Channel to Med on a low IQ (by Bob Raftery)
The thought of cycling across France from the English Channel to the Mediterranean became a pleasant diversion from the usual mundane thoughts of everyday life we all endure.
It was an idea thought up, not by me, but a colleague at my local cycling club. I read his account of the journey on the Club’s website. It was two years ago when Mike, along with three friends, made the trip, but he still had all the maps and route in detail and would be delighted to help any interested parties in any way possible. All I had to do was follow in his footsteps. It would be a good thing to get out of my comfort zone for a few weeks and take a journey to reflect back on in my twilight years.
I decided to test the water and mentioned it casually to my wife Doreen who, even more casually, replied “why not, sounds like a good idea”. This reply was totally unexpected and rocked me back on my heels. Was she serious, maybe there was a hidden agenda? I felt insecure in a casual sort of way!
So, what had been a pleasant diversion, in day dreaming terms, had suddenly become a reality. It now had a different feel, the “Romance” had gone, the dream had now become a “Challenge”.
Decisions had to be made i.e. travel arrangements; cost; how to use a mobile phone; cash-card and, of course, the language, “Boring stuff”. Problems arose on a daily basis, however, “cometh the hour, cometh the woman”. It was now my wife, along with the “holier than thou” computer who announced their presence and proceeded to plan everything in minute detail. I could not have managed without her.
One week to go, Doreen and I both harbour doubts about the “Trip”, as it is now referred to – albeit from different perspectives. My concern was if I was physically capable of cycling 70 to 80 miles on a day to day basis. I had, in the past, achieved that sort of mileage with no problem, but was in no rush to jump back on the bike again the following day. “The first 3 days are the worst”, colleagues assured me, “then it becomes so much easier”, we shall see!
Doreen, however, was coming from a different direction and, for reasons known only to her, had every confidence in my ability on the bike, but had serious doubts about my entry into the 21st century. I had never used a mobile phone or cash card, was not computer literate, did not even wear a watch and inwardly despised what I referred to as the “clone society”. Now I was in training to become one. However, concerning cash cards, I assured Doreen it would not be a problem. I had seen chimpanzees achieve more demanding tasks than inserting a card and pressing a few buttons, but true to form Doreen’s reservations were well founded as I will explain later. A bit part in the film “Planet of the Apes” would have been beyond me.
25th April – Arrive - Dinan
Brother John had recently acquired a top of the range 4 x 4 vehicle and kindly agreed to transport the bike and I to East Midland Airport. The bike had been stripped down and packed into a cardboard box which the 4 x 4 accommodated with ease.
We touch down at Dinan at 6.0 p.m. The box containing the bike had been damaged, but the bike seemed unscathed. I now had to assemble the bike, load the panniers and pedal 15k to my pre-booked accommodation. It was only a 2 hour flight, but had been a long day and I
was feeling weary. Taking the bike on the plane had been quite stressful – not like arriving with a suitcase.
Dinard seemed a pleasant laid-back kind of place, quiet roads with a river meandering through the centre of town. With 6k covered and 5k to go, one of the panniers came loose and jammed into the back wheel rendering it slightly out of true. The early start I anticipated the following morning was now extremely doubtful. With over 900 miles to travel the load bearing back wheel would have to be checked out. The “Grand Departee” would now be delayed.
I arrived at the Guest house around 8.30 p.m. “Mine hosts” Dave and Ann came over to France 3 years ago from the U.K. and, having learned the language, soon settled happily into their new French life-style. Fortunately for me, Dave was a keen cyclist who, on hearing of my back wheel problem, kindly offered to drive me to the local bike shop who fixed the wheel in no time at all. I could now head for the “Start-line”.
26th April - Vitre
The planned overnight stop at Vitre was 70 miles distant. It was now mid-day and my arrival there was doubtful, but it felt good to be finally on my way.
I was making good progress on the long straight undulating roads, which would be a feature of the whole trip, when the frame which carried the panniers became detached from the bike. The holding bolt which held everything together had vibrated loose. It was a miracle bike and rider stayed upright. I managed to find the bolt a short distance up the road. A stroke of good luck preceded a stroke of bad. The small adjustable spanner I had been using to put everything back together slipped from my grasp and came to rest at the bottom of a disused roadside grid. I could see it was about 3ft down, lying on the dry bed of the now defunct drain. After numerous failed attempts trying to retrieve it, it was obvious some kind of “gripping tool” would be required.
A short distance away, was a cottage, where an elderly lady was tending her garden. She had been aware for the last ½ hour of the strange “goings-on” at the roadside and must have been wondering “what the hell was going on”? I reasoned, with having such a large garden to attend to, there must also be a shed full of various tools and implements to complement it?
The time was now upon me to put my very limited knowledge of the French language to the test. Prior to the “trip”, time had been spent listening to the likes of “Learn to speak French in 7 days” audio tapes, which putting aside the outrageous 7 day claim, I found quite useful. For a moment the circumstances leading to this situation were temporarily forgotten. I sat back in the warm sunshine studying “Beginners Guide to French”. I soon came across the required diction when I was joined by a cat. Cats seem to appear from nowhere in the French countryside. He was a friendly, playful “chappie”, probably belonging to the lady in the garden, who saw me playing with him and smiled. I gave her a “wave”, she waved back, communication had been established. I now had to take it a stage further!
For a long time I had harboured suspicions that cats had a sixth sense with the ability to read people’s minds! This one was no exception. As I rose to make my acquaintance with the lady gardener, the cat was up and away and with barely a glance backwards led me straight to “Madam”. I half expected him to introduce us. I began in my rehearsed French equivalent “Bonjour Madam, can you help me, I apologise for being unable to speak your language. Do you speak any English”?
She did not understand a word. I had just arrived from one of “Saturns” outer rings as far as she was concerned. I looked towards the cat for guidance: by means other than language the cat has to be the supreme communicator! However, a series of hand movements and gestures transported the 3 of us towards the offending “grid”.
Madam recognised the problem immediately and, accompanied by the cat, returned to the cottage. Minutes later she reappeared with the largest pair of “Tongs” I have ever seen. What could she possibly use these for I wondered? Within seconds of her return “Madam” had skilfully retrieved the spanner and, with a triumphant smile, handed it back to a relieved and grateful onlooker.
The cat stayed with me as I assembled everything back together. It had been an eventful hour. As I turned to leave Madam and I waved our goodbyes, the cat looked sorry to see me leave. It was probably the best laugh he had had for a long time.
Despite my late start and eventful afternoon, the doubts I had about making it to Vitre were unfounded. I arrived at 8.30 p.m. tired and hungry.
Cycling so late in the day was not a good idea, and not part of my planned itinerary, the plan being to wind things up around 5.0 p.m. The rest is crucial to the cycling. Eight hours a day in the saddle is a “race well run” in my book! However, a surprising lack of accommodation leaves only one option, that is to keep pedalling. Food and bed were now the things uppermost in my mind and, being so late in the day, I settled for a jambon and a carton of fruit juice before seeking accommodation.
From the bench where I sat enjoying my “make-do” meal, I noticed an Hotel. It was not an (easy on the eye) sort of place, but would serve as a last resort. I decided to spend ½ hr looking around Vitre in the hope of improving my accommodation prospects, whilst at the same time taking in the sights. Come the “morrow” I wanted to kick-start the itinerary I envisaged back home i.e. 9 to 5 cycling, substantial evening meal, rest and bed!
Vitre was as attractive as the guidebook had said. Narrow cobbled streets, impressive buildings, flower bedecked squares and inviting pavement cafes. However, the Hotels and other alternative accommodation were for, whatever reason, closed. Considering Vitre’s prominence on the tourist trail it was hard to speculate the reason why.
It was now approaching 9.30 p.m., the last option Hotel was now the only option Hotel. My first impression had been correct. Anyone pondering the meaning of the word basic, a night’s stay at this Hotel would supply the answer.
I sat on top of the bed and familiarized myself with the following day’s route, and despite all the trials and tribulations, the first stage had been completed on time. Sleep was now beckoning; a tired but happy man.
27th April – Vitre – St. George – Loire
Slept well, woke refreshed and, eager to implement a more structured day, declined breakfast (big mistake), in favour of “Super Marche” cafes recommended in “Travel Guide”. So after a quick cup of “basic” Hotel coffee, I was off peddling into a grey damp, drizzly day as the clock just turned 9.0 a.m. Hopefully the day would unfold somewhere along these lines. After 2 hours, stop for breakfast style lunch – 5.30 p.m. *Chambre – 7.00 p.m. evening meal, relax, rest and bed.
* (Chambre – Bed and Breakfast style accommodation)
2 ½ hours into the ride and beginning to feel the need for a refuelling stop! According to the “Book”, the smallest of towns have a “Super March” where more English style fayre is served i.e. “beans on toast”, “bacon and eggs” etc. It was either a myth or misprint as in the whole of the “Trip” I never found anything remotely like the guide book described. So for the rest of the journey I played it safe and settled for the French breakfast.
On this occasion I refilled the water bottle with fruit juice and headed off for the next town which was a further two hours down the road. St. Agnain,S.Roe “What a lovely name” – can’t wait to get there.
On arrival it was indeed a beautiful place deserving of a lovely name, but the chances of something to eat were “Nil”. There were no shops, not even a boulangerie. I was now in desperate need of proper food; a cooked meal and vegetables etc., something I had not had since leaving the U.K. Realising the urgency of the situation I was soon heading south again. Things were not going to plan. Then, out of the blue, in the most unlikely of places I came upon a small Hotel. It was extremely busy. Most likely catering for the entire village I had just left.
From a strategically placed table, I had the voyeur take on the comings and goings. The clientele was a cross section of society. I could blend into the background, enjoy a proper cooked meal and study the French at close quarters. “Plat du Jour” translated into “Plate of the Day” with a choice of either fish or beef. I was served with an enormous amount of prime tender beef, vegetables, basket of bread, finished with a big slab of chocolate cake and coffee. All for a price of 9 Euros; no wonder the place was busy.
It was time to get back on the bike again. Today’s objective was a further 3 ½ hours down the line, but, after a meal like that, I felt like going to sleep not riding a bike up long hills, into that proverbial headwind.
Place names can conjure up a mental picture of what you expect a place to look like. St. George, Loire had a majestic ring to it. But, on arrival, no sign of the period houses, spacious lawns sweeping down to the river Loire as I had anticipated. It was a dowdy one street affair, a couple of shops, 2 Hotels - all closed – and no sign of a river. St. George, Loire can now join the list of places where “English” is regarded as a language from another planet.
It was time, once more, to test my limited French vocabulary with a well rehearsed phrase which had met with a degree of success in my quest for accommodation in Vitre. Despite most places being closed, I was encouraged, by way of recognition in what I was trying to say. At last I got to know of a chambre 5k out of town and despite being in the opposite direction I should be heading, it was my only option. As I was just in the throes of leaving, without warning, the little town turned “Bible Black”. A sense of foreboding descended. I was about to witness the most dramatic thunderstorm I had ever seen. I love thunder storms, but this was “scary”. It lasted about 40 minutes then departed as quickly as it arrived.
The town soon had an air of normality. Doors opened, faces appeared at windows, clusters of people fell out onto the street in animated gestures and laughter, while an all encompassing sense of relief prevailed. In the past I have been privy at many thunder storms and stood back with varying degrees of awe and excitement, but an unease accompanied this one.
Roads now strewn with debris and partially flooded roads were now the order of the day as I saddled up and set forth to complete what hopefully will be the last 5k of the day. I am not happy with the situation; still searching for a Chambre so late in the day. There must be a better way.
A further 20 mins pedalling takes me on to a side road heading for “Chateau Gaultier”. It is now almost 8.00 p.m. and the light is fading fast. Through the half light I glimpse the Chateau. It’s an impressive pile taking centre stage at the bottom of what could only be described as a cultivated field. It’s sure to be expensive but it’s also the last chance saloon for me. If I don’t find secure food and shelter here I am on skid row. The next conurbation is a further 2 ½ hours away.
I pass various stone cottage type dwellings before arriving at the impressive oak door of the Chateau. I see candles flickering from a side window it looked kind of spooky. Now should I use the massive cast iron knocker and risk waking the whole of France or look for a door bell? “Chateau’s don’t have door bells”, you uncultured fool! A semi-detached suburban bell ring would not sound right, further more it would be an insult. To hell with the whole of France.
As I reached for the knocker the door creaked open “Bonjour monsieur”. The voice that greeted me belonged to Bernhard, who was soon joined by his wife Geraldine, a charming lady who taught English at a local school.
As I was about to offer an explanation for this mud splattered cyclist appearing at their front door, the whole place was flooded with light. Floodlights picked out a lovely little Chapel, and the path leading to the Chateau was lit from period design lamps. It was an impressive sight.
Geraldine explained that the thunder storm had caused a power failure and would be a further two hours before being fully restored.
After agreeing a price for my overnight stay I was invited to join “Mine hosts” for a drink and bite to eat. Bernhard offered me a choice of beer, wine or coffee. I celebrated my good fortune with a glass of wine. A short time ago the outlook was grim. Now I’m drinking wine in surroundings that would grace “Royalty”. I love extremes!
Geraldine rejoined us back at the table bringing with her bread, cheese and fruit. They were eager to know my itinerary. Bernhard explained that “I will continue having “Chambre” problems because the French holiday period is a further 7 weeks away so the majority of Hotels and Chambres will remain closed until then”.
After about 40 mins. Bernhard showed me to my Chambre, the stone barns and outbuildings having been converted into large luxury residences. As Bernhard turned to leave he handed me a large torch, “take this” he said, “the power supply is now almost back to normal but this will serve as a back up. Just turn the handle 5 or 6 times”. A wind up torch. I had never seen one of these before, but this was my kind of technology (no buttons).
As I opened the door to enter my eyes widened. “Wow”, this was indeed a “Des-Res”. I had the choice of 5 beds, enormous bathroom, tiled floors, luxury carpets and every “mod-con” imagineable. It had been quite a day experiencing a diverse range of emotions in such a short time span. But now it is time to relax, the bath water is already running, so for what remains of the day I intend to exapaorate into my opulent surroundings.
So until the “morrow” Bon soir
28th April St. George – Loire - Moncoutant.
A glorious day beckoned as the sun filtered through the latticed windows. I was feeling good. This luxurious lifestyle agrees with me.
As I arrived at the Chateau, Bernhard greeted me with a “knuckle-crunching” handshake whilst at the same time enthusing at the prospect of a beautiful day ahead.
Breakfast was served in a mediaeval style banqueting hall. I felt sure the Count of Monte-Cristo would enter at any moment and join me for coffee and toast. It was that kind of place. So with breakfast now dispatched, and as many carbohydrates crammed down as is humanly possible, I left the table feeling like a bloated pig. But this had now become the considered tactic as I had no idea where, or when, the next meal would come from.
It was now way past the 9.0 a.m. start time and, despite my lack of mental resolve to wrench myself away from “Camelot”, it was now time to move on. “or so I hoped”. Bernhard had noticed my eyes focusing with curiosity on a flight of steps leading down to a large wooden door. “What you think Robert”, he said pointing to the door with a smile. “Come follow me, I show”. Bernhard seemed like the perfect “Gent” with an endearing smile, but so too was “Shipman”. Was I doing the right thing entering this dungeon? I was the perfect victim! Nobody knew who I was, where I was or where I came from. If I went missing there would be no trace. And then there was that “Handshake”!
As the door creaked open my eyes settled on a sizeable hole to the right of the door which had a de-stabilizing effect on my legs. Bernhard explained it was an ancient “Well”. Peering into its murky depths the water was clearly visible below. An archway on the left gave access to Bernhard’s pride and joy – the “Wine Cellar”. It was “manifique”. At least 20 yards long and stocked with wines accumulated from his travels around the globe. I had never seen or been anywhere quite like this. At the end of the cellar was a small table and chairs. Berhard selected a bottle and poured two glasses. “Robert, you pedal faster” he said with a smile. Glasses were raised in a “toast”, to health and longevity. Bernhard’s final act of generosity shortened today’s journey by a good 15k.
Just before leaving we unfolded the map out on the table with Geraldine bringing a farewell pot of coffee. After outlining what hopefully would be today’s itinerary, Bernhard gesticulating says “Non Non Non” leaving the table and returning with a much larger scale map. Bernhard’s suggested route looked very logical – following it was something else. “I see you in ½ hr Robert”, he said, “follow me in car”. Reading maps has never been one of my strong points but I think “Columbus” would have found this route difficult.
It was now almost 11.0 a.m., my 9.0a.m. start time had flown out of the window. But this trip is not just about the bike, these were the kind of memories I was hoping to take back with me, and being in the company of such nice people was good for the soul.
Bernard arrived at the appointed “hour” in a “clapped out” van, (not quite what I had expected). It’s time to say “Au revoir”. I went weak at the knees as Bernhard offered his hand; my fingers were not fully recovered from the first handshake. A kiss on the cheek would have been preferable but I didn’t like to mention it. I took a deep breath!
The route we were taking consisted of remote single track farm roads. I had difficulty keeping pace – 18 mph with no warm up period was too much for me. After about 3/4hr we arrive at a “T” junction to go our separate ways. “2k to main road Robert”, he shouted from the window. “Good luck”. Gasping for breath I watched as he gave one final wave before fading into the distant haze. It was a very hot day!
The rivers Loire and Dordogne had been uppermost in my mind from the very first day, anticipation being the better part of travel. They were something to aim for. The very names had a magic ring about them. Also they had come to represent phases 1 and 2 of the “Trip”, but more than anything I just wanted to see them. “ I love Rivers”.
It is now well past mid-day when I cross the road bridge at Challone’s – St.- Loire, with the river far below. The town seems a pleasant sort of place, where I select a seat and spend ½ hr in the company of this magnificent river.
Riding a bike you get plenty of time to think. Two days into the journey I realised it was not going to turn out as planned. I had already had problems with the bike but was fortunate to be in a town with a bike shop, plus a sympathetic “Guest house” owner who took me in his car. Conversing in French with the mechanic got things “sorted”. Dave’s ability to switch from one language to another with ease, was “admirable”, but also made me aware of my own shortcomings. Dave told me that both he and his wife had no other choice but to employ a French language “Tutor”. English was not spoken anywhere!
Most days I was very isolated on rural back roads. I would pass through places and never see anyone, let alone a bike shop. The optimist in me evaporated and I became a pessimist over night. A buckled wheel, broken chain, illness. I had no back up, could not even speak the language. I was on my own! So the mind-set was changed almost before I got started. The point of the exercise was to get from the Channel to the Mediterranean on a bike, in one piece. Smelling the flowers along the way was no longer an option. To have only reached Bergarac with a camera full of lovely photos or archetypal French villages would have been a failure. I became convinced something would go wrong. Language was a big concern; accommodation was a constant worry. So the itinerary became ride as long and as far, and forget the scenery, which could hardly be called spectacular.
As most of us are aware, France is a very diverse country, but this was rural France where one day became very much like the next. The villages were great and the Chateaus truly “Manifique” but the countryside was hardly inspiring.
I took meticulous care reading the maps, triple checking road numbers and arriving thus far problem free. But things were about to change.
The route had been skilfully planned avoiding Cities and major conurbations, apart from three which were unavoidable. The first one I will be entering shortly. Cholet was a busy bustling city. It did not take long before I realised bustling was not my “scene”. I was more than a little apprehensive about riding a fully laden bicycle round a French city for the first time. After almost an hour of threading myself through lines of traffic and being unable to pick up a road going South, I stop by the roadside to consult the map, only to become more confused. All road directions for whatever reason went East or West. I was at a loss to know what to do.
I decide to head West hoping for a branch road going South. For the next two hours I sat uncomfortably in fast moving traffic, before coming across a road sign for “Niort”. I was back on track at last. Cholet had been a bad experience with a lot of time and energy achieving nothing, but one thing was apparent, the courtesy and consideration shown to cyclists by motorists - very reassuring.
It was a relief to be back on “D” roads again despite the late hour. It was 8.30 p.m., a ridiculous state of affairs still pedalling at this time of day and the prospect of a bed diminishing as fast as the approaching darkness. Bike lights had never been considered. – Hindsight being some thing many of us yearn for!
The last job before “lights-out” I check the following days route and earmark the name of the town or place for my overnight stay. So “armed” only with the name of a town, the start of each day relatively speaking, is a blank page and therefore in the lap of the Gods.
Moncoutant is a small town 5k away. It is now almost dark and the possibility of securing a Chambre is “Nil”. A sign just before entering the town’s one and only street directs me to a “Public camping site”. I decide to check out the options – if any – of somewhere to sleep. It came down to a choice between a disused toilet block or a large open fronted shed containing rusty tables and chairs!
The contrast between last night’s situation and my present one was almost surreal. It was about this time, in the magnificent surroundings of Chateau Gaultier that I was drinking red wine before retiring to a 5 bed-roomed luxury apartment with a 3ft deep bath. “I love extremes”.
The optomist in me resurfaced momentarily as I decide to check out the township’s one and only street. The only sound was of my own footsteps, echoing in the cobbled walkway; apart from an odd street lamp flickering nervously, the place seemed deserted. This would have to be the very last place you would expect to find an Hotel – but there “she” was. I could not believe my luck. Twenty minutes later, showered and changed to my evening wear (Tracksuit and plimsolls), I find myself seated in the Hotel restaurant enjoying a long overdue meal, along with a few glasses of wine. “And why not” it’s a Cause Celebre.
28th April – Loulay
In the early morning sun, Moncoutant reveals itself to be a beautiful little town. It has all the essentials; narrow cobbled streets, quirky-wobbly buildings that had never seen a “spirit level” and the main essential a lovely river.
There was a real “hum” about the place. Lots of people arriving in camper vans with canoes and bicycles, all eager to be (up and running). It was very relaxing, sitting in the warm sunshine, watching the comings and goings. But saddle up time was “nigh”. The little town had been good to me.
Back on the road again, I pass a truly remarkable Chateau surrounded by a moat with drawbridge clearly visible from the road. I find taking photo’s a “chore” and for the most part can’t be bothered, preferring “skull cinema”, but this was special. The stop also gave me the chance to apply sun- protection. It is mid-morning and already the sun if quite fierce.
I press on musing on how the owners of the Chateau will spend their day. I rode silently through Colanges, not wishing to wake anybody up, I did not even see a cat. Progress thus far has been good. It’s just after mid-day and 45 miles already in the bag. Rohan is the next port of call, about 15 mins away. I carry 3 water bottles, the last one almost empty, and despite not feeling particularly hungry, with a further 3 hours cycling to complete I know food and water are essential. Hopefully Rohan will serve as a refuelling stop, assuming everyone has decided to get out of bed!
I arrive in Rohan feeling quite up-beat. Rohan has a pulse and it is beating. It has all the essential services. It will serve me well!
The language problem returns when purchasing a phone card at the local P.O. None of the staff spoke any English. Having already secured the bike to a bench in a shady part of the square I return to indulge in a favourite pastime – eating lunch from the confines of a park bench, watching the world go by!
St Jean-d’Angely – to quote the travel guide; is a beautiful town. With a name like that it has to be and would be an ideal place for my overnight stop. I would be hoping to arrive about 5.30 p.m. So with water bottles refilled, body rested and refuelled, it is time to get back to what I do best – “What’s that I hear you say?”
Three hours later, having survived a brief thunder storm, and a couple of wrong turns, (nothing drastic), I find myself 8k short of “St. Jean-d’Angely”at a place called “Loulay”, the sort of place you would normally just ride through. However, on this occasion a sign at the roadside alerts me to the possibility of a Chambre. The directions take me to what looks like a farm. A group of people are sitting around a table enjoying a meal.
For some time now I have been aware that my dress code and mode of transport projects a feeling of unease when approaching or meeting people for the first time. Why this should be I have no idea when you consider France’s love affair with the bicycle. But, on reflection, I saw many racing cyclists all with a ready wave and “Bonjour Monsieur”, but no one like “yours truly”. In the entire “Trip” I never saw one touring cyclist.
I did not know, at the time, that I would be spending the next “3” nights at this place with memories both good and bad, and in years hence, when in reflective mood, the names of “Boutin” and “Loulay” will readily spring to mind. Bad housekeeping on my part, and no prior knowledge of the public holidays, over the next two days were to be my downfall.
29th April – “Rouillac”
Today’s intended route should have taken me to Rouillac, a ride of about 70 miles, but on arrival at St. Jean-d-Angely, I find, because of the Public Holidays, all the Banks are closed and the money situation is now desperate. The only option is to use the "Hole in the wall”. I have a choice of five.
I approach the first with trepidation (these things make me nervous); watching my card disappear into a machine, wondering if it will reappear, is not my favourite pastime. I much prefer Banks, despite the fact the majority of staff do not speak English, my card remains in view. My fifth and final visit to the last remaining cash dispenser results with the same end product. A message on screen – “Your transaction has been rejected”.
I was now in a serious situation, of my own making. My incompetence was staring me in the face and I realised that, for the time being, the journey had ground to a halt. Having failed, forwhatever reason, the cash card test (played 5 won 0) the second test, designed to introduce me to the 21st century was upon me.
The “mobile phone”; are my fingers too big or are the buttons too small? Success is mine at the first attempt. After dialling (is that the right word?) a number ¾ of a mile long, this amazing piece of technology connected me to the cash card “Help-line”. After a number of heated exchanges he remained adamant the card should work. I thanked him and hoped he would never seek employment with the R.N.L.I. It would be a bad career move, especially for those at sea!
I now had to pursue my only option – try and obtain a further two night’s food and shelter on trust at my previous night’s Chambre. But, with the ever present language problem, that will be easier said than done. Fortunately for me, the local “Tourist Information” was open. Surely someone must speak English there? I was able to explain my situation and survival plan; the girls were wonderful, going beyond the call of duty. They handled the situation with humour and patience, one girl even worked through her lunch break conversing both in French and English – acting as go-between – and arranged for me to return to the previous night’s Chambre on trust till Wednesday. I felt a token gesture on my part was required – in appreciation for the kindness and consideration shown to me. I have two days to think of something, but at this moment in time, a million thank you’s would be barely adequate.
I had now entered calmer waters with a roof, bed and food assured for the next two days. I select a table in a shaded part of the square and spend 5 of my remaining 35euros on ham and fromage omelette. Sitting back, I now had time to savour my surroundings with water running through and around, St. Jean-d-Angely was indeed a remarkable place.
Bicycles arouse curiosity in France. It’s a bit like owning a dog back in England. I soon found myself in conversation with an English couple. It felt good to be having a two-way conversation. They wanted to know what I was up to. I wagged my tail and duly obliged. They seemed quite “gob smacked” when I explained the itinerary, but why I mentioned the cash-card crisis was for reasons beyond me. Maybe it was a way of getting rid of the “angst”. I never met Chris Brashner, but I’ve read a number of his books and spoken to people who met him on a few occasions.
This gentleman was out of the same mould, “bit of a boyo” – Devil may care attitude to life he had, and still was – albeit to a lesser degree. An “ocean going” yachtsman, who reminded me that at 69 years of age I was just a “kid” compared to his 78 years. I would like to think he recognised a “kindred spirit” but was probably just another dog owner.
Gerald and Pauline had an enviable lifestyle, dividing their time between two homes. One in Spain, the other in the fair city of Bath in the U.K. It seemed a kind of “tug-o-war” relationship, while Gerald went about actively pursuing his great passion for the sea, Pauline spent a lot of her time finding ways of applying the brakes. His enthusiasm was “boundless”. He probably never realised how fortunate he was to have this “Lady” on board. Cometh the dark nights of Winter, and in reflective mood, I will look back on this chance encounter in the knowledge that it epitomized what I hoped the “Trip” would be all about.
St.Jean-d-Angely was your archetypal French town, and, in sitting in the square in the warm sunshine, enjoying the company of nice people and French cuisine, life does not get much better.
Just prior to leaving, Gerald gave me his business card, Telephone number and, at the same time, floated 40 euros across the table, saying there was more if needed, adding they would be in the area for the next few days. “Any problems - just ring”. Their last words were “Don’t forget to write the book”. They thought it would be a good idea. I promised them a signed copy! For the first time I was able to convey my feelings into language and thank these good people for their company and generosity. Unlike similar situations with French people, my lack of language prevents this. It’s frustrating!
On my return to the U.K. my wife sent a “thank-u-card” and a cheque for said amount). A few days later I received a congratulatory reply.
Putting modesty aside - I’ve included it below:-
Girona – Espana
30th May 2007
Thank you so much for your card and the enclosed E40.
We think you are marvellous to have made it all the way to the Med, and we hope you meet some interesting people on the way.
We were pleased to have been of some small help to you in your hour of need and that all went well in the end.
If you are ever in this part of the world, do give us a call.
Gerald and Pauline.
Forced inactivity through cash-card experience, I find myself spending two pedal free days in the “Cognac” area. On reflection, I have been lucky. I am in the company of the redoubtable Madam Boutin and family.
Madam is a mother hen type character, who makes the trains run on time. Her small work-force seem to jump to her every command. It is a long established family business, specialising in black puddings and various farm products; making and supplying local restaurants and beyond.
Before my arival in France, I made a pledge (despite my lack of Francais) to try and communicate at every opportunity. Bruno seems to be the only person who does not jump when Madam Boutin appears, so I assume he must be the “foreman”. His English was not good, but much better than my French, so, with Bruno’s help, I got a vague idea of the set up, and we had a few laughs along the way.
Circumstances being what they are, give me the chance to observe, and in a small way, experience a rural French way of life. It’s a public holiday today, cool and drizzly. It’s mid-morning and so “very-very quiet”; never heard the cockerel this morning – could be why I did not rise until 8.30 a.m.
I amble across to the main farmhouse accompanied by Madam’s favourite white doves, about 12 in all. They have the run of the place; adorable creatures. I open the door and announce my arrival – Bonjour (silence). Breakfast had been laid out on the long oak table so, to the only sound of the ticking clock on the wall, breakfast commenced.
It was an impressive spread, with a wide choice. It took a lot of will power not to empty the cheese plate. I’ve had cheese back home but it did not taste like this.
Whilst enjoying breakfast, I flicked through the pages of the Visitor Guest Book. Madam Boutin seems to be a “Cause Celebre” to everyone. After ½ hr a door creaked open and I was joined by Phillipe, who I took to be the oldest family member; possibly the oldest in the whole of France. “Bonjour Phillipe – comment-allez-vous”? His face started to “crack” as he smiled, he seemed pleased that I had remembered his name.
In true French tradition I was at the table 1 ½ hours, earing and reading. Apart from my initial greeting no conversation took place between Phillipe and I, both content with our choice of reading material. It was only as I got up to leave, I realised that Phillipe, unlike myself, did not require reading glasses. Maybe it’s the cheese!
My most recent acquired French grammar was “A bientot”(see you soon). I decided to unleach it on my breakfast guest. If only I could have got that smile on camera.
1st May Tuesday.
Writing a book was something I had given little, or no thought to, whatsoever. But today the weather is again wet and windy, so I decide to keep the promise I made to my yachtsman friend and benefactor, and begin writing the book. How it will be received is another matter entirely. I can hear the “revues” now: “We’ve seen what you do – and – what you do – you do very well”. However, despite my lack of literary skills I rose to the challenge, putting pen to paper for most of the day and finding it quite absorbing. I likened my situation to “George 0rwell” on the Isle of Jura, our vocations were similar. His an elevated room in an old farmhouse looking out at the land and animals. Just the same as mine. Orwell or Armstrong, who should it be? Life is so complicated.
2nd May Wednesday
Today I am hoping to get the show back on the road again. I awoke feeling a mite groggy after consuming too much wine at last night’s dinner. It was a wonderful evening and totally unexpected. Dinner was served at 8.0 p.m. I opened the door and was met by a roaring log fire. The table had been laid out for 4 people “who could they be"? Jacques and Sylvie had arrived mid-afternoon on their way home to Rochefort. They were friends of Madam Boutin and had stayed at the farm on numerous occasions in the past. The 3 of us, along with Madam Boutin, were soon seated in anticipation of a meal to savour. Madam Boutin’s food has an enviable reputation! Jacques poured the wine, and in unison, we toasted Madam Boutin’s health and longevity.
I was seated next to Sylvie, who could speak a little English and assumed the role of interpreter. Everyone had a super time. Jacques made sure no one had an empty glass, whilst Sylvie ran around the room with her camera, with the promise of forwarding the prints to my home in the U.K. “Such nice people”. The bad head the following morning was a small price to pay for such a great time!
The next morning Madam Boutin and I went to St. Jean-d-Angely. Today the Banks were open; I needed money and Madam was owed 2 days rent for food and shelter. I was ready at the agreed time of 9.15 a.m. Madam Boutin arrived in a big fancy Mercedes car; she is a fast driver for a 78 year old! She took great pleasure in pointing out all the land she owned. “Those my cows – my land Robert”, whilst at times driving almost on the wrong side of the road. I hope she is not driving when I’m on the bike!
We arrive at the Bank thankfully, still in one piece. I decide to check first the cards validity with the people inside the Bank. A refined cultured lady speaking fluent English assures me the card should work. I try once more with the usual end result. Eye contact is made with my cultured lady friend and I perform my French-shrug caricature; she responds by raising one finger, which I translate as “be with you in one minute”. Back home the finger would have been the other way round, followed by a vocal accompaniement of “spin on this”. On her return I decide to play the sympathy card by informing the lady of my low I.Q. and difficulties with cash cards and mobile phones. I get a positive response. She says I should not be expected to use cash cards and mobile phones with a small I.Q. and offers to try the card herself. Success at the very first try. The 3 of us celebrate. The lady hands me the card back, along with the money, smiles and wishes me a safe journey. “Aren’t the French just great” Back home they would have called me some really nasty names!
Having paid my dues and given Madam Boutin a big thank you hug, only one task remained. On my approach to the Bank the girls at the Tourist 0ffice saw me and waved. “There’s that mad Englishman”. As the saying goes “flowers say more than words can ever say”. A bunch of flowers was the least I could do to show my gratitude.
My arrival at the Tourist 0ffice was met with cheers and laughter, they even came to the door to wave me off. All the trouble I had caused them, maybe they were glad to see the back of me.
If you said St. Jean-d-Angely was populated with Angels most people would believe you. It’s such a beautiful sounding name, but if there were any lingering doubts, a visit to the Tourist 0ffice would convice them it was true.
3rd May – Ribarac
After a hearty breakfast and a good Chambre, I was away prompt at 9.15 a.m. Riberac was 75 miles down the line, but I was feeling good and in optimistic mood. I felt sure I would make it. For the next 3 days I will be in vineyard country. I got my first glimpse of these grotesque things towards the end of yesterday’s ride. Standing about 5 feet tall and in the most weird shapes imaginable. They were reminiscent of the creatures that appeared in horror movies I used to watch as a kid back in the 50’s. Vines are o.k. when they are in a bottle or better still in a glass! Their scenic value is nil.
The ride was progressing well with the miles rattling off at an alarming pace. I arrived in Montero at lunch-time with 45 miles already in the bag. Most of the places I rode through in the afternoon were a bit non-descript – Ribarac had a nice feel to it, the only problem being there was nowhere to stay. I spent 45 mins. looking round the place only to return, still in breach of French vagrancy laws. It’s a recurring problem to which I have no answer only that there isn’t one. It’s all down to “lady luck”. I came across three hotels in my search, all Closed.
It would be nice to “fall off the bike” into a nice hotel at journey’s end without all this hassle. The end of the day’s ride should be a “cause celebre”, relaxing in one of the pavement cafes enjoying a well deserved meal, finishing with a nice stroll to the Hotel to prepare for the following day.
I miss out on the feel and atmosphere of places I visit, becoming anxious and focused on other matters. With this mind-set I could connect with a place just as well by simply looking at a postcard. So it’s stick with the old system. The main roads provide the best chance; sooner or later a sign will appear at the roadside “Chambre-de-hotes”, but you may have to go 2 or 3 kms off road only to find it closed; its also the wrong time of day to be entering a lottery!. However, on this occasion I find a place 6kms out of Ribarac. It was a bad end to a good day and I am feeling a bit “p….. ..f” Excuse my French.
4th May – Bergerac
Bergerac! Will it be as nice as I anticipated? I will get to know soon, hoping to arrive mid-day. Little did I know it was the beginning of the worst day of the entire journey, one that drained me physically and mentally.
The day started well, though perhaps a little too hot for cycling. Mussidan was the last town before Bergerac. I did not know what the problem was, but, with the sun getting hotter by the minute, an 8 kms detour was something I could have done without.
Bergerac did not disappoint. It had many fine buildings, it’s people smart and stylish. I spent a pleasant hour in this well-heeled metropolis, having lunch and watching the world go by.
Bergerac had a cosmopolitan feel to it, but, despite this, I never heard anything other than the native tongue. It was also proving to be as difficult as Cholet to escape from. France’s refusal to recognise the existence of the Southpole – thus creating the same situation as Cholet, whereby all roads appear to go East-West or North.
I suppose on a journey of this length and duration, problems like these are inevitable, but they really are best avoided being both taxing on morale and energy. The problem is, of course, language. Back home the situation would be resolved in no time at all. 90 minutes have been spent using maps and phrase book with no success. Riding into the wind is not as daft as it sounds. Most of the time its prevailing south and therefore a good yardstick. The next 3 hours will find me totally unaware that, despite being on the right road I was travelling in the wrong direction.
This was an extremely busy road, gut-wrenching, lung bursting 4k hills, plus a strong cross wind to contend with. It was a bad situation and did not feel right, but, being the optomist, I continued onwards and upwards. The place names I had anticipated were not in evidence in either direction. After 19 k and another knee-breaker, I slumped at the roadside to consult the map. I then realised my mistake. The thought of having to go back all that way and start again for the moment was too difficlt to contemplate. My physical well being was not good and I was now running on empty. I sat trance-like clearing my mind of negative thoughts, before applying myself to the task in hand.
Despite long downhill sections, the return journey took a long time. The sun was merciless and I was finding concentration difficult. Constant wind induces a feeling of drowsiness. I got to within 3k of Bergerac and could go no further, and, by now, was feeling quite unwell. A Chambre was available across the road. It had been a bad day, but the Chambre gave it a convenient finish.
Jacques, the man of the house, was standing at the bottom of this long drive, watching my unsteady approach. The weight of the bike, along with a pair of legs that gave the feeling of belonging to someone else, was making negotiation of the downward slope difficult.
Jacques told me that he was concerned by my appearance and wanted to help. He brought me a large cup of coffee and insisted on washing my clothes, which seemed an odd thing to say. I then realised I had been wearing them for over a week and my approach had been downwind. The smell must have been quite memorable! Most places would have hurriedly closed all the windows and told me there was “no room at the inn”, but I had been very fortunate. Jacques was one of those rare breed of people who were put on this earth to help others. What the others are here for “I don’t know”.
Back home give or take an odd word here or there, initial greetings are predictable and banal, followed by a limp handshake, but this was different and I must say I quite enjoyed it. The next time I meet someone for the first time I will make them a big cup of coffee and offer to wash their clothes! It could be the start of a beautiful friendship. Suffice to say Jacques and family were helpful, decent people, who invited me to join them for their evening meal. We had steak washed down with Jacques’s favourite wine. I’ve had the odd glass of vino back home, with no lasting impression, but this was a bit special – “Pineau-de-Charente”. I made a note of the name. Jacques seemed quite amused when telling me all the best wines remain in France and the chances of acquiring a bottle back home were nil!
Jacques’ in laws had arrived a few days earlier from Strasbourg, so there was plenty of interesting banter as we enjoyed our meal. Mid-way through the meal a herd of Roe-deer suddenly appeared in the forst which Jacques referred to as his back garden.
After the meal we all retired to the family’s favourite part of the house; a large decked area which backed out onto the woods. Jacques had developed an almost child like enthusiasm for what remained of my journey. Maps and sketch pads laid out on the table, he suggested alternative routes along with foolproof directions through Bergerac. He even offered to chaperone me in his car, but after following Gerard in his clapped out van when leaving Camelot, (which left me knackered) I declined his well intentioned offer.
Sharing in the lives and hospitality of these good people (albeit for only a short time) had been a rewarding experience and a good end to a deplorable day.
5th May Tournon-d-Agenais
A good day was essential today. Jacques directions were spot on and Bergerac was soon a distant memory. Going over the impressive road bridge, I looked down at the Dordogne gliding serenely through far below. 40 minutes into the ride I began to realise I had not recovered from the previous day’s exertions. My tyres felt like they were sticking to the road. I sat heavily on the saddle each mile requiring a huge effort. I was soon back in familiar territory on good roads with just the sound of birdsong for company.
The miles were now beginning to click down nicely. There were hills but these were female hills gentle and caring. Riding on good surfaced roads, with the hum of tyre on tarmac, makes riding a bike a real pleasure.
The town of Villneave was now at the forefront of my mind. It was about 21k down the line and was also the place I would get my first glimpse of France’s most beautiful river the “Lot”, sounds like the perfect lunch stop.
The early tiredness had eased somewhat and I was now feeling lighter on the bike. However, I do accept the possibility that field upon field of sunflowers could somehow have contributed to my light hearted optimism. It should be compulsory all World Leaders, at summit meetings should wear a sunflower in their lapel and George Bush should learn to play (the only instrument guaranteed to make you smile) the “ukelele”. The problems of the world would be solved overnight!
I arrived in Villneave around mid-day, once again the park bench – Jambon combination was “bliss”, but Villneave disappointing. The River Lot must have thought likewise as it passed hurriedly through, eager to reach open country once more.
Shortly before 6.0 p.m. I arrived at the fortified hilltop town of Tournon-d-Agenais and within minutes of my arrival had booked in at the town’s only hotel. These hilltop towns are begging to be explored and with the Hotel’s restaurant closed for a further 6 weeks another alternative would have to be found.
I set forth up the narrow cobbled street. There was a real Italian feel about this place. After 20 minutes I arrived at the top not having seen or passed anyone. Standing alone in the town square it felt quite spooky, posing the question “does anyone really live here”?
Word of my presence spread quickly and, within minutes of selecting a suitable bench, I was confronted by the town’s welcoming committee consisting of numerous breeds of cats, dogs, chickens and a couple of goats. Curiosity is a trait shared by both animals and humans and producing two different reactions. Animals have a very upfront approach. Their sense of smell determines your c.v. in seconds. In complete contrast humans prefer a more discreet approach, peeping from behind curtains is one I have witnessed many times. For my part I prefer the upfront approach of the animals. I offer my hand inviting them to have a good sniff, if after two minutes the hand is still connected to the wrist, you have been accepted – you are now part of the gang.
I continue my exploration in wonderful company, the gang followed me everywhere. After 40 mins., and still no sign of humanity, we returned to the square to go our separate ways. Language had been incidental. We had all enjoyed each other’s companionship.
I headed back to the Hotel for a quick wash and brush up. There was only one restaurant which, in all honesty, looked out of my league. Proper cooked food was essential so I returned, somewhat embarrassed by my dress code!. This was not a t-shirt, tracksuit sort of place.
On arrival I received a cool reception and was ushered to a small table in the corner in the hope that none of the other guests had seen me arrive. It had a unique atmosphere created entirely by the magic of candlelight. The walls were adorned with paintings of one “Robert Motherwell”. Found the name intriguing and also a little odd. It seemed out of place, but this enshrine oozed class and style. No Monet garden prints here. But who was Robert Motherwell, perhaps some of the guests thought it could have been me?
6th May – Villemur
A chilly morning welcomed me to the start line prompting me into a brisk early pace. The only dark cloud, on an otherwise clear blue sky, was of my own making. Today my ongoing battle with the cash machine would resume and I was the underdog. La Francaise was the place I had in mind for the opening skirmishes of “Man versus machine”
The day had warmed up considerably with the miles clicking down nicely. I should make La Francaise in time for lunch.
Today’s route had been very undulating thus far and, after cresting one particular long drag, I was confronted by a group of hikers in the process of having lunch. They hailed me across to their table, curious to know what I was up to. They seemed highly amused when I explained the itinerary and offered me a glass of wine. I raised my glass in reverance to their country and proclaimed “Vive-la-France”. This sent them into mild hysterics, but the sight of numerous empty bottles spoke volumes. I think they were all “p….d”.
La Francaise was a nice place; with a name like that it had to be. It’s mid-day and I find myself sat in the square, jambon at the ready, perfectly seated to view the activity at the cash machine a short distance away.
Forty minutes pass in this sleepy backwater where the word activity seems to be a dirty word. Eventually the sound of a car arriving on the small adjacent car park eliminates the sound of birdsong, bringing my lone vigil to an end. A smartly attired gent steps from the car carrying a large briefcase and heads directly towards the cash machine. As he walks by he gives me a quizzical look followed by a curt “Bonjour Monsieur”. I return his daytime pleasantry. My appearance probably gave him the impression I was a tramp or some kind of vagrant, but, in France, even tramps can be the recipients of good manners.
With his arrival at the cash machine, he placed the briefcase down and completed his transaction in about 30 seconds whilst at the same time holding a conversation on his mobile phone. I was impressed after witnessing that performance. I felt sure I would rise to the occasion, might even try the mobile phone bit
The words which had been so elusive in past encounters had finally appeared on the screen – your transaction is complete – remove your card. The contest was over, I had won by a knockout.
I was at a loss to explain the logic behind this success or the reason behind the dismal failures of the past. However, I now had enough money to see me through to the end of the “Trip”.
It’s late afternoon and the recurring accommodation problem comes into focus. Having just spent 1/2 hr in the small village of Alban and drawing a blank, I revert to my customary tactic and ride my luck to the next town an hours ride away.
Just on the outskirts of Villemur I catch sight of a Chambre-de-hotes sign which takes me through a wooded area. It seems an unlikely setting! Eventually I emerge into an area of open fields and what, at first glance, looked like a disused factory. The majority of fields were occupied by horses, and, after 10 minutes of trying to alert someone of my presence, I decide to sit down and wait. Watching these beautiful, elegant creatures seemed the natural thing to do.
After a while I spy a figure still some distance away heading towards me. This is Jullianne, and the disused factory, along with the horses, had become her labour of love. Jullianne’s recently departed partner had left her up a certain creek without a paddle. It was their mutual love of horses that brought them together, then drove them apart. Jullianne’s partner began to realise she loved the horses more than him, so he “flew the coop”, but she was a determined lady and intent on seeing her vision through to the very end. If things had gone to plan the joint venture would have been to turn part of the building into s/c apartments and the remainder as livery stables. Three of the apartments were up and running and were a credit to the lady, but the entrance was hardly inspiring. Two flights of concrete steps led to a large barn door which gave access to a corridor which led to my apartment.
It was now almost dark as I lay on the bed checking out the following days route and finding concentration difficult. The place is full of creaks and groans caused by the wind, no doubt, but being the owner of a fertile imagination, a firm hand on the tiller will be essential tonight. “Bon soir”.
7th May - Revel
Slept well and away sharp at 9.0 a.m. It was going to be a hot day. Revel was today’s target, a journey of 70 miles. If all goes to plan e.t.a. would be around 3.0 p..m. I did not forsee any accommodation problems at Revel and, as a last resort, I could refer to “Plan Mike”. My colleague at the club told me about a good basic hotel where he stayed about 2 years ago. It was five miles outside Revel, atop of a very long steep hill. However, it was 5 miles in the right direction for the next leg of the Trip and, as Mike pointed out, being faced with a hill of this magnitude so soon after breakfast would not be the ideal start to the day. So with each turn of the pedal “Plan Mike” was becoming the sensible option.
There was now a South of France feel to everything, buildings, terracotta tiled roofs and a different kind of heat. In the small villages I passed through there was also a discernible slower pace of life. Having witnessed, first hand, the pace of life in Northern France I would not have thought it possible to go any slower without avoiding a trip to the local cemetery. That said, I rather like it, however, I think the locals would have taken umbrage (what a strange word that is) about my use of the word “slower”. Sensible would have been a better choice. However, despite my concerns about the local fire brigade, no effort whatsoever would be required for me to adapt to this sensible pace of life.
The 0rwell-Armstrong dilemma came back into focus on today’s ride but was quickly resolved. I would be Lance in the daytime and George in the evening, but there is a problem. George sometimes turns up in the morning and Lance in the evening, the end product being an unproductive day on two fronts i.e. low mileage – writer’s block. (I think I need counselling)
The wind was now a big problem. Narbonne is not France’s wind-surfing capitol for nothing. It’s turned mid-day and Revel is still 40 miles distant. In terms of achieved mileage it’s been a bad morning (George is to blame). The wind and the hills are sapping energy very quickly. Food and drink are now vital.
Half an hour later I am seated in a pleasant roadside café occupied by two ladies both conversing in English. I select a table next to a window, keeping old faithful in view. The place is becoming more interesting by the second, the paintings on the walls looking strangely familiar. Langdale pikes – Wastwater were instantly recognised. The remainder being various scenes from the English-Lake district.
I expressed my surprise on hearing my native tongue. The owner hailed from Cockermouth. Both had been resident in France for 3 ½ years and were fluent in the language.
I posed the question about the paintings being a good idea, maybe acting as “a home thoughts from abroad” scenario! She admitted there were times when she needed to touch base, making it back to England twice a year, then happy to return to her life in France.
It was now saddle up time. This had been a longer than usual stop sending my e.t.a. in Revel flying out of the window. However, it had been 50 min. of time well spent stocking up with good home cooking and enlightening conversation, plus a free slice of the best chocolate cake I ever tasted. “Vive-la-Cockermouth”
I arrive in Revel at 5.31. The ladies who refuelled the engine told me it was all downhill, “they had a wicked sense of humour”. Revel was a lovely town deserving of its “must-see” reputation in the travel guide. I spent ¾ hr strolling around the place but, at the end of a day of sustained peddling, sightseeing is the last thing I want to do. The comforts of a hotel room always swayed the day.
Carcassonne 0ld Road had been located in record time but was far too steep to ride, so I took the bike for a walk. This was a brute of a hill that went forever on! It was now almost 7.0 p.m. when I came across a sign saying “Hotel Renaissance” 400 yards. If it’s closed I’ll curl up and die! “Shangri-la it’s open”. The receptionist showing me to my room points to an exercise bike in a work out centre and, with a cheeky wry smile says “for you”. I smiled back, took the key, closed the door and collapsed on the bed.
After a rest and shower I felt much better and make my way to the hotel restaurant. It was extremely busy with a good atmosphere. I enjoyed a plate of the local cassoulet, very filling, then returned to my room to prepare for the morrow. The day had finished well, but sleep was now beckoning. As I reached for the light I swear I could smell the sea.
8th May Narbonne - Plage
Hotel Renaissance had been an excellent stopover, a happy good humoured staff is the yardstick to a good hotel. After a hearty breakfast I make the start line 9.0 a.m. sharp totally unaware that only 1/3 of the climb had been completed the previous day, a further 5 miles remained but thankfully not quite as steep.
Narbonne and the chequered flag were 90 miles distant, too far for a day’s ride especially in this heat. The sensible plan would be to spread the remaining miles over two days. All we need now is someone sensible to implement it!
Today’s route will take me through Montagne-Noire, the southern most part of France’s central mountains. Not huge by Pyrenees or Alps standards, but a big enough challenge for a not so young cyclist like myself.
The first two hours were very strenuous with the road spiralling its way upwards and the temperature nudging 31 degrees. A tough day was in prospect.
The scenery was outstanding. Already I could see a dramatic change in my surroundings in complete contrast to the dull agricultural landscape of bygone days. In the distance I can see a fortified hilltop town suspended against the skyline; there are many in these parts; wonderful atmospheric places where your imagination can run riot. You can be anyone from Henry V to El-Cid. Of course a child’s out-take in these situations is a big asset friends! Tell me, I would have no problem qualifying in that department. I have, on occasion, let rip with “Harry’s” call to arms Agincourt speech, my voice resonating around the battlements. The words making you rise to the occasion, but do not be surprised if learned people in white coats come to say “hello”. For reasons unknown to me, I am transported into a world of make believe every time I get on the bike, surreal thoughts occuring all the time, but once off the bike I return to normal, despite what the wife says. However you can take this as “gospel”, in “vino-land” I learned the entire Agincourt “address”. It took my mind off the scenery.
The riding was now becoming a little easier with a welcome light drizzle to cool things down. I passed through some sleepy small villages stopping at Saissiac, France’s answer to the Hay-on-Wye book town in England. I really do enjoy these random stops with a bite to eat and watching the world go by. I spent a further 40 minutes in the hope of bringing to an end my constant search for selected poems Dylan Thomas, first edition. But, despite the many books shops, I was out of luck.
I had been climbing steadily for the best part of 4 hours before arriving what felt like the top of the world. I was rewarded with this astonishing panorama of sun warm Carcassonne vistas far below: snowcapped Pyrenees and the coastal plains leading all the way to the Mediterranean. I could even make out El-Cite Carcassonne’s famous landmark (could it really be that big)?
The second part of today’s ride is looking like mile upon mile of steady downhill gradients. Free-wheeling at 25 m.p.h. employs a high degree of concentration. One mistake is all that’s required and the best day of the “Trip” thus far becomes the worst. I have seen what can go wrong! Road surfaces are the problem i.e. potholes, litter, not traffic. In the whole of today’s ride I have seen 4 or 5 cars at most. All acknowledged my presence with a wave and pip of the horn. It’s a regular occurrence which, for whatever reason, makes me feel good and one I will always associate with the Trip. It’s strange how the most insignificant gesture remains with you the longest.
Carcassonne has a nice welcoming feel about it, perhaps it has something to do with Canal-du-midi, the famous inland waterway connecting the Atlantic to the Med. Rivers and canals seems to bring the best out of people as if dictating their pace of life, making them more relaxed and approachable.
My brother lives on a canal and has a lower pulse rate than sleeping beauty – the similarity ends there.
After spending time perusing under and around the famous castellated towers (yes it really is that big), I suffered an adrenalin fuelled bout of insanity. The day thus far had gone well and I was feeling in good shaape and foolishly decided to continue towards Narbonne arriving there at 5.30 p.m. The next “howler” on my part was being totally unaware that 17 miles separated the two Narbonnes – Narbonne Plage and the chequered flag entailed a further two hours in the saddle, something I felt incapable of. The wind and heat had taken their toll. I curse my lack off good sense. I should, at my age, show better judgement. Numerous attempts at accommodation fell on stony ground and I arrived at Narbonne Plage and took the chequered flag around 8.0 p.m. well and truly “goosed”.
Within minutes of my arrival I had secured two nights B & B but this was by far the worst place of the entire journey. In the past I had stayed in Chateaus, mediaeval residences and a couple of good clean basic hotels. I was by now used to far better.
After a shower and change of clothes I made my way to the hotel restaurant. The place was empty apart from the beady eyed manager who seemed uneasy by my presence. After the meal I took a stroll to the seafront for my first view of the Med. I can’t think of anywhere more depressing than an out of season beach resort. All of life’s imponderables seem to descend on these places. I should be feeling quite upbeat having just crossed the finish line, not having a “mental downer”.
Back at the hotel I told beady-eye, come the morrow I will be moving on.
This was the end of Channel to Med, tomorrow I head for Beziers, but that’s another story!.
Back in domestic harness once again, with time to look back on a journey that seems to get better with the passing of time, each day was an adventure with the unexpected never far away.
However, cycling across France alone was not something I would have done by choice much preferring the company and backup of a couple of friends. There would have been plenty of laughs and no doubt, a few arguments, but all would have been resolved leading to a much more rounded experience.
I was not prepared for the long isolated days in the saddle. A bit of banter and conversation was badly needed, but with 4 weeks to go, things could have been so very different.
I had recruited two more team members making a grand total of 3, a number I considered to be ideal, but it was not to be. Circumstances prevented the team being put to the test. I now had to decide whether to continue alone.
It’s the easiest thing in the world to find excuses not to do something and I was determined not to fall into that trap. So it’s just me and the bike – what a team.
Whilst on the subject of bikes, after a few early teething troubles my 20 year old bike was “Manifique” and never complained once about that blasted headwind.
So there we have it, the end of my little adventure. I say little because compared to what some people do this was just a walk around the block. But the thing about this one is that most people you see on the high street would be capable of a similar venture.
You do not need special skills or training, the only requirement being the ability to ride a bicycle. I think everyone should have a little adventure at least once in their lifetime. You don’t need to be super fit, have a super bike or be all that young: - You don't even need to have a high IQ!