A Few Hiccups

24 Oct

It’s been a slow week with a few bumpy bits. Chris was laid low with a cold in Carcassonne, and I lost a day to a migraine in Le Somail. Then I did something silly while cycling along the dike of the Canal du Rhone a Sete, nearly ending up in the canal. It could have been worse.

The walled city of Carcassonne and the Vieux Pont as seen from the Neuf Pont on our morning departure. The walled city was massively restored starting in about 1850.

The walled city of Carcassonne dominates the skyline above the Pont Vieux on our morning departure. The walled city was massively restored starting in about 1850.

2014/10/15-18: Carcassonne with a cold.
We’d walked the ramparts on our first evening, so we visited the inside of the castle on our first morning, but soon Chris was in bed with a sore throat. On our second day, we made a brief but successful outing for much-needed new bike shoes for Chris.

Our third day in Carcassonne was a Saturday and therefore market day. While Chris slept, I spent the morning doing the rounds of the food stalls to stock up with picnic supplies for our next day on the road. It brought back memories of le marche du Samedi when we lived in Ferney-Voltaire. I spent the afternoon in search of an open pharmacy, as we resorted to drugs for Chris’s symptoms.

Cheese at the Market

Louise, age 9, in a French market: “Un peu de reblochon, s’il vous plait?”

2014/10/19-20: Le Somail with a migraine

The village of Somail

The village of Le Somail. Palm trees abound.

Chris was ready to move at a relaxed pace. As we left town, we were passed by a man in a red T-shirt who was singing very loudly as he led a group of four who were about our age. We kept passing and being passed by these two couples as we made our way along the canal, and I chatted with the women as we approached Le Somail. By coincidence all six of us ended up finding lodgings on the same peniche — a barge moored by the canal side — and we went out for a relaxed dinner together. One couple was from Toulouse, the other from Marseille, and the two women were cousins.

Merci Bernard, Nanou, Gisèle et Patrice! Nous garderons de bons souvenirs de notre soirée avec vous à Le Somail.

Our barge home for two days

A restored barge, brought here from Holland, was our home for two days.

The next morning, I awoke with a piercing headache. I spent the day either vomiting or asleep in the dark, while Chris sat on the deck of the barge thinking about physics problems.

2014/10/21: Agde – the end of the Canal du Midi
Feeling almost like myself again, we continued on the last stretch towards the Mediterranean. The further south we move, the more evidence there is of the disease of the plane trees; there are blocked off areas where trees are being removed and burned, and long stretches where only stumps remain.

We chatted to a cyclist from nearby Perpignan who rued the fact that was likely the last time he’d ride the canal as it would be changed forever once the planes were gone. Personally, I think his attitude was gloomier than necessary. The addition of maritime pines and columnar cypress trees as we rode south added a bit of variety, and –realistically– trees don’t live forever. Who on earth decided to plant the plane trees all at the same time?

We dodged work site barricades with Monsieur Perpignan, and as we rode over the top of a ridge where the canal passes through a tunnel, he led us to a viewpoint that looked over a low-lying circular area laid out with wedge-shaped fields. This was the former marsh of Montady, drained in the 13th century by local monks who installed a system of underground conduits. It remains productive farmland, and the seepage now channeled underground still irrigates nearby areas.

This used to be a swamp. It is now drained from the centre to a point southward by several kilometres

This used to be a swamp. It is now drained from the centre to a point southward by several kilometres

The tunnel built circa 1666

The tunnel built circa 1666

We’d planned to camp, but we reconsidered as we neared Agde and saw various marginal groups camped near the canal. They were not Roma this time; there are others living on the margins in southern France as well. Someone later told us, as he warned us to watch our bikes carefully, that a marginalized element tends to migrate to the warmest parts of the country. There are some rough areas here in the south. We found simple digs near the train station

2014/10/22: Carnon Plage – covered in mud and losing luggage
We rode to Sete, and asked a local cyclist for help getting out town northeastward. Our helper was chatty, and explained that the coast was a hive of activity because the dorados (fish) that spend their summers feeding in the étangs or coastal lagoons, suddenly go out to sea en masse when the weather changes in the fall …as it just had. It seemed that every local fisherman was busily gearing up to catch his quota.

Our chatty fellow explained that the signs forbidding cycling along the dyke of the Canal du Rhone a Sète were to be ignored, and that everyone used the industrial haulage road along the dike to pedal their way across the salt marshes. The canal provides a channel for barges to make their way the mouth of the Rhone to the start of the Canal du Midi. In a few places, there is a hive of windsurfer or kite boarder action; in most others, there are quiet expanses of sea lavender, with egrets, cormorants, and even flamingoes.

Canal is little more than two parallel dykes crossing a salt marsh.

Canal is little more than two parallel dykes crossing salt lagoons.

Flamingos in the distance across the salt marsh.

Flamingos in the distance across the salt lagoon.

Flamingos

Flamingos

We did well till we neared Carnon. We had an alternative route option, but a local woman encouraged us to continue on the dike, warning of a muddy stretch. As we approached the muddy area, the result of dredging activity, instead of dismounting I decided to try an ride through at some speed. This was not clever. I slipped, failed to unclip from pedals, and fell over hard into the slime.

Happily, there are no photos of the result. Filth was everywhere on bike, panniers, person, and clothing, with enough blood in the mix too so as to raise sympathetic eyebrows of dredging workers. A seaside camp site among rows of camper vans no longer appealed, so we found a hotel and set about dealing with filth and wounds. To add to a bad end to the day, I realized I’d left the bag containing various gloves, socks, a neck warmer, and raincovers for feet somewhere at the last hotel while loading my bike in the morning. A phone call revealed it had not been found.

2014/10/23: Arles
We road a coastal bike path to La Grande Motte, and turned inland to the medieval city of Aigues-Mortes, built as coastal town but now lying five kilometres inland due to the expansion of the delta. After lunch, we started out on a ride in strong winds across the Camargue. We saw herds of compact white horses of the Camargue breed used for centuries by local cowboys — gardiens, and we respectfully admired sleek black bulls armed with great curved horns. They’re raised for export to the bullrings of Spain. In addition to vineyards and orchards, there were expanses of Camargue red rice, the fields flooded in spring now drained in preparation for harvest.

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Camargue Horse

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Bull raised mainly for bull fights, but they on the supper menu in our favourite restaurant in Arles.

The wind was behind us at first, gusting up to 50 km/h. Our direction gradually changed and so did the wind’s; soon it blew from the side, threatening to hurl us into the ditch if not into a truck. We fought it almost head on for the last 30 km to Arles. While hotel hunting in Arles, a gust off the Camargue took me by surprise and I fell again. I landed on my other knee, so now at least they match. I am a sorry sight, and Chris is still coughing.

We rolled past 2,000 km a few days ago, and a fair chunk of it has been unpaved or even single track.

We’ve found a good hotel, and will take a few days of needed rest here. This morning at breakfast they had a machine for squeezing your own fresh juice, with a mountain of oranges beside it. Can you hear our sighs of contentment?

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We have done many kilometres on paths like this by the canal.

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Getting under the bridge is not always easy.

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Canal water level control bridge.

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Egret on edge of salt lagoon.

M.

Canals

18 Oct

When Chris was growing up in England, the nearby Grand Union Canal was still a commercial transportation corridor. Following the Oxford Canal early in this trip, it appeared to have become more of a bohemian suburb than a waterway where anything actually moved.

Here in France the canals are well-used by recreational boaters, cyclists and pedestrians to travel through changing landscapes. We’ve certainly been taking advantage of them, and the cycling is so easy that I envision still being able to do this kind of bike touring well into my dotage.

From Dinan to Rennes in Brittany, we followed the Canal de L’Ille et Rance, and we joined part of the Canal de Nantes a Brest as we neared Nantes. The obvious route from the west coast to the Mediterranean was to follow the Canal du Midi, sometimes also referred to as the Canal des Deux Mers, especially when including the more recently built northern segment: Canal Lateral a la Garonne.

The original Canal du Midi from Toulouse to the Mediterranean was built between 1666 and 1681. The idea was to create an alternative route to the long and dangerous journey around the Iberian Peninsula and through the Straits of Gibraltar, where passage was taxed by the King of Spain. The Garonne portion was built two centuries later to allow movement of larger boats that could not easily navigate the river on whose estuary lies the Atlantic port of Bordeaux.

2014/10/11-12: Meilhan-sur-Garannne to Toulouse
The Canal Lateral a la Garonne leaves the river at La Reole, and rises through 53 locks before reaching Toulouse. It winds through vinyards, and areas where tomatoes and kiwis are grown. These canals were the engineering feats of their time, and we crossed the longest aqueduct in France at Agen, where the canal crosses the Garonne. There were smaller aqueducts too, each a robust piece of 1800s masonry.

Ride carefully not much room for cyclists

Ride very carefully! Not much room for cyclists.

2014/10/13: Toulouse
As we travel, we spend quite freely on food but we sometimes pinch pennies on accommodation. We’ve changed our policy now, and have communicated better about our minimum standards for a restful stopover of two nights and a day.

Hostelling International served us well in South America where most offered private rooms, but in France we’ve decided we need a bit more comfort and aesthetics. The hostel in Toulouse ran programs as a first stop for immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean, nice enough people for a pool game, but we really didn’t fit in. I forgot to ask if our room had “un grand lit“, and I am getting too old to move bunk beds to sleep vaguely near my husband. The place had disposable cellulose sheets, a bit like the hospital cap they give you when you go into surgery.

On our non-travel day, we set out on unloaded bikes and did a relaxed tour of parks, bridges, facades, the Capitol, and coffee shops. We also stopped at a bike shop for new chains and lighter drive train lubricant for drier climes as we head south. The thick oil left from Northern Europe last year collected every piece of dust and vegetation from the canal path.

Rose brick facades in Toulouse

Rose brick facades in Toulouse

2014/10/14-15: Toulouse to Carcassonne
This was the Canal du Midi proper, with deeper locks that have curved walls, and with old stone bollards. After 16 more upstream locks, we reached the highest point on the canal at 189 m above sea level, and paused to admire the engineering structures that supply water and regulate levels.

Holiday enters old curved lock

Holiday boater enters old curved lock

As we began to drop slowly toward the Mediterranean, we could see the change in vegetation. The pace of cycling is perfect for noticing such things. We also changed administrative departments, and the wide paved canal-side path suddenly became a rutted single track or a gravel pathway.

It was in this stretch that we saw the effects of the fungal disease on the plane trees, planted in the 1830s to shade the canal, as Hans had warned us that we would. In some stretches, trees were marked for felling and had been girdled with a chainsaw. In other stretches, removal was taking place, and in some areas there were simply rows of huge stumps.

Condemned plane tree

Condemned plane tree

Tree felling and removal

Tree felling and removal

A sad sight

A sad sight

A quick google told me that the disease is Ceratocystis platani, and that if the plane trees of the Canal du Midi are not systematically replaced, it’s status as a Unesco World heritage site may be lost. A French agronomist concludes that the disease was inadvertently introduced during during WW2, the fungal spores born by the ammunition cases brought by US troops. The cases were made from American plane wood.

The irony is that the American plane trees in Mississippi are now resistant to the disease, and imported trees may be an integral part of saving the character of the canal. 7000 trees from the USA will soon be planted.

2014/10/16: Carcassonne
Chris remembers his childhood visit to the medieval fortifications here. We’re glad it’s not high season, as Carcassonne it has become very popular since getting itself onto the Unesco list.

Entering the town, I stopped at the statue of local republican revolutionary Armand Barbes which bore the quote “Vivre libre ou mourir.” I wondered whether he was in any way connected to the state of New Hampshire where license plates say “Live free or die.” Wikipedia does not show me any obvious or direct link. (Enlightened historians are welcome to comment.)

We haven’t made the most of our stopover as Chris has a sore throat, but at least we have a comfortable room to nestle in, having learned a lesson in Toulouse. We are not yet finished with canals, but I’ll end this post here. We’ll be stationary for at least another day as Chris gets over a bad cold.

M

Migrating to the Mediterranean for Winter

15 Oct

We have chosen easy riding for our migration south. The terrain has been flat and the routes have been reasonably straight. Ahead, we have about 250 km more on a canal route prior to arriving by the Mediterranean.

Actually, the fall weather has been unseasonably warm on our ride, and we have been seeking shade for our rest stops. The Mediterranean is having unseasonably wet weather which we hope passes before we arrive.

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Two Englishmen, gossiping while their feet go round.

The Last of Atlantic Coast (Royan to Lacanau 83km, 1 day)
Sandy paths on forested sand dunes and closed seaside resorts dominated this day’s ride, which we did with Nick, an ex-London cabbie whom we’d met on the ferry from Royan to Pointe de Grave on the Medoc peninsula. The day passed quickly with much conversation. That night, because no hotels were open, we camped in the woods near a small pond. Unfortunately just before setting up camp we saw fresh footprints of wild boar, so we had a bad night’s sleep hearing noises in the forest.

Rail Trails (Lacanau to Bordeaux 67km, 1 day)
Within 5 km of camp, we joined a newly paved trail that headed into Bordeaux. Once onto pavement and off the soft sand of the tracks we’d ridden near our camp, we immediately cleaned our chains and drive train so as to enjoy the smooth ride into Bordeaux, where we were greeted by our warm showers hosts Hans and Bernadette. Hans is a landscape architect, who has worked on transforming the city landscape, including the bike paths that we much enjoyed.

Bordeaux
Like Vancouver, Bordeaux has reclaimed its water front, transforming it into a planned urban landscape. Of special note is an installation called “the mirror”, a rectangular pond that periodically fills and drains itself, with the water never more than a few millimetres deep. We spent a day enjoying the waterfront and getting lost in the old city, which is very pedestrian and bike-friendly.

The mirror in the "mirror" portion of its cycle. Bordeaux with its characteristic warm beige sandstone can be seen reflected in its surface.

The mirror in the “mirror” portion of its cycle. Bordeaux with its characteristic warm beige sandstone is reflected in its surface.

 

The mirror in the misting portion of its cycle. Behind Chris is a brand new replica of the Brigantine which had arrived in port the day before. General Lafayette sailed from Bordeaux in the Brigantine to help in the American revolution.

The mirror in the misting portion of its cycle. Behind Chris is a brand new replica of the brigantine l’Hermione which had arrived in port the day before. General Lafayette sailed from Bordeaux in l’Hermione to help in the American revolution.

 

More rail trail (Bordeaux to Toulouse, 287km 3 days)
In the morning, Hans led us across town by bike and we took up again rail trail. This led us gently to the Abbé de la Sauve-Majeure, a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its position on one of the many pilgrim routes to Santiago de Compostela. It is a ruin, but the ornate capitals on the top of the remaining columns are great fun. We continued from the rail trail onto Canal Lateral a la Garonne path that goes to Toulouse. Soon we stopped at a camping municipal beside the river. We had little option as it was getting dark, but the site was excellent.

Adam and Eve on the capital of one of the columns

Adam and Eve on the capital of one of the columns

In the next two days we rode about 180km on paved bike path along the canal to Toulouse. We enjoyed good food and reasonable weather. Despite being late in the year we were often in the presence of other cyclists and walkers, and we even camped and enjoyed an evening and good bottle of wine with a cycling “pilgrim.”

Trail by canal lined with plane trees.

Trail by canal lined with plane trees.

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Ring your bell and stay right as you swoop under the bridge, in case there is an oncoming cyclist!

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Hans told us that the magnificent and massive plane trees are under attack by disease. As we move south, some are marked for felling or have been felled. A real shame.

C.

In the Loo

7 Oct

At a coffee stop in Le Pellerin, the following signage was present behind the toilet. I ask myself whether such a sign would be acceptable in other countries. The words translate into something like: Gentlemen, aim well and move closer it is shorter than you think. This leaves one wondering what is shorter than you think!

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The Atlantic Coast

6 Oct

There is a framework of long distance bike routes that criss cross Europe called the Eurovelo network. These are better marked and mapped in some countries than others. Eurovelo 6 runs from Nantes to the Black Sea; Eurovelo 1 runs from Scotland to Portugal. We took a bit of an inland shortcut from one route to the other as we crossed from Nantes towards l’Ile de Noirmoutier where we aligned ourselves with Eurovelo 1.

10/02: To Beauvoir sur Mer 90 km
Leaving Nantes in the misty half light, we rode along the north side of the Loire estuary and crossed by ferry to Le Pellerin. After crossing rolling farmland, we approached the Passage du Gois at a exactly the correct time to make the 4 km low tide crossing to Noirmoutier. This crossing used to be the only way to reach the island, though now there is also a bridge. It appealed to us, but sadly it was closed for an upgrade to the surface.

 

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Dip nets in the channels.

Do Charolais cattle give birth later in the season? Why do we see so many brand new ones?

Do Charolais cattle give birth later in the season? Why do we see so many brand new ones?

Too bad for Noirmoutier! It was ‘t meant to be. We rerouted based on inaccurate advice that meant an out and back on rough dyke paths through salt marshes. Returning to civilization rather knackered, we collapsed into a Logis de France.

10/03: The woods near Sables d’Olonne 80 km
We were now on the official coastal cycling route that is a part of Eurovelo 1. Most of this day was on sandy tracks through a forest of maritime pines planted to stabilize the dunes. Several organized groups of cyclists passed us: a muscle-bound brightly clad mountain biker would lead, followed by a motley string of cyclists who signed up for a sortie encadree, with a cheerful fellow at the end of the line with a large sooty broom jauntily emerging from his backpack. I assume this symbolized that he was the official SWEEP – not a bad way of depicting the role. I believe the term for the last guy who collects the stragglers is equivalent in French.

The forest looked ideal for discreet camping, and we’d bought supper ingredients. We cooked these in an aire de repos near two English lads bent on surfing, and doing the same as us by their camper van. Then we slipped off into the woods for the night, reassured that the fine if caught camping illegally was only 22 euros. All the caravan park campsites – which at least have showers- are closed.

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Bridge blockaded by protesting mussel fishermen. No cars may pass.

10/04: To La Rochelle 108 km
We provided degreaser and rags for a local woman to clean her hands after dealing with her bike chain issue. The area north of La Rochelle is salt marsh and farmland, criss-crossed by canals and channels. We stopped near a channel to down some apple juice, and so began a chat with an off- duty gendarme who was most informative. He told us it hadn’t rained since July, there were water shortages, that it had been far hotter that usual, but that the pattern was about to break. He also warned of a bridge blockaded by mussel fharvesters protesting this year’s greatly reduced harvest.

Pedestrians and cyclists were being allowed through the manifestation. The mussel fishermen looked as if they were using the blockade as an opportunity to drink and lot and play checkers. When asked about their theories for the big drop in the mussel harvest, their answers are neither scientific nor logical.

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Tour de la Chaine at the mouth of La Rochelle harbour. The entrance was once tightly controlled by a chain slung between the two towers. Note the Quebec flag.

The heavens opened. Summer was over, and a more typical coastal weather pattern was moving in. We donned jackets and pedalled hard through rain till nightfall into La Rochelle. We arrived in the fabled city from which emigrants to New France departed, and staggered, drenched and tired, into an Ibis hotel.

10/05: To Royan 80 km
There is something about La Rochelle that hold a place in the minds off all Quebecers, even those who are not of pure laine stock. When in a canoe, it is only natural to keep the rhythm of one’s strokes by belting out “M’en revenant, de La Jolie Rochelle ….C’est l’aviron qui nous mene….” I heard French Canadian accents and saw a number of maple leaf badges on knapsacks, so others must feel the same.

We set off in much cool clear weather to the port and to the Tour de la Chaine, where I went to see the display about emigrants departing from La Rochelle to New France. These included Les Filles du Roi, in a scheme whereby the king of France endowed some  800 young women, all widows or orphans, with dowries and sent them to the colonies where women were scarce. They were given suitable education in language and domestic skills before departing, and when they arrived in Montreal they were housed in la Maison Saint Gabriel, run by Marguerite Bourgeoys. Here they were allowed to select husbands from among the earlier settlers, and they became the founding mothers of New France.

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Margo waving

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Breton pipe band

This was my special morning. Chris sat in the sun with bikes by the harbour and I waved down from the top of the tower. From across the port I could hear bagpipes, and I recognized the melody as “A Scottish Soldier.” We rode around the port for a closer look and listen; of course they were Breton pipers with not a kilt in sight. When another tune ended, I heard the leader suggest they play Les Montagnes Vertes, and they began again the tune familiar to me. Traditional music was clearly shared among neighbouring cultures.

At Rochfort, we crossed the river Charente on the century old cable car or transbordador rather than brave the new bridge. Continuing south toward Royan, we crossed the expanse of oyster farming ponds that surround the river Seudre.

From here, a ferry will take us across the Gironde estuary to the peninsula of Medoc, but only after we’ve rested and sat out some weather. A good bottle of red would not go amiss today.

M

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