"Bicycle through France?", "At your age?", "You've got to be kidding." These seemed to be the general reactions of our friends to our plan to spend a month bicycling in France. Even though we were regular weekend riders and had done some riding in England several years before, most people seemed to think that this sort of trip was for the younger set. Merle and I were 53 years old at the time of the trip, in good physical condition, and felt we could handle it with no problems.
We wrote this story to convince others that middle age should be no barrier to bicycle touring in Europe or elsewhere for that matter, and to encourage people like ourselves who had always dreamed of such a trip to get on their bikes and go. This is not be a detailed discussion of touring equipment and techniques, there are already many such books available, but is primarily a recounting of our trip, both the good and the bad. Above all else, we would like to encourage others to try bicycle touring with the hope that you will find the excitement and pleasure that we have found.
Since we wrote this book together, you will see some occasional differences in point of view, as our perspective on some things is different. Most of the actual description of the trip came from Merle's personal diary that she filled out faithfully every day, and the trip is described in most cases from her viewpoint. You may also notice that Merle is not in any of the pictures. This is because she did all the photography.
Even though we planned to stay in small hotels or other accommodations most of the time, we carried enough gear with us to camp out if necessary or desirable. If the weather is good, we really prefer to be out in the open, and at least in the Western European countries, the camping facilities are excellent. Our recommendation is that you be ready for any eventuality.
We decided that the main thrust of our trip would be to cover the length of France from Dieppe on the Normandy coast to Hendaye on the Spanish border. In addition to seeing a lot of the French countryside, we would travel through a part of the Loire Valley with its famous Chateaux and cross the wine growing regions of Bordeaux and Sauternes. We drew a line on the map showing the general route we wanted to follow and left the detailed road choices to be decided upon based on local observation and recommendations. I immediately picked up several do-it-yourself French books and began to study with the hope that I could at least find hotels, campgrounds, food, and toilets when required. Some of these books are quite good and I really was able to pick up enough French to get by.
With all of our gear finally organized and stuffed into our bike boxes, we boarded a World Airways flight out of Oakland, CA and after a long and uneventful flight landed at Gatwick airport south of London. Because of the bad traffic around Gatwick, we took the train as far as Lewes and then biked the rest of the way to Newhaven. We found a nice bed and breakfast for the night and then biked over to the ferry terminal to check on schedules and do a little sightseeing. The ferry that we wanted left very early the next morning so we had some fish and chips and hit the sack.
We got up at 5:00 and biked through the mist to the ferry terminal. The cross channel ferries are an excellent way to travel but your first experience taking a bike aboard can be unnerving. After buying our tickets we were told that bicycles could not be taken aboard on the normal passenger loading ramps. We had to pedal around to the car and truck loading area and descend into the huge smelly hold of the ferry along with several hundred cars and huge trucks. This was a little dicey due to tight quarters and oil on the steel decks, but everybody was friendly and helpful and we found a secure place near the bow and locked up our bikes. We were then free to ascend the stairs and act like normal passengers.
The fog was thick for the entire trip so we didn't see much, but the channel was as smooth as glass and the voyage was comfortable. The trip took a little over four hours and we didn't see the coast of France until we were less than a mile off shore. The Captain evidently knew what he was doing and we found the narrow Dieppe harbor entrance without any problem. After docking, the stevedores or whatever they were very kindly let us bicycle up the ramp before they turned the trucks loose. I hope someday the ferry people realize that bicycles can very easily be carried up the passenger loading ramps.
Well, we rolled onto French soil about noon and proceeded to immigration where we expected to be treated to a French version of the nonsense you go through when entering the United States. The Gendarmes just waved us through. We couldn't even get our passports stamped to show off to our friends. We have found that European countries with the exception of England seem to care very little who comes and goes, and we have had to go out of our way to have any dealings with customs or immigration.
As is our usual custom in large towns, we biked quickly out of Dieppe and got off the main roads as soon as possible onto the small back-roads that would take us to our first destination, Arques, where we planned to spend the night and get it all together for the real trip. By the time we got to Arques it was about 2:00 PM and we were starving. We found a small restaurant near the railroad station (usually a good place to find an open restaurant in France) and for $6.00 we had an excellent full meal-charcuterie, steak, ratatouille, fromage, coffee, fruit, and ice cream -- plus two beers apiece. On top of that we were royally treated by a small group of French people who bought us brandy for our coffee and even wanted to buy us champagne when they found out that we were touring France on our bicycles. With my broken French and much sign language we were able to communicate. They seemed fascinated by the fact that adult Americans were touring France on bicycles. So much for our concern about the "unfriendly" French.
Finally at about 3:30 we tore ourselves away and began looking for a campsite. About three miles down the road we found a beautiful campground on the banks of the Varenne River. It had all the amenities including hot showers and a small store. We pitched our tent next to a small stream and snacked for dinner. Our general policy while camping was to have our large meal in a restaurant in the middle of the day and pick up cheese, salami, bread, and of course wine for dinner. By doing this you can avoid a lot of cooking and dishwashing which is always a pain when you're camping. Merle's comment in her diary after the first day was "If our experiences so far in France are typical, this should be a wonderful trip." They were and it was.
Here we sit, on the third floor of a chateau after a thunderstorm overtook us and we got totally soaked !! We got up early this morning and had coffee, cheese, and bread for breakfast, took down the tent and loaded up the bikes. The weather was overcast but not really threatening. We biked through the rolling hills of the Varenne Valley past milk cows in lush, green meadows and picturesque old farmhouses reminiscent of some of the paintings of the old masters. We had a marvelous lunch at a small roadside inn. They served a mixed vegetable salad, fresh trout in butter and lemon sauce, dessert and coffee.
After lunch the towns became farther apart and we got sprinkled on a few times but in general the weather was fine. We were lucky that the downpour didn't start until we had reached Les Andelys. We had started looking for a campground and it is probably just as well that we hadn't found it and gotten everything all set-up before the rain started. If we had, much of our gear would have gotten soaked. Anyway, we asked around and found a small private hotel nearby where we took a room for the night. It finally stopped raining and we went for a walk. Looking back at the hotel I realized that we had a room in a tower, pretty neat. We had dinner in the hotel and Merle's comment was "I may give up bike riding for eating, the meals are fantastic." We'll see what tomorrow brings, we may have to try biking in the rain.
The day dawned clear and windy. We had petit-dejeuner at the hotel and took to the road about 8:00. One nice thing about France as compared to England, you can get breakfast at a decent early hour. The English seem to think it is uncivilized to have breakfast before nine in the morning, but in France the shops are open early and you can always find a bar or cafe to get some coffee. We rode out past a beautiful castle on a hill overlooking the Seine and cycled through mostly flat countryside, but the wind, as usual, was against us. We crossed the Seine at Bonnieres and then the cycling became a little more strenuous as we crossed over a range of hills. We had a good lunch at the train station in Gilles. People again, very friendly and helpful in finding directions and restaurants, even though most of our conversation is in sign language.
After lunch we cycled another eight miles or so to Ivry-la-Bataille where we succumbed to the wind and found a campground. One of the occupants of the campground told us where to set up the tent and told us the "Guardian" would be around later for the fee. After we put up the tent we went back into town for food for an evening meal. Merle lost the pastries she had bought on the way back to the campground, so I went back to look for them and found them smashed flat by a car. After the day of wind, Merle was a little discouraged. An excerpt from her diary reads "It was really miserable biking today. You don't stop to see the points of interest. All you want to do is to get where you can stop for the night. I am smelly and dirty and I don't really care. Sure hope it doesn't rain tonight." Some days are better than others. By the way, the Guardian never showed up.
Our little tent was cozy and dry during a windy night with a little rain. We got up at 7:00 and found it was still windy and cloudy, but no rain. Packed up and started down the road after having coffee and croissants in the tent. Again we cycled with the wind and a few showers. Luckily the wind was not directly against us and wasn't too bad. We are in the Eure River Valley and the towns are closer together than they have been. Most of the towns are very small and if they didn't have cars you would think you were in the 17th Century.
We are really impressed with the food. We have chosen tiny restaurants in tiny towns and the food is really better than in many of the most expensive restaurants in San Francisco. We ate in a creperie at noon and were invited into the kitchen to see how the specialties of the house were made. We had a "Gallette", a crepe that isn't sweet, filled with a delicious sausage and tomato mixture.
After lunch we biked through Maintenon where we saw the ruins of a magnificent aqueduct and then started looking for campgrounds. After riding about ten miles without finding one we stopped at the little town of St. Piat where we found a small hotel over a grocery store, very clean and 70 Francs for both of us (about $8.50). It was about this time that we began to realize that with the exchange rate being what it was and the inexpensive lodging available, camping out except when necessary was not cost effective. From here on out we camped when the weather was fine and a good camp site was available, otherwise we stayed in the small hotels.
We really didn't need another big meal, but we found a tiny little restaurant with incredible food. For a salad they brought a mini salad bar to the table and you made your own salad. The salad bar included a tray of assorted charcuterie for you to slice and try. I had a pork chop and Bob had a filet, then a cheese board with 6 different cheeses, dessert, coffee, and a bottle of fine local wine. All this for $20.00 for the two of us including tip. It's a good thing that we're biking or we'd be OBESE by the time the trip was over. We plan to go into Chartres tomorrow to see the cathedral. We hope the traffic isn't too bad. We have become spoiled on the beautiful paved back roads where the traffic is practically non-existent. Once during a rain shower today we took shelter in a barn along with some friendly cats, dogs, and other barn type stuff. And so to bed.
We left St. Piat at about 8:30 for the short ride into Chartres where we intended to spend the day. Again we have head winds and a threat of rain, but not far to go. It is cooler today also. The plan was to bike beyond Chartres to a campground after we toured the town, but the rain overtook us and we found a small hotel using the local tourist brochure.
Good things first. It looks like the best mattress we've had on the trip, but the rest of the place looks like something out of Les Miserables. No kidding, it must have been built in the 1600's. The curtains have certainly been here since then. We have a bed, chest of drawers, sink, and bidet in a room about 9 by 12,
We parked the bikes in the garage and spent the day exploring the town. The setting of the cathedral is awe inspiring, and the structure itself is comparable to Notre Dame in Paris. The beautiful stained glass was saved during the war(s) by being removed and stored away. The disassembly and reassembly of these magnificent windows must have been an incredible task. Chartres along with most other French towns was occupied by the Germans during World War II and there are many monuments to the resistance fighters who died here during that conflict.
While we were in the cathedral two men came up to me and asked "Are you really from California?" I looked at them and replied "Yes, and do you really speak English?" The clue was that they had noticed the bicycling patches on my windbreaker. The men were from Palo Alto and they had just toured the Loire Valley area on their tandems. We talked awhile and found that we had actually been on several of the same rides together earlier in the year.
Dinner again tonight was a thing of beauty. We found a restaurant called the Taverne de Alsacien where for about $8.00 we had an unbelievable meal. We started with kir and salad, then Bob had Choucroute Garni (a selection of sausages in spicy sauerkraut) and I had an omelette and real French fries. I had charlotte russe and we both had coffee and split a bottle of wine. Sure hope the weather improves as we want to make the Loire Valley tomorrow.
Today is a day that will go down in bicycling history.
We awoke in our little !! hotel room (that we agreed had probably been a bordello at one time) to leaden skies and just lay there debating whether to even get up. We finally said, what the heck, lets load up the bikes and give it a shot. A better decision has never been made. The skies soon cleared and we had a breeze at our back while we biked along back roads that were like personal bike paths. We seldom saw a car for the entire 58 miles. This area south of Chartres is a huge plain and one of the principal agricultural areas of France. We went through many small towns which for some reason always seem deserted. We finally found a pharmacy open where we could get some much needed water. Many miles later, around noon, we found a little store in Membrolles where we got cokes, cheese, bread, and more water. It was warm and we were really moving. You just cannot get over the practically deserted well paved back roads in France. I am afraid that we have really become spoiled.
We arrived in Beaugency at about 3:30, stopped in a little tavern for a beer, and then rode another half mile to a neat, clean campground on the banks of the Loire. The cost was 8 f per person with good hot showers and nice rest-rooms. We set up our camp, cleaned up, and went to see the town.
Beaugency is a medium sized town with lots of historical things to see. The bridge over the Loire dates from 1100 and there are several interesting churches and parts of the old town wall. We shopped for our basic necessities for the next day and then splurged on a $12.00 dinner that lasted from 7:15 to 9:30. God, are we going to be fat. I had escargot, trout almandine with a cream sauce, pommes de terre, salad, a raspberry tart that was unreal, coffee, and wine. After that we just walked back to the tent and crashed. It was actually too warm for the sleeping bags so we just used them for covers. It rained once during the night but we just closed the flap and went back to sleep.
We packed up our tent and gear, sat on the banks of the Loire and ate our breakfast of coffee and a banana, and then headed for our first chateau. We biked for about 15 miles over those wonderful back roads to Chambord. On the way the contrasts of the country were never more apparent. We passed by beautiful old country estates with rolling green meadows and people who look like serfs working in the vegetable gardens, a with a huge nuclear power plant for a background.
Merle put the following note in her diary. "As I sit here in a little campground in the tranquility of this country and realize that this plant, with just one human error, could wipe out centuries of history it is just very sad. What else can you say. My granddaughter might never have a chance to experience this part of the world, or any world for that matter. (See what a bottle of French wine will do for you)."
Well, back to the biking. By 10:30 we arrived at Chambord and believe me, that is a CASTLE!! It was built about the time that Columbus was discovering America. There is no way to describe it without seeing it. Even pictures can't give a true feeling of the immensity of the place. We spent a couple of hours roaming around inside and then had lunch on the grounds. There are thousands of acres of beautiful parklands surrounding the chateau. The ability of the ruling class to use forced labor to build such structures is unbelievable and it is not hard to understand the reasons for the French revolution.
We biked another 10 miles or so and arrived in Cour-Cheverny. Campgrounds are available everywhere and this one is just down a short alley from the center of town. We set up the tent, met and talked with a couple from Holland who spoke English, and then went to town to shop for groceries (the pastry shops are doing us in) and to look at menus on the restaurants. For the first time we brought wine and cheese back to the tent for dinner and here I sit, writing, sipping, and in general marveling that I am really here doing this. Bob cleaned and oiled the chains on our bikes and gave them a general going over. Everything seems to be holding up well. He is also planning our route for the next couple of days. We'll probably use this campground as a base and do a couple of more chateaux, then head south through the countryside again. I really love the little towns. My one regret is that I didn't knuckle down and really learn French.
We awoke this morning to the baying of hounds. I guess the master of the nearby chateau (Cheverny) is out riding with his dogs. At around 6:00 PM last night the skies were clear and we decided it was laundry time so we washed all the clothes we were not wearing and hung them on a nearby fence to dry overnight. We went to dinner and then hit the sack. Well, when it has been misting all day and then it clears at night you are going to have dew. In the morning everything was even wetter than it was when we washed it. It is still clear but WET. We decided to spend the day in the area visiting several chateaux that were within biking distance and return to the campground for one more night. Hopefully the clothes would dry during the day and we could pack them in the evening.
We had petit dejeuner at a lovely old inn in town and then took off for the chateaux. The bikes felt strange without our usual load, as we left most of our gear in the tent. The weather was warm and pleasant making it easy to get on the road.
We actually wound up visiting three chateaux during the day. The first was Cheverny itself. Cheverny is much smaller than Chambord but it is completely furnished and very well maintained. Once again we were allowed to roam around and enjoy ourselves without a lot of herding by guides. I believe this is one of the advantages of touring out of season, because we had talked to people who had visited some of these same chateaux during the summer and they complained about the crowds and the necessity to be on a guided tour. The grounds at Cheverny are very beautiful with large sweeping lawn areas and impressive trees. In the stable area we found the hounds that we had heard earlier in the morning. They were kept in large kennels and were very friendly.
From Cheverny we biked out to Beauregard. The road up to the house was well kept dirt which is remarkable only in that I believe that it was the only unpaved road we saw in France. The place seemed deserted but we finally found a large bell which we rang, and a small boy with a cat showed up and told us that somebody would be with us shortly. The tour of the chateaux was again very interesting. In addition to being well furnished with period furniture, there was a huge banquet hall hung with portraits of all kinds of giants of history such as Elizabeth I of England, Queen Isabella of Spain, and of course Francois Premier of France. There was also a marvelous kitchen with about two tons of copper utensils of all shapes and sizes.
Beauregard like many chateaux, had its own vineyards and winery, so we bought a bottle of their wine for lunch which we supplemented with french bread and a Pate de Maison from a local charcuterie. We went back to the campground to enjoy our lunch and to pack away our clothes which were finally dry.
After lunch we biked out to Troussay, another nearby chateau. We arrived almost simultaneously with a young girl who turned out to be our guide, and wonder of wonders, she spoke excellent English. She had spent some time in New Jersey where she had learned English, was a native of Belgium, but had recently married a Frenchman. The tour of this "small" chateau was particularly interesting because we had our own personal English speaking guide and she was in no hurry. We got lost for about 15 minutes on our way back to the campground, but finally got home.
We showered, cleaned up the tent, wrote some postcards, and then finished up this great day by having a wonderful dinner in a quaint old hotel in Cour-Cheverny.
We left Cour-Cheverny at around 8:00 AM and had a lovely day of biking in the French countryside. The main event was visiting a lovely huge chateau called Chenonceaux. There is really no way to describe these places except with pictures, and even photographs cannot do them justice. It must have been great to be one of the aristocracy, but then their life was pretty precarious depending on who was in power and who that person happened to favor at the moment. The Chateau is built like a bridge over the river Cher, with drawbridges at each end that could be pulled up for defense. The chateau was given to Diane of Poitiers by Francois the First, but when he died, his wife Catherine de Medici, kicked Diane out and took it for herself.
From the Chateau we went into town and bought cheese, bread, cakes, and wine for lunch which we had in a small campground by the banks of the river. I sure hope these convenient campgrounds keep showing up. The price is right and they are all clean with showers and toilets. The price is even better if the Guardian doesn't show up.
The ride from Chenonceaux to Loches was beautiful with green rolling hills, streams, and a few lakes. The weather was perfect and the roads as usual were clean and traffic-free.
We rode into Loches about 3:00 in the afternoon and found a campground just out of town with a marvelous view of the old walled city. We set up the tent, cleaned up, and set out on a walking tour of the town. Loches is a large town, modern on the outskirts, but built around the old Medieval city and castle on a bluff overlooking the river Indre. We spent an hour or so looking over the castle and its surroundings and then after buying our water and pastries for tomorrow, went back to the campground to shower for dinner.
We had seen an item called andouilette on the menu for the last several days and as it seemed to be a specialty of the area we decided to try it. From what I could decipher from our dictionary and questions to the waiter it seemed to be some kind of sausage. Let me tell you I learned to be more careful about this sort of thing in the future. Well, it turned out to be ground up innards of some kind (I don't think they bothered to clean them either) and without exaggeration it tasted like chicken shit smells. I've never eaten chicken shit so I can't make a direct comparison. Well, I ate most of mine but there was no way Bob could stomach his. It seems we had hit a small detour on our grand highway of beautiful French cooking.
We headed back to the campground and ate a lot of bread to take the taste of the andouilette out of our mouths and then crawled into our sleeping bags. The food had been a bad omen however, and it didn't take long for the skies to cloud up and it rained hard all night. The tent performed pretty well with only one seam leaking a little and a little puddle of water formed in one corner, but nothing critical got wet. Amazingly I was warm and my sleeping bag got only a little damp. We stayed in the tent a little longer than usual in the morning before we got up and made coffee and had some pastry. Then my fearless leader says "let's go" so we packed up our wet tent and ground cloth and pedaled off into lowering skies. We are hitting some good hills now and the going is slower and more strenuous, up one hill and down another.
The threatening weather continued as we biked through St. Senoch and into Betz le Chateau around noon. We got a loaf of bread from a boulangerie and some terrine de maison from a charcuterie and ate lunch in a closed up campground just out of town. There was a beautiful twin turreted chateau on the hill overlooking the campground and the Brignon River. We had intended to get to La Roche-Posay for the night but by the time we got to Preuilly sur Claise the rain was beginning to come down so we decided to call it a day.
We found a nice small hotel, L'Image, over a bar as is common and set out to see the town. We were concerned at first that these rooms over a bar and restaurant would be noisy at night, but in the small towns we were in everybody seemed to be in bed by 10:00 so we never had any problem. As soon as we got settled in the skies started to clear up a bit and we thought that maybe we had chickened out too soon, but the early arrival gave us a lot of time to walk through the town and relax a bit.
As it turned out, we made a good choice by stopping for the night. The food was good in the little restaurant in the hotel, the room was excellent, and it rained like crazy during the night. We had a real rip-roaring thunderstorm and it really felt good to be indoors in a warm bed instead of wondering whether we were going to be washed away in the flood. It was still cloudy in the morning and we had a debate as to whether we should ride, but Bob keeps telling me that I won't melt.
Today's ride will be memorable not only for the lovely countryside and the nice ride along the Varenne River (for the last 10 miles), but also for the 32 miles of HEAD WINDS (15 MPH AT LEAST) and HILLS AND RAIN, all at the same time. We left Preuilly and crossed the Gartempe River at La Roche-Posay. From La Roche to Pleumartin it was mostly uphill as we were crossing the range of hills that separates the Gartempe from the Varenne. From Pleumartin on into Chauvigny the terrain was not bad but the head winds picked up and we got an occasional rain shower. We had lunch in a bar in Chauvigny where Bob had a "conversation" with a fellow diner about our trip. He seemed quite impressed that we had come all the way from Dieppe, and it was obvious that he had never seen adult Americans on bikes before. From Chauvigny to Lussac it was delightful as we followed the Varenne Valley all the way.
We looked for a campground in Lussac but couldn't find anything so we biked across the river to Le Pont where we found a nice hotel. The wind was still blowing and for the moment the sun was shining, but black clouds in the distance made us think that maybe we would get more thunderstorms in the night. We had the usual excellent dinner in the hotel last night, but the couple at the next table had a spread that was really incredible. It was some sort of seafood platter with about 10 pounds of crab, oysters, lobster, clams, prawns, and God knows what else heaped about 2 feet high on the plate. It looked like enough to feed 10 people to me. We went to bed right after dinner and slept like rocks until 7:30 in the morning. I don't even know if it rained or not. Usually the church bells will wake you about 6:00 but I don't think they were working or possibly we just slept through the clamor.
We woke to sunny skies and calm winds. After breakfast we loaded the bikes and took off. We immediately encountered a barrier that said the road we wanted to take was closed because of construction. Well, knowing the French as we have come to, we took this with a grain of salt and as we expected there was no problem. They evidently had just not removed the barrier when they were finished.
And so down the road we go. It is really lovely here, beautiful green countryside and rolling hills. We are still riding along the Vienne River through small seemingly deserted villages with blackberries in the ditches along the road, and many long hills. We both have a touch of stomach cramps and I don't know for sure where we got them, but we both did drink the local water last night.
I mentioned the road barriers before, well, about six miles out of Confolens we came to another one. If we took the recommended detour we would have to go about ten miles out of our way. If we ignored it and it was for real we were going to do a lot of back tracking. We talked to some of the local people and assuming we understood their French and assuming they knew what they were talking about, we could make it and would only have to walk our bikes a short distance. We went along merrily for about 5 miles and then the road ended abruptly. We could see a highway across a field so we started walking the bikes but we couldn't make it across a ravine between us and the road. After going back to where the road ended, we finally spotted some truck tracks that seemed to be going in the right direction so we followed them and VOILA !! they led us across the ravine and got us back on course, no worse for wear except for a lot of mud on the bikes.
We had lunch in a small riverside park in Confolens, a charming picturebook town with several classic old bridges over the river. The only jarring note was the heavy pollution in the river at this point.
Bob decided to take a "shortcut" through the hills to Chabanais. Well, it might have been shorter on the map but if you added in the vertical distance I'm sure it was twice as long. It seemed we would never stop climbing, but, nothing ventured, nothing gained. As we rolled into Chabanais we found the local campground but it was locked up tight so we biked into town and found a nice hotel, La Croix Blanche, for a very reasonable $11.00 per night.
It is now 9:15 PM, I had a nap this afternoon and then we went to dinner. I couldn't eat much but I do feel somewhat better. Bob thinks I may have dehydrated and not replaced enough water. It's certainly possible because I have never perspired so much in my life. I can't get over the dogs in the restaurants, customers bring them right to their tables and nobody seems to mind. Our excellent meals are still running between $8.00 and $10.00 per person including everything, will we ever go back to McDonalds?
We had put our bikes in the hotel storage room for the night (along with their escargot raising pens) and the hotel manager had locked them in for security. When we got up, there was no one to be found in the hotel. Since we needed to pay our bill, get our bikes, and get on the road this posed a bit of a problem. After calling and searching for about ten minutes we decided to take matters into our own hands. We found the hotel keys in a bowl at the desk, unlocked the storage area and retrieved our bikes, left the money for our bill in the bowl along with the keys, and took off. I hope everyone understood.
I started off the day not feeling to great and wasn't sure I'd make it too far. My stomach and attitude improved with a little food, Tang and a banana to start, then coffee and bread in a cafe about six miles down the road in Rochechouart. The weather was beautiful but the hills were still steep, we were either going up slow or coming down fast, very little flat.
On the way out of Chabanais we saw a field with a whole bunch of little trailers in it, sort of an unorganized mess, not like all of the other trailer parks we had seen. Quite a bit of junk laying around and kids and people all over the place. One little kid was squatting near the road having a B.M. It looked like a band of Gypsies and from what I hear there are still quite a few of them in Europe. As we found out later, many of them migrate for the grape picking season in the wine regions. We took the back roads through St. Mathieu and Piegut-Pluviers and wound up in Nontron about 2:30. We found a room at the Hotel de France and went on our usual tour of the town. We took some pictures and then went back to the hotel to shower and relax before dinner. I have a much more positive attitude toward food tonight.
We had an excellent chance to observe the French teen-agers this afternoon in the bar of the hotel. This is evidently their after-school hangout. There is a Juke Box, some video games, and a pool table for entertainment. The barmaid is the teen aged daughter of the owner of the hotel. Most of the small hotels and inns that we stayed at were family owned and operated. They didn't seem to be serving the kids any alcoholic beverages. The girls looked and acted pretty much like American teen-agers but the boys looked like punk-rockers, ear rings and all.
We had an excellent dinner; bean soup, salmon pate, chicken in a wonderful sauce, salad, fromage, and sorbet de cassis. As we were on a main road we thought the trucks might be noisy during the night but no problem, trucks don't seem to run late at night in France, and we slept well.
After petit-dejeuner we got on the road by 8:30 and began to climb out of the valley. We climbed slowly for about a mile, then coasted for a while and climbed again for two miles till we reached the top of a ridge where it finally flattened out. While we were climbing we heard the signal of an emergency vehicle and we kept expecting it to fly by us but finally it lumbered by, a fire truck and not going very fast. I'm sure that whatever was on fire was destroyed by the time the firemen arrived.
Again we are in beautiful country, farms and green meadows, so gentle and peaceful it is hard to believe you are in the 20th century until you notice the TV antennas on the roofs of 16th and 17th century houses.
After we had biked for about 25 miles we came to the ancient and picturesque town of Brantome. It is really something out of a history book with narrow streets, many well preserved medieval buildings, and an ancient Abbey built into the limestone cliffs that surround the town. The town is built on an island in the Dronne River and the setting is breathtaking. We locked up the bikes and spent several hours walking around the town, taking pictures, and just enjoying the peaceful beauty of the location. The reflections of the Abbey and the old buildings in the calm waters of the Dronne are irresistible subjects for photography. We were particularly lucky in that the weather cooperated with warm sunshine and white fluffy clouds.
There is a hotel converted from an old mill just outside of town that is too beautiful to believe. We could see canopy beds through the open windows and the old water wheel was slowly revolving outside.
We finally dragged ourselves away and continued on down the road along the Dronne past the chateau of Bourdeilles, one of the chateaux built for defense and not for high living, and had lunch by an old mill. After lunch we did another ten miles into Riberac where we decided to spend the night. It was a long ride to the next town and my bottom was hurting. We found a room at another Hotel de France (there must be a million of them) and settled in.
Riberac is a typical medium sized French town with stores, hotels, and cafes, but no obvious factories or large businesses. The town has a beautiful Hotel de Ville with twin towers and the name of the town spelled out in an exceptional formal garden. Someday we'll find out where all these people work.
We had petit-dejeuner in a small cafe on the Riberac town square and then headed out on the road again. Bob adjusted the seat on the old velo yesterday afternoon and it does seem to have helped.
The day dawned clear and the terrain was quite hilly to start with. We had gone about ten miles or so when we came upon a car accident. Luckily only one car was involved, it had gone off the road into the woods. Other people had stopped to help so we went on. With our limited ability to communicate we probably would have been of little help anyway. Again, the emergency vehicles took forever to pass us going to the accident and returning. It seems the only slow drivers in the country are the drivers of emergency vehicles. Everybody else thinks they are at Le Mans. They are very courteous to cyclists and give us plenty of room,, but I do think they drive as fast as their cars will go most of the time.
The countryside seems to be changing, it is leveling out a little and does not seem so lush and green. We are beginning to see a lot of vineyards, it looks like the Napa Valley. Since harvest time for the grapes is just about here there are a lot of migrant workers from Spain in the area.
We arrived at Castillon about 3:30 and found the campground closed. We probably would have gone in and camped anyway but there was a group of rather disreputable looking people in run-down trailers parked in the general area so we went into town and found a nice hotel, Le Bonne Auberge. We got settled in the room and then did a walking tour of the town. It is so frustrating to see all the goodies and not be able to buy a thing. We saw a lovely brass bell that would make a neat door bell, only about $25.00, but it was too big to carry along. Hopefully when we end the cycling and head back toward Gatwick, Bob will give me a little time to shop !! I saw a lot of really nice baskets also and I am a basket nut. We had a nice dinner and then hit the sack.
Today has been an interesting day. We left the hotel at about 8:30 and had about five miles of relatively flat roads, then came a doozie of a hill that almost did me in. From then on till we stopped for lunch it was mostly up one hill and down another. None of them were as bad as the first one though. If that first one was only a one hash hill I never want to see a two hash hill, and there were several on the original route we had planned. I think when Bob saw my eyes bugging out at the top of that first hill he began to consider another possible route to Spain. (The one and two hash comments refer to the markings on Michelin Maps that indicate the steepness of the grade)
Anyway at about 10:00 we stopped in the little old fortress town of Sauveterre de Guyenne. We bought some apple turnovers in the Patisserie and took them to the outskirts of town to eat them, my sugar break really revives me. As we sat by a small bridge eating our pastries we heard a tremendous crash and not 50 meters away at an intersection, a Semi had broadsided a small car. The car was thrown in the air and rolled over and wound up on its side. Of course people came from all directions, and again because of the language barrier we didn't get involved, but I think we were the only eye witnesses. After a moment of silence a man crawled out of the car and waved his arms to indicate he was all right. I don't know if there was anybody else in the car or not but it sure shook me up. I had to sit and calm down for a few minutes before I could pedal on and I was very nervous in traffic for the rest of the day.
But we did bike on. We had stuff for lunch, so after a hairy ride through the large town of Langdon, we found a quiet spot on the road with a convenient sandpile and ate our lunch of cheese, apples, Ritz crackers, bread, and water. We were in the middle of the large vineyards of the Sauternes wine region and the weather was warm and clear. As we were sitting there, a car went by and the man in it honked his horn and waved at us. We waved back of course and thought that was the end of it. Well, a couple of minutes later he returned, pulled his car over and stopped. He was a man in his 60's and said that he was a bicycler. He spoke English very well and told us his daughter had gone to Berkeley, small world. He was the Mayor of one of the small towns in the area. He advised us on a good route to take to the coast, which was the first I had heard of the possibility of us going to the coast. He told us that his proposed route would get us to Spain without having to cross any mountain passes and I thought that was a great idea.
After lunch the roads flattened out, thank God, and we really moved along. We finally reached this lovely little town of Villandraut. There is one of the neatest old castles that you can imagine here, and all of the stories of knights, kings, fair damsels, and chivalry came to mind. It was built in the 1300's for Pope Clement V. We went to the syndicat d'initiative to find out whether we could get inside and after much "conversation" a lovely lady about my age who is studying English showed up and took us on a tour of the castle. It was really interesting and I sure hope the pictures turn out O.K. (they did).
We are in the most modern hotel, it has a shower AND a sink and for the first time on the whole trip a toilet in the room. Of course just as I am writing this Bob flushed the strange thing which has some kind of electric motor on it for flushing and it won't stop flushing. Finally, after a couple of good hits, it stopped. I certainly will appreciate the plumbing at home. These first class accommodations are the most expensive we've been in, 120 Francs or about $15.00.
Bob got a good shower at about 5:00 but I dumbed around, read, etc. until 7:00 and guess what?, no water pressure. I finally managed to get enough warm water for the sink, so it was a sponge bath for me. I also left my wash cloth in Castillon, and the Europeans never put washcloths in the bathrooms, so Bob ran across the street to the Alimentation store and got two new ones, one orange and one bright blue. I washed with the orange one and it turned my bath water bright orange, Wonderful.
We had dinner in the hotel that the owners fixed for us even though they were not supposed to be open that night. Everybody was very friendly and considerate.
Across the street from the hotel is a strange phenomenon, a French Evel Knevel. We have a motorcycle up on a high platform and a wire running from the platform across an empty lot to a building. What's going to happen with this, if anything, I don't know. I took a picture of it anyway. Today was market day in town so maybe it already did its thing, we shall see. As of 9:00 nothing but French from a loudspeaker and rock music going full blast.
Well, the action finally started, a corny high wire act with very little action and a lot of French verbalizing about contributions and much passing of the hat. Only about forty people showed up and I don't think they contributed much. It must be a tough way to make a living. We watched from the window for a while but finally got bored and went to bed.
We left Villandraut in a light rain at about 8:00. I had arrived in the promised land, the promise being flat terrain. Indeed the terrain was flat but no one had given me any promises as to the weather. It got progressively worse. We were actually making good time as far as distance was concerned but by 10:00 we were soaked. From now on when rain threatens I get out the old rain gear and wear it. Sometimes when it sprinkles you actually stay drier by not putting on the rain gear because you perspire so much if you wear it. Anyway we covered about fifteen miles before we gave in to the increasing rain and found a small hotel where we holed up for the day. It was really boring, especially now that we are really in the promised land where it is flat and I could be enjoying the wonderful cycling.
I am reading "The Farm" by Bromfield, something I probably never would have read had it not been forced upon me, but it is really worth reading.
We passed some saw mills today on the way into town. There are large areas of pine forests around here that look similar to the slash pine forests of Florida. The architecture has changed also. The buildings no longer have the medieval stone look but more the Spanish stucco look.
The food has become less sophisticated and I am ready for that. It is amazing how quickly you tire of the exotic. Well now we shall see what the morrow brings. I sure hope it isn't raining, I really want to get on with it. For the first time I really believe that we will make it all the way to Spain.
I have to tell this one, Bob has several on me.
I got up and went down the hall to the W.C. and when I returned Bob was in a panic. He had hunted high and low and couldn't find his lower bridgework. Seems he had gotten up in the night and taken them out because of a sore spot and now they were nowhere to be found. The room is the size of our back middle bedroom at home with a tub, sink, and shower in it so it would be hard to lose something there. Well, we looked through all our packs, under the bed and in the drawers but no luck. Finally I said lets check the blankets on the bed, why I don't know, except there wasn't any place else to look. I flipped the top cover off and KLINK, onto the floor the bridgework fell. Obviously he only dreamed that he got up and put them on the sink.
The rest of the day has been a good one. We had coffee and bread at the hotel. Our host was not moving very fast so we were a little late getting started. We really moved out on the small back roads through the pine forests, making good time even though we had some head winds. The thick woods acted as a windbreak most of the time. The forest was really beautiful and was carpeted with lavender. We had lunch at Labouheyre, yogurt, weird croissants with chocolate chips, and water and then pedaled on. It rained hard for about ten minutes when we were five miles out of Labouheyre and we took cover, but it cleared up and we went on.
I love the back roads. It is unnerving to have semi-trucks bearing down on you from behind particularly because most of the roads in France don't have shoulders. The traffic on these back roads is practically non-existent.
The town of Leon where we spent the night is a tourist town built on a knoll overlooking a large lake. It is evidently quite crowded in the summer time but it was very pleasant in mid-September. We are also very close to the Atlantic Ocean here so all types of diversions are available.
We went to dinner about 7:30 and at about the same time we arrived at the restaurant so did the local football team, victorious it seems. We were serenaded for at least a half hour with their fight songs sung to the tune of "She'll be Comin Round the Mountain" and "Be Kind to Your Web Footed Friends"
Entertainment aside, we had a very good dinner and have now retired to yet another strange room and even stranger bed.
The church bells rang like crazy at about 6:45 this morning, I assume they must be for early Mass, anyway it was time to rise and shine. We really didn't have to get up until 7:30 as it is staying dark later and later in the mornings. I think it is a good thing we are going south. We had croissants and coffee and checked out of the hotel about 8:30. It was a lovely cloudless morning, fairly cool, probably in the mid-fifties. There were only small hills, light traffic, and no big trucks. We cruised along at about 12 mph and met a lot of local cyclers along our route. Nothing more than a bon jour though, I know I'm missing a lot by not speaking French.
We came to a lake in Hossegor and in the background we got our first glimpse of the Pyrenees. Bob took a picture. A few miles down the road in Capbreton we got confused as to the best route and Bob asked a couple of old men for directions. Since they felt we might not understand their directions, one old guy hopped on his bike and led us to the proper road. This was really typical of the way people have treated us here. We continued on south, and had to use the main highways in spots, but for the most part we found less traveled ones.
We biked about 34 miles before we stopped for lunch in Bayonne, where we had a beer and a toasted cheese sandwich in a sidewalk cafe. Then we maneuvered another 4 or 5 miles through city traffic to Biarritz. We found a modest hotel and moved in. We intend to spend several nights here, and complete our journey to the Spanish border as a day trip.
We took off immediately to see the Atlantic Ocean from the other side. The sun really does set in the Atlantic, pretty strange. It is a lovely beach with big surf breaking and lots of surfers. The beach was crowded, even at this time of year, and most of the females were topless. We walked around town, bought some patches, and looked for T-shirts but didn't find anything we liked. Got to have a Biarritz T-shirt.
Tomorrow we head for the border. We plan to make the trip there and back here in one day. If it is really rugged or the traffic is too bad we will put the bikes on the train for the return trip.
We were ready to leave the hotel at about 8:00 but as usual the whole place was locked up. We wound up having coffee and bread before we left and we stopped at Avis to arrange for a car for the return trip on our way out of town.
We had to bike on the main highway for about two thirds of the way and we saw another wreck, a van had overturned, very nerve wracking. At St. Jean de Luz we were finally able to get off the highway and took a secondary road right along the coast. It looked like highway one south from San Francisco, lovely scenery but strenuous cycling all the way from Biarritz to Spain.
We finally arrived in the border town of Hendaye, maneuvered through heavy traffic along a nice beach, and up (of course) another hill to the Spanish border. We got in the line of traffic and entered Spain. We chatted with the border guard (in Spanish) and had to persuade him to stamp our passports and then got in another line and reentered France.
We had actually done it, biked from the north coast of France to the Spanish border, 700 miles and no cheating. The thrill of that moment will live with us a long time.
Because of the bad traffic we had encountered in the morning we decided to put our bikes on the train for the trip back to Biarritz, so we bought our tickets and explored Hendaye for a few hours before the train left.
After we got back to Biarritz we spent the afternoon looking for the elusive T-shirt which we finally found. We also walked along the ocean front and enjoyed the panorama which looks amazingly like the California coast.
This evening we splurged on the best meal in the house and a bottle of very good champagne to celebrate our accomplishment. We will be returning to Dieppe by car due to the pressure of time, but the few unpleasant parts of the trip have already been forgotten and we will be back for another bicycle trip in France in a year or two.
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