I open my eyes. Like every morning, it takes me a few moments to realize where I am. Which room is this? How many I’ve slept in along this journey? And barely one night in each. Maybe one hundred rooms and that many different beds, night stands, ceilings, doors, bathrooms, views… All of them foreign, unfamiliar places. I don’t know how but I’m sure it weighs on one’s spirit, on one’s mind and also on one’s heart.
This time is a hotel in Munster, High-Rhine region, Alsace. Was it yesterday when I fell from the bike? Not even one day has elapsed, yet it seems a week. I grope my right hand: it doesn’t hurt much; only when pressing the base of the thumb. Excelent! I can continue my journey. Continue reading “Hundred rooms and a dinner”
[:es]Vaison-la-Romaine, donde he pasado la última noche, pone fin al tramo de tierras bajas que he tenido que atravesar: el lado más oriental del Rosellón. A partir de ahí, y siguiendo hacia el sol naciente, la carretera va ganando altitud poco a poco, el terreno se ondula de nuevo y el paisaje se torna otra vez interesante. Estamos en la región que los franceses denominan Altos Alpes.
¡Y qué cordillera tan joven, esta de los Alpes! Bien se ve en la pronunciada V que hacen los valles y en la no menos pronunciada A de las cumbres, formando entre ambas escarpadísimas laderas, como se aprecia en esta foto.
Pero no sólo en eso: también se nota en la acelerada erosión, que está en pleno proceso de limar los desniveles e igualar las diferencias de altitud, quitándole los elementos, inclementes, el suelo a la arboleda para arrojarlo a las cuencas de los tumultuosos arroyos. Poca vida les queda, por ejemplo, a estos árboles de la foto, que quizá en una o dos décadas -un pestañeo geológico- no tengan ya donde sostener sus raíces.
Los ojos del viajero no se cansan, en los Alpes, de mirar con curiosidad a su alrededor. Puede el cuerpo estar fatigado y la mente -o quizá el espíritu- perdida en tinieblas existenciales, pero la vista siempre está despierta, atenta, engullendo insaciable los paisajes.
Llega la tarde y refresca el ambiente. Abajo quedaron los calores del Rhône; aquí el aire se respira ya frío, y de alguna chimenea aún sale humo, pese a estar a las puertas mismas del verano. La frontera italiana queda muy cerca, pero quiero esta noche dormir aún en Francia y dejar las sorpresas -buenas o malas, no lo sé- para la mañana, con los sentidos bien despiertos.
Hay que buscar alojamiento, pero con mi afición por las carreteras de tercer orden no tengo claro que vaya a encontrar ningún hotel por este desvío perdido que he cogido hacia Briançon. ¡Espera!, sí: casi cuando ya he pasado el diminuto pueblo de Arvieux me doy cuenta de que he visto un letrero a la derecha, Chambres d’hôte. Pego un frenazo y doy la vuelta. “¿Tienen habitaciones?” Sí, son compartidas, pero están todas vacías. La mujer, muy simpática, me pregunta a qué hora quiero cenar. Da por sentado que cenaré allí. ¿Dónde, si no? Es el único lugar en treinta quilómetros a la redonda. Quedamos en que a las siete y, mientras tanto, me doy un largo paseo por la montaña. Desde lo alto del camino echo la vista atrás y veo el pueblo a mis pies, apenas un puñado de casas.
Cuando regreso me están esperando ya, ella y el marido. Me lo presenta; es un hombre grande, fuerte y feo, como deben ser los hombres. Él me sonríe tendiéndome su manaza para estrecharla. Va a ser quien cocine porque la mujer se marcha para casa. Atardece, y en unos minutos morirá el último rayo de sol sobre las mesas de la terraza, pero decido cenar fuera de todos modos, con la cazadora puesta. No es un buen cocinero este hombretón solícito y risueño, pero me prepara un postre exquisito, una especie de tarta de moras caliente en un cuenquito de barro.
Hablamos un poco mientras tanto. “¿Caen muchos clientes por aquí?”, le pregunto. Me dice que a esa hora ya no. Así que cuando acabo de cenar cierra el quiosco y se marcha. Me quedo solo por completo en la casona. Tarda aún largo rato en caer la noche, porque estamos en los días más largos del año, pero el silencio es ya absoluto en esa aldea perdida de los Alpes franceses.
[:en]Vaison-la-Romaine, where I spent the last night, puts an end to the lowlands I’ve had to cross: the easternmost side of the Roussilion. Thence, and heading to the rising sun, the ground gets slowly higher in altitude, starts rippling again in hills, and the landscape becomes once more interesting. We’re in the region French call the High Alps.
And what a young mountain chain this is!, the Alps. It tells in the pronounced V of the valleys and the no less pronounced A of the peaks, both forming sheer slopes (as you can see in this below photograph).
But not only there; it also shows in the rapid erosion, which is presently in full process of filing off the drops and levelling the inclines, the mercyless elements removing the ground off the forest for dumping it onto the rushing creeks. For instance, no further than one or two more decades (a geological blink) will longer live the trees in this picture, when they won’t have ground where to put their roots.
In the Alps the traveler’s eyes don’t get tired of intently watching around. The body may be fatigued and the mind -or perhaps the spirit- lost in existential gloom, but the sight is always awaken, attentive, insatiably swallowing the landscapes.
The evening has come and the atmosphere gets cooler. Down below I left the heat of the Rhône; here the air is fresh and cold, and even some chimeney is still smoking, despite being at the very gate of summer. The border with Itally is nigh, but I want to sleep tonight in France yet, leaving the surprises -good or bad- for the morrow, with my senses fully awaken.
So, I need to look for accomodation; but -being so fond of by-roads- I’m not sure if I’ll find any lodgings along this lost detour I’ve taken to Briançon. Wait!, yes: almost after I’ve gone by the tiny village of Arvieux I realize I’ve seen a notice to my right, Chambres d’hôte. I jam on the brakes and turn around. “Do you have rooms?” Yes, they have. They’re actually dormitories, but there’s no one else today. The landlady, very nice, asks me what time do I want my dinner? We set it at seven and, meanwhile, I take a long walk in the mountain. From above I look back and see the village at my feet, barely a fistful of houses.
When I come back they’re already waiting for me, she and her husband. The fellow is a big, strong and ugly guy, as men ought to be. He smiles at me and stretches his large hand. He’ll be cooking dinner because she’s leaving for home. In a few minutes the last sunrays will die that hit onto the terrace’s tables, yet I choose to have dinner outside, with my jacket on. He’s not a good cook, this cheerful and attentive big boy, but he manages to bake a delicious dessert for me, a kind of blackberry cake in a hot clay cup.
We talk a little. “Do you get many customers around here?”, I ask. He says not this time of the day. So, when I finish eating he closes down and leaves the place. I’m totally alone in the house. Darkness takes yet a long while in falling on me -as we’re in the longest days of the year- but silence is already complete in this lost village of the French Alps.
Let me say in advance that this “lost” is a figure of speech, mainly to make the title look more attractive; a bait, so to say. Yet some of it is true.
As I was saying in the previous chapter, the inland Languedoc is a sparsely populated area, and along my second day crossing it I had the chance of learning to what point it can get wild; almost as much as one of the most isolated and lost regions of Extremadura, my homeland: a large expanse of thick bush through which but a narrow road goes, not even deserving that name, but rather a track -only with a layer of asphalt- whose width barely allows the passage of a car. More on this later.
It’s funny how, as days go by -and most of all the miles- one feels more and more comfortable on the motorcycle, becoming part of it, as if an only body, like a modern centaur. You get used to its sounds, vibrations, the touch of the handlebar and the shape of the saddle, to its capabilities and limitations, its evil ways and tricks also. Besides, you don’t get so tired now, as you get used to the riding position -though of course your muscles will pass you the bill in the end. True, same happens with a car; but perhaps with a bike is more noticeable, being the union more intimate. Not only -I guess- because the mass ratio between rider and mount is closer to the unit, but maybe also because, demanding the ride a higher concentration on the part of the pilot, you become more and quicker familiar with the machine on which your safety relies.
If I had to repeat today the route I did then, village by village, I’d very likely won’t succeed; not only because there are twenty possible route combinations from Lodève to Vaison-la-Romaine on secondary roads, but also because that morning I got lost: I did a mistake at a junction and I had to later rectify the course, which is why I ended up in the asphalted track that I’ve already mentioned.
Little after leaving Lodève the road was flanked by trees, like many roads in France. Not short stretches, as you can find every now and then in Spain, but often the whole way between two or three villages is planted with trees on both sides, which makes for a very pleasant drive and, in such hot day as that, also a more bearable, because the leaves cool down the air and the shade prevents the asphalt from melting down.
But soon afterwards I took a detour and I got into a different kind of thicket, isolated from any traffic and almost from any human presence. First the road climbed for a while, maybe one or two hundred metres; then I crossed some vineyards planted in a high plateau,
then the vegetation changed and I got into one of the thickest and wildest bushwoods I’ve ever seen: wherever I looked at there was nothing but low trees and scrub, so tight one can’t even see the ground, covering valleys and hills to the horizon; a narrow road, neglected and full of gravel, on which the grass started to grow and along which I didn’t come across a single vehicle. More than once I stopped the engine, halted and listened, but not a sound could be heard except some bird’s song and the cicadas. Often I had to check my GPS to make sure that the track lead somewhere.
Finally, after more than one hour on that road and getting my forearms stiff as if I had been working with a jackhammer, on top of a little hill in the middle of nowhere there appeared the tiny village of Arborás; which, far from being half deserted and partly ruined, as would have happened in Spain, being such an isolated environment, was quite neat and very well taken care of; one more evidence of how much the French love their countryside and villages.
Little after Arborás the track joined a wider road, running slowly down a valley; and as soon as I got a chance I took a break for drinking a cold and well deserved beer. This was in Saint-Jean-de-Buèges, on a pleasant terrace shaded by a giant tree; one of those charming places you find by the thousands in France.
I’d willfully have stayed overnight in this village, because after having crossed the wilderness I had had my share of motorcycle and mileage that day, but there was no lodgings and, besides, it was too early yet. So, I rode on.
It was the hottest day since I started this journey, and in the afternoon, when passing through Alès (another town full of moors), as I saw a few children taking a bath by a small beach on the river shore, I parked the bike in a nearby street and, grabbing my towel and flipflops, I also took a refreshing and vivifying plunge; I even swam a bit, as the river was wide and flowed quietly.
Despite this bath, fifteen minutes later I was sweating again.
Apart from hot, it was a long riding day as well: along the stretch of lowlands between Alès and Vaison-la-Romaine, the Rhône’s plain, there aren’t many of such places as I like for sleeping; it’s too rich and populated a region, a settled wine producing area and a bit industrial too, as one can easily guess just by looking at the map: towns are big and they’re close to each other, the road network is dense, with several main highways, and it hosts two relatively big cities: Avignon and Montelimar. So, it was already twilight when I found a place suiting my senses and preferences: Vaison-la-Romaine.
This locality has two parts: the low town, larger and more modern, and the high village, which is the old borough, up on the ridge, obviously smaller than the low town (as it can’t grow). A dream of a village it is, with three or four parallel streets running along the hillside, connected by very narrow alleys; all neatly preserved, with houses beautiful like small palaces, romantic yards and gardens, stone arches, fountains and little squares; and with two castles: one on the very top and the other -rather a fortress house- on the slope’s west side, refurbished as a hotel, which is where I lodged.
This village and the room I got were well worth having ridden longer. Actually it wasn’t a room what I got, but a small appartment, a top-notch duplex, stone spiral staircase and all; the same lodgings where five centuries ago probably their owners lived, though quite a different kind of life. I wonder how was it? I bet they didn’t have a minibar in the room, but also they wouldn’t know what to do with it. Pity that I was in low spirits that evening (not every day is fun in a traveler’s life, I’ve already said) and I almost couldn’t enjoy all that. In other times I’d have jumped and shouted with joy.
There was also a small pool in the hotel, where I took my second bath that day, after which I fall asleep for a moment while getting dry in the only spot the last rays of the setting sun reached.
My dinner? At a restaurant in the high in a terrace, one of the finest nooks in town, all stones around, plants and nice views, quiet, served by a poofter bartender, nice as only poofters can be. I gifted myself with an icecream for a dessert, for cheering myself up, but it didn’t work, because my conscience complained. Conscience! What’s the use of it?
The idea that my head had more or less been giving shape during the previous days was to reach Italy through the Alps trying to avoid when possible the busy Mediterranea seashore; actually, trying to cross when possible the less populated regions; i.e., the inland Roussillon (or Languedoc) from end to end; and this took me two days.
This French region hosts a grid of by-roads that communicate many villages no farther from one another than, average, perhaps five kilometres, despite which -judging by the long stretches of wild country I crossed- it must be one of the areas less densely populated in this country where, today, there is exactly 2.5 acres of land per person.
And it’s a region of a familiar nature, as it reminds me a lot, in geology and flora, my own homeland. Towns and villages are, however, quite different from those of mine, having here an almost pure medieval look that seems to have remained unchanged since five centuries ago. Their inhabitants are apparently not in a hurry for refurbishing or updating their old houses, for replacing the old doors and windows, for renovating the furniture, etc, despite not lacking purchasing power; and in this I see a people that love their past and don’t disown it; a country that loves rural life and is not ashamed of it. Such, at least, is my interpretation when comparing the French countryside with the town-planning harakiris that the Spanish villages are inflicting to themselves for the past four decades.
By the way, the county was radiant, full of large patches of a bush with flowers deep yellow, giving the dark green landscape a touch of joy. Particularly a zone of Languedoc called Pays Cathare.
Thus, in my route across the Roussillon, from Rennes-les-Bains to Vaison-la-Romaine, I came across places like Villerouge-Termenès, whose XIIth century castle, of a military architecture, massive and imposing, was erected as a symbol of the ecclesiastical power, property of the archbishopric of Narbonne until the French Revolution, after which it was sold as national property to a few families, who owned it until very recently.
Or places like Olargues, a village so genuinely medieval -and somewhat labyrinthine- that I wouldn’t be able to represent it in three or four pictures; a full report would be necessary for conveying the images captured by my retina and the impression recorded in my memory. So, I won’t even try. Suffice to put here a panoramic view of the village, its unique and svelte roman bridge, called the Devil’s, and the standing tower of its ruined castle.
And indeed it has, despite its simple elegance, a devilish look this bridge. It’s oftentimes difficult to tell why something reminds us of this or that, but in this case the nickname is quite suitable, though go figure where did it come from; perhaps from a local legend having nothing to do with the bridge’s appearance. Maybe this other picture is more telling:
There was also in Olargues a small museum in a huge house from the Middle Ages, of a bizarre and rambling architecture. The museum was dedicated to the popular arts and traditions, for honouring the memories of the deceased, and a few objects called my attention: an exercise book from a girl called Marie-Jeanne Poujade and an old newspaper from Lyon, both dated 1918, soon to finish the World War I.
I don’t know why I paid special attention to those items; maybe because they reminded me of other similar existing in my grandparent’s house, exercise books or papers from the same time, almost one century ago; even not so different from the ones that were still printed when I was a child.
By the way, there was also a kind of diabolical feeling to that mansion, something sinister about it, having two entrances from two different alleys at different levels on the village, with a narrow inner yard surrounded by very high walls, like a square well, and full of corners, massive doors, small windows and vaulted ceilings. Not that any of these elements belongs by its own right to the Kingdom of Darkness, but, had the house been called the Devil’s -after the bridge-, nobody would have thought it strange.
More yet: only by changing a bit one’s approach, I’m sure that, on a grey and stormy winter evening, the whole village of Olargue with its narrrow and twisted streets, its steep slopes and that pointed tower on top of the hill, would take on a fiendish appearance.
But not on this day of deep blue skies; and it was early in the evening when I ended up in a room at a nice hotel in Lodève, a small town full of moors, which didn’t impress me except perhaps for its tree-covered riverside. Besides, I was tired of sightseeing and village-strolling, so my neurons weren’t very receptive; therefore, after one hour of exploring Lodève and taking a couple of pictures, I lied on one of the hotel’s deck chair on its luminous terrace for reading a while before going for dinner, outdoors, at the small garden of a nearby restaurant. Quite a good choice, by the way: it’s been the first time in my experience that the French cuisine matched its international fame.
For exiting Andorra to France there aren’t many choices: Pas de la Casa; so, this time, I took the pleasure of enjoying the lack of freedom (and please don’t come and tell me that freedom is not a burden). Well, actually there is a possible choice: you can drive through the tunnel or take the mountain pass; but being a biker who likes heights, curves and open spaces, I didn’t hesitate.
Right in Pas de La Casa, the town, I spend a good while watching the bustle of tourists and especially bikers who go there for shopping, fueling and eating. The sun shone in a cloudless sky, getting the brightest colours and reflections from the objects, and I entertained myself by just glancing at the bikes, the liveliness, the people, groups, clothing, variety… Mostly there were French, but also Catalans and from other parts of Spain. I seized the opportunity for eating my last tapasof this trip at a well known Basque franchise where I was treated quite nicely, and time went so fast that it was well over noon when I took my Rosaura again and moved on.
Crossing the border is painless: there is a speed limit and a few empty booths; I guess the lanes are remotely surveyed.
Once in France, the first thing that draws the attention of the watchful driver is the change in scenery: in this part of the Pyrenees the French side is considerably uglier, bare, without trees, and you need to descend a few kilometres towards the valley for getting to the forest again. But I didn’t mind, because thist day (and the following ones) I foud out that French secondary roads are a heaven for bikers: well paved, full of those fun bends neither too fast nor too slow, well banked, safe and in countless numbers. Definitely a country to wear the rear tire the right way: in a curve (pun intended).
Of course, the moment I could I left the only and busy road from Andorra: in Ax-les-Thermes, where I took a by-road going east to Quillan, hence another North to Couiza and then again I gave my back to the west.
I must say here that the second thing that I found shocking -despite knowing it- in my neighbour country was the prices: petrol hit a double somersault from the € 1.25 in Andorra, jumping over the € 1.40 in Spain, to land on the € 1.60 a litre; and in a shoddy village bar I was charged € 2.80 for a plastic glass of Coke poured from a 2 litres bottle. What a rip off! But, well, this helped me to become aware of what I’d find during the next days, and from there on I managed to more or less forget about comparing prices.
What up in the mountains was a warm morning became a hot and wet afternoon in the valley (France is generally much more humid than Spain) that forced me to take off the three-quarter and ride on a shirt. The clock was strucking five and I had not yet found a hotel that suited me when, examining a small informative sign full of notices (typical in France), one of them caught my attention: hot springs 2 km. This could be good a good end of the day, so I detoured along a narrow road and soon got to the charming little village of Rennes-les-Bains, whose houses and streets reminded me of a romantic Colomer watercolour.
Surrounded by a grove, the place was like those described in costumbrist novels from the past century: narrow streets flanked by tall old houses, with worn woodwork and blurry window panes; a Venice-like river whose banks are the buildings, its windows overlooking it, and crossed by several little bridges; a small square, very quiet, with two restaurants and a bakery where they also serve morning coffee for breakfast; and a hidden corner where a hotspring pours its waters to the river and to a little public hottub, frequented by old couples during the day and by young couples, I guess, during the night.
I asked for accommodation at an ancient riverside hotel of a classical name, Hotel France, perfectly matching the picture; it was run by a smiling and slim lady, as old as the building. The reception was a cabinet furnished with square glass panes up to the ceiling, like those we see in some movies; the large, heavy, old-style room keys hanged on a board. There was a glass door with curtains leading to an outdated dining room, silent and gloomy at that time. The floor and stairs were wooden, and creaked at every step. My bedroom was charmingly simple: a small toilet, a huge iron bed, a wardrobe and a night table. The window overlooked the river and the roofs of the houses opposite, and also the bridges and a small, forgotten park. I fell in love with the decline of that place.
I was surprised -by contrast with the Spanish undeniably police State- that the landlady didn’t ask me absolutely nothing for registration: neither the money, nor an ID, nor even my name to be taken down in a guest book. Nothing. Here’s the key and pay me tomorrow when you leave. And so it was also in all the following hotels I stayed at in France, and later on in other civilized countries in Europe, with some exceptions. I find it ridiculous – I can’t help it – that the so-called republicans in Spain go around making noise for kicking out our king because they’d rather have a president -what a trifle- while at the same time they show a doglike submissiveness about matters much more relevant from a democratic and practical point of view, like this police control I’m talking about, for instance.
But let’s finish my story of that day.
I took a bath, of course, as I had meant; but in the swimming pool, not in the small hottub I’ve mentioned, as this one I only discovered later. And as I was drying in the weak sun of twilight, I fell asleep for a while, listening to the indistinct voices of the other bathers, the sweet and lulling French accent; after which I felt like a brand new man, and a hungry one too. I took a salad or something like that at a pizzeria in the square, and I went to bed that night with my head full of fantasies.