Sunday, May 29
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.