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

South Across Brittany in Indian Summer

6 Oct

2014/09/26-10/04: St. Malo to La Rochelle
We’ve been travelling south through Brittany on small roads and canal paths. It’s good to be back on the right/right side of the road, and these roads are wider too. My rusty French is improving as we go. The weather has been unseasonably warm and humid – too hot for me.

Our love-hate relationship with France has been renewed; it began over twenty years ago when we live in the Pays de Gex. The cycling culture here warms the heart: I was slogging up a steep escarpment from the port of Dinan to the town centre in the citadel above, when there came a cheerful cry of “Bravo” from a car window. Skinny-tired roadies stop to chat and look at maps with us. But there is still sometimes a layer of unwillingness to help or to welcome foreigners that really grates.

The quest for a SIM card that would allow us to use an unlocked smart phone here was a demonstration. Our first visit to Orange (telecom company) in Dinan resulted in a long wait and paying for a card that would never work. On a second visit to Orange in Nantes we were met by a blockade of unhelpfulness and downright rudeness from a fellow standing beneath a sign that incongruously said acceuil – welcome. Ha! “We don’t have the SIM card you need. It doesn’t exist in any shop. Go away and order on line. No fixed address? Then you can’t. You’re SOL. Goodbye. Don’t bother us here.”

Across the street at SFR ( Societe Francaise de Radiocommunication) we are cheerfully and efficiently provided with exactly what we needed.

Entering Nantes, we spied a bike shop called Velo Evasion and pulled over, leaning our bikes -well padded with their soft bags- gently against the sturdy concrete building. Mr. Cool bike shop owner or employee pulled up on his fixie, and very abruptly chewed us out for risking a scratch to the concrete. A bike shop owner? What about service a la clientele? We quickly left, despite the stream of rather late apologies that trailed us. I could see that Chris was quietly blowing a fuse.

09/26: St. Malo 26 km
We used a map provided to us in Jersey to get ourself to the budget Ibis in the dark as we got off the ferry. Things would not have gone as smoothly without. In the morning, we pushed bikes along the ramparts and paid homage to an important native son. We also learned that the first colonizers of the Falklands wee from here, hence the Spanish name Las Malvinas.

Yyy

Statue of Jacques Cartier looking out from the ramparts of St. Malo. A plaque unveiled by Pierre Trudeau commemorates the 450th anniversary of his sailing to New France.

09/27: To South of Dinan 46 km 
Much of this was along a voie verte that followed the Canal d’Ille et Rance. We feasted on Breton galettes in the port of Dinan before slogging upward to the town centre to buy groceries and take a stab at acquiring a SIM card in Orange, before riding along to Marion’s cottage in the countryside where we quickly made ourselves at home.

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Beside the canal de L’Ille et Rance

09/28: To Rennes 75 km
Along the canal I overheard such comments as “Qu’il sont charges!” In reference to our loaded bikes. Most of he the other cyclists here were day trippers. It’s good to see the routes so well used.

Arriving in Rennes, the capital of Brittany, we made our way to the youth hostel. We ate pizza for dinner with a Romanian law student from the hostel. The conversation went in grim directions and covered the lack of options in mental health treatment, as well as the realities of the world’s nuclear arsenal.

09/29: To Chateaubriant 62 km
We met a great group of roadies prepared to chat. We also pulled into a rest area to find a monument to local son Auguste Pavie (1847-1925), explorer of Indochina and first Governor General of Laos. He was one who really went local.

09/30-10/01: Nantes 68 km
We found our way to a rather basic youth hostel, then went out to buy chain cleaning necessities. Dinner was moules a la mariniere with frites at a pirate-themed restaurant that played an array of traditional music, including Breton bagpipes fused with rock by a group called Soldat Louis.

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Chateau of the Dukes of Brittany, seen from the courtyard. It is surrounded by ramparts and moats, with the moat area now landscaped to gardens.

The day off involved a visit to the Chateau of the Dukes of Brittany, a really good lunch, an early evening spent cleaning bike chains, followed by supper at an Afghan restaurant.

We’ll ride across the peninsula to the coast and a different landscape tomorrow.

M

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