When we left Paris, we rented a chic Citroën C4 Picasso minivan, or as they would call it in Europe, a compact multi-purpose vehicle. It was standard transmission and diesel, and Eli enjoyed driving it so much that we were scheming ways to sneak a Citroën back into the US with us when we returned home.
We headed straight south for the Massif Central, as we had only three days before we would be dropping our MPV off in Grenoble. We limited our time in the Massif Central to the Auvergne region, given that it was time that was limiting us. Upon arrival in the mountains, it was rainy and foggy and we couldn’t really see much of anything. We skipped ascending the Puy de Dôme, since there clearly wouldn’t be much gained by doing that. Just south of the town of Le Mont-Dore, we got a bit lost as Google had tried routing us to the top of the Puy de Sancy, but although we tried our best, there was no driving up a ski mountain.
Our next attempt netted us a big-time winner. Our cycling book recommended trying the cheese in the nearby town of Besse. So try the cheese we did. We bought half a wheel of Saint-Nectaire, and ate it in only two sittings, I think. Maybe three. As Wikipedia affirms, “the cheese can go along with any kind of meal.” Truth.
France for me was all about the cheese. I think Eli would agree with me that it was one of the highlights of our trip. With practically every small village having their own specialty or take on the regional cheese, we could easily spend the rest of our lives in pursuit of trying them all. That would be an honorable pursuit.
By the time we found ourselves a stopping place for the night, several kilometers down the road and many calories of cheese down the hatch, the skies had pretty well cleared. This set us up nicely the next day for a gorgeous view of the surrounding countryside from the summit of the Puy Mary. While we saw many cyclists suffering their way to the top of the Pas de Peyrol, we took the easy option of the car, before breezing past the hordes of similarly car-bound tourists struggling up the ten minute quick sprint to the top of the Puy Mary.
At the top, we ate our favorite junk food of the trip, Belgix sugar waffles. We had first heard about sugar, or liège, waffles on a Sporkful podcast, and were elated to find them at Lidl stores across Germany and France. As I sit and type about them I’m finding myself craving them more strongly than I was craving mac n cheese on our return to the States. I’ve been lucky to not really have any cravings (other than all the usual ones) during my pregnancy, and this is more of a sign that it’s tea time for me at the moment, but damn, I could really go for a sugar waffle right now — or a whole pack of eight. One day soon I’ll have to make them here at home. Meanwhile, I’ll eat
five seven Biscoff cookies.
We took the scenic route on the way over to Grenoble, passing through farm country and lots of sunny small towns, including the fascinating Le Puy-en-Velay, shown above with the perched chapel. We didn’t take the time to stop and sightsee, although I wish we had. At least the internet can teach me that this chapel-on-a-rock is Saint-Michel d’Aiguilhe, built on a volcanic plug 280 feet tall way back in 969 AD. Of all the towns we passed through on our trip, Le Puy-en-Velay may have been the most scenic, though this in part may have been due to it being so unexpected a sight. If a town wasn’t listed in our cycling book, chances were we knew absolutely nothing about it. Which made for a lot of wonderful discoveries.
And just like that, our brief time in the MPV was over, we had reached Grenoble, and it was time to split up.
Eli had been planning a solo overnight endeavor into the Alps for some time, using a route from our cycling book that ventured across several of the classic climbs from the Tour de France. He set out without the majority of his gear, so while he must have felt like he was flying, he was still a heavyweight on his steel bike compared to the endless parade of gram-shaving carbon aficionados that he saw on his two-day trek.
I remember hearing about how dirty Grenoble was when I lived in France in 2007. I think that descriptor is appropriate, as much of the city did seem pretty grimy. But Grenoble is more than that. It was in a really beautiful location, a basin with breathtaking mountainous views in nearly every direction. It takes mere minutes to hike up and out of the busy town on the north side of the Isère River, with continued climbing quickly being rewarded with beautiful views, ramparts, a fort, and caves – the Grottes de Mandrin shown below.
Eli wasn’t the only one to go for a solo bike jaunt. I embarked on what I dubbed Baby’s First Bike Ride, because even though it was too soon to confirm my pregnancy, I KNEW. Or at least, I strongly suspected. Or at the very least, I hoped. But I knew.
I headed north from town into the Chartreuse Natural Regional Park, and tried to stick to a grueling (for me) pace as I climbed for what felt like forever to the summit of the Col de Porte, which has also been a featured climbing stage of the Tour de France, and should not be confused with the Col de Port in the Pyrenees (another Tour stage… which we later climbed – stay tuned). It was so freeing to bike without being loaded down with my gear, but after all that saddle time with the extra weight, it was also strange and I felt somewhat wobbly.
Waiting for me at the top of the Col de Porte was a very welcome restaurant, and I fell hard for a big plate of fish and chips, and even harder for the two baskets of bread that I also consumed. Cans of Coca Cola were a frequent splurge for us in the mid-to-late summer stage of our bike tour, and my ability to drink so much of it surprised me given that I had always despised Coke. No longer.
My downhill return to Grenoble was a blast, and I cruised as comfortably fast as I would allow myself. After all, I was cycling for two now, and I had to at least be a little bit thoughtful. No more crashes.
So while I was having fun, Eli was having a blast. While the scenery I was experiencing was really pretty, his was jaw-dropping. Check out a few of the photos from his solo bike:
I did suffer a bit without him, though. I ate cheese with mustard for dinner. Cheese cut into triangles. Fancy!
Once reunited, we left Grenoble headed south and then west towards the lower part of the Massif Central, the Cévennes. On our way, we saw a gorgeous gorge, and lots and lots of walnuts. Walnuts and walnut oil are a staple crop of the Rhône-Alpes region, and I can confirm that they were especially delicious in a walnut tart that we savored along the way. Mmm, Baby’s First Walnut Tart.