To Montpellier

The smell of freshly baking croissants filled the air as another blue sky dawned. The cramps informed me that there would be no breakfast for me. I stayed in bed and left the others to their usual morning routine which involved food and nice things.

The country here is very flat indeed, fewer trees, far more reed beds and many small farms with guess what? Black bulls. There are lots of them and it seems the whole agronomy of this region is based on beef, horses and fruit. So imagine Redruth, but flatter, and with fewer tin mines and ugly people.

This was to be Grant’s last push to the line. About 40 odd miles to go in heat and on flat roads. As long as the fluids were taken there should be no problem.

We all eventually get away from Saints Maries later than usual and taking the correct roads we meet Grant late morning for liquid refreshment and an ice cream, I could manage that without requiring an ambulance.

Lunch was had (by the others) at a marina at a place called Carnon. I recognised it as a marina because of the sea and the boats. However the buildings on the quayside looked like poorly designed 1970’s Spanish hotels, except these were finished and did not smell of fish. You have not heard of Carnon because Thomas Cooke would not have the chutzpah to try and sell it to the Brits, even the Mancunians (apologies to Colin and Lee) would avoid this place as being a bit too common. This is the bit of the south of France that never appears in films, and so is still affordable.

We shared our ferry with a team of beautiful white Camargue horses, surreal, and I hoped the outlaw Josey Wales was not waiting on the other side of the bank. The lack of Bqr/Tabacs meant a longer than normal ride between breaks, passing through vineyards and the well preserved walled town. Across the salt fields of the Camargue a barge was being loaded with salt as I cycled by. Getting into real tourist country, with hotels built in the 70s inspired by Gerry Andersen, and Space 1999, just horrible lumps of concrete terraces, thankfully no union jack flags draped over the rails, however the Jack is big fashion here, if you want to look trendy, wear a top with a union jack on it.

The country here is very flat indeed, fewer trees, far more reed beds and many small farms with guess what? Black bulls. There are lots of them and it seems the whole agronomy of this region is based on beef, horses and fruit. So imagine Redruth, but flatter, and with fewer tin mines and ugly people. This was to be Grant’s last push to the line. About 40 odd miles to go in heat and on flat roads. As long as the fluids were taken there should be no problem.

We all eventually get away from Saints Maries later than usual and taking the correct roads we meet Grant late morning for liquid refreshment and an ice cream, I could manage that without requiring an ambulance.

Lunch was had (by the others) at a marina at a place called Carnon. I recognised it as a marina because of the sea and the boats. However the buildings on the quayside looked like poorly designed 1970’s Spanish hotels, except these were finished and did not smell of fish. You have not heard of Carnon because Thomas Cooke would not have the chutzpah to try and sell it to the Brits, even the Mancunians (apologies to Colin and Lee) would avoid this place as being a bit too common. This is the bit of the south of France that never appears in films, and so is still affordable.

With only 8 miles left to go and with a good amount of drugs inside me, I consider trying out the bike for the last few miles. So duly changed into my tour de france gear, Grant and I set off for Montpellier.

Montpellier.

The last 8 miles to go, sun on our backs and a fresh wind in our faces. Route finding was easy, just follow the signs to Perols and Lattes, two small towns on the outskirts and keep to the cycle lane. We picked up a tram line near the coast only to discover that it goes straight to the heart of the city. Kirsten and Ann kept close in the car. The outskirts were just like any other city, a few out of town shopping areas (although there seemed precious little shopping going on) and the ubiquitous plane tree lining the road. These are the trees we have seen almost all the way down. I think they line the canal du midi and are planted deliberately to shade passing traffic whether it be bus, boat or bike.

We crossed a few roundabouts, negotiated a few traffic lights and saw in front of us the sign simply stating in black letters ‘Montpellier’. We have seen hundreds of similar the red edged fluorescent town signs along the way but this was the one that was to signal the end. And of course who should be stopped beside the sign to take pictures as we roll up? So with grins on our faces we stop, and the compulsory picture is taken (it is the law).

In one sense Montpellier was never the goal, the journey to Montpellier was. This was not a ‘means to an ends’ trip. The means was the end, the purpose was not to arrive but to go; to try and overcome niggles and doubts and little worries about aches, pains and mechanical breakdowns, to deal with the cold and the wet and the heat and the dry, to face the wind and to face down the wind, to let hills be our friends as well as our challengers, to double guess rain bearing clouds up ahead, to let the route find us as we found our way. The sign signalled the end of one road, but the beginning of another as we now have a better idea of what cycling can do and the challenges it throws up. I think we have achieved this. Even the dangerous cloudburst, and the illness cannot take anything away from the journey, they were part of the journey and it is trials and triumphs that have to go together otherwise it is all too easy. And of course it may have been all too difficult without Kirsten always being there.

All that was now required was to find the hotel in the city, and what a surprise the city is. The hotel is a chain, the Novotel, but the suites are large and very comfortable indeed. Not unlike the hotel in Lyon. This time we have a suite each.

The hotel is near the Place de L’Europe which is at one end of new development called Antigone which is on a Las Vegas grand scale. It is all broad boulevards and sweeping crescents of colonnaded buildings, festooned with Greco-roman statuary and neo classical architectural references. Fountains and cafes are shaded in the tree lined main avenue running from east to west to the Opera-Comedie in the old city. The old city of Montpellier and this new sister thus sit together, holding hands. Maybe the older sister resents the brashness, the newness, the confidence and the neoclassical style of her younger sister’s joie de vivre, maybe she is a little embarrassed and is afraid that little sister’s knickers are showing. I don’t think the younger sister thinks much at all about her older sibling who sits brooding 19th century classic gothic architecture which sits upon a medieval street pattern. This sister however knows she has class and has seen it all, and if you want Greco Roman references then she has some all of her own at the Place Royal de Peyrou, the highest point in the old city with a fantastic panorama. An old aqueduct (what have the Romans done for us) feeds into the Place, but sadly no water is visibly running. A statue of Louis XIV on horseback dressed up a Roman Emperor commands the central plane and views a Triumphal Arch, a smaller version of the the one in Paris or London (c’mon…Marble Arch!).

Our rest day today allows us to explore and although the new development is impressive in scale the old city is the real attraction. As we are about to stop for a mid morning cafe au lait we get talking to a woman who has lived in the old part for 50 years. Coming back from buying a ‘cake’, she stopped to chat as we took pictures. I asked her about the cake as it was wrapped in a very french patisserian mode, all bows and ribbons sort of thing. Maybe she is biased and the shock of the new is too much for her but she recommends seeing the old city, and staying there. I can’t say she was wrong. We discovered twisty turns old narrow streets among the five or six story buildings on either side. A shoppers heaven, housing many individually quirky establishments with very few chains in sight. They sell handbags and shoes here. And dresses. They are French.

We had a day ticket for the trams and which are the new sisters contribution to the party, but ‘Madame Montpellier’ does not let the lines, ahem, ‘enter’ her. They have to skirt the four edges of the old street pattern. Nonetheless as they are frequent, clean, air conditioned and easy to use. It makes coming and going in the heat a little easier.

Dinner tonight was steak for Grant while the three of were disappointed by a lovely looking but rather average tasting risotto. It was like going out on date with a pretty little thing only to find that the Chelsea girl exterior has an Essex girl mouth, all noise and no substance. It is good to know the French can get it so wrong. It may also be the case that we have been spoiled by the fish dishes that one can enjoy at home in Cornwall at my sisters house ‘chez Pentreeve’.

Time to pack away the bikes and reflect on a phenomenal two weeks of cycling and enjoying simple pleasures. some statistics :

  • Distance: 802.94 mi
  • Time: 74:06:00 h:m:s
  • Elevation Gain: 7,075 mtrs
  • Avg Speed: 10.8 mph
  • Calories: 45,013

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