Monday, July 25, 2011

Angleterre - Wiltshire

Thursday 14 July
Rainy morning on Guernsey, the locals did warn me it wasnt always as sunny as I found it the couple of days I spent there, but heading north across the Channel, cleared the rain by the time Portland head and Weymouth hove into view.
Ferrying the bike's a simple process, book on the internet via http://www.directferries.com/ (24 hours ahead), get in the right queue, hand over your booking reference number, ride on when and where directed, the crew strap the bike down, 2 hour crossing, all there is to it.
Wanborough, where I am now, near Swindon, Wiltshire, 200 odd km from the ferry terminal, starting a week's loop back to London to hand the Bandit back.
Very pretty countryside, rolling pastures split by hedges and trees, more livestock than I've seen yet, a nice gentle re-absorb into something familiar as time to go home gets closer. I can smell the pig farms in my helmet riding past, huge pigs when I see them, (England has great bacon), and Wiltshire sheep in the paddocks.
NZ imported quite a few 20-30 years ago, their self-defleecing trait thought one day might be important in hard pressed wool producer times, and the horned version of the breed, having a medullated, or hairy fleece, maybe not so desirable today as hollow fibre dosent absorb dye as well as fish-scaled proper wool does, but adds resilience to a carpet.
Also a heap of mule females, black-faced hill sheep crossed with a meat breed, and mated back to a meat sire like Texel, Hampshire, or Suffolk.
My fabulous hosts here, Tim and Linda, are friends of friend Peter. Within minutes of arriving its a short trip to the village local, or should I say one of the "locals", there are about 6 here. We should be so envious of village life, a short walk to the local, and a social life, a good one too, no roughs in sight, all bon homme. France have it a bit the same, whip down to the local village cafe for lunch, albeit a 2 hour one, or for dinner.
In the morning Linda takes me on a walk around the village, thatched roof cottages, and a very old church, originating from 1090 AD, rebuilt in the 14th century, and unique in that it has both a spire and a tower, added in the 1500's when a suitable bell was bequeathed and they needed a tower for it.
Thought provoking in age, most of this occurring before Maori arrived from Hawaiki. In fact there's a local hill called a castle, but its actually an earthen redoubt dating back to stone age time when the ramparts and pallisading were probably enhanced by wood. It looks familiar.

Following the Neolithic thread, Tim takes me to Avebury in the afternoon, where the stone circles pre-date Stonehenge. I didnt call at Stonehenge despite passing within a stone's throw on the way up here. You cant get within a touch of the stones there, but you can at Avebury, or what's left of them. By some curious delinquent neglect of antiquity, more recent home builders split the menhirs for building material. There's still plenty there to get a sense of how it was, a huge moat-like structure surrounding the two internal stone circles.

Like Stonehenge, there's a 200 stone avenue to nearby Silbury Hill, a supposed burial pyramid, entirely man made.
As with the stone stuff on Guernsey, there was some association with the dead and their relationship with the living, and where they were, or were not, headed thereafter. The museum's worth the couple of quid it cost for a look.
A group of mystic seekers hold their seance-like gathering around one of the bigger stones.

On the way home Tim calls to see a friend who happens to run the private estate Ramsbury Brewery, I'm fortunate in getting a walk through, and despite them being flat out producing to supply local festivals, I'm accorded the pleasure of a taste of the product. Situated in the chalk hills of the Kennet Valley, this 5500 ac farming estate has a particular story to tell, both about the purity of the local water filtering down through the limestone, and the vintage barley growing in it, earning a reputation for being the genesis of a fine brew dating back to the 1790's. They produce no fewer than 10 beers here, and the one I have tastes pretty good.
Sporty family too, are my hosts, daughter Louise is a world ranked wheelchair tennis star, vying for a place in the 2012 Olympic team, a spectacular sport to watch. Tim and Linda are off this evening on what turns into a 15 mile mountain bike ride, they lend me a bike, up and down lanes, round a lake, up and down a farm track behind the "castle", swooping back down to another of the village pubs for a social hour or two with the bike group, where I forget the ignomony of getting off for the odd walk up the steeper bits.
I vow to get into some serious training when I get home.
Next morning its heading to Derbyshire. Linda's given me a stop-off agenda, looks interesting, Stratford on Avon, and Warwick Castle.

Pleasant spot, Stratford Upon Avon, the GPS lands me right outside the door of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Across the road, in a park beside the river where tourist laden punts ply up and down, there's a multi-national promenade going on, and so too, through the streets. Unfortunately I'm a little too early for the theatre in the park.
I follow the signs to William Shakespeare's birth place anyway, and guess from the gathering of shutter clickers I come across, I've found the right house. I've started reading Cornwell's historical novel 'Azincourt", given me by one of my French hosts, a darn good read, but really will have a go at Shakespeare's 'Henry V' when I get home.
Hardly 20 miles along the way, its Warwick Castle, Britain's ultimate castle the brochure says, its origins tracing back to Saxon fortification used by Alfred the Great's daughter in defense aginst the Danes, but the first actual castle was a wooden one built at the command of William the Conqueror in 1068. Its been the home of successive Earls of Warwick since, despite attack and siege in 1264 and 1642 respectively, and damage by fire in 1871. The de Beauchamps were the main family through this time, one of them, Richard, got to burn Joan of Arc in 1431.

You were an old man at 40 in those days, if you got to live long enough, so sayeth the ongoing history of the place. When the de Beauchamp line eventually faded, a Neville took over, a powerful fence-sitter supporting both contenders for the Throne, earning the title of Kingmaker.
You could do a couple of hours here no problem, without taking in the extras, like tournament and archery re-enactments, or tour the dungeons.
I dont stay so long, its 21 quid to get in, a fiver for the guide booklet, another 8 to tour the dungeons, and another fiver to get out of the carpark, NZD 70 if you want to do the full trip. 

Friday, July 15, 2011

Biggest Surprise - Guernsey

Tuesday 12 July
Travel teaches you there's folly in entering a country with a pre-conceived notion of what you'll find, USA the classic case not at all like the movies and TV depict.
So it was with Guernsey, no thought about what I'd find, and probably more on catching up with good friend Lou in the process of making my way back over the Channel to England, anxious moments trying to find the poorly signposted convoluted way to ferry embarkation point in St Malo, and the subsequent collapse in relief once on the ferry and underway, not helping.
Guernsey's one of the 3 main islands making up the Channel Islands group along with Jersey and Alderney, who in turn have some sort of jurisdiction over smaller islands, like Sark.
At 25 miles square, I couldnt escape a growing recognition of island life, like on Norfolk Island, a living bounded by sea, photographers dream coastline, not so rugged and dramatic maybe, but more serene, more beaches, with an inter and intra-personal, low security issue lifestyle only islands have, and Norfolk Island's old English maritime heritage and emotive history contributing to the comparison.
Even the historically favourable tax and estate regime with its resultant offshore investment, plus the sheer desirability to outsiders to come and live on a place like this adding to native woes, and the island's electricity needs met by diesel generation.
And being met and whizzed round small roads by Lou in her convertible Megane, just like sister Kathleen used to do in her red Mazda on Norfolk, complete with dented mudguard. (Must ask Lou if she's a Gemini too).
But there the comparison diverges, Guernsey has a very upmarket under-belly, for starters the population's somewhere approaching 65,000, like Palmerston North on something like the same land area. The place is a mosaic of brick and stone cottages, homes and buildings, sections, small paddocks, and narrow lanes. The main commercial centre is befitting of the population, modern shops in the old town's narrow cobbled streets, and opulent yachts fill the marinas, the place is a sailing utopia with neighbouring islands and France so close.
Guernsey's a bailiwick, a conglomeration of at least 10 parishes, dont ask me to explain its intricacies, it grew like  that over the centuries, its defense is part of UK responsibility, but its not part of UK, has its own currency, but equal to to the pound, part of the European Common Travel area, but not part of EU, although that crowd are leaning on the island somewhat to equalise its tax laws.
And centuries old its history is, saw one quote the name is viking in origin, sey island, and guern, green. It used to be part of the French mainland but was transformed into an island by the post Ice Age global warming, neolithic farmers built dolmens and menhirs here. Bretons migrated from the mainland bringing religion and the almost entire French place and street naming.
Neolithic burial shrine
There was a constant see-saw of jurisdiction between Britons and Normans up to and around the 900's AD, and during the 100 Years War its maritme situation saw the rise and fall of continental piratage, the Capetians, and mercenaries to the French throne. 
During the English Civil War, Guernsey sided with Parliament because the reformed churches were Calvinist, while Jersey stayed Royalist, and there was fighting between the factions here. Add to that a failed invasion by France.
At the time of the 17-18c France Spain wars the place was a privateer stronghold and as the 1900's approached and many of the population migrated to America, (there's a Guernsey in USA), trade with the ex-pats flourished and grew.
WWII brought a grim aspect to its history, being Occupied by the Germans, who wanted to establish a naval base there, never realised, but built the coastal defense system with forced local labour. The Vallete Military Museum just a short walk along from St Peter Port town, is a good place to catch up on this part of the island's history, a miserable time with fear of reprisal for any deemed support or assistance to the Allies.
Other bits of trivia, the Central Bank in earlier days, issued interest free money a la Social Credit, 32% of the economy is financial services, Victor Hugo wrote Les Mis here when in exile, and this is the home of the Guernsey cow, a bigger gentle version of the Jersey, but mottled, almost piebald colour. Didnt see many, and bet there'd be more in England than here these days.
Actor/producer Oliver Reed is a native son, and the island Softball Assn formed in 1936 is pretty near the oldest in the world.
Good place to eat, Hojo's, along the waterfront a bit, and Le Friquet hotel I stayed at was great value, well appointed room, good table and cooked breakfast included in the tariff.
Guernsey islanders like beer and rugby, some are travelling out to attend RWC, joining in wasnt a problem. Thanks heaps for the show around Lou and a great joy to catch up, see you back in Kiwi before too long.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Cancale

Saturday 9 July

Dont know when this will be posted, I'm at another place where the wifi is a chien.
Big drag up here from Thiviers, bit over 500 km, but fortunately, most of it straight road.
Have seen a lot of cops in the last few days, more in the Limousin/Aquitaine area than all of the rest of France, hiding in the trees with their radar guns, the rest of the squad down the road a km or two to haul in the sinners. So far not me, but dont know if I'll figure on any of the camera images, the bike rental company will get them in the post I guess. As I said, the emphasis seems to be on safety, you pass signs saying, for your securitie with a picture of radar waves, and sure enough there's the camera post.
With a couple of gas/feed stops it took 7 hours from the Remembrance Village of Oradour-Sur-Glane, left entirely as is from the day of the massacre, machine gun bullet holes still visible on the eroding walls, schools, the bakery, the eglise, burnt out hulks of cars. You try to feel some animosity toward the Krauts, but imagine they got it back with the likes of the fire-bombing of Dresdin and other main German centres. I've rode over 2,800 miles round France over 3 weeks now, and there's always evidence of war, you wonder what sort of aggro drove them, not just here but on the Eastern Front and across to North Africa as well.

So, here in Cancale, its a little fishing village type place on the other side of a low peninsula from ferry port St Malo, little 2 storey houses packed against the hillside chocolate box lid style, not just one row, but about three separated by tiny streets, kept private to residents by buttresses that rise from the street entrance to bar vehicles, only accessible by key post.
Nice hotel, but one of the more expensive I've used, has a restaurant overlooking the sea, a long tidal flat with boats like little painted corks lying careened till the next tide comes in.
Was asked at one place I stayed what were the provincial specialties around NZ and was a little lost in that we dont have any, only answer I could think of was blue for Auckland, red, yellow and black for Waikato, yellow for Wellington, you get the drift.
Here in Bretagne the things I've been told to try are cider, seafood, cheese, and calvados, to put a real smile on the face of your host.
My first night I ordered a bowl of mussels entree, taking the junior size after being told the bigger serve was half a kilo worth, imagine my surprise when the mussels were hardly an inch long, and the bit inside half a pipi size.
So there you go for first lesson, big fat mussels are an NZ wide specialty food available in any supermarket. Then there's the fish, for the main I dodged the plat du jour having seen a haddock sized entirety delivered to the table next door. I got a soupy bowl instead, of scallops, good size, and small fillets of I assume the same fish as next door, in a thick broth. Give French cooks their due, you dont know there's garlic lurking until you wake sometime in the night, slightly uneasy in the tummy, and burp up something would burn the face off the cat and send it running for fresh air.
A slug of calvados, and its bon nuit nurse.
Yesterday, I had some choices to make, either head to the eastern beaches of Omaha, Utah, Gold etc, Mt St Michel on the way, and follow the gourmet trail clipping Peter Hall sent me, or head south to Carnac to see some megaliths. The distance was about the same, I could see rain to the east, and I'm about done with war stuff, so Carnac it was.
Good trip down, tidy rural scene, very proper is the feeling about this area, heavy traffic somewhat unexpected, not much further to the west you jump off into the Atlantic. The stones were great, even though it was raining for the last 50km of the trip down, and never stopped till the last 50km home to the hotel. The stones, awesome and inspiring, are in about 6 to 10 rows stretching probably for a km, and are estimated up to 200 years older than Stonehenge. The mystery is what they were intended for. I wonder if it was to keep warm while its raining, or some mental occupation while its raining, or some religious thing to entice the sun back, or whether there was a serious drought they built the lines for as a sort of rain dance to bring the rain back, but they overdid it, and thats why it always rains, in England too.
Les Alignments theyre called in French, but around here Breton was spoken years ago, was nearly stamped out after French takeover, but like with te reo, there's a revivalist program underway, and signposts are dual languaged.
Followed Lonely Planet's recommendation and had a couple of crepes and a cider at Creperie au Pressoir, right next to the stones.
The big shock of the day was being caught in a traffic jam the likes off which I'd never imagine, on the way home, around the cities of Auray, Lorient and Vannes, and direction Ploermel and Rennes, roundabouts linking the freeways choked for hours. I left Carnac with 3 bars on the fuel gauge and got rid of one sitting in the traffic for an hour, having pulled out looking to try next exits twice without joy, so I pulled off the road and waited another hour, still no movement in the queue, then desparate with evening coming on, shot into town central, found a gas station and filled up, rejoined the queue with 3 hours of light remaining, still raining, and 140 km to home.
Made it just on dark, ignoring the speed limit when clear of the freeways, but putting the hazard lights on while on them. One of the scariest experiences ever, wet through, cold, shattered, straight into a hot shower.
On the road to St Malo ferry
Decided to skip the hotel restaurant, couple of doors along to a pizzeria instead, half doz huitre's (oysters) entree, big ones still in shell, they'll be farmed ones like the scallops I'd guess, after a pastis aperitif, spag/bog with steak main, 1/3 litre bottle bordeaux, topped off with a cafe and another calvados.
Today I catch the ferry to Guernsey, and its goodbye to France, mixed emotions, loved most of it as you've read so far, but yesterdays experience with the traffic, just about a turn-off.
I need, similar to observation on American highways, to make the comment in light of the enormity of the traffic chaos here, how ridiculous it seems for NZ to be trying to show the world the way on ETS, these people dont care, they only want to get home without blowing their cool. We need to be emphasising how much food we can produce for so little total national consumption of energy and release of CO2, (as if thats a problem) rather than give them an excuse to carry on with their own consumptive existence. Our political leaders need to be plonked in the middle of this lot, on a motorbike, on a wet day, in their togs, to sharpen their perspective.
The English papers here carry a lot of comment on how commercial firms are directing their strategies toward greener solutions, in production, shipping, transport, and power generation. There dosent need to be a tax to make it happen, the market is providing the imperitive.
Went 1 km off the highway for this doozey, wonder how much CO2 got expended in its transport and erection.

Thiviers

Wednesday 6 July
Another day of discovery, another place to add to my list of places - Place with the most charm - Brantome
That's right, its a name that features in the pedigrees of many thoroughbreds, son of Blandford, out of Vitamine, by Clarissimus, named after this town, foaled mid '30's, a top 2 & 3 yo raced by the de Rothschild family, retired to stud but swiped by the Nazis along with 600 other French t/breds during the war. In 1945 after war's end he was reclaimed, died 1953.
Brantome's only about 20km from my 2 night stopover at http://www.lasimpode.com/ just one of a heap of attractions within a days sweep of this B&B.
Its got little old streets, a river, a cathedral, and the inevitable heaps of cafes. Allow half a day, at least.
Also went to the Vezere Valley, a further 40 odd km south where all the prehistoric-man sites are, Lascaux Caves etc, but dont expect to see the real thing so far as the cave art goes, they're long since off the tourist agenda, what you get is a walk through an underground reproduction of cave walls on which the art's projected, with video-movie theatre commentary (in French), and/or a walk through a faithful artistic reproduction, with an English guff-sheet to explain the tour. And it is, surprisingly, more art than simple cave-painting.
The valley itself interests as a hang-out for early man, the river, and miles of high cliff-side offering shelter, and a place to paint animals and activity of the day. Millennia ago the African plate whacked into the European one, and folded up the Pyrenees, which then got covered down to as far as by the Ice Age, the smooth Pyrennial valleys being glacially carved, shortly after which the Cro-Magnon artists appeared on the scene, descendants of the Homo erectus arriving between 700,000 and 100,000 BC, hunters following the trail of mammoths, rhinos, reindeer, and early cattle.
The painting came to end about 10,000 BC when the last of the ice receded, and the people moved out to a more fixed agricultural lifestyle.
I also had a quick look at an old Troglodytique, (quaint expressions you come across en France) village site, cliff-dwellings.
This whole district, south of, and around Limoges, really deserves a week.
Richard the Lionheart met his end round here at the now in ruins Chateau de Chalus-Chabrol in 1199, shot by a young cross-bowman, his mother was a local, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Bit of a macabre twist in the story too, on his death-bed Richard forgave the young opponent, but was subsequently caught and skinned alive for his miscreance.
There's a heap of chateau/castle stuff can be visited in this district, in fact all over France, and I guess all over Europe, like Maori pa on every strategic hilltop, with a history littered with the same chivalry of engagement bullshit, ludicrously familiar whether armour or piopio clad.
As much as some dont like police and general law these days, its probably not such a bad alternative.
Craig and Beryl run an excellent B&B here at La Simpode, nice pool, provincial farm home, and I've been royally treated, Beryl's cuisine is tops, a place people return to for more. I've learned here, that the best goat cheese dosent pong and tastes great, and rape seed oil is the go for deep frying.
Farming foie gras round France is big business, the resultant surplus duck meat is an absolute treat, and duck fat is common for cooking.
The drought in this western part of France is for real, pastures are brown and dead. French grain production was so low last year a lot of wheat was imported, shift of land use to ethanol production also partly to blame. A fair bit of the fuel at pumps is 10%, on the road you can smell the bio-burn.
This year farmers have been incentivised to grow more grain, short stemmed varieties better in the dry.
St Jean de Cole
Got a peep at a UK newspaper, theyre still trying to strike their way to greater prosperity. Talk is the industrial capacity has been run down, as in USA, and its the financial hub activity holding the GBP up where it is. Around France I've seen several industrial centres with big signs like Toyota and Hyundai on the buildings, like that plant down near Palmerston North.
I've got a long stretch tomorrow heading for Cancale, on the Brittany coast, but on the way out I'm taking in St Jean de Cole, just a couple of clicks down the road, a picturesque medieval village and important way-point for the Templars, another bit of trivia, the Templars developed an early system of banking, so you didnt have to risk carting your money with you all the way to the Holy Land.
And heading north, the village of Oradour-sur-Glane, where the Nazis slaughtered the whole population of over 600 men, women and children, the ville left intact to this day as a remembrance shrine.
The really striking thing about my travels is discovering how unique each of the parts of France are, you get to enjoy several countries, within a country, each one deserving of at least a week's stay.
You cant begrudge the French their uniqueness and language, and their insularity, for want of a better word. That they've been able to keep a hold on what they are despite being trampled and annexed by every passing Thomas, Richarde, and Harold for centuries earns them that respect.
Plus the food and wine, definemently ....,
but maybe not their driving, and not just the men either, I've seen some women just as shocking behind the wheel.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Lourdes to Thiviers

Monday 4 July

Well, made it to Lourdes, tagging onto the 6 million odd pilgrims who'll come here this year.
Lonely Planet comments, "despite the spiritual importance, genuine holiness is a little harder to come by".
Wouldnt quite agree with that, but I'm astonished to see its a souvenir town, this place is huger than Sturgis, no T-shirts, but everything else religious, crucifixes, Marys, theme bottles you can put your water in, candles, you see some people on their way to the Grottos with 6' tall ones on barrows, and an endless procession with small candles in hand, liveried up in church-group colours, or like one lot in World Multiple Sclerosis shirts.
Multi-storied hotels line the streets, molto-supra tour buses fill them, hear lots of Italian spoken, stop at an Italian cafe for a coffee and overhear what seems to be English, then flick its Mick, Irish. Lots of men in collars, just as many in monk habit, and double that for nuns and nurses.
And the lame, maimed, and old, and even see one chap being wheeled in on a gurney. Touching scenes, a middle aged man hand in hand with his doubled-up bent-over father, handicapped in wheelchairs, kids in mobility scooters.
And beggars, again they look like arabs, one woman's got her head in a scarf... still, its said many people spend their life savings to come here.
I find the main Grotto, sit in quiet contemplation, I dont want for anything, so I settle on hoping everybody lining up to go in, touch the cave walls, and kiss it as well, get all they ask, and dont pick up germs from the 6 million other kisses and touches, and theyre coming in from all over, Italian, Espagne, Japonois, Korean, Afro people...
I still dont feel I've got it exactly right, till I change my quiet little orison to, I hope they all get what they deserve, and I repos a reverent hour.
The place got its fame when, in 1858, a 14 year old girl saw visions of Mary, confirmed as bona fide by the Vatican, and she was beatified in 1933.
Again its a holy place I'm not of the faith with, I'm sort of an imposter, and the Maori in me is itching to go wash my hands, so I go to the washing wall, so now I'm at one with it all. Nothing happens, not even a bolt of lightning to strike my infidel soul.
I find a cafe instead of a cave, and try a Holiheineken water, oddly I feel something working, and after another I definitely do feel different.
Lonely Planet's on the button, the eateries are tres ordinaire in this town, I have steak and chips streetside, the hotel restaurant isnt open Mondays. The steak is another pattie disguised as ground Charolais. Actually, I meant to report I've regularly seen one dish of raw ground beef, it comes with a bowl of dip like you have for dipping bread, oil with chopped up herbs and other greenery in it, the diners stir the lot together before relishing it. Now thats what you call rare...
The amount and variety of meat on menus here, and what gets killed to supply it, is almost disturbing, but like USA and its meat eaters, great for us Kiwi producers, and a blow against the activists who drivel meat production is destroying the planet. 
Could mention too, whole families going out dining often include the dog, mostly little terriers or bichons, that fosick round the tables and look up at you with hopeful faces.
Referring Mayle again, he and his wife attend a Provencal dog show, rows of breeder's puppies lined up for sale, and the wife is ooh-ing and ah-ing over the cuties, a raffle seller approaches offering a range of prizes including a mountain bike, a micro-wave oven, a shotgun, and a maxi saucisson (sauce making pot). Mayle mutters relief the puppies arent part of the prize, and the ticket seller leers, "you never know what might be in the saucisson", and then spotting the horror in the wife's face, quickly pats her arm, "non, non, je rigole", (just pulling your leg)
It was a tough ride getting here through and over the Pyrenees. Started off hopeful enough, no rain, and climbing out of St Giron, mid-point in Stage 15 of the 2010 Tour, caught up and passed the cycling-holiday group from the hotel, and a heap of other hopefuls out on a ride.
This mornings soliloquy was Belloc's 'Tarantella'
Do you remember an inn Miranda, do you remember an inn?
And the tedding and the spreading of the straw for a bedding
And the fleas that tease in the high Pyrenees
And the wine that tasted of tar
Do you remember an inn?
Funny what sticks in your head, primary school headmaster's teaching example of onomatopoeia dredged up from the cranial hard-drive.
But it did start to rain, so on with the leggings and flexi-tech mitts, which eventually got more water inside than out. Back on the farm I've given up wearing gloves in the rain, nothing works and they impede the simplest of tasks like opening gates. So they got put away, and it was back to just my kid-skin gloves, they dont feel wet, dont sweat inside, mould to the skin, are warm, and dry rapidly in the airstream. No argument, the best gear to wear on a wet day is a warm hotel room.
The road's well marked with TdF route arrows, start and end of climb stages and more urgings to favoured stars, Andy Schleck must be huge all round France, but I do spot one simple dedication to my hero, 'Lance'.
The GPS isnt co-operating this morning, I've way-pointed the villages on the stage, but both fastest, and most direct route fail to take me over a high col, despite the route arrows on the road pointing up into the mist. The GPS circles me through the same village 3 times as I fight to find the way, and embarrassment, circling the same cafe audience, so I consult the Michelin road atlas, the road isnt marked as paved, or map must be out of date, but its still raining, and I dont like the thought of disappearing up into the cloud, in fact at times I've been above it, so I flag it, and re-route to where that col track rejoins.
Nothing much lost, I'm back following road-mark arrows, somewhere, Col de Portet d'Aspet actually, I've passed the memorial shrine to Fabio Casartelli, who died age 24 in the '95 TdF, in a 55mph downhill crash. I've been in a cycle race support vehicle in Italy years past, a Lancia, struggling to keep up with the peliton doing 70kmph down the switchback hairpins. These guys negotiate these roads faster than I am on the Bandit, no fancy armoured jackets here, no helmets a lot of the time either. When I was doing a bit myself, I once asked vet cyclist Bill Main what was his advice on how to manage taking a spill. I was expecting something like roll technique, or what body part to land on, but after little hesitation he just replied, aim for the kerb, you'll be less likely to get run over by a following car or truck. 
Tour de France memorial Col Marmelot
At the bottom of Col Marmelot, fantastic place to go skiing up there, the rain's gone away and I get a French sandwich to placate the growling down under. From there its a fast run into Lourdes. I passed a couple of foxes up in the hills, the cols get up to around 2000m, the peaks around 3000m.
Nice hotel again, the bikes under a tree in a private park, the receptionist infers nothing gets pinched round here.
Morning now, Tuesday 5 July, enough time to scope out the chateau on the hill overlooking town, just 5 mins walk away, great how booking.com can place you so accurately for an overnight stay.
Dont have to climb the hill either, there's a lift to take you up to the ramparts, and a very good self guided path through the museum and around the castellations, a veritable boys play fort, but serious in its heyday, you can imagine firing muskets through the slots, or in earlier times, dropping hot oil over the side.
After the place got over-run during the Revolution, it did a term as a state prison. The latrines are amusing, through the floor slots, you look out into space.
View from Chateau Fort, Lourdes
Reminds me of my years ago visit, in a 2 storey country home, not insubstantial, I innocently asked for the toilet, was taken to the upstairs master bedroom, the closet opened, clothes pushed aside, and voila, there was a beaten brass pan, pull the chain, a little flap opens, and I can see grass outside through the hole. Might as well just have walked behind the house, I guess all the other men did.
Different story today.
I'm amazed at France's infra-structure. Pretty near all the rural village situations I've stayed in have mains water, and some, sewage service, despite being miles away from main centres, and as mentioned before, all the roads are good. Often I've seen farm homes and out-buildings roofed totally with solar panels. Have had no compunction anywhere, to drink cool clean water straight from the tap. No worries about getting gas for the bike anywhere.
Found another good wayside patisserie for lunch, beside N21 at Auch, this one has seats inside in air conditioned comfort, and a coffee machine. I choose a couple of tartes, a strawberry, and a pear in light caramel jelly over custard one. I pick up a local newspaper and start reading, the madam behind the counter keeping an eye on the gaijin who dont speak Francais all that good, but appears to be reading it.
On the front page is another story about a bad road accident, 19 yr old boy killed, his 20 yo mate in coma at the hospital, lots of usual why question, the engine is found 30 metres away from the wreck. Had a near miss myself this morning, following a car when suddenly another materialises on my left shoulder straddling the centreline, wanting to overtake us both, but a cars coming the other way. Then the one in front anchors without warning, flips his signal to turn left, and the 4 of us are in a 60kmph dance, 6' apart from each other. I spot up the 10' of clear space to the right, but dont need it as all 4 of us go our separate ways as quickly as it all came together. I rev up and get on the tail of the silly bastard who nearly caused the pile-up, I'm not going to pass him, I'm just going to annoy his french passion to be in front for a few km. The wagon's got a couple of kids in it, easy to see where the young generation learn their foibles.
The paper goes on to discuss the DSK scandal, ongoing, a pretty young reporter has popped up from the woodwork alleging more instance of a bit of the old frottage, while on the sports page there's a pic of the local rugby team in training, a jumper being hoisted in a mock line-out, and detailing how a last minute substitute won a game, they play in summer?
I move onto the horoscopes, hey I'm getting the hang of this francais, my amor prospects say why not more pleasure, loosen up, give freer rein to it... ouis d'accord to that.
Next to the stars is a column that causes a laugh, and the madam behind the counter shoots me a peripheral look of disapproval when she see what page I'm at, an ad starts, "J.femme, (presumably the J. means jolie), sexy et tres coquine realise ts vos fantasmes erot" then a phone number.
They got it all here en France.....
and I head off down the road with a new hum in my head...
"They got everything Tahiti got...
they only no got, l'coconut...
See, I even rigole en Francais now, you can get at least 2 meanings from that statement.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Lorp Sentaraille, nearly in the Pyrenees

Sunday 3 July
 
West out of Albi
Another quick run down a couple of freeways before climbing over the Petites Pyrenees and Cap Blanc at 519m, nice wooded hill road, up in the cool.
Its been 33 deg most of the day, this hotel has a pool.
 
I miss Albi already, such a nice town. Shot back to the Lautrec Museum to buy the 'Les Chevaux de Toulouse Lautrec' book before leaving, Lautrec's horses. Like the waiters at the St James, the girls recognise me, and we have another nice little chat.
I pass the Tetu magazine ad again, it goes on from saying 'nos heros le rugby' to add 'virile` et sensible'. Cripes...
I see in the paper at breakfast, that Contador and Schleck are at it sledging each other in le Tour.
 
Into the Petites Pyrenees
Had a swim on arriving here, too late for lunch and nothing open in the ville except a MacDonalds, had to happen sooner or later, and a chance to do the international value for money comparison. I got a bacon-burger, sandwich they call it, NZ$7.60, and a large fries as afterthought, $5.00, but roughly about the same in total if I'd bought them as a meal. The large coke was $4.80.
They didnt have an Angus burger, but wait for it,"Le Charolais" was on special for $4.00.
The girl behind the till handled english OK, I think as a general rule, the younger they are the better they speak english, must take it at school.
There's a sunday market across the street I take a look at, supposedly antiques, but the same veritable pile of junk and rusty old tools we've become accustomed to in NZ
 
Down towards Lorp Sentaraille
This hotel is quite conservative, older clientile, but a group of blokes on a cycling holiday turn up, coming in from their days lark in the Pyrenees.
There isnt a covered secure bike park, the proprietor says no problem here, and I sort of believe him looking round the village.
Main problem is it looks like rain, and the forecast says 40% chance of tomorrow. I go back out and push the bike under a tree.
Good table here though, I take option A of the set menu, lapine terrine au pruneau armagnac, 3/4" slab of rabbit pate with liqueured prunes, souri de agneau, lamb shank with baby spuds and stuffed tomato, I dodge the cheese platter, and finish off my local Ariege sav blanc, before the myrtleberry pie dessert and inevitable thimble of cafe.
Sorry to load you with the cuisine detail, but life the same hereafter wont be easy for me.
 
Morning of 4th July now. Have just read Mayles chapter on going to Cannes, cannily familiar, I have to quote him:
"Outside the Palais, what seemed to be the entire Cannes police force, equipped with revolvers, walkie-talkies and sunglasses, was busy creating a series of traffic jams and making sure Clint Eastwood didnt get kidnapped. With the skill that comes from many years of practice, they directed cars into snarling knots and whistled at them furiously, sending the drivers off to the next snarling knot with irritated jerks of the head. It took me 10 minutes to cover 50 yards. When I finally reached the car park, I saw an earlier victim of the chaos had scrawled on the wall: Cannes is a great place to visit, but I wouldnt want to spend the day there."
I watched a bit of TV last night, Clint Eastwood in that movie where he's an aging Presidential protection squadie, dubbed in francais. I try hard myself, but its really difficult to speak french with a low voice, Clint looks absolute incongrous squeaking his lines. That aussie actor in CSI and Shaun Connery in an early Diamonds are Forever are equally hilarious.
And in case you think my comments on french drivers are really because I'm snailing it along the roads, here's Mayle again, in his car, following another to a lunch rendezvous:
"... I should stick closely to his car. Easier said than done. So far as I know, there are no stats to support my theory, but observation and heart-stopping personal experience have convinced me that a frenchman with an empty stomach drives twice as fast as one with a full stomach (which is already too fast for sanity and speed limits). And so it was with Michel. One minute he was there; the next he was a dust smudged blur on the shimmering horizon, clipping the dry grass verges on the bends, booming through narrow streets of villages in their midday coma, his gastronomic juices in overdrive"
Michel goes on to explain to the author how a frenchman needs to win.
I'm amused I should finally make the frustrated comment about fellow road users upon arriving in Provence, where Mayle resides and writes about. There definitely is a difference about that place.
France actually has quite a diversity of character depending where you are.
I'm ultimately careful setting my lines through corners I cant see right round, never to get closer to the centre than half of my lane, and if there's no marked lane, then the right shoulder of the road is my line.
I've picked up on a few bad accidents in the papers around here too, the only blessing being you get scraped up quite efficiently, 2 helicopters at one fatal scene, a 4wd went under the front of a truck, just the floor and seats left.
Last night there were bean sprouts with the terrine, and I think about the news that people are still karking over here from that listeriosis scare.
 
The cyclists are outside my window cranking up for another day in le montagnes, its stopped raining, so I think I'll chance my arm on the run over the mountains to Lourdes, tonight's stop.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Albi - 2

Still Saturday 2 July
 
Started the day with a laugh by trying to check out of the hotel, but dates in and out weren't tallying, there was an extra night here on my booking sheet, had to pull out the next town's hotel booking, arranged to leave my pack down with the bike, then 100m along the street, realised I'd left the next booking slip behind.
New receptionist today, she was waiting for me, I really was booked again tonight, and I slowly recalled I had planned to do a TdF loop out and back from here, forgot all about it.
I did the dumkopf circle finger round the ear sign and muttered "trop beaucoup jolie femmes", and she threw her head back, flashed a smile with some good-humour mirth, and took hold of my arm, shoo-ing me back upstairs with my pack.
Donc... I go nowhere today, but downtown.
Dig the size of those peppers
Its Saturday, market day, and stalls line the morning street, huge, healthy looking fruit and veges, bread and other bakings, the biggest toms, aubergines and peppers I've ever seen.
And that's not all, there's more in a modern 2-story mall further into the old town area. You think the price of fish is bad enough, try $60NZ/kg for big fillets like terakihi or cod, $5 - $10/kg most fruit and veg, but tomatos must be in season, $3/kg. I dont think to check the price of meat, but I spot a skinned lapine, with its glassy eye looking at me.
A genial shopper starts chattering to me, I apologise and say j'ne pas Francais, I am not French,
so where do you come from?.., New Zealand, very good, you speak good English!
Is this your first time en France?... non, je visite devant, l'anee long temp
How you like France now?... the girls are prettier, and he snorts, giving the international throat cut gesture like he'd rid the world of them all.
 
The old cite's like a spoked wheel of streets radiating out from the cathedral, nearly 20ha odd of boutique shops and cafes, summer sales are on, 30-70% off, mens casual shoes E40-70,  and I spot a stylish LBD in a ladies-wear window, E70, women would love this place. French women are nicely shod, nice feet and ankles.
I find the tourism office and share my encounter at the market, with the girl there, the office boy overhears, and we all have a laugh. French humour is quite interesting, I dont think its the single punchline that tickles them, its more amusing if several meanings can be drawn from it.
I buy an Albi City Pass for E6.50, which gets me into the cathedral inner sanctum for E1.0 and into the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum for nix.
 
The Cathedral Sainte Cecile is stupendous, started in 1280 AD, finished around 1390, but added to or modified over the centuries, the largest brick cathedral known. The inner chapels, altars, and choeurs are carved from limestone, soft immediately after mining but hardening with age, done by Italian artisans, as are the many centuries old paintings. There's a huge mural at the main altar end, of the Last Judgement, done in 1490, one side depicting the saved rising naked from their graves, the other the damned with their book of life hanging round their neck awaiting assessment, while below 6 panels depicting the 7 deadly sins, (sloth hadnt been invented then), show all sorts of stuff pending if you havent been good, rape by monster, water torture, boiling in oil, and no drinks beside the pool with Dave Allen or Benny Hill.
I get the headphone English audio guide, find the lot quite interesting, the painting of the overhead vaults is 500 years old, never been renovated, the scaffold work to do it must have been something to behold. There's a model showing how the bricks got hauled up a slide. The organ has 3500 pipes in original form.
The story of Ste Cecile is quite a sad one, born into a poor family she took a vow of celibacy, her mother forced her into marriage with a suitably rough man of similar station, who she set about gaining acceptance of her vow and eventually converting, as she did hordes of other folk, which didnt go down well with the male hierarchy, was tried 3 times, escaping ultimate condemnation under law not having to face a 4th, but dying in poor shape in the arms of the chief bishop of France who came to intercede. She was made the patron sainte of arts and music.
The ticket gets you into the cathedral treasury, and among the relics you get to see her skull, (I think).
The purpose of such a grand scale build was to impress upon the people of the time how huge the church and faith was/is, and I have to confess getting to feel a bit of the over-awe and oppression, those times did have a surprising sector of the dubious.
It would mean so much more to those of the faith, fascinating, but I was conscious of being in another man's domain.
During the Revolution the cathedral was near sacked, any of the heraldry pertaining to local nobles was defaced or removed, and the place incredibly put up for demolition for 1m francs, but no takers.
The bishopry next door, similarly all of brick, including the vault arches, normally done in wood, but brick as a fire safety measure, as is also the high exterior facade and embattlement. It seems all throughout, the church being so involved in the political comings and goings, being in the clergy wasnt all that safe an occupation.
Now it houses the Toulouse Lautrec Museum.
My comment yesterday about his dissolute ways was taken from the Lonely Planet guide-book, but I find on viewing his life of art that the inference is much a malignment, he was so prodigious in such a short life, engaging in a whole raft of subject themes, family, friends, notables, dogs, and even horses, life in Paris from cafe scenes to serious student life taking orals in front of professorials, to poster art for Follies Bergere and Moulin Rouge.
I'm no art expert, but I found a lot of comedy captured in his caricature, and his work is a fine depiction of life in France during his time, late 1800's.
His venture into brothel life is thus understandable, despite Napolean's attempt to regulate the industry the life of a "lady" was one of near bondage to the trade and the madame, he's capturing the futureless detachment in the faces of his subjects.
Lautrec's noted for his minimisation of brushstroke, most of  his oil work looks like pastel. I bought a couple of prints, and on reflection will go back this morning and get the little book on his horses. They dont have the attempt at perfect form of a Stubbs, but again are caricatures of snorting, galloping, or just standing still horses, even the owner/trainer paddock scene is so recognisable as a contemporary setting.
The girls in the museum shop were very helpful, I commented to one how fortunate they were to have such a depth of history, and she answered, you are the first guy from New Zealand I have ever met, and well, you are such a young country. All I could do was shrug and say, we got le rugby, which got a giggle. League is pretty big round here, but have noticed a sports magazine poster headed "Tetu", with a heavily moko'd rugby player on the front, "nos heros de rugby", the article inside. A pharmacy near the hotel I pass regularly has a poster featuring "Le Beast" Chagal advertising some pain relief rub, beside the suppositoire one that touts for the constipation relief that Mayle so amusingly takes the mickey out of in the book I'm reading now, Toujours Provence.
Last tourist gink for the day the old pont, bridge, over the Tarn, built in 1040AD, and still there. The town dosent have much of an early Roman evidence, but apparently things took off with this bit of strategic asset building, and the town established a significant trade route mein.
That's about it for this town, to my places list I could add, Place I could live in - Albi.
The urban pops a tick over 50,000, add another 30k to cover the surrounding prefecturage, E250 to 500k will get you a decent sort of hacienda with a swimming pool on 3 to 8ha of land, 200k for a reasonable townhouse, but rent looks dear at E300 - 600. I spot a Century 21 shop, and am reminded seeing one of their signs on a ranch gate in Montana, everywhere man...
I Googled for nightlife but dosent appear there's any other than opera and classical concerts, other than that I joined the local populace for cafe dinner about 9pm, rips du porc  avec pommes de terre, spare ribs and baked spud, with a head like perfume glass of rose. Whole families out for dinner, and I guess thats your nightlife, discussion and bon homme, pretty cool, rather than the down home Ulyssian age disgracefully, you could do it rather gracefully here.
Recommended eating, St James Pub et Brasserie, along Place du Vigan a bit, alfresco under spreading broadleaf, good menu, plats du jour change daily, reasonable price, and excellent service, I notice clientile greeting their regular wait staff with a handshake.
A Rocket in France
There's a handful of boy-racer boom-boxers doing rap, on the street, and more than a few reverse cap, low slung shorts American apers around, but guys round here love their bikes, seen some really smart looked after latest models.
Most incongruous sight was the first beggar seen so far, sitting at the entrance to the cathedral, he looked so arab I was tempted to ask him what he thought he was doing panhandling at the door of the infidels. I passed him downtown later, hope the cops had moved him on.
The gendarmes municipale do their beat on push bikes. The hotel is a mass of security, CCTV every passageway and portico, we're even on breakfast TV, and the reception area shuts right down at night with metal garadoors, you let yourself back in through a security code door after 9pm, manned last night, but havent seen any suspiscious coves around. There's the inevitable aging, bitter-looking barflies in the bar/tabacs, I avoid those places.
 
Thats it for today.
 

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Albi

Saturday 2 July
Just gone past 1600 miles on the odo.
Out of the Ibis hotel yesterday morning and crossed the Rhone, nowhere safe to stop and get the 'been there' pic, but this mornings hum triggered, (with a bit of poetic license),
"3 german officers crossed the Rhone, parlez vous...
Its a long climb out of the broad valley, more market garden on its floor than vineyard, but I'm soon at 1000m onto a high rocky plateau, so cool I more than once ponder getting the jacket out.
I forgot to mention the redolence of rural France, today the smell of high country pine. The ride through the Alpes was simply incredible, nearly all day in fumes of something like wysteria is it? There used to be a white florreted thing draped outside my mothers back veranda, and I've got a wattle sort of tree up my drive that has purple catkins, pretty similar fumation. There's a loud bird I dont recognise, going nuts in the purple flowered tree outside the hotel window.
The ride through Provence was similarly punctuated by the fields of lavender, like a helmet full of soap.
Host Richard, of a few nights back, has told me I need to jack up my commentaries for a wider audience, be a bit more outrageous, even bullshit some. I really enjoyed his huge gins and conversation, and didnt want to feed an impression to future guests that they could expect that of right. He's given me Peter Mayle's "Toujours Provence", a sequel to the best seller, "A Year in Provence", and hugely amusing. It's an English emigrees take on the local French characters and situations he encounters. I've just read the chapter about pharmacies. They're everywhere here, any respectable size village you pass through has its flashing green cross neon, and rural interests are well served by smart little ambulances and house call doctors.
He says I could pretend I'm someone from a foreign land taking a year settling in Whangaehu, and I could invent outrageous and comical yarns about all you people I know. Now that would be fun, names and all that bearing no reference to actual persons, of course!
I could take the nom de plume, Bierrey Crumpe....
Anyway, back to le discourse.....
fuel indicator down to the last 2 bars, time to dial GP in for nearest source de essence, I get turned up a goat track 5km, and pop up on another highway, right beside a service station, gas up, and am soon down linking to a major highway, the A75 turns out, 130k limit. Slip into the traffic, drop the Bandit into overdrive and its happily humming along at 4750 rpm, but after a couple of weeks at 60-70kmph average it feels like 300 to me.
Most of the way here to Albi now on freeway, the 300 odd km trip cut out quickly and I arrive at the hotel early for a change.
Another nice hotel booked via http://www.booking.com/, Interhotel Cantepau, the receptionist is a slightly fuller-faced dead-ringer for Sandra Bullock, she tells me her English est ne pas bon, do I parler Francais, ne probleme pas...
When the technical rapport is OK, only the doing words need filling in, hand-waving often sufficing, and I'm such an expert at hotelling en France by now, je obtenir le drift ces bien, whats even better, she shows me the underground garage where the bike will be locked away for my sojourn!
Looking out my early morning window
Smallish room, but man, do these Francais know what a good bed is, always fresh white linen, fluffy duvets like nothing I've experienced.
The wifi isnt so flash but the email works coming and going. I've run a few pings at odd stopovers, (did I mention?), and have figured, while the actual speed isnt high, I think the band width is pretty wide, as opposed to speed at home, but down a skinny pipe that stalls if your neighbour's downloading dirty movies.
Nice town Albi, I have a sundae for dinner, you dont have to eat large everywhere, great for the travel budget. I have a few beers, French 1664, at 3E a bottle, $6NZ, not outrageous by any means, I was paying that in a night out in a bar at Ellerslie couple of years ago, and you can bet Auckland and Wellington will be loading the charge for the coming RWC fiasco.
Vanille, citron, nougat et chantilly
You pick things up as you go along, across the sidewalk there's a shop headed up Kanga-ou in green and gold livery, with a joey painted on one side, restauration rapide, sur place ou emporter.
Get that? Ocker fast food, have here or takeaway, LOL

I watch a cafe-side chanteuse, is it?, girl singer, very complex lyric, both cooing and staccato, dont understand any of it except the Simon/Garfunkel number she does quite well, I down my armagnac and leave them to it.


Today, I'm giving adherence to the TdF course the boot, only 200 odd km to the next stop, and doing le cultural thing to have a gink at the St Cecile Cathedral and the Toulouse Lautrec Museum, man after my own heart, except I cant draw as well, dont have broken legs and have to use a couple of canes, and didnt die before 40 from too much dissolute boozing and womanising.

The couple of BMW tourers in the garage are cranking up, so time to go, a bientot...
Design Francais en route de Albi

Friday, July 1, 2011

Le Pouzin, Rhone Vallee

Friday 1 July
Getting into the second half of the trip now.
So Cannes...
Checked out of the hotel yesterday morning, lost its "little gem" status a bit when my mastercard wouldnt work,
and everytime I threatened to push the validate (enter) button, the proprietor went into paroxysmic arm-waving
so I gave up and paid cash.....
have to watch it a bit, there's a bit of feigned ignorance goes on in tourist territory, part of the reason I dont like it here.
Eased tentatively into the morning traffic, linking with the scooteratti, still amused by the helmeted women riders, heels, light dresses, business jackets or suits, label handbag slung around neck or shoulders, any thought I'd been losing my nerve soon lost in the hurrying to get to work rush.
In fact, I start to get aggressive, pissed at the lack of any semblance of who has right of way, there dosent appear to be any, frowning and scowling at anybody who even looks like getting in your way is order du martin.
Even the pedestrians, I be polite at crossings, but still get arm-waving, either a dont shoot cower, or a bugger off you infidel bastarde, a smile rarely works. I far prefer the USA situation where children and pedestrians are sacrosanct, stop regardless or its 2 nights in the slammer.
Setting the GPS for Antibes I have a putter round the Cap to Juan Les Pins, Pete Sarstedt's song remember, had it as a signature on my guitar in its day:
Tell me the thoughts that surround you?.. Yeah right!
When you go on your summer vacation,
you go to Juan Les Pins
with your carefully designed topless swimsuit
you get an even suntan,
on your back, and on your legs
Wend through Cannes and the waterfront, opulence, luxury yachts in the bay like aphids on a rosebud, getting on to 11's now, place is chocker, spot a Gucci storefront, not as many classy women as you'd think, but those you do see walking platinum cards. A service truck has stopped right where the driver feels its most convenient, as they all do, in the middle of the lane, there's a lot of honking, and after 5 minutes or so there's that familar der, dar, der, dar, der, dar as the gendarmerie arrive, and quickly as the traffic jam happened , it resolves, but the truck is still firmly in place. I manage to follow all the other scooters as we thread in and out of the stalled traffic, and make our getaway.
I follow the coast to St Tropez, magnificent ride once out of the traffic, far better  place, laid back, bit like St Helliers is to Aucklands beaches, away from the madding crowd.
This whole stunt takes about 3 hours, but at least I can say, been there, even if I didnt stop for the T-shirt.
Amen to all that, and I have to gas up at an Intermache (supermarket) in St Tropez, before re-engaging the GPS set for fastest route to this hotel I'm at now in La Pouzin, just south of Valence in the Rhone Vallee.
Again, I've no idea where GP's taking me but I'm in for another surprise, a huge one, and maddenly I cant retrace the whole route, even on the detail map, just have a few towns names in my memory and the mastercard chit from a station I got some gas from.
I'm quickly into the hills, its cooler and traffic free, nice road, plenty of curves, this is where Jean Rebelle belongs, en chemin, and then I flick on to it, I'm heading into Provence, so this is where all that dreamy, poetic stuff has its genesis. And after 300km of it I'm totally hooked, cant explain why, soft colours, fields of lavender and golden grain shimmering in sweeping valleys, old stone houses with blue shutters and terracotta tile roofs, narrow rocky or wooded gorges leading up to cols of 700-1000m, then wending switchback down to the next sweeping valley, I pass over a col road-marked a la Le Tour, and can envision the peliton sweeping by, even think I see the spot where Lance did that bounce across the grass in unplanned short-cut of a switchback.
I take countless photos, each one a firming reminder I must get myself some acrylics and canvas when I get home, I have such a horde of paintable subjects from the Drome.
Nice hotel here, its an Ibis-Accor, I've had another 8 hour sleep. The Rhone is a stone's throw out my window, so wide it could be mistaken for a lake through the trees. Great breakfast, and have to say I've got to enjoy the couple of croissants and conserves, and ces martin I've added a couple of light crepes avec ham and fromage, and a bowl of pineapple and orange pieces. I had a lapse on the coffee machine and pushed the espresso button, but went back for seconds, tried the 'long american' button to get a decent serve. Excellent coffee anywhere here in France, you can tell by the dregs left in every cup.
Now I'm back in provincial France the girls are decidedly more attractive too, a couple of honeys at reception and breakfast bar, eye games country again.
I notice a sign back along the way, Avignon Rugby Stade, thats what I want to be re-incarnated as, a discarded Hurricane with a contract, right here will do! 
The bathroom facility in the room is interesting, its a quarter-round cabine module I guess is in the corner of every room, basin, loo, and a shower with doors that open both out and in so it dont drip on the floor. Have to give the French their due, you see exceptional design flair all over the place.
A car??? at the St Tropez gas station
The '95 Range Rover I once had was such a shameful cobble of componentry from all round the world that its reliability was a disgrace, I recall a discussion group comment that it would have been far better French designed, before being engineered in England, fair comment.
The trucks on the roads look pretty cool too, from a boys toys point of view, classier than the American's plain-Janes.
Quick summary so far:
best place - Annecy
worst place - Cannes
place by the sea - St Tropez
sentimental place - Tavaux et Pontsericourt
exciting place - des Grand Alpes
place I would come back to - PROVENCE!!
Still, better not be too hasty, have to see if my bike is still where I left it chained last night, behind the hotel.
I see the odd Harley in my travels, quite amusing seeing the French trying to look like Hog geezers
its just their Gucci-ness gives them away, specialement le chics au pillions.
The other thing rarks me up a bit round the roads is the French driver, no matter what the vehicle, service van, dorky little Citroen ute, 6 ton truck, or mundane voiture, they all want to assert their speed supremacy, like they got little balls need proved to be bigger.
Mostly, I just let them have their way, but now and again I lose patience, drop the Bandit down 2 cogs in a hairpin and leave them to it.
Anyway, such drags never last long, the average motorist dosent seem to stay long on my tail long or in front once having triumphed before turning off, I think most of the road usage is local.