March 17, 2020. France has just entered into confinement with strict rules: we are locked down for the foreseeable future and limited to 1 hour a day outside our homes and within a 1km radius. Difficult times ahead for keen travelers and nature lovers like me.
May 11. The French government has eased the rules and France is now entering in its first deconfinement phase. We are free to move within a 100 km radius from home. I decide to take this at face value. Trying to get a picture what it really means, I buy a map of South of France and draw a 100km radius circle around my house with a blue marker pen. A trip has created itself: my scribble has unwittingly roughed out a bike route and my aim becomes to connect the smallest and most picturesque roads as closely as possible to this imaginary border. The program of my next 4 weeks is set.
It takes me few days to get my bike and belongings ready for the journey, knowing that the ride will be mostly unsupported as most of the restrictions are still in place: hotels, restaurants, campsites, and bars will still be shut while I’m on the road. There will be no other choices than sleeping in the wild in my 1.5 square metre tent, and hoping to find grocery stores on my way for food supplies. But I’m quite happy with that. A small adventure close to home!
May 18. My house door is finally locked, and I am now cycling south towards the Mediterranean Sea. The first leg of my journey takes me along the Mediterranean coast, a beautiful ridge called La Côte Bleue, a pristine limestone range 40km long and locally known for its fishing villages, clear deep waters and somehow still protected from major tourism. This stretch of beautiful beaches and rocky cliffs is today completely and understandably empty. It is still forbidden, at least for the next 3 weeks, to wander on beaches in order to keep social distancing.
Crossing Marseille is a particular and not really enjoyable experience. I immediately notice a different ambiance from what I am usually used to when visiting the second biggest city in France. The vibrant and often exuberant atmosphere has, since the virus outbreak, been replaced with anxiety, fear and suspicion. I can easily imagine cycling through the darkest pages of ‘the plague’, the famous book written by French author Albert Camus. It’s a weird feeling to see everyone walking in silence, looking worried and wearing masks. I am not at ease so I decide to leave the city, head to the countryside and reach my 100km limit, trying to be like a tightrope walker (or cyclist) for the next 3 and half weeks riding on that imaginary circle.
On every single day of my journey, I manage to find teeny countryside roads away from traffic, and to cross some of the most beautiful landscapes and villages. I thought I knew well enough this part of the country but this journey proves me wrong. I discover beautiful villages, full of character and still away from the harsh glare of mass tourism. How rewarding and pleasant to find myself cycling on empty roads, visiting those new territories and meeting extremely friendly locals eager to discuss with me and find out why I am travelling on my bike and where I am heading to (this is always the start of an often long conversations leading to new friendships!). Along the way, I was stopped so many times by locals who offered me drinks, food, a bed for the night and even on one occasion a job. I came back home with many new email addresses, phone numbers and great encounters I will not easily forget.
The geography on my journey changes almost every day. Traveling by bike helps me witness the diversity of the geology, flora and gave me the chance to see many wild animals such as chamois, deer, eagles, vultures and more. Cycling slowly and quietly really helped me to see the beauty of the nature.
Riding in such remote areas was a real delight and it proved also a treat to find a wild spot to pitch my tent each night. My favorite being without a doubt in the Gorges de Méouges near Sisteron where I found some flat ground next to a river with turquoise water and great views over the Alps.
Finding food supplies was actually a lot easier than I first imagined and was an enjoyable experience. Most villages I cycled past had a small grocery stores selling regional and organic products. What a treat to stop every day and buy freshly baked bread, delicious goat cheese, fruits and vegetables from the nearest farms. I will be missing those simple lunches under the shade of a tree by the side of the road. By the end of my trip, the second phase of deconfinement was in place and I finally had to possibility to sit at the terrace of cafés, enjoy a coffee and see the world go by with a good book in my hands. Life is slowly but surely coming back to normal.
After having covered around 1300 km in a little under 4 weeks, I finally got home with tired legs, bags bursting with food gathered during my journey and memories of great encounters, amazing landscapes, picturesque villages and some of the best roads I have ever ridden in France. The situation is far from being back to normal but what I have seen in the last month or so gives me hope for the future as people were friendlier and more helpful than ever. Even though some of the restrictions were still in place, I found that travelling was still fun and a really enjoyable experience.
Michael is as resourceful a man as we know, skills which he usually puts to planning Trufflepig’s France trips, but which now are helping him make the most of the situation. Email him here… as long as you’re not in a rush to get a quick reply.