Do trains still run? - Mid-winter across Europe - CycleBlaze

January 11, 2007

Do trains still run?

Châteauroux, La Poinconnet, Velles, Mosnay, Le Menoux, Eguzon, Bazelat, St-Gerlain-Beaupre, La Souterraine

I heard an interview on the radio a few years ago with a man whose life project it was to photograph all the railway stations made famous in songs. Things had gone reasonably well, he said, until he got to Clarksville. The Monkees, you remember, urged you to take the last train to Clarksville and they'd meet you at the station.

When the photographer got there, he regretted taking their advice. Not only was there no last train but there had never been a first one either, because the railway didn't go and had never gone to Clarksville.

I had that worry when I looked at a place called La Souterraine on my map. I'd ridden through it going north last year, on my way to the Semaine Fédérale. The map showed a rail line and a station but on that occasion, of course, I'd had no reason to check that were both were still there. Now I was keen that they would be, because day after day of headwinds had trimmed a bit off the distance each day and now I really wanted to be home. To take the train from La Souterraine would avoid having to trail through the miserable suburbs (and the not much more cheerful centre) of Limoges.

And why was Limoges significant? Because I've ridden the stretch between Limoges and home so many times, and in so many variations, that I really didn't care to do it again. Apart from anything else, there's a sort of geographical bottleneck south of Limoges which routes me through Les Eyzies. Les Eyzies has long since sold its soul to the tourists it can attract to look round the ancient caves there. The rush to serve tourists with every available centimetre means there's nothing else there: no shops, nothing. It's a horrible place. In winter it's even worse.

It was with a light heart that I resolved to ride to La Souterraine, take the train to Limoges and then another home to Agen. That way I could sneer superciliously through the window as both Limoges and Les Eyzies slid by effortlessly.

I left Châteauroux without much problem and after riding through suburbs picked up a long ride through light woods. I felt tired after yesterday, though, and the wind quickly picked up. For a lot of the time it was diagonal rather than head-on but I soon became weary.

I stopped in a village for coffee and two croissants saved from the hotel, and then for lunch I stopped at a restaurant that had been open for only three days and wouldn't stay open for another three.

"It's steak or nothing, because we haven't prepared anything," the man behind the counter said as he looked up from the horse-racing news. His surprise gave the impression that I was his first customer. Things didn't look promising.

The woman serving me said they had done nothing but eat their own food for the first days. After that, I guessed, they had given up ordering any more supplies as they waited to see if they had made A Dreadful Mistake.

"We're going to do some advertising locally," the woman said brightly, "maybe try to attract local workers in for their lunch." But even after just half a week, her soul wasn't in it. I felt sorry for her. I could also see, from my seated position, what wasn't visible standing up: that the long central table lit by a faint sunbeam had a fine, constant coating of dust. Nobody had sat there, the dust said, since the table had been bought and put in place.

I could see from the ride through Eguzon and on to La Souterraine why I liked the countryside the first time I saw it. That was before I lived in France, but after I'd know that one day I would. I'd spent a month and a half just riding round the country, nominally following the Tour de France but in fact seeing very little of it and just enjoying myself instead.

The trip had been largely paid for by magazine commissions, one of which had been to visit one of several villages that claimed to be the geographical centre of France. I spent the previous night staying with friends who'd wanted just a small farm but found it came with a château so wonderful that the Germans had commandeered it as their regional headquarters during the war, then rode to this village. And after that I'd turned south and been constantly impressed by the softness and green fields of the Limousin (the area around Limoges, which is noticeably more pleasant than the city).

Then, though, it had been summer. Now it was winter. I got tired and I got tired of the ride. The wind blew harder than even and I looked forward to the train from La Souterraine. But there weren't any that night - an improvement at any rate on Clarksville - and I stayed the night in the town before going to the station next morning.

The long ride south was over.

Today's ride: 89 km (55 miles)
Total: 1,132 km (703 miles)

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