Thoughts and tales from the saddle - on my own in Europe.

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Dat 19 - Arcachon

Like all the pro cyclists (ahem), I still get on the bike on my 'days off'. It keeps the legs loose, you see, and it's started to feel a bit strange if I don't ride the bike for a day, even if only for a few miles.

Since leaving the Ile De Ré I've ridden every day this week - Monday to Friday, averaging about 4 hours, and 40 miles, a day. It's been pleasant riding - the good people who govern the area of the Bassin D'Arcachon have taken it upon themselves to lay smooth tarmac cycle tracks through the dense pine forests, some way from the noisy roads. The forest also absorbs some of that wind, which is a bonus.

I stopped briefly in a strange little place called Lége-Cap-Ferret. I say strange because, even for France, it was dead. No bar, no cafe, no restaurant open. And the campsite was lacking a certain charm too, even less so at four in the morning when my tent felt like it was about to be ripped from the ground by the wind - either that or submerged by the amount of water falling from the sky.

I left that place pretty quickly and ended up here on Friday night - in Arcachon, at the only campsite open for miles (apparently). I decided on a day off today, a decision helped greatly by the presence of a bar on site, and have been riding the coastal path, enjoying (yes, enjoying, on an unloaded bike) the steep hills around the town and marvelling at the size of the houses and the amount of money that is obviously present here.

Once again, it is obvious that this is an entirely different place during the summer. I get the impression, and have been told, that it is positively 'heaving'. That was, in part, a reason for the cycle tracks, I think - to minimise deaths on the roads during summer.

I am, however, glad to be here at this time of year. It's much easier to enjoy the beauty and serenity of a place when it's not crammed full of people. It feels relaxed, like on the Ile De Ré. And the sun does shine, occasionally. Between the rain. But, you know, it can't rain all the time.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Day 16 - Paullic - on the Gironde, North of Bordeaux

As any cyclist will tell you, the wind is not always your friend. She has been a cruel Mistress to me these last three days, making me fight my way down the West coast. Her relentless presence is like a hand on my forehead, pushing me backwards. If I stop pedalling on flat, or even slightly downhill, ground, any momentum I had, and every effort I've put in, is lost almost instantly as my invisible foe relishes her power. Frustrating, slightly demoralising and, mainly, bloody knackering.

That aside, it's been a pleasant if uneventful few days. I discovered France's Great Yarmouth - Royan, a town that was (apparently) bombed to dust in the war and re-built in true 50's style. They actually say that on the leaflets - Frances premier 50's town! It's kitsch, in a strangely French way and, unsurprisingly, slightly more charming that Great Yarmouth.

I crossed the Gironde at its mouth, by boat, and have today cycled most of the length of the left bank (wine buffs will nod in appreciation at this point). The number and size of the vineyards is truly staggering - I cycled a good 30 miles without losing site of vines as far as the eye could see.

I'm hotel-bound again tonight, due to camping ferme, so I'm off to sample some of the local produce.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Day 13 - St Martin de Ré

Today is my fourth, and last, full day on the island. When I walk into this internet cafe, I don't have to ask to use the net, I just say 'Bonjour, cava?' to the guy who works here and sit at a computer. In the two bars that are affordable to drink in around the harbour, they know that I will want a 'pression' and don't bother to give me the little receipts that tell them how much I've drunk at the end of my visit. They just remember, or they trust me to remember, or perhaps they don't really care. I say hello in the street to the guy from the newsagents (where they sell the Guardian) and the woman at the campsite jokes with me, or perhaps at me, humouring my stuttering French. I like it here.

But I will not be sad to leave. Four days is enough. I'm ready to move on now, so South I will head, tomorrow, hopefully in better weather (it's cloudy and chilly today) to see what it may bring.

Incidentally, my initial comments that much of this island is like the New Forest only really applies to the first 10km, or so. The rest is mainly a sort of marshland, networked by thin tarmac cycling tracks that link the towns, and beaches, on the coasts. I cycled to the tip yesterday, in the better weather that the afternoon offered, and looked out onto the atlantic. I also cycled to the other main towns on the island and was happy to conclude that I made the right choice by staying in St Martin. They consist, as does most of the rest of the island, mainly of empty summer houses waiting for August, when the French take their (month long) holiday. I'm glad I've seen it now - quiet, relaxed, friendly - as I imagine it's a much different place in Summer, and not for the better.

As a parting shot, and because I've had (one) favourable response from my two previous experiments, here's some more YouTubing. My intention was to film my journey from campsite to town centre - a six minute walk that I planned to run in about three because I only have enough memory in my camera for three minutes. Something went wrong early on though (user-error, no doubt) and I realised half-way to town that it had stopped recording. So this is the second half of my walk to town, which was meant to be from tent to harbour, but isn't now for the reasons I've just explained. And yes, my camera-handling does need a bit of work.


Friday, March 23, 2007


After an unexpected 50+ mile/+4 hour day last week, I decided to take it easy the next day and cruised all of 15 miles to the nearest big town. Fed up with paying out for Hotels, I figured Cholet would have more to offer for your budget traveller. I was wrong, as it turned out, and had to settle in a town centre hotel for about the same price as everywhere else (non-town centre hotels were the same price and given the choice I'd prefer to be in the middle). Resigned to another 40 euros flying out of my wallet I decided to make the most of it and headed into town for an early beer to see what the night life was like - this was, after all, Saturday night in the biggest town I had been in yet. A few beers in a few nice little French bars, and a bit of journal writing, and things seemed pretty normal - i.e. non-descript. Then I saw the Guinness sign and decided to see how well it travelled. Not too bad, as it turns out, and after a pint of the black stuff (I think they had to dust the pint glass off for me) I felt...ahem...confident enough to stick a Euro on the pool table and test my French trying to work out the local 'rules'. It turns out they don't really have any, nor any pool skills (at least not in this particular bar), but I did strike up conversation with a few of them and we soon abandoned the pool in favour of the bar, and more Guinness, to discuss whatever it is that men discuss in pubs.

Jean-Christophe was the only other person in the bar drinking Guinness by the pint and we found common ground not only in our drinking habits. My normal limit of an evening whilst 'on the road' is two, maybe three, 'French' beers. That's halves, if you didn't know. After a good more than three I insisted on eating, so Jean-Christophe and I decanted ourselves to a nearby pizzeria where he, being French, insisted on 'a petite aperitif'...of whisky, followed by unusual quantities of red wine. The pizza was magnificant, as I suppose it would be, but after yet another beer in a club afterwards I had to homeward bound before I fell over. At somepoint in that last bar, Jean-Christophe mentioned that I should stay with him the following night.

That was about as much as I remembered the following morning when I woke, and I prepared myself for a day of (little) cycling, unsure whether he meant it or, indeed, if he had ever said it. At 11am sharp, as I was packing the last of my things up, I saw a familiar figure trudging down the road so I open the window to greet it with a 'cava?'. Jean-Christophe looked up at me with bloodshot eyes and replied 'non'. But he was there at least and we packed my belongings into his car and headed across town to his apartment.
I spent the day on the internet, phoning my family and occassionally watching TV. Jean-Christophe spent it on the sofa drinking Coca Cola, but it was a pleasant and relaxing day. My natural thoughts (that he was a murderer/psycho/wrongun) eased throughout the day and by the time we headed out for a medicinal beer and game of pool (about 6pm) such thoughts had completely gone. We chatted, played pool and joked as, I suppose, good friends do on Sunday afternoons - him in broken English, me in broken French - then we went and ate heartily at a restaurant and returned 'home' to watch a film then sleep.
The following morning he insisted on taking me to the local supermarket for my daily supplies and all I had to give Jean-Christophe as we said 'au revoir' an hour later was my thanks. I hope that some day I will be able to return the favour. Is this the nicest man in France?

He gets my vote.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Day Ten - Ile De Ré

Well, I've made it to what was always 'Destination One' for me. 'My only real route plan', I would tell people, 'is to go to the Ile De Ré and have a few days off, just to chill out. Then I'll decide from there'. That still stands except I have pretty much decided that I am not going to go inland to my contact in Limoges (again, thanks, and sorry) but keep on the coast for Bordeaux and Spain. France feels a bit like a warm up to the trip proper at the moment. I've done it before and I will be back here again at least twice on this trip. Don't get me wrong - I love it here, but I don't think it will feel like it's started properly until I break some new boundaries - or borders - and now I'm over a week here I want to get on with doing that, and Spain is the place to do it.

Anyway, that aside, the Ile is pretty much as I expected it to be - beautiful, quiet, relaxed. It has a reputation for being the place 'where the French come on holiday' and I can see why that would be (it also made me think whether the same theory is applied by people visiting England. 'Where shall we go?' 'I don't know - I've heard the English go to Blackpool'. Nothing against Blackpool but...you know).

It's actually quite a big island, dotted with (I think) ten main towns. In between the towns are large areas of forest - not unlike the New Forest, strangely - which contain networks of cycle paths. This is, apparently, 'The Island of Cycling', or something like that. I guess the idea is that it's pretty flat. I have to confess, I returned to the roads after about 2km. Not only do they have flatter surfaces (something you really notice with a full load) they also have signs telling you where places are!

The towns (I'm in the capital - St Martin de Ré) are what an older generation would call 'quaint' and what females of my generation would call 'cute'. I'm not sure which I'd feel comfortable using, if either. St Martin revolves around a harbour surrounded by cobbled streets filled with cafes, hotels and restaurants. Branching off of this centre is a network of smaller srteets and alleyways, each one urging you to walk up it or, at least, take a photo of it, as they each seem to promise some hidden treasure or adventure. Very quaint. Or cute, if you like.

My first night camping, last night, made a nice change, despite the cold. And it is cold - I got up to a cloudless sky today and have spent my time cycling to the daily market, eating breakfast in the harbour (not in it, in it - you know what I mean), cycling to the supermarket for more supplies and then waiting for my (first lot of) washing to finish at the campsite, whilst sitting around reading Tuesday's Guardian and soaking up some rays. Out of the wind it's fine, but stick the sun behind a cloud or get up a bit of a breeze and it's bitter - around 5 degrees.

I think I may spend another day here tomorrow, possibly to explore the rest of the island on the bike or maybe, as seems to be the general idea around here, just sit about and relax.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Day Eight - Luçon - Western France

Today marks my first week on the road. I have cycled seven of the last eight days and covered, approximately, 220 miles. Not a great distance by any standards but I'm about where I thought I would be - ready to take a few days off on the Ile De Ré.

I have gotten used to riding the loaded bike, my legs are a bit stronger and my heart has stopped trying to beat through my chest when I'm trying to sleep, as it did in for the first four or five days, perhaps indicating that it, like me, is relaxing a bit now.

Mornings are still the worst times, though, as I continue to have uncontrollable, subconscious feelings of fear and sickness. Not fear though, really, because I'm not scared - not consciously - but whatever I eat or however I think I feel slightly sick and my legs feel weak for those first few hours in the morning before I leave. This soon passes after a few miles on the road and I again begin to look forward, if only to a cold beer and a warm bed that evening. If this morning feeling is going to pass I cannot see it doing so soon, but it is something I think I am learning to live with.

The task ahead remains a daunting one to me but I have resolved to take each day at a time. Although, when my mind inevitably wanders beyond France, and Spain, and Western Europe and into the next who-knows-how-many months, I have yet to properly relish in that feeling of 'challenge'. But I will, in time.

Not Just Words

Being a child of the digital age, I've decided to fully utilise the resources available to me and join the millions (or is that minions?) on the ever-popular YouTube. Only snippets and, yes, I pronounce Cholet wrong, but there you go, what are you gonna do?



Sunday, March 18, 2007

A Small Treat

I won't be doing this very often as I'd prefer my words to give you all you need, but she was very nice and seemed proper chuffed when I asked if I could take her photo. Plus I have a bit of time on my hands today as I'm taking my first day off, watching crap French Sunday TV at Jean-Christophe's house - my new friend who I met whilst playing pool in a bar last night. Anyway, that's another story. I give you Madame Lebret and her shop:

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Day Five - Cholet - Central-Western France

After that rather eventful first day I decided to take it easy these first few weeks, to get a bit of cycling fitness up and, well, just because I can really. I've been aiming to do about 30-40 miles a day, slowly working my way down France. My overnight stops so far, map fans, have been: Combourg - Chateaugiron - Chateaubriant - Beaupreau. A typical day will look something like this:

9am (ish) - Wake up, remind myself where I am/what I'm doing. Read/watch French TV. Get up/ wash/ eat light breakfast/ stuff everything back into the pannier(s)/ look at map and decide which (medium sized) town to head for.
11am - Depart, start cycling. Stop occasionally for snacks/views/ photos.
2.30-3pm - Arrive at destination, look for Tourist Information. Ask them where the cheapest place to stay in town is. Discover there's no such thing as a 'cheap place to stay'.
4pm - Shower, dress in my 'off the bike wear', walk into town, take photos, scope out restaurants, look at the 'sights' (normally a castle of some description), find a nice looking bar, order a beer, sit down to write in my journal.
6pm - go back to Hotel (if it's nice - if not, stay in bar) for a lie down/read.
8pm - out for dinner. Although last night, I sneakily cooked in my room - much cheaper. Post-dinner stroll around town.
10pm - in bed!

So I'm sleeping quite a lot, riding a little, reading a lot, eating a bit, drinking a bit and just generally sort of chilling out. This lifestyle can't last though - if I keep staying in Hotels all through March I'll be skint by Spain and on the boat back from Bilbao when I get there. And, actually, I'd prefer a bit of camping, to be honest. For one, I'd actually start to use all this gear I'm lugging about. The cost is obviously also a factor, as are other small things. My bike, for example, spends it's time locked in garages. If I were camping I'd be able to potter about a bit - tighten and oil things, check spacings - during my post-dinner relaxation time. Just generally give it a bit of love. I'd also prefer, you may be surprised to learn, to be able to cook my own food. Finding a decent meal mid-afternoon is not an easy task, and a frustrating one when starving after a few hours on the bike.

Anyway - I'll stop moaning now. I have a decision to make - continue on the coast to my intended first stop - the Ile De Rè - and hope for cheaper accommodation, or retreat to my contact inland and see out March in some free accommodation.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Day One - Combourg - North West France

It's currently 3.30pm on my first day. I got off the ferry at 8.30am. The following has already happened:

  • Bought and ate proper croissants and pain au chocolat
  • Got lost in St Malo and went the 'wrong' way - for everyone who's asked me what my route is or how I decide it, the answer is 'I head for places where there are road signs to, that are also on the map'
  • Cycled through deserted French countryside with the sun, and a smile, on my face
  • Cycled through deserted French countryside feeling lonely and daunted by what lies ahead, and also wondering whether I'm able to do this or not
  • Seen a man driving a Citroen van in blue overalls with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth
  • Discovered that my hunch was correct - French campsites aren't open at this time of year
  • Slept in a park overlooking a lake, in the sun, for an hour
  • Been offered (and accepted, against my better judgement) a lift from a stranger
  • Discovered my better judgement isn't always right and met a very nice Frenchman
  • Been offered a lift to Rennes and a bed for the night (which I declined)
  • Met Madame Lebret

I have to say, this last one could possibly be the highlight. After discovering the campsite was shut and really feeling the effects of little sleep on the Ferry and my first 40 miles on a fully loaded bike in quite a while, I decided that I would stay here - in Combourg - campsite or no campsite. The Office de Tourisme recommended a 'Chambre D'Hotes' (B&B) in the town centre, run by Madame Lebret who owns the florists next door. 'She's...ummm...the rooms are very nice,' the girl in the tourist office offered nervously. I asked her what she meant. 'She might seem a little...wacky, and her shop is a mess, but the rooms are fine,' she answered, again, slightly nervously.

Entering the florists, I could see what she meant. I was greeted with an enthusiastic handshake from a weathered Frenchman with a very impressive moustache. He stepped aside to reveal a thin passageway to the back of the shop, sided by tables and stands of flowers and general, dusty clutter. At the end of this path was a small woman - literally about 4'5" - sat behind a desk in the centre of the shop, babbling in French to two women. She was wearing a flourescent pink and purple jumper, at least two sizes too big even for her ample frame, and a large fuschia pink ribbon, tied in a bow on her head - not in a dissimilar way to comedy-toothache bandages. This was, of course, Madame Lebret.

I am meeting her at 5pm so she can take me to my room, hence why I'm blogging so soon. There was no way I was going to carry on cycling today, I'm too knackered! So I look forward to a shower, some dinner in one of the restaurants in town and, hopefully, a long, still, night's sleep. Then I'll see where the road signs take me tomorrow.