Eleven days ago I was nervously staring at a small pile of panniers in the hallway wondering what on earth the next 15 months had in store? Now, just over a week later and I’m sat on a river bank eating a banana and watching a woman in overalls climb out of an elephant’s bottom.
I must stress that no drugs have been consumed at this juncture.
The elephant in question is the 12 metre high/ 21 metre long pneumatic star, of the steam punk attraction of Les Machines de L’île and, when not being maintained, carries passengers around the banks of the river Loire in its 48 tonne belly. Today though I just watch as engineers crawl around its innards and marvel at what a difference to life less than 2 weeks makes.
Setting off on that first sunny June morning it was just a relief to finally get going after all the months of preparation and packing. Pedalling away from home it felt liberating to be moving at last. This was helped by the fact that my parents, driving to the port to wave us off, had offered to carry our panniers, so the bikes, for the first 9 miles at least were incredibly light! Having been so caught up with house packing I realise I’ve neglected to properly check my bike over as planned and, as the miles rolled past, an annoyingly loud squeaking sound accompanied every pedal stroke. Great start. A quick stop at a petrol station and a jumbo can of WD40 did little to help and, with time ticking away all we could do was try and tune it out.
Panniers attached at the ferry terminal, a last drenching in WD40 (the bike not me) and a quick goodbye to my lovely folks and we were riding up the boat’s ramp to be swallowed up along with the motorbikes, cars and caravans all heading across the channel. Time to breathe and drink coffee.
That first day honestly feels like light years ago right now. I’m always amazed at how adaptable we humans our to our surroundings as after 10 days I can’t imagine what facing my wardrobe of clothes and sink full of dishes felt like? I do still have lingering memories of the softness of my pillow however, having yet to perfect my sleeping set up but, other than the odd thing, it now feels very normal to be packing the bike every day, rolling down the road (nearly always remembering to ride on the righthand side).
We’ve gotten very adept at spotting the boulangeries in each village and the shady spot to sit and stuff our faces in.
M has also revised his standards from only wanting to eat at a cafe table, to being willing to join me, crouched on a grass verge to scoff down food at any convenient moment.
The route that we are following courtesy of the excellent cycle.travel has faithfully guided us along quiet tarmac country lanes, designated cycle paths, farm tracks, through cities and along a (long and interminable) stretch of gravelly canal and river path between Mon Saint Michel and Guipry.
The French have definitely got it right when it comes to cycle inclusively in the transport network. Chapeau Normandy for your excellent segregated city bikes lanes and signals, your ubiquitous signposted routes and traffic-free Voie Verts (gravel paths for walkers, horse riders and cyclists).
The car drivers here are also some of the most cycle friendly I’ve encountered. Maybe it’s all the space? Whilst the population of France is very similar to the UK (67.4 vs 68.5), the country itself is some 2.5 larger. Whatever the reason, be it space or attitude, riding in France is an absolute pleasure.
What has also been superb are the camping facilities. Dotted along the route are a smattering of Aires de Camping small, quiet municipal or privately run campsites with at least basic facilities for the sweaty cycle traveller. Some of the really top notch ones have even included free washing machines and hammocks. Payment is usually a very relaxed affair too, often involving seeking out the local Marie (Town hall) and handing over the princely sum of €8-15 euros.
What has been less welcome though is the discovery that bits of France seem to be permanently closed. I’d forgotten of course that the shops here tend to shut for lunch anywhere between midday and 5pm but most usually when they’re the only store in town and 2 hungry cycle tourists are approaching. Many also shut on Sundays too which we’ve learned the hard way. Finallly, each locality seems to also have a totally random day or 2 of closing each week. On asking at a tourist information place in a lovely town, also shut on arrival, the helpful chap confirmed the above. We are adept it seems at turning up on closing day.
That aside we are now on day 11, we have eaten our body weight in bread and croissants and managed some reasonable nights of sleep in a tent.
We haven’t been rained on either, in fact Normandy has been experiencing a heat wave and a few days of temperatures nearing 40 degrees c/100 Fahrenheit. Because of this we have been going at a relaxed pace, averaging 30-35 miles a day and it’s been a joy (and so different from gruelling mileage at the start of my Canadian trip) yet we’ve also still managed to cover 275 miles and gain: 9305 feet of elevation.
We’ve taken days off to visit old friends and old monasteries at Mont Saint Michel and, most importantly we still seem to be talking to each other and occasionally even in French. Even my squeak has finally quietened too!
So, stage one of the trip is complete and stage 2 is nearly decided upon and will probably involve riding along the Loire to Lyon over the next 3 weeks.
For now though we’re enjoying a city break in Nantes, all of which is of course very much closed!
Many thanks to Lina and Vincent for their lovely hospitality and the chance to avoid the heat. To Melanie and Adrien for the great practical advice and sourcing of gas bottles and to my parents for putting us up/putting up with the whirlwind that was.
If you enjoy reading about adventure, travel, cycling or all 3 why not check out my book: How To Cycle Canada the Wrong Way.
It’s the story of a forty-something woman with no clue in life and no cycle touring experience. What she does have is a sense of adventure, a second hand bicycle and a skirt and the idea of riding across Canada….the wrong way.
Available on Amazon in e-reader and paperback formats.