Bonjour, je suis returnee!
In the past I’ve provided an almost day-by-day, blow-by-blow account of my shaky trials and tribulations on two skinny wheels en France but, rather do that again here’s a slightly different approach which addresses some broad-based subjects that I’ve experienced over the last couple of weeks. Just to briefly recap, the plan was to ride-down a circuitous route to central/southern France on me jack-jones, camping and living on the cheap, before blagging a lift back in wee Tom’s Bongo (campervan) as he’d been surfing on the Brittany & Vendee coasts. For the record and if you’re interested, the 900km/600mile route took in such wonderful places as Cherbourg, Agon Countainville, St James, Fougeres, Vitre, Pouance, Chateaubriant, Ancenis, Clisson, Les Herbiers, Pouzauges, Parthenay, Lusignan, Gency, Availes de Limouzine, Confolens, Nontron, Brantome, Perigeux, Le Bugue and Sarlat. Tres Bon.
So, if you’re sitting comfortably, then I’ll begin.
Travelling Light – Having now done this kinda thing several times I know the idea is to pack as little as possible and travel light. This is always the plan until it gets down to the nitty-gritty and I find myself unable to actually lift the fully laden bike, which tipped the scales at over 45kg. The spare pair of pants had to go along with any aspiration of wet-weather riding-gear. In the event, I travelled with one t-shirt, one pair of shorts, one pair of socks and one set-of riding gear. And no companions because of it.
My only true concession to comfort was to be seen in the form of a steel three-legged stool, which I gauged as being essential to sitting outside the tent, of an evening, enjoying a warm one. Needless to say, I carried said stool all the way, and it remained unpacked. Doh. Oh, and on the first night I realised I didn’t have either a corkscrew or bottle opener. School-boy error. Albeit underage.
French Roads – The cyclists amongst you will appreciate that good tarmac is everything and the quality of your day begins and ends with it. France has it by the steaming bucketful and n’er a pot-hole can be encountered in hundreds of kilometres. Mind, there’s a reason for this. The sun routinely melts the aforementioned tremendous tarmacadam with ease and it’s either wet & sticky as it’s running into the gutter or it’s just been re-laid.
Universally, the French appear to work either on the land or on the road. One particular incident sticks in my mind as I had advance warning of a ‘Rue Barre’ some five kilometres ahead, and realising the alternative route (‘Deviation’ – bit personal!) added-on about fifteen, thought ‘nah, f*ck that’ and cycled to the distant closure nonetheless. As I sauntered-up the cry of ‘Cycliste!’ rang-out. I was duly called through with a wave of a hand, the heavy-plant operators killed their engines and on my merry way I travelled. Shovel-leaners the lot of ‘em but I won’t hear a bad word said!
In terms of topography, it’s either up or down and there’s not a lot in between. I’d also somehow managed to forget how big a country France is and how much space exists from one place to the next. Which means that at times, you have to get some serious miles in. Larger D and N roads are the way to go for this but the downside is the traffic and the lorries. Now, I don’t think for one second that any long-distance HGV driver ever intentionally tried to force me off the road but the huge articulated and double-jointed vehicles couldn’t help but scare the cleats off you when they pass. First, the huge bow-wave of air would shove you forcibly towards the gravelly verge; then a powerful vacuum of slipstream suck would yank you back to the centre of the road. One was bad enough but the usual funereal cortege of three or four played havoc with both my forward momentum and my heartbeat. At least by now they probably recognise me – “Ah, c’est le ginga midget who enjoys riding dans 40 degree midday sun, let’s blast him with our extremely hot exhaust gases, how it makes him laugh.”
By contrast, quiet roads more closely follow the contours of the land which means far more undulation and the sharing of them with tractors and the metallic tang of a teen’s tinny two-stroke. You pays your money, you takes your choice… Also, is it just me or can anyone else not pass a field of animals without trying to make their acquaintance? Cows are moo-ed at, horses are neighed to, pigs oinked and sheep baahed. I just can’t stop myself.
French Cars – There’s no denying that the French still like their cars. Provided they’re French. The vast majority that scoot around on the black ribbon are Citroen, Renault and Peugeot, and God bless ‘em in that regard. Without a doubt THE current car of choice of the well-to-do sharp-elbowed retail middle-manager is the Peugeot 3008 SUV but the quirky Citroens with sleeping mats on the side are running it close. Personally, I don’t get the latter at all but, after two dreadful night’s kip in my one-man tent, I was sorely tempted to peel the rubber off one to try it out! There’s also a very noticeable increase in foreign cars, particularly the Dacia Duster. And it’s apparently available in two lovely colours – dark sh*t brown, and light sh*t brown. Mind, they all secretly aspire to a flashy Beemer but are worried the neighbours would resort to a campaign of active resistance.
The closest I actually came to an accident came about via an early morning coming together with an ancient Renault 4, and an equally ancient Renault 4 driver. I’m grinding up a winding hill and just starting to bear right when the aforementioned vehicle coasts onto the road from a left-hand fork. There’s a small jack-russell dog sat bolt upright on the passenger seat and he’s looking at me with intent, his eyes saying “I’ve been here before and this ain’t gonna end well for you, my English friend”. I also perversely note that he’s not wearing his seat-belt as the sleeping driver would’ve obviously taken the implication of perceived danger as a personal slight on his driving abilities. As we come together Jack barks, wakes-up the driver and they veer away with an exclamation that universally translates to “where the f*ck did you come from!”. Phew and merci pour nothing.
Roadkill – If you’ve ever wondered where all our hedgehogs have gone, I can confirm that due to the impending Brexit furore they’ve all relocated over La Manche. Sadly, they also appear to be about as welcome as a f*rt in a wetsuit and many of them are also finding their way under the wheels of Renault 4s. Seriously, I was disappointed to see dozens of our once-spiky now-flattened friends, along with a whole menagerie of hawks, several animals I couldn’t recognise let alone name and even four or five snakes. France remains a largely open agricultural country, benefits from lots more wildlife than us but with the downside that tragically, many appear to have not yet cottoned on to the Green X Code.
Speaking of the hawks, I was gobsmacked to see a truly massive one in the late afternoon sky and pulled over to get a better look, only to eventually realise it was some bloke in a microlight. Should’ve gone to SpecSavers.
French Towns & Villages – France is a country of community (Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité) and, irrespective of their size, it has been decreed in their constitution they must follow a certain composition of said community. Any collection of dwellings numbering more than half a dozen has to have a a boucherie (butcher) that never seems to open, boulangerie/patisserie (baker) for your morning baguette, pharmacie (no doubt doing a great line in home-made candlesticks) and a PMU/Tabac café for the obligatory strong black coffee, cheeky pastise (Pernod), three packs of cancer-sticks and a lotto scratch card. And the real beauty is that whatever you buy from whichever shop you’re allowed to consume in any of the others. Laissez-faire market conditions at their finest and it must make for some truly remarkable conversations: “Bonjour Pierre, Do you intend applying your haemorrhoid cream whilst enjoying a lovely pain au raison? Oh, allo Francois, Bonne chance avec your numbers as I see through the smog of Gauloise cigarettes that you’re rubbing it off with a 19th century gilt candelabra. Au revoir, mon ami.”
Accompanying these shops you will be greeted by a minimum of three coiffures (hairdressers), one for short hair, one for long hair and one for old hair (though I’ve yet to see any French madam with a hairstyle resembling any of those in the windows), and one dog-grooming salon. I kid you not. The recent addition of the Agencie Immobiliere (estate agency) is to be expected as every other house is A Vendre but none appear to be selling. Obvious urbanisation is taking place. The draw of the metropolis remains strong and no amount of weekend ‘Concours Petanque’ is going to lure them back.
Thankfully, the humble baguette blanche and croissant remain king en France and, as they kick-start every day with strong bitter coffee, all’s well with the world. French food is still ace, though a little harder to find. I enjoyed a couple of tremendous Plats du Jour (seafood potato salad (no, really) and poached zander with pureed broccoli & watercress was a class act) and the universal jambon et fromage baguette was my get-out-of-jail-card on several occasions but there are way too many fast-food kebab grills springing-up. Reassuringly, not one single McDonalds, KFC or Buffalo Grill did I spy, though I did witness several shocking automated roadside pizza dispensers and the ultimate low point on my culinary quest proved to be entering a cracking village brasserie only to be offered a ‘full Engleesh all-day breakfast’. WTF.
Camping Municipal and/or Camping a la Ferme are staples of most reasonably sized towns and they’re ace. For around E7 you’re going to get a decent sized quiet pitch, a very welcome hot shower and the use of seriously strange toilets. Some will be no more than a hole in the floor, others will be a porcelain bowl either with or without a seat. Some may flush, others may stink to high-heaven! Mind, the cleanest toilet I’ve ever come across in my life is to be found in Lesley’s Bistro in Queax, run by a lovely Irish couple both on the wrong side of 70. I was indeed half-tempted to eat my pate grossier off it.
Les Frenchies – Love ‘em or loathe ‘em you really can’t help but admire the French. They won’t be rushed. Ever. And a long, drawn-out double-cheek-kiss greeting is central to their very raison d’etre, across any age, race and social strata. Walking past someone without an acknowledgement, kind word or gesture simply is not tolerated, and good on them for this. The sooner we remember this the better. Without the double-cheek-kiss of course. You’ve gotta have standards.
One memorable occasion occurred whilst sat at the PMU in St Alvere, where two guys, one in a car, greeted each other and sparked-up a conversation. Over the course of the next five minutes at least ten cars pulled-up behind them and no-one complained or even honked their horn. When the conversation ended, everyone went on their merry way with no worries and no hassle. A very stylish young brunette then rode past on a sit-up-and-beg bicycle with a dog and baguette in the front basket. I kid you not, only by wearing a hooped Breton jersey and a string of onions round her neck could she have been any more French!
Apart from the deep-seated craving for rubber yoga mats on the side of all vehicles they’re not an overly materialistic bunch. Lots of Nokia phones are still on view and most appeared to retain the 90s ‘Crazy Frog’ ringtone, which I can assure you has not become any less annoying with the passage of time. Either change it, turn it off or answer it! Furthermore, not my personal cup-of-tea but ¾ trousers appear to have never fallen out of fashion in Le Bugue and you’d be forgiven for thinking there are no conditions that a pair of lime green crocs couldn’t cope with.
Universally, when asked a question their default is to help and the best example I can give concerns an ol’ boy who went out of his way to get me to the right road out of Avrances. It’s mid-day, hot and I’m lost so pull-over outside a Tabac and study the map. Failing to identify my position I stop a guy and enquire as to the direction of one particular road. He gives me full and evusive directions but can tell from my glazed look and obvious poor mastery of droit et gauche that I fail to get further than the first roundabout. ‘Cinq minutes’ is his command and, sure enough, five minutes later he arrives back in his battered Twingo and leads me, at my pace, giving the ‘V’ to anyone who honked him for driving so slowly, for the next three or four kilometres to the exact road. Chapeau, top-ol’-boy, chapeau!
My days started to take-on a certain structure and one important component was the cheeky biere at around three-ish. Not only for its soothing, refreshing and rejuvenating qualities but also it provided ample opportunity to again test the French ability to help a poor, tres-fatigued traveller. I’d enter said establishment, order a biere-grande, introduce myself (in grade C O-level French dontchaknow) as ‘je mapelle Carl de London’ and ask the barman (always a Stefan) where the Camping Municipal was? Needless to say he had no idea and I’d then enquire if he had a Googley-phone and would he be so kind as to check out such about 30kms further down the road? Of course he would and then he would usually call them for me, book me in and send me on my jovial way, all for the price of a pint and a good tip. It blagged it maybe six or seven times and was a brilliant, if a slightly manipulative way, of me getting home and dry. Chapeau, Stefans, chapeau!
By the way, I did try this at a couple of Touriste Information bureaus and, believe me, the name belies the service.
It may come as some surprise, considering they lead the Grand Tour world, but I don’t think the French are as into their cycling quite as much as we are these days. Throughout the escapade I saw only a couple of early morning pelotons and there are undoubtedly more riders out on a normal Sunday in Henley than I saw in the whole of their country. OK, they may have been following Le Tour either directly or vicariously but I’m not convinced as it was never on any of the TVs in any of the bars I ensconced myself in. And, in almost 900kms, I was raced by only one other rider, wiry Andre with the arms of an eighty-year old… and the legs of a twenty year old! We enjoyed a great tussle for about 20kms before he kindly guided me into Fougeres and to a lovely camp site. Chapeau, Andre, chapeau!
Off-Piste – It will come as no surprise to all of you that I eschewed any technological gadget and travelled with nothing more than a map and LW transistor radio. I’m not wedded to a smart phone but, shockingly, I am wedded to yours. Truth be told in that when I needed something searching or looking-up I completely relied on those around me being able to do so on my behalf and, yes, this makes me a total hypocrite. Even worse than that it probably makes me a scrounging, sponging hypocrite. I do now ‘get’ the need for one and can see some value in tech.
However, it’s like most things in life: everything in moderation. Alone with my own thoughts and observations it became increasingly apparent that an over-dependency on device and social media does not encourage any connection whatsoever, in fact it seeks to establish exactly the opposite: to govern and determine all your decisions, all your interactions and all your actions. Would I have asked that person for directions? That person for advice? Would I have gone to that bar and met those people if I’d’ve known the campsite was only five minutes down the road? Probably not. Social media is seeking 100% of your attention, all the time, and at the exclusion of real human connections and experience. We use it at our peril.
Merci Beaucoup! – In order of their appearance a special, sincere and hearty ‘Salut!’ to Stefan and his Triumph Thruxton, and to all Stefan barmen the world over. To tattooed Vanessa for directions and to Crystal, Davide and Mia the dog for beers, breakfast and great company. To Phillipe & Alain. To Corvette-owning Paris-Roubaix-riding Davide, Eliane & Romeo, and to Patrick for upgrading my camping emplacement at no extra cost and for the fridge magnet. To the French farm workers who kindly fortified me with bright green peppermint liqueur one lunchtime. To Wallace & Ellie, Ken & Linda, Jane, Jacqui & David, Kevin, Ann & Orna. To Dodds & wee Tom. Chapeau to one and all!
What I’ve Learned En Route – As in earlier escapades (and admittedly very similar to those) here are some thoughts for you to ponder:
- OK, it’s all about the journey but you knew that all along didn’t you!
- If you don’t ask, you don’t get. Ask, in the right manner, and you shall be given.
- Travel light. And then remove half of it.
- What goes up doesn’t necessarily have to go down.
- Put yourself in the shoes of other road-users and they really don’t want to hit you. Probably.
- Go off-line and off-piste, it’s where the real stuff happens.
- Sometimes, the wrong road gets you to the right destination. Think about it.
- Beer’s good. Jupiler is nicer than Pelforth and both are better than Kronenbourg 1664.
- On Sundays don’t dawdle around talking to the elderly Dutch couple about their electric bikes as ‘last-orders’ is at one o’clock. Doh.
- It doesn’t matter that you don’t listen to The Archers for a year as the storyline never seems to change.
- If you actually want to watch the Tour de France, stay-put and put the tele on. Apparently, some young Columbian bloke won, so no suspicion of doping there then…
- France is a big, hilly, hot country. On a serious note, Spain is now experiencing the climate of North Africa and France is now experiencing the climate of Southern Spain. The mercury hit 43 degrees and it had been even hotter a couple of weeks earlier. Make of this what you will.
- Ask things of yourself and, trust me, you are capable of coming through. My, you could even surprise yourself.
Au revoir and bon journee, mes amis.