Meyrueis - Nant - In Céventh Heaven - CycleBlaze

September 15, 2011

Meyrueis - Nant

THE JOY OF TRAVEL lies not only in what you see but in whom you meet. You are, to them, a troubadour bringing tales of far-off kingdoms. And they are your eyes on your own new world, people who explain and illustrate and put it into context.

And they don't even have to be locals. Just think of the pleasure one cyclist feels on encountering another. And the disappointment when the other, laden like you with bags but also with experiences, doesn't stop to share tales.

Stevenson appreciated these encounters. They mystified him sometimes, but that is the point of travel. If we wanted everyone to be the same, we'd be better staying at home.

* * *

At supper I found two other guests. One was a country parish priest, who had walked over that morning from the seat of his cure near Mende to enjoy four days of solitude and prayer. He was a grenadier in person, with the hale colour and circular wrinkles of a peasant; and as he complained much of how he had been impeded by his skirts upon the march, I have a vivid fancy portrait of him, striding along, upright, big-boned, with kilted cassock, through the bleak hills.

The other was a short, grizzling, thick-set man, from forty-five to fifty, dressed in tweed with a knitted spencer, and the red ribbon of a decoration in his button-hole. This last was a hard person to classify. He was an old soldier, who had seen service and risen to the rank of commandant; and he retained some of the brisk decisive manners of the camp. And certainly here was a man in an interesting nick of life. Out of the noise of cannon and trumpets, he was in the act of passing into this still country..."

* * *

There were not two but three new guests for our own supper last night. We have been joined by a slim, white-haired German who has lived in France since her teens, by a middle-aged man who hides his lack of confidence by giving the air of a great world-traveller, and by a gentle man called Marcel, on a folding bike.

Marcel, it turns out, lives in town. He knew we'd be arriving and he'd ridden over with just a tent and a sleeping bag to join us.

Karine - German although you'd never know it - said she'd run from Berlin after the Wall went up. She'd been on the west side but that, she said, didn't mean she was less influenced by propaganda than those on the other.

"I remember we went over there to the east," she said. "We went for a visit and I remember just looking at the people's shoes. They had shoes. From all the conneries we'd been told, I was expecting them to have bare feet. And their clothes: they dressed just like us!"

She belonged, she said, to an extreme-left organisation. That was in her teens, when she said West Berlin was reluctant to give jobs to communists, who she said had been the true anti-Nazis, for fear they would bring down the system. "So they gave jobs to right-wingers, people who'd sympathised and even co-operated with the Nazis, and the people they really needed were ostracised."

Her views softened with age but the resentment lived on along with the brightness of her social conscience.

It was horribly cold this morning. Our site was in a hollow and cold air toppled into it. The World Traveller checked his bike computer and said it was five degrees. Every few minutes he went back to see if it had changed.

The clammy air made me change my plans once more. I'd wanted to ride the col de Perjuret for its role in Tour de France history. It was there that a stylish rider called Roger Rivière, who held the world hour record, planned to win the race. He rode up one side of the mountain with an Italian, a smoker and amateur artist called Gastone Nencini. And then he set off down the other side on his wheel.

Well, the only reason to follow Nencini down a mountain, said Raphaël Géminiani, another great French rider of the age, "was if you had a death wish." Nobody could go downhill as fast as Nencini. Rivière included. After a while he missed a bend and plunged into the ravine. His back was broken and he never raced again, ending up bankrupt.

That was already an unhappy tale but Rivière made it worse by blaming his mechanic for not adjusting his brakes and for leaving grease on the rims. It was easier to blame a labourer working for a pittance than admit he had doped himself to the eyebrows. For it emerged that Rivière had taken so much of a painkiller called Palfium that he could no longer pull on the brakes.

There's a plaque where it happened, this senseless waste of a talent, of a life, and I fancied going that way to see it. But once more circumstances intervened. Instead I pulled on all the clothing I had, rode back into town and took shelter in a café until both I and the weather cheered up.

Other cyclists have passed this way...
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There were other cyclists in town, some loaded, some not. Some of the party last night had come across an English couple who'd looked at our campsite and then ridden on. I think I saw them this morning, possibly warmer for having spent the night in a hotel.

When the going seemed safe, I pushed my head above the trench and set off. I rode through the town and up one of those hills that gives the feeling, as you look down where you've been, of slowly rising in an aeroplane. A walker in cords and a blue shirt paid no attention as I panted by. He strode past when I stopped a little further on to take off a sweater and apologised for his lack of manners.

'I can't see out of that eye,' he said, pointing to the left of his face. 'That's why I stopped cycling. Couldn't see properly any more. Used to ride a bike two hours, but not now though. So I walk two hours a day instead.'

He asked where I was going today and later. I described my route home. He moved his flattened hand like a surfing fish.

'Hilly,' he said.

I told him it was hilly everywhere.

He smiled.

'Yes, I seem to remember that,' he laughed.

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For days I'd been seeing enticements to visit the Grotte de Dargilan ("classified * * *", said the billboards). I'd felt it a temptation I could resist but now I was 'less than one minute away.' One minute on advertisements means a kilometre. I could manage that if it gave excuse for a break and another coffee. It is rarely hard to justify another coffee.

A postcard view... my little camera could never take anything so grand!
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Well, it was interesting enough. A shepherd found it when he was chasing a fox. It ran into a hole and he followed. He looked but he didn't like it. It was black dark, of course, and worse still there were ghostly sounds. Caves do make noises as things move and set off echoes in the cavern.

It brought back a story of a cave further west, where a hole - a chimney, as cavers call it - rose from the ground and carried up subterranean groaning. Villagers had been terrified each Sunday by the church's tales of hellfire and damnation. Heaven was above them and hell beneath. This was beneath and they were convinced they'd found the entrance to hell. The sounds of the damned proved it. They weren't at all sure when someone proposed going down for a look.

The other novelty of the day was to pass a herd of bison. To people who live in Los Angeles or Chicago or exciting places like that, this would be nothing surprising. They can barely walk down the road without encountering bison. But here in Europe they are, to say the least, a novelty. And yet here they were, bovine calm, behind a bison-sized fence.

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It's hard to miss a dozen bison beside the road but clearly some people can. You know how it is when you see someone taking a photo? You have to look to see where the camera's pointed. And so it was with a man in a white van, the only traffic on the road in 20 minutes. He saw me, looked where I was looking and pressed on the brakes like a man confronted by a brick wall. He'd never seen bison close up before. And nor had I. But then neither of us lived in Los Angeles or Chicago.

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