Fancy Cycling in Europe?
Arth's summer holiday bike ride 1st – 11th August
So, what did you do this summer?
Well, my partner and I decided to cycle on the safe, clear and straight forward roads of France and delight at the straight forward, no nonsense bike paths that are available in plentiful spray across the French countryside………
Riding in France is probably the best bike routes you will find in Europe. It is family friendly and the whole of France is at your disposal to assist and ensure your eventual destination. This is true. But not all the time!
We arrived in Paris by car with our bikes on board. We had decided that a challenge was needed for this summer, one that would please all our senses and one which would give us a physical challenge that would leave us satisfied, but not wrecked.
We stayed in Paris for 3 days to help relax us into holiday mode, satisfied that our journey was as well researched as it could be. We had bought our maps, (IGN series) and we had looked on the internet for our routes to confirm that they actually existed. Above all, we had wanted to try out the Eurovelo route which starts on the northern tip of Scotland and ends in Malta. This was going to be an exciting journey and we couldn’t wait to get started.
We left our base in good time, confident that the Parisian traffic would allow us to move free of traffic and with confidence that we would reach the station in good time to catch our train with our bikes to Strasbourg to begin our journey.
Tip number 1
Always leave in plenty of time to ensure you arrive at your destination with time to spare!
The Parisian traffic was awful. There seemed to be an invasion of moles. The whole of Paris was either being dug up or was in the process of being dug up. C’est impossible!
We missed our train and had to buy another train ticket at the Gare. Oh well, these things happen. It happens to people all over the world. That gave us a little bit of comfort, but it didn’t hide the fact that we were disappointed.
We arrived in Strasbourg in little over 2 hours and our first target for this day was to ride to the beautiful town of Colmar where we had booked a Hotel for the night. (We generally used hotels as they all had the mod cons, great showers and food if you arrived late. Although we are not averse to ‘roughing it’ with sleeping bags and tents, after a weary day of cycling, the last thing we wanted to do was to set up tents and organise meals!)
All we had to do was to find the right way out of this beautiful city.
Hmmm…….. The great European cycling capital city seemed to be lacking in the crucial thing for a cyclist that would be of great assistance - SIGNS! We just needed to know the right direction. Ok, maybe we were delirious with excitement and were not able to focus, but there had to be a cycle sign that simply said, “This way out of our wonderful city with your wonderful bikes”.
Eventually after an hour and a half, we gave up. We just simply could not find our way out of the city. We had lost our hotel booking in Colmar and decided to stay for the first night and then tomorrow morning we would go down to the Tourist information and ease our way out of town.
Tip number 2
When doing your research into the towns you would be staying in, make sure you have done your research to find your way out. Signs may or may not be around to assist you!
We left the Hotel fairly early in the morning to find the tourist information office. They gave us a plan of the city and directed us towards the right route. We finally found the sign for the cycle route and felt rest assured. We had concluded that the events of the day before had been, well, just a bad day. Maybe we just missed the signs?
We turned immediately onto the cycle track and started to make our way towards Colmar and then onto our ultimate goal of the city of Mulhouse (pronounced ‘Muloose’ in French).
The best thing about cycle touring are the views, people, the food and of course the relaxation. Yes, relaxation. Believe it or believe it not, cycle touring is about taking your time. Some people will do about 30-40 miles a day, while others will do whatever they feel is appropriate to their fitness levels. We did meet one gentleman from London who was taking 2 months to travel around Europe! He expected to cover about 7000 miles of biking in that time.
The next 3 days of cycling were fairly straight forward. We had managed to find a good stretch of the French Eurovelo route, which, when signposted properly, was absolutely fantastic. This, to me, is how touring should be, good signs, and a clear direction that is easily followed and great scenery to appreciate.
In the 3 days of travelling we had achieved about 200 miles, which probably sounds a lot, bearing in mind that we were carrying our own panniers, but taken at a leisurely pace, felt like a mild effort. We were sleeping very well, we were waking up to uninterrupted sunshine and above all we felt fantastic and privileged to be enjoying ourselves in such wonderful scenery and surroundings.
Tip number 3
Always expect the unexpected. No matter how much you prepare, there will always be those niggly things that just appear.
We were feeling more settled by day 6. Our saddle soreness had not got any worse, (good bottom cream was absolutely essential) and our legs were feeling strong. We were starting to feel we were making progress and apart from a change of pedal on my partners’ bike, mechanically we were also looking good. So what could possibly go wrong on such a straight forward, well signed route?
Our destination for this section should have been Avignon. As usual, signs were against us and we were finding the towns in particular, quite difficult to navigate. As with numerous occasions on our trip we found ourselves at a junction with no particular way to turn because of the lack of signs. Somehow we had just managed to follow a bogus sign which we were led to believe would send us in a favourable direction and lead us to Avignon, but in actual fact led us about 6 miles further away from our goal! Blast! Flip! Heck!
“Okay”, I thought to myself,” let’s turn around and back track and find route B”.
Damn, this can be frustrating at times. But hey, we were still on holiday and this was just another little set back and besides, we were still enjoying ourselves! Yes, of course we were……….
We found that time was against us, so we settled for a little known town called Orange. We arrived just as darkness fell after riding our longest day. We had done 95 miles in 13 hours. We were admittedly a little tired, hungry, and thirsty, bum sore and a little sunburnt. The temperature for this day was approaching 40 degrees!
Fortunately for us we didn’t have to go far until we found a hotel. We booked in and didn’t even have time to shower. We went straight into the town centre and the whole place seemed alive with music, eating and entertainment. This innocuous little town had all of a sudden become a hive of activity!
After a fantastic meal, adequate fluids and a shower. We retired tired, but contented with our days efforts.
We awoke bright and early, feeling a little fatigued from last night’s efforts, but nonetheless feeling well refreshed and raring to go. As we left, we were told by the hotel management to look at their wonderful sights. Now, we had never heard of Orange before our journey and never really did any research on this town, but it was an absolute tourist’s gem. Apart from their own ‘Arc de Triomphe’, they also had an amphitheatre and other Roman remains! Now this is what we were after. Anyway, not to be too distracted from our events list for the day, today, at some point, we were going to see the Mediterranean!
From Orange we headed towards yesterday’s goal of Avignon and then on towards today’s destination of Montpellier. This was going to be another 90 miler at least. We set off at great pace, even finding our way out of the town quite quickly.
We arrived at Avignon by lunchtime and decided to take a little look around and eat our lunch. When touring, you can take your time or you can go full steam ahead. Today, we both felt we had time on our side and decided to look at the sights. We had visited the bridge from the French song, the old Popes Palace and walked around the walls of the old, fortified city. What a joy and pleasure this was.
Now, sometimes on a tour, people feel so relaxed, that they would almost, just like to sit still and just, well, just people watch. The fatigue was just beginning to set in and it was so tempting to say, “Why don’t we just stay the night and relax?” Now I’m sure this would have been just the right thing to do, except….. We had to finish our tour. “Did Richard the Lionheart say that he wanted to stay overnight on any of his crusades? I didn’t think so. So, with water bottles full, body recharged and mind fixed, we were going to reach the Med. today!
We went through some lovely places and the Camargue region was no exception. This was our route through to the Med. As we approached Aigues Mortes, we could smell the salty air and just see sight of the sea. We were feeling quite chirpy and almost forgot our tiring muscles. Life is wonderful on occasions like these. No traffic, fellow cyclists being polite with Bonjours and Lorries who would slow down politely behind you, just to let you know they were there……….. then we hit the French holiday traffic!
The quietness of the air was quickly disrupted as we approached this small holiday resort. Looking at the faces in the cars, you would have been mistaken to believe that they were being forced into this holiday location. Hot, sweaty, sleeping passengers. Cars that crept forwarded seemingly an inch at a time. Fumes that were starting to irritate our lungs. Oh well, passing these cars gave us a great feeling of road superiority reversal. It was the cyclists turn to speed past the traffic. What a feeling! We almost felt sorry for the holiday makers. Another advantage to cycling I suppose.
Going through this seaside resort on bike seemed rather strange. Although there was plenty of traffic, it was mainly the promenaders who were occupying the roads right next to the sea. I didn’t know about them, but for my partner and I, the mozzies were becoming a real problem, plus the fact that it was humid, in the 40’s and also the fact that it was getting dark and we still had not reached Montpellier!
We didn’t really have a choice. We would have to reach our destination in the dark, something we had not bargained for. With mozzies sucking our blood and the humidity draining our bodies of precious fluids, we were really starting to feel the day and the efforts we gave the day before too. Hunger was another problem. Where we had been riding fairly hard, concentrating on the rapid arrival to the city, we had forgotten to store up at the last seaside town! Damn. And now, what made things worse, was the fact that we could not read our maps sufficiently enough to know where we had to go! Flip!!
Almost lost, rapidly going into dehydration, hot and sweaty, mozzies, hunger and a desperate situation. We needed to get to a hotel fast. Surely we could take the next one! Or the next one...or the next one…………….
We were just about to succumb to all the obstacles that were put down in front of us when…. by shear desperation……. we asked a man and his dog if he could possibly help two weary travellers seeking desperate refuge and comfort. Well, the instructions he gave us seemed dodgy to say the least, but in desperation we had to give this a decent throw of the good old fashion British dice!
Result!! A half an hour later we had found a great dodgy hotel with creaking floor boards and all, had a quick shower and ended up in a McDonalds as there wasn’t anything else left open.
95 miles and dehydration later, we had finally completed the longest day of our tour so far. Good night world. Over and out.
Tip Number 4
Food and liquid are vital in hot, humid conditions. On top of that your body accumulates tiredness. Make sure you stock up on fruit, nuts and dry biscuits, just in case you run out!
The next day the two of us felt a little tired, but we were both quite excited as this should have been our last day and Narbonne was only about 60 miles away.” Ha! Just a mere 6 hours to do, and then a relaxing few days! After all, what could go wrong now?”
“Are you sure the sign said this way?” my partner asked as we were going the wrong way up a very busy motorway.
Sometimes, life just carries you away, what can I say? The signs had stopped. It didn’t tell me to turn off anywhere. There were no more signs!! I should have known. Apart from my partner’s concerns, cars were honking at us to let us know what? Bon voyage? Bon chance? No, we were going the WRONG WAY!!!
Well, you can imagine my disappointment. There was me thinking what a great way to travel. How ingenious the French were for using the other side of the road………. We came to a quiet stop.
Ok. We got it wrong. What else was there to say? We had made it to the Med and we were still alive!
Tip number 5
When the velo signs tell you the direction, make sure you cross reference your map to see the eventual destination!
We turned back and made our way to the next safe turn off and scanned the map for escape routes.
Having gone through the seaside town of Sete, we arrived at the holiday resort of Agde, Again, a busy town, full of holiday makers. We decided to have a late lunch and consult the Tourist Information to ensure our best routes out of town.
Now… when there is a service on offer, you would hope that the information you were given would actually help you get to where you wanted to be, right…..
(A big sighhhhh……) Well, put it this way. We probably covered every exit of Agde and still hadn’t any joy. 2 hours later, we were still struggling to get out on the right road.
After going to tourist information, asking locals, asking anybody who could help us, we finally found our way out. It was such a hidden way through, we must have passed it twice without noticing it was there!
We were now extremely weary and the excitement of the holiday was wearing off a little bit. We admitted defeat against French beaurocracy, against the lack of signs, against lack of knowledge and finally against our tired bodies. Ok, we were having a fantastic time and now was the time to end it. “Let's catch the train back to Paris”. Now this sounded a good idea. All we had to do was to catch a train, put our bikes on and be back in Paris by midnight…………….
“I am sorry monsieur; there are no trains for today to Paris” Ok, not a problem. What about tomorrow? “Non Monsieur”.
In situations like these you are bound to think of a few things you could have done in preparation before the holiday.
“Ok, where can we get a train from to get us back to Paris?”. We didn’t have to wait for the answer. But he did suggest that we went to Beziers and maybe we would find the answer there.
On top of all this there was a festival going on and all the hotels were booked.
“Hotel Park bench for 2 please!!” my partner said.
Now I am normally an optimist and I wasn’t going to compromise this. “Right, settle yourself on this bench, but not for long. Prepare yourself for a move sometime soon”
“Where are you going?”
“Someone, somewhere, must have a room. I won’t be long”
This was not going to be easy. I quickly understood what the sign ‘Complet’ meant. But this wasn’t going to stop me…………….Half an hour later I stopped!
Right, a major festival was on. All the accommodation was taken up and there was a real possibility of us sleeping on Hotel Bench. With another big sigh I was thinking how disappointed I was starting to feel.
I started to cycle back to the train station, when I noticed a ‘Chambre D’hote’ sign. I had a weird sensation that was unusually warm, positive and right. Normal people would call this intuition. The sign would lead me out of town. This was going to be my last try. 10 minutes later I arrived at the place and in my bad French asked “Je voudrais un chambre pour le nuit s’il te plais”. Quick as a flash the lady of the house said, “Ah, you are English and very fortunate, we have just had a cancellation”. Flipping heck! What a result. “Yes, please”
Being a chivalrous and gallant person that I am, I rode to the train station and Hotel Bench and announced quite proudly, that the day had been saved and that no lady of mine would have to sleep on a bench.
After a quick meal, early to bed, our thoughts changed to Paris and getting home. We had had a great adventure and there was nothing wrong with finishing without our objective being achieved. So, no more problems then…………….
We awoke with a feeling of no pressure. We had a casual breakfast, chatted about what fun we had had and both agreed that this holiday would be a great source of great amusement and fondness at dinner parties.
We planned our route and found the canal Midi would take us straight into Beziers. 30 glorious miles, this seemed that the canal and its avenue of trees were leading us to some sort of triumphant homecoming. This is exactly how Caesar must have felt on his home coming back to Rome.
On the way, we were also planning the worst. What if we couldn’t get a train? Could we hire a car and drive? Could we fly back with our bikes? We both felt quite prepared for all eventualities.
We arrived at The Gare in Beziers and walked confidently to the ticket office.
“Two fares to Paris with velos s’il ve plais”
“Non monsieur, c’est ne pas train”
Hmmm” Ok, where can we hire a car?” There are no hire cars on a Monday”. Alright, “What about planes?”.
“I think you will find there are no planes to Paris Monsieur.”
I didn’t think of the possibilities of being stuck in Beziers. I wasn’t upset, just disappointed. As we walked towards the boulangerie for a spot of lunch and a chance to gather our thoughts, a spot of inspiration came over me. I noticed the scary looking French SNCF police (They looked more like bodyguards with machine guns!)
“Right, I am going to stop those Policemen and let them know of our situation”
“What can they do, arrest the ticket office person?”
Right then, I didn’t care what the Police did with the Ticket person. I just needed this sorted out.
“Excuse me. We are in a terrible situation. We need your assistance”
“Bien Sur Monsieur, nous sommes a votre service”,
I explained to the Police about our terrible situation and how we could be stranded here unless we had some decent help.
They could see we were desperate people and were very kind.
“Come with us, we will assist you with your request”
My partner and the 3 burly Policemen walked back to the ticket person. I was quite intrigued. What could the police do that us tourists couldn’t?. Admittedly we didn’t have a machine gun, but I wanted to know ASAP.
One of the Policemen returned after 5 minutes.
“Monsieur, you must go back to the Ticket office, you must pay”
This sounded promising.
Somehow the Policemen must have spoken in a polite, but forceful way. We had got our ticket and our velos onto the train, somehow the ticket person had arranged for us to catch a train to Avignon in 1 hour’s time, where upon we would stay for the night (what a shame) and catch the train to Paris midday the next day. Result!
Question….Why didn’t the ticket person offer us an alternative route to Paris at the previous station?
France is a wonderful country and there are a lot of advantages to cycling and general holidays. The people are fantastic and there is a great sense of pride. I suppose we do meet difficult people as we travel through life, but in the main human beings are a great bunch, even better still when they are helpful in bad situations.
Would we do the journey again? We would say a resounding yes, but maybe be less ambitious and enjoy more 2 day stays.
Would you like to try some cycle touring for next summer?
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