2017 September. Cycling through France

Enjoyed a few days in Karlsruhe where I am embarrassingly treated like royalty and always leave begrudgingly. First it’s the good company, secondly I’ve been coming here since I was a raw nineteen year old and finally I love the local forest cycling. There is always a borrowed bike available to flush away the jet lag.

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Cycling the forest and agricultural laneways around Karlsruhe, pure bliss.

I tasted an e-bike this year but was told I was in training and to get off it. I have dreamt of that electric bike each day as I’ve headed South. I return there in a few weeks time for a few more relaxing days before heading home. To me Karlsruhe is my European family !

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It was originally direct to San Sebastian but the Westerlies blew me off course !

The trains to Calais via Paris were as slick as you would imagine. Some things haven’t changed about Paris I thought as I lugged my bike up a granite stairwell between Paris Est and Paris Nord stations. My nose twitched at the first whiff of ingrained urine, anywhere slightly hidden is licence for locals to have a pee. I trudged on taking in my surroundings. Paris, the down and out poor and the super wealthy begrudgingly rub shoulders. The wealthy in their dapper fashion pretending the rest don’t exist, their eyes stare straight ahead, unblinking, refusing to acknowledge their presence.

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Tourist to cyclist once I put this thing together. And yes this was the changing room.

At Calais I turned from tourist to cyclist. Firstly I was at Calais TGV station not the town so after stripping down into my cycling gear and rebuilding my bike I headed into Calais proper and posted my bike bag to San Sebastián my final destination. Fingers crossed that works ?
Immediately I had the wind on my brow but the blind enthusiasm had me initially disregard it. At 70 klms and with light fading, so was I, the wind had exhausted me. Luck not planning found me a bed and a rustic French meal. I must say no to the cheese, I must say no to the cheese. Because it’s not going to be the beer or wine.

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I stumbled upon this gem as the sun sank. I hadn’t seen a hotel in hours, luck not planning

The following days ran along similar lines. I rise early try to scavenge something to eat or spy something on the road within the first hour or so. The constant has been the wind, I need no navigation really for if I cannot feel it on my nose or whistling into my mouth I am off route ! I held a meeting with myself, stay away from the coast Jeff that wind will only be stronger. I ventured further inland, more agricultural and more hills but I figured more protected. But it hasn’t magically disappeared, oh no.

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Mrs Google Maps and I had the occasional, ok regular arguments…..

By heading away from the areas I had spent time mapping and studying meant I neither knew the route nor the possible towns I would encounter. This has been both a mixture of frustration and revelation. I employed the services of the lady on Google maps set on cyclist, she is stern and always reckons she knows best. The cyclist mode keeps me away from major roads, but when she directs me into a forest and the tracks are progressively dwindling to World War 1 trenches or cows track to the milking shed it’s not a path for a touring bike. This happens daily and I put up with it because it has also had me follow magnificent cycle paths between unknown villages, along canals and yes into farms where I regularly startle the poor old farmer and farm animals.

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Then again she did send me along some rather special laneways

I have just had my first rest day in Nantes after winding my way from Angers along the Loire river. It was probably one of my favourite rides ever and it wasn’t till afterwards that I realised that many of the cycling tour companies bring groups here to cycle here for exactly that reason, I’d simply stumbled upon it.

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The Mayor of Nantes took a gamble with  Les Machines and now the city is thriving.

Nantes is a large city with the most fantastic artistic expression, yes that’s what the French call it. Ten years ago the old shipyards were turned into Les Machines De Lile, A couple of guys built a series of mechanical animals unapologetically mechanical, kind of animals with a willy wonker twist. They are fab.

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The trip highlight, the mechanical elephant in Nantes

I rode the majestically elephant, constructed of wood, steel and flapping leather ears, all 12 m high and 21 m long. Before I left on my jaunt the guide prattled on in earnest to the forty odd others then finally she asked, “any English ” I sheepishly raised my hand. “Dont jump off, oh, and hold on” she snapped and with that she headed back down into the elephants belly. The elephant flapped his ears, trumpeted, sprayed children with fireman velocity volleys of water from his trunk and generally lumbered along like elephants do. Every person aboard had the smile of a five-year old across their faces. People looked up at us as we strolled along in absolute wonderment. Unforgettable.

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I know it’s not real but I was still mesmerised.

I walked the river in the afternoon, the sun finally showing its face but the wind still there, my body was grateful for the lay day. The skyline was festooned with tower cranes, obviously something is going right for this city and it was easy to feel the warm vibe. I headed to the Jules Verne museum, he was from here. The museum didn’t open till 2pm ? So I wandered about killing time. Bars and baguettes were the only thing on offer so I sat on a bench with a live band playing calypso / zydeco type Cat Empire music somewhere behind a large stone wall. The Jules Verne museum was ok, crazy ideas and legendary author of Eighty Days Around the World but the morning was going to make anything else seem a little ho-hum.

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One of the many contraptions in the Jules Verne museum, Nantes.

I left in a heavy downpour the following morning, I could see the receptionist thinking why. It got better but not till Google maps had me do three laps of the town before letting me escape. I plugged in my phone early, I have a dynamo in my front wheel producing power except when I had my puncture I’d forgotten to re-connect it ! Mid morning the phone died and I ran out of GPS. I somehow got myself out of an agricultural setting and onto bitumen but I wasw still lost. Fortunately an elderly couple turned into a nearby house, it was teeming and I was soaked. I think I scared them, no, I definitely scared them. They invited me in, me and twenty litres of rainwater. They helped me as best they could. I sort of understood go straight then turn tight but when to turn right. They watched me leave a trail of water back to my bike and began the cleanup. I found my way, I couldn’t believe it. I even found another cafe serving tradies a substantial lunch of help yourself salad bar, porc and mash and a short black coffee for €12, I was joyous. Belly full I pushed on, it was still another ninety klms to La Rochelle. The wind turned and yes was finally was at my back I surged and could see the finish line at about 4.30pm but no…. a large section of road works had me asking an elderly couple how to avoid the freeway into town. They pointed in opposite directions ? I took another hour and a half through farms and sticky clay before I arrived on the promenade at La Rochelle. I’d done 172 klms and was spent. I found a perfect bed and after vacuuming up a meal cannot remember turning off the lights. I’m just over half way, surely the weather will turn.
No two days are the same, enjoy them all.

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La Rochelle sea front.

Well the luxury and holiday atmosphere of La Rochelle (I think chocolates every time I type it ) could easily allow you to be lulled into forgetting that the weather and varied terrain mean there is hard work in propelling yourself along. The next day I’m winding down to Royan, a short ferry hop across the Gironde estuary to the Medoc wine region and a quiet back road into Bordaeux. But first I have to get to Royan, I am on the Euro velo 1 bike path for much of the day not all of it bitumen. The recent rains have tuned the tracks to mud and my wheels and brakes clog constantly with the sticky crud. The plus is I finally start to meet other riders, some fit, some begrudgingly following their fit partners and others escaping something. I’m sure the chef from South of Munich was harbouring a dirty past. “Where are you going ?” I asked in slow English. “Towards Portugal” he replied…silence. He wanted to speak but he also wanted that silence that can become a little easy when you travel too long on your own. Eventually he confines that he quit his job ( blood covered knives in the kitchen maybe ? ) and would find something on his return, whenever that was. He said his sister might pick him up from Lisbon. If he doesn’t improve his attitude and conversation skills, I’d put my money on his sister suggesting he catch the train back to Munich.

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Early morning ferry from Royan

The next morning I am up early, I need to be at the ferry at 7.30am. It’s squalling winds and sheets of horizontal rain. The hotel night watchman is missing when I go to get my bike from reception and in a panic I consider climbing over the counter. He arrives soon after and can see my guilt, feel my anxiousness. I make the ferry easily. Whilst everyone is sitting in their trucks and cars. I wheel my bike to the front of the queue then go and sit in the toilet block looking out at the rain silhouetted through the security tower lighting. The crossing is rough and people with ashen faces lurch about trying to look calm.
I rode one hundred klms into Bordeaux from Royan and the weather gods dumped another heavy shower on me as I arrived. The biggest issue though was there were no rooms at the inn, not a joke. I tried at least fifteen hotels before I decide to leave and head South. A convention in town had bookings.com showing 99% booked, I hadn’t even considered I couldn’t get a bed. To add insult to injury I slipped on my bike and my foot did not escape my peddle cleat. I landed heavily and lay there unsure if I was alright. I couldn’t get the bike off me, my foot clipped in and the weight of my panniers leaving me like a tortoise on its back. So, as wet as a shag, bruised and battered I started out-of-town but their was one last straw. A puncture, and with my bike caked in wet road grime I removed my bags, changed the tube, pumped it up and then tried to remove the oily black film from my hands and clothes. Yuck. I patiently rode on, I had no choice. An hour and a half later I had still not found a room. Eventually a hotel receptionist took pity on me and rang ahead to a student accommodation block, they had one room. It was a brilliant room and around the corner the best meal I’d eaten all trip or was that because of what I’d endured ? One long day, it felt like two. Beyond this town was sixty klms of forest, Id been very lucky.
My trip took a philosophical turn from here, no more fighting headwinds, no more struggling to day’s end, I decided to follow the winds which have been predominately Westerlies. I shall get to San Sebastián later, somehow. For the moment the breeze on my back was therapy, I immediately felt better. “And while I’m at it I shall visit Col Tourmelat” I said to myself, famous for its long steep climb in the Pyrenees. I have watched Tour de France riders sag and suffer on this mountain and needed to understand it a bit myself, sick huh ?

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End of summer in Southern France and the corn awaits the chop.

As I rode away from Bordeaux the mountains became bolder, imposing, a natural physical border between Spain and France. I bet Trump wishes he had such a mountain range to his South. Unused climbing muscles started to twitch as the hills became mountains, my average speed slowed dramatically but the vistas, literally breathtaking.

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I stayed a few nights in Bagneres de Bigorre, a charming mountain village. I hoped for a clear day to climb Tourmelat, the forecast was questionable. I headed into town yearning some company, some noise, even if I understood little. I found it by chance, a small bar, a true one man band. He had the locals tapping their beer coasters and all of us clapping into the night. Music bridges all languages.

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You’ve been climbing for an hour when those performance enhancing drugs kick in ?

The next day was a brilliant blue and I laboured the thirty klms to the summit of Tourmelat, I now fully understand the pain. Others, like me, congregated on shaking legs at the summit, bewildered but joyous at arriving. I met a hardy group of Dutch well outside of their flat land environment, bravo to them. They sat and drank coffee, I celebrated by slurping a big bowl of vegetable soup before shivering uncontrollably for much of the descent back to Bagneres.

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Smiling because the thirty klm climb is over at Tourmelat !

The next few days had me negotiating my way along the edge of the Pyrenees, keeping them safely on my right and every so often dipping into the undulations. It is magical country. Farmlands full of the summer produce, corn almost ready for harvesting, hay already rolled and under cover and the sunflowers drooping heavily as they wait for the guillotine to chop off their heads. The villages I pass have little regard for what’s going on in the outside world, they seem rather happy not to know.
On to Saint Girons, I get a cheap deal at a Chateau, it’s Sunday night, my room is grand but there is no-one else in the whole place. I wondered why the receptionist said twice “are you on your own ?” It was actually a statement “ah, you are on your own ! “ Disappointed there was no bell to call for a servant or even a fair maiden but the breakfast was fit for a Chateau resident and I vacuumed it up. Whilst the staff hung out the back dragging on their fags, they ALL smoke.
Rode on to Carcassonne and on the way there, stopped in Narbonne where I sorted out how I would get back to where I should be San Sebastián. A train will take my bike and I there on Friday, the bike had been the issue but face to face at the station it was quickly sorted. I now had a plan and could relax. A few casual days on the Mediterranean coast sounded perfect.

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Majestic pink flamingos grazing on crusty, salty morsels at Gruissan.

I pushed on to the seaside village of Gruissan and found myself a place to call home for three days. Actually I couldn’t find it myself it was out-of-town but a council worker loitering in a council truck decided I needed a convoy and drove escort for me, the three klms to the hotel. He kept pushing the council truck faster, he and his mate rolling about as I tried to keep up. A salute of an arm out the window and he passed the hotel and they were off. Again everywhere people have been more than helpful.
I checked in and washed my gear then hung it on the balcony only to see it all disappear in minutes. The wind which makes this place famous for windsurfing had ripped my washing onto another balcony further along the complex. Management saw the funny side, in two days it would have been in Turkey.

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Classic old signs on the fence of the local salt works at Gruissan.

My days are less urgent now. I thought I would avoid the bike as soon as I had a base for a few days but no, first morning, legs twitching I get it from the garage and head out into the Languedoc countryside, the following day I visit Bezier, the halles, the local market halls have been beautifully restored and the town has many spectacular buildings and throngs of shuffling tourists. Back in Gruissan I am spellbound by a large flock of pink flamingos feeding in the salty marshlands, bowing like prima ballerinas on their spindly pink legs. Throw in a leg relaxing swim in the Mediterranean and I’m feeling like a normal holiday maker. I ride each evening a few klms to the main town, the food is edible there.

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Mussels and frites just keep bringing the beers.

Large pots of steaming mussels in white wine and enough bread to soak up the rich juices, a couple of glasses of flinty white wine and its no wonder my eyes glaze over. These coastal towns and fresh seafood were Robyn’s idea of heaven.
The trains over to San Sebastián are more difficult. A delay of some hours means the train is jam packed full. My allocated seat is already taken by a young girl who gives me that French upward nod of “fuck you, someone’s taken my seat so you’d better learn to stand” and that’s what I did for a few hours. Yes she did say all of that without opening her mouth. Not true, she blew a raspberry to boot. No rail staff came near the shambles for the whole journey.

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My bike got more space than I did on the crowded train to San Sebastian.

Darkness approaching I finally arrived in Hendaye and cycled a few klms to my hotel, never what you see in the brochures, always a surprise. This was a good surprise and each morning Jean Jacque would serve me fruit, strong coffee and an array of breads. Unfortunately Jean Jacque does not want to come to live in Melbourne and prepare my breakfast. I begged him but he gave me no more than a French sdhake of his head…. non.
Of course there had to be a little drama to finish my journey. I asked the Hendaye hotel about my bike bag sent three weeks ago from Calais ? I was met with a shrug of the shoulders. It hadn’t arrived. My rail ticket stipulated my bike needed to be dismantled and encased. So instead of wandering aimlessly through the laneways of San Sebastián sampling small tapas and a glass or two of sharp white wine here I was searching sports stores for a bag. When this didn’t materialise I started looking for material but in a tourist mecca these do not exist. Finally I found myself in a bedding shop where the patient saleswoman allowed me to draw on her desk my idea of a mattress protector becoming a bike bag. Dimension, sewing shown and bike enclosed she got the drift and pointed out a king size protector. A nearby $2 shop supplied needles, thread and some Velcro strips. So that was my morning and I was now carrying a large plastic bag of homewares.

 

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The surf beaches along the coast near San Sebastian are glorious.

I fought back, went out and had some delicious tapas and a beer before deciding a swim was compulsory. The beach was close by, packed with late summer, sun hungry holiday makers. I joined them, stripped to my shorts and put everything in the mattress bag. The sea was so inviting and I let the morning wash away. A walk along the beach to dry would finish it all then I could make my way to my hotel, satisfied with my day.
It was a big beach so I noted my position before swimming, near the stair. I returned after my drying stroll but my bag was missing, my heart started to race, EVERYTHING was in that bag, wallet, passport, phone, my room key. I was in a pair of damp shorts and that was all I had. I started to walk faster thinking how stupid to simply leave it all on the beach. I cursed myself. After ten minutes I took a deep breath and looked up. Further along I spotted another staircase, I ran towards it, my bag was sitting there quietly waiting for me, my heart rate resumed normal frequency. I spent some hours of Saturday evening sewing my bag together so that I could fit it all in and carry it between TGV stations in Paris.

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My makeshift mattress liner cycle bag for the train back to Paris

My final day in the South could have been wandering with the hordes in San Sebastián again but I chose to head North on my bike towards Bairritz. The coastal road was magnificent, soft hills and wave beaten cliff tops. The sun sparkled on the water and the surf was pounding. The French are far better surfers than an I imagined. They are also the best dressed beach goers I’ve ever seen, crisply collared shirts and matching shorts or white dresses to show off their tans. Ironic then that on arriving beachside they remove almost everything except for the tiniest of briefs ? Just an observation.

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Came around a corner in Biarritz to find the mad hatter’s tea party in full swing.

So it’s all but over, I have a chance to recollect as the train whistles towards Paris then East to Karlsruhe. It’s been all I could have wished for and some. I’ve done 2000 klms, seen some beautiful countryside and met some inspiring, kind people. I feel fit and glowing with good health, how could you not. My legs will probably still be turning as the plane takes off, apologies to the person in the seat in front.