We’re off again in 15 days. Tessa’s in better shape than I am, but the first few days should not be difficult. We ended last year’s ride in Chalons-sur-Saone, but find it much more convenient to start from Dijon this year, about 50 km further north. The cycling distance is the same and we meet up with the main route by night 2. With Trip Advisor and similar sites, all the best lodgings sell out far in advance, and along Lake Constance, night 10, almost all lodgings were already full when I made all the reservations in December.
The numbered nights on the maps below will give an overview of our plans. We’ll discuss and photograph the stops as the trip unfolds. We almost always be alongside rivers and canals – except for day, from Lake Constance (derBodensee) to the Danube (die Donau), when we will climb 1400 feet over a ridge.
I had hoped to learn a bit more German. From Basel on, that is, the second week of this trip, and for all of next year’s ride, German is die Muttersprake (the mother language). Tessa doesn’t speak German at all, but she’s a quick learner.
Our first night is in Gevrey-Chambertin, a village famed for its great Burgundy. We’ll post again from there, or soon afterwards.
David: Our ride on Friday from Bracieux to Bourges proved noteworthy in two respects: First, most of it was on roads the most boring ever in France: no curves, endless dull second-growth forest, clay soil with small potholes of water and only dull tiny villages spaced a half-hour’s ride apart. Tessa hates riding on roads even when cars are rare, and especially when those that pass shoot by at 60 mph. For lunch we turn off on a dirt track next to the road and sit on our raincoats: ham, cheese, lousy bread, apricots and chocolate. Tessa states that we should have stayed along the Loire rather than cutting through central France to save three days, because it couldn’t possibly be this boring.
In the mid-afternoon we are just outside of Bourges and come to a stop at a “level crossing” – rail tracks; the barriers are down. There is a long line of cars which we walk our bikes by, and ask the three cyclists at the barriers what’s going on. We learn that there has already been a completely abnormal wait of twenty minutes. One of the cyclists, a retiree, tells us that he cycled to Budapest last year. A quarter of an hour passes and the cyclists decide to take action. They tell us to follow them. We ride about five minutes on a road paralleling the tracks, and reach a gate that we open to access the three train tracks, cross them rapidly on foot peering both ways, open a gate on the other side, and reach the main road. Meanwhile the automobiles are trapped – for how long we do not know. We follow two of the cyclists along bike paths and reach the center of Bourges.
Bourges is pretty and reminds me of Canterbury in Kent … Same winding streets and mediaeval houses. We are booked into the Maison du Theatre Saint Bonnet but we are a day late. We ring the bell and a large, theatrical looking gentleman wearing an orange tee shirt and red pants lets us in. Inside his house there is an indoor swimming pool, numerous attractive paintings, several lovely glass Murano chandeliers and a small Belle Epoch theatre (think Toulouse Lautrec paintings) complete with red velvet chairs & wall hangings, chandeliers and a stage on which is a Steinway grand piano with a pianist playing a complicated Andulasian piece.
“You are lucky,” says our impresario, “Tonight is a concert and Jean-Francois Heisser is playing the piano and Henri Demarquette the cello. You must come at 9:00 but first I will show you where you will stay; a studio in the old town as I have no room in this house.”
Outside the house at 8:45 is a small crowd of well dressed Bourges burghers in the middle of whom is our impresario, still dressed in orange & red but now covered by a large burgundy colored cape, animatedly talking with everyone … He seems well loved.
The concert is a tour de force of virtuosity; the cellist starts with Bach and is then joined by the pianist for a wonderful Saint-Saens concerto. The encore is Saint-Saens “The Swan”, so movingly played that tears come to my and probably everyone else’s eyes!The entire evening is an amazing surprise and I cannot believe how fortunate we are to have to have arrived a day late. I researched the two performers and found there are internationally famous and among the best of French musicians. I also read that a well known soprano thinks that the acoustics of the little theatre are among the best of any concert hall she has sung in.
Earlier we have visited the cathedral, a Gothic marvel with a nave 37 meters high. The stained glass windows rival those at Chartres. (David: They are truly sensational.)
Saturday May 28th
The next day we awake to black skies, thunder and rain. We’ve already decided to take a train to Nevers to save three hours of riding, so we head to the station thankful for our rain gear. Our train appears promptly at 8:30 and we jump on board … And wait. After half an hour or so an announcement tells everyone to get off. We wait again. David discovers that a tree has fallen across the line and there is a search on to find someone with a chainsaw. Our train eventually departs with only the woodcutter on board.
Another train arrives, another couple of hours or so go by and then, finally, we depart. In Nevers we, and 15 other cyclists descend. They are a group of French riders who will spend a few days exploring the rides along the canals. There are stairs to navigate, but a railman leads us to a passage across the tracks and we are soon on our way again along the canal path though in fact, given the time we had to wait, it would have been quicker to ride than take the train. After 15 kms or so we turn off the path to our accomodation for the night …. A perfect small chateau surrounded by a moat and immaculate inside, even the ancient tiles are beeswaxed to a soft sheen.
The sun is shining (for a change) so we drop our luggage and ride on to Apremont-sur-Allier.
The entire village is owned by the Countess who lives in the chateau, attached to which is a hectare of beautiful gardens; much the prettiest I have seen on this trip. (No wonder, they are inspired in part by the gardens of Sissinghurst in Kent!)
During tea under an parasol beside the Allier in Apremont it starts to rain and thunder. At Pont Canal (canal bridge) where the Loire Lateral canal spans the Allier river (and to cross one has to walk 350 meters beside it) we drip into the Auberge for dinner. David is delighted with his entree, thirty snails and thirty tiny mushrooms in a cream sauce for 10 euros, while I opt for a more modest salad. The main courses are equally ample and inexpensive. Outside, after our meal, the sky ahead is completely black, and lightning flashes. We ride like fiends back to our chateau, luckily only 3 kms away, and then the storm seems to change direction. Today I learn from a friend that many vines in the Chablis area have been destroyed by hail from the same storm.
Sunday, May 29
David again: The chatelaine serves breakfast on extremely stylish Limoge china. Tessa tells me afterwards that this chateau was her favorite accomodation, and I do agree, except perhaps for the lovely hotel in Nantes next to the Opera where we heard the concert, our first night of bicycling.
Tessa makes clear that she will not bike the long distances in the itinerary, and I also do not wish to do so. Also, we are already a day behind, so we must take the train (or else end our trip without crossing to the Burgundy wine region). We decide to bike for 40 kilometers along the Loire Lateral Canal, board a train at Decize for 200 kilometers, and spend the night in Chagny, a town less than a two hour bike ride from our planned destination . The canal ride to Decize goes through forest, and is fairly boring.
At the Decize rail station the only way to get to the track is to carry our bikes over a two-story overpass, then come back and get our saddle bags. We get off the train at an intermediate station and learn the local train no longer runs, but we can load our bikes in the bottom of a bus. From the bus stop in Chagny to our Chateau Hotel (no moat, conventional rooms) it is only a ride of a couple of kilometers. My modified-American-plan dinner’s main course is a chicken leg with a crayfish on top with one grape tomato and one green asparagas sliced down the middle. While not bad, it doesn’t match the sumptiousness of the of the huge hall cloaked in dark wainscotting. Our waiter is quite enjoyably talkative, though he (jokingly?) chides me for spilling one drop of red wine on the white table cloth, when I should have waited for him to pour it. He avers he never spills a drop.
Monday, May 30
David: It is our last day. We ride 18 kilometers along the Canal du Centre in the light rain and howling wind, luckily to our side or behind us. It is a truly lovely ride, and it makes me sad to leave the area. Then we reach Chalons-sur-Saone, an ugly town, and 7 kilometers later we are glad to be at the railroad station. We are writing much of this posting on the train, now in the sunny south, at this moment only thirty minutes from Cannes. The blue sky and red tile roofs look wonderful after the dull light and mostly overcast or stormy days in the middle of France.
Tuesday, May 31, from Magagnosc
David’s notes: Total mileage covered – 846 km (525 miles), 270 km by train and 576 km (357 miles) by bike. Total pedaling time was just under 40 hours on 11 days.
Tessa’s summary: Above all I want to comment on the helpfulness and friendliness of all the French people we met. At least three led us on their bikes into the bigger towns like Nantes, Tours and Bourges, several going out of their way, when we were completely lost due to the disappearance of the biking route signs. I feel we might still be circling Nantes if our first angel hadn’t appeared!
Despite the inconvenience of the strike which is particularly affecting the smaller businesses like restaurant and auberge owners with cancellations and the increase in the price of food no one appeared angry and most just shrugged and said, “Ah this is France, there are always strikes!” They did however want to know our opinions, to know where we were from and we discovered that many had travelled in USA and loved the country. It of course helps greatly to speak French but even so many asked if we would prefer if they spoke in English.
Biking alongside the canals was beautiful. There is much to see in terms of birdlife; herons, swans, cormorants in the lower reaches of the Loire (a menace one Frenchman said as they eat too many fish), ducks, wagtails, swifts and swallows and everywhere the birdsong is almost deafening. As it is spring cuckoos were repetitively calling in the woods.
On the negative side we were much too ambitious in the amount of hours we thought we could bike! We could and did put in a couple of 80 kms days but in my opinion what is the point of arriving exhausted at one’s destination with just enough energy to stagger to a restaurant before collapsing into bed. Stage 2 next year will be different with, in my opinion, no more that a maximum of 60 kms done and preferably 50!
Finally the weather. The meteo showed a constant yellow and sometimes orange alert for rain and thunderstorms during our two weeks biking. We were lucky to dodge much of the worst but the Loire and the canals were so much prettier with the sun out!
Tessa and David: This will be the last posting until, circumstances permitting, we continue on to Switzerland next year.
We awoke to a grey morning, wet pavement and low flying swallows, always a sign of pending low pressure and rain. The forecast had called for rare averses or light rain but as the day wore on it became anything but light. Being a Sunday there is little traffic but as usual the Loire à Velo signs disappear just when needed. Another French angel, this time an older woman with a sweet smile and an enormous bunch of arum lilies on the back of her bike, tells us we have gone a couple of kilometers in the wrong direction. With her directions we are soon peddling fast down a fortunately empty major road before turning towards Saumur, our destination. By the time we reach the outskirts it is pouring and we arrive at our hotel soaked.
Hot showers and some food work wonders and we are soon in the lobby waiting for our taxi to take us to a performance of the Cadre Noir, the French equivalent of the Spanish Riding School, and a ballet troupe who will dance Coppelia with the cavalry officers and their highly trained horses. I confess that I had been more than sceptical about how this would work out, but in fact it was a lovely performance, excellent dancers though no à pointe work (difficult to do in sand), and the horses and riders were able to show off all their intricate dressage moves. Somehow it all worked and even David was moved. Our taxi driver was waiting outside and we soon learnt he was no ordinary cab driver but in fact owned the hotel and most of the buildings around it. Seemed he had made a fortune as a baker. Upon our arrival back at the hotel he insisted on showing us his bona fide taxi driver card. An early night as tomorrow we bike to Villandry.
Thursday, May 26
For breakfast our taxi driver/hotelier served us crepes and compotes that he had made, certainly a man of many talents. He also told us to be very careful on the road out of Saumur and just before we left showed us a photo of himself with a bloody and bruised face; the result of a collision on a traffic circle between himself on a bike and a car driver. I am nervous enough riding a bike in traffic and confess that image remains with me and am making David mad by refusing to ride on any road with with any traffic.
Its a lovely morning and we ride through the Troglydite village and the vineyards above the river to the Abbaye of Fontevraud, base for several centuries of the Fontevristes, an order of monks and nuns in which the women held precendence over the men. Many of the abbesses are famous in French history. The Abbaye is also the final resting place of the Plantagenet kings, Henry II and Richard the Lionheart, and a particular favourite, Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of Henry II, whose effigy is depicted reading a book. They lie in the magnificent Romanesque crypt.
The afternoon brings a very long but pretty ride along the Loire to Villandry. I am exhausted & not particularly happy to discover that our hotel is a kilometre up a hill but after a shower we walk back down to visit the gardens of Villandry chateau. They are rightly famous throughout France but, much to David’s disappointment, I find them too regimented.
Yes, Tessa did not like the gardens of Villandry, that I love; they are famous throughout France. She did like the gardens two days later; they were lawns…very English, very nice I found; I like lawns too. That chateau, Chevernay, was never looted and always in the same family since the 16th century. They live in a wing not open to visitors. Full of sumptuous tapestries, antique furniture, family portraits,painted ceilings, boiserie. Very impressive I thought, but Tessa feels it wasn’t that different than the stately homes in Kent she often visited as a child. Near the entrance there is the kennel (“chenil” in French from the word for dog – “chien”) that houses about fifty hounds. Presumably they hunt in the vast woods that surround the chateau but it was obviously not hunting season now.
But I’ve run ahead. The day before we biked from Villandry to the train station in the center of Tours, capital of this area (Touraine), and caught a train for the 30 km distance to Chenonceaux, before biking another 20 km uphill and against a stiff wind to our inn.
The Chenonceaux castle is known as the “ladies castle”, because its architecture and furnishings over the year were the work of women and because it was coveted by women: first by Diane de Poitiers, the mistress of king Henri II, and upon his death by his queen, Catherine de Medici (who moved Diane out); she governed all of France from the Green Study. Later, when king Henri III died Louise of Lorraine withdrew to Chenonceaux. Several years later very rich women owners, extended and restored the castle to its renaissance appearance. The furnishings were looted or sold off during the Revolution, but many traces of the original decor remain, along with lovely antiques and paintings added in recent decades. Beautiful Chenonceaux is built over the Cher river. It is well worth anyone’s visit.
Since yesterday we are no longer following the Loire bicycle route, but are charting our own way through the center of France to save a few days of riding. We fought stiff head winds yesterday to Chevernay and then onto our lodgings in Bracieux. Today we rode before breakfast up to and back from Chambord, the king’s castle , then rode through boring countryside to our lodging here in a tiny town of La Ferté-Imbault in the Sologne.
Because of the headwinds and the train strike today and yesterday, we are now one day behind our plan. Tomorrow: who knows. Every weather forecast has been wrong. If the forecast is heavy rain, it is actually only occasional light rain or sunny. If the forecast is sunny, it may turn out to be rainy. We’ll keep you posted.
This first posting may be a little rough, as after cycling all day, cleaning up and dining we have only a little time and free energy to write and edit –David
Monday May 16 – Wednesday May 18th
Tessa writing: Its May in France and that means three things; national holidays, strikes and changeable weather. The first two are connected. The holidays come every two weeks or so and so why not arrange a strike between say Ascension and Pentecost and that way have extra time off. The French usually shrug it off but this year is different … a general transportation strike has crippled the country. No trains, no buses, no planes, no trucks, no gas (the trucks cannot deliver), blockades around the major cities, demonstrations and we have arrived in La Baule for the start of our Odyssey from the Atlantic to the Black Sea in the middle of this mess. Oh and its blowing a gale and raining horizontally.
We left our home near Grasse on Monday with the bikes packed in the back of a large Peugeot. The sun was shining, we made good time and arrived in Bordeaux (800 kms away) in time for dinner. The next day after a quick tour of the old city with its beautiful ochre-colored stone buildings we returned to the autoroute to head northwest. La Baule was bathed in sunshine, our hotel comfortable but the owner gave us the first inkling of trouble. “Oh,” she said, “There’s a transport strike.” We had planned to ride around the marshes of Guerande (think salt) that make up the delta of the Loire but the wind and the rain scotched that plan. We had also planned to take the train tomorrow to St. Nazaire and then ride to Nantes but a visit to the station put paid to that idea. “Ah Monsieur,” said the lady at the ticket counter, ” we do not know at what time there will be a train and when there is one it will probably be too full for you to take bikes on board.” We returned to our friendly Hertz guy. The Peugeot we had dropped off yesterday was still there. It was 3/4 full of gas and the potato chip crumbs & peanuts that had dropped during our travels but it was available. So we rented it again and headed for the marshes. By the time we reached Guerande the sun was out and the salt flats were shining though rippling with wavelets; the wind had not abated but life was looking better. This evening after a wonderful meal of oysters and turbot washed down with Muscadet life is looking definitively better … we’ll see what tomorrow brings!
Thursday May 19th
We depart early, bikes and bags back in the Peugeot, so that we can return the car to Hertz in St. Nazaire. The sun is out and we’ll have a brisk tail wind to help us to Nantes. David quickly puts the wheels back on the bikes, I pass him his pedals but mine are no where to be found. We call the hotel but the owner says nothing is on the sidewalk where we packed the car. Luckily a Decathalon, a wonderful superstore for all sporting gear, is nearby and in an hour I have pedals again. David felt it better not to cycle across the bridge of St. Nazaire to the south bank of the Loire where the biking trail begins and I am thankful! The bridge is high, long (2 kms) with a very narrow bike lane and heavy traffic. David calls a taxi company that has a growing business of ferrying cyclists across and the driver deposits us in St. Brevin. Finally we start off, two hours late but with the tail wind we make good time, sometimes beside the river, sometimes detouring through villages. The green signs for the Loire à Velo route are good until about 10 kms from Nantes where they point in contradicting directions and we become lost. We swoop down a steep hill to the Loire only to find it dead ends and we have to trudge back up again. Everyone we ask has a conflicting opinion how to reach the city until, finally, we come up a long hill to a traffic circle where a French angel is standing next to his house. “Are you lost?” He inquires. On hearing the affirmative he tells us he likes to help fellow bikers. Seems over the years he has biked from France to Bulgaria along our planned route and this summer will be biking from Nantes to Carcassonne and back, around 1500 kilometers. He starts to explain a short cut to a ferry that will take us to the Gare Maritime of Nantes but then tells us to wait, runs to his house and returns on a bike. “I’ll show you the way!” He says and off we go down a lane that narrows into an overgrown path near the river which leads under the autoroute we were on only two days ago into an industrial area with the spires of Nantes finally evident. “Turn left at Kentucky Fried Chicken, ride through the beautiful village where I was born down to the port and there you will see the ferry!” A quick boat ride and at last we find ourselves in the very beautiful city of Nantes. The lovely hotel David has selected is next to the Opera and the main square and to welcome us a chamber music group starts playing in the lobby as we check in. A fine welcome indeed!
Saturday, May 21
David writing: We spent two nights in Angers to allow plenty of time to see the Apocalypse Talpestry, the oldest and largest in the world. The two levels of panels stand about ten feet high and stretch on for a football field’s length. Afterwards, as we sat at our restaurant having “nem” (spring rolls) and sushi for lunch, we heard a French mother speaking in English to her five-year-old. Tessa struck up a conversation, and we were very surprised to learn that this young couple had spent a week in Portland, and knew the Gorge, Cannon Beach, Sun River,etc. Did the daughter eat her meal? Only french fries and some ice cream. But, as in Britain, she was not doted upon; the parents mainly ignored her and talked with us, while she fended for herself.
When all of us had finished our meals, and with the daugher eventually ensconced on the back of a bicycle, they toured us around some sights we would never have noticed, including a beautiful church and also a very explicit view from below in bas-relief on a fascade of the underside of the nude sculptor who produced it. Aparently such representations were common in the middle ages. You’ll find no photo of it here. We have eaten very well everywhere, including this night for me a Dover sole, and for Tessa a delicious plate of oysters, sea snails, shrimp and langoustines.