After passing through Vietnam, China, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Iran and Turkey we entered the 7th police state of our trip. But that was yet to come. All was calm as we arrived at the border on a bright and sunny morning. A couple of bored looking gendarmes looked on in bemusement as we took some congratulatory photos in front of the big sign welcoming us to France.
All was calm too at the lovely seaside home of our host perched on the hills overlooking the azure waters of the Cote D’Azure. We thoroughly enjoyed taking some rest on the penultimate day off of the trip. We spent the day exploring Monaco, a quick walk away down the coast. Alas the walk there was the most pleasant part of the day. The city itself prefecture encapsulates everything I find distasteful about late capitalism. The obscene wealth and excess everywhere you look which is driving the destruction of a habitable planet. The richest 10% of the world is responsible for creating half of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Looking at the gaudy monstrosities bobbing up and down in the harbour made me sick. The playthings of some idle tax exile contrasted jarringly with the scenes of poverty we had witnessed along our journey. And here nobody invited us for tea or to share a watermelon.
But our hosts’ parents who lived below invited us for a lovely dinner washed down with wine and an extensive plate of cheese. As the cook explained a meal without cheese is like a day without sunshine. Sounds good to me, although Kim was less impressed. Laughing cow being the peak of her cheese appreciation.
The calm continued as we followed the Riviera along the coast through Nice and Cannes. Both of which were very disappointing. Just a collection of ugly but ostentatious blocks of apartments and some rocky beaches. There was however a great bicycle path along much of the route.
The scenery improved markedly as we continued along the coast to St Raphael. But like many things we had to work for the experience climbing a series of rocky headlands formed from red sandstone which glowed brightly in the late afternoon sun. Again it was dark as we coasted into town after experiencing one of the most spectacular sunsets of the journey the orange and red hues reflected on the languid waters of the sheltered bay below. Our host prepared some local foods and was keen to show us the photos of Vietnam his father had taken when he was in the French army during colonial times. It was a fascinating record of places that both myself and Kim had visited.
That night the calm was shattered. Just before I went to sleep news of some sort of attack in Paris began to filter through on social media. The next day the full horror of what occurred became clear. We also fielded anxious messages from friends and family checking we were ok. It was in a sombre mood that we hit the road.
From there we headed inland through wine country. At first it was rolling but got flatter and flatter as we approached the Rhone. And surprise surprise more amazing people welcomed us into their homes. The chef with his two curious kids. The bunch of twentysomethings who cooked us the most amazing pies and the retired couple in the beautifully restored farmhouse. Our luck with the weather was still holding out. We’d had bright sunshine since leaving Rome despite November being one of the wettest months in both Northern Italy and Southern France. The nights were getting cold now, and early morning we had to rug up but by early afternoon it had warmed up enough for us to strip down to our t-shirts.
Shortly we hit the mighty river Rhone and discovered the delights of the via Rhona which follows the river from Switzerland to where it hits the sea in Marseilles. The route is still very beautiful passing through woods and riverside towns but there are no hills so we could get through a fair number of kilometres each day.
But the first day we didn’t get to see too many of the scenic delights of the cycle route. Shortly after we reached it I got a puncture. Our first since Greece and by the time I had fixed it darkness had fallen. We followed the small track weaving through the forest illuminated by the narrow beams of our head torches. Peering through the gloom to spot any approaching pot holes. It was with relief that we reached the ancient medieval town of Rochemaure and one of the most memorable stays of our trip. Our host was just lovely. She was single and just about to retire from her job at the nuclear power station and set off on her own cycle tour. We were the first warmshowers guests she had hosted and she was a little nervous and wanted to make sure everything was ok for us. It was more than ok. She didn’t speak much English but that didn’t matter. She is just one of those vivacious enthusiastic people whose love of life is infectious and our evening was filled with laughter. She had invited a friend for dinner who could translate for us, and had been cooking for hours the night before preparing some local specialities. The wine flowed as did the conversation and I went to bed with a sore face from smiling so much.
Next morning in the crisp bright sunshine we continued up the valley and past the huge steam belching cooling towers of the nuclear power station. France currently derives 75% of its electricity from nuclear after of a concerted government plan borne from a desire to achieve greater energy independence as a consequence of the oil crisis in the 1970s and France’s relative lack of fossil fuel resources. As a result Frances greenhouse gas emissions are some of the lowest in the industrialised world. Per capita emissions are fully one third that of the USA, 20% less than the UK and even lower than China. It is for this reason that some people including some prominent environmentalists such as George Monbiot and James Lovelock have suggested that nuclear power offers one of the solutions to climate change.
Understandably this has proved controversial. The recent disaster at Fukushima illustrating just how devastating the risks posed by the technology are if something goes wrong. And it’s not just the danger of meltdown but also the question of how to safely store a material that will remain lethal to humans for several million years. A threat that future generations are unlikely to be thankful for especially considering the relatively small amount of energy which was produced in the first instance. Indeed some argue given the relatively energy intensive processes used in mining, milling, processing, decommissioning and then storing that there is little or perhaps no net energy gain when taking into account the full life cycle of nuclear power. However perhaps the biggest limiting factor in the use of nuclear power as a solution to climate change is that the fuel itself is limited. Most estimates on the current reserves of uranium suggest that at the current rate of use they will last for between 50 and 100 years. Nuclear currently provides only 11% of global electricity even doubling that could mean that the fuel would run out during the lifespan of a nuclear power station constructed today.
After another glorious day rolling up the Rhone was topped off by an unexpected moonlit adventure through hilltop orchards courtesy of google maps. Since arriving in France a couple of times their cycling directions had occasionally lead us to rough looking tracks. Whereas previously they could be bypassed by taking a short detour this time the surfaced road only tailed off to dirt when we were 4 kilometres along it. To make matters worse it was dark, it was steeply uphill and the road was in terrible condition and seemed to be composed entirely of fist sized stones which were almost impossible to negotiate in the gloom. I was particularly nervous as I was running 35mm tyres on 700 wheels which are notorious for failing under the strain of a heavy load. Thankfully they survived the pounding they had been receiving and shortly afterwards we were tucking into come delicious galette bretonne (savoury crepes) prepared using a genuine crepe griddle by our host who had recently relocated from Brittany. The sweet aroma of melting cheese and ham soon filled the homely kitchen.
Next was Lyon and our final rest day before arriving in Paris. We were hosted by couple of keen cyclists. One French and the other Argentinian who had just returned from an epic ride to Senegal, across the Pacific by yacht and then through Brazil and ending up in Argentina. It sounded amazing. They cooked us dinner and then organised a presentation for us at the university cycling group they were members of. Then next day they headed off after breakfast to the Alps for the weekend leaving us to explore the city.
I really liked Lyon. It’s just a manageable size, not too big but big enough to have lots going on. It has an attractive old town, and the river makes a beautiful centre piece. There is cycling infrastructure everywhere and lots of people cycling and the public transport is excellent. There is a metro, trams, buses and a fantastic brand new trolley bus system. Trolley buses seem to me to be the perfect sustainable transport system. They are twice as efficient as diesel buses and have zero carbon emissions if they are powered by electricity from renewable sources. Because there is no need for a heavy battery they are also more efficient than electric buses which do have a battery and they can climb steeper hills than trams. Whilst trams are more efficient, trolley buses don’t require expensive and very energy intensive rail network. Wins all round.
Walking through the maze of old cobbled streets was like stepping back through time. We climbed up the hill to the cathedral and were lucky enough to experience the amazing acoustics of the nearby Romania amphitheatre first hand. As we walked down the banked rows of seats a Swedish school choir happened to arrive as part of their tour. After some cajoling from one of their teachers they gave an impromptu performance. The sweet tones of their harmonies rolled up the hillside. Their teacher was right. You really could hear every note from every single one of the 10,000 seats in the house. Pretty amazing for something constructed almost exactly 2,000 years ago.
We were entering the final phase of our journey but there was still a few obstacles in our way. We had to ascend out of the Rhone valley and into the Loire and there were a few stiff climbs in our way. Just to make it tricky the glorious weather that had been our constant companion since the day after we left Rome finally broke. It started to rain as we passed the outer suburbs of Lyon and turned to sleet as we went higher. We took refuge in a bus shelter to consume our customary picnic lunch. Great as far as the budget was concerned but the days of long lingering summer alfresco dinning under the shade of a tree were long gone. We ate hurriedly and jumped back on the bikes to warm up. We climbed steadily and sleet gave way to hail and finally snow as we reached summit. As we descended the dull wintery light faded to night. The perfect time for Kim to get her first puncture since leaving Turkey. Numb fingers and poor light made the task all the harder but it was heartening that 2 passing cars stopped to check if we were ok. Fortunately we didn’t have far to go to reach our next host, although it was up a steep hill. We very gratefully retreated into her warm abode and tucked into the fantastic pommes dauphinoise with nettles she had cooked in homage to the sustainable aims of our journey. It was delicious. and of course very environmentally friendly, eating plants that most people would consider as weeds has negligible environmental impacts – providing it is done in a balanced way.
When we awoke it was to a magical carpet of whitishness. Much to Kim’s delight the fields and trees were carpeted with a thin layer of snow and it was still falling. Fortunately after a late breakfast it slackened off so we layered up with almost every item of clothing we’d brought and ventured out into the winter wonderland. Fortunately as we dropped down into the valley the snow was no longer lying but the wind was still bitterly cold. And there were lots of hills. Not high ones but plenty of sharp inclines to slow us down and make the going tough. Finally we reached the flatlands of the river valley adjacent canal and the smooth paths of Eurovello 6.
Many parts of Europe and France in particular have an excellent network of cycle routes. They consist mainly of off road paths or quiet rural roads. They may not be the most direct but they make for great cycling.
This was the first time in France we had been unable to find a host, at least not within a distance which we could comfortably reach. However that was the only time we couldn’t find someone willing to take two weary travellers into their homes. It was quite amazing really how easy it was to find somewhere. Even in the smallest villages there was usually someone on coushsurfing and possibly on warmshowers so it was possible to find a place every 70 to 90 kilometres. Often we’d get 2 or 3 people accepting our requests. I don’t know if it was because people were supportive of the aims of our trip or just the warm hospitality of rural France or more likely a bit of both. Our hosts were from a wide variety of backgrounds students, retirees, an engineer, a cook, a teacher, a single mum so the conversations were lively and interesting.
But that night no such luck. The nights were getting cold too and a night in our Vietnamese tent and sleeping bags didn’t seem very appealing. There was nothing on Airbnb either and all the B&Bs seemed to be closed for the winter so we had to settle for one of those soulless chain hotels. It was nice enough but utterly devoid of character. Surprisingly for the first time since leaving Kyrgyzstan the receptionist spoke no English and I had to drag the remnants of my school French kicking and screaming from the deep recesses of my memory. No home cooked dinner either so we decided to treat ourselves to dinner. 3 courses washed down with a nice wine.
It was gorgeous cycling. Often we followed the almost deserted tow path of the canal. In the summer it must be bustling as whenever we reached a town there would be rows of pleasure boats tied up along the bank. In this season there wasn’t a single boat plying the canal so the wildlife was abundant. Water birds, birds of prey, even a family of beavers playing in the water. And almost no hills, much to Kim’s delight.
But it was getting colder. Each morning we’d be greeted by a crisp frost which would slowly thaw its way into lunch. One morning it was bitterly cold with a thick hoar covering everything. Each twig and blade of grass enthroned in icy embrace which glittered in the morning sun. Our breath was expulsed in white clouds and it was so cold that ice formed in my beard but it was beautiful.
That day was the last time we attempted a picnic lunch. I’d bought a tin of cassoulet which we heated on the stove in a bid to get warmer. But it was still absolutely freezing and we eagerly jumped on our bikes to warm our chilled extremities. Milder wetter air moved in during the afternoon and it started to rain just before we reached our host for the evening, which turned out to be the most impressive accommodation of our trip. The house had been in the family for more than 100 years and had been built an ancestor who was a doctor. It was large. We parked our bicycles in the coach house and were then ushered into the hall. A large dining room led off on one side and on the other an elegantly decorated powder blue living room with thick carpets and antique furniture. Next door was the wood panelled library and tv room. Like most big old houses it was draughty and cold so we were shown into cosy kitchen. A log fire was blazing cheerfully in one of the biggest fireplaces I’ve ever seen. It was huge, easily big enough to sit inside if the fire wasn’t burning. Almost like that of a medieval castle. After refreshing ourselves in our spacious rooms and private wood panelled bathroom with an enormous claw foot bath we descended for dinner. Our hosts had invited some friends who were taking English lessons and the conversation flowed almost as well as the wine as we chatted into the night.
As Paris grew nearer we left the Loire valley and struck out into the surrounding forest where our final host was waiting for us. He had recently returned from living in French Guiana and was a keen cyclist. He still raced semi-professionally and was just in the process of setting up a mobile bicycle repair service to assist those passing through on the Eurovello 6 His workshop was a cycle nerds wet dream with tools and spare parts neatly arrayed around the walls. It was so clean it looked more like an operating theatre than a repair shop. He accompanied us on the first 30 km of the route into Paris. Appropriately it was a gorgeous day, cool but sunny and there was a thin mist hanging in some of the valleys. The countryside was gently rolling, which was lucky as we had 100 km to cover. It was a long day and dusk fell long before we reached our destination. There were no crowds to welcome us and it was dark and we were exhausted so it felt a little anti-climactic but that all changed. We had settled in to our very comfortable accommodation in a Christian community and had just finished dinner when the awesome Christine turned up to take us for a drink. Christine who had arranged a place to stay for us had come across our story online and was so impressed that she wanted to help us out. She was wonderfully enthusiastic and her positive energy was infectious.
That positive energy was sorely needed as it become clear over the following days just how much of a police state France had become. Exploiting the shock and horror in the aftermath of the Paris attacks the authorities were determined to muzzle any criticism of the pathetic deal that was on the table at the climate conference. They banned the big demonstration which was to have taken place a few days after we arrived. This was devastating news for all those who had worked so hard to build it. They were expecting more than a million people which would have sent a powerful signal to the delegates that the world was hungry for action. Of course security would have been challenging in light of the attacks, but they authorities allowed football matches and Christmas markets to continue as normal.
In fact the attack on democracy went much further. Under the provisions of the state of emergency introduced a few hours after the attacks any gathering of more than 2 people for political purposes was banned. The emergency was enforced under legislation drawn up in 1955 during the war of Independence in Algeria. Scores of environmentalists were rounded up and placed under house arrest for the duration of the climate conference. People who were planning to exercise their democratic rights to protest not acts of violence or terror. Something we would have expected to see in China or Iran not France that supposed bastion of “libertie”. Just how determined the authorities were to prevent any criticism of their carefully stage managed sell out of the future was illustrated by their actions against people who tried to gather in the Place du La Republic on the day when the big demonstration was due to occur. Whilst a human chain had been allowed to take place earlier, as people started to move towards the square they were prevented from entering by lines of riot cops and when a small groups attempted to march out of the square they were quickly surrounded and then attacked with tear gas.
The full frontal attack on democracy which would have made the authorities proud in the dictatorships we passed through continued at the opening of the Solutions COP21 event. Solutions COP21 was billed as an opportunity to showcase solutions to climate change but was actually sponsored by some of the dirtiest companies in France. Companies such as Engie which runs Frances coal fired power stations, Renault Nissan which lobbied against car emission limits and BNP Paribas the biggest coal financier in the country. Understandably people wanted to point out this hypocrisy and greenwashing and so had planned alternative tours of the venue to explain the socially and environmentally destructive practices of these climate criminals. In response the French regime enlisted the full gamut of its security forces. The palace was ringed by barricades and phalanxes of riot police. A long queue of the great unwashed waited for admittance whilst the elite were whisked through a side entrance. At the front of the queue plain clothed officers were screening those being admitted, weeding out anyone who didn’t quite look right. Of those who did manage to get inside as soon as a voice of criticism was raised they were surrounded by plain clothed police and dragged unceremoniously out the building.
As the disaster that was unfolding in the conference hall became clearer and clearer and the suppression of any decent continued I became more and more disheartened by the whole process. Not so much the actions of the French regime, I was expecting that, but the response from French society, that supposed bastion of libertie and protest meekly excepting the wholescale trashing of their democratic rights. Just when the world needed the spirit of 1968 to be rekindled there was barely a whimper. Luckily there is much in Paris to cheer even the most jaded soul so we took some time out to take in the sights and sounds of this beautiful city. Wandering through the ancient streets and beautiful parks, filled with beautiful architecture and graceful sculptures I was reminded that much of great beauty still remained in the world. For how much longer is the question.