Into the Massif Central

As planned, we left the valley of the Rhône valley for something a bit more challenging. Our idea was to travel west across the southern portion of the Massif Central, where we hoped for forgiving weather as we sought out some interesting terrain.

2019/10/09: 73 km to Barjac

We started on an alarmingly busy stretch of road, but all became quieter as we turned to climb along the Gorges de l’Ardèche. We stopped at pullouts to admire the view into the canyon carved by the river. The water level was low, and the river seemed peaceful.

At one of these pullouts, I removed my helmet in order to change shirts. I placed it on a cement bench rather than hook it onto my bike. About 3 km after riding off without it, I realized there was far too much wind in my hair, and we rode back to find it was gone. 

As we rode on, I was kicking myself for being so stupid, till the sight of two goats ensconced at the roadside – happily chewing their cud – brought me to my senses. There was an exhilarating descent as we continued to Barjac, and after some searching and a coffee break, we found a friendly chambre d’hôte, and soon flopped into bed. 

2019/10/10: 63km to St. Jean de Gard
Finding a new helmet was the urgent task at hand. I’d been wearing a bandana so as to feel slightly less naked and vulnerable.  A flattish ride took us to Alès, a larger town with a fairly big bike shop. I tried several before deciding. 

We ended up eating our picnic at a table inside the shop while it was closed for lunch. The staff even provided us with espresso. This was due to errors made as Chris was paying for my helmet. Due to different banking systems and a raft of ensuing headaches, we left the shop with an enormous wad of cash that we were given to rectify the error. The helmet will appear on Chris’s credit card at ten times its correct price!

We rode peacefully in to St, Jean du Gard, where we learned Robert-Louis Stevenson ended his trek across the Cévennes with his donkey, Modestine, in 1879. His first book “Travels with a Donkey” recounts this journey.

2019/10/11-12: 57 km to Florac and rest day
After a quick round of chain maintenance and some food shopping, we began the ascent to la Corniche des Cévennes. We climbed about 1100 m and descended about 600 this day. The ride along the ridge was spectacular, with extended views of high grazing land and Mediterranean forest. Chestnut trees and persimmons bore fruit; wild boars had been rooting for truffles (or something) along the roadside; sheep bells jangled. 

We stopped at a monument to a group of resistance fighters who operated here during WW2. The rugged Cévennes was a stronghold for a group of French, German, Russian, and Spanish fighters who fought against Naziism. We are in what was Vichy France now, and have been past many other monuments to French resistance fighters, but this was to a larger multinational group. 

A hiker plodded past us, his pace steady.  By his side was a loaded donkey, with a young donkey in tow. We realized that the GR 70 follows the route of Stevenson’s journey, which many like to retrace. We’ve learned that it’s possible to rent a donkey in order to follow in the steps of RLS, and that designated campgrounds and accommodation are donkey-friendly and will provide fodder. Who knows what we might do next?

2019/10/13: 86km to Millau

From Florac, we followed the Gorges du Tarn. It was a gentle descent with jaw dropping scenery.  The road was quiet, since tourist season is mostly over. We stopped often to admire fall colours, canyon walls, turrets, tiled rooves and Cathar fortresses. There are villages on the side opposite the road which can only be reached by boat, by fording, or by cable car. 

We passed rock climbing areas.  The diversity of license plates of parked vehicles gave us clues this was a climbers’ Mecca. We talked to some Czechs as they prepared their ropes, slings, and carabiners, and learned that this is some of the best limestone climbing in the world.  

We crossed another département boundary, and a sign announced we were in the region of Occitania. This is the area of southern France where Occitan or Langue d’Oc was historically spoken, and still is by some. It is also still used in nearby parts of Italy, Spain, and Monaco. There is a movement to revive the language, and it is used as a second language on some place name signage. 

Photo by Belgian travelling couple we chatted with at length.

We’ll be staying a second night here in Millau. Chris’s back is sore and he needs more sleep before we ride the last few days to Toulouse. It’s there that we plan to wrap up the cycling part of our journey, and work out way north to Dieppe by train, trusty steeds in tow.

M & C

3 responses to “Into the Massif Central

  1. Fabulous!

  2. What a stunning area to ride through.

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