Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Day eight (Monday) Reims to Herpy L'Arlesienne 64km 4 hours 2 mins

Cakes: 1 croissant each; 1 pain au chocolat each; 1 chausson aux pommes shared; Coffee 3 x each

We left Reims and our lovely apartment somewhat reluctantly this morning. It was a glorious day again, and John had picked out a couple of last places to visit before we headed out. The first was a building from the 1920s where you could see the influence of Art Nouveau in the lines and decoration. The next was the back of the cathedral...a different perspective to the other 2 days. Amazing that it took us three days to take in all the aspects of this incredible building. The gardens sur the derriere were full of blossoms. You get really spoiled by the number of gorgeous gardens and flowers everywhere in France. The final stop was a Roman 'entrance' - a series of pillars jutting up strangely in the middle of an urban space and park.

After our mini-tour, the next stop was a boulangerie and patisserie before heading out for the canal again. Quiet after yesterday, it was easy cycling giving us plenty of opportunity to gawp at the working warehouses that line the canal from about 5km out. It was reassuring to see that the canals are still used to ship goods and produce around France.

The further we got away from Reims, the more 'rural' the canal path became, changing from tar seal after about 10km, to a wide gravel track, to a narrow, chalky, bumpy track, to a bike wheel width chalky, bumpy track. This meant concentrating otherwise it would be relatively easy to end up in the drink! We did come around a corner to find two walkers sat in a shady spot in the middle of said track. They seemed really reluctant to move their pack, boots and feet to let us pass...but hey, they looked as though they had been walking for hours.

We came off the canal, and stopped for morning tea by a lovely looking wooden river boat, where we were serenaded by swifts coming in low over the water to snap up insects. 

The route up through the village was...up. In fact, as we swung around one corner a lovely old gentleman, grinning broadly, said in French (I think), you have a steep hill to climb now, tracing a steep curve with his hand and arm. It was indeed a climb, but a lot was shaded by trees, and the view from the top was great. We could see the cathedral at Reims in the distance, with small clumps of woodland dotting the distance between, and a vineyard dipping down the slope immediately in front of us.

The rest of the days was rolling hills, often tree-lined, with patchwork arable fields around us with dark green kale, blue-green corn, golden barley, and fields of purple poppies (for the food industry I suspect).

We took a couple of unexpected detours (aka getting slightly lost), but the pay-back with those moments are the unexpected sights and experiences, such as a lovely old bell on a wall, or a plough surrounded by flowers.

Tonight we are staying at a chambre d'hotes in a lovely little village, so small that the proprietor is making us dinner as there is nowhere to buy food or eat out. From the landing if you peer through the ivy-framed window, you can see l'egilse (church) just across the lane. In a few minutes, showered and refreshed, we are going to head out for a stroll down to the river before returning for a bite to eat and an early night.

John's bit

Today we left the vineyards behind after giving thanks to the gods of wine and moved into a vast arable region with wheat and barley growing over the horizon where I gave my own thanks to the small but very important gods of all things pastry-like. The roads rolled over gentle hills and down to small villages in the valleys while the wind was just enough of a breeze to keep us cool but not really slow us down. The fields were busier than the roads with harvesters and massive tractor trailers making the most of the long dry days.

We have started to use our awesome aeropresse coffee maker - the last gizmo to be pulled from the bags. Check them out online, they make a good cup of coffee.

Our progress means that we are now almost at the northern tip of our tour of NE France which we reach tomorrow at Charleville-Meziers. From there we follow the River Meuse South upstream past Verdun before heading West and meandering back to Paris.

There are more campsites now, so Hazel is happy, but we are really enjoying the chambres d'hôte experience as well. In fact, we are currently both beached after being fed far too much by our current hosts. Deliberately not thinking about the weather which has been fantastic so far. There are some hills ahead, which I am also trying to ignore.

Highlight of today was seeing my first baguette dispensing machine. A marvel of technology brought to you by the inventors of bread that you can hide down the leg of your trousers.

Monday, 29 June 2015

Day seven (Sunday) Reims - "Vous etes ici" (you are here)

Cakes: 1 pain au chocolat each; plus an ice-cream (which doesn't really count); coffee x 3 each

After arriving in Reims yesterday we decided that it would be great to take an extra day to relax and explore this simply stunning city. John, wheeling out his ever-improving French called up some of the Chambres d'hotes near the city centre, and, after about 7 calls found a super apartment that was 5 mins away from the cathedral and 3 mins away from the canal and surrounding 'green zone'. As well as having just been done out, the apartment had...joy of joys...a washing machine! We had been doing our best with hand washing in the shower, but what tends to happen is everything in your clothes pannier starts to smell 'almost clean' (with a slight hint of parfum de bag lady). So, first thing was to empty every item of clothing from our panniers and start a grand washing spree.

In the meantime we set off for a picnic breakfast beside the canal in the shade of oak trees. It was an excellent spot to observe the Reims Sunday stampede of runners weaving around packs of cyclists. Peach looks as though it is the colour de jour - for men as well as women! And age isn't a barrier - from the very young to the very mature, everyone was out.

Replete, we then headed back to the apartment, where John gallantly sorted out our route for the rest of our trip, and I donned my running shoes and went to join the runner stampede. Awesome run, with little wooded parks to pop into just off the main canal path, and tiny lanes to trot along. Unbelievable in such a big place.

The rest of the day we spent wandering around the inside of the incredible cathedral, which has been restored since nearly being destroyed in the first world war. Then a stroll around the adjacent palace where pieces of the historical puzzle started to fall into place such as the nuns in Chateau Thierry contributing to some of the needlework for the cloaks of kings; and a simple cloak or tabard could weigh about 8kg!

Further exploration brought us to a place where we could enjoy a beer, and indulge in some people-watching. An excellent day, for sure.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Day six Val-de-Vesle to Reims 25km 2 hours

Cakes: 1 croissant each; shared 1 pain auchoccoolat,, oone Mille-feuille  and 1 Paris Brest; Coffee 3 x each


It was a joy to wake up in the tent. The birds were bellowing away in the trees, and the Moorhen who lives on the river that meanders by the campsite was cheeping plaintively to her three chicks. A watery sun was just making it's way through the branches of the trees.

A little on the chilly side, we still enjoyed a good breakfast before heading off for a short cycling day to Reims. It was a pretty easy day, with a lot alongside a canal. A highlight for me was seeing several horse and buggies going by...like an antique car rally but with horses :) They were all beautifully turned out, and the driver and passengers were wearing what looked like Victorian period costume. A little surreal, but marvellously picturesque.

The jaunt along the canal was punctuated with a quick stop for some sublime pastries, which helped ease the small section of sandy track where we had to push our bikes before jumping on to a tar-sealed lane all the way into the centre of Reims. No traffic, and there was even a lift up from the canal to road level, where we cycled pretty much directly to the incredible edifice that is the cathedral here. 

I'm going to keep this short and sweet because John has added his bit below.

John's bit

I am writing this while sitting at a street cafe in Riems in the late afternoon sun at the end of a glorious Saturday, watching the world go by and waiting for the very busy waiter to reach my table.  Very, very civilised; very, very French.

My last post was after our second day, and a few miles and kilometres have rolled under our pram sized wheels since then. The bikes continue to work well. The 8 speed cassette and internal 3 speed hub gear (for the Brits, think chopper bikes and Sturmey Archer gears) are good, giving maybe 11 gears and an easy way to drop 3 or 4 gears in one go - very useful when you stop all the time to read the map. The technology is good as well as I use a map app on the iPad mini to plot and follow the route. But I do need paper to plan the route. 

The other evening we had a lengthy discussion which I would summarise as a robust debate on the correct PK ratio for a cycle trip where P = pastries (I have conceded that pain au chocolat should be considered a pastry) and K = kilometres. I think this should be around 1 cake per 20km and I also think there is a limit (yes, even for me) of 3 cakes a day. Hazel's view inclines towards fewer cakes and more kays.  I made my case well but, needless to say, I lost that argument.

The very next day we set off to cover a greater distance.  I upped the anti in the patisserie department sneaking in a cafe eclair and hazel set her sights on the distant town of Epernay.

Despite the extra pastry power I was still reduced to a wobbly mess after a few unexpectedly long and deceptively steep climbs. 5 kilometres away from our destination I could go no further.  We found a shop that was open (no small thing in rural France where shops are open fewer hours than the churches) and in a hypo glycemic (sp!) fit I grabbed anything that looked like a carbohydrate in a wild trolley dash only to then queue for 10 minutes fighting off dizziness while the lovely but slow 95 year old cashier rang everything up with one finger on a machine from the 1800's - at least I would be able to pay for my goodies in the event of a power cut. I ate the lot and after a few minutes absorbing the sugars I was back on the road. Slow progress behind a slightly worried looking but somewhat smug Hazel towards the home of Moët.

Two days later and we are now spending the weekend in Reims sucking up some culture.  I like to think I play the longer game, but it was probably all part of Hazel's master plan.

Highlight of today was ordering a cake called a Paris Brest and being corrected in my pronunciation by the gorgeous cashier.

And here's the waiter.

Day five Epernay to Val-de-Vesle 57km 3.48 hours

Cakes: 1 croissant each; 0.5 pain au chocolat aux armandes; 1 chausson aux pommes; Coffee 3 x each

I missed blogging last night as I was nobbled by a beer, a small tumble (caused by the beer and a close encounter with a curb), followed by a couple of glasses of bubbles for the shock!! :) We had headed out at the end of a glorious hot sunny day of cycling for a wee jar at the local hostlery. On the way back to the campsite we popped in to see a gorgeous old church. The beer had befuddled me a little, and realising 1) I was on the wrong side of the road, and 2) there was a car coming, I attempted to bump up the really small curb. I went over the curb, the bike didn't. I was clipped in to my pedals, so trying to signal the lady (aghast) in the car that I was OK, I then performed a comedy show that involved me unclipping while pinned under the bike and the rucksack of supplies I was carrying (all the while smiling reassuringly at the lady who was still sitting in her car watching). Only once I had extracted myself and stood up did she also smile and drive away. The very good news is that the baguette and various pastries, cheeses, and bottle of champagne were unscathed. The good news was that I only suffered with gravel rash on my elbow and knee, and a rather bruised dignity!

Prior to the comedy pratt fall, we had experienced a fabulous day's cycling again. Blue skies, fluffy clouds, and rolling hills. One of the things I was fascinated by was the heaps of sweet pea flowers growing in many of the verges. The perfume was exquisite, and they look stunning. 

As well as verges full of wild flowers, another thing that really caught my attention today was the empty villages. We would cycle through entire villages and see noone. A cat might yawn, stretch and watch our passing, but otherwise the places appeared to be almost deserted. Having said that, the vineyards had almost whole families working on the vines, and the schools were full.

Lunch was in another shady spot, this time beside a (deserted) canal. We are venturing into more adventurous territory on the pastries front after yesterday's eclaire, and shared a light, fluffy, fragrant apple turnover. Sigh - heaven. Then, back on the bikes to weave up and through the vineyards, and back down again, and then up (ask John about the hills ;) ), to finally arrive at a rather nice campsite. Which brings me to the point where we set up camp and went for that beer :D

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Day four Chateau Thierry to Epernay 65km 4.5 hours

Cakes: 1 croissant each; 0.5 pain au chocolat; 1 eclair; Coffee 2 x each

Today was a peach of a day!! It felt and smelt like a summer day. A pot pourri of the scents of flowers, hay, dust, and a little je ne sais quoi of something else.

A short post today, as it has been a tiring one. As well as an increase in distance, we also did some reasonable hills, and the temperature got up to 25 degrees. Toward the end of the day we were both a little on the 'glowing' side, and John was starting to go nuclear to the point where we had to have an emergency shop stop for chips (aka crisps), cookies (aka biscuits), and water.

The day's cycling was outstanding though. We started out following the river Marne, then headed off for Vincelles, Roncheres and Champoisy for a bit of a scenic detour. Vast swathes of arable land covered the top of the plateau, interspersed with tiny villages, each with a different type of church, and all with a sign with the name of a village, and flowers planted beneath the sign.

Our lunch spot was idyllic. A small tree offered shade, and our vantage point meant we could see for miles. Lunch was fabulous. Fresh baguette, local cheese, a tomato, a nectarine, and a shared eclaire...sheer heaven.

After lunch we cycled through a deliciously shady forest, followed by a  full on decent through vineyards with names we recognised having imbibed, and enjoyed, their produce on many occasions! Once back down and following quite roads parallel to the river, we continued to pass through tiny towns, often with ruins, and sometimes with massive statues pointing out over the hills. There were also a couple of challenging climbs.

Needless to Epernay was a sight for sore eyes, and a respite for tired legs. Our accommodation isn't quite as exciting as last night's, but comfortable, and with wireless so can't complain. We had a sublime meal in the Restaurant Theatre, accompanied by our first glass of champagne in the region. Roll on tomorrow. 

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

Day three La-Ferte-sous-Jouarre to Chateau Thierry

Day three La-Ferte-sous-Jouarre to Chateau Thierry 30km 2.5 hours

Cakes: 1 croissant each; 0.5 pain au chocolat; Coffee 2 x each

Another short day. The places to stay seem to be a little thin on the ground, and we appear to have arrived before the high season has really kicked in. So we have to work around towns where there are places to stay. This is good in that there are way fewer people around and not so good in that many of the potential places to stay are still closed. Having said that we are satying in a 16th century Chambres d'hotes tonight. It's amazing. You walk up a lot of steps going ever upward in a spiral, and arrive in a room that is done out in a mix of Arabian Nights meets Chateau Thierry 'making the most of a under the beams loft space'. We love it!!

We woke up to fog this morning (at last a chance to say au fait du brouillard - and I could be way off on the spelling there - something I learned at school but never had an opportunity to actually say in an authentic context). The fog cleared to give us wall to wall blue skies, and a chance to cycle in the sun. 

We set off on a road that was supposedly busy, but in fact was lovely and quiet. The rolling fields of ripening corn, barley and oats, interspersed with ancient churches, abbeys, and chateaux, continued to line out route. A few turns later, and we crossed the border into the Champagne region.

Almost immediately we spotted vineyards - lots of them - striding up hills in straight lines, being tended by hand and by this great machine that trims the vines by driving over the top of them. Well - maybe not literally. The trimming blades and cab are perfectly positioned, high up, so that the driver can go up and down the lines of vines trimming off the tendrils that are not required.

The cycling was blissful. We stopped off in a couple of tiny villages, and had morning tea beside a water fountain in an art commune.

Having reached Chateau Thierry we booked in for a tour of the old hospital (dating from the 1300s). At this point my school girl French was stretched to past breaking point, as the tour was in French. I could understand...about 1 word in 20, and possibly more when the guide was talking about subjects such as eating and ablutions! The Musee de l'Hotel-Dieu un Tresor was an eye-opening mix of exquisite embroidery and carving, along with interesting details such as (I think...translation allowing) nuns who were not allowed to wash, so had copious quantities of flowers and pot pourri around the place to mask the smell.

I'm just about to turn in. We're still wresting a bit with jet lag, and general 'stress hangover'. Very much looking forward to tomorrow.

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Day two - Meaux to La-Ferte-sous-Jouarre 30km 2.5 hours

Cakes: 1 pain au chocolat, and 1 croissant amande; Coffees: 2 each

I am sitting here at a little bar with John, drinking a rather nice local beer, and counting the number of cars that are passing with dings of some sort. A brief, non-scientific sample suggests that about 1/3 of the passing cars have at least one dent or scratch. I suspect that this indicates the narrowness of the streets, as well as the fact that we are either geeks, and/or beginning to relax...or something else entirely! It has an element of absurdity that was also present when, yesterday, we went into a pharmacy to buy some anti-chafe cream. Given that neither of us has a very broad vocabulary in French, it was quite entertaining trying to mime what we were looking for without pointing to the obvious nether regions. The very attractive young assistant, non-plussed by John's description, went to find the pharmacist wherein the process had to be repeated. Finally, a look of understanding crossed her face, and smiles all around as we departed clutching our tube of anti-chafe.

Today was a short, but full day. Chilly, but with some sunshine and a few clouds, we set off to the River Meaux. The road we took swooped downhill (not so good if we had to turn around and go back, given we weren't 100% sure we were on the right track). The dead end sign was also a worry, but the very wise John suggested that we continue in case it was only for cars. Sure enough, we ended up on a lovely track with overarching trees and dappled sunshine. We popped out the end of the track to see...a camel in a paddock. Yup, a camel.

We followed a winding lane through tiny villages stacked with flowers. The grass verges alongside the lane were a blast from my childhood, with brilliant blue cornflowers and hare bells, fields of ripening barley, swathes of corn with stalks so green at the moment, they were almost blue, and the ever present sound of birds. The big difference were the incredible chateaux and old, usually very ornate barns that we would come across in what felt like the middle of nowhere.

The Terns performed pretty well up the hills, and were more stable down the hills with the four panniers on, which was great. Also cool that we could fold them up last night to fit in the cupboard in the place in which we were staying!

We got to La-Ferte-sous-Jouarre just as the market was closing, so loaded up with cheese. I ventured into the boulangerie to emerge after an airing of my terrible French, brief lesson on pronunciation, and a very large loaf of bread...and 2 cakes! The loaf wasn't quite what I'd gone in for, but it's really tasty.

A quick coffee in the central square led to 2 conversations with some lovely guys. The first sat down and talked rapidly in French and once he realised that I knew very little we lapsed into a sort of pigeon mime, and the second one spoke way more English and we were able to touch on quite a few subjects including his relatives in Kansas, and some of the beauties of both France and New Zealand.

We're now sorting out our plan for tomorrow. More cakes, more coffee, and more fabulous cycling.

John's Spot:

Cycling in France again and I couldn't be happier. The views so far have been rolling fields of barley and wheat punctuated by poppies and edged with wild flowers. The canal we rode along yesterday was also a treat - childhood memories of falling from my bike into a grimy canal in Birmingham have now been replaced with something far better. We have moved on from busy roads and high rise estates near Paris and we now pass through ancient villages on empty roads beside the ruins of stately homes destroyed in the revolution.

The comedy bikes are working well. Reassembly was a doddle at the airport and we went from 2 battered boxes to 2 bikes on the road in far less than 2 hours. The easy hills are no problem and they roll along at 25kmh easily enough. Although I do miss the quiet rolling of my trusty rholoff hub. Still a bit wobbly on decent and I am not 100% confident in the brakes, so they may need a tweak. They are also pretty comfortable. The position is rather upright so cycling into a strong wind may be challenging, but that is what rest days and trains are for.

The pastries and breads are as good as ever. We have just eaten too much Brie de Meaux, which was delicious. No wine yet - saving up for Champagne tomorrow.

Highlight of the trip so far has to be watching Hazel leave the boulangerie carrying half of the shop's produce. The result of answering every question with an enthusiastic Oui! I may ask all my questions of Hazel in French from now on.

Monday, 22 June 2015

Day one - Charles de Gaulle Airport to Meaux

Day one - Charles de Gaulle Airport to Meaux 45.55km 3 hrs 18 mins

Cakes: 1.5 pain au chocolat each; Coffees: 2 each

It was a long flight and even managing to sleep pretty well, we were both in that strange woozy state that is a mix of jet lag and trying to sleep in a near upright position. My ankles are now the size of small melons, but hey!

We retrieved our wonderful bikes pretty easily, and marvelled at how the 'professional' baggage handlers had done such a stirling job wrecking the boxes...again. We'd reinforced them after the first leg to Kuala Lumpur. Luckily the bikes inside were fine, and we were really impressed at how easy they were to get sorted ready to ride off. I was particularly impressed by the track pump that fits in the seat post. Works a treat.

After we had escaped on our bikes from Charles de Gaulle Airport, no mean feat in and of itself, even with the incredibly useful directions John had found on the Internet. Even that had some lovely moments, such as the splashes of colour from the wild flowers around the place. Once we made it to the suburbs of Paris, we were fine, especially once we made it to the track beside the Canal Ourcq.

It seemed to be a day of amazing aromas - elder flowers, honeysuckle, bonfires; remembered experiences - fresh croissant, pain au chocolat, blackbirds and thrushes singing; and long, long avenues of trees fringing the canal.

We stopped for lunch in Lizy-sur-Ourcq, a pleasant little market town with some lovely old buildings, and flowers everywhere. Sitting on a bench eating our baguette and cheese, it was neat to be wished 'bon appetit' by two passing ladies. 

The bikes have been a joy, even on the gravel surface of the canal path, so we're really happy. We were even happier to have timed our first day just right, and arrived in Meaux just as it began to rain. We are just about to go off to sleep, but I wanted to start with a first blog post :) I think tomorrow may be less cycling, and more exploring. We'll see.