I recently tried to cycle from Marseille to Paris, following the route 600 soldiers marched in 1792. Those soldiers spent the whole journey singing the song that was to become the French national anthem. That’s why it’s today called the Marseillaise.
To find out why I’d do something so stupid, read part one here. Otherwise, join me about to leave the town of Avignon in south France.
It’s only 30 kilometres from Avignon to Orange, which is why I intended to cycle there in about an hour, passing through Châteauneuf-du-Pape along the way, the home of some of France’s most famous vineyards (that’s one of them being picked in the photo).
Unfortunately, to get there you have to enter the Rhone valley, home to the mistral, a wind that reaches 80km-an-hour.
You’d have to be an idiot to march into it; you’d have to an even bigger idiot to cycle into it. It’s good to know that the Marseillaise soldiers and I have something in common!
It was somewhere along this journey, probably when the wind was trying to blow me into a truck, that I tried singing the Marseillaise for the first time. ‘This will help me along,’ I thought. ‘It kept those soldiers going all the way to Paris.’
Unfortunately it didn’t, largely because I had to keep on staring at a piece of paper with the words on, and it’s pretty hard to do that when you’re trying to avoid cycling into grapepickers.
Plus, you get incredibly strange looks in France if you’re cycling along singing, “Aux armes, citoyens! Formez vos bataillons”. I must have looked like a member of the Front National.
When I did eventually get to Orange, several hours later than expected, I immediately got a train to Valence, 100km north, in a effort to get away from that wind. It didn’t work, dammit.
The next day I decided to take a detour to the village of Hauterives. It has nothing to do with the Marseillaise, but is home to the Palais Idéal, an insane building carved by a postman in the 1880s. The place features elephants, camels, a mosque, a Hindu temple, giants…
The postman, Ferdinand Cheval, dreamt of visiting Asia and Africa all his life, but as he couldn’t, brought them to him.
The place is well worth a visit; inspiring as much as it is bizarre. The journey there was hell though, three hours into that damn wind, into rain, uphill…
I left Hauterives, decided I’d had enough of cycling for a while and promptly got a train to Lyon.
Go to Lyon and eat! The food’s amazing.
What else can I say about the place which I’m not saving for this book I’m meant to be writing? Er…don’t spend a day trying to ask its large immigrant community about the French national anthem; you’ll just get angry responses. But then asking French-Algerians ‘What do you think about the Marseillaise?’ is a bit like asking them, ‘Prove you’re French’, so that’s not much of a surprise.
Random men in cafes are far more likely to talk to you about the song. They’ll even sing it for you (you have my permission to click that link now)!
I would like to write that after Lyon, I got back on my bike and cycled 500km to Paris. I’d like to, but I got the train.
Would anyone have the guts to march that far today? I doubt it. I only met one person in France who said they would, and he was a hippy who said he’d do it to promote free love.
That guy also told me France should replace the Marseillaise with Edif Piaf’s La Vie en Rose (sample lyric: “Nights of love no longer finish”). “The Marseillaise is a war song,” he said, “but we’re not a war nation anymore; we’re a nation of love and sex.” He has a point.
On my final day in Paris, I got the train out to the suburbs and then cycled back in, ending up along the Champs-Élysées aiming at the Arc de Triomphe (see photo). I must have looked like the worst rider ever to enter the Tour de France as I creaked up that road, but I was happy to have got there.
If you’re ever thinking of cycling in France, remember to go north to south; it’ll save you a lot of pain!