Into the Massif Central

As planned, we left the valley of the Rhône valley for something a bit more challenging. Our idea was to travel 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 is low, and the river seems 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 to 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 – chewed 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 as to Ales, 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. 

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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. Unlike in the Canadian Rockies, the rock here is solid and pieces are unlikely to break off. 

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 spoken, and still is by some. It is also still used in nearby parts of Italy, Spain, and Monaco. There is a movement to save the language, and it is used as a second language on some place name signage. 

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Photo by Belgian travelling couple we chatted with at length.

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.

M & C

Commuting South

We had discussions with Alison and David about our forward route. We let go the plan of heading west into the center of the Massif Central, since it was likely to be cold and wet. We are several weeks behind schedule relative to tentative route plan assumptions. This is due to scheduling of social interludes along the way. 

At first, we considered taking a train south to Montpelier to escape predicted wet weather. We soon decided we’d prefer to keep ahead of the rain under our own steam, and kept cycling south down the Saône and the Rhône to Bourg St. Andreol. From there, we planned to head west across the southern part of the Massif. We knew the Massif riding would be more challenging and scenic than riverside riding, and an interesting wrap up to our journey. 

2019/10/03: to Macon 61 km

The ride to Macon was pretty. We rode on small roads in morning mist, then met Alison and David at the Salorney market. After buying lunch fixings, we had coffee with them before heading to Macon on back roads and voie verte. 

View of Cluny from voie verte

2019/10/04: to south of Lyon 99 km

From Macon, we followed gravel towpaths and smaller roads to Lyon, which has some fabulous urban bike infrastructure. This includes the 1.8 km long Tunnel de la Croix-Rousse, which runs underneath  two of the city’s arrondissements. We rode through the separate tunnel modes douces (for cyclists, pedestrians, and buses) completed in 2013. We were aiming for a Hotel Campanile south of the City Centre, but a gap in cycling infrastructure meant google put us into terrifying traffic. We’d hoped for a low effort evening grabbing a bite in the Campanile’s restaurant, but it was closed. This meant we had to cycle to a pizza joint in a pretty rough area. 

Gravel towpath

2019/10/05: to Tain l’Hermitage 96 km

We found our way to the southward cycle path known locally as Via Rhôna, soon to become Eueovelo 17. It was provisoire at first, more suited to mountain bikes, but soon became the usual Eurovelo paved standard. In the afternoon, we were sent on a detour off the cycle path onto a road that led through the woods. We passed about ten white minivans, parked some distance apart along the roadside. Each was occupied by an African woman in revealing lingerie. All appeared to be equipped with cell phones. One chatted to a customer. Prostitution. Migration. Exploitation. Slavery. We’ve seen this before, notably in Italy in 2014. Travelling independently can be an eye opener.

2019/10/06-07: to Valence 26 km, and errands. 

We rode the short distance to Valence, where we knew we needed at least half a day’s rest. We soon realized we were pretty tired, and booked for a second night. This allowed us to buy maps, plan our forward route, and replace Chris’s aging pedals before moving on for our last day in the Rhône Valley.

2019/10/08: to Bourg St. Andreol 95 km

We could feel we were entering a warmer, drier area as we rode; there were kiwi orchards and olive trees. From here, we would leave the Rhône and head west.

During our travels, I’ve developed a soft spot for donkeys. In a town where we stopped to buy bread and have coffee, I noticed one tied to a signpost, wearing a packsaddle, the load removed and girth unfastened. Journey essentials lay on the ground nearby, but we never saw the associated human. 

What a patient companion! One day, I would love to travel with a donkey. 

M

Besançon to Burgundy

2019/09/24-25: In Besançon

Besançon is a city we’d heard of when we lived in nearby Ferney-Voltaire in the 1990s. Now we were finally visiting it. We did “day off” errands to buy maps, got Velcro to mend Chris’s rain jacket, and spent time walking the impressive fortress ramparts. We moved slowly through the Resistance Museum, with an audio gizmo narrating our visit in English. I sat down in the final room and wept.

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View from ramparts

We took a second rest day, spending much time in our comfortable budget Ibis room. Chris’s knee needed more time off after two longer-than-usual days from Breisach, and we were generally weary. We slept, blogged, and Skyped with family. In the evening, we overdosed on BBC World Service. It was raining, and we needed this kind of day.

2019/09/26-30: to St. Martin de Salencey

Leaving Besançon through canal tunnel under fortress.

We set off westward along the Doubs, now familiar and still scenic. We weren’t stocked with picnic food, so at midday we pedalled into a village just off the canal, and found a pizzeria. We ordered the “Formule de Midi” as the place filled with locals doing the same. This meant a pizza main course followed by something called «Café Gourmand». I wasn’t sure what was special about “gourmet coffee”, but we soon decided that “greedy coffee” might be a better name for what arrived. Each of our espressos was surrounded by small servings of three classic French desserts: crème caramel, chocolate mousse, and cake.

Picture taken after «Café Gourmand» was consumed

We tucked into ours as we’d chatted to our table mate, a young fellow who worked selling the Kuhn brand of agricultural machinery that is manufactured in Alsace. We spoke in French as he described his experiences learning some English within the French public education system. In late primaire the teacher was useless, in collège the teacher was always absent, but in lycée the teacher was brilliant and inspiring. The ambitious lad wanted to work in Australia, where his employer also operates. He was shy about speaking, but said he had no problems reading the manuals which are all in English.

Dole

After a night in a Hotel Campanile in Dole, we set off on a grey morning crossing from the river Doubs – in the département of Aîn – to the Saône In Côte d’Or. The Saône has deep locks as it drops to the Rhône. Many of the pleasure craft puttering through locks are converted barges or aging motor craft in poor condition. We saw a sailboat, mast unstepped, German flag, waiting for a lock to move her upstream. We chatted to the owners, visibly seasoned mariners, returning to the North Sea after three years in the Mediterranean.

We rolled into Chalon-sur-Saône pretty tired after a 99 km ride. We’d planned two nights here to better synchronize our arrival at David and cousin Alison’s abode in Burgundy. We were pretty annoyed at the less-than-bike-friendly Kyriad Hotel for making us pay 5 euros per night for a secure private garage with a convoluted entry procedure. On a busy weekend when things are full, one cannot argue. However, one can always grumble. No vélo accueil sticker for Kyriad.

We set out from Chalon on a regional route verte. France has quite a few of these converted rail corridors, and they make a pleasant change from the Eurovelo routes of which we’ve connected segments. As Eurovelo develops, it forms a useful web of pan-European bike infrastructure, but the routes have begun to feel a bit too arterial ….at least for us. Perhaps we need a few more hills and corners? The routes vertes may not add these, but they do have a more local feel. As we sit on the platforms of old stations and assemble our picnics, local cyclists stop to chat. They often ask where we are headed, and we tell them we aren’t quite sure where our next few weeks will take us. They offer us thoughtful and useful local input.

After a night in the turret room of a chateau in Salorney-sur-Guye suggested by David, we had only 14 km to ride to St. Martin de Salencey. We took our time, talking to a local farmer as we examined a large praying mantis on the road.

It was lovely to arrive to familiar faces and to be heartily embraced! Alison took us on a tour of the 1000 year old Abbey at nearby Cluny. Chris helped David install an enormous rain barrel. They are fabulous cooks, and we ate them out of house and home. 

Cluny

With Alison and David, we had glimpses of Burgundy where a new generation is returning from cities to rural life. There are those of creative careers like our hosts, and others who are taking over farms to raise organic vegetables. The community is actively working to protect the ecological integrity and historic sites of the Burgundy landscape. It’s this kind of stopover that gives us perspectives, and balances our forward motion. 

M

 

Breisach to Besançon

2019/09/19-21: in Breisach

We spent three companionable days in Breisach with Brigitte and Olav, our co-grandparents. We did a lot of walking which was a restful change from cycling. The first day involved a good walk around Breisach in the morning, followed by a visit to Lillenthal Arboretum, then dinner out in Breisach with a sunset view across the Rhine. The second day involved a geology themed tour of the City of Staufen, and a walk around the hilltop castle and surrounding vineyards. The final day involved another good walk, this time around Kaiserstuhl. Some of the surrounding hills are formed by loess deposits, and dramatic gullies have been carved into this soft material. The vineyards here are terraced.We had a final dinner out in historic Colmar, before preparing to set out the next morning.

Breisach
Burg Staufen overlooks the town
Gully in Loess
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Colmar

2019/09/22-23: to Besançon, 113 and 106 km

We set out around 9:00 a.m. with Olav having readied his bicycle and equipped himself with detailed maps. He naturally became lead navigator until we parted company for him to return to Breisach via an island in the Rhine. However, having done the requisite 20+ km by the time we’d reached Neuenburg, we treated ourselves to a sociable final stop at a German Bäckerei before parting. We crossed the Rhine one last time, and headed west toward Besançon, soon joining the Eurovélo 6 cycle route.

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Cyclist Olav

The Eurovelo routes make travelling pretty straightforward; just follow the signs. Eurovélo 6 runs from Constanta on the Black Sea to Nantes at the mouth of the Loire. Over the next two long days, we mostly followed he Rhône to Rhine Canal, which rises gently through locks toward Montbéliard, then follows the Doubs downstream in a narrow limestone valley, as it becomes a canalized river before arriving at the fortress city of Besançon.

Just before Montbéliard, we encountered this coypu or ragondin which was not worried by us at all. It is among the 100 most problematic invasive species in Europe. Like the North American muskrat, it escaped from fur farms.
Weir and lock combinations every km or so make the Doubs River navigable.
Besançon

M & C

Alsace

2019/09/14-17: Peaceful days in Rosheim

Our friend, Matthias, would be away for the weekend and was working during the week. Also a long-term traveller, he understood we needed quiet time, and for this his house was lovely. We did errands of various kinds, and were happy to spend time with him in the evenings. We were also privileged to get to know his mother, Denise.

Matthias and Margo

On Saturday after laundry, bike maintenance, and errands, we returned to find that Denise had delivered a home made cake! We had just eaten our first mille-feuilles pastries in the village to celebrate our arrival in France, so we didn’t immediately tuck into the cake, but shared it with her the next day over tea when she came by again.

Rosheim
Mont Ste. Odile

On Monday evening, Matthias drove us to the top of Mont Ste. Odile for a visit to the convent, and a panoramic view of Alsace countryside.

On Tuesday, rather than cycle to shops, we explored Rosheim on foot, walking around the the town’s old walls and seeing the restored lavoire. We bought Linzer torte and invited Denise for tea again. She came after her daily brisk Nordic walk. Denise was born in 1938, and shared her memories of the final days of the war in occupied Alsace with us. In the evening, we had a lovely Alsacienne meal in Obernai with Matthias.

Obernai

2019/09/18: To Breisach, 82 km

We set out toward Breisach before Matthias left for work, our panniers stocked with his home grown apples. For much of the ride, we followed a disused branch of the Rhône to Rhine canal, with a newly paved path cycle path beside it. The water was shallow because most of the disused locks were left open, and much of the channel was somewhat overgrown. We didn’t see any paddle craft, but it looked ideal for a quiet canoe trip.

The Rhine crossing near Marckolsheim took us back into Germany past a hydro project and two sets of locks: One for larger, another for smaller craft. Continuing on the east bank, we passed an elementary school group. I distinctly heard both German and French being used. Surely it’s only logical to have bilingual or immersion programs along a border.

M