Saturday, 5 January 2013

fear and loathing in Provence

securing the chocolate supply
"Bonjour! Chasseurs! Bon Courage!"  The Sean Bean lookalike waves his shotgun through the window at the front of our tent and dashes off in pursuit of his dogs with two friends.  It's about eight o'clock and we should be up and about but we've been waiting for the sun to come up over the hills and dry out our tent.  We're camped in a field in a valley bottom just beyond yet another fantastic Provencale medieval village perched on the steep sides of the valley.  A few minutes later, as we eat our breakfast there are gunshots in the woods down by the river.  Another wild boar gets its comeuppance.  I have mixed feelings about all this.  I fear wild boar appearing at night to raid our chocolate supplies but I also loathe men with guns, however cheery they may seem.

lavender field, not so colouful, but still fragrant
During our week in Provence we come across similar sights in these rural areas.  A clutch of houses perched in a prime spot overlooking a valley, built so close together they look like some medieval citadel.  Short stubby oak trees, fields of lavender that still smell wonderful despite the season, dry dusty looking land, olive groves, old terraced fields abandoned to nature.  And then up pop these men in fatigues and high-visibility jackets or caps with their guns.  We assume there have been too many mistaken shootings hence the high-visibility clothing.  I take to wearing my luminous tabard everytime I go into the bushes for my morning business.  I don't want to die with my trousers round my ankles at the hands of some myopic trigger-happy provencale redneck......

The minute we stepped off the train from Briancon we knew we had entered a different climate.  It was warm and windy with the threat of rain, and our first camp in some scrubland with a great view was dry.  It did rain lightly but the next morning we awoke to glorious sunshine - a scene that repeats itself until New Year's Day.  We are happy to be cycling again, but take it gently the first few days as our route takes us across valleys, up some steep climbs.  The highlight is the Verdon Gorge - the deepest in Europe - a winding road taking us up 700 metres to a highpoint at 1200 metres with views up and down the canyon.  We're glad it's winter as the road is narrow and twisting and apparently gets so busy in the summer the traffic sometimes has to queue.  On this day we see a few Italians and local tourists and Men With Guns.  The streams are all dried up, so it's a relief to come across a tank of water in a parking spot in the middle of nowhere just towards the time we want to camp.

The next day we stop in a village for provisions.  New Year's Eve and the boulangerie is closed.  Zut alors.  We get what we need in a tiny shop run by two jolly owners - not surprising as it's bustling with customers - and then into a bar for water refills.  The patrons sipping anis want to know where we're from and where we're going.  "Japan" still gets a smile and a few comments, I'm happy to discover.

Our path takes us up and over, through a military training area (complete with abandoned village), and then down, down, down, through a couple of pretty villages in the now familiar edge-of-the-world situations.  We have had a few chilly mornings having camped quite high and Gayle can't shake a lousy cough she's had from the mountains.  So we drop out of the high hills and down to the more populous coastal region, before finding an unused field full of boar scars to camp in.  Our festive dinner includes two fantastic pork chops - the smell should keep those boar at bay. New Year's Day is a washout - rain until late afternoon, so we join a few other sad souls who have sought refuge in the only establishment open on the holiday for miles around - McDonald's.  Coffee's not bad and we spend several fruitful minutes with clothing and shoes under the hot air dryers in the toilets.  Funny what you can get up to.
St.Paul de Vence where both Marc Chagall and James Baldwin lived in the sixties

On the way to Nice we pass through some lovely little towns and villages.  The valleys are precipitous and the roads are shady with great views.  We stay with Jean-Michel and Magali just along the coast from Nice for a couple of nights.  There's a cycle path right along the coast and into the city where we visit the wonderful collection in the Matisse Museum.  We learn that he didn't start making his cutouts and collages until his seventies.  We are thrilled by some of the pieces - two great tapestries in particular.  Out on the front there are people promenading, running and cycling in the sunshine.  Even some swimming.  It's balmy.  Can it really be January?

Our ferry to Corsica leaves at midnight so we have time in the evening to kill.  Along the Promenade des Anglais there are still a few runners and walkers about.  We eat in one of the old town restaurants where the waiter is a comedian.  Outside in the square are a handful of young people with rucksacks and dogs, looking like they will be sleeping out tonight.  It feels strange to be looking out from our warm restaurant as opposed to being the ones looking in.

French humour - seen outside Lush, the soap and shampoo

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