In the mountain greenery, where God paints the scenery
Usually I start these travelogues with a great whinge about some form of transport. But the National Express bus from Stratford to Stansted is half the price of the Stansted Express, and takes less time to get there. It even arrives ten minutes early.
We fly to Lourdes (I'm looking forward to not flying for the rest of the year) and get the airport bus into the town, which seems to be full of all the Irish people who aren't in France for Eurofoot '16. Perhaps this is where Catholics go on their holidays. I did have a fear that a person travelling to take the magical waters might sit next to us on the plane and start carking it mid-air (I bet Lourdes airport has a defibrillator on standby), but instead it was a cycling fan. It took Dave about ten minutes to engage him in Land's End - John O'Groats chat.
Anyway, we spend a jolly 50 minutes at Lourdes gare, as a man waves a Portuguese flag out of his car window and drives around parping his horn, trying to work out how to get the bus south and having a Franglais chat with a loitering tourist information officer until the bus comes. SNCF runs the buses, probably because they closed the railway: each bus station is the old gare, and the railway line is now la voie verte, a cycle path. We drive through a mountainscape of cloud-edged trees, houses that once had thatched roofs, now slated over, three tier homes with decorative balconies that I would describe as Alpine, but we're in the Pyrenees, turreted gothic piles that are almost certainly haunted, paysans raking hay while the sun shines, crenelated follies, hills full of diagonal green trees, cornfields, mini-farms selling melons, peaches, nectarines, motorhomes already parked in lay-bys to get the best view. We travel through the tourist-ville of St Saveur to the smaller ski-town of Bareges, which the Tour de France will pass through tomorrow. In the hotel, we watch on the TV un Britannique, Steve Cummings, win stage seven.
We sit avec une tasse de té sur la terrasse, with an antique cat under one the chair and a posse of horses in the field below.
The humidity has lifted, the sun has come out and il fait flipping chaud. I'm still dressed for un été anglais: cardigan, trousers, raincoat. We walk around the tiny town, which reminds us of a summer version of The Returned, but with cyclists rather than zombies. I want to call out "Oy Geraint Jones, you lost?" when I watch a guy in full Team Sky gear freewheel past. Maybe he thinks Dave Brailsford might spot him and ask him to fill in if Froome drops out. There is also a dam (not burst, fortunately) and a pub (not Au Lac) as well as a sulphuric water spa, rivers, waterfalls and a skibus (hiver only). We eat at a place that does tartiflette (sans lardons): basically a big bowl of cheese, potatoes, onions and cream, but by eight, the mountain air has turned chilly so we turn in.
On my super bike, super bike
After a buffet breakfast in which I discuss Pyrenees vs British cheese with the hotel owner, we go pick up the hire bikes to ascend le col de Tourmnalet. Pour David un velo de montagne, pour moi, un velo electronique to follow in the tye tracks of all the greats: Wiggo, Nibbles, Froome, Femke Van Driessche...
The bike is heavy but great: it makes hills flat and gives a turbo boost when I pedal more quickly. It is fun speeding past the MAMILs, although i am subject to laughter, pointing, sarcastic cheers, and from one man: "C'est quoi, ca?" in absolute digust, as if I were Lance(ette) Armstrong. I suppose I should be glad I didn't get a face full of urine. I don't know how to say: "Sorry I'm infiltrating your boy's club, your manly sportive efforts, using technology. Sorry I'm usurping you, invading your male space. NOT SORRY." in French. I'd forgotten how awful French males are: entitled, arrogant, sexist, mansplaining.
We find a spot around five miles from the summit and sit for three hours in the ever increasing sun. Everyone here - English, French, German, Basque, Portuguese, Dutch, Belgian, Basque - is more organised than us with their motor homes, parasols, blankets to sit on, picnics....We have a packet of mini-cheddars and (eventually) a free newspaper to sit on. I have to periodically get up to stand in the shade of someone's RV, it's so hot, where I spot the guy who was next to us on the plane. He only has one leg but cycled up here quicker than us.
After about an hour, the caravan comes through. This is as extraordinary spectacle of all the sponsors' floats staffed by PR filles et garcons who dance and wiggle and throw stuff to baying spectators. There are vans with massive fibre glass cyclists, lions, Mickey Mouse, washing up liquid bottles, mineral water, baguettes, cycling jerseys, chicken, ice-cream, coffee, and balloons. One vehicle is shaped like a juice box.
We schill for stuff, catching an eclectic mix of haribo, juice, cycling chicken, keyring, sunglasses, brooch, lizard tattoo, madeleine cake, pencils, blow-up Ibis pillow (probably the same ones they use in the hotels) and best of all, un casquet that Dave clambers though nettles to retrieve. I catch a saucisson, which is no use to me, so I give it to the woman next to us. I got this wrong; I shoudl've bartered with the kid on the other side who claimed three hats. The Vittel van sprays us with much-needed water.
After this excitement and then eating and drinking the spoils, we wait another two hours in the midday sun. I make a bed out of the free newspapers to try and keep my pale limbs free from UV rays. I've turned a pinker shade of pale. Then the helicopters start to glint against the mountains and we can hear the M*A*S*H type whirrrrr. Then we can see the motorcycles, then the support cars and then they're up, a confusion of cyclists. I hadn't realised how huge the thing is: the outriders, the police, the team vehicles, the TV cameras: the whole travelling circus. Two unknown riders are in the breakaway and then the peloton arrives, the Sky train chugging up the hill in front: we see Froome in the melee, protected by the team, Aru in the middle of the Astana gang, Thibot Pinault on his own, the yellow jersey of Greg van Avermaet, Daniel Teklehaimanot in Dimension Data colours.
The second burst features the rainbow jersey of Sagan, and later Cavendish in a team of two. The last one to make it up the hill before the broom wagon is Michael Mokov (we recognise him from his number) and we later hear that he's the first rider to drop out. It's amazing how they look - there have been various fit men (and women) cycling up here, by these men are pure cycling machine, almost part of the bike itself.
Then it's over and we have to make our way down the mountainside. This is quite a feat in amongst the camper vans, mobile homes, cars and club cyclists pulling out in front of me and doing three point turns in the middle of the road. I end up walking some of the way back to Bareges, where we stop for ice cream and beer in a cafe. Bareges has turned from sleepy mountain town to centre of activity. TV blare, the cyclists stop, loud Francais shout and smoke behind us.
I was concerned that, as the previous three buses to Lourdes were cancelled, that it's be difficult to get on the 16.45 (we even schlepped to the tourist info office to ask if we could buy advance bus tickets, but no). There's no-one waiting at the bus stop, but there is, however, a notice in French, English and Spanish informing us that the bus can't turn at this bus stop so it will start at the bottom of the village and a free shuttle bus will take us there. Given that the roads have been closed, we wonder if the shuttle bus will turn up, so we set off to the bottom of the village, only to discover that we don't know where the bottom of the village is located, and we can see no other bus stop. So we tramp back up to the middle of the village where the actual bus (not the shuttle) is waiting, which we board with two minutes to spare. Fortunately, there are only four other people making the journey, but why the notice wasn't a) dated or b) removed, I have no fucking idea. Ditto, I end up having to ask an Australian for advice as to whether we need to change at Pierrefitte, as we did on the way from Lourdes. The French don't like to make things easy.
Dave follows the cycling via his phone and we find out Chris Froome won the stage, so the trio of yellow, white and green jerseys are all held by Britishers. Makes you proud. Apart from, you know, deciding to leave Europe. No-one mentions Brexit at all; when Dave apologises to one hotel receptionist about it, he literally shrugs his shoulders and says: "Bof".
St Therese is calling her, the church up on the hill is looking lovely
We arrive back into Lourdes and check in to our (near the) station hotel, then wander up into the town. Salem has its witches, Cheddar its cheese, Berlin its (ex) wall. Lourdes's thing is Mary-worshipping, hardcore Catholicism. I doubt many "atheist" boxes get ticked on the census. Apart from cafes, and some rather spiffing art nouveau buildings, there are no other shops except religious tat purveyors. You can buy Virgin Mary mirrors, candles, snowglobes, lavender bags, statuettes, rosary beads, candles, travel glasses and of course Virign Mary plastic or glass bottles to get your holy water, although no Virgin Mary vibrators as in Madeira. Dave thinks the place is a religious Vegas (there is a lot of neon) but it also reminds of northern seaside towns, although there the tat shops sell buckets and spades and kiss me quick hats instead of candles. In both places, there are a lot of mobility scooters.
We go to the Basilica and self-baptise in the holy water, queuing to go round the grotto where the Virgin Mary cries (bien-sur, there's a lot of condensation). People touch, stroke, caress the sacred rock. I admit to feeling slightly moved when I turn and see a mass of people staring beatifically at or praying to the VM statue. There's no shouting about Jesus, speaking in tongues, testifying, exhorting people to be a winner not a sinner. It's all quiet, personal, worshipful, respectful. Despite my default mode being cynical, it's hard to scoff when you see the reaction of someone whose life long ambition is to come here. That said, I wouldn't fancy being ill in Lourdes - I imagine the hospital just gets a ten litre bottle of holy water each days and splashes in on the patients' affected body parts. Later on, we see blue scarved nuns pushing wheelchairs, wearing sensible skirt, shoes and white tights; you can see where the early nurses' uniforms came from (indeed, pre-modern medicine nurses were nuns in convents where you could get hospitality.
We eat salad and drink wine at a touristy place that fails the Lonely Planet test (translated menus, specials of the day being the same chaque journée) but is on the river; we are seated on the terrace, overlooking the fast flowing emerald coloured Gave, all eddies and whirlpools. It's tres gentil and I get some veg down my gullet and two days of stodge and mini-cheddars.
We return to the Basilica for the daily candle lit procession. I was happy just to observe, but Dave buys two candles from the box (cheaper in the cathedral grounds than in the shops - you can also pay for a candle to be lit over the internet; they come in various sizes/prices) and we queue up behind a group of Vietnamese-Americans. There are also Indian and African people attending the ceremony - I guess that we Europeans took the minerals and foodstuffs and fancy goods from the "dark" continents and in return we gave them Christianity. The (white) Americans behind us say reverentially: "This happens every day from Easter to All Souls' Day" - maybe not if it's raining. It must seem very quiet compared to the average American religiosity. What is nice is people turning to light each other's candles, simply, quietly, no muttered prayer, or Jesus saves! It reminds me of nothing so much as a trades union march but instead of banners reading South Yorkshire Collieries or NUT Camden, we've got Dublin All Saints Church and Scottish Hallowed House and Lisbon Igrejas. One girl, pushing a Hallowed House wheelchair, looks spectacularly bored, yawning and checking her phone. The wheelchair bound people are only allowed electric candles - I do wonder how many accidents there are involving long hair and/or tripping. The candles come with a small paper carton, which you fit around the taper, which stops too much oxygen getting to the flame (science!). It also features translations of the prayers so you can chant along, and in useful in catching the wax so the priests don't slip the next day, Father Ted style. Mine refuses to light three times and Dave's keeps going out - the candles know who the heathen are. Eventually in the heat, the burned down candle makes my hand too hot and I ditch it. I guess it's hell for me, then.
A flock of ghostly nuns floats over St Bernadette's bridge and then we set off, marching at minimum speed. The multi-lingual prayers are read out over the speakers and a rendition of Ave Maria (not the Schubert version) is sung. At each "Ave", the crowd lifts its candles as one. Ah, the pain of being a helpless unbeliever. One of the Asian-Americans is filming it with a selfie stick and has arranged a Jesus statuette so it looks like Our Saviour is doing the processional as well. The boy holds the Christ-figure rather too firmly around the bottom. The "Ave" can easily be changed to Allez (les rouleurs, or les bleus).
(This is not our procession; I have "borrowed" it from youtube).
I suppose all religions feature water and light: it can't be a coincidence that Lourdes, place of holy water, is on a river. We should just go back to worshipping the water and not bother with the bits that condemn homosexuality or tell people not to use condoms.
The sun sets behind the Basilica and its crown, creating a golden glow, and la Vierge lights up with God's love (and electric bulbs).
La ville en rose
Yesterday's brekkie was €7 each and featured Pyrenees cheese. Today's is €9 and has Babybel and Boursin. Zut alors. We go back to the station and catch the 10.26 to Toulouse, sitting in front of some nuns. All is quiet and air-conditioned. There are no announcements for buffet cars or trollies. No-one makes endless or pointless phone calls, or watches something on their tablet without earphones. We pass sunflower fields, rolled balls of hay, red roofed cottages, farms, tiny castles on hills, PV fields, decorated water towers, ruined follies, a whitewashed house decorated with shells, although we are far from the sea.
We arrive in Toulouse, which is closed because it's Dimanche. We get to our hotel, which turns out to be in a courtyard, far away from the road, with plants, balconies, terraces and a bedroom with a fireplace that looks like a room rather than a hotel room. But first we need to get in. The reception says it's open 8 til 8 but there's no-one there. The Danish boys who followed us in ring the number on the notice and the person who answers tell us that we're too early. He turns up eventually.
We walk around the city in the ferocious 37C heat (it increases to 39.5 by the end of the afternoon) and the main square (Place Capitole) with its San Marco-style colonades and ceiling murals and neo-Classical (and ultra-impressive) town hall.
Then down to the the banks of the Garonne to watch a dog swimming for a ball. The buildings in Toulouse are lovely; Medieval and belle-epoque, squat but ornate churches and public buildings. The city is known as la ville rose but its brickwork is ochre, terracotta, and peach rather than pink.
None of the cafes has aircon, nonetheless we find the next best thing, one with outdoor umbrellas that pump out a cool mist of water every few seconds, and settle down to watch the next stage of the Tour, which Dumoulin wins by a Dutch mile. The real battle is 'twixt Froome and Quintan, the latter sticking to the former like a jealous lover.
We eat pizza in a square and then it's time for more religion that I don't believe in as we try to find somewhere with a seat for the footie final. This may be the capital of French Basque country, with cafes offering pinxtos and the roadsigns written in French and Basque, but here nous sommes les bleus. The sleepy Sunday city has woken up, dressed in blue, and gone out. The entire breakfast bulletin this morning was just the "news" that France are in the final. Not everyone is fussed; there are plenty of people sitting down by the river, unconcerned, uninterrupted, and several folk using it just as an excuse for a fete, drinking in the street nowhere near a TV.
The bars don't understand the concept of big screens, most have a normal 30" TV with dozens of people crowding around it. We try to watch outside a bakery, but quit it for a busy bar where people are snacking, drinking wine, singing ferociously but not crowding 'round the TV angrily gesticulating as if they alone know how their team can win. At the end of ordinary time, we move to a smaller place called Blind Tiger. Nothing happens for a while and I go to sit on the kerb, then something does, so we go home. The French aren't smashing things up though, the atmos is still fairly chilled.
In the night, I wake up to thunder and crashing rain. The morning is cooler and Toulouse is a more tempting prospect to promenade. We go around the cathedral with its lovely stained glass (paisley and Bible scenes) and rose window, the more gloomily gothic Basilica (both have individual pews as if to stop any licentious thigh contact), the corn exchange (now a concert hall), the convent (closed for lunch) and have lunch in a veggie buffet place, followed by cake and coffee in a cake and coffee place. Eating and walking: this is holiday à la Rachel.
We take the tram (!) to the airport where the flight is "only" delayed by half an hour. I am amused by an advert in the Easyjet magazine for a Rock The Boat cruise aimed at the average Vote Leave-er, feat. Gerry and the Pacemakers (I guess he has one fitted now), Brian Poole, The Searchers, The Merseybeats, Gary Puckett and Union Gap. I wonder how many of the acts they have to cross off before the ship sets sail because of death, Yewtree or doctor's orders. Mind you, I may mock, but give it twenty-five years and it'll be Kim Wilde, Nick Kershaw, Howard Jones and T'Pau.