Cycling round France 2015

 

Odds and Ends

I stripped the bike right down and gave it a good clean.  The casette was filthy and, even stripped down to individual cogs,  took a lot of work with a toothbrush and solvent, whilst the chain got a good soaking in the solvent as well. 15 minutes with the hose did the rest and the bike is looking shiny and new!

I was shocked to see the state of the rear wheel as evidenced by the attached photos (click on the link to view in a new window) https://goo.gl/photos/txi8p4ty4AYssKbKA. What puzzles me most is that I didn’t notice anything when I stripped the wheel to mend the puncture on the last day in France.  That suggests that all the damage has happened since then, when I have been on generally good surfaces.  I’ve been in touch with the bike suppliers and am waiting on their comments.  To be fair the bike has been put through enormous strain but I would have thought the wheels should have been able to put up with it.

BLOGGING with a tablet is not the easiest of options.  It seems especially difficult to publish pictures: it’s been a breeze to update and insert pictures on my home computer and I think it would have been all but impossible to publish the maps from the tablet.  I don’t think there’s an tableteasy answer. Whatever is used must be very portable and fit into the pannier which means 10 inches is the maximum size.  I have a case with an ingenious built in keyboard which works quite well but it’s easy to make mistakes, so constant checks are needed which is laborious. Also there is no mouse or track pad which makes editing pictures very difficult.  If anyone has any suggestions for future improvements I shall be delighted to hear them.

 

 

My clothing was about right.  I could have done it with less pairs of socks and pants and I took a superfluous travel towel.  I only wore my fleece once and that was not entirely necessary but had I had colder weather I would have missed it.  My one pair of trousers for the evening were cheap chinos from Matalan and managed to come through looking presentable throughout, by virtue of being carefully rolled up when packed.  Two shirts would have been sufficient (I took three) but I was pleased to have two full sets of cycling gear.  There were occasions when it was not entirely dry from the evening wash.  I only made use of a washing machine twice: otherwise it was a wash in the sink, a rinse in the shower and as good a wringing as I could manage before hanging up to drip dry.

I think I only managed to leave behind three things.  A small bottle of shampoo (in Royan), a First Aid kit (not sure where) and my English phone Sim card which fell out of my wallet somewhere en route.  Fortunately I’ve managed to replace the Sim and get myself a better deal with Orange by threatening to leave them if they didn’t match the current BT offer.  Speaking of mobile phones, I especially got a PAYG card from Three because they were offering calls and text at the same rate as in the UK.  It didn’t seem to work like that: I managed to burn through £25 worth of credit and was left with nothing three days from home.  Most of it must have gone on data because I made hardly any calls and texts.  It seems all but impossible to get a breakdown of what I’ve spent so I’m not impressed.  I shall put it down to experience and avoid Three in the future.

It would have been nice to have some company at times, especially as I was a bad French speaker in a non-English speaking country.  Last year on LEJOG I was able to chat to strangers in the evening but it was difficult in France.  Maybe Ireland would be a good destination next year.  If anyone wants to join me, at my pace, they’ll be welcome.  Experience tells me that about 60-70 miles a day would suit me better than the 80-95 miles that I was doing at the start and it would probably have been wiser to have had at least one rest day.

Thanks for following the blog.  The journey has been amazing, at times very hard, at others much easier than I expected. I found myself unable to gauge how the day would go when I woke up in the morning.  There were days when I had a really bad night’s sleep but was still, able to enjoy cycling the following day, and vice versa.  I made it and, in general, it was enjoyable.

THE MAPS

My technical expertise with GPX files has slightly failed me and I am unable, for the time being, to publish a single map of the whole trip.

Here is the one from Home Farm to Arles


homefarm-arles

and here is the one from Arles back to Home Farm

Arles-HomefarmThe mileages are misleading because they include the two trips across the Channel.  My best estimates suggest that the total mileage I covered on the bike was 1894.3 (3030.8kms).  I’m really not sure about the climbing stats: 83,293 feet (25,394m) sounds like an awful lot! It’s the equivalent of climbing nearly three times up Mount Everest from sea level.  Did I really do that?

Day 25 Homeward Bound

portsmouth- home farm

 

The Ferry left Ouistreham on time and I settled down to update the blog before trying to get some sleep.  Brittany Ferries acquitted themselves better for the cyclist in France than in Portsmouth; there is even a covered area for you to wait before boarding.  As it happened I was only made to wait for a couple of minutes before they called me on board and the bike was soon stowed, again very haphazardly next to a fork lift truck and in a jumble of other bikes.  It would take very little for them to have some bike hanging racks as they do on the French trains, less risk of damage and a better use of space.  I shall be writing to them!

Sleep was hard.  The reclining seat I was given was in a lounge full of snorers, chatterers and people trying to make themselves comfortable on the floor.  After an hour or so I gave up and went searching for an alternative which I found in the shape of another lounge of reclining seats that was absolutely deserted.  I moved all my kit through, closed the door, and settled down on the floor with one of my panniers as a pillow, and had a bit of rest, if not actual sleep.

I woke up at about 5am and lay there for a while before setting off in search of some food to keep me going for the 85 mile journey.  The full English breakfast was good and by the time I’d finished we were in the Solent and heading for port.  I’m not sure exactly what time we docked, but I was on my way by 0706 and, having queue barged some cars, was through Immigration and on the road by about 0730.

I immediately ran into navigation problems: Rita wanted me to turn left towards the Motorway and, rather than risk being pulled onto it I turned right and tried to judge my direction. In fact I ended up on the road that had brought me in 25 days ago, so recognised where I was and made good progress towards the cycle way that runs around the harbour.  From there it was pretty much a question of following the A27 to Southampton, a very busy road but with cycleways or, at least, a cycle lane for most of the way.

The problem with cycleways, as with the Voie Vertes in France, is that cross-roads take precedence, so you have to slow down and check for traffic, which is annoying; so I tend to stay on the main carriageway where I can, which probably annoys car drivers.  Anyway I made it without being mowed down.

Having crossed the Hamble at Lower Swanwick, I failed to turn left in Bursledon and made an unnecessary detour itchen bridgewhich I compounded by heading too far south and having to retrace my journey. My sense of direction completely failed and I went on two more false trails before finally picking up the road to Southampton and crossing the Itchen Toll Bridge which, pleasantly, is free for cyclists.  I faffed about on the other side, unsure of my route but eventually made it to Southampton Common which bypassed much of the A33.

Once past the Motorway interchange, which I crossed over on the A33, going was easy to Romsey, where I re-joined my outward journey.  As I was coming down the hill at North Baddesley I came across what must have been an entire school walking down towards Romsey, hundreds of them with adults looking after them.  Goodness knows what they were doing but it was a strange sight.

I bypassed to the north of Romsey up some 5% hills, but they seemed easy after what I have been through over the last 3 weeks and I batted along the Stockbridge road to Mottisfont where I turned off past the Abbey with its lovely National Trust owned rose gardens, across the River Test which divides as it crosses the water meadows, before crossing the railway at Dunbridge.

I was now on entirely familiar territory and Rita and Gary were no longer required as I made my way across the downs through Lockerley, East and West Dean and on to Long Drove that took me through the woods to Clarendon and Alderbury.  The weather was lovely, sunny but not too hot and it was all one could expect of an English summer day.

Onto the A36 at Salisbury and then through the centre (which annoyed Rita because she wanted to take me through Netherhampton) and out through Churchfields to the Wilton Road which involved an unexpectedly steep climb at Quidhampton, but, fortunately, not too long.

I had it in mind that I would be lunching in Alderbury but I had made such good time that it was still only 12pm when I passed through Wilton, so I kept going out on the A30 to Barford St Martin where I turned off to follow the River Nadder.  Just before Dinton I spotted the Penruddocke Arms: the time was right so I pulled in and ordered a pint of Greene King IPA.  I would like to say it was like nectar, but 3 weeks of 1664 or Heineken, has clearly altered my tastes and, although perfectly drinkable, was not as enjoyable as I had expected. The menu was produced along with a special menu of about 8 standard pub meals, each of which was £6, so I opted for fish and chips, very well cooked and served, which went down well. Bearing in mind that many of the Menu de Jours that I have been enjoying have cost 12-14 Euros (£8-10 at current rates) for 3 courses, this was still a pretty good deal.

Now very much on the home straight, I made my way through Tisbury and Semley to Gillingham and then up to Buckhorn Weston.  Making my way back across Horsington Marsh the wind was, once again, straight in my face where it has been for 25 days but I battled against it, arriving home at 1520. This was much earlier than expected and I hadn’t been able to alert the home team because my phone was out of credit.  As I pulled into the yard I could see a ribbon stretched across the gateway and assumed that they had been moving cattle.  I was wearing my helmet and didn’t look upwards so finishpushed the bike carefully under the ribbon and went into the garden to find Annie and Jim playing in the stream with grand-daughters Florence and Annabel.  After all the hellos and well-dones the question came “Did you break through the finishing tape?” When we went back there was a lovely sign above the “ribbon” with Finish and balloons attached which I had totally missed!  Anyway, with Florence looking on, I broke the tape and went inside for champagne.  A lovely end to a memorable journey.

I will update the blog further when I have had a chance to consider what has happened over the last 25 days, including more pictures and maps of where I have been, so keep looking.  I hope you’ve enjoyed my experiences and, if you haven’t done so yet, please make a donation to DEC.

 

Day 24 Flers – Ouistreham Last day in France

flers-oustrehamWell I made it to the ferry.  It’s been a frustrating day in many ways but I’m on board and settling in for the crossing.

memorial1I was in no great hurry to start as I decided to make for Caen and take in the Memorial museum with this rather wonderful statue of a US sailor and his girlfriend,  rather than make the extended trip via Bayeaux and Arromanches. I had a leisurely breakfast, very basic, bread, croissant (neither good) and plain yoghurt and was on the bike at 0911, earlier than expected.

The day didn’t start well: I couldn’t find the right road out of Flers and did a couple of circuits before I succeeded.  This was the main road to Caen and quite busy, without a cycle lane.  However once I got out into the suburbs there was a reasonable hard shoulder and then the road opened out and the riding was quite comfortable.  About 5 miles from the start there was a substantial hill down to a roundabout and I missed Rita’s direction completely.  It was only when I was half way up the next climb that I realised I had gone wrong.  I thought I could probably make my way across country but ended up on a no through road, passing some tree surgeons  and the post lady on her yellow bike before having to head back to where I started.

Eventually I found the right road,although Rita gave me a couple of false alarms which made me doubt myself.  I was on a road down a river valley, very picturesque and tree covered but, unfortunately, also a busy highway for lorries, some of which were not very particular about cyclists.  After about 5 miles I was able to turn off but found myself climbing steeply 8-10% and, having reached the crest of the hill about the same down the other side. This was the pattern for the first 20miles, up and down like a fiddler’s elbow.  I didn’t mind the climbing too much but a lot of it was on main roads.

I knew that I was heading for another voie verte but I didn’t know how soon I could connect to it.  In making my preparations I realised that in the village of Thury Harcourt there was an old railway tunnel, The Tunnel de l’Hom that might be the start of the Suisse Normande Voie Verte. However the small amount of information I had managed bike punctureto glean from the inadequate Suisse Normande website suggested that the tunnel would not be open for traffic until the end of June.  When I got there the sign said that was, indeed the case.  Maybe if I had just gone for it I could have got through. But I was a good boy and tried to find an alternative route.  This was very difficult and involved climbing and descending a couple of steep hills. Eventually I found myself on a very rough stone track that claimed to be a no through road.  Half way down the back wheel punctured so I had to unload everything and use one of my two remaining spare tubes.

I wheeled the bike down the remainder of the hill and, at the bottom, found a lovely tarmac road that took me 18 bike trolleymiles to Caen.  I don’t know what it is about the French and their voie vertes but its almost as if they don’t want you to find them, and when you do so the signage leaves a lot to be desired. I came across a strange bicycle railway alongside the cycle path, making use of the rails that were still in place. I went wrong a couple of times on my way to Caen because the signs were badly placed but eventually arrived at about 3pm.

I then had to find my way to the Memorial Museum so went looking for the Tourist Office, picked up signs which then ceased and went round in a couple of circles.  Eventually I stopped and asked a couple of girls who were doing some customer research and they put me right. The TO gave me a plan and I set forth, uphill again.  Several wrong turns later I was getting pretty angry, but at about 4pm I found the museum and had a very poor lunch of quiche, muffin and tango which kept the hunger at bay
memorialIt’s not cheap, 19 euros full price but I got a three euro discount for age.  However It is good, well signed in French, English and German and interesting, if a bit harrowing. I came out after 3 hours feeling a bit  low having had to confront man’s inhumanity to man.

The journey to the ferry started equally badly and Rita almost ended up with an early bath in the harbour in the centre of Caen after giving me confusing directions. Once I was on the right road it was easy and I was soon back on the path that brought me towards Caen 23 days ago, still with the wind in my face!  This was the first time that I have retraced my route, once again passing Pegasus pegasusBridge, although I shall do so entirely tomorrow.  In Ouistreham I found Le Channel restaurant and sat down to a feast of bulot and crevettes salad followed by a delicious fish choucroute and cheese washed down with beer and wine.  A good end to a frustrating day.

The tannoy has just suggested that we don’t get in until 0815 so it may be 6pm before I get home but I’m looking forward to a good pint of English beer at the Half Moon.

Day 23 Andouillé – Flers

andouille - flersWhat an extraordinary day of cycling.  I covered 65 miles of which 50 was off-road on superbly surfaced voie vertes.

As I only had to cover about 53 miles if I went by the shortest route, I was in no particular hurry.  Speaking to the Dutch owner of Au Pigeon Blanc, Ronald, during an excellent breakfast of bacon and eggs as well as the usual croissant and bread, I ascertained that it might be worth visiting a small village called Fontaine Daniel which has a reputation of being picturesque.  This would take me about 10 miles extra.  Otherwise he had no suggestions as to places to see along the way.

Ronald and his French wife, Veronique have owned Au Pigeon Blanc for six years.  It has a large bar and seating for about 80 people: however they only open at lunchtime.  In the evenings it is only guests in their four hotel rooms who can eat and they are keen to get this over with as early as possible so that they can get away.  So I felt very rushed when I had a perfectly good bavette and it would have been nice to have been able to sit in the bar and have a chat and a few beers.  However they were very kind and washed my cycling kit and returned it to me dry, at breakfast, without charge.

IMG_20150623_094626577_HDRI set off at 0923 and found the route immediately.  There was a 5% drag out of the village and then a similar drop to the valley of the river Mayenne where I joined a well surfaced track alongside the canalised river.  Every few miles there was a weir with a lock alongside it, though I saw no boat traffic at all.  It was a lovely sunny morning but I was in amongst the trees and felt quite chilly at times.  It was well set-up for cyclists and walkers with loos at regular intervals and there were several fishermen trying their luck. There was bird-song all around and the river looked lovely, a really enchanting ride of about 10 miles, until I reached the eponymous town of Mayenne, perched on the steep side of the river valley.  There was a castle and several old buildings and the town looked prosperous.

IMG_20150623_111504756Rita was inviting me to take the ring road but I needed to cross the river to go back south to Fontaine Daniel, which I did.  Unfortunately when I got there I could not see the attraction.  Yes, it was picturesque with a large lake and gardens (a bit like Stourhead maybe but not as nice) so I quickly returned to Mayenne and followed the signs to Flers and Caen.  Having got onto the main road I consulted Rita and Gary who both said I was a couple of miles off route and needed to re-cross the river.  So, nothing ventured, I did so and went up a steepish hill the other side.  Part way up I got the “route found” signal and then almost immediately lost it.  I went round a roundabout and came back down the hill and spotted the start of a cycle route which I joined.

IMG_20150623_124207174This was the start of an extraordinary ride along the track of an old railway, superbly surfaced and in amongst trees IMG_20150623_124224246and hedges.  There was the usual draw-back of road crossings but I was able to make really good speed. I saw no other users at all.  For nine glorious miles I cycled alone along a smooth track.

It was lunch-time and I wondered if I would find a suitable stopping point in this glorious wilderness but suddenly I came to a road crossing and there, in front of me, was Le Gué de Genes at Ambrieres les Vallées. I propped the bike against the wall and went in.  The restaurant was doing good business and fed me well on the menu de jour which was a potato and ham salad followed by a pasta carbonara which was delicious.  I finished it off with a fromage frais and coffee.  Not cheap: 19.90 euros with 50cl of red wine but it set me up for the afternoon.

IMG_20150623_131601The cycle trail continued for another 4.5 miles including a section where the rail track was still in place but then, suddenly, it stopped without any explanation or indication of where to go next.  Bizarre. Fortunately Rita and Gary were on the case and guided me to the D23, the main road to Céauce (which is twinned with North Petherton) and Domfront.  The road was not busy and, although there were several ups and downs I made good time.IMG_20150623_162019

Domfront sits on top of a hill and has a mediaeval city section which includes some interesting buildings.  For some reason the navigators were keen to take me to the top of the hill where I got lost before deciding to follow the signs to Flers. I came whizzing down the hill on the main road when Rita suddenly picked up on a different route.  I stopped and, sure enough, there was a small road off to the left.
IMG_20150623_171341653Having followed the road down I found myself with a choice of voie vertes and, by judging the direction I was meant to be taking, I joined another smooth surfaced road which took me along another old railway line to within 3 miles of Flers.  Again a most enjoyable ride on which I saw a few other like-minded souls, and a herd of goats sunning themselves in the middle of the track.  However once the voie verte came to an end there were absolutely no signs of where to go next.  No signs to Flers or anywhere else for that matter.

Eventually I worked it out and found the main road into Flers from which Gary ably guided me to the Beverl’Inn where I am staying the night. It’s a strange beast: very modern decor and close to a Travelodge in its fixtures and fittings, and the room is very comfortable with lots of power points and a good shower. The staff are very helpful but speak about as much English as I do French. The bike is safely in a garage and I have been extremely well fed on haute cuisine foie canard, roast pork and a delicious fruit mille feuille, with a pint of beer and a pichet of rosé for 29 euros which is pretty good value.

The ferry tomorrow night doesn’t leave until 2245 so I have a choice of going 50 miles straight to Caen, largely up voie vertes, or diverting to Bayeux to, once again, see the tapestry and other sites and then to Arromanches and a coastal ride to Ouistreham which will add another 25 miles. I’ll see how I feel in the morning, bearing in mind that I have an overnight crossing, during which I may not get much sleep, and an 85 mile ride back home when we arrive in Portsmouth at 0630.

 

Day 22 Saumur – Andouillé

saumur - andouilleIt’s been an odd day.  I was quite expecting it to be hard; 85 miles and a bit of climbing and with my recent record, today might have been an “off” day, but, in the end, the cycling was easy.

I slept quite well.  My bedroom had windows on two sides and I left them open all night so kept quite cool; possibly too cool because I woke up in the dark feeling cold, but soon put that right by pulling the duvet over me.  The hotel is next to the train station but the trains don’t run between about 2300 and 0600, so it was the early train that finally woke me for good.

I packed up and took all my kit downstairs for breakfast at about 0815. I found a couple already eating breakfast and it didn’t take long to realise that they were English so I struck up a conversation. They were both over 80 and from Warrington and were cycling the Loire a velo.  They had two weeks to go where they pleased at their own pace, which was about 30-40 miles a day.  They had driven from England, found somewhere to leave their car and started cycling west: however they had been bothered by the headwind so, like my Dutch chums from Agen, they had jumped on a train and headed west so that they could cycle south east with the wind behind them.  She told me that she had cycled up the Col du Galibier in the 1950s on a bicycle with 5 gears. “I didn’t get off”, she said, “well you couldn’t, could you?” Chapeau.

I really liked the hotel.  The owner was very pleasant and spoke good English.  He had made good improvements to the building and took an interest in his guests.  Unfortunately the food menu was very limited, so my repas of the evening before was very basic but the breakfast was excellent with the usual French offering plus yoghurt and fresh fruit.  I was offered, but declined, more bread. Good value and good service.

I set off at 0903, having filled my water bottles at the hotel: I do like the way that French bars have cold water as one of the taps on the beer dispenser. I immediately picked up the route, which was a good sign, and followed side roads until I emerged onto a cycle track beside the main road.  This was pretty basic: it reminded me somewhat of the track beside the A9 in Scotland, not a very good surface but, at least, it kept you away from the traffic.

Eventually Rita took me away from the river and we followed the railway along some gravel roads.  They weren’t awful but neither were they great and my average speed fell away. However after two hours I had covered about 23 miles which was OK.

Having said goodbye to the railway we wriggled our way north west on a mixture of gravel and tarmac through some, frankly, uninspiring landscape, flat and featureless with a mixture of field crops and horticulture.  There was a bit of climbing to break the monotony but it was a rather tedious ride.

I had forgotten much about the planning for this day.  On most days I had a lunch stop planned but I had completely forgotten where.  Fortunately at about 1300 hrs I chanced upon the Relais le Porage.  There was a large area for lorries and vans and it looked fairly busy, always a good sign.  I left the bike against the wall and didn’t bother to lock it, went in and the bar was full of drinkers.  I said I would like to eat and was ushered through to a restaurant  which, in turn ,was quite full.  I was shown to a table and asked if I would like de l’eau et du pain? Yes, please, and du vin aussi. These quickly arrived and I was asked to help my self to hors d’oeuvre from a chilled cabinet groaning with terrines,pates and salads.  It was take as much as you want and go back if you want more.  Having finished that, there was poulet avec frites, or Farfelle with bolognese sauce, which is what I chose, and jolly good it was too.  Some cheese and a slightly indifferent creme caramel was finished off with a cup of espresso.  The bill 11.50 euros the lot,  and I think if I had finished the 50cl of wine I would have been brought more.  The cooking wasn’t classy, just good and filling as befits a truck-stop but I can’t think of anywhere in the UK that you would find that value for money.

Hunger satisfied I continued to Morannes, a small town on the River Sarthe, and it was only as I rode over the bridge and Rita said “Lunch” that I remembered that this was my scheduled stop!

IMG_20150622_143842It was clear from the GPS that I had a bit of climbing to do after lunch and after about 50 miles the road sloped up onto some downs, not unlike Salisbury Plain.  However Rita didn’t want me to go on the road: Oh no, only the most tree covered of green lanes would do.  Fortunately the surface has been fairly recently cleared and, though it was only grass and earth, was not too bad to cycle and the climb was soon over.

The sun now deserted me and the clouds started threatening until I felt a few spits and spots.  I put on the raincoat and kept going.  It never developed into anything heavy but it was persistently annoying for the rest of the journey.  There were odd moments when I lost the track but managed to recover.

About 5 miles from my destination, as I was climbing a steepish hill I got the dreaded Off Route noise.  I couldn’t see where I had gone wrong but went to turn around, lost my balance and over I went: another bloody knee.  Having applied first aid I spotted the turn that Rita wanted me to take.  It started fine with a nice run down into the river valley but then petered out completely.  Eventually I took to a grass field until I found the narrowest of tracks through the woods.  I had to unload the bike and put it over a barbed wire fence, reload it and then push it up what can only be described as a stream bed, for about 100 yards.  Having got to the top I emerged onto the road that I had originally turned off, where I had my fall! Grrrrr!

pigeon blancFrom then on all went well and I turned up at Au Pigeon Blanc in Andouillé at about 620pm.  The owner, a Dutchman, and his French wife had been trying to phone me throughout the day to say that the hotel would not be open until 6pm. Unfortunately they had the wrong number so it was to no avail anyway, but my escapades on the way meant that it was not a problem.  The Hotel is fine but the restaurant is very basic and I was offered steak or eggs to be served as soon as possible so that they could close up for the night.  They only open for outside trade at lunchtime.  I got food, beer and wine so that was fine but there is nothing to do in the town so I was soon back in my room composing the blog.

I’m not sure what to do tomorrow.  There is only about 50 miles to the next stop and there doesn’t seem to be much to see on the way so I shall probably dilly and dally after a late start.

Day 21 Niort – Samur

niort - saumurOnce again I would be crossing the Loire, which I last did on Day 5 when I crossed the Decize bridge: a lot of
water has flowed under both bridges in the last 16 days and I have travelled many miles since then.

IMG_20150620_213001282The morning was bright and I went upstairs for breakfast at about 830am to find everyone was already up and about.  We had had a jolly evening celebrating Sue’s birthday with champagne and red wine, together with barbecued chicken and sausages, accompanied by potatoes and an excellent salad. I had already had a pint of beer pour le soif and probably drank more wine than was good for me.  Anaïs had made a marble cake and Annie had made profiteroles.  A jolly good feast. I breakfasted on yoghurt and weetabix with some bread and jam and lots of coffee and orange juice so felt ok for the day ahead.

I’d intended to leave at 9am, as usual, but it was 9.15 by the time I had said goodbye, and thanks for their kindness, to Nick, Sue, Josh and and Anaïs (and thanks for teaching me how to put a diuresis over the i of your name) and, of course, Annie.  They were planning lunch in the area that I had travelled through yesterday and I had absolutely no idea where lunch would happen for me, if at all.

Lack of full preparation meant that I was not starting my trip to Saumur from their gate as far as Rita and Gary were concerned so I had a couple of false starts before we finally got underway.  There was a steep pitch as I came away from the valley of the Sèvre Niortaise river but it soon levelled out into a pleasant and steady climb up onto the surrounding plain with its mixture of cereals and maize that I have come to expect. The first hour went well and I was averaging 12.5 mph along good back roads with little traffic.

On I went through countryside that was becoming quite familiar: small fields and high hedges of thorn and ash with the occasional oak; I could have been in Somerset.  Occasionally I would climb through woods, sheltering me from the sun and lighter winds than of late, although they were still in my face! After two hours I had climbed to the maximum elevation of the day and it was downhill to the Loire.  I texted Sue that I was over the worst, thanking her for her hospitality and wishing her a good lunch.

Unfortunately I didn’t know what lay in store.  Soon Rita suggested that we take off down a track that looked decidedly rough.  I consulted IMG_20150621_115356216the map and decided to avoid her suggestion by going a little bit further and joining the track a bit further on.  That IMG_20150621_115651944worked fine but she was soon at it again and this time I followed her command.  Oh dear.  I was on on a very rough but hard surface that was shaking me and the bike.  The stone surface disappeared and we were on hard packed mud.  Soon that disappeared as well and we were on grass and then onto a track that didn’t appear to have been travelled this year.  I got off and pushed for about 750m through brambles and brush.  At one point two quad bikes came from the opposite direction, enjoying the challenge.  I was able to get out of their way but it took me a long time to make a very short distance.

Eventually I emerged onto a road and made progress but I was soon being urged into some more cyclo-cross.  I put up with it for a bit longer but then decided to stick to hard roads.  This was quite difficult because the map that I have on the phone does not differentiate very well which means that you risk ending up on cart-tracks unless you follow a main road, which I eventually did, picking up the, fortunately, not very busy road to Parthenay.  It was now about 1215 and Rita wanted to go around the by-pass.  I didn’t give it much thought at the time and went with the suggestion.  Of course, beyond Parthenay there were no major settlements for miles which meant no restaurants.

I kept plugging on through a mixture of good and bad roads, including a bit more off-road before I thought I ought to make for a main road in the hope that might, at least, be a petrol station where I could grab something, even a Mars Bar and a Fanta, just to keep me going. No such luck and it was not until I hit the outskirts of Thouars at 3pm that I saw a sign to Patapain open 7/7.  I heard it before I saw it: a rock band had been hired for the afternoon, I suppose, as their celebration of the Fete de Musique that takes place annually in France on 21st June. Anyway I could put up with anything in the quest for fuel and was soon tucking into a large pizza, an apple tart, three custard doughnuts and a can of Fanta. Even with the racket from the band, what a relief.

IMG_20150621_163455451I followed the main road from Thouars to Saumur but soon tired of the traffic and took myself back to the pre-destined route that Gary had been trying to get me back to.  This was a bit circuitous, up and down along tarmac roads, over downland covered in cereal crops and even some wind turbines, but eventually got me down into the valley of the Thouet river where Rita threw her final curve ball.  Turn right! My heart sank as I saw the rough track but, consulting the map, any alternative seemed to be miles out of the way.  I turned and immediately found myselfIMG_20150621_173111245 cycling through the middle of a maize field.  If it had been wet it would have been impossible but after a mile of tractor ruts I eventually emerged onto a cyclepath that took me into the centre of Saumur, where further musical celebrations were happening.  There were bands playing and people dancing. Fast food sellers were doing good business and the streets were crowded.  I got off my bike and pushed through the crowds until I came to the first bridge across La Loire.  There are two with an island in the middle and my hotel was on the far bank.  I finally booked in about 6pm, after 80 miles and 2634 feet of climbing, went upstairs for a shower and shave and then went down for a simple supper of charcuterie and salad with Saumur white wine before coming up to complete the blog.

Tomorrow I head for Andouille, 85 miles, but hopefully not as taxing as today.  More importantly for me the following two days in France are both short distances and it is only the journey from Portsmouth to Horsington left that is over 80 miles. We shall see!

Day 20 Royan – Niort

royan - niort

Again, a complete change from yesterday.  I had a decent night’s sleep and woke to clear skies and somewhat less wind than recently, though, inevitably, what there was, was in my face. Breakfast was good, the usual bread, croissant and cafe au lait and, once I’d retrieved my bike from the shed where it had been unceremoniously hung up by its front wheel last night, I loaded up and set off at just after 9am. I quickly found my route out of Royan through the usual straggle of commercial buildings that mark the outskirts of every French town.  There was a surprisingly steep climb to start with which got the blood circulating and then a drop down to a roundabout which seemed to be by a lake; however on closer inspection it was a sea of plastic protecting a potato crop.

I passed by oyster farms with tidal pools that were empty when I went by but which fill twice daily with the tide and provide a living for the owners who were keen to attract passing trade with degustation offers such as I saw yesterday in Medoc.

I had to stay on the main road north for a few miles before my route took me west to Saint Sornin and the marsh land that stretches intoIMG_20150620_102322 the distance.  The road was a bit rough but the scenery and wildlife made up for it.  I never seen so many herons in one place.  At one point a family of swans stood in my path, both parents extremely unhappy with my presence and I wondered, for a moment if the cob was going to attack but he contented himself with a lot of hissing and wing flapping until I was safely past.  There were birds of prey and egrets and a much larger white bird that I couldn’t identify (no, not a swan).  This would be a bird-watchers paradise and I saw one man with a telephoto lens waiting for opportunities.

Whilst cycling alongside a roadside canal I heard a splash and there, swimming along beside me was a mammal.  At first I thought it might be an otter but apparently it was a sort of coypu that is quite common and, indeed, I saw several more sunning themselves on the banks.

Eventually I climbed out of the Marais and up onto some rather more typical farm land with plenty of crops of maize growing well in the IMG_20150620_120215heat. I had managed to get myself off route (again) because I was faced with some cross-country roads that looked too daunting. So I had to take to a main road that was pretty busy but, at St Agnant, I turned onto the Charente Maritime cycle path that follows an old railway line.  This was glorious cycling shaded from the sun by high hedges and with a hard surface, not tarmac, but generally very smooth.  I only saw half a dozen people on the route, even though it was Saturday and having bon joured a pretty girl cycling the other way was rewarded with 500m of tarmac.  The only downside, as with all these voies vertes, is the chicane that has to be taken when the track crosses a road.

I crossed La Charente, quite a substantial river and, when the cycle route ran out, took to some lovely byways with virtually no traffic.  The French road signage is so much nicer than the brash signs that we tend to use in England.  Elegant and informative but not in your face.  Also  nearly all their little roads have names.  How nice to go from La Vinsonnerie to Chemin du Vignaud, onto La Combe and thenIMG_20150620_123227Beausejour, followed by Chemin des Deux Communes and Rout des Sablieres.  I could go on, as the roads do, but you get my point.  Now today, after 19 days of listening to the lady from Google telling me to turn right, left or go straight on, I decided to give her a name, Rita.  I’m not sure why, but Rita the RWGPS and Gary Garmin seem appropriate so that’s what they will be from now on.  Now Rita has absolutely no idea about French pronunciation so the message I get has to be interpreted. Chemin sounds like Shimmy and Vignaud would sound something like Vig nord.  This leads to some amusing moments and you can imagine what she made of St Georges du Rex!

As I carried on the countryside started rolling and I was cycling through fields of barley and maize, some of it irrigated.  The sun was shining brightly but I did not feel hot.  The legs were feeling good and I was making 12-13mph with ease.

From 1230 I started looking for some lunch but there was nothing en route.  By now I had strayed onto a larger road with a bit of traffic and needed to get off the bike and relax for an hour or so.  I found myself on the outskirts of Surgeres a small market town and, although Rita and Gary were trying to take me round the ring road I went for the centre where I found Le Manuel which, amazingly, had a Menu de Jour on offer on a Saturday.  So I sat down to a very good Herring salad followed by a steak and apple tart washed down with a beer , 25cl of rose and an espresso coffee for 19.10 euros.  Not the quality or value of yesterday but very acceptable.

As I sat down to lunch there was the noise of a diesel engine and into the square chugged an old John Deere tractor towing a caravan.  This was a gentleman doing a Tour de France, somewhat further than mine but with charitable intent.  He was climbing about 20 cols in the Alps and Pyrenees but not Galibier.

Before I left England I had been speaking with my cousin Annie and she mentioned that she had a long-standing friend who lived in Niort.  As this could be on my route I asked if she thought that Susan and her husband Nick might give me a bed for the night. This they very kindly offered so I scheduled my journey accordingly.  At lunch I texted Sue that I was on the way and hoped to be with them by 5pm.

The road after lunch was very pleasant, odd bits of cross-country mixed with good side roads.  At one point I came across a snake that had been killed.  Maybe someone can identify it. IMG_20150620_145012

I had to leave the side roads at the approach to Niort and the journey to the centre was a bit uncomfortable but once into the town was easy going and Rita and Gary both agreed that I was in the right place. I rang the ball and was let in and asked if I wanted a drink, which I did.  As the house is upside down I had to go up to the kitchen and who was there to meet me but cousin Annie who had decided to come out for a few days to celebrate Sue’s birthday which is today. What a lovely surprise. I asked for a couple of hours to have a shower and complete the blog and then we can have a jolly evening together. Another very pleasant day.

 

Day 19 Bordeaux – Royan

bordeaux - royanOnce again from the sublime to the gorblimey and all because of the wind: why can’t it follow me occasionally? Yesterday I was protected from the wind by the trees but today there was no hiding place, especially at the end of the day.

I set off from the flat at 0905 after a cup of tea, thinking that I might stop somewhere for a petit dejeuner but I was on one of the main routes out of the city and busy trying to avoid the traffic, especially a Number 9 bus which I kept passing and re-passing between traffic lights.  Eventually there was a proper cycle track and I cleared the city and found myself passing a bakery so I popped in and bought 3 almond croissants which I ate straight away.
I wasn’t feeling at my best due, partly, to the bottle of claret that I had drunk whilst writing up the blog yesterday.  I had also walked a considerable distance around the city centre to see what it looked like and to find somewhere suitable to eat so maybe I was just plain tired, though I thought I had slept quite well.

My plan was to go up through the Medoc passing through some of the great wine areas of Bordeaux: Margaux, St Julien, St Estephe and Haut Medoc.  I assumed that once I was clear of the city I would start to see vineyards but I had been riding for an hour before I saw my first and another half an hour before I rode into the Margaux area with its large and prosperous looking Chateaux that are worthy of the name. The first hour I was riding through fields of barley and maize.  Clearly wine terroir is all important and the French see no point in planting up land with vines just because it happens to be in Bordeaux.

IMG_20150619_114319It became clear that elevation is important.  All the best Chateaux were on a slight plateau and as soon as the ground dropped down below a certain level it was back to trees and grass or arable. Special vineyard tractors were spraying or cultivating between the rows of vines, many of which had a rose planted at the end of it. Once through Margaux there were some lesser wineries until I approached Pauillac which has three of the first growth Chateaux, although I missed the Rothschild by turning towards the coast.

I had assumed that Chateaux meant that there would be a grand building attached, but, in many cases, the buildings were no more than village houses, all with their offers of tastings and cellar tours.

When I planned the route it looked completely flat but, as I have already said, there are small plateaux that make the cyclist work and, with the wretched wind in my face I was feeling the strain.

At lunchtime I had passed through Pauillac a large and prosperous town with a supermarket at each end and was on my way through St Estephe when I spotted Le Peyrat restaurant.  What an amazing find: I sat down only for Madame to tut-tut in a very friendly manner that I was sitting at an a la carte table and should move to a table set up for Le Menu Jour.  I duly moved and within a minute or two she appeared with a tureen of vegetable and noodle soup from which I helped myself to however much I wanted and 25cl of red wine.  When I was done with the soup she appeared with an egg and crab mayonnaise, which was delicious.  I was then asked how I would like the bavette cooked and it arrived medium rare, as ordered, with a bowl of french fries. Very good indeed. Would I like pudding? You bet.  She appeared with a tray of yoghurt and some bowls of apple cake.  I took the cake.  Would M’sieur like cheese?  I’m not sure I can manage it. Tant pis, and off she went bustling on to the next table.  A family run restaurant with everyone working in harmony.  And the bill for all this was 12.90 euros.

The patron filled my water bottle and I went outside to have a look at the estuary which was full of milk chocolate coloured water.  I IMG_20150619_135002moved on and headed north.  I was now in Haut Medoc, generally much smaller chateaux, much of it Cru Bourgeois and the buildings were, generally less impressive although, having followed a sign to Ch Loudenne I saw a very impressive house indeed.  Apparently the Chateau has been bought by a Chinese Group who are hoping to open a hotel on the site.

This was almost the end of the wine.  The further north you go, the vineyards peter out until there is just rough salt marsh with a few trees.  I made for the main road to Le Verdon and Pointe du Grave from where the ferry crosses to Royan, my stop for the night.  The wind was full in my face and, with no protection, it was exhausting work but I finally reached the ferry port and for 5 euros bought a ticket for me and the bike. The crossing takes about half an hour so I booked into my hotel, which is right in the middle of Royan, at about 7.15pm. after about 80 miles of hard riding.

Royan is a sea-side resort and clearly popular.  There is a huge choice of restaurants and lots of people promenading.  I chose Paella and beer in L’Italien restaurant in a French seaside town – how much more cosmopolitan can you get?  Then back to the hotel to write up the Blog.

Day 18 Agen- Bordeaux

agen-bordeauxWhat a difference a day makes! Yesterday I was lethargic and sore, really troubled by a spot on my crutch that was making it very difficult to get comfortable.  I had assumed it was some sort of a boil appearing, but when I finally got around to inspecting it in a mirror there is nothing very obvious so I shall have to live with it until I get home.  I’ve been smearing quantities of Sudocrem on the area each day so it shouldn’t, at least, get infected.

I went down for breakfast after a terrible night’s sleep.  To start with I was too hot and the pillows were all the wrong shape.  Finally, after tossing and turning I switched the light on and noticed that there was a ceiling fan.  I pulled various switches and, lo and behold it worked, so, at least, I had a cooler room.  No one smaller than me would have been able to reach the switches without standing on the edge of the bed or a chair.

When I had packed everything and taken it down ready for my departure I went into the breakfast room to find a couple of cyclists already there.  They were a Dutch husband and wife who were cycling the Canal de Garonne and the Canal du Midi.  They had started at Beziers but the wind was too strong for them so they had taken the train to Agen and were going to reverse their route.  I cautioned them about the state of the paths beyond the watershed and hope that they have fun.  They are not doing great distances 50-60k a day and sight-seeing.

I set off from the hotel at 0849 and immediately picked up on the route which was a good omen. My route from Agen took me over the imageaqueduct over the Garonne, at 600m the longest aqueduct on this canal system.  It is, perhaps, not as beautiful as the Moissac that I crossed yesterday or as ornate as that at Briare that I crossed on my journey down the Loire but still an impressive piece of engineering.

I was feeling good, despite my lack of sleep, and quickly settled into a good rhythm.  What slope there was, was downhill and I was cycling on good surfaces through avenues of plane trees that were protecting me from both sun and wind so I was motoring along at 13-14mph.

My first objective was to see if I could make it to Marmande, from where there is a direct train line to Bordeaux.  If I was uncomfortable or tired I would head for the railway station and jump on the first available train: however I, myself, was going like a train and with every passing mile thought, more and more, that I could make the 90 mile trip on the bike.

At Buzet-sur-Baize I came across a small park filled with camper vans and people sunning themselves. The track continued to be good; in fact, in places, it was excellent with brand new tarmac that had me up to 17mph.  I even came across a man on a tractor that was image
sweeping the track and blowing the debris into the canal. How well the cyclist is treated in this part of the world.

Shortly before Castets-en-Dorthe where the canal joins the navigable River Garonne I had done 50 miles by 1 o’clock,  just over 4 hours which, for me, was very good going.  To celebrate I stopped at a canalside pizza barge where I had a very good Pizza Marina (lots of seafood) and a couple of beers.

Then the canal path (because there was no canal) ran out.  I crossed the Garonne on an austere girder bridge and found myself being asked to go down a rough track by the navigators.  I consulted the map and spurned their advice,heading north from the river where I picked up a main(ish) road that took me in the direction of Bordeaux.

I was entering the country of vines,not large areas like the ones I had seen in the Aude, but much smaller affairs, some only a acre or so on the side of the valley, facing south.  As I continued the vineyards grew a bit in size and in Cadillac were quite substantial.  Most were open for business: if you wanted to taste or buy, just drop in.

I was on a mission;  yesterday I had nowhere to stay in Bordeaux and had been toying with Air BnB again but the closer I got  the fewer the choices.  Apparently Vinexpo 2015 has filled the available beds of Bordeaux rapidly and I was left with few choices. Booking.com had an interesting possibility called Sunny Space at about the right price but it was outside the main town and away from restaurants.  Beggars can’t be choosers so I booked it.  Having done so I was a bit annoyed to see that there was an additional fee of 10 euros for cleaning which should, for transparency, have been included in the price.  There was nothing I could do but grin and bear it and the price was not outrageous even with the extra fee.  Nathalie the renter had contacted me to ask when I would be arriving and, at lunchtime, I said probably 7pm but, if I got lost it could be 8. She sent me her number and asked me to text when I was near.

In the event I made very good time getting to Bordeaux.  The roads weren’t too busy and there were few hills to slow me down.  I was making 15mph along the roads, even with a slight headwind so I was amazed to realise that I was going to be there before 530pm. There was little point in alerting Nathalie until I arrived at my destination which I did at 515pm having negotiated the city centre, thanks to my trusty phone GPS and 91 miles in 8 hrs 26 minutes including stops .

The “hotel” is nothing of the sort: it is a room in a block of flats on the AirBnB lines. Nathalie is charming and speaks good English and came down and found me, put the bike to bed in the basement and then took me to my room where I had a good shower and shave before imageheading out to see Bordeaux and get some food. Although it is not her flat she is staying here as well but has left me to my own devices while she goes off to meet friends.  I’ve been able to use the washing machine, relax and write up the blog whilst drinking a bottle of very pleasant Cotes de Bourg.