Monday, May 3, 2010

Millau, France

Friends: Julie and I have wild-camped the past two nights in campgrounds that hadn't opened yet. We weren't looking for a free place to camp, but rather a shower and a little shelter from the rain and a place to dry out some gear. When we discovered they were closed, we weren't so desperate to push on in search of an open campground, especially since Julie has put a limit of 50 miles per day on our travels and we'd already hit it or were approaching it.

Two nights ago we set up our tents in the stands overlooking the town soccer field adjoining the municipal campground in Estaing on the Lot River. We were joined by two French couples pulling campers behind their cars. The misty weather kept them quiet and in their vehicles.

Last night we didn't have to worry about sharing our campgrounds with any automotive campers, as a barrier blocked the road into the campground. Like the night before the toilets were locked, but this night we found a spigot dispensing water. We could have bathed if we needed to, but we've hardly been sweating in the unseasonably cold temperatures, other than on some of the increasingly long and arduous climbs. Julie has gone as long as 20 days without being able to bathe on a trek in the high Himalayas of Nepal, so she's not complaining, at least about not showering.

Yesterday's high was just 52 degrees, thirty degrees colder than my first two days in France before joining up with Julie--cold enough for me to wear tights for the first time in France since I needed them three years ago in the Alps on the way to Cannes. Snow is actually forecast for elevations over 1,000 meters tomorrow. We had intended on a route with several passes over 1,000 meters past Mont Aigoual, the highest peak in these parts at 1,567 meters, so we won't be going that way.

I learned my lesson six years ago when I was caught by a May snowstorm while climbing Aigoual on my way to Craig's house. That seven-mile descent in sleet is about as close to hypothermia as I've ever come. It took quite awhile to warm up beside Craig's fireplace. Mont Aigoual is notorious for having some of the nastiest weather in all of France and has a weather station atop it compiling data to prove it. I was lucky to learn from someone at a tourist office of the impending storm.

We've had to regularly seek out restaurants or coffee shops for warmth the past couple of days, especially after shivering long descents. Yesterday that led us into the small village of Ste-Eulalie d'Olt. We stumbled upon a festival of food and music and scarecrows. "Epouvantail," scarecrow, was a word Julie already knew, as a town near her also has a similar festival. She said she impressed her teacher in Paris by knowing it. There were stuffed epouvantails dangling all about the narrow streets of this charming village. Its small quaint square was jammed with vendors selling nuts and olives and pastries and cheeses and various prepared foods, some with aromas that were utterly irresistible.

When we walked past a lonely shivering couple all bundled up selling ice cream I commiserated with them, muttering a phrase new to my vocabulary thanks to Julie, "Quelle catastrophe." They almost smiled. Julie had used it to refer to the volcanic ash that closed down air traffic in Europe for five days. The French love extreme, colorful adjectives. During the Tour de France the French announcers pepper their commentary with "extraordinaire" and "magnifique" and "fantastique" and probably "catastrophe" too, though its French pronunciation (ca-tas-trof) has never registered with my ear. Since I've become attuned to it, I noticed its use five times in a book I'm reading about the French Revolution by Alexis de Tocqueville, most famous for his seminal book "Democracy in America" that he wrote in 1835 after a visit to America. He wrote this book on the French Revolution twenty years later, just three years before his death in Cannes in 1859.

We bought a variety of food and retreated to a bar where Julie got her daily cup of coffee, a little later than usual. We could gaze out on the square and just barely hear the music of a five-piece band with three women singers. Julie kept gushing about how much she liked the ambiance of the town and its counter-culture flavor. There were many more young people here than in her town of St. Cyprien, and quite a few long-haired males of all ages. She is eager to pay it another visit with some of her ex-pat girl friends. It was another of the great discoveries of our travels.

Now its on to Craig's house.

Later, George

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