Wednesday 1 July 2015: Montbéliard to Baumes Les Dames
My Warm Showers host feeds me a fantastic French breakfast featuring rich, beautiful, unhomogenised milk they buy from a local farmer several times a week. Elisabeth then rides with me to the edge of Montbéliard and sees me off with a cheery au revoir.
The heat quickly rises to the high 30*Cs and the French are hiding. Those who are out look wrecked, or determined, or a bit of both. I feel fine; I feel Australian.
What company I have comes from the beautiful grey herons which have been with me for a couple of days and the auburn hawks circling, as they have since I was in the Rhine Delta.
The tree-lined cycleway, running parallel to the river, is generally very quiet. I am immersed in blues and greens: fields, trees, the river, the sky. I am grateful for patches of shade and the cooling effect of the breeze generated by the speed of my pedaling.
I stop in a hot dusty-ish, hazy-ish and dead-fucking-quiet village for lunch. It’s the sort of town that would be in a Quentin Tarantino film if he made a modern French western. There are a few cafes open and not a lot of patrons for them. I have the plat du jour at the most inviting of them: melon and ham, bread, a bit of salad, ratatouille with two slices of pork and chips; an ice cream cake for dessert and a bottle of water. All that, air conditioning, and the use of a proper toilet for €13 – I count it a good deal.
In the afternoon heat I take refuge in what I’d call a washing shed. Once, there would have been flowing water and women would have washed their clothes, here, on these worn angled stones. It offers cool shade and respite.
It’s still hot as Hades when I arrive at the municipal campground near Baume les Dames. At its worst, the day must have been 40*C plus and with heat radiating off the bitumen. I pay €8.85 for my night’s accommodation and sit in the shade eating icy poles waiting for the heat to diminish a bit before putting up my tent.
Evening, and it’s cooling finally. I ride my unloaded bicycle into town to look for dinner. I’ve done this so rarely and it feels so light – I’m dancing up the hill into town. Baume les Dames is cute enough – more lively than my lunch stop, and I find an inviting looking pizza joint on a cobbled square. Kids are kicking a football and there’s a fountain splashing.
A revoltingly loved-up couple coo at each other to my right. They are hiding behind menus, which they are not looking at, gazing at each other, whispering, laughing. Ugh – coupledom, sometimes I miss it, sometimes I’m immensely grateful to be free of it.
Thursday 2 July 2015: Baumes Les Dames to Frisians
The alarm goes off at 5:15 and by 5:30 I’m making breakfast and getting ready for the day. I cycle away at 7:30 as the rest of the campers are just beginning to stir. I’m philosophically opposed to setting alarms unless absolutely necessary. Days in the 40*+ range call for desperate measures.
While riding in the heat without too much complaint does make me feel all Australian – I’m also Australian enough to know how dangerous it can be, how heatstroke can sneak up on you and lay you low something awful.
The early start helps but it is, again, stupidly hot – at least as hot as yesterday, maybe hotter and the cumulative effect is starting to take its toll on me.
Today’s ride is much like yesterday’s – along the river/canal with occasional forays into or near towns with, seemingly, no retail businesses at all. Elisabeth had said most have moved to the edges of towns (big boxes on the highways). An hour into my day’s ride I go through a little town and encounter a boulangerie van – a bakers’ van that does a circuit selling fresh bread and other bits and pieces. For less than €2 I get a pain au chocolat and half a baguette. France is seeming pretty cheap.
By 11 am I’ve ridden the 30 km or so to Besançon – home town to Victor Hugo. It’s a cool town built on an ox bow of river and guarded by a fuck-off looking heritage listed fortress. Winding, cobbled old streets open onto squares. I fail to take pictures – I blame the heat. And the ‘public toilets’ are guarded by money-expecting women. If it can be avoided I won’t pay to pee. For a coffee and a pee? Okay. Ice cream and a pee? Yup. Just pee? Not if I can help it.
I fail to find the information office and with it a source of WiFi. I also fail to find a post office. I think businesses are just more obvious in Italy. I do find a little grocer where I get fruit and vegetables, salami, biscuits, more sweetened condensed milk and yogurt. I look at the cheese and imagine it as a puddle of milk fat in my bag.
Since then it’s been a brutal slog in the heat.
In mid-afternoon I find a shelter near a lock on the canal. There are tables, a bathroom, tap water and shade. I end up spending a couple of hours there – napping, reading, just waiting for the burning ball in the sky to lessen its intensity a bit.
By 19:30 I arrive at the campground in Frisians. It looks pretty there, across the river – but it feels like a bogan-y, dead-end, shithole of a French town with pretty buildings including a chateau. The main street is not quite Port Kembala-dead. There is a pizza place, a kebab shop (in someone’s shed), a proper restaurant closed tonight but looking like a going concern; a Red Cross op shop, post office and a boulangerie – the most prosperous looking place in town.
This campground is the quietest I’ve ever visited. It’s me and a German guy with his dog – he looks all ultra-athlete-ish. Something extreme. When they say closed at 20:00 they mean it – gates go up and customers are turned away. It’s a municipal ground – €2, no WiFi.
I dropped my toiletry bag and cracked my deodorant crystal – may need to be abandoned. Then nearly slipped and fell in the shower. I had a hard moment – a wee brief sob – when I wanted things to be familiar and just a bit easier. I know I have a good run of familiarly coming up – friends to see in Paris, the UK, and Ireland, a shift back to the English speaking world. This is good – it’s all good – a little hard and with the heat I’m just, I think, worn down a bit. Made a little worse by the lack of internet, and the sense of connection it brings.
France has felt flat out harder – I don’t know if that’s the heat, the language, that I’ve been at this for 39 days now, or what. But today has simply been hard. It’s been good too but the constant problem solving, decision-making, figuring out what’s next is wearing on me. Add small, but annoying stuff like with the deodorant or having to clean ants out of my food bag, or worrying that pine-sap is dripping on my tent, sees me pushed toward an emotional edge. Then I get a vicious leg cramp and, in a tent, all I can do is wait it out.
I need some good rest days in Paris.
Look – one thing at a time, one day at a time – don’t let the annoyances detract from the beauty of the river, the pleasantries with other riders, the freedom of being here and doing this. I’m living my dream – it was never going to be all roses and chocolates. And today is just being a bit hard. I should sleep. Tomorrow will be good.
Friday 3 July 2015: Frisians to Dijon
Another hot-as-fuck day. It’s been hard. I’ve found France hard.
The guy running the campground was weird – his dog and cat roamed around the place. I saw cat shit in the playground. I think he’s a municipal employee and gets the house with the gig. He’d just as soon not have guests. This morning the German ultra-athlete left his towel in the WC and, apparently, walked naked from the shower to get it. I didn’t see him, nor the other woman here. It was all of probably 5-10 seconds of public nudity. The campground guy – who’s also some kind of country cop, closed the campground gate, got in his cop car and went to threaten him with arrest. He also had words with the other cyclists who must have arrived after closing. Weird.
My friend Vickianne, back in Sydney, bless her, has booked me a room in Dijon near the train station. The heat got the best of me, the lack of WiFi undermined my ability to plan – I text messaged her before I went to sleep asking her to log into Booking.com as me and find me something in Dijon. And she has – it will cost what it costs, and that’s fine. There will be air conditioning and, probably, WiFi. It’s with a lighter heart I pedal out of Fraisans.
The riding was much the same as recent days: a quiet cycleway along a canal under the blazing sun. Fortunately, portions of the route are tree-lined. I slow my pace in the shade and speed it up when exposed.
I ride as far as Dole before getting the train into Dijon.
On the train – two African guys in front of me have travel papers rather than tickets. I’m guessing they are refugees. The conductor is clearly pretty annoyed to have to deal with it. I’m getting a vibe about public workers here. Well, it’s just two guys but noticeable – this guy and the one at the campground.
Dijon after three days of mid-30*s plus is devastating and definitely hotter than Sydney under the same circumstances. The city is all stone, pavement, marble – a lot of it white. It soaks in the heat and reflects the sunlight.
Dijon has a rough edge – beggars, homeless people, a roaming bunch of shirtless and drinking men in their 30s. I got off the train and was going to shuttle my stuff down the stairs (one load, then the next) but a fellow cyclist was clearly worried by this idea and brought my duffel bag down to me.
I went to the Beau Arts Museum – which Lonely Planet made quite a deal of. They have a lot of lovely old Jesus stuff in an air conditioned area and 19th and 20th century stuff – including a Monet and a Manet – in rooms so warm that an art person might really freak out. It was all a little ramshackle – some of the modern stuff was displayed attached to, like, chipboard. Really weird. Obviously badly underfunded.
I was going to go back out now but this cool WiFi’d cocoon of a hotel room is just perfect for the moment.