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

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

The Manche to the Med - Day 8: Rochechouart to Thiviers

We're on the Voie Verte again - but it's a lovely smooth surface for mile after mile. And we share it with no-one. We're cycling through the 'Parc Naturel Regional Perigord Limousin' 1800 square kilometres of moors, meadows, forests and a few lakes.

On the Voie Verte
It's good cycling country, beautiful. Cathedrals of trees displaying every imaginable shade of green line the path on both sides, rising up the steep banks and poking into the bright azure sky. Through gaps the fields are gilded with buttercups. The path meanders past farms and homesteads, barns and a cluster of golden hayricks. There's the occasional grey steeple looking out from a pretty confusion of trees and the light falling in sheets. Like Laurie Lee we wanted to stagger into a village and be revived by a flagon of wine and by late morning we reach such an outpost.
Chalus sits on the edge of the Voie Verte in the Nouvelle-Aquitaine region. We didn't realise it but this is the place where Richard the Lionheart was besieged in 1199, he was wounded by a crossbow arrow and died here of the wound. His entrails are preserved in the chapel. Not only that, Lawrence of Arabia celebrated his 20th birthday here on August 16th, 1908 - he too was on a cycling tour, tracing the route of Richard 1st in preparation for his thesis 'The Influence of the Crusades on European Military Architecture at the end of the 12th century'.

The bar at Chalus
We cycle through the village, there's roadworks and general improvements going on. We look for a shop to maybe pick up a baguette - but being a Thursday, everywhere is closed. We manage to spot a bar that's open and take up a seat outside. The patron could possibly gain employment as a stuntman for Johnny Depp, he brings us a couple of Grand Cafes au Lait and we sit in the sun watching while nothing happens. An old lady hobbles across the road with her walking stick and takes up a seat in the opposite corner. We quickly establish that she's English, from Nantwich. She came here with her man 15 years ago - they split up but they're both still here. She points us to the castle where Richard died, it's just at the end of the street.
Plaque commemorating the visit of Lawrence
We set off again, and search for the road to Thiviers our destination for tonight. We pause at a junction to check maps and are joined by two other cyclists, man and wife, he riding a vintage style Pashley Guvnor and wearing retro clothes. They're from Yorkshire, here on holiday, and enjoy a 15 mile cycle ride each day. "We try to avoid the hills though" he tells us. 

We carry on along a smooth, busy road towards Thiviers, passing through another small village where we spy a cafe/restaurant - we stop hoping for something to eat - no luck, lunch has finished. Instead we sit outside with a couple of beers. I walk back to a small Boulangerie/Patisserie I'd spotted in a row of shops a few hundred metres away. It looks closed but it isn't - I wander in and madam drifts through a floral curtain dividing the shop area presumably from her living space. I order a couple of small delicious quiches, and some other bits and pieces - a simple point of the finger and "deux, s'il vous plait" suffices. I wait an age while madam wraps them as if they are presents for an aged aunt, but they're tasty treats and we sit in the sun greedily munching and sipping cool beer.
On the Lionheart trail

At Thiviers we receive a good welcome - Adrian and Sharon, bought the hotel a couple of years ago and moved here from Norwich. We get a complementary upgrade, our twin room now has two double beds! Unfortunately the hotel restaurant is closed on a Thursday - and the other restaurant in town is closed too - the owners there have gone on holiday. There's a kebab shop or a small pizza parlour Adrian tells us - but nothing opens until 7.00pm.

We have a walk round the small town - We're in the Dordogne now and Thiviers is the 'Capital of  foie gras in Green Perigord' it also specialises in local produce such as walnuts and truffles. The 12th century church dominates the small market place, there's a small Chateau behind the church and a scattering of shops and bars. Jean-Paul Sartre lived here for a while. We sit out in the warm sun and enjoy a couple of beers before wandering around looking for somewhere to get food - we are amazed that there is nowhere. We spot the small pizza shop - the owner is in there and we place an order - but he won't be open until 7.00 - okay we'll call back then. Next door is another bar, appropriately, The Bar Des Amis. We go in. It's small and basic, a high bar with a few stools and half a dozen tables and chairs. We grab a seat in the far corner and take a couple of beers and a pastis each. Back at the hotel later we would find out that this place is known as the 'Alchi's Bar' - It has an edgy feel, although everyone in there seems happy enough - probably because they were all pissed. Gary thinks we're in the heart of the French Resistance here - but they can't resist the temptation of another glass.
The Bar des Amis

After a couple of drinks we're back at the pizza place - it's essentially a small takeaway - although there is just space for two small bistro style tables next to the counter. One of those is taken by a young man eating pizza - turns out he's the chef from the hotel we're staying at - he eats here on his night off. We take the other table. The owner asks if we'd like a drink while we wait for our order. We ask what's available - "Everything" he says. We decide we'll try a bottle of local Perigord wine - it's very good. We get chatting to the pizza man - he speaks good English. He was a Michelin starred chef but gave it all up to open this pizza shop - work/life balance and all that. He also does B&B and rents out a gite for holidaymakers. The thing with pizza is that it is essentially a simple, peasant food. It is bread with a smear of tomato sauce and some flavourings plucked from the surrounding land. If it is made, with care and understanding and the toppings are simple and fresh and the oven is blast-furnace hot and the base is rolled to paper thinness - pizza can be the best, most satisying meal in the world. And so it was in Thiviers tonight.

In the pizza shop
Admittedly we were hungry - another lunch-free day today, but the taste and crispy freshness of these pizzas was a joy. We ordered another to share. By now the chef from our hotel had gone and his table was taken by a French couple - we decided to show that, despite Brexit, the English can still be relied on to demonstrate hospitality - we offered them a glass of wine. She took us up on the offer - he declined, I think he was driving. We ordered more wine - then a family came in for a takeaway - Dad, Mom and two kids - English - we made them drink a glass of wine too. And so it was for everyone who came into the pizza shop for the next hour - as we gradually got more pissed, so we cajoled and bullied the customers into taking wine with us - a sort of post-Brexit communion. Soon the pizzaman had run out of glasses and we'd ordered four or five bottles of wine - most of it given away. The word must have gotten round - next we had a couple of Resistance guys from the bar next door - one of them spoke in a mixture of hand signals and whistles - strangely we seemed to understand him. He ordered two pizzas - one for him and one for us. He took a glass of wine from us - and then bought us another bottle - it would be fair to say he joined the game. There was some conversation in French and the couple at the other table were laughing - we asked the pizzaman what was being said - " Ah - he says the Englishmen are gay!"
Our friend from The Resistance

It was getting late and we were finding it difficult to speak. We staggered out into the night with promises of gifts being sent to the pizzaman and with the Resistance man still hanging around my neck whistling something or other. We couldn't manage to eat the pizza he bought us but we took it with us so not to offend him. I gave it away to someone just around the corner.

Tonight was another one of those unplanned, unforeseeable events that will remain one of the highlights of the entire trip. Vive La France.
Foie Gras country

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

The Manche to the Med - Day 7: Confolens to Rochechouart

The night was peppered with nightmarish dreams of five year old sausages crawling from the river like giant slugs and dragging us and our bikes down into the sewers. Breakfast was the usual affair - croissants, bread, cheese, jam, honey - I'm starting to get the hankering for an English breakfast - but hold on the sausage please.

Our bikes had been conveniently stabled in what was probably an old stable - in any event it afforded Gary some valuable space to further tinker with his brakes - while I went out shopping for water and any other bits I could find to sustain us - but, being a Wednesday, everywhere was closed.

We felt the need to savour some more of the town this morning, and duly rode around, taking photos and sitting at a cafe with a couple of cups of strong coffee. Finally we got moving and the GPS directed us through some narrow cobbled streets where there was a sudden, violent uphill climb. There was a group of French daytrippers walking down the hill - they looked at us with amazement - with our bikes loaded to maximum as we struggled to move upwards "Chapeau, Chapeau" they cried whilst clapping their hands. Five seconds later their cheers turned to groans of disappointment as we came to a sudden, stumbling standstill - beaten by the severity of incline. This was to be the only time we had to get off and push - and pushing was almost as difficult as riding. The steepness was so great that getting up meant taking a few steps, heaving the loaded bikes, then applying the brakes to prevent the bikes rolling back, getting a better grip on the slippery cobbles, then taking a few more steps. It was tough. When the incline lessened so that it was possible to attempt riding again - we were still on an upward trajectory - and would be for the next mile or two.

Today is fair weather, so much so that I have my washing line bungeed onto my back panniers with shorts and socks hanging out to dry. We're domesticated New Men you know. We've been washing kit most days and lycra does dry fairly quickly in the right conditions. We stop at a village called Chabanais - there's another pretty river bridge and a weir to look at and we sit in the sunshine enjoying another strong coffee. After that it's more climbing, mostly, until we arrive at Rochechouart.

Rochechouart labels itself 'the town of the meteorite' - because 214 million years ago an enourmous six billion tonne meteor smashed into this spot. We hope that meteors don't strike twice as we roll up to our small hotel situated on the very edge of town. It's glorious, hot sunshine and we sit outside with a couple of glasses of Cidre. Earlier I'd sent a text to New Paul (the guy we left on the boat at St Malo) - he hasn't made particularly good progress and was slightly behind on the schedule he never made. He said he'd meet us here and stay the night.
Our hotel at Rochecouart

We get our bags unpacked, shower and enjoy some more cidre as new Paul rolls into sight. He's been camping so far, so tonight, staying in a hotel will be a treat. We take a stroll to another bar and Paul gets a round of Pastis. We sit under shady trees sipping at the cloudy aniseed aperitif like proper Frenchmen. Later we eat at our hotel, taking one of their 'complet' menu options along with a couple of bottles of local wine. The food is reasonable and the general ambience good. New Paul suggests we finish off with Cognac - at €10 a glass we feel it's overpriced - it is harsh and acidic I struggle to finish mine - New Paul takes care of it for me.

Pastis under the trees
Next morning after another bread-based breakfast we pack our stuff and part ways. New Paul is heading in a different direction to us - we wish him well and promise to stay in touch. Gary and I have a ride around the town - there's a marvellous Chateau at the end of the village - The Chateau de Rochechouart - currently undergoing some rennovation and now home to a Museum of Modern Art. The streets all around are decorated with enourmous stone troughs brimming with flowers and there are equally impressive hanging baskets all around. The church here has an interesting twisting octagonal spire. We look for a shop, having the idea of taking a few pastries with us for lunch - but it's Wednesday - nothing is open.

Flowers around the village
At the Chateau
The Chateau
The church with twisted steeple

Monday, 25 September 2017

The Manche to the Med - Day 6: Poitiers to Confolens

It's another drizzly, damp start today. So far we've had a pretty mixed bag of weathers. You can cut the world across many different lines; between haves and nots, first and third, buyers and sellers, blondes and brunettes, tits or legs. But sometimes the most fundamental division is between sun and shade, hot and cold. If you come from the cold, damp north then the sun is a joyous treat. Those who live in the hot and bright all their lives never really understand or experience the joy of meeting a favourite pair of shorts once again after a year apart. The grains of last summer's sand in the pocket. Or the liberation and freedom that a pair of sandals bring to sweaty, incarcerated toes  All-in-all it's a few degrees warmer here than at home, that'll do for me.

We cycle through the city centre looking for a shop where we might buy something suitable for lunch - it being Tuesday though, everything is closed.

Today's ride is a good one - after the descent and subsequent climb from the city we're on smooth tarmac all day. We tell each other again, the roads over here (paved ones) are much better than those at home. Gary says he'd like to bring his carbon bike over - he reckons these roads are fast.

We stop at a roadside cafe, not for food, eating would be too easy - we're in suffering mode now - more to just soak up the atmosphere, the je ne sais quoi. It's a bright room with a high bar and a couple of beer pumps, there are posters and notices and the day's menu on the wall. There's a short narrow corridor leading into a second room, we crane our necks to see, looks like that's the restaurant bit and it hums with activity - we're sitting in the bar area. The place is busy and there are new arrivals all the time. Everyone seems to know each other - there are three or four men sitting on high stools at the bar, working men dressed for the fields or workshop - one sipping beer, one has a bottle of pastis and repeatedly tops up his glass adding a splash of water. The other two are drinking small thimble sized cups of strong coffee. Everyone who comes in shakes hands with the men at the bar - it's like a scene from The Sopranos.

As we leave and are tending our bicycles there is an oldish couple arriving - the man stops and fishes out a photograph of someone on a recumbant bike - there is an exchange of smiles and words that neither party can understand - the bicycles are the common language.

Getting Gaz's bike fixed
Gary's bike though has developed a problem - both our steeds are fitted with kick-stands - invaluable when we need to stop somewhere. Gary's stand has worked itself loose over the past few days, and we don't have a spanner large enough to fit the nut that will enable it to be tightened. Chances of finding a bike shop out here are remote - but we pass a small Peugeot car dealership and notice there is a service area round the back. We pull in and approach the open workshop door - a young mechanic comes out to us and we are able to point at the loose nut and gesticulate appropriately enough for him to see the problem. He disappears into the gloomy workshop and returns with a tool that solves the problem - with the help of google translate we are able to explain where we're heading for "Bravo" is his response with a smile. A little later, back on the road, we spot an InterMarche supermarket - we stop and I go in for cakes - Whilst I'm in there Gary is approached by another interested Frenchman who has good English - they chat eagerly about our journey until I come out armed with a couple of Paris Brests.

There is a pleasant and easy descent into the medieval town of Confolens, situated on the River Vienne. The sun is shining now and the river sparkles in harmony with the glorious old buildings lining both sides. This is picture postcard France, the old bridge, cobbled lanes and alleyways, plane trees and fountains. The GPS guides us through the centre to our B&B accommodation. I knock on the door and after a few minutes we are greeted by a man who might well have been the inspiration for The Hobbit. His French sounds shaky and after a few garbled sentences I ask him if he's English? He is - he and his wife have been here 20 years.

Where we're staying has all the idiosyncratic peculiarities one might expect of a Hobbit. A room decorated entirely with artifacts from a Morrocan bazzaar. All wall space throughout the house is taken up with paintings by the Hobbitman himself. He locks himself away in an upper room and paints away with music blaring. There's a most wonderful and ancient oak staircase. A mosaic tiled floor, sun-bleached blue shutters, faded fabrics and dust. The place is at once a museum and a testimony to eccentricity. I love it. Our room on the second floor is basic but comfortable. The bathroom is like no other I've ever seen. The toilet facility involving a strange and ancient pumping system to facilitate a flush. The iron roll-top bath is shrouded in a hessian curtain and the floor covered in ruckled linoleum.

After unpacking and showering we take to the streets - there is bright yellow, blue and red bunting everywhere, from a recent festival. Along the street is a cobbled causeway to the river - there is a woman set up with her sketch pad painting a river scene. A bit further is the old bridge, dating back to the fourteenth century. We find a bar and settle in for a couple of beers. I hear an English voice and get chatting to a man enjoying a drink with his family. He is a builder, probably mid-thirties and has just moved his family here to live. After a walk around to the market square and another couple of beers we come back to the first bar to order some food. There is a sizeable restaurant at the rear overlooking the river. I order snails as a starter - no fast food here. For his main course Gary orders a local speciality.

France - the cradle of gastronomy, the great stockpot from which every restaurant from every other nation has taken the measure of flavour. France, that invented all the stations of the kitchen, its epicurean techniques and skills, of sauce and the application of heat. And here we are - Gary has ordered the five year old sausage. We knew it was on its way five minutes before it reached the table - the smell was of sewers and sweat, rank and achrid. Who knows what dark techniques have been used to create this? Possibly all the nasty bits of pig buried in a sack at the bottom of the garden for five years and then dug up, forced into the remnants of a mouldy leather caseball and served by a waiter holding his breath. I can still smell it now - quite the most foul pugnacious dish I've ever encountered. Gary said it was the Epoisses of sausage - but apparently it tasted good.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

The Manche to the Med - Day 5: St Loup Lamaire to Poitiers

I looked at the map this morning before breakfast. Already we seem to have made a sizeable dent into the journey - the little graphic on the left gives you an idea. When planning this adventure I was hoping for a slow meander through France. There's something immensely attractive about slowness. Something that borders langour and tranquility maybe? Think of those lunches that slip into tea and cocktails, of switching off the computer and taking an hour on the couch, of slow-ripened tomatos or peaches, of a slow stroll to the pub or the occasional loll in a hammock, a slowly handwritten note or a hand-picked posy of wild flowers, slowly sitting down to read a book maybe... So the idea of slowly picking our way through to the south of France, taking time to see things, to smell the terroir, to taste the air... it all sounds just right doesn't it? Now I wonder if we're actually moving too fast? - already things are becoming a bit of a blur.

Breakfast today was okay - but okay over here is like disappointing at home. The bread was faintly stale - probably a day old and tough like bread is when there's no preservatives or additives to keep it soft - still tasty though! The usual spread of cheeses and meats was somewhat miniscule by comparison and we were left wondering if we might find a shop open in the village to stock up for todays ride. We left the hotel at around 9.00am - We rode the bikes to the town hall and the car park there - Gary needed to do some maintenance to his bike - he's been having trouble with the disc brakes on his Dawes Galaxy and some slight adjustments were needed. After that we rode around the village for some exploring - we found a shop - but, being a Monday, it was closed. By 10.00am we were heading out onto the road to Poitiers - immediately upwards from the river - a 100 metre climb so steep and long I felt sick.

We were climbing pretty much constantly for the first hour this morning - then we were back on the dreaded unpaved roads. Not quite as bad as those encountered yesterday - but bad enough to shake us, the bikes and our luggage.... rough, rutted tracks strewn with rocks and debris. After a couple of hours we decided to find a proper road and plot a new route using good old fashioned paper maps! The weather wasn't particularly good either - the full english - rain, wind, rain, a bit of sun, more wind and a final splattering of rain.

Poitiers - main square
Poitiers is a provincial French city, capital of the Poitou area of western France and county town of the Vienne department. It is a historic city that has conserved much of its old-world charm - and has catered for passing travellers since Roman times. It is home to one of the oldest churches in Europe - the fourth-century 'Baptistry' as well as the Notre Dame La Grande from medieval times. The town is also a major university and bustles with many students. As we approached the city I switched back to the GPS to get us through the busy traffic - we found ourselves on a long descent, probably a mile or two, taking us down to river level - then an immediate climb of 40 metres back up to the old town sitting on a plateau above the rivers which surround it on three sides. We found our hotel without incident, tucked away in one of the back streets a short walk from the main square.

More off-loading and unpacking of panniers - a ritual that takes up half an hour at the start and end of each day - then showers and out into the town. Just around the corner from our hotel we're in the thick of it, wide traffic free streets lined with bars and restaurants and then the main square, again with a mass of bars with outside tables. It's sunny now and we sit outside to enjoy a couple of petit beers - there's the comfortable background noise of early evening enjoyment; laughter, conversation, the clinking of glasses, then we find a restaurant for food. Le 16 Carnot is refined, spacious and comfortable - we start with a delicious plate of eggs benedict followed by a simple burger - not perticularly adventurous but very tasty - we both agree, the best burger ever! - the bottle of Merlot was excellent too!

Another early night - we're tucked up by 9.00pm

Saturday, 23 September 2017

The Manche to the Med - Day 4: Beaupreau to St Loup Lamaire

With handshakes, the exchange of emails, and promises to stay in touch, we departed the Chateau. It had certainly been a memorable experience.

Our target today is St Loup Lamaire. The morning is dry, not particularly warm, but okay for cycling. Once again we're plummeted into a hilly world - not the short steep gradients that we're used to at home - more long, drawn out rises that sap energy and strength - each corner suggesting a summit that then transpires to be, just another corner on an endless road upwards.

We amuse ourselves by halting on bridges over motorways - looking down at the passing stream of traffic it seems like every third or fourth car gives us a wave. Some even toot there horns - we spend ten minutes waving at cars - something that we will continue to do at every motorway bridge for the rest of the trip.

Unpaved road
The Garmin GPS unit I have fixed to the handlebars of my bike has done stirling work in getting us where we need to be so far. Today was to be different. It seems that in France there is a network of 'unpaved roads' that Garmin and Google Maps both recognise as normal, navigable route options. This is an oversight. Some of these 'roads' are in fact farm tracks - the sort of thing you might find in the UK behind a farm gate on a minor road. In France the farm gates are missing and the 'roads' are an apparently acceptable route for crossing the landscape. Today would see us cast out across a rural landscape that would best be navigated in a Land Rover - and even then it would be a struggle. Combined with these roads is the Voie Verte - a more acceptable route option criss-crossing the whole of France, utilising old railway lines, canal paths and such - most of these have been resurfaced with compacted gravel or, in some cases tarmac. We followed the route down endless rough tracks, through barren flat fields that stretched out on all sides as far as the eye could see.

The road to nowhere?

We saw no sign of any other living person all morning. We passed wheelbarrows at the side of the track, loaded with bits and pieces and with tools lying around - but no people. We saw a van with its back doors flung open - but no sign of anyone. There was a machine being used to harvest crops, part loaded, but nobody operating it? - the whole thing seemed strange and eerie - like a science fiction movie where everything had simply been frozen and all the people abducted to an alien spaceship hidden in the clouds.

When we finally happened upon any villages, all the cafes and shops were shut - this being a Sunday. Still no sign of any people anywhere. Passing through one larger village we felt sure there'd be somewhere for a lunch stop - we came off our planned route to explore, riding around the village from end to end and the myriad side streets.... nothing.

We got back onto the Voie Verte - a smooth section, probably an old railway line - the sort of place that in England on a Sunday would be teeming with walkers, cyclists, families out for the day - we saw not a soul. We heard some strange bird calls from the mass of trees lining the route - "Pterodactyl", I said to Gary. Not long after there was the sound of distant cattle lowing "Brontosaurus"

By now we were hungry - we stopped along the Voie Verte and rummaged in our panniers - lunch was to be a platter of Kendal Mint Cake (thanks Jane!), Wine gums and the remnants of a bag of crisps purchased back in Rennes.

Gary I presume?
The final track that we had to navigate proved impossible - absolutely no surface or discernable road at all, just a forest floor punctuated by trees, fallen trees, tree roots, ferns, foliage, brambles... we should have packed machetes. We struggled, pushing and pulling the bikes through this jungle for about a mile. Finally we made it to a normal road - thankfully this would take us most of the way to St Loup. We saw a small group of deer gathered in the road just ahead - they scattered as we almost got to them, diving and disappearing into the dense undergrowth.

As we got close to St Loup Lamaire the instruction was once again to take the 'unpaved road' Gary was reluctant - he'd had enough of negotiating rocks and ruts and decided he'd follow his own GPS via the main road - my GPS was telling me our destination was five minutes away - just down this track! - We split up for the last few miles. I followed the track, bumping my way gently downhill until arriving at the main road, just across a couple of river bridges and I was there. I found the hotel - no sign of Gary. I booked in, got the bike inside, removed my luggage and got the key to the room. I managed to work out with the receptionist that the restaurant was closed tonight - it being Sunday, and there was no other restaurants in town. However there was a small pizza parlour - open for an hour between 7 and 8.00pm - she said she would call and book us a table - after some conversation that I didn't understand it seems there was no space in the pizza place - but they would do us a take-out pizza and we could bring it back to the hotel. Still no sign of Gary.

I went into the street to see if there was any sign of him - no. A few minutes later he called - he was close but just outside town - I told him to come across the bridges and take the first left - a couple of minutes late I saw him at the end of the road. He'd come down a hill so steep that he had to get off and walk down! - First time I've heard of walking DOWN a hill? - I wondered if our route tomorrow meant having to climb that same hill? - We were in a valley, riverside, so a climb was inevitable.

Soon enough we were showered, changed and ready to explore. St Loup Lamaire is a quaint sleepy village in the Southern Loire region situated on the River Thouet. The main street has a few shops with the town hall at one end but is dominated by the formidable Chateau St Loup at the other. The Chateau takes in guests and is also an established wedding venue - we met a few English people wandering round, they were here for a wedding, the English bride having seen the Chateau in a book as a teenager decided that would be her dream wedding venue - it is properly impressive with a moat around and 50 acres of garden and grounds.

The bar at St Loup Lamaire
Despite our concerns we did manage to find a small cafe/bar that was open - but only until 9.00 - we settled at a table for a couple of beers - then a couple more, followed by two more. Some wedding guests wandered in - carrying pizza boxes - it seems the patroness, a stern looking women sitting behind her bar working on a crossword - didn't mind. I did my best to ask if it would be okay for us to fetch pizza into her bar - the answer was short and sweet "Qui"

Ten minutes later I'm back in the bar - carrying three pizza boxes - we're hungry! Pizza is immensely simple - essentially a peasant food, the only real secret is the temperature of the oven - which has to be of glass-blowing intensity. Our supper tonight was the best pizza either of us had ever tasted. A wodge of the thinnest, crispiest unleavened base with chewy, sticky napalm stuff on top. It's hot, it's tasty and it's filling - what more do you want? If you have one of those 'nothing but pizza will do' cravings - this would be the place to have it.

With the bar now closing and the pizza nicely tucked up in our tummies there's nothing left but bed. And we have no complaints - we're tired - it's been a hard day all-in-all and more to come tomorrow.
Outside the Chateau at St Loup

St Loup Lamaire