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

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