France and Italy: a little bit of wine and sunshine
Pump, water bottle, puncture repair kit, helmet, lights. I came up with this list when I was about 11, having made a decision that Cycling was going to be My Sport. I’m not sure why I never pursued it – possibly because shortly after I forged the idea, my 15 year old brother cycled by himself from John O’Groats to Land’s End and it seemed a bit pointless to compete with that. More than two decades later, having finally realised it’s only worth competing with ourselves, I wrote a similar list and set off with my bike on a boat bound for France.
I remember the chain came off as I left the ferry terminal in Roscoff, and I remember inching my way up a drizzle-drenched hill. I remember putting up my tent behind a row of trees in an obliging field, and the feeling of bliss as I washed myself in stream water heated over my camping stove. For better or worse, cycling was My Sport for the next few months.
“I remember the chain came off as I left the ferry terminal in Roscoff, and I remember inching my way up a drizzle-drenched hill.”
The Loire Valley provided an easy stretch of lazy days drifting from vineyard to village alongside some quietly stunning scenery. There is always time for another lie down in the long grass, one more glass of wine, another chateau exploration; there can be few places as immediately satisfying to go for a bit of a bike ride and as someone still very much breaking myself in, the long flat stretches of riverside paths were perfect.
Even after cycling half the length of France and acquiring some degree of fitness, I still needed serious motivation to take unnecessary side trips that involved hefty hills. Angouleme promised trompe l’oeil and it seemed worth a diversion: Bagheera and I (one should always name a touring bike, and the all-black bike and panniers set-up inspired his moniker) passed a happy few hours trundling over cobbles admiring dramatic scenes. Point of note: if in doubt, always take the diversion.
A cup of coffee evolved into a six week housesit on a vineyard in the Armagnac region of France. Sun-drenched vines reached for the horizon in all directions, the local town had a weekly market with a suitable degree of bustle, and every day I watched pilgrims sporting seashell necklaces pace their way towards Santiago de Compostela.
“A cup of coffee evolved into a six week housesit on a vineyard in the Armagnac region of France.”
One of the (many) debates in the cycle touring community is which mattress to use. I prefer the egg-box styled Z-lite because any time I spy the perfect sunbathing spot I can be sprawled and basking within a matter of moments; inflatable mattresses may be more compact, but a single piercing thorn can ruin an entire tour’s sleep. Madge – the vineyard’s Top Dog – and I bonded over our dedication to spending hour after hour in motionless sun-worshipping ecstasy.
In need of an excuse to stop pedalling for a while I pulled into Nerac one hot afternoon, stumbling across an exhibition dedicated to William Blake. The curator, Andre Furlan, is the president of the French William Blake Society and was revealing his discovery – a hidden manuscript of Blake’s unseen for over two centuries – in his home town of Nerac. It is the unexpected scenes and people and moments that remain with us the longest, the intangible magic that defines a trip as ours and ours alone.
The further I progressed on my cycle tour, the more I looked up from my handlebars – not only because the music on my iPod was becoming somewhat repetitive at this point (top tip: download podcasts instead of just music). The speed of travel, on average about 50 miles a day for me, is ideally balanced between making progress and having time to spot often overlooked nuggets.
“It is the unexpected scenes and people and moments that remain with us the longest, the intangible magic that defines a trip as ours and ours alone.”
Much as I advocate just stepping outside the door and following the road where it goes, there is something to be said for a little research. The Senanque Abbey in Provence which promised rows of purple lavender was one of my few ‘must-sees’ of the trip, and despite sharing the view with a few hundred respectable Chinese tourists who arrived via air-conditioned tour bus and giggled openly at my sweat-stained t-shirt and legs criss-crossed in a thousand bramble scratches (an overly enthusiastic diversion that went a bit wrong), it was everything I had hoped for.
Avignon, it turns out, is home to France’s equivalent of the Edinburgh Festival – and I had no idea until I started trying to push my bike through crowds of outrageously dressed people thrusting endless flyers at me. There wasn’t an inch to spare in the campsite, there’s a hefty fee to get on the bridge to belt out a little sur le pont d’Avignon, and my minimal French meant most of the frivolity and jollity was completely lost on me. The surreal otherness of the whole thing, the smiling invitation to join the heady frenzy of colour and music and light, was intoxicating.
I had never really had much time for France, viewing it primarily as an inconvenient barrier between England and Italy, but the further I progressed and the more beauty I saw it became harder and harder to reject it as a neighbour to be politely ignored. Field after field of golden sunflowers nodded in reassurance: it was okay for an English person to admit to liking France.
“Much as I advocate just stepping outside the door and following the road where it goes, there is something to be said for a little research.”
Having stirred up some feelings for France I promptly left the place – the two instances joined rather by a booked ferry crossing to Sardinia than any urgent need for punishing my unpatriotic emotions. The Gennargentu National Park was everything the paparazzi shots of Sardinia are not: there isn’t a yacht in sight; no ghastly celebrities being ‘caught’ on camera, and any hint of hedonism is restricted to the flowers dancing in the wind.
Sardinia’s beaches were packed with Italian tourists – as were the family-oriented campsites that seemed to specialise in late night karaoke sessions – so heading inland offered the only respite. As with Venice’s Burano there isn’t much to Bosa beyond its colourful exterior, but that does make for gorgeous viewing.
There’s a square in Sardinia’s southern city Cagliari that’s dedicated to DH Lawrence – a fortunate addition to the island in the 1920s who is certainly responsible in part for the booming tourist industry. After a brief homage to a favourite writer, I withdrew at sunset to the ferry that bounced across to Sicily’s Palermo. This is an exaggerated version of Italy: vespas buzz faster and more furiously; the sun beats down mercilessly; opera pours from vast halls out onto the streets, and opinions and gestures are louder and more dramatically thrown down than anywhere else.
“Field after field of golden sunflowers nodded in reassurance: it was okay for an English person to admit to liking France.”
With the streets of Palermo unceasingly chaotic, sometimes the only respite is to look above the madness towards the narrow slices of blue sky that appear between buildings. So it was here that I developed a mild obsession with doors and windows, constantly on the look out for open ones that revealed glimpses of decadent corniced ceilings and ornamental crowns above chandeliers dripping with trails of cut glass.
Taormina hunkers down beneath Etna on Sicily’s east coast, and its Ancient Greek amphitheatre hosts theatrical performances on a stage dedicated to the dramatic: with a volcano to one side and sparkling blue sea far below, an atmosphere is created before any players even appear.
South of Taormina lies Catania, a frantic city where everyone gives the impression of being late for something important. Many earthquakes have tried to destroy Catania: in 1693, over two thirds of the population were killed, and Etna’s eruption in 1669 threatened to eliminate the city completely. It is as if the people today are defiantly alive, making up for the tens of thousands of forefathers whose lives were cut short.
“It is as if the people today are defiantly alive, making up for the tens of thousands of forefathers whose lives were cut short.”
Sicily’s southern city of Agrigento is as significant today as it was as far back as 480BC when the Greeks constructed the Valle dei Templi, a loop of incredibly well-preserved temples (that can, as with all Italian museums, be visited free on the first Sunday of every month). Now, hundreds of desperate migrants arrive across the sea in tiny boats – seeking safety and security in one of the most impoverished corners of Italy.
In ‘Room with a View’ EM Forster told us to ‘mistrust all enterprises that require new clothes’. Despite store owners’ attempts to clad everyone in expensive and outrageously coloured lycra costumes, cycle touring requires little more than a sense of purpose and a willing bicycle – and even the sense of purpose isn’t always entirely necessary. It is a wonderful, whimsical way to travel, to slow down the world, and to find a little peace amongst the chaos of modern life.
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