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.

Café Bar lunch at Aumale

Friday’s breakfast wasn’t as extensive as the dinner but it was fine and we left at 9 am and soon crossed the River Somme before reaching Airaines where a local cyclist led us through the town to the road to Aumale. Here we had lunch [beer and baguette] in a bar used the month before by Bernie Curtis’s 40+ party. Then we sped along to Gournay for 3’s and after went more steadily towards Gisors. The main road was rather busy so we found a quieter road accompanied by the sound of buzzards. It hadn’t been a great day for scenery and Gisors wasn’t special but we got rooms by the station at the Hotel Moderne [well, it was when it was built, about the same time as the railway] and went ’down town’ to eat. After searching we chose a restaurant which looked OK, had the opening game of the Rugby World Cup on TV, and produced a nice starter of herring salad, but then went downhill. The steak was of the shoe repairing variety and Roger claimed his cassoulet was the worst meal he’d ever eaten. We had a single room and a triple, Roger won the draw for the single as compensation. We’d done 73 miles in sun and cloud.

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.

On a typical French road South of Etampes

At last I slept really well and we set off at 8.45 on Sunday after ‘the usual’ breakfast for a somewhat chilly ride through the forests, passing lots of men with sticks and wicker baskets who we concluded must be mushroom gatherers. Dourdan is twinned with Dunmow but due to a minor blip we went round the bypass and missed the town, so we had 11’s and shopping in Etampes and continued across a rather dull area of prairie-like scenery. Picnic lunch [duck terrine, grapes, raisin and custard tart etc.] was on a bench in the village centre at Mespuits, followed by more plain country to Malesherbes and Chateau Landon. The latter was a nice place with a pretty little square and a large abbey perched on the edge of a precipice. Alas there was no room at the inn, so we had 3’s in a café, descended the hill and followed a canal towards Ferriers and the Hotel Abbaye. The rooms were modern and smart, but the shower, as we often found, had no curtain so we had to perfect the technique of showering whilst crouching and without spraying the entire bathroom with water. The restaurant was quite grand and we ate well, particularly enjoying the pudding – fresh red fruits in a custardy sauce, baked with a caramelised crust. Just reward for 69 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.

Waiting for the Tour de l’Avenir to pass at St. Paulien

Undaunted we rose on Friday for breakfast and found it to be good and sufficient, we then had a little look at the imposing monastery before taking an easy ride to a stop at St Paulien. We were on the Tour de l’Avenir route and as we sat at a pavement café many of the team cars went past taking the riders and bikes to the start. Our route to Le Puy en Velay was up and down, passing the huge fortification way up above us on a rock at Polignac. Le Puy is even more amazing with two massively tall rock towers sticking up all on their own, one with a church on top, the other with a statue. We bypassed the busy town and went on a quiet road to Coubon where we used the picnic table by the river for our lunch spot. The restart was almost immediately up a long bottom gear climb in blazing heat after which it was climbing hills of varying degrees of hardness to Le Monastier. Here we had tea and had to call at the Logis hotel to get the phone number for our intended hotel for the night, then ring up and book. This done, we continued the climb, passing a very high and elegant curved brick former railway viaduct, now a cycle route, and had a very close encounter with a red kite.

We were rewarded by a long winding descent followed by a short ascent to the Hotel Beausejour in the little village of Le Beage. We were greeted by a very pretty young lady, which always helps, and shown our nice modern rooms and garage for the bikes. At dinner we had been given the prime table by the picture window with mountain views. The meal was a fixed menu except there was a choice of soup or omelette for starters, but the young patron said ‘you’ve worked hard, you deserve to have both’, so we did! The omelette contained local ceps and was followed by a huge salver of roast pork, cauliflower cheese and sauté potatoes. I noticed the other guests had theirs plated up in normal sized portions, in France you get respect as a cyclist! Just to finish off we had cheeses with yoghurt and jam and finally a blueberry fruit cup. Sorry to go on about this, but this was a super meal in clearly the best place we stayed on the trip, and it was quite cheap. The food had been cooked by the patron’s mum who was delighted when we all trooped into her kitchen to thank her. We went to bed feeling good [and full] after 52 hard miles.

Le Puy en Velay

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. Shortly after we came to a tunnel which didn’t allow bikes, probably a good thing as it was 2 miles long with no lights – it was formerly a railway tunnel. So we had to go back a bit and round and up of course, but then came an exhilarating 9 mile descent with sweeping bends and amazing views before stopping to cool the rims and picnic in the square at Montpezat. Before leaving we used the tourist office to get some holel info. and then rang ahead. The descent continued and the countryside looked ever more arid as we were coming down off the Massif Centrale into the real south. Aubenas was hot and busy and we got a bit lost so we stopped for a drink and managed to sort out the way to go which involved a stiff, hot climb onto a limestone plateau. We then had tailwind along to our stop at Vogue and the slightly faded Hotel des Voyageurs, an appropriate name for us. The rooms were OK and we went to look at the nearby preserved railway before an unimpressive meal with more very tough meat. We went through to the bar to watch the rugby on TV while we had a beer and began to realise that all the staff apart from the patron were nice young boys and to recall that the one who showed us where to put the bikes did walk a bit funny…… As this was sinking in, a middle aged female [I think] appeared and seemed to enjoy being groped by the young boys whilst trying hard to catch our eyes. At this point we decided that perhaps we weren’t so bothered about rugby after all and went to bed, locking the door! A 56 mile day and an eventful evening.

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.

Brian Surveying the Auvergne Gorge

Basic breakfast again, then off down the Rhone valley, passing both nuclear and hydro electric power stations and stopping to watch a grape harvesting machine in action – it basically shakes them off, only used for mass produced wines. We rode on via a basic café and a Spar mini market to Avignon where we saw the bridge of course and rode through the rather sparky looking town centre to the station. Here we had to book ourselves and bikes onto a train from Montpellier, where our ride would end, to Toulouse where the Bike Bus would collect us. This was very civilised and worked smoothly except that the train we wanted on the Thursday morning had no more bike space, so we had to take Wednesday evening instead. We continued by the Rhone on what looked on the map to be a lesser road, but in fact it was busy and grotty with nowhere to stop, so we didn’t picnic till 2.30 when we found benches in the recreation area at Aramon.

We were able to watch a boules match while we ate. There followed a steady undulating ride to Remoulins during which I became aware that all was not well down below – the bike that is, not me. My right hand bottom bracket cup was loose, not a disaster, but not good. We had wanted to see the Roman acqueduct, the Pont du Gard, so that’s just what we did. It was well worth it, amazing that such a huge structure was built when it was, and that it’s survived all these years. Our hotel turned out to be very nearby, I can’t tell you what it was called because I forgot to write it down. Anyway it had a friendly lady who supplied beer on arrival and pleasant rooms and we were able to eat on the balcony. We were just coming to the end of a very enjoyable meal when the threatened rain arrived in torrents, We had previously noted how their Provencal roof tiles fit together so well without needing underfelt but we soon found out that they don’t fit quite that well and retreated indoors to keep dry. We then pondered where we would be able to stay in Toulouse on Wednesday evening, nothing in our hotel book, I rang the Y.H. and they were closed for refurbishment. Roger and I rang our [adult] children to see if they could find anything on the internet, Brian said that something would turn up. A steady day of 50 miles.

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.

By the Med at La Grande Motte

Wednesday was to be our last full cycling day and the Mistral was still blowing strongly, fortunately mainly from the side, as we went west towards Aigue-Mortes. En route we bought some local delicacies from a roadside stall and saw a dead boar and, at last, some [live] flamingos. We passed endless fields of rice which is a major crop in this area. The town of Aigue-Mortes is walled and rather picturesque, but it was touristy and the shopping and 11’s weren’t ideal. We continued to la Grande Motte, a modern town of large futuristic concrete buildings looming over a harbour full of expensive yachts. We headed for the sea front to make our official arrival at the Med where Roger dipped his wheel and gathered some souvenir shells before finding two kind young ladies who took our team photos. They did seem genuinely surprised that we old gits had come so far. Then we set off down the coast road imagining that it would have lots of picnic opportunities but it was scruffy and we had to eat standing in the shade of a mangy bush. We were amused when the undergrowth suddenly parted and an elderly lady emerged clutching some bamboo which she loaded into her 2CV to take home to make fishing rods.

We followed the sea for a while before turning inland towards Montpellier and luckily encountering a cycle path which took us right into the city centre where a mixture of intuition, luck and asking locals brought us very quickly to the railway station. There was time to sit outside at the café watching the shiny new trams go by before our train was due. On the platform was an electronic screen showing exactly where the carriage for bikes and our carriage would stop when the train came, very impressive. Less impressive was trying to get the bikes through two automatic doors which kept closing onto the bikes, but once in all was well and we had a fast and pleasant journey to Toulouse. There we passed endless hotels with ‘full’ signs out until we got to ours which was fortunately very good, after all it did cost way above any others we’d used on the trip. We were recommended a little restaurant just down the road where for £13 we had chicken Caesar salad, duck breast and decent ice cream which is good for the centre of a large city. We celebrated ‘mission accomplished’ with 4 pichets of red wine and slept well back at the Hotel Riquet. Just 43 miles today.

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.