It’s hot, the sun is beating down, we’re maybe halfway through our first day on Eurovelo 8, and I’m sick of the taste of Isostar (Europe’s Gatorade) in my water bottle. All three of us are looking for water.
My friend John offers up a tip: head for the center of a village, find the church and then look for a fountain nearby. That’s where we should be able to refill our bottles.
And then he cautions: because of the drought, there are water restrictions, so it might be turned off.
We strike out in the first village we try (no fountain in sight) but the next one is only a handful of miles away so we skip the opportunity to buy water at the supermarket and start pedaling.
I’m thinking this fountain will be rather large and obvious, at a minimum an old horse trough. But when John calls out that he’s spotted the fountain, he’s pointing to something that looks like a slimmed-down American fire hydrant that’s tucked in a corner. There’s a fat button on the side to push and push until water flows out the faucet.
Aah, cold. We’re mindful given the drought. I use the last seconds to splash water on my head in hopes of cooling off a bit more.
The 150 kilometers we planned to bike is just a tiny part of Eurovelo 8, a 7,500-kilometer route across 10 countries from southern Spain to Turkey.
The bigger Eurovelo network is 17 long-distance cycle routes totaling more than 90,000 kilometers across Europe. The quality, I’d soon learn, is uneven.
We started in Montpellier, a city of 300,000 in south-central France near the Mediterranean. Our goal for the day: the seaside town of Sete about 60 kilometers (30 miles) away to the east. Ahead of our trip, the weather forecast had looked positively evil, with nonstop rain on day 1 and beyond. While we woke up to gray skies, by breakfast it was already clearing and the threat of rain pushed back to afternoon and reduced. In the end, it only rained during dinner. And then it rained hard.
We found the route pretty well signposted on our first day, but subsequently experienced more inconsistent signage. We relied on maps on phones; my bad for not bringing my Garmin, even if I just tucked it in a jersey pocket.
We passed flamingos in a salty marsh or lagoon, then boats stacked three high in their own sort of parking garage.
The paths seemed narrow, especially when divided into two lanes, and the turns could be sharp. I’d wager the Dutch would not be impressed.
I know 30 miles may not sound like much, but between one thing and another, this was not a fast route. Go easy on yourself.
Our day ended in Sete, a seaside resort of around 45,000 that fancies itself the Venice of the Langedoc. I admit I don’t see it. However, it is the end point for the Canal du Midi, a 150-mile canal that begins in Toulouse and together with another canal links the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. Impressively, this was opened in 1681, or 144 years before the Erie Canal. If you come across a French street named after Pierre-Paul Riquet, well, he was the guy in charge.
This is France, so there’s always a local food. Or wine. I tried a Picpoul de Pinet, but the house white served by one place in Sete struck me as bland.
Then there’s bourride, which we expected to be a soup, perhaps a bit like bouillabaisse. Not in our restaurant. Instead we got chunks of fish on top of potatoes and smothered in aioli.
And the octopus pie — tielle — is just that, a pie stuffed with a spicy chopped-up octopus mixture and then completely covered with more crust. We saw it in plenty of take-out places and in different sizes so don’t feel you must seek out a restaurant that serves it.
And of course you can find cheese shops with an array of goat, sheep and cow options, firm, runny or somewhere in between. Pair it with bread from a nearby boulangerie and a few other things you pick up and you’re set. And get a more interesting Picpoul than the one I had.
No, I didn’t bring my bike. I rented a “trekking” bike (hybrid) through CCT Bike Rental, which has partners across Europe. If you want to go direct, the shop I used was Reve de Velo (formerly Cyrpeo).
My 3-day rental cost 60 euros, and it came with a large Ortlieb-like pannier from Vaude (just one), a pump, a handlebar bag with tools, plus a water bottle that I could keep. Delivery was another 15 euros, pickup the same again. Worth it!
While the bike was heavier than what I am used to, the wider tires were great for the range of route surfaces we encountered. Maybe the front shocks made the ride smoother too?
Of course you can rent an e-bike or a road bike if that’s your thing. But there’s no pannier or bikepacking bag with the road bike. And I’d have been miserable when we had a really rough surface.
There was a bike shop next to our hotel, which would have been practical if it rented more than just Dutch-style bikes. They too would have been miserable over 90 to 100 miles.
My friends came down from Paris with their Bike Fridays and did just fine.
In Sete, we stayed at this bike-friendly hostel (it has private rooms in addition to the usual bunk rooms).