Montpelier - Pau - Montpelier, May 2004

Given encouragement by French Rail, which publishes a guide for taking bikes on trains, I opted to cycle/rail to Montpelier, thus not recovering tracks I had made earlier either by car or bike.

I more or less followed an itinerary as planned -- through the departments 34, 11, 66, 09, 31, 65, 64, 32, 82, 81, 12 and back through 34. For those unfamiliar -- and this includes all but the French -- with this nation's departmentalization, I passed through Hérault, Aude, Pyrénées-Orientales, Ariege, Haute-Garonne, Hautes Pyrénées, Pyrénées-Atlantiques, Gers, Tarn et Garonne, Tarn, Aveyron and back through Hérault. Or to put it more clearly, I clock-wised a very ragged circle from Montpelier; south to Narbonne (a delight often by-passed) and Perpignan; north to Carcassonne; south-west to Montségur; west to Foix (what a castle!), St. Girons and St. Gaudens, Tarbes and Pau; north-east to Mirande and Auch; east to Toulouse (a must-see French city, second only to Paris); north to Montauban; east to Cordes sur Ciel and Monestiés (a gem that belongs to the elite group of 150 "most beautiful villages" of France); south to Carmaux, Albi and Castres; and finally east back to Montpelier.

Almost all the route was on small roads -- 70 percent of it hills. Seven Michelin Local Series maps -- # 342-4, 336-9 -- covered the route which encompassed the Midi-Pyrenees and Languedoc-Rousillon regions. About 1,450 kms, over four weeks. I stayed with ten families, mostly SERVAS, who were most hospitable and helped me continue my education of France.

Locals say the South-west has experienced a spring much cooler and wetter than normal. For the first half of my trip, this was certainly the case, with westerly headwinds to boot. Although I experienced pinhead-sized hail at Montségur, I somehow avoided heavy rains, relegated to rest days, but I saw the after effects. On the first day out, I came upon an inundated road and walked the bike 100 meters in knee-deep water. We both somehow survived -- the Cannondale's bearings are sealed and I carry Tevas for just such an occasion, although a sedan moronic enough to follow my example got stranded. The fireman who were rescuing another flooded vehicle gave me a round of applause.

It was only during the latter two weeks that I was able to discard the polypro thermal long underwear for lipbalm and sunblock. the wind, hills, cool and wet had a trying effect on my body. For the first time my left knee experienced some pain and various muscles and attachments -- the back specifically -- were sore at times. In advance of every bike trip, I undergo a regime to get back into shape, but I guess that this year's preparations -- four weeks of 1 1/2 hours daily with full weight and hills -- just weren't sufficient for such an ageing corpse, for a trip that necessitated 5 hours a day in the saddle.

In any case I took rest days one-third of the time with my kind hosts. I now have a month of recuperation before the next outing.

The South-west offers numerous touristic treasures -- many religious in foundation. Lourdes is a town which now goes beyond serving the faithful into being camp if not outright crass. Lourdes is on the map because a teenage girl a century and a half ago had what was then called visions (of the Virgin Mary) but in today's cynical world would be labeled hallucinations. In any case, it's now a town where the faithful flock and Lourdes certainly has the highest wheelchair per square meter ratio of any place I've every visited outside of a nursing home.

Many of the other religious tourist spots deal with the Cathari, a sect of Catholicism that was vanquished by the Crusaders at Rome's request. Montségur, now a ruin, served as the Cathar's mountain-top refuge, until their defeat (200 souls killed themselves rather than follow Church doctrine. Carcassonne, a preserved medieval city, as part of the Cathar realm. The Cathédrale Ste-Cécile at Albi, with its magnificent frescoes, organs, carvings and stained glass, was built by the victorious Catholics to make a point, once the Cathar heresy was wiped out. I guess the point (inflexibility) was not lost, for later the Protestants decided that reform within the church was pointless.

The South-west has served as a haven for artists, too. Collioure, near Perpignan was 'discovered' by Matisse and other artists. Today the Chemin du Fauvisme there places reproductions of the scenes at the very spots the artists painted. Another town in the area, Céret, was a Cubist Mecca and its Modern Art Museum shows a collection of artwork donated by the artists. The Picasso pottery collection is especially impressive. Albi has the Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec Museum. And then there's the Fine Arts Museum at Pau.

It was a pleasant surprise to find that what I call the Agelasto Degas (originally his name was two words and the 'de' should be pronounced as the French 'de' (of), not as 'day') to be the pride of the museum's collection. Several of the characters in the painting serve, in stencil, as museum mascots. The flyer/poster for the museum features our painting, too. the museum staff felt so honored by my visitation (cycling through hills and foul weather to pay my respects to my ancestor -- a very Chinese thing to do!) that they presented me with a photocopy of the page from the original ledger that notes the payment of 2,000 francs to the artist. In fact, the sale provoked a slight scandal. At the time some felt the painting was not good value for money. Degas (then De Gas) was not the name he would become. It was not the typical landscape or portrait that now so clutters the museum. Impressionism was a radical venture, and the subject matter was so mundane -- a commercial setting, and not even a setting in France. In the USA, of all places! In hindsight, though, it was without doubt the wisest purchase in the museum's history. (It owns and displays a nice El Greco, too -- perhaps also my relative, from way back in Greece.

As for my Degas, above the clic-clack. The color and composition are excellent. Without having seen the original, its the type of copy about which one says: why see the original? It is also the type of copy that, having seen the original, one says: why have a copy?

My Chinese artist, unfortunately, worked from a full-sized print; he never had the opportunity to see the masterpiece. He captured almost everything, everything except the Degas brushstrokes and the vitality of the characters. That's a lot, granted. The faces in Pau spoke to me. I could hear great granddaddy cogitating on how to bargain for the best cotton price. He was a cotton speculator -- maybe he played cotton futures. Judging by some of the jewels and carved furniture that he owned and still exists, he probably made and lost fortunes. He ended up, sadly for us, probably in the red, escaping New Orleans with some jewels and furniture, his creditors at his heels. In any case, this all makes for a good story.

Sure I know the difference between the Pau Agelasto Degas and the Sanary Agelasto Degas; but unless you've seen the original or are an art expert, you probably wont' be disappointed by mine. And I'm trying to get great granddaddy in Sanary to start to converse.


28 June 2004