Serge sent me off early with a very good breakfast. There’s a long way to go, and a couple of big hills early on.
The first one starts ten miles away, and I think I should try to get to the top before the 9.00 o’clock heat.
It’s one of those hills where you use a variety of strategies. Like how many pedal turns to achieve 100ft of elevation. At first it’s 200, which is reasonably comfortable. Then it’s 160, which isn’t.
The view of the lake below widens out. The overhanging cliffs get bigger. There are signs warning of rock falls, and there’s a big digger tidying up after one of them. Maybe you’d hear a rock fall coming, and have time to throw yourself against the cliff. You’d probably survive.
I’m nearly at the top. It’s not much more than a Hartside really – I don’t know what I was making a fuss about. A pale blue car that’s clearly seen a number of French summers is trying to drive beside me, gesticulating Frenchly. Somehow I know it will pull in when there’s more space, and wait for me. A good excuse to stop.
Fillou is very excited to see me. Come for breakfast at the top of the hill! We are musicians, who travel by bicycle, but I’ve never seen anything like this! Respect!
It really is right at the top of the col, along a rocky dirt track, and then through a field – by which time I’m having second thoughts – but Fillou pushes the bike and cheers us on.
Soon it’s like entering a Robin Hood enchantment. There are caravans among the trees, clearings with fire circles and old arm chairs, a few bodies in sleeping bags.
Fillou is summoning the merry men, and a couple of women, and by the time we reach his yurt at the end of the encampment, it’s generally come to life.
It’s a beautiful yurt, big, well-organised, with a proper wooden floor, a serious stove, and enough insulation to survive the winter at 3000ft.
Everyone seems to be helping themselves to breakfast in a sleepy way, and there’s general consternation – and search parties are despatched – that the English visitor should have proper coffee, and not their usual decaffeinated.
So I go back to the parked-up bike, and fetch Libre. We play an Irish lament, and the Song of the Birds, by which time nearly a dozen young musicians have materialised, with their instruments – including a souzaphone – and I can drink the coffee to the accompaniment of a half-dressed New Orleans sound.
They call themselves Les Oiseaux de Trottoir – The Sidewalk Birds – because that’s where they mostly play. Sometimes there are twenty of them, which would quite block the trottoir, I imagine.
But I must on. There’s another hill to climb, and it’s more than sixty miles to Albertville, via a lake which will have to be swum in, and where, due to a mistake, I’ve two concerts to play.
Today, 21 June, is La Fete de la Musique in France, a day of general musical mayhem. And in Albertville I am commissioned to be part of it. An hour’s performance somewhere in the medieval enclave of Conflans, followed by a sober performance in a church in another part of town.
I’m hoping that a couple of crepes and cups of tea will fortify me. But I’d rather be lying down. It’s been a long hot ride.
Clotilde comes to find me in the Place Commandant Bulle, as arranged. The house is just here. It’s a small palace really, with a tricolouer flying from the royal balcony. It goes with the job, she explains, Christophe being the Sub-Prefect – a semi-political role that’s impossible to explain in any English terms.
There’s time for a swift turnaround, and a drive up to the medieval enclave at the top of the hill. I’m to play in the square, which is beginning to come to life. A twenty-piece jazz band in red shirts is to follow, but we can’t stay to listen because we’re expected at St. Jean Baptiste. The Fete de la Musique is being celebrated on the street, with five highly amplified stages, and huge crowds. Even at St. Jean there’s a respectable number, to listen to a guitar, the church organ, and a travelling cello.