Monday, September 04, 2006

Trip reflections - cycling in France

Now I am nearly home I am thinking over the last few months. Cycling in France was clearly one of the highlights.

The idea of cycling freely in the French countryside had come to appeal to me. It can be dangerous reading books, or looking at articles and photos on internet sites. Sometimes you hatch up a plot you then need to follow through on! Though I had been a fairly regular commuter cyclist at home, and 20km weekend jaunts were quite common, I had never before actually cycled over an extended period with all my luggage on the carrier.

When it came time to start the cycling section of my trip I was quite afraid. Buying the bike itself proved to be quite straightforward as I had been given some advice as to brands, and specific vocabulary, by a French parent of a child I had taught. Thanks Jerome! But then came the "worrying phase" with all the "What ifs" giving me a few nights of restless sleeping. I cured this phase, sort of, by writing a list of all the worries I had, and writing down a solution. Eg, "Where can I camp and are the camping grounds close enough together?" was solved by a visit to the tourist office where they gave me a list of the camping grounds in the area.

The irony of all this worrying was that the only thing that really did go wrong happened on Day 1 of the cycling expedition proper, and it was not something I had even thought about in all my worrying. ( I got a serious fright with a man in a car who kept trailing me: I minimised this on my blog at the time so as not to worry anyone at home, but I did get a very serious fright at the time. At home I would have gone to the Police over it.)

Anyhow, Day 1 of the trip proper had a good outcome despite my scare. I managed a 36km ride with all my luggage, from Orleans upstream to Chateauneuf-sur-Loire. As it turned out, this was probably my favourite camping ground in my whole trip and I used it as a base for several days. (I got good at basing myself in one place and taking trips radiating out from that base: much easier cycling without all the baggage!) When I arrived at the Chateauneuf camping ground I was absolutely given the 'red carpet' treatment arriving on a 'velo'. I had a wonderful tent site right on the banks of the Loire itself, and loved just sitting in front of my tent admiring the view. Chateauneuf-sur-Loire was an interesting small town and a fete was celebrated there during my stay. It was also within easy cycling distance of some other interesting places like the monastery where the relics of St Benedict are kept.

From now on I began to gain confidence as a cyclist. I had purchased the relevant 1cm: 1km maps for the area and these enabled me to work out suitable routes. I was able to find the country roads that would not be too busy, and I could also work out whether a route might be too hilly or not! I managed to bypass Orleans and took two days to get to Beaugency using my own routes. Anyone who knows me well knows how I mix up left and right, so I felt very pleased with my efforts reading the maps and successfully getting to my destinations!

I was especially pleased with the interesting route I had worked out to get from the chateau area to Montrichard, managing to adapt myself to French mealtimes by stopping for a delicious lunch at a small town with an ancient monastery en route. I loved the small town of Montrichard, and the small friendly camping ground I stayed in right beside the banks of the River Cher. All these smaller French towns and villages were really only accessible to me and my budget by cycling and camping. All these interesting places I simply would not have seen if I had been doing my usual thing of staying in hostels with my backpack, as hostels exist in larger centres in France.

I won't go into detail here about all the interesting villages I stayed in or visited, places like Savigny-en-Veron, Chinon, Candy-St-Martin, Candy-sur-Beuvron, St-Mathurin-sur-Loire. Mostly there are more details further back in my blog. But I loved seeing all these places. I did love the feeling of such an extended period of outdoor living. I loved being able to notice all the details in the countryside. I loved being able to call into a small village bar somewhere en route and have a hot chocolate.

I experienced a lot of friendly people en route. People had told me that the French respect those on the velo and it is true I think. When I was transporting the velo to and from my friend's place near Bonnelles outside Paris, young and older men seemed to leap to my aid to get the bike on and off the trains and RER. (So much for another needless worry that I wouldn't manage it in the time limit!) We had a June version of the later full-summer heat wave that gripped France. The first of the very hot days I had cycled about 60km to St-Mathurin-sur-Loire, not far from Angers. I had barely started to put up my tent when the lady caretaker arrived with a large bottle of iced water for me to drink from. (I think my red, sweaty face must have looked quite a sight this day.) This is the sort of everyday kindness that you remember long after the trip is done.

Around the Chateau area, and between Tours and Angers, a lot of money has been invested in developing and signposting some great cycle routes. I used the brochures for these, readily available for free from tourist offices, and cycled quite a bit of these routes. But I was glad I had spent the first part of my trip working out my own routes. And I ended my trip with a couple of circuits of 60km+ that I worked out by myself. I ended my cycling with a circuit based around Beaugency, a town with a beautiful bridge over the Loire, and many birds nesting on the sandbanks. I then caught the train back to Paris from here, much easier than riding into and through Orleans into the station.

I ended my trip with a great feeling of satisfaction. I was trimmer and fitter and had really enjoyed my expedition. I had been to interesting places in the countryside where I had been close to small details of French life and history. It was great! And now I am pleased to say that my French friend Monique is getting great pleasure out of using my bike.

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