Sunday, 17 August 2008

2: Pilgrims, hills, and a non-practicising Irish Protestant

Since leaving Lyon a week ago I crossed back over to the Loire valley and continued upstream to Le Puy en Velay. Le Puy is a popular starting point for the French pilgrimmage route Chemin de St. Jacques, which joins up with its Spanish counterpart, the Camino de Santiago at the border at St. Jean Pied de Port. At the hostel in Le Puy there were many hikers arriving and departing on the 1500 kilometer pilgrimmage to Santiago, including a German fellow in my dormitory who had started walking from Vienna! Some do the walk for religious reasons but many just like the idea of following a historic route that has been traversed for almost 1000 years and in more recent times a substantial tourist industry has been created around the route. The contrast between walking and cycling is much the same as for cycling versus driving a car or riding a motorbike. Along the route I've met people traveling by horse or on foot and where I've passed through in one day on the bike, takes them four or five days. I haven't been following the path itself however, just the roads that run near to the path.

Following the St. Jacques route has been a different traveling experience to the roads I traveled along before Le Puy. Since the route runs a path through mostly rural areas and small villages, locals and tourists alike usually assume that if you're carrying a backpack or have bags strapped to your bike, then you're a pilgrim of some description. As a result there is often a much more open and spontaneous approach towards engaging in conversation than I experienced farther north. Similarly, you're sharing a common goal with other cyclists and hikers, or at least a common destination, and there is a more immediate solidarity between you all. Over the past few days I've met and re-met several groups of people; including one cycling group from central France who insisted on me joining them for lunch on a couple of occasions. Since they are traveling with a support van their lunches are much more substantial affairs than I'm used to and sampling the local wine was particularly enjoyable, especially when you are already partially dehydrated or have a 20 km descent immediately after lunch, like I did on the Aubrac mountains the other day. I'm surprised in one way because I had suspected that I might not enjoy following the Chemin de St. Jacques, not generally being overly amenable to pre-ordained routes too much. But on a bike you're not actually on the route for starters and you can choose a pick and mix approach to which roads you want to follow or places that you want to visit, so there is some flexibility. Following the route also ensures that you stay in rural areas most of the time, which is the best place for cycling if you want to avoid the busy roads linking larger towns that are particularly busy at this time of the year.

Achieving less time in Purgatory, however, is not, excuse the pun, a walk over and since leaving the Loire valley in Le Puy and having crossed over the southern part of the Massif Central, I've realised that you don't have to be in the Alps or Pyrennees to have big hills in France. In fact, the hills I passed over in Aubrac are twice the height of the section of the Pyrennees where I will pass through, which someone thankfully pointed out to me at the summit rather than the bottom the other day. In order to try and prolong the life of my knee joints I ride in the lowest gears, which is at, or marginally above, walking speed, usually about a breathtaking 6 kph up the steeper hills. Since these hills can be up to 15 km long, I need to somehow pass the time as I snail upwards whilst gaining ecclesiastical brownie points. In this regard I have found singing to be the best form of distraction, both for me and for anyone else within earshot. I have a number of tunes that get a lot of airtime and suffer from many deformities in my rendition of them. Two particular favourites at the moment include 'Take me home country roads' (particularly the Toots and the Maytals version that I was recently introduced to and lucky to hear live before leaving Ireland), as well as Ladysmith Black Mambazo's version of 'The Lion Sleeps Tonight' - complete with all the jungle sounds. It's at times like this that it truly comes home to me how inadequate my mental lyrics library is, so if you have any suggestions for good cycling tunes, send a copy of the lyrics my way.

Cahors, France
Trip distance: 1546 km

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