Friday, 6 October 2017

The Manche to the Med - Day 16: Heading for Home...

Heads were somewhat delicate this morning - and there was a sense of sadness as we packed our stuff for the last time. Whilst this adventure has seen us on the road for 15 days, it seems to have flashed past in a blur. Suddenly it's done and we're heading for home.

We take our final breakfast in France - croissants, bread and cheese, we ask the lady in charge what would be the best route back to Narbonne - we need to get back there to meet up with our coach transport back to the UK. She tells us the cycle path is the easiest and safest route. We don't fancy the bumpy canal path again but decide we should probably heed her advice.

Pick up point
It's bright and sunny as we pedal off. Traffic is light but the main road looks busy. We stick to the cycle path where there are many cyclists already buzzing back and forth. Soon we're on the canal again, bumping and rattling along, slow but steady. It doesn't seem quite as bad as it did yesterday and we arrive on the outskirts of Narbonne by 10.30am. The roads here are very busy. We're on a dual carriageway and decide to pull over to figure out where our pick-up point is. According to the instructions we've been given we need to find a 'Hamburger Quick' which we assume is a fast-food outlet - There's no sign of that but we spot a Burger King on the other side of the dual carriageway. We cross the road and walk towards it, there's a man with a bike standing on the grass verge at the edge of the road. I walk over and quickly establish that this is the place. He was dropped off here a week ago and has been touring the local area and canal paths.

All aboard for home

We've got a four hour wait now until the European Bike Express picks up us, our bikes and luggage. We stand around; we sit, we go for a burger, we go to the supermarket just across the way. Still three hours to wait. I wonder if we should cycle into the city centre and find a bar or something - but we decide against it. It's a long wait but finally the transport arrives. It's a standard coach but towing a second trailer that stores the bikes and baggage. We're greeted by a small man who is too short to lift our bags onto the storage racks - Gary steps up to give him a hand. Then we're on the coach with just hand luggage. There's some confusion over the seats - we have allocated seats but someone is already sitting in ours. The little guy comes aboard and puts us somewhere else. Then we're off - we'll be onboard this coach for the next 23 hours or so. There'll be further pick-ups throughout France as we head to Calais for the ferry to Dover - then dropping people off through the UK - we'll be dropped at Leicester Forest East and then there's a 10 mile cycle ride home - 20 for Gary.

The European Bike Express
The coach gradually fills with more and more cyclists - mostly older, skinny veterans of the road, seasoned tourers by the look. They all seem to know each other and the coach staff, greeting one another like long lost friends. Gary chats to a couple of them, one has been touring in Northern Spain, another couple Burgundy, but no-one has done a journey to match ours.

The coach stops at various service stations and we are able to stretch our legs and make use of the facilities. Gradually we make our way North as night falls. I manage to get some sleep but it's patchy, I remember being woken as the coach picked up some cyclists at around 2.00am. Finally we reach Calais at about 6.30am on Sunday morning. I feel as comfortable as anyone who's just spent 15 hours squeezed into a tin can with 50 others wearing two-week unwashed lycra. Each time we get back onto the coach after a comfort break there's a noticeable sweaty 'hum'.

No sign of bluebirds?
On the ferry we queue for breakfast and tuck into pale, watery bacon, fried egg, tomatos, sausage and toast. I know it's rubbish but it tastes okay. Soon the White Cliffs come into sight - we think the tannoy should start playing the Vera Lynn song. As we get back onto the coach I sit down heavily, wondering what lessons to draw from our trip - or from the confines of the coach journey home. Only a few more hours to go though.

We are dropped off at the motorway service station at Leicester Forest East and load up our bikes for the ride home. The sky is threatening and before long we are pulling on waterproofs. There is a torrential downfall as we edge up some steep inclines through Desford - but it's nothing compared to the hills we've been up in France.

And so the adventure ends on a damp Sunday afternoon on the outskirts of Leicester. It's good to be back, safe and sound. In terms of madcap ideas generated on a Friday night in the pub, this one was right up there. I feel it surpasses anything we've done before, not least because we were on our own - no support to call on if we got into trouble. And because the journey through France, end-to-end, Channel to Med is not particularly common. We know plenty of people who've cycled Lands End to John O Groats - but no-one who's done the French version.

Thanks to everyone who helped and supported us on our endeavour - not least Kate for transporting us to Portsmouth with our our bikes and luggage - we couldn't have done it without you! John and Jane, whose emergency mint cake kept us going! and Val for the farty car video which made us laugh.

So that's it for now - thanks for reading these notes. Keep an eye on this blog for the next thing. Anyone fancy Spain?

Thursday, 5 October 2017

The Manche to the Med - Day 15: Carcassonne to Gruissan

Breakfast started with a promise - bacon and eggs on the menu - but on closer inspection their idea of a English breakfast was small lardons and watery scrambled eggs - didn't look appetising whatsoever. We opted for the usual fare, stocking up for what should be a steady ride to our destination on the Mediterranean coast. The GPS profile indicates that it's flattish all the way.

We have a final wander around the old town before loading up and hitting the road. Some last-minute photo's a tightening of the pannier straps and we're on our way. The road towards Narbonne is busy with morning traffic, but it's easy cycling, seemingly slightly downhill for five miles or so. The GPS takes us off the main drag and up a dubious 'unpaved' section, not too bad though, then we're on quiet backroads. There is mile after mile of vineyards; neat, tended rows as far as the eye can see, hugging hillsides and valleys alike. Some appear to have been stripped of their grapes while others are fully laden with lucious dark purple fruit. We rejoin a busyish main road and climb a couple of short but annoyingly steep sections. The road is quite narrow and passing traffic sometimes feels dangerously close.

There's no lunch-stop today. We seem content with a non-stop mission to get to the sea and the end of our adventure. Each signpost counts down the remaining kilometres to Narbonne and from there it will be just a few further miles to Gruissan. As we arrive in Narbonne the GPS sends us into the city centre, through one-way streets (the wrong way!) and finally into a shopping precinct. We dismount and push our bikes through a pedestrianised area into a large open square with cafes and bars.

Narbonne was established by the Romans in 118 BC, Julius Caesar settled veterans from his 10th Legion here, developing it as a port that rivalled Marseilles. We resist the temptation of a thirst-quenching beer and find the canal path that will take us out of the city towards Gruissan. With just nine miles to go this canal path proved to be a difficult stretch. Narrow, pot-holed and bumpy all the way we crawled along at around 5mph. The GPS indicated there was a path off to the left, but there was none - we carried on along the towpath until we came to a bridge with access to a road. From there we cycled through flat salt-marshes, constantly looking for our first sign of the sea.

The Med
Finally we spotted it! The Mediterranean, there it was in the distance, not the gleaming, glittery blue that I was expecting - more grey and flat on this dull overcast day. The last few miles were along a smooth surfaced cycle track - lots of cyclists zipping around as we arrived at the resort. The afternoon has taken on a rosy glow now as we cycle past rows of holiday apartments, shops and bars. Gruissan is a fishing village sitting between two lagoons.There's a marina with apartments and restaurants and mooring for 1300 boats.

We locate our accommodation, a self-catering apartment that will sleep 6 and is 200 metres from the beach. It's basic but adequate and we can store the bikes inside. We head to the beach - it's huge with hardly anyone around. The tide is out and the thin strip of sea is a 400 metre walk along a strip of whicker carpet. We get a couple of photos and then get back to the apartment.
Made it! - Channel to The Med.

With a lunch-free ride we're hungry now. There's a couple of bars and restaurants a stones-throw from our apartment, we wander there and get a couple of beers and a bowl of olives. The restaurant opens at 7.00pm.

The bar owner is friendly and allows us a tab as we order more drinks and glasses of pastis. Finally we get to order some proper food - by now the restaurant is filling up. There're Duck Gizzards on the menu - last chance - I order some. Gary resists. The food is plentiful and the gizzards are tasty. We enjoy one of the menu options that gives us three courses, accompanied by some local wine.

Champagne celebration!
After that it's a few more beers and a glass of champagne each to toast the end of another fantastic challenge. It's dark now, and cold. The bar is heaving with holidaymakers as we enjoy a final nightcap. Our celebrations were inevitably intense, we wander back to the apartment zig-zag fashion, the cool night air doing nothing to suppress the effects. But we've done it, cycled across France, end-to-end, from The Channel to The Mediterranean.

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

The Manche to the Med - Day 14: Toulouse to Carcassonne

Today's ride will see us cover 63 miles - the longest stage of the trip. Not massive miles ordinarily, especially if we were on road bikes - however on these heavy tourers, carrying a full load, it's an entirely different proposition. We're slightly later getting to breakfast than we'd hoped - consequently the small room is full - there's nowhere to sit. We hang around in reception until space becomes available.

I scan the walls first, but no English Breakfast option today. The room is busy, there're a lot of Germans who snaffle all the bread and croissants - we have to make do with a few odds and ends.We settle our bill and then pack our bikes ready to set off. Outside there is a group of cyclists listening as their tour guide gives them instructions - I recognise some of the Germans from breakfast - looks like they're here on a cycling holiday. We set off at the same time as them but quickly leave them behind.

From the hotel it's a mile or so amongst the busy morning traffic before we join the Canal du Midi - this will take us 50 miles or so towards todays destination - Carcassonne.

On the Canal du Midi
The Canal du Midi is 240km long. It stretches from the Atlantic Ocean at Bordeaux to the Mediterranean at Sete - it was constructed between 1666 and 1681 during the reign of Louis XIV. It remains one of the oldest canals in Europe still in operation and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. We're riding amongst more centuries-old plane trees again, (must have passed millions?) old barges lie sleepily in the water and soon the hustle and bustle of Toulouse is behind us. The towpath is busy though, lots of joggers, walkers and plenty of cyclists, including a couple of tandems who sped past us. There are a few cyclists passing us in the opposite direction, we give them a nod and a hearty 'bonjour' - I wonder how many are doing something similar to us? - certainly there are a few flat-vowelled English accents amongst them.

It's a clear day, not particularly sunny but comfortable for cycling. We spot a small restaurant nestled alongside the canal and decide to give it a go.

It's another family affair, there are a few working blokes gathered at a table chatting and laughing, the room is warm and smells good. We order a coffee and then ask for the menu. We opt for the Plat du Jour, starting with the most exquisite quiche, light, fluffy with a thin flakingly crisp pastry shell. One of the best things I've tasted on the entire trip. Main course was roast chicken with macaroni and some green beans - the bird was stuffed with what tasted like sausage meat, whatever, it was delicious. Pudding was a creme brulee, dribbling like a french kiss and full of flavour. Try to picture it: this is the French version of a transport cafe in England - there are rugby posters and rosettes decorating the wall. There's a TV with football playing. Next to our table there are some kids' toys and games. All the cooking, whoever does it, is craftsmanlike. The food is prepared with love and consideration - we feel totally sated by the time we leave, as far as our limited culinary experiences have stretched on this journey across France, this little place was one of the best.

Back on the canal we soldier on. It's pleasant cycling but considerably slowly than on normal roads. We stop at a seat under some trees for a drink. A man walking along the towpath stops to chat - he speaks good English, he did a job transfer a few years ago and worked in East Anglia for a while. He delighted in telling us he'd been to Cardiff to see Bob Dyan play. He was waiting to meet his brother and they were going to jog along the canal to Toulouse.
We leave the canal with about twelve miles still to ride into Carcassonne. As we approach the town the traffic gets steadily heavier; there are jams leading into the main area but we are able to weave our way through. There's a steady climb up through the new town, and then we see the main attraction: The Citadel, perched on top of a rocky hilltop and bristling with zigzag battlements, stout walls and spiky turrets. It looks like something from a children's storybook.

The first view of Carcassonne
The ride up to the entrance is steep and windy, it's a slow haul but we make it. We pause outside the main gate - it's an ant's nest of tourists: only to be expected, this is the second biggest tourist attraction in France after the Eiffel Tower. A UNESCO World heritage site since 1997, Carcassonne is the reputed inspiration for Disney's Sleeping Beauty. It is indeed a fairytale collection of drawbridges, towers and atmospheric cobbled streets. There are no less than 53 towers, strung together by enourmous walls and surrounded by a moat.

There're far too many people walking through the narrow streets for us to cycle; we push our bikes to our accommodation, well within the medieval city walls. It's a fabulous hotel with stunning stone walls, a suit of armour, various statues and tasteful furnishings. The girl at the desk is doing a great job handling a coach-load of American tourists. We stash our bikes in a room out back and get to our room - after the usual shower and change we're out exploring. There are some that argue this place is over-restored, and the centre is a bit like a Disney theme park with a mess of overpriced shops selling cheesy trinkets and dodgy nougat; that it has more than its fair share of mediocre restaurants, serving bland salads and heavy cassoulet. It's a pity, because the too-perfect nature of the restoration coupled with the chintziness of the 'town' do undermine the realness and atmosphere of the fortifications, but it's still a great experience, you'll never get the chance to see medieval (and Roman) military architecture on this scale anywhere else - and the view of the castle from a distance as well as that from the citadel out across the modern city to the mountains beyond is unforgettable.
Outside the main gate

We find a restaurant and start with beer and pastis. After the fabulous lunch today we don't bother with a 'complet' - opting for just one main course each. I'm back with the goats cheese salad and Gary has a steak. We accompany the meal with a bottle of local Langeudoc. We wander back to the hotel and sit in the bar area with another bottle of wine. There is an English couple sitting opposite - he's a photographer from Rothley near Leicester - just up the road from where I live. We chat for a while before they leave for bed. We order a couple of Armagnacs to finish the night. It's been a good day - lots of cycling and we've enjoyed it. We muse over the journey we've made, the miles we've covered, the places we've visited, the hills we've climbed. Tomorrow we'll arrive at our destination.

The old town walls

Tuesday, 3 October 2017

The Manche to the Med - Day 13: Montauban to Toulouse

It feels cold this morning, the sky is a uniform felted grey, it's drizzling outside. We wander down to breakfast and survey a familiar scene: this is our daily bread, and croissants, ham and cheezzzzzzzzzzeee.... oh I'm so tired of it.

I'd just worked my way through my plateful when my eyes glanced at the wall above the table carrying the buffet. I feel like sawing my head off. There, bold as brass, for all to see, was a poster. There was a picture of a plate of rashers of bacon, grilled tomatos, hash browns, fried eggs, toast, sausage... the headline said 'If you'd like an English Breakfast just ask" I felt like becoming instantly bulimic. Noooooo - Gary, look what we missed.

The Garonne canal
Thankfully the drizzle had stopped when we set off for Toulouse - Last night we purchased sandwiches and water from a small supermarche in Montauban - no need to worry about where lunch is coming from today. We cross a large bridge heading out of town, traffic is light, quickly we're onto a bike path at the side of the road. We make our way along quiet roads towards Montech where we join the Canal du Garonne - the towpath surface is excellent, smooth and ideal for an easy, flat ride today. It's a beautiful route with plane trees sheltering us from the sun. The canals over here are poles apart from what we're used to at home. They're much wider for a start, up to 20 metres in places and the towpaths are wide too, it's possible to ride side-by-side for most of the route and there's very little traffic - a few boats but hardly any people or other cyclists.

Canalside cafe
We pass a small canalside cafe and stop for a bolstering coffee before taking our lunch on a bench sheltered by the ubiquitous plane trees - there must be thousands lining this canal. And then its on to Toulouse - La Ville Rose - the romantic pink city, due to the colour of the stone and bricks used in many of the buildings. It's a big, bustling metropolis, teeming with traffic and packed with people. We carefully weave our way through the busy streets and finally locate our hotel - it looks dubious, the area is rough, there's a strip club next door. Our bikes are left in a corridor and we head to our room. The hotel feels tired and has the feint whiff of disinfectant. In the street outside is a pool of blood. We wander towards the city centre, the streets full of people of all nationalities, carrying, pushing and pulling luggage. The sun is strong and it's probably the hottest day we've encountered so far. We spot a small pavement bar on the junction of a busy throughfare. we stop for a beer and Gary has a croque monsieur. The place is heaving, as are all the bars/cafes. Toulouse is the fourth largest city in France, it has one of the oldest Universities in Europe and a student population of 100,000 - the whole place feels like one big fiesta.

We carry on walking and the general feel and ambience shifts - the streets are wide and pedestrianised - the buildings and shops are grand and exude a sense of exclusivity and quality. There is a gastonomy festival taking place with lots of artisan stalls selling local produce. There's an oyster bar and I'm tempted. For Gary this is a definite no-no - last time he eat oysters he was ill for a week. We move on through the hectic streets eventually stumbling upon the main central square with its imposing buildings and hotels. There's a market here and we find a seat at a bar and sit and watch for a while. We sip at cold beer and pastis as an endless stream of people passes. I'm feeling more relaxed and comfortable here - this part of town feels much better than where our hotel is located.

We explore further, stumbling upon a dark tavern in a side street - it's like something from Harry Potter inside, there are oak barrels, wooden floors with just wine for sale. The man behind the counter is preparing frites for his evening menu. We ask for a couple of glasses of the local wine - it's very good. We carry on exploring the vast boulevards and many side streets. We take supper at an Italian restaurant overlooking a small square with a fountain in the middle. There are three soldiers armed with machine guns patrolling the street. The menu has some interesting translation: 'Ravioli stuffed in the ricotta and in spinach wipes cream in the parmesan'. I'll give that a miss. We've got a long ride tomorrow so I think pasta will be a good option - Spaghetti for me, Gary opts for Pizza. I overhear the lady next to us ordering 'un verre de vin blanc' - sounds like an English accent. We get chatting to the couple who retired here 15 years ago. Clearly it must have been early retirement. They are in the city to attend a cinema screening of a Dave Gilmour concert. They originally lived in Abbotts Bromley, a village I know well and not more than 20 miles from where I live. Small world.

As darkness falls we make our way back to the hotel - it seems quieter now that when we arrived, less threatening. We stop off for a final beer on the way but we're in bed by 10.30 - tomorrow is a long day.

Monday, 2 October 2017

The Manche to the Med - Day 12: Cahors to Montauban

By now mornings are pretty much an autopilot affair - the bedroom scene is simultaneously choreographed and automated, as we pack our panniers in robotic fashion. We could probably do this with our eyes shut. Breakfast: No surprises - but it does the job. We contemplate wandering into town to buy provisions - but it's Tuesday and,... well,.. you know.

We get going and cycle up from the river and over one of the bridges. Traffic is busy, people getting to work and what-not, but compared to home it's relatively quiet and easy. We are tempted to stay on main roads and take the quickest but prosaic route, instead we opt for the tranquil back roads, a mere smear of concrete and tar but this will be the scenic route - through farms and copse, past brooks, blackberry bushes and abandoned barns. There are different airborne scents throughout the day: cut grass, jasmine, manure, bonfire - thankfully no five year old sausage.

As the day grows and we head further towards our destination of Montauban, so the weather improves. It gets warmer, hotter, sunnier. Our route sees us following the river for some miles, then upwards and through some small villages before dropping again to river level. We've passed many fields of sunflowers on this trip, all of them gone to seed and awaiting harvest to produce oil. Today we spotted a field in flower, probably a second crop. We couldn't resist halting for a photo.

Montauban sits on the bank of the River Tarn at its confluence with the Tescou. The town was founded in 1144 with buildings constructed from the attractive pink stone typical of this area. The town centre is built on a square grid system with many arches, arcades and walkways - some opening up to large squares surrounded with cafes and bars. There appears to be a lively shopping area with many individual and stylish shops and boutiques. The Mona Lisa was briefly hidden in a cellar in Montauban during World War II. We cycle through pedestrianised streets to find our hotel sitting conveniently next to the main centre.

It's hot and sunny - I enter the hotel to try to check in - we're somewhat earlier than expected and I wonder if our room will be ready - its clear that some conversational French must take place. I fire up my French App and tap away. The converstion went something like this...

"We are guest do you await?" I say
"How many" she says
She looks in the registry - I see Gary's name and point furiously "Voila, Voila"
"Ah - Mr Gary"
"No - I am"  I reply  "It means nothing to us"
She says something else - this time with gestures.
We stare at each other for a bit.
"What time" I say "Before midnight or in the garden"
For some reason she seems confused. But finally we are able to establish that we have a room booked.
"Must we store the safely bicycles" I ask
She gestures to a room next door - we can put the bikes in there.
And that's it - easy - we're in and our room is ready, although there are still staff working on other rooms on the floor. The hotel is good and the room comfortable and well decorated, the bathroom has a decent shower and a trendy porcelain basin.

Later we walk across the road into town. A maze of cobbled, shop lined streets, plenty of bars and restaurants and some trendy apartments. We stop at a small bar for a small beer sitting in the sun - then walk on to another, set in a large square, with large beers. There are trendy, arty shops all around. Later we find a restaurant for supper, we sit inside, it's a multi-level interior with lots of decorative lamps and high ceilings. Gary goes for a pizza and I have a salad - both are okay - we sample a bottle of the local Fronton wine - good. We opt for a pudding, Gary has a towering multi-storey ice-cream/cream thingy and I have profiteroles - the desserts are huge, I can't finish mine.

It's not far to the hotel - we're in bed by 10.00 but it's hot. I set the air-con to cryogenic but the noise is too much to bear. It's going to be a sticky night.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

The Manche to the Med - Day 11: Sarlat to Cahors

Breakfast was another decent buffet this morning. The room was busy, lots of American's fussing over which sort of coffee to choose. For us it was back to our usual routine, eat as much as possible, get our bags packed, load the bikes, pay the bill and off. And because we were staying in a place more geared up for tourism, shops were open - we purchased a couple of Ham and cheese baguettes, stowing them for later

We're getting slick at pannier packing now - the process whittled down to less than 10 minutes compared to the half-hour or so that used to take. We're up on the second floor so today we'd be hauling our bags down to the basement garage via the lift - a Shindlers Lift - As the lift arrives and the door opens there is a small man standing in the middle, the lift isn't particularly big and I see it will be a squeeze. Gary shuffles in carrying his five bags, helmet and water bottles, "Sorry about this" he offers. There is a look of alarm on the face of the little man already in there as he is engulfed - he makes no attempt to move as Gary clatters into the space, bags scraping the sides and bumping into the man - There's a moment of chaos as a couple of Gary's bags slip from his arm, his water bottles crash to the floor and spin around, he lifts his leg to break the fall of his helmet as that too spirals downwards. "We'll get the next one" he concedes, kicking his bottles back out into the corridor and dragging his bags.

Cafe stop
We finally get out and onto the road. Today we'll be in the Lot Region. The GPS navigates us through some main roads for a couple of miles and then we're onto the Voie Verte - a good smooth surface, winding along a tree lined valley, innocent of traffic or life of any kind. It's a grey, cloudy day and despite us being further South than ever, not particularly warm. We see a few sleepy villages and half a dozen houses before coming off the track and rejoining normal roads. There are some climbs, not too bad though and we arrive at a small village with a bar/restaurant. Another place hidden out in the wilds, difficult to understand how it could be sustained as a viable business? We sit outside under an awning as drizzly rain begins to fall. A couple of coffees, a couple of beers, a couple of glasses of pastis. The resturant area has only one person in there, the tables are immaculate with linen tablecloths and neatly folded napkins. Gary thinks they are laughing at us for some reason? - I'm not sure they are but try to listen for any clues in the conversation. We set off again and within two hundred metres are faced with another duck hill - this one is specially canard - 16/17/18% and long too. It's a relief when we finally get to the top. Maybe that's what they were laughing at I think. They knew we'd got that coming.

Lot to do!
In the afternoon we are directed down another unpaved road - this one is little more than a bumpy grass track - thankfully it's short; it eventually joins up with a busy main road to take us to Cahors - we stand at the roadside for a minute - it's narrow and there are a lot of lorries - we decide to stay on the vague grass path running parallel - this is tough though, the track rises and falls like a rollercoaster. Finally we find a quiet paved road and detour through another small village onto further quiet roads that will take us to our destination.

Cahors is a city on the Lot river in the Occitanie region. Founded in Roman times it is known for its deep red wine and the Pont Valentre, a medieval bridge with three towers. The old-town has many half-timbered houses, narrow alleyways and an imposing Cathedral and boulevards lined with plane trees. We drop down to river level and locate our accommodation for this evening - a small hotel not far from the famous bridge.

The Cathedral St Etienne
Our bikes are stored in the adjacent garage, we unload and tramp up to our room for the usual unpacking ritual, during the daily washing we've developed a particularly useful sock drying technique - making use of the always available hairdryer, simply slip the sock over the end, a quick blast on full power and we're good to go!

After a shower, change of clothes and we're out. There's some sun now and the bridge and the riverside path look particularly beautiful, illuminated by the late afternoon sun.

We wander round the old-town, lots of pavement bars and restaurants and everywhere seems busy. There's a shop that appears to sell just brushes: all manner of implements utilising hair and bristles, can't imagine why or how there's enough demand to support such an enterprise? We find a restaurant for supper - it's evening now, getting dark and definitely cool. I nip back to the hotel for an extra layer and we sit out with the usual beers and pastis. Gary orders a flammekueches - translates as 'flame-cake' it's an Alsation/Mossellan dish - essentially like a pizza. I opt for a simple caesar salad. We of course order a bottle of Cahors to wash it down.
Sock dryer in action

We walk back to the hotel in the dark, making another visit to the river and the bridge which is illuminated by a lighting system that cycles through different colours, yellow, blue, pink. It's impressive and there are lots of people taking in the view. And then we were done - it's bedtime - we're way down South now and the feeling is that our journey is edging towards its end.

Cahors bridge at night

Saturday, 30 September 2017

The Manche to the Med - Rest Day: Sarlat

Planning an adventure like this is always going to throw up issues that can only be answered with hindsight. If we were doing it again, or when we do something similar, I think shorter mileage and a couple more rest days would be a good idea. As it was our schedule was pretty tight and one rest day was all that could be managed.

Wandering around Sarlat
If there's going to be a rest day on a cycling trip across the whole of France, Sarlat seems the perfect place. We decided not to bother with breakfast at the hotel this morning - we'll get something in town instead (we have already established that there will be places open today - even if it is Sunday!). When I wake up there's no sign of Gary - he got up early and has already gone down to the old town and sorted himself a breakfast.

Great French Bake Off??
I finally wander down and we sit in the main square just watching the world go by. It's like looking into a fishtank, as the many figures and colours flash by. We have a brilliant little waiter who is easily the best we've seen on the trip so far, he dances amongst the tables, singing, joking, taking orders in all languages, delivering them on a tray piled mountainously high - I feel sure he'll drop something, but he doesn't. He comes to our table "Deux Bierre s' il vous plait, Stella" we say - "Ah you want the small ones or the English Stella" he answers with a wry smile. Gary goes for the English sized Stella - half a litre, I opt for a small but with a glass of pastis to go with it. And we just sit, and look, and listen. There are plenty of American accents here, lots of English, Japanese, in fact it's a multi-cultured visitor attraction. It's easy to see why as we gaze at the ancient buildings and the many shops selling top quality foie gras, wine, truffles and nougat. There are some wonderful pattisseries too, with an array of perfectly presented cakes like miniature works of art.

There is no rush today - we enjoy another beer and then a plate of frites with an accompanying plate of cheese - particularly good. We have a wander to another bar and then around the busy streets exploring and doing the touristy photograph stuff. I have to get back to the hotel to get out on my bike. Even though this is a rest day for our trip - I also have my new years 'ride every day' resolution to keep up - I've made it this far, and I'm not ready to give up yet. In the end we both walk back, Gary wants to adjust his brakes again while I'm out on the bike. As we walk back we meet another cyclist, clearly a tourer with a loaded Dawes bike. She's from New Zealand, she bought the bike on ebay, shipped it to France and is spending time darting around the country by train, on her own. She stops off for a few days cycling and then takes another train to another area. She's lost. We help her find the road she needs for her excursion today and off she goes.

I cycle from the hotel back into Sarlat, take some pics with my bike in them, then ride around the park and back to the hotel - about five or six miles - but it counts. After that we relax for an hour in the hotel room watching French TV, then we're back into town for supper.

First we do a little shopping - we fancy something to take home, some foie gras maybe? - We pop into a large, beautifully presented shop and are greeted by the pretty assistant - she speaks fairly good English and offers us a taste of the various foie gras option, duck or goose, truffled or not, as well as some of the local Montbazillac sweet wine that goes with it so well. The girl has an English boyfriend we find out, from Manchester, poor thing we say. We come out having spent a few Euros and with more stuff for the panniers.
The girl in the shop

We mess around for a while wandering round looking at menus - in the end we settle for a street cafe on the main drag through the old town. We start with a couple of beers while we're waiting for the 7.00pm opening time. There's a street performer in the main square, a mime/mimic artist who just walks around a couple of steps behind his target, mimicing their movements and actions - he's quite good and he gets everyone laughing.

For supper we go for Duck, that seems to be the big thing around here and it's very nice. The local delicacy is duck gizzards - I fancy having a go but Gary doesn't - I decide to leave it. We drink a nice bottle of local wine and consider if, as seasoned athletes, the marginal gains proffered by a second are worth it - we decide they are and opt for a slightly more expensive bottle. As is tradition we finish with a couple of coffees - it's been a perfect relaxing day, and afforded some rest for aching legs and posterior parts! - Tomorrow we'll be back on the road.
Pretty streets

Cobbles and ancient buildings

Friday, 29 September 2017

The Manche to the Med - Day 10: Montignac to Sarlat

We're over half way now - another glance at the map and it seems hard to believe that we've cycled all this way, carrying all our stuff, unsupported, on bikes that weigh almost as much as we do!

The hotel in Montignac is interesting - it seems there is just one man running the whole show, he booked us in, he sorted out breakfast for everyone, he always seems to be around, hidden, but popping up almost telepathically whenever he is needed. Kind of a Ninja Hotelier.

Today and tomorrow will be easier. Tomorrow certainly - we've built a rest day into the schedule - we'll get all our washing done and have a lovely day taking it easy. Today is a short ride to Sarlat but first we have decided to stay in Montignac for a couple of hours and visit the Lascaux Cave Paintings. We thought we'd buy some water first, but it's Saturday, everything is closed.

The cave was discovered in 1940 and contains Paleolithic paintings estimated to be 17,300 years old. The cave was put on show in 1948 but the damage caused by carbon dioxide exhaled by visitors led to it being closed in 1963. A replica cave was built in 1983 and now there is a totally new Lascaux IV International Visitor Centre - on the outskirts of Montignac and offering a totally new visitor experience. I'd visited Lascaux II a few years ago - so I knew this would be worthwhile - and worked hard to convince Gaz who was a bit reluctant at first.

Lascaux IV
Walking up to the site, the first impression is of modern architecture, then it sinks in that the building design is reminiscent of a crack in the rocks - rather like the discovery of the cave must have been. We got our tickets and waited for our allotted tour - we'd be taken round with an English speaking guide. When we were called our group consisted of only half a dozen people. The guide was exemplary, she explained everything clearly and answered all the questions we had. She walked us through to the cave entrance - there was a dog barking and a man shouting in the wooded slopes just above - I suddenly realised there are speakers out there recreating how the cave was discovered.

The visit was absolutely worthwhile - and we can thoroughly recommend it to anyone passing through or visiting the Dordogne - this is definitely not to be missed.

We finally got on our bikes at the crack of noon. The first mile or two from Montignac was okay - but then we started an excruciating long climb that went on and on. Cars were hooting - either in sympathy or admiration - as they passed. We were riding up Duck Hill - why Duck Hill? - because it was Canard.

When we approached Sarlat there was a welcome downhill stretch for a mile or so and then we were on flat roads into the town. It was market day, the streets were overflowing with traders and tourists. We couldn't cycle through so we dismounted and pushed our bikes along the medieval streets.

Sarlat market
Sarlat has been inhabited since Roman times and became an important and prosperous city in the VIIIth century. It is the most famous town in the region and one of the most renowned and visited in France. It is also one of the most attractive. The old town with its impeccable Medieval and Renaissance buildings, built from yellow sandstone, is a delight.

We finally made it through the throngs to our hotel, situated half a mile outside the old town. Our room was good and after stowing our bikes in the underground garage we enjoyed a quick beer.

More about Sarlat in the next post!

Thursday, 28 September 2017

The Manche to the Med - Day 9: Thiviers to Montignac

Breakfast is everything. The beginning, the first thing. It is the mouthful that is the commitment to a new day and a continuing life. Here we are, on the road in France and every day the same thing for breakfast - although I delight at the egg-shell crusted bread with its soft white centre and the creamy salted butter and local cheeses, I could use a change.

Today was maybe the worst breakfast. What should be, and is, the easiest meal to lay out for guests in a hotel has sadly slipped past our English hosts here in Thiviers. Possibly they wish to minimise costs, ensure that people don't dwell too long in the hotel or maybe they just don't get it? Bread was limited to a couple of slices off a baguette, there was no cheese or ham and the croissants were three mini-sized offerings, two of which had chocolate in them and I don't like those. There was no choice and no chance of any extras. One cup of coffee a glass of juice and that was that. All very clinical, very dry and very disappointing.

We packed up and were on the road for 9.00am - The GPS took us up the steep hill into the town centre - I swung out at a junction and an angry Frenchman blasted his horn and waved his fists - the first and only sign of road-rage encountered on the whole trip - and my fault to be fair. We looked for a boulangerie to perhaps pick up something for the day ahead - but it's Friday, inevitably the shops are shut. Once out of the town we had a nice easy descent for about two miles - then flat roads for the next twelve. After that it got difficult; lots of steep, hard climbs through narrow, tree-lined roads and thick forests with signs that, we were convinced, were a warning of bears.

One thing we've noticed on our travels so far is how many French people, particularly in rural areas, leave two or three dogs roaming their gardens. Always they would bark and growl as we cycled past. Out here, deep in the Dordogne region there were many dogs, hound of the baskervilles type, wolves maybe?. We cycled through pretty villages with avenues of olive trees and saw the best phone-box ever. Oak framed and stone with a pointy tiled roof - like a miniature chateau.
Tree avenue on the way to Montignac

We managed to avoid the off-road sections that the GPS would have preffered us to take - using our hard-copy maps instead to plot a suitable route. We stopped at a village called Theron, Gary spotted a roadside restaurant and we pulled in, taking seats at the tables outside. No one came out. Gary went in, he said it was packed inside but there was no one at the counter. We waited a few minutes and then rode on.

A peaceful spot
We arrived in Montignac in the early afternoon. A postcard-pretty village nestled on the River Vezere. There's an attractive stone bridge and balconied houses along the river frontage. The place has many half-timbered buildings and, because The Tour de France passed through here this year, lots of the shops have been decorated with cycling caricatures and graphics. We decide to stop at a cafe/restaurant before finding our hotel - the sun is shining and we sit out in our cycling gear enjoying a lunch of Quiche and salad with a glass of Cidre. After finding the hotel and showering we walk into town and explore the narrow winding streets and alleys. We stop at a Tapas bar and buy a couple of glasses of local wine and a slate of cheese - both excellent. Later we will dine at a riverside restaurant - duck for me and burger for Gary. Another bottle of local wine and we're about done for the day.
Tour de France decoration

The river and town of Montignac