A Winelover’s Tour de France ( 7 )

The next day dawned fine and cool, but by late morning the
temperature was up around 30°C. It turned out to be a long, hot day of
some 120 kilometres cycling through to the old town of Luzech, near
Cahors. His journey for the most part followed the river Lot, which
threads its way through the Dordogne in a series of winding loops and
curves. It is a rich and fertile countryside. Here and there fields of
rape in flower formed great waving yellow patches, from which rose a
clean, powerful scent, at once penetrating and sweet, carried by the
wind over a wide area. From time to time a whole field of red poppies
would appear as a splash of wild colour to the eye, as though flicked
from the painter’s brush across an unsuspecting landscape.
The road ahead took him through the industrial town of Fumel, from
where he was able to visit the ruins of the Château de Bonaguile close
by. The château is a splendid example of 15th century military
architecture. It is set on a hilltop overlooking a small wooded valley
and is an impressive sight approached from the road below. His next
stop was at Puy L’Évêque on the north bank of the Lot. It is an old
town, with tiers of old houses tumbling down the steep hillside to the
water’s edge.
Bede reached Luzech in the afternoon, feeling somewhat weary after
a hard day under a cloudless blue sky and a blazing sun. After a long
shower, he had a light meal at the hôtel-restaurant and was in bed
early. He was awoken at 5.00 am by a thunderstorm, followed by
heavy rain, which continued for some hours before abating
completely. He cycled the 18 kilometres to Cahors in short time. What
he found there was an elegant city with broad, tree-lined streets and
squares shading the pavement cafés . He was particularly taken with
the sight of plane trees along the boulevard Gambetta, which is lined
with sidewalk cafés and seductive shops. Wine has always been an
important part of the commercial life of Cahors, and the region has
long been famous for its vineyards. It is considered that the best wines
of Cahors are made from the vineyards on the slopes and the valley
floor beside the river Lot, between Cahors and Puy L’Évêque to the
west. The rich red soil, often scattered with limestone pebbles, is
planted primarily with Malbec and Merlot grape varieties to produce
deep-coloured, full-bodied red wines.
By early afternoon Bede was ready to move on. He left Cahors, taking
the road over the medieval Pont Valentré, which is a superb bridge
supported by three towers spanning the river Lot, and headed south
for the town of Caussade. He stayed overnight in this busy place of
trade at yet another Logis de France, the Hôtel Dupont. Dinner that
night was spent in the company of three delightful French
businessmen, who were in Caussade on sales trips for their respective
companies. Bede enjoyed a superb four-course meal, matched with
bottles of Château de Chambert from Cahors appellation contrôlée.
His dinner companions were jovial, fun-loving men, particularly the
one named Robert, who was somewhat overweight and unhealthylooking
but such a funny and outgoing individual. Robert kept them
all greatly amused with his comments and observations on all manner
of subjects, and he teased and jollied the restaurant staff mercilessly.
Bede chatted away with the group in both French and English,
touching on relationships, occupations, their ages and other topics.
Charles, a particularly dapper, lean individual of short stature, when
asked his age, proudly responded by saying “J’ai cinquante-cinq
ans” (55 years), and promptly rolled up the sleeve of his neatly
pressed shirt to reveal an impressively well-defined, muscular bicep.
He was obviously into body building and kept himself in great shape.
In response to this Robert, ever the comic, stood up and displayed his
considerable stomach with a forward thrust of his hips and then
promptly sat down again. He had made his point and they all had a
great laugh. At the end of the evening they enjoyed a café-cognac, and
Bede reflected on how fortunate he had been to have shared the
company of such men for a few hours. He saw it as one of those
chance encounters which enriched the lives of each of them.
The next morning saw him on the road to Albi. This journey was to
take Bede through a spectacular rural countryside, which was
highlighted by gorges and steep hill climbs in the early stages, and
then by more gently rolling fields the closer he got to Albi. His first
stop was at the old town of St Antonin-Noble-Val, then on to Cordessur-
Ciel, an old fortified town built pyramid-fashion on a conical hill
overlooking the Cérou valley. Its steeply sloping streets, fortified
gates and Gothic houses are very picturesque. Bede found this section
of the tour to be the toughest up to that point, with some very steep
hill climbs to contend with. He was feeling very strong that day,
however, and took every hill in his stride without once dismounting .
Bede arrived in the city of Albi shortly before midday after crossing
the Tarn river to gain entry to this place of great artistic merit. He was
immediately struck by the impressive sight of the cathedral Ste
Cécile, which rises over the city like a mighty galleon in rose-pink
brick, dominating the old quarter above the river. It is an eloquent
example of middle Gothic, late 13th to early 14th century
architecture, crowned by a 78-metre fortified bell tower. The interior
of this old cathedral is consummately decorated and finished
throughout. Nearby is the former archbishop’s palace, the Palais de la
Berbie. This contains a 13th century chapel and the Toulouse-Lautrec
museum, which has more than 600 works by the great artist, who was
born in Albi. Bede strolled the streets and narrow alleyways of this
delightful place, all of which seems to end in the great squares, either
by the cathedral or by the Palais de la Berbie.
His resting place for the night was at the Logis de France hotel, Le
Vieil Abbey. It was a particularly comfortable and well-run familyowned
hotel in the centre of the city. His dining companions in the
hôtel-restaurant that night were Paul and Marie, who were holidaying
in France and whose home was in Melbourne, Australia . They both
appeared to be in their late sixties and were touring the country in a
little Renault 5. Paul was an imposing and handsome man of
Hungarian birth, who, it turned out, was a former rowing champion
and had represented Hungary as a 16-year-old swimmer in the 1936
Olympics in Berlin. They were a most agreeable couple, and Bede
enjoyed the opportunity to talk with them about life in Australia and
other topics of shared interest.
It was with a light mood that Bede headed out of Albi the next
morning, taking the road to Gaillac and then on to Toulouse. The early
part of his journey that day followed the lovely river Tarn, with its
many secret curves and high banks. There was a soft sky overhead for
a time, though he soon became aware of a strengthening wind as he
proceeded southwest. Along the right bank of the Tarn are the hills of
Gaillac, with Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon and Muscat grapes planted
on the slopes . On the opposite bank are vineyards planted in Gamay
and Syrah grapes, among others.
After Gaillac, the wind velocity increased considerably and Bede
found himself being seriously blown about. The branches of trees
along the roadside were flailing and groaning in the high winds. By
now he was on the N.88 to Toulouse and the traffic was heavy. At one
point the wind was so strong that he was at risk of being blown onto
the roadway, or, worse still, into the path of overtaking trucks or even
oncoming vehicles. Bede decided to get off the road and take shelter
behind an abandoned house, which was surrounded by a high hedge.
He stayed huddled there for about an hour before venturing out onto
the road again. Even then he had to proceed with great caution all the
way to the outskirts of Toulouse. His memory is of an unnerving
experience fraught with potential danger.
By the time Bede reached the centre of the city he was a strained and
weary traveller. He really didn’t need a tyre to blow out – as it did
when so close to his destination. He had to move to the footpath,
remove the panniers and fit a replacement tubeless tyre to the rear
wheel before moving off again. By this time Bede had had enough:
his hands were covered in chain oil and his only thought was to get
off the streets and find a comfortable hotel for the night. This was the
first bit of trouble with his bicycle since leaving Paris, after some
1,500 kilometres on the road. It was just that it came at the end of a
hard day when he was pushing to get to a hotel for the night. Bede
decided to lash out and took a room at the modern and well-appointed
Hôtel Arcade in the centre of Toulouse.


BARRY JOHNS  ( aka Le Vigneron )