France 3: Souillac to Luchon

04/09/18 – 13/09/18
Total distance travelled: 1952km

Someone (on Instagram) was somewhere they had visited before and they said that before revisiting they hadn’t been too excited about being there again.  However, they said that being back, years later, made them realise how much they had learned and grown.  I felt like that being back in Souillac, though I’d been really looking forward to returning.

After leaving MC and Dom we rode the short distance of 12km to Souillac and pitched up at the campsite there as we weren’t quite ready to move on from my petit coin.  We had lunch at my favourite boulangerie and spent the afternoon retracing old steps and covering old ground, but for Olly, of course, seeing Souillac with new eyes.

The next morning, invigorated both by the familiar and by the thought of new sights, sounds and adventures, we set off for Saint-Cirq-Lapopie: a village built on top of a limestone cliff that I hadn’t managed to visit on whilst on my year abroad and which has since been on my ‘to visit’ list.  It didn’t disappoint.  Cycling into Saint-Cirq-Lapopie was spectacular: passing under tunnels and with cliffs Olly longed to climb on our left, the winding river Lot on our right.

The campsite offered a little swimming spot in the river Lot.

I spent far too long trying to decide whether to get in or not (I did).  As ever, trepidation in such a situation is not the best idea.

"It's not cold at all", cried Olly.

Despite only just having had an extended rest in Borreze, the weather forecast for the following day looked miserable and so with time on our side, we decided to stay put and discover the cliffside village a little better albeit potentially in the drizzle.

Moody scenes captured beautifully by Olly and his Olympus.

We got lucky: it only started to rain on our way back to the campsite and so instead our photos benefitted from changing weather fronts, moody clouds and atmospheric mist and we worked our way up and around an incredibly picturesque and photogenic town.

From there we headed south with only one thing really in mind: the mountains of the Pyrenees.  Cycling out of the Lot valley was beautiful and we spotted some red deer.  The route then took us via two pink towns (on account of the brick that a lot of buildings are made from): Montauban and Toulouse and these two towns provided us with two more fantastic Warm Showers experiences.  We must thank Théo and his family, Philippe and Marie-Pierre, and Isabelle, Didier, Marie and Thibault for welcoming us so warmly that we feel we left as friends.  Merci beaucoup à ces deux familles qui nous ont accueilli si chaleureusement que nous sentons que nous sommes partis comme amis.

Tarte aux framboises.  We dined like kings this lunchtime!

Football stadium lunch spot.

To get from Montauban to Toulouse we cycled along the Canal du Midi, and Théo helped us out hugely by getting us to the start of the route, expertly navigating his home town.  Cycling along the Canal was easy and peaceful as the path was very flat and very well maintained.  Olly’s nerves were slightly frayed when we had to follow a diversion and the sign-posts were few and far between.  I had decided to adopt a policy of, ‘keep going straight until we see a sign which says otherwise’, which I think may be uncharacteristically laid back for me.  As it happens, a combination of Olly’s checking the Garmin and following my ‘straight on’ policy, we ended up in a strangely modern town square with a post office and a bakery – the two things we needed!  Pain aux raisins purchased and diversion signs back on the scene, we headed back down to the canal path before having lunch by a lake, watching rowers go up and down in the 30 degree heat.

Before we went to Isabelle and Dider’s house we stopped in at a café in their district, Les Minimes, called Flow House: I can sniff out an organic, vegetarian-friendly place anywhere given half a chance.  As it was nearing the end of the day, we soon became the café’s only customers and we kept an eye on the shop and café for a minute as the lady went to take out the glass recycling.  When she came back in I asked if my bike was still outside, which it was, but she told us that her colleague had very recently had his bike stolen from under his nose, right outside the shop.  I explained about our trip and into the shop our bikes came!  As we left, the lady, who had been cleaning up whistling The Lord of the Rings theme tune, handed us ‘a bag of strength’: as it was Sunday the following day she said the food would otherwise go to waste, and as she was from a town in the Pyrenees, she said we’d need it!  We had the following day’s lunch sorted and felt incredibly grateful, humbled and, in my case, disproportionately weepy all over again!  The honest-to-goodness kindness that we have so far experienced on this trip is quite overwhelming and couldn’t be further from the doom and gloom we hear about every day in the news.  Here’s to the good ones.

We left Isabelle and Didier’s house with a customised map of Toulouse that ensured we would take in many of the city’s main sites and sounds before we headed further south.  As we crossed the Pont Neuf, lots of open-water swimmers passed below us in La Garonne.  We were headed for Boussens and getting out of the Toulouse metropole on our heavily loaded bikes left us a little tense.  Once we were out in the countryside, and busy roads fell away, replaced by increasingly impressive hills, we felt calmer – and also hungry and quite tired.  We sat atop a mound of earth and devoured a mushy banana and several Pim’s biscuits.  The day’s cycling felt necessary more than anything else.

The campsite at Boussens was interesting as almost all of the other campers were residents.  Discussions about homelessness, drugs, decisions, choices, social welfare, responsibility and social class amongst other controversial topics saw us arguing (if you ask Olly), debating (in my opinion) our way out of Boussens and 10km on the way to Luchon the next morning.

‘Dreadlocks Guy’ at Boussens, who spoke brilliant English and helped ‘High Guys’ put up their tent in the pouring rain, had wished us a wonderful adventure as we left the campsite, but when we told him we were heading to Luchon he looked at us wide-eyed and made a 45 degree angle with his arm, indicating that the only way was up.  By now, though, I think we were ready for it.

Looking back now, any and all climbs that weren’t/aren’t/won’t be mountain climbs in the Pyrenees were/are/will be completely fine; so doable; easy…!  Little did we know then, though, and we stopped half way up the, quite busy, road to Luchon to finish off the Pim’s biscuits, fearful of how much further we had to go.

But then, we got to Luchon, our gateway to the mountains, and it did not disappoint.  We met Thibo, our Warm Showers host for the night, at his bike workshop on the outskirts of town and he told us how to find his apartment and the way from it to the bar.  We followed all of his instructions and then very much enjoyed the vegan meal he prepared for us whilst chatting, drinking wine and playing with the dog underneath posters of Middle Earth and Into the Wild.  Merci, Thibo !
…make a radical change in your lifestyle and begin to boldly do things which you may previously never have thought of doing, or been too hesitant to attempt. So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservation, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future…
We left Thibo as clouds rose from the trees and headed for a campsite on the other side of town in order to profit from some down time ahead of the next stage of our journey.  We sat in borrowed, colourful chairs and enjoyed a nutritious meal of Choco Pillows gazing at the spectacular scenery around us and listening to a mountain river rushing by behind us.

A cool, little caravan on a cool campsite.  The cool dude who owned this beauty cycled in and out of town in his pink and turquoise tracksuit jacket, mid-length, white hair blowing behind him.  "Bonjour" and a quick nod of the head every time he passed.

 We weren’t up to much, but had a quick jaunt through the forest, Olly adamant he saw some bear poop.  The following day was market day and we caught up with Thibo there who pointed out all of his favourite stalls.  It was such a brilliant, local market.  The traders were all so friendly and happy: the mountain air seemed to render us all buoyant and content.  Just before buying three baguettes, we poked our noses into a recycled-glass, art exhibition called Ema – it was in a wonderful building that must have been a school: I got caught up in a wave of nostalgia as we passed a row of pegs.

As rain was forecast for the afternoon, we made the decision to go to les thermes.  Luchon houses the only natural hammam in all of Europe, and so we enjoyed sitting in steaming temperatures of around 40 degrees before taking ice-cold, bucket showers and lying in bubbles in the pool.  The only downside to the whole experience was having to pay an additional 2€ for disposable flip-flops to wear around the pool and in the vaporium.  At the end of our visit, we asked a lady what to do with the flip-flops and she looked genuinely surprised.  ‘Throw them away?’, she seemed to question, indicating a bin behind us.  Olly decided to keep his pair and uses them to keep his bum dry when sitting on wet chairs.  They’re strapped to the back of his bike.

Feeling incredibly luxurious and relaxed we settled down at the campsite knowing that in the morning we’d be following the signs we’d seen for the Col du Portillon and crossing the border into Spain.  Only 9km of uphill with an average gradient of 6.5% to grapple with.  Fortunately we’d already eaten two of the baguettes.