Ice rain, sunshine and a merry Marseille Christmas

DSC_4133FORGET a white Christmas, it’s a hot one I’m dreaming of (thongs, trifle and all) but instead I’m here, a stone’s throw from Geneva in what can only be described as a sluggish peddle out of freezing Switzerland.

Steel grey clouds and a nasty wind slice through my many layers and there’s only one thing that can make this miserable early December day worse and that’s my torturous fantasies of Brisbane during the festive season. Suddenly today’s destination – a little French town called Annecy – seems a million miles away and at the rate I’m cycling it will take me three days to get there.

Just hours before, Scott and I farewelled tiny but full-to-the-brim Switzerland and while it’s sad to say goodbye to the beautiful (albeit mountainous) nation we’ve got a great urge to move south (that’s largely motivated by our frozen buttocks and numb noses). We’ve again organised a warm showers host (two fellow bike tourers called Guena and Brice) and by time I manage to push my sluggish thighs to the town night has fallen and we all but sprint to the house, keen to shed our cold clothes and embrace the warmth of a stranger’s house.

Picturesque Annecy in France sits right on a lake and is encased in mountains

This is a new way of life for us and truth be told I still struggle with it but while staying at an unknown person’s house can mean awkward conversation and large doses of guilt (as they’re putting you up for free) when you land a great host all those difficulties fly out of the window in minutes. And so it is with Brice and Guena.

The couple live in a chic apartment just a short ride from the city and they shower us with food and warmth, serving up traditional tartuflette (a potato dish with baked camembert on top) berry pastries and dense chocolate cake.

At 11pm, mere minutes off easing our big bellies into bed, Scott notices tiny snow flakes whirling down onto the patio and we stared, utterly transfixed, at what was the first fall of the season.


Christmas decorations line the streets of Annecy, France

Brice and Guena offered us another night in their cosy apartment and with temperatures still low we took them up on the offer and spent a day wandering around their town, sampling vin chou at the local Christmas markets, before taking in the lake and its towering snow capped mountains.

It was hard to leave the following morning and not just because of the hospitality (and fabulous food) but because cycling in winter had become a regime close to torture.


Brice and Guena, of Annecy, France, proved to be fantastic hosts and friends

It wasn’t just the fact your cheeks and nose freeze to a dangerous numbness within minutes, but it made being outdoors a pain in your cold backside. It was tougher to bash out a respectable number of kilometres each day and the bank account dwindled at a far greater rate as you swapped handmade picnic lunches for a steaming bowl of something delicious in a heated cafe.

It turned the joy of bike touring into a mad dash between destinations and as our moods slowly soured I wondered how long we’d last in seriously cold conditions – such as a Mongolian winter.

We pushed the peddles sluggishly up and down car-packed roads as our breath came out in steaming puffs and by lunch time (we’d only cycled a pathetic 30km) we dashed straight into the nearest cafe for lunch.

It proved to be a mistake – a big one – as the temperature only dropped further forcing us to throw on another layer before tackling the tarmac.

An hour later the conditions worsened and out of nowhere small pieces of ice flew into my face. It was such an alien sensation it took me a minute to realise what was actually going on: ice rain.

There was nowhere to stop and the pieces were still relatively small so we pushed on in the hope a town would pop into view if the deluge worsened.


The road south to Chambery, France

Twenty minutes later it tapered off (robbing us of a damn fine excuse to pack it in for the day) and we pushed on to Chambery. A friend of Brice and Guena’s – Elodie – had offered us her sofa for the night and we rolled into town at 6pm, killing time in the city square and then a cafe until we could meet her after work at 8pm.


The town centre of Chambery, France

We were again marvelling at the generosity of the French when a woman spied our bikes and rushed over to us, asking us where we were from and travelling to.

She then asked us if we needed accommodation and even our laundry done – insisting that she owed our fellow countryman after experiencing their hospitality on a trip to Australia a few years ago.

Elodie was a sporty, lively and easy going physiotherapist who plied us with tea and treats before setting up the bed and letting us sleep off one hell of a day.

Despite an early start at work she sprung out of bed the following day to set up a breakfast feast (with, of course, croissants) and told us to simply pop the keys in the letterbox when we left.

The sheer kindness put us in a top mood to tackle the 60km we had to knock over to reach Grenoble and with one hell of a welcome waiting at the other end the winter suddenly seemed less fierce.

We were on our way to see Mael and Pauline – two fabulous tandem cyclists who peddled with us for over a week on the west coast of Ireland – and we couldn’t have been more excited.

Later that evening we sat around chatting with a glass of wine as though five days had passed instead of five months and I soaked up the comfort of being around friends like a much needed salve.


Mael, Pauline and Scott taking a break from the snow trek near Grenoble, France

Five days, one birthday, a few bottles of wine, a hell of a lot of food, one trip to the mountains and a snow trek later we were saying goodbye and if I didn’t feel the need to burn off a week of bad eating I would have been tempted to chain myself to the couch.

Instead we packed up the bikes, said our goodbyes, made promises to catch up in Italy and hit the road.

During our stay we’d paused in our relentless eating (for just an hour or so) to plan our next French leg and decided on a slightly west course to Valence before striking south down the Rhone river to Avignon.

From there Marseille was just 100km away and we planned to spend Christmas in the seaside port city (France’s largest) before heading west along the Mediterranean to Spain.

The bad weather continued as we ditched the mountains for the river route and a day later, with picturesque Valence at our backs, the incessant rain more commonly found in Inverness, Scotland struck up with a vengeance.

An hour later I discovered (the hard way) that my $500 RAB rain jacket was no longer water proof and an hour after that Scott put on the brakes and stopped with what had to be the world’s worst question: “Do you have the phone?”

“No, I thought you did!” I answered.

A frantic and soggy search through our panniers turned up nothing and we made a fast decision. It was either to keep going and call our previous accommodation at Valence (we’d stayed in a cheap hostel) in the hope they could send it onto Marseille or turn back.

If there’s one thing I hate more than cycling up mountains it’s back tracking but there was too much at risk with getting our one and only phone so we sucked it up and peddled the 30km back to Valence.

DSC_3976It was after 2pm when the hostel came into view and a thorough search of the room revealed nothing. We were ready to give up all hope when Scott suggested we check the laundry room (in case it got tangled up in the bedding) and five minutes later that’s exactly where we found it.

The laundry was mere mere minutes a way from being shipped off to Lyon where the establishment did their washing and where we would most certainly never see our little phone again.

By then I was freezing with four wet layers and soaked skin making me shiver like a blob of jelly on steroids.

It was 3pm and far too late to tackle the 60km to Montelimar and so we had a choice: stay in Valence another night or catch a train. We’d teed up a warm showers host so to cancel that and spend money on a room seemed idiotic – sparking us to fork out 30 euros and jump on the carriage that delivered us straight to Montelimar’s city centre

Beraud and Chantal were in their 50s, had grown up children, and judging by the number of pitiful, soggy bike tourers they had hosted, extremely big hearted.

They served up a three course feast (fresh vegetable soup, spaghetti bolognaise, apricot souffle and more) and then inspired us with their own bike touring stories until it was time for bed.

The couple (who rode to work everyday on their recumbent trikes) were simply wonderful and the following morning, amid a slight drizzle, they let us tear up and down the street on their mean trikes before we peddled off towards Pont-Saint-Esprit.

The river bike paths were hit and miss at the best of time but while we’d managed so far the dirt paths eventually led us to a confusing forest and an extra 15km later, spat us out seriously off track.

It should have been a short day but it was late afternoon when we reached the small and rather unexciting town in one piece and thus decided to call it a day before heading to Salon du Provence the following.

The following morning we’d made it just 15km down the road when a true Christmas miracle struck.


The sunny road south to Marseille

The sun came out, the temperature rose and if you squinted your eyes and kept a jumper on you could almost believe it was the Australian festive season.

Halfway to Avignon we even managed to strip down to one layer and the sensation of warm sun on my skin was like a shot of pure caffeine. I felt more alive than I had in weeks and we effortlessly turned the peddles to Avignon on one great big sun-fuelled high.


A stunning castle makes for a striking view just outside of Avignon

We still had another 50km to go but this magnificent and wonderfully historic town begged to be explored. This town fought with Rome for a long time to house the Pope (and even succeeded for a few well documented years) but while its religious history – and the famous Palais des Papes – are a big drawcard for visitors for us it was the 14th century architecture, the cobblestone streets and the festive atmosphere.

We spent just a few hours wandering around the magical city centre and soon realised we’d left it far too late to peddle to our ultimate destination. We were again faced with a choice – stay the night or catch the train.

For me, trains were like a toxic short term relationship. They felt good when you were in them but afterwards a fit of guilt would all but seize you up leaving your self esteem in tatters.

Usually good old foresight helped us give into the dangerous locomotive temptation but with Christmas in the air and an end of year lethargy seizing my muscles I wasn’t just ready to relent, but go the whole nine yards.


Sarah wheeling her way through the Avignon Christmas markets

My sister had called me earlier that morning to announce that she’d finished work for the year (it was Friday afternoon in Brisbane) and despite being on a permanent holiday on the other side of the world I was jealous.

I wanted a Christmas holiday too, darn it, and I wanted it now.

“How about we just go straight to Marseille,” I said to Scott.

And so we did.

We were effectively cutting off a day and a half of cycling but it was now Friday afternoon in France and I was ready for a break.

In fact i was ready for a big one – a full week – with absolutely no lycra, no peddles and no hasty muesli breakfasts.

I was ready to relax in fabulous French style with croissant buffets in sunny (well relatively) Marseille and no one was going to stand in may well.

Except French rail.

It’s a well known fact that the French love a good protest. I mean these guys have mastered strikes better than the English – but it seemed they’d truly nailed it this time with a well timed rally right before Christmas.

We could take a bus (full to the brim with angry holiday travellers) or wait three hours and take a train at 8pm that would arrive in Marseille at 9.

The latter seemed like the better option (with all our luggage) and so four and a half hours later we found ourselves dodging some of the most insane traffic yet to find our cheap as chips hostel.

We’d planned a good seven days off in France’s giant port city and I was happier than a pig in mud.


Marseille boasts 300 days of sunshine a year and the picturesque port is one of the best places to soak up the rays

Marseille is not just the country’s second biggest city but also one of its most transient and for that reason it has its share of problems. There are suburbs even the locals won’t venture too but with our hostel sitting in the touristy port district we felt pretty safe wandering around, lapping up the sunshine and seeing its historic sites. The famous Chateuu d’If jail (where the fictional Count of Monte Cristo was locked up) sits on a rock just off the harbour and Fort Saint-Jean was a phenomenal structure to explore the following day.


The view from Marseille’s Fort Saint-Jean

In saying that exploring wasn’t high on our agenda and aside from one slow slug uphill to the prominent Notre Dam I spent a hell of a lot of time curled up on the couch with my tea and book in the lead up to Christmas.


Exploring Marseille’s stunning port region

Our generous family had pitched in to give us a bit of privacy (in the way of a studio apartment) for the big day itself and so we stocked up on confit duck, potatoes, salad and chocolate while listening to cheesy Christmas carols on the 25th. Despite being thousands of miles from home we were determined to stick to tradition and whip up a feast but as we perched on the couch with our plates wobbling away on the coffee table we realised it was all a charade.

Long Skype chats to loved ones had revealed the family feast we craved and it was hard not to feel a pang of homesickness as we watched them scoff down homemade pavlova and pull bon bons.

So we settled for a Christmas movie and a hot chocolate before falling asleep in our tiny pad.

The plan was to leave on the 27th but when we woke up an icy wind and relentless rain had turned the city into a bleak and grey blob.

Scott was worried we hadn’t seen enough of the region (there’s a beach spot called Casses on the east side he’d been dying to explore) and so we bit the bullet and booked another two nights into the hostel.


A pre-Christmas and sunshine filled trek to Notre Dam gives you a spectacular view of the city

It was the longest break we’d had yet but with some of the toughest parts of our trip lying ahead (Spain to Morocco and then Italy to Mongolia) we figured a good rest wouldn’t be remiss. After all it’s a long road home and I’m happy to take the naps while I can.

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