Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Day 1: From Le Mont Gerbier-de-Jonc to LePuy-en-Velay. This was in many respects the hardest day of the whole ride. In future I'd make it shorter.

The picture below shows the Mont Gerbier-de-Jonc in the Ardèche the starting-point for my ride along the Loire.

Gerbier-de-Jonc is the source of the Loire - or rather the sources. There are in fact three sites here all claiming to be the real source of the longest river in France and they're no doubt all justified in their claim. The mountain is a volcanic plug composed of a rock called phonolite on account of the peculiar acoustic properties it has. On the day I left this spot there was a light aircraft flying in the vicinity and its sound was distorted by a strange reverberation from the mountain that resembled the grinding and clattering of some gigantic subterranean machine. The sound seemed to come from beneath my feet. Small wonder that in the past people imagined all manner of strange goings-on under the earth in these parts.

I did the trip from Le Mont Gerbier-de-Jonc to my chambre d'hôte at La Bigue on the evening of the 15th June, the day before the ride proper was to start, just so as to be able to say I'd done it.

View La Bigue to Le Puy-en-Velay in a larger map]

The view from the mountain isn't particularly impressive for the source of France's longest river, but the course of the infant Loire can be guessed at by the shape of the valley that zig-zags towards the south-west. The descent is understandably far more pleasurable than the ascent and I made the decision, in the course of it, to take the route through Le Béage rather than the one through Sainte Eulalie and Usclades. (This alternative route can be seen on the 'Alternative Route' page.)

The 'Monts du Velay' - Gerbier-de-Jonc is the pimple on the right

The view back towards the heights shows the so-called Monts du Velay and is rather prettier than that from Gerbier-de-Jonc itself which is reproduced below.

The view from Gerbier-de-Jonc towards Sainte Eulalie the south-west.

I left the chambre d'hôte at La Bigue on the 16th of June at around 9.00 (see: http://www.chambre-hote-labigue.info/index.html ) and immediately ricked my back trying to avoid a large, over-friendly dog that insisted on running in front of me. I had to sit down at the road-side for half an hour while the worst of the pain subsided. Getting back in the saddle took me a good few minutes and fortunately I was alone on a narrow country lane, so there was no-one around to witness the farcical shenanigans.

Madame Rippert's establishment La Bigue, the first chambre d'hôte

Having lost so much time at the beginning of my day, I no longer regretted going against my purist inclinations to opt for the easier route. I knew that there were a number of pretty taxing climbs around the village of Usclades and I was anxious to make progress towards my destination in Le Puy-en-Velay. So it was with some relief that I turned left along the D122 rather than right since the state of my back made climbing more than a bit of a trial. I soon arrived in Le Béage and there then followed another long downhill section towards the Lac d'Issarlès.

At the bottom of the descent I stopped for lunch at a café situated at the junction of the D16 and the D116. It was raining at this point and I was already soaked. I toyed with the idea of turning off to see the Lac d'Issarlès but decided against it and sat down to order my lunch. On the menu was either a cheese or ham sandwich - nothing else. The being who delivered this news had the face of a rodent and, as far as I could judge from the shapeless mass of clothing in which she was swathed, the body of a toad. I requested the cheese option. She disappeared and then slithered back in with a huge chunk of bread into which had been pushed a sliver of Gruyère and nothing else. She deposited this appetizing item on the table and returned to her own meal with all possible haste. I ate the half loaf of bread and washed it down with water from my own bottle, since the idea of ordering anything else seemed inconceivable. I paid my bill and took off as soon as I was able.

View La Bigue to Le Puy-en-Velay in a larger map]

The rain soon became considerably more serious and by around 2.00 it had turned into a thundery downpour. I wasted a lot of time sheltering under trees, but the rain was so heavy that soon these provided no protection at all. There was nothing for it but to continue as clothes and luggage got steadily soaked.

Looking over the Loire gorge after a soaking

The naive fantasy I had once harboured that following the course of the Loire would be mainly a downhill ride was by now completely dissipated. From Issarlès to Goudet there are no very punishing climbs, but from Goudet to Saint Martin-de-Fugères the upward grind took me far longer than I wished and did little to improve the back problem. Near Goudet I spotted the Château de Beaufort through the drizzle - a fine medieval pile

Le Château de Beaufort

constructed in the thirteenth century and beseiged by the dastardly English during the Hundred Years War. This is the second château of the Loire after that of Arlempdes and was closely linked to the fortress of Arlempdes by the alliances between the barons of Velay. However, I felt unable to linger since the ascent to Saint Martin would require all of my energy and I was beginning to worry about arriving at Le Puy on schedule.

After Saint Martin, things got a little easier. The rain became lighter and gradually petered out altogether. The Loire gorge was a little more visible.

A view on the Loire gorge from the bridge on the D27 near Chadron

As my clothes dried on me, my spirits improved and even the back situation seemed to ease. There then followed the last climb of any note towards the village of Solignac-sur-Loire.

The view towards Solignac near the end of the climb
The view back down the valley from the church of Solignac

After Solignac, it wasn't all plain sailing, but there was a lot of descent and I began to feel optimistic about securing my bed for the night.

View La Bigue to Le Puy-en-Velay in a larger map]

I began the long descent through Cussac and Valhory at around 6.30 and by 7.00 I was speeding down the long incline into the town of Le Puy-en-Velay with a huge sense of relief. A large sign advertising Le Puy as 'the capital of Velay' greeted me. Unfortunately, the capital of the old kingdom was probably not here at all but rather further east in the scruffy little village of Chapteuil (coruption of the latin capitolium).

The view of Le Puy on a gloomy evening from the N88

Ten minutes later I was pushing me bike over the cobbles of the old town of Le Puy-en-Velay towards the chambres d'hôte of Madame Annick Caro, my cycling shoes slipping and sliding on the wet volcanic stones (see: http://prat-du-loup.fr/index.php).

'La Maison au Loup', Madame Caro's fine B&B

I stumbled gratefully into the warm gloom of the seventeenth century nuns' residence, now resplendantly restored and updated to a comfortable townhouse. I was assigned to the chambre Soeur-Thérèse. I showered immediately in the far from spartan wetroom, luxuriating in the hot water on the tormented back. Then after a fine lasagne and half a litre ofChinon at the Marco Polo in the rue Raphaël I tumbled into bed at around ten and remembered nothing until the alarm sounded at half past seven.

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