Epic rollerskate adventure across France
A true-life adventure on roller-skates across the French Riviera – from Italy to Spain
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1981. The great ski job at the top of Germany’s highest mountain was melting with spring, and at 19, I had nowhere to go. My girlfriend was coming to Barcelona in eight weeks, my sister had a brain tumor, and I was dying to get back to the beach. I heard the South of France was nice. I wanted to see it; every inch of it.
By train I’d miss too much and only hit the tourist spots. Cycling, I wouldn’t stop and talk with people along the way. Walking – well that’s just too damn far and boring. The smart thing to do – make that the adventurous thing to do – was to put on roller skates with a backpack, use ski poles and ski my way across the French Riviera.
Rollin’ on the Riviera is a story of:
First person ever to skate from Italy to Spain
The border guard looks at my passport, then at my skates, and again at my passport.
“How did you get here – on roller skates?”
“Yes I did – from Ventimiglia, Italy to here.” The guard pauses, puzzled, and tells the other guards to come out.
“You skated from where?” The guard is not hard of hearing, but hard of believing.
“From Italy. To Spain.” The other guards come out, looking like there might be trouble. They discuss me for a moment.
“No Señor, I would like to know from where you roller skated. From Cerbère?” Well of course – it’s only two miles down the hill I thought. Duh.
“Yes, just now from Cerbère, but five weeks ago I started in Italy. It is my journey to skate from Italy to Spain.”
“And Señor you have come all this way by roller skate to Spain?”
“Yes. I have.”
One last chance to die
There’s a huge pothole in the middle of the old concrete road ahead which I’m thinking Louis the First’s great-grandfather paved as a boy. I have to cross this at an angle to maintain any speed at all, and with a plant of my poles, I fly over the hole and land with only a foot or two before hitting the “safety rail” by the cliff. The low safety rail on the cliff side is no more that a trip-wire for my feet, obviously placed there to ensure I would transition to a lovely head-first swan dive for the tourists as I plunge into the rocks below. “NOT TODAY!” I scream. More gasping from the cafes below.
50 km to go, and 2 days to recover from blisters.
My blisters are acting up again. Maybe it’s the powdered borax soap I used to wash my socks in the bathroom sink at the gas station, or just the roughness of the road along the beach here. Either way, I’m in pain and ready to call it a day. Making Canet Plage will be a 68 km run for the day, and that’s plenty. From there I’m an easy 50 km run to the border. I check into an expensive 65 Franc hotel and have a cold beer in the 10 pm sunset. Not my usual lighthouse and camping scene at this resort on the beach, but worthy of my last night in France, so live it up!
Good to have two legs today after nearly slicing one off in a make-shift skate park. By drafting English cyclist Russel for dozens of miles, I’m able to clean off the blood on my right boot at the Youth Hostel. This is where I chase the cross country olympiad on my skates through traffic, through town, through restaurants…
Arriving in Narbonne, I skate with Russel through the narrow streets, forcing us into single file formation. As cars pass, many slow to take photos of me skiing along; the spectators enjoying their usual laughter, cheers and applause. Russel comments on my instant celebrity status in the town as we pass cafes with the usual response. Yes, perhaps my excitement towards the crowds has become blasé and jaded. Russel tells me he’s “gobsmacked” by the public’s response. I look at Russel with my usual, puzzled, “please translate” expression. “Gob. Smacked; G-O-B-S-M-A-C-K-E-D, gobsmacked. It’s a perfectly good English word. Look it up.”
Pool of Blood
A bad fall at the Béziers skate park gashed open my leg and left me a bloody mess in a hotel bed. Fortunately, Mother Monique fed me and helped me get to the pharmacy for minor surgery on the leg. I’m amazed at how wonderful total strangers can be.
I grab and hold my leg – I guess to keep it from bleeding – but the blood is oozing through my fingers, and the pain is taking a serious turn for the worse. All the guys are speaking French so I don’t know what they’re saying. I’m on my own. Someone throws down an old t-shirt like it’s a medical kit. The tee lands partially in a spot of green water which didn’t quite get drained out of the old pool. I know I can’t use this to stop the bleeding as the cut will get infected worse than anything. I grab the t-shirt and look up as if to thank whomever threw it down, but then show that it’s been in the swill pond and I throw it to the side.
I miss the drama of the hills behind me. I’m making much better time on the gentle hills and flats down through Agde now and I believe this town is closed on Wednesdays – not a soul in sight. The flat country roads offer no roller-ski challenge beyond overheating, but the mini markets are more frequent to water down. With each rest stop I find out how much I really sweat when I put the sweat-soaked backpack on my bare skin again. This is ultimate freedom – skating shirtless on these deserted roads. My legs are stronger than ever, my arms bulging from constantly working the ski poles for speed. If I had a haircut and a shower I might possibly attract some good-lookin’ woman.
Travel Advice: Don't Roller-ski in the Fast Lane
I ‘m uncomfortable roller skiing in the fast lane of a freeway. As I glide along the smooth lane with cars passing far to my right, the logic of being in the middle of the freeway increases. There’s really no traffic so no one will be in the fast lane. Once again, I’m wrong.
Like a fighter jet sneaks up on an enemy above the speed of sound, a day-glow green Lamborghini Countach nearly cuts me in half at 320 kph. This is who’s driving in the fast lane. With a slight swagger in the car, the driver’s split-second visual of me in his lane caused him to react just slightly to avoid me. The 6000 rpm engine stealthily screams in my ear like a horror movie monster jumping out of a closet. Chills runs up my spine and back down through my legs, paralyzing me. My breath is stunned, my fingers tingle, and I roll to a dead stop.
If these walls could talk back.
Lessons from today; don’t try and rollerskate across a gravel road, don’t expect bridges to always there, and don’t talk to crazy strangers, for they can talk to themselves just fine. This 11th century cathedral was built between 1030 and 1060 A.D. Nearly 1000 years old, it doesn’t look a day over 900.
I imagine the history this place has seen over the last thousand years. I didn’t think there was anyone else around until a man came from around the corner and startled us both. His hungry frame, long curly hair and wild old soul moves in crazy quirks. “Bon jour” I say to start conversation. From that point he takes the conversation all to himself. He appears to be slurring, and I wonder if this is a dialect or sign of a blathering idiot. Possibly drunk, possibly insane. Not dangerous my intuition says, but someone to keep an eye on just in case. As I sat in the cool shade, he talked for a good five minutes to either me or the wall of the church; Neither the wall nor myself understands a single word. It’s time to get back on the road, but he hasn’t noticed I’ve left, continuing his passionate speech. Perhaps he’s practicing for the coming Sunday sermon? I always wondered how pastors would practice perfect sermons; I may have found the secret. I’m thinking this isn’t the norm for pastors, but for the tiny Cathedral de Maguelone out here at the end of a dirt beach road, it may be what it takes. I’m not waiting until Sunday to find out.
It really is all that.
Wild white horses running along the sand, wild young ladies serving wine on the side of the road. Through the silence you can hear classical music playing in the wind.
I try a speaking French and Brigitte tries a little English, but neither of us are really getting our small talk past what our eyes are saying. Not that I really care, but it occurs to me that this is not a fruit stand but a wine tasting bar. Using select French words – and pantomime – I ask Brigitte what she was doing way out here. I am answered with a glass of champagne. She finishes her pour with a fresh raspberry drop, and enjoys a berry for herself – almost as much as I enjoyed watching the deep red fruit pass Brigitte’s matching red lips. We sip champagne as a group of wild horses run on the sand across the street.
Doesn't look a day over 19 centuries old.
In the year 736, Charles Martel – ruler of Francia and now a huge statue at the Palace of Versailles – campaigned south to Septimania and Provence, attacking and capturing Arles after destroying Avignon. I campaigned by rollerskate up a 60 mile stretch of perfectly straight road to conquer the “starting blocks” toilet in a hotel where apparently Charles Martel stayed. It was probably a dump back then too. Can’t stick around for the bullfights though. Van Gogh was inspired by the quaint town and the painted Cafe Terrace at Night here.
The 20,000 spectator arena was built for chariot races and bloody fight-to-the-finish gladiator battles. At half the size, the Arles Amphitheater was inspired by the 50,000 seat Coliseum in Rome. Built in 90 AD, Arles Arena is ten years newer than the Coliseum.
“That’s funny, it doesn’t look ten years newer… it doesn’t look a day older than 19 centuries!” I joke with the hotel clerk but he doesn’t understand. Or maybe it’s just a stupid joke.
60 miles in 32°C heat
The start of a 60 mile straight line, uphill, into the wind, on a hot summer’s day; just the thing for a guy who had his heart broken about an hour ago. Girls – sheesh. What are ya gonna do?
Something I said – or more likely the way I said it – calmed the policeman down. I shake his hand, said “merci beaucoup, bon soir,” put my gloves back on, and simply leave him. I think it’s my confidence that keeps him from shooting me in the back. I keep skating, waiting for him to shoot or call for backup.
Big City Heartache
I arrive at Régine’s jewelry store after a long, cool roll down the Canabiere. Though I had no idea what Régine would look like, she was pretty clear I was the right guy when she sees me on skates with ski poles. From my sister’s photo, Régine’s daughter Freddy was a knock-out, so I had high expectations. She did not disappoint. She greeted me with a kiss on both cheeks… and I think I blushed in surprise.
A short boat ride from Marseille
They should film a James Bond movie here.
With still a couple days until the Gran Prix du Monaco, I’m getting comfortable with Marseille after a tourist boat ride to the Chateau d’If island castle, a movie with cocktail waitresses bringing beer and food to your seat, and lunch at the home of Régine Blanc and family. As expected, her luxury apartment was first class all the way, and I was greeted at their door by a lovely woman in a French Maid’s costume. “Oh… I’m in France; she must be the maid – duh.”
My favorite Riviera cove
Some time after 1 am, we walk out of Big Ben and my tired feet pass the 7’s and 8’s still standing in line. I’m still in disbelief a place with this much talent exists, and now see the true benefit in a really good bouncer at a club like this.
I don’t know what time the door of the Deux-Chaveaux opened back at my Marseille hotel, but I woke up falling into the gutter and rolling in laughter. “You can have the shirt too, Meeshel.” Shar-lay helped me up and got me inside before tooling the rest of the group off into the peaceful city night.
“May I let a room for the night?”
“Oui, Monsieur. Here is the the key to the bath.”
“May I have my room key?”
“After you take a bath.”
Rolling into Toulon, it’s been a full 75 km day of cross country skiing up and down hills in the rain. I can’t feel the tops of my feet, and a 2 cm diameter blood blister on my right foot is screaming for relief. I am completely thrashed and ready for a real hotel, since I never really got a good sleep last night on the Saint-Tropez lighthouse. Come to think of it, I didn’t sleep on the other four nights on the Antibes lighthouse, or any of them for that matter. And my last hotel night I didn’t even stay there because of the “Ted the Queer” incident. Man, am I due for a hotel night!
Not La Crau, LA CRAU!
Not La Crau, LA CRAU! I laughed for a good 3 km approaching and leaving this town.
The Riviera's furthest point south
The southernmost point of the French Riviera… it’s all uphill from here. The Garden of Hyères by Adolphe Smith was written in 1881 describing why this strategic spot never quite made it on the popularity with some of the other French Riviera giants. Traveling through the underdog of ports along the way, the three islands – Îles d’Hyères – are a beautiful sight through the palms which are a major export of the town. Exporting over 100,000 palms per year has resulted in the town being referred to as Hyères-les-Palmiers (palmiers meaning palm trees).
The Lavendar Wash Machine
Le Lavandou is another gorgeous town, but I’m exhausted with hours to complete today’s run to Toulon. Le Lavandou shares it’s name with the lavendar flower, but the name actually comes from or more prosaicly from the local form of the old Southern French language Occitan, where the name stems from “lavoir” which spawns the etymology for lavandor or lavador, which means a public place for washing clothes. I could sure use my t shirt washed after 7 hours of roller-skiing the steep beach roads to get here. I’ll press on towards a 75 km run to Toulon – they might have a lavador there too.
Now where's that topless beach?
The day is coming to an end and the famous nude beaches are up around the point. By the time I get there the sun will have cast shadows onto the sand and undoubtedly run off the beautiful views, leaving only turquoise blue coves lined with bright purple bougainvillea spilling over the cliffs to greet the sea. Whatever. I’m a teenage boy here with a purpose, and it’s not to admire the bougainvellea. Sigh ~ it will all have to wait until tomorrow.
Where's the Cook?
Sanremo, Italy. Aboard Silvia.
The train makes its final turn inland from the beachfront railway, indicating we’re approaching a larger town. Many of the stops are at train stations directly on the water, which is nice for waving back to the topless girls on the beach. The conductor announces “San Remo” and the signs entering the station verify I’m in the right place. Now, is Joel in the right place? I realize I have no guarantee that “Sylvia” is here. I wonder once again if I put too much faith in the Harbormaster’s knowledge.
International Film Festival
I’m tired, it’s hot, I’ve got blisters on my feet and I could really use a shower. Skating right through the Cannes International Film Festival seemed like a good idea at the time, since it’s on the way to the harbor entrance lighthouse where I will be sleeping. There’s a wall of guys with cameras running toward me – I’m not even famous (yet)!
As I roll into Cannes, I’m focused on finding the yacht “Sylvia.” My minor-celebrity status, nor the status of the A-List celebrities ahead in the International Film Festival, has no place in my thoughts.
This is a fine time to put off the fans out on the road. Like a Hollywood Superstar trying to buy groceries, I just want to get what I came for and get on with it. As fate would have it, today is the biggest day of the entire year in this town; the start of the Film Festival. The world’s top movie stars, International producers, worldwide media buyers and screen writers from all over the globe are here in one sleepy little beach town.
My favorite lighthouse home
Antibes – like a second home, sleeping on the lighthouse pad, watching the lights of Fort Carrè across the bay, playing harmonica to the fishermen passing by the harbor entrance, and freezing my ass off in a terrycloth sleeping bag in the evening breeze.
“No Camping” signs – the international pictograms with a red line through a tent – are ever-present along the beaches. This tells me they must patrol the beaches at night. I want an ocean view, but not from the hills which are too far inland. The city parks and gardens don’t work because of the sprinklers and lawnmowers. Plus the parks seem a good place for a heist or dumping a body, and I don’t want to see – or be – a dead guy in the park. For an unshaven homeless bum, I’m rather persnickety.
A tale of two Teds
Nice and the Promenade de Anglais, running the light show at Ted Nugent concert, long night being chased by Ted the Queer.
Tom’s a California guy – baggy shorts, designer shades and a clean haircut. Though he’s athletic, each fumble on his skates is followed by a loud “Ho-Daddy!” yell of comical panic. As it turns out, he’s getting a little exercise from hanging out in the super-chic RV parked behind us. “What’s with the RV on the Prom?” I ask. It now occurs to me that he’s somehow part of the scene outside the Nugent big top tent.
Put on a T-Shirt and get out
World famous Casino de Monte Carlo is a beautiful sight. Unfortunately these palace guards won’t let you rollerskate through the Casino gardens and up to the casino. Don’t be fooled – they look like they’re just standing around for the eleven o’clock rifle twirling exhibition, but these guys will pick up a roller skater by the arms – backpack and all – and carry him over to a bench where they’ll surely swear at him in French. Trust me – I’m seen them do it.
The guards won’t let me get any closer to the Casino, and with the paparazzi wondering if photos of a roller skier getting ejected out of town might be worth something, I leave the scene and watched it quickly regain the famous buzz of glamour.
Vive la France!
Menton; surviving asphalt slopes, sleeping on the beach and eating tripes – yuck!
More about Street Skiing
They say the French police will arrest you for treating their beaches like a campground. The wise – and the homeless – find a hiding place to get a good night’s sleep while urban camping. Beyond Menton harbor is a spot that looks good. I setup my Therm-a-Rest mattress and proudly lay out my hand-made sleeping bag. The bag is a project I created while living with my second family in Germany. I figured a down bag would be too hot so I asked my “Mütti” to show me how to use her sewing machine. I bought white terry-cloth bulk fabric, cut it in thirds, dyed two panels red and blue. When I sewed them all together, it had a French flag that I would sleep in. Viva la France!
One hell'a first day on the road
Skating at 30 kph through a tunnel using the headlights of the tour bus just a few meters behind me.
Going from bright sunlight into a black tunnel – still wearing sunglasses – I am blinded for a few moments. Oncoming headlights and honking horns are no help to see or relax through the situation, and that apartment-on-wheels behind me was a constant reminder of imminent death. The pavement in the tunnel is rough – that’s good because the friction slows me down. But the rough pavement in the tunnel is bad because my wheels began to trip me up and I’d have to catch myself before a face-plant in the dark. As I slow, the bus creeps up and closes his distance. “He’s moving in for the kill” is all I could think as we twist through the tunnel. “He’s using his bright headlights to get me to pull over now” and there’s more honking as he blinds the oncoming drivers. “They’re going to be blinded and cross the line and flatten me on the front of the bus.”
What saves a man is to take a step. Then another.
Stepping off the train with a backpack, ski poles and rollerskates. Sign Up for Book Launch
I’m stepping from the safety of the train onto a cobbled Italian train station landing. It’s not exactly the glory I had constructed from months of day-dreaming about this moment. Though the replay of Neil Armstrong’s “one small step for man” is in my head, I once again contemplate the stupidity of this adventure. I also hear voices asking “why would anyone travel like that?” Neil Armstrong is a smart man, and I am no Neil Armstrong.
Living atop the Zugspitze – the highest mountain of Germany – at the luxury hotel Schneefernerhaus (1980-81) would have been an experience even without the avalanche duties or harmonica-playing days. My room, set behind the cable car station, has a view of five countries. I would stop by the employee lounge to warm up a beer before skiing out the door on my way to work. By “work” I mostly mean playing blues harmonica on a ski lift tower while watching the ski lifts in operation.
Schneefernerhaus was voted one of the top 20 “Loneliest Outposts At the End of the World” by Gizmodo, right up there with Siberian science stations, “Ice Cube Laboratory” at the South Pole and the Mir Space Station.
Traversing a series of secret tunnels running through the mountain takes us to dynamite caverns and inaccessible cabins where we set 5 a.m. charges to control avalanches. The eerie feeling while walking through the closed-down west wing left me thinking of the 90 people who were swept off the side of this hotel by an avalanche in 1965.
Time has forgotten these rooms for the last fifteen years since an avalanche swept part of the hotel – and 90 guests – off the face of this 45° cliff, into the glacier below. The dim light of pre-sunrise through snow-frosted glass shards scarcely illuminates broken tables and chairs from the 1930’s, haphazardly stacked and perfectly preserved in this once lavish dining room – now a walk-in freezer. This is where old equipment was left to die. Catastrophic disaster equipment stored for situations like recovering a runaway train or severed gondola cables a reminder of how fragile life in this climate can be. Two wooden caskets, dusted with blowing snow and frost, lean against the dark, frozen rock wall away from the crushed roof and rusting observation deck. If the temperature was not chilling enough, the creepy aura in this room sent a chill up my spine that could freeze a bonfire’s flames. Cold, still death filled the room, and I knew the very last people to sit here dining in luxury on May 15, 1965, died badly.