As we’ve travelled through the Rhone Valley and Provence, we’ve been passing through some of the vine-rich regions of France. The sun has been out, the hills have been small and sometimes the wind has been behind us, but it feels like we’ve caught these places at the wrong time of year.
Disappointingly there hasn’t been a grape in sight in the vineyards, just endless rows of stumpy plants with green leaves starting to unfurl. People are working in the fields with gas-masks on, presumably fertilizing this year’s crops, but they look like they may be extras from some end-of-the-world BBC drama. We pass olive groves which will ripen in December and spot postcards of lavender fields in vivid purple. The ones we pass are just stiff green shoots. Some of the hills go up at a frustrating gradient which looks like it should be easy but we crawl like snails. On the plains, the gusts of wind catch us unaware after the shelter of the gorges.
We notice the vast industry around the vineyards passing bottling plants, machinery hire centres and the caves or wine cellars for each small village. While we really like wine, we can’t quite believe the vast amount of land given over to growing a crop that doesn’t feed anyone.
Trying to make our way to Italy in time to meet my parents in June, we’ve been rushing through the south of France a bit more than we would have liked, but there are some sharp memories that have stayed with us.
We had to go to Digne Les Bains to replace Justin’s temporary sleeping mat at Decathlon for the second time, but while we were there we found a fantastic local creperie. Out of town we followed a tiny part of a prehistoric driving trail where we saw a huge wall of ammonites, but decided to pass on the dinosaur-era bird footprints further north as we had to turn south. That evening we found one of our best free-camps to date along the L’Asse river, a rocky enclave where we had a whole valley to ourselves.
We spend a few hours in a tabac which has free internet in Montbrun Le Bains in a morning where we see more cyclists than we’ve seen in weeks, including a few tourers who come to chat to us while we’re catching up on the real world. Another day we made pancakes at a found mosaic table in a rest area alongside Lake Verdon.
As we climb towards the Maritime Alps the flora starts to change, most noticeably giant seeded dandelions which are as large as a child’s head, and vast overgrown olive groves which start to replace the vineyards. We have a few more wet free-camps, one hard and wet afternoon of climbing where we pass a hamlet called Mont Blanc and surprise a few locals when we push our bikes out of a walking track beside a bar at 7am, before breakfasting on a roadside ledge overlooking the hills.
We have one last campsite before Italy and its on such a quiet back road that it doesn’t even have gates. I’m slow to get going in the morning as after five days on the road I need a break. Little did I know at the time, but it would be a few more days before we found any campsites in Italy at all.