Mende to St-Enimie - In Céventh Heaven - CycleBlaze

September 12, 2011

Mende to St-Enimie

Mende: it had little more to offer than this old washing well, used by to clean sheep skins.
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I have not often enjoyed a place more deeply. I moved in an atmosphere of pleasure, and felt light and quiet and content. But perhaps it was not the place alone that so disposed my spirit. Perhaps some one was thinking of me in another country; or perhaps some thought of my own had come and gone unnoticed, and yet done me good. For some thoughts, which sure would be the most beautiful, vanish before we can rightly scan their features; as though a god, travelling by our green highways, should but open the door, give one smiling look into the house, and go again for ever. Was it Apollo, or Mercury, or Love with folded wings? Who shall say? But we go the lighter about our business, and feel peace and pleasure in our hearts.

I KNEW how Stevenson felt. There are days when you ride through countryside you can't explain. It speaks and you speak back, but in a language that has no words. Such a day can start with an error, move on through tragedy and end in an explosion of beauty so great that you do no more than surrender to its glory.

That was today.

The error was in trying to find the road out of Mende. The map was insistent: a white road went off to the left. If I took that I could escape the traffic on the main route I had taken yesterday. That had been Sunday. Today was Monday. There would be a difference.

"You two stay here with the girl... the rest of you men, come with me and we'll cut them off at the pass."
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I prodded and nosed about and came to no great conclusion. Mende is what guidebooks call a town of hidden charms, meaning you don't see them. I didn't mind leaving. But I didn't find the white road. It ran just off the edge of my Michelin - I'd been looking at someone else's - and so I had to hope for the signs. But the signs, as ever, were for car traffic. They wanted me to go the busier longer way. And because that's the way the traffic went, I wanted the narrower but shorter way. But the signs didn't tell me and the people in the street, being drivers and not cyclists, couldn't tell me.

I shrugged and rode back the way I'd come.

Well, there is good in all things. Had I not gone that way I would never have been intrigued by a monument set back above the road behind a handful of steps. I knew what it was: I could tell from the twin bars of the cross of Lorraine, the sign of wartime resistance, and the V for victory in which it was set. But why so many names as witness to history?

The cross of Lorraine and the V for Victory showed me straight away it was a Resistance memorial. There are many of them in France, and even more to civilians simply taken out and shot.
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On the 15th of August in 1944, 40 men from the FFI - the Resistance - arrived here to cut the road to German troops. They were led by a scout, who signalled no problem, and then by a commander known as Dicky. And Dicky had barely arrived than the Germans attacked him instead of the other way round and his truck stopped diagonally across the road.

Those who followed jumped into the surrounding trees and fought back with such vehemence that many Germans died and close on half the maquisards got clear. The Germans, though, had set their ambush on both sides of the road and the other Resistants died where they fought or, taken prisoner, were shot later.

The Germans, said the plaque on the memorial, were "well informed." It didn't take long to find out by whom. The final line records that the traitor was "condemned to death by the FFI military court and shot on 31 August 1944." The traffic - and I - now pass without care. But only cyclists and walkers can stop to read this little sad tale of earlier times.

The Resistance came the way you're looking now. But thanks to a traitor, the Germans were behind the trees to the right and towards the railway on the left.
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I rode on and left the traffic by turning right, rising to close on 1 000 metres at the col de Vieilbougue. Another shot for a collection which hangs on my wall and makes non-cyclists shake their heads.

It was neither an exciting nor a picturesque climb but it was here that the glories began. I turned left and plunged down a road wide enough for just a tractor and punctuated by curves. The few people I passed must have spoken of it for the rest of the day. I clung to the brakes, heating the rims. I could never have ridden it the other way.

And then I was in the valley, crossing the main road and heading back up parallel along it. Chanac came and went and the lane passed the remaining honey-coloured stone buildings before rising in a tree-lined zigzag of rich grass and white, yellow, blue and red butterflies. They danced for my enjoyment, although more likely disputing territory since nature is rarely anything but harsh.

It was when the road levelled that I caught my breath. I was on a plateau, like yesterday but far, far wider. In the soft grass and mown crops were more, many more, of those shallow walls, mysterious mounds and apparently abandoned buildings that characterise the causse. For as far as I could see, they stretched.

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Men had lived up here long before people devised Oc. They built, or carried or constructed ancient tombs called dolmen. In their day they were circular walls, perhaps to the height of your shoulder, with a flat stone as a roof. The word "dolmen" is from a word in Breton, another of the French regional languages, which means stone table. They exist all over Europe from the Baltic to Portugal. They're as old as the Pyramids - and yet to this day people are only guessing when they say they were burial mounds. They say that because of bones found close to many of them, but nobody actually knows.

This way to the dolmen...
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The specimens here were a sorry lot. Over the centuries their stones had doubtless been taken and added to the walls that criss-crossed the fields. What was left looked like something tipped from a truck and allowed to become overgrown. But it was clear that they stood in a line, perhaps along an ancient pathway, that ran diagonally from the road.

I think someone had pinched the best rocks over the years. Not as glorious as in their day but pretty old, nevertheless.
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I rode on, often alone, moving just slowly so it would all sink in and not just flash by as it did for those snapping pictures from their camper-vans. I turned right on to a still smaller road, off the route I'd decided that morning, to make the enjoyment last.

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Now it became more wooded. A trail of stones and moss marked the middle of the road, now just wide enough for two hikers to walk without bumping shoulders.

Without warning, the road changed its mood and turned and dipped to the right. I was high above the Tarn valley at the start of one of the most glorious descents I have ridden in my life. I had the road to myself. The air was clear and warm. The valley, the river, the narrow trace of road below, and that view, that glorious descent through warm cliffs and timeless clinging trees and startled, scrambling cats. Not just for a moment but for a lifetime. Of memories, anyway.

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