Saturday 6 September 2008

Tour d'Enfer Day 7: Finally a Real Rest Day

Villa Lafontaine, Barcelonnette: an example of a "Mexican villa"

After yet another good night’s sleep in the mountains, we awoke to a fine day. Between the Tour d’Enfer rides accomplished up to this point and the rides around Geneva I had done beforehand, I thought that I would enjoy a day off and let my legs recover for the big ride planned for Day 8.

Breakfast at the Hotel l’Équipe was one of the few disappointments on the trip as there was very little food and what there was did not win any prizes for being particularly appetizing. In the old days in France breakfast was something like a cup of brutally strong coffee and a cigarette, but times have changed and after being spoiled for choice in Germany it is hard to deal with a breakfast that is clearly not up to cyclists’ caloric needs.

Dr. Chef, Michelle and I decided to walk the long and winding road downhill to Barcelonnette and look around there. I had written a mass of postcards and needed to get stamps and mail them so I had a good reason not just to sit at the hotel and look at the mountains.

The view from Le Sauze, walking downhill

The walk featured excellent views but oddly enough the drivers who were so courteous to us when we were on our bikes seemed determined to run us off the road when we were on foot. The only rational explanation we could come up with was that although there are many people who hike in the area they are off on trails and the motorists are simply not used to coping with walkers.

After descending the curves, we were on the long flat stretch of road that would take us to the bridge over the Ubaye, and we passed a paragliding school that was in session. This is a very popular sport in the Alps and looks like fun. We stopped for a few minutes to see some of the landings. There was a small Robinson helicopter flying around as well and it seemed that they were using it to take the paragliders up to the top of the mountains but we could not be certain of that.

Crossing the bridge, we were on the D900 again and taking care to watch for traffic we came to Barcelonnette, which is about 3 kms from our hotel. It is a town of about 3,000 people and clearly the most important in the region, with lots of hiking and camping (and cycling!) in summer and as the largest town near three ski areas in winter.

The town was founded in 1231 by the Count of Barcelona, who was also the Count of Provence, and hence the name. The Valley of Ubaye seems to have had an active textile industry, including silk, and was probably wealthier than most Alpine regions in the 19th Century. It was early in that century that two natives of neighbouring Jausiers, the Brothers Arnaud, packed up and headed for the New World, first immigrating to Louisiana and then going further south into Mexico, and this set a trend for the following decades. After 1890 there was a return to Barcelonnette of its wandering citizens, now wealthy from their business dealings, and they built a series of elaborate mansions in town, known for their eclectic combination of architectural elements as “Mexican villas.” One of them has been converted into a regional museum. In addition, in 2004 Barcelonnette twinned with a Mexican town, Valle de Bravo (destination of the monarch butterfly migration, oddly enough) and there is an annual Latin American Festival in town as well.

Regional speciality: fruit tarts!

While Dr. Chef and Michelle wandered about the town, I went into the post office. It was around ten minutes before noon and there was a big crush of people to get their business done before everthing shut down for the vital two hour French lunch break. All I wanted to do was buy stamps for my cards but it seemed everyone else had incredibly complex multi-layered banking transactions and it took ages. I finally staggered out--the door was firmly locked behind me--and I met up with the others. Michelle was looking for a bike shop but our directions seemed confused. We did come across the weekly market, however, and Dr. Chef cleverly loaded up with cheese, sausage and bread to supplement our pathetic hotel breakfast.

Place Manuel

We found a nice Italian restaurant where we could sit outside in the street, which was more like an alley, and had a fine lunch, before we slowly walked in the direction of the bike shop which we found after passing the row of celebrated Mexican villas. The shop had a good selection but there was nothing we really needed in the end so we simply walked back into the centre of town, la Place Manuel. Dr. Chef and Michelle decided to hang around town but I thought I would walk back to the hotel and watch the Tour de France and sit on our balcony for a while. Of course, I first had to have an ice cream before tackling the 3 kms back.

Almost back to Le Sauze

Cycling uphill the day before had been hard, but it seemed even harder on foot. But it was a gorgeous day and I had nothing else to do. When I finally got back to the village of Le Sauze, I bought some cold drinks and pastries at a little shop and then went back to the hotel.

Barry of Oz had arranged to have a massage the night before and when he asked if there were any takers for the next day I was the only one. The masseur said he would send his associate and I was the butt of a few jokes when a nice young woman arrived at the hotel. We adjourned to my room where she gave me an excellent leg massage and I was able to practice my broken French, which she luckily was able to follow. She said that the smaller towns in the valley (she herself was actually from Barcelonnette) were seeing an outflow of young people as they sought work in Gap and larger cities. This is typical of rural Europe but I would have thought that the ski resorts would have made a big difference but I think because they are so seasonal it is not enough. In Le Sauze, there were a number of small hotels around ours that were clearly closed up for the summer. I have read that in some towns where the Tour de France goes through they open up hotels just for this and close them a few days later.

Of course, Dr. Chef walked into the room while I was having the massage and I think he was a bit startled to see the masseuse working on pantless me but I found it quite funny. I was very glad that Barry had taken the initiative to find out about a massage since I find that riding in the mountains tires out your muscles so much it really extends your abilities if you have one. In 2005 when I rode in Switzerland I had a massage from a huge Dutchman with a crushing grip who applied what I still believe was napalm on my legs; the next day I felt terrific and the soreness and fatigue I had felt the day before was all gone, and so it was again in this instance.

We had been very lucky with the weather during our trip and were warm and comfortable in our hotel when we saw big flashes of lightning across the valley and around the peaks. This was followed by a heavy evening downpour but there was plenty of beer at the bar and the Tour de France to talk about. Our group occupied most of the hotel so it was like having our own house in the mountains.

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