We are overwhelmed by the friendliness of the French people we have met. Our B&B hosts at Torreilles made us so welcome in their charming home with its balconies and ivy clad courtyard. Home made apple flan for breakfast was a first for us all but would be happily repeated! We have only to stop for a few moments to consult a map before either a motorist or passerby will stop to offer assistance, other cyclists offer a cheery wave or “bonjour” as they pedal by.
On Monday’s ride to the south, along the Mediterranean coast, we were amazed to see a large group of Capybara, large members of the rodent family native to South America, swimming and playing on the banks of a river right on the edge of town. Apparently they are descendents of escapees from fur farms in the 1930s. The terrain is very flat here with a maze of dedicated cycle paths over land reclaimed from marshes and the sea. Wide sandy beaches dot the coastline of this holiday mecca, still early in the season, they are not too busy yet but it is easy to imagine how it must be in the summer judging by the number of campsites and hotels. Collioure, our destination for this day ride, nestles prettily in the northern most extremes of the Pyrenees, dotted with ancient hilltop castles, which makes for a stunning backdrop to this quaint coastal resort.
Gavin earned his ‘navigators’ badge yesterday as he successfully guided us through a complicated network of cycleways, towpaths, roads and villages across lagoons and peninsulas, whilst avoiding the busy towns of Perpignan and Narbonne, to get us to Vias. Although a long ride of 73 miles (113 km) the terrain was completely flat and the weather benign, not too hot and very little wind. We heard our first cuckoo of the year aswell. The lovely lady at our final, country house, B&B took pity on our tired legs and drove us into town for our supper then came and collected us afterwards. Vias brings us full circle, as it is very near to Beziérs airport, for our flight home on Wednesday afternoon.
Leaving Carcassonne along the upstream banks of the Aude River took us south into the foothills of the Pyrenees. The area is covered in vines in vigorous spring growth; vibrant lime green leaves waking gnarled old stumps from their winter slumber.
A long ride of gentle climbing took us to our next, two night, destination at Axat, a delightful village on the banks of the Aude River in the northern reaches of the Pyrenees.
Our billet was a well appointed Chambre de Hôte run by an English couple. By coincidence Graham, a former national cycle champion, also runs a bike hire and guided cycle ride business. At his suggestion, the following day (Saturday) we did a circular ride taking in the very spectacular Gorges de Galamus. A full on headwind made the final 15 miles back to Axat something of an exercise in endurance.
Moving on again, Sunday saw us head for Torreilles, a small Catalan village, on the Mediterranean coast just north of Perpignan. Blessed with beautiful sunny day, glorious scenery and a net descent, the 48 mile ride was a joy.
The arrival of Gavin’s sister, Judith , from Canada provides the perfect opportunity for another bike trip, so here we are in the South of France. Béziers, our destination from Bristol, is the most delightful, tiny, airport set amongst acres of vineyards resplendent in lime green spring shoots. Once the bikes were freed from their packaging, tyres inflated and the inevitable puncture repaired we set off into the glorious countryside of the Languedoc-Roussillon region. Some of the miles into the town of Béziers were traffic free along the towpath of the famous Canal du Midi, which links the Mediterranean to the Atlantic.
After a very comfortable night with a lovely French lady in her Chambre de Hôte (B&B) we set off on a 58 mile (93 km) saunter through this wonderful country to the ancient town of Carcassonne, which sits above both the Aude River and Canal du Midi. The restored 12th century city with its enormous Chateau and Cathedral is enclosed in double crenellated walls and is redolent of its violent past. It is sobering to know that the earliest remains date back to Gallo-Roman times circa 450 B.C.
Having spent our first day in Carcassonne exploring the old city followed by a short ride out along the canal and back through timeless medieval villages; the second took in a 37 miles (59 km) ride to the village of Lastours. Nestled in the southern most reaches of the Massif Central. This stronghold of the, persecuted in the crusades, Cathar people is famous for the remains of its four circa 11th century castles. The views from the ruins are panoramic, it wouldn’t have been easy to approach unnoticed! The still snow capped peaks of the Pyrenees were visible in the distant south on this gloriously sunny spring day.
Tomorrow (Friday) we will leave our Gîte at Carcassonne and head south towards the Pyrenees. The cycling here truly is world class with a palette of, roadside, wild flowers; red poppies, snapdragon, oxeye daisies, forget-me-not and periwinkles, naming just a few, to add to the delight.