Portajohn Goes to Europe: Part IV, Wherein we learn French culture

Thanks for sticking around friends.  Here we have Part IV of our European adventure. Previous parts are here:

Part I, The Warm Up

Part II, Is This heaven?

Part III, The tour begins, almost

So here we are, checked out of our bed and breakfast in Carcassonne and we have to get to the next town about 50 km away- this is bike touring. Grey skies are no big deal, we carry some rain gear and head out of town on the beautiful canal towpath surface.  Immediately passing, and being passed by other touring cyclists, some French, some Kiwis, and some Americans (on Bike Friday New World Tourists no less… I was jealous).  The path was flat, smooth packed stone dust – you really couldn’t have asked for more.

Unfortunately that feeling was short lived.

As we passed by small villages, the towpath slowly eroded from beautiful, to passable, to mountain bike singletrack, to what the fuck this is not a path. And it stayed this way for basically the rest of the trip.  Narrow, pot holes, roots, and rocks. It became apparent why Kate was given a bike with front suspension. Fortunately for us, a detour appeared due to construction on the canal and we were diverted off onto nearly abandoned rural roads. And we found the real southern France. Rolling hills that give way to majestic mountain ranges, grape vines as far as the eye can see, narrow low traffic roads, incredibly old farm houses dotting the countryside. We were incredibly fortunate to find this detour, as we realized that the uncomfortable path and steep banks of the canal obscured all of this beauty.  From this point onward we used our iphone GPS to create new routes each day, often stopping each morning at a cafe for coffee and a pastry after riding a few km on the canal, and planning our adventure.

After passing through a few small villages, we arrived in the town of Homps and were ready for lunch.  Although there were a few cafes open, we decided to try our luck at the supermarket and picnic on the shore of Lac de Jouarres – maybe even take a dip! Arriving at the grocery store, which also happened to be a gas station was a little concerning – I imagined we would be eating a 7-11 lunch. But to our amazement, the place was fully stocked with gourmet cheeses, meats, wines and all sorts of other wonderful things.  We bought a simple but elegant picnic feast, and headed to the lake. Little did we know that form this point onward, all grocery stores would be disappointing, and picnic lunches would be much less fun.

Lunch was great, but the lake was much to cold to swim in. We decided to forgo the side trip up the mountains to Minerve (which I was a little bummed about – but c’est la vie!), and head to our hotel in neighboring Olonzac. As we rode into town we passed, and were passed by dozens of tractors carrying freshly picked grapes to the local wine cooperative. The road was stained from grape juice, giving off quite an interesting odor.

We arrived, and found the first instance of another quirk of French culture. Nothing is open. Ever. Particularly when you want it.  The hotel was “closed” for another hour, so we wandered the nearly vacant town (yes, it was pretty much all closed for the mid-day break). Fortunately a cafe was open, for coffee. Only coffee, no coffee drinks, no food, just little tiny coffee cups. We managed to kill the hour and excessively caffeinate ourselves. The hotel was a lovely old affair run by a weird old woman. It made a little bit of sense.

Dinner was fine, and the night slipped away after another few glasses of wine.

We awoke on Saturday ready to venture to our next town, Narbonne, which promised a bit more amenities. But not before an eventful breakfast with broken French and English conversations. The others at our table were equally impressed and confused that we wanted to follow the canal – they find it boring. The conversation turned to where we live… DC… oh “Obama Obama”. We decided to avoid awkward conversations for the rest of the trip by saying we were from Baltimore. And lastly… an embarrassing lesson on eggs (apparently the French prefer soft boiled to hard boiled) – and our heavy hands at cracking open what appeared to be hard boiled eggs were met with ghastly stares and hushed whispers, and smushed soft eggs.

We left rather quickly, and decided we would pedal through the light rain to the first big town (where certainly we could buy lunch). The ride was again beautiful, though sightly windy and wet – and we arrived at Salleles d-Aude hungry and ready for a break. And we were met with nothing. Eerily quiet abandoned town, all the shops had closed for a few hours at 12:30 (it was only 12:45pm) and it took a solid 15 minutes before we even saw a resident of the town. Fortunately we had some stale bread, nuts, and pastries to eat. Never again would we trust that food or drink would be readily available – at any hour!

After our meager lunch we set off an joined the Canal du Robine, decidedly nicer than the Canal du Midi thanks to its paved side paths – and headed into Narbonne.  What a pleasure to see a city – shops, restaurants, PEOPLE!  We found our hotel, in the lovely downtown area just a half block away from the Halles (imagine Eastern Market in DC, but three times the size).  Of course it was near 3pm, so it was closed for the day…

Our route from Carcassonne to Olonzac to Narbonne

Our route from Carcassonne to Olonzac to Narbonne

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Canal du Midi in Carcassonne

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Trying grapes from the vine was fun!

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And we realized that there was much more to the area than the canal.

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Our lunch picnic spot. Probably a bit more popular in the summer months.

Picnics, totally French, totally fun.

Picnics, totally French, totally fun.

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Entering Olonzac, where the streets are paved with wine (the dark stain on the road)

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Olonzac. Notice the nice blue shutters, notice they are closed. Another lesson of French culture, nothing is ever open. Ever.

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Again, everything closed. On a Saturday morning at 10 am. It felt like a ghost town.

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Fortunately the canal locks weren’t closed!

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We were so lucky to be in France at harvest time – it was so fun to see the fields being picked.

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Arrival in Narbonne – and we see the Via Domita – a road the Romans built!

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Bike racks in Narbonne. Yeah… about that…

3 thoughts on “Portajohn Goes to Europe: Part IV, Wherein we learn French culture

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