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Sain Jean Du Gard via Mt Ventoux to Aix en Provence

My hotel was full of hikers with huge packs. Why do you need to vary so much if you are staying in a hotel? They were all impatient to be off in the cool of the morning, but the hotel restaurant was firmly locked until exactly 7:45. Slicing bread and making a big jug of coffee obviously needs qpeace, quiet and considerable preparation time. No hurry I a motorcycle though … I went back to bed for a snooze. 

I decided to ride through Avion to Mount Ventoux, of Tour de France dame, before heading south to Aix en Provence. To make this possible I headed there by motorway, the sweeping curves of which made a refreshing change to the sinuosity of late. The speed felt positively breathtaking though. 

Mt Ventoux and its surrounding villages was teeming with cyclists in Lycra, all much skinnier than the average person I’ve seen this week. Ventoux is a formidable challenge and the fatties had obviously decided to stay away. Even the lithe seems to be over faced by the mountain though; I passed many walking or resting at the side of the road. My suspicion was that they had the wrong gears for the job, or the wrong legs. I’ve cycled steeper and longer passes I’m sure. Not recently though. On a motorcycle it was splendid, although without the rush of endorphins or the big grin on reaching the crowded summit. 

Leaving and heading south to Aix I was back on the twisties, through heavily scented lavender fields. 

I stopped at a pretty cafe with flags and shade for a coffee and ice cream (Magnum double chocolate – highly recommended). It was so pleasant sitting here and watching life go by that, in an uncharacteristic surge of generosity, I decided to leave a tip. I was almost back at the bike when the waitress caught up with me. I thought I must have forgotten something, but when she held out my change I thought I must have overtippped. She wanted me to come back to the cafe though. Bemused I followed her. She put the money in its little tray on the counter and said, “Please take your time to count it,” in a time I imagine she reserves for imbeciles and the infirm. I’d underpaid by a Euro.

It’s 27 years since David and I were in Aix en Provence. I remembered it as a place that I’d like to live. Now I didn’t recognise it at all. Nothing. Not sure I’d want to live here either any longer. 

Brusque to Saint Jean du Gard

Rain! The first big splash, and it was a single one, hit me squarely in the eye. I thought it was a bug and stopped to check that it had gone and wasn’t stuck somewhere in my helmet. It’s humid here, and at the slow speeds dictated by the twisty roads, my skill level and desire to stay alive, I need to drive with my visor open. I love the Schuberth C3 Pro helmet, but it could do with more ventilation in this climate.  It works fine in Saudi, but there the speeds are much higher. When it’s humid and your writing slowly it’s like having your head in the sauna.
I was reading about Saint Jean du Gard on the Internet and it has an interesting history. It was a protestant enclave, fought a war of succession from Paris, made its fortune from the silk industry and then went into decline in the twentieth century, until tourism and a reconstructed steam engine rescued the day. I’d write more, but then I would be just copying Bill Bryson’s style, only not as successfully. Now it has tourists, hikers and more than its fair share of local drunks. Pretty place though. 
Suffering from two days of eating far too much food, I forced myself to go for a run. It was hard work to start with and my belly seemed to have a life of its own. I struggled on though and eventually found the will to run a 10km circuit. At 8km I felt that I had been on the road for so long that I must have taken a wrong turning. I slowed to a walk, checked the gps and … Bang. Once I’d got over the shock and checked that I wasn’t bleeding, I cursed the local council for putting a signpost in the middle of the pavement. 
The hotel restaurant was OK, but hey only had here or four course meals on offers so I walked back into town for a salad.

Ax Les Thermes – Las Fuste (Brusque)

Sent from my iPad

Ax Les Thermes to La Fuste

Determined to find a way to follow the most interesting route without having to resort to map reading, I spent about thirty minutes at breakfast programming in gps points this morning. It was worthwhile. For over 160 miles I rode on amazingly twisty roads with near perfect Tarmac and hardly a car in sight. Brilliant.  That 160 miles took longer than 500 would in Saudi Arabia, but there I count bends, here straights. A trip from al Khobar to the UAE can be done in less than 10 bends I think, and that’s if you include turns. Yesterday I counted two straight sections of road, both less than 100m in length. 
One of the passes I crossed today had an unreasonably steep descent. There were so many hairpins in quick succession, each of which I had to take in first gear, that I stopped to take s screenshot of my gps. Whoever decided that it was reasonable to put a road here was either brilliant or mad. I’d like to bring some Nepalese road engineers here to show them what is possible with simple technology and without destroying the surrounding landscape. 
I’d passed by on part of this route before with David Churches, but I only had a dim memory of the route. I remembered the cafes though and Dave’s predilection for Coca-Cola and nicotine gum. Last year the temperatures were in the high thirties and low forties; today it was only 28° and yet the Tarmac was still melting. I wonder if the composition of Tarmac used in Saudi Arabia is much more expensive? It doesn’t melt there, although I do remember a large speed bump that was placed near my house that spread itself across the road like melting ice cream one summer.
I thought I had a flat tyre just after lunch. The back wheel seemed a little twitchy. I stopped and checked it though and it was OK. The road at that point was covered in tar snakes and had hidden areas of subsidence that were hard to spot in the bright sunshine; disconcerting to ride on.
It took me while to find La Fuste, a beautiful log cabin set on a clearing above the woods just outside Brusque and up a long, steep gravel drive. Google maps is excellent but sometimes it gets the placement of things wrong. I called at two likely looking houses before hitting on the right place. La Fuste is a wonderful place, so calm and peaceful. 

From Barcelona – Montserrat – Ax Les Thermes

A few photographs from today’s 8 hour ride north from Barcelona.

Ax les Thermes

Not exactly lost, just not on route

Barcelona – Montserrat – Berga – Puigcedera – As Les Thermes
I spent quite while planning my first day of riding this summer. ViaMichelin is a superb app for the iPad that selects a variety of routes depending on the parameters you give it. As on the paper maps produced by the same company, there are green lines along roads of special beautify. They are always worth riding, and linking a number together over the course of a day can make for a spectacular outing. Without a data connection however it is not possible to navigate with the ViaMichelin app whilst on the road. Currently, there is no obvious way to transfer the suggested routes from the app to something that works offline, like a gps. It should be possible to look at the route on ViaMichelin and then programme in the same route with my TomTom gps. When I try this though, the maps bear scant resemblance to each other.
Setting off on my carefully planned route I caught sight of a spectacular ridge of rocky mountains in the distance and headed for those instead. They were the cliffs of Montserrat, home to an ancient religious monument or two, not so far from Barcelona and consequently infested with tourists of every shape and size, but mainly fat. Being on a bilke means you can park in small places near attractions and don’t have to walk from a car park miles away. It was so busy though that a policeman directed me to park on the pavement near his station, much to the annoyance of his colleague who told me off for parking there a few minutes later. I didn’t stay long, but grabbed a photo of the view, decided not to visit the monastery or sanctuary and instead escape back to twisty road around the mountain. 
Belching occasionally from the enormous steak I had for lunch, I found my way from Montserrat to Ax Les Thermes on a mixture of sinuous backroads and delightful motorways. It had been on the waiter’s recommendation that I declined the salad. No need, he suggested with a grin and body language, neither my Spanish or his English being up to a complete explanation. Served on a hot slate, the steak was huge, rare and delicious. Far too much meat for one man though. 
Climbing to the pass at Porté Puymorens I was passed by a large group of motorcyclists who were obviously far more comfortable than I am at taking hairpin bends at speed. On one 180° bend I lost the guy following me.  He was so close that I was reluctant to break for the corner, so I swung really wide. He passed me on the inside.  There minutes later I passed them all myself – they had stoppe for some reason at a place without view or attraction. A puncture maybe? To talk about the slow Spaniard who swings wide on bends? There are advantages to having Spanish plates on the bike. 
Ax Les Thermes, unsurprisingly, has a large number of hot springs and has been a place where the sick have been able to ‘take the waters’ since at least the 13th century when a hospital was established in the village. Today, there is still an open pool in the centre where the public can soak their feet, and a number of springs where your could do your washing in the piping hot, slightly sulphurous waters. In winter, Ax Les Thermes is a ski resort. It must be nice to come off the slopes and thaw our your feed in the hot waters.
I’m staying at Hôtel la Grande Cordée, which is OK but definately neither big nor posh, but it is cheap.

Photos later.