The freedom of the saddle

 

Layla and Bruno’s free-wheeling adventure along the winding roads of The Island of Beauty

 

The sun has yet to rise above the line of the horizon, but it is already beginning to burn brightly behind the ridge and light up the rocks along the sea front. Timeless sentinels, they quickly change from inky blackness to pink before finally taking on their natural colour. The air is still charged with nocturnal scents and I can feel the freshness and moisture of the night on my face. At times an already hot wind blows among the pines to envelop us in a fragrance of juniper and the wild flowers of the maquis. I look at the road that winds before us alongside the cliffs between mountain and sea. I wipe off the sweat, starting to bead on my forehead, with the back of my wrist, and stare at the horizon, which seems to recede with each pedal stroke. It is just past six in the morning and we are alone as we cycle between Onza and Cap Corse.

 

Layla is like me: she can handle a fair amount of physical effort and fatigue, but does not consider herself to be a serious athlete. This allows us to embark on enriching adventures that we can then share. I cannot help smiling at the sight of her swaying on her bike as she pushes on the pedals, and begins to complain as our climb up a hill seems interminable. The Corsicans are a mountain people and their villages, while open to the sea, tend to be strategically located at the top of steep slopes, nestled in the hillside, so that in former times they could see any enemies long before they arrived.

 

The sun is really beating down now. The snaking black asphalt has begun to shimmer in a heat that will soon be unbearable. Coming around a bend in the road, it is as if we have entered an old sepia photograph, a Genoese tower on a rocky summit rises up in the searingly hot air. The sun has progressed from being a source of a light to a burning fire. The air sticks to our skin like a damp cloth. Deciding against a swim in the nearby sea, we settle down on the terrace of a café to eat aniseed and white wine canistrelli biscuits, and drink black coffee in the shade of an old plane tree. Time passes deliciously slowly as we listen to old men discussing the day’s news.

 

Cycling in Corsica is no fairy tale. There is something hard and uncompromising about these roads. You have to start very early, to enjoy a brief respite from the heat, not to mention the crazed drivers and German motorcyclists who seem to delight in passing you with barely an inch to spare. The trip sometimes leaves a taste of dust in your mouth, and the salt that burns your skin is not from the sea air. But the pleasure of cooling off in a fresh water stream and taking a nap in the shade of the eucalyptus trees makes it all worthwhile. There are numerous contrasts, such as the stench of carrion that suddenly assails you during a murderous climb, only to be followed by the heady perfume of flowers at the entrance to a village. The perfection of the sunrises and sunsets contrasts with the incongruous spectacle of a sow, with distended nipples and of indeterminable colour, emerging from the mire to casually cross the road in front of me. The biting cold and peacefulness of dawn can quickly turn into a hellish furnace and overcrowded roads. The more we go on, the more important becomes our need to avoid this maelstrom and find an alternative way of passing the time.

 

Spinning Tibetan prayer wheels and reciting sanskrit mantras to the accompaniment of burning incense revealed nothing to me about myself or the world’s vastness. But cycling around Corsica on our old bikes: that was a real experience.

 

Bavella, Wednesday, 21 June, Bruno Compagnet

 

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