Saturday, June 18, 2005

Pau, France

Friends: Lourdes is on the fringe of the Pyrenees. Pau, 27 miles away, is fully free of them. My legs greatly enjoyed the gentle, imperceptible descent, partially along a river, then past corn field after corn field. The cornfields of France do not go on and on to the horizon as those of the Plains in the U.S. There is always a forest or cluster of trees nearby to add perspective and variety to the landscape, as throughout France. Pau is a frequent Ville Etape. It is ideally situated in the southwest sector of the country and with a population of 85,000, it can easily accommodate The Tour entourage.

Despite the throngs of pilgrims in Lourdes I had no sense of people pouring into the city as I entered or exited, quite unlike my visit to Andorra last weekend. It happened to be a Friday evening when I crossed into this small Principality, only slightly bigger than Liechtenstein, high in the Pyrenees. Traffic was backed up with duty-free shoppers for a couple of miles in both directions as I approached the border. It was a 20-mile climb from Aix-les-Thermes to Andorra, but at a mere five per cent my legs hardly noticed after all the eight plus grades they've endured in the Alps and Pyrenees.

Traffic was at a virtual standstill. One motorist leaped out of his car as I approached and frantically asked, first in French, then in English, "Is there an accident ahead," fearing, or hoping, that might be the explanation for the back-up. Passing all that traffic was good practice for me for the Tour de France, acknowledging all the "Bravos" and "Bon Courages" and "Allezs" from the people stuck in their cars.

The first town in Andorra right on the border is a ski town full of duty free malls and even a McDonald's. There were several parking lots full of encamped RV's, so I felt no need to be overly discreet in pitching my tent. I set it up near one of the ski lifts, all above tree line, beside a patch of snow. It was another 1,500 foot climb, if I wished to continue deeper into Andorra, but since I would have to double back, I declined.

I put on gloves and wind-breaker for my 20-mile descent back to France Saturday morning. There was no line of cars leaving the country, but cars were backed up for two miles, slowly inching forward, on their way into Andorra, and then it was bumper-to-bumper traffic, such as I have not seen since leaving Chicago, the next 18 miles, as if it were free Lance Armstrong bobble-heads to the first 10,000 people to enter the country. Mixed in with the cars were tour buses taking people for a shopping spree. I was a little wary about crossing back into France, as I picked up a French license plate along the road a few days ago to add to my collection back home. I feared the customs officials might reprimand me or more for not turning it into the authorities, as it is still had a current sticker on it. If it were just confiscated, that would be okay, as it would just lighten my load, and I'd no doubt find another down the road. If I had thought about all of this earlier, I would have hid it along the road before I entered Andorra. But I need not have been concerned. The customs officials just waved me through seeing I had no TVs or such amongst my gear.

I can walk about Pau without feeling self-conscious, as I did in Lourdes. I was about the only one there not wearing a cross around my neck. I kept my jacket zipped up, even though I didn't need to, so people could think it hid my cross. Pau will be mobbed with Tour de France followers for several days next month, as not only will it host the Tour's second and final rest day, but it will be the arrival city for Tuesday's stage, and then will be the departure city for the next day's stage. It will allow Tour participants and followers three straight nights (Sunday, Monday and Tuesday) in the same bed, a great, great luxury that they will all immensely appreciate after over two weeks of a having to pack up every morning and then unpack that evening. And it could well be in a bed, or hotel, they are familiar with, since The Tour encamps at Pau so frequently. I look forward to being back here for all the dramatics.

Later, George

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