We entered France on an endless downhill, following gorges in blazing sun with baguettes tucked under our arms and berets on our heads – (well maybe not quite but you get the picture). It was too hot to contemplate the thermal waters at Amelie-les-Bains and we hid from the worst of the heat before hill climbing among vivid green trees in the late afternoon, wondering where summer had been hiding all this time.
Stopping for bike chores and washing for a day at a 3 euro campsite in St Marsal, I ran about in shorts and a singlet, Justin left our Ortlieb water carrier in the sun to warm up for outdoor showering and we basked in the sun like lizards waking up from hibernation. We had reached France and an endless summer utopia lay before us, or so we thought.
Thursday morning, as we packed up from the campsite thunder rumbled in the distance and dark clouds rolled towards us. Our plan was to climb into the mountains up a tiny forest track just past La Bastide so we could stay at a Refugio for a night before heading into less mountainous areas. The small roads through the gorge were covered by low clouds which obscured any view, it was wet and hard climbing and at the turn off to the track we decided it would be pointless to cycle up two more passes to get to a high place in the clouds and headed North towards the village of Vinca instead. On the way out of the valley, the rain let up and clouds dispersed enough to show some snow capped mountains, just a hint of the views we were missing out on. The miserable weather did bring out the wildlife, including two salamanders and a scattering of deer standing by the side of the road. We made a sodden camp in a vineyard just outside a town called St Paul de Fenouillet.
Friday morning the pattern repeated – clouds as dark as mountains crawled towards us, bringing rain as we stopped to look at the church built into the rocks within Gorges de Galamus. The wetness only eased when we stopped for coffee at Rennes les Bains, where a spiritual festival was underway. Starting to cotton onto the pattern of French place names, we noticed old roman thermal baths as we left the village and jumped off our bikes to have a look at these cool stand alone tubs. They were empty but we could see warm steam and hear water rushing through the rocks underneath us. After some investigation we found accessible water – three people were bathing on the edge of the river using water from a pipe which must have led from the same source. We were determined to soak in some warm water and found our way down to the waters edge. Two things scuppered our plans to get warm and wet – a large group from the festival down the road arrived and filled the tiny space before we had organised ourselves and at the same time the skies opened again meaning anything we weren’t wearing under rain gear was going to get soaked.
Wanting warm showers at least, we tried a campsite about 10 km further on in Arques. The reception was very closed, and drenched, I sheltered from the rain in the doorway while Justin wandered the holiday village site attached to it. He came back with news of some door-less cabins which were out of view of the holiday homes down the road and just big enough to fit two bicycles, a tent and two sodden cyclists. We spent the afternoon concocting reasons for these buildings to exist (maybe they’re just built for wet cyclists?) and enjoyed a roof over our heads.
It was still cold on Sunday but we did manage some rain free cycling as we headed into Carcassone. Back in Bilbao our city break treat was to stay in a hostel, here I was happy enough with a campsite with showers. We wandered around the turrets of the old city, decided against spending treat money to eat within the old walls and retired to our tents early.
Late out of Carcassone on a grey Monday afternoon we headed towards a mountain range called Montagne Noir via a quick look at the Canal Midi as we left town. We cycled for a flat (and dry) hour or so before stopping for a coffee. Some locals suggested it might be particularly cold, but we headed on finding a secluded free camp spot up a walking track leading towards Castans. We had managed to have a quick wash before the rain started again, cooking in light rain, then putting the tent up early as the rain really started to pound down around us.
As we hunkered down for the night we decided if it was still raining in the morning we wouldn’t rush to get on the road. It was a really cold night and rain was still bucketing down when we woke up turning to snow showers by 8am.
We both put a few more layers of clothes on, and watched the snow build up on the outside of the tent. Justin braved the outdoors to put out guy ropes and bring in food supplies. In between card games and napping we poked our heads out during the day and watched the clouds move and streams of water form under our tent. The snow turned into heavy rain and wind and we decided we could afford the day off. We spent the day cocoon-like in our sleeping bags, feeling like proper hardy adventurers but wondering when exactly we had been robbed of summer.