The Massif Central is Ridiculously, Ridiculously Pretty and Worth Avoiding the Much Easier Midi Canal So That You Can Explore, When Bike Touring

October 21, 2012 at 12:36 pm

The wind had not abated in the morning. The plastic and canvas walls of the picnic shelter where I ate my breakfast flapped wildly. The sounds were violent. I took my time, finishing some writing and eating plenty. I made a second cup of coffee, ignoring my concern about a dwindling fuel supply.

A bit later than usual, I left the campground and headed east through the massif central. I had arranged lodging with a host only 70 kilometers away. My concern was that the day would be long, even with the modest distance. I expected more of the same severe winds, several big climbs, and a few rain showers if I somehow avoided a completely wet day.

Immediately I noticed a difference in the land around me. The landscape had been slowly transforming for days. The expansive hills were becoming wider and sometimes taller. I experienced more open farmland with distant rolling hills. The farmland was crisscrossed with low white stone walls in various states of disrepair. The walls were coated, often seemed to be dripping with red moss.

The day I'm describing became more and more beautiful, indescribably so. It would be impossible for any photographer, let alone a B-grade photographer like myself, to capture the majest of the massif central. Rolling hills dip and slope and continue endlessly, all the while resting high above the lowland valleys. To the effect that you can make several smaller climbs and descents before happening upon a long steady downhill race into a low beautiful valley. The valleys are long and flat, with tall trees and low grass. Rivers, wide and slow, run along smooth roads and peaceful villages. I know now why the word verdant exists, because the word green is truly insufficient for places like this.

Le massif central.


I took few photographs, and a more dedicated photographer would have taken more. But I felt good leaving the land to its beauty without attempting foolishly to capture it. I'm not unsettled that no picture of this land is great enough to do justice or transport the viewer. On the contrary, I'm put to ease knowing that there are parts of the world that you have to visit. That no book or photograph or film can take you to. And that no description or tale can evoke. My French-born San Franciscan friend who tricked me into believing that France had an Indian summer (two months of rain) made up for his betrayal by insisting that I visit the massif central.


More of Le massif central.

My map indicated two rivers running east-west with high cliffs on either side. My route was directly south, meaning that I would steeply descend and climb each. A murmuring and valid concern persisted that I would be hit with a strong headwind on a climb. Worst case scenario, the climb would be near impossible with a fully loaded bike. This rude combination didn't coalesce until the next day. Though on long slower climbs I was often faced with strong headwinds that persisted for up to an hour. Pedaling uphill into the wind is the kind of thing that's horrible in such a Beckettian sense that it doesn't break my spirit. I tend to smile, and periodically laugh as rounding a corner reveals another 800m of uphill road bordered with grass that's bent towards me.

I have agreed upon meeting my hosts almost universally with dubious instructions. The movie theater by the church, the church at the end of the road, the top of the hill by the train station. And the instructions for finding my host's house on this night were no different. A left turn after I had climbed a hill for 2-3 kilometers. The barn at the end of the road. And yet like every other time, the instructions panned out perfectly. I wound up at a low ranch-style home. My host carried her youngest daughter while the other two bolted around their home, filled with toys and their laughter. After I showered, we all went for a walk through the woods to visit the two local springs, neither of them running. To my surprise, the cat came along for the long walk. It came when called and stuck with the group, falling behind and running to catch up.


I agreed to some tea after dinner, but couldn't hold out and retired to the guest room. I slept like a stone and woke up to the sound of the continual wind. Outside under the purple sky, the wind was forcing the trees into wide circles. It shook them violently, throwing leaves about the yard. After coffee and breakfast, I headed out for another day of strong wind, deep valleys, and green hills.

I had agreed to meet my host for the next night outside of the town hall at a certain hour. This is somewhat risky, given the difficulties in anticipating the length of a route. Cutting diagonally across the land would have given me roughly 50 kilometers to travel. The prettier route ran due south and then due west in the longest distance possible without completely backtracking. I took it.

60 kilometers into my ride, I seemed to be about halfway to my destination. I didn't have nearly enough time to make my arrival, it seemed. My average speed was the worst it had ever been, hovering around16km/hr. Long climbs and persistent headwind had plagued my day, although again the beauty was unspeakable.

At exactly the moment that I felt I was going to be well late, I crested the top of a hill. There I discovered a monument dedicated to cyclotourists, to my kin.

Joseph Bastit memorial


What immediately followed was the fastest and longest and fastest descent I've happened upon. 10km of steep decline along smooth and empty roads, an open valley looming wide on my right. I topped out around 55km/hr, barreling down the mountain towards the flat lands below.

My luck continued as my westward turn brought with it a strong tailwind. I crossed long flat valleys at a strong clip as a storm loomed directly in front of me. Heading straight into the darkening clouds along fields of dying sunflowers was one of the most remarkable feelings I can remember, and one I won't likely forget. The kilometers ticked off easily as I approached Montauban.

Rain fell and then quickly cleared. I arrived at the town hall 9 minutes before the agreed-upon time. What could have been a 50km ride turned into 104km of beautiful effort. I sat on the steps of the building, happy and tired with my muscles feeling good and true.

Before long my host arrived and introduced himself. I followed him in his car, his daughters smiling at me from the back seat, to his house. There I had a shower and some food and a warm drink. We played a board game with his three beautiful daughters and awaited his wife for dinner. My host was welcoming and friendly, wearing a constant smile and bearing an easy laugh. He had toured the world on bicycle for two years with his brother and had pictures hanging around the house from Pakistan. He had visited Iran and Azerbaijan. My tour suddenly felt friendly and easy, if not insignificant.

In the morning we went for a walk, and then returned to pile into the car. In Montauban, we visited the local outdoor market where I bought ridiculously good goat cheese, aged cheese, bread, and fresh yogurt. After we made it home for a belly-expanding lunch, I left for what I anticipated to be an easy 60km day along a flat canal. But I had agreed again to meet my host at a certain hour…


Underground in Padirac, a Cliffside in Rocamadour, and a Long Wind

October 18, 2012 at 7:08 am

I had spent a full week off the bike, and I was afraid of what that would mean. In fact, the only ride I had done was a 20 kilometer loop with the son of my host. And that was without my bags and very fast–nothing like actual touring. Would my legs have gone soft that quickly? My best estimate for the day's ride was 100km and moderate hills. If I fallen out of shape at all, I would find out.

A bit of research turned up a campground that was open until early November. Located about 8km from the caves that I wanted to explore, it was perfect. I left early in the morning with a full stomach and a bike packed high with food. It felt good to be fully resupplied and back on tour.

In fact, everything felt quite good. The long morning stretch and warm meal. The rolling green hills spread under light fog. The cold air that bit at my fingertips and allowed me to stay bundled in a sweatshirt. The two water bottles each filled with a mixture of orange juice and water. By 11am, I had crushed nearly 50km. This included a 10km climb that reassured me of my strength. I felt good and strong through the whole thing and did not stop.

But that was just the morning. Around noon, it began to rain. I decided that I had to find a place to charge my camera since I would want it in the caves. The power adapter that I had borrowed from a friend did not work in many outlets, because most French outlets are recessed and it has a flat front. My first stop was at a bar where I planned to have a coffee and wait out the rain. Which had just started falling.

But the bar had no outlet that would work and it was the only thing in town, so I kept riding. The rain fell harder and I planned to stop in the next major town–one of only two between where I was and where I was going. But I realized when I got near that my route would skirt the town by a couple of kilometers and a steep hill. No matter, there was still the next town and it was still early.

And then I ran into a detour. I've found these to be particularly dispiriting in France. They are never well planned nor well marked. But the detour was just a few kilometers out of town, so I did not despair. Until several kilometers later when I realized I had been riding without a rest for a long time and that I was hungry and hot in my rain clothes and going directionally the wrong way. I tried for a long time to find a covered bench to sit and eat but found nothing.

Eventually I found a picnic table beneath the trees. It was not dry, but it was not soaked. The rain was still coming down, but slightly less beneath the branches. It would do. I ate a lot, and the food was good and felt good. I cut open half of a baguette and added tomato pesto, arugula, cheese, and sliced tomatoes. I read an email that I had been saving for a rest stop and then I stretched. Sometimes when things are a bit lonesome, I put on a short story podcast. Which now I did. It was a story by Raymond Carver. I love his writing, but it doesn't help to keep you from feeling lonesome.

Once I continued on and checked my map several times I realized where the detour was taking me. It was far out of the way and would later put me on a main route, full of the trucks that had been detoured. Instead I felt my way along some very small streets through one-chicken towns and back to where I needed to be. In the process, I had avoided the second larger village and with it any chance of charging my camera.

By the final 15 kilometers, I realized that my instincts were right and my feeling of enthusiasm that morning was wrong. A week off the bike had softened my legs, and I was dragging hard. I stopped and took off the hoody under my rain jacket and stretched and stopped the podcast and got ready for the final push.

I arrived at a very nice campsite and waited out the rain before hanging my hammock. I tried to charge my camera but could not and felt quite disappointed. I read for a long time before falling asleep.

At 7am the next morning I got out of the hammock and first thing went to the facilities block with the camera charger again. Stupidly. There was nothing going to be different, but sometimes you just have to go and do it anyway. Fiddling with the US to European adapter for the 25th time in five weeks, I finally realized that the prongs unscrew to extend. They can be used in any of the recessed outlets in France. I was too happy that my camera was charging to feel angry at myself for not realizing this before.

I ate well, the normal breakfast. Drank coffee and played guitar. And then I headed for the caves. The Gouffres de Padirac. Absolutely magical, the cave begins with a long staircase down a very deep chasm, open at the top.


At the bottom, the stairs descend against and under the chasm, away from the sunlight. After a long walk through a high narrow expanse of limestone, you arrive at a small dock. Three boats and their oarsmen wait to paddle you a kilometer along an underground river where the caverns open up again. At the other side are more and larger chasms with incredible stalactites and stalagmites. There are no cameras allowed after the section of cavern where you enter the boats. So you can not take any pictures like these:



It was still early in the day when I escaped the caves. I had planned to spend the next night at the same campsite and my pitch was still there. When I left, I asked if there was a place I could put my stuff so it would not be stolen. This is the second time I've asked this at a campground and the second time someone has looked at me like I'm nuts for asking. There is a place you can put it, but things are not stolen here. Is basically the idea.

And so anyway I had the rest of the afternoon. I rode 12km to Rocamadour. In terms of tourist destinations It is sort of the massif central's answer to the Mont St. Michel. It is a town built into a hillside with (surprise) a giant church at the top.



I went to the cliffside along the valley from the town with my lunch. I had a beer and wrote some postcards and ate a lot of food. It was very beautiful and the wind was coming through the valley but the wind was warm. After I had sat a good long time, I decided to head back to the campground.

On the way back I noticed the ticket office for another cave. Figuring that two caves and a town built into a hillside made for a good day, I stopped and bought a ticket. At the gift shop, I spoke to two French women for a long time about my trip and about San Francisco.

Once it was time for the tour, we descended to the grotto. It was small, and this time they were kind of serious about not taking any pictures. So I did not. There were cave paintings which looked mostly like someone had just smeared ash on the walls, but I took their word for the fact that they were ancient. The guide asked us which animal each one was and it was always impossible to tell. Except that I could tell the wolf right away. Whether ancient rust painted on a limestone wall or cyclist pushing across a nation, we can recognize others from the pack.

The tour was given entirely in French and lasted 40 minutes. In case you have now been misled into believing that my French has gotten good because I have talked so much about it, here is my transcription of the 40 minute guided tour:

Don't take pictures. Watch your head. These lights something. This is very old. Water makes this happen. Iron deposits. Over here, bath. Watch your head. Temperature doesn't change. Rain comes down, makes this. This was made my a root. Follow me. This is a horse. Legs, legs, head. That's right it's a deer. Legs, antlers. Watch your head, thank you.

The wind was coming in strong as I rode back to camp. And in fact it kept up this way all night and into the morning. The wind pushed hard in massive gusts against the rainfly of my hammock. Sometimes it was enough to swing me violently. The terrible sounds of the flapping material woke me many times. I had dreams of finding an open porch someplace and spending the rest of the night there. But they were dreams, which meant I was sleeping and that was good enough.