So, we’re back, and I’m guessing you don’t want a blow-by-blow account of how we brought the good news from Aix to Ghent (sorry, Nantes to La Rochelle). So instead, I’m going to treat you to my in-depth insights based on ooh, a week’s experience of something some people spend years perfecting, interspersed with my holiday snaps. You can thank me later.
1. The cycling is the easy part
When planning this trip, I spent way too much time looking into and worrying about the route, considering what mileage we would have to average, how much climbing we’d have to do (none, as it happens), and how much mixing with traffic on the wrong side of the road* – but the truth is, anyone who cycles at all in the average road conditions in the UK already has black belt in combat cycling and there was very little France – even central Paris – could throw at us that we didn’t encounter daily at home (it helped that on the return leg through Paris the police had closed off most of the streets to traffic for some march or other and we had some lovely wide boulevards to ourselves, apart from the odd riot van and a few other slightly bewildered but very happy cyclists).
French cycling infrastructure seems to have taken a few leaves out of the UK design guidelines – hello cycle lane that runs along one side of the street and then switches unannounced to the other side – and Parisians using all modes of transport take a delightfully laissez faire approach to the rules of the road, but at least you get the sense that the drivers have actually seen you even if they are unimpressed by your unexpected stopping at a red light, throwing out the system entirely.
Once on the actual Euro Velo route, however, things improved (the odd goat-track and UK-style barrier notwithstanding). I would imagine that most named routes will be the same. In some towns it was amazing, with a separated bike lane running along the sea front, in others we were sent around the back roads like an embarrassing relative that couldn’t entirely be ignored, but pretty much everywhere offered relaxed, safe-feeling cycling away from the worst of the traffic.
2. This is not a cheap way to travel
So I imagine that when our parents’ generation went cycle touring, setting off for the nearest youth hostel with a spare pair of socks and a cheese sandwich in their saddle bag, it was a wonderfully democratic and cheap way to get about. When you’re staying in hotels and eating out for most meals, not so much (at least when there was somewhere to buy a meal – we quickly discovered that nowhere is more shut than a small French town at 1:31pm (except for a large French town on a Monday morning when you cavalierly rejected the hotel breakfast) and that an inviting-looking boulangerie can close in the time it takes me to find somewhere to leave the bike and get to its door just as the blinds come down and all those lovely carbohydrates are locked out of my reach).
On the other hand, eating out in France is generally pretty good, and we were ravenous most of the time, so in the end we threw budgetary considerations to the wind and made the most of any eating opportunities that came our way (including stopping at any market we encountered: when someone invents a means of carrying a bag of ripe cherries on a bike without transforming them into a squishy mess, I will be a happy woman).
With a bit more forward planning (or a willingness to camp) it could have been cheaper but we don’t do these sorts of holidays very often so we decided to enjoy it. And while I didn’t in the end try any oysters, I did develop a taste for moules, much to the other half’s delight. And besides, if anyone now questions the value of investing in cycle routes, I’ll be able to show them this month’s credit card bills as evidence of the value of cycle tourism to the rural economy…
3. A laden touring bike is a ginormous pain in the arse
Actually, that’s not strictly true: even fully laden, a bike is a thing of grace and ease and comfort as long as you’re riding it. But once you get off it (assuming you can get off it – not always a given with giant stuffed touring panniers), it becomes an awkward beast, liable to fall over at the worst moment, unable to hop up and down curbs, and with the turning circle of an ocean liner. More to the point it’s got all your worldly goods on it so it can’t just be securely locked up and left somewhere while you enjoy a leisurely meal, you have to find the pricey place with the shady terrace where you can eat and keep an eye on your bike at the same time (this becomes less of a problem later in the trip when any enterprising thief is only going to deprive you of a week’s worth of dirty laundry, to which they are increasingly welcome).
Add in trains it’s trebly so. On the whole, my preferred means of transport is either cycling or taking trains, but I’ve decided that the two don’t mix. At one point we were trying to change trains at Cenon, a station where every platform is a only reachable by a flight of stairs or a lift too small to get a bike in except stood up on its rear wheel, and the train information system was only showing what platform trains had left in the past, not what platform trains were going to leave from in the future, and the only staff member visible was the one putting up strike notices. Suffice it to say, that experience will haunt my train anxiety dreams (you all get train anxiety dreams, right?) forever.
Even with everything booked in advance and carefully researched, there’s still the fun of squeezing your bike onto a packed train, getting the panniers on and off, and then sitting in a carriage full of people who’ve had to move their luggage because of the bloody cyclists who wanted on…
4. Remember to stop and smell the flowers
I suppose for some people, the cycling part is the point of cycle touring and that’s what they enjoy so it makes sense to spend all day doing it, racking up the miles. But the other half isn’t quite as rabid a cyclist as I am so we quickly got into a rhythm of stopping along the way to look at birds (Montague’s harrier, avocet, black winged stilt, a linnet in full breeding fig, and any number of larks singing their little hearts out) and spending our afternoons (and evenings; it was hot) at the beach. And eating (see above). After all, when you’ve done 30 miles that day, you’ve earned your artisinal glaces and your elevensies and pain chocolate for breakfast, and yes, maybe we will have a look at the dessert menu … did I mention this trip wasn’t cheap?
Fortunately the weather was glorious, the marshes and coastline spectacular, and there were shady forests and sea breezes to cool us off as the week hotted up. Plus, having spent a decade failing to use up one bottle of sun cream since we moved up here, we got through two in one week and I now have magnificent sandal tan lines on my feet which I shall be carefully curating for the rest of the summer.
5. There’s no place like home
That said, after all we’ve seen and done, and every delicious thing we’ve eaten, and every glorious sandy beach and every nice piece of segregated infrastructure – at the end of the day we’re both really home bodies, and the best route of all was our own road and the final few hundred yards home. The garden has survived the recent heat thanks to a helpful neighbour, and when we sat down to a scratch meal of new potatoes, peas and kale all harvested from the garden, it rivalled much of what we’d eaten on the trip, although we’ll need to raise our artisanal glace game.
Of course, it helps that the sun is still, miraculously, shining – ask me again when the rain is going sideways and we’ve had the woodburner going half the summer and scenes like this are but a fond memory …
* It turns out the only time this was a problem was this morning, when I confidently set off down our local B road on the right hand side and only realised my mistake after I’d got very indignant with the car which was persisting on driving on the wrong side of the road. Ahem.