Biking an ancient Celtic route in France
A historian writes of, and bicycles, the French part of the ancient Heraklean Way — and maintains that the Celts mapped Europe long before the Romans.
The New York Times
Northwest travel guides
In tracing an ancient path that crosses France’s Rhone Valley, the Pont du Gard Roman aqueduct comes into view.
The Gauls, a Celtic tribe that inhabited what is now France, were a boorish bunch before Julius Caesar arrived in 58 B.C. and ushered in civilization. At least, that is the historical explanation Graham Robb, a literary historian best known for the books “The Discovery of France” and “Parisians,” had accepted along with most French people.
“The French do have the idea that there was no sophistication before Romans,” Robb said.
It’s an idea that his new book, “The Discovery of Middle Earth: Mapping the Lost World of the Celts,” turns over by positing that the Celts had mapped Western Europe with accurate lines based on the sun’s movements — 2,000 years before anyone could even measure longitude.
According to Robb’s theory (and there are critics of it) the ancient Heraklean Way, named for Hercules, which was first a Celtic route that ran from the tip of the Iberian Peninsula to the Alps, follows the course of the rising and setting sun at the solstices. Regardless of whether his theory rewrites long-held beliefs about Western civilization, the route, part of which Robb biked in 2009, from Andorra to Montgenèvre in France, is spectacularly beautiful. And the spring is a perfect season to do it. Following are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Q: You began your journey in Andorra, headed for Nimes. What’s the path like?
A: Coming down from the Pyrenees at 2,000 meters, of course, it’s very chilly. The landscape changes quite quickly as you descend toward the Mediterranean. There’s a huge dividing line between two climatic zones. You come down from the pine forests, and at a certain moment when you enter the Corbières, you suddenly get a wonderful blast of heat and smells of thyme and rosemary. And because it’s an agricultural region, you do sometimes find sheep blocking the road. Last time, I saw wild horses, which makes it a bit more dangerous, though also very romantic.
Q: And from Nimes to the Alps?
A: The path crosses the Rhone Valley, so you see the Pont du Gard, which is that big Roman aqueduct you see in a lot of pictures. It takes you close to where it’s thought that Hannibal crossed the Rhone with his elephants when he was marching toward Italy to attack Rome. You pass through Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Mollans-sur-Ouvèze into the pre-Alps, which is sparsely populated; you have to make sure you booked places in advance because there are so few hotels. The easiest way through the Alps is Gap, which goes through some fairly flat valleys. It’s quite nice because you see the Alps blooming. And then you end at Montgenèvre Pass, which, according to the myth, is the path that Hercules created by pounding a forest into the mountain and setting fire to it.
Q: How difficult is the biking?
A: The hardest thing is going downhill because they are very narrow, winding roads. Going uphill in the Pyrenees and the Alps is quite easy, really, because the gradients are quite regular. Once you get into a rhythm, it’s quite comfortable. You only have to pedal fast enough to keep the bicycle upright, and if you do that and you have a tune in your mind, you can get up there without too much difficulty.
Q: Are there any Celtic sites to see along the way?
A: Nimes has the only surviving Celtic stone structure, and the only reason it survived is because the Romans built a tower around it. It’s called Tour Magne, and if you go inside you can see the original Celtic stone work. As is often the case with the Celts, we have no idea what it was for. It could have been for signaling, ritual or a kind of inland lighthouse. It’s quite a nice thing to see if you like things that are incomprehensible, and try to come up with your own explanations.