Sept 26, 2021
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.