Monday, May 12, 2008

Cannes, Year V

Friends: Three small villages within twenty miles of each other, about 200 miles directly south of Paris, each claim to be the center of France based on the calculations of different cartographers.  The lack of agreement lies in whether or not one includes assorted islands in the Mediterranean and the English Channel to define the borders of the country.

These villages were my first destination on this my fifth annual Cannes/Tour de France summer. Though I have come near these villages in my previous meanderings about the country, I was unaware of this rivalry, or that a center to the country was to be searched out, until I read the recently published "The Discovery of France" this winter. This excellent book by Graham Robb, an English university professor, who has spent years exploring France, some of it by bicycle, was chock full of fascinating lore and tidbits. He added a new dimension to the sound of chiming church bells thanks to his dissertation explaining that many were minted from a collection of plates and goblets and candlesticks of the locals.

I could well have stumbled upon Bruere-Allichamps, one of the towns asserting itself to be the center of France, later this summer, as it is on National Highway 144 just north of Saint-Amand-Montrond, the Ville Arrive for stage 20 of this year's Tour, the climactic time trial, the day before the race finishes in Paris and three days after the final mountain stage finishing atop L'Alpe d'Huez. It is the most accessible of the three towns claiming to be the center of France. The other two, Saulzais-le-Poitier and Vesdun, are off on small, lightly-traveled rural roads.

None of the three villages are large enough to have a tourist office to state their case, though their monuments were all erected with the hopes of attracting tourists. Three miles from Bruere was a "center-of-France pavilion" (arches over a four-lane superhighway at a rest stop with gas station and restaurant). Saulzais-le-Poitier offered a modest obelisk just off the road in a clump of trees. Vesdun designated itself as the center of France with a six-foot wide map of the country made up of some 60,000 tiles.

From this cluster of villes claiming to be the center of France I climbed up onto the Massif Central and headed for a region known as Vulcania featuring the Puy de Dome, a legendary Tour de France climb where I had hoped to meet up with Craig, the friend I biked with last summer to Mont St. Michel. We planned on an early morning climb when bicyclists are allowed on the toll road to its summit, followed by a couple of days of cycling together towards Mont Ventoux. Craig's summer residence is just 150 miles to the south of the Puy. He had returned to France April 15 after wintering in Chicago.

But unfortunately, Craig bowed out due to "lack of training" and cat-sitting duties. There's still a chance that he may join me after Cannes for a ride to the Pyrenees, but he may have a conflict preventing that too, so all those who were eager for more Travels With Craig may have to wait. We already had one friend from Chicago, who was all gung-ho to tackle the Tourmalet and other Pyrenean climbs this summer, opt out. So it goes with such things--people have lots of desire, but little commitment. It's all too easy to find an excuse to stay at home when it comes time to act.

Vulcania is an other-worldly region dotted with a wide assortment of pimple-sized volcanoes. The Puy de Dome is the most majestic, though pint-sized enough that the road to its top corkscrews around it, rather than switchbacking to its summit. The locals are so proud of it that the departement it resides in, one of the 90 some districts that comprise France, bears its name. It is one of the rare departements named for something other than a river.

A day's ride beyond the Puy de Dome was the city Le Puy en Velay, dominated by a pair of tight, tiny puys more like spires, one bearing a cathedral dating to 960 and the other a 70-foot tall statue of a woman cradling a child erected in 1860. The woman and child could have been mistaken for the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus, but the woman is known as Notre Dame de France. The cathedral was inspired by a Catholic bishop who made a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela over a thousand years ago. The marvel of the construction of the cathedral atop this puy made Le Puy en Velay one of the four traditional starting points in France that converge upon St. Jean Pied-de-Port in the French Pyrenees for the final 500 miles of the pilgrimage route to the church that contains the remains of the apostle James.

I plan to follow the route after Cannes. I have met a few cyclists over the years who have been on such a pilgrimage. Thousands of people do it every year, though its not as popular as it was back in the Middle Ages when tens of thousands of people undertook the adventure every year. A book describing the route published in the 1200s is considered the first travel book ever written. Countless books have been written on it since, including one by Shirley MacLaine.

After two days on the Massif Central, the least populated region of France, with still snow-streaked peaks here and there, I plunged over 4,000 feet in 25 miles down to the flat lands of the Rhone Valley. Not all the cemeteries had their water turned back on up on the Massif. Prices were cheaper too back down in the more populated regions. Gas was over 1.5 euros on the Massif--ten dollars a gallon, about a dollar more than elsewhere.

Signs giving the price of gas are more of a warning than an advertisement. Its hard to say if its reduced automobile use, as there never seems to be much traffic in rural France. But it hasn't increased the amount of bicyclists. All I see are an occasional older guy in Lycra out getting some exercise, always a heart-warming site. What I have seen more of though are hitch-hikers. I've seen many sideways thumbs, about as many as upraised thumbs from those delighted to see a touring cyclist. The French still warmly respond to the touring cyclist, though few are to be seen.

For the first year ever I didn't experience a drop of rain on my 600 mile ride to Cannes from Paris. Instead, I experienced four days of more than gentle headwinds, half of my days on the bike--not necessarily a welcome trade. One day on the Massif Central I wasn't even averaging nine miles per hour for the first 30 miles of my day. I feared not arriving in Cannes early enough to rest up for the 12-day marathon of movies and the day I needed to go through the schedule of nearly 2,000 films screening.

But I arrived on schedule, early Monday morning, 48 hours before the films are to commence. I am primed to enjoy what are easily the year's 12 best days of cinema, other than the four days of Telluride. I know the vast majority of those on this mailing list are more interested in travel and bicycling than cinema. I'll spare you the two weeks of Cannes ramblings unless I hear otherwise. Likewise, any who have no interest in another two month batch of France and Tour de France dispatches can hit the unsubscribe icon or respond to this address with a subject of "unsubscribe."

Later, George

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