Archive for the ‘France’ Category


25 July 2010

We decided to take a train part of the way to avoid another day of over 100km, so on the advice of our couch surfing host we headed for Vesoul.

The weather was fine and the scenery beautiful. This is a rather untouristic and (for France) unpopulated area where there are longer distances between villages. We rested by the Saone where Ian did his exercises (all going pretty well, augmented by medication when necessary) and had a coffee in a small town with open shops. These are quite rare!

French drivers do not consider it necessary to stay behind a cyclist. They find it more convenient to pull out, scream past and then quickly swerve back to avoid oncoming vehicles, often with seconds to spare, making it quite safe.

M. Garmin guides us through the bois

In the early afternoon heavy grey clouds were gathering and we could see rain approaching. It soon caught up with us about 14 km out of Vesoul, so we sheltered on the front porch of a house, conveniently furnished with table and bench, and ate the nougat from Claire and Alex, and then the Jatz biscuits and peanuts from KLM. Just goes to show it is worth keeping them!

After the heaviest rain had passed we continued into the town and looked for a cafe. We found one near the station, but no food was to be had. ‘C’est fini’, said the man. He asked where we were from and enquired about the time of day at which people ate food in Australia. We said ‘anytime’. He said ‘Well, you are in Vesoul…’. But we found Chez Claudine where they were happy to sell us hot chocolate and sandwiches – but the girl had to run over to the boulangerie to get a baguette first.

French trains are good – space for bikes, they go fast, they leave on time, it’s easy to buy a ticket online with MasterCard.

In Montbeliard we met Nicolas who was hosting us. He lives in a small flat on the main square of the town. He’s a surfer, a bike rider and works for an IT start up company. He told us about the huge Peugeot factory that is the main employer in the town and that the downturn in the car industry has caused a loss of population. The French government is providing subsidies to attract new economic activity and that was the reason he moved there. He cooked us a nice dinner of Montbeliard sausage with potatoes and salad and we had a good evening talking about politics, France, surfing, bike riding and travelling.

Montbeliard square from Nicolas's kitchen window

Cycle route:
Vittel to Vesoule (and then by train to Montbeliard


25 July 2010

An overcast day – good and not raining – good! The first part of the route took us along a canal – flat. We passed lots of small locks, many with lock keepers who live right beside the canal. Passed the occasional fisherman. At one lock a French woman of mature years spotted us and called out something that we couldn’t immediately understand – but she was offering us water (de l’eau, de l’eau!).

At Joinville it seemed like a good time to stop for coffee except there were no brasseries open. We cruised around for a while and found a bar-tabac on the way our of town. These are like a combination of a bar, cafe and the TAB and seem to be rather manly places. However, we got good coffees and enjoyed the ambience. When Ian ordered a second coffee in his excellent French, the bar man thought he wanted a Pernod! This is probably what a real French man would have at that time of day.

Ian sans pernod

Our route took us past cows, fields of wheat, corn, canola and sunflowers, forest tracks, a wind farm, lots of villages. We saw a deer cross our path along one of forest routes.

At lunch time we stopped to shelter in a small park as some light rain was falling. Some people began to arrive in their cars and were obviously gathering there. It turned out to be a walking group. We spoke to a woman (of few teeth in the lower jaw) and she told us that they meet regularly to walk in the area. She said they wanted to do the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, so we told her about our meeting with the pilgrims on the previous day. All the walkers told us Vittel was not far away. They didn’t know about Garmin who often takes the long cut!

Vittel is a spa town and a famous brand of bottled water. We stayed in a slightly down at heel resort hotel where we had an enormous room – about 3 times the size of our room in Paris.

Cycle route:
Saint-Dizier to Vittel


21 July 2010

Aujourd’hui, nous faisons le VGV (Velo a Grande Vitesse) riding 134 km from Orainville to Saint-Dizier. We’re hurrying for a few days so that we can be with our friend Henri in Biel, Switzerland on the weekend. We had a lovely day to cycle so far (with panniers) – cool, cloudy and calm (maybe even a gentle tail wind at times. Flat most of the way but rain for the last couple of hours.

Our first stop (south-east of Reims) by a rail line was rewarded by two TGVs passing at a tunnel portal. 300km/h looks faster from outside!

We rode through the vineyards of Champagne including Moet & Chandon and Bollinger, with a climb over the Montagne de Reims (not  proper mountain, just a hill actually). In the small town of Conde-sur Marne we stopped at the boulangerie for a croissant and pain au chocolat (bien) and at the bar for a coffee (pas bien). We spoke to a man who was also resting there. He had a large rucksack and told us he was on a pilgrimage from Belgium to Santiago and expected to be on the road for 3 months. Later in the day we met 3 Belgian women, also on the same pilgrim route.

Lunch was in Chalons-en-Champagne, a town with a cathedral and 2 other amazing churches of great antiquity, and many half timbered buildings. We bought lunch (baguette, sausage, camembert, pastries, apricots), then went to the canal near the River Marne to consume it. Here we got distracted by watching boats going through a lock. We spoke to the Dutch captain of a large canal boat that only just fitted with a few centimetres to spare on either side. His load was bauxite from near Marseilles, going to Belgium. He and his wife carry various loads on canals all around Europe.

Arrived very damp in St Dizier. We didn’t get to see much of this town but enjoyed the scenic industrial route past the rail yards and a metal recycling plant.

Flowers in the fields

Cycle route:
Orainville to Saint-Dizier (except I forgot to start start M. Garmin)


21 July 2010

Except for one day when we refused to comply and continued to cycle on the banks of the Meuse despite his protestations (and consequently paid the price of back-tracking from dead-end paths on the wrong side of the river), Monsieur Garmin (Edge 705 GPS with a digital European road map installed) – il parle en Francais a ce moment, naturellement – continues to do excellent service for us.

His route finding is practically limited to about 50-70 km per stage but if we make a note of a few villages, towns or cities that represent significant way points for a day’s cycling we can ask M. Garmin to plot our route from one to the next. If we ask him to avoid major roads but accept unpaved roads he tends to lead us on very quiet picturesque byways – even on tracks through the forest or farms – and never on highways or dead-ends. He is prone to suggesting extensive detours to avoid very brief sections of main roads and so uncritical acceptance is not desirable.

M. Garmin is very adept at navigating us into, out of and across new cities – a task that can be very time-consuming and tedious using the traditional methods. It’s very nice not to be stuck on noisy, smelly, ugly intersections trying to cope with wind, rain, one-way streets and missing street signs at the end (or the beginning) of a tiring day. We can enter a business name or a street address and he will lead us straight there.

Unfortunately, M. Garmin is unaware of the Limburger Fietsnetwork (too new perhaps), canal towpaths and some ravels (rail-to-trail paths). Narrow Parisian streets challenge his satellite reception from time to time.

Paris 5 & Orainville

21 July 2010

We found after 3 days in Paris that we were using the Velib in a rather profligate manner that chomped through more euros than we had anticipated. The best strategy is to exploit the ‘first 30 minutes is free’ rule and do lots of short trips and return the bike to a station. This keeps them in circulation and allows you to keep your costs down. Seems obvious doesn’t it?

Observations of Paris: clean, safe, few homeless people, few Roma, air quality pretty good, not outrageously expensive, tap water good, standard of fashion seen on the street comparable to any other city. Ian made his own fashion statement which is sure to influence the Parisiens. Watch next summer’s designs! It’s easy to get lost in Paris because the height of the buildings, mostly 6 to 8 floors, conceals landmarks. The uniformity of building style and material is pleasant. There is little high rise, at least within the Boulevard Peripherique.

Our last breakfast in Paris – le petit dejeuner formule. This consists of orange juice, cafe au lait (or hot drink of choice), a croissant and a baguette with butter and jam. Sometimes it includes fromage blanc (like yoghurt). Our boulangerie had a window display of giant meringues in a range of pastel colours. With breakfast you can’t really go wrong. A good lunch is a cheese plate – an assortment of cheeses with bread. They bring out more bread if you need it to finish off the cheese, but they don’t bring out more cheese to help you get through the bread. Dinner can be risky and we’ve achieved about 50% success there.

We departed Hotel Les Argonautes and took a bus to Gare de l’Est, then with time to spare we both had haircuts. It costs twice as much for feminin as masculin – not much egalite there! On finishing the haircut, Ian’s barber told him that he looked like Bill Clinton.

Then, with 20 minutes before our train, quelle horreur! I remembered that our passports  were at the hotel. A rapid rearrangement of travel plans ensued. Ian to Reims, me to Velib for a quick return trip across town. Lucky we didn’t leave Paris without them! Gare de l’Est has armed guards wandering around. It’s for le securite since 9/11.

Back in Reims, Alex and Claire took us to see the Basilique Saint-Remi de Reims, a magnificent church in which is buried the remains of St Remi who baptised Clovis, the first king of France. History is important to French people.

Then home for a family dinner with Alex’s parents, Alain and Christine, and his little nephew Theo (3) and niece Sam (18 months). Too tall to be Asterix but with his red hair, moustached and esprit Alain is one of those indomitable Gauls, bien sur! This was a lovely evening with great food, wine and company. Thanks Alex and Claire for everything!

Alex, Claire and family in Orainville


20 July 2010

This is what they do with all those egg whites once they’ve made their brioches.

Parisian meringues

Paris 4

19 July 2010

A day of promenading in gardens –  Le Jardin des Plantes and Le Jardin de Luxembourg. The flower beds in these gardens are beautiful with masses of begonias, cosmos, dahlias, marigolds and petunias but it’s hard to get close enough for a good photo without transgressing the barrier beyond which people are not meant to go.

Les Jardin des Plantes

In Le Jardin de Luxembourg we listened to a school big band from the UK. They were playing in the same rotunda where the Chopin concert was held. Some people were on the grass and they didn’t get rebuked or whistled at. Law and order was lacking.

Un acteur grecke recont son part

We also took in some culture with a visit to the Museum of the Middle Ages. There was a lot to learn there! We learnt a little of it.

Unusual sight for the day: nun scooting. Yes, on one of those small wheel scooters that you push with one foot! She was rather young so I’m not sure if she was la vraie chose, but she looked genuine with a full pale blue habit and white head scarf and it was nice to see nevertheless. Go nuns!

We dined in an Algerian restaurant – tagine, couscous, forgettable and regrettable desserts. Then walked along the Seine and watched people picnicking.

On the Pont St Louis a group of roller bladers was gathering, obviously with a plan. They constructed a jump by stacking wooden pallets with a sheet of plywood for the ramp. Then began a display of skill. Added to the setup was a high jump made of bamboo with the bar getting higher. So we saw some pretty good jumping with somersaults and backflips until the police arrived and called it off.

We now have a big map of France and are planning the next stage of cycling which will begin on Wednesday. We have accommodation and couches reserved and plan to arrive in Biel on Saturday.

We are a bit annoyed about the election as it is not easy to arrange to vote while overseas. We are awaiting assistance from our (current) MHR! And good to know that we are Moving Forward this time. Inspiring stuff.

Paris 3

18 July 2010

Do not go on the grass. It is important to observe this in French parks. We admired the nice soft-looking green grass in the Jardin des Tuileries but did not step on it for fear of hearing that officious whistle! We walked past Notre Dame early and went inside briefly. There were no crowds. An interesting scene at the front was a couple of chaps photographing a teddy bear that was dressed up in long black priestly vestments, with Notre Dame as the backdrop.

We paid homage to Le Louvre and then wandered around Le Marais and then to Centre Pompidou. There was a long queue by opening time but it moved pretty fast.

Ian in front of the Louvre

We saw the Lucien Freud exhibition including Aprez Cezanne from the National Gallery of Australia. The Dreamlands exhibition was also interesting – about the copying and recreation of iconic buildings and locations in different places around the world. A bit weird to see this, then look out the window and see the real thing! Another memorable, confronting and amusing (to us) piece was part of the women artists exhibition. It was a video of the enjoyable life one can have while dressed in a full burqa, including swimming, roller skating, self defence, exercise biking, ballet and other activities.

At 5pm we went to Jardin de Luxembourg for an outdoor Chopin concert. The pianist was Leszek Możdżer, Polish, who played jazz improvisations on themes of Chopin. He was amazingly virtuosic and for several pieces modified the piano by placing things on the strings (eg a towel, a glass, a box) to alter the sound. Almost as interesting as the performance was the behaviour of some audience members. As the crowd grew, the available space around the rotunda became more cramped. People who arrived early were sitting on chairs, but latecomers sat around the edges of the rotunda  (this included us) and some even inside the rotunda. This upset some French ladies who made their displeasure clear by calling out and poking the offenders with their programs and admonishing them. Parisiennes have a particularly blood-curdling way of saying ‘Madame’. Nevertheless the trespassers stood/sat their ground (they must have very thick skins).

We ventured into Chinatown for dinner at a Vietnamese restaurant. Not much English on their side nor French or Vietnamese on ours. They had little faith in our menu selection or ability to cope with the choice we made. The Vietnamese omelette was too special for us, we wouldn’t like it, we should choose something else. We said it was an ‘aventure’ and persevered. It was delicious -crispy omelette with savoury filling, masses of leafy greens (lettuce, several types of mint and basel). We finally remembered how to eat it (distant memory from a Vietnamese restaurant in Woolloomoolloo years ago). The staff were frankly incredulous.

Back at the hotel, Rosalie donned her head scarf a took her ax (ukulele) down to the Seine for her ritualistic songs on location. Not much appreciation from passers-by (they probably thought she was busking and Parisians are so over busking) but on man did join in Chanson d’Armour en passant.

Paris 2

18 July 2010

The street beside our hotel (Hotel Les Argonautes) is called Rue du Chat qui Peche. Quaint!

We returned to Montparnasse (now my spiritual home of roller) for breakfast and to visit the market there. Lots of lovely fruit, vegetables, fish, meat, cheeses of all shapes and sizes and stages of mouldiness, bread and other nice things.

Breakfast in Montparnasse

Next destination: Bois de Boulogne where Ian did his exercises. We are still getting used to the traffic lights here. They are positioned only on the near side of the intersection and we are used to looking further ahead. This resulted in a misinterpretation and that resulted in a beep and short but stern lecture from a gendarme.

L’Arc de Triomphe and Champs Elysees are easier on a Velib than in a car. This area is getting rigged up for the final day of the Tour de France with lots of scaffolding and seating being installed.

I went to Jardin de Luxembourg to see an outdoor photographic exhibition – Esprit Nomade. Then we set off across the city to Montmartre. We are getting a bit more savvy about Velib and now check several things before selecting a bike: tyres hard, handle bar grips present, steering not wonky, gears working. We have chosen a dud bike a few times but it is easy to swap it for a better one so not a big problem.

There are huge crowds of people at all the major tourist attractions, to their detriment. Montmartre is quite a sight when it first comes into view because you can’t really see it as you approach. But it is overrun with hundreds of people and the inevitable souvenir sellers, tricksters and buskers. We watched this guy and a string quartet. We went inside the cathedral and enjoyed the view across the city. Then a quick look at the Moulin Rouge and Pigalle. Enough for one day!

Paris 1

16 July 2010

Our hotel is in a very touristic area near Notre Dame and Le Louvre, so we breakfasted along Boule St Mich near the Sorbonne where the concentration of tourists is a bit lower. In Jardin de Luxembourg a gendarme blew his whistle at Ian because he was cycling in the park (forbidden!). Luckily he didn’t hit him with his baton. There was a Chopin poster exhibition and there are some outdoor concerts over the next few days.

Chopin a Paris

We cruised around on the Velibs. They are sturdy, rather heavy to lift over a curb, have 3 hub gears, lights that go on when the bike is moving, a strong basket on the front, no rear racks and a lock. We found the Quartier Chinois, a good boulangerie, some street art, watched 4 messieurs eating steak tartare for lunch and ended up at the roller shop where I hired roller blades for Pari-Roller 10pm – 1am tonight. I am a bit nervous about this because of my limited training and the rather demanding course, but I plan to revert to a Velib if it gets too hard.

We are trying out our French as much as possible and are at a pretty elementary standard where we can work out what we want to say but cannot anticipate what a French person might reply.  Then we look blank and say ‘pardon’. But English is spoken in many places and we often end up having a conversation consisting of both languages.

OK – now it’s later and my thrilling but brief Pari-Roller experience is over. I am unharmed! I got togged up with roller blades, pads and helmet and cruised along to the Tour de Montparnasse where it all starts. After a bit of warming up the randonee began and there I was, on the road, gliding along with everyone else. I even managed going down a hill. Volunteer staff, support vehicles and roller police accompany the group. The main trouble for me was the fast pace and after a couple of km I was well and truly dropped by the pack and had to retire. I untogged and we Velibbed (new verb) over to the Eiffel Tower, all lit up, where there was a huge crowd listening to a busker who was playing La Bamba and hundreds of people queuing to go up. It is a beautiful mild night.

Reims & Paris

15 July 2010

Fresh baguette obtained by Alex.


Short ride to Bermericourt and Brimont.


Quiche and salad made by Claire.


Visit to Reims Cathedral, of which the town is justly proud. It is immense and impressive in every way. It features the angel who smiles (l’ange qui sourit) just above the door; statues of many French kings; grotesque (in a nice way) gargoyles; amazing stained glass windows including the Marc Chagall windows. Maintaining this building is a huge task for the city of Reims and there is renovation work going on all the time. Not sure whether the rate of renovation is greater than the rate of degradation.

Dejeuner chez Claire & Alex

We decided to leave our bikes in Orainville and travel by train to Paris, use the Velib here to get around, then return to Reims and continue cycling from there. The train from Reims to Paris takes about 45 minutes and reaches over 300kph. It was comfortable, quiet and not expensive. We arrived, picked up a map of Paris, walked to the front of Paris Est and there was a Velib station… empty! We waited about 5 minutes and within that time several bikes were returned so we jumped on and frappeed les rues de Paris! The GPS guided us to the Hotel Les Argonautes (small, cool) in le quartier latin (now more le quartier multiculturel). An area more closely packed with restaurants, all tiny, you can scarcely imagine!

We have several Velib stations nearby. Good not to have our own bikes here as there is no safe place to leave them. Velib bikes are everywhere but Paris is not really especially bicycle friendly. However, we’re mixing it with the traffic successfully so far. We did a jaunt along the Seine and saw a few landmarks.

Ukulele a la Tour Eiffel

Demain nous allons faire le flanneur – we’ll look around some more tomorrow!

Route de TGV

Reims a Paris a TGV (check the speed)

A few miscellaneous observations

15 July 2010

We have seen quite a few touring cyclists along the way, including a family group yesterday (incroyable!), parents and children all decked out with Ortliebs. At Notre Dame de Laon there were two heavily loaded bikes parked at the entrance with a child’s trailer. If you look closely you’ll see a wooden scoot-along bike for the child. We didn’t meet the owners.

Along the Meuse there were several holiday cruise boats equipped with lots of bikes. Dutch people take holidays on these boats and use the bikes for local transport at the various ports where they stop. Just in case you didn’t know this, the Meuse becomes the Maas when it gets to the Netherlands.

There is a competition here, a bit similar to our Tidy Towns, called Ville et Villages Fleuris. This explains the extraordinary displays of flowers everywhere in public places, on bridges, in almost every spot where a small garden bed can be created or planter placed.

There is little of the tasteless and ubiquitous advertising – billboards, signs, sandwich boards – that we are used to seeing everywhere in Australia. Even places like McDonalds here are only subtly signed. No big Ms looming over the countryside. This is good.

We have seen our first fields of sunflowers (tournesols) and our first vines just outside Orainville.

Where's Rosalie?

Riding to Orainville

15 July 2010

Our destination was the house of Claire and Alex who surfed our couch in January in Adelaide. We found an open patisserie and a cafe in Charleville (these are often provided separately in France which makes it difficult to eat and drink something at the same time).

Then began our ride through beautiful countryside with fields of grain, forests, some proper hills (the first of our trip), villages, that sort of thing. Everything was quiet, hardly any cars on the road, shops closed, because of Bastille Day. Few French villages have much commerce any more, so you seldom find a boulangerie or cafe. We saw a bread van that travels around the countryside loaded up with baguettes to sell in each village. We decided to aim for Rethel, a reasonable sized town, in the hope of observing some 14 July festivities and arrived at the perfect time. There was a gathering of people, a town band, some VIPs, a local uniformed brigade and the gendarmerie on hand to direct the traffic. The band then lead the procession to the local memorial at which a short ceremony took place including some saluting, lowering of flags and the playing of the Marseillaise. Then band played with good spirit but without good intonation and that was just perfect!

Bastille Day in Rethel

The day was warming up a lot so we purchased our first French baguette and had a picnic under the trees. Then on the road again. One of the villages we passed was Poilcourt-Sydney where Australian soldiers fought in WW1. The Tour de France passed through here a week or so ago. Then to Orainville near Reims where Claire and Alex and their dog Charlie were waiting for us. It was great to see them again and hear about their travels after they left Adelaide. They are now hoping to find jobs in France, but it’s not easy.

A huge thunderstorm with wind and rain descended. We leapt into the car and drove to Laon, a medieval town on top of a hill with a 12th century cathedral. We passed several war cemeteries along the way. We asked Alex the name of a nearby village. He didn’t know it but pointed out that there are 36,000 villages in France so it’s not considered necessary to know them all.

Claire cooked a French meal for us – escargots, salade de chevres chaud, magert de canard and figues au miel followed by fondant au chocolat! Delicieux.

Now we’re getting in mode for Paris. Claire and Alex dislike Paris and say they would never live there, Parisiennes are never happy, they are so stressed, the cost of living is so high, the traffic is terrible. But I think we are going to enjoy it!

Namur to Charleville-Mezieres

13 July 2010

It’s nearly midnight so this will be short! The valley of the Meuse is beautiful. We intended to start early which we did, but things always take more time than we expect. It took us about half an hour to travel the first kilometre with Garmin telling us one thing and our good sense telling us another. The river had good bike paths for much of the way with occasional sections of Road to Roubaix style pave. At one point we found our way onto a single track walking path and followed that until a retreat was forced. It’s nice passing locks with boats and barges, grand houses, vegetable gardens, flowers in pots and window boxes everywhere.

The town of Dinant was impressive – it sits in front of a rocky cliff with a huge church, narrow streets, bridge festooned with flags. We found the birthplace of Adolphe Sax, inventor of the saxophone!

We entered France without a definite border and it really looks and feels like a different country. Lunched in Givet and took the autobus the rest of the way to Charleville Mezieres. It’s Bastille Day tomorrow and there are fireworks going off constantly, tricouleurs and other national flags on bridges and buildings.

The Tour de France coverage included a colour story about spectators who were spending their vacation following the tour. They used the music from M. Hulot’s Holiday – a nice cultural reference.

Charleville Mezieres is not really on any tourist trail but it is a beautiful city with a magnificent square, La Place Ducale, as well as many other splendid buildings and public places.

Cycle route:
Namur to Charleville-Mezieres
Around Charleville-Mezieres

Taking a walk on the wild side