I think I was expecting some sort of signature of French grandeur as we made the crossing from Belgium into the country well known for its haughty cultural status but without so much as one baguette waving bon-homme we found ourselves in Lille.
The weather was horrible, in fact, the worst we had experienced yet. Not only was it so cold that it was snowing but the snow was quickly turning into enormous rain droplets a few metres off the ground. We were soaked to the bone despite being covered from head to toe in waterproof clothing and anything that wasn’t inside a trusty Ortelieb pannier was soaked through too. So we did what any straight-thinking, experienced cyclists would do when faced with horrible weather – set up camp in the mud. We followed some signs to a camp site just outside of Cambrai and asked the proprietor if it was possible to camp there for the night even though the sign said they would open for business on the 1st of April. The lady looked at us like we were mad (we are fairly used to that look now) but said yes all the same and turned on the hot water.
In the morning we woke up to the realisation that our decision to surrender to the great outdoors no matter the weather had been a bad one. As most of you probably know… I am easily cold and therefore am probably not a good yard stick for trying to explain the severity of the weather. Ashley, who is at the other end of the spectrum and would sleep with the cold air conditioning on in winter if I let him, was almost in tears because he felt so cold. We paid a swift five Euros to the lady at the reception and started pedalling hard to save ourselves from hypothermia. But alas (or merde as the French would say) we had a flat front tyre. So it was after only 30 kilometres we decided to admit defeat and checked into a crappy 30 Euro hotel where we used every inch of space to lay out our tent, sleeping bags, clothes and paraglider to dry.
We learnt over the next few days not to rely on the French weather forecast as we made our way south to Paris. We arrived in the famously romantic city to a blaring of horns and were soon confronted by some curious but creepy Parisians who had no idea about personal space as soon as we stopped for a moment by La Gare du Nord to look at a map. We had found a map which proudly boasted to have marked all the cycle paths in the city and surrounds. This was good in theory but in practice, Parisians have better uses for their “pistes cyclables,” for example, as a place to park their scooters or as an alfresco dining area. The traffic was chaotic. I’ll give credit where credit is due. The French are very good at some things – bread, wine and cheese for instance – but driving is not one of those things.
Somehow we made it to our lodgings in the 18th district and knocked on the door of Claire and Max. They were exactly our sort of people, meaning they have a healthy love of cycle touring. With them we set about organising our next few days in Paris. We dragged Will up and down the cobblestoned streets feeling a little like Julie Delpy and Adam Goldberg from the film Two Days in Paris. That is not to say that old lovers were chatting me up or that I was holding screaming matches with taxi drivers in French while Ashley stood by puzzled. Actually, the last part was happening a lot. Ashley was becoming increasingly frustrated by his inability to communicate with the French. Although we had already visited two non-Anglophone countries, the Dutch and the Belgians are wizards and didn’t bat an eye to changing language mid-sentence. The French on the other hand …
We got ourselves to the Louvre and then wondered down the Champs-Elyses until we circled the Arc de Triomphe. Tourist attraction or not, the Arc de Triomphe is first and foremost a dangerous round about where cyclists go to commit suicide.
We are alive only because Ashley drives a bike like he is still driving his white Hilux work ute down the Bruce Highway. He had every Renault and Citroen on that road convinced that if they didn’t move for us we would put a tandem sized dint in their fancy hybrid engine. One man in a very sleek low vehicle who had driving methods very similar to Ashley did almost end up with such a dint. He beeped his horn a few times, Ashley shouted some profanities in English and I made a mental note to attach a boxing Kangaroo flag to the back of our trailer as the man rolled down his window and shouted “Putant l’Anglais” after us.
We decided Paris was as good a place as any to search for a bike stand (previously we had been using a hiking pole under the seat). We found our way quickly to Rando Cycles – not just any bike shop, THE bike shop. It was touring heaven. On display in the window was a bike of the legendary tourer Heinz Stücke, a German fellow who went for a ride one day when he was 20 years old and now almost at the ripe old age of 70, is still out on the road. Covering the frame were the names of cities he’d visited all around the world written in what looked like white out. We finally extricated ourselves from the shop and finished off the day with a spot of bread and cheese at the base of the Eiffel Tower.
The next few days we traced a line south through Chatres, La Fleche, Confleurs until Angers. Ashley sent out a hoy to the local paragliding club and our prayers were answered by Jean-Michel or as we came to know him… Mcgyver. As far as I could see this guy was the embodiment of French culture. He lived in a beautiful old house that he’d restored himself in Chaudefonds sur layon and he worked only six months of every year choosing rather to have more time than money. He loved food, wine and above all, adventure. Surrounding his home were green rolling hills dotted with cows and sheep which Ash took to with his paraglider within an hour of our arrival.
We were beginning to feel a distinctive change in the air… Spring! Daffodils were shooting up everywhere and the temperature was mild enough in the middle of the day to strip off our layers and cycle in only our t-shirts and lycra shorts. It was with this glorious weather that we went west through Nantes and hit the coast taking advantage of the lengthening days. However, we seemed to be the only ones out enjoying the sunshine. The coast was so devoid of life we struggled to find one open camping site during the 500 kilometre stretch to La Dune du Pyla. Apparently between June and September the whole area is riddled with holidaymakers but other than that has very few permanent inhabitants. The upside of this was that wild camping was a synch. There were stretches of beautiful national parks and grassy knolls with picnic tables that no one was using (one of our greatest joys is finding a free campsite with a picnic table). Futhermore, bike paths were everywhere! There is even a Eurovelo route that covers a great deal of the area between Royan and The Dune du Pyla and we took to it like a Frog to a street protest.
At a beach called Le Gurp we found a series of stone world war two bunkers sinking into the sand. They were covered in bright graffiti which made the whole beach look like a skate park but without the beachgoers and laughing children it was just plain eerie so we hot footed our way down to Paragliding heaven… the Dune du Pyla.
All that followed is another thousand or so words worth… so perhaps I’ll leave that to another post. I just thought I’d take advantage of the free time and internet while Willie goes to the doctors (again… another can of worms!) but in no way is this wrap of our French adventures. I’ll pick up from where I left off as soon as I can!