Our choice of Dieppe as a final destination in France was a deliberate one.
For most Canadians, Dieppe is remembered for one thing only: The Dieppe Raid of 19th August 1942. 6,100 Allied troops, of whom 5,000 were Canadian, landed on the beaches. 907 of the Canadians died.
We cycled out along the main landing beach and then to the cemetery. I understand the rationale for the raid: the need to divert Nazi effort from the Eastern Front, and an essential test for the later Normandy Landings. However, during the hour we spent in the cemetery, my thoughts were dominated by the fact that everyone of these men had a mother and family back home, and I cried.
We returned to Oslo overland as planned, weaving together visits to family and friends as we went. We did this without dismantling our bicycles. We’d expected it to be an adventure in itself, and it certainly was. We took a total of 23 trains, 1 bus, 3 ships and 1 ferry, arriving in Oslo with 1 or 2 ribs broken in England.
2019/10/22: Toulouse to Dieppe
TGV Innoui to Paris, 5 euros per bike, reserved space on easily accessible rack. Seats reserved beside bikes. Death-defying 15 km commute across Paris from Montparnasse to St. Lazare station. Intercity train to Rouen with bikes vertically on hooks. No charge for bikes but hooks allocated. TER (regional) train to Dieppe. Bikes leaning in luggage area, panniers removed.
2019/10/23: Dieppe to Newhaven
Evening crossing, 4 hours. Loaded bikes lashed down on lowest car deck. Disembarked in dark and rain, cycling on left in search of a B&B.
2019/10/24: Newhaven to Canterbury
Cycled 39 km in increasingly heavy rain to Eastbourne. Margo yelling “LEFT, LEFT, LEFT” as Chris drifted to right on bike path. 2 trains to Canterbury. No charge for bikes, rack space available, panniers removed.
2019/10/26: Canterbury to Lincolnshire, no bikes.
Bikes and panniers parked in hotel’s garden shed. 3 trains and one bus north to see friend. Bus segment due to unusual flooding on rail line.
2019/10/28: Lincolnshire to Canterbury via Horsham, no bikes.
Driven to Doncaster to avoid flooded rail line. 2 trains to London. Buy additional tickets to Horsham to see cousin, out and back from London. Fast train back to Canterbury, retrieve bikes. Glad we bought National Rail Senior Railcards!
2019/10/31-11/01: Canterbury to Cambridge
Cycled 74 km to Gravesend, some on trail suitable for MTBs, then under and over busy highways. Night in B&B. Ferry across Thames. First attempted route was closed. Second attempted route ended at a garbage dump. Onto “A” road with terrifying traffic, roundabouts, and honking. Train from Brentwood to Cambridge via London. Rode at walking speed through Cambridge city park to C’s old friends. Unfortunate fall onto a bent metal fence rail while stopping. OUCH!
2019/11/03: Cambridge to Harwich
Bought more Ibuprofen and Paracetemol en route to train station. Direct train to Harwich cancelled, replaced by three, meaning two extra changes. Platform and train are never at same level. This means each loading of bikes requires strength difficult to muster with broken ribs. One of us loaded bikes, while other stood holding a bike. Bought tickets and pedalled onto boat to Hook of Holland. Given bag of ice for ribs.
2019/11/04: Hook of Holland to Hannover
Rolled off to peaceful Dutch bike infrastructure. Pedalled 30 km gingerly to Schiedham. (Maximum elevation 3 meters.) Helped to use ticket machine by cleaning woman with impeccable English. Train to Rotterdam. Bought more tickets. Ticket seller made us lattes using staff coffee maker. A relaxed and welcoming country! Made us want to come back to Holland with bikes in better weather! Conductor at departure evicted oblivious youth with headphones from bike alcove. Train to Amersfoort. Train to Hannover, Germany. Found hotel. Walked back to station after supper to buy tickets to Kiel.
2019/11/05: Hannover to Kiel
Positioned ourselves correctly on platform according to bike access diagram. Train arrived. Diagram was incorrect – we were at wrong end!! Moved as quickly as injury permitted to other end. We delayed train’s departure, and took a later train from Hamburg to Kiel. Still made boat departure. Lashed bikes in hold. Asleep in our cabin by 2 p.m. sailing, did not wake till following morning.
2019/11/06: Kiel to Oslo
Made good use of buffet breakfast. Minus 5 Celsius in Oslo. Rolled off boat carefully at 10 a.m.. Chatted to customs officer who clearly thought we were very odd. In the distance, we saw a familiar figure waiting for us with a minivan. Olav to the rescue!!! The non-injured loaded everything into the vehicle.
Oslo may not quite be home, but it’s a very welcoming base camp.
After a quiet day hiding from rain, we met Belgians Karel and Yvette for a relaxed dinner. The following morning, we slogged uphill in mist, to emerge on top of one of the causses that makes up the southwestern part of the Massif. We were in Parc Naturel Régional des Grands Causses. These raised chalky plateaux are cut by rivers to form canyons.
The wind helped us make progress across the top, an open moorland grazed by sheep. Before we began our descent off the plateau, there was a group of modern windmills. “Stop les éoliennes” had been spray painted onto the tarmac nearby. We need to read and explore further to try to understand the basis of this protest movement against what one would think is a move toward a renewable energy source. We fell into a basic hotel, and rode to find dinner at a Chinese restaurant.
2019/10/16: 80 km to Mazamet
As planned, we followed another voie verte on old rail bed. The day took us very gradually up to a 750 m long tunnel at the top, and a very gradual descent across Parc Naturel Régional du Haut Languedoc. The only surprise of the day was when Chris ran over a fairly large (60 cm?) garter snake. Judging by how quickly it dove into long grass, I don’t think he seriously injured it.
We rolled up fairly early to a two star Logis to find it unattended. After making a phone call to the posted number, we were cheerfully instructed how to check ourselves in, where to park our bicycles, and which key to take from a hook so as to let ourselves into our room.
2019/10/17: 90 km to Lauragais
The early part of the ride put us in heavier traffic than we’d have liked, but from Revel, we were on a suggested cycle route on small roads. We soon found ourselves on the distinctly off road cycle path that follows the Rigole du Canal du Midi. This is the feeder channel which brings water, collected in the relatively rainy high area to the east, to fill the canal at its highest point and allow the locks to operate.
Having ridden along the Canal du Midi in 2014, we found it interesting to now follow the rigole or supply channel, and to arrive at the partage des eaux or watershed boundary, the highest point in the canal.
Having followed the rigole on 40 km of path more suitable for mountain bikes, it was pleasant to ride along the familiar canal to Lauragais. This was our final night before arriving in Toulouse, and we marked the occasion by having hearty cassoulet for dinner.
2019/10/18: 40 km to Toulouse
We started early, gliding along the familiar canal toward Toulouse. Ducks still slept, heads tucked under wings as they floated. A territorial goose challenged us. Were we taking photos of the same bridges we’d passed in 2014?
Our intent was to take the train north to Dieppe from Toulouse. This was to be a slow few days of overland travel, and a test of the bike-friendliness of France’s regional trains. At the station, we bought tickets for what we thought would be a northward departure the next morning. We settled ourselves in the nearby Ibis hotel, and made an outing to the laverie, or laundromat. This was the first such outing since Norway, and much needed.
2019/10/19-20: Still in Toulouse
The next morning, we loaded our bikes and rolled to the station. Our departure wasn’t shown on the board. In fact, there were very few departures shown.
As planned, we left the valley of the Rhône valley for something a bit more challenging. Our idea was to travel west across the southern portion of the Massif Central, where we hoped for forgiving weather as we sought out some interesting terrain.
2019/10/09: 73 km to Barjac
We started on an alarmingly busy stretch of road, but all became quieter as we turned to climb along the Gorges de l’Ardèche. We stopped at pullouts to admire the view into the canyon carved by the river. The water level was low, and the river seemed peaceful.
At one of these pullouts, I removed my helmet in order to change shirts. I placed it on a cement bench rather than hook it onto my bike. About 3 km after riding off without it, I realized there was far too much wind in my hair, and we rode back to find it was gone.
As we rode on, I was kicking myself for being so stupid, till the sight of two goats ensconced at the roadside – happily chewing their cud – brought me to my senses. There was an exhilarating descent as we continued to Barjac, and after some searching and a coffee break, we found a friendly chambre d’hôte, and soon flopped into bed.
2019/10/10: 63km to St. Jean de Gard
Finding a new helmet was the urgent task at hand. I’d been wearing a bandana so as to feel slightly less naked and vulnerable. A flattish ride took us to Alès, a larger town with a fairly big bike shop. I tried several before deciding.
We ended up eating our picnic at a table inside the shop while it was closed for lunch. The staff even provided us with espresso. This was due to errors made as Chris was paying for my helmet. Due to different banking systems and a raft of ensuing headaches, we left the shop with an enormous wad of cash that we were given to rectify the error. The helmet will appear on Chris’s credit card at ten times its correct price!
We rode peacefully in to St, Jean du Gard, where we learned Robert-Louis Stevenson ended his trek across the Cévennes with his donkey, Modestine, in 1879. His first book “Travels with a Donkey” recounts this journey.
2019/10/11-12: 57 km to Florac and rest day
After a quick round of chain maintenance and some food shopping, we began the ascent to la Corniche des Cévennes. We climbed about 1100 m and descended about 600 this day. The ride along the ridge was spectacular, with extended views of high grazing land and Mediterranean forest; chestnut trees and persimmons bore fruit; wild boars had been rooting for truffles (or something) along the roadside. Sheep bells jangled.
We stopped at a monument to a group of resistance fighters who operated here during WW2. The rugged Cévennes was a stronghold for a group of French, German, Russian, and Spanish fighters who fought against Naziism. We are in what was Vichy France now, and have been past many other monuments to resistance fighters, but this was to a larger multinational group.
A hiker plodded past us, his pace steady. By his side was a loaded donkey, with a young donkey in tow. We realized that the GR 70 follows the route of Stevenson’s journey, which many like to retrace. We’ve learned that it’s possible to rent a donkey in order to follow in the steps of RLS, and that designated campgrounds and accommodation are donkey-friendly and will provide fodder. Who knows what we might do next?
2019/10/13: 86km to Millau
From Florac, we followed the Gorges du Tarn. It was a gentle descent with jaw dropping scenery. The road was quiet, since tourist season is mostly over. We stopped often to admire fall colours, canyon walls, turrets, tiled rooves and Cathar fortresses. There are villages on the side opposite the road which can only be reached by boat, by fording, or by cable car.
We passed rock climbing areas. The diversity of license plates of parked vehicles gave us clues this was a climbers’ Mecca. We talked to some Czechs as they prepared their ropes, slings, and carabiners, and learned that this is some of the best limestone climbing in the world.
We crossed another département boundary, and a sign announced we were in the region of Occitania. This is the area of southern France where Occitan or Langue d’Oc was historically spoken, and still is by some. It is also still used in nearby parts of Italy, Spain, and Monaco. There is a movement to revive the language, and it is used as a second language on some place name signage.
We’ll be staying a second night here in Millau. Chris’s back is sore and he needs more sleep before we ride the last few days to Toulouse. It’s there that we plan to wrap up the cycling part of our journey, and work out way north to Dieppe by train, trusty steeds in tow.