A couple of weeks ago, I tried to cycle the route of the Marseillaise – 800 kilometres from Marseille to Paris.
In 1792, 600 soldiers marched the route to defend the French revolution. They bizarrely spent the whole, month-long journey singing the song that was to become the French national anthem, which is why it’s called the Marseillaise.
Cycling their route seemed like a good idea since I’m writing a book on anthems. It stayed a good idea for – gosh – about three days!
This is what Marseille looks like when you walk out of the city’s train station, covered in oil having just tried to put a bike together. It’s pretty stunning.
But enough sights! My only real stop in Marseille was a trip to the Mémorial de la Marseillaise, a great museum dedicated to the anthem, slap bang on the road where the song was first sung.
There I met Frédéric Frank-David, the museum’s director, to learn about the marchers. They were recruited by the town’s mayor, who simply put a notice out for ‘men who can read, write and kill’, telling them they had to go north and stop the French king from taking power back from the people.
“Do you know they marched at night?” Frédéric said at one point. “I mean, you’d have to be an idiot to try it in the daytime, in this heat.” Ten minutes later, I left and cycled 40 kilometers up a hill. Frédéric was right.
When the soldiers arrived in Aix at 7am on their second day of marching, they demanded all the food and drink the town had to offer, got drunk and started a massive fight. Because of that, most of France started praying they didn’t turn up in their town.
I didn’t manage to start a fight in Aix – it’d be hard to, it’s a pleasant university town filled with cheese markets – but I did manage to get some girls in a bakery to sing me the Marseillaise.
They had to read the words first.
The route from Aix-en-Provence to Avignon is like entering a Disneyland version of France: all vineyards and orchards and lonely houses sitting at the end of tree-lined driveways.
Cycling through it made me realise just how unsurprising it is the soldiers left a huge impression on France. Imagine what it would have been like for people sleeping in those houses when one night 600 men marched past shouting the Marseillaise, flaming torches in hand.
It’d have been terrifying, like a Napoleonic version of The Wicker Man.
Most people in Provence wouldn’t have spoken French at the time, so wouldn’t have even known what the soldiers were singing about. Although that was probably for the best given the bloodthirsty lyrics.
What else did I learn on the way to Avignon? That if a road looks too good to be true, chances are it is, it’s a motorway.
Avignon is a nice stop for a day, the former home of the Popes (they lived here after a Frenchman was elected Pope and refused to move to Rome). The picture above was taken in the papal palace.
Today, the town’s filled with German exchange students getting drunk in vodka bars. I’m sure the Catholic church would approve!
Part II of this diary, where everything goes wrong, is here!