12) Avignon loop

Way way back in 2014 French trains were the cyclist’s friend: Easy to get on and off, welcoming, comfortable and highly attuned to our needs. Information about taking bikes on trains was easy to find, the customer service people were helpful and knowledgeable and you could take bikes on most trains. Fast forward to 2016 and everything has changed. The customer service team is now based in Ulaanbaatar and has never heard of trains. Or customer service. The current official policy of the SNCF as regards bicycles is “We hate them and all who ride them. If you’re planning to travel on one of our trains with your bicycle then we ask that you stick it up your arse instead. Now fuck off.”

So we strapped our bikes to the back of James’ car and drove from Geneva to Avignon. It was simple and relaxing.

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Day 1

The plan was to do a loop out of Avignon through Southern Provence and the Camargue. We set off to the west because prevailing winds, planning to ease into things with a leisurely ride so as not to end the first day exhausted and grumpy. The first twenty five km to Tarascon were indeed leisurely and we arrived just in time for lunch.

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The afternoon saw us rolling contentedly (drunkenly) along flat roads next to a canal, pausing at a cute canalside cafe to drink the largest glass of of rose I’ve ever seen, and arriving at the day’s destination of Saint Gilles at 4 in the afternoon, nice and early. Mission accomplished.

But then, after several drinks on the rather shitty terrace of a rather shitty bar in the rather shitty outskirts of town we made up our minds (probably wrongly) that Saint Gilles is rather shitty and that the best thing would be to ride another 30 km down to the coast.

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Pissed and happy, we cruised along perfect gravel roads through the wetlands of the Camargue, past fields of bulls and white horses and flocks of flamingos standing pinkly in the water, and we congratulated ourselves on making such a wise decision.

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But then inevitably the booze wore off and fatigue and hunger set in, all just as the road turned into a rutted, rocky, cratered, bombed out washboard. The last hour was a pain in the arse, figuratively and literally, and we arrived late into Saintes Marie de la Mer in exactly the state we’d agreed to avoid getting ourselves into: grumpy and exhausted.

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This was a shame because having made it to the sea, what we should have done was find a cool place to camp on the beach. Instead what we did was down a beer, then slink ignominiously to the nearest campsite. There was nothing wrong with the campsite (actually that’s not correct, it was next to a sewerage works), but the beach would have been beautiful, deserted, illegal, more fun and just better.

Saintes Marie de la Mer is an extremely funky little tourist town, famous for a cathedral, horses and gypsies. We saw a bunch of them playing music in the square that night (gypsies not horses) and it was all very wild and free spirited. We met some friendly Germans the next day who told us that later on the cops showed up and told the gypsies to shut up but they didn’t want to and there was a big fight, but sadly we missed all that.

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Day 2

The next morning we planned to head east towards Salin de Giraud, along a narrow spit of land that runs between the sea and the ‘etangs’ (lakes, sort of). It’s all part of a huge protected national park and it’s beautiful. It’s also completely flat and very windy, with 300 days of strong winds per year. Neither of us were relishing the prospect of riding 50 km into a savage headwind.

Imagine, then, the unbridled joy of setting out and realising this was one of the 65 days. Without wind. It was sunny, warm, flat, calm and magnificent. The views were stunning. Even the occasional patches of sand on the gravel track that you had to push your bike through just added to the general sense of doing something extremely worthwhile. The only small niggle was the number of fit old retired people cycling about the place, happy and smug and free. But they were friendly and chatty and all in all it was a great, great, great morning’s ride.

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Lunch was a picnic, nothing special there, but it was the very first time on one of these bike trips that lunch was booze free, which lead to a distressing discovery: if you don’t drink at lunchtime you feel much better later on in the afternoon. Not sure quite what we’re going to do with that information in the future. Cheerfully ignore it I suppose.

Anyhow, it was a very good thing that we accidentally didn’t drink because after an amazing morning’s ride, karma, that well known bitch, had all sorts of plans for us. Of course things started well enough, as you’d expect when you’re being lulled into a false sense of security. An entertaining little ferry took us across the Rhone and we marvelled at the difference between the east and west sides of the river, the west all flat lush wetlands, marshes and reeds, the east side the dry rocky scrub land of Provence with its savoury smells and vivid colours.

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The afternoon seemed filled with promise as we hit a canal towpath. It was a bit bumpy, but no matter, it would surely improve. Forty five jarring, rattling, bone shaking minutes later we’d pretty much had enough and started looking for alternative routes, but there were none so we kept going, telling ourselves things could only get better. Instead things got much worse. The track was made of small juddering rocks, great big wheel killing rocks and deep holes. Sweating, wrists aching and arses sore and inflamed, this went on and on and on, until eventually the track ended and we were faced with the choice between an eighteen lane highway with monster trucks hurtling down it or more bumpy track.

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Easy choice. Gleefully we rode forth, out onto the killer highway of death, and made up some kilometres, savouring the glorious smoothness of the brand new tarmac and trying to ignore repeatedly almost being pulverised by drunken idiots in charge of 18 tonnes of fast moving metal. Pulling into a lay-by to let the shakes and adrenaline subside a bit, James found an alternative route on smaller roads which looked perfect until, half an hour along it we hit more appallingly bumpy tracks.

Both of us were right on the verge of grumpiness when we finally arrived back onto tarmac in the outskirts of Istres. Now, sitting at my desk and looking back on 4 hours of relentless juddering, it doesn’t seem so bad. In fact I’d do it again. At the time though it was just fucking boring, fucking irritating and fucking uncomfortable and I did not stop wishing that it would just fucking end.@

The local municipal swimming pool in Istres was full of schoolchildren and closed to the public but we flirted outrageously with the lady in charge (well, James did) and she let us use the showers. This was kind of her because we were both hot and stinky and wearing clothes that should have landed us on some law enforcement list of people who should not be allowed within 50 yards of a swimming pool full of children.

She also gave us the name of a good restaurant down by the port, where we spent several happy hours having a very long apero, then a hearty, delicious 4 course meal of mainly fish. Istres is not a place you are likely to ever find yourself, but if you do, head to the port and eat at L’Abri Côtier and gaze at the lovely view. And the lovely waitress.

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Pleasantly replete we set off to find somewhere to crash, and James found a very cool place overlooking the sea just outside of town. It was already dark, and we should have camped there but I, as is my very annoying wont, rejected it on the basis that the main road ran past just behind and it would be noisy, and – less rationally – that there would surely be somewhere better just a bit further up the road. I really must stop doing this: it’s asinine and usually ends badly.

In this case it ended up with us sleeping on a campsite (again) next to a house filled with deranged French provincials listening to very bad music and shouting.

Day 3

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I packed up and went in search of breakfast, which, despite the campsite being big and full, didn’t exist, so I sat in the morning sun with a coffee. James showed up looking flustered and hungry and telling tales of bikes falling over and things collapsing and everything going wrong and being in dire need of breakfast. He wasn’t pleased when I told him breakfast was 10 kilometres away. Mostly up hill.

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It wasn’t such a big deal in the end, a picturesque coast road on a lovely sunny morning, and the town we ended up in, Saint Chamas, was bustling and friendly. We scored ourselves a terrace in the sun and loaded up on caffeine and calories, enjoying the joyful chaos in front of us. When I grow up I want to spend a significant amount of my time in a town like Saint Chamas.

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Refuelled and happy we headed to Salon de Provence, along flat, quiet roads that meandered quaintly through the southern French boondocks, before arriving at a canal path which would, according to Google Maps, take us safely into town. It looked fabulous, apart from all the “DO NOT COME HERE, FOR MANY DANGEROUS BUT UNSPECIFIED THINGS ARE WAITING TO KILL YOU SO DON’T BLAME US IF YOU DIE” signs so beloved of French utility companies. We ignored them, cycled along the canal and didn’t die.

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Salon de Provence provided a most excellent lunch at a restaurant called L’Endroit, of which the highlight was a tomato and mozzarella salad. It was one of those dishes which, even as you are swooning over it, also leaves you feeling a little bit sad because you know that all future tomato and mozzarella salads, and in fact all future life will be a bit disappointing by comparison. Damn it was good.

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That afternoon was the best bit of the ride, through pure Provencal back country. Beautiful to look at of course, but the best thing is the smells, all those savoury herby smells of thyme and pine and rosemary and god knows what else. It almost makes you want to be a battery chicken and be able to look forward to being spatchcocked, smothered with garlic, lemon, olive oil and herbes de Provence, then slapped on the grill.

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A couple of kilometres outside of Maussane les Alpilles we started looking for potential camping spots, and got chatting to an old guy on a bike who told us about a flooded quarry up in the hills where we could swim (it’s ‘tres dangereux’ and ‘interdit’ to do so, but ‘tout le monde le fait’ apparently) and camp. It sounded perfect, but just then a bad tempered sweaty fat man and his equally bad tempered, equally sweaty and equally fat wife stomped up and angrily told us that they had just hiked up to said flooded quarry and it was a long way and a pain in the arse to find and they had got lost. They seemed to be implying that all this was somehow our fault. Then they threw their kit into the back of their car, slammed the doors and drove away angrily.

Once we had all stopped laughing the old guy told us about a road that went straight to the quarry, then led us to the local swimming pool so we could wash. It’s always such a great feeling when you show up somewhere with no plan and everything just falls into place perfectly.

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Except that the pool was closed, the girl at the campsite next door refused to let us take a shower and we set off to find the quarry but took the wrong road and got lost for an hour on a hiking trail and James lost the tarp off the back of his bike. Luckily the views were spectacular and we had a couple of drinks inside us.

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We eventually made it to the quarry, and a cooler (but also colder) place for a wash I cannot imagine. Ablutions accomplished we found ourselves a great spot to camp and headed back into town for food and booze, both of which were plentiful and excellent.

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That night there was the most almighty thunderstorm (several people across Europe were killed by lightning and it was all over the news), but both tents held up admirably and we made it through the night without being smothered by wet tent.

Day 4

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One of the problems with being a fucking idiot is that I don’t learn from my mistakes. The elevation data of the route I’d planned had a huge scary looking spike in it that we were going to have to tackle soon after setting off that morning. So we psyched ourselves up and ate a huge breakfast before setting off filled with trepidation to tackle the beast… which turned out to be just 200 metres high and was over almost before it started. Elevation graphs, you see, are relative. If the rest of the route is flat (as ours had been) then a smallish hill will look huge and terrifying. Or if, as on a previous trip, there’s a proper hill it flattens out the rest of the ride. Of course, you can just check the Y axis of the graph, but that would require a microscopic amount of intelligence which unfortunately I do not possess.

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Anyhow, it was a great ride, and apart from almost getting taken out on the way down by some dopey twat cutting a corner in a ridiculous great big 4*4 the rest of the day was pretty uneventful, until we arrived in Tarascon for lunch to discover that all the decent restaurants were shut. The best of a bad bunch was a depressing, woebegone place that had not been redecorated since the 70s. We walked in and were so put off by the smell of boiled cabbage and old people’s wee that we left again and rode all round town looking for somewhere else, anywhere else, but incredibly all the other restaurants that were not shut looked even worse. So we had to skulk reluctantly back into the 70s nightmare, now feeling foolish because it was obvious to everyone in the place, including the staff, what we had been doing.

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We sat down with heavy hearts and prepared ourselves to eat a very poor last meal of the trip. And, inevitably, it was delicious. Of course it was.

Then we went home. The end.

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