FROM THE CHANNEL TO THE ARDECHE
Arriving in France somehow seemed like the real start of our journey. We were on “foreign soil”, a different language, different food, different greetings. We had left our comfort zone and suddenly the elephant loomed large and had to be pushed and manoeuvred back into his cage. We tried hard not to look or feel like rabbits in the headlights but I’m sure we had a terrified look about us as we headed into St Malo.
We had landed in St Malo after a wonderful journey on Brittany ferries. As a cyclist you sometimes feel like a second class citizen but in this instance we definitely weren’t and were first onto the ferry and even escorted to our cabin. Maybe they thought we just might get lost. The following morning we were the first off the ferry and not, as is our experience with other ferries, left to inhale the fumes of a thousand lorries before making our escape.
St Malo was beautiful and we walked the ramparts of the old town and gazed back out to the sea we had just crossed. We thought we were seeing Guernsey but weren’t sure but it added to our sense of saying goodbye for who knows how long.
It would be nice to say that we then turned our faces south but instead we headed east to have a look at beautiful and dramatic Mont St Michel. The coastline was rugged with beautiful beaches and sheltered coves. It was easy to imagine it in the summer and the temptation would have been to be running down to the beach and into the sea. Instead we sheltered in the dunes to eat our picnic and then battled on against the wind.
This area is the land of the crustacean and oysters, crabs and lobsters were on sale everywhere. We stopped at one shop to sympathise with the occupants of a tank overloaded with live crabs and lobsters all with their claws taped. One particular crab was gazing out at us with unblinking, sad eyes and it was all I could do to stop Pete from reaching in, tearing off the tapes, running down the beach and releasing it back into the sea. We thought it might not improve Anglo French relations had he done so.
I think we both agreed that Mont St Michel looked as dramatic at a distance and the one way tourist traffic system detracted from its grandeur, but we still enjoyed the visit despite a difficult battle against the wind to get there.
Our trip down through France has been wonderful and ever changing. We are following a guide book “France en Velo” which will take us from St Malo to Nice in thirty easy stages. Ha ha. The book has chosen an interesting route through rural France starting in Brittany with occasional hops into Normandy. We found this area rather flat with the fields shorn of their crops but we enjoyed many apples which we plucked from wayside trees and were the juiciest apples ever.
Everywhere has been very quiet and we are quite obviously well out of the tourist season. This has had its advantages as we have had many sites completely to ourselves where I am sure they would have been uncomfortably crowded in the summer. We visited Vitre, a lovely medieval town and wandered the streets at night alone and silent.
We cycled alongside a short stretch of the Loire river and enjoyed flat riverside cycling in almost warm weather. The river has distinctive flat bottomed boats all tucked up for the winter.
We passed through many medieval towns such as Parthenay which once again we had all to ourselves. Despite towns like this being so beautiful and well preserved , they are very unassuming and are in essence still working towns. You could be walking along an ancient street and suddenly a garage door would open and out pop a super sleek modern car. Time travel in a moment!
We have of course enjoyed some wonderful food and definitely developed a mild addiction to pain au chocolat. But our greatest delight have been the menu du jour which have given us a beautifully cooked 3 course meal for a very reasonable price. We would cycle into a deserted village with just the odd cat crossing the street. Pete would disappear and then return beckoning me to follow him to an understated shop front but with a blackboard outside describing the delights within. We would nudge open the door and warmth, noise and delicious smells would seep out and we would enter a different world. Nobody cared or seemed surprised by two wet, cold cyclists and we were unceremoniously seated and presented with our treat for the day. On leaving we would go back out into the silence and feel like returning to check that it had all been real-a bit like looking to see if the light stays on in the fridge.
In the Poitou-Charentes district the mushroom is king and one early morning we passed a steaming mushroom farm that looked more like a coal mine.
We collected our own wild mushrooms when staying with Brigitte and Jean Yves on their lovely farm and ate them for supper (the mushrooms, not our hosts!!)
Further south it was chateaux around every corner and one became almost blase about their splendour and magnificence. Some have become hotels and we decided that we should treat ourselves to a night on our wedding anniversary. Sadly the night came and found us camping in a field and even more sadly, it was so cold Pete insisted that he must wear his long johns. Our night of romance was not to be.
John Ruskin said that there was no such thing as bad weather, just different types of good weather. Well, I think it was alright for him, he probably had a man servant to turn down his bed at night and put a stone hot water bottle between the sheets after his day on the fells. He didn’t have to pitch his tent in the pouring rain with frozen fingers and manouvre his body in a confined space into a narrow sleeping bag. And when he needed a pee in the night he would drag his chamber pot from under the bed, not have to stagger in the dark through a wet field and get cold all over again.
Actually the weather hasn’t been too bad and in the Dordogne we had temperatures of 18c and have wandered around and had picnics in the sunshine. We have been chasing the autumn and even now at the beginning of December the golden colours are still around. Leaves have been gently falling on us all the way and one of Pete’s daily ambitions was to catch a leaf as he cycled along. It just goes to show how lacking in entertainment we are.
We have also had some beautiful misty mornings.
We have met some lovely people and experienced warm hospitality. We were dragged off the streets by Cathy and Christophe and stayed with their family for a night. Jean Luc and Solanage even lent us their gite for the night and built up a roaring fire for us. We have had warm showers hosts too who have treated us so well, it is very humbling.
And so we travel on. The more south we have got the more dramatic the scenery. We spent 2 gorgeous days cycling by the Lot river and then up through its gorges. We are now in the mountains of the Ardeche and winter has arrived with a vengeance and we have had to hole up in a hotel for a day due to deep snow and freezing temperatures.
The first snow arrived as we were climbing up out of the Lot valley. Those first gentle snow flakes looked fairly harmless but as we got higher and the day got later we were cycling in a blizzard. We arrived at a small village that was in complete darkness except for one light in a rather gloomy looking hotel. We walked into the foyer where 2 children were playing who completely ignored us. Pete had to get mildly harsh with them and ask them to go and find maman which they reluctantly did, disappearing into the bowels of the hotel. We were expecting Jack Nicholson to appear down the stairs any minute. Instead maman came and directed us down the road to an even gloomier looking hotel where the elderly gardener was at work and he too sent us away down the road for 8 km where he said we would find shelter. It was a long and nervous 8 km but when we did find the village it was like entering a zone of loveliness and people were bonsoiring and helping us and soon we and our bikes were ensconced in the gite communal which was warm and cosy. The following morning we were invited round for coffee to the house of Helene and Pierre and felt like locals!
I think i first came across the idea of a chocolate sandwich when I was about 14. Recipe: take one large piece of baguette, cut lengthways, fill with dark chocolate… I love it!
“Cycle along find a quiet road then find a track off that one” – is probably the best way to find a wild campsite. So we tried that, pushing the bikes deep into the woods. But it just didn’t “feel” right. And the ground was thorny. And there wasn’t much space. But it was already dusk and once it’s dark, finding a wild campsite is not easy. We pushed back out of the woods and looked again. A couple of kilometres more peddling and we were off down another track. This one worked – there was a patch of rough grass, no closed gates, no fences and plenty of bushes to hide us from the road. We sort of like wild camping!
We were having a warm up in a cafe in a tiny hamlet. People were drinking coffee, buying bread, coming and going. The postman arrived – Everyone got kisses or a handshake. There was a lovely atmosphere. I think it would slow our postman (Nigel) down a bit. But maybe life’s not meant to be fast.
Bike problems! Chris has a fracture along the inside of her rear wheel rim. The tyre pressure forces the rim out so on each revolution of the wheel the brake “grabs”. We tried a couple of bike shops and got a bit of a French shrug… The third, however proved a completely different experience, certainly once we realised that the young man who was helping us was on work experience from school and the patron returned from lunch. He told us his family were sea farers and you always helped one another at sea. He really tried to help but in the end it was Thorn/ SJS in the UK who have come up with the goods. They’re sending us free of charge two new stronger rims and spokes for Chris’s bike – they agreed it really shouldn’t have happened. So we’re limping on and in a couple of days we’ll be stopping for a bit and getting a bike shop in Valence to build us two new wheels.
We hadn’t been cycling for long since breaking camp when we spotted three little animals crossing the road ahead. What were they? We really didn’t know. They were cute. They weren’t bothered much by us. They just jumped into their holes and then peered out at us. They were like marmots… or big guinea pigs…or beavers but with round tails… We were fascinated. Took lots of photos. Several days later we asked someone. “Oh, they’re rats” he said. Actually we’ve learnt since they were coypus. Maybe not so cute…
We came across a lot of fire trucks in a small town. One of them had a large flap opened on one side. I’m sure they were selling burgers. I thought maybe it was some sort of fund raising open day. We cycled on past. And then saw smoke billowing out of a building…
The queen. We bumped into an English lady in Sarlat. I was admiring her Virginia creeper – actually I thought it was a grape vine… She told us that the town always had a theme for Christmas, usually it was a different country. This year the theme was England and the mayor had written to the queen to ask her to open the event – three times! And she still hadn’t replied! If they didn’t hear soon they might have to get someone else. Were they pulling her leg? She swore they were deadly serious…
Long ago, when we first started out on this trip someone gave us some good advice. Don’t think of the whole trip it’s far too scary. Think of it as if you’re eating an elephant – it’s easy if you eat a little at a time. They were absolutely right. We’ve learnt the French equivalent! It’s: “petit a petit le chameau entre dans la marmite”. – the camel goes into the pot a little at a time.