The trouble with following rivers, I decide, standing astride my bike on the banks of the Rhône, somewhere a just little north of Lyon, is that you are always at the lowest point in the landscape. And, without a moment of subsequent regret, I turn my back on the river and abandon the ViaRhona.
But, actually, it isn’t just the topography, there are a few other things that mitigate against enjoyment of this cycle route that is being aggressively promoted in tourist information offices across France.
The ViaRhona cycle path is said to run all the way from Sète, on the Mediterranean coast, to Geneva, in the foothills of the Swiss Alps, loosely following the Rhône which flows through areas like the Camargue famed for natural beauty and such charming historic cities as Arles, Avignon, Valence, and Lyon. It looks convincing on paper and even somewhat tempting especially since, as I only have 90 visa-free days in the Schengen Zone, I am a little pushed for time.
However, the sad truth about the major rivers of Europe is that they are primarily industrial zones and transport routes, hemmed in by flood walls and tamed by countless locks, with hulking factories and power stations squatting gracelessly on their banks belching out menacing clouds of smoke and steam. But that said, industrial landscapes can have their own grimly impressive grandeur. So, no, the real problem with the ViaRhona lies elsewhere.
To explain properly, let me digress momentarily.
Once years ago when I lived in Prague and taught English, a student proudly announced in one of my classes, “We Czechs have beautiful mountains,… but…(sotto voce)… they are in Slovakia.” Now, the problem with the ViaRhona is similar. Everyone says, “We have a beautiful bike path along the Rhône, …(and then, sotto voce)…but we haven’t built it yet.” There is some fundamental failure here to grasp reality as it stands.
In many places even where it does, ostensibly, exist the cycle path runs alongside busy highways. Sometimes, only marginally better, it runs along the top of a dyke parallel to the river but more often than not without a view of the water. And then without the slightest warning, without shame, it can terminate, as it did at a point not long before I finally decided to abandon it, in three massive flights of stairs under a bridge. What kind of cycle path does that? And at the top of the stairs, nothing! A tangle of busy roads with not a signpost, not an arrow, not a hint, nothing. You’re on your own.