Category Archives: France

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 🙂

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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.

A funny little lane

Our cyclo-tour of France took us some way along the banks of the Loire River which I really enjoyed. We like the wide open spaces of rural areas and had plenty of this sort of countryside to ride through.

The beautiful Loire River. Our route followed the river bank as we approached Orléans.

The beautiful Loire River. Our route followed the river bank as we approached Orléans.

When we did come to large cities (unless we particularly needed something), we would side step them if possible. This avoided issues with the traffic and getting lost! Our paper maps were terrific for going from town to town, but they were dismal when it came to navigating through large cities. We bypassed Orléans by riding along the cycling routes which followed the river. The city was beautiful and I have photos here showing it shrouded in mist.

Once we had traversed the city and crossed an amazing bridge to the southern bank of the Loire, the fog had lifted and the day was pleasant if a little cool.

BridgeOrleans

The amazing and beautiful bridge in Orléans where we crossed the Loire.

Working our way through suburbia, we came across the most amazing little lane. It climbed quite steeply up an incline and at the same time, sloped to a central drainway.
Narrowlane1
We came upon it quite unexpectedly and it was negotiated with much merriment. KJs chain had came loose at the bottom, and once the problem was fixed, the slope was too steep to get a loaded mountain bike going uphill. The lane was also too narrow to turn around so he was stuck with walking and pushing the bike instead!

Narrowlane

This was a sensible idea, but it was quite funny at the time! Sometimes things just become memorable and this odd little lane and the circumstances surrounding KJ having to walk it instead of cycling are one of those times 😆 .

It wasn’t too long after this that we were back in our element – riding along the river, enjoying more the of the fantastic scenery for which this area is justifiably famous.

Loire

Follow this link for access to other posts and the itinerary and details of our Tour of France).

Orléans – eerie in the morning mist

If you have been following my Tour of France posts, you will know that we started riding in Dijon in the east and crossed the French countryside to get to the Loire River. We then turned north and were following along the river crossing it from time to time as we found suitable cycling routes. We were on our first cyclo-tour ever and learning a lot about both France and bicycle touring!

Our bikes were mountain bikes which we had adapted for our trip. We had Old Man Mountain pannier racks which supported 4 pannier bags – two larger ones on the rear and two small ones (which I had made) on the front. The bikes were comfortable and we were travelling well. Our itinerary was just right – not too much riding each day, so that there was time to stop and enjoy the sights as we went along.

The loaded Anthem showing how the bikes were packed.

The loaded Anthem showing how the bikes were packed.

We had got as far as the city of Orléans and had toyed with the idea of going into the city, but eventually we decided against this. We had no need to go into the busy central precinct and did not have any detailed maps, so navigating was going to be a hit-and-miss affair at best. This does not bode well in an unfamiliar city at morning peak hour!

Instead, we decided to cycle through/around the city along the River. It was quite early as we had stayed overnight at a B&B in a small town just to the east of the city and had not taken us long to cover the distance to the outskirts of the city.

Our decision was a good one. The morning was foggy and very still. The river was eerie, shrouded in wisps of fog and very beautiful. We stopped a number of times as we rode this stretch, taking photos and generally enjoying watching the city wake and start a new day.

A beautiful bridge over the Loire River. This is where we crossed.

A beautiful bridge over the Loire River. This is where we crossed.

I now envisage Orléans as a place always shrouded mystically in mist, which is probably unfair as it probably has quite lovely weather most of the time 🙂 .

Bridge1

Follow this link for access to other posts and the itinerary and details of our Tour of France).

An unexpected find – Château de Romefort

This post is part of the series which describes our adventures during our tour of France some years ago. We had left the lakes in the Rosnay district and were heading south when we came across a very pretty river.

It was “La Creuse” and it was relatively small by French standards but had an amazing setting. I was so caught up with looking at the clear water and the rippling water weeds (did I mention I have a thing about water? – anything wet instantly gets my undivided attention!) that I did not see what was behind me!

The Creuse River

The Creuse River

The Creuse River showing the waterweeds flowing evenly in the current.

The Creuse River showing the waterweeds flowing evenly in the current.

Château de Romefort, on the banks of the Creuse River

Château de Romefort, on the banks of the Creuse River

Strategically placed on the river bank was a lovely set of buildings – the Château de Romefort. We did not have the time to do much more than admire and take plenty of photos, but here are the best of them for your enjoyment.

Château de Romefort, with lovely reflections in the water

Lovely reflections in the water

Château de Romefort

A different perspective of the Château as we rode past the main buildings on the southern side of the river.

Coming unexpectedly on things like this château was what made our trip to France so great. We did not have internet access or much time to spend in tourist offices, so had little idea of what each day would present to us. The down side of this was that we sometimes did not see something we would have liked to (by going a slightly different route), but the flipside was that we saw some amazing sights, simply because we had chosen a different way to travel. The Château de Romefort was one of these nice surprises.

(Follow this link for access to other posts and the itinerary and details of our Tour of France)