2013/09/26: 55 km to Agimont at French Border
It was absolutely lovely to be greeted by Chris and Margo when I arrived in Namur. Neither had changed a bit since I had last seen them but the new haircuts (obtained while waiting for me to join them) may have had something to do with that! They were much more polite than I deserved about the state of my bike (very old light tourer festooned with Lincolnshire mud and – I suspect – various insects that had failed to jump off on route from home to Namur via Goole, Hull, Zeebrugge, and Bruges) and we were off without delay.
After a brief look at Namur’s fort, its fortified castle (C & M had done a proper tour the day before) and the Strawberry Museum (whose gardens included not just numerous strawberry varieties but kiwis, currants, grapes, hops and more) we settled down to enjoy the Meuse towpath. This was excellent for catching up with 16 years’ worth of news as we could ride two abreast and chat, only occasionally having to make way for other cyclists and walkers. I say “towpath” but of course it was a great deal wider than those associated with British canals and since I suspect navigation of the canalised Meuse must have had its heyday after coal was available as a boat fuel, I am not sure how much “towing” took place. A typical barge seen on that and the following day carried a medium-sized car on the cabin roof (and in one case a small speedboat as well!).
Probably because of my gossiping to Margo, Chris was in sole charge of navigation that afternoon, which meant info from Google maps was not supplemented by that from Michelin. As a result, we did not stick entirely to the Meuse, but took a “shortcut” across one of its substantial bends. Since Google does not account for ups, downs or road surfaces, this was a bit more “sportif” than expected but was a good way of appreciating that the Belgian Ardennes is not all prosperous, detached houses along the river. We rode past some lovely woods, real farming (chiefly dairy) and some villages that looked as if they had struggled to recover prosperity post WWII. There was also a chance to prove that C & M are a great deal braver than I when it comes to going downhill at speed!!
Back down beside the river, south of Dinant, a fishing cabin available for rent by the night was ideal for the 3 of us (in that I got the sheets while C&M had to make do with their sleeping bags!). It went by the name of “La cabin au….” – notices inside invited you to complete the name! We were in Belgium still but c.100 metres from the border. Very helpful owner not only provided lots of local info but also, on hearing that it was C’s birthday, provided a bottle of fizz and a bottle of beer. The cake, procured earlier and intact despite the bumpy ride, followed fish and pasta. I had earlier lowered the tone by introducing C&M to “Belgian fondue” aka chips dipped in mayonnaise. (It could have been worse –the local takeaway menu included baguette-and-chip sandwiches the size of rugby balls).
2013/09/27: 63 km to Monthermé
Foggy and chilly start, but sun eventually broke through. C&M preferred technique of using Google maps and Michelin prevailed, such that we followed the river towpath and then a “forest drive” for much of the day, right through to Monthermé, with just a few diversions (e.g. avoiding the nuclear power station near to Chooz.). It was smooth going, very few cars (most of them employees of the French agency that regulates the many and substantial locks on the river) and with sufficient towns and villages to ensure we did not go hungry or thirsty (once we had worked out that shops etc in this region are typically on the top of the hill overlooking the river, not along the water’s edge).
“Defensive” sums it up; the Ardennes has been much fought over, (not just in the 20th century) and every town and village seems positioned to overlook and defend its bit of the Meuse. War memorials are in prominent positions in each town, and well-maintained. The one in Monthermé pays tribute not just to French but to Madagascan soldiers who were killed there in WWII. But it was far from gloomy – “ville fleurie” was a status shared by many of the towns and villages we went through, the major bridges were decorated with flags of every description and gardens and window boxes were all flourishing.
Pre- warned by the proprietor of a river-side café (no running water and a very upmarket compost loo) that Charleville-Mezieres was very busy due to the annual puppet festival, we stopped short of there at a hotel called Les Boucles de Meuse. This provided two very comfy rooms (one with large balcony providing space for slow-puncture repair) plus a restaurant which persuaded us to try the local speciality “carcasse á cul-nu”. This confirmed my theory that “artisanal” food (designed to sustain hard-working farm-workers in the pre-machinery days) is also suitable for cyclists! Another item was “Terrine de Rimbaud”, in honour of the poet whose name appeared on many other roads and cafés.
2013/09/28: 80 km to Rethel
Fifteen kilometres more of the towpath beside the Meuse got us to the outskirts of Charleville-Mezieres where we left the Meuse and did a bit more work to cross into the next valley (of the Vence, if the names of the villages were anything to go by.). Again expert navigating by C&M got us across Charleville-Mezieres without any hitch; quite a feat given that this actually comprises two C16th “planned” towns on either side of the river with a C16th road layout, a railway and several bridges to get over. (Sadly no puppets in sight!).
After that it was a series of quiet and quieter routes into an area that now called itself “les Crêtes Préardennaises” ; this was a gentler landscape with more mixed farming and slightly more affluent-looking villages (e.g. Launois, Novion Porcien, Sery and Sorbon (the latter the birthplace of the founder of the Sorbonne)) although beautiful-but-collapsing timber-framed barns were as numerous as inhabited houses! A friendly and (justifiably) proud gardener allowed us to venture into the gardens of a private château (only open in high summer) where we admired his hard work and the mushrooms that he was taking home for his evening meal.
Coffee stop in Sery prompted a small diversion. “Monique” (after seemingly endless debate with her companions at the bar, which Margo listened to very patiently) persuaded us that a place to stay in Château Porcien would be hard to find but that Hotel Le Moderne in Rethel run by someone she knew was just the place. So off we went! No matter that when we got there, nobody knew Monique and the hotel was only partly refurbished. The food was as upmarket as the corridors were shabby… a bizarre mix, but a good recommendation nevertheless.
2013/09/29: 47 km to Reims
I had expected Sunday morning traffic to be heavy in this largely Catholic country. How wrong I was. The only heavy bit between Rethel and Reims was the stream of lorries on one section of road carrying newly harvested sugar beet to the processing factory near Reims (not wearing a helmet, I was especially nervous about large and escaping vegetables!) . Otherwise it was very quiet and many of the churches looked as closed, if not more so, as their English counterparts. Closer to Reims, by which time the landscape was very open with arable largely replacing stock, and uncut sugar beet fields being walked-over with guns (looking for wild boar??), we were passed (inevitably) by ultra-skinny Frenchmen on ultra-skinny bikes. So at least that particular preconception about the French on Sundays has been confirmed.
Reims Cathedral had been visible for much of the morning’s ride but once in the city, it was harder to find! We bumped our way on cobbled roads past the city hall (?), (complete with shot marks on the pillars) to the cathedral gardens. Signs said our “deportment” in the gardens had to be “proper”; it was our unanimous opinion that eating baguette with tomatoes and terrine pâté passed the test (we refrained from making a cup of tea)! The cathedral really merited a longer visit, more suitable shoes and more secure parking for bikes, but we admired gothic splendour from the outside and within, (and from a nearby coffee bar) while trying not to get in the way of other visitors’ photos. The adjoining Bishop’s palace is being done up and will be open to the public too in due course.
By 3-ish, I had discovered that Bonjour France’s version of the Sunday afternoon train schedule from Reims to Calais was a bit optimistic (there was only one TGV service, not four, and that was full-up) so resigned myself to a long journey on the regional service, with three changes. C&M meanwhile had opted for “washing and blogging” at the Reims hostel, so it was a quiet Sunday evening for everybody.
Of course, three and a half days was absolutely nothing compared with C&M’s several months on the road. But for me it was a lot. Time to catch up, to get a glimpse of what they have been up to and to enjoy a bit of pedalling in the French-Belgian countryside. An English friend who heard what I was doing said ”that is not a cycle trip, that is just a gossip while your feet go round”. Too right, but it was still lots of fun!
Many thanks to Chris and Margo for a lovely trip!