Three Nights to Bordeaux

October 5, 2012 at 10:34 pm

The campground in Fromentine exited onto a part of the continent-spanning EuroVelo network of bike routes. At that point, it was basically a wide and docile mountain bike path winding sometimes speedily through beautiful forest land. I pushed along at often 30kmh through hard packed dirt, impressed by the nimble handling of my heavy bike.

I had given myself another easy day. It was only 80 kilometers until Les Sables D'Olonne. It would have been less on major roads, but bike routes tend to add considerable mileage of serpentine meandering. In fact, a word about bicycle routes in France is probably overdue. To say that I've had mixed success with them would be a gross understatement. They have been everything from gorgeous and easy to muddy and lonely. From smooth and straight to indirect and rocky. They often mislead you, and even the best ones have awful signage that requires backtracking and careful observation. They do often take you through pretty towns. In one such village, I had lunch near a beach. There was a line of large upright stones, darkly rising from a series of glimmering tide pools.



With plenty of time for travel, I had the opportunity to stop and enjoy the day. This isn't always possible. I've been joking with other cycle tourists that bike touring is sort of like doing errands all day long for weeks at a time. You maintain a constant mental list of things that you need to find, buy, or accomplish. If that list is long, or something will be difficult to cross off it, it's often impossible to spend time on a beach writing. My list was short and the day felt long. Happily, I rested and wrote and took some pictures.

And drew postcards.

I arrived in the late afternoon at my host's house in Les Sables D'Olonne. It's never possible to guess exactly what you can expect from someone willing to host cycle tourists. If you guess that they're going to be warm and inviting, you are almost certainly going to be right. Any more than that and you're guessing. J. and his wife were very kind. She asked if I wanted to join some local theater players for some theatrical exercises. I thought it would be weird enough to be obligatory, but I was too tired and hungry to even briefly consider doing it. I also had to figure out where to go next, which often takes time.

In fact, the question was starting to haunt me. Each host had been more somber than the last about my prospects in finding campgrounds. In France, many close in September. Most of the rest in October. Each night it would be more difficult to find a place to sleep, and I had four more weeks ahead of me. I was worrying more and more about the rest of my trip and had begun searching for farms to work on and people to stay with for longer.

I came to France largely to learn the language and culture. Bike touring alone had allowed me to see the country, but I wasn't speaking much French unless with a host. It seemed to make sense to stop somewhere, but I just didn't know where.

I woke up feeling disquieted by the question. But at least I had an immediate plan: arrive in Bordeaux in three long days of riding. Another host could receive me there, and I strongly desired to see the city. From there, I would figure something out.

I left the city late in the morning heading south on the EuroVelo. Soon after leaving, I noticed a girl beside the road looking at a map. She was standing over her fully loaded touring bike. I wondered if she was headed south as well. I wondered too what it would be like to travel with a companion. Then I continued on.

Following the EuroVelo was difficult south of the city. I lost it several times, once heading a half dozen kilometers in the wrong direction to a small beach. When I found it again, it took me away from the ocean. I rode through farmland that soon turned into thick marshes. I felt like the route had circled back north and I was rather disoriented.

Twenty kilometers into my day, I turned a corner and saw the girl I had seen in the morning. Again she was stopped, looking at a map. This time I stopped and we talked. We figured that she had passed me when I got lost and headed for the beach. She was English and headed for Bordeaux as well. She also wanted to make it in just two nights. We decided to get there together. It was bizarre to speak freely in English and quickly it was the most English I'd spoken in weeks.

I am learning the difference between touring solo and with a companion. It's obviously a less solipsistic existence. Someone else is there to balance your emotional response to things and double check the signs. Also, E. is a nice girl and quite smart.

We both had the goal of arriving in La Rochelle that night. I had it on good word from the Internet that there was a campground there that was open. We had to stop many times to study the bike route. After a long and difficult day, we arrived to find the campground closed. It was tucked away behind a municipal building. Although the bathrooms were closed, there was one spout with running water. We found a nice spot out of eyesight and settled in for the night. After 125 kilometers, we simply had no intention of finding another campground.

In the morning we made breakfast on the grounds. There was a picnic table next to probably the stupidest mini golf course I've ever seen. The obstacles were made of stone and could not possibly have been skillfully avoided. The picnic table worked.

Then we filled up our water and settled in for another long day. We wanted to arrive in Royan that night and take the ferry in the morning. Unfortunately, the EuroVelo added far more kilometers than we anticipated. It wound wildly at will through more marshes, forests and fields. A long detour had us riding over grass beside a river and some pastures.

We rode along the canal just east of Marennes. It was an interminably straight path that seemed to extend forward like an optical illusion. The sun sat languidly, as it does in October, ready to drop behind the oranging trees. That's when we realized that Royan would be impossible. We didn't have the daylight hours left to make it to the portside town. Instead we aimed for Marennes.

When we arrived there in another hour, it was near dark. We happened upon a McDonald's and used their Internet to find a campground. But there were none. Six kilometers away, there was a bridge that led to another town. It was lousy with campgrounds, the map dotted crazily with red markers. We knew that at least one of them had to be open. We put lights on our bikes and departed in a hurry. We were excited to take a charge at the bridge before the sun set.

The bridge was gorgeous. I took a nice panoramic photo that I'll show you sometime. On the other side, we found an open campground nestled into a pine grove. That's where we stayed the night, fending off mosquitos but happy with another long day accomplished.

In the morning, we rose early and took off for Royan. It was raining hard on the forested path. Luckily, the path was paved and there was no mud. I tried but probably failed to explain to E. just how great it was to be on a path in the forest with no mud.

The path stretched on for many kilometers before reaching a beach. The forest abutted the beach directly across from a massive sand dune. We stopped for breakfast under a large lighthouse and I fixed a flat tire. A sign there indicated 23 kilometers from Marennes and another 23 kilometers to Royan.

Maybe a staple? Definitely a flat tire. The first in 1,500km.


From there the path continued along impossibly beautiful beaches. The beach towns we rode through were deserted. In the off-season, they're near-apocalyptic. But one can just imagine how busy they must get. The sheer number of outdoor showers, lawn chairs, picnic benches, water slides, and hotels is enough to make it clear.

The forest north of Royan is special. Dark wet pines mixed with bright yellow ferns in a near-tropical display. We rode fast along the forested paths, hoping our timing would prove lucky with the ferry.

Royan is pretty too.

In Royan, we found the port and had just an hour to kill before departing. We had two coffees at a local restaurant and I used their Internet. E. had told me about another way to spend time in France–a website where you can find places to work in exchange for room and board, but not necessarily farms. I was in contact with a yoga retreat center east of Bordeaux. Here perhaps I could practice French, and yoga, and have a bed to sleep in each night.

When the ferry arrived and we boarded. That's where we met C. (same name as me). French, and also a cycle tourist, he was headed down the coast to see a friend near Spain. We chatted about our bikes and joked that the rainy day would be over just as soon as we finished the short ferry crossing.

In fact, that's exactly what happened. The sun came out as we crossed. On the other side, we rode together to find a campground. C. was starving, so we rode quickly. Once we got to the nearest town, we found a woman in the office of a campground. But she said that it and all of the other campgrounds nearby were closed.

We tried another. The gate was open and we walked inside. The large campground was close to town and to the beach. It still had running water. C. called the number posted on the door. Although closed for the season, the owner agreed to let us stay for free. We found a pretty spot and then made it comfortable. We found a table and chairs and even a small barbecue pit. The afternoon was warm and the night was clear. We could hear the nearby waves crashing on the shore.

That night we ate around a table and made a fire. Campfires are illegal in France, so this was the first I'd had on my journey. It was wonderful to have friends and a fire. I spoke French to C. and English to E. When necessary, I translated.

We had another long day to Bordeaux, so we woke up before the sun rose. We broke down camp and had a big breakfast at our table. C. wasn't headed in our direction. So we had a picture together and exchanged information and then parted ways. E. and I mentally prepared ourselves for a long journey.



Birthday Island

October 1, 2012 at 10:10 pm

Waking up in Pornic, I took things slow. I had to make the short 50km ride into Fromentine. That's where I would take the ferry to L'île-D'Yeu at 7pm. Many campers and cabins in the French campgrounds are empty this time of year. So I wiped off the table outside out of a camper and sat down for breakfast.

The early days of my trip consisted of careful route-tracking. Notes, maps, and a bit of getting lost. But this was another day where I just kept the ocean to my right and pedaled. There are many VeloOcean postings near the sea, but they aren't always the best route. I followed them for a while, but found that they kept pulling me away from the water. On small neighborhood streets and winding behind the seaside development. The trail also meanders and changes so often that it's difficult to get a good pedaling cadence. Rhythm is important, and I preferred to take the slightly busier roads so that I could keep a pace.

I eventually wound up on some farmland about 20km north of Fromentine. The roads were straight and smooth, if a bit far from the water. The entire area was swarming with tiny flies with shiny wings. Perhaps because of the wetlands and cattle, they were absolutely everywhere. I was constantly brushing the bastards out of the hair on my legs, off my shirt and even from my sunglasses. Sometimes I could see a small tempest of them approaching at about head-height and I would duck down as low as possible to avoid them. Whenever I stopped to check my directions, I would shake them out of my hair. A half dozen or more would come flittering out and fly away. Awful.

I had the option of sticking to the farmland nearly all the way to Fromentine. Instead I chose to take the larger road which I figured would be bug-free.

It wasn't. Instead I dealt with bugs and traffic. I held a solid line for about an hour, hugging the shoulder and occasionally brushing the shiny flies away. Finally I made it into Fromentine and headed directly for the ferry station. I had a rude surprise awaiting me there. The ticket prices I had investigated earlier weren't for a round trip. Begrudgingly, I paid for a ticket that would bring me back two days later. If my host on the island didn't want to host for two nights, I could find something else. But it wasn't worth the money to turn right back around again.

I had several hours to kill so I went to the local supermarket to buy lunch. In fact, I walked around it for a long time hoping I could find hummus or salsa. Being unable to find either made me miss home, but I found plenty of other good snacks and took them to the beach. That's where I spent most of my day, writing and eating.

The boat to L'île D'Yeu from Fromentine feels like a passenger jet. You have to stay seated for the ride and can't go outside and catch the seabreeze. I sat expectantly, not knowing exactly who or what was even on the island. And I'd paid a lot of money to spend my birthday there.

My host had told me just to get off the ferry and head for the church bell tower. He works at a movie theater nearby. As I got off the boat and walked out into the short dusk, I worried for the first time that this paltry bit of information might not be quite enough.

I rode from the port up the most logical nearby street. The bell tower of the church was visible, and I wound around the serpentine streets for a short time before locating the squat theater. My host was waiting there. We had exchanged emails in English, so when we met we alternated between English and French in quick awkward bursts before settling on speaking strictly French at my request.

He had to work until late, so I sat in the theatre eating and chatting and doing a bit more writing. Then we went out for drinks on the port. The island has a couple of small villages, the biggest of which lies right on the port. The street is lined with restaurants and bars and looks out over the harbor. I had a whiskey and listened to the French band cover American songs. At midnight, we raised our glasses to celebrate my birth.

The next morning, G. and I had croissants and coffee and waited for his friend to arrive with her car. Once she did, we went for a tour of the island on four wheels. The island is lousy with cyclists. Tourists of all ages, income levels, and cycling experience swarm the streets in swerving unpredictable masses. This is of no concern to G.'s friend, who drives madly. She accelerates quickly around every sharp corner on every narrow street. To my estimate, about 37 cyclists nearly lost their lives that day. I gripped the door handle while trying to make it look like I wasn't.


And, so, the island is gorgeous.

The larger village on the island.

We visited the small port on the other side of the island.

It is a lot smaller.

After our tour, we had some pizza at a local spot. It was the third time I've eaten a pizza in France that was called “La 4 Saisons.” Which I guess is the generic name for “all of the vegetables we have.”
G. headed off to work and I went back to his friend D.'s place to was my clothes and read in a lawn chair. This is how I spent my birthday: I washed my clothes. But I was totally content. After I had read for a while and they finished drying, I headed back to the movie theater to watch the new Jason Bourne movie–which is bad.
After the movie, we went back to G.'s place. We drank wine and ate food and talked about music. In the morning I went for a walk around the neighborhood to get more pictures. In Brittany, all of the shutters, window trim, fences, and doors are the same shade of blue. It's a dark, royal blue. On the island, they paint things different colors in some sort of weird anti-continental defiance.

Same shutter, different color.

After my walk, we went for coffee and croissants again and the walked the half-dozen kilometers to the island's biggest tourist destination–the chateau.

Everyone who has visited the chateau has taken this picture.

I didn't have much time left on the island. We headed back to the movie theater, where I briefly used the wifi and got my things together. Then I headed off on the ferry.
Back on the continent, it was getting late. I chose the nearest campground in town. The office was closed, and there were no other tent campers. I picked a spot in the back of the campground in a pine forest. I saw no employees in the morning, either.



Moving Into the South

September 27, 2012 at 5:41 pm

Feel free to get another cup of coffee now, or a beer. Likely I will violate best practices w/r/t blogging again and write something very long. Let's catch up.

Last I wrote, I was staying in a gîte in Tréhounteuc. Of all the French towns I've visited, this is probably the best-known and hardest to pronounce. I think now I'm marginally proficient at saying it.

In the morning, the gîte was still warm and there was some sun visible through the slanted window. I made my usual breakfast on the floor between the beds. In a way, I felt guilty utilizing all of that space for myself. Then again, I wanted to stay for a week.

Although it may not look like much to you.

I was seriously interested in finding a way to slow my pace, at least for a few days. By the time I had arrived in Tréhounteuc, I had covered 125km that day. The body doesn't start to fail at that point, but the fun really starts to wane. Another trip, another time, a different goal: fine. But for me it's just not necessary to push through as many corn fields as you can before the shadows get long.

To that end, I packed my things and left them in the gîte. I took a bag with just my wallet, camera, snacks, and water. In my street shoes, I walked out of the gîte to the tourist office. In most towns, this is a reasonably modern building rife with maps, computers, and people sitting behind computers. But Tréhounteuc is the jumping-off point for King Arthur's Forest and the supposed location of the Valley of No Return. This is where Morgan le Fay, of legend, legendarily imprisoned unfaithful lovers. According to legend. Here's the thing about legend, though. The valley used to be somewhere else, but they built a factory there. Now the Valley of No Return is in Tréhounteuc. Legends are like that.

And so the tourism office in Tréhounteuc is instead filled with colorful books of fairies and wizards and looks more like a new-age gift shop. But it's cool. There I got a map of the forest and some directions from the kind and pretty employee behind the desk. I took off down the road and spent the morning walking around the valley.


I have no idea why they painted this tree gold. Something to do with Merlin.



But it's pretty here.


Really pretty.


Although the legends are clearly bogus, it's still really fun to walk around the area. The woods are pretty and dark and the path meanders. Also, it just felt damn fine to be off the bike and kicking around in the woods, where I couldn't see my speed or kilometers traveled or the time of day staring me in the face.

When I got back to the gîte, I took my bike out of the shed and loaded it up. The kind tourism guide had circled other things to see in the area, so I took off. I first arrived at the Monk's Garden. To me it looked like a totally unimpressive rectangle of stones in the ground. Maybe that's your thing, though, so here's a picture of it.

Rocks, big and old.

I had to leave though, because I had other unimpressive rocks to see and these September days are short. Next, I headed towards Merlin's enchanting stone. It's on a 4km hiking loop in the forest. This hike was slightly less relaxing because I had to leave my bike and my stuff in order to walk it, but I forced myself to relax and enjoy it. When I arrived at the rock, there was an older woman standing on it and staring down at her blue rain boots. Normally the French will cross the street to say “Bonjour!” It's like some national contest to greet the most people possible in the same way. But there she was, greeting no one, just standing on this unimpressive enchanted stone. Eventually, she looked up at me and said, “pas beaucoup.” And that was that.

Pas beaucoup.


After the rock party was over, I made my way to the giant oak tree. It was too big to take a picture of. Seriously, the thing was a big tree. Not like redwood big, but pretty big. And old, too. I sat beneath it and meditated a bit and thought about things. The nice thing about big old things is that they make it easier to sit and take your time thinking about other stuff. You can quote me on that, feel free.

I left the tree as the rain began to fall again. It fell hard but didn't change my positive feelings. I'd already had a wonderful morning in the woods, with the sunlight filtering through the leaves and scattering on the wet autumn ground. It was gorgeous and a welcome reprieve.

Back on the bike, I rode into Paimpont. It's at the center of the Brocéliande forest. Like many towns in the area, there is a centre-bourg instead of a centre-ville. It's a smaller, insulated street with less traffic and a narrow street. Often there's only foot traffic and shops. More communal and friendly, it's wonderful.

I stopped at the local bar to use their wifi and have a beer. I was serious about reducing my pace. The wifi passwords in France are novellas. You have to stop for a snack halfway through typing the damned things. And if somebody did a lousy job of writing the password down, oh boy, you're likely to be there all afternoon. It took two young bar patrons to help me through each individual character to finally connect to the network. I thanked them profusely and their kindness is probably the reason they kept winning small sums of money on scratch-off lottery tickets while I sat in the corner and listened to the rain and sipped a beer.

It wasn't necessary to push through too many kilometers that day. I had a host waiting for me in St. Nazaire the next day and that was only 100km away. I picked a town about 20km from Paimpont and said goodbye to my new friends. In heavy rain, I rode to Carentoir, feeling strong.

The campground there was nothing to write home about, so I won't.

It rained hard throughout the night. In the morning, I awoke to a break in the rain and started cooking breakfast at a picnic table. As I cooked, I continually checked over my shoulder. The rain was visibly approaching. It was not the dark clouds that were approaching. Instead, it was possible to literally watch the rain come. I have seen this several times in my life, and I always think it's fascinating.

It looks like this.

The road to St. Nazaire was not long nor difficult. I made little effort to take the least traveled roads. North of the city is a large area of wetlands. There's pretty much only one way through it, and the road has a bike lane. The weather alternated between long afternoon sun and hard rain. Often the two came at once.

This made for gigantic clouds that loomed over the factories outside of St. Nazaire. I wish that I had stopped and attempted to capture the mood. If you've seem Gilliam's film Brazil, you have some idea. I never saw the perfect image and instead I missed them all. That happens sometimes.

The city itself is wildly gorgeous. There are beaches bordering the residential areas. Beaches like this:


Dumb picture, yeah.

My hosts lived 100m from the water. And at this point, I have some idea of how far that is. I was welcomed into my room on the bottom floor and locked the bike in their garage. I showered and joined my hosts and their friends for a long evening of wine and conversation. I ate fiercely and continually for hours while everyone discussed the war, racism, St. Nazaire, America, Ben Bernanke, and bicycles. After drinking 50 glasses of wine and every ounce of food in their house, I retired for the evening.
I feel bad for my hosts that as evenings wear on, my French gets progressively worse. If I can understand and be understood most of the time when I arrive, I basically know zero French by 10pm. The brain has a limit for this kind of thing.
In the morning, more of the same. This time over coffee. The sun was beaming into the large ocean-facing windows and warming my back as we talked more. I drank an inhuman amount of coffee and met more of my hosts' wonderful friends. I finally tore myself away around noon. With good news: it would be sunny until Monday.
I had a host set up for the day after, only 120km away. From there I planned to take a ferry to an island for my birthday. Casually, I wound down the coast. The last time I visited Los Angeles, I went with a long pretty bike ride with a pretty girl. Today was similar, without the girl, and without returning to the vacation rental. I stayed near the sea, enjoying the clean air and sunshine.
I stopped for a beer on the beach, here:

Lines are cool.


And then realized I'd made a stupid mistake. Although my map had a blue dotted line indicating that I could take a boat from Les Sables D'Olonne, it is really only possible to charter them. The ferries leave from a port only 35km from the beach I was sitting on. Shit. I emailed my two hosts and asked if I could switch the evenings. Luckily, my host on L'île-D'Yeu agreed to receive me tomorrow.

So I got back on my bike. I found food for the evening and morning and a nearby campground. Stopping so soon seemed a bit like giving up, but it was probably the wisest choice. It's bizarre to ride only 50km in a day. But tomorrow, I leave here in the morning. I head to the ocean, and then take a ferry to an island out to sea. The next day, I wake up there on my birthday. Again, tout s'arrange.

To give you some idea, I've been on the bike for 1,250 km at this point. In miles, that's some amount which is pretty big.

Days of Rain and Luck (Good and Bad)

September 25, 2012 at 2:06 pm

I left I.'s house nourished. I told her, in my best French, that the experience was a lesson for me in hospitality. My hosts provided not just a bed and shower, but a big warm meal at night and in the morning. I.'s husband is a baker and they gave me a vegetarian sandwich for lunch that day. I get the impression that she is used to being a force in hospitality. She watches children during the day in a great big day room with a wall-sized print of a bamboo-lined path on the wall.

I left Guingamp on a main route out of town. For many miles, there was nothing pretty to see. At this point in my trip, a corn field is not a pretty thing. I have pedaled past so many kilometers of corn fields that I would be just as happy if I never saw another. You've seen them all, you've seen them all.

I was headed straight for the northern coast of Brittany. I desired to see more of the coastline. If I were going to be all the way out here, weather be damned, I wanted to make the most of it and witness the coast. I fought the urge to just bail and hop on a train to greener pastures.

After about 30km, I arrived in a small town on the coast. It felt great to be at the sea again. A couple sat and talked over coffee at a small café on the water. The sun was singing high and I sat on a break wall soaking it in. I find that my days biking are much more pleasant when I remember to stop and sit and experience a place rather than pedaling past.

Like this place.


I crawled along the coast for most of the day, stopping twice or three times more. I enjoyed my packed lunch while watching kite surfers dance along each other's wake.


I loved these haunting lamp posts on the shore.

This swingset reminded me of a good friend.


At one point, I was stopped at an overlook and a Frenchman and his wife pulled over on their scooter. We talked for a while about my journey and he told me of places I should go as periodically the visor of his helmet slammed shut over his face, obscuring his voice. He would lift it and continue talking. He told me where to camp that night. He was kind, and impressed with my French.

I headed towards the campground he recommended. It was tucked inside of a bay. When I arrived, the host said that she was terribly sorry but there were no trees and would be no place to hang my hammock. I wasn't seriously tired yet, and it felt just fine that I didn't end my day there. Besides, I had not found eggs, cheese and bread for the morning's breakfast yet. I intend to eventually write a post dedicated to how I eat on the road. Eventually.

I carried on for a while and eventually found provisions for the morning. It began to rain again hard, but I was in good spirits and pressed on as the afternoon closed in. I found a campground right along the sea. Although the rain was coming down and the season was late, the campground was not abandoned. I found a place near the edge of camp where I could hang my hammock comfortably and did so. Then I sat beneath it and cooked my dinner and drank a beer. I was in a very good mood from the time I arrived. I felt good about having explored the coast. I could now start descending away from Brittany and hopefully find warmer weather.

The campground had a heated pool under a greenhouse-like blue enclosure. There was a hot tub in the enclosure that I was dying to use. I knew it would be good for my muscles and also warm me. I couldn't figure out how. If my hair was left damp I'd be freezing that night. And I'd have to swim in a pair of boxers that would need to be stored wet somewhere, as they wouldn't dry overnight. My dream was killed by logistics.

The night was extremely blustery and rainy. My rainfly battered against my hammock throughout the night. The rain fell in torrents. I remained dry and very warm and I slept well. I woke up to the sound of thunder. When the rain broke briefly, I got up and packed up my shelter. At the visitor center, I sat and made coffee and breakfast. I used the second half of my host's vegetarian sandwich and added soft boiled eggs. It was killer.

I had such a positive experience on the paved bike path early in my trip that I sought another. My map showed one starting southwest of me and running all the way to King Arthur's Forest, which I also wanted to see before leaving Brittany. I planned to head there in the morning and follow the path for the whole day.

It rained all morning. When I got to the place my map indicated the path to be, I was somewhere behind a farm house in the middle of nowhere. A woman in a coat pushing a wheelbarrow full of buckets was nearby. I asked her where the path was and she explained that it was right straight ahead where I was going. Another man just down the road verified this. I would never have found it otherwise. I had to descend a dirt road at a an extremely steep angle to arrive at the path.

This picture doesn't properly indicate how spooky nor steep the path was.


Once there, I made a little lunch. I was excited, but less excited. The path was not paved, it was dirt. After I ate, I began down it. And then the rain picked up more. This is about the point where if I had been traveling with someone else, they might have said, “this path is shitty.” Then we would have talked about it and maybe just gone ahead and done something else. Like play dice in a cafe until the rain let up.

But being alone, and not having had this conversation, I pressed on. I couldn't tell you why. Maybe I was feeling a bit like an adventure, or maybe I had no other plan. Maybe I had just made such a deal out of this path that I felt committed to it.

As the rain fell, the path got worse. It turned into thick mud that covered my shoes and legs and bike. Still I continued. For many kilometers I had seen horse tracks on the sides of the road. Eventually I came to a caravan of horse drawn carriages. The carriages were the width of the road. I said hello and tried to pass on the narrow shoulder. The grass was wet and I toppled, embarrassed, into the ditch beside the road. A man leading the caravan ran ahead and asked each driver to push slightly to the side so that I could pass. My muddy snail's pace outran their muddy snail's pace.



At some point the path pitched me out onto a busy road outside of a town. I lost the path, but lucked upon a McDonald's. One of the few reliable sources of an Internet connection. I sat there and ate some potatoes and drank an espresso and looked up nearby campgrounds. There was one not too far away, on the path I was headed.

I took off with some renewed energy. The campground's website advertised that they carried Guinness, and I made that my goal. This may sound funny, but finding a beer in France any darker than a Stella is truly a feet. I needed the motivation, as I had little energy after battling the mud all day.

I arrived in Rostrenon, where the campground was supposed to be. It was getting dark and still raining. I found a pizza truck and ordered dinner. The town was pretty at night. With purple light overhead and yellow streetlights painting the stone buildings. But I was tired and took no pictures.

Signs for the campground took me out of town. I eventually passed the place by about two kilometers and had to backtrack. At this point it was totally dark. I had been riding for way longer than I wanted and I just wanted to shower the mud from my legs. Every campground I had been to so far had clean showers, and I expected the same. Bats flew just in front of my face.

The campground was in a dark valley, totally empty. There were no good trees for my hammock, except a couple in an overgrown and wet field. The shower blocks were filthy. Frustrated and suddenly feeling very homesick, I leaned my bike against a tree. It was too late to find another campground, and I just wanted the night to be over.

I heard a voice and looked to see a woman and her dog. She was asking me in bad French if things were ok. I told her that yes, mostly they were. I explained in my own French my need to hang the hammock and she told me not to sleep in that field because it would be damp in the morning. She walked me over to the toilet block and said I should probably pitch in there and at least be dry. It was not a comforting thought.

We walked to her trailer to get a tarp and I asked where she was from. She was English, she said. Then why don't we speak English? I asked. And then we did, and it was a lot easier. Inside her trailer, she and her husband made me some tea and we all watched golf on teevee for a while. And then she got the idea to pitch her popup tent on their neighbors deck. He wouldn't be in camp until November, she said, and no one else was at the campground. I was more than willing to take the risk, and that is what we did. I slept great on the porch, in the tent. Before bed, I washed off my lower legs, but I had no intention of braving a real shower in the lousy facilities.

They had recommended that I follow the canal all the way to King Arthur's Forest. It was a better maintained bike trail, they said, than the one I was on the day before. I was skeptical, but decided to try it. In the morning, the English campers brought me tea and I made breakfast on the porch. Then I headed off, and soon found the canal. It was somewhat better, not muddy. Eventually the sun came out and dried the trail further. I pressed on for several dozen kilometers along this trail. The canal was pretty and there were many locks and bridges. I think I would have liked it more in other conditions, but I was trying to beat the rain and escape the north of France before too much longer.

At one point, I began to feel that I was riding the storm itself out of Brittany. I had a strong tailwind pushing me along dirt paths through the woods at 30+kmh. I felt strong and made quick progress. The day was blue and purple and dark and bright. The sun would scatter through the trees, and then disappear. It would rain in blue skies and clear up under dark clouds. The trail left me in the town of Linnouec. Here I found an open supermarket and grabbed some road food. I'm always excited to buy new snacks.

I found the tourism office in Linnouec. These are the second most reliable places to find wifi in France. I looked at directions to a small town on the edge of King Arthur's Forest. My map indicated that there was a campground there. Although it was another 50km, I had a few more hours of daylight and good strength. I decided to get there and have the next day to explore the forest.

I took the road instead of bike paths. The forested dirt paths were making me start to feel slow and isolated. I prefer to be able to look at my map and know where I am. Bike paths, especially French bike paths with poor signage, can be disorienting. I was in great spirits, knowing that I could easily make my target town. I still had a tailwind and was cruising quickly.

Along the way, the rain came down constantly. I was absolutely soaked, but I knew that the chances of finding two bad campgrounds in a row was slim. So far, they had nearly all been really nice.

At the town before the one I intended to stop, there was a campground. I thought about stopping but figured, “why give up now?” Then I got into town and there was no campground. Frustrated, I studied my map but could find no other one nearby. I turned around and climbed a few kilometers back the way I came. There I found the campground–closed. I figured I would just sleep on the back of the grounds anyway. No one would see me. And although I couldn't shower, there would be access to water.

I rode around the fence and into the grounds. The water wasn't running. Now I felt totally defeated. On my way back out of the grounds, I ran into a maintenance man and asked him where I could find an open campground. He knew of none nearby. But the gîte in town was open, he said. And a room was only 17€. This sounded way better than sleeping in the rain, so I followed him back to town. It turned out he ran the gîte, and set me up for the night.

Only 20 minutes after feeling defeated in the cold rain, I was showering in my own room. There were 5 beds, but I slept in the big room alone. I made dinner sitting on the floor between two beds. I tried reading, but fell asleep quickly and slept well.



It Gets Hard Sometimes

September 21, 2012 at 8:23 pm

Most of today was as difficult as the day before. I started out strong, pushing hard through a rainy forest on a smooth and steady incline. I even got lost in the morning and stumbled upon a ruined chateau. This happens in France: you make a wrong turn and find a castle.


Towards mid-day, I had gotten lost or turned around several times. I was sick of seeing corn fields, and sick of failing to follow my chosen route through villages. I cursed the cars that sped past me.

There are a lot of factors that go into your mental and physical composition when bike touring. Balance is necessary. I hate to admit that a positive mental state is a flimsy thing, but it can be.

Low blood sugar, rain, busy roads, negative thoughts, loneliness, getting lost, injury. Any combination of these things can cause you to lose your positivity. And of course when your attitude slips, your body stops pushing too. It doesn't help that you can literally watch your mental state decline as your bicycle's computer displays a lower average speed.

It's important to watch for these things and address them immediately. When you're touring alone, like I am, there isn't anyone there to distract you from yourself. I managed to end the day feeling good, even though it was a longer day than expected.

First of all, I stopped and ate a pear tart. I find that the value of treats can't be overstated. Sugar is good for you and your brain. And who the hell would want to tour France without stopping for tarts and croissants? I also switched from listening to music to a podcast. This helped me feel less isolated. Finally, something I had no control over, the scenery changed. As I approached my destination village, the corn fields finally ended. I started to descend a long road, swathed with pine trees and tracing a small stream. Even though the rain continued, the scenery felt more welcoming to me.

I expected to tackle about 80 kilometers today, but it was over a hundred–again. Luckily, I found my host's house easily. She was incredibly kind and welcoming. I showered and stretched and felt completely revitalized. The emotions I felt earlier evaporated from me completely.
Tomorrow I face more rain, long miles, and bad signage. But that's tomorrow. Tonight I am warm and well fed and feel good.

The Mont St Michel, Some Beers, and the Cold.

September 21, 2012 at 8:22 am

I have a few days of catching up to do. Bear with me.

When I left my host's house in St. Gilles, I had a pretty functional ride ahead of me. I wanted to get close enough to Mont St. Michel to see it early the next day. Other than seeing the Mont from across the bay, I didn't have any clear objectives. I headed southwest.

Most of the day I felt strong in the saddle. My favorite moments of riding aren't necessarily when I'm coasting downhill (although those are nice), they tend to be when I'm pulling steadily. With a straight chainline in my middle gear, I like to push evenly and hard. This is when I feel healthiest.

I managed to press on a good many miles (dammit, KILOMETERS! I swear this happens at least three times a day. I'll be comparing my cue sheet to the odometer on my bike and I'll say to myself, “oh great, just another ten miles. KILOMETERS!” Or else, “hmm, I wonder how far that is, can't be more than a few miles. KILOMETERS!” and so on) and found my way to route D911. This is a touristy road that skirts the northeast coast of Mont St. Michel bay. From here, you can see the incredible city, like this:

Mont St Michel from the D911

Yeah, wow.


That sandy lowland area you see isn't always a marsh. At high tide, the bay completely fills it. The tidal area is massive, and is said to move as quickly as a horse's gallop. I was pretty astonished.

I continued on to Avranches. It's a developed town on a giant hill. Very pretty with old statues and stone walls. I still had some energy, and although the tourist office was closed, their wifi worked from outside. I found a campground in a small town at the bottom of the hill and a half hour's ride from the Mont. I ate some peanuts and sped to the campground.

The campground was sleepy and clean, with a kind host. I set up my hammock, felt wrong about the place it was, pulled it down and set it up elsewhere. The spot was nice, but the night was very very cold. I have since started sleeping with my sleeping mat under me, and my hoodie and hat on.

In the morning, I made breakfast and repacked my bags. I took my notebook, iPad, wallet, & camera and tossed them into one small pannier. Then I took my shoulder strap and attached it. I placed my other bags under my hammock and took off for the Mont. Even approaching it is wild:

The Mont St Michel

Pretty sure that cloud is always looming there.


The parking lot is far from the actual town. Most people park and take shuttles, although some walk. I weaved my bike around a couple of barriers and rode straight to the entrance. There, I walked it inside and locked it up to a barrier (this turned out to be a mistake. When I checked on the bike later, it was surrounded by three gendarmes who were not all that happy about it being there. I smoothed things over and parked it right outside).

The Mont St Michel

Everyone has taken this exact picture.


It's really fun walking around inside Mont St. Michel. I was immediately bombarded with a mix of wonder and intellectual puzzlement. This one-of-a-kind marvel is mostly carefully preserved. Except that the manic winding street to the top is flanked with creperies, tourist shops, and bars. Entry to the Mont is free, but bathrooms will cost you .50€. The streets are little more than 10' wide, but packed arm-to-arm with tourists of every nationality (mostly French, German, Japanese, and American). Also, the elements that probably shouldn't be celebrated, like war, are. Strange.

I wound my way to the top and begrudgingly paid 9€ for entry to the abbey. It felt like there must be equal square footage in the abbey and the streets below. It was hard to take any pictures that weren't filled with tourists, though. Here are a couple:


Inside the Mont St Michel

If I were a religious man, I would probably say more about the abbey. It is massive, pretty, and clearly the centerpiece of the town (which was built around it). I don't mean to offend, but living beneath such a vast structure dedicated to a belief system that everyone around you asserts is undeniably real–it would be damn near impossible to question your religion.

After exploring the abbey, I found a pizza shop that had beer on tap. I sat at the bar and wrote a few postcards and talked to the bartender. He had been working there for 26 years. I asked him if he could guess the nationalities of customers before they spoke and he answered that he could. He did a fine job with other customers (the overweight American man in a Nike t-shirt and his wife who both ordered things by pointing at them were probably pretty easy). He got mine wrong, though.

Two beers and two postcards later, I left the pizza shop and walked out onto the busy pathway leading up to the abbey. Not ready to leave quite yet, I grabbed a can of Kronenburg at a sandwich place and ducked through an alley. I found a pretty ledge away from the foot traffic and took some time to write in my journal.

This picture is stupid because I had to set up my camera awkwardly on something and set the timer. I asked a woman to take a picture, but she didn't know how to focus it. Oh well.


Then I took off, found my bike, and headed back to the camp site. I got some groceries, stared at maps, and then went to sleep.

The next morning, I knew that I had to split a long journey to my next warmshowers host site into two days. I started my day by heading west past the Mont and following the bay. I know that there is a huge system of bike-friendly roads that runs across the bay in this part of France. It's called the EuroVelo and runs all throughout Europe, with varying degrees of signage and maintenance. I meandered along the bay without paying much attention to my directions and picked up the EuroVelo route.

I wish I hadn't. The route immediately put me onto a rocky, uneven gravel pathway that I assumed would soon transition to a smooth road. It didn't. In fact, it went on this way for miles. KILOMETERS. I swear the French will pave anything. I haven't found a path to a tree stump that wasn't as smooth as a kitchen counter. And here, when planning the great European bike route, they choose the only lousy road in France. To hell with EuroVelo.

EuroVelo route west of Mont St Michel.

Looks pretty, terrible to ride on.


The EuroVelo route dropped me off by a small pretty church in a small pretty town. I continued to follow the bay west and then started the process of following my directions. Because I knew I had to find a bridge eventually, following directions became necessary.

It turned out to be a very long and difficult day. I got lost a few times, and turned around a couple more by construction. When I finally made it to my target village, I walked into the local tabac for some bread to have with dinner. The woman there was rude and impatient. People will tell you that the French are impatient with those who speak their language badly. I do, and this is the first person I met who was. I got my bread and headed to the local campground. It just felt lousy. I was hungry and tired, but the whole village didn't sit right with me.

I rode a few more kilometers to the next town. There I found another campsite, this one also totally empty. I pitched my hammock, stretched, and charged my electronics in the bathroom. After dinner, I plotted my course for the next day. And then I wrote this. I have a shorter ride tomorrow, and I am looking forward to getting out of the north of France. Although it is beautiful here, the nights are cold. If you know anyone who wants to hang out in the south of France, though, let me know. :)


The Ocean, and D-Day

September 18, 2012 at 8:05 am

I'll have to remember this when I get back to San Francisco and host a touring cyclist: they will eat you out of house and home. I'm currently at the breakfast table of my first hosts from They have been incredibly kind and generous. They left for work this morning and set out a bunch of options on their kitchen table for breakfast. I'm quite sure I could eat all of it.

I last wrote from St. Georges du-Vievre, about 10km west of the Seine. That night, I didn't bother stocking up on food because I assumed I could just buy some in the morning. The campground was 100m north of town. The office was closed, but there was a note saying to make yourself comfortable. I set up camp, made some food, and played a little guitar before going to sleep.

Sometime in the middle of the night, I was awoken by water dripping on my face. Startled, I began to investigate and found that my rainfly was too slack and was resting on part of the bug netting on my hammock. The dew was condensing, wicking through the rainfly, and dropping onto me. In my socks and boxers, I crawled out of my hammock and stumbled around in the dark trying to fix the situation. It took me a good 10 minutes in the cold to fix everything and my body temperature had dropped quite a bit by then. No matter, it just took a little while to warm up in my sleeping bag.

I awoke to a prolonged ringing of bells from the town church. That's when I realized it was Sunday, and I would not be finding food quite so easily. Luckily I had some eggs, bread, cheese, and fruit for breakfast. I also had enough day-food to get me where I was going.

Seeing the ocean came as a surprise. Partially because I had gone the wrong way and wasn't supposed to see the ocean, and partially because it was the first time I'd seen it in France. I stood and stared at it for a good long time, and realized that over the past five years, seeing the ocean has become a very natural thing for me, living in California. Looking out at the ocean made me miss my friends.

The beach at Houlgate.

First sight of the Atlantic at Houlgate.


Later in the day, I was dealing with the fact that I was going to have to eat my other three eggs for dinner when I happened upon a pizza truck in a touristy area. I bought a big vegetable pizza, ate two slices, and threw the rest on the back of my bike. I literally sang as I rode away, delighted that I'd have a nice dinner.

Pizza in Normandy

This is how excited I was, I took a picture of it.


My campsite that night was just east of the Normandy beaches where the allied forces pushed into France on D-Day. I wanted to stop and leave the next day unhurried for a tour of the beaches. As usual, tent camping was reserved to a small portion of the campground. I followed to camp host through a small grassy alley between two campers which opened up a bit. There was a row of plots, each about 20' long. About 6 in all, these were the tent camping spots. Luckily there were to small trees I could use for the hammock. I said good night, wrote a postcard, drew a picture of the grounds, and went to sleep.

The next morning held probably the perfect weather for a tour of the D-Day beaches. It was dark, brooding, and blustery. The Allies landed on a huge swath of territory, so I rode for many kilometers and took side roads towards the beaches now and again.

This is what it felt like:

Birds on the Normandy beaches.

It felt stunning.


I rode through the rain for a couple of hours. It felt cleansing and good.

As anyone who has talked to me about this trip beforehand knows, I didn't plan very much. There were only a few things that I knew I wanted to see. Omaha Beach, where the Americans began their invasion, was the first of them. So when I arrived, I was overjoyed at the success of having made it there from Paris.


Omaha beach, where the Americans landed.

Not just a beach.


There is a visitors center at Omaha Beach which is apparently very moving. They show movies and allow access to a cemetery with over 9000 graves for those departed in the invasion. Unfortunately, I'm traveling alone on a packed bike. There was no way I was going to leave it alone for that long. I tried twice to walk it into the cemetery and was asked to turn around both times. I caught a fleeting glimpse of the area, which covers some 200 acres.

After my visit, I took mostly main routes to my host house. That's where I am now, and I'm already going to be making a late start. After this cup of coffee, I'm off again.


The Actual Ride Actually Begins

September 15, 2012 at 3:48 pm

I left Paris yesterday. In the morning, I woke up and bought some pastries and drank some vitamins. Then I took the wrapper from the pastry and wrote down two cue sheets. One from R.'s apartment to the RER station and the other from the RER station in Cergy-le-Haut along the Seine.

Cycling through Paris wasn't exceptionally difficult. Unsurprisingly, my San Francisco cycling survival skills kicked in and I felt right at home. At the station, I got my bike downstairs and onto the train. The RER has bike cars, but not in the way that Caltrain does. Instead of a safe dedicated car where you can tie up your bike and have a seat, there's a 10' x 10' cube in the back. I stood here next to my bike while one guy smoked a cigarette and another took a leak in the corner. They did not seem bothered that I was standing there.

At Cergy, I detrained and found my first route. The bike tour actually began. And then immediately I felt strong wind and realized that people are right: you should not cycle west out of Paris.

I met up with the planned cycle route and followed it faithfully. Eventually I came to Giverny and Monet's house and gardens. I thought a lot about my stepmother who is a painter and hugely inspired by the impressionists. I took some photos here, none of them good.

This is one route I borrowed from a book, the Lonely Planet guide to cycling France. The cue sheet was perfect, except at the end. I missed a turn and wound up on a major route for about a kilometer before enough trucks has buzzed by me that I figured even if it was right, I wasn't going to do it. I turned around and found a side road where I could take a look at the atlas. I realized that the turn I missed would cause me to miss exploring a giant ruined chateau on a cliff. Alas. I stopped in the next small town to sleep under the cliff where the chateau loomed.

The campground was pleasant and stupid, sort of like a big dumb dog. It was really verdant, with all grass plots for tents, which you basically never find in America. Every spot was lined with bushes and I managed to find one with two trees where I could pitch my tent. Why was the campsite stupid? It was really wussy, with a big gate that closed at ten o'clock. It was better suited to the caravan campers who spent the evening looking for television satellite feeds. But it was pretty and safe and I rested well.

Before going to sleep, I made a cue sheet for the next day's ride. I wanted to avoid Rouen, so I found side roads around it. When I woke up, I double checked my route and smacked myself in the forehead. For whatever reason, I had drawn a U up and over Rouen rather than going west straight past it. I managed to draw up a new route that included a huge length of bike path.

I stretched and ate and had my first cup of real coffee in days. It was fantastic.

My cue sheet was better than the day before. I am getting better at giving myself hints that are useful so that I don't need to take out the atlas. I included a lot of D routes, which are basically side streets. They're a bit harder to follow, since they're rarely labelled in towns. But the payoff is worth it, since the roads are that much prettier and the traffic lighter.

I picked up the bike path in the town of Quit Beef. It was a really really glorious moment and I actually threw my hands up, standing, staring at the path.

A beautiful bike path in France.

The Quit Beef Bike Path

I went out of my way to take this path, but I was rewarded for the effort. It was flat and beautiful for about 30km (I have no idea how many miles that is). I was able to ride with my headphones in without a helmet and just smile. I saw some cool things on the path, like these:



It was hard to give this picture the proper perspective to show just how high this overpass loomed. Really high.


NBD. Just a castle.

I expected to stop riding after the bike path ended, but I still had energy. I continued on up a really long, draining, and busy hill that in restrospect I'm glad I won't have to do tomorrow morning.

Tomorrow I'll make it to the beginning of the Normandy beaches and camp. The next day I'll proceed along the beaches, think a lot about war, and hopefully have the energy to meet up with my first Warm Showers host.

À bientôt.

Paris is Leading New Trends in Lane Usage and Helmet Safety

September 13, 2012 at 9:20 pm

I am finally ready to set sail. I've spent three days kicking around Paris. Now my bike is built, my bags are packed, and I have a route to start my adventure. First I have to get to the RER station across Paris. This is fine, because I've observed Parisian cyclists and traffic and I'm starting to understand it.

Paris has traffic lanes insofar as there are lines on the road. What those lines intend to signify, no one has stopped to ask. To be fair, more and more bike lanes are being built to support Paris' successful velibre bike-rental system. But neither the pedestrians nor the drivers seem concerned with what is a road, sidewalk, or lane. This might be a flaw in the bike lane system.

Also, Parisians often wear bike helmets, but I don't recognize the style. They only cover a band at the top of your head and your ears. I can't say that these would be too helpful in an accident in terms of brain-protection, but the ear protection is robust. Each ear is covered in a big foam element suspended by the band. Funny lookin' helmet, really.

Tomorrow I will take the commuter train to its furthest point from Paris. Then, I'll follow a bike path along the Seine. I will pass Monet's home, garden, and the land that inspired the impressionists. Hopefully the cue sheet that I found is accurate. Most of the land that I'll be covering is on the edge of a page of my atlas, mostly obscured by the legend.

After this post, I'm sure my posts will become less frequent. I won't have access to wifi as often as I do in Paris. Until then…


Paris by Foot

September 13, 2012 at 9:23 am

That old lie about Maupassant eating his lunch under the Eiffel Tower every day, because it was the only place in Paris he couldn't see the Eiffel Tower from–that really can't be true. I walked around Paris for hours yesterday, and I still haven't seen it.

I did see some other cool things, though. Like barge that posed perfectly for me:

Paris on foot

Barge, birds, bridges.

After crossing this bridge, I found Notre-Dame. I got a rare chance to see the famous cathedral's stunning yellow crane:
Notre-Dame under repair?

Notre-Dame's world-renowned yellow crane.

I was on my way to Au Vieux Campeur. It's like an American outdoors shop (eg REI), except split up amongst several buildings. So if you need shoes, that's in a separate store from the bike supplies. This is actually a really positive thing for a guy like me, who can't walk into REI without walking out with a backpack full of gear. Let's face it, new gear is cool. It's hard not to buy.
I left my isobutane fuel in San Francisco because it's (unsurprisingly) illegal to take on a plane. Because I like my camp stove, I was just hoping that the same fuel type was available in France. Luckily, it is. I spotted it immediately in the store. I managed to limit my camping purchases to just that and some dehydrated food. I almost bought a 30 Euro waterproof iPad case but talked myself out of it when I realized it was a glorified plastic bag.
On the way to grab some falafel, I found this:

Miles, and miles, and miles.

I was awed by all the miles this must have been ridden. After I took this picture, I stood and wondered what the number would look like and it was inspiring. Then I showed it to R. and he said, “you know there's a bolt to tighten that saddle?”
Fair enough, and anyway I had my own bike to build. I walked halfway back to R.'s apartment. I only stopped once, to duck into a church. That's where I took this:


I don't know the name of the church. Taking pictures in old churches is like shooting fish in a barrel. You almost can't take a picture that isn't dramatic and reverent. And I guess that's sort of the point of churches in the first place.
Then I got home and built this:
I am here for a bike tour, after all.