Category Archives: France

The Loire Part Two & Other Waterways to Mulhouse 28 May – 8 June 2011

By Tamar

Loire Part Two

The market at Bonny-sur-Loire wasn’t very big so didn’t take us too long to peruse and make our purchases (some artisan cherry jam, a baguette, two oranges, some pate and some cheese).  After some lazing around the campsite we eventually hauled ourselves into our respective saddles and began pedalling towards Sancerre….and more wine tasting….mmmm.  We didn’t attempt the climb up to the town of Sancerre until the following morning when we had fresh legs, and it was well worth the effort: very pretty and contained the informative Maison du Sancerre telling the history of wine-making in the region, the different soils and grapes and showcasing the expertise of the wine-makers as they cosset and pamper their vines and wines through the changing seasons.

The vineyards of Sancerre.

The vineyards of Sancerre.

We rolled thirstily down the hill and ended up at Monsieur Louis’s cave, tasted about 10 different wines, had a brilliant Franglais exchange with the man himself and learnt about his fence-posts made from recycled tetrapaks (how cool!).  We then bought a bottle of his superb Menetou-Salon and a goats’ cheese (also a local AOC) and had the most memorable lunch savouring every drop of wine.

The upper stretches of the Loire seemed to have more leisure boats than nearer to the mouth.  We stopped for a breather and to fill our bidons at a small marina at Aubigny and got chatting to a Dutch guy who’s travelling on his 80 year old canal boat from Amsterdam to the south of France.  He only manages 1.35km on a litre of diesel!  Although I’m very greedy I don’t think my consumption of sweeties is nearly as costly and returns far more km per €.

The last few days on the Loire passed by fairly uneventfully with a couple of days good pedalling through pleasant but slightly boring scenery to Digoin, where we would say goodbye to the Loire. At the campsite there we met a French couple, Stephanie & Fabrice who are also following velo-route 6 to the Black Sea, but they’re heading to Turkey whilst we plan to go north into Ukraine.

We also took advantage of the free wifi at Digoin campsite, but once logged on were confronted with the terrible news that a rider we knew from track and time-trialling had been killed by an 18 year old driver who ‘didn’t see him’ as he and a friend were returning from a training ride.  Rob Jeffries had the talent of making you feel he was genuinely delighted to see you, no matter who you were.  I didn’t know him as well as Keith did, who raced regularly with Rob at Herne Hill, but he was the kind of man whose generosity of spirit stays with you, and our thoughts are with his family and friends.


Canal du Centre, the Saone & Doubs Rivers and Canal du Rhone au Rhin

We left the Loire in a pensive spirit and headed alongside the Canal du Centre into Burgundy territory where we were looking forward to expanding our palates with more “degustation” sessions.  The wide, sandy flood plain & golden arable land of the Loire became a greener and more rolling landscape.  We approached Beaune, in the heart of the Bourgogne wine region, and every inch of land was devoted to the vine, far more exclusively than in any of the Loire wine regions we’ve cycled through.  Sadly our limited wine-knowledge left us a little embarrassed when we strolled into the first vineyard and discovered most of their bottles cost the same as our entire day’s budget for food, accommodation and everything.  We explained our limited means and the lady of the house kindly gave us a guided tour of her cellars and a couple of tastings.  She had wines dating back to 1917 and which cost over 400 euro a bottle.  The condition of a wine of such vintage can’t be guaranteed, so if anyone wants to buy a bottle the lady lays on a sumptuous meal for them at her house and the bottle is then opened.  If it has spoiled then she has recourse to her cellar to open a different bottle.  We were taken aback initially at the condition of the cellar….mould draped the ceiling and covered the bottles to a depth of a centimetre or more….but apparently this is because wines should be stored in damp places to stop the corks drying out.  We’d known that the corks shouldn’t be allowed to dry out, but hadn’t appreciated just how damp and dank the ideal cellar would look.

Happy birthday to me, happy birthday to me!  We celebrated my 39th birthday by treating ourselves to a night in a campsite (showers!!) and a meal out (our first non-campsite meal) in the well-preserved old town of Dole, birthplace of Louis Pasteur, which is dominated by a huge cathedral that imposes itself above the maze of 16th & 17th century streets that jumble up the steep slopes from the canal to foot of the cathedral.

Dole Cathedral

Dole Cathedral

The weather had been overcast during the day and in the evening a huge storm descended.  Luckily we just made it back to the tent after our night out when the storm broke, and we stayed cosy and dry listening to the rain clattering off the canvas and the cacophony of staccato calling from the frogs in the adjacent canal.

The scenery changed yet again as we made our way along the Doubs.  Densely forested slopes rose immediately from the canalside with pretty brick villages and gaudily tiled ‘cloche’ belltowers appearing magically from amidst the foliage.

The Doubs river and Rhone\Rhine canal seem to run adjacent to each other and often intermingle, with boats being directed to the most suitable waterway as required.

Doubs Valley

Doubs Valley

We’d spotted some huge cargo barges and wondered how on earth they could get through the locks…the boats looked to be much bigger than the lock.  We were both intrigued therefore when we saw one of these leviathans of the waterway entering into a diminutive lock.  It was very impressive.  The huge barge had to get absolutely lined up before inching forwards with about 5 cm to spare on either side between his huge bulk and the walls of the lock.  Once in with the gates shut, there was perhaps a metre to spare at either end.  As the water rushed in the barge driver had to keep his engines ticking over to counter the rush of water into the small space remaining at the front, and inexorably the barge rose without hitting the side once.

Impressive barge skills.

Outstanding barge control.

Very impressive.  The couple working the barge accepted our admiration for their boat-control skills and told us they were carrying 180 tonnes of sunflower seeds to be turned into oil.  We saw them a couple more times over the next few days and waved enthusiastically at each other, but didn’t find out where they’d come from or were going to at their sedate and frequently lock-interrupted pace.

The weather remained a little unfavourable and we arrived in Besancon dripping wet and took refuge in a warm cafe for an extravagant brunch.  There’s a citadel up on a huge rocky outcrop and the canal goes underneath it in a tunnel.  This pleased Keith, who enjoyed pedalling through it.  I enjoyed the respite from the rain, which pools unpleasantly in your lap on the recumbent seat.

We’d hoped to go to the Peugeot museum in Montbeliard, but a more pressing need was to locate the Decathlon to buy gas, and then we noticed the black clouds rolling in so, as it was already after 6 and the museum most likely about to close, we started to head out of town in search of a suitable camping spot.  The decision was made for us when the black clouds caught up with us and I just had time to sling the flysheet up whilst Keith put the covers on the panniers, and we then huddled in our hastily assembled shelter for an hour before there was sufficient lull to scamper out and retrieve some crisps and dip, and then later, in a more substantial lull, to reposition and assemble the tent properly and get some dinner cooked.  It was still raining the next morning, but eased off by lunchtime when we reached Mulhouse and ate our bread and cheese in front of the hideous pink town hall.

Mulhouse Town Hall

Mulhouse Town Hall

An inquisitive coypu

An inquisitive coypu

Our last afternoon in France brought a real treat with it.  As we pedalled along by the peaceful canal I saw a large, sleek brown shape slip from the bank into the water.  Presuming it to be an otter, we stopped and watched it swimming away from us, expecting it to disappear from view any moment.  To our amazement it then turned and swam towards us and came right over to where we stood on the shore.  As it approached and raised its grizzled, whiskery face from the water, instead of the broad, flat skull and carnivorous teeth of an otter, we saw a rather large guinea-pig-like visage complete with rodent incisors.  The tail was round in profile, not flattened like a beaver’s and I think it might have been a coypu as I believe there are some that were farmed for fur now living wild in France.  There was a whole family of them, large and small, and we watched them for 10-15 minutes before continuing on our way to Basel.


French cuisine

Despite our limited budget and the apparent high price of food in France, we’re eating well.  Muesli is hard to come by and we usually have to seek out the “bio” section of the supermarket to find one that is just a nice normal muesli and not some over-sweetened “croustillant” variety.  So, the day begins with grapefruit or orange juice, muesli and then some cheap supermarket basic crepes Bretagne (0.76 cents for a dozen!) with jam.  We lunch on a baguette with either pate or cheese with cucumber and lettuce.  These travel surprisingly well in the sweaty depths of the panniers…in fact a basic camembert seems greatly improved by a day or two in the bags.  Pate is purchased in small tins, one of which does us for a lunch.  The cucumber and lettuce travel in a string bag strapped on top of the rear rack and seem to last very well there.  Dinner is either pasta or rice with either a cream or tomato sauce, meat and vegetables.  French supermarkets offer a fabulous little 20cl carton of UHT cream that travels well in our bags and makes a delicious sauce.  The meat portion is usually dried sausage as, again, it travels well in sweaty bags, but occasionally we’ve been to the supermarket late in the day and bought some portions of frozen fish, which are delicious in a cream sauce seasoned with the dried seaweed we bought back in Roscoff.  We also had a treat one evening eating “pea surprise”…the surprise being we hadn’t known we were having fresh peas until we found some growing mingled with barley and poppies at the edge of a field.  Keith reckoned no farmer would have sown their crop in such a manner and thus these were self-seeded peas and thus fair for the picking.  In just a few minutes we had enough for two meals and they were delicious.  Our wine requirements, when not treating ourselves to a more expensive bottle purchased during a tasting, our served by a wide selection of 1.60 euro bottles of Cotes du Rhone, Bordeaux or Beaujolais.


The Loire Part One 18-27 May 2011

By Tamar

Following a cycle-route can either be a navigational joy or a frustrating exercise in map reading to discern where the hell you missed the last sign and where you might be now.  For the most part the Loire route signage has been fairly reliable.  The route doesn’t always match with that denoted on our set of maps, but I think that’s a result of the route developing over the years.  Mind you, the accuracy of the map is sometimes rather questionable as a couple of bridges have sprung up, and windmills, campsites and chateaux don’t appear to be exactly where the map would have you believe, and a lot of the minor roads are missing despite it being a 1:100,000.  That said, we’ve had very few problems and generally cruise along easily following signage and relating it to the map.

View of the Loire from Champtoceaux village.

View of the Loire from Champtoceaux village.

The Loire is a wide, sandy-shored river with something of a split personality.  In the summer water levels are so low that stone embankments have been built out to push what remains of the river into a single navigable channel.  In the winter, the river floods vast areas of meadow and a lot of the veloroute has been following roads up on top of the miles of dykes that run alongside the river.

As well as the expected chateaux and vineyards, the Loire threw up some nice little surprises for us.  As we tootled along a quiet lane on one of the Loire’s islands we came across a cafe and museum dedicated to Lenin.  Intrigued we stopped and went in to see a room absolutely packed with the proprietor’s personal collection – the result of a lifelong passion for Russia and Communism.  She told us how her father had been a communist and when she was 18, in the early 70’s, she drove her 2CV to Moscow, and remains a communist herself today.  We drank strong Russian beer in the shady bar and decided it was a gem of a find on a hot afternoon.

The first chateau we visited was at Angers, where we spent the morning exploring the impressive mediaeval castle, which houses a beautiful (and beautifully preserved) 14th C tapestry.  We also learned that wine-growers often place a rose bush at the end of a row of vines as the rose is more susceptible to disease so they can have early warning of impending problems and treat the vines before they’re showing any symptoms.  That evening, we back-tracked 20km to the Lenin Cafe and joined the locals listening to a Russian singer from the Urals, and then camped in the field behind the cafe.

An unexpected taste of things to come.

An unexpected taste of things to come.

Heading east again, we re-passed Angers and pedalled towards Saumur, resisting the temptation to visit more chateaux (just yet), but succumbing to a spot of wine tasting…on more than one occasion.  We also marvelled at the troglodyte villages where the local tufa limestone has been quarried out and dwellings are built half of tufa bricks and half simply burrowed into the cliff-side.  These buildings range from quite humble sheds to some quite large and expensive looking homes.

Upmarket cave life.

Upmarket cave living.

We’ve had a fair run of 90+km days recently and this evening (Friday 27th May) are in Bonny-sur-Loire and looking forward to an easy day tomorrow pottering round the market in the morning and doing a spot more wine-tasting in the afternoon.  We’re all chateauxed out for now (having been inside mediaeval Angers and extraordinary river-bridging Chenonceau, and either cycled or walked around the outside of innumerable others, including the ‘sleeping beauty’ Chateau d’Usse, the grandiose and 200+ chimneyed Chateau du Chambord).

Chenonceau Chateau

Chenonceau Chateau

Life on the bike gives you plenty of time to think as the pedals turn and the scenery glides by.  Sadly we haven’t found anything very profound to ponder on, but have enjoyed trying to improve our agricultural knowledge by playing ‘guess the crop or farming practice’.  Now all we need to do is remember to look up the answers when we next get a decent wifi session.

A personal amusement of mine has been to note the changing tastes in gatepost adornments.   This particular hobby started in Ireland where I observed a partiality for ostentatious concrete eagles, sometimes painted gold, guarding the gateposts of the most modest little bungalows.  Horses’ heads and rampant lions were also frequently spotted, but my personal favourite from the Emerald Isle was a pair of decapitated Great Danes.  Eagles have also proved popular in France (but usually at the entrance to a rather more grandiose dwelling than a bungalow) and my favourite French gateposts to date have been a pair of fat, comfortable-looking, painted stone hens nesting on the top of farmyard gateposts.