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PETE VERSUS THE GENDARME (Tour de France 16)

French Gendarmes

French Gendarmes

It is 4.30 a.m. and we are woken by the sound of the French families packing up and leaving our campsite. The stage whispers (louder than if people spoke normally), the slamming of car doors, the starting up of car engines, the crying of disgruntled children (who feel it is far too early to be ‘up and about’), all serve to wake not only us but probably the entire campsite!

The reason for this early morning activity is that it is the first Saturday morning of the school holidays in France and England (and goodness knows where else). It is the day when countless thousands of people make their way down the French motorways to the south, for their annual family holiday, in search of sea and sun,. Those French people already on our campsite (who have taken their holidays early) are convinced that the motorways today will be crowded in both directions – holiday makers on their way down to the Mediterranean, and ‘escapees’ trying to get back up north before the ‘annual invasion; of the south of France begins. They are therefore endeavouring to make an early start back home. I wonder how on earth they are going to get out of our campsite at such an early hour. Security is strict, and the gates close each night at 11.00 p.m. and don’t open until 7.00 a.m. No doubt the French will have made ‘suitable arrangements’ … and anyway (as we all know) ‘the rules only apply in July and August’ and for the French themselves, the ‘rules’ don’t seem to apply at all, whatever the month?

We too are starting our journey home to Dorset today, as well. After a wonderful six and a half weeks in France it is finally time to begin our slow meander back through France to Calais, the Tunnel, Dorset, and Chipps Barton. We plan to take four days to get to Calais from Aigues Mortes … a kind of ‘holiday within a holiday’ if you know what I mean. There is some debate, between Julia and myself, as to whether we ‘overnight’ on the way back in various campsites along the way … making use of our small ‘pop-up’ tent … or just ‘blow the expense’ and book in at our favourite Hotel B&Bs. Julia is all for continuing ‘camping’ (albeit in our ‘Julia sized’ tent), whereas I am feeling ‘camped out’ and am all for the ‘Hotel B&B option’ with their air-conditioned rooms, large comfy beds, en-suite facilities, and ‘bacon and eggs’ for breakfast. There is, however, no debate about where we are staying on our first night on the way back! We are heading for Clermont Ferrand and Vichy. Although  it remains hot and sunny in Aigues Mortes, Meteo-France (the most reliable weather forecast) tell us that storms are to be expected in that area on Saturday evening. Not the weather to overnight in a small pop-up tent then. So Hotel B&B it is.

We settle on Clermont Ferrand as our destination, pack the rest of our stuff neatly into our car (much to the amazement of our fellow campers), say our ‘Goodbyes’ … and we are off! Our Belgian friends tell us to ignore French pessimism over ‘packed motorways’.  ‘Yes, the south-bound side of the motorways will be busy!’ they tell us, ‘but the north-bound side will be o.k.’ ‘It is the first weekend in August you need to avoid!’ they tell us, ‘When the lot coming down this weekend, will be returning home, and another lot will be coming down to replace them!’ Fortunately we will be back in the UK by then!

Nevertheless we decide to avoid the motorways as much as possible. It is not just the possibility of heavy northbound traffic. We also want to avoid one motorway that will take us slap-bang through the centre of Lyons (always a horrendous journey), and the other motorway that will necessitate us crossing the Millau Viaduct (where the now famous Belgian, Baldwyn Smit, reversed his large Mercedes van into the front of our car and put us off the road for three weeks back in 2011). Julia has a plan (she always has a plan) and has got together with Kate (our new SatNav), and our battered road map of France, and between them mapped out a cross-country route from Aigues Mortes to Clermont Ferrand, over the Cevennes mountains and via (to us at the time) the nondescript little village of Balsieges, near Mende. The route is somewhat complicated as it takes us literally ‘up-hill and down dale’ but we have ‘Kate’ to guide us the whole way. So … no problem then! Kate tells us that it should take us about four and a half hours (plus stops for coffee and lunch of course).

The whole journey is a delight. We encounter no heavy traffic and make really good time … that is until we reach (the previously unknown, and little thought about) village of Balsieges? True, we did pass a yellow notice 28 kilometres before Balsieges which said something about a ‘traffic barrier’ somewhere ahead. Probably some kind of road works we think to ourselves. But just a few kilometres short of Balsieges we pass a very posh ‘Team Sky’ car coming in the opposite direction … and ‘alarm bells’ begin to ring! The ‘Tour de France’ is on … the vachement Tour de France … and we haven’t checked where today’s stage is going to be?

Now, for the uninformed the ‘Tour de France’ is a hugely important cycle race around France that takes place every July. It is made up of various teams of professional cyclists who compete against each other over various daily stages – some are ‘time trials’ but most involve a combination of steep climbs and sprint finishes. The Tour de France is hugely popular and attracts huge crowds along its route. In truth you see very little of the cyclists as a spectator. We have been ourselves, in previous years, and the cyclists flash by you in a moment. The ‘build up’, however, is great fun with the various vans and lorries of the sponsors preceding the actual race by an hour or two distributing ‘freebies’ to the waiting crowds. Today’s stage is from Rodez to Mende … and it runs right through Balsieges? The trouble is we know that the Gendarmes close all the access roads for miles around during each stage of the race!

We keep going in the vain hope that the road will be open … or at least have remained open long enough for us to ‘slip through’ ahead of the race on our way to Clermont Ferrand. As we drive into Balsieges we see people parking their cars, and running (with their chairs and cool-boxes full of food) in order to get the best places to see the race. As we come to the roundabout just before the road leading into Balsieges – the road we need to cross in order to continue our journey – we see the Gendarmes pulling barriers across the road. We are five minutes too late to get through! We see the Gendarmes stopping all the cars in front of us and telling them to go round the roundabout and back the way we have all just come.

There is another British car a couple of cars in front of us. The driver is arguing with the female Gendarme who is redirecting us all. The French drivers meekly accept the situation and do what they are told. This British driver is arguing the toss with the female Gendarme! I wouldn’t argue with any Gendarme. They are very impressive at the best of times. They all look very big, very fit, very healthy. The look tough. They wear these really trendy uniforms with their trousers tucked into the boots, army style, and they carry lethal looking combat sticks … and guns! No, I would definitely not ‘argue the toss’ with a Gendarme … especially this particular female Gendarme … who looks as though she could easily ‘eat you for dinner’ if she so chose!

Arguing does the British driver no good at all and eventually he too has to drive round the roundabout and head back up the same road we just driven for miles along. When we reach the female Gendarme she is obviously none too pleased to see yet another British car. She looks at us with complete disdain. We speak to her politely in French (rather than shout at her in English) and enquire if it possible to get through as we are not wanting to stop to see the Tour de France, we just want to get to Clermont Ferrand. ‘No! You can’t get through!’ she tells us. ‘You will have to wait for three hours for the race to come through Balsieges’ she tells us ‘and then another two hours for us to clear the roads!’ ‘Where is the nearest place where we can get through?’ Julia asks her. ‘Bagnols-les-Bains’ she replies … and waves us on impatiently!

We haven’t got a clue where Bagnols-les-Bains is (except that we suspect it will be miles away), so we turn into a side road leading up to the back of Balsieges in order to stop the car and consult Kate and the road map. We find the other British car parked there as well. They are looking more lost than we are. We guess that the female Gendarme ‘chose’ not to tell them how to resolve their problem because she didn’t like being ‘argued’ with by irate Brits? Julia goes over to them to see if we can be of any help, and to pass on the ‘information’ about Bagnols-les-Bains. The driver is having an argument with his wife about what to do next. She is obviously trying very hard to ‘talk sense’ to her husband … but can’t ‘get a word in edgeways’? ‘But Pete …’ she says (as her husband raves on) … ‘Pete, just listen a moment’. It is all to no avail. Pete has really got it on him!

‘Hello, Pete!’ says Julia, through their open side window, ‘Can I be of help?’. They don’t have a SatNav, or even a road map … just a so-called ‘Smart Phone’ whose maps are not very smart? Julia shares the female Gendarme’s advice about continuing our journey north via the small town of Bagnols-les-Bains, and shows Pete where it is on the road map. Pete makes various notes of where various villages and towns on our road map are but is determined to ignore the female Gendarme’s advice. He intends to go south via the Tarn Gorge, rather than further north via Bagnols-les-Bains. Julia tries to tell him that that is a daft idea because this stage of the Tour de France is actually destined to take the riders through the Tarn Gorge (we have now looked it up on the internet on our iPad to find out the exact route of this particular stage). Pete will have none of it, however. Julia is no more successful at talking sense to him than his wife was? And so we part company. Pete goes south towards the Tarn Gorge … and we head north to Bagnols-les-Bains.

It is an interesting drive. Julia does incredibly well, driving through steep hills and mountains, and eventually we find our way through to Clermont Ferrand. The ‘diversion’ adds an hour or so to our total journey but we get through. We find our hotel and finally relax. Later that evening we are sitting in our hotel room … a cold beer for Julia, and a chilled glass of wine for me, after a nice meal … when Julia’s mobile phone rings? ‘Its Pete here’ the voice on the phone says, ‘what did you say the name of that town was?’

Jim Binney

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