Tackling the steep descent from the mountain col, leaning hard on the brakes and zig-zagging down the hair pin bends, I’m torn between wanting to gaze at the arrestingly beautiful scenery of the mountains, and not wanting to plummet down the edge of the precipice inches from my side.
The first time I braved this mountainous route it was by bicycle, today however, as I reminisce, I’m in the relative comfort and safety of a car – relative given the suicidal manoeuvring from some of the French drivers.
I’m enjoying a few days away, staying with friends I made on my own ‘tour de France’ bicyle trip. It’s been over a year since then when I first rolled down from the Pyrenees, under warm, blue skies and through the beautiful southern French countryside just a few miles from the Spanish border .Just over a year since my heady love affair with cycle-touring began.
The Original Plan
2013 and my first ever cycle touring experience which can only be described as a truly eclectic journey. It had begun on a freezing April afternoon when I wobbled off the Poole to St Malo ferry on my borrowed bike, I arrived on French soil allready numb with cold despite a down jacket and 3 pairs of gloves.
I was accompanied by a good friend and the veteran of many cycle tours, who’d meticulously planned our route, heading southwards following France’s scenic, flat, canal network to northern Spain.
Barely 2 weeks after we set out however and all that careful planning suddenly, and completely imploded. Just south of Toulouse news of a family emergency meant that my companion had to suddenly return to the UK, taking with her the maps, the GPS device and the ability to speak good (or any) French.
I was faced with a stark choice, stop and return to the England or continue on my own?
So there was I, hardly a fortnight into my first tour a complete novice, my language skills enthusiastic, but appalling, I had no plan and I was more than a little scared, at the prospect of cycling on my own in a strange country. So, was I going to stop now….no way!
Tearing out the maps from a couple of tourist leaflets I assessed my options. Our original goal had been to head to the Spanish border via the canal network, but a slower pace had left us with too much ground to cover unless…..
It turned out there was one, more direct route, it just meant going ‘off piste’ from the original plan and ‘on piste’ by climbing over the Pyrenees.
That’s the answer then. Goodbye flat tow-paths, Hello Mountains.
We’d decided against brining camping equipment due to the inclement weather in the north (I’m a wuss in the cold) so I was limited to staying in hostels and small guesthouses, a not inexpensive but an interesting experience.
La Cité, the ancient citadel at Carcassonne is a medieval maze of narrow cobbled lanes bisecting ancient, drunkenly listing houses all contained by the imposing 3km of fortress walls, fortified towers and a deep, deep moat. And within this, a hostel, very reasonably priced and one of only 2 places to stay within the Cité itself.
Walking these walls at sunset once the other tourists had returned to their hotels downtown, I could almost believe this whole magic kingdom belonged solely to me. In the twilight, it didn’t demand much of the imagination to conjure up knights on horseback galloping across the drawbridge to deliver news of the crusades.
Another overnight stay imprinted on my memory was the spa town of Rennes Les Bains.
After my first proper day spent climbing the mountains of Languedoc-Roussillon, my legs were violently protesting at both the change of terrain and the fact that I was hauling extra weight in the shape of 4 bottles of red wine. These had seemed such a bargain at ground level – sadly I had neglected to consider the fact that I would have to pedal them across mountains.
The temperature too veered drastically between baking heat in the valleys and freezing cold mountain air at the cols. Crawling into the neat, pretty town of Rennes Le Bain, soaked in sweat the natural thermal hot pools welcomed me that day, set amongst a vista of sun setting across mountains were magical, as was the knowledge that I was out there on my bike, on my own, literally and metaphorically climbing mountains. My enjoyment and confidence, like the mountain eagles, were soaring.
Little did I realise that I’d need every shred of that confidence for the day to follow….
To be continued…