Category Archives: Accommodation

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 🙂

Planning the UK trip (Part 2: Overnight stops)

This is part 2 of a of Planning the UK trip. Read part 1

HOW FAR TO RIDE?

Working out where to stop each day was limited by our desire to ride an average of about 60km (37 miles) a day. Any more than this, and there was not enough time to stop and appreciate the scenery and interesting things along the way. We averaged 59km/cycling day, so this was quite close to our desired target.

It is possible to work out ideal overnight destinations using a map and a bit of string which is what I did with the French tour. However, with the UK trip, I got a bit more technical and used the RoutePad app I have described on the Using Technology post. This gave me a good idea of the degree of difficulty we could expect in each day’s travel as well as the distance.

No planning can factor in/out 'interesting' weather

No amount of planning can factor in/out ‘interesting’ weather (Scottish Highland sunshowers)

BREAKING THE CYCLING WITH RAIL TRIPS

We had learnt from our French cyclo-tour that we needed breaks from riding every few days. These breaks allowed for some relief from the weather (particularly when it was cold and wet every day) and gave us time to catch up on correspondence, journals etc. It was also good to just relax for a day every now and again!

We planned to take the train on these ‘rest’ days. This would give us greater coverage of the country and open up new areas for exploration. But taking the train is not so easy when you are taking a bike along as well, so we had to choose our routes accordingly.

We purchased a BritRail Pass which gave us 8 days of (non urban) rail travel over a 2 month period. This was excellent value and was ideal to cover each section of the country travel we required. All we had to do each time we wanted to catch a train was to check that there were seats for us and then book the bikes on as well. This was easily done, and usually just required a visit to the embarkation station within a day or so of our intended travel. (BritRail passes need to be purchased before travelling to the UK).

The bikes usually travel in the guard’s compartment or at the end of the train. You will need to know exactly where they need to go and be waiting at the appropriate section of the platform 🙂 (Sometimes you will also need to check out how to get your bike across to the correct platform – this can be a challenge at some country stations!)

We found the railway booking staff to be very helpful when it came to finding out all this information. We had no problems getting the bikes boarded as well as ourselves and our gear at any of the stations we used.

Carbisdale Castle - an amazing Youth Hostel in Scotland

Carbisdale Castle – an amazing Youth Hostel in Scotland

Accommodation

England and Scotland have very many wonderful Youth Hostels, most of which accommodate bike riders with no problems. We stayed at these hostels wherever possible. Booking was simple, we just joined the local Australian Youth Hostel Association and then booked our overseas destinations (with ease) on the internet. Some hostels are very popular and need to be booked early. Others close for the winter, so also check availability.

In most places, we were able to get a private room, but some hostels only had shared male or female dormitories. But the rates were very reasonable and most of the hostels have kitchens, laundries and a sitting room where you can relax if you so desire. Some of the bigger ones also have a restaurant, although the quality of the food/service varies considerably.

Three Swans Hotel - with bicycle accommodation!

Three Swans Hotel – with bicycle accommodation! We really enjoyed our stay here – we were on the ground floor (no steep, narrow staircases!)

Where there were no hostels, we used the internet to search for a B&B or a local hotel. It was necessary to check with every place to ensure that there was somewhere secure to park the bikes overnight. But we had little trouble finding somewhere suitable at each of our proposed destinations. B&Bs and hotels can be booked easily using the internet.

NIGHT MEALS

One thing to watch when you are reliant on a bicycle for transport is to make sure you have sufficient food with you (if you are staying at a hostel where you intend to cater for yourself). If you intend to eat at a pub or restaurant, then make sure that your accommodation is sufficiently close to the latter to enable you to get there! While it may seem logical to just hop on the bike and ride to the nearest food outlet, at the end of a day when you have been on the bike for a number of hours/all day, this ride may not be a fun outing!

Watching a passing train while watching the bikes

Grocery stop – watching a passing train while looking after the bikes

It is also not a bad idea to keep a supply of non perishable, nutritious food in case you get stuck and have to rely on this for an unexpected meal! We were caught in persistent heavy rain one afternoon and having made it to the B&B and finally got ourselves dry, there was no way were going out again into the pouring rain to get dinner!

The muesli bars in our ‘just in case’ food stash were very welcome that night!

(Follow this link for details on the overall UK tour route)

Planning the UK trip (Part 1: Choosing the route)

Some people really enjoy planning their cycling trips. I am not in this category yet, as I find them plain hard work! But the more I do, the quicker I get and so one day I might enjoy the process! While it is possible to cycle with a tour company, and they will do the planning for you (for a fee), this is not our preferred way of touring – we like the freedom to go where we please and change our plans at will. The UK trip was our second major tour and we had learnt a lot from the first one (in France).

Mountain bikes travel by train

Mountain bikes travel by train, hung up by the front wheel

One thing is for sure – the more effort that goes into the planning, the better the outcome will be, and the less worry you will have while on tour.

WHERE TO GO?

One of the most difficult things to do when planning a trip is deciding where to go. While traditional tours whisk the tourist around a number of destinations in quick succession, this will not be possible when you are relying on pedal power! Even something as simple as being able to get to a grocery store or restaurant for dinner may become quite a challenge!

So the routes must be chosen with care, so that there is plenty to see, do and experience even though the actual territory covered may be quite small. The trick to this, we discovered, is to use cycle friendly public transport to move to different places, then to cycle for a while in the new location before moving on again.

Pretending to be in France - fun on a deserted lane

Pretending to be in France – fun on a deserted lane

When planning our tour to the UK, we had some destinations that we really wanted to visit, but mostly we were happy to go pretty well anywhere. The ‘must see’ places were Edinburgh, the Scottish Highlands, Culloden, the west coast of Scotland, and Canterbury. I had also previously been to the Cotswolds area and liked it a lot, so we decided to include that area as well. The canal towpaths had been most enjoyable in France, so if there were any that fitted with our route, we wanted to ride along those too.

It worked out that if we started in London and went north, then explored Scotland, we could then return to the southern areas and work our way across from west to east. So this was our rough plan – we would see quite a bit of the UK and fit in a lot of cycling.

FINE TUNING THE ROUTE

I purchased the only book I could find on cycling in the UK. It was a Lonely Planet guide and was excellent. I spent a good while reading and researching the various rides that had been suggested by the authors. Some were easy to include (plenty of accommodation at the end of each day’s riding), while others were perplexing since there was nowhere suitable to overnight – perhaps they were intended for locals who could go home at the end of the day. Some were just too short.

An encouraging sign for cyclists

An encouraging sign for cyclists (“Allez, allez, well done!”). The sign was at the top of the steep Cleeve Hill climb!

There were a few that really sounded good, fitted with our rough plan and just needed minor tweaking to be included.

I used the internet to search for information on interesting routes that were being promoted by local councils. Some had excellent material and I downloaded and used their maps and fliers both while planning and also when riding through these areas.

Google maps was invaluable for finding addresses of places to stay (it matters a lot when a B&B is 20km the away from your desired destination – that is a long way extra to ride at the end of the day!)  It was also good to be able to have a look at the photo of the hotel or B&B and see whether they were likely to have secure overnight accommodation for the bikes.

We knew we would have access to Google maps on our iPad, which made the map management of the trip a totally different situation to what we had had in France. During our French tour, we had to rely on paper maps instead. The latter were excellent in the countryside, but hopeless in the cities. I would not tour without an iPad now – they are happy in the city or the country and their zooming power makes navigation simple.

This is part 1 of a of Planning the UK trip. Part 2 can be found here!

(Follow this link for details on the overall UK tour route).

Challenges of planning a ‘Tour de France’

I have always wanted to go to France. Not a short stay in a major city, but a tour through rural areas, going to places where the locals only speak French and rarely encounter tourists. Inspired some years ago, by the beautiful TV footage of the real Tour de France, we brushed the dust off the high school French grammar texts and started planning how to get our bikes to France.

For those who live in Europe or the UK, getting to France would probably not seem to be much of a challenge, as the distances are not that great. However, we had never travelled anywhere with our bikes and here we were, planning to take ours almost half way around the world! We made a few fundamental errors, but mostly, it all came together beautifully.

There were two major challenges/questions that we faced in the planning stages. The first was one all travellers have to consider – where to go and what to see (in the 5 weeks that we had available). The second was whether we took our own bikes and if so, how to get the them intact into and out of France. This post will cover the answer to the first of these questions.

Pot luck decisions!
Where to go was by far the easier question. We spent a lot of time looking at bike tours and bike trails on the internet, and then set up some criteria:
– Stay away from the serious mountains (the fellows on the real Tour de France make them look easy, but we know the truth!)
– Avoid big cities like Paris (we would be riding on the ‘wrong’ side of the road, so figured avoiding a lot of traffic made a lot of sense!)
– The starting point and end point had to have cycle friendly rail access (in France, this is quite a challenge, as different rail companies have different ‘rules’ for taking bikes, and these also change according to the time of day!)

The superfast train which travels between Paris & Dijon. Only bikes in ‘housses’ permitted.

Where to start? We took pot luck and decided to start in Dijon. I liked the sound of the city and it was conveniently located on a major fast rail link from Paris. As the bikes would still be in their airline ‘housses’ (a French cycle bag), we would be able to get on this train with no problems. Dijon was also in relatively flat country and we were a bit nervous about our capability to carry all our gear up and down hilly terrain, never having toured before.

There is also a fabulous canal trail which starts in Dijon. (The photo at the top of this blog is taken along this trail.) We mapped a route along the canal trail for about 140km, then used the minor back roads to get across to the Loire River Valley. We set an average of 60km each day (we wanted to see some of the tourist attractions as well and enjoy the scenery, so covering long distances was not important).

Dijon. Cycle trails are abundant, especially along the many canals

The route we chose followed the river a long way, through Giens, then up to Orleans and down to Blois. From Blois, we again boarded a train to get back to Paris. This time, though, the bikes were not packed, as we decided to ride in Paris after all!

Where to stay
We had thought about camping, but decided against this, as we had no idea what the facilities were like and it involved taking a lot more gear. Also, the idea of a hot shower, a comfortable bed, somewhere to dry off on wet days and a hot, home cooked meal, sounded rather attractive. B&Bs also gave us the opportunity to meet the locals and practice our French!

The ‘Gîtes de France’ website was invaluable to find bed and breakfast accommodation along our route. I hauled out my dog eared dictionary and sent emails off to the owners of our chosen establishments. My emails written in rusty French may well have created much merriment at their destination, but the recipients were, without exception, absolutely delightful. Our potential hosts were very obliging about providing places to store our bikes overnight, tolerant of vague arrival times, and happy to wait for payment until we arrived to stay. This made the whole thing very easy. In the few instances where B&Bs were not available, we found hotels instead.

The final touches were to select an hotel in Paris for when we arrived and somewhere to pack the bikes for their trip back to the Antipodes. We also booked a hotel near the station in Dijon where we could assemble the bikes, ready for our big adventure!

(Follow this link for the itinerary and details for our Tour of France)