EUROPEAN TOUR 2006 PART V - FRANCE
Brest, Fr to Hendaye, Fr
September 3 to September 28, 2006
Start 50,562 miles (80,899 km):
End 51,378 miles (82,201 km) cumulative
The Southern Brittany Coast
Brest, Fr to Angers, Fr
September 3 to 9
All our hopes for a change in weather were dashed when we woke to find a thick fog enveloping the campground. The proverbial "pea soup" you could "cut with a knife" almost, but not quite, rain type of fog. So once again we stuffed tent, tarp, and everything else into the bike bags soaking wet. We're convinced there must be moss growing between our toes and algae in our sleeping bags. It's just so hard to imagine having a wetter summer riding season. In theory the weather is supposed to clear for a few days soon, but we won't count the sunshine until we see it.
A short, easy ride took us down to the ferry and traffic wasn't too bad at this time of day. We'd left so early we wound up with a long 2-hour wait. We wandered around the docks, looking in the windows of the many restaurants, all the while the fog continued to get thicker and thicker. We were beginning to get a bit worried that we wouldn't even be able to see the road. If we crash we'll just blame it on the fog.
The ferry across the bay really wasn't a true ferry. It was just a passenger boat pressed into regular transportation service. It seemed the 8 euros per person was rather expensive considering it was only a 45-minute ride across the bay. But it would save a significant amount of riding time through a busy city, something we always like to avoid. Getting on board entailed a roll down a slippery, wet ramp, a sharp 90 degree turn at the end of the dock, and then a push up another even narrower ramp. This was most definitely not your easy, roll-on roll-off (RO-RO) type ferry.
We prefer to make such loads on our own, no help from the crew. But one crewmember absolutely insisted upon helping. Why is it I can ride this loaded bike up some of the steepest hills yet these men seem to think I can't push it up a simple ramp? I was slipping only because the ramp was wet. He promptly grabbed the one thing he perceived to be a handle, my taillight the one we'd searched for all over Europe. Of course it broke off, bounced into the water and, surprise, surprise it floated. So after spending over a month hunting for a replacement light for the one snitched in the Alps and then having it for only a few weeks I was once again lightless. The search for another light would now ensue. Or maybe not. Maybe we'll just give-up on taillights. Naturally the crewmember made no offer to replace it.
The southern coast of this most northwestern peninsula of Brittany has slightly rolling hills and is filled with little towns that look almost English rather than French. After all, the Brits did control this region for a long, long time. Even the churches really don't look quite the same as the French Catholic ones. One church we came across had a rather unique monument in front. It was a huge triangular structure now located right in the middle of a road intersection. On top it is covered with life-size statues of the apostles plus Christ on a cross. What was so impressive was its size and placement. It was huge and seemed to be located in a town that isn't and never has been all that populated. It was positioned in front of the associated church, not directly in front of the door but obviously positioned to be a focal point of the road intersection. It was just such a surprise to be going along and suddenly come across this big monument, but that's Europe. Strange, old things are found around corners all the time.
It was a pleasant enough ride along the coast with just a few hills. We'd climb a hill to find ourselves just barely above the fog and then descend back into it as we approached the coast. This meant that views of the ocean were only through a gray mist. This being our first ride back on the ocean since leaving Biarritz, it was a bit of a disappointment not being able to see anything. But, there is something mysterious and special about seeing a calm ocean on a foggy day. We had considered staying in a hotel as it was our anniversary. But there was nothing that appealed. So we once again checked into a campground.
Here's where it became quite apparent that the high tourist season is good and gone. Not only were the camping rates at low season, there was almost no one in the campground at all and only one of the bathrooms in this huge campground was open. In fact, the midseason for northern French campgrounds runs between the middle of August to early September at which time low season begins. Campgrounds start to close September 15. By September 30 the open campgrounds are far and few between. These French sure have a very, very short camping season. No wonder they charge so much during summer. One English woman we met commented that they'd just arrived yet since so much was shutting down she felt they should already be going home.
Despite weather predictions to the contrary, it once again rained all night long. Here's where having a down sleeping bag is just not the best option. No matter how we try to keep it dry it still begins to feel damp through and through. The feathers absorb water right out of the air. It feels clammy, damp, and really not that warm. It's so tempting to switch to polyfill, but the weight and bulk keep us turning to down. Besides despite having years and years of continual use, these old North Face bags still have a few good nights in them. We're not ready give up on them just yet.
We woke to another heavy fog and spent another morning riding in a gray mist. It cleared a bit while we ate lunch at Dournenez. We even got our 15 minutes of sunshine. But, once we returned to the seashore the clouds closed in again. So much for great coastal views. It was all a gray fog.
Unfortunately there's no road that sticks to the coast the whole way. You have to climb the hills inland to ride through rolling country farms for a while. Then you descend back to the coast for just a few km beach cruising then once again you're back inland. It's too bad. It's a beautiful coast. You just don't get to ride along it very much and with all that fog we weren't seeing anything anyway. We finally gave up on the coast and headed inland to spend the night at the very nice municipal camping in Ploneour-Lanvern.
It was our third day out of Brest when the fog was finally gone. In fact, it turned out to be a most pleasant September day. Indian summer perhaps? With so much rain and fog over the past month we'd forgotten just how wonderful a ride through green rolling hills, past nice seaside beaches can be. We rode along, big smiles on our faces, just relishing the good weather, easy riding, and pleasant scenery. This is what bike touring is supposed to be like.
Around midday we passed by the old town of Concarneau. It is home to a sizable pleasure yacht fleet, an interesting looking old fort strategically positioned on an island in the middle of the river mouth, and the world's oldest marine biology institute. Founded in 1849, it still functions and is open to the public. Concarneau looked like a great place to explore in more depth someday when we're not on bikes. For now, though we decided to take photos and continue on. We don't know how much more good weather we'd have in these northern regions and we had a long way to go to get to Blois. Miles are what we needed to do, not so much sightseeing.
We cruised inland for a bit and then descended a steep hill into another very touristy town, Pont Aven. Surprisingly, there were still quite a few tourists wandering its streets. We'd much prefer to visit such a place when it's virtually deserted. It makes the old streets seem just a bit more authentic when there aren't piles of tourist trinkets, made in China, for sale on the streets. So we put this down as being another place to visit someday in an RV in the off season.
Getting around the city of L'Orient was pretty easy. There's a public ferry that takes walkers and bikers across the bay thus avoiding almost the entire city altogether. L'Orient had once been a very important French port. It was a major headquarters for the Far East India Company that was actively involved in the round the world China trade. The city, in fact, obtained its name from its connection with Orient trade
It was getting late and we wanted to get down to Carnac before nightfall. Along the way, however, we had to make a stop to see the megaliths. Carnac has the world's largest collection of megalith alignments assembled in one area. Basically these things are just large rocks placed on end in long rows, row after row after row. Their alignment appears to be somewhat oriented in the east/west direction, but not entirely. Their spacing and the fact that they are placed in obvious rows makes them look a lot like an agricultural field. The rocks are of all shapes and sizes and have no inscriptions. So nobody has any idea why they were put there. Of course there are lots of theories including the always popular fertility rite theory, huge phalanxes all in a row. It made for an interesting, short stop and for once you could actually see a tourist site for free.
We spent our last night on the Brittany coast in a municipal campground right on the beach. Although still crowded with retirees, we were able to find a spot for our little tent. In fact, by being willing to locate ourselves a gazillion steps from the bathroom we were able to get a great view of the ocean, our last for a while. It would have been perfect if it hadn't been for the mosquitoes. They came out in droves, hungry for that bit of blood. Even the nearby Germans in their motorcoach had to flee to their screen enclosed living quarters. For us it was a dinner spent pacing back and forth and the little bugs took their toll.
Vannes is a huge port city. One look at the yellow area shown on our map convinced us that we really wanted to find some way around it. Fortunately, as with L'Orient, there is a passenger boat that crosses the narrow inlet to the bay. In summer, this boat makes about 6 or 7 crossings each day. However, we had no idea whether or not it would continue into September. If it didn't we'd have one long, long day riding around the bay.
Early in the morning we headed to the boat dock, our fingers crossed. To our delight we learned that in about one hour there would be one of the only 2 crossings for the entire day. Yeah!!! It was well worth waiting. It's so nice that there are easy ferry crossings at the mouths of France's so many coastal bays.
It is a beautiful bay that is full of islands, 42 privately owned islands. Imagine owing an island of your very own. No annoying neighbors. It'd be just a little difficult getting those groceries into the house. Boat tours are popular even in September, which is why we were able to take one. Our boat was crossing the bay to connect with a second boat. They'd swap some of their passengers and then each head out for a tour in different directions. Those of us wanting just a ride across the bay provide little extra income for the company.
This was the third day in a row with sunshine so we were beginning the think that maybe, just maybe, our luck with the weather had at long last changed. It started out cloudy, but by the time we were off the boat, sunshine once again reigned. The latest forecasts claim it's supposed to continue through Sunday, but we've been told that numerous times before. Not to say we don't trust them, but we just don't.
Soon after leaving the boat our cruise along the coast came to an end. We had made the decision to head over to the Loire valley to ride along the valley of the Chateaux. To do this we could either ride into and out of the huge city of Nancy or we could go around it by taking a diagonal route north of the city. Rides through quiet farm country really do beat out nerve wracking, knuckle whitening rides through cities. Although to get to this diagonal route we first had to endure the very busy D780 and then the almost as busy D20. But these were the only two roads that would get us off the peninsula. We didn't get away from traffic until reaching the town of Muzillac where, at long last, we found ourselves on a quiet road that paralleled the main highway. The highway took most of the traffic.
We stopped in the small, river town of La Roche Bernard for the night. This town has a very nice municipal campground located right on the river just in front of the boat docks. There's something so soothing about falling asleep to the sound of halyards banging against metal masts. It's a very cute and historic river town that in its earlier years was a hub for river traffic. Nowadays it is chock full of pleasure boats.
As an aside, one thing we noticed about these western regions is that the bathrooms are significantly nicer than in the east and south. They're cleaner, usually actually function properly, are easier to find, and usually have toilet paper, a definite plus. Although, there are still outdoor urinals which can be a bit unsettling if you're not used to them. They'll be just out there, right in the open, in the center of the main traffic flow. There probably are some nonFrench raised men who have real difficulty doing their business in one of these. The French do have an unusual idea of privacy.
From the river we headed inland for 2 days riding to get to the Loire River valley. As we'd seen throughout so much of France, the terrain is just low rolling hills all covered by farmlands with scattered villages all about. Fortunately, getting food wasn't at all an issue. These small towns have gone for the hypermarche (that's supercenter for us English speakers) in a big way. Nearly every town of any size has one or maybe even 2 or 3 hypermarches competing with each other right across the round about (that's traffic circle for us American speakers). Finding them is so easy thanks to the signs posted on all the major highways. They'll say that there is a Leclerc supermarket located along route D29 headed towards Blain. Then they'll tell you how many minutes to get there. They never give distance, as we would in the US. It's always minutes, a strangely irrelevant measure. We always had to guess about how many km that would be based upon the posted speed limit. But at least there were lots of stores to choose from.
On September 9th we rolled the last 30 km through farmlands down to the Loire river valley into the region known worldwide for its chateaux. These old, huge mansions have been rescued from the wrecking ball through a combination of personal investment and entrance fees, great big fat entrance fees in some cases. For those of us traveling on a budget, here is where being choosy becomes absolutely crucial. It would be so easy to go through over a hundred euros if two people chose to visit a bunch of buildings. We'll go for only the best or at least the ones providing the most interesting characteristics. Our selections lie mostly near Blois, towards the eastern end of the Loire, several days upriver.
In the meantime we commenced a nice, leisurely ride alongside the Loire River on the newly mapped and signed Loire a Velo bike route (http://www.loire-a-velo.fr). This brand new signed bike route will eventually extend the entire length of the Loire River, from the Atlantic to eastern France. In fact it is hopefully going to become just a small segment of a huge network of signed bike routes throughout Europe (http://www.eurovelo.org) extending as far north as the top of Norway, south to Gibraltar, and east to Moscow and the Black Sea. If all these routes actually come to pass there'll be over 60,000 km of cycling routes in Europe. But, with only 20,000 km currently completed mostly in Central European countries, that dream still seems a long way off. At this time about 300 km or so of the Loire a Velo route are completed and ready for riding. Maps are available all along the route at campgrounds and tourist information centers for free. So we'll have some easy cycling and route finding for a while.
Despite the fact that it was a fantastic day for riding we decided to make it a short day. We'd been doing some pretty long distances for the previous several days. High kms means there's barely time for showers and dinner before the sun goes down. So it is rather nice to take an easy day occasionally. It's so tough to quit early when the weather is so good especially when the forecasts are calling for a strong storm in a couple days.
The Loire Valley, Chateau Country
Angers, Fr to Blois, Fr
September 10 to 18
Leaves along the river valley were just beginning to show their fall colors. Splotches of gold and brown appear here and there. But green is still the predominant color. There seemed to be almost a calm in the air, as if everything was just waiting for the first major fall storm to march down from the north. We'd been anticipating a huge storm with howling winds, buckets of rain, and a major temperature drop for some time. But, that's the kind of weather pattern we see in the US middle states. How fall behaves in Europe could well be entirely different. We had no idea how bad the incoming storm would be. So we took another short ride into Angers and spent the afternoon airing the sleeping bags, drying the tent, and washing everything that required line drying. If that storm does come in we'll at least be as ready as we possibly can be.
We spent a day visiting Angers and its chateau. This is an old feudal style fortress that looks absolutely massive from the outside. Its walls have 17 huge round towers that surround the sides toward the land. Originally the towers were 10 meters taller and crowned with slate conical roofs. During the 100 years war they were flattened, cut in height, and all adornments removed. This was to change their defensive strategy from the bow and arrow age to cannon. A large earthen platform was built on one side for a bunch more cannon and a ramp added to make it easy to roll them up there.
The fortress itself has just a few items of interest and really is not the highlight of a visit to Angers. The main reason to see the chateau is to view the huge Apocalypse tapestry. At 103 meters length and 4.5 meters width it is the oldest tapestry of its size in the world. It was woven in Angers, long a center for tapestry manufacture, in 1329. It shows 70 scenes from the last book of the bible, St. John's revelations of the Apocalypse. Each scene appears to have been woven as a separate tapestry about 4.5X4.5 meters. These must have then been stitched together to form one continuous banner like hanging. Today the individual scenes have been taken apart and hang in two long rows in an enormous purpose built building. It really is a rather breathtaking sight to see this tapestry go on and on and on.
The colors in the panels are still amazingly vivid and it's so easy to discern the characters. Interestingly on the left side of nearly every panel displayed some old, bearded man of significance usually holding a book or talking. It's almost as if that person is St. John telling the story while it enfolds before his very eyes. It's quite an interesting object to behold. However, to really get good understanding of the meaning behind each panel you would really need to read the bible.
We left Angers the next day after having a look at a weather report that claimed there'd be just heavy clouds, no rain. Well, that didn't quite turn out accurate. We'd gone quite a distance when the drops started to fall. It was getting heavier and heavier. We searched for someplace to pull in, yet nothing seemed all that sheltered. We raced passed a day rider who was crouched under a tree in a futile attempt to stay dry. Finally we came to a town. There were no eaves or porches to hang out under, but there was one closed restaurant with umbrellas over the tables. We pulled in, only slightly sopping, and waited about an hour while buckets and buckets of rain slammed down. Fortunately the restaurant's owner seemed totally nonplussed when he stopped by to pick up a vacuum cleaner. At least he didn't tell us we had to leave. So we just waited it out.
Fairly soon the rains came to an end and the clouds started to part. By the time we got to Saumur the skies had cleared and the day was once again pretty nice. So was this France's definition of their first major winter storm? It seemed pretty mild by North American standards.
The character of the Loire River changes dramatically with the seasons. At this time of year it's a huge sandy expanse. Channels meander back and forth across its incredibly wide bed. Some are very nearly bone dry. It's shallow enough for egrets and ibis to wade in their endless search for river bottom food. Yet these late fall waters hardly hint at the high flowing river found here in the winter. Unless you see its two faces, it's hard to imagine anything else.
In days gone by boats would ply the shallow waters of the Loire. Due to its changing nature, these were mostly small, flat-bottomed craft. Some of these traditional boats can still be found. They are used for the tourist trade, in other words, boat rides. Interestingly they reminded us a lot of the keelboat used by Louis and Clark in their trek upriver. Apparently this is a proven shallow river design.
So we continued upriver in weather that proved to be far nicer than the forecasts predicted. Days may start cloudy in the morning, but by afternoon often the skies would clear and we'd have a very pleasant day riding. These forecasters are all wet.
True to its reputation, the Loire proved to be a string of lovely chateaux. One after another we rode by these absolutely huge and spectacular buildings. There was one in Saumur, then Montsoreau, then Rigny Usse, and finally Langeais. Most looked like a typical turreted castle right out of some storybook. Only a few have that refined, less fantasy Renaissance style. They look quite defensive complete with drawbridges, slots for arrows, holes in the wall for pouring hot oil on invaders, moats, and all that. We didn't go into any as this is as we were still waiting for the more impressive ones located further up river.
We spent a lot of time riding by and through vineyards and at this time in mid September the grapes were plump, purple, and ready for the picking. It seems that everywhere you go in France small and large vineyards absolutely abound. For instance in Montsoreau we passed no less than 3 wine tasting caves in a row within just a few km. While all this competition has been great for the wine drinker it hasn't been so good for the grape grower. We've heard that some of the vineyards, even some centuries old, are being dug up and plowed over for other more profitable crops. When we first visited France about 15 years ago the prices of wines were so high we didn't buy any. Nowadays you can easily get fairly descent bottles for around 1 euro. That's a huge decrease in price.
Despite a small bit of rain overnight and a bit of a less than sunny day, we spent most of the day wandering the fabulous Chateau Villandry. Full of an incredible array of fall colors, the gardens are absolutely spectacular. It is divided into 3 terraces each having a different purpose and character. There is the new water garden with a huge reflecting pond shaped like a Louis XV mirror. It was built to be a quiet place for reflection, hence the mirror shaped pond. There's the ornamental gardens where there are formal designs made to represent various aspects of love, tender love, passionate love, fickle love, and tragic love. All the symbolism is from ancient times and would be totally lost in the modern visitors. Finally, the kitchen garden is found at the lowest level. Here you can find a huge array of fruits, vegetables, and herbs arrayed in a very fancy and formal design. At late summer the kitchen garden with its array of vegetables and fruits is the most colorful. One of the little benefits of visiting the gardens in the fall is that you can get some free samples. Rather than selling their produce, they place it in boxes to be given away. We walked off with some tomatoes and a pepper, the items coming ripe at that time. There'd be salad for dinner that night.
The chateau itself was completed in 1536 and was the last of the large Loire Chateaux built during the Renaissance. It was built by Jean le Breton, one of Francois I's finance ministers. He first demolished an old XII century castle keeping only one old tower that is still easy to identify. Later in the 18th and 19th centuries additions were put onto the chateau intended to give it a much more embellished appearance that more popular at the time. Eventually it was left to deteriorate and was on the verge of demolition. A savior came to the rescue in 1906 when Dr. Joachim Carvallo, a Spanish doctor, and his American born wife, Ann Clayborn, bought the structure and started renovations.
Today the Chateau Villandry is still privately owned. It has gone through many modifications over its long history. However, when the Carvallos took over they removed all vestiges of the modern additions, restored its Renaissance appearance, fixed up the interior, and added the gardens. Inside it is now outfitted with period furniture that fits the style even through it's not original to the chateau. The dining room is the nicest and fanciest of all spaces. Family photos placed here and there makes you feel a little like you're entering someone's home. In addition, nothing is under glass, behind ropes, or out of reach adding to that feeling that you, and the thousands with you, are invited guests. Yet no matter what they've done with the interior, it really is the garden that is the big draw. It is definitely a highlight of any Loire River valley tour.
That afternoon we pushed on through Tours, a city of over 300,000. It was not a particularly fun to ride through as the La Loire a Velo bike route isn't finished in this area. You're unceremoniously dumped right in the middle of the city on a very busy street. It becomes your own responsibility to find a route through the city and eventually out the other side. After gritting our teeth getting through we concluded that for the time being you'd be much better off finding a route that steers clear of the city and its suburbs completely.
Our last stop before reaching Blois was in the particularly nice town of Chaumont sur Loire. It has another of those turreted, fortress chateaux located high on an embankment overlooking the river. Across river is a garden with the 7 or so varieties of grapes on display. There's a tower from which you get great views of the river and chateau. Also, the garden boasts a couple very odd statues especially the naked lady with grapes for hair. Even though it's a total fantasy figure, it's quite striking. As far as the grapes goes, it happened that we were there right at their peak. So, for breakfast, we did a little harvesting. Free grapes, yummy.
At Chaumont, we also discovered that there are a whole series of signed bike paths that wend their way around the chateau rich region south of Blois. There were just recently put into place within the past couple years. So the signs are up-to-date and accurate. There are some 8 or 9 different routes, all of which take lightly traveled roads and even some dirt paths at times. In total there are over 200 km of signed routes. Maps are free and available at the visitors' centers in the nearby towns. Bike riding around the chateau is an excellent way to make your chateau tour and to see some rural France that so many people never get to see.
Our intention had been to head on to Blois to stay at the closest camping, Camping Lac du Loire. Much to our dismay, this campground was closed either for the season or permanently. So we consulted our Chateaux a Velo map and headed around the loop toward the camping at Bracieux. Its position would be perfect for visiting our next selected chateau. However, we wound up adding 17 km onto an already long biking day. We were beginning to find that more and more campgrounds were closed for the season. So heading further south was becoming a priority.
The second chateau we'd determined was worth spending our carefully hoarded museum money on was the Chateau du Cheverny. While the Chateau Villandry was a magnificent visit for its wonderful gardens, Cheverny was far more famous for its interior furnishings, at least according to our Lonely Planet guidebook. So we figured it would be worthwhile to visit for that aspect.
Drizzle accompanied us as we continued along the Loire a Velo bike routes over to Cheverny. Fortunately by the time we arrived, the sun was shining once again giving us the opportunity to get some very nice photos. Despite having a small town bordering right along the chateau's grounds, the chateau itself is located within a very large, open garden. In this case the garden was changed from its original formal style to an English park style which means grass with lots of trees and wandering walkways. They do still have the plans for the original formal gardens and maybe someday they'll put them back. In the meantime, they're a good place for a quiet wander, which very few visitors seem to do.
Chateau du Cheverny has the more refined and formal Renaissance style rather than the turrets and towers. In fact, the building looks rather like a government building. It appears to be huge when you look at it from the front or back. But, from the sides it's quite skinny. In fact the entire building is really just one room wide. Henri Hurault built the chateau in the 1630s to 1640s and the family continued to occupy it until 1985 when it was opened to the public. The Heraults were financiers and officers for 5 successive French kings and somehow managed to retain the property even through the upheaval known as the French Revolution. The family uses the property for festive family affairs but obviously it's far more valuable to them as a tourist attraction than a family home these days.
While the outside of the building really is nothing much more than a pleasant park, the interior is the big draw. This is supposed to be one of the most magnificently furnished of all the Loire. Once inside you get to see the dining room, a couple of drawing rooms, an office, several bedrooms, and a couple of sitting rooms. Unfortunately you don't get to see any of the more mundane aspects of chateau life, the kitchen for instance. All rooms are elegantly decorated in period furnishings complete with all the trimmings, paintings, photos, dishware, silver, etc. You can almost feel that the former, very wealthy inhabitants had just run out the back door under a massive frontal assault of tourists. Yes, it is one of the most popular chateau destinations and is always busy.
One other unusual item found at Cheverny is the dogs. The family is famous for raising hunting dogs. There is a pack of some 100 or so dogs, many of which are kept on the grounds at all times. These are big dogs that look just a bit like beagles with extra long legs. They seem rather vicious to us, or at least there's no way we would ever want to be alone in the same pen with a group of these teeth laden beasts. They are still used for hunting, or at least the French gentry's version of hunting. This is more like a sic the dogs on a beast so they can tear it limb from limb while the so-called hunters sit atop their horses and watch. That sure doesn't seem much like real hunting to us.
For the second time in France we got a free lunch, something that's extremely rare in Europe. It happened that on the day we visited Cheverny, Carrefoure, the French supercenter chain, was having a gourmet food tasting in the Orangerie. The Orangerie is a separate garden building located behind the gardens. It looks a bit like a smaller, mirror image of the main chateau. During WWII many priceless pieces of art were hidden within this garden building. Today it's set up for use as a meeting hall, conference room, or as on this particular day, a food tasting venue. We got to try some of the more expensive meats, sweets, drinks, cheeses, cookies, and other goodies. You were supposed to answer questions on a survey while you were nibbling on the goodies. We just dug in, going back for seconds, thirds, and even fourths. Hey, we learned a long time ago, you never say "no" to a free lunch.
Making a grand loop of the chateau country, we returned to the pleasant town of Chaumont and Onzain. From the river there is a train station about 2 km north of the town which has several daily trains into Blois. After seeing where the closed campground in Blois is located, we concluded that this location would actually work out better. It has much easier access into the city. We returned to the town, set up camp, and had just enough time to walk up the hill to take a closer look at the chateau. This L shaped chateau has two mammoth central towers on both sides of the main drawbridge and two more at the ends of each L. This makes the structure look absolutely enormous. We didn't go in, but I'd bet the L wings area actually quite narrow, i.e. one room wide, which seems to be standard for these chateau. Hallways did not seem to be part of architectural style back then. It also seems that these chateaux always look a whole lot larger from the outside than from the inside.
With a day to spare, we wandered around Blois and visited the third and final of our selected chateau. Chateau Blois is located right in the center of the city high on a bluff overlooking both town and river. It's particularly well known for its four styles of architecture that span the entire age of chateau construction. As you stand in the center of its square shaped courtyard and turn 360 degrees, you can see the 4 wings each built in a different style. In fact, some of the newer wings were built only after parts of the older wings were demolished. Even today the intersections between the old and new wings often is not quite finished
Unlike most of the other chateaux we'd seen, Chateau Blois actually was used as a royal residence. Its history is filled with all the political intrigue associated with such a position. For instance this is the place where Henri II had the Duc de Guis assassinated during the 30 years war between religious orders. They show an old silent movie that was made to tell this particular bloody story. Also this was where Cathrine de Medici died in one of the bedrooms.
The interior was all nicely decorated in period furnishings that seemed to be displayed as if they were in a museum rather than in someone's house. However, as usual, nothing is original. All interior decoration including wall and ceiling painting is from an 18th century restoration done by Felox Duban.
The Southern Atlantic Coast
Blois, Fr to Biaritz, Fr
September 19 to 28
We'd made a car reservation for September 19 to take us back to the town of Rochfort on the southern coast. It seems that when 2 people travel together, renting a car works out to be about the same price or often cheaper than a train. In this case the train cost 37.6 euros per person while the car rental for one day was 56 euros. Also, a car is so much more convenient and allows you to take a few detours along the way. So trains just don't make any sense. We decided to take 3 days to make the journey thus giving us an opportunity to see a few other sights along the way.
Our first stop was at one of the most famous chateaux in France, Chenenceau. This is the famous chateau with the ballroom built over the river that so often is pictured in the France tourist posters. It wasn't on our original must see list. The 9 euro entrance fee was far more than we wanted to spend for a third or fourth choice chateau. We just wanted to see whether there was any chance we could peek at the building from the parking lot. Not a chance.
Our next stop was as Chinon. It was within the walls of this chateau that the now famous maiden Jean d'Arc picked out her "gentile Dauphin" among a group of courtiers and then convinced him to march on Orleans. The castle used to consist of three sets of very fortified walls that topped the entire bluff overlooking the river. Today, it's mostly in ruins. However, they're rebuilding. They're rebuilding most of the walls and major sections of the old castle itself. They're not using original materials and probably not even using original construction techniques. Let's just say they didn't have the huge machinery that they're using today. So this begs the question, when you rebuild one of these castles is it still medieval?
We arrived in the coastal town of Rochfort just in time for the first day of fall. Rochfort used to be a huge ship building town back in the day of old sailing rigs. Buildings and structures remaining in the town attest to these former activities. One gigantic building was used for twisting ropes, long long rope. Where they got the hemp to make these ropes, the lady at the tourist agency wasn't able to say. Today this building is finding new life as a museum, library, and chamber of commerce. There are also 2 very large forms built into the ground that make up their old dry docks. One has the pointed bow needed for large ships with bowsprits. Apart from making an interesting tourist attraction, these old dry docks are finding new life today. They are currently using one of the forms to build a recreation of the ship named Harmoine. This was the ship that took LaFayette to America to fight in the revolution. We were told that they decided to rebuild one of their old tall masted ships because France no longer has any of the originals left. They were all either dismantled or wrecked. So why not pick one that will draw attention from not only the Franch but from deep pocket American tourists as well.
Our final section of bike touring in France started out with us wandering all over the place trying to find the correct route out of town. There is supposed to be a signed bike route that leads southward along the coast. But, as we quickly discovered, this region of France hasn't quite figured out how to make truly understandable bike route signs and maps. We took wrong turns, backtracked, made bad and good guesses, and finally just resorted to taking the main road to get to the coast. After we finally crossed the river near Ile d'Orleon we found ourselves on a very good cycle path that looked like it was once the old beach road. This old road turned cycle path wound through shadey coastal pine forests all the way to the town of Royan.
Royan is a long tourist city that goes on forever. At one time it was a very nice old city with buildings from all ages. But, since it is also a major port, it was heavily bombed in WWII and subsequently rebuilt in the 1950s as a beach resort. This beach resort is so popular with Parisians that it is said that the people in Paris all go there in summer to be reunited with their neighbors from home. It has a permanent population of around 19,000. But due to the number of summer condos, it looks and feels much, much larger. Despite being there in the late fringe season, it was still busy. We just couldn't imagine how packed it would be in mid August.
Once again there's a ferry that takes cars and bikers across the inlet. In this case we would have had to ride several days upriver to get to a spot where it was narrow enough for a bridge, perhaps going even as far as Bordeaux. So the ferry was definitely welcome. We picked up some food at the downtown supermarket, caught the 5:15 ferry, and headed across the bay for much quieter locals. With some difficulty we managed to find one of the very few still open campgrounds in which to pitch our tent.
What a night we had. In the evening there was the proverbial calm before the storm, the wind was dead calm and the temperatures very warm. As we cooked dinner we watched lightning flash out over the ocean. We were entertained with the light show just thinking that this was going to be a normal storm. We finished cooking, cleaning, and got to bed just in time for a sprinkle to begin. Suddenly we heard what sounded like a huge roar coming across the shore. It sounded almost like a jet engine bearing right down on our vulnerable tent. Not too long after our tent was hit with what felt like a solid wall of wind and, as luck would have it, we hadn't fully staked out the guy lines. So we spent the next hour placing our feet, backs, and arms against the tent poles trying to hold its shape. Fortunately the storm only lasted for about an hour after which the weather calmed back to its previous state. Thank goodness it wasn't all night blower or else we would have had a long, rough night.
On the 24th we spent the day riding along paved cycle paths through the pine forests lining the coast. It was easy flat riding through very sandy regions on a day of off and on rain. Clouds would roll in, we'd hightail it for shelter, rain would pour in buckets, the clouds would part, and we'd be on our way. This cycle repeated itself over and over about 4 to 5 times all day long. At one point we saw one couple starting out on their bikes at the start of a rain cycle. Just a couple minutes back they were back declaring the rain was too hard. As we found, making good progress wasn't easy. So we took a short day hoping that the next day would improve.
As promised by the weather reports, the next day was much better. We continued our ride along paved bike routes through sandy pine forests around the town of the Bassin D'Arcachon. Most of this bike path was an old railroad. Hence it is dead straight and, of course, very nearly flat. These paths took us around the bay where we found small, not very touristy towns. They're not on the ocean beach so the tourists pass them by.
Once past the bay, we turned south along the coast once again. Here is one of the more unusual sights in Europe. It's the tallest sand dune in all Europe, Dune de Pyla. It's enormous. It seems that this dune is taller than any found along the Oregon and California coast. Since this was such an unusual sight, we decided to stay in one of the expensive campgrounds located right at its foot. You can literally choose campsites that have one edge in the sand. Practically next to our campsite is a wooden staircase put in place and maintained by the campground. You can climb up to the top of the dune by trying to overcome the sand or you can use the staircase. We took the staircase. As you crest the top of the dune, you are suddenly blasted by the continual offshore winds that are responsible for the formation of this dune. There's so much wind, in fact, this is a popular place for paragliding. From the top you get some amazing views of the beach, the entire coast, and this amazing sand dune. This was most definitely worth a stop.
Our riding continued through more forested, coastal lands until we came to a large military base. Here you have to go inland through not particularly scenic lands and towns until you get back to the south side of the base. Here we stopped in the town of Mimzan to find a grocery store. We stopped the first fellow we found to ask directions. Starting out speaking French, we soon discovered he was English. He'd retired 5 years previously and promptly left England for this coastal French town and hasn't looked back since. In fact, it sounds like there are quite a few English expats living in southern France. The weather is just so much better. He also told us that at this time of year there are Germans and Dutch camped on the beach camping car parking areas waiting for the weather to turn to winter. Then they all head south to Spain. It's sort of like the snowbirds of the US who all head to Yuma in the fall. After leaving Mimzam we headed back into the forest and came across a huge picnic area where we camped for the night, free camping once again.
South of Mimzam along the coast there is a network of some very unique bike routes. These are all narrow trails, about 1 to 1 1/2 ft wide, made of concrete blocks about 8 ft long and 5 inches thick. Built by the Germans during WWII, they were used by their motorcycle patrols. In some places where the old concrete has disintegrated over time, new asphalt has been put down. In other places a wider trail about 1 1/2 meter wide has been built. All of these trails make for great exploring on bike or on foot.
We found a sign that talked about the pine forests. These pines are not native to this area. They were originally planted to prevent erosion and now they are now regularly harvested for France's small paper industry. France is just far more into the wine business than the paper industry. The trees have about a 50-year cycle before they are harvested. So the trees found there today may be the 5th or 6th crop so to speak. There's absolutely nothing "virgin" about these forests.
We wound up riding a whopping 116 km even through we hadn't planned it. It just seemed we were so close to Biaritz that we just wanted to go on. But we wound up taking a longer route than planned by going inland and then riding along the river at Bayonne rather than cutting directly across the city. This added probably a full 20 km onto the day's ride. Once in Biaritz we were in familiar territory once again. We immediately headed for the campground we'd stayed at earlier in the year only to find that it was closed for the season. The woman pointed us down the road to another campground, adding another 5 or so km. This one, fortunately, was still open for about 2 more days. We've concluded that it's time to head south to Spain where, hopefully, campgrounds stay open longer. Finding open sites in France was getting very difficult.
The next day we took a short ride along very busy N10 and made a quick stop at the Leader Price and Carrefour to pick up a few items that seemed to be hard to find in Spain. Then we went on to St. Jean de Luz, just a few km further, with the goal of finding an internet café where we could make another rental car reservation. Then we spent some time wandering through the very pretty town of St. Jean de Luz. When we'd passed through here earlier in the year we didn't take the time to look around. So we made up for that this time. This is a very Basque region and many of the buildings have the whitewashed walls with red, green, or blue shutters. Reflected in the waters of the ocean inlet, this makes for a very attractive town. From there we took the beautiful coastal road to Hendaye which very much reminded us a lot of some coastal roads in California, great views with a lot of cars. All in all, this short ride to Hendaye made for a perfect ending to our riding in France. Tomorrow, back to Spain.
Appendix A - Route
September 3 - Ferry to Fret, D155 and D555 to Corzon, back road to Telgruc sur Mer, through Trez Bellac Plage, to Pentrez Plage, 39.11km
September 4 - Continue on back road toward Ploeven, then toward Ty-Anquer and St. Anne a Paud, Trefeuntec, Kervel, Trezmalaouen, Kerleol, to Kerlaz. D7 to Douarnenez, D7 to Treboul, Backroad to Notre Dam de Kerinec, Confort-Meiars, Mahaon, to Plozevet, Coastal road to Penhors, Plovan, Treogat ,D2 to Ploneour-Lanvern 64.09km
September 5 - Backroad through Languivoa, Tremeoc, Le Croissant, to Combrit. D44 through Benodet, Fouesnant, to La Foret Fouesnant. Backroad to Concarneau along coast, D783 through Tregunc, Pont-Aven, Riec-sur-Belon,. D24 to Moean-sur-Mer, D24 and D124 to le Pouldu, 79.57 km
September 6 - D768 to backroad past Carnac aligment megotithes, D752 to Lorient, D781through Riantec, Plouhine, Pont Lorois, Erdeven, Plodharne,to Carnac, D781 to Locmariaquer, 81.98 km
September 7 - Boat to Port Navalo, D780 through Sarzeau, D20 through Surzur, Ambon, to Muzillac, D5 to turnoff to Arzal, D148 to La Roche Bernard, 63.57 km
September 8 - D34 to backroads to La Courde then south on D114 and D126 to la Croix de Haut. Crossed D2, turned left to take backroads to St. Gildas des Bois. D17 to backroad to Notre Dame de Grace, Quinfu, Pesian, St. Omer, Pessuais, to Blain. D164 to D33 to la Hervotiere. Cross N137. Backroad through la Noue Durandier, Les Salles, les Grandes Landes, languin, to Nort sur Erdre, 79.81 km
September 9 - D164 to D23 through Ligne, Couffe, St Gereon to Ancenis, Cross river to les Fourneaux, Loire bike route through le Marillais, St. Florent le Vieil, to Montjean sur Loire 64.57 km
September 10 - Loire bike route past Chalonnes sur Loire, la Possonniere, Savennieres, D111 through Bouchemaine to Angers, 34.74 km
September 12 -La Loirea Velobike route through la Dagueniere, St. Mathurin sur Loire, St. Remy la Varenne, Gennes, Chenehutte, to Saumur, 55.1 km
September 13 - La Loire a Velo bike route through Parney, Montsoreau, Candes St. Martin, Savigny en Veron, Avoine, Brehemont to Langeais, 58.1 km
September 14 - La Loire a Velo bike through Villandry, Savonnieres,Joue les Tours, and Tours, D781 to Montlouis sur Loire, 47.71 km
September 16 - D751 through Amboise,Mosnes, Chaumont sur Loire, Cande sur Beuvron, Loire a Velo route through St. Gervais la Foret to Vineuil, Chateaux a Velo route 9 to Nanteuil, Route 8 through Mont pres Chambord to Bracieux, 87.14 km
September 17 - Chateaux a Velo bike route 5 to Cherverny, Route 4 through Cormeray, and Chitenay, Route 1to Seur, Monthou sur Brieve, route 2 to Valaire and a Pieuse, D114 to Chaumont, 53 km
September 22 - D733 across river from Rochfort, backroads throgh Echillais to St.Agnant, D123 to Marennes, D728 acrossbridge, bike path through la Palmyre, St. Palais sur Mer to Royan, N215 to le Verdon, D764 toSoulacsurMer,D101 to l'Amelie Plage,94.76 km
September 24 - Cyclopiste litoral to Carcans, 61.73 km
September 25 - Cyclopiste through Le Mouchic, Lacanau, Le Porge, Lege-Cap-Ferret, Andernos-les-Bains, Audenge, Biganos, le Teich, D650 to Gujan Mestras, cycle path through La Teste-de-Buch to Dune du Pyla, 95.33 km
September 26 - Cycle path through Biscarosse Plage, Biscarosse, and Parentis en Born, D652 to cycle path to Gastes, Mimizan to Mimzan Plage. Cycle path to M.F. de l'Especier, 79.32 km
September 27 - Bike trails through Contis plage, St. Girons Plage, Moliets et Maa, Vieux boucau, Hossegor, Capbreton, to Boucau. Coastal route through Bayonne,Anglet, Biarritz, to Bidart. 116 km
September 28 - Route N10 to St. Jean de Luz, D312 coastal route to Hendaye, 36.13 km
Appendix B - Campsites or hotels
September 3 - Camping Ker'ys, St. Nic (12 E/night)
September 4 -Camp Municipal Mariano, Ploneour-Lanvern (7.50 E/night)
September 5 - Camp Locouarn, le Pouldu (10.00 E/night)
September 6 - Camp municipal de la Falaise, Locmariaquer (10.90E/night)
September 7 - Camp municipal La Roche Bernhard (10.40 E/night)
September 8 - Camp municipal du Port Mulon, Nort sur Erdre (8.20 E/night)
September 9 - Camping Promenade, Montjean sur Loire (10.00 E/night)
September 10, 11 - Camping Lac du Maine, Angers (11.50 E/night)
September 12 - Camping Ile. de Offend, Saumur(16.4 E/night)
September 13 - Camping du Lac, Langeais (5.20 E/night)
September 14, 15 - Camping municipal des Peupliers, Montlouis surLoire(9.20 E/night)
September 16 -Camping municipal des chateaux, Bracieux,(10.40 E/night)
September 17, 18 - Camping municipal Chaumont sur Loire, (7.71 E/night)
September 19 - Formula 1, Cholet(28.00 E/night)
September 20 - Hotel Premeir Classe, La Rochelle (39.00 E/night)
September 21, 22 Municipal camping Le Rayonnement, Rochfort (7.30E/night)
September 23 - Camping les Sables d'Argent, Soulac sur Mer (12.00 E/night)
September 24 - Municipal Camping l'Ocean, Carcans (15.04 E/night)
September 25 - Camping La Foret, Pyla sur Mer (16.80 E/night)
September 26 - Picnic area at M.F. de l'Especier
September 27 - Resdences des Pins, Bidart (16.60E/night)
September 28 - Camping Alturna, Hendaye (15.00 e/night)
Lonely Planet France Guide
Copyright © 1995-2011 by Caryl L. Bergeron - Distribution for personal use permitted. Distribution for other uses with written permission.