France Part 20
Sunday 12th June Aniane to Montpellier, 66km
Up early today but just enough to catch the dining room's breakfast service at Hostellerie St Benoit. We didn't have enough time to even look at the hotel's pool facilities so it all went unobserved and unused. Such is the nature of a biking holiday. We had to be off sharp today to be in busy Montpellier around mid-day, well before our bus pick-up time at St Jean-De-Vedas, a suburb on the west side of the city. The bus pickup time was arranged for 5.00pm. In fact I later found out that getting to the bus pick-up is not the simplest of tasks but fortunately Alwyn had already worked out a complicated access strategy on his GPS, which I was later to find out was the only sensible option on a bike. To explain, the motorway (A9) cuts the town in half at St. Jean De Vedas, where the access tolls are. Getting across this motorway is restricted to a few busy crossing points. The need to be on the southern part of the town is for us to be able to access the beach for a short while (from noon till 2pm) to consume some food and drinks before heading back across to the pick-up point on the north side of the motorway.
The breakfast at Hostellerie St-Benoit is served in a nice big bright and airy dining room and it was very commendable, plenty to eat and with lots of coffee to wake us up.
Our bikes were still where we left them in the atrium chained to the central heating radiator and we commenced fitting our panniers, checking our tyres for the last time.
We went across to the desk and paid our bill, put away our credit cards, then walked the bikes out of the hotel entrance into the bright sunshine. A few quick checks to see nothing was forgotten, nothing ready to fall off, keys returned to reception then we were off down the path and onto the road outside, the D32. We crossed the road centre, turning to our left and headed for the town of Aniane, about a kilometre distant. On reaching the town square we turned hard left along the D27, Bvd. Felix Giraud that would take us straight down to a roundabout on the eastern edge of town. Taking a 3 o' clock exit here, still on the D27 to La Boissiere, was our route south out of Aniane.
We were on a good surfaced, wide road now. It wound to the east then to the north on a gradual climb that levelled out in 3 km. The terrain was a colour of slightly scorched green. We passed over some small gorges with neat walls at the border of the road. We had a 'big sky' above due to the trees and shrubbery not having a very high growth, as you would expect in such dry conditions. La Bossiere was 7 km from Aniane. Mid-way of this distance we started to climb gradually again south toward a summit, then a short descent followed by a long fast straight into La Bossiere. Forking right took us through the village and out to a roundabout and seeing a small sign where we took a left (9 o' clock) on to the D111 for Montarnaud.
Another 'big sky' was noticed as we pedalled along some straight, smooth sections of road that took us through a barren golden and empty countyside. The sun was hot and the sky a deep blue, not a cloud to be seen. This was a pleasant ride but one we knew would end when we finally reached Montpellier later in the day. The small town of Montarnaud lay only 5 kilometres ahead of us but the scene at this spot was so remote that I felt it was a hundred. Hardly a vehicle passed us on this route as we sailed along in this strange ethereal place with its limestone base peeping through the golden grass verges, lending a reflective light to the sides of the carriageway. The smooth black tarmac led us on, our tyres buzzing. As we approached what seemed to be another summit I was expectant to see the blue of the Mediterranean appear in front of us. However it was too soon as yet to capture this momentous symbolic event that in our minds flagged the official culmination, the final destination of our tour. This expectancy continued constantly from now on, as when we breached every rise my eyes squinted into the distance, searching. However when we reached the summit of another rise at 3 km further on, I saw that there was only sun-kissed land lying way ahead of us into the far distance. I was too premature, just because the map indicated the proximity of the sea at this location, the scale of it was misleading.
We arrived at the descent of Peuche Merle, a fast, but not too steep run south on ultra smooth black surfaced road, a thrill only obtainable on a pedal cycle. We soon reached Montarnaud on the Avenue les Pins. We had to brake heavily as we approached the small town centre called Place de la Fontaine. As the name suggested there was a fountain right in the center of the square with a small notice. 'L'Eau Non Potable' , 'Unsuitable for Drinking'. You see this notice in most squares where there are public fountains in the South of France. It's probably due to water being recycled within the fountain's own supply system, which in this part of France is understandable due to a shortage of public drinking water.
Across the square in front of us was a café with tables outside called the Brasserie du Commerce. We availed ourselves once again of the lasting pleasure of an outside seat, a table and refreshment. With all of us, a contemplative moment ensued; legs stretched forth, hands cupped behind head. The waiter brought some iced coke and a sandwich and we ate our fill ready for the road ahead. We took some final photographs of one another here in Montarnaud, as it was the last place of simple hospitality, the last rural town of character before we hit the dense urbanization of Montpellier.
We left Montarnaud about 10.15 am on the D27, Avenue de Montpellier, in an easterly direction and after 5km of smooth flat road in rural countryside we joined the D111 going to the south-east to meet with a crossroads at small group of cottages called Bel-Air. We crossed the D619 and went straight on through a narrow gap in the cottages on a minor road called the D102. The sun had been out all day and at this point it was in our faces. All of a sudden my bike computer fell off its plastic mount on the bars and bounced along the road behind me. I was riding at the rear of the group so this meant that they were not aware of what had happened. I shouted to them, in vain, as they rode steadfastly on, whilst I stopped to retrieve the unit. It was now lying on the middle of the road. However, just as fate would have it, a car came along behind me and I stood waiting with clenched teeth ready to hear the tiny crunch of plastic end the life of my nice yellow wireless Cat-Eye and also my tour mileage record. By sheer chance the unit passed under the car without the wheels going over it and I was able to pick it up and put it back on the bike properly. I must have detached it when we went to sit down at the café in Montarnaud and not clipped it back on securely. It makes you wonder if it's better just to leave stuff like that on the bike and take a chance that it doesn't get stolen. To me, taking it off and on after cafe stops is just asking for trouble.
I set off again in pursuit and it took until a nature stop halted the riders out in the garrigue before I saw them again. The garrigue are areas of scrubland near the sea coast that surround many towns and villages in the South of France. However these areas are now under conservation orders because of the rare plant and bird life populating them. It has become a 'habitat' ecosystem. The origins of the garrigue go back to a time when humans began to farm the land, in the late bronze-age. It is composed of oak, lavender, thyme and white cistus, tolerant of the lime in the soil. The odd stunted tree exists too. However the condition is not a natural one, having been created by soil erosion due to tree felling and farming over a long period. Man is to blame for the deforestation, made so that he could grow olives, vines and grain for food.
We descended into a small town called Murviel-les-Montpellier, now a suburban town growing with 'new-builds' circling around on a periphery of the old central village. Our route was on the D102 and we had to exit on the same road. However staying on the D102 through the conglomeration did not look easy. Alwyn must have made some pre-investigation on this, as he guided us from the village centre around the southern periphery, then north again over to the D102 that took us a short way west before going south again. I expect the next time I visit here I will risk getting lost in the new house build' areas. As we left Murviel, the D102 led us through some areas of golden coloured farmland but the signs of garrigue were everywhere as it was very dry. I saw vines on our left and stunted trees to the left. We started a gradual climb on this isolated road, no white markings but a good surface. I thought we would see the Med for sure at some point on this road, as you could see hills in the distance but no sea appeared on the horizon as yet. Soon we were on a long gradual descent that took us into the town of Cournonterral where the D102 turned right, southward and parallel to the D5. The road ran along a tree-lined section that took us into a suburb. We had now to find the exit road from Cournonterral, the D114 that connected to Mireval on the coast. From there we would head east along to Villeneuve-les-Maguelone and the beach. We found the D114 about a kilometre to the west on the D5, after the D102 came to an abrupt end at a bridge crossing a levee.A word on the environment here would have me say that the place reminded me of East Kilbride without the rain. Everywhere here, as we got nearer to the coast, was all new crisp painted roads, roundabouts, industrial premises, supermarkets and housing. However all was all spread wide over a huge expanse of coastal land. Despite that I had not yet caught a glimpse of the Med. I began to wonder where the all the recent road development money had come from.
We continued south from Cournonterral on the D114, an older tree-lined road, trees on both sides. The unusual and what looked to be, tall silver-birch trees were so neatly spaced that I thought they must have been planted when the road was built about twenty or thirty years ago and they continued for about a couple of kilometers giving way to arable farmland that looked somewhat greener than the garrigue. White horses were grazing on our left as we continued along a long straight stretch. We passed more new builds on our left. Human life here was expanding.
The D114 continued on straight for kilometer after kilometre along a flat plain then it began to climb almost imperceptibly up to more garrigue As we crested the summit at 84m the group stopped in a lay-by. We could at last see the Mediterranean, for the first time, way in the distance. The time now was 11.40am. The next part of the journey was downhill on the D114 until we reached a large roundabout at the D612 that crossed our path. We continued straight on for five kilometres or so, crossing a railway line, until we came to a junction with the D116. We turned left going eastward on the seaward side of the coastal town of Mireval, along the long straight road that runs parallel with the railway to Montpellier. Fortunately it wasn't too windy and the going was quite fast in the clear sunny conditions. We travelled about 8 km along this very monotonous stretch, our experience only cheered by the sunshine. Several cars and lorries sped by us reminding that we were approaching an industrialized zone. When we finally reached Villeneuve-les Maguelone, a coastal town on the south-western fringe of Montpellier, we headed for the beach. The beach here is out on a sand bar, accessed by a narrow road leading to a pontoon swing bridge. There is a church out on the bar called St.Pierre de Maguelone. We left the D116 in the town centre turning right down to the access road. For cyclists, once in town, there is a fantastic cycle lane facility, neatly painted green with white markings on the two-way lanes. Much of the cycle system has a hedge separating the cycle lanes from the traffic out on the road. That particular and clever feature makes it easy to navigate all the way down to the beach road in safety.
When we reached the beach road we found it was a fairly narrow strip of tarmac about a kilometre in length but it was quiet with little traffic on it. We reached the pontoon bridge and wheeled our bikes across it to the island on the other side. An ash surfaced road took us round to the beach proper where we stopped, leaning the bikes against some large boulders that were separating the road from the sand. It was now about 12.30pm. The EBE bus was due at the pickup point, about 14 km from here at 5.00pm, so we reckoned we could stay at the beach until about 2pm before heading up into St.Jean de Vedas, Montpellier where the pickup was to take place. We had some lunch and drinks that we had bought in Aniane, sitting on the rocks followed by a celebratory paddle in the sea. The sky had gone slightly overcast for us but it was still warm. There did not seem to be enough team spirit among us to engender a group photograph, which was a shame. Perhaps that was my fault in some way for not stirring things up, although my camera, no longer working reliably, served as my excuse. Perhaps I am too sentimental! It could be that such group pictures are more likely to take place during an official club holiday (e.g. like the ones organized by the CTC in their magazine) where the leader feels a strong sense of professional motivation and or an element of sales initiative in gathering everyone together for a snap for the next ad. We were just four lads out for a bike ride and when that was over, we all went our separate ways till the next Sunday run in the club calendar!
We began washing the sand off our feet, a tricky job using our water bottles and then wiggling our toes, waiting for the wind to dry them off. Once we had dressed again we mounted up and headed back into Villeneuve-les-Maguelone on the cycle lanes. We reached the town centre and turned right on Chemin de Moisson led by Alwyn's sat nav. This was a suburban road through older bungalows and houses that led us to a deadend but enabling us to ride our bikes through large boulders. We found ourselves now standing at the edge of a main road, the D185. This road had a raised centre line and clearly it was not intended that it be crossed at this point. Looking to our left we could see the D116 cutting off about 10 yards to our right. This was the connection into Montpellier that Alwyn had on his navigation plan. He hadn't factored in the dead-end in the road. We walked down a path on our right side until we were level with the mouth of the D116, waited until the traffic was clear and wheeled our bikes across to meet it. A safer option would have been to take the road (Av.de Palavas) from the town centre, leading to the roundabout, about half a kilometre away to the south-east and cycle back up to the D116. However such is the nature of life when abroad that you have to adapt to situations as they arise and do so as safely and sensibly as you can. We cycled along the D116 in a northerly direction. It took us back out into garrigue again and round a sharp bend before we reached another road crossing. This was Route de St Jean de Vedas. We turned left up onto a ramp going over the railway. This road was a main thoroughfare so we kept close in to the right in single-file going up the slope. This was another of those scary roads that you felt were only for fast traffic because of the painted white lines on it but we had no hassle from cars passing us at all. The road curved round to the right for a few kilometres before we reached a busy crossing over a very wide road, the D612. Our route was straight ahead. This was now potentially quite an intimidating situation as we were now at the edge of an industrial area. A large Peugeot dealership stood directly across from us, rows of blue flags waving in the breeze on the roof. However the crossing was controlled by traffic lights, so we didn't have to take a chance waiting for a gap to appear. Looking across, I could see there were three lanes on the other side, two for oncoming traffic and one for us to take to go straight ahead. It was slightly skewed toward our right and separated by a traffic island with a pole on it. It was necessary to be careful to avoid going on the wrong side of the island by mistake.
We made it across the wide junction and proceeded up through an industrial estate full of parked commercial vehicles of every kind. Vans were coming toward us but we kept on in single file through this unlikely place. I should intervene here to say that I had previously mentioned that getting to the pickup point in Montpellier on a bike is not a simple matter. To reach it you have to cross the large toll motorway, the A9 that separates the area, like a wide river. To cross it you can either follow the road system as per your map (an intimidating prospect) or find a more cycle friendly route that includes crossing part of the garrigue. To choose the latter as we did, means a close inspection of 'Google Earth' to find the path through the garrigue that takes you on to a minor road that goes through a tunnel under the A9 at a point west of us. To access the entry to the garrigue by bike you must pass through the industrial estate on the south side of the A9 toll road where we were. We were on Rue Saint Exupery going through the estate. About half a kilometre later we reached the end of the street at a T junction. Alwyn led us hard left down a dusty road past some parked lorries sitting outside a storage facility, until at what seemed a dead-end due to road building in progress, lay a tiny narrow entrance to the garrigue behind high bushes. Huge concrete blocks with graffiti on them lay at jaunty angles in the sand at its entrance. Litter lay all around them. A red and white circular sign said 'Garrigue' with a description of a conservation order below on a rectangular plate.
We followed this path down a slope for half a kilometre until it joined a small tarmac road that twisted round and led us into a tunnel under the motorway. The road then went gradually uphill and north-eastward into a smart housing estate. Following this road, Rue du Mas de Magret, took us in a kilometre, up to a small roundabout. Here we went right on the Rue des Jasses that took us out into fields again. This was a good road that joined a roundabout 'Ronde-point de Europe'. The roundabout is again intimidating. We took the second exit ( the first leading you to the 'Peage' or motorway tolls and to be avoided on a bike at all costs). The second exit is on to Allee Jean Monet and about 100 yards down here straight ahead is the EBE bus pick up point. We arrived there about 3pm with two hours to kill so we went across the road opposite to McDonald's restaurant for some snacks. You can use the excellent toilet facilities here to change back into civvies for your bus journey back to Blighty. We sat at the outside tables for an hour or so with coffee and a burger as the sun came out again, thinking about the long journey ahead of us. We would be in Paris at around midnight tonight, Calais at 6am tomorrow morning, Middlesbrough about 4pm in the afternoon and back home in Glasgow for 6pm. At about 4pm we went into the toilets to change. Later we put all our kit away and fixed labels to our bikes and panniers. The last thing to remember besides passport and tickets was to keep a hex key handy so that the handlebars could be made flat with the bike frame for stowing on the trailer. It's best to leave this adjustment until you wheel the bike across to the bus. I needed to make sure that I had tightened the stem bolts up before the bike went on the trailer as I felt that they could drop off and get lost during the journey home.
At around five we were still sitting outside at the tables. I saw the sun glint off the roof of the bus and I hadn't noticed it was there. People emerged from all around, mainly from where we were sitting and walked with bikes toward the bus. We queued up, panniers on the ground, adjusting the bike stems first then waiting for the EBE guys to grab our bikes and lift them up on to the two-tier trailer. Once that was done we showed our tickets to the steward at the bus door and stepped on board, leaving French soil behind us. In ten minutes we were off and for the four of us, back on the road to Blighty and Middlesbrough.
At the time of writing this last part of the tour story above, it is mid May, 2012, and I am preparing to leave for France to do the whole tour over again. This time I am travelling with only one colleague. I have my very own GPS unit and having hopefully completed a learning curve on it, I am looking forward to managing the navigation myself.