Monday, August 27, 2018

Motorbiking to Gordes

Summer is drawing to a close; you can feel it in the air, and the fresher morning temperatures. What a relief it is to wake up cool.

However, fluctuating morning/afternoon temperatures poses slight biking difficulties, especially on a day-long ride. What jacket to wear?

Yesterday, the morning was a frisky 20°C but it was set to rise to 30°C in the afternoon. For my ride to Gordes, I decided on the summer jacket with a fleece underneath, and very happy was I to have the extra warmth.

I had a Biking Buddy for my ride this time, and picked him up at Carrouf where we filled up with petrol before setting off. First stop was to be coffee in Arles.

Itinerary to Gordes in the Luberon and back, total about 330 km
Click on photos for a better look.
We crossed the city and took the airport road to the coast and carried on to La Grande Motte, then up through the Camargue with its vin des sables vineyards dotted along the road, and empty fields. It was very windy and I got buffeted about but my sturdy little Honda kept a true path (at 80km/hr) and forged its way despite the best efforts of the Mistral.

It was a relief to stop for coffee in Arles. We rode into the centre, right into the mostly pedestrian part to a pleasant little square that had tables in the middle shaded by a huge old tree.

Trying to find this square I came a bit of a cropper as I manoeuvred my bike to turn around and it fell on the ground. As I waited for BB to come and help me pick it up (it had fallen on the side with the side-stand and I didn't want it toppling over onto the other side when I got it up because I do actually know how to lift it up, I've had some practice...), a guy came out from a nearby house (with a bike in front) to see if I needed help. By that time BB had arrived and we didn't require his physical assistance, but we did ask for the way to the little square and he obliged, telling us to ignore the one-way street signs. Which we did and so we came to the little square with no more problems.

After a nice break, we set off again for the Luberon, and decided to eat our picnic lunch in Menerbes, made famous for most of us by Peter Mayle, and one of the Plus Beaux Villages de France.

Picnic bench at communal watering hole, Menerbes, Luberon
It's a lovely little hillside town with magnificent views across to Mont Ventoux. Click on the photos for a better look. It's the sort of place you need to walk around and admire the creamy limestone buildings at leisure.

View from picnic site across the Luberon to Mont Ventoux
My picnic lunch was a classic jambon beurre sandwich which I made with a delicious cereal baguette, superior additive-free ham from a local artisan, organic cherry tomatoes with bags of taste, crisps (no one's perfect and picnics = crisps for me), and some watermelon for puds. I did enjoy it!

After lunch we set off for Lacoste, famous for the chateau belonging to the Marquis de Sade, to find a nice cup of coffee. We found a restaurant perched on the cliff by the side of the road with more fabulous views and decided it was just the spot.
View from Lacoste coffee stop towards Bonnieux
Fortified by the coffee, we set off again for our final destination - Gordes. The region is fabulous for its scenery, and the roads are excellent. It's a real pleasure riding around and taking in all there is to see.

The traffic going up to Gordes was, however, heavy. It's become THE place to visit so we followed coaches, cars and lots of bikes up the winding road. If you're on a bike, you don't pay the parking, but cars in the town were being asked the extortionate sum of 10 EUR!

Classic view of Gordes

Squashed-face me and classic view of Gordes
Inside the town, we had a little look around, along with everyone else.
Busy busy Gordes
There are very steep, perilously cobbled roads to tackle, probably best explored without those romantic summery heels.
Photo captured in a gap in the throng
It is all delightful to look at, from the beautifully constructed creamy limestone houses and shops, to the expansive views.
View from Gordes
By now it was 30°C so I removed my fleece when we returned to the bikes to set off on our return journey. We had no particular stopping points, but I had programmed Google Maps to tell me the route to Avignon via L'Isle de la Sorgue, then Sommières via Nimes using earphones. However, it's not a perfect system I have going here. To start with, the earphones keep getting dislodged from my ears inside the helmet so I can't hear a thing. Then the voice telling me where to go is at odds with the map, which is the most confusing element.

Anyway, we didn't get lost, but did have to stop to re-inject life into numb backsides. My bike seat is not the most comfy, and trying to sit on a fleece pully didn't work to improve things as it wasn't long enough. Riding these long distances takes a lot of practice to get things right!

Finally, as the day was ending, we stopped for a refreshing Perrier by the river in Sommières.
Me looking shattered with helmet hair by the river in Sommières
Having started out at 10am, I got home at just after 8pm. It was a long day, and a long ride, but a fabulous trip.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Assumption Day in the Cevennes

What could be a better way of celebrating Assumption Day than by going for a bike ride? I intended going to Mont Aigoual for a bit of fresh cool air, I ended up doing this:
Fab bike ride along teeny weeny single-track roads with grass down the middle
It was an afternoon ride after some shopping and a session at the gym this morning. I bought myself a little treat of Madagascan prawns for lunch so I was well fortified for a good ride.

There were a lot of people on the roads, the main roads at least. I was following what I thought was the route I'd chosen on Google Maps back at home, but there was a hiccup and the Voice was sending me up to Mont Aigoul on the very road I knew well and wanted to avoid.

So I came off at Le Mazel and took the D323 in the direction of Mandagout. It's a tiny single track road with grass growing in clumps down the middle and some optimistic lines painted in the places not covered in grass which served no other purpose than to show you where the road was.
Valley of sweet onion fields
I was riding deep into the middle of nowhere except that every now and again I'd come across fields of sweet onions being cultivated along the river valley or orchards of Reinette apples or olive groves, and the ubiquitous sweet chestnut trees. At one point I saw a woman beneath a tree next to a field of harvested onions in crates who was doing yoga. The Cevennes is the sort of place where people do yoga. It fits in with the mystical atmosphere of the mountains, the desire to be close to nature and out of the rat race. You can't be in the rat race isolated in a hamlet of 3 houses half an hour drive at least to the nearest shop.

I drove through many well-kept tiny hamlets of old stone houses like this:
Isolated hamlet surrounded by a lot of countryside...
They were usually perched on hillsides in picturesque layouts of roofs and stone walls. The scenery changed dramatically when I reached the plateau.
Stark vegetation on the higher plateau
This was near the col des Vieilles which is a popular route with cyclists. I didn't see anyone on the road today though. They were all down in the valley in crowds on the rivers which were alive with colour from canoeists, bathers and families.

Mandagout (?)
The views of the forests and mountains were magnificent. The Cevennes region is one of my favourites for the wonderful emptiness of its landscapes and delightful villages sporadically situated.

Le "Chateau"
Click on the photos to get a better look.

I needed petrol so I headed for Le Vigan where Super U was open. I filled up and then went inside to use the facilities. Afterwards, I sat to look at the map and got talking to a retired chap who told me about his children and grandchildren (all doing things like medicine, dentistry, computers) and who was impressed that I was riding around the area by myself and tackling the tiny roads. I felt quite impressed with myself too after listening to him.

From Le Vigan, I crossed the river and went past the Well factory to a glorious little aqueduct.

Le Vigan aqueduct
I had to stop and take a photo of course as it was so beautiful. It was right near a campsite too which was chockablock with happy campers. The Google Map voice took me towards Saint Bresson on some more tiny roads. Then to Saint-Laurent-le-Minier where there is a rather lovely waterfall. It was heaving with people of course, and there were cars parked everywhere.

I rejoined the main road at Saint-Bauzille-de-Putois having crossed the sky-blue suspension bridge at Agonès and got home in time for a lovely refreshing glass of rosé. The whole trip took about four and a half hours.

I fully intend to go back and do it more carefully, perhaps from the other direction, when I'm not half-worried about petrol levels. I should have filled up before I left. Lesson learned. I've now done over 2000km on my bike!

Sunday, August 12, 2018

My First Ever Long Ride on my Honda CB125F

I've had a lovely day today on my motorbike - a Honda CB125F that I've had since May.

My lovely Honda CB125F
I was intending combining my coding skills with creating a new blog for my motorbike adventures, but I'm not quite there yet, so as I wanted to document this trip, I'll do it here.

I'm just back from my longest solo motorbike ride: home - Millau - home

Today's ride - not a circular route because you see different things from each direction
The furthest I'd been until today was to Mèze for an oyster lunch, a mere 40km away. Millau is 154km and, avoiding the motorway, a nearly 3 hour ride.

Before leaving home, I popped down the road to buy a crusty baguette and dried ham to make a sandwich for lunch, downloaded the itinerary into my phone and set off around 10am.

First stop for coffee was in a dinky village called Arboras which is a favourite area for mountain bikers. My son has been there to practice downhill riding with his group and had a lovely time.
A stop for coffee in Arboras
The coffee cost €1 and came in a locally made pretty pottery cup. I got chatting to a merry family group of dad, brother (visiting from Milan) and three boys. Apparently the men are both divorced and have cried off the bother of women. Mostly...
The café terrace (and my bike) 
 The local one is a biker, admired my bike, and told me that a good biker is an old biker...

Book-sharing shelves, and washing machine bar table
I left them enjoying a plate of local goats cheese, honey and bread, and continued my route. From the winding roads of Hérault, I climbed onto the Larzac plateau and the trip took me right down memory lane. I used to come this way a lot when I was married, before the A9 autoroute was built, and we had to take the National 9.

The road is now the D9 and a lot quieter. I always wanted to linger going through Le Caylar and L'Hospitalet-du-Larzac, and on the bike I could. I could dawdle along on the empty road, stop if I felt like it and admire the old stone houses, and take note of the appealing menus in front of the restaurants. It was too early for lunch though so I stopped instead to take a photo of an iron sculpture seen along the way at Les Infruts.
Seen along the way at Les Infruts
It felt much fresher up there on the plateau and I had a lovely time flying along in the cool breeze past the military training grounds, the Millau-Larzac aerodrome, and parallel to the autoroute. I thought of all the poor sods going north, their holidays over, and revelled in the fact that I live here year round.

I wanted to eat lunch with a view, so I picked the spot where I knew I'd get the best one possible - of the Viaduc de Millau.
Overlooking Millau with the viaduc in the background
There was shade, there were picnic tables, there was a panoramic view. I couldn't have enjoyed it more. I shared a table for a while with a family who were on their way home to Brest having had a lovely time in Aveyron and the Camargue. The picnic spot had a special kind of loo which used no water but you had to press a lever ten times with your foot to work a moving belt. Intriguing.

Millau was my target, so after I'd finished my very tasty sandwich, looked down on the soaring condors and counted a dozen para-gliders having fun in the rising thermals, I rode down the hill and stopped for a coffee at the river beach where there was a playground, pizza shack and bar. This time it cost €2.40... and came in a bog-standard white china cup. The location was pretty though and there were lots of people enjoying Sunday lunch with kids playing in the river in the cordoned off zone.

It was very warm down in the valley, so I was keen to be back on the bike and on my way home. The 125 is not very powerful so I took it at a leisurely pace climbing back onto the plateau. Luckily no one was following me and getting impatient so I didn't need to push my bike to the limit.

I took the same route home because you see different things from the other direction, and you can also stop and check places that you noted on the outward journey. A working windmill at Saint Pierre de la Fage, for example.
Restored windmill at Saint Pierre de la Fage
I came off the beaten track to admire the views from another high point of note - on Mont Saint Baudille at an altitude of 848m.
Mont Saint Baudille in the background with the television antenna
I thought I'd be the only one trekking over there on the single track bumpy road, but the car park was pretty busy, to my surprise. There's an observation point where you can admire the view that extends on a good day from Mont Ventoux in the east to the Spanish border and Mount Canigou in the west! It's used in the summer by the forestry service to keep a look-out for forest fires. Two members of staff were there to hand out leaflets on how to not start a forest fire as well as keeping their eyes skinned. They spot at least one fire per day in the dry season.
Looking east with the Pic Saint Loup in the background
The views were fantastic - I could see the Pic Saint Loup, the Lac de Salagou, and way in the distance Montpellier and the sea. The forest service man very kindly took a photo of me - he's a biker too so we bonded... He told us that despite the place being isolated, there is a lot of crime in the car park, with cars full of holiday treasures broken into, and one woman even had her tyres slashed so she couldn't go after the thieves! There are some very nasty people out there.

My bike was safe and sound when I got back to the car park I'm happy to say. I stopped briefly on the Col du Vent just to have a quick rest. There were no cyclists there on the return trip. Going up, I video-bombed a guy who was being filmed by his mates arriving at the top. I'm sure it was very hard work going up. I was happy not to be making that effort in such hot weather!

I got home at 5pm to a nice cup of tea and piece of cake. It was a lovely ride full of varied sights and smells and I felt like I'd been on a mini holiday. I love my bike.

Sunday, July 08, 2018

RIP Ulysse

Ulysse 2004-2018
Last night there was a ring on the door bell at about 10pm. One's thoughts immediately fly to one's son, out and about with his car... but it was the door bell, not someone banging on the door as the police are wont to do.

I opened the door to some stricken-looking neighbours who asked me if I was the owner of Ulysse. They said something had happened to him and I should come immediately. I called for Christophe and we followed the neighbours down the road.

They said he'd been in a fight with their dog. He had gone into their garden, they weren't sure what had happened exactly but they tried to separate the balls of fury. They got them apart, and lay Ulysse on the ground where he died, maybe of a heart attack.

I arrived on the scene, and thought, that isn't Ulysse. His fur was all fluffy, his tail bushy. Then I saw the white spot at the end of his tail and I knew.

I reassured the neighbours - the mum was in tears and everyone was terribly upset. I thanked them for letting us know what had happened, picked him up and took him home.

Ulysse 'helping' me learn Csharp
Ulysse had always been the 'chef du quartier'. He picked me out at the SPA when he was six month's old, and immediately set about claiming his territory in our road. We had recently moved there and there were very few cats. Ulysse had no trouble proclaiming himself king, and was the scourge of all the cats that arrived after him. Until he got too old to care.

He was not terribly cuddle-friendly for years. He would sit near us, but never on our laps. If I sat in the garden, he would join me, and if I went down the path towards the shops, he would accompany me as far as the road, and then sit and wait for me to come back.

When he started getting on a bit, he took to our laps, and he loved it when we were ill and had to stay home. His nursing skills were unparalleled and greatly appreciated.
Ulysse on my lap during a bout of 'flu
Not so appreciated was the revenge he took when we went on holiday. On several occasions I arrived home to find he'd poo'd on my duvet and peed on the bed. He could be quite a little bugger!

He had a very discerning eye for our visitors, and you could trust his judgement as to who was a decent person.

Not long after he arrived here, he tried crossing a road without looking, and was hit by a car. He managed to hobble home, and I had to take him to the emergency vet. His jaw had been broken so they had to reset it and keep him under observation for a few days. Ulysse was a lot more careful after that experience!

Ulysse flaked out on the compost bin
He could recognise the sound of all the cars and motorbikes that mattered to him. When he heard mine, he would often appear from the bushes and sit and wait for me. He had his favourite spots for a snooze, or bedtime, and these would change every so often. If he determined that a particular bedroom would be his chosen place to sleep, woe betide anyone who tried to stop him getting there. He would miaow persistently until he got his way.

Fleas loved him too. Despite regularly dosing him with Frontline, he would be incessantly bothered by them. We fought a losing battle with the little buggers. They'll have to look elsewhere for a cosy nest and tasty morsel from now on!

While I'm very sad that my darling boy is gone, I'm also relieved that he will not become decrepit in his old age. This past year, he seemed to age before our eyes. He lost weight (to his correct weight for his size...), his black fur turned a rusty brown and his joints were starting to seize up.

I've had cats before that lived a long time, and I'm not sure that the last years were very pleasant. Ulysse died as he had lived, in battle. As Christophe said, 'Super U-cat' died a warrior.

Much loved, he went out with a bang.

RIP my little darling boy.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

The New French System of PAYE

On January 1, 2019, the revolution that is PAYE will hit French taxpayers. Up until now, we paid tax on income from the previous year's tax declaration. The main problem with this is that it is inflexible in the case of major life changes, like redundancy.

So from next year, if something changes, we will be able to reflect this immediately in our tax payments. All good.

Except that, and there's always an except that, it's not all good. Last year, I enjoyed the services of a cleaner. She was employed through a service agency and thus made social payment contributions, got holiday pay, sick leave and all other advantages of the legally employed. I got half the money I paid to the agency directly taken off my taxes.

It's one of those French tax niches that are widely popular, and that the government have been trying to reduce. It meant that instead of paying, for example, 200EUR/month for the cleaner, with the tax relief I was effectively paying 100EUR because my monthly tax direct debit was 100EUR/month cheaper than it would have been.

Now though, with the new system, the reimbursement will not occur immediately, but will come as a lump sum twice a year. The result of this is that I will probably never be able to have a cleaner again.

Why? Well, if I pay, for example, 400EUR/month in tax, I will not be able to add a further 200EUR to pay for the cleaner. It's just too much. Even I get a reimbursement in a lump sum, the monthly total is just too high.

So does this mean that the government has found a way to kill off the niche? By making it impossible for people like me who are not rich enough to pay full taxes AND a cleaner, or gardener, or any other regular personal service?

I should think the people employed in the previously flourishing personal services industry must be horrified at the (intended?) potential consequences of this nasty little tax manoeuvre. And it makes the tax system a system of finance rather than economy. Obviously it gives the government the opportunity to use the tax income before paying out on the 'credit impots', but doesn't take into consideration the probability that the personal services industry will take a huge knock, and jobs will be at risk. Jobs done by those who are often in a vulnerable situation.

So thanks Macron. WBanker extraordinaire.

Thursday, March 01, 2018

The Big Snow 28 Feb 2018

Yesterday we had the heaviest snow fall since I can remember, and I've been here for more than two decades.

It started when I was at work. We didn't worry, it was supposed to turn to rain in the afternoon. As midday approached, it showed absolutely no signs of turning to rain. The temperature stayed obstinately low and the warm air from the south was stuck out in the Med somewhere.
View from my window at work at 11.30 am

People started leaving. I hung on for a bit hoping for things to improve, but finally at 1.30 pm it was leave or risk not leaving because obviously I had left my tyre chains at home thinking that as usual, the Orange Snow Alert would be exaggerated.

It wasn't, so I brushed the 10 cm or so of snow off my car and crept out onto the road. It was actually not too bad if taken carefully. I made it to the bottom of my road, a steep hill, and parked. There were no tyre marks going up the hill and I knew there was no hope of success.

Near my house at 2.30pm
I climbed the hill, got home and immediately dug out my fluo pink ski suit, snow boots, and gloves, found the plastic sledge I'd bought when the boys were younger (which coincided with the last time we went sledging...) in the garage and went back out to sledge down the hill. I wasn't the only one out. There were kids throwing snowballs with their parents, and bigger kids attacking each other.

After lunch, I went to find my sledge which I'd left outside, but my son had taken it, so found the old sledge that I'd had when I was a child. It hadn't been used since a feeble attempt on a thin layer of soggy snow some years back which it proved too heavy for. The several centimetres of dry snow was perfect for it, however.
My old sledge which had been red but was repainted by my dad years ago and not been used since

It took some steering, but eventually I got the hang of it, and instead of banging systematically into the snowy kerb, I got all the way down the hill, slight bend included by using my feet. I felt quite the Winter Olympic Luge champion, as there I was flat on my back on the sledge dashing feet-first down a steep hill. Fun!

I was the only adult on a sledge, to the embarrassment of my eldest. One of his friends skied down the slope, others used my other sledge, and then they went off. I'm not sure if this was in the natural progression of things or to get away from an embarrassing mother on the instigation of my son.

This morning, March 1, the snow has started to melt and is already too deep, soft and soggy for the old sledge, the the modern plastic one has not reappeared. Good thing I made the most of it yesterday!

For more pictures of Montpellier and the region in the snow, the local newspaper, Midi Libre, posted a good selection sent in by readers here.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Lost in Oppidum

An oppidum is A Roman provincial town built often on high ground which is fortified and walled. Hérault's most impressive oppidum is at Ensérune but there's another one at Murviel-les-Montpellier, one which I've been wanting to visit for years but never got round to although I've been through the village many times.

Yesterday I found myself with a couple of hours to spare in Murviel. My first thought was 'coffee' and I went in search of a café in the tiny medieval quarter of the village. The stone houses all nestled together were charming, and there was many a cat dozing picturesquely or out on the razzle, but café there was none.

That was when I remembered the oppidum, and, thrilled that I had at last the opportunity to see it, and remembered before it was too late, I followed a signpost that indicated the direction. Little did I know but that would be one of a total of two useful signs.

I was starting to wonder at the distinct lack of directions when I met a man, who turned out to be a local Brit, and was very helpful and told me that all paths lead to the oppidum. I just had to climb to the top of the hill, turn right, and I'd be overlooking it in all its splendour.

The path was steep and rocky, and promised to provide quite enough exercise for the day without me needing to go to the gym too.

Steep path up
A couple of faint blue lines on a rock indicated a circuit of some sort, but without a sign of any sort, it was impossible to know whether it was going to the oppidum or not. Still, I followed it, and turned right at the T junction at the top where I saw a 'useful' sign.
'Useful' sign
Don't try and search for information on it, there is none. There probably had been, once, but now it was just a post with a white board on it. I couldn't see through the trees either to overlook the alleged oppidum. Maybe it was there, maybe it wasn't...

After walking through a tiny olive grove in the middle of nowhere (it seemed), I found some ruins.

Roman ruins
Was this the oppidum? Was there an information panel to tell me? They were pretty underwhelming as far as Roman ruins go, and, in the absence of a useful signpost, I decided that I probably was not looking at the oppidum.
Thick Roman wall which may or may not be part of the oppidum.
I was enjoying my walk in lovely undulating countryside, with garrigue plants and trees and delicious smells of herbs and pine despite not knowing where I was. Another signpost did nothing to help, and I could see I wasn't the only one to experience mounting frustration, because someone had expressed his/her annoyance with a clear message on the blank panel: Information NULLE !! Justifiably so.

Disgruntled visitor message: 'Information NULLE !!'
The faint blue lines had also long since disappeared, so it was with interest that I finally came across something clear and precise. Almost.
Clear signpost with a fatal flaw
A map! At last! A lovely map showing all sorts of useful bits of information. Except one. The 'YOU ARE HERE' spot. What a tease. I was obviously not the only person to spot the fatal flaw because someone had written on it: 'On est où ?' - Where are we? The mystery continued.

Bushy 'access-friendly' path
I continued taking random directions, and noted the different types of vegetation along the various paths. They were solid proof of the diversity dream.

At one junction, I met a jogger who optimistically asked me the direction to the village. He was lost too. He had been following the faint blue paint marks until they petered out. We struck up a matey chat of fellow lost-ees until I cracked and got my phone out to consult Google Maps. The jogger decided to try one direction and, while I was still waiting for my return itinerary to load, he came back to try another as the one he took just stopped.

Tree-lined stony path
Thanks to Google Maps, I discovered I was a mere 15 minutes from my point of departure despite having been walking for almost an hour going up and down and along. No sign of the oppidum, natch, although I thought this immaculate olive grove very impressive.

Immaculate and very posh olive grove
I didn't quite follow the directions correctly (and got reprimanded by The Voice), but did discover an abandoned home with a well nearby, which brought up images of a wizened old farmer's wife trekking down the hill in the depths of winter to draw water.
Abandoned well 50 m from abandoned house
I got back on the right path to The Voice's relief (it was palpable).
Another picturesque path
I never did find the oppidum. I suppose it's there somewhere, and next time I have a couple of hours to spare there I'll try again, this time having printed off directions and a map, because I know you get no help once there!

This is what I didn't see (to some lovely music):