Tuesday, July 14th Bastille Day
We got up at 7 a.m. and found that our stove, petrol can, mugs, tinned milk, and saucepan had disappeared from the field where we had left them after supper. What we had thought, in the twilight, to be a farm track across a field, was really one of the secondary roads of France. We were glad we had not left our bikes there. We were quite amused then to read in the stove instructions leaflet: "All campers will appreciate the one-piece construction of the Fury Petrol Stove, as there are no pieces or attachments to be lost or mislaid"! As it was a public holiday there were not many shops open, and in any case, we only had 3/6. We ate bread and water for breakfast, with a second helping for lunch. Cycle racing events are arranged on national holidays. This evening, the people put on their best clothes, and there was dancing in the village streets. Because of the Union Jack I was flying on my handlebars a little Renault car stopped near us in the afternoon and a Roman Catholic priest came over to speak. He was an Irishman, ministering a parish nearby. He advised us on the prices to pay for fruit and other food, and we told him our trouble.
He helped us out by changing some money, at a very favourable exchange rate too. Commenting on the standard of living thereabouts, he told us jokingly "The Frenchman only washes once in his life, the day before his wedding!" That evening we made a wood fire, the only one of the holiday, and boiled potatoes in a mess-can. Then we moved on a little, and camped in a field of cut hay, near Agen. The next day we washed and shaved in a stream at the bottom of the field, and met an old fellow from the farm. He was very talkative, although we found the Southern accent very difficult to understand. The speech is nasal (e.g. loin, maintenant) We were amused by his way of expressing the feeling which we noticed throughout our tour. "La Reine" (the Queen), he said, and clapped his hands, "Truman", and kicked with his foot. As we were about to go, he gave us six peaches. We soon reached Agen, a pleasant town, not too large, but busy and interesting.
We cashed a Traveller's Cheque, and bought a few "luxuries" like biscuits and chocolate. Biscuits were about 2/6 a lb, chocolate 1/6 a quarterpound, and in this district and season plums 2d a lb and peaches 4 a penny. We found a "Marks and Spencer" type of store which made us feel quite homesick! We bought a methylated spirit burner for 6/-. Then we continued our journey, stopping for lunch beside the canal, where we read a French newspaper. We were in a wide valley, with a good wind blowing us uphill. In the evening, in Moissac, we saw the ancient abbey, and met three Cambridge undergraduates cycling the other way. Perhaps it was because Gordon is at Oxford, they seemed very aloof. We camped at the edge of a maize field, as seen above, then fried eggs and boiled potatoes on our new burner. It heated well, but consumed a lot of fuel. During the night Gordon was sick. He blamed it on the peaches, but I think it was probably the peaches+chocolate+cheese+plums+biscuits+fried egg + wine. The next day was very hot with no clouds at all. We found our peaked cotton caps indispensable, although they sometimes blew off. A woman who passed as we were having breakfast said "Bon appetit". At 1 p.m. we stopped under a bridge by the canal. We washed some clothes, and Gordon went swimming. It was so hot that we stayed there until 6 p.m. Gordon met a French girl and her brother who were teachers of English, We bought some frying-oil "Huile d'Arachide" from a village shop whose owner assured us it was "sans gout". She gave us a biscuit each as a sample. We stopped the night beside a ruined house in a field next to a railway marshalling yard. This had floodlamps, and shunting continued all night. In this part of France most trains are electric. We cooked vermicelli again, but this time we did not use enough water, and it made an inedible gummy mess. We fried eggs in our new oil. We watched a most peculiar sunset, slept on clover, and did not wake until 8.55. The sky was completely overcast. We ate only chocolate for breakfast, then cycled into Toulouse and left our bikes in the railway station cloakroom.
In Toulouse we looked around the largest street market ever, with two rows of stalls on each side of the main street for at least a mile. We had our first French meal at the "Restaurant d'Orleans" near the station. This took 1 1/2 hours. The menu was:
Hors d'oeuvre: Sardines pomme a l'huile (sardines with olives, butter, and bread)
Viande (meat): Pate de porc garnie et pommes frites (roast pork with potato chips)
Legume (vegetables): Petit pois au jambon (green peas cooked with ham)
Cafe Filtre (coffee)
Red wine was included also
The cost of this feast was only 250 fr (5/-). It is very difficult to get a meal in France for less than 250 fr, but above this price one is given better value than in England. Each course is served and eaten separately, that is the meat and vegetables are not mixed. The food is brought to the table in a dish, and the same knife, fork, and plate are used for the first three courses, with clean ones for the dessert. The tip, 10%, is usually written on the bill. During the meal, and old man wearing Arabic dress came around trying to sell souvenirs, watches and other things. On the way out of Toulouse we met a Scottish hitch-hiker. He introduced us to the habit of milk-drinking, which we continued for the rest of the trip.
We proceeded southwards, stopping at about 6.30 for milk, butter, and cake which we ate sitting on a seat by a war memorial. Later on we halted for the night in a stubble-field by a small stone hut. We fried eggs and chips and made tea in the hut. (Note the variety in our supper menus!) I had to replace two spokes after having tightened them.
We woke at 7.30 a.m. and had creamed potatoes, fried egg, bread, and butter, for breakfast.
Photo 46. The game of "boule" is very popular in France, especially in the south. Although the object of the game, to get one's ball as near as possible to a special ball, is similar to bowls, as it is played on rough ground the element of chance is greater.
The wind and slope were now both in our favour, and after covering 40km (25 miles) in 2 hours we reached Carcassonne. Again we deposited our bikes at the station. The man argued that each of cycle bags should be charged separately, but finally he gave in.
We then had lunch at a restaurant recommended by the Cambridge undergraduates we had met. This again was very good, especially the juicy under-done steak, about 1/2 inch thick. I gave up before completing the last course.
We looked around the old city of Carcassonne. This is the famous mediaeval walled city with 50 towers preserved in, or rather, restored to its 15th century form. The photographs describe it better than words could ever do.
In the evening, we continued our journey, halting in a village for milk. We stopped for the night on sandy ground, the broad bed of a river which was just a tiny stream in the summer. We had an excellent supper of chips, eggs, and fried tomatoes. We cooked in a trench to shield our cooker from the wind.
Rising at 8, we fried omelettes with ham, and mashed potatoes. It was a clear sunny day. In Narbonne we saw the cathedral. The bakers there had all sold out. In Beziers we bought a "Perrier", a drink we had seen advertised widely. It turned out to be nothing more than fizzy water. At 1s3d., we would have found it cheaper to have bought a spoonful of Andrews!
At Agde we reached the Mediterranean, after just two weeks' holiday.
We went bathing on an 8-mile beach, you see only half of it in the photograph. We were rather disappointed, the water seemed hardly warmer or more blue than the English Channel (the Irish priest did say that they had had a relatively cold summer) and the absence of waves and tide made bathing rather boring.
[1955 NOTE: We have since discovered that these first observations were abnormal, the sea is warmer and more blue than northern waters. Rocks, not long beaches, are the rule in the East, that is along the French and Italian Rivieras] In the evening we continued to Sete, or Cette, France's second largest Mediterranean sea-port. After looking all around for a cheap restaurant, we at last chose a 350fr. Place for dinner, the Cafe Robinson, with a Les Routiers sign outside. They took a long while to serve us, but it was good. Included in the price was a whole litre (1 3/4 pints) of red wine. At another table in the garden was a charabanc party having a fine time. They offered us champagne, which we tasted for the first time. It tasted very sweet, although one could tell that it was strong. They gave us another drink, although we did not discover its name. When the bill came it was for 400fr., plus the usual 10% for service, and not 350fr. as advertised outside. We grumbled, but nevertheless paid. Then later, the lady came back to say "350 fr. Pour les etudiants"(for students). This was another example of French spontaneous kindness. We watched a small Sunday-night dance. There was a 4-piece band, and everyone seemed to be enjoying it. We had citronnade. It was great fun eating, listening to the music, and watching the people.
When we left it was dark, so we pushed our bikes to the sandy beach, and slept there. It really was a wonderful night, with the dark water lapping gently on the sand, the full moon reflected in the sea, two light-houses flashing in the distance, and all along the horizon the tiny white lights of the fishing boats. There seemed to be millions of stars. Sleeping out we saw many more stars than in the town. The whole belt of the Milky Way was visible as a carpet of tiny stars.
We got up at 7 the next morning, but decided not to go for a swim before breakfast!
I found I had a slow puncture. We fried meat and chips. In Sete we bought a pint of milk each. Our method of buying milk would be thought unusual at home. We used to buy half a litre (our mugs each held 1//4l) and drink it in the shop. If it was good, we would then buy another half-litre. Milk was usually ladled out of a large pan, although in towns bottles also could be obtained.
The town of Sete is divided by numerous canals and waterways.
We cycled without shirts for the first time. It was very hot, and the road, bordered by olive groves, was boring. We stopped at each village pump and drank a cup of water. From noon to 3p.m. we stopped in the shade, and ate bread, cheese, tomatoes, and a pound of plums each. We wrote cards, and brought our diaries up to date. We then continued through Montpellier and reached Nimes at sundown. During the day we had each consumed over 2 3/4 pints of milk in addition to several pints of water! We were glad to be going towards the Frozen North again. Walking around Nimes, we saw a number of Roman buildings, including the Arena (Theatre), where
Bull-fights are still held, and the Maison Carree, a pagan temple. We bought apples, biscuits, pastries, and ice cream, and potato crisps. It was dark when we left. My lights were not working but I risked cycling without them. We camped about three miles from Nimes beside an aerodrome. The ground was very stony.
The next day we woke at 6.30, and then went to sleep again for an hour. We fried eggs, chips, and tomatoes. We had to chase large ants out of our bread, although we had kept it covered during the night. French airman were drilling on the airfield, but we saw no planes. Again it was very hot and we cycled without shirts. We visited the Pont du Bard, an amazing aqueduct built by the Romans in 19B.C., and constructed entirely of 'dry' stone, with no cement or mortar. We climbed the steep path up one side of the valley, and walked across the top of the bridge in the original water channel, which is about 3ft. Wide, and 5ft. deep. We then returned along the bottom level.
After pushing our bikes up a long hill in the blazing sunshine, we reached Avignon, with its well-preserved city wall. Leaving our bikes at the station as before, we went into a restaurant for a late lunch. As we were finishing, a couple of Australian hikers came in. They were very cheerful, and were obviously enjoying themselves, although they could not speak a word of French (except "sill-vouss plate").
We then walked around the city, and up to the Palace of the Popes. This was the residence of the Popes from 1306 to 1411, when they were expelled from Italy. From the garden we looked down on the 12th century Saint Benezet bridge, made famous by the song.
Sous le pont d'Avignon
On y chante, on y danse
As can be seen in the photo, only part of the bridge remains, the rest having been swept away by the Rhone.
We left Avignon at 7.15m and continued up the Rhone valley. We were now on the main Paris- Riviera road, and there were almost as many English cars as French. We met a motor-cyclist and his wife from Frome. It took rather a long time to find a place to camp, and it was almost dark when we stopped. We fried potatoes and omelettes for supper. The ground was very stony, and due to our sun-burnt backs we did not sleep very well. In the morning we got up at 6.45am and were on the road by 9.0. Again we had trouble with ants in the bread, but we decided that that they probably give the food more flavour anyway! We visited Orange, which has a Roman theatre and other buildings. We started off on the main tourist road again, but soon got tired of the traffic, and took the road on the other side of the River Rhone. We much preferred the west coast of France, where foreigners were few and far between. To suit the requirements of the Dorizere hydro-electric power station, the River Rhone has been diverted and now runs in a man-made concrete channel. A nail punctured my tyre, luckily just by a large water tank. We mended that tube, and also the one which had gone at Sete. We passed Montelimar, the original home of nougat, but their nougat tasted the same as any other. We camped not far from Valence in a grassy field. Mosquitoes began biting us, and even when we covered ourselves from head to foot, including gloves on our hands and towels around our heads, they bit through our shirts. It became automatic to listen for the wheeeeee sound, then the ominous silence, and to smack at the place we thought the mosquito had settled. We could not sleep comfortably therefore, and to make it worse, the ground was brick-hard. We woke at 5 a.m. after a fitful sleep, and watched the sun rise over the mountains of the Vercoro range. We dressed, or rather undressed, and I took a 3 mile walk to the village to get water. I shall not do that again before breakfast! Our faces were covered with little red bites.
We cashed our traveller's cheque in Valence, and bought a Coca-Cola. We took the wrong road at first, but then our across on a minor road. French road-signs are excellent whilst one is on the right road, but not very helpful when off it. We had a very good 250 fr. Lunch in a little cafe in le Bourg de Plage. It included delicious "haricots verts en beurre". Afterwards the proprietors of the cafe came to talk to us. The grandfather said he had been to London in the First World War, and his grand-daughter, Arlette, could speak some English. She had a friend who lived in Reading. On the walls of the cafe were paintings showing a road running along a cliff-face, tunnelling into it, and crossing gorges on slim concrete bridges. "Huh" we said, "no road could really be like that". Little did we realise that, thanks to a twist of fate, we would be going along that same road within six hours. We continued to St Nazaire, where we tried to buy some anti- mosquito cream, but the "pharmacie" did not seem to have any (pas de tente). It became dull, and heavy clouds came down from the nearby mountains. At 6 p.m. it rained for 15 minutes. As there was a Youth Hostel at Coranco, only 20 miles away, we decided to go there for the night. We bought some "biscottes" which turned out to be nothing more than toasted bread. We went through Pont-en-Royans on the N531 road. "Pont-" (as the locals call it) is a quaint village with a narrow winding cobbled street, towered over by a great slab of granite, perhaps 1000 ft high. The River Bourne, in a deep channel, is a peculiar greenish-blue colour. The road now began to climb (and how!). After a mile or so, we gave up cycling, and pushed our 90lb-odd loaded bikes. The road first followed one side of a steep valley with the River Bourne at the bottom, and vertical rocks about 2000ft high on each side. In the valley was a hydro-electric power station, it can be seen in the photos, and its size gives some idea of the height of the rocks. There were pipes leading straight up the cliff-face, we wondered how anyone could put them there.
Then the valley narrowed down, to the rocky gorges of the Bourne, the width varying from perhaps 80 to 100 yds. The road was literally hewn out of the cliff face, and there were numerous tunnels. The gorge, with the river some 500 ft. Below the road, curved one way and another until we lost all sense of direction, and were amazed to see the orange glow of the setting sun on one of the rocks high above us, as we thought it should have been in exactly the opposite direction. The road climbed steadily and relentlessly the whole time, sometimes crossing to the other side of the gorge, and once, at the Pont de la Goule Noire, joined another road which appeared mysteriously from a side-gorge.
Of course, when we planned to go the 20 miles to Corancon, we did not expect to have to walk there, and as when it became dark, earlier due to the high mountains, we stopped at the village of La Balme. Buying some things in the well-stocked "alimentation generale" we asked where we could stay the night. "Try the first farm on the right" she said. We did, and the farmer let us sleep on the hay in his barn. He showed us the running water, and how to switch off our "bedroom" light.
We slept well, and did not wake until 9 a.m. It was sunny. Breakfast, and other odd jobs delayed our departure until 12.15. We completed our walk up the gorges, 13 miles in all. At the top is the town of Villard-de-Lans, famous as a winter sports resort. We saw the ski-ing runs.
At a height of 3410 ft., we were higher than anywhere in England!
The Vercors, in 1944, was the scene of one of the most glorious episodes of the Resistance. At the beginning of the year, 4000 men concentrated there under the orders of Colonel Huet, and from June 6th. they engaged in harassing operations against the Germans. The latter attacked Saint Nizier on the 13th, they were repulsed. After a fresh attack, on the 15th., the French took refuge at la Chapelle-en-Vercors, Saint-Agnan, and Vassieux. It was there that, from the 20th to the 22nd of July, they heroically underwent the attack of more than two enemy divisions. 400 Germans were parachuted at Vassieux, they burnt the village and massacred the population. Everywhere reprisals were merciless; farms and villages were burnt. For a few weeks, French troops, outnumbered 5 to 1 had immobilised considerable and better-equipped German forces. All told, on the French side, the losses in the battle of Vercors amounted to 700 killed, of whom 150 were civilians, and a thousand houses destroyed (extract from the Guide Bleu).
We had lunch, bread, cheese, and tomato, with a rich fruit tart afterwards. Gordon's camera had developed a loose screw, so we went to a watch repairer to have it adjusted. He was out, but his wife let us to do the job with his screwdrivers at no charge. We stayed part of the afternoon in Billard, writing letters.
Late in the afternoon we left Villard-de-Lansk, and began the rundown to Grenoble, which involved losing 2500ft of height in 10 miles. After an initial straight descent, I took the first photo. Mont Blanc (15,782 ft), the highest mountain in Western Europe, is 75 miles away in the background. The road makes several long sweeps back and forth in this hanging valley before reaching the point of the vee, where I took the second picture. In this may be seen two of the several loops made by the road as it descends to the Isere valley.
Grenoble is a University city. It appeared to be very clean, and a good centre for excursions into the nearby mountains.
We stopped at a farm just beyond the city, and again slept on hay, with electric light. We boiled and then fried green haricot beans, a vegetable we had enjoyed in a restaurant. We bought fresh milk from the farm, and made tea.