Category Archives: Travel

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 🙂

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

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).