Crossing France on Two Wheels

It all started in April when I asked Carole about her summer plans.

"Let's go away in August," she said.

"I bet you'd love to go back to Alaska," I suggested. Carole had spent eight years in Alaska before moving to New England.

"Actually, there's something else I'd love to do even more," she said. "Do you think we could ride our bikes across France?"

I was overjoyed. For years I had dreamed about biking in Europe. I had read books, stared at maps, fantasized itineraries. But I had been intimidated by the thought of actually doing it -- until now.

"There's just one problem," Carole said. "I don't speak French."

"That's OK. I'll translate for you!"
I quickly offered. "I'll get out some maps and plan a route."

Above and below: Cycling beside the Canal du Nivernais in central France
Below: Fields of sunflowers in the upper Loire Valley
Early on the morning of August 6th, Carole and I found ourselves in Paris's Charles de Gaulle Airport, surrounded by piles of panniers and two huge cardboard boxes containing partially disassembled bicycles. We had no itinerary, no hotel reservations, and we were exhausted from the overnight flight. Carole collapsed in a chair and fell asleep. "Wake me up when you've made a hotel reservation," she instructed me before dozing off.

The mere thought of speaking French sent me into a panic. I had hardly used the language since studying it in high school 20 years ago. All my self-confidence evaporated on the spot.

At the tourist bureau, I managed to utter a few sentences, simultaneously mangling the grammer, the accent and the vocabulary. The woman behind the counter smiled and answered me in English. She made us a reservation at an inexpensive hotel, she wrote down the street address for me, and gave me directions. I woke Carole up; we dragged our boxes outside and started to re-assemble our bikes.

Suddenly two uniformed airport personnel approached us and silently motioned for me to follow them. What had we done? Were we going to be arrested?

I followed the two men around the corner, and then I understood. There stood two young American women, surrounded by piles of panniers, two big cardboard boxes and lots of unattached bicycle parts. They were Beth and Monica, two nurses from Boston who were embarking on their own bicycle tour of France. They had never been to Europe before, they didn't speak French, and they looked worried.

"It's our handlebars. We can't get them back on."

Below: Ancient Roman arch in Autun
I looked at their bikes. Both had been banged up on the flight and their chain guards were bent. We straightened out the chain guards. But the handlebar problem was definitely not the airline's fault. The so-called "mechanic" who boxed their bikes had carelessly loosened the handlebar stem bolts too far, and the anchor nuts had fallen off the bottom. Those nuts could be just about anywhere on either side of the Atlantic Ocean. Or perhaps on the ocean floor.

I did give their mechanic credit for one smart move: deflating their tires before the flight. In case you don't know it, a fully inflated bicycle tube can and will explode in the unpressurized cargo compartment of an airplane. But a popped tube is still easier to replace than a stem bolt anchor nut, which can come in an amazing variety of unique sizes and shapes. The chances of finding the right size and shape in a French bike shop seemed remote.

We turned both bicycles upside down and shook them, hoping the missing nuts would tumble out. They didn't. We turned the boxes upside down and shook them. No luck; the nuts were gone. The handlebars turned, and the front wheels did not. Beth and Monica would not be going cycling today.

I apologized for my inability to solve their problems, and went back to help Carole. She had broken off a valve stem while pumping up her tires, so I put in a new tube for her. We had only brought two spares -- now we were down to one, and we were still at the airport.

We loaded our bikes on a Paris-bound bus and set off in search of our hotel. It turned out to be a short ride from the Porte Maillot bus station. We checked in, and by now I was ready for a nap too. I was too exhausted to notice the blood stains on the walls.

We spent three days in Paris -- walking, cycling and riding the Metro all over the city. On our last night in town, we were eating dinner at a sidewalk cafe in the Latin Quarter, when who should walk up to our table but Beth and Monica. Their hotel was directly across the street from our cafe.

"You wouldn't believe what happened. We met this really nice French guy, and he drove us to a bike shop to get our bikes fixed. Then he drove us to the train station and put our bikes on the baggage train for us. Tomorrow we're leaving for Dijon, and our bikes are going to be waiting for us when we get there."

Beth and Monica had hotel reservations for their entire trip. I was jealous. Then I remembered -- we have our camping gear with us. We're going to stay in campgrounds. We don't need reservations. We can go anywhere we want!

It was way past midnight when we cycled back across the city to our hotel. (We still hadn't adjusted to the six-hour time difference from the States.) A warm wind was roaring out of the southwest. Clouds of dust swirled around us as we crossed the Seine on the Pont Neuf. We had sampled the cassis sorbet at Haagen-Dazs the night before, so for variety we stopped on the Champs-Elysées for hot fudge sundaes at McDonalds. Ah, a taste of America in Paris. There's only one difference between an American McDonalds and the Parisian version: In Paris you can buy a beer at McDonalds. It's Budweiser, of course.

A few blocks short of our hotel, Carole's rear tire went flat. We walked the rest of the way. In the morning I installed a new tube. Still in Paris, and already out of spare tubes. And it's Sunday, so all the bike shops are closed. Riding skinny-tire road bikes, we might have trouble finding the right size tubes in the little farming villages.

Fully loaded, we set off for the Gare de Lyon. We reached the station just as it started to rain. Boarding a southbound train, we rolled through the Paris suburbs and got off at Fontainebleau as the sky began to clear again. We cycled through cool wet streets to the center of town and wandered into a pizzeria for supper.

In the morning, hungry again, we cycled to a tiny boulangerie and a giant supermarché. The boulangerie amazed us with piles of inexpensive and delicious freshly-baked breads and pastries. At the supermarché, we filled our basket with excellent locally-grown fruits and vegetables, a selection of cheeses, and a bottle of wine, all reasonably-priced. Topping off our basket with one more essential purchase -- a corkscrew -- we invented what was to become our daily routine for the remainder of our trip. We would get up, shower, load our bikes, and cycle to the nearest boulangerie for two or three baguettes and a slice of quiche. Our next stop would be at the supermarché for a bag of vine-ripe tomatoes, a bag of sweet, juicy nectarines or peaches, a chunk of cheese, a few slices of ham, a bottle of wine and two bottles of water. And every few days another jar of Nutella, the French equivalent of peanut butter, made from hazelnuts instead of peanuts.

After cramming our panniers full of food, we'd ride to a quiet spot, eat a picnic breakfast, then cycle until lunchtime. We'd find another picnic spot, slap together some ham, cheese and tomato baguette sandwiches, and uncork our wine. By buying all our food in the morning, we avoided the problem of French business hours in the countryside. You see, most small-town French businesses close at noon for lunch. Banks, post offices, bakeries, even some supermarchés. They may not reopen until 2, 3, or 4 PM. And most businesses are closed Saturday afternoon, plus all day Sunday and Monday. Restaurants aren't much better -- they do open up for lunch, but often for only an hour. If your timing is off, you go hungry, which is not recommended when you're cycling all day.

In all our travels, we never found an open bicycle shop. It was always too early in the morning, or too late in the afternoon, or the wrong day of the week. But we never needed one -- our bicycles performed flawlessly from the moment we left Paris.

At the end of a long day of cycling, we were always ready to find one of those unpretentious-looking restaurants serving fabulous food at a reasonable price, the places for which France is famous. Unfortunately, in the rural areas such restaurants were hard to find. Often we had to settle for overpriced, mediocre fare. But one dependable common denominator was the French pizzeria. Almost every town had one, the crusts were excellent, and the selection of toppings was stupendous -- all the different varieties of sausage, for example.

As we cycled south from Fontainebleau, our plan was to follow the narrowest, quietest paved roads. We passed through tiny villages of tightly clustered ancient stone houses, separated by miles of intensively-cultivated farmland. In Chateaurenard we toured the ruins of an ancient hilltop fort, marveled at the half-timbered houses, and met up with a group of German cycle tourists. After three nights of sleeping indoors, including a night in a beautiful country inn in the tiny village of Recloses, we decided it was time to try camping. We had covered nearly 50 miles that day to arrive at sunset in Saint-Fargeau, a medieval town dominated by a belfry spanning the main street, and a château enclosed by five massive round brick towers. Across from the château on the cobblestone street we found La Mangeoire, an elegant yet inexpensive "mom-and-pop" restaurant, where we dined on veal cutlets, helped ourselves at the chariot de crudités (salad bar), and finished with a selection of cheeses and an impressive gâteau aux trois chocolats. Fortified by wine, my self-confidence in conversational French took a sudden upturn. "Magnifique!" I declared.

I was dreading the thought of getting up from the table, for it meant climbing onto our bikes and cycling three miles uphill in the pitch dark with full stomachs to get to the municipal campground. The veal, the wine, the crudités and the gâteau would surely rise up in protest! Fortunately, it was a warm, dry night, the full moon was just rising, and Carole was in an adventurous mood, so we pedaled methodically up the hill and stumbled into the campground, hoping not to stumble over any tent stakes and wake the sleeping occupants. It must have been almost midnight, and we were sure everyone was asleep. Not so -- the campground attendant spotted us, greeted us in French, and escorted us to a vacant campsite. He told us we could pay in the morning. So far, so good.

I had bought a lightweight backpacking tent especially for our trip, but I had never pulled it out of its stuff sack. We were now going to set it up for the first time. In the dark. It went up perfectly; we climbed in and instantly fell asleep.

In the morning I awoke full of trepidation and went to pay our camping fee. Everything was so expensive in France! But I need not have worried. The camping fee was only $3, and that included free hot showers. Across the road was a swimming beach. And a bakery delivered fresh bread every morning. French campground standards are high, we decided.

We saw campers of many nationalities -- German, Belgian, British, and especially Dutch. But no Americans. That day we rode on to Donzy and again headed for the municipal campground, where the teenage girl who collected our camping fee told us emphatically that no Americans had ever camped there before.

We awoke the next morning and looked out into the pouring rain. Fortunately all our gear was safely stowed in plastic bags inside our panniers, so we set out with the wind and rain in our faces. Protection was impossible, and we were wet head to toe. But it was only fifteen miles to Sancerre, and as we crossed the Loire River bridge, the rain let up. As we climbed the long hill into Sancerre itself, the sun came out. We were blessed with perfect cycling weather for the remainder of our trip -- mostly sunny and cool.

Sancerre is a medieval village that sits atop a steep hill surrounded by vineyards. Impossibly narrow streets snake around the hillsides. Still dripping wet, we went looking for a hotel. Our selection, the Hotel Panoramic, was a modern building perched on the steepest hillside. Taking the elevator three flights down from the lobby, we came out at ground level on the back side of the building. Our room's sliding doors opened to a patio with a swimming pool, and beyond the pool, vineyards stretched for miles down the hill, across the valley floor and up onto the distant hillsides.

We had planned to do some wine tasting, since Sancerre is known for its fine white wines made from Sauvignon Blanc and Fumé Blanc grapes. However, in the morning the road beckoned, so we left town and pedaled south up the Loire Valley, past corn and wheat fields on a one-lane paved road totally empty of traffic. Eventually our secret route merged with a busier road, and we re-crossed the Loire, then diverged onto another quiet lane that climbed through miles of deep forest. Suddenly the forest ended, and we emerged into a valley of vast sunflower fields gleaming yellow in the late afternoon sun. We shared a pizza for supper -- again -- and pitched our tent in the Prémery municipal campground.

The next day was Sunday, so I hurried to the supermarché, and was pleasantly surprised to find it open. I suffed my panniers with food, and we cycled eastward. I noticed on the map that our route intersected the Canal du Nivernais, and I suspected that a short ride along the canal might be an enjoyable detour. It was. The canal ran alongside a shallow lake, the Etang de Baye. Sailboats and windsurfers crusied the lake, while on the canal a péniche took on passengers, and a motorboat sat in a lock, slowly dropping as the water ran out. When the éclusier opened the gates, the motorboat sped off and so did we, alternately pedaling and coasting down the one-lane paved road that hugs the canal's east bank. We caught up with another group of German cyclists, and stopped to share our experiences, conversing in a mixture of English and French. Eventually we stopped for the night in the canalside town of Châtillon-en-Bazois. Our "short detour" had taken us 20 miles out of our way!

In the morning we laid out our breakfast on a stone bench facing a backyard sculpture garden, with the canal at our backs. Villagers walked past us along the canal, carrying bags of groceries home from the supermarché. We packed up and followed the canal as it snaked around the bases of short steep hills. The idea of a solid week of canalside cycling was very appealing, but after a picnic lunch on an old stone bridge watching sunbathing vacationers float by underneath us, we reluctantly left the canal behind and aimed our front wheels at the Morvan mountains. After an exhausting afternoon climb, we reached the town of Château-Chinon in the Morvan regional park.

Leaving town the next morning, we stopped to fill our water bottles at a roadside spring, then climbed to the highest elevation of our trip: 766 meters (about 2500 feet). Our reward consisted of miles of gentle downhills along roads lined with chestnut trees heavy with ripening nuts. Finally the road flattened out as we rolled into Autun. The oldest town we visited, Autun was founded by the Romans in the first century A.D. Reminders of the Roman presence were everywhere -- the fortified walls, the two arched gates (Porte d'Arroux and Porte St-André), the outdoor amphitheatre, and the remains of the Temple of Janus. From our campsite we looked right across the cornfields to the Temple.

We cycled up to the old city for dinner at Le Petit Rolin, directly across the cobblestone street from Autun's 12th-century cathedral. We sat at a sidewalk table, but as we were finishing the main course a sudden thunderstorm forced a hasty move indoors, where we discovered glace bourguignonne, a simple combination of crème de cassis poured over vanilla ice cream. It was an exciting downhill coast over wet cobblestones to our campground by the riverbank. Fortunately our tent was still dry. As we climbed in, a mouse tried to follow us inside. We chased the mouse away, zipped the tent door shut, and tried to sleep, but thunderstorms kept us awake for much of the night.

The morning dawned clear and sunny, and we had hoped to reach Beaune, but Carole had severe elbow pains, so we stopped at lunchtime in the quiet village of Epinac, where the municipal campground adjoins the town beach. Tall boxwood hedges separated each campsite from its neighbors, and the campground even had a laundromat. I left Carole at the campground and cycled alone to Beaune in search of a rental car. The scenery was spectacular as I passed through a gap in the hills and the vineyards of Bourgogne spread out in front of me. Meandering through Meursault, Montrachet and Pommard, I finally reached Beaune. With a heavy heart I walked into the rental agency and emerged with the keys to a Ford Fiesta.

I drove back to Epinac and we loaded our gear into the car. Driving on the main roads, sharing the narrow lanes with reckless maniacs, definitely lacked the magic of cycling on quiet back roads with the breeze in our faces and the sun on our backs. But it gave us the opportunity to do some wine tasting and pay a quick visit to Mont Blanc before returning to Paris to catch our flight home.

I'll always remember the kindness of strangers in France, beginning on our first day in Paris as I was parking my bicycle outside the post office. A woman walked up to me. "This city is full of voleurs (thieves)," she said. "I'll watch your bicycle for you." I couldn't think of an answer, so I just smiled and went inside. When I came out, she was still guarding my bicycle. I thanked her, and she smiled and walked away.

We also remember the couple in Recloses who gave us a tour of their 17th-century farmhouse and offered us fresh figs from the tree in their courtyard. And the bartender in Château-Chinon who collects American license plates. And the two students we met in the Alps who played Renaud Séchan songs for us and translated the lyrics for us.

"Let's make this an annual event," I suggested to Carole.

"How about England next year?" she asked. "At least I can speak the language there."

Copyright © 1998, 1999 by Jamieson L. Hess. All rights reserved worldwide.