After leaving the tiny mountain town and easy comfort of Prats-de-Mollo, I struggled a bit with France. I’ve been here seven times before (I think) despite never really trying, but it’s never been as comfortable as Germany, or Holland, or the Czech Republic, or most countries in Europe to be honest.
In this instance, it was the contrast with Spain that caught me out. The roads were much busier, narrower and bumpier (much like England in fact) and the drivers infuriatingly and dangerously nonchalant in their passing etiquette. It’s especially maddening as the scenery is fantastically diverse, but with one eye on potholes and the other on the right-hand wing mirror of passing lorries, it has been kind of hard to appreciate.
And then there is the cost of living. Just as I’d relaxed the grip on my purse strings in Spain, and enjoyed a few weeks of free beer in the Pyrenees, I was brought back to earth by 6-Euro beers and 15 to 25-Euro campsites. Actually, the price of beer is so high that I’ve reduced my spending on it by not consuming any. In bars at least. Perhaps it’s a ploy to keep their boozehound Barbarian neighbours away? It’s odd that in most countries beer is the drink of the people, yet in France it seems to be the beverage of the bourgeoise.
I was also infuriated by shops’ opening hours. Spain was a constant rush to arrive at my destination before the 2pm shutdown and I thought France would at least allow me to relax and ride at my own pace happy in the knowledge that bread and cheese would be purchasable in the afternoon. Little did I know that shops here shut at 12:30! How is a civilised English gentleman supposed to enjoy an afternoon Kronenburg (1664, because I’m worth it) if no shopkeep will provide him with one?
True, it was immediately and obviously more peaceful than Spain. Barking dogs became a thing of the past (although I was chased for the first time in the Pyrenees by some asshat farmer’s marauding mutts), dinner-time is a relatively ‘normal’ 7-8pm and conversations are generally conducted at something below bellowing intensity. Thinly-moustachioed teenagers on mopeds are suddenly an issue however…
Eventually I came round to it though. I managed to find some Warm Showers hosts, so exorbitant campsite fees were no longer a problem (and my standard offering of a bottle of wine is mercifully affordable). After a few days slogging over the midi-Pyrenees and lower Massif Central I ducked out into the Rhone valley in search of flatness and my first host there gave me two great tips. First – there’s a pretty good (certainly better than the Sustrans/local council junk we have in the UK) cycle path running almost all the way to Lyon. Second – you can get free tepid water in cemeteries. I don’t usually frequent the latter, but now I make a point of visiting the sadly departed and quaffing their aqua vita. Or should that be aqua morte?
The French may be unable to maintain their roads to EU-bankrolled Spanish levels, but public investment is obvious everywhere else. I just figured out that tourist information centres (closing down everywhere in the once-again ‘Great’ Britain, because who needs information? And why should we give it to bloody foreigners? For free!?!) are blissful oases with free-flowing wi-fi and clean toilets. They even have complimentary toilet paper (which your sizeable entrance fee evidently does not stretch to at campsites by the way). Also, I might just have been lucky, or maybe this is a seasonal thing, but there seems to be something happening in every town I visit. A few nights ago it was a street performance festival in Ales, today it’s jazz in Vienne.
Even in this post/pre/wtf—Brexit environment, hosts have been readily forthcoming to this little-Englander; considerate and generous with their homes, and their flamboyantly non-English cuisine. I look like an idiot showing up with my 5-Euro vin-generique but so far they’ve cooked me delicious meals and tactfully avoided the whole Brexit debacle, until I feel the urge to apologise for it.