Thursday, April 30, 2015

Gorges du Tarn, France: Cathedrals of the Natural Kind

The storm that kept us grounded an extra day in Albi lingered long enough to give us lead-gray skies on the morning we left the city.  But the roads were dry and the chilly wind was at least to our back.  We followed the Tarn the entire day, running chocolate brown and high from the storm.  We followed a small road alongside the river that was a former railroad bed, so the grade was even with no surprises.  Water trickled down side canyons and in grottoes along the way.
The Tarn running mighty and muddy.
The further we got from Albi, the smaller the villages and almost no traffic.  We must have passed through half a dozen tunnels, some almost a kilometer long.  The first one had lights the entire length, but not the others.  We had to dig out our headlamps to light the way, but it still was quite disorientating tending to vertigo to ride in those black tubes.
Old railway tunnel along our road with a characteristic horseshoe shape.
By afternoon the clouds dissipated and so did the railroad grade and we were going up and down most of the afternoon.  There were three hydroelectric projects on the river along the way.  It was a long day for us, 95 kilometers, and we pulled late into the campground.  It seems to be still early season in this area -- we were the only campers, and maybe two other parties occupying cabins. It was a very nice facility -- four stars.  We are not quite sure exactly what that means, but we know it has something to do with services they offer. And this one had toilet paper.  I am thinking of compiling a chart of star rating vs toilet paper availability to confirm this theory.
Hydroelectric project along the Tarn.

Green, green...

John’s thermometer read 3 degrees the next morning, but it didn’t seem so bad once we remembered in was Celsius.  The highlight of the morning was passing under the Millau Viaduct, the tallest bridge in the world.  Astounding in scale.  And on this day we entered the Gorges du Tarn.

See my little bike?  Just a toy in comparison to the bridge!

Very, very impressive.

The other viaduct.
The Gorges du Tarn is a 50-kilometer canyon carved by the Tarn river.  A persistent limestone caps the top of the canyon walls which become quite narrow and steep, with shales and schists below.  Occasionally we would pass a cave with a heavy wooden door, presumably with some aging cheese behind it.
Entering the Gorges du Tarn.
Hiking, climbing, spelunking, white-water rafting and kayaking are big sports in the area.  We understand it gets very crowded in July and August, and the campground density is quite high all along the river.  But we are early season, and we found out that open campground density is quite low.  So we cycled further than we intended and ended up in a campground where most of the fellow occupants were climbers, many which we saw scaling the cliffs above us on the way in.  They had the look of the climbers back home -- minimalist, friendly, lean and dressed in puff jackets.

The building stone in the area is more varied than the limestone of the Dordogne and Lot valleys.

We exited the canyon the next day, the first day of full sun in a while, stopping often to take pictures of chateaus and cliffs and the river.  Pardon the pun, but it was “gorge-ous”.  Our road was near river level, but serpentine roads branched off frequently and we could see them switchbacking up the canyon to the high plateau into the reaches of the Cevennes region.  I wanted to follow those roads, but it would have to be some other time, some other mode of travel.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Albi, France: Many Tons of Brick

We sailed into the city of Albi, anticipating rain based on the forecast from a smartphone app and by the cinnabon-shaped low off the coast of Portugal.  We made reservations at a little hotel smack dab in the middle of old town, and paid an extra 2€ to store our bikes in a deep dark stone garage.  We had two nights and a day of mild weather and not a hint of rain.  We walked about and took pictures of the massive brick Cathedral of Sainte-Cécile.  We took in the Toulouse-Latrec museum (Albi was his birthplace), housed in the Berbie Palace which was as interesting as the art within.  And ate a lot of good food.

We planned to leave this morning, after the rain that fell most of the night stopped.  We got up and dressed in our bike clothes, packed our panniers, and waited.  Check-out time was 11 am, and as bell tower of the cathedral rang down the quarter hours the rain continued to fall.  With the alternative of hunkering down under some canopy in the cold with the chance of cycling to some campground nearby, we opted for one more night in the hotel.  And as I write this, evening has arrived and the rain has stopped and the clouds are lifting.  Tomorrow, onward!

Here are a few photos from our rambles about the old town -- enjoy!
Three bridges cross the Tarn into the old city center.  In this view the bridge in the foreground is the Le Pont-vieux, built in 1040.  The other bridge and the one from which the photo were taken were constructed in the mid-19th century.

The cathedral is built almost completely of brick, and claims to be the largest brick cathedral in the world.  The doorway is all spiny Gothic and weirdly mismatched with the rest of the building.
Sunday was the Albi Marathon, running through the cobblestone streets of the old town.

A bit of restoration is ongoing on the south side.

Impressive from all sides.

The cathedral interior and France's largest pipe organ from the 18th century.
Can you say Gothic?

Bright frescoes painted by Italian artists covered every inch of surface.
Gargoyles, ready to spit out rainwater...we were waiting, too.

Venturing down narrow side streets has its rewards.

Gardens at the Berbie Palace.

By summer I would guess the leaves of the vine trellis would completely cover the walkways.

Can you find the sagging support beams?  We didn't linger under any of these overhangs.

Axe marks on timber beams.

Le Pont-vieux from the other side.
The main bridge into town, built in the mid-19th century.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Cordes-sur-Ciel, France: Medieval Wanderings

Sometimes what looks like the most direct way on a map is not actually the case.  When choosing to go across the grain of the land, from one river valley to the next, expect to spend time going up and a lot less time going down.  But sometimes there are panoramic views along the way, and even a few sights like chateaus and fortresses on steep cliffs or where a river valley narrows. 
A castle here...

...a château there...

...everywhere along the Dordogne!
We left the Dordogne Valley and its castles just past Souillac.  We were following our trusty Michelin atlas, and it gives towns and cities a star rating based on what the place has to offer.  And our goal was the three-star burg of Rocamadour, the grand-daddy of cliff-clinging fortress towns.  It was not far from our last campground, just 20 kilometers or so.  Maybe a couple of hours.  As it turned out it was uphill grades most of the way, and we burned through most of our breakfast and the morning by the time we got there.  What kept me going was the thought of a pastry, an occasional treat we allow ourselves on tough days.  Pâtisseries and boulangeries can be found in even the smallest of towns, and surely the tourist magnet of Rocamadour would have something.

View of Rocamadour from the east.
Looking down on the alleys at the base of the Rocamadour fortress.
We arrived, and the cycling gods were good to us.  Our approach from the north deposited us at the high point of the ridge on which the castle was situated.  Turn left to seek out a calorie depot, turn right to see the castle.  We turned left first.

To our disappointment it was hotels and restaurants and souvenir shops and not a bakery within sight.  Bummer -- another muesli bar for you.  Temporarily fueled we swung by the castle and then took the steep road with a hairpin turn down to a park at the base for a proper lunch.  The park was located right at the Petit Train depot and not far away from the elevator that requires much less calorie expenditure to get up to the castle.
Lovely French country road with tress just starting to sprout leaves.

Wayside cross in the countryside.
Our afternoon was a repeat of the morning as we dug out of the river valley just to drop and climb again, three iterations in all.  We stayed on minor roads to avoid traffic, and it was quiet and rural and sparse along our route.  The buildings all looked ancient and weathered but striking against the clear blue sky of the afternoon.  We could see for miles in all directions.  This is what I imagined bike touring in France to be, and it was fun.

At 2:30 in the afternoon we came by two signs -- one with the distance of 45 kilometers to our destination, and another to a campground.  We took stock and realized we did not have the energy or time to get to camp at a reasonable hour given the terrain, so we headed to the campground (uphill, of course).  We met the proprietors, Stuart and Shiela, a British couple who purchased an old château 25 years ago and built a resort-quality campground around it.  And like we had found with so many campgrounds already, they were not open yet for the season.  But they would let us stay anyway.  They said they often get cyclists who underestimate how far they can get across the area’s topography after leaving Rocamadour.  Since we did not have enough food for dinner they would make a plat de jour for us, too.  It was a pleasant evening, sitting on their terrace and chatting with Stuart about their life and the history of the area.
Foggy morning after rain showers overnight.
The next day we made good time getting to the Lot River valley, despite drizzle in the morning.  And the next day out of that valley and into the Aveyron River valley and up a tributary where the landscape flattened and opened up to wide pastures.  The corduroy landscape was ending and the campground only 5 kilometers away.  And then we saw the town of Cordes-sur-Ciel perched on a high knob.  One more hill to climb that day, I guess.  But we stopped at the campground (on top of a hill, wouldn’t you know it), set up our tent and left behind the heavy panniers to make our way to the city and explore the twists and turns of yet another medieval wonder.

Cordes-sur-Ciel poking out in the distance.
Cordes-sur-Ciel is our favorite town so far.  Only portions of the old city have been restored and exposed on the weathered buildings are the supporting beams and multiple alterations that have been made through the centuries.  People live in this town, but there are also shops that sell beautiful crafted items -- jewelry, leather goods, pottery -- refreshing after seeing so many tacky souvenir shops in other places.  We were charmed, despite our weariness.  Sometimes the road is not direct, but it may lead to something good.

Just a can see a map of our route at either one of these links, periodically updated by John when time and wifi are available: Google Maps or on the GoSeeDo blog

We left Cordes-sur-Ciel on a Saturday morning, and in the town square was a market with this heap of carbohydrates.  You can't get a bad loaf of bread in this country.

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