Mary Time – San Sebastien to Bagneres-de-Bigorre driving, Sunday 3 May
First town of call on our road trip into France was St Jean Pied du Port, the town in the gateway of the Pyrenees where most pilgrims start their walk to Santiago. Certainly a cute place; looks decidedly medieval in the small centre with remnant entry gates, cobbled streets, fast flowing stream running through the middle and not the preponderance of pilgrim-souvenir shops I had expected. Having missed breakfast, we sought out a meal-deal, but got caught out by a restaurant billboard advertising a cheap lunch – of course when we sat down inside it wasn’t available on Sundays! The most reasonable thing on the menu was a hamburger [the pattie cooked to your preference] with chips and salad, and tap water. The senior French couple next to us with their chilled Perrier mineral water, top-dollar speciality seafood, and quiet whispering s couldn’t look anymore ‘#haters’ [that’s a hip Jordy comment].
Next stop – Lourdes. Talk about pilgrims; this is where it was happening! I had visited it almost 40 years ago and seen Catholics from across the world come to where a girl, Bernadette, had seen the Virgin Mary in a cave. The spring water evidently has miraculous healing powers for some, and I remember taking a photo of all the crutches and walking sticks hanging up around the cave. Nowadays the crutches have been removed, but the masses of people remain and the infirm and invalided are assisted through town to the sacred site and waters by volunteer attendants dressed in the red and white uniform of St John of Malta. Amazing.
Triple room in Le Florian Hotel
The grand, Grand Tourmalet – St Marie de Campan to La Mongie 28km – Monday 4 May
What are the odds of having the perfect day to cycle up one of the signature climbs of Le Tour de France –the prayers at Lourdes must have worked?
Despite the fact we were only 11km away from the start of the major climb, we still drove there – mainly because it takes an eternity to get Jordy moving in the morning, and we needed essential shopping stops for lunch supplies and a soccer ball. Why did Jordy need the ball right then – to kick it off the mountain top and collect it at the bottom? Or maybe it was to have a last kick before he died – he had some trepidation about the 13.9km constant ascent at an average 9%!
He need not have panicked on two counts: he did it easily and won the ‘polka dot jersey mountain points’ and in fact, we couldn’t do the last 3km/300m to the Col because it was still snowed over and wouldn’t be cleared for at least 3 weeks. But we still did a damn fine job, taking 1hr 37min to go up 1086m at an average of 8.6kph, and 16 min to go down at an average of 52kph with sections topping 75kph! And despite me trying to even the score on the final sprint to the car, he still took the honours.
We were surprised and impressed back at the base that Elly had done 9km up, and could have easily finished with more time – “Who would have thought I’d be doing this 3 months ago!” Celebratory photos of everyone were well warranted, as was the drive back up the hill to show Elly what she missed. In an expansive mood, we even bought a small wine pitcher and 2 goblets from a roadside potter.
How could the day have got better? Only by finishing with a 2 hour spa/hammam/sauna/pool session in the Bagneres thermal centre. [No, not the medical centre one where you can be irrigated and salt bathed in different concoctions for different ailments – the recreational/relaxation one next to the casino.] Yep, and only 15E each – bargain. It was a special rate for after 5.30pm, so we shared the facilities with several locals and the rugby team doing a recovery session. We had crinkle-cut fingers when we emerged, but we were clean, refreshed and wide awake. Not so, the rest of the town, and suddenly we were missing Spain. Shops were closed, and being a Mondays lots of bars and restaurants too. Luckily it was still warm, so we sat outside our hotel, chatted with a fellow-lodgers Spanish couple so we didn’t have to talk amongst ourselves [again], and used the wifi. A grand day indeed.
Bagneres-de-Bigorre to Carcassonne driving, Tuesday 5 May
Lucky about the perfect day yesterday. Today was 23 degrees at 6am, and 10 degrees at 10am with constant showers. Luckily by then, we’d purchased some lunch supplies and Jordy a commemorative bikeshirt, and were in the car driving two sleepyheads across the countryside. But even though I was paying attention, I wouldn’t be able to trace the route on a map as the car GPS, avoiding the ‘A’ tollways, navigated a succession of ‘D’ roads through innumerable villages and towns. Still, by driving French style and ignoring all speed limits except the 50kph ones in built-up areas, I managed to shave 30 mins off the calculated trip time. The bonus in that? Missing one rotation of Jordy’s ‘roadtrip songs’! I mean, they’re good Triple J material, but on high rotation…
Eventually got to Carcassone about 4pm, having had a baguette lunch in a village square somewhere, and afternoon tea at Maccas [good toilets and internet.] No accommodation had been pre-booked, so we followed the first camping ground signs encountered to the well-located ‘Camping of the City’. No problem – affordable and vacant cabin for 60E with all cons, but a 300E bond in case we caused any damage. Perhaps they thought the Kanga was a shrunken Contiki bus?
Unpacked very carefully, then struggled through peak hour traffic for a km or two to a shopping centre with a mobile phone store and foodstuffs. While Elly and Jordy went berserk with their new French sim data allowance package, I made the prescribed dinners of grilled steak and gnocchi respectively.
Rushin’ to the Finnish – Canal du Midi 56km – Wednesday 6 May
The medieval city of Carcassonne is impressive- in some ways because the ‘new city’ beside the hilltop, fully-walled ‘old city’ dates from the 1200s! [The ‘old city’ dates from the 700s.] Like Lourdes, I was revisiting after nearly 40 years, and the hill it was on didn’t seem quite as high as I recalled. But other things hadn’t changed – the Youth Hostel was in the same spot, the towers and turrets were just as eye-catching, and the souvenir shops hadn’t disappeared. Further comments should come from the ‘newbies’ : Elly- “glad we’re here at this time of the year and not in high season”; Jordy – “much less ruiny than I thought it might be”. [Unlikely those ringing endorsements will make it to the tourist brochures!]
Jordy wasn’t keen on cycling along the Canal du Midi, the old trading canal that allowed the French to travel from Bordeaux on the Atlantic to Marseille on the Mediterranean without having to go past Portugal, Spain and Gibraltar. Nowadays a large section near Carcassone is used for pleasure, with barge-rental companies doing a roaring trade for people wanting a lock-navigating holiday. The old towpath is used by cyclists, walkers and fisherfolk. It was an easy and enjoyable afternoon, and several stops led to interesting conversations with some Dutch retirees, a lost Finnish couple, a British lady who owned a gite and whose husband came from Sydney, and the French jam-selling lady set up in prime location adjacent to the canal.
Another puncture just as we got home required me to do a puncture repair session as we had used our four spare tubes to date. Just about all the flats had been caused by glass working its way through the ‘second-hand’ tyres.