Travel: That Summer: Massif Central, May 1989 - In search of the perfect holiday - and a TV

Memories of steep hills, magnificent views, wild flowers, the best croissant ever and a hapless, football-mad boyfriend
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Indy Lifestyle Online
MAY 1989 reminds me of aching calves, beautiful French countryside - and the Everton and Liverpool FA Cup Final. My boyfriend and I were visiting France together for the first time, and we had opted for one of those cushy cycling tours where your luggage is carried from location to location by the travel company. My main prerequisite was a bike with more than one gear - I had spotted those close-knit contour lines on the map in our travel kit; my boyfriend, a life-long Reds fan, merely desired a radio or television on the day of the big match.

The starting point of our four-day journey was Aurillac, a small town at the south-west of the Parc Regional des Volcans, an area on the Massif Central where volcanic activity has created an undulating landscape perfect for hikers and cyclists. As we pedalled out of the town, the early summer weather was glorious and we had the road to ourselves.

The silence intensified the impact of the scenery as it gradually unravelled: gentle inclines gave way to fully-fledged hills, the bucolic idyll was shattered at the bottom of a particularly steep section when a guard dog - unleashed, mark you - decided to fulfil his job description and violently chase me.

I can only thank the misplaced mutt for another milestone of that summer: it is the only time I have cycled up a hill faster than I have free-wheeled down the other side.

For every minor hiccup like this, though, nature seemed to offer compensation. One day, after struggling up the Everest of the hills on our route, cursing my lack of fitness, I discovered that a broken brake block had been pressing on my back tyre during the ascent.

Red-faced and cursing, I turned the final corner to berate my boyfriend for not waiting, only to have the words evaporate in gasps of awe when I saw the view. Thousands of feet below us a glinting silver thread wound through a billowing carpet of foliage that seemingly contained every shade of green possible. Here and there, a sprinkling of yellow signalled an acre or so of jonquil flowers or gentians, and high above this, clinging to the steep side of the valley, there was what looked like a doll's house, bolstered in its perch by timber stilts.

On another occasion, my boyfriend came off his bike and punctured a tyre attempting to avoid a snake sprawled across the road. The midday heat was intense and we were not looking forward to a long walk along more of the same dusty and unshaded road we had been climbing for the past hour.

But a gentle curve in the road revealed a dip down to a cool riverside path, shaded beneath fat-leaved trees. It was almost as if someone was unravelling an ever-changing and ever-suitable landscape around us.

Exhilarated by each day's events we would wheel into the village where we were to spend the night, find our hotel and look for a bar with a television. Unfortunately, the destinations our itinerary took in seemed football phobic; my heart bled for my boyfriend as Auvergnat after smiling Auvergnat employed the Gallic shrug to shatter his hopes of a glimpse of the game.

His plight was eased by the delights of our lodgings: an outwardly unpromising one-star pension offered up cool linen sheets on an antique bed and the best croissants ever in the morning; a farmhouse we reached at the end of a particularly gruelling day had - oh joy! - an outdoor hot tub; a half-timbered hotel in a pretty medieval town had a candle-lit restaurant where we dined to the sound of centuries-old church bells.

Sometimes it's only possible to appreciate perfection in retrospect, and I doubt that it's possible to plan it. I had faced the steepest hill of our trip practically with my brakes locked on and my boyfriend never did get to see the match, but, yes, I would say now that this was a perfect holiday (oh, and Liverpool won the final).

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