Its after 10am when I am ready to leave the smell of leather, and good friendship behind in Villeveyrac. Got my parcel sent off to my friend Don, following that I lead my trusty steed out of the stable, took a tight twist of mane in one hand, my toes on the nearside pedal…..and with the effort of a man much younger, swung my leg over……oh that feels good too be back in the saddle again. The route is simple enough, head west for a few days and then turn north towards Spain, on tree lined roads taking me thru farms and villages.
Stopped at the Abbey du Valmagne as I rode, an Abbey famous for it’s being saved because of the wine barrels it housed. It seems the secular French peasants were especially fond of looting and burning churches during thier now numerous rebellions. As is well known to the unread as well as those of higher learning, looting and pillaging is physically demanding work. And a hot tired “pillager then, and politician today”may on occassion require a tasty vineyard libation too quench the thirst, yes. But also the added alchohol helps keep the peasants anger at a near peak. Over 1300 churches were totally destroyed, artifacts stolen or worse yet destroyed by the consuming flames of ignorance and hate. Wisdom however came in an odd way to this handhewn stone Abbey, preserving its legacy for generations to come. The church was emptied out of its religious vestments, artwork and statuary, and within the interior alcoves of this magnificent construct, huge wine vats were put in place. To this day, the Abbey is well known for its wine of course, but equally so for its interesting story of survival during the era of Church destruction within Europe.
Onward west we roll, thru beautiful but rugged French countryside. The scene around is hills in any direction you look. Nothing seriously tall nor steep. Just a rythmic steady diet of climb and coast, climb and coast. Most of the farming thru this east west route is Olives on terraced hillsides, grapes and fruit trees such as Apples and Pears. Manicured ancient farms dot the landscape, surrounded by huge trees of Sycamore(Platan, in French) and Oak. The roads to and from are iether gravel with grass down the center or often they are done in cobble or stone. The ubiqutous Sycamore lined main roads are everywhere you turn out here on the less harem-scarem “D”roads that I ride. Trees grow beside the road so close that the most commonly found item thru these roads…..is a passenger side mirror. These are trees that do not even say “ouch” when struck by such as a mirror…..the average French car does not even scar the treebark. These are trees of 4-6 foot girth, and spaced every 25 feet or so. Heck, at 50 miles an hour, you’d have to drive as good as Tom Block to be able to run between them rather than into them. The only real downside for me, is that the trees roots are invasive. And the roots really cause a lot of ripples and ridges in the outer few feet of the road edge which is always a little un-nerving. JMO- but i think these trees being close is a great idea, it really puts an end to texting while driving for one thing, and secondly they effectively take idiots out of the “jean”pool.
The fabled “Pink City” of Carcassonne has been on my “too see” list for quite a while. So this time I made it happen and was not dissappointed. The fortress, with high walls and red tiled rooves and towers or battlements, dates back to the year 900. To put it another way that may be easier to grasp, this walled city is actually older that Coon Rapids…….yeah, I know its hard to believe but true.The coloration of the locally quarried stone used in it’s construct, plus the terra cotta tiles that embrace each roof lends a rather pinkish overtone to the legendary city. Carcassone, which is listed on Unesco Site, of which France has the highest number of site listings followed by Wells Nevada. This is a pristine medevil city fortification. Complete with shoulder width streets, every street is cobble, all buildings inside are done in iether stacked stone or in the cruder timber frame and filled with rubble (all rubble is imported from Afghanistan, they are the worlds leading exporter of the product). Sadly even Carcassone takes on a disneyish aire of yet one more historic theme park. Candy floss, wooden swords and crying kids overwhelmed the ancient historical streets for yet another weekend in the fabled Pink City of Carcassone. Its time I done like Teddy Blue Abbot, and pointed them north, my bike that is.
Took a little side route north out of Carcassone and got up a little more into the hills of this southern region of France. As I said, the hill country here is just pretty, not intimidating to the cyclist. I wasnt up in them for but one day and headed down into Castelnaudary. Its a little tuff it seems to time my water and daily grocery buys with that of the french work schedule. I try not to load up on food nor water to early, and yet that thinking has come back to bite me several times out here in the tiny village country. Several occasions I have made camp with but 1 bottle of water and no extra food. We made due, but not in a very elegant manner as I am accustomed. The rule now is that the first town I hit between 10 and noon, is the one I restock in….period. My cycling journey passes thru countryside, peoples lives, and national holidays without prejudice or ommission. Its Veterans Day, and each small village is celebrating just as we do back home, it was great to see that respect is still placed on display for the many who fought and gave precious life.
I guess I should disclaim where I am headed. I am aimed at yet another french saddle shop, this one is the shop of noted saddler George Brail, and his wonderful wife Natalie. They are located in Mauvezin, west of Toulose France. Since I want to skip the whole city of Toulose, I choose a route south of the city. Now, I know, most of you expect the JW here is some sort of technical genious. Thanks for the compliment, but I assure you I am not. I mention this because I wanted to call George and let him know I would make it to his house this afternoon……so, I open my phone and contact list and……..what the heck, did Collen forget to put them in thier for me. Goodness sakes, do I have to do something for myself to get it done right. Well shoot, I’ll just call her and get the number. Wisdom told me to check the time at home………yup, its 3.30 in the morning…….wisdom also told me to wait. Never poke a sleeping Lion with a stick….if yer inside the cage. On I ride, thinking that my arrival into Mauvezin will just about coincide with when Collen gets up. Down thru the tiny backroads of France I roll, until at last I am riding down into Mauvezin…..but a half hour early yet for get,up,time. I head for what I consider to be the best boulangerie in France, right there beside the famous Mauveszin market square which has been holding markets since 1124. I walk into the door of the bakers, and who should be walking out but Natalie herself. Now how lucky can you get right……yeah, thats right, we both recognized the luck involved and went right down and bought a lottery ticket because of it.
George and Nat, live about 18km further south of town, over 1 high steep ridge. So as Natalie continues shopping I head out of town to arrive at the saddle shop an hour later. George opens the gate to his place, we greet as good friends and get started with the visit. There is much to talk about, since I was last here one year ago and taught a saddle tree making class. George is also the acting President of a group of artisans, all of whom hail from Europe and are involved in the making of such items as saddles, braid goods and cowboy iron work. Natalie rolls in not much more than 10 minutes later than myself. A shower, some cleaner clothes and gear in the laundry room, we are ready for some baguette and her homemade “fois grau”, which is made of the liver of a gorged duck. This stuff is the bomb folks, and I am a guy who hates liver.
The day that followed was a full one. We headed out to Auch, located further west from Mauvesin. They wanted me to see the beautiful Cathedral in Auch, for sure one of the top 3 that I have seen this trip. Hard to describe since it is massive in sheer size, a Gothic style church on the high bank of a passing river. Gothic is one of my own favorite styles. For many they appear garrish or overdone, I have even heard some say they have an evil overtone with the Gargoyles hanging over door lintels and water spouts etc.. Think what you will. For me there is so much going on with every element from stone, to plaster, wood and rock…..that is just fascinating to see all that artistry in its collosal form. Built at a time when there were few mechanical contrivances to aid in its construction. And since there was no French Govermental Official over-seeing its construction, they wrapped the whole project in 300 years instead of the Goverment average of 475 years, and a 2000 percent over-budget cost. This particular Cathedral has a huge amount of woodwork on the inside, and the carving within the wooden elements alone is amazing. But then hanging from, and adorning everyone of the 44 marble pillars which are 75 feet tall, is a garnish of carved plaster that seems to ooze down the pillar from the ceiling. Paintings, frescoes, statuary and all manner of ornate tapestry and weavings fill each alcove along its 365 foot long interior. Which part did I like the best you ask, why, the “no smoking” sign I guess because it was written in Olde English font….just kidding. For me and with this particular chapel, it would be the wood work first, followed by the Gargoyles around the outside. Incidently, I did learn something while in Auch. Its the home town of Three Musketeers character Dartangnon (you may want to double check my spelling), who was indeed a real person. He died during a siege of some far off city, but I cant remember which one.
We ended the day in an interesting manner. We had dinner at a splendid Morrocan restaurant, where we had cous-cous with a vegetable and lamb type stew which we put over the cous-cous. I was both sad and surprised because her cous-cous was actually better than mine……who’dathought! Really great mint tea and sweet cakes for dessert. From Auch we headed back towards Mauvezin in and absolute deluge of rain, sure glad I wasn,t in my tent when this storm hit. We made one more stop, and that was at a french Fois Gras farm to see the ducks being fed first hand. Small pens hold only 20 MALE ducks each. They are raised totally outside for 14 weeks, then brought inside for 2 weeks of “forced feeding” I say that without the intention of having it sound harmful in any way. Each duck is hand caught in its turn by the feeder. A slim plastic tube is inserted into the ducks throat, sitting atop that tube is a special corn grinder. The duck is fed ground wet corn till his gizzard is full and gorged. The feeder constantly massages the throat and gizzard checking to see how full the duck is. Once the feeder is happy with the amount of feed he has given the duck, its turned loose to wiggle his tail, quack to his friends and eventually to try and slip back in the feed line. You think I am joking, but they actually come up and nibble on your sleeve trying to get another go-round.
The following day had me leaving the Brail Saddleshop by 10am. Loaded and pedalling under lead grey clouds and very wet roads. Thanks George and Natalie for friendship and great food once again. Always a fun place to visit.