In a chambre d’hôte, the French version of a bed and breakfast, guests and hosts sit around a big table and have their dinner together.
This was the scene that faced me as I walked in, soaking wet on a freezing cold and rainy night in the middle of nowhere. In fact, it was a town called Le Bleymard, in the Cervennes National Park in the southern end of the Massif Central and it was about 8pm, although when you’ve arrived there by bike, it may as well have been midnight.
Everyone at that table looked at me as if I had just wandered in from a horror film. I believe some of them may have dropped their knives and forks, leaving their mouths gaping open.
From my point of view, yes, I was in a bad state, but it could have been worse. Okay, I was wet and extremely pissed off, but I had a fairly good raincoat which had only recently given up on trying to keep the water out, and as I had kept moving I wasn’t particularly cold.
I asked for a room, as I earlier at four other establishments. I got the same answer, understandable in any language: No.
‘Not only do we not have any rooms,’ said the host, a Dutchman, ‘but you won’t find one. This is the start of a public holiday weekend. And you are on the Stevenson Trail.’
I was later to find out that Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes’ had inspired a small industry following his route,which had gone right through Le Bleymard.
‘There is also a music festival this weekend, so you won’t find anywhere, not even a campsite.’
If only I had listened to my instincts. Five hours earlier, I made the wrong decision.
At about three in the afternoon, I arrived in a town called Les Vans. My options were to stay here – I could see a perfectly good hotel – or continue to the next town, Villefort, another 14 miles away over a significant hill, if not a smallish mountain.
Three o’clock is a bit soft to call it a day when you are on a cycling tour. I was going from one end of France to the other in two weeks, so I had to get on with it.
I reckoned I could do that 14 miles, mountain or not, in two hours.
Plus, Les Vans didn’t look all that great. Villefort, in contrast, was advertised as the ‘Gateway to the Cévennes’. That was bound to be better.
I decided to crack on.
The hill was about 10 miles straight up, and it soon started raining. Before long, I was as wet as anyone was ever going to get, but at least my waterproofs were holding out.
I told myself that when I rolled down that hill and arrived in Villefort, that gateway to the Cévennes with its large choice of excellent hotels and restaurants, I was straight into the first hotel I saw: the more expensive the better.
The ride down those last four miles was even less fun than the 10 miles up. The rain really got going, so much so I couldn’t see and my hands became numb.
Nevertheless, I got there, and there it was, Hotel Balme, and it looked very nice. It had gone five o’clock. I went straight up to the hotel entrance.
‘Complet’ read the sign hanging in the doorway. My French was good enough for that one.
Never mind. There was bound to be another hotel. Indeed, there was a tourist office. Shut.
What sort of tourist office is shut just at the time people are arriving in the town? I found another hotel, again full.
I had no option: I would have to go to the next town.
The rain became even heavier. It was past 5.30pm and it would soon get dark. There was another village a few miles down the road, Altier. I made that part of the journey quite quickly. Altier may well be, on its day, a beautiful jewel in the the heart the Cévennes but when it’s getting dark on a wet evening it is just about as welcoming as a prison. No hotels, no chambres d’hôtes, nothing, at least not that I could see.
Le Bleymard, was still another 10 miles down the road, and that was taking me close to 80 for the day. That’s nothing, a lot of cyclists will say. But a lot, for me, with a fully-laden touring bike and not knowing where I was going, except that it was increasingly uphill, raining, cold and dark.
I started to think that this was the night I really would end up sleeping in a hedge. I’d had many similar days on the bike, but something had always turned up. Tonight, I wasn’t so sure.
I thought of that hotel in Les Vans. I wondered why I hadn’t booked ahead. I wondered why I wasn’t looking on Tripadvisor. (The answer to that one was easy. I didn’t have a smartphone.)
Get off and push
The road was starting to rise. I was so tired I couldn’t ride the bike any more on anything resembling a hill and had to get off and push.
About two thirds of the way to Le Bleymard, there was a sign for a hotel. I really was a long way from anywhere, but in national parks that is sometimes where you find hotels. And good ones too, ones that can afford a big sign at the side of the road. The relief washed through me. I could almost taste the food.
The hotel wasn’t right there, but I’d see it soon. I carried on. There would be another sign soon, wouldn’t there?
There would not.
Eventually, I was in sight of Le Bleymard. My agony would be over there, for sure. If the hotels were full in Villefort, there was bound to be space here, right? I made it into the town, where there was a very pleasant-looking hotel. I went into the bar. Full. Again, some French which even I understood, telling me I was going to be unlucky wherever I looked.
The next stop was the chambre d’hote. But that was full as well, and he had told me I wasn’t going to find anywhere. That Dutch host stood up with a flourish. ‘I will help you!’
The other guests made to look helpful as well, once they had closed their gaping mouths, no doubt privately thinking they wished this maniac would disappear and they could get on with their dinner.
The proprietor made for the phone and called their friends in the hotel trade. No luck. He repeated his reasoning: there were no rooms anywhere in the area, within cycling range or not.
‘He’ll have to go to the mountain! That’s the only option left, the mountain!’
He called, and, at last, the ‘mountain’ did have a room. Whatever ‘the mountain’ was, it had to be better than a hedge. I was asked what I wanted for dinner.
‘Food,’ I replied.
Meanwhile, the host hadn’t finished.
‘There’s no way you can cycle there. I will take you.’
I complained, saying that this was unnecessary, but he insisted and he left his guests, and loaded me and my bike into his 4×4.
He was right, it would indeed have impossible to cycle up that mountain. By now, it was completely dark.
We got to the ‘mountain’, which turned out to be a ski lodge called Le Montlo on Mont Lozère.
I was already feeling pretty good in the car. Whatever lay ahead, at least I had a bed for the night.
When we got there, if I had been able to write down a list of everything that I needed or wanted at that point in my life, there it all was. The owner, a woman, asked what sort of room I wanted, and I said I would have the best. The royal suite, if they had one. It turned out to be one with an en suite shower.
The Dutchman wouldn’t take any money for the lift. The woman told me to put my bike and wet clothes in the drying room, get in the shower, and my dinner would be ready by the time I was finished. It being a ski lodge, the showers were the type you didn’t want to leave, ever. By the time I had to crawl out, my dinner was indeed on the table.
I’ve had a lot of days on the bike when it has all turned horribly wrong. Punctures when you don’t want them, which is always, getting lost, falling ill. This was right up there with the worst. Until, as always, something happens and it all turns out all right. And those terrible days turn into if not quite the best days, because you never forget, but certainly the most memorable.