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OPWT2 DIARY - DAYS 66 - 68

OPWT2 DIARY - DAYS 66 - 68

9 June DAY 66 Arles – Cuxac D’Aude

Spotting a gap in the weather we guesstimate roughly where we could get to before the heavens open, everything gets soggy and I have to listen to Annie crying again.

This particular exercise vexed me a little as it was now becoming more of a daily occurrence than occasional – guessing the weather, not Annie crying which is definitely possible on a daily basis and anything can trigger it – a pretty cloud, wonky twig, squished squishy thing or lack of wine on arrival at destination.

We use a variety of tools ranging from hi tech Apps on phones such as WEATHER that allows you to type in a city or location and get an Apple version of what they think is going to happen, to websites on the laptop like Meteo or AccuWeather (not, as it turns out), aemet (yes, it is spelled correctly), weatheronline.co.uk forward slash whatever-country-you-are-in and a host of others. Alternatively, we have a look out of the window and work it out for ourselves which, at this precise period of weather normally results in the following phrase from whichever one of us looks at it first:

“Fuck me. That looks grim.”

And then we get going. Given that the weather is looking a tad iffy we start off donning waterproof liners into the jackets and (supposedly) waterproof trousers.  I’ve written about these before and suffice it to say that mine are definitely not as described and a soggy crotch develops shortly after rain descends. They are also, we found, not designed for 6 foot + gents with feet in proportion to height – a modest 44/45 but fairly chunky all the same.

Good design has both form and function as base concepts that both need satisfying for “Good Design” to be an apt description that cannot be challenged by Trading Standards or simple good manners.

As it is, these damn things I have now developed a pathological hatred for that knows bounds that are so far away as could legitimately be described as “None”. My boots are modest in size for my frame and one would have expected that a pair of trousers (waterproof or not) sold and sized as XL would have been able to slip on and off with the greatest of ease.

Not so. Very much not so.

Imagine a mature, tallish man, standing on one wobbling leg, while trying to bend the other up to thigh height so as to slot a booted foot into a trouser leg that is flapping in the strengthening winds, gingerly supporting himself on heavily laden and dangerously leaning motorbike, on a hard shoulder with 40 Tonne lorries passing within inches, in the early warning drizzly schmizzle of the rain storm approaching only to find that booted foot does not fit through aperture of trouser leg. The language is fruity and the downward force of boot into trouser becomes increasingly forceful in both an angry and determined manner such that either boot gets through the available aperture, or the available aperture widens with a fabric ripping sound that both satisfies and angers in equal measure at exactly the same time.

All of which means that both trouser legs are now ripped and tattered and need to be secured in place by elastic bands when wearing them that makes me look even more dishevelled than usual. Annie says it a cross between Worzel Gummidge, Stig of The Dump and a badly dressed Tramp.  Wouldn’t be so bad if the wretched things actually did the job they were sold to do.

As it is, we hope for the best and the rain gods play nice and don’t come out to bother us for most of the day meaning we arrive with Florence and Francis in good time without getting drenched.

Francis had heard the bikes thrumming up the road and the gates opened as we approached to see a tall, slender chap ushering us in and directing us to park in his open fronted garage.

“Bonjour!  Je suis Gilles and the one not weeping is ma femme, Annie. Parlez Vous Anglais?”

Huge beaming smile and, “Non. Pas un mot. Mais nous avons Google Translate!”

“Jolly bonne.”

“Voulez vous un verre de vin?”

“Baise-moi, Oui.”

And with that we unloaded and settled in. Florence showed us around our quarters whilst Francis busied himself upstairs with clinking glasses and the happy sound of corks being extracted and we repaired to their dining table and passed a very happy couple of hours as Francis pulled corks and Florence chatted to us about her life and work which, as it happens, was right up Annie’s street as it turned out that Florence had a very interesting job. She is the person in charge of quality control for all the AOC Rosé Wine of Provence. This, by pure happenstance is Mrs H’s Lady petrol of choice.

Florence and Annie got on famously while Francis got on famously with drinking the wine and encouraged us to do the same. We spent a lovely afternoon with Florence chatting to us in English while Francis used Google to laboriously type in a message which, rather than show to us, he would use the Google voice to read it to us in the default Google voice, which, if you haven’t heard it is a sing song female voice of indeterminate age but, if I had to guess, was intended to sound somewhere between 35 and 45.

This sounded really weird hearing Francis’s words spouted by a relatively young female voice when Francis is about 60, slim, bald and very French and, when his lips were not attached to the rim of a wineglass, had a cigarette dangling from them.

He would go quiet and tap away for a minute or two and then, staring intently at us, press the play button and something like this would come out of his phone:

“It is the politicians who are to blame. They are all complete bastards and I hate them all. They are corrupt and we would be better to be rid of them all. As for your lot in England, they are no better and I hate them, too.”

To which we would smile and nod while he tapped away some more.

“Germany the same. Brexit was a catastrophe for everyone. I can’t believe you are not part of Europe anymore.”

Again, we’d smile and nod apologetically but by this time, his fingers were obviously mistyping the odd thing as it all got a bit Eric Cantona from there on:

“Le Poisson – they know, they swim against the current but the evil genius Cameron has netted all the big ones and we are left with shoes and epaulettes of cotton. Me, I will hide here with Florence, cut my grass and bury him.”

Not sure whether this was because he was typing too furiously or had topped up on Le Vin. It just goes to show that lack of fluency in someone else’s tongue does not need to hinder your ability to communicate when you have Le Vin and Google.

We liked these two and enjoyed their company immensely and were sorry to roll away from them the following morning when we headed for the wonderfully named small village of Barry.

 

10 June DAY 67 Cuxac D’Aude – Barry

Realising there was a chance of decent weather on this side of the Pyrenees we worked out a longish route of around 200 miles for the day but first went in search of an oil producer I have wanted to visit for almost 30 years - Coopérative Oléïcole L’Oulibo – The Olive Oil Cooperative Oulibo. This is the home of the Luques olive which they can describe far better than I – here’s what is says on their website:

The Lucques du Languedoc - L’Oulibo’s identity

Grown exclusively in Occitanie and harvested by hand, the Lucques is considered as a unique olive. Known as the “green diamond”, it has a distinctive crescent shape. The Lucques olive is easy to recognise by its small stone and fine, flavoursome flesh. It is mild and voluptuous on the palate with a slight taste of buttered avocado and fresh hazelnut. Appearing on the tables of the greatest French chefs, it’s the quintessential gastronomic olive!

Having won many national competitions, in particular the General Agricultural Competition in Paris, it is appreciated as a table olive, green or black, but also for its oil. Indeed, Lucques vintage olive oil is mild with complex aromas of dried fruit, almond and hazelnuts, and an added touch of green fruitiness; it’s so delicate, it can be used for desserts.

It s a very rare thing these days and exceedingly hard to come by and, like most rare and fine things, they are chuffing expensive. We have wanted to import them to the UK for many years but never quite found the right contacts so this was a great opportunity to go and meet them and start a relationship. We chatted with Hugo who looks after the touristic side of the operation and also with Sandrine who takes care of the exports. Both utterly charming and helpful and we naturally enough discussed the weather and, once again, the change in patterns and lack of water were cited as major causes for concern.  The full report on our visit and discussion is elsewhere, as ever.

Their main surprise seemed to be that two scruffy English folk on bikes had wandered into their premises first thing in the morning and started to engage them in some fairly heavy duty olive related conversations.

We have seen this across the miles and places – we have often written in advance to introduce ourselves and purpose of trip, more than once or twice, and almost as equally often, hear nothing back, so rock up and try to explain ourselves which often elicits a scurried examination of website contact forms and emails resulting in a series of,

“Ah. Oh, je vois. D’accord. Hmm.” Along with something along the lines of, “Couilles!  How come we didn’t see this before? What are we going to do with these two English?

This is followed by muffled conversations and running footsteps before someone appears to deal with us. On one memorable occasion (not here, I hasten to add), a gentleman arrived, somewhat sweaty, hastily smoothing hair and fastening his trousers. We’d arrived mid afternoon and either it was a siesta or some other sort of delightful afternoon dalliance.

These visits and meetings have ranged from a 15 minute gabble to a full day but all have helped build the picture of the changing climate across this region and it does make us think and we often ride off, after one of these visits, in quiet contemplation before chatting through what we’ve learnt.

We left and rode on – an easy sweeping day of roads that wound through villages and hamlets, variously agricultural and industrial, flattish, unremarkable in that nothing leapt out at us but comforting as it enabled us to think and chat some as we carved our way left and right – taking up the best position as we do so. If ever you are sitting behind a motorcycle on bendy roads and wonder why they seem to change position from one side of the carriageway to the other it’s all to do with increasing vision around the bend. Approach a right hand bend, position as far to the left as you can so you get more vision of what’s around the bend sooner and vice versa for left hand bends – it’s not just because we’re drifty…

We’ve been considering cutting our itinerary short and not travelling down into Spain and Portugal as the temperatures where we need to go have just hit 37-38C which is just not comfortable to ride in. Because of this we decide to cross the Pyrenees into Northern Spain and take the ferry from Santander and then return in late September to complete the agenda. At least we’ll be here for the olive harvests.

This plan occupies much of our conversation and the distance to our stop for the night is soon covered. We arrive in the tiny hamlet of Barry having passed through the commune of Alan. Effectively, we have gone from A to B. How marvellous. Pleases me immensely.

11 June DAY 68 Barry – Casa Batit (Camino)

Our evening was spent looking at the various options of routes to take over the mountains and into Spain. We plump for the D26 which is a lovely green road on the Michelin map which means spectacular views and gorgeous riding. It is due to take us up to the Col d’Erroymendi which means, apparently, Mountain of Rooks so we should be in for treat with wildlife, too.  We glanced at the map to check for heights and so on but the road looked so lovely and wiggly and was clearly a proper road we didn’t really go into it in great detail. Perhaps, if we had, we might have selected a different route.

Having survived the day and from the luxury of a nice comfy glass of wine and warm room we did a spot of research.

The Col d’Erroymendi sits at a height of 4353ft – almost the same height as Ben Nevis (4413ft) which, when all is said and done, is quite high for a couple of fully laden bikes.  This then climbs to the Port of Larrau at 5174ft which is, frankly, just stupid and why they called it a Port I have no idea, but it does, at least, mark the border between France and Spain. At this particular point there is a layby slash carpark, a display board with a map and blurb and a sign saying Navarra. The road then crosses seamlessly from France to Spain and descends onto the Spanish side of the Pyrenees.

Reading that back it all seems simple. It wasn’t. The day all started pleasantly enough, we said goodbye to Barry, best regards to Alan, and promptly rode through the middle of Lourdes, said a prayer or two and immediately felt much better. God was definitely our co-pilot for the day now. Wiggled on through ever greener valleys and vales, gradually gaining height, mountain streams tumbling and burbling as we criss-crossed over them across wee bridges. We were misty eyed, happily absorbing the scenery and looking forward to the next miles, I was watching the route and making sure Nav Sys behaved itself and didn’t go off on one as it is so wont to do. Passing through the town of Tardets, I saw we had a turn coming up onto the road that would carry us over the pass to Spain. Approaching the turn, we spotted a brown sign bearing a smiling sheep’s head over a round cheese with a wedge missing. This, we realised, indicated we were now in Ossau-Iraty country which, us being in the food business, being quite keen on cheese and having a couple of places that sell cheese, including Ossau-Iraty, in whose home we now found ourselves, you might have expected us to have been expecting but it actually took us quite by surprise.

I bored Annie stupid for the next few miles giving her all the fun facts I decided to make up about Ossau-Iraty – it’s made from Seal Milk that is boiled then strained through seaweed, left to sit for a day or two before being moulded into brick shapes, coated in forest green wax, allowed to mature for 2 years and then used to make shepherd’s huts in the hills. This she lapped up for a little distance before asking me,

“So, how do you milk a seal?”

“It’s not easy,” I replied, “That’s why you don’t see many Forest Green Shepherds Huts out here.”

“Ah.”

At this point I think there was some swearing but as the road had now started to climb we needed to concentrate and I promised I’d tell her all about it later. The road gently rose until it suddenly got a bit steep and headed towards some ominous looking clouds some way above us. Not long after that we came to the village of Larrau which is, I’m quite sure, lovely but, by this point we had ascended into the clouds and a hand in front of a face was about as much as we could make out. This continued for some time. Then the rain arrived, along with some delightful hairpin bends – Annie says her favourites are Really Tight Right Hand ones Going Up. She had plenty to enjoy for the next few miles and I heard the theme tune to Indiana Jones which I always hear when serious concentration is being applied. Fortunately, she didn’t ask me how much longer this would go on for as, Nav Sys had decided to give me Black Screen which, when trying to navigate in the pouring rain, deep fog, on mightily exposed roads, approaching 5000 feet with, by now, a very soggy crotch, is about as acceptable as Black Face so I merrily said,

“Nearly there!”

The response to that is unprintable but I seem to recall it covered the fact she didn’t think God was our co-pilot any more but had assumed other qualities requiring firm, if fruity, description.

We continued to climb. And climb. And climb. Then we met the cows. They looked as pissed off as we felt. Climbed some more. Sheep. More uphill then two 2CV’s going in the opposite direction - downwards. Seriously? Up here? In this? At that point we realised we were on two very heavy, wet motorbikes on greasy, unstable roads in mist, fog and rain with many miles yet to go and I think if we’d thought about it a tad earlier we would have mugged the toasties in the 2CV’s, nicked the cars and sat in the warmth and said Bugger This For A Game Of Soldiers. Instead, we laughed and carried on. Grimly.

All good things must come to an end and rounding a corner (one of Annies favourites) we reached the layby slash carpark marking the border.  This is presumably where you are supposed to stop and gawp at the magnificent far reaching views of mountains and treelined slopes going all the way to the sea twinkling in the distance.

We didn’t stop as there was no view apart from fog. Dense, cloying, wet, sodden fog. The really, really wet sort. The sort that makes you crave a Hot Chocolate heavily laced with something intoxicatingly strong and a rough blanket, warmly wrapped and smelling of someone luxuriously smooth and lovely. Preferably somewhere near a warm bath, bed and high count Egyptian sheets

Fuck it – none of that anywhere close. So, instead, we carried on and descended into Spain. Shortly after you enter Spain and start dropping down, there is a tunnel of around 150m or so. We entered the tunnel in thick fog, came out the other side of the tunnel now miraculously beneath the clouds and the views suddenly unfolded. Crossing over a cattle grid we both started to giggle. Soaked to the skin, cold but sweating and relieved to have come over the top and be on the way down. At least we could now see what we had been missing and, Oh My Goodness, how different it would have been without the rain and fog – the views are incredible. We stop for a nervy pee. We are right by a weather station set up on a precipitous edge looking out over steep valleys of lush green slopes and trees. I discreetly went behind the weather station, Annie decided not to, choosing the bike as a suitable barrier. Just when you think you are alone is always the moment you discover you aren’t.

“Hola, Buenas Dias,” hailed the two men who wandered up the slope over which I had just pee’d and Annie still was.

“Hola, Esta es realmente una hermosa vista!” I greeted in return. “This really is a beautiful view.”

“Si, También es un gran lugar para orinar.”

Ah. Come to Spain and get caught having a crafty wee within the first 10 minutes. Never mind. They didn’t – just toddled off down the road giving us a cheery wave. Annie was a bit red cheeked. Her face was flushed, too.

Now we were able to properly gawp at the view, we did. For the next hour or two as we descended into proper Basque Spain. It just kept on getting better and better. And even better than that, was the fact the sun was out, it was warm, soggy crotch getting less soggy by the mile and the smiles just got bigger and bigger. Overhead we spotted birds of prey, wheeling on the thermals rising from the steep sided gorges, then we looked up. I mean properly looked up. Directly above us. This is no mean feat on a motorbike when wearing a helmet but, bugger me, the sight was simply without equal for anything I’d seen before – tens and hundreds of Griffon Vultures (for that is what we discovered they were) circling above us in ever interlinking shapes and patterns, wings outstretched – feathers splayed and gently trembling as they cruised way, way above our helmets.  Apparently, these are Europe’s most social vultures with over 35,000 breeding pairs across Europe. All I can say is that it was a truly stunning sight to see them in the skies in such abundant numbers and entirely unphased by us trundling along, far below.

As for being a Social Vulture? How social would you want to get with a vulture? It’s not exactly my first choice when thinking of a dinner guest. I’m sure they see themselves as the hard done by, benevolent Bird of Prey, given a Bad Rap.

I mean, Eagles, Buzzards, Ospreys, and the like, all feast on dead animals, just like a vulture, and they all get featured on national flags, coins, shields, emblems, stamps and Hells Angels jackets, which is totally unlike a vulture, a breed noticeably absent from any form of celebratory or triumphant significance to any nation state, flag, club or cult. Yes, they all feed on dead animals. Difference is: one lot committed murder first and then ate the bodies whilst the Vulture comes along as a sort of clean-up crew tidying up the aftermath and, more or less, destroying the evidence and helping the serial murderers continue to commit murder after murder. What thanks do they get? None.

Every testosterone fueled person of a certain age and creed would give their right arm to have a Golden Eagle on it. Anyone ever seen one sporting a Vulture? Course not.

Hard done by, vultures. Still, I prefer them up there, circling. Rather than me piling in and laying prostrate on an untrafficked road with them hopping about, circling, and keeping me company until I snuff it and they can tuck in and clear up.

That thought rattles around for a few miles and I ride with an extra sense of care. Annie hums Indiana Jones and all is well.

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