle but I also have to get somewhere.

The whole area was stunning with the Mediterranean to my right and the blue crystalline lake and mountains to my left. The only downside was the wind that meant a top speed of about 5km/h at a push but I thought it was a small price to pay for the sheer joy at actually being able to carry on at all.

I found a quiet, shady and peaceful place to spend the night and enjoyed the evening views around the area. My lens was completely knackered though by this point but, I must say, I wasn’t particularly bothered by this at all. Life mustn’t always be permanently captured by a photo as we do also have our memories too.

I spent the next morning back on the highway and eventually reached Narbonne by afternoon. It was only 30km’s away but the wind hindered me to the point where I couldn’t get past 5 kph. I saw other road cyclists going in the opposite way and was thoroughly annoyed and a little jealous at the fact that I was heading north.

I had spent three days now without my trusty sidekick, my kindle and was beginning to think that I might have to buy another one. The screen had frozen back in Spain and so I had had nothing to keep me entertained but my own thoughts which were becoming a little tiresome, particularly in my tent of an evening. Most of all though, I just missed reading. To my utter relief, I found that the only thing I had needed to do was to hold the power button for 40 seconds thus refreshing the screen. I was so happy at this that I actually treated myself to some fries knowing that a new kindle would cost me upwards of sixty euros anyway. In a way I had saved 57, 60 euros.

I cycled right the way through the city as it didn’t seem to have much of interest and I was looking forward to visiting places further north, namely Nimes and Arles for their respective Roman history.

I stooped after Narbonne in a small village where I asked a man at a small café if I could use his tap to fill my water whereupon he gave me a two litre bottle of water that was frozen solid as well as filling up my other three bottles. I encounter this kind of thing all the time and don’t have a bad word to say about the French. When I was speaking with an American dressed in golfing attire way back in Salamanca, he had told me he really thought the French rude and petty. I thus asked him where he had been and he proclaimed Paris! Ahh Paris. Well if you only go to a city visited by 307 million tourists per year, what do you expect?

Anyway, that evening and after some searching, I managed to find a place to camp in a very leafy and overgrown patch of land between the highway and motorway and where I got, quite surprisingly a nice night’s sleep. It turns out most people drive during the day don’t you know.

Upon entering Montpellier, I thought I might stay the night but was told in the park where I met a German guy that the only hostel in town was pretty expensive and required you to buy a card for nine euros in order to stay there. This wasn’t going to happen as you can imagine and I opted instead just to walk around a little.

At one point, the road forked off and it was here I found a nice bench and table in order to make dinner. Incidentally, it was also here that I realised, upon taking out my chopping board, that my rather large jar of Nutella had emptied its contents all over the inside of my front bag. The bottom was a mixture of glass and chocolate sauce and I knew instantly that it had been caused by a minor I had had earlier upon my arrival in Montpellier with a lamp post.

The air was much cooler now, and with the sun setting on my left beyond the vineyards and mountains in the distance; it was a joy to be cycling. The traffic was almost non-existent and the road surface smooth. With some nice easy music playing in my ears, it just couldn’t have been more relaxing.

I kept stopping to take photos too as the light was just fantastic. By this point I always knew that, providing it was late enough, I would always find somewhere to camp thus my attention was focused purely on enjoying the scenery.

Cycling along a little later, I found a little track leading up into a spot that was perhaps 20 x 20 metres where a pylon stood directly in the middle. It was still too early to pitch thus I had to sit waiting a half an hour before I could begin to put up my tent. When I did, I found the ground so thoroughly dry that I couldn’t use my tent pegs and so had to hold it taught using a combination of bungee cords, rocks and my bicycle. On the upside however, I stayed insect free for the duration of the evening.

I spent the following morning cycling through small villages and along gentle country roads until I arrived on the outskirts of Nimes at around midday. The outer suburbs and centre couldn’t be more juxtaopposed; the rather drab and unsightly were in complete contrast to the gleaming facades and historic magnificence of the old town.

After enjoying a much deserved beer in the park whilst getting hassled by the local weirdo’s, I went straight to the tourist office where I tried to procure a room for the evening. This proved an utterly hopeless task because as well as being high season, there was a Carlos Santana concert on at the arena. I gave the lady 60 euro’s to play with and I would really, quite honestly have spent this amount but it was still too little. She couldn’t find me anything under a hundred euros and with this, I walked dejectedly out of the building and locked my bike up. I spent an hour walking around but just could never really relax knowing that my house and all its contents were just sitting there in the middle of the city unguarded. I guess Nimes was not to be.

Although I had failed in any attempt at staying in Nimes and so hadn’t really seen the stuff I had wanted to see, I was quite confident of making it to the Roman aqueduct in order to see at least one of the things the city and its surroundings are famous for.

Having said this though, I wasn’t really in the mood to cycle 10km’s here and 10km’s there in the vague hope that I might happen to come across it, and so after giving it some serious thought, I instead decided to head back south east to catch a road that would take me to Arles. The whole ride around the north of the city had been beautiful though thus was very happy to have cycled it and din't regret it one bit.

Once in Marguerittes, I stopped at a supermarket just to see if they had any maps of the surrounding area. When looking at one of the really detailed maps in the supermarket, I then realised that I actually had the very same map right at the bottom of my back pannier which I had bought back in England. I had completely forgotten about it. I dug it out straight away.

Having slotted my new and improved navigation aid into my handlebar bag, I set off south east through small villages towards Arles. At one point, the directions from one village weren’t clearly marked well enough for me and a lady pointed me in the right direction from her terrace two floor’s up.

The evening sun was very mild now, and when I came back onto the national highway a little later, the traffic was almost non-existent and so it was a short and easy right to the town of Bellegarde where I found ample opportunities to camp a few km’s outside.

After a good night’s sleep, It was an easy 15km ride further east and onto Arles.

Immediately, I was struck by how different the city was when compared to Nimes. There weren’t really any of the bold and striking facades, squares and buildings that I saw back in Nimes. Instead it had a grittier and ‘lived in’ feel about it and I liked this very much.

The tourist office was jam packed with people and so I just took a map and made my way to a bar where I could use their internet and so search for a place to stay. To my amazement yet again, I found that all the hotels were either fully booked or had rooms available only for 100 euro’s per night. It seemed to be, like Nimes, completely lacking in hostels also and so I decided I’d leave my bike locked up and walk around for a couple of hours instead.

I sat down and made a coffee a little later when a lady came over and actually said hello. This was unusual in itself as usually people will look at me and then turn away when I look at them. We had an interesting conversation about the time she and her husband used motorcycles to go around the world back in the 70’s and she was a thoroughly agreeable character.

As my wide angle lens was now completely broken, I found myself taking pictures of people on the street as I only had my small 50 mm prime lens left. This was actually more enjoyable as the emotions and situations that arise in front of you when you do pay attention can be quite interesting.

From Miramas, and after asking two French foxes about some directions to Saint Chambers, I ended up in the suburbs and eventually through wooded hills and beautiful mountain scenery. I had obviously took a wrong turn somewhere, and although I was heading in the general direction I needed to go, I was now doing it in a very roundabout way. I wasn’t too annoyed though as the scenery was just beautiful and reminded me of times gone by in both the Peak District and New Zealand too. It was quite wonderful.

I was up crushingly early the following morning as the trucks and cars started to pass at 6am. This was a good thing as it gave me a good amount of time to negotiate my way through Marseille to its centre, France’s second biggest city.

After I had cycled through the last small town before the city started proper, I found that the road opened up into six lanes, and although the speed limit was still 90km/h and the shoulder relatively wide, it was still a little nerve racking.

It was still only half nine and yet I went to McDonalds and sat outside in order to use their wifi and to see if my friend from New Zealand, had got back to me. He lives in Marseille with his girlfriend Myleesa and their child and it was for this reason I was visiting the city. He had indeed messaged me back and it was then that I realised that he in fact lived 60km’s to the north east! I just assumed that he lived in the city. Oh man, what a mistake.

With this new information, I then had to find a hostel or cheap hotel which proved less difficult than in the previous two days and in the end I found a hotel for 23 Euro’s. Not quite in my budget but it’s a big city and so sometimes you have to pay the big city prices.

With this done, I headed back down the highway, around the airport on my right and eventually found my way into the northern reaches of the city, set in beautiful woods that meandered their way over the surrounding hills. It was all very pleasant but made for south seriously tough cycling, particularly in this kind of heat.

After stopping off at a supermarket, I again made my way through the mid-morning traffic, and a half an hour later, found myself in the usual gleaming historic city centre. It was packed with the usual thousands of other tourists just like me. Southern France in July it seems, is not the best time to visit.

I made my way to my hotel, which wasn’t too far away and settled the usual chores that always awaited me if I had been camping for a fair number of days previously, namely washing myself and my equipment thoroughly and cleaning my clothes. Marseille had been reached!


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