Meeting Cyrano de Bergerac: Monflanquin - St-Laurent-des-Hommes - North to the Loire, monsieur... and home again - CycleBlaze

July 28, 2013

Meeting Cyrano de Bergerac: Monflanquin - St-Laurent-des-Hommes

Some Dutch wedding custom, we think...
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HANS. That's the name of the man who runs the campground at Domaine Laborde. And he's Dutch as well, but only because he never got round to asking for French nationality.

"I certainly feel more French than Dutch," he says. "I go back to Holland now and it all seems very strange, and very crowded. I never asked for French nationality and now it doesn't matter, does it? Borders don't have significance any more. When I was a kid, it was a thrill to cross a border. But not now. Even the border posts aren't there any more."

Not becoming French worked out well for him, although he realised it only afterwards. Holland and France had compulsory military service but he left Holland too early to be conscripted and, not being French, didn't get roped into the French army either.

He's been here for 26 years, having come from central Holland when his parents emigrated to set up their campground. Most of his customers are Dutch but he speaks French every bit as easily.

"I like the French way of life," he says, a fit-looking man with short dark hair and a slight air of weariness. It is, after all, peak season in the camping business. "I like the way that French people work hard but they also find time for pleasure. They'll work and then they'll have lunch and they'll enjoy it and talk and exchange stories rather than rushing. And then they'll go back to work and work hard again."

We were the first of his customers to go to bed, if that's not too grand a term for crawling into a sleeping bag. There was a singer in the bar, thankfully out of our hearing on the other side of a low hill, and a lot of the campers went up to hear her. As they walked back, they saw us in our tent. It was a warm night and we had left the doors open.

"There are people in there sleeping," said an astonished small boy in Dutch before he was shushed by his father. It wasn't even properly dark.

It rained a little overnight and we were up and about this morning under a heavy sky before anyone else was moving. It was hard to be sure but we think a couple must have been spending their honeymoon somewhere near us. Not because of any sexual wailing - we went to sleep too early to hear it if there was any -but because a car near the stone house that is the reception building had brooms tied to the bumpers.

It was a wonderful Citroën 2CV, the legendary French car known popularly as a Deuche (after the deux chevaux or two horsepower of the name) but it was registered in Holland rather than France and we decided that tying brooms to a car was some Lowlands wedding ritual. I'd have asked if there was anyone about but there wasn't and no honeymoon couple is likely to be out of bed so soon after dawn.

We rode on into Villeréal, the roads damp and empty but getting busier as we neared town. It's a pretty place of appealing streets lined with stone-and-wood houses. We bought bread and watched the first arrivals for a street market.

Baguette break in Villeréal: hot bread straight from the oven.
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The street market in Villeréal - but there was bigger down the road, we found
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The colour of the stalls is always an attraction
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That was big enough but there was a still larger one which dominated the few streets of Issigeac, pronounced Ici, Jacques, at the next junction. The village, little more than a crossroads was paralysed by it.

We heard English and Dutch and, once, even German. But little French except from the stallholders. It all explained why this really quite minor road into the village had been dominated by foreign and especially British cars, many of them with streamlined plastic boxes strapped to the roof as though the owners wanted a car with an attic.

It's not easy to walk through absent-minded shoppers in a narrow street, nobody hurrying or walking in a predictable direction. It didn't seem right to push calves and ankles aside with our panniers because it was we and not they who were out of place. We shrugged, took our time, tried and failed to find an escape through side roads, and eventually made it to the other side.

Things were moving faster in Bergerac. Some regional triathlon championship was welcoming home its tailenders, the less-than-wholly-fit who doubtless resented having their names broadcast quite so loudly on the public address. They divide these things into age, I suppose, but also into level of difficulty. We ate our sandwiches at a trestle table occupied largely by race officials and hoped something would happen to amuse us. Had we waited long enough, to about two in the afternoon, it would have done: loads of people would have plunged into the river and thrashed about before getting out and starting to ride bicycles. But we weren't going to wait.

Bergerac is gorgeous, one of those towns that tourists get round to visiting only after seeing all the places listed in larger type in their guide books. Mostly they don't get down that far, having spent all their time in Paris and on the châteaux along the Loire. Which is good for visitors like us because it keeps the streets clear. There were crowds, yes, but too small to prevent our relishing stone and timber houses that have slept through countless summers, and the narrow cobbled streets, and the market area strung with coloured pennants.

Gorgeous Bergerac put out the flags for us
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Cyrano de Bergerac, worn by the weather but still displaying his celebrated conk
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We are deliberately taking it easily, not riding too far or too fast to let Steph's legs turn that bit more easily. It has given us time to enjoy villages on quiet roads, so many of the places this week en fête and decorated. The custom with celebrations in France is to eat and twice today, when we stopped in brow-dripping heat for a cold drink, we have sat next to half a village having a communal meal. Elsewhere, tables have been arranged in a square on school playgrounds. And one village has promised more, I see from a leaflet that has blown to me on the wind, by organising a soapbox derby.

The duties of the day are over...
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Tonight, after a long sequence of small but nagging hills, we have camped outside the delightfully named village of St-Laurent-des-Hommes. The campground is spacious and simple and run by a flowing Englishwoman who gives the impression that she is here by accident. All her clientèle are English, too. And, without exception, fat.

Dutch people stay at Dutch-owner campgrounds because they find them in Dutch guidebooks. Is there, do you think, a similar guide for the Blobby British?

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