Nimes to Ales - In Céventh Heaven - CycleBlaze

September 8, 2011

Nimes to Ales

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THERE IS something fascinating about people next to you on trains. Especially if they have a computer on their end of the table, because it becomes a game to see what they're doing. Of course, they'd tell you if you asked, but that's not the point. You never ask. You cast sly glances and shuffle back and forth until the light from the window no longer reflects off the screen.

The woman next to me was editing a book about Chinese and Japanese letters. I could read enough to confirm what I already knew, that the two have a common root and that Japanese uses many Chinese characters. But the one paragraph I could see after that made it clear this wasn't a book for me. It was, shall we say, highly specialist.

There's a lift at Nîmes station, which is rarely the case, to get a loaded bike from the elevated platforms down to street level. I played the usual game of pretending to be a tank driver as I crossed the station concourse, daring anybody to get in my way and be squashed, and made it out to the road.

Had it been my first time there, I'd have ridden to the Roman aqueduct at Pont du Gard, one of the marvels of the ancient world and a solemn lesson, you'd have thought, to the water company at home which cuts off the supply without warning every week or so. Two thousand years of Roman history have taught it nothing.

The Pont du Gard: may our water company at home take notice, please
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I could ignore the aqueduct, though, and struggle through the busy streets of the old town and out to the north-west past a fountain that struggled to be as grand as Geneva's. That interested me less than the ice-cream stall next to it. An American cyclist called Willie Weir once wrote a book in which he confessed that on one tour something like a third of his budget had gone on ice cream. Well, "confessed" isn't the right word because it implies guilt. And Willie Weir didn't feel at all guilty. He just liked ice cream. And so do I, which is why I stopped.

Nîmes doing its best to pretend that it's Geneva. But the ice cream was welcome.
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The ice cream man had a bored air to him and seemed relieved that I'd broken his ennui. Or perhaps I had given him a moment's break from the genial but simple man who had adopted him and then, spotting his chance, me.

"Doing some cycling, then?"

I admitted I was.

"Done some of that, me," he said. He paused. "It knackered me."

The traffic stayed with me in that sort of half-world that exists on the way to significant road junctions. Nobody seems to live along these roads. Nobody seems to do anything. There are buildings but they are buildings without purpose. Except, that is, that they support large advertisements telling you that just down the road is yet another building, this one different because it will sell cut-price carpets or car exhausts or a good line in linoleum.

And then I turned off into the shallow hills of grape land. I'm not a great fan of vineyard country. Vines are the ultimate commercial crop, cut to soldier-like conformity in summer or looking like twisted, agonised images of hell in winter. If you think of the trees you've seen in pictures of first world war battlefields and then imagine them reduced to waist height, that is what a vineyard looks like out of season. This was in season but still I simply tolerated them. Vines grow in dust. They look like rows of privet hedges stripped from suburbia. There is nothing good to say of them.

I think the Canadian I met had the same thought. I bridged a small rise and found him on the other side of the road, astride a loaded bike and staring at a map. He wore a jersey labelled Québec in capitals that looked as though it had seen more than one shower of rain. It was open to his waist to show a great forest of silver chest hair.

"You speak...?" I asked. Most people in Québec are happier in French.

"I speak French, English, Spanish and German," he beamed back.

He told me he'd been on the road for two and a half months, starting in Amsterdam and working his way south to Bratislava before turning west along the Danube. He was heading for Spain, he said, staying the while at travellers' hostels. I felt inadequate that I'd started only a couple of hours earlier.

So inadequate that I never asked his name nor thought to take a picture.

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