Saturday 30 June
La Calandre, Drome. 700metres. 107km. Total 1,725. Ascent 4,000 feet.
Col de Macuegen 1068
Writing at lunchtime in Sault. A flat ride across the last of the Rhone flats to breakfast cheaply on yesterday’s pain au chocolat before cycling up through the town to find the way out and start climbing. Against the sunlight I see dark velvet purple banks of cypress trees and rock, fragile flowers glowing like stained glass out of fields of wheat and meadow. A profusion of purple and blue flowers, maybe eight different sorts all shades of the same colour.
We passed a cyclist beneath some shade who followed behind for several miles, then came alongside and started to talk. He travelled with us for about 15 miles. He is on holiday, and cycled down from Paris where he lives. Told us the Alps are difficult. By this time we were beginning to climb up towards the Gorges of the Nesque, Guy and he were in front talking, I panting behind, keeping up but only with difficulty.
When we’d climbed a fair bit he suddenly said goodbye and turned around. I called a stop for drink and suncream beside box hedges cut neatly square and incongruous against the rocky scrub and treeland they surrounded; squatting beside the hedge I could see all sorts of flowers and smell herbs – oregano and thyme.
Now at lunchtime we have cycled 60 kilometres, all of it uphill and risen at least 2,000 feet. The road is visible as a horizontal interruption cutting through the shrubs along the steep sides of the gorge. We travel high above the river in the bottom. In a few places an archway has been cut through the rock so you can see through to blue dizzying steepness. At Monieux the land flattens to a bowl of poppy fields between peaks.
Later, approaching Sault, sloping fields of orange pale wheat, bordered by luminous thin flowers, there stands a small old barn, old leafless tree beside it. Beyond are fields, flat and turning blue, and sloping high sided rock-topped mountains. We are elevated to look at these places. A sharp climb into Sault itself – feeling dizzy, ready for lunch. Head to the nearest café. Flies, a formidable patroness. Move on for a second cup to where I write the diary, a quiet square, full of breeze, chestnut leafshade, football thuds and voices of playing children. We have some almond croissants, the patron of the café has just filled our bottles with iced water and we are very pleased with our progress.
Higher and higher peaks are getting within a days distance. After a rest we begin up the col of the day. The map doesn’t show the five mile descent first, so that we have to regain all that height once we begin to climb. The hill gets steeper, Most of the time I use first gear and pedal slowly. The sun is clear and hot. Dry Mouth. Sweat. Hoisting myself up into the blue hills.
Trees grow along the road – graceful lush trees casting cold shadows as I pass, shadows like pools. The view behind is always the best; the strange lunar white peak of Mt. Ventoux and the observatory’s white tower dominating the steepsided valley with its sharp pikes of rocks like stalactites. I am glad when we stop for a photo (me happily and effortlessly ascending the steepness). Later, out of a kind of delirious dizziness I see Guy waving. He is parked beside the sign that tells us we are at the top. “Col de Macuegen. 1068m” I photograph through a small gap in a newly opened view and think that we may be able to see snow on top of a distant peak. From then all we have to do is get on the bikes and sit there, travelling quickly down to Sederon for provisions and the biggest shiniest cherries ever seen.
Intending to travel on, we pass a tempting roadside campsite, a shady orchard beside the river we’ve been coming down. We turn back and go in. It is lovely – big old trees in low fields beside a river; a fast mountain stream running over white pebbles. After supper we walk among long hillshadows to a nearby town, Lachau, where many small unsuspected shops surprise us and where there are old buildings with round rooftops, and pollarded chestnut trees with bunches of leaves waving pale and brilliant against the dark shadow masses of baled hay fields and bee hives lined up in hedgerows.
Dark blue overjutting mountains marbled with pine. Fragile willow’s whitebacked leaves picked out by the last line of sun before it turns behind the hills. Now in bed, the stream drops over a fall and we will hear it all night but not know it.