Riding back in history: Languedoc.

On Tuesday, 29 August, we took a moment to visit the old church and cloister at Saint-Lizier, before setting out for Tarascon-sur-Ariège, our destination for that night. 

Cheryl wanted to ride the King’s Highway (D618) over another series of beautiful cols to Tarascon-sur-Ariège, but I saw a major bicycle route on my OSMand software, so when she left me behind on the way to Saint-Girons, I decided to play hooky. 

My OSMand software took me through some back streets in the northeast corner of Saint-Girons before dumping me onto the D117 the main highway to Foix, the capital of Ariège. At that point, a voie verte, built with private funds and the cooperation of the two cities, led from Saint-Girons to Foix. It proved to be a very pleasant ride, a mix of well-groomed hardpack and asphalt. From the tunnels and gradient, I could tell that it had been a rail line, one of many rails-to-trails paths that we found in France. The town of Rimont on the map turned out to be a single building, obviously a decommissioned railway station. About ¾ of the way to Foix, the bike path turned away from the D117 and took a meandering route to the north. I jumped onto the D117, and used OSMand to find a back road, the D617, which took me past the scenic castle of Foix and into the city. I crossed the Ariège River and followed it upstream on the D117 to Tarascon. I arrived a little ahead of Cheryl, and was able to scout out the downtown. She called me from the Tourist Office across the river when she arrived. We booked into the Hotel de la Poste with a room overlooking the town and the river.

Cheryl wanted to see the caves at Niaux, one of the better-known and accessible Neolithic caves among the hundreds in this part of France. We had seen fantastic caves in Spain, and learned a lot. The 9 km out to Niaux were scenic and manageable, and the challenging “driveway” of the cave site rewarded us with some stunning views. The cave itself was indeed worth the trip, with excellent, very advanced art deep (1.5 km) in the cave. I was worried about my hips walking that much in cold dampness, but I managed fine by being careful. By mid-morning, we were flying down the mountain, back to Tarascon. Bad weather was forecast for the next two days, and Cheryl had an idea to spend it under shelter: take the train. We caught a train to Ax-les-Termes, a spa resort up the Ariège River, and booked into an apartment at the Clos Saint-Louis for two nights. The 30th, we took a train to Carol Latour, the last town in France in the Catalan Pyrènèes. The station was actually at the border station of Enveitg, where the train from Barcelona met the French railway (different gauges). It was like an amusement park ride to look up and down the mountain as the train chugged through woods and rocks. At Enveitg, we walked to Carol Latour itself, an historic medieval village. At the bar, we got something to eat, and I listened to the locals speaking in a French dialect heavily laced with Catalan. I only knew that it was a dialect because I recognized a few French words and the overall French structure. When we returned to Enveitg, our return train was the InterCity to Paris, a big step up from the little regional choo-choo that had brought us there. In fact, this out-of-the-way place is part of the main line from Barcelona to Paris, and so it sees more traffic than it deserves, there being no town around the station. Back in Ax-les-Termes, we fixed supper in the flat and took a walk in the evening.

As promised, the next day was cold and rainy. Indoor activity seemed the recommended thing, so we walked up to the famous baths of Ax-les-Termes, the Bains du Couloubret, which had a very affordable deal of two hours for only EUR 30 for both of us. The modern facility had every thermal bath arrangement imaginable: Roman, Turkish, Sauna, Nordic, whirlpools, water features, swimming pools – we tried them all. The water movement was invigorating (if a little sulphurous), and the temperature was comfortably warm throughout. Much refreshed, we walked back to the flat.

 

On the 1st of September, we took the train to Foix to resume our ride along the D117. Crossing from the Ariège Department to the Aude, we climbed the Col du Portel (601 m), which would be our last col in the Pyrènèes. We found a pleasant hotel in Quillan on the Aude River. The next morning, we rode to Carcassone, capital of Aude, and a much-visited UNESCO World Heritage Site. We were in Cathar country, and we saw the red flags with the Cathar Cross in abundance. Not coincidentally, it is the flag of the historical region of Languedoc. We were in the part of France that historically has given the French King and the Catholic Church some of their greatest challenges: Cathars, Huguenots, and a long tradition of self-government. The histories of the Cathars, the Huguenots and the parlements of Toulouse and Languedoc make for interesting reading. We would discover many surprising bits of history over the next month.

Cheryl and I arrived in Carcassone at about the same time, because she took time to visit the abbey ruins at Alet-les-Bains, while I kept riding at my slower pace. Carcassone is the quintessential Disneyland fortress town. The medieval town overlooks the modern city (a pleasant place in its own right), and the locals have done much to keep its flavor. We booked into the HI Hostel in the medieval town, and enjoyed the city after the bulk of the daily tourists left. While there, we toured the walls, read the histories, and rode into the modern city. Carcassone is a must-see stop, and after all I had heard, I am glad that we stayed there for two nights.

By this point, we had ridden through the major wine-growing regions of southwest France, always “eating local.” We had enjoyed Bordeaux (mainly Merlot), Médoc, and various lesser well-known wines of the regions around Pau. In Carcassone, we agreed that the pays d’oc was probably the most distinctive, and partly for that reason, our favourite to date. Another treat proved to be the cheese. Cheryl had always talked enthusiastically about the cheeses in France, and how distinct each was, especially if one could find the unpasteurized versions. We found plenty of unpasteurized lait cru, but the surprise was finding out that some of the formerly hard-to-find varieties, like sheep cheese from the Basque country, were now available in supermarkets throughout southern France. We also had sheep yoghurt for our morning muesli and fruit, which we were able to find more often than not. That was also from the Basque country, as well as the cols that we had climbed.

On the 4th, we took a train to Narbonne, dodging the rain that was trying to follow us from the mountains.

We arrived early enough to enjoy this well-laid-out city and its Bishop’s Palace, and Museum. Narbonne was the capital of the Roman Province of Gallia Narbonensis and the destination of the Via Domitia, part of the great highway system that united Rome with Spain. The original road is on display in the square outside the Palace. The tapestries in the Palace were remarkable, as was the cathedral. We left in the afternoon and made our way to the fishing (and yachting) village of Gruissan. Gruissan sits in the tidal lowlands southeast of Narbonne, protected by a long series of dunes and barrier islands. Gruissan’s tower was a distinctive landmark, the end of our ride from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean. We checked into the Hotel Port Beach, and celebrated our accomplishment with a delicious seafood dinner nearby.

On Tuesday, the 5th of September, we rode along the beach to the town of Sète, which Cheryl had visited before. We had planned to stay in the HI Hostel in the medieval town, but after a gruelling push on foot to the top of the hill overlooking the city, we found a note on the hostel gate that they were closed for a week-long holiday. By then it was getting late, and we were lucky to find a hotel outside the quaint part of town, near the station. Sète sits on a series of rivers and canals, linking the sea with the railroad and the Canal du Midi, carrying goods to and from Bordeaux, Occitanie and Southwestern France. By the time we settled in, we were unable to get a reservation at any of the recommended restaurants. We found one place that could take us that late, and the cooking explained why it was not full like the others.

The next morning, we continued up the coast, then inland to Montpellier, another city that had been on my bucket list for many years. We booked into the HI Hostel for two nights, and I was not disappointed to spend some extra time in this marvelous, livable city. My first impression was the modern campus of the University of Montpellier, which attracts students from all over the world. I cycled my way toward the historic center, noting the variety of races and ages on the streets. At the commercial center of Polygone (the older campus of the University), I caught up with Cheryl. We made our way through the complex and onto the promenade that bordered the historic center and the modern town. Montpellier was an architectural and cultural delight, with interesting churches, a botanical garden, parks and urban features typical of the grandiose city planning of the 18th Century, and a lively spirit exemplified by the street acts in the squares.

While it was hot in the mountains, strangely the weather was becoming cooler now that we were back at sea level. Cheryl wanted to ride the Gorges of the Tarn River, and I was always happy to add another beautiful river to River Run 2017. On the 8th we took the train to the distant mountain village of Mende in the smallest department of France (by population), the Lozère. The weather was turning cold and inconsistent between sun and rain. We walked around Mende, admiring the Pont de Notre Dame and looking for an open restaurant. Cheryl found pizza to go, which we took back to the Drakkar Hotel.

Morning found us riding down the Lot River from Mende to the small village of Balsièges, where we climbed up the side of a cliff to cross the broad, desert-like plateau of the Causse de Lozère. At almost 1000 m, the plateau was arid, and supported little more than grass for pasturing cattle.

The D986 took us through a succession of challenging ravines until we reached other side of the causse, where the Tarn River had cut a sharp gorge, almost invisible when looking across the causse. We plunged several hundred meters in less than a kilometer into the medieval village of Sainte-Enimie. Cheryl walked into the historic center while I visited the tourist shops and the old church by the river.

A traiteur was selling local meats and cheeses, including deli bull meat. He was having a sale to clear his inventory, because it was the end of the season, and he would be closing the next weekend. I bought some dried bull meat, and some local cheese. Cheryl joined me. We determined from the Tourist Office across the street from the traiteur, that there was no accommodation in Sainte-Enimie, so we used booking.com for a splurge: the Chateau de la Caze, about 9 km down the Tarn River. It was a five-star resort, and we had a private room near the hot pool. Dinner was up to Michelin standards, and put us in a good mood for the ride down the Tarn the next day.

The Gorges du Tarn are marked with three stars in the Michelin Guide, and they deserve the rating. I regretted very much that my little Nikon Coolpix camera had died in Biarritz, because my cellphone could not match it for clarity and definition. Nevertheless, I have memories fixed in my “mental camera” that will stay with me forever. Stunning stretches of granite rising high above us on either side, the road tunnelling through the rock, the river now placid then roaring – these scenes filled my heart with wonder as we pedalled steadily downstream. The roadbed was narrow, but easy, following what was obviously an old railroad. When we reached the town of Le Rozier, we took a detour up the Jonte River, the gorges of which rated only two stars. It was still beautiful, especially the vulture habitat, the cliff that looked like statues and the quiet of the less-travelled road.

Returning to Le Rozier, we continued down the Tarn, leaving Lozère and entering the department of Averyron. We found a comfortable hotel off the beaten path on the other side of the town of Compeyre. The Hotel du Rascalat (also the name of the neighbourhood) did not look like much, but it was well-equipped, with a fine restaurant on the premises.

The 11th became one of our longer days, not by choice, but because we had trouble finding a place to stay. We had planned to stay in Brousse-le-Chateau, but we missed the last room by just a few minutes. We moved on down the river, tired and cranky, toward the next town, some 20 km away. I used my phone to book a place in Trébas, but it was 4 km uphill away from town. Cheryl rode ahead, crossed the river, and found a place at the Hostellerie des Lauriers, which not only was close to the river, but had a good restaurant (the best/only in town) and a safe place for the bikes. Pushing those 90 km put us in a better position for the next day.

It was only 33 km to Albi on the 12th. Albi is a city of such special beauty that Cheryl suggested we spend two days there. We booked three nights and settled into a flat in the Berges de la Cathédrale. Built almost entirely of red brick, Albi shone with bright colours in the afternoon sun as we walked into the historic centre, crossing the Tarn on the Old Bridge. Over the next two days, we toured the Palace with its gardens, visited the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum (extremely interesting), and the Basilica of Saint-Cecile. This was the first place I had seen with a basilica and cathedral devoted to the Patroness of Musicians. It featured a polychrome stature of the saint, more colour than any other church I had ever seen, a masterful Last Judgement, and a massive organ located not in the back of the Church, but up front behind the main altar. The Music Department rules in Albi! I thought a lot of my musician son Daniel as I admired the place.

The weather had been kind to us as we rolled down the Tarn River, but the party was over. A storm front came in, so we took the train to Toulouse, the historic capital of old Languedoc and another must-see stop in France. By now, our getting stuck finding accommodations was teaching us something: book the weekend in one place, because the French were still taking weekend trips even though the vacation period was over, and school has started. We knew that really big cities would not pose a problem, but anything smaller than Bordeaux would only have room during the week.

We booked two nights in the Hotel Saint Claire in Toulouse, which was convenient to the station and downtown. On Friday, we used our bikes to cover the entire walking itinerary in the Michelin guide in the one day. The Basilica of Saint-Sermin, the Augustinian Museum, and the Jacobean Monastery held special interest. It was from here that the newly-founded Dominican Order mounted its campaign against the Cathars, developing gradually the techniques that became the Inquisition, which proved so effective throughout Europe, but especially in southern France and Spain.

From Toulouse we took the train to Mossaic. The front was forecast to linger for a few more days, but in Mossaic there was a clearing, just long enough for us to enjoy the annual festival of the Chasselas grape, a table variety much prized throughout France. Thousands of people showed up to taste and buy boxes from this year’s harvest. The Abbey of Saint-Pierre, 8th Century, put us back on the Chemin de Saint-Jacques. Indeed, we saw many pilgrims, both walkers and bikers, and we stayed at the suitably-named Ultreia Chambres d’Hôtes. Ultreia! is the traditional pilgrim’s greeting. It means “Onward!”, to which a pilgrim should respond Et suseia! “Upward!” Our hosts were English, and we enjoyed supper and breakfast with the international collection of hikers sharing the place with us.

The beautiful cloister of the Abbey was open for free for the festival. Inside we saw a photographic exhibit of the interesting history of this town. We were shocked at the long time it fell into disrepair, and how the private railroad in the 19th century demolished part of the abbey, putting a train line right through the center of it.

The rain returned as we rode to the station in Moissac. We decided to push through the front on the train, by heading west to Bordeaux, where the weather was sunny and pleasant, and let this front move east away from us. We left the Languedoc and returned to Aquitaine. Ahead lay some of the most famous vineyards in France, more gorgeous gorges, and stunning views. We were in for a treat.

Until next time,

Smooth roads and tailwinds,

Jonathan

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