“Non! Non! Non … Répète après moi …P-A-I-N A-U C-H-O-C-O-L-A-T-E!”
We are in France and I am being chastised by a sanctimonious baker. He refuses to serve me the product I desire until my lesson is complete and my garbled request for a “choco pain” has been transmuted into perfect French, through the alchemy of shame. My face flushes and I am on the verge of teaching him a few English profanities, which he may struggle to get his tongue around, but my need for his flaky, buttery pastries is strong. Ioan is waiting in a neighbouring cafe fuelling up on bitter black coffee that requires something sweet.
For Ioan this trip is becoming a crash course in European stereotypes. ‘Everyones so relaxed, they just don’t seem to give a shit‘, he shouted over the noisy chatter of amiable Spaniards, on our first night in Zaragoza. I nodded in agreement, my mouth full of rather tired tapas, my ears recalibrating to the high decibels of the twangy chorus. I love that tickle of memory, as you refamiliarise yourself with a country. ‘Ah yes! I remember‘ you say as you wait ravenously for restaurants to open for lunch at 2pm. It is now our second day in France and the didactic baker is confirming all the clichés (as am I, his half-witted English customer!).
Today is the day we will rendezvous with my friends at the beach, a flat 45km ride away, and I am excited to get there. The day before had been one of those weird ones where the weather and fate dictate. We had awoken in a dorm room that perched above the fast flowing Gave d’Ossau in the forgotten thermal spa hamlet of Eaux Chaudes. The evening before the Auberge la Caverne had been a welcome cheery site, with its bright yellow walls, green window frames and blue shutters. Two little girls had waved at us from a balcony they shared with a stuffed bear and we decided to stop. Our ascent and descent over the Col du Portalet had been exhilarating and we were shattered. As we had dropped into France the change in climate was immediate; mists carrying news of the Atlantic whirled about us and the green forests dripped with moss. We donned our jackets and Ioan was gone. Whizzing down alongside ancient stone walls, behind which shawn lawns and clipped topiary trees heralded our entry into a new dominion. I will never tire of this; sensing the environmental, geological, anthropological shifts as we pedal this world.
Our Auberge companion was a silent older gentleman, who crept ghostlike in the damp riverside crypt that housed the dorm rooms. He said nothing and seemed to live on bread alone. ‘He’s probably a pilgrim, walking in silence‘ I tell Ioan with authority. We are unwittingly on the path of the Chemid d’Arles a long-distance pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostelo. The scallop shell signs of Venus mark a network of once Celtic paths that followed solstic lines across Europe to Finistere, the end of the earth. This is the route of the Milky Way, an earthly star road mirroring the heavens. I wonder how many of the Christian pilgrims walking these paths know the origins of their route. Or that beneath many of the churches where they pay homage to Christian saints lie the temples of much maligned and neglected pagan goddesses and gods. Just as most British school children today remain ignorant to the fact that the straight ‘Roman roads’ they learn so much about were in fact built on top of Celtic solstice paths. (My reading material for much of this trip was The Ancient Paths by Graham Robb) Whatever their motivation or understanding of their route I have utter respect for the pilgrims. Some days traveling by bicycle seems painstakingly slow but 800km on foot is penance indeed! As we loaded up our bikes Ioan chuckled as the silent pilgrim chats away to the waiter.
We descend and I am sad to leave the Pyrenees, we are back in the human world. This side of the mountains is much more developed than the Spanish. We reach Pau (50km away) with very little effort but we still have 160km to cover in less than 24 hours. Plus storm clouds are building, so we decide to take the train. At the ticket counter there is much consternation, the women behind the desk are not sure they can sell me a ticket. ‘Pourquoi?‘ (the baker in my mind tuts at my pronunciation). They look at me incredulous and gesticulate to the darkening sky ‘L’orage gronde, l’orage!‘. Apparently Taranis was reminding the Gauls of their gods, in the form of a a huge electrical storm across central France.
Our devotion to the old ways was repayed and the train made it to our stop before everyone was turfed off onto the horror that is ‘replacement buses’. The sky was black and the fear of the storm was planted in our tired minds, so we cycled to the only pension in town. As I balked at the price the heavens opened and Ioan scurried to untidy the bijou reception area with our stuff. Our hostess was utterly gracious and accommodated us and our bikes with only a whiff of disdain. When we enquired about food she hurried us back out into the rain ‘Go quick, the storm – the storm.’ The town was empty save for the poor trainless souls who shivered outside the middle-of-nowhere station waiting for the bus. One solitary pizza place was open and they would only serve us take away – l’Orage obviously. We hurried back to our storm shelter and ate pizza watching from our bedroom window as a pastel stillness lay across the land, revealing a perfect evening for a spot of wild camping. We had formed another French stereotype – a tendency to panic in the face of potential bad weather.
And so, well rested from a storm-free night in the tranquil B&B, fuelled on Pain au Chocolat, croissants and coffee we cycle the last 45km of this leg. It is dead flat through the mono-cultured pine forests, an eire managed landscape created in 1875 when Emperor Napoleon III ordered the salt marshes and moorland to be drained and pine trees to be planted. The Forest of Landes is now the biggest forest plantation in Western Europe. It is a disorienting place – roads that appear on Google Maps don’t exist, if they do you run the risk of them turning into sandy uncyclable tracks with no notice. The constant shrill of the cicadas burrows deep beneath our skin and will remain there for most of this journey. We get lost and only know we are nearing the coast when we have to battle into the headwind.
In Contis-de-Plage we get a heroes welcome from our friends and their children, who have come on their bikes from the campsite to meet us. And for the next 4 days we have wonderful fun being utterly British by the sea – there are sand castle building competitions, running races, wave jumping, football, sunset picnics complete with egg and spoon races. It’s like hurding cats most of the time but I am over the moon to be in the company of my favourite people and our jaws hurt from laughing (and chewing baguettes!)
Thanks to Fiona, Deb, Ross, Ella, Ruan & Reuben for such magical days at the beach. My recounting of this latest journey is going slow and I had no intention of telling the not-so-exciting tales that I share in this latest post. It’s just what came out as I started writing today and I haven’t the heart to delete it!