I don’t sleep well, worrying over which road to take. I have to cross a ridge of the Pyrenees, climbing to 1500m. The most direct route looks, on my small-scale map, to cross an inhospitable wilderness. The bike app on googlemaps refuses even to consider it. But with my gear problem I’ll be doing a lot of walking. So, the shorter the better. I will climb for 21 miles, descend for 16.
At breakfast a cyclist in lycra asks, ‘are you the bloke on the curly Hetchins? We saw you in Carcassonne.’ A mixture of incredulity, amusement, and grudging respect. Although I might have imagined the last. I really have become ‘the old-timer’! There are four of them. They’re in lycra all the time, they never change as they clop around on cleated shoes. The bags on their bikes are tiny. Do they live in lycra, shower in it, sleep in it, an artificial outer skin? How old-fashioned is my way of changing at the end of the cycling day into ‘civilian’ clothes. As old-fashioned to them as ‘dressing for dinner’ is to me. How we carry the ways of our twenties, the hairstyle, the clothes (hats, no hats), the manner of doing things (opening doors, stepping aside) into old age.
I pack slowly, reluctant to leave. When I check out the woman is so friendly. I don’t want to leave!
I set out at 8:15, south into the wall of hills. Soon I’m in a narrow defile. The road clings to a vertical cliff, the river rushes below, the 1904 railway is on the other side, and jagged white cliffs, sharp as knives, bright in the sun, rise hundreds of metres. Through a rock arch. I enter ‘le trou de curé’, the 2km cut hacked through the Gorges de Pierre-Lys, driven by curé Felix Armand. He struck the first blow in 1776. The breakthrough came in 1781, but work was stopped by the Revolution. By 1821 the road had opened up an area ‘rich in forests, animals and fodder, in thermal springs and minerals.’ Now it is a playground of rock-climbing, and white-water rafting on the wild river. Only at Quillan, says the guide, does the Aude ’s’assagit’, become wiser.
I turn off the main road at Axat, on the Heraklian Way, towards Font-Romeu, a gorge through white 500m cliffs, as sheer and angular as if cut with a giant (a Herculean?) axe. It is dramatic and clean; it is the clear line and scale that cuts through relative thinking: these are mountains, the realm of older, simpler, harsher gods. I breathe more deeply the sharp air. I clarify, become serious.
Many cyclists follow the Aude towards Font-Romeu, but none turn off where I do, taking the direct route, across the wilderness, over the Col de Jau.
I’m soon up in coniferous forest. A giant grey pipeline snakes down the opposite hill. I climb through a village. It looks strange. Then I realise it is built for snow, for avalanches. It is guarded by a blue mosaic cat. Further on there are purple and yellow alpine flowers by the road, and tall red poles marking the road line. When I walk, individual cyclists pass me. They are in lycra, on modern bikes, but they are old and overweight. They look like the kebab in Dunkirk, as if they’ve been poured into lycra and set. Their gears are so low they have difficulty passing me as I walk. They pass in silence. A transit van passes, parks, passes, parks. What’s going on?
As I approach the top, it opens out, more a plateau than a pass, a wide green space. The trees reach the tops of the mountains. There are higher mountains, flat and blue, in the distance. Before me is a wide vista, tremendous views south. The van is parked, and tables and chairs set out. The old men are sitting around the white table cloth, reaching for plates of food and bottles of wine, tucking into lunch. This is France. And they have ‘done’ the Col de Jau, 1506m. A sign, ‘Bienvingut al Pais Català’.
It has gone surprisingly well. I’m fitter than I thought. Ahead of me is the wide blue yonder, and now I have a straight road down to Pradès, an exhilarating ride of 16 miles at 5% (1 in 20), sweeping through bends, hardly braking. Past a Meridian marker. Past Mosset, an industrial village until the mid-19th century, making iron with local charcoal and ore from Canigou. Now it is a ‘Beautiful Village of France’, with promenades clinging to the cliff above the river.
It is only 2pm when I reach Pradès. I have crossed a high ridge of the Pyrenees and descended to the Têt valley, a wedge of lowland from the coast at Perpignan narrowing to a gorge at Villefranche. It is very hot. I had intended to stop at Pradès, eat, look around, then make my way the 8 miles to my night’s stop at Vernet, and head up to the last marker tomorrow. But for some reason I take against Pradès – it seems a fussy place. Or maybe it’s the time of day, the oven heat, the dust and airlessness, the harsh light. And already the sense that the wild, capricious Catalan spirit – so not-France. I miss France! – is scratching at me. I decide to go to the last marker on the Meridian, my goal, now.
I should eat but I’m not hungry, I want to get on. I head up the Têt to Villefranche-de-Conflet. It is squeezed in where the valley narrows, and was a strategic site much fought over before the 1659. The confined town has been confined even more by Vauban’s elaborate defences. From Vauban at Berges, to Vauban at Villefranche. From phlegmatic Flemishka to crazy Catalonia …
I turn south, up the narrow, twisting valley of the Rotja, heading for the wall of mountains. I keep changing plans : come up here tomorrow; drop off my bags in Vernet before I come up here; hide my bags now, pick them up on my way down. But I don’t want to stop. An ambitious madness has seized me, an ongoing momentum, I’m singing, ‘I’m pressing on, pressing, pressing, pressing on’, Dylan at his most fervent, I push on and I am thrust forward. Go on! Go on! My stay at Quillan, in the alembic of thoughts, circling the circle, has energised me, speeded me up. I’m like a spaceship that’s been accelerated to a new velocity by sling-shooting around a planet – the Pic de Bugarach! The spaceship at its heart! on and up, towards my goal. I’m tired, cycling is hard, walking is hard, the rocky walls get higher, the trees more dense, the road narrower, I haven’t eaten, I’m running out of fuel, I’m running on fumes, the fumes have made me a bit crazy, but good crazy, the road climbs implacably, I push madly on. Battered old vans pass, with trailers with a bale of hay or a single calf. The rocky wall, white, pink, yellow, opens, receives, and wraps around behind me. There are abandoned cars and trucks beside poor homesteads. I press on, ever upward.
Just before Py, the last village before the last marker, I burst into tears. I weep like a child. I am almost there, I am about to make it, I can do it, I will do it. What began as an idea, an aim, that I’d forgotten in all the doings of the journey, I’m about to realise, about to reach my goal. Through disappointment that the green Meridian has not become a new spine of France, through mechanical problems, rough weather, a journey that at times felt endless is about to reach its destination. Through waves of emotion I prepare my speech. Through Py. The marker should be soon. What if there isn’t one?
Exhausted, I give myself two miles on my milometer to reach it. Up again. Here? Lost in the undergrowth? I might miss it. I might have missed it. Here, 1.8 miles past Py, here it is. The last Meridian marker in France. Its bronze plate still in place. 2º 20’ 11”E, 42º 29’ 25”N. I have travelled through 8.5 degrees of longitude, 595 miles. My milometer reads 1351 miles.
I arrive, simply. The emotion has gone. I am calm and clear. I have done it. I photograph my bike leaning against the marker and email, ‘Made it! So proud of myself! Thanks to all!!’ It is the first time I have ever said I am proud of myself.
There is mixed woodland all around, ash, oak, plantations of conifers, mountains. And silence. I would dearly love to cycle the couple of miles to Le Mantet, the last village, the literal end of the road. But I am empty. I have done all I can. From the stormy North Sea and Flemish North, through Frankish Picardy, immigrant Saint-Denis, between the Observatory and lunatic asylum of Paris, to Gabrielle’s flat, across the wide fat lands of Beauce and the seductively sinuous Loire, through the Centres of France, across the hardness of the Massif, its suspiciousness and hospitality, my return home to Aveyron, and from Albi, the South, the allures and mysteries of Languedoc, into Catalonia and up into the Pyrenees, five miles from the crest, and Spain.
I turn round. In front of me is a descent into a rocky defile, white and green, past the red roofs of Py, opening out, back into France, a country changed, a country I so want to return to. I freewheel down. Through Py (‘The inhabitants are called Pinencs.’ Of course they are.) It was an important centre of ‘The Revolt of les Angelets de la terre’ (‘angelets’ means little angels), the war of resistance against the salt tax. Yet another battle of the South against the North. When this part of Catalonia passed to France in 1659, the king promised he wouldn’t impose the gabelle, salt so vital for preserving meat in these isolated places. Two years later, he did. The revolt lasted 13 years. In 1674 Py, ‘the last bastion of the resistance’ was taken, razed, and, in a final, message-filled act, salt was ploughed into the land, so nothing would grow. The revolt had caused so much trouble that Louis tried to swap Catalonia for Flanders; the Spanish king refused. Another of history’s might have beens.
The population was 551 in 1851, is 91 now. And yet it is a neatly-kept, spruce village, with signs for goat cheese and honey, and even a bar and restaurant. Is it a village of second homes? There are road signs, ‘snow tyres allowed’, ‘frequent ice on the road’. There is an information board (in bad French, as if poorly translated, as if to make the point that this is Catalonia) about transhumance. It shows that the Pyrenees was an ecological whole, allowing shepherds to manage resources on either side to best feed their flocks. And, as I saw at Montaillou, transhumance made a ready network for the spread of dissident ideas.
As I descend, I can’t believe how long and steep the road is! I climbed this? I turn off to Vernet, and I’m soon at my hotel.
Vernet-les-Bains was a popular spa in the belle époque. The French and Spanish came in summer, the English in winter, it was run by Germans. It has the only monument to the Entente Cordiale. Planned in 1912 by Lord Roberts and General Joffre, both visitors to the spa, when finished in 1920 a war memorial line was added. It says, ‘To the Franco-British Entente Cordiale. To the glory of the allied nations. To the memory of the soldiers of Vernet who died for their country.’ Joffre served through the war. Roberts, an old India hand, died of fever at St Omer while visiting Indian troops. He was 82. Rudyard Kipling stayed in Vernet in 1912. Through Robert’s influence he got a commission for his short-sighted, overweight, eighteen-year-old son. The boy blundered to his death on his second day at the Front.
The spa was destroyed in ‘l’aiguat [the great rain] de 1940’, flooding down from Pic de Canigou. 2785m high, often cloud-wreathed, it dominates the town. It is the sacred mountain of Catalans: a Catalan flag flies at the top, and on St John’s Eve (two days ago – so significant when I lived in Aveyron, it has passed without me noticing) the ‘Catalan Flame’ is lit at the summit, and torches carried to all parts of Catalonia. As candles are lit from the one candle in church at Easter. The inconstant river is now confined in a concrete channel.
The hotel is from that period, old fashioned, bypassed. Built in baronial style, with massive exposed beams, heavy wood balusters, and every space, like a Victorian drawing room, filled with objects. My room, furnished indiscriminately, is the exemplum of kitsch, ‘a style of decorative art and design in which ordinary objects with visual appeal, “old-fashioned” characteristics or banal usefulness feature prominently.’ Kitsch occupies space, rather than either making use of it, or articulating it. The bathroom has bidet, bath and shower; perhaps inevitably, the hot water comes out of the cold tap. But the room is big, with a double window opening over a garden and, massed above, Canigou.
As I lie on the big bed, I remember that the idea of kitsch was crucial in Walter Benjamin’s encounter with Aragon’s ‘Le Passage de l’Opéra’, stimulating him to begin The Arcades Project, which in turn led me to follow the Arago medallions along the Meridian in Paris, and then the Millennium markers across France. And that in two days I will follow his last journey, on foot across the Pyrenees to Spain in 1940. His escape across the southern border mirroring the Jungle refugees’ attempts to escape across the northern. His memorial is a tunnel of steel steps down to a glass wall at the edge of a drop to the ocean. The stowaway, blinded when the lorry door is thrown open in England, steps into the dazzle, to be seized and sent back; or, now invisible, non-existent, to disappear. Benjamin carried a bag, said to contain the completed Arcades Project manuscript. But after he killed himself, unable to cope with being sent back to German captivity, it was never found, a literary mystery.
I see myself cycling on, around the world, around the world again, ever on, never arriving. Life as a travelling self, a being in motion, has a beautiful simplicity. I am both self-contained, having only what I carry, and entirely dependant on where I am for sustenance. I am reduced/elevated to the primitive, travelling unencumbered, while in constant negotiation with the world around, alive in the moment.
I am in a bubble of self-containment, the travelling world of my imagination, inside a dome on which I project thoughts, images, desires. Desires that one by one have fallen away, leaving a life simplified to food, drink, shelter, locomotion. My life has become what the mind becomes in meditation.
And yet the release of emotion as I neared my goal reminds me how hard I have been working, decision after decision, action after action, each followed by consequences to negotiate, moment to moment, nothing happens unless I make it happen, the motor never idles, is always in gear. Alive in the moment, working every moment.
The self inside a sphere of projections. But also the self as the Gormley figure (he says, ‘the body is not an object but a place’) in which I occupy, am the space created by rods of different lengths from every direction that stop at, in sum define, the surface, representing all the forces and influences creating me. But also they are the rays out, the radiations of my self, its nature, its relationships, its actions.
A sense of arrival. At my self. A privileged place, where I am greeted, by my self. The locus of my self. A voice says, welcome, you have found your place, the moment of your balanced world, which is an element in all balanced worlds, where oneself moving moves all others, so that all is an ever-moving equilibrium, and everything flows.
Attempts to describe, explain, failing. I am here. And now.
I find a good restaurant in the main square and sit outside. It’s quiet when I arrive. I have the menu complet, salad, sea bream with rice, cherry tart, wine, coffee. Kids kick a ball around the big square in an endless, limitless football match. Swifts chase and whistle across the square like demented referees in a game they don’t understand. The restaurant fills up. Many order pizzas, and are taken aback when they arrive, huge, overlapping the plate like Texas steaks. There is talk all around. Good wine. As I start the pudding, a tart solid with cherries, a woman, passing as she leaves says, ‘you’ve taken on something with that dessert.’ Australian.’ I’m up for it,’ I say. ‘It’s cherry time, le temps des cérises, my homage to the Commune. But it’ll give me a thirst. I’ll need a long, cold beer.’ Why not?