The South Coast

Leaving Avignon, we could see Mt Ventoux in the distance, looming above the surrounding hills

From Avignon we headed for the south coast. We still had about 12 miles alongside the Rhône before we needed to cut westwards and skirt the fringes of the Camargue. Starting off on the west bank, we ran down the side of the D2. Traffic wasn’t heavy but there were a lot of big HGVs and it was unsettling, so we switched the gravel cycle track that ran between the road and the river. It was a reasonable surface, but it cut our cruising speed by about 3mph compared to the road.

At Aramon we turned off and headed into the centre of the town in search of coffee. As always, the bike attracted a lot of attention. It is the perfect ice-breaker. People who I’m sure would pass you by without a glance stop, and study the machine, often giving us a thumb’s up, or uttering “Bon Courage”. Next to the café was a pharmacy, so Karon disappeared inside to buy some salt and mineral sachets – we were now drinking a couple of servings (they are dosed for babies) in our first water bottle each. Not particularly pleasant in flavour.

After leaving the town we gambled a sprint along the D2 for our turn-off that would take us through Montfrin. The river curved away to the east, so it was time to leave it behind. Apart from the odd evergreen and the low vines that spread away from the road, the countryside looked dry and parched. Then we passed through a huge area of charred trees, bushes and fields. There was also the odd house bearing scorch marks, and a barn that had been caught by what must have been a big a frightening fire. Both sides of the road bore the scars for a few miles, though the vines had obviously been doused as best as possible, as some had survived or were only partially burnt through.

By the time we reached Jonquières-Saint-Vincent, it was very hot. We spotted the sign for a Tabac and headed for it. It was wonderful just stepping inside and ‘bathing’ in the cool of the air-conditioning. There was a cold drinks cabinet so we bought a few cans and stepped back outside. Standing in the shade, next to the bike and guzzling the cold drinks, window shutters opened and closed as the locals inspected us, then a woman stepped out and made to pass by, stopping to chat. She spoke no English, but we managed to make ourselves understood with the little French we have, and showing her our route on my phone. She described the terrain for the rest of our ride to our overnight stop on the outskirts of Bellegarde.
The terrain was mostly flat, with the odd undulation, but nothing that proved hard.
At Bellegarde we crossed the Roubine Royale, a canal that runs towards Aigues Mortes on the edge of the Camargue and very close to the Mediterranean.

Our hotel was a mile or so outside the town and we were too early to check in, so we rode back to a canal-side restaurant for some lunch. It wasn’t cheap, but it wasn’t pizza or burgers and Karon had a choice of low carb offerings. After lunch we went into the town and found a bar to sit in and enjoy a cold drink. Once again the bike became the centre of attention, parked outside a little crowd gathered to inspect and discuss.

Back at the hotel we checked in and I asked where we could leave the bike. There was a garage, but as our room was at the end of the accommodation wing, and it overlooked a quiet spot in the grounds, I locked the bike to a tree there. It proved handy as we rinsed all our kit and used the bike as a drying frame. There were few other guests and no-one seemed to be using the path that ran past.

In a paddock, within the grounds of the hotel were a couple of horses – presumably the guests could go for a ride…for a fee. The poor things were being plagued by horse-flies and walked around the paddock constantly, trying to escape the flies. The horses looked in good shape and were probably well looked after, but I did feel for them.

Next day we set off in the direction we needed to be heading, but a closer look at the map showed the track could well deteriorate, so we U-turned to pick up a road heading for St. Gilles. As we left Bellegarde I spotted a lone cyclist, on a road bike with a pair of panniers on the front. He was studying a map and had probably come to the same conclusion I had… to use the main road rather than trust the tracks, for a few minutes later I spotted him in the mirror, gaining on us. He passed us, but on the next negative gradient, we picked up speed and re-passed and as we did so, I pointed to the GoPro, perched on the side of the bike. Roles reversed as the road gently rose again, and he came past us once more, phone in hand to catch the moment.

Coffee stop at St Gilles.

After St Gilles we picked up the Via Rhôna, which saved the need to navigate, as it was well signed. In truth, there weren’t too many options as the road was hemmed by drainage ditches and fields of black cattle or white horses.

Once again we reached our hotel too early – we were riding early and stopping not long after noon to try and avoid the hottest time of the day – so we parked the bike and sat on a patio, relaxing with a cold drink until we could get to our room. The rooms were small semi-detached blocks, scattered among the grounds. Each had a wooden deck which proved ideal for parking the bike on and hanging out our rinsed out cycle kit on the frame provided. We had a nice meal in the evening, though I rejected my first offering as the large prawns were way past their best. If I had eaten it, I think it would have resulted in a return to A&E!

Eating out in the hotel – you need a good moggi repellant for evenings like this. They attack under the table, unseen and usually unnoticed until the damage is done

The old town of Aigues Morte we passed next morning looked interesting, and I would loved to have explored inside the castle walls, but we needed to press on, to avoid the heat that was fast ramping up.

A few miles on, we saw the Med proper as we crossed a bridge into La Grande Motte, which was very much a resort. We left the main road and headed for the marina area but as soon as we saw a beachside café, we stopped for a coffee and sat there, soaking up the atmosphere.

Now we were beside the Med and would spend the next three days heading West along the narrow strip of land with the Med to the South and logoons to the North.

With campsites that were almost overflowing and definitely overpriced, the hotels along the coast, as to be expected, were expensive too, so I had booked a motorway hotel, inland. It was much cheaper but it meant a longish detour and climb away from the coast to get to it. Fortunately, the road we needed to use had a cycle path along much of its length and there wasn’t too much traffic anyway. The undulating climb up, though only a couple of hundred feet was hard going, especially in the heat. The hotel room was small and full of midges when we checked in, so we changed then left the room to soak in a liberal dose of mosquito killer spray while we went into the motorway restaurant for some food. Afterwards we sat in the air-conditioned lounge area of the hotel and had a couple of drinks before turning in.

Next morning we had to retrace our route to get within sight of the coast, but at least it was mostly downhill.

The next big town to head for was Sète. All went well to start with as we followed the dead flat and very nice cycle-path that followed the road across the lagoons. On the outskirts of Sète we lost the cycle path and it looked like the only option was a fast and busy road. There seemed to be an alternative, very stony track that ran alongside the rail line, but after a mile or so the way forward was blocked by fencing, so we had to do an about turn and take the road anyway.

The lovely cycle-path that skirts Frontignan heading for the hill in the distance which is straddled by Sète.
At Sète we stopped for lunch in the harbour area then left the town alongside the sea, avoiding the climb through the main part of the town.
After leaving Sète the cycle-path ran just behind the beach but for much of the time we couldn’t see the sea because of the dunes. It was another very hot day and it turned out to be a long one too at 40 miles. In the evening Karon’s heart rate was all over the place – down to dehydration and lack of salts, even though we’d been drinking regularly and taking extra salts and minerals.

The ‘Hotel’ in Agde turned out to be a bar/restaurant with a few rooms above. The restaurant was closed that evening and Karon didn’t feel up to walking into the town for nothing other than pizza, so we stayed, sat outside the bar and watched the world go by. The station was opposite, so most of the time the bar tables were occupied by folks killing a bit of time before their train departure.

Overnight Karon’s heart rate was anything but steady and I thought we would have another trip to A&E but she insisted on staying put and riding it out. It was dehydration and lack of salts. Next morning her HR was still racing irregularly and she literally came down stairs on her bum, resting a few times with the effort. I had got the bike loaded and ready for her and told her just to sit on the front and not pedal. The cooling effect being on the bike helped and she started to feel better quickly once we were moving, but it was a scary time and not one we wanted a repeat of.

Coffee at Sérignan. Karon was obviously feeling much better as she wanted to wander the market stalls.

From Agde we cut inland a little, away from the coast and smack into a really strong headwind. It was no longer flat either. The hills weren’t huge and we managed to ride them, but it made it hard work. It was hot again, but at least the wind helped keep us cooler. At one point I spotted something which looked like a stick on the path ahead, but as we passed alongside, it reared up and then slithered rapidly off the path. I don’t know who jumped higher, Karon or the snake!

As we neared Narbonne we joined a busy road, but at least the margin was clear of debris and wide enough to use. It was a relief to reach Narbonne and find our apartment. There was a safe, underground car park for the bike and direct access to the lifts to our well fitted, modern rooms. The bedroom overlooked the roofs of the town. Showered and changed, with our rinsed out kit hanging out of the windows, we wandered into the ‘touristy’ part of the town centre to find some food. It was heaving! We grabbed a table in the main square as someone got up to leave and I did a quick sketch while we enjoyed a drink, but didn’t want to eat there. Another wander, another bar which was very busy and not that pleasant as discarded napkins and rubbish blew around our feet under the tables. A quick Google found somewhere away from the centre that looked ok and was due to open a little later, so I booked online and we wandered off in search of it
It proved a good choice and though the waiter was a little strange, it was pleasant enough sitting outside and enjoying a bottle of La Clape.

The mind boggles.

The Canal du Midi >