On Thursday, the last day of July, I struck out across the industrial port of Brest, heading for the Atlantic Coast. After the rain of the last two weeks, the warmth of the sun on my skin and the brilliance of the blue sky felt strange. I was so happy to be riding again. Fortified with breakfast (and a packed lunch) from an artisan boulangerie just before leaving the warehouse district, I followed the Eurovelo 1 bike route down the coast. The bike-friendly bridge over the wide mouth of the Élorn River was a marvel of modern architecture, affording a view of the well-protected harbour. Eurovelo 1 took me over fields and occasionally by beaches. On one pass by the water, I stopped to enjoy the sailing bikes racing on the beach. It looked like great fun, although the amateurs riding the craft did not know how to tack upwind. The staff (namely, one young woman) had the job of beating upwind with the now-empty wind-bikes to position them for the next group of customers. Mostly, however, this was rolling farmland, and by day’s end, I was exhausted. I pulled into the Kervella Camping in Plomodiern, and tucked into a corner of a full-sized caravan lot.
The next morning, I learned that l had not chosen a good location. I had to hang my tent across the way, where the sun could hit it and dry off the dew. The Veloroute du Littoral continued south, climbing and dropping through steep ravines. Halfway through the day, I figured out that the official route and the OsmAnd app were killing me trying to avoid roads with traffic. I am not afraid of a few cars and trucks, so I turned off the navigation and just used the map to follow the coast to the Quinquis Campground in Le Pouldu. (I expect you to get out a map and follow all these places: have fun!).
I immediately felt like I had slipped back a year and was camping in the south of England. All the campsites had campers and caravans with GB registration. The campground owners are English, and they encouraged their countrymen to stay there. I even had dinner in the pub. This time I remembered to camp so the sun would dry my tent when it came up. I had ridden 100 km, and I was very tired. My legs and hips ached, and I did not sleep well. My hips had been aching on and off (with what I thought was muscle stiffness) since the middle of July. Nothing consistent, so I could not figure out what was wrong. I decided that camping was not fun under these circumstances, and resolved to travel with “plastic” rather than “nylon” after reaching Bordeaux. I wrote to Cheryl, to leave her camping gear behind. .
On Wednesday as I was about to leave the Quinquis Campground, a group of middle-aged English riders on road bikes returned from a ride. One of them warned me that the ride to the ferry in nearby Saint-Julien was “10% uphill for 440 metres.” He seemed to know what he was talking about and, indeed, the distance proved to be exactly right. Now I knew why the ravines had been so tough on me: they were all much steeper than the climb out of Quinquis.
The cloudy sky thickened as I rode to the ferry and continued on the other side towards Lorient. I rode past pleasant villas facing down the white water crashing below them as the rain began. In Lorient, I paused for a thoughtful moment looking across the harbor to the World War II submarine pens, now converted to a yacht harbor. From those impregnable concrete shelters, scores of U-boats sallied into the Atlantic Ocean, almost choking off Western Europe from American supplies until the convoy system, ASW aircraft, and radar finally turned the tide. I rode to the Lorient train station and took the local train to Vannes, where I stayed with my first Warmshowers host on this coast. Philippe Antoine cooked dinner, and we shared common experiences as single men with grown sons and a history of cycling.
The ride on my 70th birthday featured warm sunshine, cool air, and a tailwind almost all the way. This time, I let the OSMand app choose the route, and did not follow the bike routes very much. As a result, the hills were quite tolerable. I also was back to having two normal legs and functioning joints after a long night of deep sleep in Philippe’s house. I rode from Vannes to Saint-Nazaire, a pleasant city at the mouth of the Loire River. I felt good, pedalling alone on easy roads and covering the distance relatively quickly. The Regional National Park of the Brière was flat, with wetlands and marsh covering what must have been profitable salt flats in centuries past.
As I rode, I considered that I have spent every 10th birthday since my 20th travelling somewhere. That made the situation seem strangely appropriate. Emmanuel Lemoine, my Warmshowers host in downtown Saint-Nazaire, arrived shortly after I did, riding his recumbent bicycle (he owns no car). During a pleasant evening of good food and company, he explained how the local bus takes passengers with bicycles over the Loire River to Saint-Brevins-les-Pins. The next morning, I rode to the bus station early. It took a while to determine which bus would pass, when, and where. An English couple had the same idea as I. Initially the bus driver did not want to take us, but, after we determined that he was simply insisting that he did not have the bus racks, he agreed to let us bring the bikes inside the bus, because there were few passengers. The fog and rain partially obscured the view as we rode over the bridge, but the weather cleared up riding south from Saint-Brevin-les-Pins. I followed the coast closely, enjoying the salt air. A headwind slowed me down, so I stopped for the night in La Plaine-sur-Mer and booked into Le Moulin, a B&B built in a medieval windmill. I was greeted by a playful mongrel who played fetch very differently. He loved intercepting a soccer ball, stopping it with his chin, chest and forepaws. There is a future in the pro leagues for that four-legged goalie!
The architectural realities of putting rooms inside a stone windmill meant that I had a cozy room at the top with a commanding view in all directions, but the toilet and the shower were on the ground floor. Climbing up and down the listing, narrow stairs built into the stone was painful and scary, but the comfort of the room and the view made it worthwhile.
Crossing the inlet at Pornic, I was reminded that the Atlantic had tides that I never saw in the Mediterranean. The sight of so many boats beached at low tide unnerved me a little: running aground on purpose seemed unnatural to this old salt. South of Pornic, I crossed more wetlands and horse country. I had never seen a horse lie down. I had to stop to make sure that he was breathing.
It was high season in France, so I found the beaches and coastal towns crowded, frenetic and expensive. Reasonably-priced accommodations could almost always be found just 10 or 15 km inland, so I got used to riding away from the coast each evening. I stayed with a Warmshowers host in Challan, where we ate takeout pizza and watch a corny French comedy on Netflix. In Saint-Maturin, I booked into Le Puy Babin, a former pig farm, but now one of the most comfortable and hospitable guest houses I encountered. This was a true chambre d’hôte, with a delicious home-cooked dinner laid down in addition to breakfast.
I left Saint-Mathurin with sunshine, a tailwind, and a downhill run to La Fault-sur-Mer. I got there so early that I decided not to take advantage of the Warmshowers offer to pitch my tent in the backyard. Instead, I pressed on toward La Rochelle. I found a gite (a whole house for me) for only EUR 35 on booking.com, and rode to Nalliers. When I got there, I found that there was a glitch. The place was occupied all week already. The operators were mortified, and took me into their home. While Daniel called booking.com to find out why the listing did not show “sold out” but made it available, I settled in and took a shower. Corinne ran my laundry (I had been planning on using the machine in the gite). She also had a dryer, so everything would be ready to wear in the morning. Then they invited me to dinner. As we ate, a massive thunderstorm rolled over the area. We checked the weather map, and saw that the coast was being battered all the way to Bordeaux. Lucky for me that I was not in my tent in a backyard! To this day, Corinne and Daniel are friends on Facebook and keep in touch.
The calm after the storm brought a mild and sunny day the next morning. I followed the Roman road and irrigation canals to La Rochelle. It was as pretty a town as was promised, and I took some time to ride around. It was so packed with tourists that what rooms were left were going for EUR 277 and up. The sky darkened as I rode south of town. I lucked out when a sudden squall crossed my path. I saw a closed restaurant with a covered veranda, where I sat in comfort, letting it pass. I settled into a remote corner of the Sables d’Or campground, 13 km from La Rochelle and 30 km from Rochefort. I almost took advantage of the water park that they call a pool, but the air was just too cold.
I liked Rochefort, perhaps because of the maritime tradition and atmosphere, perhaps because of the interesting exhibits at the Cordellerie Royale, the royal rope factory. It was one of the very few ancien regime industrial buildings not destroyed by the French Revolution, so it stands as a wonderful example of the industrial architecture of the period. The HI Hostel had been recently renovated, so it felt more like a college dorm room than a hostel. I even had a room to myself.
The weather improved as I made my way along the Charente River to the ferry that is providing service while the old transporter bridge is being restored (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rochefort-Martrou_Transporter_Bridge). By now, the terrain was changing from farmland into pine forest, and there were not as many ravines. I enjoyed a pleasant ride to Royan at the mouth of the Gironde River. Another ferry took me from the Pays-du-Loire region to Aquitaine, fabled land of Bordeaux wines, Henry VIII’s wife Eleanor, and some of the most stunning castles and chateaux in France. As I pushed my bike off the ferry, I felt as if I had been transported to another country. The cold damp yielded to a warm sunny coast. After applying sun screen, I took the beautiful bike path that led down the coast. Except for a crazy section of broken concrete strewn in the sand, it was the nicest bike path that I had ridden since the Netherlands. At most intersections, the cars had to yield to the bikes! In Soulac-sur-Mer, I passed a replica of the Statue of Liberty cast from the same moulds used for the one on Ellis Island. The two statues face each other across the Atlantic. This town was the last sight of Europe for the men of Lafayette’s expedition when they left France to support the American Revolution.
I spent the night in the municipal campground in Le Gurp on the coast, because my stay with a Couchsurfing host in Lacanau fell through. There I saw again something that mystified me: why carry a helmet at all if not on one’s head? Maybe they have to have a helmet in case they come to a jurisdiction where the headgear is required.
The next day, I took the D801 from Lacanau to Bordeaux, some 60 km. This is a fully signed, paved, priority bike path linking Bordeaux to the coast. The Gironde Department takes its long-haul bike paths so seriously that it gives them route numbers. I rode through pine forest, buggy marshes and wetlands, farms, and woods before reaching the suburbs of the big city.
I was two days ahead of schedule when I pulled into the suburbs of Bordeaux on the 12th of August, where I checked into a motel. I had booked an Airbnb flat for the 14th. I was able to do my laundry, including the sleeping bag, mail my camping gear back to Virginia, reconnoiter the way to the airport, and put in some groceries at the Airbnb. Cheryl would arrive on the 15th. For the next two months, the auto-responder on my email would refer translation work to my colleagues, and I would take a break from writing and working. I was looking forward to it. I was not sure what itinerary Cheryl had planned, but it would prove to be interesting, exciting and memorable.
Until next time,
Smooth roads and tailwinds,
Yes, I did follow along with the map as I read this, as I have never been to any of these places except Bordeaux.
I have also been to a Cordellerie Royale, but the one in Toulon (supposedly designed by Vauban himself), not the one in Rochefort. The sailing ships in those days no doubt needed huge quantities of very long ropes.
(Did you ever visit Toulon when you were in the Navy? Toulon’s harbor tour was the best I have ever taken, and they have one of the largest and most beautiful French opera houses outside of Paris.)
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Yes, I visited Toulon several times and it yielded several sea stories that have not been written yet (some were classified for a while).
My experiences in Toulon yielded the references to Exercise île d’or in the latest novel, Enemies (https://jthine.com/books).
Toulon is probably my favourite city on the French Riviera.