29 August 2011

CYCLING FRANCE (2) Basel - Capbreton


5 July - Budapest, Hungary – Basel, Switzerland - By train

I left my very comfortable hotel room and headed for the station to pick up the bike path heading west from Basel to the Atlantic coast in France. I once again took the cheapest ticket which meant jumping in and out of the train to move the bike from one car to the next. It also meant I had only a seat, which made it rather difficult to sleep.

6 July - Basel, Switzerland – Mulhouse, France - 50 km

When I arrived in Basel, at first I was a bit confused. Basel is located where the Swiss, French and German borders meet, and although located in Switzerland, it has suburbs in both France and Germany. So I was not quite sure where I was: Switzerland, France or Germany!

It’s a fascinating city with an old historic center, but I was keen to get on the bike and to start heading west to the Atlantic coast. I hopped on the bike path and ambled on to Mulhouse, France. It was a short ride along the Rheine, or to be more exact, the Rheine canal.

It was a particularly picturesque ride, with a forest to my left and a canal with ducks and swans to my right. The path was well marked and I soon arrived in Mulhouse, which gave me plenty of time to explore, and pick up some bread and cheese in the village. I then set off to the local campsite where, not only did they have Wi-Fi, there were also pizzas for sale! I was fairly tired from the lack of sleep so I wanted to have an early night - not so easy in a place where it is still light at 9.30 p.m!

7 July - Mulhouse – L’Isle-sur-le Doubs - 80 km

I ate some bread and cheese for breakfast, and then slowly packed up, so it was 10 a.m. before I got on the road. I was on the Veloroute 6 cycle path and it continued in an easterly direction along the Canal du Rhone. The path is not as busy as the Danube cycle path but still well-used, and I shared it with fellow cyclists, runners and Nordic walkers. These cycle paths really are the best thing since sliced bread!

The canal was fairly busy with barges and boathouses cruising up and down the canal. It seems to be quite slow-going for them as there were many locks where each had to wait in line to pass through. Each lock has a “lock master”, with his house situated directly opposite the lock. Most of these were picture pretty with lovely colourful gardens.

I stopped for coffee only once, as dark clouds gathered and it soon started drizzling. I pulled into the next best campsite and hardly had my tent up before the thunder and lightning started. Safely in my tent, I ate the leftover bread and cheese, but also spotted a mobile pizza stand at the entrance to the campsite. As soon as the rain stopped, I made a beeline for the pizza stand and scoffed half a pizza, saving some for breakfast the next morning.

8 July - L’Isle-sur-le Doubs – Ranchot - 110 km
I woke to a misty Friday morning but the mist soon cleared and it turned into a wonderful, sunny day. While waiting for my tent to dry, I drank some coffee and ate the leftover pizza.

I was still following the Rheine canal, cycling past rustic-looking villages that appeared uninhabited as not a peep was to be heard from any of the houses. The canal was as busy with houseboats as the day before, all slowly travelling down the canal.

At Besancon I stopped to admire the biggest fort/citadel I have ever seen. The citadel occupies eleven hectares on top of Mount Saint-Etienne. Situated high up on a hill, it even has a tunnel running underneath it. I cycled through the tunnel and popped out the other side, to discover that the fort was even bigger than expected. Although Besancon is quite a large town, I decided to continue on as it was still early in the day.

I came unexpectedly upon a small sign indicating that I had only 730 km to go to reach Nantes on the Atlantic coast. It was much closer than I had expected.

So, on spotting a campsite at Ranchot, I felt I had covered enough ground for the day and pitched my tent. It was a very basic campsite, but the smell of the freshly-mowed lawn and the sound of the river made it heaven on earth. Finding food proved to be harder than expected. The campsite was situated in a very small village and I had to cycle back to the previous village to find bread. Not that it was a big deal, as it was only 1.5 km away.

9 July - Ranchot – Verdun-sur-le-Doubs - 105 km
I’m back to my old ways of sleeping in, and by the time I woke up, just about everyone in the campsite was already gone! They must have been in a great hurry.

It was about 25 km to Dole, the birth place of Louis Pasteur, which dates back to the Middle Ages. The Collegiale-Notre-Dame is most likely the most important building in the town. It is located in the centre of the old town, and can be seen from quite a distance away. After a short cycle though the narrow streets, I was back on the bike path heading for Seurre.

It drizzled for most of the day and I was frankly fed up with being wet. On seeing a campsite at pretty Verdun-sur-le-Doubs, I enquired and found the cheapest campsite to date. At 5 Euros it was by far the cheapest I have encountered to this day, and it even came with an English speaking lady at reception and Wi-Fi!

By the time my tent was pitched, I was absolutely starving and quickly cycled to the local mini-market to pick up some bread, cheese, chips, a beer and coffee (what’s new?). I did not mind the short cycle as Verdun-sur-le-Doubs was yet another very old settlement with beautiful old buildings, narrow alleys and old stone bridges.

10 July - Verdun-sur-le-Doubs
I woke to thunder and lighting and decided to stay the day. I had to do some long overdue laundry and, as there was a washing machine and drier in the campsite, it was just the place (bargain!).

I felt ever so French as I zooted around this small village on my bicycle, drinking coffee at a pavement café and buying a baguette and camembert cheese from the local grocer. Before returning to the campsite, I popped in at the supermarket to get gas for my stove, washing powder for the much-needed laundry and salt for the bland food. My panniers always seem to get heavier instead of lighter!

In the afternoon, the rain ceased, and with the campsite situated right on the river, I sat watching the houseboats put-putting by and serious-looking fisherman casting their lines. As usual, I did not see anyone actually catching anything.

I now also threw in the odd “Bonjour”, “Merci” and “Au revoir”, but going by the expressions on their faces, they probably thought I was swearing at them - ha ha!

11 July - Verdun-sur-le-Doubs – Paray-le-Monial - 132 km
The next day turned out to be a beautiful sunny day for a change, so I put foot and cycled all the way to Paray. I spent the entire day next to the canal. Although the cycle path went up over the hills, I stuck to the road which made it much easier. I was in a totally different area of France, vineyards abounded, and gone were the forests of the previous days. Only once did I go off-road along a path that the map indicated as “rough”, but it was no more than a grassy jeep track.

There were still houseboats aplenty and I even spotted one with a big South African flag. I could not pass up the opportunity to say hello and they looked as surprised as me to find a fellow countryman in this part of France. We had a quick chat and then it was their turn for the lock so they had to move on.

By the time I reached Paray I was hungry and tired, but fortunately there it was… a mobile pizza stand at the gate of the campsite. After pitching my tent and having a shower, I splashed out on a pizza. It was one of the better ones - or I was just very hungry! It was one of the few warm days so I lay outside my tent on the grass, ate my pizza and drank a beer until the sun went down, which was only around 10 p.m.

12 July - Paray-le-Monial – Nevers - 115 km
I could not believe my luck as I woke to another sunny morning. I was up and on the bike before nine, just in case the weather turned bad again. I was now along the Loire River and the cycle path seemed to head over the hills again, so I just stuck to the road and followed the river. Past medieval-looking towns, which appeared to be deserted. I reached Decize and found a campsite, but as it was still early and the weather was holding out, I had a cup of coffee and pedaled on to Nevers.

The campsite was situated right on the Loire River with a view of the old town and cathedral. A short walk into town also revealed a Carrefour, so I popped in, got a ready-made salad, two baguettes, more coffee and I was set for the evening.

What an extraordinary place Nevers turned out to be. With its narrow, winding streets, old houses and cathedrals, it was a good choice for the night.

13 July - Nevers – Cosne-Cours-sur-Loire - 90 km
I was disappointed to wake to another dreary and cold morning. Winter was back and I was slow in rising. It was 10 a.m. before I set off heavy-heartedly into the light drizzle. Hardly an hour into the ride, I stopped for my first coffee at a cozy-looking pub.

The day dragged on as I had my head down and pedaled into a slight headwind and a constant drizzle. It felt and looked more like autumn than summer.

I turned off to Cosne to draw money and buy a sim card for my modem. On the ride into the village I also spotted a nice-looking campsite so that was me, done for the day. The rain abated and I could sit outside my tent while having my usual bread and cheese.

14 July - Cosne-Cours-sur-Loire - Orleans - 124 km
What a tough day on the road it was. I cycled into the wind all day long and I did not appreciate the gravelly bits along the path either!

I stopped for coffee in small villages, which, despite looking closed down, fortunately always seem to have open pubs! At Sully, I had lunch at the castle and then it was back on the bike again, and into the wind. It was quite late by the time I reached Orleans, but fortunately it stays light until fairly late in the evening.

I had a plate of French fries and a beer, and then it was off to bed. It was Bastille Day which is the French National Day, but no amount of fireworks was going to keep me awake! The poor buggers had to wait until 11 p.m. to start the fireworks as it stays light until around 10 p.m. Thousands of Euros must have gone up in smoke that night! The ground literally shook!

15 July - Orleans – Chaumont-sur-Loire - 84 km
I woke to a lovely sunny morning on the banks of the Loire River. No breakfast as I was a bit slack at the shopping the previous day. I chatted in camp to other campers and it was 10 a.m. before I packed up and headed downstream; 20 km later I found a lovely village and an equally nice pastry shop.

I weaved through medieval-looking villages, sticking close to the Loire River. This time I did some shopping along the way and soon afterwards found a conveniently located campsite. I felt tired from cycling into the wind for the past few days and concluded that I had had enough for the day. The Bastille Day celebrations were still in full swing, and I was treated to yet another display of fireworks and could hear bands playing from across the river.

16 July - Chaumont-sur-Loire – Montsoreau - 110 km
I packed up in a hurry as it was spitting again. It was another blustery day as I cycled past Amboise where people live in caves; it reminded of Coober Pedy in Australia. I also discovered that caves make very good wine cellars. Past impressive Tours where I stopped for a quick coffee, and then it was back on the bike and into the wind and rain again. What an utterly miserable day it was. I was desperate for a toilet stop and once I spotted a bit of forest I quickly squatted down - only to find that I had placed myself squarely on a patch of stinging nettles! My ass was literally on fire and I covered the last 15 km to camp in record time!

17 July - Montsoreau – La Possonniere - 78 km
I was reluctant to leave my tent as another cold, windy and overcast day awaited. My path led me up the hills and through vineyards, past impressive-looking castles and back down to the river again.

Around midday the wind became even stronger and nearly blew me off my bike. I became more and more irritated as I battled into the wind. I was not a happy chappie! The wind drove a cold rain into my face so I pulled my cap down, put my head down and battled on until I reached La Possonniere which had a basic campsite.

18/19 July - La Possonniere - Nantes - 92 km
I slept well and only woke up at around 8 a.m. There was little change in the weather, and I packed up and moved on. 30 km down the road, my stomach told me it was time for breakfast and I stopped at a café for coffee and a croissant. I never fail to be surprised by going around corners in these small villages and seeing old castles and forts. It’s such a pretty route that I quickly forgot about the weather.

On reaching Nantes, my last big city before I finally leave the Veloroute 6, I looked in vain for a campsite. Two campsites were indicated on my map, but neither were still in existence. I cycled around town looking for a cheap hotel, but could find none. In the end I settled for a fairly priced hotel where I booked in for two nights.

Nantes is a big town and it had all I was looking for. I desperately needed a roadmap for the next section along the Atlantic coast to Spain. I did my laundry, sorted out my internet connection and did some personal maintenance, not that it made any difference! It was a pleasure to wander the narrow alleys where locals sat chatting and sipping coffee at sidewalk cafés.

20 July - Nantes – La Bernerie - 95 km
In anticipation of another headwind, I was packed up and on the road by 8.30 a.m. The wind was however the least of my problems as it bucketed down the entire day. I followed the last part of the Loire River until it reached the Atlantic ocean at St Nazaire. I finally said goodbye to the Eurovelo 6 cycleway and headed south along the coast. The weather was shite the entire way and I was getting sick of it!

I was however surprised to spot signs for yet another cycleway - the “velocean” route. It was very well sign posted, so I followed their little arrows until I reached La Bernerie, which had a rather fancy campsite. I was soaked to the bone and happy to call it a day. Trying to keep things dry while putting up a tent in the bucketing rain is plain useless. Before I had the flysheet on, the entire tent was wet. Once inside I was quick to make myself a cup of coffee. With dry clothes on and a steaming mug of coffee in my hands, I was once again a happy puppy.

21 July - La Bernerie - Port Bourgenay - 113 km
There was no chance of drying out the tent or my clothes in that weather, so I packed all the wet stuff into plastic bags and set off. I followed a cycle path that was slow going and a bit frustrating, but at least it was away from the busy main roads. It was scenic but the path is more suited to families with children on a day out. Truth be told, it would have been much quicker to take the normal road. The small roads are unfortunately exactly that – small and very narrow – but still very busy, which can make them difficult to cycle on. I must, however, give it to the French: they will sit patiently behind you on these narrow roads, waiting to overtake. And when they eventually get a chance to pass, they still wave and give you the thumbs up!

The path took me across the Vendee, along canals, through forests, over dunes and along the coast. Past large and popular holiday resort towns, until I reached Port Bourgenay where I found a relatively cheap campsite. Rather than miss out on cheap camping, I decided to stop for the night. The Vendee is a flat area with the highest point reaching 295m, and with a good tail wind and no rain it was a good day on the road.

22 July - Port Bourgenay – La Rochelle - 107 km
The sun came out for the first time in days. At last I could dry my tent before rolling it up. I also discovered that what I had bought in good faith the day before as yoghurt, was in fact cream! So breakfast consisted of muesli and cream. My first stop was at the seaside resort of La Tranche and what a vibe it had! It had a real holiday feel with all kinds of stalls, merry-go-rounds, wind-surfing shops, the works. After cycling around for a while I got back on the road. I once again made the mistake of following a cycle path, which promptly disappeared and left me wondering just where the hell I was.

Eventually I found myself on a marked road again and continued on towards La Rochelle. By that time the wind had picked up to near storm strength, my windbreaker was roaring in the wind like a Boeing 747. I had every intention of continuing past La Rochelle, but I weakened when I spotted a campsite which did not look too pricey. However, I soon discovered the reason for the discounted price! It was right on the flight path of the aircrafts landing at the nearby airport. What noisy place! The owner of the campsite was rather impressed by my “itinerary” and kept repeating that it was impossible. He then proceeded to tell the entire campsite. I felt a bit like a celebrity… photo shoot and all!

23 July - La Rochelle – Verdon-sur-mer - 113 km
I had a rather slow start to the day but eventually got on my way. It took me forever to clear the city boundaries. 20 km later I was eventually out the city and on my way. It was quite a frustrating day as it felt that I was continuously looking for smaller roads to cycle on. Much as expected, the wind was as strong as the previous day. I hated the idea but eventually I just got on the big busy road and cycled to Royan.

At Royan I took the ferry across the windy bay to Verdon-sur-Mer. It was a short ferry ride of about 30 minutes. I was starving and had a quick cup of coffee and a bread roll before we reached the other side. I then cycled another 8 or 10 km down the road to find a campsite.

24 July - Verdon-sur-Mer – Gulan Mestras - 121 km
It was an uneventful morning’s ride. I was, however, pleasantly surprised to find myself quite unexpectedly on the Cameno route. At first I thought I was mistaken but the signs were very clear and soon I started seeing Cameno accommodation advertised. The path was packed with families out on a Sunday afternoon cycle, and I seemed to be the only daft one with a loaded bike. It turned out to be a very pleasant ride through small villages where people were seriously concentrating on their seemingly very popular games.

At camp I chatted to one of the first cycle touring people I had met along the way – a French chap on his first cycling holiday. It rained and rained and rained so there was little chance for us to swap war stories as we were both sat huddled in our own tents. Fortunately the camp had a little store where I could buy bread and cheese for supper, and biscuits for breakfast the following morning.

25 July - Gulan Mestras – Farm camp Bias - 91 km
I waited until around 11h00 for the rain to stop, but with no sign of it abating I eventually packed up. It was a thoroughly miserable day. It did not stop raining once the entire day. I eventually found myself on a narrow and very busy road. That, combined with the bad visibility, made me decide to camp early. I spotted a “farm” campsite along the way and found some more very unhappy campers huddled together under a makeshift shelter. Some were in the process of packing up to go home. They had had enough of the bad weather and of having nowhere to go with their active kids.

I hurriedly pitched my tent but just about everything got wet before I had the flysheet up. What a good thing I had stopped along the way to replenish my dwindling food supply. I lay in my tent, munching away on sweets and crisps. Later that evening, I warmed up the ready-to-eat meal that I had bought at Lidels earlier on that day. I’m usually slack at stopping along the way to buy food, and once at camp I’m often too lazy to go look for food. Most campsites have small shops where I can normally find something to eat, but as this was a farm campsite it had no such facilities.

26/27 July - Farm camp, Bias – Capbreton - 91 km
I donned my last dry clothes, had a quick cup of coffee and left. The show must go on! No good lying around. I hated the idea of another wet and rainy day, but what else was there to do? I had my head down into the drizzle all day long. I stopped at a supermarket to stock up and as I came out the rain came down in droves again. I was quite frankly fed-up with that rainy affair and it was at that point that I decided to pull into the next best available campsite.

The following morning the sun half came out and I decided to make use of the camp ‘laverie’. I washed and dried my clothes which had been in plastic bags for a few days and smelled like something had rotted in my panniers. A quick trip into Centre Ville also revealed a map- and camera shop where I could get more memory cards and a road map of Spain. I also purchased an adapter for the campsite’s power point so I could charge my notebook and camera. I was very active and posted home my memory cards with the photos from the past months. I spent the rest of the day chatting on the internet – what a handy thing this notebook is. I would be completely lost without it.

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