Aurillac, France: After two days of visiting chateaux on my tour of the Dordogne valley, it’s quite easy to get castle fatigue. Atop almost every hill, it seems, there’s a château. And since there wasn’t much to do in the middle ages but battle each other, warfare is an important backdrop to the period.
There was just one more castle in the neighborhood that I wanted to visit before I quit playing tourist and refocused 100% on getting to Istanbul: Castelnaud, a fortress which now is dedicated to the art of medieval warfare. The only hitch is the château doesn’t open until 10am, which meant a high noon start to my cycling day. I picked the very worst day for a late start.
There’s a heat wave hitting France right now. Some say this may be an epic heat wave. Yesterday temperatures climbed to the high 30’s centigrade, which doesn’t make it very comfortable weather for climbing the Midi-Pyrenees. As a result of living in the tropics I thought I had acclimated well to heat. I have never cycled through heat as I did yesterday. The sweat just pours and pours, and staying hydrated is a major challenge. I stopped for lunch and drank five large carafes of water, skipping two of the five meal courses of the menu du jour. I hopped back on my bike and into the stifling, stagnant heat. I am pretty sure steam oozed from my ears. I cycled for just 10km after lunch before again overheating.
Luckily, the Grottes de Cougnac were in the area and I thought it would be a smart idea to go see some prehistoric cave paintings. I had originally planned to skip the caves, because the most famous cave requires a day’s detour. But in the oppressive heat the idea of a cool dark place away from the sun had high appeal. I joined a French tour group and spent over an hour exploring two caves, one which has abundant stalactites and stalagmites, and the other with the cave paintings. These paintings were done some 20-25,000 years ago in ochre and in black (from charcoal). They depict mountain goats, an extinct species of deer, and human forms with spears. What I found most impressive is the paintings are deep in the cave, in one area where the cave surface is smooth. Stalactites and stalagmites are everywhere else. It’s a curious place to put up some art.
After admiring the work of Cro Magnon man, outside modern-day reality hit. Cooled off but back into the still-oppressive heat, I confronted the physical challenges of this cycling trip. The heat was still intense, it’s 4:30pm, and I had another 30 km to go. With still 20 more kilometers to go I stopped at one gas station to rehydrate, and the owner said — in English and shaking his head — ‘phew….cycling in this heat….getting up that big hill to Rocamadour….phew….” That wasn’t exactly the pep talk I was looking for, and his comments gave me a good dose of anxiety as I tackled the hills to Rocamadour. ‘Is this the big hill he’s referring to, or does it get worse?,’ I wondered at every climb. So I went up and down the hills, through increasingly remote farmland, with this nagging dread. It felt like cycling in a furnace and the downhills hurt. Rather than feeling a cool breeze, there was a rush of hot air on every descent, similar in sensation to opening an oven door.
I got to Rocamadour at 7pm, drenched and depleted. Rocamadour is built on the side of a mountain on four levels. Impressive. As for that big hill I dreaded, it was nothing I haven’t seen before.
Today’s ride through rural France was tough but excellent, among the best cycling I have enjoyed on this trip. But the climbing is tough in 35 centigrade weather. The ride was on a quiet back road through green farmland and more sleepy villages such as Padirac and Laroquebrou, with a château here and there. By now pretty standard scenery. Cattle populate many farms, and cow bells populate many cows, producing wonderous chimes. I realized I am getting close to Switzerland, just four cycling days away. But beating the heat was my major priority today. I took it slowly up the hills, and had lunch the French way: leisurely, two hours, four courses, outside under an umbrella.
I arrived in Aurillac again drenched and depleted. It’s hot out there, folks. And I suspect in the medium to long run it will get a whole lot hotter.
Days 23 and 24 (June 27-28): Vezac – Rocamadour – Aurillac, France
Distances: 77.97 km (Day 23) and 91.62 km (Day 24)
Ascent: 929 meters (Day 23) and 1,135 meters (Day 24)
Weather: furnace hot
Distance: 1,873.93 km
Climbing: 13,015 meters
Rest days: 4
Police interactions: 1