CALAIS TO THE MEDITERRANEAN MAY/JUNE 2014
DAY 0 Hassle free drive to Dover in hired van. Dover has the air of being a down at heel place which has seen better days – as presumably it did prior to the channel tunnel. Like most places, very pedestrian unfriendly and it was a relief to find a pedestrianised area. Very nice Italian evening meal at La Scala – their sugo was much better than mine. Reasonable B and B – traffic noise dies away three floors up – but interesting vibrations from trains (we were opposite the station).
DAY 1 DOVER TO WIMEREUX 27 MILES Assembled to ride to the port and discovered that the group has a fair number of old codgers and a large preponderance of males. (I'd expected mainly macho 30 somethings working in financial services.) Nice mix of US, Canada, Australia and UK. Nice smooth channel crossing. Shortish ride, gently rolling hills, great sense of space with big crop fields and distinctive churches with squat, square towers and very pointed spires. My French intonation improved with the very first exchange of 'Bonjour' – I wasn’t rising high enough on the last syllable. Good meal at the hotel (Le Carnot): meaty snails; meatier monkfish in a sweet/sour sauce with balsamic; tarte tatin of a generous size. Pleasant walk along the beach promenade.
DAY 2 WIMEREUX TO ABBEVILLE 64 MILES For the most part, blissfully traffic free roads with far fewer potholes than the equivalent roads in UK. Motorists fairly consistently signal to move out when overtaking even if no other cars are around. And mostly they give plenty of space. The ride was again through large spacious fields, moderate climbing and some nice forest roads. Rode most of the day with Canadian Noreen (Parents of E/European and Scottish ancestry respectively). Lots of wild flowers, including unexpected little clumps of poppies on verges and in fields. Lunch was from a Turkish takeaway in Montreuil run by a very friendly guy. Saved Ann from bonk related vapours just in time. Hotel looks less special this time, with a garage for bikes some distance away, in an overgrown area where gangsters probably take people to shoot them through the head. Day ended with a rather desperate search for restaurants. The whole town had basically died for the day. Met up with Peter and Richard whose search had been equally fruitless and then someone suggested the Hotel Mercure. A very passable formule menu at 24 euros: turkey kebabs; duck; chocolate parfait/lemon tarte. The waiter looked like Rowan Atkinson, with facial expressions to match.
DAY 3 ABBEVILLE TO GISORS 73 MILES Like previous days, almost blanket sunshine and a brisk head wind which got up as the day went on. Similar terrain – very large open fields, more cattle, pleasantly shaded forests. Cuckoo yesterday, cuckoo and red squirrel today. Longer ride, not too hilly but fairly tough in the heat. Nice hotel but no dinner. Very inferior dinner at another nearby hotel: tasteless asparagus pepped up by parmesan and ham; agneau consisting mainly of bones and fat. And they ran out of beer. Taking the piss, I would say.
DAY 4 GISORS TO EPERNON 70 MILES Found a supermarket quite soon after starting and stocked up. Chatted with a local who asked if I was from Alsace. Must check out their accent! Finally rained. Lunch time onwards, two heavy spells, the second lashing down just before we took refuge in a bus shelter. Very little climbing today, nice woods again, but scenically less interesting as we got nearer to Paris. Good views of the Seine along the way. Difficulty finding the hotel because of the appearance of a new roundabout not on the route sheet and wrong information about the location of a hypermarket (LHS instead of RHS). Noreen looked on the verge of hypothermia as the rain soaked through, shivering uncontrollably. Had tête de veaux at the hotel, fatty but with a nice sauce gribiche.
DAY 5 EPERNON TO BEAUGENCY 69 MILES Rain all morning, dry all afternoon. Very flat day with following wind. Largest fields yet, variety of crops, reminder where food comes from. Ann had a puncture but we couldn't find the cause. Repair seemed to hold up. I've had a very very slow puncture for several days – one pump up per day seems to hold it. I wonder if I can get away with it for the whole trip. A couple of days ago I had a very sharp pain in the leg when walking (not cycling). Ann's miracle cure worked: Find the most painful spot, press on it for 2 minutes then release. Repeat if necessary (relevant spot may have moved). Now in the Loire Valley and should be easy going for a couple more days. One third of the time has gone already. Dinner was a remarkable experience. Le Patio, Beaugency must be given a report on Trip Advisor. An Italian restaurant where the food was exceptionally good (antipasti of great variety and distinct dressings for each component, plus a very good lasagne and a reasonable chocolate mousse). The service was bad beyond belief. The serveuse was smouldering with resentment from the moment we arrived and specialised in barking 'Wait a moment' whenever we asked for anything and then ignoring the request. She had an obvious attitude problem (the same phrase used by fellow cyclists on another table). I waited 30 minutes for a second drink, Peter waited 10 minutes after we had all finished dessert before he got his, we all waited more than 20 minutes after asking for the bill. A mixed experience, but the memory of the good food will be obliterated by the memory of such spectacularly bad service.
DAY 6 BEAUGENCY TO VIERZON 54 MILES Day brightened up from lunch time, sunny and flat ride but with an increasing head wind. Passed up the chance of a 10 mile detour to see a château. Scenery no longer so agricultural, we're in the Loire Valley, but we can't see the Loire. Some more nice rides through forests, but they seem to have driveways to somebody’s big house everywhere. Must make sure not to piss too obviously on someone's property. Found a very new Carrefour to replenish supplies. Supermarkets few and far between but many of the places we pass through are too small even to have a bar, never mind a shop. The very small number of shops seem in a state of de-stocking – half empty shelves and fridges, overripe split bananas. Concentration of retail capital here is at least as far advanced as in the UK. Marx was right again, who needs Piketty? Motorists' patience continues to amaze me, even though they drive very fast. They take you in as part of the traffic, as they would a car, and modify their behaviour accordingly. Not one hoot in anger so far, and not because we haven't done any stupid things. The hotel at Vierzon is big and quite comfy, and we have a lovely view from the window to the river and bridge. Reasonable Italian meal where the staff were a million times friendlier than last night. And discovered a supermarket conveniently next to the hotel.
DAY 7 VIERZON TO LA CHATRES 56 MILES 'Undulating' was the watchword of the day – little waves of road, giving the chance for momentum to get us over the little humps. But again a rotten head wind which as usual strengthened as the day went on. Also the threat of heavy rain which never quite materialised. Usual nice lunch of baguettes, cheese, bananas and choc milk. I feel we've now all got the point and it's time the scenery changed, as it would have done long since in the UK. Went through a wine region around Quincy with degustations every few kms, then back to big fields. Dinner at an Italian restaurant opposite the hotel – perfectly acceptable with pleasant staff.
DAY 8 LA CHATRES TO AUBUSSON 56 MILES Bastardly and very cold wind in our faces most of the day (and I'm told this is not necessarily typical). Also lumpier ride, but no rain and a little sunshine. The hillier terrain changed the scenery at last, with some attractive lakes and hilly fields. Wild flowers have been a pleasure throughout. Another short day compared with what's to come and flatter than what's to come. A rest day tomorrow before more serious hills. Now beyond halfway point in time and in distance. Arse had a very good day, and when it does I do. Dinner at the hotel. Ann's birthday meal and not bad: tasty local pate with a very good orange chutney; bavatte (steak); and clafoutis.
DAY 9 REST DAY (AUBUSSON) A small place with several tapestry museums but still not sure whether any of them are open on Sundays. Walked up to the ancient clock tower, restored in 16th Century and many times since. Dealt with slow puncture – no obvious cause in tyre and just a pinprick in the tube. Also got some washing done by kind person Kate at the hotel. The town is a mix of quite a few very ancient houses, all higgledy piggledy and stacked up above one another on the hills. Many of them are completely derelict and the town has the same air except for one street with a few cafés, souvenir shops, etc. Choc milk has definitely gone out of fashion in France and is not obtainable in a lot of supermarkets. Stocked up for an early start tomorrow in view of more serious hills. Had lunch in the patisserie opposite the hotel: chicken, beans/potatoes, fruit flan. The hotel restaurant was the only choice in the evening apart from a takeaway pizza with a half hour queue for orders and a dodgy looking kebab house. Identical meal to last night and just as good. Must do a Trip Advisor report for this hotel. (Hotel France, Aubusson).
DAY 10 AUBUSSON TO NEUVIC 60 MILES It has to be said that the rest day yesterday was perfect for cycling – warm, sunny, no wind, no rain. Today it pissed down on and off all day. But no head wind and although a lot of climbing it was gentle, nothing as bad as Clifton Vale. Roads following valleys and gradually climbing, sometimes 10/20 feet above rivers, then eventually at an altitude where there were views over the tops of dense forests. Some riding through deciduous forests, any number of cuckoos and other unidentified bird song and a stag taking its chances in a military area leaping across the road. The highest bits had an almost Alpine feel to them. It occurs to me that we've long since left behind the big, lovely houses of northern France, many looking newly completed and individually designed. The last few days have been characterised by towns with many derelict buildings, with run down houses in between still inhabited. So France too has the filthy rich and the bare arsed poor. Quelle surprise. As with the LEJOG trip the stresses of this one are mental for me rather than physical. Eg I mended the ultra slow puncture, which was holding up well for days on end because I thought: What if it gets worse when it's pouring with rain on a busy road and I can't hear where the tube is leaking? Eg what if we run out of food during the day? I don't think we passed a single shop today after the start where we could have bought food. 2 or 3 bars where we could get something, but that slows down the day and we are the slowest riders. A less tough day than we expected today, but we have the Tour of France climb tomorrow. Bon courage. The Hotel du Lac was just that – a lovely view over the lake and up to lots of thick woods.
DAY 11 NEUVIC TO AURIAC 67 MILES What a day. Ann discovered a puncture just as we were leaving which Steve and John fixed v quickly. The ride to the T of F col began with miles of downhill on a long, winding gravelly descent. Then a gradual climb over many miles with spectacular scenery. Following a river valley, with lowland cattle in fields above that, their bells producing ambient music in complex rhythms! And a woodpecker. Forests above that and snow capped peaks all around. Eventually the real climb started and got really severe. I found it harder than any other climb I've done and I don't want ever to do it again. Ever. It was the Pas de Peyrol on Puy Mary mountain, the highest road on the Massif Centrale. I cycled it all, but had to stop 3 times to give heart and lungs some recovery time. A lot of people walked because they had much higher gears than mine. The meadows today really made me think of impressionist paintings, with nebulous patches of yellow, white and reddish flowers. Life imitating art. The hotel was comfortable but in a godforsaken area of industry. Only one restaurant next to another hotel but it was actually v good. More on the climb. It was v cold at the top and got colder on the descent as it started to snow. It occurred to me that I'd not ridden close to a sheer drop off a mountain before. Just got colder and colder even when back on level terrain. My expectation was that it might get too hot to ride as we moved further south but that hasn't happened yet. The day's ride ended with the zip on my coat bursting apart and rain starting, putting me in a bad mood till late sunshine, Ann's presence and a good meal restored things.
DAY 12 AURILLAC TO VILLEFRANCHE EN ROUGUERES 63 MILES Took two attempts to leave town – confusing instructions. A very Van Gogh day – those fields which rise gradually to the horizon, with pinky browns and characteristic greens. Also lots of great views over huge forests and far into the distance. It was unbelievably cold to start with and I remained v cold even when the sun came out. But by the afternoon we had intimations that we'd come quite a way south. Steve from Bike Adv is going to fit new brake blocks for me at the rear, even though I fitted new ones for the start of the trip. That descent from Pas de Peyrol did it. Supermarket round the corner from the hotel open tomorrow, despite dire predictions that everything in France would be closed for Ascension Day. Ate at the hotel, at what turned out to be a gourmet restaurant but with a reasonably priced formule. Pureed haricot beans with duck gizzards; pork belly in a v nice light and fruity sauce; apple and praline surrounded by booze. Our American friends Gary and Dave left because Dave has unadventurous tastes in food. Once more I was glad I could speak the language as they asked me to explain why they were cancelling their reservation.
DAY 13 VILLEFRANCHE TO CASTRES 75 MILES More of the same scenically to start with – densely wooded hills and large fields. So more of the same riding too – long gentle climbs with rewarding views followed by long descents. Bit of drizzle at start but much less cold than previous days. Eventually into a wine growing area with loads of degustations. Then the scenery changed again back to v large agricultural fields. And one of the most wonderful views I've ever seen as we got to the top of a hill overlooking the village of Lautrec (listed as one of the prettiest in France). Long van Gogh-ish fields rising up, then the village rising out of the ground with a church tower on top, then more fields, followed by hills upon hills into the distance. All this seen from a v high vantage point. Hotel room is the poshest I've ever been in, leopardskin print wallpaper and soft furnishings, loads of objets around, it's the Hotel Renaissance and all around are period costumes on dummies, out of period cases, trunks, typewriters, all sorts. A lot of the ride today was on a busy D road, so not the miles of deserted roads we've got used to. A lot of fast cars took me closer than I wanted, but only one provoked my standard Fuck You response. It had GB plates. Dinner at a restaurant recommended by the hotel patron: excellent clafoutis with smoked salmon; cheek of pork (v tender, moist and lean and lots of it); strawberries and cream.
DAY 14 CASTRES TO NARBONNE 67 MILES A long climb to start, with v impressive views of the Black Mountains. Very long rounded peaks, about a dozen of them, and very thickly and darkly wooded all the way up. Also eventually stunning views over lots of other hills. Nasty moment on a steep narrow winding descent when a van came hurtling up towards me on my side of the road. It swerved away at the last moment, just as I was thinking that the only way to avoid it was to go off the side of the mountain. French plates. Stopped for lunch at a viewing point with wonderful wonderful views back over thick woods below us and into the distance. Further rewarding descents with eventual heathland, then vineyards including the Minervois region, and views of the Pyrenees. Extraordinary rock formations near Minerve. Like huge giant furnaces or ovens split open to reveal pinky-browny surface with long vertical blueish stripes. Topped with stone coloured rocks looking like giant teapot lids. Run in towards Narbonne on a very busy main road and I said Fuck You to a French driver for the first time. Weather dry all day with strong tail wind. The opposite wind is inevitable for Carcassonne tomorrow. Ann may decide to get the train with some others in view of the likely head wind. I'll miss her a lot if she does. Good dinner at the hotel: big range of hor d'oeuvres with lots of nice dressings (a feature of the trip); superb blanquette de veau; big range of puds with unlimited access.
DAY 15 NARBONNE TO CARCASSONNE 51 MILES C'est dans la poche. Not a day for scrutinising scenery. A viciously strong and gusty cross wind. “Dangerous” was the word on everyone's lips. We rode with American Gary, who started the day by falling off when his foot got trapped on the pedal. Ann came to the rescue with a screw for his cleat, to replace the one whose disappearance had caused him to fall. Exit from Narbonne on rocky, gravelly paths which were no fun. Had to ride over a narrow causeway where the wind threatened to blow us off the road. Similar story on busier roads too. Ann accepted an offer to bale out and ride in the Bike Adv van. I carried on, initially with people too fast for me, then solo, then towed by Geoff the sweeper, then solo. Arrived just behind the Fast Boys. Nice hotel room for the last night (with a pool, but too late to use it). Final dinner opposite the hotel with Dave and Gary. Very tasty cassoulet and crème brulee. Just time for a quick turn round the mediaeval citadel after dinner. South of France looks less exotic than I remember, but the squareness of many buildings with flattish browny-red roofs reminds me of Venice. Hot weather never really materialised, so it was poss to ride more less throughout in a comfortable temperature.
DAY 15 +1 CARCASSONNE TO BRISTOL Coach to airport at the crack of dawn, on arrival the driver had to make several attempts to get us to Departures. Said our goodbyes to everyone. Long wait at the airport for an afternoon flight but I was happy just to mooch around and eat.