We were having amazing weather for the end of September having cycled from Bilbao in Spain, over the Pyrenees to Pau in France under blue skies with little wind.
Now we were leaving beautiful Pau and heading towards the Côte d’Azur. Our first four days were through the Midi-Pyrenees, wonderful steep autumn woodland full of chestnuts and crunching acorns with fertile farmland often ploughed now at the end of the season or newly harvested with maise husks across the road.
For a map of our route from Bilbao to Pau click here
For a map of our route from Pau to Aix-en-Provence click here
For a map of our route from Aix-en-Provence to Genoa click here
The steepness made it hard work and the heat, often over 37 degrees C in the afternoon sunshine meant that we started early and kept our days short, trying to finish by midday. All this fitted very well with the fairly strict French mealtimes. An early breakfast, a 3 course Plat de Jour at 12.30 prompt, a bit of a siesta during the heat of the afternoon and supper at 7.15. We saw people turned away at lunchtime even if they were only half an hour late. Food was ruling our cycling day and we found ourselves checking distances between restaurants.
We hit the jackpot on our first night as we were staying in a B&B in Maubourguet and they had offered to cook us an evening meal, being a Sunday night. It turned out he had a small holding and was a brilliant chef. Several locals joined us as we ate our way through about 4 courses of produce from his farm, including the most succulent pork en croute I have ever tasted. It was also an amazing, very old house, with a wide, slightly sloping dark staircase and rooms stuffed full of bric-a-brac. It would have made a good set for the Rocky Horror Show and was spooky in the dark.
We left there early as the forecast was for 40 degrees C and we had a long way to go, 80 kms with 1140 m of climbing, much of it on bumpy gravel farm tracks that went around fields then steeply up through woodland. We were struggling to find anywhere for lunch when we noticed a Chateau in the small town of L’Isle-de–Noé offering a 3 course Plat de Jour in a marquee in their courtyard.
We still had a lot of climbing to do in the afternoon heat, finding shade where we could until we arrived in our thankfully air-conditioned room in Auch.
As we are generally heading South East each morning finds us cycling straight into the blinding rising sun. We had another day of steep rolling countryside that ended with us finding we had booked a building site for the night. We did eventually get our money back and luckily the only hotel had a cancellation.
As we headed towards Toulouse the countryside got flatter, and it was to stay that way all the way to Provence. We were now on the Canal du Midi.
Our first stop after Toulouse was Castelnaudary where they boast they are the home of Cassoulet. After sampling local dishes on other tours we had vowed never to eat another, but stupidly we forgot this and ordered a Cassoulet with a goose salad starter. Both were awful, greasy and stodgy. Won’t do that again.
The next section of the Canal du Midi took us past Carcassonne. The trail steadily got worse as we approached the town, almost disappearing completely or turning into rough single track. We passed quite a few people touring on hired bikes who were obviously expecting a nice wide easy trail and were looking very nervous. But things improved once we had left Carcassonne behind us.
Each evening we left the Canal to head in to town to find a hotel. Beziers was lovely but very busy. In the morning getting through the rush hour traffic while being blinded by the low sun was hard, but we knew when we were nearly back at the canal as we could smell it, and it wasn’t a pleasant smell. There are a lot of holiday barges going up and down, and in that dirty, smelly water it must be really unpleasant.
We were now heading across the Petit Camargue, and our route took us past large ponds with flamingos, cormorants, ducks and swans. The stagnate water was bubbling as the gas escaped from the rotting vegetation on the bottom with the associated aroma.
We seemed to spend too much time finding ourselves on the wrong side of a canal to get to where we were going with no bridge in sight.
We eventually got to Aigues Mortes (Dead Water) famous for its salt, and there were hill sized piles of salt outside its medieval walls. Fascinating place.
We had changed now to the Canal du Rhône as we headed across the Camargue, initially the watery part and later the silted up, drained and farmed part. Peering hopefully through the reeds we saw egrets, flamingos, the odd huge stalk and cormorants. Then on the farmed areas the Camargue horses and black bulls.
By this point we were in Arles, luckily, as Bernie needed to access some shops to carry out a repair on his saddle. Leaving Arles was harder as we had to negotiate the enormous Saturday Market. Our time on flat canal paths was over as we headed across some very undulating countryside and on some very busy roads to Aix-en-Provence. In fact we were on busy roads for a couple of days until reaching Le Val when we managed to get back off-road for a while which was a relief.
The following day we climbed over the Col Notre Dame au Pic Martin on a rough road with odd bits of tarmac left. Really wonderful views on the climb, it looked surprisingly like the Blue Mountains. Bernie found it difficult as we were very close to steep drop offs and his vertigo had kicked in.
At the top we found our route took us very steeply straight down a track with large loose rocks, not my favourite. Once we had pushed off the top there was really no stopping until it levelled out a bit quite a long way down. It had been signed as a walking route, but we found ourselves going past Private notices. As there was no going back we continued on to a smart roadway with very expensive houses. We dropped down the steep road around hairpins for half a mile until we found ourselves on the wrong side of the locked gate for this exclusive gated community. Luckily a workman drove up to the other side and let us out with a wry smile.
We were on the outskirts of Cannes and found a lot more of these gates blocking our route, leaving us no option but the main road.
From here on we were on the Côte d’Azur, and I have to say it is not my kind of place. Too full of loud motorbikes, mopeds and cars, too many people and seriously ugly developments. Its OK if you just look out to sea.
We had hoped to make a fast dash along the coast to get through all this. Getting through Cannes was fine as it was mainly cycle paths but bikes aren’t allowed though the tunnel after Antibes so we had to go up 670 m over Col Eze, a definite misnomer, there was nothing easy about it in that heat. But we avoided Monaco and collapsed into a nice beach hotel in Cap Martin.
The next day we crossed the border into Italy and headed down the noisy coast road, filled with an impossible number of mopeds, through Alassio and on into Genoa on a busy Friday afternoon.
Genoa was terrifying to get into with 3 lanes of fast moving roaring traffic for 12 km, then suddenly we were weaving our way through medieval, winding, narrow cobbled streets packed with people. Genoa is a fascinating place and we took a day off here before setting off on the Via Postumia to Aquileia.