After a flat 4 hour crossing La Manche, drinking beer through a straw, we wheeled our bike off the ferry at Dieppe at 3.00 pm.
It was the start of a love affair with France
Something about the mood and the countryside is intoxicating. It feels more exotic and it is so pretty. The language is musically romantic like no other language. Some of the shine wore off as we slogged up an 8 km hill to the camp site, but the camp was clean and well organized with hot water and cold beer. France is well set up for camping. They have many sites in easy reach of all the main places. The only problem with our timing was that towards winter a lot of them close. They never turned us away, but many times we had no hot water or other services and we were the only ones there..
“ Embrace the detours”
We had no route. Our first plan was for a leisurely ride to Paris where cousin Anne and her boyfriend, Mark, had offered floor space in their flat. We again chose the roads less travelled, but we really did not need to worry about French motorists. It was soon clear that the attitude was quite different from that in the UK. The French LOVE cyclists .
You see it in their smiles and cheers as they pass you with a generous margin when overtaking. It is said that if you hit a cyclist in France you lose your license and don’t get it back, but I think it is more than that. Cycling is a national identify and bikes are a symbol of French pride. On a bike we were not poxy British tourists but comrades in arms. The warmth was contagious. Noticeably different to the attitude you encounter in a car.
We stumbled across the little village of Giverny and the Monet museum quite by chance.
The countryside through Normandy was just beginning to turn with autumn colour, beautiful forests and fields. We discovered the forests were bursting with edible chestnut trees which allowed us to gather the main ingredient for our diet for the next month. It was a good thing too as, after campsite fees, our budget looked rather inadequate. We roasted them, stewed them, boiled them, mashed them. We had chestnut pasta, chestnut rice, chestnut soup and just chestnuts.
The countryside was rolling so our fitness levels improved exponentially.
We stumbled across the little village of Giverny and the Monet museum. This is the house where he painted for many of the later years of his life, and his beautiful garden and lily pond are familiar scenes from his well known masterpieces. Dusty pastels and towering sunflowers.
We wandered through the gardens and the beautiful rustic farm house, decorated with copies of the paintings of Monet and his band of impressionist brothers. (No originals here unfortunately) It is said he often bought the works of his friends, like Renoir, to help them out. A good investment you might say!
Our last push for Paris was a miscalculation. We could find no stopping place and ended up putting in a marathon day and we peddled into Paris, down the Avenue Charles de Gaule, as the sun went down. For those who know Paris, this is an extension of one of the main freeways into Paris and converges as an 8 lane highway. We found ourselves on the far right and needing to move across 8 lanes of rush hour traffic. Hearts pounding we shouted at each other over the sounds of the honking hooting maelstrom. Eventually I shrugged and stuck out my arm to signal. It was like something out of a cartoon. With a squealing of breaks and smoking wheels all 8 lanes came to a screeching halt, and we tiptoed across to the inside lane in a deadly hush. That’s what I mean about bicycle lovers. You’ve got to love those French.
8 lanes of traffic on the Champs Elysee came to a halt, to allow two muppets on a tandem, to cross to the left lane.
We found my cousin tucked into a small flat behind a magnificent facade close to the centre of the city. A perfect point for exploring.
She had a job as a translator and her boyfriend a pastry chef at the Hilton. Well doctors don’t diagnose at home, gardeners don’t garden and chefs don’t cook, so we cooked instead. We enjoyed shopping at the markets.
No one will argue that France has some of the best food, fresh bread and pastries, veggies bursting with colour and freshness, and perfectly butchered and ruinously expensive meat. We walked the streets, climbed the Eiffel Tower, (cheaper than the lift), wandered around Les Invalides, Pigalle, Notre Dame and Montmartre.
It was magnificent, and the company great fun, but it was also getting colder and the south called. We bade farewell to our delightful hosts and saddled up for the next installment.
We decided a detour to the Loire valley was in order, and we set off South via the magnificence of Versaille to Chateaudun and St Dye. Nature continued to shower us with her abundance. Chestnuts and walnuts fell from the trees, even almonds in one camp site, and beautiful grapes for pennies. We were heading straight into wine country and there were bountiful offerings of cheap plonk which we accepted with delight.
Our journey coincided with the hunting season and random gunshots echoed over the fields. We bent low and pedalled fast!
The next week was spent meandering down the Loire and stopping at any chateau which took our fancy. Chambord, Villeneuve, Chenonceux, Amboise, Villandry, Blois to name a few. We were immersed in French history and pageantry; stories of kings and courtiers, mistresses and queens, murder, mayhem and majesty. Some were broken down and others beautifully restored. Villandry had magnificent gardens, including a full medicinal repertoire.
We met plenty of others on the road and joined a merry group of travelers we met and mingled with in the evenings, crossing paths repeatedly. Living in a 1 1/2 man tent, no chairs or furniture, does not leave much room for evening relaxation, unless horizontal on the ground, so we spent many evenings in the local bars and cafes, nursing one drink, to enjoy some upright time. All was going swimmingly until we ran out of money for the bar and the rain started.......! Alas a period of austerity loomed. It was time to head south once again.
The Driver's Comments
A perfect rhythm develops, pedal into the country and find a campsite. Then set off early and ride to the next Chateau for sight seeing and brunch, usually baguette and jam, wander around and take in the delights of the Chateau. Rush back before siesta time, when life shuts down.