Angers & Caen

Our last two nights in France were spent in Angers & Caen, which obviously we pronounce angers and cane which is obviously wrong. People would look confused when I said we were getting the ferry back to the UK from Caen, but they would brighten up and say “Calais?” and I would agree, since it’s really much of a muchness. The riding wasn’t very interesting although the vineyards from La Cotiniere were quite impressive especially as many of them have their own chateau. Unfortunately bike = no alcohol so we didn’t visit any. Next time.

Angers is a pretty place with some impressive buildings and parks, but it wasn’t a great stop. First, the GPS didn’t know that Angers now has tram tracks and a complicated one-way system in its streets, so we got hopelessly lost. Then it started to rain as we sat in a carpark trying to convince the GPS to find us another way to the hotel. When we set off again the bike sounded rather strange going down hills. We finally ended up (by accident) in an undercover carpark in the town centre where Toby checked the bike’s oil and discovered it was low. The bike had obviously decided to do away with the old fashioned indicator light to warn us of this and instead go straight to strange noises. Luckily the hotel was actually just over the road when we left the carpark so it was easy enough to check in and then go online to find a motorbike shop within walking distance.

Pretty park in Angers

We walked through this nice park but didn’t hang around – partly because what you can’t see on the left hand side of the fountain is 3 neo Nazis planning a dog fight. Seriously, that’s what it looked like.

“Walking distance” turned out to be 2.6km away via Angers’ housing projects but we got there in the end and despite the language barrier managed to buy the right kind of oil and trudge back to town, where we avoided the worst rain by visiting the supermarket and then having a carpet picnic in the hotel. By then we were exhausted and didn’t much feel like going out to explore even though the rain had eased and the town looked worthwhile. Sometimes, life just gets in the way. In the morning it was time to put the oil in the bike and hope that fixed the funny noises. Sounds easy enough but oil doesn’t come in suitable pouring containers so I ended up having to visit a pharmacy to buy a baby bottle which actually worked brilliantly. Eventually though we were on our way and the oil did the trick.Angers churchWe found this church trying to find the supermarket. I was like “that must be the cathedral” and took some photos. Ha ha. The cathedral is at least twice as big (and I didn’t take any photos because we were in a hurry to find the supermarket). I love the churches in France, they are all so grand they all look like they could be the cathedral.Caen was much easier and we even had time to explore, although sadly not enough time to visit what is apparently an excellent museum on the war. Again, something to do next time. We have now ridden through French war regions several times and never actually done anything about it, which is quite shameful really. We visited the castle and then wandered through the Friday night markets which were incredibly crowded and very smoky, but it was fun to be amongst the locals. Toby had found us an apartment to stay in which was in Caen’s housing projects (we’re so lucky), so instead of a carpet picnic we could actually cook dinner. Except the cooktop didn’t work so we had microwaved gnocchi (email me for the recipe!!), but at least we could make sandwiches for the ferry the next day.

Entrance to the castle

The castle used to have a moat which is now filled in and used by groups of young punks to hang out and smoke. What you can’t see in this photo is the young couple behind us hanging out in the castle walls, him with no shirt on. I guess it was chafing?

View of the church from the castle walls
Arty

Caen’s done a good job of giving the ferry-hopers stuff to see. Inside the castle walls is kind of an arts precinct, including this very cool courtyard of the beaux arte galerie. Can you see the weird animals on top of the pedestals? They were swaying ever so slightly in the fairly strong wind. Just watching them made me feel a bit dizzy.

When we woke up it was raining and I didn’t relish the idea of packing up the bike in the rain, or waiting for the ferry in the rain. But, as it had done all that week, the rain miraculously stopped when we needed it to. The ferry was delayed but still, we didn’t get rained on. It was an horrendous ferry trip over, very rocky and sea sickness-inducing, combined with screaming children (seriously, I have never seen so many toddlers in one place that wasn’t a daycare). We were so happy to get off that boat.

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On the home stretch

After San Sebastian we headed back over the border into France. The weather had cooled down considerably which was a welcome relief as the Pyrenees had not been the cool change we’d been expecting or hoping for. But we weren’t ready to leave the coast just yet. Our first night was spent in Biscarrosse and there’s not much to say about that, nor any photos, and the funny story about not being able to find the beach and trudging for what felt like forever through what was probably a nature reserve in the dunes isn’t as funny if you weren’t there. The beach was wide and flat and the most like Australian beaches we’ve seen – it even came with waves and a rip. And lifesavers who blew their whistles at us when we attempted to swim a couple of metres from the flags. In our defense, they have 3 or 4 different coloured flags and we couldn’t quite figure out the system.

After Biscarrosse we headed up to Ile D’Oleron, and that’s where the GPS surprised us by taking us to a ferry port without any warning. It was fine, once we realised we had to get on the ferry and the ferries were very regular, but it did make for a long day. We stayed in a small fishing village called La Cotiniere, which was very busy I suspect due to the cool and overcast weather so probably everyone staying at nearby beaches had come into town to look at the shops (like Mogo). It was too cool for swimming but Toby was determined so we went to the beach anyway and it was the least inviting beach we’ve ever seen, so that put an end to that.

Our hotel had a seafood restaurant that looked good so we ate there and that’s where the pictures in the other post of oysters and actual baby fish came from. It was a really good, quite expensive meal. After dinner we went for a walk to the fair which had been set up near the water. It was interesting, to see carnie folk in a whole new time zone, and for other reasons.

 

For example, we were surprised by the decidedly adult nature of many of the prizes…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

…which inspired Toby to try his hand at winning a prize for his beloved…

so much concentration

And he won…a fluffy dice with dirty pictures on it. Aw, you shouldn’t have!!

so much pride

At the seaside

Heading to the coast after the heat of inland was a good call, besides being the more logical way to head to Barcelona. We saw Carcassone from the motorway and it looked amazing, although Lonely Planet’s description of it as “tourist hell” made me think perhaps we weren’t missing much by seeing it from a distance. We stuck to the motorway to make it a cooler ride – it was still warm at the coast but not nearly as oppressive.

We booked a non-descript hotel in a non-descript coastal town which looked a bit like the poorer, older parts of the Gold Coast – apartment blocks that have seen better days, shops selling plastic buckets and spades and ice creams, tanned locals, sunburnt tourists. We also visited a special place called Cap de Agde and I’ll let you google that for yourself, if you’re game (probably NSFW, or parents). I wasn’t really game, for the record.

After our night there it was off to Spain. The valleys in this region are like big wind tunnels, with wind socks and signs warning of “vent lateral” which I assume means “sideways wind”. It was a boring ride until we passed the border and were suddenly in the Pyrenees, which were magnificent if brief. Spain is busy on their stimulus packages and our trip was lengthened by massive road works happening all along the highway. On a hot day it looked like the worst job in the world, particularly for one bloke I saw out in full sun who was busy sweeping dust.

Instead of tackling Barcelona traffic we decided to treat ourselves to a nice hotel on the coast in Sitges, and we arrived in plenty of time to enjoy this:

Followed by this:

Ah, holidays are grand.

40 degrees in the shadow

When we were packing up the bike in Chartres there were two little Irish kids strapped into their car seats next to us, while their parents did who knows what. (I think mum thought dad was minding them, while dad had obviously decided we were trustworthy and left them there while he went and had a coffee or something.) The little boy was 5 and very chatty, asking us lots of questions, some easy to answer (“how did you get the bike to France?”) and others not so easy (“what do elephants eat?”). The parents returned eventually and as they started to drive off, the little boy stuck his head out the window and yelled back at us, “What happens if it rains?”

What happens indeed, little Irish man. In one question he managed to sum up the biggest problem with a motorbike – your vulnerability to the elements. But this trip it hasn’t been the rain that’s bothered us as much as the heat. Particularly the day after Chateauroux.

After our mosey through the Loire Valley we continued south, deep into the Dordogne region. If we thought summer had hit us in Chartres we had another thought coming. We stayed off the motorway, meaning a pleasant meander through little villages and proper winding roads, but also meaning a lower speed limit. The sun turns riding gear into a sauna suit, and not the kind that will help you lose some croissant weight but the kind that makes you feel like you might die of heatstroke, especially at low speeds.

Toby’s phone, also our GPS, got super hot. Here it is trying to cool down so it can get us where we need to go without melting.

We had a lunchtime stop at Hautefort chateau, but it wasn’t as spectacular as Chambord and there was nowhere to eat and it cost 8.50 just to see the garden. Plus, it was freaking hot. So we walked a little way into town and found a nice restaurant with air conditioning which didn’t really seem to work. The view didn’t quite make up for it.

View from Hautefort restaurant at lunchtime

We left Hautefort, wishing we didn’t have accommodation booked and we could just stop at the next hotel and hide from the heat. But we couldn’t so we kept going. The ride was magnificent, the kind where I enjoy the scenery while Toby enjoys the corners, and the scenery was unlike anything we’ve seen before. But the heat was relentless and it was hard to keep misery at bay. We finally pulled into Moissac at 6.30pm, passing a sign that told us it was still 31 degrees. I hate to think what temperatures we’d been riding through. If only we’d had the TV on to warn us of what was to come we might have stuck to the motorway and been less ambitious with our distance. But most small French hotels don’t have any English-speaking channels like BBC or CNN so we just don’t bother putting them on. A shame and quite silly of us – I’m quite sure we could have understood a weather map.

We had some issues with the hotel room’s air conditioning but luckily got it sorted before bedtime and had a delicious salad dinner near the hotel – much better than the buttery omelettes we’d had to eat at lunchtime which made me feel ill. We also drank 1.5 litres of water between us – we were super dehydrated thanks to the fact that both our camel baks have given up on being sources of water and are now just packs. Moissac is known for its 12th century cloister which we saw from the outside since we arrived so late, but other than that the hotel was in a carpark and I guess the young people are bored there. Felt kind of like a carpark in Western Sydney.

In the morning when we were packing up the bike to leave the woman from the hotel cheerfully told me they were expecting 40 degrees “in the shadow” that day, and yes it was quite normal for June. We were glad we were heading for the coast and decided to follow the motorway to cut down on time and get more air flow. It’s amazing the difference 130 km/h can make. The lady asked about air conditioning (on the bike?) and I had to say “the wind” which she thought was hilarious. Not so hilarious when it’s you.

So unfortunately our best day scenery-wise will mostly be remembered for the sweat and headaches that kind of heat brings on. And this kind of crankiness:

On the chateau trail

We couldn’t ride through the Loire Valley without living like kings…

Chateau Chambord. Yes, pretty impressive.

Every house needs a pool room.

A lovely room of death.

Why have a staircase when you can have a double helix made of marble in the middle of your foyer?

Lunch in the grounds: leftover cheese, pesto and olive tapenade from last night’s dinner, a 1.10 euro baguette from the ‘specialites regionale’ shop onsite, and tea from the thermos. Oh I love France.

 

A lapsed Catholic & an agnostic visit Chartres

Our next stop after Paris was Chartres for its cathedral, considered one of Western architecture’s crowning achievements. Or something. The GPS said it was a 58 minute drive from where we were in Paris although of course the GPS doesn’t know Paris drivers and so it was a 2 hour drive. But we got out ok with less grey hairs than getting in, and followed the motorway south. We’d booked the Novotel because we wanted something clean and predictable, which it was. Check in and out were both a respectable midday and we used the full 24 hours, partly to act like tourists (visit the cathedral) and partly to act like locals (go to the laundromat and the supermarket, which took longer).

First, we ate our panini looking up at this. Shame about the scaffolding but then we realised we have never seen a famous church without it.

The interior blew our minds. But this bit of cloth is especially important because it’s the cathedral’s reason to exist. Yes, this is (part of) the veil Mary wore when she gave birth to Jesus. It’s been in the cathedral since 850 or something like that, which is why they made it so huge – so all the pilgrims could come and visit it.

This is looking down at one of the terraces beneath the cathedral, but it’s a replica of the one paved inside. The idea is to travel slowly and thoughtfully and figure out the meaning of life’s journey. A lot of people were doing this inside the church, some were holding candles and some were barefoot. I didn’t watch enough to see what happened when two people ran into each other and it sounds less moving than it actually was.

Seriously this place was amazing and brilliant, even for heathens like us.

Chartres was also where we finally found summer, although we had no idea what we were in for…

 

Lovely Lille & Gritty Paris

After Utrecht we headed south towards France, aiming for Lille. Even though we passed through 3 countries in 3 hours, it was a boring ride for the same reason the Dutch love cycling – no hills to speak of. We saw Antwerp from the ring road which I guess is one way to see something. Lots of church spires by the looks of it.

Thankfully, Lille didn’t disappoint. Lonely Planet called it France’s most underrated city, and it’s easy to see why. The town centre was just beautiful, like Paris in miniature. It was very busy though and when we arrived at the tourist office around 3pm we were told the only accommodation available was in a ‘small village’ about 20 minutes away. It was a 1-star hotel that would cost 45 euro. For some reason we decided we could do better and spent an hour asking around all the nearby hotels, only to find there really was no room at the inn. We reminded ourselves that this was how Jesus started, so we were in good company, and we have seen some very lovely French villages so maybe it wouldn’t be so bad.

Unfortunately by ‘small village’ the girl meant ‘industrial estate by the airport’ so after we’d aired out the smoky room and gone for a walk in search of anything resembling life we headed back into town. It had calmed down a bit so was a good time for a walk and we found a pizzeria down a laneway for dinner, so the day ended on more of a high.

After Lille we were headed for Paris, steeling our nerves in hopes of meeting up with Heather and Michael who’d offered us their sofa bed in the 2nd arondissement for the night. Free accommodation in Paris with friends we haven’t seen in ages was too good to pass up so off we went.

And we live to tell the tale. I am forever in Toby’s debt for getting us there alive, with no scrapes, and only a few extra grey hairs. The GPS performed beautifully, Heather & Michael’s apartment was a quirky, lovable fire hazard, we ate good food and drank in proper Parisian bistros and saw prostitutes (peddling their wares I mean, not actually ‘seeing’…) and the Notre Dame. I guess it was a grittier side to Paris than we’ve seen before, especially as we arrived via what looked like the ghetto, making me very glad it was broad daylight.

Me making tea in Heather & Michael’s kitchen…note the padding at the top of the “doorway” so you don’t hit your head as you enter.

We are currently in Chartres and heading south again tomorrow, hoping for some chataeux viewing and better countryside after 2 boring days on the motorway…