Friday, December 14, 2007

Packing List

The following is a list of items carried on my trip to France. This has changed quite a bit since we started touring - on our travels last year there was no cooking gear, dgym was carrying the tent and I had a much bigger and heavier sleeping bag. We also had laptops on us, and I carried a smaller camera. Somehow, and it still doesn't entirely make sense to me, the weight losses more than outweighed the gains, and the bike felt lighter on this trip than it had done on any other. Most days, anyway...


Clothing - on the bike
What I wear on the bike on a daily basis

3/4 length cycling trousers
Merino t-shirt
Sports bra
Trainer socks, 3 pairs
Fingerless gloves
Sunglasses
Shoes with SPD cleats


Clothing - extras
For when the weather demands a little more


Sweater
Buff
Awesome hat
Thermal base layer
Arm and leg warmers
Woolly gloves
Raincoat


Clothing - off the bike
Pottering around town once I've finished riding for the day

Light cotton trousers
Underwear x 2
Flip flops


Camping
Staying warm, dry and comfortable at night


Terra Nova LaserLarge 1 Tent
Vango Venom 300 sleeping bag
Thermarest inflatable mattress
Mini pillow
Lightweight microfibre towel
Mini torch


Cooking
Trying to survive on my own cooking

Trangia 27-1 UL stove
Bottle of methylated spirits or equivalent
Matches, in mini ziplock bag. Two boxes of spare matches, also in mini ziplock bags and stored in separate panniers.
Plastic box to store kitchen items, lid doubles as chopping board
Light My Fire Spork (it snapped and was replaced with a child's fork)
Sabatier mini knife
Combined tin opener / corkscrew
Vegetable peeler
Small plastic bowl with lid
Small plastic cup for measuring out porridge
Green scratchy pad for washing up


Staple Food
I try to keep these in my panniers at all times.

Porridge oats
Sugar
Garlic
Rice or pasta
Butter
Snacky cakes
Mini ziplock bags of garam masala, mixed herbs, English mustard and dried chillies.


Toiletries
Trying not to smell too bad.

Small block of solid deodorant
Soap - takes care of washing me, clothes and hair.
Razor head - no handle, to save weight.
Toothpaste
Toothbrush
Moisturiser
Highest factor sunblock I can find
Loo roll
Lip balm
Comb
Plasters
Painkillers


Useful bits
Never know when you might need these...

Duct tape
Luggage straps
Cable ties
String
Clothes pegs
Needle & thread
Plastic bags
Pens


Navigation

Old-school on this front, have so far resisted GPS


Maps
Compass


For the bike
It has needs too, you know

Home-made housse + 5 and 6 mm Allen keys for bike disassembly
D-lock
Puncture repair kit
Alien 2 Multitool
Tyre levers
Topeak Roadmorph mini-pump
Spare bulb
Spare inner tube
Oil


Gadgets
Even on the road, I'm still allowed a little bit of geekery.

Panasonic FZ7 camera + spare battery and memory card
Mobile phone
Solar charger for gadgets


Essentials
Don't lose these

Wallet
Passport


Other
Bits n pieces

Reading material
French dictionary
Journal
Grey Mouse

Monday, December 10, 2007

Links

Some links relevant to my recent France tour:

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Since

I've been back from France a while now. My family and I spent a nice week in Normandy before returning to England, and everyday life has been resumed.


Coming back

It's always a little bit hard coming back from a tour, it's nice to see everybody but nothing is quite as exciting as being out on the road, riding through beautiful scenery, seeing somewhere new every day, living out of a few bags, and getting bucketloads of fresh air and exercise. The pain-au-chocolat withdrawal didn't make it any easier, I was hoping to wean myself off them during the week in Normandy but they are just so tasty I couldn't help it, and had to go cold turkey upon arriving back in the UK (You can get them here but they are not as nice).


Repairs

There was no easy DIY fix for the dynohub problems, so it had to be taken out of the wheel and sent off for examination by skilled repair technicians, who informed me that not enough glue had been used in the manufacture, the stator had come loose, and they had "never seen one like it". It was returned to me properly glued and ready to roll, and I was very happy to get my bicycle back after a couple of weeks downtime.

My knees are feeling less rattly than they were at the end of the trip. Knee problems can often be caused by bending the knee too much while pedalling. I am gradually raising the saddle, and may also try shorter cranks, to try to reduce the problem in future.


Destination

France was probably the least exotic-sounding of all of the destinations I'd had in mind, and I do seem to end up there for lot, whether for skiing, cycling or just passing through. However, it was a good "safe" choice for a first lone tour, and first long camping and cooking trip. It's also well-renowned among the touring community as being a cyclist's paradise and, for the most part, the cycling really was very pleasant, the people agreeable and the scenery, while a bit dull and farmy in some places, beautiful in others. There are parts that I'd happily do again, and parts that I'd skip if I wasn't interested in riding the full coast-to-coast distance.


Alone

Travelling alone was fine, and in a country like France the biggest worry is that people are worrying too much about me back home. People I met were often surprised to hear that I was travelling alone. It was nice being able to do exactly what I felt like without having to argue about it! I didn't get lonely much as I was usually too busy. There's always something to be getting on with - looking around town, putting up the tent, cooking, laundry, washing up, cleaning mouldy stuff out of panniers, planning tomorrow's travels, writing about today's... I wish I'd met more fellow cyclists along the way, but perhaps the time of year wasn't so good for that. Things got a bit more interesting towards the end as I "tuned in" to the language and became more able to hold conversations with locals.


Next?

I was hoping that writing about the France trip would distract me from getting over-excited about the next one quite so quickly, unfortunately that's never gonna happen and I'm already well into planning a trip around the Western Isles of Scotland which will probably happen some time in the spring.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Sunday October 21st - rewind

It was the last day. Apart from a couple of short trips across town, the cycling was over and I just had to get back to the north coast.

As I arrived in the breakfast room of the Monte Cinto, one of the crew took me aside and gently broke it to me that England had lost the rugby final last night. I couldn't really give a stuff about rugby but played along and feigned disappointment.

Once in Marseille, it was easy to find St. Charles station, and I set about dismantling the bike. I succeeded in turning the handlebars, which had been the greatest source of concern, but was unable to detach the pedals. I'd learned that my pedals could be detached with a 6mm allen key instead of a huge pedal spanner so had just brought the allen key, unfortunately I couldn't get enough leverage. It turned out not to matter too much as, once I'd put the wheels on either side of the frame, the pedals didn't stick out so much.

I felt like some kind of street performer, passers by occasionally stopping by to observe my struggles, it would have been nice if they'd gone the whole hog and thrown me some spare change. In my flustered state, I spent several minutes trying to remove the rear wheel before realising the brake was still connected. The front rack was as much of a pain as it had been on the trial run. The side that hadn't snapped last time, just wouldn't come off this time, but I was able to rotate it so it didn't stick out, and tie it in place with string.

The bike only just fit into the housse - if I wasn't going to be reassembling it to ride across Paris, I would have removed the rear rack too. It was a triumphant moment when the bag finally zipped up, and I quickly set about rearranging my baggage, managing to fit one front pannier and its contents into one of the rear ones and making sure all my valuable / breakable stuff was in the handlebar bag and other front pannier. No sooner had I'd finished repacking, than my train's platform was announced. Unable to find a luggage trolley, I wore the two smaller bags across my body, picked up the two rear bags in one hand and hooked the bike bag over the opposite shoulder, grabbing the frame on the inside so I could lift. I could just about shuffle along like that. Fortunately a nice lady helped me to carry the rear pannier, compost my ticket and find the right carriage.

I wasn't the only person on the train with big luggage, there was also a Kiwi bloke with a very compact one-man sailing boat neatly packed away into two cases. There were already lots of bags on the racks so we both placed our respective sporting equipment in the corridors. Later on, the train staff came along and found us both some luggage space.

The TGV was a train of great speed. It was fast, clean, on time, and after stopping at Aix-en-Provence early on in the journey, it made the rest of the way without break. It was like watching my long bike journey on a fast rewind - not exactly, as the TGV takes a different (and flatter) route, but we passed the Aqueduct de Roquefavour, the Provence countryside, the distant Ardeche cliffs and the massifness of the Massif Central.

We arrived in Paris on time. It didn't take long to reassemble the bike, and onto the back rack I affixed two rear panniers, with one front pannier and a rear mudguard strapped on top. The bike was horrible to handle like that, but I didn't have to go far. I quickly found the cycle routes - as I had been told, there are lots of bicycles around Paris these days, but it's still no Copenhagen or Amsterdam. I followed the cycle route along the Seine, but managed to lose it at some point and ended up bumping along the cobbled river banks and dragging the bike up steps, unfortunately this being Paris, people strolled blissfully by without offering help. I eventually found a ramp that took me back to the road, and made my way to Gare St. Lazare.

It really wasn't a great way to see Paris, and maybe I should just have taken a taxi across town. It was clearly a beautiful city - I passed by Notre Dame and the Louvre, and saw the Eiffel tower in the distance, and I would like to visit properly some time, but on that day it felt like I was in another London, and not in a good way. I was missing the France where people say bonjour back to you, and offer to help with a heavy bike.

When I reached Gare St Lazare, there wasn't much time left, so perhaps it was for the best that, due to strikes, my train had been cancelled and the next one would leave in three hours time - although at the time I didn't exactly feel that way. Waiting around at St. Lazare was not fun, there were redevelopment works going on and they can only be an improvement. It smelled of wee in places, not surprising when you have to pay 50c to use the loos, there's a big queue and the lady manning the toilets is a miserable cow. She kept me waiting ages as she counted out a big pile of 50c coins. I paid with a 1euro piece, which she insisted I place on the counter rather than hand directly to her, and then gave me a bunch of coppers as change, despite clearly having lots of 50's available.

I packed away my bike, sat down on the cold floor and munched on a chicken sandwich, waiting for the next train.

When the train arrived, two fellow passengers offered to help with my baggage, and the assistance was gratefully received. We found a luggage space occupied by a young chap and his (unbagged) bicycle, and we all piled on. The train rapidly became jam-packed with people and bags, and I found myself squatting in a corner beside the young lady who had helped carry my bags, an electronics student from Caen who had been visiting her sister in Paris. "C'est toujours comme ca en Angleterre", I told my fellow sardine-passengers. My bike had become part of a huge tower of luggage. It had stuff on top of it, all around it, poking into the already stretched fabric of the housse, which was undergoing strains I hadn't anticipated... but it held out fantastically well.

Hordes of people got on and off at every station, the luggage pile getting no smaller until after Caen, when I was finally able to stretch my legs again.

I spent the last couple of stops chatting to a Mexican girl called Monica, who was going to Carentan for work - she had just flown in, and not slept for about 30 hours. She spoke English but not a word of French and said she found the language difficult and was worried because she'd heard the French weren't very friendly. I told her she had nothing to worry about there. On the topic of yummy Mexican food, she said she wasn't really into spicy stuff. She was probably in the right place... neither are the French. The train dropped her off at Carentan, and we carried on to Valognes.

At Valognes I found a dgym, who took me to Reville where my family were staying in a gite, and fortunately some dinner had been saved for me.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Saturday October 20th - thunderous

As promised, the weather took a turn for the worse. The sky was still blue when I left, but it was distinctly colder than it had been, and dark clouds were in the distance. Convinced it was going to rain, and no longer having any waterproof clothing, I pedalled harder than usual.

The road clung tightly to the coast, and was quite flat between Cargese and Tiuccia. As I began the climb up to Col de S. Bastiano, the sky darkened and I felt a couple of drops of rain. Dark clouds cast their shadows upon the sea. As I neared the top of the col, past Calcatoggio, thunder rumbled around me. It's not the best of ideas to be out on a bike in a thunderstorm but I was in the middle of nowhere with no shelter in sight, and had very little choice other than to go back the way I came, or carry on.

I reached the top and began the descent, flying down the mountain as fast as I could, bolts of lightning flashing on the horizon, and found my shelter at a small bar on Col de Listincone where I ordered a coffee in which to dunk my pain au chocolat. The storm died down and I carried on downhill to my journey's end at Ajaccio.

Ajaccio is quite big and it was a long way into the town centre. Fortunately, unlike Marseille, there were signs to the centre right from the start so I didn't get lost, however there were plenty of steep ups and downs, which in a way was quite nice as I'd faced very few hills of real gradient and it was nice to power up the hills and see what exciting new muscles I had developed.

I stopped for a crepe au citron at the first place I saw. The lady in the cafe was shocked that I'd been cycling out in the "rain". Despite all the thunder, approximately five drops of rain had actually fallen on me that morning. Some people need to visit Northern Europe and find out what rain is really all about. I spent the next couple of hours browsing souvenir shops, picking up gifts and various Corsican goodies, having previously cleared out my food pannier to make room for such delights.

I had a glace au citron (can you detect a citronny theme here? I like lemons.) as the rain started to fall again, and it was so cold that my icecream didn't melt properly into its cone. I'd have liked to look around Ajaccio a bit more, but it was so cold and windy and horrible, I sheltered in a phone box chatting to dgym until he was fed up with talking to me, then headed to the ferry port.

I ended up on the Monte Cinto again, the same boat I'd taken on the journey out, and the crew were clearly not expecting to be picking up the lady with the bicycle who they'd dropped off five days earlier 120 miles up the coast. I resisted the urge to taunt them about their country's further rugby losses.

The crossing was surprisingly rough for the Mediterranean and I was kept awake most of the night by things banging around, most of which I was convinced was my bicycle breaking free and rolling around on the car deck.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Friday October 19th - Beaucoup de fourmis

The climb from Porto to Piana was one of the hardest of the trip, seven miles of up, rising from sea level to 443m. I left behind views of Porto and its bay, and passed through the alien red rocky landscape of the Calanche, featuring Tête de Chien (a large rock which from the right angle looks like a dog's head), les Roches bleues (not actually blue, just less red than the others) and the Heart, a heart-shaped hole in the rocks.

After Piana, there was a little more uphill and then a lovely flying descent for a few miles. After that were a couple of short but tough uphills to Cargese - it was rather hot, and the scenery wasn't that interesting.

I was just about ready to stop, and everything seemed to be telling me it was time to. At some point in the last couple of days my raincoat had mysteriously vanished - I thought it would be impossible to lose things when camping, and clearly I was wrong. My torch had broken the previous night. My front hub was making some very dodgy noises, which had grown more persistent over the last few days. It sounded like worn bearings, but there wasn't much I could do. At least I think it was my hub making the noises, it could have been my knees, which were feeling a little dodgy too.

Friday was to be the last night before beginning my journey home, and I probably smelled bad, so decided to get a hotel and take the opportunity to freshen up and relax a bit. My room was very nice until I noticed a long procession of tiny ants marching from a hole in the wall behind the light, all the way along the top of the headboard and over to the other side. In what must have been the highlight of my French-speaking career, I went to the hotel front desk and announced "Excusez-moi, il y a beaucoup de fourmis dans ma chambre!". The lady on reception seemed as horrified as I was at the idea of beaucoup de fourmis parading across my bed and was very quick to give me a new room, ant-free.

Dinner was very nice, I went for the fisherman's menu which was the world's hugest seafood salad followed by monkfish. I was seated next to a pair of marine researchers, both Corsican in origin but living in the south of France, and behind me was a table of their American colleagues, clearly marine research is a popular activity in the area. They reckoned I'd chosen the best bit of Corsica to cycle through, although the Bastia peninsula is also nice.

They also informed me that tomorrow it was likely to rain. Apparently it had only rained for one day in the last six months, so the Corsicans were rather looking forward to this. I wasn't so keen, having lost my raincoat. They also said that I had been lucky with the weather as it is normally colder at that time of year... but the island was due its first snows tomorrow, above 1200m.

Back in the room I could hear lots of rugby-watching noises, so I tuned in in time to see France in the middle of losing quite heavily (it was the match that decides third place between the people that lost the semi-finals, I don't know what you call it!) I dozed off at half time and awoke to see lots of French rugby players crying on each others shoulders, surrounded by grinning Argentinians.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Thursday October 18th - Corsicows

It's amazing how noisy pots and pans can be at 6am on a campsite where the only other campers kept you up by talking until 1am.

I left Galeria and headed up into the mountains which form the divide between the two departements of Corsica, Haute-Corse and Corse-du-Sud. Some of the peaks in this chain rise to over 2500m but the D81 only reaches an altitude of about 400m - nevertheless, it was a tough morning. After crossing the border I dropped down towards the Golfe de Girolata, the red rocks of the Scandola Nature Reserve visible in the distance.

The road wound its way slowly through the rocky landscape, narrow threads of tarmac clinging to steep pink granite cliffs. Cows wandered around in the road. Corsica is home to a particularly small breed of cow, and the babies are tiny, possibly even tinier than the mini-moos we found in Dorset on our last trip. However, they are not the smallest cows in the world - that privilege goes to an Indian breed called the Vechur cow.

Having, in the not so distant past, had a cow run directly at me because it was trying to escape a larger moving object, I am somewhat wary of meeting cows that up-close, especially when there's a third party involved, i.e. a huge camper van coming the other way. I stopped a good distance away until it had passed, and the driver rolled down his window and asked whether I was afraid to pass the cow. I'd be in a bit of a mess if I was...

Another climb took me over Col de la Croix and towards the Golfe de Porto and I dropped down into the incredibly pink town of Porto for the night.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Wednesday October 17th - woodpeckers

I woke at midnight, hungry. I'd cooked my own dinner again, unidentified ravioli, and throughout the course of the meal had become increasingly convinced that the unidentified white tasteless contents were tripe, though in retrospect I think it was probably sheeps cheese. I munched on baguette and goats cheese until I was able to sleep again.

At 6:30 I woke, packed and left. Despite not having to travel so far in Corsica, it was still nice to get it all out of the way before the afternoon sun set in.

The coastal road between Calvi and the village of Galeria was wiggly, quiet and mostly devoid of civilization, aside from the occasional hotel or snack bar, most of which had closed for the winter. The section around Pointe de la Revellata was particularly beautiful, the blue sea contrasting with sandy-coloured rocks and green shrubs. After that the road turned inland for a while and the road surface became very bumpy and poorly-maintained, making for some quite hard riding.

Galeria was very small but had a supermarket, campsite and some restaurants. The campsite was populated by shy woodpeckers, which I could hear tap-tapping away, but every time I crept close enough to find the source of the tapping, it would stop. I caught a glimpse of one or two, they are beautiful birds. I'd only recently been reading in my French science magazine about how well-engineered woodpeckers are for their job - membranes over the eyes to protect from wood chips, a very small brain enclosed by a thick spongey skull to minimize risk of concussion from all that headbanging, strong neck muscles, and an incredibly long tongue that wraps all the way back around the bird's skull.

The sparrows were a little bolder and pecked around for crumbs after I'd finished lunch.

I had a lovely dinner at a nearby restaurant, monkfish with creamy green peppercorn sauce, saute potatoes and deep fried courgette rings. I returned to the campsite to find I had company, a group of teenagers who sounded drunk/stoned and were talking, farting and giggling until late. We were the only campers, so at about 10pm I asked them in my very best French to please shut the hell up, they made a bit of effort at first but kept going until about 1am.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Tuesday October 16th - L'Ile-Rousse

It was barely light when the ferry arrived in L'Ile-Rousse, and I could just make out silhouettes of the numerous mountains that make up the island of Corsica. I didn't fancy riding in the dark, given that my dynamo had turned dodgy, so I stopped in a rocky area between the port and the town and climbed up onto a small outcrop to watch the sun come up. Dawn is a great time to arrive somewhere new, you see everything slowly come to life, and of course you have all day to get your bearings and find somewhere to stay. Rays of sun fanned out from behind one of the distant mountains, the rocks around me glowed a beautiful reddish-orange colour, and suddenly day had arrived and the sun was up in all its dazzling Mediterranean glory.

Ile-Rousse is one of those rare Corsican towns which actually has a French name - the island belonged to Genoa for several centuries and, as a result, most places still have Italian names. The name itself comes from the rocky islets of red porphyry upon which I was sitting.

I headed into town to pick up bread and water, use the loo and visit the tourist office. It was still quite early, the tourist office was closed and the toilets were locked.

The coastal road from Ile-Rousse to Calvi is an N-road, I tried to mostly avoid this by taking the inland route via Cateri. The ascents were no harder than any I had encountered in France, up through small villages onto a high pass overlooking the sea. I dropped back down to join the N-road from Lumio onwards, it wasn't a very nice road but didn't last long.

I camped at Calvi, which may or may not have been where Christopher Columbus was born, (nobody really knows for sure). The beach was beautiful, the sand soft and sea a lovely shade of blue, overlooked by the Genoese old town to the north and huge mountains to the south.

I had company at the campsite - whilst I was eating lunch a small cat strolled up, took a seat at the picnic table and started begging for food. I really didn't have much that a cat would like, so I put down a small bowl of water and it seemed happy with that. There were other occupied tents at the campsite - a young couple with a car who kept themselves to themselves, and an older chap who appeared to be a hiker on his own but didn't seem to feel like saying bonjour back to me. I later noticed that he and the cat were quite friendly, maybe he saw the bowl of water and thought I was trying to steal his pet.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Monday October 15th - Marseille

I was very nearly there. I left the hotel at sunrise in the hope of getting away before the traffic started up. It was still heavy but much better than it had been the previous afternoon.

Heading into the city, the suburbs reminded me of parts of North London, lots of immigrants in headscarfs (presumably mostly from North Africa), and streets of shabby looking buildings housing dodgy kebab shops and pizzerias.

It should have been a straight down-the-road kind of deal but somehow I must have veered off in the wrong direction as I ended up quite lost and going round in circles. A nice chappy in a car stopped to offer help, and we decided that I was way too far east of where I should have been. After that, I started relying on compass direction only, and soon was following signs to le Vieux Port.

I was there before I knew it. It took a while to sink in that I'd finally reached the Mediterranean, and was staring in the face a whole different sea from the one I'd started on.

I'd arrived at about 10am, and with several hours to kill before the ferry left, I took a bit of a wander around. The port was packed full of fishing boats, yachts and small ferries. There was a fresh fish market featuring all kinds of delightful wiggly tentacled things and ugly monkfish. North Africans were selling sunglasses and hideous blingy watches.

I went for a citron crepe which was disappointingly sugary and not nearly citronny enough.

I was just about to get some lunch when I was approached by a young couple, Eva and Julien. They were fellow travellers, French and Canadian, and had recently completed a bicycle trip from Vietnam to France, making my just-completed journey across France seem puny by comparison. They were very friendly and it was a real pleasure to meet them. We exchanged details and I have heard from them since, they are now planning a ride across Canada. You can read more about their travels and see some fantastic photographs on Eva's Myspace page.

During lunch, hundreds of people in white coats rode past on bicycles in some kind of a protest march. I later learned that they were protesting about proposed restrictions on where doctors are able to set up practice, and that they ended up getting what they wanted. A busker sang and played his guitar outside the restaurant - he went around asking for money afterwards. I gave him a euro because, unlike my lunch, he was quite good.

I had a bit of a look around the Old Port area, which was pretty cool but it's hard to do much in a big city with a bikefull of stuff in tow so I was quite glad when it was time to go to the ferry. I had one hell of a time trying to find the right bit of the Gare Maritime, they seem to have rebuilt, moved things around and forgotten to signpost it all. I found a French chap who was also looking for the SNCM terminal, as he was headed for Sardinia. He said that Sardinia was much less touristy and less hilly than Corsica.

As I sat and waited for the ferry at the terminal, a succession of different characters stopped by to share my bench.

First up was the slightly creepy young Corsican bloke who called me "tu" and wanted to know whether I was alone and whether I had a boyfriend. He told me I was very beautiful and wanted to know whether I found him attractive too. I was too polite to say "well actually I think you're a bit creepy" but I think the bewildered look on my face was enough to scare him off. Fortunately he got a different ferry.

The next guest was far more welcome, a nice middle-aged lady from Normandy, whose husband had recently died, and she was visiting her mother-in-law in Corsica. She helped me to pronounce "Cherbourg" correctly (the "bourg" part is a deep sound, and very pronounced). I like it when French people talk nice and clearly in their own language, rather than speaking too quickly, assuming you don't understand any French, and resorting to English.

Next up was a lean older gentleman who told me I had a nice bike, before promptly departing for his ferry. That't the kind of compliment I can take.

I was loaded onto the ferry with the foot passengers, via a minibus onto which they insisted loading my heavy bike. Marseille port is huge, and it was a ten-minute drive from the terminal to the ferry, so I was quite glad of this.

The ferry was pretty cool. The Monte Cinto is a small boat, only carrying about 100 people maximum, and on this crossing there were only about 20, so there was a nice friendly atmosphere. The chaps on reception were evidently a little wounded about France's crushing rugby defeat as, when they had trouble figuring out how to put my credit card through the machine, there were mutterings and shakings of heads about "les Anglais... nothing but trouble...".

I was invited to join three friendly French truckers for dinner, they seemed to make the crossing quite frequently and as far as I could tell they were transporting bales of hay over to the island. Dinner was good, but the best bit about the ferry was the wine tap in the canteen - a huge wine machine lined up alongside the orange juice and coffee machines, and offering a choice of red or rose. I thoroughly approve of such things, but I'm not sure it'd work so well on an English ferry.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Sunday October 14th - shouting at cars

Going south from St. Remy, there were some lovely views of the Alpilles, a small mountain range.

I started to cross the mountains. I wasn't having the best of days, despite having taken a day off. It felt like I'd accidentally hitched up to somebody's caravan when I left the campsite. There were fewer cars and I was passed by a lot of cyclists on skinny road bikes. I politely said bonjour to each and every one but really wished they'd all go away and leave me the road to myself - I was missing the space and emptier roads of earlier regions.

Near Aix-en-Provence I was pleasantly surprised to find another fabulous aqueduct, the Aqueduc de Roquefavour. It was bigger than the Pont-du-Gard and much newer (mid-19th century) and very impressive, although the setting was not as nice.

Shortly thereafter, I rode under the TGV Mediterranean line which would be carrying me home in a week's time.

Close to Calas, I was approached by an elderly cyclist in lycra, who talked incomprehensibly at me and tried to ride two abreast with me on a busy narrow road whilst swerving violently and being honked at by cars. I managed to pedal sufficiently slowly that I eventually lost him.

I found hell at Plan-de-Campagne, a huge business park just outside Marseille, which is apparently where all the French go on their Sunday afternoons. It was absolutely jammed up with traffic, English-style, at a huge intersection of motorways, other large roads and roundabouts. I had just navigated my way through a couple of junctions and was headed towards the road to Septemes-les-Vallons, when I looked over my shoulder and perceived the twin shining beacons of Formule 1 and Buffalo Grill. Wanting to stay somewhere cheap and not get too far into the city, this was exactly what I was looking for.

I didn't want to figure my way back around the labyrinth of junctions so I dismounted and headed as-the-crow-flies straight for it across roads and verges, before I realised I would have to cross a motorway with a small wall on the opposite side, and goodness-knows-what on the other side of the wall... not such a great idea after all. I headed back down to the road and spent about ten minutes trying to join the constant stream of traffic - there may have been some shouting at traffic, most of it unrepeatable yet also highly original.

I found my way into the hotel, dumped everything in the room and headed straight for the restaurant where I stuffed myself silly on a huge burger. Back in the room I flopped on the bed and watched lots of TV, including the American Office dubbed into French (it's much less irritating that way) and footage of French people crying after Saturday's Rugby World Cup defeat by the English. It had been one of those days when even Formule 1 can feel like luxury!

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Saturday October 13th - St. Remy

I didn't go anywhere on Saturday. It felt like a good time to have a break, take a day off, get some stuff washed and use the campsite's internet facilities.

Being about a day's ride away from Marseille, it seemed like a good time to book some ferry tickets. At the start of the trip I was hoping that maybe there would be time to see both Corsica and Sardinia, but with only one week left before I needed to be back in Normandy, it wasn't going to happen, and Sardinia would have to wait until another time. So I booked a Monday night journey to Ile-Rousse, with a Saturday night return from Ajaccio. That would give me five days to cycle 120 miles down the coast - fairly easy going, but not too much so, given the mountainous nature of Corsica.

I spent a few hours in town in the morning. In 1503, Nostradamus was born in a small house in the back streets of St. Remy - it still stands today, but like Descartes' house, it wasn't much to look at! Van Gogh spent a couple of years at a mental hospital nearby, where he painted 150 of his works and, looking at the surrounding landscapes full of vivid colours and cypress trees, it is easy to imagine this.

I found a lovely creperie (La Celtie - 29, rue du 8 Mai 1945) and had a spinach crepe followed by a citron, with a hot chocolate. There were a few Italian restaurant/cafes serving what looked suspiciously like great big tubs of Italian icecreams. I confirmed my suspicions by ordering the standard lemon flavour, and am pleased to report that it was of a suitable Italian standard.

In the afternoon I returned to the campsite and attended to all those little tasks like washing my clothes, myself, pots and pans, pumping up the tyres and untangling my hair (Never tour with long hair).

Whereas it was good to find somewhere with both good Italian icecream and lovely crepes, over the last couple of days things had got more touristy, and the traffic heavier. Saint Remy, beyond its old town centre, had a lot of traffic. Affluence was visible all around in the form of big expensive-looking cars and well-dressed people with lots of blingy jewellery. In one of Josie Dew's early adventures, she sailed from Marseille to Tunis (or was it the other way around?) and was shocked by the contrast between the affluence in Marseille and the poverty of Tunis. In a way, I was sorry not to be making that journey. But I was looking forward to Corsica.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Friday October 12th - Pont du Gard

At 7:30am, the Pont du Gard was deserted and bathed in golden sunrise light. The occasional walker or jogger went by but apart from that I had a Roman aqueduct to myself for an hour.



I consulted my leaflet as to where to go next and decided upon the Abbaye de Saint-Roman, the remains of a 5th-century troglodytic abbey. It was quite a long climb up to the abbey site, at which I found that the abbey itself wouldn't open for another three hours. I decided to walk up to the hermitage instead, since that can be visited at any time. I bumped into a group of joggers, one of whom recommended riding my bike up the hill as it would be easier. He obviously hadn't taken into account the difficulties of riding a fully loaded touring bike up cobbles, steps and gravel paths! I locked up at the first opportunity and walked the rest of the way.

The hermitage was pretty cool, a set of rocky caverns and tunnels at the very top of the hill, inhabited by a couple of hermit goats, and with marvellous views over the river Rhone and the surrounding countryside.

I came back down, crossed the Rhone and entered Bouche-du-Rhone. I was finally in the same departement as Marseille!

I stopped at the Intermarche in St. Etienne and came away weighed down with herrings, cheese, olives, snacky cakes, dried fruit, rice, etc. The road to St. Remy de Provence was horrible but fortunately there was a separate cycle path for most of the way, upon which I stopped for lunch and overdosed on herrings. After that, I didn't feel like going far so stopped in St. Remy at a well-equipped campsite populated mostly by Dutch caravanners. Once again, the ground was incredibly hard to pitch onto.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Thursday October 11th - Herby breezes

My legs were tired after the Gorges so I decided to take it easy again, and this wasn't too hard now I was out of the mountains. The real challenge now was to keep things interesting after the high of yesterday's incredible scenery, but at least now I had a handy leaflet to help me. I'd had some thoughts about visiting Avignon, on the advice of my lunch companions the previous day, but there was a lot of traffic around and I didn't feel like going into a town that big. Pont du Gard looked like a better bet, a Roman aqueduct spanning the Gard river, so I headed straight south.

I crossed the Ardeche river into the Gard departement. Huge cliffs faded away into vineyards and gentle forested hills. It was a sunny and cloudless day and warm herby breezes filled the air. There were a couple of small foresty climbs, mostly to keep me away from the bigger roads, as the traffic had started to get quite busy.

Bagnols-sur-Ceze was a bit of a trafficky hell-hole, I got there around mid-day and couldn't leave fast enough, but I did manage to stop at the tourist office and get a booklet of campsites in Gard. Again facing a lack of road options, I joined the N86 for a downhill ride towards Pont du Gard. As I'd hoped, it was nice and fast and I easily did 20mph for most of it.

The Pont du Gard was beautiful and very impressive, but was also swarming with tourists - it felt like a bit of a cattle market and at 3pm was way too bright to try and get a nice picture, so I left and found a campsite nearby in the hope of meeting the Pont at a quieter time.

Having grown tired of my own lousy cooking, I was getting into the habit of eating out. The campsite restaurant had closed for the winter so that evening I rode a mile to Remoulins for dinner, which was a lovely meal at the pizzeria (Lou Cigalon, 30210 Remoulins). Restaurants don't normally start serving until about 19:30 so I ended up having to ride back in the dark, which wasn't a problem until my front light (a SON dynohub setup) suddenly became very erratic in its output. Figuring it must have a loose connection, I bashed and jiggled a few things (it was dark, hardly the time for precision engineering!) but it didn't right itself. This was the beginning of bad times for my dynohub...

Monday, November 19, 2007

Wednesday October 10th - Ardeche

If I had to do any section of the trip again, it would be the Ardeche Gorges.

Unlike some of the more spontaneous sightseeing, I had planned to visit the Gorges from the outset, and over the last few days had been making sure my route was aimed towards the northern end.

The TV weather forecast told me it would be rainy on Wednesday, and I wasn't impressed, as I'd been hoping for good weather along the Gorges. Fortunately, the rain held out until the evening and the day was quite sunny with only a little cloud.

A couple of miles before Vallon Pont d'Arc, I noticed what could only be a disembodied fox tail at the side of the road. Not really wanting to know the story there, I carried on. Unfortunately, a mile or two later I encountered a disemtailed fox body. I wanted to know even less.

I saw a pair of recumbent touring cyclists coming the other way near Vallon and waved frantically, what with seeing another touring cyclist being such a rare event. They waved frantically in reply.

The gorges were more stunning than I could have imagined, and harder too.

The hardest bit was climbing the Serre de Tourre, a double-arrow (9-13%) on the map, nothing out of the ordinary by English standards, but the ascent was much longer than the map suggested. I met a fellow cyclist at the top, unladen on a mountain bike, and saw him at various points throughout the ride. It is a long road with few junctions, and frequent stop-off / look-out points, and I found myself playing tag with various travellers, both motorised and non-motorised, seeing them over and over along the length of the journey.

The best parts were Pont d'Arc and the stunning views from Belvederes de la Haute Corniche.

Pont d'Arc is a natural arch carved through the rock by the force of the river straightening itself out If you remember oxbow lake formation from school geography lessons, it's like that but the lake part has been drained and is now covered in vineyards). Belvederes de la Haute Corniche, many miles further downstream, is a set of high viewpoints over a deep bend in the river.



St. Martin was the first town after the gorges. I stopped at the first restaurant I saw and ordered a salade nicoise for lunch. Next thing I knew I had been swept up in a conversation with the people on the next table, and was actually speaking and understanding French to a greater extent than "une carafe d'eau, s'il vous plait" or "avez vous une chambre pour ce soir?". It was pretty cool, and probably down to a combination of them speaking nice and slowly and clearly for the English person, and my ears having got a bit more tuned in to the language.

They were a middle-aged couple from Toulon, on holiday in the area. Again, I think they were quite frequent visitors. I told them about my journey and for the first time somebody was more surprised at the distance I'd covered than that which I intended to do. Marseille wasn't far now, they assured me, and were so impressed with my pedalling efforts that they insisted on paying for my lunch. They recommended that I visit Avignon, and mentioned that Corsica was very mountainous, "harder than the Alps" apparently. I said that maybe I'd just sit around and eat ice cream once I got to Corsica. The waitress brought out a leaflet detailing all the exciting sights to see in Provence, and this would prove useful in days to come.

I camped in St. Martin, again another ghost town and very hard ground on which to pitch a tent. That evening I came up with my greatest invention yet (there haven't been many), the Buff Head-torch. Getting tired of holding my mini-torch (it is only about 1cm diameter) in my hand or between my teeth when reading, I came up with a new function for my multifunctional head garment, placing it around my head Rambo-style and tucking the torch up against my forehead. I found it was possible to angle the torch so it was always pointing at where I was looking. Looked silly but worked great.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Tuesday October 9th - whee!

After Monday's climbing, it was time for a lot of down.

It was a cold night up at 1100m, I had to pull my sleeping bag right around me and was very reluctant to get out of it the next morning.

I left and followed the Espezonnette to Lanarce, where the pain au chocolats were perfect. They were big, suitably flaky on the outside, fresh on the inside and made with good chocolate.

There was little choice but to get back onto the N102 for a bit, unless I wanted to go many miles out of the way. It looked bad on the map, as the turning off the road was at the top of Col de la Chavade and I am very averse to big climbs on big roads, but the road was quiet and the climb quite gentle. I turned off the road, and so began the real climbs for the day.

The road reached 1435m at the top of Col du Pendu, my maximum altitude for the trip. A small group of wind turbines gently rotated at the top, the only ones I had seen on the trip, and I passed a Nordic ski station.

After dropping back down to 1100m, I passed the official "line between the waters of the Atlantic and the Mediterranean". This was a pretty momentous point, and meant that from then onwards I would be meeting tributaries of the Rhone, which flows into the Mediterranean, rather than the Loire which flows into the Atlantic.

I climbed back up to 1370m, and just past the top, on a lookout platform over the vast valley into which I was about to begin my descent, I met a German couple with bicycles, who were headed in the other direction. They were mostly unladen, and were day-tripping from a fixed base. They spoke good English, and told me that they came to the Ardeche region every year to go cycling and walking, for which I can hardly blame them. This year, however, they were both on sabbaticals from work and were planning on travelling with their bikes in Cuba and South America (Chile, Argentina, Patagonia) - I was very jealous of their great plans. I did not forget that it is only polite, when meeting a person of the German persuasion, to congratulate them on their country's excellent eiscafes.

The descent was amazing. Miles and miles and miles of downhill, losing about 8-900m in altitude, a chilling drop along proper hairpin mountain passes, some of which were unfenced, narrow and slightly terrifying. I travelled for miles through pine forests and ripe chestnut trees, along and down the valley, at the bottom of which lay my first Mediterranean tributary, the Beaume.

The road levelled out, and I stopped in a picnic area near Valgorge for my lunch, sharing the bench with a small lizard. The bread, butter and cheese were lovely but then I ruined what had so far been a great day by tragically snapping my spork in two. After that, there were a couple of small hills to get over, but after the big descent my legs had forgotten how to pedal.

Passing through Largentiere, I then met the Ligne river and eventually the Ardeche, which is where things started to get really spectacular. The road ran along a wide gorge, with pale limestone cliffs ascending on either side. At one point the road ran through a short tunnel built into the cliff, the outer side of which had been carved into a succession of pillars and "windows". It turned out to be a small taste of what tomorrow would have to offer.

I stopped at Ruoms, which was a bit of a ghost town, few places were open and most were "closed until April". I stayed at a hotel of slightly dubious decor and reluctantly ate at the restaurant downstairs because there wasn't much else around, however the food turned out to be excellent. I retired to my room and watched French Supernanny.

1435m is not very high. If you want to read about some cycling at real altitude, check out Occupied Territories, Peter Quaife's account of riding in Tibet this summer. Most of it happens at around 5000m.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Monday October 8th - up

This was the day of uphill - I started at about 500m and reached a maximum of 1330m near the end of the day, with lots of ups and downs in between. Mostly ups.

After a couple of days of more interesting and rocky landscapes, today was a return to farmland, which was pleasant enough but nothing special. If it had been a nicer day, it may have been easier to appreciate the far-reaching views on the climb out of Langeac, but as it was it was too cloudy, hazy and dull a day to get much out of it.

I passed through lots of very small, shabby and quite poor-looking villages and small towns. It was Monday, so nothing was open and I failed to acquire my daily pain au chocolat. I ran out of "snacky cakes" (biscuits, cakes, etc that I munch on for energy) and started to get a bit hungry. At Bains I found an open "restaurant" with a very limited menu and had a horrible slimy croque monsieur, which at least kept my belly quiet for a couple of hours. It was a bit like being in Spain but with no grocery shops open.

I finally found a 8-a-huit at Landos, which of course didn't live up to its name but was due to open in fifteen minutes time. I waited around and called dgym to kill some time. I wanted to go to the toilet but refrained from using the public WC as it was dark, cobwebby and smelled rather horrible. I don't normally mind French public toilets but this one looked and smelled bad. When the 8 a huit opened I spent a good half hour delighting in the joys of an open grocery shop and stocking up on chocolate bars, jaffa cakes, fruit and dinner items.

I carried on to St. Paul de Tartas where supposedly a campsite was open, but found no sign of a campsite even existing. It was getting late in the day, so not wanting to waste any time, I turned back and headed for the other option, Lavillatte.

I crossed into the Ardeche department, and things started to get lovely again. Pine forests led me up to an altitude of 1330m and then onto the N102 (there wasn't much choice of roads). I turned off the main road a couple of miles later and as the sun got lower in the sky, a lovely little foresty hairpin descent led me down through Lavillatte and to the campsite, which was next to the Espezonnette river (again, a distant tributary of the Loire).

With little time to spare before dark, I tapped into my magic multitasking powers and discovered that, conveniently, putting up the tent and boiling a pan of water take about the same amount of time.

It was a cold night (I estimated I was still at at least 1100m) and, despite there being many caravans on the site, there was no sign of life from any of them.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Sunday October 7th - Allier

I was a bit knackered from Saturday's climbs so on Sunday decided to take in some slightly bigger roads and towns to get in some distance without overdoing it. It made a surprisingly nice change.

After a climb out of the valley of Champeix and over a small ridge, I dropped into the valley of Couze de Pavin, a small tributary of the Allier river, which eventually feeds into the Loire. I passed through Perrier, which was very pretty but is not where the water comes from. (Volvic, however, comes from the town of Volvic which I didn't visit but is a few miles north of the Puy-de-Dome mountain).

I skirted around the outside of Issoire, which had cycle lanes but the road surfaces were quite badly kept and bumpy. After that I dropped south towards St. Germain-Lembron and crossed over the Allier into the Haute-Loire departement, which is where many of the Loire's tributaries start out.

I arrived in St. Florine at precisely mid-day and was greeted by air-raid sirens. At the time I thought maybe it was some kind of war remembrance type thing, but apparently these things are still in use, tested on Wednesdays and used in all types of emergencies. Given that it wasn't a Wednesday maybe I should have gone indoors and listened to the radio for further instructions. Alternatively it may have been a "Warning: smelly cyclist descending upon the town" siren. You can't rule that out.

After that I headed to Brioude. It was still lunchtime when I got there, so everything was incredibly quiet and, although it was not a small town, the streets were virtually empty. I ate lunch in a deserted square adjacent to the fabulous basilica, and munched on bread and cheese while gazing up at its intricately decorated roof and watching flocks of pigeons swooping and roosting around the bell tower.

It was still hot so I took my time over leaving Brioude, riding slowly through shady mediaeval streets and alleys, under a stone arch and past the half timbered "Maison de Mandrin", a former tobacco warehouse which in 1745 was robbed by the renowned smuggler Mandrin.

Vieille Brioude, as the name suggests, was older-looking than Brioude. It was a good deal smaller, the buildings were a lot more simple and rather crumbly, and it didn't hold the same mediaeval charm as the larger town.

I spent all afternoon on the Allier gorge, which was lovely, green and cliffy. At St. Ilpize, I passed the ruins of a mediaeval chateau perched high above the river on a rocky platform, overshadowing the town below. Further down, I stopped at Lavoute-Chilhac to fill up on water, and was afforded lovely views up and down the river.

I camped at Langeac that night, and was pleased not to be too exhausted!

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Saturday October 6th - Puy-de-Dôme

I was going to take on the Puy-de-Dôme today. Awoken by church bells at 7, I was gone by 8:30, descending into Pontgibaud with the mountains now visible on the horizon. I made another attempt to get campsite information, only to find that the tourist office had, in the finest of French traditions, decided to close for the day.

I followed the small roads out of Pontgibaud, ascending the Col de Ceyssat which was beautiful and autumny with lovely views of the approaching mountain, but was also long and hard, taking me to 1078m. A creperie stood at the top, which is a fine place to build a creperie, but foolishly I decided not to stop. The Puy-de-Dôme ascends to a height of 1465m, and the top of the col was right next to the mountain so I felt I was part-way up already... unfortunately it's never quite that easy, as the road then dropped down again quite a long way before reaching the foot of the summit.


So, who won the match of me versus the volcano? Well, nobody really. The volcano simply wasn't man enough to take me on. At the entrance to the toll road was a sign prohibiting pedestrians, bicycles and horse riders except within certain hours during the summer months. I was a little disappointed that you can drive up there, jump out of the car to take a picture and claim to have climbed the Puy-de-Dôme but for most of the year it is not possible to do that on a bike...

I won't pretend there wasn't a part of me that was a little relieved. It did look particularly big and steep by the time I got to the foot, and would have been a tough climb.

Un peu deçu, I turned away and continued south east, past the city of Clermont-Ferrand. I saw lots of other cyclists, but not a pannier between them - well, unless you count the bloke who was struggling along in the heat on a mountainbike with a huge rucksack on his back.

Just before the village of Nadaillat, an oncoming guy on a racer warned me about "un chien mechant" (a nasty dog) ahead. Always appreciative of such warnings, I passed through the village with caution, checking each driveway in turn until I saw a large fierce-looking dog standing in a driveway. It barked a bit, but seemed to be tied up.

I'm not quite sure why I followed the road to "Gorges de la Monne", maybe I just like gorges, but this route went up and up and up to Olloix, a gruelling climb in searing mid-day heat. I stopped in every shadow I could find, cursing myself for following that sign. At Olloix I had a quick look around for places to stay, eat or buy food, but there didn't seem to be much and main street was so steep I gave up about half way, turned back and coasted 9km downhill to Champeix.

I found a lovely hotel/restaurant/creperie at Champeix, where I decided to stay for the night. Chocolate crepes were followed by cheesy hammy eggy crepes (mmmm) for a nice mid-afternoon snack. I had a look around the town, found a cybercafe and spent an hour furiously scribbling lists of campsites!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Friday October 5th - little yellow storms

My parting gift to Frances and George was two bulbs of garlic and about 900g of sugar. Being alone, and wanting to travel light, a single bulb and 100g of sugar were more than enough, but it's impossible to buy in such small quantities. I hope they appreciated the generous donation anyway.

I filled up on baguette, jam, warm croissants, coffee and orange juice at breakfast. I was running dangerously low on porridge supplies and had yet to see any in the shops, but Frances assured me that it was available in some larger supermarkets, and should become more available as I got further south.

One of the topics of discussion the previous evening had been the Puy-de-Dôme, a huge dormant volcano in the Auvergne region. A road leads all the way up to the summit, from which apparently the views are spectacular, and the mountain has occasionally been part of the Tour de France. I decided I had to climb it.

I entered the Puy-de-Dôme departement and headed for Pontaumur to try to get campsite lists. The tourist office had closed for the day, so I headed down the D217 towards Pontgibaud, which looked a bit bigger. The road was marked as scenic on my map and turned out to be absolutely lovely.

I stopped for lunch half way up the ascent from Pontaumur, the town just out of sight and hearing. Rocky cliffs ascended on one side of the road, and on the other side a stream gurgled along in the valley below. Autumnal trees shaded the road from both sides and shed tiny golden leaves, from which gusts of wind would create little yellow storms. The occasional passing car stirred up the leaves and caused them to flutter along on its wake.

There were four ascents on that road, but the first was the longest and loveliest. The final climb was into la Goutelle, which was bigger than I expected and had a campsite which claimed to be open until the end of October, so I stopped and pitched up, after which I noticed that all the facilities were locked and the taps weren't working. I wasn't too bothered as I had everything I needed and could buy bottled water at the shop over the road. There was also a fantastic boulangerie/patisserie nearby, from which I got a slice of pizza and a delicious little tarte au citron.

I was about 20 miles away from the Puy-de-Dôme and planned to get away nice and early the next morning to get a good early start on the climb.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Thursday October 4th - la Grande Maison

Dinner clearly wasn't enough, as I woke up very hungry at 2am, and had to munch on the last of the ginger oat biscuits to silence my complaining stomach before I was able to fall asleep again. I was woken at various points in the night by nearby horses making funny little horsey sighing noises (brrrr!). Conveniently, just enough rain fell in the night to make the tent nice and wet and heavy the next morning when I packed up. Nobody had come round to take payment for the campsite, so I slipped 5euro under the reception door as I left.

I started out by taking the wrong road out of la Celle Dunoise, which was at least in vaguely the right direction, but later on I took another wrong turn back onto the originally intended road. Sometimes these mistakes are worth making, as I ended up on a fantastic descent into a beautiful gorge near le Bourg d'Hem, which was the best bit of the day. There were quite a few ups and downs throughout the day, and my legs handled it quite well.

I was running low on supplies. I needed toilet roll, stove fuel and various food items, but the villages I passed through were too small to have shops. I finally reached Chenerailles, a reasonably sized town, at about 1pm when the sun was getting a bit too strong for my liking. The town had two supermarkets, both of which were closed until 2:30, despite one of them being called "8 a huit"! I decided to wait around for a bit. I ate lunch in quiet shadows by the church. I tried to call dgym, who wasn't around, then tried to phone the campsite about 30 miles down the road at Merinchal to find out whether it was open, but nobody answered. I got impatient, waited some more and decided perhaps it was pushing it to get to Merinchal now, especially given the terrain and heat.

I asked around at hotels - one wanted 48euro for a room which is a bit much for one person, and the other didn't have anything available. I waited some more, and then noticed a chambre d'hotes on the street near the (still closed) supermarket. The information in the window mentioned that they did evening meals too and the owner had worked in top restaurants in London, so I was hopeful of a good feed and some English-speaking. I knocked on the door and after a brief conversation in awkward French about whether there was a room (which there was), the bloke said something like "righty ho then", I said "You're English!" "Yes..." "Me too". "Well, that makes things a bit easier!". I had my pick of the rooms, and chose the nice quiet one facing away from the street, Villemonteix, with its wonderful hip-bath.

I took a wander around Chenerailles that afternoon, which was quite nice in the Old Town area around the church, with fantastic little medieval streets and houses which look like they haven't changed in centuries.


La Grande Maison

It was lovely to have a big soft bed, although the hot bath and meal were appreciated a whole lot more. I was served a wonderful meal that evening, in the company of Margaret, mother of Frances who co-owns the B&B with her husband George. Tomato, mozzarella and avocado salad, followed by roast chicken with vast quantities of trimmings (I really wasn't expecting to get a roast any time soon!) then cheeses, and ice cream for dessert, all accompanied by copious quantities of wine.

It was really nice to have some company for a change. Frances and George bought the house a couple of years ago, spent some time doing it up, and opened the B&B in June 2007. They seemed to have had quite a successful summer with it, and had done a really nice job of renovating. They seemed to have had lots of interesting visitors, and I wasn't the first cyclist to visit, they'd had another Channel - Med rider, and one going from Holland to Spain. Margaret was just visiting for a couple of weeks, but was giving some consideration to moving out there from her home in Norfolk. Frances said that the only thing that she missed about the UK was the variety of food you get in big supermarkets in the UK (Indian spices, etc). Most of the family have already emigrated to other countries, so she has very little reason to go back, and would rather just stay in France and integrate with the local community.

They're working hard at this - learning the language, contributing to the economy, trying to do everything "by the book" business-wise, and their efforts have mostly been well-received. There was some hesitance until locals realised they were making a permanent move, and not just setting up a holiday home which would be empty half the year, but people have been very welcoming. There was one exception - that same day, they had been to the Mairie to sort out something business-related, and were confronted by a very bigoted woman who was rude and unhelpful and generally disparaging towards "you English" who come over, ruin everything and cause lots of problems. Hopefully this was just an isolated incident, and won't discourage them.

I slept very well that night and had an excellent stay. Frances and George were great hosts, and I wish them all the best with their business.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Wednesday October 3rd - Creuse

The Creuse river was still, cool and beautiful as I crossed over it first thing in the morning. I left the river and embarked on my hilliest day yet. The uphills were long, mostly gentle, winding and slightly sweat-inducing. The downs were long and fantastic.

Having just left Centre and entered the Creuse departement of Limousin, I had run out of campsite information so stopped at Dun-le-Palestel and waited for the tourist office to open from its lunch break. (In addition to Mondays, the French are also keen on closing their businesses at every other opportunity as well, most notably for at least two hours at lunchtime).

Whilst waiting, I called dgym from a nearby phonebox. He was able to call me back via Voip, which was much cheaper than any other means of phone call we had tried but the quality of our home internet connection made it harder to hear what he was saying. By that point I had given up all hope of my international SIM finding a network ever again, and my mobile situation was not helped by the fact that the wiring on my solar charger had mostly fallen apart. Touring equipment needs to be really heavy duty - things are constantly being stuffed into and pulled out of panniers and generally knocked around. The solar charger worked well until it fell apart, and we are confident that with more robust construction, it will do a great job on future tours.

I got the campsite booklet, and once again had the choice between a nearby campsite which finishes the cycling day a little early, or one 30 miles away. At the kind of speeds I travel at, and with the amount of daylight available at that time of year, and the need to set up a tent and cook, I usually prefer not to set off on a 30 mile ride at 2pm, especially as sometimes things are not open when they should be. So I dropped back down to the Creuse and went for the nearby campsite at la Celle-Dunoise, which turned out to be a pleasant little site in a pretty village.

Once the tent was up, I set off for a walk into the village. It was about 4pm and for the first time I really felt the strength of the afternoon sun and the need to be sheltering from it at that time of day. I stuck to the shadows and had a bit of a look around.

A few miles downstream from la Celle-Dunoise, the Grande and Petite Creuse rivers meet at Fresselines. The impressionist painter Claude Monet spent three months in Fresselines in 1889, resulting in twenty-four paintings of the Creuse and surrounding landscapes.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Tuesday October 2nd - Brenne

I was still really tired after Monday's long distance (70 miles may not be a lot for some riders but it's a long day for me) and spent Tuesday crossing the Brenne national park over the course of twenty fairly flat miles. The Brenne region looked quite interesting on the map, with a dense clustering of lakes and marshes, but in reality it was hard to see much of it due to the flat terrain and roadside trees and hedges, and I only got one or two glimpses of lake.

I had lunch in a restaurant at St. Gaultier, a 10euro menu which was not great and slightly lacking in vegetables, but a vast improvement over my own cooking, and you can't really go wrong when there is wine included in the price. The waiter talked to me in broken English about where I was going, and, like most people, was a little surprised that I was going all the way to Marseilles. I was approaching the half-way point across France, and wondered how far I would have to get before people stopped being surprised!

I stayed in St. Gaultier and set up camp on the Oasis de Berry site for 14euro/night (ouch!). In the afternoon I rode across town to the Champion supermarket to stock up and make sure I would have a good dinner.

The sky turned black as I entered the town and I could only imagine how much rain was about to fall on me... fortunately nothing really came of it, everything stayed quite dry and the sky cleared after a while. Dinner was an improvement - I prepared myself a fine meal of pasta with pepper & aubergine sauce, shallots, black olives, pancetta and garlic, accompanied by a salade verte.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Monday October 1st - mouillée

Somewhere along the line since our last trip to France, I had managed to completely forget something about the French - they like to close things on Mondays even more than they enjoy closing them on Sundays. Somehow I had not noticed this last Monday when I arrived, probably because I arrived into a big town, stopped at a big supermarket and didn't pay attention to much else.

At Azay-le-Rideau I was kept awake, on and off, until midnight. There was a concert going on in the nearby stadium (campings municipales are often located next to sports grounds) and a couple decided to set up their tent nearby and giggle and chat until late. I could hear bunnies munching grass outside the tent, or so I thought at the time, it may just have been the cats that I caught trying to get into my rubbish bag early the next morning.

Apparently, I left just after dawn - it was one of those grey days when it's hard to tell when sunrise actually happened, and the sun didn't actually make an appearance until about 10:30. After that, the weather got quite muggy.

The landscapes just south of the Loire were not very exciting - long, gently winding roads through farmland, freshly-ploughed or wild-growing fields. I passed more sunflowers and grape vines, and a huge plantation of apple trees in the afternoon.

I passed through the town of Descartes, which was previously known as La Haye en Touraine until 1802 when it was renamed in honour of its most famous son, the philosopher Rene Descartes.

Having run out of campsite information, I visited the tourist office at le Grande-Pressigny to find out which sites were still open. Since I was headed into a different departement (Indre), they were lacking in useful information so let me use their internet point to find out. I noted down a few, and decided to head for Mezieres-en-Brenne.

At Martizay, it started to rain quite hard. I sheltered in a bus stop for a while but the rain showed no sign of easing off. I dashed across to a nearby boulangerie to pick up some bread, a coffee eclair and some kind of savoury potato pastry. The lady behind the counter suggested a couple of better places nearby to shelter but by that point I was bored with waiting around and decided to keep going.

At Mezieres-en-Brenne, I couldn't find the Bellebouche park on which the campsite was located. I considered getting a hotel but one was closed down permanently and up for sale, the other was closed because it was the French peoples' favourite day of the week, Monday. I found an open supermarket, picked up some supplies and asked for directions to Bellebouche. They told me it was 7-8km away so I carried on down the road.

I arrived at Bellebouche holiday park about half an hour later, soaked to the skin with a hefty 70 miles on my cycle computer .

"Vous etes mouillée!" (You're wet), observed the well-spoken young lady on reception, before informing me that, whereas the campsite was closed for winter, they had gites available for a reasonable price. I was tired and wet and happy to take whatever I was given, which was pretty small and basic by most peoples' standards, but to me at that point it was the height of luxury to be able to shower off all the road grime and numerous flies that had fallen down my top, stuck to me and died during the course of the day, not to mention being able to spread my maps out on the kitchen table and examine routes under a good light without having to worry about impending darkness.

Before it got dark, I unloaded my bike and rode a few miles to nearby Vendoeuvres to call dgym from the phone box. I got back and cooked myself a rather horrible dinner consisting of pasta, shallots and peppers.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Sunday September 30th - Loire

It was another cold morning, and again I had trouble getting out of bed. The day was a little warmer, although I think at this stage I had got far enough south to escape the mild and rainy oceanic climate of the north coast, but not far enough south for the warm Mediterranean sun.

I emerged from the tent to see a lovely red sunrise peeking through the trees, unfortunately I wasn't up quickly enough to see it fully before the day arrived.

It being Sunday, I picked up pain au chocolats and lunch baguette at the first opportunity, and headed out of town.

The landscapes started to change. I saw very few cows, lots more dead sunflowers, and the first grape vines. Men with guns and dogs were out in the fields hunting down rabbits for Sunday lunch. A scared-looking bunny rushed past me at the side of the road. One of the hunters flagged me down for a chat. It was windy, we were separated by a roadside ditch, and my ears weren't very well tuned into the French language at that point, so I couldn't understand much of what he said, but he seemed rather surprised that I was going all the way to Marseille, and asked me if it was hard travelling alone. I said not really.

The road to Langeais was long, straight, flat and not very exciting, taking me out of Pays de la Loire and into the Centre region (departement Indre-et-Loire). At Langeais I suddenly found myself at the foot of a stunning chateau, surrounded by a busy morning market, lots of expensive hotels and restaurants, and many American tourists admiring the chateau.

Crossing the vast Loire river felt like something of a milestone in my journey. Being quite close to Azay-le-Rideau, where I intended to stay, I took the long and scenic route down cycle route along the river, via another impressive chateau, Usse. I passed numerous fellow cyclists out for a leisurely pedal on hired bikes and laden only with handlebar bags. The Loire valley is a popular cycling destination, being flat and scenic (quite a rare combination) - it's not really my cup of tea although I can see its appeal to those who are looking for a holiday rather than a challenge! It reminded me a little of our non-cycling visit to the Danube last year, although the Danube was definitely prettier.

I eventually reached Azay-le-Rideau and stayed upon the campsite there, which was due to close for winter the next day.