Waking up a German - How to avoid a mother-in-law - CycleBlaze

Waking up a German

The man in sandals said that he and his little Welsh wife had ridden along the coast road from France. That was the way I wanted to go back. It looked pretty - although so, to be honest, had the road out of Barcelona - when I got out my map and looked at it twisting along the Mediterranean cliff tops. But Sandals said it was full of caravans taking bends on the wrong side of the road. Instead, he advised the main road pass by the col de Perthus.

After the experience of crossing into Spain, compensated only by my view from the mountain next morning, I was hardly of a mind to repeat it on the way back. The road to the Perthus was a busy highway but that in turn suggested it wasn't going to be hilly. If I could suffer the traffic, that was the worst I'd get. In fact there was a wide shoulder for cycling but, especially with a head wind, the ride was no more than rolling off kilometres. The best that could be said was that the climb was imperceptible, the only hill being in the crowded village just before the border.

The French side looked steeper - downhill - and it was certainly more twisting and, as I'd observed on entering Spain, had a worse road surface. I'd been looking forward to a coffee and a meal in France, a symbol of being home, but I was denied. Such restaurants as there were advertised Catalan cooking, which was just what I was trying to escape. Spanish food in Spain was great; now it didn't appeal any more. As it turned out, anything would have been better than the pizza I did get. It wasn't French but equally I doubt many Italians would recognise it either. Stomach-binding would be a good description.

I pushed on through vineyards - some people insist they love vineyards but I suspect they mean they like the connotation of vineyards, for the places themselves are just dull rows of contorted bushes planted in nature-defying rows - under a few drops of rain that refused to turn into anything serious.

The Corbières... and I had it all to myself
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Next morning I headed into the Corbières, one of the most beautiful and unknown areas of France, all hills and wind but repaying both with scenery and hilltop villages. The road climbed and riders without loads breezed past me. It was never hard, just a matter of sitting there, enjoying the view and turning a low gear. Stopping in a village for water, I asked two old boys for the nearest tap. They explained that I had just passed it. I filled my bottles and the old-timers walked by with a smile. A man sitting on a bench pointed at them and said: "They're the two oldest people in the village, those two. You see the one on the left?"

I looked again at an obviously old but not at all stooping or shuffling man in grey flannels and a stretched cardigan.

"He's 92 tomorrow. Not bad, hein?"

My man said he used to commute from the village and suggested roads to take and roads to avoid. One he wanted me to avoid was a départmentale which, he said, was a nationale in all but name. It wasn't a decision I had to make instantly, though, because there was the rest of that climb to do, to the col des Auzines at 650m, and then what looked like a snaking little road across a plateau.

It wasn't a plateau: it was a long, long climb that, no steeper than the one before it, went on for ever. As I rode on, the flies began to swarm. Why there should be so many flies that far from anywhere was a mystery. Perhaps that remoteness - high enough for snow, as the red and white poles beside the road showed - made my unexpected company so welcome. Maybe they had been attracted by decomposing bodies of other cyclists who'd passed that way and not made it. Whatever the reason, there were dozens of flies, big arrogant things with smug grins, belching up the contents of distant rubbish heaps, so confident that they'd sit on my arm or handlebars long enough for me to swat them. That took the smile off their face.

In time the road flattened out and I reached the col de d'Aussières at 1,057m. And that brought the glorious swoop through the valley. Several times, even though I was late for lunch, I'd stop and take irresistible photographs. But lunch was nevertheless a consideration. Puilaurens was the next place, a village with a château perched preposterously above it. A tourist place and therefore with some hope of food, however late. By now the rain which had held off the previous day was falling hard. And then, in the instant that it stopped, I passed a sign pointing down a track to a buvette.

A row of cottages stood below the road and facing a small garden. One had a price list and a bell. I looked at the first and rang the second. Nothing happened. I rang again. In time a middle-aged, round-faced woman with grey hair stuck her head through an upstairs window.

"Yes?" she asked doubtfully.

"Is the buvette open?"

"Yes." (Equally dubiously.) "But it's outside."

"And so am I."

"Hmmm "

She descended, explained that she had been taking a siesta because she'd expected nobody after the rain, and served me a ham and cheese roll with salad. She also asked me to move my bike from its place against the wall of the house next door.

"He isn't génial", she said.

She told me she was German. She had lived in France for two decades because, simply, the life was better. She pointed around her to emphasise her point. She had no wish to visit Germany and the last time had been in the days before the first Gulf War.

"And it was awful," she said. "I was just a short distance from the Americans' airport and their planes were going off low over the house every few minutes. It's much better here."

She gave me a grin.

"The worst I get to disturb my sleep now is hungry cyclists."

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