Paris to the Mediterranean

Sept 26, 2021

Overview

Paris is a place that holds many memories for me. Remembering the glory days of PBP and trips I had taken with my family. This time, I was planning to meet my American friends for a tour of France and Spain.

My friends, Scott and Gillian from Portland, OR would meet me here in Paris`. We would tour together through France and Spain for three weeks. This was something new for me. I had never led a tour before. I wanted it to run smoothly, so getting to Paris a few days before our meeting allowed me time to scope it out a bit.

The idea was to take a local Paris train west 50km to Rambouillet and from there follow the PBP race course out to Brittany. In Brittany, we would meet my good friends, Joël and Irène, near Rennes. These two have taught me many important lessons of bike touring. They maintain an excellent blog of their adventures:

https://cyclomigrateurs.fr

Joël and Irène had already planned a bike camping tour for us through Brittany and Normandy. This is where they are living. Traveling by bike and staying at campgrounds was something they were quite experienced with. I knew it would be a wonderful tour.

After our tour of Brittany, we would continue on to Barcelona. The total distance for this trip would be too much to cover by bicycle, in the time we had. So we planned to take trains from Rennes to Avignon. This would put us close to the Mediterranean. There we would follow the coast by bicycle to Barcelona, the heart of Catalonia.

At the time of this writing, We are in Aigues-Mortes, very close to the Mediterranean. I take the day off the bike to update the blog and avoid another passing storm. There have been many this summer in Europe.

Details and Highlights

Both Scott and Gillian have experience cycling and backpacking. Gillian however is just recovering from a kidney problem that required her to be in the hospital for a week. She was still regaining her strength. We agreed to keep the cycling to 50km per day.

50km (31 miles) per day is a leisurely pace. We could get a late morning start and stop at interesting places or cafes, bakeries, or grocery stores whenever we liked. We adjusted the planned route as we went. When rain was forecasted, we stayed in Airbnb’s, otherwise we stayed in campgrounds, or bivouacked.

The first day out from Rambouillet, I had Komoot, our navigation app set up to accept more challenging paths. It indeed found a route through the Rambouillet Woods that was very remote, and alluring.

A system of dirt roads in the Rambouillet woods south west of Paris

There we encountered one short descent that was a challenge even for my bike. With both wheels locked up and plowing through the soft earth, studded with fist sized rocks; I managed to make it without spilling the equipment or dumping the bike. Gillian and Scott did not complain. They are good sports.

I set up Komoot to avoid these trails in the future.

With the modifications from our plan to follow the PBP course, we only occasionally came across places that I recognized from years past. One such moment was coming into Mortagne-au-Perche.

This is the first time station in the PBP. A place a contestant would reach in the first 6 hours of that event. We were well into our third day of the journey. But, no matter. We were keeping to our own laidback schedule.

As we were approaching Brittany, we were in continual communication with Irène and Joël. They were returning from a bike trip in Normandy. Irène was planning a dinner party to welcome us.

She was making Boeuf Bourguignon. A very special meal requiring more than a day of preparation. They had also prepared a full tour of Brittany that they were adjusting down to meet our time constraints.

We decided to accelerate our arrival by taking some local trains through Le Mans, and Laval, a total distance of about 60km which put us a day ahead of schedule.

Meet Joël and Irène at their home

I had little doubt that it would be a good meeting. Joël and Irène are exceptional hosts and have a lot of common interests with Scott and Gillian. All were knowledgeable in permaculture, and minimizing our impact on the environment.

Scott and Gillian are planning to build a straw bail house in Washington state. Joël and Irène’s home incorporate innovative ideas like a dry toilet and grey water irrigation. There was a good bonding from the start along with plans for future encounters. We planned a day trip to Rennes, for the next day.

Tour of Rennes

Rennes, France is the capital of Brittany and an easy 30min bike ride from Joël and Irène’s place in the countryside. The five of us biked in. Joël left later and met us in town after his meeting with the roofer.

We were shown the important buildings and the best chocolate shops in town. There, I had to buy a Kouign-amann, to share with the group at dinner. This is a celebrated confection of Brittany. It is said to contain 50% butter, 50% flour, and 50% sugar. With nearly the density of a neutron star, it is allowed to break the laws of Newtonian physics.

Pass Sanitaire

In France there is a straight forward method to show others that you are not at risk of spreading Covid-19. It is called a Pass Sanitare. You get a QPC label you can show on your phone when you have either been vaccinated, or have tested negative within the past three days.

I was lucky to find a Pharmacy in eastern France that created a Pass Sanitare for me from my CDC card and US Passport. When Scott and Gillian showed up in Paris, we could not find a Pharmacy that would do this for us.

Thus they had to get a sticks up their noses every few days until we found a more permanent solution based on their vaccine record. You could say this became a sticking point with Scott and Gillian.

To Mont Saint Michelle

Mont-Saint-Michel is one of the seven wonders of the world. A most impressive place that has its recognition well earned. It was Scott’s first time there and visiting this place is one of his long term goals.

Irène and Joël constructed a tour that could get us all the way to the coast at Mont-Saint_Michel and back in just a five day bike trip. The trick was that Irène was supporting us by taking our gear in the car, and Joël engineered a return to Rennes by train.

We went by way of a small canal, and then the river Rance. Additionally, when we reached the Atlantic coast we had a stiff tailwind pushing us east. This ensured a flat journey that allowed for us to move at a good pace (60 or 70km per day).

Along the coast we encountered a group of Land yachts, three wheeled vehicles powered by the wind. They could easily move at 50km/hr and get up on two wheels, if the pilot was not careful.

Land Yachts

For the entire five day journey we stayed at campgrounds or bivouacked. Irène carried coolers in the car and met us each day. This allowed for some very fancy campground dinners like pasta carbonara, including candelabras.

One morning Gillian reported her air mattress developed a substantial leak. We tried unsuccessfully to patch it. The issue was that there were many tiny holes distributed over an area about the size of a dinner plate. We surmised that Gillian had somehow experienced an episode of added weight and sustained friction during the night.

Scott and Gillian claimed no recollection of this, even after we pressed them on the issue. We all laughed our way through this bit of French humor.

Tim finds the leaks in Gillians air mattress by dunking the inflated mattress in the canal

Mont-Saint-Michel was magnificent. The pictures say it best, and pale in comparison to actually being there. In fact, Scott and I left the camp ground early the next morning to get in a second visit before moving on.

The return to Joël and Irène’s place involved taking our bicycles on the train. Joël taught us that there are many classes of trains in France, each with their own set of rules regarding bicycles.

The TER train we used, had the most lax rules. However, if a TER train was already carrying its limit of bicycles (maybe 6). The conductor could refuse to let you on. So, we made contingency plans should this occur. It was a good training exercise. It was not needed. We arrived back without issue.

Bikes loaded in a French TER train

This gave us time to go shopping in Rennes for an air mattress for Gillian and a new lighter sleeping bag for me. Then of course, another fine meal at Joël and Irène’s place before shoving off the next morning. Their neighbors, Edith and Michel joined us for aperitif and galettes. I had a chance to make my own galette under the tutelage of Irène.

On to southern France

Here is where I encounter new territory. I have never been to southern France. We started out with a three legged train commute from Rennes to Avignon using two types of French trains. Each with its own set of rules regarding bikes.

Though Joël helped set it up for us, it was a good final exam exercise in French trains and the possibility of complicating issues. For instance, the plan required getting up before dawn in Nantes to catch a train to Lyon.

We rehearsed our Nantes plan the night before catching the train. I’m glad we did. It can sometimes be complicated getting the bicycles through the system of elevators and electronic gates in the hotel and train station. But the next morning we did it without issue. Consider us tested voyagers! In France anyway, Spain may be quite different.

Riding the trains for a day and a half is dull compared to riding the bike. The chances to explore new cities where the highlights of that part of our trip.

Lyon has catacombs and UNESCO protected neighborhoods. We didn’t have enough time to find them. Nantes has a well preserved chateau with unusual art exhibited within. Thankfully, we got to see this. Near the end of the day we also found a museum of robotic creations, but we were too late to get in the main exhibit. This put a taste in our mouths for return visits in the future.

Once we got to Avignon, the time pressure was off. There was an city alive with performances, everywhere. I stopped for my weekly zoom meeting with my family. I sought and found a sidewalk cafe with good WiFi, which I needed for zoom.

During the meeting several sound stages were constructed in the street. An animated performance erupted. With the center of attention spontaneously bouncing from one stage to another. I walked around with my cell phone to capture what I could. I hoped it was a good distraction for us.

It was my birthday. Without having any real plan, aimlessly wandering the street offered one special moment after another.

Scott and Gillian found an art exhibit going on in an ancient church. They checked our Pass Sanitaire and let us in.

It was most unusual. The artist was present with large bins of clay. He was offering a chance for the audience to make a facial impression in the clay. I volunteered and the artist instructed me in English what was required.

Basically, I was to hold my breath and then get my face shoved deep into the clay. When instructed, I let out a breath slowly to provide a release layer of air between my face and the deformed clay. It worked well. It didn’t cost me anything to become a work of art.

My face plant impression in the clay
The method is demonstrated here on another person

I got to tell my friends that I got plastered on my birthday. Ron pointed out that I made quite an impression. Reid added that I could say that in the end I appeared quite shit-faced. I count on my friends to tell it as they see it.

Scott and Gillian took me out to dinner at a restaurant of my choosing. At an Italian restaurant, I had fresh pasta with pesto sauce I will not soon forget. Thanks!

Handing over the reins

So, as October approaches, I become aware of time constraints. I need to manuever myself to meet my brother, his son Toshi, and my good friend Jim Kern in Portugal, or possibly Spain. I hope to be there on Oct 10. I also need to get out of the EU Schengen area before my visa waiver expires on Oct 26.

The best plan is to move my bicycle and gear outside of the EU (probably Morocco), then go meet the others. After my visit with my brother, I will return to Morocco in the last days before Oct26.

Unfortunately, I just learned that the ferry from Spain to Morocco is shut down because of the pandemic. Yikes! Too bad my good friend David Bradley is not still around. He’d have had a plan for me.

While I could fly me and my bike to Africa, I prefer a lower energy solution.

The other thing is that Scott and Gillian need to catch a flight home from Barcelona on October 11. Which is about 450km away. At the pace they have been keeping, they can do this with a few days left over for sight seeing, no problem.

They just need to go self guided. I need to keep a faster pace now.

So, fortunately, Scott and Gillian are eager to learn how Komoot, the navigation app works. They have downloaded it to their phones and on the last few legs of the trip, Scott and Gillian have been practicing. I think they’ve learned it well enough. They just need to keep their phones charged until they reach their destination.

Tune in next time to see how this Gordian knot gets untied. Just around the bend is the Mediterranean coast. My first time in this part of the world.

Blue trace is the planned route. Red trace is the travelled route

Zurich to Paris

September 5, 2021

The total distance from Zurich to Paris is almost 800km by the route I took. This included a visit to Überlingen, Germany and the home of my good friends Henry and Romy.

It’s a flat 85km ride across Switzerland to the border with Germany, then a ferry ride across the lake to Meersburg. A few kilometers further and I was in Ueberlingen, an easy one day trip. Flat rides are fast.

The border crossing by bike was a non-event. I fully expected to have my vaccination status checked, coming into the EU and all. I rode across the border and no one even noticed me doing it.

The route from Zurich to Überlingen am Bodensee

Romy and Henry live near the shore of Bodensee (Lake of Constance). Ueberlingen is a resort town and also was the home of Perkin-Elmer in Germany where Henry and I worked many years ago.

They have a new dog since I’ve seen them two years ago, a good looking and well behaved chocolate Labrador named Mila, just eight months old.

Henry and Romy are good hosts. Like last time, Henry gave me his office with a single bed and an adjacent bathroom to use as my own. Romy prepared breakfast, lunch and dinner with a smile.

Henry and I have a shared interest in investing. He is far more analytical than I, so I am always keen to see what tools he is using. Much of it he puts together himself. He’s an engineer after all.

We are of different minds when it comes to issues like vaccination, and climate change. I guess normally people would carefully avoid these topics, but Henry and I just jump right in.

What I appreciate most is that Henry is smart and we can have a good debate. We don’t argue the facts. We look them up. It leaves me with a better appreciation of the opposing argument. This is something you don’t get if you only speak to people you agree with.

Still, I feel like Henry and I are hammering away at each other’s position with wooden mallets on tool steel. Opinions are hard to change.

Henry’s position stands on the fact that mRNA based vaccines are new, and the long term effects are unknown. We get into long discussions on how many people are actually injured by the virus. It turns out that Germany has handled the pandemic quite well.

Germany flattened the curve far better than the US, and also much of Europe. Henry is not quick to congratulate his government’s response however. He sees it as overbearing and destructive to the economy.

Romy does not speak English and so my German was put to the test here. Frequently Henry would chime in with the needed translation. I clearly need more practice. She introduces me to her friends as ‘Der Weltenbummler’.

But Romy shows real joy in my being there, that transcends language. When the day came to say goodbye, she packed me a big lunch for the road then walked me out to the garage and saw me off with tears in her eyes. I told her I would come back again sometime.

The Klemm family is doing well. I visited the home of their daughter, Jeanine and her husband, Markus. The grandson Benno is now nine and has taken an interest in robotics.

When I was there, Benno burst in the door with a plan to set up a lemonade stand with some friends in the neighborhood. He had a plan written out for his mom to make 4 liters of lemonade and 3 dozen muffins. Clearly a good engineering candidate.

I would’ve liked to visit Henry’s sister, Heike this time. But we could not make it work. She lives in North Germany, near Essen. It gives me another reason to come back to Germany.

My concern was making it to Paris to meet my friends Scott and Gillian on Tuesday Sept 7, and also miss the rain forecasted in Paris on Saturday, Sept 4. Though I am set up to ride in the rain, and have done so a few times on this trip, I like riding on sunny days. Rainy days are good for catching up on my blog or visiting museums.

On toward Paris

Heading north from Ueberlingen through the Black Forest and across the Rhein river into Strasbourg, France
There is a gradual climb in the Black Forest, then a precipitous drop into Hornberg, Germany. Thereafter the course is quite flat into Paris.

The climb up from Bodensee through the Black Forest is gentle and I make good progress under overcast skies. There is a huge descent in this direction. When I did this route two years ago, it was a huge climb, as I was going in the opposite direction.

I wanted to get down into the flatlands before it started raining. Steep gravel roads can be difficult in the rain. I just made it into Hornberg when a light rain started falling. Success!

Though it was only 3pm and more daylight left, I decided to stop for the day in a small village on the Kinzig river. My goal of making it to Paris before the rain on Saturday was at risk. But it was raining now and my rain jacket was starting to have zipper issues. A tall German beer made the decision easier to make.

Arrived in France

National border runs straight down the middle of the Rhein river in Strasbourg

Crossing from Germany into France is all within the EU. The dominant language changes, but it’s all one currency. No one stops me to ask questions, as expected. I do notice one difference as I head deeper into France. The restaurants ask to see a ‘Pass Sanitare’.

Pass Sanitare

A Pass Sanitare is a QR code that says you have either been vaccinated, tested recently, or recovered from Covid. Showing my CDC certificate doesn’t work here. Well OK, I am a cyclist not using trains, nor buses. I am eating outdoors in sidewalk cafes or parks. I can skate by without a Pass Sanitare for a while. As I head into major cities, this becomes harder.

There is an email process for getting a Pass Sanitare where I send an image of my CDC certificate and Passport. I am still waiting for any reply on this.

I was getting worried, until I found a pharmacy clerk that spoke English in the town of Bar-Le-Duc. He scanned my documents and filled out the forms on line for me. It took less than five minutes. He printed out a one page document and said “That’s all you need.” He was right. I photographed the QR code and show that whenever needed. It’s a cool system.

In Paris it is used everywhere. Sidewalk cafes, Bateau Moche, even the Eiffel Tower. I noticed a train load of passengers boarding a regional train (not a subway). They scanned the QR code of every passenger as they came onto the platform. It’s a big job when there are fifty passengers, but with three people scanning it does not create a huge backlog.

OK but I’m getting ahead of my story

Following the la Marne to Paris

Canals are marvelous things. I remember my dad explaining this to me as a boy. They are built to enable ships to move across land. The current in the canal is imperceptible, but not zero. Think of it as a set of stairs. Each stair is flat. Between each stair there is a few meters of elevation difference. There is also a lock (escluse in French).

The lock serves to lift (or drop) the boats a few meters to the next stair in an orderly fashion. Yet there are no pumps or power sources to lift the boats. It all works on gravity. There is an upstream gate and a down stream gate surrounding a space (the lock) which is large enough to contain a ship.

Ships travel up the canal in sequence like this: With the downstream gate open, the ship can move into the lock. The downstream gate closes behind the ship. Slowly the upstream gate is opened to allow water to flood the lock. The incoming water lifts the ship to the elevation of the next stair. When the upstream gate opens completely the ship is free to travel the next stair. Ships traveling down the canal have a similar sequence. They use the same locks.

These locks take about five minutes to execute this sequence. They are unmanned and totally automated. The ships captain can start the sequence by pulling a rope hanging over the canal about 100m upstream and downstream of the lock. There is a lock every kilometer or more depending on how much elevation is to be gained.

La Marne is a 40 or 50m wide canal running 400km from Strasbourg to Paris. It connects the Rhein with the Seine and is a small part of a system of canals that spans Europe.
A network of canals spanning Europe, including canals crossing Switzerland.
Operating the lock part 1
Operating the lock part 2

So, I hoped you enjoyed my explanation of how a canal worked. Maybe someone can figure out this puzzle:

The canal is all gravity driven. Water moves from the higher elevation source to the lower elevation sink. So one would imagine if I left Strasbourg going up the canal (gaining elevation). I would continue to do so for the entire run all the way to Paris. This is not the case. The second half of the journey to Paris is going down the canal (losing elevation). How could this be possible?

Stories from along the canal

So the ride from Strasbourg to Paris goes through Alsace and Lorraine, regions. This is a first time for me. Nearly all of my experience in France has been west of Paris. The people here are wonderful, just like all the people I meet in France.

I make a stop for lunch at the Papar Hasard, a restaurant and bar in Lorraine. I am surprised to find that they have Galette saucisse on the menu, a speciality of Bretagne. I get talking with the owner who is from Bretagne originally.

She likes my story of traveling the world. I almost have her talked into joining me on the spot, except she has this restaurant to run. She gets me to promise to have an oyster and smell the ocean when I get to Bretagne.

Bar-Le-Duc

In Bar-Le-Duc, I pull off of the canal and cruise the town for some lunch. Just by sheer luck, this place is an important place in the history of bicycles. It is where the Michaux brothers (Ernest, and Pierre) invented the High-Wheeler in the mid 1800’s. The town commemorates this with a large monument, and the town also holds an annual bike race, with teams competing from many nations within Europe. There are even some from Asia.

While sitting at a sidewalk table out in front of the bakery, eating my lunch, I had several conversations with the locals, including the shop owner herself. The conversations were challenging in a fun way. Half in French, half in English. We would pull out a translator when necessary.

I was telling one guy that I am retired and touring for my own entertainment. We talked about bike racing a bit. When I mentioned that I had done the Paris-Brest-Paris (PBP) event, he insisted on buying me a pastry named after the event. In fact the shop owner overheard us and insisted on paying for part of the gift.

Then, minutes later a cyclist rode up and stopped at my table. William wanted to know about my bike and my travels. He told me about the monument to the Michaux brothers.

We started talking about PBP. He told me stuff I didn’t know. For instance in the 50’s, the event was held as a race. There were professional cyclists competing. Eventually this was discontinued because such a long non-stop race is not healthy for professionals.

William and I rode off together to go see the monument to the Michaux inventors. Cool moments!

One thing I noticed following the canal is there are places you get that are far from services, like a hotel. There was one day where my system kinda fell apart.

I use my smart phone to navigate and find services. To navigate, I do not need cell signal. Komoot downloads all the maps I need ahead of time. I just need GPS, which is always there. But near the end of the day, I usually start scouting for a place to buy food and sleep. Campground or hotel, it can all be found on-line. Unless there is no signal.

Komoot says there is a big town coming up but it is out of range for today. I scout around in some small towns and talk to the locals. I get suggestions for towns that are closer but well off my path. I am not interested in that. I’m stuck.

I start looking for good places to pitch my tent. A public park would be perfect except, I don’t know what the rules are. I figure the best thing would be to find a spot where I am not seen. I could stash my bike in the bushes.

While I am setting up my tent under a bridge, I am discovered by a young girl walking her dog. The dog is barking wildly and she is surprised to see me there. She hurries along and we do not speak at all.

My first bivouac in Europe

The next morning, I wake up before 7am, pack my stuff, and leave. I got away with it.

A similar situation comes up a few nights later. I am feeling a little more confident and I find a good spot with a place to take a bath.

My second bivouac in Europe

The next morning I find it had rained during the night. My clothesline was loaded with wet clothes. That and my fly tarp had to be put away wet.

Then as I was organizing it all. I am discovered by a man walking his dog. He asked me if I had slept there the night before. He spoke French mostly, but I could gather his meaning. I admit to it. He walks off with his dog, but returns a few minutes later. He asks me if I would come to his house for breakfast. I accept.

During breakfast, I ask him to tell me about this place in French on video. I will get someone to explain it to me later. I discover that he is the Mayor of this community that encompasses three villages.

His name is Jean-Paul Regnier. The commune is Val-d’Ornain

Caught in the act by the authorities
According to the local paper, he was re-elected mayor in 2020

After this surprising breakfast, I rode onward, looking for someplace where I could replace my rain jacket, dry out my stuff, get a better cellphone connection, etc. I also needed to fix some minor bike mechanical stuff. What I needed was a good old American shopping mall (almost ashamed to admit it).

As luck would have it, I found one in Nancy, France. Unfortunately it was Sunday and the stores were all closed. But the hotels were open for business. I stayed the night, and the following night.

The next morning I went to Decathlon, a major sporting good store. It had a bike mechanic, and a selection of rain jackets on sale. It turns out Eric, my bike mechanic is also a recumbent (velo couche) enthusiast. Though there were other bikes in queue, he immediately put mine on the work stand and told me it would be done at 4pm.

There was also an Orange dealer, the leading cell service provider in France. Everything I needed all within walking distance of my hotel. I was in the mood to celebrate my good luck and walked over to a good restaurant for a meal. I was refused for lack of a Pass Sanitare. Can’t have everything go your way…

One evening as I was setting up my tent at a campground, I met Denis and Brigitte. A cycling couple from France. Denis is a forest ranger, Brigitte is a primary school teacher. She spoke English quite well and was happy to help translate for me.

They live near the Black Forest, but across the border in France. They go out on an extended cycling tour every year and had useful information for me. For instance, pitching a tent for a one night sleep out is called a bivouac. This is legal in France, as long as it is for one night only. The next night you can also camp out but it must be in another location. Good to know!

Arrived in Paris

Just off the bike, my unshaven face still caked with salt

It was a stretch for me to make it by Friday Sept 3. I had to pull a few 100km days back to back. It wasn’t too hard. The course was pretty flat. The rain I was hoping to avoid on Saturday did occur, though not much.

Anyway, I’m here waiting to sync up with my friends Gillian and Scott from Portland, OR. I get to take a week off the bike before our next adventure cycling out to Bretagne and beyond.

Note to the reader

I am aware that the order these stories appear in may not be exactly chronological. The stories are true, but the order is probably wrong in at least one case.