September 13th and I woke to a sunny start for my 65th birthday, I was now feeling like a professional cyclist, paid by the state to train. I share a birth date with Roald Dahl and one of his many quotes resonates and could have been written for me.
After a walk into Bedoin for bread and pan-au-raisin I had a relaxing day with a short ride around the lanes with Kaye. We stopped to watch and chat with some grape pickers loading the fruit into a classic old Citroen van before heading back for an afternoon in the sun and a BBQ to finish the day.
September 14th Came with “red sky in the morning”, I planned an early start to ride out to Malucene and on to the wine-producing hill-top village of Suzette on the Cote Du Rhone wine trail. Plenty of winding climbs and descents on some very poor roads but the compensation was some stunning scenery. Several groups of French club cyclists were on the roads but the cooler temperature of 20c had forced them into long sleeve jerseys. As I got back to the van the wind had increased and Ventoux was now in the clouds, the distant roll of thunder could be heard and eventually the rains came continuing overnight.
September 15th and It was time to continue our tour, the next stop we were aiming for was Albi. We took the route through Avignon along the banks of the Rhone that were lined with some classical houseboats. Avignon looked to be a lovely historic town with its city walls but the traffic was horrendous and not a great encouragement to stay and explore.
We stopped briefly for coffee near St Affrique where we saw the magnificent sight of upward of 50 eagles or buzzards thermalling over the hills. This brief stoppage allowed us to consult with Mr Google who informed us of a motor home aire at L’isle du Tarn to the west of Albi next to a lake. On arrival we found a nice spot overlooking the water with several other vans with the added bonus that this was a free site. The lake was a focal point of local interest for walking, fishing and boating and a pre dinner walk had us searching our bird book for identification of the many waterfowl, there was also a large family of Ragondin, a relative of the Coypu playing in the water and along the bank and they seemed oblivious to humans.
September 16th A very noisy night in the van with some very loud and persistent owls who kept going until the daylight shift was taken over by wood pigeons. I had plotted a 40 mile circular route combining a couple of the tracks we had ridden last year on the Semaine Federale and this consisted of a couple of testing climbs before a coffee stop at Giroussens, there were lots of sunflowers and maize waiting to be cut. The return leg took us through the village of St Victor and a magnificent brick-built church that would be hard to replicate today. Most of these structures are built with 50mm bricks that are a common site around Albi, it would have been a good area for a bricklayer.
September 17th We decided to cycle towards Albi and the airfield at which we camped last year, a cold and windy start but the quiet lanes allowed us to make steady progress and a climb to the town of Labastide-de-Levis gave us some magnificent views. After coffee and pan au raisin at Albi we headed back along some equally quiet lanes but this time with a following wind. An afternoon in the sun and we tried our hand at a game of Boules and then with a celebratory beer in hand we studied the Philips map-book looking at a route north.
September 18th Another beautiful day with clear blue skies and we were heading for a campsite at Confolens that we had used on my earlier trip, we also retraced some of the route I cycled and I was surprised how different it looked from the van. Part of the road is The Way Of St James and there is always a continuous stream of pilgrims with backpacks, walking poles and tilley hats. After checking in at the Confolens camp site we headed into town to explore. Like a lot of towns in France the historic buildings are well-preserved and have changed little over the years, timber-framed houses and antique street fittings. A documented history makes for interesting reading with the original entrance to the town over the rivers Vienne and La Goire being toll bridges that have been preserved for pedestrian access today. As the sun set we celebrated with a couple of glasses of wine we decided to stay an extra day to explore the area.
Monday 19th As the day started with poor visibility and drizzle Kaye suggested I go for a solo ride and she would cycle to the shops when the weather improved. I plotted a 40 mile route to Isle-de-Jourdain along the south side of the River Vienne. The first town I came to was St Germaine-de-Confolens which is dominated by the ruins of an impressive old castle, for the next 15 miles the road followed the river and for a road next to a river it was a very undulating route with a new and very loose surface dressing that made for slow progress. A circuitous route through L’isle-de-Jourdain eventually spat me out by the magnificent viaduct that spans the river and after a brief Kodak moment I was ready for the return to Confolens along the north side of the river. This was the road I travelled on my earlier trip, past the Vienne Motorsports Track and although relatively quiet it seemed littered with roadkill including a magnificent barn owl which was the second of these beautiful creatures I had seen that had become victims of the motor car in the past month. After the village of Lessac another view of Château de Saint-Germain-de-Confolens came into view. I stopped to take a look at the old bridge that spans the river and is at present being renovated very skilfully but to the annoyance of the population on the far bank whose access and trade is being severely restricted. Returning through the traffic jammed streets of Confolens I spent the rest of the day exploring the town with Kaye.
Tuesday 20th A foggy start and it seemed that the Summer was slowly sliding into Autumn as we made our way further north, we were heading for a campsite at Les Montils and the River Loire. Couldn’t help but notice the amount of agricultural equipment showrooms in the area and by the amount of new tractors on the roads impeding our progress business must be good. We stopped for coffee at Argenton-sur-Creuse before reachingg our destination just after lunch. The campsite was not what we expected, a vast parkland setting and we had the place to ourselvess until we were joined by a large vintage German Mercedes coach that had been converted to a motor home complete with motorcycle garage and Harley Davidson. We walked into town for the tourist information office to find it sharing space with the control room of a miniature railway laid out in another area of parkland. Their eyes lit up as we came in but sadly we were not riding the train. Despite a lack of passengers the staff of volunteers were happily cleaning the rolling stock and attending to all manner of maintenance work on their own private train set. Returning to the van with plenty of maps and information on the surrounding area I set about plotting a course for a ride tomorrow but not before a beer in the warm late afternoon sun.
Wednesday 21st The coldest night of the trip so far, clear sky and a foggy damp start gave way to wall to wall sunshine as the mist burnt through. I had plotted a cycle route to Blois using the recommended Velo Routes which were traffic free but very frustrating when trying to navigate junctions and roundabouts and eventually we decided to abandon when the tarmac gave way to gravel tracks, fortunately between the Garmin and Mr Google Maps we found good roads as an alternative. We planned a stop at Bracieux for lunch but when we arrived the town seemed closed and we had to settle for coffee at a Tabac that seemed to do more business selling FDJ lottery cards. We opted to take the road route back to Les Montils and the pan flat tarmac made for swift progress, we saw a couple on fully loaded recumbent cyclists who by the amount of country flags on their luggage looked like they were touring Europe and the strangest sight so far of a pair of new wooden painted gates on the side of the road in front of a large tree!! Note to self, avoid cycle tracks in future.
Thursday 22nd Our destination was Saumur, a town I had skirted around on my trip and was not very complimentary about but later research suggested it was well worth a visit. Our route was pretty obvious, following the river Loire and soon after the start we came across flashing blue lights and traffic halted, it was not an incident but an escort for a large group of Bomberos on bikes presumably doing a charity ride. One feature of the route was the very large and distinctive houses and châteaux on the river banks as well as houses that were built into the adjacent rock faces, they certainly looked very resourceful and integrated well. The camp sites we had looked at in Saumur were very expensive and over coffee Kaye interrogated Mr Google who found us an Aire about 2 miles from the town on the river bank. After paying €9 for our spot we cycled into Saumur to the tourist information office to plan our days sightseeing. Back at the van I sat for a while watching the very French pass time of Boules at the local club before embarking on my own pass time of people watchng, walking along the banks of The Loire.
Friday 23rd Free parking in the motor home is a phrase that I like and as this was a preferable alternative to padlocking and leaving the bikes we drove into the centre of Saumur. We walked up through the old town to the castle as two hot air balloons drifted overhead, it was a steep climb but the views were magnificent. The entry fees to historic buildings in France are very modest compared to England and it came with a free English-speaking guide to ourselves who explained in-depth the history of the castle and its place in French society. A further walk around the historic properties of the town was followed by a leisurely lunch before heading back to the campsite at Villebernier. By late afternoon a few French motor homes were arriving for the weekend but several decided not to stay when they found they had to pay, I did smile, they rock up in an €80K van and object to €9 for a secure pitch that includes water, drainage, electricity and free wi-fi.
Saturday 24th We had decided to cycle the main road east along the Loire, it was a flat route that certainly met with Kaye’s approval. We stopped briefly at the village of Chouze-sur-Loire at the site of a red English telephone box and some beautiful old boats that are peculiar to the Loire. Turning away from the river we took to the country lanes that criss cross the railway tracks back to the village of Villebernier. After a brief lunch stop at the van Kaye was driving to our next overnight stop at Brissac Quince and I was cycling the route in an opposite direction to my ride in May, passing the “wine school”, “mushroom museum” and the ruins of the XVth century castle at Prebant, along with some more very odd and interesting river craft on the baks of the river.
I got to our planned rendezvous at the municipal Aire at Brissac Quince to find Kaye and the van tucked into a corner with gridlock in the car park and surrounding roads. We had picked the day of the annual fayre and every parking space was taken. We eventually found a spot and then joined the masses in the town with stalls selling everything from a double bed to ducks, geese and goats, local wine or a machete, I settled for some warm pan-au-raisin to go with a couple of glasses of the local vino at €1 a glass, we also noticed that Sunday was 2016 Grand Prix de Brissac-Quincé cycle race, 120km around the street circuit.
Sunday 25th Our return to Brissac Quince was to visit and explore the Chateau that impressed me as I rode past it in May so as the doors opened at 10-00 we paid our €10 to walk around Chateau Brissac. This extraordinary building was started in the 15th century and not completed until the 17th century. It was partially demolished between the original corner turrets and a classical Chateau facade built between, I was surprised at the very poor junction between the two structures.
The building has an interesting history and of course the exit is through the wine cave with a tasting sample but at €7 per bottle it was not very good. Sunday in France is the day of the long lunch and we found a cafe on the main road up to the town square where we dined Al Fresco and waited for the cycle race to start. A very entertaining afternoon followed , I could feel their pain each time they came up the hill.
Monday 26th Our last full day in France and we drove the 150 miles to Hermonville nr Ouistreham , a small town on the coast with a free camper van aire. We stopped en route to stock up on wine and top up the fuel tank. After parking the van we walked to the British Wartime Cemetery, it is a very moving to read the headstones, register and description of the D Day activity. The majority of casualties were around D Day and were in late teens and early twenties and included Canadians and members of the Free French Army. From here we walked to the beach and the vast expanse of sand at low tide, As far as the eye could see in both directions large houses flank the promenade, an eclectic mix of styles ranging from Gothic to Arts and Craft and modern Cubes and looking towards Ouistreham the Brittany Ferry Normandie that would be our boat home tomorrow morning.