Category Archives: France

12 to 22 October 2015 – back to Blighty

I’ve been back in the UK for 10 days now, and have just about re-acclimatised whilst staying with my parents in East Sussex. I set off on my bike again tomorrow, to pedal my way back to Norwich via a festival in Surrey this weekend; the Yestival, gonna be great.

My last leg back from France on 12 October was a bit of an adventure, pedalling off from Neufchatel-en-Bray at about 01:30 in the morning, after 3 hours sleep, into a very dark and somewhat damp night. Here are my routes and stats; one for the French side of the Channel, and the other for the English side.

I’m very close to passing 10,000 miles pedalled, or 16,000km, for this tour, which is exciting in itself. By my reckoning I’ll pass that milestone when I reach the Yestival tomorrow; they have a bar, in a Landrover, with cocktails, perfect to celebrate. I’ve compiled my route to date into Strava, by uploading all the Garmin files into the application, which took ages, but was worth it to see the tour in totality.

Cycling Europe Tour Map - approaching 10,000 mile mark

Cycling Europe Tour Map – approaching 10,000 mile mark

Here’s a link to the tour map in Strava, where you can zoom in more easily:

–> 12 October – to Dieppe, Newhaven and Bexhill-on-Sea (80km)
I’d decided to try to make the early ferry on the 12th, rather than hang around in Dieppe all day and spend the night at the ferry terminal, before catching the boat back to Blighty on the 13th. It seemed like a good plan, even if it did involve getting up very early after not very much sleep; someone insisted on clattering about with their caravan at about midnight which didn’t help matters.

I struggled out of my warm sleeping bag at 01:00, then packed up my very wet tent, soaked in condensation, before riding off in the dark on the Avenue Verte, which runs all the way to Dieppe, avoiding roads altogether. The Avenue Verte was literally yards from Saint Claire campsite; very handy!

It was only 34km to the port, however quite a different experience riding at the dead of night, and with no street lamps lighting the cycle route. Tendrils of fog snaked their way across my path, and all was quiet aside from the occasional car in the distance, or farm animals moving about, and at one point a lot of rather startled ducks quacking, alarmed by my passing. There were also a lot of rabbits out, grazing on the grass either side of the Avenue Verte; I ended up inadvertently chasing several of them down the path for a while, before they scampered off into the fields.

Despite a very bright Luxor front lamp, run off my hub dynamo, I couldn’t see very far in front of me due to the fog; thankfully the path was smooth with no potholes. I rattled over several wooden bridges, and then made it to the outskirts of Dieppe, pedalling around the outside of the town to the ferry port. The roads were very quiet, with traffic only appearing as I approached the terminal; a few lorries, coaches and camper vans.

After buying my ticket, €35 for the crossing, I only had about an hour to wait before I could board the ferry at 04:30. I passed the time in the waiting room, where a few people were dozing along with their dogs; the hot chocolate from the machine wasn’t very nice but perked me up a bit.

The ferry was reasonably busy due to about 6 coach loads of French school children on their way to the UK, which made for a noisy crossing. There are only 2 sailings from Dieppe to Newhaven a day, one at 05.30 and the other at 18.30, so not a lot of choice. After a partially successful attempt at a snooze I visited the cafeteria for a full English breakfast, which I’d been looking forward to for months; whilst not brilliant it was definitely welcome! I spent the rest of the crossing snoozing and trying to avoid over excited schoolchildren, before arriving in Newhaven at about 09:30 local time.

I was back in the UK after nearly 5.5 months abroad. A weird feeling but also very exciting; I pedalled off the ferry and through customs with a huge grin on my face, then swiftly swapped sides of the road when I realised I was pedalling on the right instead of the left; this caught me out a few times as I pedalled to my parents house, especially on narrow country roads.

From Newhaven I followed the National Cycle Route 2 along the coast to the Cuckmere Haven, then turned inland to the Long Man of Wilmington, before looping back round and down to Eastbourne via a bit of a circuitous and illogical but pleasant route (aside from the bit alongside the A27). I paused at my old school, Eastbourne College, randomly chatting to an elderly South African man about rugby and travelling, before continuing along the seafront, then through more countryside to rendezvous with my parents at a pub; what better place to meet up after a few months than at an English pub, with a pint of ale!

It was great to meet up with my parents again, and at the Red Lion pub I’d been coming to since I was about 4. After a pint of Harvey’s Ale, a very fine local brewery but unfortunately no relation, I cycled back to Mum and Dad’s house, a few miles down the road, and have been eating ever since!

–> 13 to 22 October – Bexhill-on-Sea
The last 10 days has involved quite a lot of snoozing, a fair bit of eating, some more snoozing, and several relatively short cycle rides around the local countryside. My brother, sister-in-law and their children also came down to visit for a couple of days, so great to catch up with the whole family.

I’ve also had Smaug serviced and several parts replaced. Everything was pretty worn out, so the following needed changing:

  • Chain set – Hollowtech Shimano unit
  • Cassette – Shimano
  • SRAM Chain
  • Front and rear tyres changed to Schwalbe  Marathon Plus
  • All cables
  • Brake pads – Swiss Stop pads

The chain and cassette haven’t done badly at all – about 7,000 miles since I last changed them!

Needless to say the bike is running a lot more smoothly now, with far less creaks and groans; or maybe that was me and I’m running a lot more smoothly after several day’s rest, and lots of food.

Whilst I’ve spent a lot of time reading and not doing a lot, I haven’t been completely idle; it’s been fun helping out in the garden with some wood chopping and tree pruning, and great to take out my old mountain bike and aim for bumps rather than avoid them. I am however ready to get back on Smaug now, and start the final leg of my journey back to Norwich, via the Yestival.

Really looking forward to seeing everyone in Norwich, as well as going to the Beer Festival which conveniently coincides with my return, not that that was planned or anything. My next blog post will probably be from Norwich, once I’m back, as taking a break from the internet over the next few days for the Yestival and ride home. I’ll be pulling together a summary of the whole trip, and I need to start thinking about writing a book of my travels; don’t expect to make any money from such an enterprise, it’ll just be great to have a written book. Needless to say I’m already thinking about future tours and expeditions; settling back into routine ‘normal’ life is going to be tricky this time around.

Thanks for reading, and as always thanks for any donations to the Big C; got an email from them today saying how much they appreciate it. There’s still time to sponsor me via this link:

09, 10 & 11 October – 3 days and 539km through France

Wowsers, that was a long 3 days, but very satisfying to see just how far I can pedal if I challenge myself; 337 miles or 539km is quite a long way, and I’d definitely not have been able to cover that in as short time at the beginning of my tour. As well as wanting a challenge, the distances covered were partly motivated by deteriorating weather and campsites closing for the season, as well as a desire for a pint of ale in an English pub!

Here are my routes and stats for the race across France:

From a personal point of view it’s fantastic to have proven to myself what I’m capable of if I put my mind to it, and a great confidence boost for future activities, both at work and life in general. When I get back home I’ll need to carry on regularly pedalling and exercising to maintain at least some of this level of fitness and motivation, to keep in trim for future adventures, and to keep the weight off; it’ll be tricky reducing down my daily calorie intake whilst I’m not using as much energy.

–> 09 October – to Verdun (193km)
I broke two personal tour records today, one for longest distance pedalled in a day, and the other for biggest distance climbed; 193km and 1,784m respectively. Thankfully the climbing was spread out over the course of the day and not all at once, and I was also grateful for the lack of headwind, which would have made it extremely hard going. It’s still a bit surprising to realise that’s well over the height of Ben Nevis climbed in one day’s cycling.

It was 06.15 when my alarm went off and I rolled out of my tent. The sun wouldn’t rise for another hour and a half, so I breakfasted and packed up in the dark, before pedalling off as it started to get light.

I don’t think I really got off my bike all the way to Verdun, as I had a long way to go, and needed to keep focussed on the turning the pedals.  The weather was perfect for cycling, with the sun coming out but it not getting hot, or windy.

It was very hilly up until Metz, which was a long ride in itself, however still feeling fit I decided to push straight on to Verdun. I crossed the River Moselle, then after a big climb it was fairly flat up until the outskirts of Verdun, across a lot of farmland, passing many a tractor.

To get into Verdun involved one last big climb, as the sun started to get lower, then a round-about route to get to the city centre and avoid the dual carriageway. One downhill section had a few hidden speed bumps, a particularly vicious one of which threw a pannier off Smaug, resulting in much cursing and probably the biggest pause of the day as I reattached it. I hate speed bumps, and would far rather see speed cameras in use. If you must have speed bumps at least make sure they’re painted white to stand out so road users can see them and not damage themselves or their vehicles!

After passing through the outskirts and resisting the temptation to grab a McDonald’s, I crossed La Meuse to the city centre, pausing to watch a few rowers out on the river for an evening training session. I pedalled through the city to the campsite on the Western side, passing through the huge fortress walls and by lots of statues and monuments.

Verdun was the sight of one of the bloodiest battles of the First World War, with 400,000 German casualties, and a similar number of French, as the Germans sought to break the French lines. The city has been the centre of many conflicts between France and Prussia/Germany over the centuries, and you can almost sense the ghosts of these battles as you wander its streets, especially when the weather is a little dreary.

Les Breuils campsite is one of few that remains open into October, on my route back through France, and I was very happy to arrive and pitch my tent after the longest ride of my tour to date. At 193km I hadn’t quite broken the elusive 200km mark I’d like to get to one day; that’ll have to wait for another day. Feeling famished I headed back into Verdun to grab some dinner, before enjoying a medicinal beer and whisky as the campsite bar.

Tomorrow’s target is Soissons, which is another 100 miles away, however the route should be a bit flatter. According to my calculations, which have in the past been a little suspect, I reckon there’s about 230km to go to get to Dieppe; hoping nothing breaks on Smaug between now and the UK!

–> 10 October – to Soissons via Reims (184km)
I was once again getting up in the dark for a pre-sunrise start, pedalling out of Verdun by 08:00 on my way South West towards Reims.

The D roads I’m using are quiet anyway, however at that time of the morning I didn’t see any other traffic for a while, as I rode up and over hills, and through more farmland, with only cows, buzzards and crows for company. Lobster had decided to go back to sleep for at least another 2 hours, claiming these early starts are most uncivilised affairs.

The road did eventually flatten out, leading to about 40 miles of easy riding, aside from an off-road section down a few farm tracks to cut a corner off. There were a lot of farmers out with shotguns and dogs, looking for grouse or other game birds hiding in their fields; they waved rather than shot at me thankfully. The off-road section was muddy, flinging up lumps of sticky clay to cling to my bike and panniers, and causing me to skid about a bit; fun but it was nice to get back on the road again and not have to double back.

I followed the Voie de Liberte (Liberty Road) for much of the day, which is a commemorative way marking the route the allies took for the D-Day landing in June 1944. It passes by a lot of military cemeteries, giving a poignant reminder of all the lives lost, on both sides, during the Second World War.

I passed straight through Reims, which looked nice in the sunshine when I stopped for a banana and haribo break, however events conspired against me shortly after leaving the city. I encountered my first ‘route barrée’ sign on the outskirts, which lead to a diversion of just a few kilometres, however a more significant ”route barrée’ a bit later on added about 20km to the day’s ride, and a whole load of hills I wasn’t expecting. I was rather unimpressed at the additional mileage, which might be easy to cover in a car, but definitely aren’t on a bike, however at least the countryside and small French villages were pleasant to cycle through. My amateur ‘twitching’ skills also came into play with lots of bird life to look at, including herons, buzzards and other birds of prey, and at one point lots of Lapwings dancing around in a flock.

My estimated 100 mile day rapidly became a 115 miles day as I pedalled onwards. Up one particularly steep hill 3 dogs decided to wake up and bark at the passing cyclist, which somewhat startled me, however at least they couldn’t chase me due to being behind a fence; in Turkey, Greece or Bulgaria it’d be a different story.

Halloween seems to be popular in France, with decorations already going up despite it being nearly 3 weeks away. I’d never seen a ‘Halloween Man’ before, a bit of different take on a Snow Man; the one above was colourful, surrounded by pumpkins, but looked a bit sinister! Nice idea though.

I made it to Soissons for 18.00, feeling very tired but accomplished after 184km of pedalling; it’s amazing what your body will put up with after five and half months on the road. I found the Municipal du Mail campsite on the South side of the city and checked in just before reception closed, before heading to a local shop to find some dinner. After food and checking tomorrow’s route it wasn’t long before I fell asleep; seem to be following the ‘Eat, Sleep, Cycle…repeat’ routine at the moment.

–> 11 October – to Neufchatel-en-Bray (161km)
I expected today to be my last long ride in France, for this tour anyway, as long as there weren’t any further diversions due to ‘route barrée’ encounters. I awoke to another cold and damp morning, pedalling off from Soissons at 08:00 and heading for Neufchatel-en-Bray.

Again I stuck to D roads, enjoying the quiet, rather than use the Route National to Compiegne which may have been slightly shorter, but would have been a lot busier. Before reaching Compiegne things started to look very familiar, and I realised I was crossing the route I’d taken on my way down from Nordkapp to Tarifa, back in June. It felt a bit weird cycling some of the same route again, especially now the weather is so different. I passed the campsite I’d stayed at in Vic-sur-Aisne, which had been a great night’s stop, then continued South West, this time ignoring the turning that would take me towards Paris.

After negotiating Compiegne, and a steep hill out of the town, more D roads followed through cold and misty countryside, passing wind farms, buzzards, tractors and fields of potatoes. The road climbed steadily but generally not steeply most of the way to Neufchatel-en-Bray, resulting in tired legs by the end of the day again, however I ended up only 34km from Dieppe and ‘La Manche’.

Saint Claire Camping in Neufchatel-en-Bray is another that is due to close in a few days time, so I’ve timed my return to the UK quite well. Given the number of caravan and camper vans present it’s obviously used by a lot of people touring Europe, and on their way back to the UK or up the coast to Belgium and the Netherlands. After pitching my tent I chatted to a few other travellers; bit strange hearing lots of people speaking English again, with a variety of accents.

I headed into town to get a pizza for dinner, plus a few supplies, trying to decide how and when to tackle the last stretch to Dieppe. There are two ferries a day at this time of year, one at 05:30 and the other at 18:30. Both these times aren’t very convenient for a cyclist, as I’d end up cycling in the dark either in France or the UK, or having to overnight in the waiting room at the ferry port in Dieppe. In the end I decided to make an adventure of it, aiming to get up at 01:00 for a very early morning ride to catch the 05:30 boat to Newhaven. I was hoping this would be a relatively straightforward ride, as there’s an Avenue Verte (cycle path) all the way to Dieppe, which meant no cars to deal with, although it would be very dark! Pondering the wisdom of my plan I set my alarm and tried to get a few hours sleep before having to get up for hopefully the last time before reaching the UK.

There endeth 337 miles in 3 days; think it’ll be a while before I cover the same sort of distance again so quickly.

07 & 08 October 2015 – to Freudenstadt and Saverne

I’m back in the UK now, so time to catch up on my blog for the last week of riding through Germany and France.

By this time I was mostly focussed on getting back to the UK, with it getting colder, wetter, and campsites starting to close, so some long days and not a lot of sight-seeing, however still some good pedalling.

Routes and stats for the 7th and 8th below:

–> 07 October – to Freudenstadt, via a lot of hills (153km)
Today was pretty hard work, with a lot of climbs to contend with, so I was thankful I’d had a good night in Ulm, and some excellent Bavarian food to keep the pedals turning.

I hadn’t had a cup of Red Bush Tea in ages, so that and some breakfast set me up for the day ahead. The Brickstone Hostel had proven to be an excellent stop; very homely and comfortable. I was a little unsure of the route, however I basically just needed to keep heading West/North West towards France, so set off into a grey and drizzly morning.

The first part of the ride was on cycle routes, often with little or no traffic, up to Blaustein and Blaubeuren, then over the hills to Bad Urach. A bit of a head wind made the going tiring, however I made decent progress, and was encouraged by a couple of cycle tourers going the other way; few and far between now. I somehow ended up on a dual carriage-way near Reutlingen, which I discovered isn’t legal in Germany; the police were very nice about it though, and directed me to a much quieter cycle route into the city and beyond!

Then hills seemed to go on forever today, and my chain was starting to slip more and more; I need to replace that, plus the rear cassette, plus brakes, rear tyre, cables and maybe even the front rings. I’m hoping everything will last until I get back to the UK, however I might try to find a bike shop in Strasbourg for a service.

I finally made it to Freudenstadt, after a slow ride that seemed to take ages, especially with all the climbs and headwind. I cycled through the town and ignored the suggested cobbled route towards the campsite, which would have just hurt on a bike (me and Smaug), instead taking the main road around to the campsite in Langenwald.

It was a relief to make it to the campsite as the sun started to set, disappearing behind he thickly forested mountains. At about 750m elevation the campsite is pretty high, and also quite cold at this time of year, however the surroundings are wonderful and it would be great to explore over the summer. I pitched my tent, then enjoyed a very hot shower before dashing to the campsite restaurant before it closed for the evening; services are somewhat limited at many campsites at this time of year.

After a long day, schnitzel and a beer, I felt tired, so it wasn’t long before I crept into my tent and settled down to rest, listening to the rain patter against the canvas. Thankfully it wasn’t hard, and always makes me feel cosy, so I fell asleep quickly.

Tomorrow I’ll make it to France, and probably only have about 400 miles to go before I reach the English Channel; the end of the tour is sneaking up pretty fast now.

–> 08 October – to Saverne via Strasbourg (108km)
Despite being in the middle of the Black Forest I wasn’t, as far as I can tell, visited by werewolves or other denizens of its interior during the night. I woke up to another cold, grey, but dry morning, and was on the road by 08.30. It doesn’t really get light until about 07.30 now so it’s not worth leaving much before then. I’ve made a note to remember this campsite, as it’s located in a lovely spot and worth coming back to: The owners are really nice too, which always makes a difference.

I had one more climb to do to reach the top of the mountain, before the road down towards France, so made short work of the 300m ascent to the top. There followed a lovely long descent through cloud shrouded forest, as well as small towns and villages, with relatively little traffic to contend with; a few dogs barked at me but nothing unusual there.

I found a cycle route signposted to Kehl, then Strasbourg, which made things easier and avoided the main roads, then crossed the River Rhine over to France; I was back in country number 9 of the tour again, and the last one before getting back to England.

I spent a bit of time looking around Strasbourg, which is a lovely old city, with wonderful crooked buildings, canals, and a spectacular cathedral. I’d also returned to the land of boulangeries, which makes lunch a lot easier and tastier; I very much enjoyed a large chicken salad baguette and pain-au-chocolat.

After wandering about for a bit, and stopping for a webcam shot, I visited a bike shop to see if they could replace my chain and rear cassette, however they didn’t have any free time until tomorrow evening, so I decided to press on and not worry about it until I get back to the UK. It’s mostly flat from here to the Channel anyway, relatively speaking, so fingers Smaug will make it.

Whilst I say it’s relatively flat through France to Dieppe, it was still a bit of a slog over the hills from Strasbourg to Saverne, on quiet D roads, through farmland and villages. I arrived in Saverne about 16.30 after 108km, and checked into the campsite not far from the town centre; still open for a while yet, whilst lots of others are closing for the season. After a quick visit to the supermarket to get supplies, I relaxed for the evening, enjoying a few glasses of Alsace wine whilst planning my route to Verdun tomorrow. The ride to Verdun might turn into the longest day of the tour, however unless I want to wild camp, or use a hotel, I’m somewhat constrained by open campsites, and I really appreciate a hot shower at the end of the day now it’s colder. If it turns out to be too far I can always stop in Metz, or try one of the various Auberges dotted along the route.

Escargot-au-chocolat, Lobster impressed

Escargot-au-chocolat, Lobster impressed

Good to be back in France!

21 & 22 August 2015 – into Italy and on to Genoa

Routes and stats for the last two days below, as I leave France for Italy, on my way to Istanbul.

–> 21 August – into Italy (Imperia)
Hurrah, I made it to Italy, country number 11 I think, or 12 if you count Monaco, and to a decent campsite (De Wijnstok) near Imperia. What’s more the campsite has a nice little bar and pizzeria, so whilst writing my journal I enjoyed a cold beer, and got to listen to a guitarist play a few classic numbers; Eagles, Dire Straits etc

That was the end of the day, so I’d better go back to the start. Despite a few glasses of wine the previous evening I was up in good time, and away from Camping de l’Argentiere by 08:45, pedalling on to Cannes.

Cannes was busy, thronged with cars and tourists, and the harbour area packed with expensive boats of all shapes and sizes. I didn’t spot any movie-stars, but it was still early.

After dodging through both pedestrian and vehicle traffic I pedalled on to Antibes, which was a bit quieter than Cannes, but looked equally expensive; several Maseratis roared past me as if to reinforce this. Then it was along the coast to Nice via a cycle path.

Nice was…urrr…nice, but I didn’t feel like hanging about so I cycled along the seafront, forgetting about the webcams in my haste. Next up was Villefranche-sur-Mer, then Beaulieu-sur-Mer, passing some stunning scenery, before arriving in Monaco.

I almost missed Monaco, due to being routed through tunnels running underneath or alongside   bits of it. As a result I didn’t see much, which didn’t overly bother me at the time as I was hungry and looking forward to lunch and the prospect of a ‘tarte du jour’ in Menton.

I’m not sure I’d like living in Monaco. It’s just too cramped and felt slightly claustrophobic, with loads of tall buildings, and enclosed by a ring of mountains; I doubt I could afford a one bedroom flat anyway!

After Monaco the road climbed out of Monte Carlo and back into France. I stopped in Menton, the last French town before Italy, and found a great boulangerie. Today’s tarte was raspberry, and very nice, but not as good as yesterday’s tarte-au-citron. At this point I have grave concerns about whether Italy will be able to compete.

The border crossing into Italy is just after Menton, so I bid France ‘au revoir’ and pedalled over; as usual didn’t need to stop or show my passport. I immediately noticed a change in the style of architecture, as well as of course the language being different; don’t know much Italian but I’m sure I’ll get by. I passed through several towns on my way to near Imperia, including San Remo. One long stretch was on a cycle path, along the route of an old railway track, with several tunnels providing entertainment, and the sea and beaches just to my right. The cycle route went on for several kilometres, all the way to San Lorenzo.

The tunnels were great, providing a break from the sun and heat; lovely and cool, and lots of echoes –  potential goblin hotspot too!

The cycle route stopped just before my campsite for the night; De Wijnstok, near Poggi and Imperia. I had arrived in relatively good time so set up my tent and relaxed for a bit, before spending some time updating my blog.

De Wijnstok camping

De Wijnstok camping

De Wijnstok camping has its own bar and pizzeria, so I indulged myself and ate out; after 121km I didn’t have the energy to pedal to a supermarket, and besides, the campsite was pretty good value, even if I did have to pay for the wifi. The owner and staff all spoke at least some English, so no issues on the language front, and everyone staying on the campsite was friendly, saying hello, and in one case wanting to have a chat about my cycle tour. Marvellous; think I’m going to like Italy.

On to Genoa tomorrow, before heading inland and across towards Lake Garda and Venice.

–> 22 August 2015 – to Genoa
After a good night’s sleep I was up early and keen to get on the road, continuing my way down the Ligurian coast to Genoa.

After passing through Imperia it was a simple case of sticking to the coast road, through a succession of towns, and past a lot of beaches; lots of other cyclists out too, confirming the hobby’s popularity in Italy.

The road was very busy, but easy riding with only mild hills. I bumped into a couple from Brittany in Savona, also bicycle touring, making their way from Nice down into Italy, and then intending to take the ferry over to Dubrovnik. It was good to pause and chat for a bit, and I might bump into them again as they pedal up the coast from Dubrovnik.

Savona looked like an interesting place, with a big old fortress and roman ruins; think I spotted  hyper-caust or two. I continued down the coast through more towns, this being a very built up area – but not with high-rise abominations like much of the Costa del Sol. After a late lunch (kebab), and a failed search for a ‘tarte du jour’ I made it to the outskirts of Genoa and my campsite for the night; Villa Doria. On the tarte front, I need to remember to stop off in the morning when the relevant bakeries are open, and not having a siesta, which can go on for a long time in Italy; I’m not even sure if some of them open again in the afternoon.

Before setting up my tent I paused at the campsite bar for a cold beer. It was delicious; they taste so much better when you’ve thoroughly earned it. I chatted to a grandfather/grandson duo on a motorcycle tour down from Kent, taking in a bit of Italy before returning home via Switzerland; funny hearing strong South East accents again, and great to swap a few stories. The grandson was about to celebrate his 21st birthday, and wanted to do something to remember the year by; a month’s motorcycle touring in Europe should do it. His grandfather had decided to accompany him, as it was the grandson’s first time touring abroad, and they both seem to be having a great time or it; it’s all about filling your life with great memories, and as few regrets as possible.

I spent the rest of the evening doing a bit of planning, needing to plot my route over to Slovenia and Croatia, via Lake Garda and northern Italy; quite a long way to go with a  bit of wild camping  required due to lack of campsites. Still haven’t quite decided on my route after that; advice welcomed!

Hopefully ‘tarte du jour’ pics will resume tomorrow. Bonuit.

19 & 20 August 2015 – Toulon and Mandelieu-la-Napoule

I think I’ve been pedalling along the Cote d’Azur; not sure where it starts and finishes, but it’s definitely around here somewhere. It’s pretty too, but very busy, and expensive. I’m enjoying it but also looking forward to a bit of peace and quiet at some point, perhaps when I head inland towards Venice, or in Croatia. Here are my routes and stats for the 19th and 20th.

Two entries for 20 August as my Garmin turned itself off, as it is want to do sometimes when being charged off the dynamo; when the charge stops it thinks it better go to sleep.

–> 19 August 2015 – bike service and to Le Pradet, Toulon
Leaving Marseille was actually quite hard, as I’m slightly anxious about the route ahead, and this is probably the last set of friends I’ll stay with until I’m back in the UK. It’s been brilliant meeting up with several of them, and has made me realise how much I’ve missed everyone and the French lifestyle; will have to plan a return visit soon, and will make sure is coincides with Stephane being onshore.

Smaug looking a bit sorry for himself; needs some attention

Smaug looking a bit sorry for himself; needs some attention

I was also worried about my bike, which still needed new tyres and a service. It’s proven difficult to find touring sized tyres (26×1.35), perhaps because it’s the summer and they’re selling out quickly, as was suggested in one shop (bit dubious about that). I should stop worrying really, as my head knows it’ll all be alright, it’s just my heart being silly; I’m prone to a bit of anxiety from time-to-time. I have everything I need on my bike and can wild camp if there are no campsites, and it’s not like the rest of my route is devoid of shops! Gotta keep pedalling and having adventures, plus raise some more cash for the Big C; donations welcomed here (helps with the motivation) –

Thanks to Sophie for hosting me for a couple of nights, and good luck with your future plans! I hope you’ll all be able to come and visit me in the UK soon, but best to wait until I’m back in the country, and have found a permanent abode; my house is rented out until May next year, so thinking of moving out of Norwich into the countryside. I might even buy a couple of chickens, and a dog, always wanted a dog. Of course I’d need of get a trailer for aforesaid animal to go cycle touring with me; the dog, not the chickens, although…

After bidding goodbye to Sophie I was packed and on the road by 09.30, and had a couple of bike shops on my radar to try for tyres and a service. Thanks to Nick Paton for assisting with a few technical questions and shop locating, appreciated; he also phoned Oxford Bike Works to double-check what tyre sizes I could fit on my rims, marvellous support, and Richard from Oxford Bike Works always very helpful. Anyway, back to the cycling.

It was a long climb out of Marseille, from Pointe Rouge up past Luminy and over Les Calanques to Cassis. I just put Smaug into a low gear and pedalled slowly, being passed by a few roadies who all shouted encouragement; love that about France and Europe in general, all cyclists very friendly – saying that it’s often the same on the UK. It turned out to be less of a challenge than anticipated, so either my legs are a lot stronger than I thought, or the hill isn’t as big as I remember; probably a bit of both. There were some lovely views on the way.

The descent to Cassis was lots of fun, even if my brakes were slightly dodgy, however I had to slow down rapidly close to the town due to the sheer volume of traffic on the road; loads of cars trying to get into Cassis and down to the seafront. I decided to give it a miss, not wanting to get embroiled in the chaos and sour my mood.

I pedalled on to La Ciotat, where I stopped at a boulangerie to grab an early lunch; needed to replace energy burnt on Les Calanques. French boulangeries really do make for great food stops, and I hope they have similar in Italy and down into Eastern Europe.

After riding past several beaches, and dodging around quite a lot of traffic not moving very fast (always satisfying), I made it to Bandols, then on to Sanary-sur-Mer where I turned up towards Ollioules and my first possible bike shop; Oki Bikes. I had to wait for them to open at 14.30, so have to admit I nipped to a McDonalds a few km away to take advantage of their free wifi, and also mange a cheeseburger or two; nowhere near as nice as boulangerie fare.

Unfortunately Oki Bikes couldn’t help, but they did direct me to another bike shop just a few hundred metres away; Velo 83. Upon entering Velo 83 I immediately got a good feeling about the place; well-appointed workshop, lots of spares, great range of bikes and stock, and customers just kept on arriving. Luckily I was there just as they opened after lunch, so managed to get Smaug straight into the workshop. They didn’t have exactly the right tyre size, but they had some that would do the job, fitted my rims, and didn’t rub on the mud-guards; XLC Malamut – 26 x 1.75, so a bit chunkier than my last set but that might be handy as I travel down through Eastern Europe. This being the third bike shop I’d tried I thought it prudent to go with what they’d got, especially as my Marathon Plus were looking extremely worn. Ideally I’d like to put another set of Marathon Plus on Smaug, however these will probably do me until I’m back in the UK, or perhaps Germany where they might have some that are the right size for touring (26×1.35). I also got my brakes changes, and gears re-aligned; I can now use all my gears again, which hasn’t happened for a while. It turns out the bit of my frame on which the rear deraileur sits was slightly bent, probably from when the bike fell over with all the panniers on it (heavy fall), and needed straightening; they had a handy device for doing just that.

After a few complimentary figs and a chat with Romain, the owner, who is very enthusiastic about bikes which always gives you confidence, it was time to get back on the road. As a parting gift they gave me a new cycling top; my current one does look a bit shabby now, so it was probably well-timed. I’d recommend Velo 83 if you’re passing that way and need something done; excellent service and friendly staff.

New cycling top; Luc Alphand is a skier turned motorcyclist from Serre Chevalier

New cycling top; Luc Alphand is a skier turned motorcyclist from Serre Chevalier

Getting Smaug serviced and new tyres fitted was a big weight off my mind, however I still had some pedalling to do to get to a campsite. I rode onwards to Toulon, passing straight through the busy city before stopping at a campsite in Le Pradet. The campsite turned out to be a bit expensive, but as it was late (19.00), and I was tired, I decided to stay.

After eating a bit of pizza I’d bought the boulangerie earlier, and a can of baked beans, I was ready for an early night, although I had to evict a hornet type varmint from my tent before I could sleep peacefully; hornets slightly more dangerous than the voles I encountered Vittangi, that put holes in the bottom of my tent!

I pedalled 85km today, but it was a long day due to the bike shop stops. On to near Nice tomorrow, so getting close to Italy.

–> 20 August – to Mandelieu-la-Napoule (near Cannes)
Today was a longer day distance wise, covering 135km in about 7.5 hours. I don’t ride particularly fast, so the fatter tyres don’t really matter, but I can ride quite a long way when I want to; relatively speaking, nothing close to Mark Beaumont’s distances. He just rode the North Coast 500 non-stop, that’s nearly 840km in 35 hours and 41 minutes, a pretty astounding feat of endurance. Stats here.

I was very comfy in my tent when I woke up. It’s so much easier camping when it’s not as hot, and you’ve got a bit of grass to sleep on. Hilleberg Akto are great tents, but not as cool when it’s hot, compared with other makes. I’d still recommend them though, as mine is going strong after nearly 4 months on the road this tour, and 3 months back in 2013 on my Bike around Britain tour, plus a few weekends in between.

I set off from Le Pradet at about 09.00, immediately joining a cycle path (Littoral route) that runs all the way to Bormes-les-Mimosas. This was a definite bonus as there was a lot traffic on the road again, which can only be expected at this time of year on the Côte d’Azur. It was nice and flat to begin with too, giving me a chance to ease into the day, and say hello to lots of other cyclists going both ways.

It proved to be a very scenic day, riding along the D559 up to St. Tropez; I didn’t actually go into the town as it would have been rammed. I passed countless beaches on my way to Ste Maxime, then up to Frejus. The water looked very inviting, even if the beaches were packed. I’ll have to make an effort to go swimming in the sea again soon, but will wait for somewhere a little less busy; it’s a bit tricky stopping for a swim in the middle of a day’s touring when you’re on your own, and don’t want to leave anything unattended for too long.

I stopped for lunch in Sainte Maxime, enjoying a baguette and Tarte-au-Citron from a boulangerie; I’ve decided this tour needs more in the way of tartes, so will be sampling them as much as possible forthwith – there may well be a tarte of the day posting on twitter.

Tarte-au-citron in Sainte Maxime

Tarte-au-citron in Sainte Maxime

I must have passed millions of €’s worth of expensive yachts and motor cruisers today, as well as a lot of pricey looking and sounding cars; Maserati, Porsche, Ferrari etc. There’s obviously a lot of money on the Cote d’Azur, however it almost feels a bit too decadent to me, when there so many problems in the world needing urgent attention. I know people have the right to spend their money on what they want, but it would be fab if more donations could be made to causes trying to tackle climate change, threats of extinction, educating children in worse off countries, or feeding people in need etc etc. For the moment I’m trying to minimise my spending, but it’s tricky in this but if France as everything is expensive, especially the campsites; again to be expected in August.

There followed a lovely coastal stretch up from Saint-Raphael to Mandelieu-la-Napoule, near Cannes. I’d already cycled over a few big hills, and the day finished with more, however I didn’t notice too much as the scenery was stunning; loads of coves, little beaches that can only be accessed easily from the sea, and red rocks (must be iron ore).

The roads were again heavy with tourist traffic, so I had to be a bit on alert, but made it safely to the campsite in Mandelieu-la-Napoule; Camping l’Argentiere. I stopped for supplies before the campsite, however found it quite tricky to get to the shop; there were cars parked everywhere, and had been all along the route today, jammed into every available space. I’d passed a lot of police looking slightly hassled in the heat and traffic, and several doling out parking tickets; must be a very good source of revenue down here.

Camping l’Argentiere is a nice site, and worth a mention, it being slightly cheaper and with a friendly owner who was playing his guitar when I rolled up. He found me a small space to camp in, despite the site being nearly full, and I was able to take advantage of the free wifi which is a rarity in this part of the world. I enjoyed a few glasses of wine, it being my last night in France, with a blog update and some planning, before turning in, feeling more confident about the route ahead.

Italy tomorrow! And I’m almost up-to-date with this blog (only one day behind). Going for a cold one now, and to listen to a guitarist.

17 & 18 August – Marseille

Here’s my route and stats for the ride from Saint Martin de Crau to Marseille on the 17th. No stats for the 18th as I only used Smaug to pedal around Marseille a bit, and to visit Luminy and Les Calanques.

–> 17 August – to Marseille
Today’s ride turned out to be a bit longer than expected, covering 99km through some lovely Provence countryside and along La Cote Bleu before reaching Marseille. It’s been about 17 years since I visited Marseille, so I was pretty excited.

I'm excited about pedalling to Marseille; Lobster is worried about Bouillabaisse

I’m excited about pedalling to Marseille; Lobster is worried about Bouillabaisse

I set off in good time, keen to meet up with Sophie on her electric bike at 15.00, near where she works at the Brasserie David on the Marseille seafront. I met Sophie 17 years ago, on a return visit to Marseille to see Christophe and Stephane. She and Stephane have since married and have two lovely children; I met up with the latter at Stephane’s parents in Ruoms, great kids.

I pedalled to Istres, listening to a bit of Red Hot Chilli Peppers to distract from the noise of passing lorries, then on to Martigues next to the Etang de Berre. Martigues is a pretty town and harbour, with lots of boats. Unfortunately I passed an accident on the way through; a pedestrian had been hit by a car and was lying in the road, however the police and ambulance were quick to arrive so hope they are alright. It’s always sobering seeing an accident, and reminded me to take extra care with all the traffic; sometimes holiday traffic can be a bit random, with tired drivers, or worse – distracted drivers looking out of the window and chatting.

From Martigues the road climbed, along with the temperature, up and over to Sausset les Pins, then it was a ‘simple’ case of pedalling along La Cote Bleu to Carry-le-Rouet, up a long climb to Le Rove, before descending to L’Estaque. The climb up to Le Rove was pretty tough in the heat, however I received several encouraging shouts from road cyclists, and passed a few cycle tourers going the other way; waves and ‘Bon courage/routes’ were exchanged.

It’s not that easy to get into Marseille from the West, due to motorways on which cycling is not allowed, so I had to wiggle around a bit to make it to the Vieux Port. My Garmin helped for a change, although it did send me via some slightly dubious looking neighbourhoods, and I had to take my panniers off once to fit through a narrow gate; lucky I’ve lost some weight on this tour! I paused for a break in the Vieux Port, which looks as lovely as it used to, and slightly different to 17 years ago with the waterfront having been widened. I took quite a lot of photos.

After being spotted on the Vieux Port webcam by the ‘stalkers’ from home, and a few friends from work, I grabbed Steak/Frites baguette, before riding around the coastal road to meet up with Sophie. The ride brought back loads of good memories from my student times in Marseille, studying Oceanlogie at the Centre d’Oceanologie de Marseille, and at Cite Universite based in Luminy. Marseille has a wonderful coastline, with lots of little beaches and small islands just off the coast; looked great in the sunshine.

In case you’re wondering Chateau d’If is an old fortress and more recently prison, that’s the setting for Alexandre Dumas’ Le Compte de Monte Christo. I stopped off in Endoume, cycling down to the Foreign Legion base then around to the Centre d’Oceanlogie for a look; it’s still there and seems to be going strong. Sadly the little bar where we used to have the ‘odd’ beer is now closed; there was a sign suggesting the closure was due to a fracas – not that surprising since loads of legionnaires also used to drink there.

From Endoume it was a short ride to meet up with Sophie, then on to Pointe Rouge and their flat. Unfortunately Steph, being a ship’s Captain, is away at sea at the moment and not back until the end of September, so I’ll just have to come back next year to see him! It was good to hear all their news from Sophie, and a bit about their future plans. It was also quite amusing looking at a few photos to see how we’ve all changed; like me, Steph has less hair now, or hair that has migrated from head down to chest! All this talking in French is definitely helping me remember how to speak the lingo; when I get back to the UK I’ll have to find some French people to speak to so I don’t forget it again.

After a relaxing evening over a few beers and good food (Sophie is a chef, but I helped make the pastry/anchovie thingamyjigs and didn’t completely ruin them, win!), I slept very well, in preparation for a day off in Marseille.

–> 18 August – rest day in Marseille
Sophie had to go to work early in the morning, but left me some keys, with helpful arrows noting which ones were for which doors. Unfortunately, being a bit of an idiot at times, I picked up the keys before I noticed the arrows, thus making them completely redundant, but was able to muddle through.

I spent a great day in Marseille visiting a few old haunts, as well as a bike and camping shop. Unfortunately the workshop at the bike shop was closed, so I couldn’t get a service done, and they didn’t have the right tyres in stock so I drew a blank there too; found another shop near Toulon which I’ll try tomorrow. I had more luck in the camping shop, finally finding a hammock, along with a map of Slovenia and Croatia which will come in handy. I’ll need to pick up some other maps of Eastern Europe however hopefully I can get these in Croatia; gonna try and just use my GPS and sense of direction in Italy, with the phone as back up.

After grabbing a sandwich I headed off to Luminy and Les Calanques in the afternoon, for a bit of a walk; nice change from cycling. I used to live on the Cite Universite campus in Luminy, back in ’95/96, so the visit brought back yet more great memories. We used to spend a lot time not studying, and instead walking into the Calanques to go climbing, or down to the beach for a swim or party. I might not have been studying but I did learn to speak French well, and reckon it was a cultural learning experience!

The walk also gave me a chance to test out my hammock, which works superbly; I took at 30 minutes siesta to try it out properly. The hammock will come in very handy whilst it’s still warm, as supplies me with a seat as well as a bed, as long as I can find two suitable trees. It gives me more wild camping opportunities too, as a tent isn’t always practical, and a hammock much quicker to pack up should the need arise.

After a taxing day with lots of wandering about, and a few Desperado beers to aid with muscle recovery, I met up with Sophie back at the flat. We watched an old video taken in Tahiti back in ’96, when I stayed with Stephane and his family, along with Christophe and another friend, Delphine, for a few weeks; hilarious video and I must dig out my copy when I get home, we all look so young, and happy, with lots of tom-foolery going on.

The evening was spent at a beach party down on the seafront with a few of Sophie’s friends, several glasses of wine, and good company; chatted to Greg, a kite-surfing instructor, and might learn myself back in the UK, with my brother – they teach it at Hunstanton, just down the road from Norwich, but bit chillier in the North Sea. Gonna be hard to leave Marseille in the morning, however I’ve got a tour to finish, and I’ll definitely be back next year to visit again.

12 to 16 August 2015 – a break in the Ardèche

I haven’t done a lot of cycling since my last post, but did manage to get back on my bike today, and to drag myself away from Chris and Carole’s wonderful house and farm in Salavas. Here’s my route and stats for the 16th; pretty swift for me so must be fully recovered and legs raring to go:

–> 12 to 15 August – chez Christophe et Carole’s a Salavas
What a great break! It’s been brilliant to catch-up with Chris after nearly 17 years, and to meet his lovely wife Carole. Staying at their house in Salavas has given me more recovery time after being a bit poorly, and allowed me to mentally refocus on the route ahead after Spain; I felt like I was slightly adrift after some punishing legs, and since finishing my primary goal of pedalling from Nordkapp to Tarifa. I still think the hardest thing about long solo cycle tours is the mental rather than physical aspect, at least it is for me. Saying that, it’s not often that I’m down for long, and if I am I just remind myself that I’m not sitting in an office having to attend countless meetings, answer the phone, and generally stress about things.

So I spent several days in Salavas, helping out on the farm, chilling and catching up after the last 17 years. The farm, Le Champ de la Riviere, is all organic, growing a variety of vegetables including lots of different types of tomato, all delicious. Aside from tomatoes they grow melons, aubergines, carrots, courgettes, salads, butternut squashes and a load of other produce; needless to say I ate very healthily. I helped set up an automatic water system for the chickens, with water coming from the Ardeche; seems to work alright despite my slightly dubious DIY skills, although we did have to fix several leaks in the hose-pipe.

Everything got a bit wet due to stormy weather, however it was quite refreshing to have some heavy rain, and I’m sure the pig enjoyed it. The pig’s days are possibly numbered as winter gets closer, however she’s had a good life on the farm, and will supply lots of meat; every part of the animal will get used.

Friday was open farm and market day, which saw loads of visitors arrive to have a look around and buy some of the wonderful produce on offer; eggs, goat’s cheese produced by Chris’ Dad (Bernard), jam, and loads of fruit and vegetables. It was a great to see loads of locals turn up, as well as several campers from the nearby campsite; good business but also a lovely close-knit and friendly community. The main attraction, aside from stocking up on fresh produce, was probably the hog.

Another surprise was in-store for me when we went to visit some ‘friends’ in the nearby village of Ruoms on Thursday evening (sorry, I’m getting the days in the wrong order). They turned out to the parents of Stephane, another friend I haven’t seen for a long time; Chris and Carole kept it a secret until we arrived. Steph is away at the moment as he’s a ship’s captain, however it was great to meet up with his parents, children and family; I haven’t seen them since staying at their house in Tahiti in 1996 for a few weeks – a fantastic holiday that I’ll always remember. Francois, Steph’s Dad, even had some Tahitian beer for me to sample; Hinano, which brought back some memories. Great pizza too! They still laugh about me taking frequent ‘petit siestas’ when I stayed with them; think it must have been jet lag!

After being introduced to the art of chicken whispering, I also experienced pig wrangling when le cochon escaped. She was in a bit of a playful mood, however we managed to stop her rampaging through the vegetable fields. Having a determined looking pig charge towards you, at speeds approaching 20km/h, can be slightly intimidating, especially when the beast weighs in excess of 200kg. Luckily she isn’t aggressive like a wild boar, and can be wrangled, as long as your willing to stand in her way! The electric fence had to go on after that to keep her contained.

Saturday is Chris and Carole’s day off, so with some other friends we took a trip to Labeaume, a picturesque village on a tributary of the Ardeche. A lazy picnic and siesta next to the river ensued, along with throwing stones for a very happy dog (Tina) to chase; she loves water. After lazing about for a while we thought we’d better go and find some ice-cream – very important to keep energy levels up. We sat in the square watching a fiercely contested game of Petanque; my ice-cream really was very good – chocolate and vanilla with a chestnut sauce.

It was a full house in the evening with more friends arriving, and a great meal with produce from the farm, including nearly the last of the previous pig! All this good company and chat has done wonders for improving my French, and whilst I’m not as fluent as I used to be I can at least understand most conversations now, and make myself understood, even if I do forget the odd word here and there; replacing it with the English version seems to work usually. It’s also been great to play some guitar again (Christophe has several); just like he old days.

Forgot something; there were some very noisy wild board in the field next to the house one evening – think they must have been fighting. There are lots of wild boar (Sanglier) around here, and also crosses between pigs and wild boar, which are apparently called Cochonglier; a new one on me.

With my blog mostly up to date, a bike shop located in Marseille, and feeling well rested I thought I’d better get back on the road lest I end up staying until winter! Onwards to Marseille.

–> 16 August 2015 – to Saint Martin de Crau
I was sad to be leaving Chris and Carole after a great break, but was keen to get riding again as I’ve still got a long way to go; to Istanbul then back to the UK. It’s been great to catch up after so long, and fantastic to spend a few days doing something other than pedalling; life on the farm is definitely hard work, with long days, but rewarding. I think it would do anyone who works in an office a lot of good to go and work on a farm for a few days, to help get a sense of perspective and clear the mind.

Chris had to get up at 05.15 to prepare for the Salavas Sunday market; I heard him go downstairs but decided to have a lie in until 06.45. Then it was back to the routine of packing up and loading my bike, remembering to fill up my water bottles, and finding the right page on my map. After a decaf coffee I was ready to go. Carole supplied me with several hard-boiled eggs, peach, melon and tomatoes to keep me going on the road, and after bidding her and their other guests goodbye I pedalled off to Salavas, stopping at the boulangerie for a pain-au-chocolate or two; will miss boulangeries when I leave France!

On the way out of Salavas I paused at the market to say goodbye to Chris. It was already bustling despite it being Sunday and only 08.30; loads of artisan produce, however unfortunately I really didn’t have room for a lot else. I promised not to leave it another 17 years before I come to visit. Hopefully I’ll make it back next year to see what new projects they have started; perhaps by car or train next time, but who knows, might do another lap. Again the hospitality of my French friends, whilst not unexpected, is wonderful, and it’s been so easy to pick up where we left off despite the 17 years.

From Salavas it was uphill to Barjac, and then on to Rochegude and Tharaux, retracing some of my route from last Tuesday. Then it was a long climb up to Mejannes-le-Clap, alongside or being passed by a lot of other cyclists out for a Sunday morning ride; I chatted to a few on the way up – everyone was happy about the tailwind. I passed through some lovely countryside as I left the Ardeche and entered Provence.

There followed a fun downhill stretch to Uzes, and a break at Pont-du-Garde near Remoulins. Pont-du-Gard is a huge Roman aqueduct and bridge crossing the Gardon river, built in the first century AD and still standing. It was used as a toll bridge after the fall of the Roman Empire, so was maintained. Well worth a visit if your passing, although expect lots of other tourists; it was packed.

From Pont du Gard the road took me to Beaucaire, where I munched my way through some hard-boiled eggs and melon, then over the Rhone, which is very wide, to Tarascon. After passing through a few villages, I ended up in Saint Martin de Crau for the night, at a very reasonably priced campsite (€12 makes a change).

Not only was the campsite good value, but it also had a swimming pool and free wifi, marvellous. Despite having covered 116km, I’d arrived in good time, so after relaxing for a bit I did some route planning for the legs ahead; I’m considering changing my route to Istanbul to pass through Albania and Greece, as my return route to GB will take me through Bulgaria and Serbia etc, so I won’t be missing out on any countries. I also had a look at my tyres; think I’ll definitely try to get some new ones in Marseille, to be on the safe side. I use Scwhalbe Marathon Plus, and these ones have done over 6,000 miles. They’d probably be fine for another 1,000, and might even get me all the way home, but I figure it’s not worth the risk. As long as the bike shop can accommodate me (I’ve emailed them) I’ll also get a service done in Marseille; brakes, gears, cables etc.

Current tyres have done well but replacements required

Current tyres have done well but replacements required

Tomorrow I’ll reach Marseille, where I’m staying chez Steph and Sophie’s for a couple of nights, before pedalling on towards Nice and Italy, and then Eastern Europe; best find some new maps in Marseille too. Legs are feeling great and morale high after my break. Now if only the mosquitos would go away.

I’ll end on some random thoughts on being successful. I reckon most successful people are also decisive people, able to make decisions easily, or at last make them, even if they turn out to not be good ones all the time. Too many people, including myself, dither at times, letting opportunities slip by because they’re afraid; afraid of taking a chance, leaving their comfort zone, or of making a mistake. I am going to endeavour to be more decisive and take a few more risks when I get back to the UK, and try a few new things to continue to get satisfaction out of life and build a bank of great memories and experiences. I don’t need loads of money to be happy, just enough to have the odd adventure and to enable meeting up with friends and family,  and have new experiences/fun.

05 to 11 August 2015 – back to France and seeing old friends

Wow. Been a little while since I’ve managed to get a blog post written; warning, this is a long one and probably best consumed in chunks. This is partly due to having been a bit poorly, but also some long days riding on the way out of Spain, and latterly meeting up with old friends from when I lived in Marseille many years ago. I’m in Salavas now, a little town next to the Ardeche, staying with Chris et Carole on their farm for a few days; it’s very tranquil, although I might have to go and collect the eggs in a bit.

Here are my routes and stats for the last week. My Garmin crashed a few times, or turned itself off randomly, so some days have multiple entries, sorry!

If all the above links are a bit too much (they are for me), the summary is I’ve pedalled around 5,700 miles since Nordkapp and the beginning of May, over 9,000km, completed phase 1 which was the northernmost point of Europe to the southernmost point, and am now en-route to Istanbul, before returning to England. Still got around 4,000 miles to go, and it’ll be different again in Eastern Europe and Turkey, so lots of adventures to come.

–> 05 Aug – a long day to Pals
I covered nearly 172km today, one of my longest days to date, and the sort of distance I should really split over two days. It wasn’t entirely intentional; my carefully planned route had to be ditched due to encountering roads which I wasn’t allowed to cycle on, despite my Garmin planner telling me that I could. This meant I had to head back down to the coast after pedalling inland, then back inland, then wriggle around and over some hills; all pretty tiring!

I was happy to leave the hostel after another broken night’s sleep; I prefer my tent, despite the lack of bed. It was a simple exercise to extricate myself from Barcelona, along the coast and seafront using a cycle path. I rode past countless beaches and coastal towns, packed with holidaymakers enjoying the sea and sun; lots of nudist beaches too, seems very popular down here.

I made it to Malgret de Mar as planned, on the N11, then turned inland intending to head to Girona. It was all going well as far as Vidreres, up a few big climbs which woke me up a bit, however then I encountered a sign that informed me I was no longer allowed to cycle on the N11. This was a bit of an issue as I couldn’t see how else to easily get to Girona, and a campsite I’d found about 20km away. I saw one road cyclist just ignore the sign and carry on, however I didn’t know how far he was going and don’t want to get arrested, so turned off and had to head back down towards the coast. Needless to say I was somewhat miffed by the whole experience, with my plans in tatters, however after shouting at the wind a bit I made it over the hills and down to Lloret de Mar via the GI680. Oh, and my Garmin Edge crashed too, which didn’t help matters.

I followed the coast to Tossa de Mar, then on to Saint Feliu de Guixols. The change of route proved a mixed blessing, doubling the distance for the day, and with some fierce climbs, however the scenery was fantastic and on reflection I wouldn’t have wanted to miss it. The coastal route is absolutely fantastic, even if I did have to climb over 1,600 metres as I pedalled from cove to cove; my legs felt pretty strong though, which was a blessing.

I passed a cycle tourer going the same way, struggling slightly with a trailer on his bike. It was well over 30 degrees and we were both exceedingly sweaty, so it was good to pause and offer mutual encouragement.  A bit later on I encountered a couple of Recumbents going the other way, then another cycle tourer with the same set up as me, so the number of tourers is definitely increasing.

After a garage break to refill water bottles I made it to Palamos, but then had to turn inland due to lack of cyclable roads…again; I’d hoped to join the C31 to Pals. There didn’t seem to be an obvious way to cycle up the coast, which left me feeling a bit hot and bothered, however swallowing my frustration I headed back inland and up into the hills, dealing with a long climb through a verdant forest, accompanied by the sound of nearby shotguns, and being passed by a couple of cycling clubs.

After climbing 600 feet it was a lovely long descent down to La Bisbal d’Emporda, however by that time I was feeling pretty tired and thought I’d better find a campsite. The nearest one looked to be next to Pals, rather than back towards Girona, and by the time I got there I wasn’t in a fit state to pedal any further, despite it costing over €45 to stay the night; most expensive campsite ever and not one I’ll go back to, ridiculous for a small patch of earth of a few hours.

My expensive small patch of earth - campsite near Pals

My expensive small patch of earth – campsite near Pals

At least they had a supermarket, and free wifi, albeit only for 5 minutes. Unfortunately I started to feel pretty queasy, and thought I had a migraine coming on, so after a yoghurt and some fruit I settled down for the evening; I hadn’t finished cycling until 19.00 anyway. On to France tomorrow, touch wood.

–> 06 August 2015 – vive la France, Argeles-sur-Mer
Despite the exorbitant price paid for a spot to pitch my tent I didn’t sleep too well, due to a migraine and upset stomach. Consequently I didn’t really feel like eating very much in the morning either, but decided to carry on and felt better once on my bike with a breeze in my face.

I was keen to get back to France after being in Spain for over a month, so set off from Pals across a large plain, before reaching the mountains once again.

It was definitely a ‘significant’ climb over to El Port de la Selva, then on to Llanca, ascending over 1,300 feet whilst still feeling below par. The scenery was great and I made sure I kept drinking lots of water.

After a few more ups and downs I reached Portbou, with one final climb to go before France.

It felt great to cycle across the border into France, especially after a fierce last climb during which lots of passing car drivers gave me shouts of encouragement; ‘bon courage’ etc. Looking at a map of the Southern coast of Spain again I realise just how long it is, so I’m pretty chuffed to have made it up from Tarifa and back into France in under 2 weeks, and am now well on my way to Istanbul.

It was only a short ride to Ceberes then on to Banyuls-sur-mer where I’d hoped to stay the night, however unfortunately the campsite was ‘complet’ (full), the first time that’s happened to me whilst cycle touring, ever. Banyuls-sur-mer looks like  a very nice town, with a small harbour and aquarium, and had been recommended by my friend Tom who stayed there a few years ago, however with no campsite I was forced to move on.

I continued pedalling up the coast, past Port Vendres, then Couliere, all lovely looking coastal towns with old harbours, beaches and castles. Then I finally made it out of the hills and down to Argeles-sur-mer, a massive tourist spot with loads of campsites; I’d already passed several others than were ‘complet’.  It was extremely busy in Argeles however after visiting the Tourist Information Office I managed to find a campsite on the outskirts; an island of calm in an otherwise hectic town. It was very much a relief to find somewhere to stay, as I was feeling pretty wiped out due to the migraine, and not in small part due to the hills.

After re-taping my handlebars I relaxed for the evening, eating some bread, cheese and salad, and chatting to an Italian cycle tourer who turned up just after me, having also had trouble finding a campsite. I think I’m going to have to avoid the coast for a bit as it’s just too busy, however I’ll have to check route possibilities.

Good luck to Stefano in tackling the Pyrenees up to San Sebastian!

–> 07 August – to Port La Nouvelle
My journal entries get a bit sketchy for the next couple of days, due to being a bit more poorly than I realised. I still managed to make progress, however felt pretty wiped, and realise I must have picked up some kind of stomach bug, perhaps from bad water somewhere. My appetite was non-existent, and I felt pretty dehydrated despite drinking loads, so was looking forward to some downtime.

I rode around 70km today, and some of it was on Eurovelo 8, a route that goes all along the Mediterranean coast if you can find it. To be fair the route is mapped, it’s just not realised everywhere as yet, however it was good to cycle the bit of it that was signposted. The EV8 signs continued as far as Leucate, with the path avoiding a very busy road which was a relief. There were loads of other cyclists using it, but not as many waves as in Spain; probably because these were mostly tourists out for a bimble and not tourers or roadies.

At Leucate I rode over the bridge and channel between the sea and lake, then on to La Palme. Unfortunately the campsite at La Palme was already full, however after a short ride down the road to Port-la-Nouvelle I found plenty of space at the Camping Municipal, and it was only €10 a night which was a win.

I absolutely had to do some washing, and was feeling a little better, so hand-washed a load of stuff including my sleeping bag, which after a couple of months was sorely in need of a clean! Handily it was hot and everything dried quickly, however my top tip for the day is to not drop your sleeping bag in the sand just after you’ve washed it…d’oh!

Laundry completed I had a cycle around town and then did some planning, arranging to meet up with French friends over the next few days, and hopefully my second cousin and her family tomorrow.

I forced myself to eat something, but still wasn’t really hungry, and think in hindsight that was probably an error; passed a rather uncomfortable night between my tent and the toilet!

–> 08 August – to Laurens
Hopefully you’re still with me; bit of a long blog post however good to catch up, and easier to do it in one. Might have to take a break in a bit to go help on the farm!

I rode 76km today, and thankfully it was a lot cooler and there were clouds in the sky keeping the sun off. I even had a bit if refreshing rain at one point. When I woke up I was in two minds whether to have a rest day or carry on, however in the end I felt sufficiently recovered to continue, which was probably a mistake.

After stopping at a Pharmacie and acquiring 3 sets of pills to help with my various ailments (French Pharmacies really are very helpful), I rode alongside the Canal de la Robin from Port-la-Nouvelle to Narbonne. It was a windy day however at least the path was flat, if a little bumpy.

After Narbonne it was on to Beziers, on some busy but manageable roads. I had thought I might  stop for lunch but still wasn’t feeling very hungry, and frankly had endured a pretty uncomfortable ride all morning due to my stomach aching plus feeling a bit sick.

The ride up to Laurens was accompanied by a bit of rain and a few more hills, riding through vineyards to my second cousin Richard’s house, where his daughter Sarah and her family were staying. I was feeling pretty weak by the time I reached Laurens, but didn’t think much of it until during a pause in the town square the world suddenly went a bit sideways. It felt like a big head-rush, a feeling akin to a massive migraine attack, and the next thing I knew I was lying on the floor next to my bike having briefly passed on. I must have slid down the wall as I tumbled as my helmet has a good scrape down the side. Two passerby helped me to my feet and I spent a few minutes sitting in the bus shelter before doing anything else. A weird and worrying experience but probably not that surprising having been ill and not eaten very much.

Cycling helmet a bit scraped but all good

Cycling helmet a bit scraped but all good

Thankfully I was only about 200 yards from my cousin’s house, so it was only a short walk to sanctuary for the night! I felt a lot better once I’d met up with Sarah, and Dom, and their children Indy and Briony, had a long drink of cold water, and later on some food which didn’t react badly with my stomach; good old cottage pie, peas and carrots! It was a good evening to spend indoors, with a big storm hitting and lots of rain. Great to catch up with everyone too, after several years; must stop meeting up with extended family only at funerals! A very relaxed and fun evening was had, and I slept very well.

–> 09 August – to Laroque
What a difference a day can make! After a solid night’s sleep, inside, out of the rain, and in the cool, I awoke refreshed and not feeling sick or with a stomach ache. Indy had been down to the boulangerie and returned with croissants for breakfast, which were most welcome with a bit of marmalade; excellent to have my appetite back.

After bidding goodbye to my excellent hosts, I left Laurens about 10.30, so a bit of a late start. I pedalled over the hill to Roujan, then up to Clermont L’Herault; riding was so much more comfortable today, again making me realise how under the weather I’d been, which I’d not really appreciated. The hills were biggish, but climbing them felt so much easier than yesterday, despite a slight headwind and the occasional ambush from goats or sheep.

I passed one particularly worrying sign, warning of sheep with wings; evolution gone crazy! It’s not a zombie apocalypse you need to worry about, it’ll be the flying sheep that get us for sure. Despite the sheep and their new allies, goats, it was lovely cycling through small French towns today, with the smell of baking bread drifting from boulangeries, and people nattering to neighbours from their balconies, having a lazy Sunday.

After Saint Andre de Sangonis I started up the Gorges de Herault, alongside the river Herault, taking in some great views. The gorge was packed with people relaxing by the river on rocks, canoeing or kayaking, or just swimming in the cool river. I had to deal with a long climb at one point, however it was all a pleasure now I was feeling better. I stopped for a break to watch people diving off rocks, and in one instance a high bridge, into the river.

The road continued on to Ganges, whereupon I turned left to Laroque and Camping Tivoli, to meet up with my friend Jean and his family; I hadn’t seen Jean for at least 17 years! It was great to finally catch up, and meet with his family; Noisette, Camille and Paul. Once I was set up it was down to the river, which runs next to the campsite, for a swim and a bit of Tarzan action on a rope swim; very refreshing after a hot ride.

A fun evening was had catching up, which did wonders for improving my French, even if I keep forgetting the odd word and replacing it with the English version; seems to work alright.

–> 10 August – day off in Laroque
I spent a couple of nights at Camping Tivoli in Laroque, with Jean and his family, so had a relaxing day off for some much-needed rest. We visited the Cirque de Navacelles, by car rather than  bike, and were able to look down upon it from atop a mountain.

Panorama of Cirque de Navacelles

Panorama of Cirque de Navacelles

The Cirque de Navacelles is an interesting feature, created by the river, and the surrounding area steeped in pre-historic history. People arrived in the area over 5,000 years ago, finding water up on the plateau in limestone caves, and carving out a simple agricultural existence, mostly involving sheep by the sounds of it. In contrast we were also passed by 4 Mirage jets flying down the valley, but at our level, and very close; an amazing sight but too fast to get a photo.

After a morning exploring, including some blackberry foraging, it was back to the campsite for more relaxing next to the river, and a bit more Tarzan action! We were joined by friends of Jean and Noisette in the evening, along with their children, so a bit of a party ensued. French hospitality is, as always, excellent, and I passed a very pleasant evening in great company. Sadly tomorrow it was time to leave, however only as far as Salavas for another break with friends; gonna take me a while to reach Istanbul at this rate.

–> 11 August 2015 – to Salavas
I was sad to leave Jean and his family, however I’ve promised not to leave it another 17 years before I return; Eurostar to Marseille is easy these days, so a visit is on the cards for next year! I was also looking forward to seeing Chris and Carole; haven’t seen Chris for about 17 years either, since our days in Luminy, Marseille; very happy times.

After fixing a puncture on Camille’s bike, packing up, and bidding everyone goodbye it was about 11.00 by the time I pedalled off, feeling relaxed and refreshed; thanks again all 🙂

Today’s ride took me through some lovely countryside, as well as more towns and villages; feels more hospitable than Spain, or at least easier to deal with, cooler too. From Laroque I rode up to Saint Hippolyte du Fort, with a few hills keeping things interesting, and with a few other tourers to say hello to. The road took me to Durfort, then Anduze, Bagard and the city of Ales; I pedalled straight through the latter and then up a valley passing lots of pretty villages.

Bananas and a quick baguette stop at a boulangerie kept me fuelled as I pedalled on to Tharaux; a slight diversion to this small village for another pause.

From Tharaux it was on to Barjac and into Ardeche territory, before arriving in the village of Salavas, prior to the town of Vallon-Pont-d’Arc. Salavas sits right next to the Ardeche, and Christophe and Carole’s farm right next to the river. I stopped for a cooling Fanta break before making my way to their farm, finding it next to a campsite (could be handy for the future); only took me one phone call to locate the right gate and avoid an electric fence.

It was amazing to meet up again, and Chris hasn’t really changed very much. It was also great to see what he’s done with the farm; Le Champ de la Riviere, which he and Carole have built from scratch. They have over 1,000 chickens now, as well as a huge pig, fruit trees and loads of vegetables growing. Everything is organic, and very tasty too I might add. I am always slightly in awe of farmers and how hard they have to work, and seeing the effort that they’ve put into building up Le Champ de la Riviere left me feeling the same. I work hard in an office, with I guess different kind of stresses, but a farmer’s life is physically demanding too; although I can’t help feeling it must be more rewarding seeing things grow and being able to put food on people’s plates. I helped collect the eggs , not a small tasks when there are 1,000 chickens, and watched the pig get fed, then it was back to the house for a hearty pork casserole, with all the ingredients coming from the farm.

I also got to taste some particularly smelly local cheese; nice, but perhaps an acquired taste, and I get the impression Chris tries it out on all his guests! Another relaxing evening ensued, with some guitar playing, just like old times, and a glass of rum to finish off the evening. I think I’m going to stay here a few days to restore energy levels, and to get some planning done for Eastern Europe; although when it comes down to it I’ll just end up heading East then down to Istanbul, and see what happens along the way – not worth over planning.

If anyone knows of a good bike shop in Marseille let me know. I’m going to have a look on the Internet anyway, as Smaug could do with a service before going on to Italy; probably not leaving here until the weekend anyway, we’ll see. Time to go and help collect the eggs again now.

As always any donations to the Big C gratefully appreciated, and will help keep me motivated, otherwise might just stay here:

01 to 05 July – Spain & Camino de Santiago part 1, plus turning forty

Catch up post number 1, covering crossing into Spain over the Pyrenees, and the first part of the Camino de Santiago. Apologies for the scarcity of blogs recently; I’ve been cycling with a few other people and there have been some long days, and fun evenings. As always you can keep up-to-date with where I actually am via my Twitter feed.

Here are my routes and stats for 01 to 04 July inclusive:

01 July:

02 July:

03 July:

04 July:

–> 01 July
Top tip; don’t go the wrong way when crossing over the Pyrenees, it hurts one’s legs, quite a lot.

I teamed up with Richard (from Hunstanton), and River (from Korea), for day 1 of the Camino de Santiago, pedalling from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port to Roncevaux, over the Pyrenees.

Preparing to set off from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port

Preparing to set off from St-Jean-Pied-de-Port

We were up early to try to avoid the worst the heat, and were rewarded by an overcast start; very refreshing after yesterday.

The day started as it meant to go on with some big climbs. We met up with an American, Darren, on a mountain bike, who rode with us for a while but soon left us in his wake due to his very much lighter load.

We had agreed at the beginning of the day that we’d try to stay together, however if some people needed to push that it was fine to carry on and we’d meet up later. It soon became evident that River would mostly be pushing today, however there were points where we all did. After a stop at a supermarket for some fruit and pain-au-chocolat we climbed up a steep road trying to follow the shell signs for the Camino de Santiago. This can sometimes be easier said that done when you’re concentrating on getting up a hill, and when the signs are sometimes a bit obscured; lovely route though.

Unfortunately Richard and I somehow missed a crucial sign that would have taken us over a small bridge to the Spanish side of the river valley, and the correct route for cycling to Roncevaux. This meant we climbed an unnecessary 1,000 feet before we realised our error; a costly one as it was very steep and tiring. It didn’t take us very long to get back down the road, after confirming directions from a helpful passing motorist, and we found the bridge. Later on I was somewhat gratified to learn we are by no means the first people to make this error.

After a bit of a push up from the bridge, the signs for which were easy to miss, we made it to the Spanish side of the valley and continued on, stopping briefly for a cold drink and realising we had to speak a different language now; I’m not very good at Spanish but am slowly picking it up. It was then a hard slog up to over 3,000 feet, as we tackled the pass over the mountains; beautiful scenery but hot and tiring, especially on already wobbly legs. I got my head down, in my easiest gear, and just pedalled on slowly, eventually catching River up who hadn’t missed the turning; good one River! The view from the top was fantastic, and I paused for a while to let the others catch up.

It was very peaceful at the top of the pass (Ibaneta), the silence being punctuated with the clanking of bells from around the necks of horses in a nearby field. River turned up first, followed a bit later on by Richard, who with a heavier bike was suffering in the heat. Luckily there are plenty of water fountains along the route, so you can refill your bottles; this was essential I was drinking constantly, and unfortunately sweating it out just as quickly as it was going in. This also meant suncream didn’t really stay on, so stopping in shady spot was a must. One more downside; lots of biting flies which in some instances drew blood, very irritating!

Once we were all together again, and had sufficiently recovered and/or admired the view, we rode down the hill to Roncevaux, a very nice descent after such a hard climb. I was very glad to be on a bike at this point, as all the walkers,  who follow a different trail over the mountains, would have had a hard time on the knees coming down; I find when walking the way down can be as hard as the way up.

In Roncevaux we opted to stay at the Pilgrims Auberge (hostel), which meant I had to sign up to do at least some of the Camino de Santiago, and get myself a pilgrim’s book, but it was well worth it. I’ll be following a different part of the Camino de Santiago from Leon anyway so it’ll come in handy to have hostel options.