We took a break from cycling today. There can’t be many people who need to take a holiday from their holiday – but we do! We have a really nice hotel beside the Cathedral for two nights.
Rodez is a great place for a day off. The highlight is undoubtedly the Menhir Museum. This has a whole load of ancient standing stones, carved into the likeness of real people , male and female, wearing contemporary clothes. Fantastic.
After breakfast in town we crossed the Truyere (the wrong way on a narrow old stone bridge) and carried on down the Lot gorge. This became steadily more remote until we reached the tiny hamlet of Decoursavy. Here we turned left, back south, and began to ascend a side valley. First stop after coffee was Conques. This is a top tourist spot, famous for its mediaeval golden icons.
The golden artefacts were indeed beautiful, and the church had some interesting carvings, particularly over the door. But it was a busy place and we decided to find somewhere quieter to eat. So we were delighted to find a roman bridge and sat down on the roadway. Only to find that it was still open to cars (just fitted with wing mirrors folded in) so we had to move mid picnic!
From Conques it was a serious climb back up to Rodez on the plateau. Half way up we stopped at Salles la Source to see a waterfall, not unlike those closer to home.
These big climbs are becoming routine now. But entering large towns is not. This is our first since Girona. I had plotted a cunning route on back roads. But it turned out that the main road in to town had a good bike track, so we followed it – only to find that it ended in a rubbish dump. We ended up having to ride the main roads, and climbing steeply to the old, hilltop centre. Here we booked into a nice hotel near the cathedral and we’ll have our first day off the bikes tomorrow.
Another easy day today, running down the Lot valley through a series of picture villages. But it started with a climb past a section of gorge too narrow for a riverside road. Lovely views before a descent back to the river.
Espalion was a nice place for lunch in a tiny restaurant near the bridge.
After Espalion the river reentered a section of narrow gorge with only a small road. This was kayak and raft territory – though nothing too challenging. Estaing was about half way through this section.
After Estaing the gorge became even narrower. Entraygues was fantastic, on a major confluence and with a lovely municipal campsite across the river. We did a town walk (always a hit with Helen) and found an English tearoom. We had camped right next to a football pitch, and when we came back in the dark after our evening meal we found that the floodlights were on for a training session. So we lay in the tent in broad daylight listening to football shouts. Even so, I was asleep before they finished and turned out the lights.
We woke up to fog again, but this time it was clear that the sun was going to burn it off and a good day beckoned. After breakfast we headed off into the mist, over a low pass shared with a railway line in gorgeous countryside.
By coffee time we had reached St Saturnin where we found a house for sale and fantasised about buying it and opening a cycle touring hotel.
The village also had the remains of a roman villa, which was a good chance to photograph my loaded bike.
A short hop over a second pass as the sun came through
led to a very long descent to St Geniez in the Lot gorge. This was probably the best place yet- lovely honeyed stone set beside the river in this beautifully wooded gorge. After wandering round for a while we found a fantastic hotel for lunch in their posh courtyard restaurant. This lasted several hours, and we had no problem whiling away the afternoon! Living slowly is starting to come easily.
Another modification to the route. Rather than two long and very hilly days going high up the Tarn gorge before turning west to the Lot at St Geniez we have decided to leave the gorge earlier and head more directly to St Geniez. Still 2 days cycling, but easier and the chance to visit St Severac as a consolation for missing out the upper Tarn gorge.
So we carried on up the valley on the back road, with great views north. After coffee in Riviere sur Tarn we turned left into a side valley and began the long climb out of the gorge. This was on a tiny road in lovely scenery. The climb was quite steep in places and we stopped for lunch part way up.
Near the top there were good views back to the Tarn gorge.
On the plateau at the top we crossed both railway and autoroute before descending a deserted main road to St Severac le Chateau. This was a lovely village and, despite a heavy shower as we arrived, we enjoyed the view from the castle.
The campsite is first rate. A lovely pitch with covered pool and a good restaurant.
Well it might be only half a day, but it started with an 800m climb up and over to the Tarn valley. (There was a lower route over by the main road, but we both preferred the extra ascent, and were rewarded with a quiet road and great views.) The weather was warmer and sunnier, and coffee after the descent to St Rome de Tarn was outside in the sun.
After crossing the river Tarn
there was a stunning riverside road along the Tarn gorge. This twisted and turned for miles until we began to see the tops of the Millau motorway viaduct in the distance. Cycling under the 1000m tall structure designed by Norman Foster was a real highlight.
We had lunch on Millau, looking back at the bridge.
We admit that there were campsites on the edge of town, but we needed a hotel and so booked in for a night in a comfortable modern place. The creperie in the town centre gave us an excellent evening meal.
Stopping short yesterday means that we can’t get to Millau today, where we had planned a rest day tomorrow. But we will get close today and have a half day cycling tomorrow.
A cold front followed yesterdays rain so that at 900m altitude we needed warm clothes this morning. In town over breakfast we met our first English cycle tourist – a young lad doing Biarritz to Munich. This was his only section on his own and he looked fed up after yesterday’s weather.
I was delighted to find that the large lakes that we passed today were indeed the ones I had seen from the plane on the flight out. I had been confident from the plane that they were on our route, but checking google maps afterwards made me doubt the identification because a large island was not shown where I had seen it from the plane. I was thus very satisfied to turn a bend and see the island right where it should have been. Never trust google maps!
This was Sunday morning and there was nothing open for coffee in Murat. I bet they didn’t have that trouble in the Tour when it came through a few weeks ago. We climbed again to over 900m and then entered the head of the gorge du Dourdou. This was a beautiful descent into a small tranquil valley with a tiny road along it.
Lunch was calling and, after a succession of closed and deserted villages, we decided that we stood more chance of a decent restaurant by following the Dourdou downstream rather than by deviating to Sylvanes Abbey as intended. Food or culture? This paid off handsomely with a fantastic meal in a packed local restaurant in Camares. We were squeezed in amongst the locals in a very friendly atmosphere and really enjoyed the food and the rest.
After dinner it was straightforward down valley cycling to St Affrique. By this time we were back to busier roads – the first since Caumes Minervois. But the town was a good one. We picnicked at the campsite and then drank beer in town till it got dark.
There was a dramatic change in the weather overnight. We woke up to low cloud and fog hanging in the valley and a thick drizzle. We packed the tent and headed into the village for breakfast and supplies. While in the cafe it grew worse and by the time we set out it was properly wet.
We spent a high proportion of the day climbing small wooded roads in varying intensities of rain. Views were limited by the cloud, but I really enjoyed this southern part of the Cevennes. It was incredibly remote, with small impoverished villages miles apart in the forest.
Helen spotted a restaurant at lunchtime – and it was a life saver. We spent ages in the warm and dry over yet another duck and chips. Here we decided to shorten the day, since the climbing was non stop and we were getting tired. And camping in the wet did not seem attractive. On reaching the yet-to-be-gentrified, fortified village of Le Salvetat, the tourist office booked us into a basic b&b just up the road.
Time to see Carcassonne. So we packed and headed into town. But instead of going up to the old town inside the walls, we crossed the ancient bridge and entered the new town. Here we had breakfast outside a boulangerie and then headed out along beside the Canal du Midi. Our target for lunch was Caumes Minervois, some 15 miles away across rolling, hot, scrubland.
This turned out to be a wonderful village, packed with history. We had a very extended lunch stop. The place was known from Roman times for its pink marble, and there were modern sculptures everywhere.
There was a beautiful abbey church and museum that we visited.
before lunch in a shady courtyard.
One reason for not rushing away was that we knew that the afternoon had a serious climb up and over the Black Mountains that loomed over the village.
As it turned out we both really enjoyed the afternoon. The approach to the climb was up a narrow valley, with apple orchards, onions and adverts for the produce of the terroir.
The road was tiny and almost car free, but the gradient was easy and there was plenty of shade and lots of hairpins with views. After about an hour, and halfway up, we stopped for coke and ice-cream in a tiny village store. The locals were in the middle of dinner and thought we were mad. We were tiring towards the top, but there was a great reward. The scenery changed instantly from the Mediterranean scrub maquis that we had had since near Carcassonne to a lush, green mountain scenery reminiscent of alpine foothills. We screamed down the descent into a beautiful green valley.
The municipal campsite was quiet and we picnicked almost alone as evening fell.
This was our first full day in France. So we were looking forward to a proper petit dejeurner in a local cafe. So, with tent packed, we set off down the last, and most spectacular section of the Aude gorge. We found our breakfast sitting outside the boulangerie in the town square in Quillans.
But from there the day got harder as we picked up a headwind and, emerging from the gorge, the scenery became more mundane. We stopped in Limoux for lunch. This had a busy square but, for some reason, we chose to picnic instead of a midday meal.
The afternoon was hot and hard and we finished at a nondescript campsite about 4 miles outside and short of Carcassonne.
Carcassonne was on the route because it had to be, geographically. We had been before and had not liked the disneyfied castle. So we weren’t in a rush to ride into town and back and instead we just kicked back in the campsite for the evening. The photo shows the battlements in the distance.