[I’m using the (Un)Inspired Ramblings Facebook page to post some more regular updates and photos in between main blog posts here. You can find it here.]
I arrive in a misty, grey, deserted La Vacquerie feeling a little bit subdued. And very wet. Initially it seems that everywhere is closed, although I find that the group of French friends from the gite in La Couvertoirade the previous night are staying in a hotel. I opt for the cheaper CAF (Club Alpin Francais) gite across the road, the door to which I discover is unlocked. It’s huge, empty, and a little bit eery as I let myself in and sort my soaking gear out. I hang up all my clothes to dry and then cook by myself. It feels a little sad being here on my own and I wonder if I should have stayed in the hotel, or at least eaten over there. But I need to save some money, there has been too little free camping and too many meals out on this journey so far. It turns out that the CAF gite is looked after by the manager of the hotel (who also runs the little epicerie next door also… she must own the village…) and I do at least pop over a little later to pay, and to have a beer and use their wifi. As with many places in France, its standard for the staff to close up as soon as the last guests have finished their meal. Great for the staff, who can head home early but not so great if you want to hang out with a beer and free wifi… So fairly early I head back to the empty dorm room and doze off as the wind batters the building and the trees in the square outside.
After the previous days soaking, I’m not that enthusiastic about what is meant to be my last day on the GTMC before peeling off south westwards to avoid going back into Montpellier and making a beeline towards Spain. At the same time, I have really wanted to ride these last two days – they sounded very different to the rest of the route with some interesting towns and I’m annoyed that yesterday ended up being a big detour by road. Despite the poor weather during the night, it isn’t actually tipping it down when I come to leave so, after picking up some lunch (fresh bread, tinned pate) and some essentials from the epicerie, I head off to see what happens.
I take the road up Mont St Baudille, largely because I can’t actually find the trail that is meant to exist, although this might be because I don’t look all that hard for it, what with the ominous warnings on how steep it is that the Cicerone guide provides. The road itself isn’t long or steep but it does climb up into the mist and the amazing panoramic views that I am promised don’t really materialise. The trail then heads northeastwards along the ridge, disappearing into the mist. The whole thing is quite eery, and I really can’t see more than 20 metres in any direction. Cows suddenly appear out of nowhere, and then disappear again. I’m keen to get out of the cloud before the rain returns so follow the trail eastwards, slowly descending along the valley edge, with the visibility opening up as I get back below the mist.
I’m not all that impressed.
The next few hours of riding northeast towards the head of the valley, and then back along the other side towards the southwest again, for some reason feels more remote than a lot of the rest of the riding I’ve done in the last couple of weeks. The forest is everywhere, and the yellow trail can be snaking through off into the distance. The cloud is close to the tops of the valley edges, bringing a dark, slightly oppressive feeling to everything.
At times the trail is relatively smooth but there are large rocky sections full of babies heads – long stretches of rock garden, with rocks that are just too big to ride over comfortably – and other washed out sections of sand and gravel. I have a couple of hairy moments trying to stay in control, and have to remind myself of how long a walk this will be if I gash my tyre too badly, or crash and injure myself. Having just seen that two of the people I took inspiration from when choosing to buy the Ogre (Mike and Cass) have now both got Pugsleys, I can’t help thinking how much better proper fat tyres would be on this kind of terrain. My Ardents do a sterling job, especially with the pressures dropped, but… 😉
The trail heading back along the other side of the valley is smoother, sandier, though not without its climbing. After a couple of hours, I turn a corner and can see the flat coastal plains beyond the mountains. I’m heading down, out of the Massif Central for the last time. I’m so glad that I came this way this morning. The riding has been challenging but really enjoyable, and the landscape and feeling of remoteness different to anything else I’ve experienced in the Massif Central. Looking back at the last two or three weeks, the whole route has been amazing, and incredibly varied.
Soon St Jean de Fos comes into view.
And just when I least expect it, I come across a troll. Obviously.
St Jean seems a little underwhelming so I decide to head along the river up to St Guilhem le Desert. Did I say it had been raining a little? I think this is normally a beach…
The medieval village of St Guilhem le Desert is described as being a very touristy place, and that is true, but it is also undeniably lovely, creeping along either side of the Verdus stream, in a steep sided valley.
It is based around an Abbey founded in 804 by Guilhem of Orange (William of Orange).
Steep winding passageways lead in every direction, and greenery is everywhere.
The shops are all small, mostly selling art or local produce, which of course needs to be tested.
There is another CAF gite above a little bakery called Croc’Eclair, run by the friendly Natalie. There’s a very trusting arrangement with a key for the gite hidden in a letterbox nearby. On the second night a group of 4 friends arrive after the tourist information office is closed, but somehow manage to figure out the location of the key themselves… although I’m not entirely sure how.
The gently hum of tourists wandering past in the street, customers having conversations with Natalie below, and the odd traveling busker waft up through the windows. This guy was playing what looked like a very expensive dustbin lid (€1500, he said), but the sound he produced was amazing.
It’s the perfect place to rest for a day. Accommodation isn’t generally cheap here but the CAF gites seem to be the same price wherever you go – just €15 per night. Besides, the helpful girl at tourist information tells me that another big storm is expected tonight, they are worried that the river might flood, and that she won’t allow me to camp. In the end the storm doesn’t really materialise, but I’m grateful to have a day off the bike and to pause here, between the hills of the Massif Central and what will come next… the flatness of the Mediterranean Coast, and the road to Spain.