Friday, 17 July 2015

Day twenty three (Monday) Meaux to Paris 55km 3 hours 10 mins

Cakes: 1 x croissant each; 1 x pain aux chocolat each; Coffee 2 x each

It was a bit of a gloomy, grey day to start with, which seemed somewhat appropriate. I cheered up some though, once John had emphasised that we were off to Paris!! So, I pulled on my big girl knickers and cheered up.

The afternoon before we'd gone out and checked that we remembered where to get on the canal, so were able to make a good start in light traffic (July 14th is a public holiday - Bastille Day). I had forgotten how bumpy and lumpy it was on this stretch, and it was only once I'd tried to cycle again (unsuccessfully) down the middle of the track to avoid the biggest stones that it struck me. The canal had been constructed during the Napoleanic period (a masterful piece of engineering), and was likely to have been cobbled alongside. The large lumps of rock, many still flattish and still in place, would likely to have been placed there in Napoleonic times. While this realisation didn't help make the ride any smoother, it did help some vivid imaginings of the sheer scale and effort required to build the canal.

Meaux, like any town of a particular size, is not pretty on its outskirts. The graffiti and rubbish on the buildings alongside the canal could have been anywhere. It was not long, though, until we left Meaux behind. The many runners and mountain bike riders became fewer for a while, and we rattled along toward Paris.

During these kilometres we passed the km1,000 mark, which was a point of celebration (accompanied by a pedal-powering pain au chocolat and coffee). We have been really impressed by the way the Terns have performed over a wide variety of terrain. The tried and tested saddle design (we swapped out the ones the Terns came with originally) has proven, yet again, to be an essential comfort.

One thing I did initially use, which I haven't for long-distance riding before, are the padded shorts. John suggested that because all long-distance cyclists use them, I should give them a go for an extra comfortable ride. I have since returned to non-padded ones as I found the heat that was produced around my derriere led to some nasty chafing (TMI!!) I only include this detail to reiterate the old chestnut of 'don't change your gear before setting off on a long trip, and also to say - if you prefer to cycle without the padding - go for it :-)

The cycle into Paris along the canal was relatively simple. We had purchased a map beforehand, and John, who is a great navigator, safely brought us to our final destination - a delightful studio apartment in using the canals as a way to avoid traffic.

Being a holiday the place was full of folks enjoying the sunshine, and being an apartment culture, they had their deckchairs on the pavements by the canal, along with picnics and wine.

It will be an interesting few days in Paris, and, as an added bonus, we are meeting up with John's sister (Yvonne), and niece (Emily).

The adventure has been a 'top' one, with challenges and rewards a many. Can't wait for the next one!!

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Day twenty two (Monday) Charly back to Meaux 45km 3 hours 15 mins

Cakes: 1 x croissant each; 1 x pain aux chocolat each; Coffee 2 x each

With a slight sense of melancholy for me, we packed up our tent for the last time (after 10 hours of fabulous sleep). We have just got into that wonderful rhythm that comes with any sort of long-distance adventure where we know where everything goes, and the order that everything needs to be packed away in...and the pannier in which it belongs!

We headed off to the boulangerie in Charly where we were able to peer through the shop window to see the baguettes being made, which was pretty interesting. The guys there seemed to be perfectionists, ensuring that each baguette was formed as well as possible, and baked to ensure the crispy exterior, and light, fluffy interior.

One our first climb out of Charly we were followed through the valley by the barking of dogs as we passed each property along the way. A group of women working on the vines cheered us along our way as we ground our way ever up.

The French people, with the exception of a very few, have been helpful, generous, kind and good-humoured. They have often gone out of their way to help and showed great patience. This seems to contradict the opinion of Yves (you may remember him from way back when he sat with us at a Tabac and passed the time of day). He felt that the French, in his opinion as a French guy who had been the CEO of an international company, tended to keep to themselves and could be surly. He seemed surprised that the people we had met had been so accommodating. I wonder if it's partly the bikes...and the determined attempt of ours to speak (mangle??) French. I'm not sure what it is, but, so far, it's been a real pleasure.

As we headed toward Meaux (still not my favourite place), it was quite handy to have done the wiggly route before because we could remember most of the turns, which made navigation heaps easier. We are just about to head out in search of some food. The skies are grey but it's not actually raining. 

Tomorrow, the last 50km or so by bike, back into Paris, where we have a place booked (an old artist's studio...John wanted to know if it was the artist that was old or the studio...).

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Day twenty one (Sunday) Epernay to Charly 75 km 5hours 20 mins

Cakes: 2 x croissant each; 1 x pain au chocolat each; 1 chausson aux pommes (shared); 1 x eclaire each; Coffee 1 x each

We are now moving back to paths  and places we have already cycled as we travelled in the other direction. I keep asking John if we can go around again!! Having said that, while the weather has been incredibly kind (and I do know that I sound a tad 'whiney' here) it would be good not to be cycling into a head wind for a while.

One thing that is different is that the signs of the season are changing. The poppies are now mainly seedheads, many of the fields have been harvested, and some ploughed, and the grapes are very obvious on the vines.

As we have cycled through the towns, villages and cities I have seen a pattern emerge. In the vast majority of places many people cultivate a potages (veggie garden). These gardens are almost without exception meticulously laid-out and tended, weed-free, and apparently growing vigorously. The lines are invariably straight, and the canes upright. The effect is pleasing to the eye and I suspect, when the time is right, the stomach. 

Mind you, I do wonder how on earth the gardener manages to consume all of the produce! I know when we had our allotment in the UK, and our veggie gardens in Auckland there were times when we were totally overwhelmed with a specific vegetable, and there are only so many way you can eat and preserve, for example, a broad bean! We tended to distribute the excess around our neighbours.

We had fun trying to find the campsite in Charly, which, when located, turned out to be very pleasant. We had brought a picnic along with us for the evening, and washed this down with a sample of the local champagne. The gentle drizzle didn't penetrate the leaf cover of the tree under which we were sitting, and we had a good long chat about what and where next - physically and metaphorically.

Monday, 13 July 2015

Day twenty (Saturday) Chalon-en-champagne to Epernay 50km hours

Cakes: 1 x croissant each; 1 x pain aux chocolat each; Coffee 2 x each

Packing up our tent today we had a little visitor. It started with a bit of rustling around the bags and a little ginger tabby tail. The kitten who had decided to help us pack then got his nose into everything. He hopped into bags, tried to eat the breakfast baguette. Found the bag with the cheese in it and started to gnaw through it...all the time purring like a freight train. I have no idea how something so very small could make such a loud, contented sound. He was gorgeous and if I thought I could get away with it I would have popped him in the top of a pannier and brought him home. Instead we are left with some fun memories and a photo.

Packed and fed, we said goodbye to the little ball of ginger fluff, and headed off to the canal again. The path was smooth and lined with flowers, and the air cool and heavy with the fragrance of 'green'.

Initially we made good progress, stopping to admire little villages along the way. The path stopped abruptly so we dropped into one of these villages and started the process of climbing and descending. Now back in chalk country there is a quite a bit of this!  

After one such climb we stopped for coffee. Talking away John suddenly announced 'well that was a mistake'. I looked over and there, very close to him was a tiny field mouse who had run across the road and not seeing us, run straight towards us. The mouse froze. I went around the back to gently suggest it might want to make an exit into the neighbouring field and which point the mouse went totally immobile. I have never touched a live filed mouse before but I was able to softly stroke the mouse along the back before literally nudging it along - at which point the mouse exited rapidly. 

The vineyards have started to proliferate again, creating a very green background to the fading gold of the corn. We rolled along into the ever-present head wind suddenly noticing an apparent castle keep on the horizon. On closer inspection it turned out to be a whimsy that a 19th century landowner had commissioned to hide the pipes at the head of a canal - very cool.

We headed back into Epernay for a second time on our trip, although John had been so zonked the first time he didn't recognise it! We managed to coincide this stay with some sort of motorbike rally (Eddie - you would have been in seventh heaven I reckon!!). This was interesting in many ways...although peace and quiet were definitely not the order of the day. 

We did find an awesome fromagerie though, and partook of some of the produce. There was also an opportunity to imbibe a little more of the champagne. John made an observation that I have been mulling does appear that Epernay has focussed almost entirely on champagne, possibly at the expense of other history and culture around the area. I guess everyone has to make a crust, and judging from the prosperity of this town, and others that surround it, they are making a loaf or two. Off to Charly tomorrow!!

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Day nineteen (Friday) Chalon-en-champagne 18km

Cakes: 1 x croissant each; 1 x tartelet aux citron (Hazel); 1 x tartelet aux apricots (John); Coffee 3 x each

A top cycle touring tip - never travel without ear plugs. They are your friend. In all sorts of situations and places they can help ensure a peaceful sleep. Case in point - even though the campsite was a little on the noisy front last night I had 8 and a half hours luxurious, delicious sleep.

Rested, and not needing to stir until 8am (to go to pick up the baguette and croissant from the camp office), we dallied over breakfast before hopping on our bikes (sans luggage) to have a look at the town with its many layers of history.

On the way in we popped into a supermarche to get a few things that it is tricky to find elsewhere. I popped in leaving John with the bikes. Usually, it's fine. With my limited francais I am able to greet, apologise, ask for directions etc. So, fruit, some veggies, a few other bits and bobs and over to the checkout I head. Wait in line. The checkout lady puts through the first few things and then gets to the fruit and veg. After having a careful look at the bags she then fires something rapid at me in French. I get the bunny caught in the headlights 'please help me look', unable to remember one word of French at that point. She repeats what she has just said, a little faster, and with pointing. Nope - still the bunny feeling. The lovely man in the queue behind me hoves into action and calls one of his friends (Claudette) over (she has finished her shopping and is chatting with a friend). Claudette dashes over, grabs my offending veggies and fruit, and heads back into the which point it occurs to me that I had to weigh and tag them. Claudette comes galloping back with everything sorted. This was an occasion where being able to say thank you in a couple of ways was a bonus!! Lovely folks.

John had a good chuckle before we head into the town to wander through the churches, the incredible cathedral and the gardens. The place has a lovely feel to it, and surprises such as a timber framed wedge-shaped house butted up against a church.

Many of the religious buildings, including the synagogue, were trashed during the revolution with many of the icons taken or broken. There was also a trend for then using the interiors as stables! Needless to say, although much of the stonework is still broken, there is no remaining signs of equine habitation.

The second world war took its toll too, with gates and statues being melted down, and one of the old bridges bombed.

We are planning to head back in this evening to listen to some music (concerts libres), and to sample some more of the local wine. Tomorrow, we have a short day of 35km to Epernay so we can maybe have a glass extra :).

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Day eighteen (Thursday) Saint Dizier to Chalon-en-champagne 82km 5 hours 20 mins

Cakes: 2 x croissant each; 1 x pain au chocolat each; 1 chausson aux pommes (shared); 1 x eclaire each; Coffee 1 x each

We had a bit of a chat about the nature of perfection and excellence today, especially around the notion of perfection as something that is subjective and fleeting - something that, in that moment, for a specific person, could not be improved upon - although John felt perfection was something where a line is drawn in the temporal sand that could not be improved upon going forward. Excellence on the other hand, we both felt there was an element of agreement around what factors comprise excellence, as well as comparison between things or skills.

This is a really long way of saying that, while yesterday's cycling was verging on excellent for both of us yesterday (although some factors were missing), some elements were (for me) were perfection. Today, however, if asked, I'd say there were moments of perfection (the reflection of the wild flowers in a still moment by the canal for instance), whereas the cycling was distinctly mixed.

For the first 20km we headed alongside the canal - which was perfectly straight...and directly into quite a brisk head wind. We passed the air base and watched a couple of jets take off (quickly and noisily); we avoided the folks walking their dogs and commuting cyclists; and we pushed into the wind.

A couple of highlights for the day included cycling past a tiny potages (veggie garden...more to follow on this subject soon), and cycling into a village that, apart from the cars, looked as though it had been transported intact from the 15th century.

Once we reached Vitres the cycle path abruptly stopped and dumped us in the middle of quite an industrial landscape (chemical industry), with large graffiti-ed apartment blocks, and a distinctly down-at-heel feel to the place. We made our way through the town and on to Chaumont along a really busy main road for the first couple of kilometres but then dropping onto the D52, where we stopped for eclaire.

We found a path that followed the canal again but the surface varied from lovely smooth tar seal, to pot holes with strips of tar seal sort of visible, to gravel path, to beaten earth (both with potholes). The surfaces where what John called 'interactive'! Made for a long 80 kilometers.

All the more grateful, however, we rolled into Chaumont, found the campsite, set up camp and then headed back into the town...which is glorious!! Jaw-dropping. We've decided to take an extra day here to explore the many layers of history (and cakes). Can't wait.

Friday, 10 July 2015

Day seventeen (Wednesday) Chaumont to Saint Dizier (Monday) Neufchateau to Chaumont 81km 4 hours 46mins

Cakes: 1 croissant each; 1 pain au chocolat each; 1 tartes aux almondes (John); Coffee 2 x each

What glorious cycling! We had been unsure as we'd packed up our tent (on a day chilly enough to wear a fleece while packing up) if the cycle route beside the canal would go for any distance with a reasonable surface. Not only was is a great surface but there was even a bit of a following breeze at the start of the day as well.

The canal was lined with a variety of fragrant wildflowers, as well as pots spilling over with geraniums and other brightly coloured blossoms, as well as old lock-keeper's places.

We ventured into some of the tiny villages that sat near the canal, noticing a greater prevalence of timber-framed houses. One we visited - about 30 buildings, a church, a hairdresser's and a tabac - we were met by a lovely old guy who told us (we guessed piecing together our broken French) that the church was open and we should visit.

The first thing that struck me walking into the church was the relative simplicity, the peace, and the beautiful light. As well as stained glass windows, some were edged with a lacy effect that mottled the flagstones. The whole place felt like somewhere you might want to stop and take a moment.

We continued thoughtfully on our way pleasantly meditative, and delighting as the kilometres purred away under our tyres. 

There was an interesting moment where I thought "stick on the path". Then another part of my brain kicked in at which point I realised that I was about to run over a snake. Not a good thing to do as I am pretty sure the snake (an adder I think) would have objected. Swerving a little wildly I missed the snake, slammed the brakes on and returned with my camera...maintaining a very respectful distance - beautiful.

Saint Dizier is an interesting little town and we meandered around the historic walk (a lot of intricate cast iron and metalwork castings), before settling in for a beer and a good meal. Another long day tomorrow, and maybe the route will continue along the canal.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Day sixteen (Tuesday) Chaumont

Cakes: 1 croissant each; 1 pain au chocolat (John); 1 tarte fuites (Hazel); tarte tartin (John); Coffee 1 x each

It was a really great feeling to hear the cycle tourer next door (70 years old if he was a day) packing up his tent at 7am, and to be able to roll over and snooze for another hour. After a well deserved lie in we did some more washing. Washing by hand is something you get really used to on a cycling adventure, although I am pretty sure that sometimes we are just redistributing the dirt more evenly!!

A light breakfast and we headed into Chaumont via a steeply, heavily wooded path that climbed up to .a fort. We clambered around like 10 year olds and had a whale of a time having a look into all the dark cubby holes and grilles around the place.

Next stop was the extraordinary church. Part Gothic and then built on over the centuries, the detail of much of the stonework and wood carving was exquisite. We could also see on the ceiling and some of the pillars faded remnants of the painting that would have decorated the interior. As well as the incredible light, the organist was practising while we walked around, treating us to a musical treat that enhanced the ambience of the experience.

By this point John was starting to talk a lot about coffee and croissant - always a sign! A bit of carbo loading (which included the beautiful tarte fruites I have pictured here), and we then settled down for some serious planning for the final days of our trip. Air BnB was our friend, and we've booked an old artist's apartment with a bay window, a washing machine, and a place to store our bikes. Perfect. We also have a plan for the rest of the route.

Now it's beer o'clock, and time to sign off. Back on the bikes tomorrow, and a biggish day to Saint Dizier.