Tuesday, May 25, 2004

So you're saying Brad Pitt is in a different Troyes?

We spent a couple of days in St Quentin before catching the train to Troyes. We had an hour and a half in Paris to change trains so spent the first 75 minutes milling around and eating sandwiches. We spent the last 15 minutes pushing our bikes the wrong way up one-way streets transferring from Paris-Nord to Paris-Est station. We had given up hope of catching our train as successive Parisians ummed and ahhed about the best way to get to the station but somehow, with only 30 seconds to spare, we managed to drag the bikes and BoB onto the decidedly non-bike carriage. The conductor was pretty unimpressed with us and gave us 2 helpful lectures on the subject of "Arriving in good time for your train".

Troyes itself is a nice spot. It's the former capital of Champagne but is now famous for having a vaguely Champagne cork shaped old town, a mid-table second division footy team and a rubbish mini-golf course. At least that's what it says in our Lonely Planet.

The terrain in the Champagne region is of the rolling hills variety which is putting steel into our legs whether we want it or not. The weather before Troyes had turned cold and cloudy but we have had nothing but blue skies since then. Well, the odd nocturnal thunderstorm to test our new bike garage (4 bin bags Gaffa taped together) but that adds to the fun in a tent.

Like all free bars, once we ran out of Champagne we were into Burgundy, a region which manages to be even more hilly than its neighbour. Our route took us through such notable towns as :-

Pretty, no campsite despite the rumours. Spent a couple of days flicking through French TV in our cheap hotel waiting for Eurovision to start.

Pretty, campsite atop the worlds steepest, biggest (ant) hill

Makes Harlow seem pretty and friendly. Totally closed at 3pm on Thursday. Was scene of wild rejoicing on leaving.

Olde worlde pretty. Free (closed, camped anyway) camping. Home to amorous or pugnacious cat population.

Dijon : Full

Yes, our legs carried us up mountains and down the hills all the way to Dijon. We arrived at 3pm to be told that everywhere for miles around was fully booked. I looked incredulous. The tourist office guy explained that there were many exhibitions and sporting events happening that weekend but didn't go into details although he did let slip one such attraction was a classic motorbike rally in a town 20km away. If only we'd known...

Anyway, it was Dijon's loss as we took the news stoically, decamped to the station and got the next train to Lyon. This turned out to be a much more accommodating place despite having the undoubted attraction of the then two time, now three time, champions of the French league. Sadly for them they have a counterfeit Juninho playing for them but I think Vic and I are the only ones who've noticed.

The ride to Dijon saw PBs tumbling as the longest day (both in Kms and from (tent) door to (hotel) door) and highest daily average speed records were shattered. The stats may be updated to reflected this.

From here we are planning to head down the Rhone valley to Marseille.

Sunday, May 09, 2004

Hill, Canals and %*!#ing Canals

Douai released us from its clutches on the first of May and we decided to try our luck beside the canals again. We charted a route on the "Sensee" out of Douai which would take us east towards the "Canal de la Sambre a l'Oise". The map showed the l'Oise canal winding its way down to Reims and we liked the idea of a bit of flat riding.

The "Sensee" canal path was a bit rough at times and it seemed whichever side we were on was wrong. On one occasion we had whizzed along a few kilometers from one of the regular road crossings to find a 1 meter high pile of rubble across the path. "Charming", we thought, hauling our stuff over. The path quickly deteriorated to a mud track before more piles of rubble appeared. As well as signs reading "Interdit au public". Once again we'd picked the wrong side but it wasn't too difficult to get over to the passable side. The second day on the canal was a treat though and by early afternoon we'd reached the point where we had to head cross-country to the other canal.

This is where the hills came into play and we climbed and descended for a couple of hours in search of food and camping. Being Sunday the former was hard to find but we thought we knew of a campsite within easy reach. Armed with this knowledge we stopped at a the only open eaterie we'd seen, in the town of Iwuy. The medals and awards on the wall coupled with the well-dressed customers told us this was no greasy cuiller. Despite the fact that we were rosy cheeked and wearing lycra we were welcomed in and celebrated with two of the best steaks we've ever had. Our enquiry about the campsite 3kms away was met with a shake of the head. After our award-winning chef had done some calling around it turned out there was a place about 15km over the hills and far away. We saddled up with more than heavy hearts but put in a stirling effort to get there in about an hour and a half. The campsite at Solesmes was where Vic spent an enjoyable, if wet and windy, birthday.

Two more days in the hills followed, providing the stats with 2 of the top 4 daily altitude gains. Our legs are getting much better at tackling the climbs and, even though it's still a slog, there's a real satisfaction when you get to the top. On Thursday (7th May) we reached the l'Oise canal but that's where it went a bit wrong. The paths on Thursday were rutted and potholed but passable, but yesterday they disappeared altogether. We were forced to retrace our path first thing in the morning when the tarmac turned to long grass. This meant we took 40 minutes to get back outside the campsite. We decided to follow the roads to the next point they crossed the canal and reassess. The path was still longish grass but the lockkeeper lady told us it was passable en velo as the grass was cut. It did seem feasible and she was insistent so we thanked her, gave her son a little koala and set off. What followed was a travesty of disinformation as we ploughed along a tiny, half forgotten, definitely not cut, path by the canal. By the time we realised it wasn't getting any better it was easier to go on than back. So if anyone out there sees a small child by a lock at Noyales, go get our koala back. Not that we're bitter.

Suddenly our sweeping canal route to Reims was off the agenda and so a bit of rejigging was needed. We decided to head to St Quentin, a decent-sized town where we could further research our route. The map showed the town to be about 20km away with about 4km section on a busy looking main road. The alternative route added an extra 5kms, probably over hills. We took the minor roads to a village called Marcy and, as the rain came down, started asking about camping. A local farmed didn't seem keen to let us camp on his land but said there was camping in the next village. He pointed us down, up and over the hills via the back roads and seemd to stifle a "sacre bleu!" when I asked about the busy N29. We decided to ask at the town hall, as much to get out of the rain as anything. The lady there thought we could probably make it to Homblieres by the direct route as it was all downhill and only a couple of kilometers. We decided to give it a go as an extra half an hour's cycling in icy rain didn't appeal.

As we approached the national road we saw a couple of cars whizz by in both directions at pretty cycle-unfriendly speeds. The next village lay tantalisingly at the bottom of the hill so, in a gap in the traffic, we went for it. The gap didn't last long and we were soon being passed by lorries and cars in a tumult of noise and spray. We didn't dare pedal for fear of wobbling and we coasted down with me listening out for the traffic and Vic forced to watch it skim past me. As soon as the pavement appeared we took it, counted our blessing and made a policy decision regarding main roads.

Homblieres is 6km from St Quentin and the kindly shop keeper who guided us to our campsite last night (in proper hazard light motorcade fashion) outdid himself today by giving us a lift into town. The second koala of the day has definitely gone to a good home.