I Probably Was An Idiot

Well and so. The first day is in some ways the easiest, and in others one of the hardest. Leaving the comforts of home behind – and I really had been luxuriating among them, during those last few days – has its drawbacks. Goodbye, massive bed. Goodbye sofa. Farewell television and movie time, with a soupçon of whiskey if you’re in the mood. Goodbye, sweet refrigerator. But leave I did, and cycle southward to Andorra I did also. 

The way to Andorra, from France at least, involves going up a very big hill to a height of 2408m and then going down again. The first couple of days passed in relative tranquility – the lump in my throat and the Maybe I Should Go And Lie Down Some More First thoughts subsided – and then I saw my first proper glimpses of these great eastern Pyrenees, glittering on the horizon. That, really, was when the joy of it all kicked in, and I thought oh what the hell.

Then obviously I was faced with the actually quite daunting task of getting up there, which wasn’t helped by the monstrous storm that swept over the range as I made my weary way up its numinous serpentines. Thankfully though, the worst of it held off until I was just about abreast of the border crossing, where the French douanes were smoking under shelter and beckoned me over. I sat with them for a while, listening to the heavy rain drum the roof, then made for the heavens – i.e., went up to El Pas de la Casa, where it was still heaving it down and cold to boot. Froznin.

Alas, all the cheap hotels were FULL, but I found a charming room with a full wall of windows overlooking what would have been a lovely mountainscape if it weren’t for the clouds. Andorra’s bounties include cheap fuel, cheap alcohol, cheap cigarettes, and gambling, so a lot of those occupying the town’s temporary lodgings were presumably there to partake. The country’s first official language is, I believe, Catalan, it being one of the Catalan Countries. But I spoke to people in broken Spanish and that was fine. 

Next day, I ascended the final 400m to the pass to find it completely enshrouded in thick cloud. Patches of hard snow were just about visible around the smattering of fuel dispensaries but basically, that was it (see above). I drank a coffee from a vending machine, hoping the cashier might say “well done” or something. Nada. A small sign told me how high I was, and a digital thermometer readout told me it was bloody cold and time to descend. Except, when it’s four degrees out, descending is easier said than done, because your hands will freeze and seize up, and if you’re not careful your nose will fall off. And boy, you’d better hope your brakes are working. Mine were, but the road to Andorra la Vella finished off the rear pads, phew.

My way back to the French coast, by way of La Seu d’Urgell, Alp, Puigcerdà, Llívia and Perpignan, was mostly fantastic. First there’s that sort-of-fun cartographical quirk that means you go Spain-France-Spain-France, then there are stunning views of the French Pyrenees, all blanketed in green with wooden lodges and yellow flowers, and a glorious 50km descent from Mont-Louis along the Têt, flying down a valley past sheer rock faces and sweet villages, 800-year-old churches, monasteries and fortified towns, with crystal clear water glistening and rippling below. 

Cycling along the French coast from Perpignan to Marseille, you spend time on two Eurovelo routes, 8 and 17, and see a lot of other touring cyclists. Like, more than you feel there ought to be. In a way this is nice. You feel like part of a tribe. Suddenly there are people like you out in droves, and you’re all congregating around Lidl and eating croissants in three bites. At the same time, it makes you feel a little less unique, like what you’re doing is a little less special, which is stupid because we’re cycling around the world, and probably most of those suckers were just looking for the Canal du Midi.

Which, incidentally, is where I ended up. I retraced some of the steps Laura and I took last year or the year before when we cycled from Le Verdier to Montpellier. The Canal du Midi, it should be said, is one of the better ones. It’s wide and beautiful, and flanked by areas of grass basically waiting to be camped on. The towpath surface is mostly half smooth, with very small gravel, and it is obviously flat. But not all canalways are made equal. Some degrade into muddy tracks; others are being assaulted from beneath – undergrown by endless treeroots – rendering them a minefield for bikes without suspension and/or with heavy bags. 

It was during these few days that I became reacquainted with my old friend The Wind, too, which I remember cursing through my teeth during rides in the past. I could write pages about the wind. Once I actually thought about doing that. It’s the enemy you can’t see, the beast from without. No way of telling when it will end. No checking its borders. Cycle in it for half a day and it’ll give you a headache, drive you mad, the banging on your ears, the loudness, the fear of being flung canalward, or into the road as a truck comes racing by. I had a night of it then too, and remember thinking, in my tent, I’m actually going insane, the wind is going to be the end of me. And then all of a sudden it stops, it’s gone, just as fickly and inexplicably as it started.

When I got to Marseille, I was feeling pretty triumphant. I can’t remember exactly how far I’d cycled that day, probably a thousand or a million kilometres, but I knew I had to get to the port by a certain time in order not to miss the ferry to Corsica and I did. I got there, bought my ticket (for Île Rousse), had it checked, was redirected to another queue, waited in it, and boarded the ferry with a large group of rotund bikers on Harleys, all with loud beards.

That evening, at least two Corsica Linea ferries were leaving Marseille bound for the Isle of Beauty, both at around 7pm. I was aware of this and was, I thought, quite careful about where I stood. So when I was shown to a different queue from the one I’d been in originally, I felt pretty confident that I was in the right one. I found a snug spot in the bar and waited. All good so far. I drank a cup of organic Corsican coffee, lovely, when, politely, a voice rang out over the tannoy system welcoming us, wait for it, aboard this… (in French, it was) Corsica Linea ferrybound forPropriano. And I thought, what?! How could I have boarded the wrong boat? Or rather, how could they let me board the wrong boat? Worst of all, I didn’t want to ask someone hey is this boat going to Île Rousse or Propriano? Because then I would have looked like an idiot, which I probably was.

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