Reflecting on our 2013 French tour

Shutters on the windows and flower boxes on the sill. Much as I would them too, my windows at home will never look 'French' like this.

Shutters on the windows and flower boxes on the sill. Much as I would them too, my windows at home will never look ‘French’ like this.

As I have already indicated in recent posts, my entries on this blog have gotten more than a little behind the times. However, the memories are still fresh and there is much to write about our cycle tour in France in 2013.

This is what I love coming to France for. So beautiful.

This is what I love about France.

This trip could more accurately be considered a series of shorter cycling tours than one big long trip. Some cyclists are super fit and measure their achievements by the number of kilometres or miles they pack into each day. This is definitely not me, I have never been an athletic type and frankly, it is sometimes very difficult to muster the willpower to get on the bike again, especially after 3 or 4 days of riding with no days off to explore and take photos. I also get very frustrated at missing out on seeing so many things along the way.

Pure magic.

Pure magic (the Canal du Midi in Toulouse).

There were three of us on this tour, me, my partner and my youngest son who was about to commence 2 years of study in France. Unlike our previous French experience, we were based in Toulouse, home of our son’s new university.

Apart from an initial desire to ride along the Rhône Valley, we decided to try ‘winging’ the rest of the 4 weeks we had to ride. This plan worked reasonably well, but personally, I think it would have been better if we had decided on a rough schedule beforehand, so that there was an overarching plan. I am a bit boring in that I like to know what I am doing ahead of time!

How many bikes can you fit into a train compartment? In this photo, there were ten!

How many bikes can you fit into a train compartment? In this photo, there were nine!

Given that there were three of us, we decided to try camping, rather than staying at B and Bs (which are mostly suited to couples or groups).

‘Free’ camping is definitely cheaper than staying in B and Bs or hotels, or family holiday camps. By ‘free’ camping, I mean staying in places that are not designated camping areas.

This was our preferred option as it would have given us the most freedom to plan as we went along and to stop when and were we felt like doing so.

Table and benches - rare luxury! In Australia, most campsites have these as standard fixtures.

Table and benches – a very rare luxury in all the campsites where we stayed! In Australia, most campsites have these as standard fixtures.

In Australia, it is possible to free camp almost anywhere outside major cities, if one is prepared to ‘rough it’ a little.

However, we were unsure of the situation in France, so read widely about what others had done. It seems that free camping is not really encouraged, although many do manage to do it quite successfully. Not being quite as young as we once were (and consequently just a tad less brave🙂 ), we decided to plan around destinations where we knew there were camping sites. Unlike our first cycling adventure in France, we did not book any accommodation except for when we first arrived and the few days prior to our departure.

Ultimately, we used a mix of camping and hotel stops (after camping in the rain for more than 2 nights, one starts to dream about dry things.. clothes, shoes, tents….🙂 ). We also found that in the larger cities, the cost of a room for 3 at a cheaper hotel was sometimes less than the cost of a tent site! So it payed to look at all the options before deciding where to stay.

The first few days of riding were very, very wet! Madoqua and son enjoy a rare break in the weather. At least it was not hot!

The first few days of riding were very, very wet! Madoqua and son enjoy a rare break in the weather. At least it was not hot!

At the finish, there had been four main parts to our trip: the Rhône Valley, Millau-Albi, the Canal du Midi and Bordeaux. Each was special for different reasons, as you will find out in upcoming posts.

As with other tours, I will compile a page which references all the relevant posts, but I had better get on and write them first🙂

Tunnels and bikes – awesome!

In a recent post, I mentioned the fact that we had ridden through some tunnels on our last tour in France. This is seriously great fun, and an interesting way to check out just how good your headlamp actually is!

Only once before have I ridden on my bike in what I would consider ‘genuinely dark’ conditions. On that occasion, we were cycling around a few of the lakes in the Rosnay area (also in France); it was a warm moonless, night and the roads had no guide lines, posts or other reflectors. And it was seriously dark ….. !

The first tunnel we came across.

The first tunnel we came across.

Silhouetted cyclists

Silhouetted cyclists

Our tunnel experience, like that at Rosnay, was totally unexpected. The road between Millau and Albi winds through a deep valley and towards the lower end, it goes through a series of about eight or ten tunnels. Some are quite short, and others are well over a kilometre and curve through the hills which rise above them.

This may not seem like anything of consequence, until you realise (when mid way through) that you can see nothing when looking ‘forward’ and nothing when looking ‘backward’! You are truly in the pitch dark.

What you can see when you cycle through one of the tunnels between Millau and Albi.

What you can see when you cycle through one of the tunnels between Millau and Albi.

A rail bridge - with no rails or trains.

A rail bridge – with no rails or trains.

Not a great deal of room for a car and a cyclist!

Not a great deal of room for a car and a cyclist!

The tunnels were originally designed to accommodate a railway line and the route has numerous narrow bridges as well as the tunnels – all that is missing is the track and the trains! But the melancholy sound of the train whistle will never be heard along this valley – which I think is rather a shame, because the scenery is nothing short of incredible. But I digress!

The challenge with cycling through a narrow, curving, dark, (should have been a) train tunnel is that there is very little space. Motor vehicles have to use a traffic signal warning system to let those coming the other way know that the tunnel is ‘occupied’. But this works on a timer and turns off after a ‘reasonable’ period of time.

"Beware of cyclists in the tunnel". The only tunnel that had cyclist warnings

“Beware of cyclists in the tunnel”. The only tunnel that had cyclist warnings

But what of a bicycle? Only one of the tunnels had a “Cylists in the tunnel” warning system. I guess you could set the traffic lights to red and then pedal madly (simulating a motor vehicle), hoping to get out the other side in time….. but that is no way to enjoy the thrill of riding in the dark!

The lights you see - were all that there were!

The lights you see – were all that there were!

The only way to enjoy the ride is to listen for vehicles as you pedal along, and then make yourself very visible (as you move to one side) if someone comes from behind or in front. Even stopping to take a photo seems like a risky thing to do…. unless, unlike me, your headlight and taillights are powered up, bright and very visible🙂 (In my defence, we were riding in clear, sunny conditions – I did not think I would need a light for that stretch!!)

I want to return and re-ride through this valley because this time, I want to have good lights, and I want to ride s-l-o-w-l-y through each tunnel to savour the experience again. What fun!

Oooh good, another one..... :-)

Oooh good, another one…..🙂

The tunnel behind is just very dark!

So much fun – I can’t wait to do it all again!

Time to get cycling again

It has, as they say, “been a long time between drinks” on this blog site. The last post was just over a year ago. This has not been due to any tardiness, simply that the events of life took over and this blog had to be temporarily put on ice.

I hope to now reverse this situation and get regular posts going again. There is so much to tell, and so many questions to ask of you cycling fraternity out there, it is difficult to know where to start🙂

Perhaps it is appropriate to have a quick review of where our cycling adventures have taken us, the things we have learned and what we would like to try next. We have completed 3 major biking tours and have learnt so much from each of them. Each one has been remarkably different in some way.

Waiting for a train in with our loaded bikes. Let our French adventures begin!

Waiting for a train in with our loaded bikes. Let our French adventures begin!

For our first, somewhat timid foray into cycle-touring, we booked ourselves into B and Bs along the beautiful Loire Valley in France, and then rode avidly from one to the next for 4 weeks. It was a superb trip, but on reflection, we spent far too much time in the saddle, trying to cover as much distance as we could.

All things wonderfully French!

All things wonderfully French!

There was not enough time to explore unexpectedly lovely spots, and not enough rest days. And we went too late in the season and got cold. Frosty cold! But at least the rain stayed away, and we had fine weather for almost the entire month.

The take home message for this trip was not to be in such a hurry to “get there”.

Our second trip took place in the  UK. It was a cyclo-tour with a family history flavour in that we tried to visit a number of the places where our ancestors had lived.

Having learnt not to pack too many kilometres into each day, we took a bit longer to cover the same distances, but then got the train, so moved around the countryside very quickly, while still being able to do a lot of cycling. This plan worked very well, and we were able to ride in the lovely Cotswolds, the Scottish borders and highlands, around Bath and London, and along the south coast of England. Accommodation was a lot easier (and cheaper) because we stayed at Youth Hostels in most locations.

Cycling in the lovely green English countryside.

Cycling in the lovely green English countryside.

The weather was a bit more of a problem on this trip and we got drenched a number of times (there is nowhere for cyclists to get out of the rain in the UK!). One particular evening stands out in this regard: it was pouring rain (and had been for most of the afternoon) and we arrived at our destination absolutely soaked. Once we were dry, there was no way we were going to voluntarily go back out into the wet to find a meal!

Our third trip took us back to France.

One of our Hubba Hubba tents which were a breeze to carry, erect and pack.

One of our Hubba Hubba tents which were a breeze to carry, erect and pack.

We had enjoyed ourselves so much the first time, and loved all things French, especially the people. This time we packed two tents and enough camping equipment to give us some basic comforts and headed to the Rhône Valley to see what this area had to offer.

We wisely started in the north and cycled southwards, so had the Mistral (wind) helping us most of the way. The area had some amazing surprises for us, with Nîmes and the Pont du Gard being the highlights. A train trip later and we entered the Albi area which also had a few surprises in store. The highlight for me was the incredible Millau Bridge and the fun times riding through inky black tunnels on our bikes.

The amazing, 4 lane Millau Bridge, France.

The amazing, 4 lane Millau Bridge, France.

Admiring the spectacular Millau Bridge from a distance.

Admiring the spectacular Millau Bridge from a distance.

The camping lost its appeal when the weather turned wet, but it was not a problem when things were fine (I am not fond of mud!). We did find that many of the campsites where we stayed were quite expensive, and a more comfortable (dry) bed could often be found at a local three star hotel or F1 hotel.

What you can see when you cycle through one of the tunnels between Millau and Albi.

What you can see when you cycle through one of the tunnels between Millau and Albi – it was bright daylight outside!

So what is next? We think a hybrid trip, using busses and trains to go longer distances (since this worked well on both the last two trips). But getting bikes on and off trains can be rather nightmarish, and some buses refuse to carry them altogether. So we are planning to take two Brompton folding bikes, which pack down so nicely into compact bundles with wheels. The tents will probably be left behind and a greater reliance placed on finding reasonably priced hotel accommodation. Such are our tentative plans.

A Brompton folding bike can be carried on and off trains and easily  put on a bus.

A Brompton folding bike can be carried on and off trains and easily put on a bus.

The challenge now is to figure out how to get a folded bike and all my gear into a single bag or suitcase. Ideally, the case needs to have wheels and be “inversible” When the bike is airborne, it needs to be inside the bag, but when the bike is unpacked, its bag needs to be able to fold up somehow so that it can travel on the bike racks i.e. “invertible”.🙂  Does anyone have any helpful suggestions?

Fields of lavender

One of the greatest things about cycle-touring as opposed to touring by bus, train or car, is that one is very close to the action when it comes to activities going on along the road. One of the most significant things missed by those whizzing along is the aroma of a plant in flower, the sea or perhaps the smell of something a bit less pleasant!

Surprisingly, there are a large number of smells to be experienced as one rides a bike. These range from the early dampness (and perhaps a mist) giving rise to an earthy smell that is quite invigorating. Village bakeries emit welcoming aromas fresh baked croissants and baguettes that vie strongly with the enticing suggestion of coffee in a nearby restaurant. Along the roads, plants compete with each other – producing and emitting their perfume in perfectly designed ways to entice a visit from as many insects as possible.

In August this year, I found myself in the Rhône Valley with my partner, my son and our bikes! Travelling from Lyon in the north to Nîmes (further south) we got to experience lots of smells of the European summer. In one place where we camped, our tents were pitched on a soft bed of what I think was catmint. It smelt just lovely and so did all our camping gear for a few days afterward!

Lavender plants about to be windrowed before being harvested. Rhône Valley, France.

Lavender plants about to be windrowed before being harvested. Rhône Valley, France.

Our visit had luckily also coincided with the harvesting of the fields of lavender flowers. It was not unusual to come around a corner in a road to be met with the sudden overwhelming fragrance of lavender and then to come across a farmer busily cutting and retrieving these heavily scented blooms.

Windrowed lavender ready to be picked up. Rhône Valley, France.

Windrowed lavender ready to be picked up. Rhône Valley, France.

Where the paddocks had yet to be cut and windrowed, the flowers were large and their smells quite pungent – particularly in the late afternoon as the heat of the day started to wane.

Harvester picking up Lavender flowers. Rhône Valley, France.

Harvester picking up Lavender flowers. Rhône Valley, France.

Being able to cycle slowly past these fields and to inhale the heady fragrance is one of my favourite memories of this cycling trip.

This is the first of two things that came to mind when I read Ailsa’s suggestion for a travel theme this week – fragrant. The second will take you to the south of the African continent: Bush fragrance. You can read some of the other posts that were put up in reply at ‘Wheres my backpack‘.

The lakes around Rosnay

Rosnay3
Any map of the area around Rosnay in France shows an amazing number of lakes. Some are quite small, while others are very extensive. This landscape feature puzzled us when we were doing our tour planning and we decided that a ride through the area to have a look was in order.

I rather suspected (hoped?) that the lakes were part of a large native wetland environment and we were going to be treated to a number of sightings of native fauna and flora.

I have actually written about this place in a previous post (Night riding in the inky dark) , however, I did not include many photos of the lakes or any information on the the Brenne Nature Park.

Rosnay1
What we found was something quite different to what I imagined, and yet it still lived up to what I had expected (in many respects). The lakes area is certainly a very big wetland environment, but the vegetation and fauna were nothing like I had envisaged.

This nature reserve is huge – it covers 166 000 hectares (640 square miles). There are over 2ooo lakes, all of which are man made.

Rosnay2I am not sure why they were constructed, only that it happened a very long time ago and all are now part of a naturalised habitat. The largest lake is the Mer Rouge (Red Sea) which covers 160 hectares.

Unlike many of the parks I am familiar with, this one is crossed by many roads and has people living throughout the area. This makes many of the lakes readily accessible to nature lovers and the place is a mecca for those who enjoy wildlife.

Plants and animals both thrive in the ideal conditions and more than 2300 animal species co-exist with 1200 different species of plants.

I must confess that I did not spend a great deal of time looking at the varieties of plants and/or birds because it did not strike me at the time that there were many to observe. However, this may have been because our timing was wrong (it was Autumn).

Whatever the cause, it was remarkably quiet on the roads – no traffic and few people anywhere! Bicycle rider’s version of heaven!

Ironically, the lakes are also a mecca for duck hunters. Naturalists and hunters live in an uneasy peace, each enjoying their own activities, but aware that they are in constant virtual conflict.

Hunting huts abound around the lakes, but most were mostly deserted while we were there. I am not familiar with the hunting laws in France, except I do know they are quite strict. So perhaps we were there out of hunting season and this is why it was  so quiet.

We were puzzled by the cleared areas and small mounds along some of the roads, but apparently this makes game easier to see (hunters stand on the mound and the hapless animals get caught as they cross the open zone).

Whatever the reason for the solitude, I did enjoy the easy riding and the spectacular views of the lakes.

Wet? Need shelter? Try the local market square

I have often lamented the lack of shelter for cyclists in England, Scotland and France (the three places in Europe where I have cyclo-toured). Quite simply, there is nowhere to get out of the weather when it turns nasty or even inconveniently wet (unless you can squeeze yourself and your bike into one of those very rare bus shelters).

I find this quite amazing, because winters in these countries are very cold and wet – and I would have thought porches, verandahs and the like would have featured on almost every building.

There is, however, one place where a soggy cyclist may be able to find respite in French towns and that is at the central marketplace. I have found reference to these areas in other rider’s blogs too, so obviously it is not just me who has made this discovery!

Market2

The market area was virtually empty when we first arrived.

Market

Beautiful, ornate steel posts support the large roof area.

This place is big, open and has plenty of room, all under a convenient high roof.

Unless of course, you have arrived at the same time as the local market is in full swing, in which case you will probably just be able to find a corner to hover until everyone departs.

The upside of market day though, is that there will be plenty of fresh fruit to purchase and to enjoy🙂

We passed many of these markets, but this was one of the few where we actually stopped while en route from Sully-sur-Loire to Checy (just east of Orléans).  I must confess that I did not write down the name of the town at the time, but I am fairly sure it was Jargeau (on the southern bank of the Loire River). According to the sign in the photograph, entry was not permitted on Wednesdays between 12:30 and 8pm and Jargeau has a market each Wednesday afternoon.

The marketplace was deserted when we arrived, but this was not the way it stayed.

Market1

Stall owners start to arrive and set up for the afternoon’s trading. First in, best placed!

Market3

Rails for clothing, umbrellas to hang things. These vendors were well organised.

As we sat and ate our lunch, we watched a hive of activity suddenly erupt as stall owners arrived and prepared to set up their afternoon of trading. By the time we left, the covered area was full, crowds were arriving and vendors were fussing with last minute preparations.

Market4

Metallic lace work shows up against the lighter background. This structure was quite beautiful.

One can buy a fascinating variety of goods at these gatherings. Fruit and vegetables, meat and specialty cheeses all find a place. Fun toys and trinkets keep the children tempted and amused while their parents search clothing racks for elusive bargains. It was a delightful taste of the French culture.

It also seemed a bit of a waste because the weather was clear that day and we had not needed to shelter at all!

Metallic knight

KJ and I  had not long packed our bikes and  left Blois on our Tour de France and we were headed towards Valençay thence to Selles sur Cher for the night.

The bikes were behaving perfectly and we were well into a cycling routine and enjoying what the new cool, but sunny day had on offer. It was a still morning and we were riding silently – each of us contented, relaxed and deeply immersed in our own thoughts as so often happens when we ride.

House

Suddenly we looked across to see the most unusual sight. We had come across a large house (small chateau?) set in beautifully maintained gardens. But there are many such houses in France, so why did this one startle us so much?

A most unusual garden sculpture - a full sized knight on his horse!

A most unusual garden sculpture – a full sized knight on his horse!

Knight1A full sized knight in full battle dress was mounted on his large trusty steed and riding purposefully across the lawn right outside this imposing residence.

It wasn’t real of course, but had (most impressively) been made from recycled bits and pieces – mostly steel scrap.

We started, then stared and reached for the camera.

Unfortunately, this amazing sculpture was quite a way off and we were reluctant to approach too closely as this took us too close to the house. But what we saw was impressive enough!

In the blog Have you ever …. there is a series on Amazing Mailboxes that I and some of my followers have found in our various travels. This knight was not a mailbox, but if it had been, it would clearly have been king of them all!
ZKnight