After a seamless flight into Toulouse we thought that we were starting to handle the bike bags, rental and check out process like pro’s. Getting quickly onto the motorway in our Peugeot to drive north into Cahors for a small taste of prehistoric history and to view the rural settings of Southern France. The temperature in town was a humid 34 degrees. Mist spraying units were set up in the main street, blasting cool air over patrons. We ventured to Pont Valvende, through the local markets and watched a few moments of the Blues festival.
We found our accommodation (well, found was an overstatement) after a few hours of scouring the small village of Saint Gery. Our host was a crazy french lady who clicked her mouth; like you would when calling a horse and was really enthusiastic about her quince jam. She ran two B&Bs and was all over the place. We were a bit disappointed as it lacked the basics (soap) and was our most expensive by far.
Dinner in St Cirq Lapopie was a real treat. Set in a hillside medieval town, we settled down to a large meal of steak, duck (almost half the dishes in this region were duck) and foie gras. Overlooking the town we saw a kid sister relaying messages back and forth between a moody teenager and his parents. “Mum says you can come down and have an ice-cream and then return back up here to have a sulk!” Not wanting to look uncool around the French boys (who had smuggled a stash of booze) he begrudgingly made his way down. The local town was getting ready to party. We found that due to EU subsidies, the French used funding for village parties to keep the young people there. We didn’t see anyone between 18 and 35.
Leaving the next day we had our breakfast overlooking a man, watching another man fix a lawnmower. At the nearby caves of Pech Merle we saw prehistoric paintings made from our early ancestors approx 25,000 years ago. Horses, Aurochs, Mammoth, Bison and Cave Bears all lined the walls, painted in reds and blacks. Seeing the development of historic art gave insight into the developing mysticism and the sense of being prehistoric man had.
Pushing through to Albi, we found the largest reputed brick building; a cathedral and palace with impressive views and a thriving town centre.
That night we were staying in a small farmhouse in Servies-en-val, southeast of Carcassonne. The area was in a valley with soil and a climate only for grapes. Napoleonic inheritance laws require land to be split evenly between all children, so the many small blocks of land are now managed in a cooperative viniere (winemaker). The local restaurant also doubled as the local rugby league club. While admiring all the trophies we got chatting to a British couple from Manchester who had recently retired to the idyllic lifestyle in the South of France. They enjoyed the laid back and warmer atmosphere as part of a small rural community in decline.
Driving into Carcassone we found a frontier castle full of history, from the Arab Moors. to the Kingdom of Aragon. Since the Treaty of the Pyrenees the castle no longer marked a border with France and the south. The audio guide told stories of the multiple stages of fortification. There was a story of the castle under seige that after a long time started running out of food. The castle general ordered a pig to be stuffed full of grain and thrown from the ramparts. On seeing this the invading army believed the supplies to be plentiful if they were capable of wasting food like this and withdrew.
Driving further south we had a chance to enjoy the sun, sunflowers and haybales of the countryside, before the rain starting setting in. Climbing up the road to Andorra through the Pyrenees we stopped at the Niaux Caves, which were fully booked for the next 2 days. While trying to get on a waitlist, we made up our bikes in the carpark, perched up in the cliffside.
Our accommodation in Les Cabannes was pretty quiet apart from a group of geology students working at another local cave. In town yet another EU funded party was going on; this one attracted a few gypsies. Unfortunately the rain doused out a lot of the action and we carried on to Ax Thermes near the Andorra border. The thermal baths were closed, so a hike up the hill for a chat with a local trying to give us directions. Overall, Niaux was a bit of a let down with the rain, so we started heading west early. Getting supplies in a Foix Aldi superstore we got in the checkout queue with a crossdressing man. Mitch thought he looked like the lead character in No Country for Old Men. Tam accidentally grabbed one of his boxes of tissues thinking it was a display – he did have 40 of them in his shopping cart; lots of cat food too. A hasty exit to Pyrenees cycling country was now on the cards.