My first cycletouring trip was a zigzag across the Var department in southeast France. It consisted of seven bicycling stages, with three non-cycling days en route.
At the end of April, I rode my bike up to the baggage counter and the Gare de Lyon in Paris, and asked them to ship it to the train station in San Rafael on the French Mediterranean coast, where I would pick it up a few days later and start my bicycle tour. No problem—they provided cardboard protection for the bike, and wheeled it into the baggage area. However, the SNCF had just changed its policy about shipping bikes, and the people at the Gare de Lyon were not yet aware of it.
When I picked up the bike in San Rafael, I had a hint that I would have trouble sending it back via the train. The guy at the baggage counter said that they “no longer took bikes” and that I would have to use “SERNAM”. At the time, I didn’t know what SERNAM was, but I found out at the end of this trip, when I tried to ship the bike from Marseille. See Bicycles on Trains in France.
I took the night train from Paris to San Rafael. I felt ill at the end of the train trip and nearly missed the short stop at San Rafael. It was raining heavily when I arrived at 8 in the morning. I sat in the waiting room for a couple of hours, trying to feel better and hoping the rain would stop. It didn’t stop raining. I went to the baggage counter, picked up my bike, loaded the saddlebags, waited some more. The rain continued. After 11 a.m. I left the station on my bike, rode approximately 1 kilometer, then found shelter at a bus stop. More rain. I rode another kilometer and found another bus stop. It was still raining.
The itinerary for that day was 73 kilometers, from San Rafael to Fayence. I decided to ride to the next town on the route—Mandelieu, on the other side of the Massif de l’Esterel—and find a hotel there. If the weather improved, I would ride farther.
I was not used to riding with saddlebags...
As I rode toward the Massif, the rain became lighter. However, because of the heavy rains, the river at the foot of the Massif had flooded the road. The water was fast, strong, and high enough to wash me and the bike away. Impossible to cross. What to do? On the map, I noticed a parallel road that started not far from where I was, that didn’t require crossing the river. This road was paved, but soon the pavement ended. The surface was muddy and rocky,—large and small rocks—for (what seemed like) many kilometers, and it took a lot longer than I had planned.
When I arrived at the top of the Massif, I took the middle of three roads, as indicated on the map, and as it appeared at the crossroads. However, “The map is not the territory”. After climbing and descending more unpaved trails and seeing nothing but bare hills, I figured I was on the wrong road, and returned to the crossroads. I knocked at the door of the Maison Forestière (the government-provided house where the forest keeper lives), and asked which was the right road. It turned out to be the one with the barrier across it. In fact, there are four roads, where the map shows only three.
It had stopped raining. Due to the late start, unpaved roads, and getting lost, it was much later than I had planned. I decided to continue, but, if necessary, to stop for the night before reaching Fayence.
Mandelieu is at the foot of the Massif du Tanneron. I had ridden this road the previous year, so knew that I had to ride into town and turn around to get to the road I needed. Coming back through town, I was attacked by a seemingly deranged man who was driving a very large car. The car was stopped at a red light, in a line of other cars, but wider and farther to the right than the others, thus somewhat blocking my way to where I needed to be to turn right. As I went along the right side of the cars, the fabric of the saddlebag touched the rear passenger side of his car. Since he was in the front driver’s seat, he could not see the rear passenger side, but he jumped out of his car, yelling that I had damaged it. This was not so, but he never verified it. Instead, he shouted at me, threatened to hit me, grabbed the bike, and ripped one of the saddlebags. His woman passenger got out of the car and called for him to stop. Everything he said was in French, except he knew how to say, “Give me money” quite well in English. I was tired, frustrated, and angry, but I knew that, if I defended myself physically, things would be much worse, especially if the police became involved. I tried reasoning with him. I did not react defensively or offensively when he was about to hit me. After a while, all I could do was scream. I just wanted to get away. Finally, enough people surrounded him that I could edge away. I secured the damaged saddlebag as well as possible, and started up the long climb of the Tanneron, fearful that he would follow. Fortunately, he did not.
I succeeded in reaching Fayence that night, and told myself that it must be the worst day, it could only get better. At least I was right about that.
I had stopped in front of a house at the side of the road at the edge of a small village, and was eating a Power Bar, when a very elderly woman returned to this house from doing her shopping. She offered me bananas and oranges. I thanked her but refused, saying I had sufficient food. She insisted, so, to be polite, I accepted a banana. She moved two bananas as though they were walking. She said that we “go on two legs“—and she gave me one banana for each leg.
I was travelling alone, thus didn’t want to visit any sights where I would have to leave the bike and saddlebags unattended. But, I figured they would be safe at the entrance of an abbey, and I had been advised to visit L’Abbaye du Thoronet.
The abbey is Cistercian, built in the 12th century. It is “one of the most fascinating abbeys of the Midi. It is hidden in an isolated spot, in the middle of wooded hills, in a site that is in keeping with the Cistercian order.” (My translation of the French guidebook.)
The abbey has been restored, and is an official historic monument. In addition to the wonder of its architecture, there are exhibits, and brochures in several languages.
As I travelled further into the Var, I noticed more and more that the pronunciation differed from Parisian French. By the time I reached Mazauges, I understood so little that I had to ask everyone to repeat themselves. This was a little embarrassing, especially with the hotel keeper.
At Mazauges, I found postcards that showed the town under snow, the central fountain frozen. It suddenly occurred to me that the south of France may not be as warm as California in the winter.
The last stage of this trip took me out of the Var department into the Bouches du Rhône. I circled Montagne Sainte Victoire, which Cézanne loved to paint, and spent the last night in Vauvenargues, site of the chateau that houses Picasso’s remains (not open to the public).
An American cycling friend, who was staying with his French friends near Aix-en-Provence, came to meet me at the hotel the last morning. We bicycled to his friend’s house. After lunch, they drove me to Marseille, where I had a lot of difficulty because of the SNCF’s new policy about not shipping bikes on trains. I had to leave the bike with the French friend, who took it to Marseille a few days later and shipped it to Paris via SERNAM.
You can retrace my itinerary using Michelin map 84 and following the small roads indicated in white and yellow. It truly is a ziazag of the Var.
Bicycle Touring in France
The Hautes Alpes and the Gorges du Verdon(mostly photos)
Return to Bicycling à la Française