Saturday, May 28, 2011

Montpellier, Ville Arrivée

Friends: Even though I've passed through Montpellier three times in the past seven years and last visited it two years ago when it hosted The Tour's team time trial that Astana won nearly putting Lance into yellow, I've never fully gained a handle on this sprawling metropolis of 211,000 people, the ninth largest in France, just north of the Mediterranean. I always get lost and struggle to find my through and out. Since I'll be back again this July when it hosts the finish of the 15th stage of the Tour after three days in the Pyrenees, and since it was only slightly out of my way on my route to visit Craig and Onni, I decided to try once again to figure out Montpellier so I won't waste any time come July when I'll be desperate not to waste any time in escaping the city.

Once again I went astray following the signs to the city centre. Unlike most cities there were no signs to the tourist office. I did see signs though to the Mediatech, library. I had already searched out three libraries in small towns before Montpellier, but they had ll been closed, typical of the limited hours of French libraries. The Mediatech might as well have been closed as it didn't allowed non card holders to use their computers even though nearly half of the fifty computers in its Internet room were unattended.

Just as I was biking away from the Mediatech a man shouted at me. He asked if I knew about Warm Showers, a world wide network of people who offer cyclists a place to stay and a warm shower. I did indeed and had taken advantage of it in Turkey a couple of times. He said he lived in a town 70 kilometers from Montpellier and would be happy to have me visit. It was out of my way towards Craig and Onni's but on my route after my visit with them. He was more a vicarious touring cyclist than an actual tourist cyclist. He said when his four children were all grown up he hoped to do some authentic touring. But he was such an ardent lover of cycle touring that he was hosting a four-day conference of touring cyclists and long-distance walkers the beginning of August. There would be sixteen programs of travelers giving presentations.

He was also able to direct me in the direction of the tourist office. It was just beyond the bustling Plaza de la Comedie. The friendly woman I talked with at the tourist office said it would most likely be the finish line for The Tour, but it hadn't been officially settled yet. It would be logistically much easier to have the finish on the outskirts of the city at the sports plaza where the team time trial finished, but it would be much more spectacular to have the finish in the very heart of the city.

I'll have no trouble finding the finish line as I will be following the course markers. I'll just have a challenge finding my way out of the city, though after this latest reconnaissance I have a much better grasp of the city's geography. One secret is to follow one of the several tram lines. That is how I made my exit this time, though I was still befuddled at one point and had to pull out my city map. As I was studying it a cyclist stopped and asked if he could be of help. He said he had once toured through Africa and seeing me on my fully loaded bike brought back many beautiful memories for him. We had a nice chat talking about our respective African experiences.

I had an even greater difficulty the day before trying to find the Bicycle Museum in the small village of Domazan between Avignon and Nimes, as the museum wasn't actually in the village but in a chateau a couple miles outside it. Not everyone I asked for directions to it even knew about it. It wasn't even mentioned on the map in the village square of the town's notable sites--its chateau, post office, church, town hall. I was putting an awful lot of effort trying to find the museum meandering around the town considering I didn't expect it to be open, as I'd heard it was only open on weekends until June. But still I wanted to at least peek in to see what it might have to offer.

After finally being pointed in the right direction and understanding it was quite a ways away I did come upon a small "musee" sign confirming I was on tract. A telephone repair man confirmed it was at the top of a hill and then down a side road. I down a gravel road under an arch . The chateau was surrounded by a small forest and a sculpture garden. There was a car parked off to the side and the door up the steps was open. All my efforts were not for naught, though it wasn't a very significant collection of bikes. There were three rooms of bicycles, three rooms of motorcycles and the third floor of the chateau given up to a children's museum.

I was to discover that the museum was a parasite of the Pont du Gard World Heritage site six miles away. The 2,000 year old Roman aqueduct over the Gard River attracts thousands of visitors. It was the highest aqueduct in the Roman empire. There were many signs around it advertising the Bicycle and Motorcycle Museum. If I had made my approach to Domazan through the Pont du Gard just outside of Roumilin, I would have had no problem finding it.

Most of the bicycles in the museum were pre-1900 many dating to the Draisine era, the earliest version of the bicycle, pre-pedals, invented by a German in 1817. The description of the Draisine declared that discovering one could put two wheels together to glide along was "one of the most beautiful inventions of the 1800s." There was only one room with bicycles from the modern era--bicycles ridden by Poulidor and Anquetil and Hinault in the Tour de France. There was a jersey from Rene Vieto, a French star after World War II and a jersey from the greatest woman cyclist of all time, Jeannie Longo.

There were also a scattering of vintage posters and photographs. The most notable was a photograph of a very well-fed woman, who would be considered obese by modern standards, naked, aside from a pair of high heeled shoes and stockings midway up her calves, with her back-side towards the camera posed in front of a penny-farthing bicycle with her head turned towards the camera and one hand on her hair up in a bun.

There were a couple of other oddities--a helicopter bike with overhead blades that spun with the turning of the pedals, though not with enough power to provide lift off and also a giant wheel that one sat inside and pedaled to roll down the road. A sheet of paper listed the translation of bicycle in languages from all over the wold including Yiddish--rover.

The motorcycle division had several bicycles with motors on them, one from 1902. The first motorized bike dates to 1871 with the first serious manufacture of such bikes by Daimler in 1875.

Even though there were mobs of people at the Pont du Gard, none ventured to the bicycle museum while I was there. Many people were drawn to the Pont du Gard on this day to swim in the river beneath it with the temperature in the high 80s. Swimming wasn't allowed directly under the bridge, as it narrowed into a bit of a gorge there. It is truly a magnificent site, a three level bridge that was the highest bridge in the world when it was constructed. There is an adjoining pedestrian bridge built by Napoleon that I bicycled over.

There is an excellent museum describing the vast network of aqueducts throughout the Roman Empire. Water for their bath houses and to facilitate their sewage systems was a high priority for them. Their aqueducts supplied more liters of water per person per day than is used in modern times. The museum included many videos and adjoining the museum was a 200 seat theater with a 25 minute film. There is no charge for bicyclists to the Pont du Gard. Cars pay fifteen euros to park.

On my way across Provence after Cannes I passed several memorials with American flags on them in recognition of the US Army that liberated towns in World War II. I also passed memorials paying tribute to those who died fighting for the Resistance. They were all more significant than the small plaque in Chambon-sur-Lignon acknowledging the extraordinary efforts of the town in saving hundred of Jews during the war.

Later, George

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