Col de Pendedis to Florac - In Céventh Heaven - CycleBlaze

September 10, 2011

Col de Pendedis to Florac

JUR IS A LANKY DUTCHMAN who has taken French nationality. But while France recognises dual nationality, Holland doesn't and he lost his Dutchness in the process.

"They nearly didn't want me to be French either," he said as we sat to an outdoor dinner. We were a cosmopolitan lot - French, Dutch, Belgian and the interesting case of Jur's eight-year-old daughter, who was born in Russia but can't speak Russian.

"They said they wouldn't give me French nationality because I didn't earn enough. If you run a camp-site then your earnings will never be predictable, but that's not the point. There's no condition in applying for citizenship that concerns your earnings. For residency there is, but I've got that. For nationality there are no rules.

"I got this letter saying I'd been turned down and then it became a point of principle. I took on the préfet and I won." The préfet is the President's direct representative.

Jur is a gentle man but not one with whom to pick a pointless fight.

Most of the others around the table were there to walk the hills. They'd been out much of the previous day and they'd be out all today. But not as early as I was. I could hear their snoring as I passed the chalets they'd rented.

And moments later the dark palm of the clouds came down and swatted me.
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Yesterday's sunshine was gone. Slate clouds spread like pencil smudges. The air took on a matt hue, shadowless, soft. It emphasised the roadside greenery, the damp ferns which drooped exhausted and waited for winter and a break from growing and surviving. Cobwebs you never see became silvery trampolines, hundreds of them, useless now that insects could see and avoid them.

A thousand cobwebs hung like deadly trampolines in the clinging mist.
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Mist pushed grimy fingers into the valleys below me. And suddenly, from above, it flattened me with its spread palm. Clouds that look so innocent from below are just coarse-mannered fog when you ride into them.

The birds stopped singing. Mammals thought better of it and stayed in their burrows. The col de Fontmort, more a crossroads than a hilltop, brought a stone needle on grassland to my left. It stood perhaps four metres tall, with a plaque to explain its purpose. "On the centenary of the edict of tolerance," it said, "the sons of the Huguenots have erected on this site of former combats a monument to religious peace and the memory of martyrs - 1887."

A spectral memorial recalls the slaughter of Huguenots many years ago. Stevenson passed this way.
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Stevenson passed this way. He wrote:

"A very old shepherd, hobbling on a pair of sticks, and wearing a black cap of liberty, as if in honour of his nearness to the grave, directed me to the road for St Germain de Calbertemap. There was something solemn in the isolation of this infirm and ancient creature. Where he dwelt, how he got upon this high ridge, or how he proposed to get down again, were more than I could fancy. Not far off upon my right was the famous Plan de Font Morte, where Poul with his Armenian sabre slashed down the Camisards of Séguier. This, methought, might be some Rip van Winkle of the war, who had lost his comrades, fleeing before Poul, and wandered ever since upon the mountains. It might be news to him that Cavalier had surrendered, or Roland had fallen fighting with his back against an olive. And while I was thus working on my fancy, I heard him hailing in broken tones, and saw him waving me to come back with one of his two sticks. I had already got some way past him; but, leaving Modestine once more, retraced my steps.

"Alas, it was a very commonplace affair. The old gentleman had forgot to ask the pedlar what he sold, and wished to remedy this neglect.

"I told him sternly, 'Nothing.'

"'Nothing?' cried he.

"I repeated 'Nothing,' and made off.

"It's odd to think of, but perhaps I thus became as inexplicable to the old man as he had been to me.


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The story is complicated and not one I was going to hang about in the fog to understand. Stevenson had been reading his history, specifically the wars of the Cévennes. Like all wars between people who believe the same things but fight over pinheads and angels, the Cévennes and their persecution of Huguenots was cruel and bloody. It seemed ghostly - it looked ghostly - to come across what amounted to a mass gravestone high on this hill.

I walked to a still older stone, darker, misshapen by weather and as high as my shoulder. Letters etched into it were so distorted by rain and wind that I couldn't see what language they were in, still less what they said. Was this, too, a memorial to those who died? And what happened on this very spot?

They were watching rugby when I reached Barre-des-Cévennes. The mist had gone with the long, winding descent and 70 years of peace had settled cosily on the village. The rugby was on television and the world wanted to watch. I didn't mind except that it slowed down my coffee.

Rugby is the big sport in southern France, bigger than soccer and certainly bigger than cycling. The village postman arrived in his yellow van, parked it urgently with its nose against a wall and ran into the bar. Letters either arrived early that morning or they were going to turn up late.

I had one more long climb, this time to the col du Rey, at 992m. After that it was going to be downhill all the way to Florac. Just as well. I had already climbed a day's total of 1 278 metres by the summit.

I could have whooshed all the way down. And I would have, had a sign not urged me to see dinosaur footprints. I pulled on the brakes so that their squeal startled a chubby Englishman in cream shorts and a pale blue shirt that hung outside his belt. He looked as though he had just lost his boater.

The Englishman was reading a notice about dinosaurs. He wasn't impressed.

"If you have a very, very good imagination, old chap, you'll maybe see something in it," he said apologetically. "I couldn't. Very disappointing. And besides, you'll have to go up another hill and down again."

I gave the dinosaurs a miss.

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