Although the clouds are gathering overhead, we are still waiting for our first rain since April. Everyone is somewhat concerned – the ground is like concrete, a number of trees and bushes seem to be in an unhealthy state and the firemen are still on a state of alert when they should be preparing their traditional Christmas calendars. The worst drought for sixty years they say.
However, the continuing dry weather has been a real blessing for cycling. Yes, of course you can cycle here in summer, but slogging up Provençal hills when the temperature is over 30°C is not particularly compelling. So we’ve had three good cycle rides in the area immediately to the north of us.
One interesting development for cyclists is on the old railway line north of us that ran from Nice to Meyrargues north of Aix-en-Provence and which passed below Courmettes. it seems to have been called Le train des pignès because pine cones (pignès in Provençal) were used as tinder to light the fires in the original steam trains. Rather confusingly there is a modern train des pignès that, with aid of subsidies, still runs from Nice to Digne-les-Bains.
Anyway the old line is now being turned into a long-distance cycle route. And we mean long-distance: it’s part of a European cycle route, EuroVelo 8, which starts on the Atlantic coast at Cadiz, and in theory continues all the way across to Cyprus. There is of course a small problem with the final part of the route, but we’re sure there are plenty of ferries.
It’s not just a good and gentle route, but one that it allows you to branch off in different directions. Both days we started from Salernes, a curious little town with a long history of tile manufacture, due to the presence of suitable clays. It still retains aspects of the traditional French town – don’t look too carefully and you could imagine yourself in some 1960s French film.
From Salernes it’s possible to cycle in between the vineyards to Villecroze, which has its own charms, and there’s a lovely route back through more neatly tended vineyards, quiet woods and elegantly decaying old buildings to a charming gorge with caves. Hidden away here is also a tiny chapel, Chapelle de St Barthélemy, along with a lovely picnic area.
At this time of year it’s not just the temperature that’s ideal for cycling, it’s that the roads are relatively quiet, as the tourists have largely gone. That’s good for us but rather a pity for them because it’s France at its best.