Eating our way across France – Cycling from Pau to Genoa

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.

Cycling through the lovely countryside

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

Chestnuts all over the road

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.

Nice quiet gravel tracks

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.

Our home cooked meal with the family in Maubourguet, with Max, farmer and chef extraordinaire in the background.
The lovely old house where we were staying in Maubourguet
Tree lined avenues

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.

Lunch stop at the Chateau

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.

Finding a bit of shade to cool down
Setting off before the heat of the day
Mist rising off the fields early morning
Some bits were quite steep

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.

View with the now distant Pyrenees
A lot of vineyards in this area

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.

Figs along the roadside made a nice snack
Stopping for coffee in the old covered market at Gimont
The wonderfully cool cloisters in the Musée des Augustine in Toulouse
Heading out of Toulouse 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.

The trail had fallen into the canal at this point
Old town of Beziers
Old streets in Beziers

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.

Early morning in the Camargue
A flamingo showing some colour

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.

One of the ponds on the Camargue

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.

The fully walled city of Aigues Mortes
Inside the old walls of Aigues Mortes

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.

This little Coypu was less camera shy than his mate
Black bulls of the Camargue. Bull fighting is a big deal here.
Camargue horses

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.

Old houses in Aix-en-Provence
An old moulin still with its sails

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.

Some nice gravel tracks
A hot climb up to the Col
Looking a bit like the Blue Mountains

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.

Looking down from near the top
This was the only way down as was a lot steeper than it looks here
We found ourselves locked inside an exclusive gated community

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 were down there, 600 m below, an hour ago

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.

Cap Martin at dawn

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.

Crossing into Italy
Bernie wasn’t enjoying this bit with his vertigo, and the road was too busy to keep away from the edge
Stopping to help a stranded Dutch family. Luckily Bernie had just the tool to mend the 4 year old’s bike.

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.

Well, we made it to Genoa after 1800 km from Bilbao. So, after a day off relaxing in busy, noisy Genoa, we can start cycling the Via Postumia which is the ride we came here to do. This will take us across Italy to Aquileia, near Trieste.

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