Channel to the Med
A journey in 2007 recorded by Chris Mills
For this year’s jaunt Brian, ‘Mr. Micawber’ Taylor joined Dave 'the Bike Police' Russell, Roger Hunt and myself for the ‘End to End’, not of the UK but of France. We decided this would be from Calais on the Channel to Montpellier on the Med. As the only French speaker I knew I would be busy, but Dave did much of the navigating and Roger looked after the kitty while Brian continually promised that ‘something will turn up’. We met at Gt. Waltham and rode off at 9 am on Wednesday 5 Sept. to catch the European Bike Express at Waltham Abbey at 12.15, giving ourselves time for 11’s at Epping. The coach dropped us outside the Booze Warehouse on the fringes of Calais at 7 pm and we quickly rattled off the 8 miles to our pre-booked stay at La Bonne Auberge at Bremes. This proved to be adequate, its best feature being that it gave us a guidebook to the Logis de France hotel chain which was to prove invaluable, but also quite heavy, so we got Brian to carry it to slow him down a bit. Mileage from Gt. Waltham was 33.
It rained in the night and after a modest breakfast our 9.15 start was damp and cloudy but with a helpful N.E. wind which assisted us for several days. We fell into a sort of pattern of stopping mid-morning for picnic buying [including Roger’s manic search for fruit] and 11’s, but getting enough liquid in France is always a problem, the teas and coffees are always too small! Our picnic was eaten in the sun by the river in Montreuil after an undulating ride past forests and a pleasant long run down the valley of the Course. After lunch we passed the battlefield site at Crecy and had 3’s in the village, where I was harassed by an amorous lady who was a little past her prime. We escaped and rolled on to St. Riquier where we stopped to wonder where we could stay, the answer was clear as right alongside us was a lovely old house doing B&B. The retired French couple were charming and madame offered to cook a meal for us which we instantly accepted – a good decision. We had an aperitifs, crab salad, chicken and dauphinoise potatoes, local cheeses and home made yoghurt and maple syrup, all accompanied by home made cider and eaten in their timbered dining room. Dave and I were in a kid’s room, which involved crawling through a small gap to get in and out, but the beds were fine. Our first ‘proper’ day had been 64 miles.
Breakfast was good, cereal, fruit and yoghurt as well as the usual bread and jam and we left a little later on a sunny day. We headed down a valley to Bennecourt where we had 11’s on the banks of the River Seine, on restarting Brian somehow fell off watched by lots of tourists, but fortunately he and the bike were unharmed. There was then a long climb after crossing the river before reaching Breval where we had a very basic beer and baguette lunch in a very basic bar. I believe you don’t need to eat junk in France, and we bought picnics after that. It was quite warm now and we reached Houdan which was a pretty little place which Brian remembered as being on the PBP route. Here we sat outside a café/bakery in the square [after being shown the traditional oven], accompanied by a dead pigeon, and watched a wedding party arriving at the church. In France the bride, groom, family and guests all just turn up at the church together and hang around outside chatting before the event. The run to Rambouillet was through a forest and when we got there all the hotels were full, but we eventually found the cheapo Hotel Noctual on an industrial estate and the nice man gave us a free room just to lock the bikes in! For dinner we had to go across to the Carrefour supermarket canteen where the staff were really helpful and we had a surprisingly good meal with beers. The day had been 64 miles.
Monday started chilly but soon became quite warm and we rapidly reached Montargis which wasn’t very interesting and it was very hard to find the right road out. When we did we passed a Roman amphitheatre right by the road before reaching Chatillon Coligny which was pretty and had a café and good food shops. We left on a minor road to Rogny-les-sept-ecluses [seven locks] which as its name suggests has seven locks on a wide canal built well before we had canals in the UK. The locks are now bypassed, but they made a superb place for our picnic. We now headed west, into the wind for the first time, to Briare on the Loire where we looked at the splendid acqueduct over the river and then did a spot of off-roading along the towpath. An elderly suspension bridge took us over the Loire and a canal which we followed to Belleville and 3’s. There was a Tourist Information office with an English speaking lady, so I had a day off accommodation duties and Brian and the lady booked us a hotel in Sancerre. The ride there was a bit disappointing as the river was out of sight of the road, but the day ended with a bang as the approach to the hill top town of Sancerre was up a very long steep spiral and the hotel was at the very top. Immediate beer consumption was necessary on arrival. We decided to eat in the town as there were plenty of restaurants, the one we chose was adequate, we could probably have done better. We did manage to eat snails and guinea fowl amongst other things. Total for the day was 68 miles.
The hotel breakfast was good and we soon made the descent of the spiral on a cool morning before rejoining the valley of the Loire. We almost ran over a red squirrel, saw some herons and got very close views of two goshawks, otherwise the ride to the Mornay-sur-Alliers picnic was fairly mundane. We had a drink in a bar while the Bike Police fixed a slow puncture caused by a defect in a new Michelin tube. Then it was on to Bourbon which had an imposing castle looming over the town, and we bought postcards, did shopping etc. before the last leg to Tronget. It turned cold and the last miles were very up and down, so we were pleased to see the Hotel du Commerce which I had booked by phone earlier in the day, which is generally how we did things. The rooms were very good and the meal was probably the best so far, nothing special, just good quality local ingredients well cooked and presented. This was our longest day at 74 miles, taking us to 420 miles from Calais, almost halfway.
Wednesday started sunny but cool as we enjoyed the undulating ride past vineyards towards St Pourcain. There we decided to use a bit of main road as it didn’t look too busy and we duly arrived safely at Brout-Vernay for 11’s and shopping. After this we saw buzzards and signs that we were getting south – cacti growing and sunflowers being harvested. We had a picnic lunch on a picnic table kindly provided by the town of Effiat and enjoyed our local produce – bread, cheese, tomatoes and grapes. Then came a gentle ride past tobacco leaf drying barns and huge sweet corn storage racks to the sleepy town of Maringues where we bought proper cakes from the little baker’s and ate them in the square, followed by tea in a distinctly seedy cafe. The last leg of the day was marked by trouble with Roger’s gears, he’s got those funny new things where you change with the brake lever, and the front changer decided to lock up. However the nice lady at the Hotel Eliotel in Thiers knew a bike shop nearby and rang it to see if it was still open – it was, so Roger, Dave and I went there. Typically Roger’s gears worked fine in the shop, but they looked them over and lubricated them and wouldn’t take any money. However they did make some money from our visit as Dave bought some rather expensive lycra shorts in a [successful] attempt to cure his bum to saddle interface problem. Back for dinner including a salad with walnuts and local Auvergne blue cheese, cod or chicken and blueberry tart, not our best meal but good. As this is a cutlery making centre Brian bought a knife for Jeanette. The last day before the hills was 62 miles.
It was chilly again as we enjoyed the last of the easy riding to the shops at Coupierre before a serious climb and descent followed by a pretty wooded valley ride to 11’s at Olliergues. We sat on a balcony looking down over the town as the sun at last made itself felt. From here to Ambert was a long steady climb up the valley of the Dore to the market place where our picnic included quiche, mackerel in mustard and fresh dates. It got very hot looking for a cash machine, so we were glad to get back on the road towards Arlanc even though it was straight and rather dull and had a headwind. However Arlanc had a lovely shady pavement café for 3’s after which we chose the slightly more circuitous option to Le Chaise Dieu. This turned out to be the old road prior to them building a new one, and we could see why. It climbed for over 12 miles to 1060 metres necessitating an unscheduled stop at Mayer to eat emergency rations. However we arrived OK at Le Chaise Dieu [God’s Throne] with its towering abbey and cramped little streets only to find our desired hotel couldn’t fit us in. So we found the Hotel Echo where Dave won the single room and the rest of us shared, as the smallest I got the cot bed, which in fact was OK. Having showered and been abraded by the sandpaper towels we descended for the dinner which was nouvelle cuisine of the wrong sort – pretentious with microscopic portions, and not cheap. It also took forever as madame was serving the entire full restaurant single handed. The highlight was the pudding trolley where Roger finally thought he was getting the biggest [relatively speaking] bit – his face was a picture when madame cut the already small portion in two! After 57 hilly miles we had to fill up on emergency rations. This hotel was not a Logis de France one.
Perversely breakfast was fairly basic but we set off enjoying fabulous views of mountains and valleys and moving low cloud, in fact it was some time before we realised we weren’t actually on the intended road. We rejigged the route and passed a lake and a reservoir as well as a herd of deer on our way to St. Cirgues for 11’s and shops.
On Sunday we had a basic breakfast and were not sad to leave, again we had found a non-Logis hotel to be below par. Still it was a nice morning and we climbed and descended on little lanes into Vallon Pont d’Arc which was very busy with lots of British people evident. We locked our bikes in the square while we shopped and drank before returning to find Roger’s pump had been taken. We muddled around trying to find the Pont d’Arc [a natural stone high arch over the Auvergne river] before giving up and then coming to it a short way down the road. This is the start of the Auvergne gorge and at first the road follows the river in a narrow gorge, but then suddenly it rears up and climbs to the rim of the gorge, including a tunnel. We did attract applause from tourists at this point. Riding flat out in bottom gear in a dark tunnel with cars around is surprisingly difficult to do without wandering about a bit. However we got up OK and enjoyed the view of the river below in its narrow gorge. The tourist option is to hire a canoe, pass through the gorge downstream, and meet the minibus and trailer to take you back. We continued along the top, deciding that as it was a weekend with many tourists we’d ride through their lunch break and have quieter roads. So we went on up and down, passing a dead polecat, until we found a not-too-brilliant picnic spot down a track. Amonst other things the wild boar pate and the greengages went down well. Restarting we found that we were near the start of the descent, which seemed very modest compared with the struggle to get up. Anyway we rolled on a bit to St. Martin where we found a café right by the river and sat in the shade and watched the world go by. Eventually we set off over the old bridge and along minor roads to Venejan where the Hotel Lou Caleou was presided over by a very nice lady of a certain age. Her rooms were good, the meal was perfectly good but not special. A shorter day at 48 miles, but there had been hard climbing.
The rain had gone by Tuesday breakfast time and we set off on a flattish and rather uneventful run to Beaucaire and Arles where I hailed a passing cyclist to ask about bike shops. He kindly turned around and led us to one where my bottom bracket was tightened while Brian and I sat outside a café. We had a fair range of tools between us, but not of course the ones needed. Again the shop didn’t want any money, so again a tip to the young mechanic was in order. Meanwhile Roger and Dave were at the tourist office trying to find beds in Toulouse which they managed after much negotiation. Brian had moved into the modern world for the trip and acquired a debit card which was ceremonially unveiled for its debut, but anticlimax followed as the PIN wasn’t accepted and he had to borrow some Euros from Dave. Eventually we left Arles [without seeing van Gogh’s drawbridge] and headed to our roadside picnic into a strengthening Mistral wind. While we were eating, two New Zealand cycle tourists stopped for a chat and mentioned a café just off route at Villeneuve, so we went there for a hot drink. It was very simple, in an old barn, but was really expensive. We then did a loop round the Camargue where we did see a few of the traditional white horses, also some egrets, herons and a kingfisher, but generally it was very disappointingly flat and monotonous. The now fierce headwind made us do ‘bit and bit’ to our Hotel le Flamant Rose [pink flamingo] at Albaron. The rooms were fine, although the Bike Police had to use a wire coat hanger to engineer a repair to our shower head to make it usable. There was a buzzy feel to the dining room and the meal was very good including fish soup, squid, beef stew and banana splits, served by a very nice young lady with an alarmingly ample bottom. A mainly flat but windy 58 miles.
Thursday breakfast was lively, surrounded by parties of foreign students, afterwards we walked round the main sights of the ‘Pink City’ [the colour of the local stone] and relaxed outside a cafe. We then returned to the hotel to get our bikes and bags to cycle to the city outskirts to the Bike Bus pick-up point. This was complicated and we hadn’t got brilliant maps, but we found our way easily just as we’d done in Montpellier. Near the pick-up we found a restaurant in a sports park and had a very civilised meal in the courtyard – I couldn’t go home without having had moules/frites, the others had tasty pasta. We were entertained watching the office politics and flirting of the group at a nearby table – you don’t need to understand the language to see what’s going on! On the park’s lake water skiers were being pulled along by an overhead cable system, something we’d not seen before. Back at the pick-up point we prepared the bikes and the bus duly arrived on time for the long haul back to Calais. A grand 6 miles!
I didn’t sleep too badly, I think having an inflatable neck pillow is the answer here, and we arrived in Calais at 6.45 on Friday morning. We got the 7.20 boat and were immediately shocked by the behaviour and appearance of our fellow countrymen after being used to the relatively well dressed and civilised French. The breakfast wasn’t up to much either, no healthy options, just fry-ups. The bus dropped us at Waltham Abbey around 11.00 and we sorted the bikes and set off hoping that the black clouds would miss us, which they did. We’d done less than a mile before almost being wiped out by an overtaking Range Rover. Welcome home! As we approached Chelmsford we all went our separate ways, imagining hero’s welcomes from our respective partners. Yes, well, maybe not. I did 25 miles on this the last day making 901 door to door and 851 in France.
Once again we’d had a more-or-less trouble free trip and we never saw any proper rain the whole time. As ever France proved to be a pretty relaxing place to cycle with generally well behaved traffic, and hotels and restaurants who are happy to welcome cyclists.
Articles & Photos >