Leaving Zurich and the amazing time we had with Nico and Michi was tough. But fortunately for me I was able to look forward to seeing my little brother at the end of the day’s cycling to Basel. The weather was miserable for much of the ride so we were both very happy to arrive in Basel and settle into our little studio apartment for the evening. It was the best thing ever to see Laurie after well over a year and we spent the evening drinking, eating and playing Settlers of Catan. Bliss. In fact, we spent much of the following two days doing the same thing! Loved it. We did take a stroll around the old town, followed by cards and more food and drinks in a beer hall, and we also visited Basel zoo which was good fun – they have a great aquarium section and some epic goats, but overall I felt that for a Western European zoo, it was lacking a lot in terms of space and quality enclosures for the animals.
After saying goodbye to Laurie, we set off across the border to France. No less than 10 km into the ride, Greg and I were both at the point of just wanting to get a train the rest of the way. Perhaps we had been spoilt by the great company and relaxation of the previous few days (which we certainly were) but more likely is the fact that we were both just totally exhausted. Tired. Out of fuel. Spent. Done. We had just a short ride that day as we didn’t actually know where we were heading for. A ferry port yes, but which one? We spent the afternoon in a McDonald’s using their free WiFi to plan out a route to get us to Calais. Turned out France is actually pretty big. Despite thinking ‘yes! Out last country, we’re on the last leg!’ we realised that in fact we’d spend more time in France than any other country on our trip.
We set off the next day towards a small town called Villersexel. It was pretty windy (of course, a headwind!) and the route began to get slightly hilly. We camped at a very busy campsite full of caravans but at a nice location by the river. When travelling around by bike and camping everywhere, the only way to charge one’s phone is usually in the campground toilets, showers or washing area – basically wherever you can find a plug socket. This is always a bit risky I suppose, but it is also seems to be perfectly normal. I’ve seen iPad minis and a whole variety of phones left unattended sitting to charge for a few hours. And generally it’s fine, because people are generally good. Sadly, there were some not so good people at this campsite and within 20 minutes my phone was gone from it’s charging spot by the sinks. Our own fault I know, we left it there. I was overly emotional about it. Tired, wanting to be home, tired and mostly just tired resulted in a lot of tears and frustration. Not even for the phone itself, but for the SIM card within it that, being in France and being a ‘feel at home country’ with Three, meant that I could use data, make calls and generally not feel as cut off as we had been previously throughout Europe. Anyways, certainly a seriously #firstworldproblems scenario. It turned out the next morning that a group of unpleasant 13 year old German kids and taken it. This was discovered by their social worker who had taken them on a week away to help them develop better social skills, build trusting relationships, and generally try and help them have a better chance in the world. The social worker was lovely, and upon returning my phone was extremely apologetic about the fact that the kids and removed the SIM and sd card. Who knows why. Perhaps to be vindictive, perhaps to try and remove the PIN code attached to the handset. Whatever the reason, the whole scenario just left me sadder. Greg and I both knew plenty of kids like this when we were teaching. And we both knew and understood how helpless the social worker must have felt. We met the kids. So young, yet already so full of hate and malice and distrust for the world. It transpired the SIM and sd cards had made their way to the bottom of the river somewhere, maybe.
We were fortunate in that Greg had bought a new phone in Basel, and we’d downloaded the remaining maps we needed to take us across France just to have a second set in case we needed them. This was at least good, otherwise we would have been a little stuck and lost at that point.
Now, this day was our first experience of just how poor the GPS information for France is – at least what is supplied to Google and OpenStreetMap – the GPS app we use. There is an option to ‘avoid unpaved roads’. Despite selecting this, we were taken on a route through single mountain bike track, and a field with absolutely no track at all and grass up to our waists! This was certainly a laugh or else you’ll cry moment. At one point, there was an entire tree across the path. Greg and I took different options around tackling this, you can see from the pictures below…!
That evening we camped in a small village, and I was quite startled but pleased to discover that I wasn’t totally useless when it came to the French language. I was actually able to understand and respond to the lady at the campsite who had no English. Greg was impressed. I surprised myself. It was a good moment. Especially considering one of my last experiences with a French person was to be hurled abuse for ‘being English (wrong), expecting people in France to speak English (wrong), and not making any attempt to speak French (also wrong). Despite the numerous let-downs of France (I’ll get to them later), I have to say the people we’ve interacted with along the way have totally made up for that previous negative ‘stereotypical French’ experience!
The next day took us to Langres through torrential rain and along a major busy road for most of the way. It was pretty unpleasant, but the crazy steep hill up to the walled town at the end of the ride was actually quite satisfying. We had struggled on the food front along the way because the one town we passed through with a supermarket, of course was closed for a two hour period over lunchtime! We camped at a very pretty spot within the old walls of the town, so it wasn’t all bad!
The following day we rode to Saint-Dizier, doing our longest day of 121 km. It was very flat the whole way along a canal and was generally pretty pleasant. We arrived in Saint-Dizier totally knackered though and got a small hotel room for two nights to take a break and have a rest day. The following day, we discovered yet again that food establishments are of course closed at lunchtime (when is anything ever open in France?!) but we had some delightful Chinese food for dinner. We re-planned our route in Saint-Dizier to take us to Dieppe as we decided that getting to London from Newhaven (just east of Brighton) would be much easier than from Dover, not to mention it would knock 40 km off our remaining distance!
The next day took us to Chalons-en-Champagne. Half the day was along a wonderfully paved cycle path, the second half along a brutally cruel bumpathon of a ‘path’. French GPS strikes again! It was also ridiculously hot. Randomly, the receptionist at the campsite had been to Weston-Super-Mare on a school trip as a kid. Greg apologised for this. Having pitched Hoolie, Greg went off in search of provisions while I almost immediately fell asleep and drooled all over myself. I was now well and truly past the point of sleeping and waking refreshed, but instead the tiredness was just gradually accumulating day by day. I will likely sleep for a week after this when the opportunity arises. Greg returned with a half-sized bottle of champagne and some sushi – what a legend – and I opened my eyes long enough to consume both then fall back to sleep.
The next day we cycled to a small town called Bourg-et-Comin passing through Reims. If the previous day had been hot, this day was a total scorcher. The temperature reached 34 degrees and we were sweltering. I felt like I was cycling through syrup for most of the day. Our water got so hot that drinking it made me feel sick. Later in the day, after what felt like a lifetime of peddling, we passed through a wee village with a shop and we both downed ice cold cans of juice. 300 metres later we passed a supermarket and I just had to go in and get another cold drink. So hot and so parched! On top of the heat, the GPS was being extremely unhelpful yet again, trying take us down one-way streets (Greg nearly had a hernia at one point due to this), and along rubbish ‘not at all suitable for cycles’ cycle paths. When we did actually manage to get onto a paved road, it was full of horribly fast and close traffic. Needless to say, it felt like a long day riding. On the up side, we arrived at our campsite to discover it had a pool. Before I could blink, Greg and dumped his bike, stripped down to his shorts and was gone. I was left to change into my bikini as fast as I humanly could, without any regard for passing cars or people catching me in the process and then I too, scuttled past the (chuckling) campsite owner towards the pool. Greg was already in there and I plunged straight into the wonderfully, beautifully cold water without a moments hesitation. Best. Feeling. Ever.
After our refreshing dip, we returned to our haphazardly strewn across the ground belongings, set up Hoolie and went to the on-site restaurant for dinner. An interesting little place which claimed to have Irish roots, was decorated with boats and cacti, and was playing Scottish folk music. Towards the end of a rather delightful dinner, just before we were to head back to the tent, a freak hailstorm broke out. A few booms of thunder then the most impressive downpour of malteaser-sized hailstones lasting only for 5-6 minutes. During this, the poor sods who’d been sitting outside all scurried to get indoors and most comically a wet and confused looking Alsatian appeared at our table, only to a be shooed out the door a few minutes later by the waiting staff. We’ve still no idea where he came from!
The freak storm passed (though did return later in the night) and on our way back to our tent we walked past a couple with an extremely expensive hilleberg tent wringing out all their belongings and practically bucketing out the swimming pool from inside the tent. Not to be massively smug or anything, but all of our stuff was dry as a bone and Hoolie was standing proud and strong (and cost a fraction the price of the posh tent next door).
The next day we had a fairly uneventful ride with a bit of (head) wind. We camped by a nice little spot home to some ducks and adorable little ducklings. The day following that however was truly glorious. It was quite a long day but the sun was shining, the wind wasn’t too defeating and we both felt really good. It turned out to be our one great day of cycling in France. We camped beside a donkey paddock and due to the excellent free WiFi onsite with a power socket available, I got to have a wonderfully long chat with my Mum who I’d missed chatting to for what felt like a year (OK, it had maybe been a month, but it felt longer!) And the GPS only took us through 3 km of ridiculous trail that day. All in all, it was a fantastic day.
The next day was our last proper day of riding. EVER. (well, on this trip at least). It was gloriously sunny, but brutally windy (yep, you guessed it, SURPRISE – a HEADWIND!) And despite supposedly mostly being downhill, we seemed to go uphill quite a lot. Nevertheless, it was exciting as we arrived at our last campsite of the trip with just 10 km left to ride to get to the ferry in the morning. We celebrated with tuna, tomato, mayo pasta for dinner (for the millionth time) and some wine (for me) and a turn each of the roundabout in the kids playground (which made us both want to vom).
We both awoke the next morning having had a pretty dismal night of sleep. But we also felt a mixture of excitement and weirdness(?) about the fact that this very day we would be back in the UK. It seemed totally bizarre, yet obviously what we’d been working towards the whole time over the last six weeks or so. We mostly rolled with some peddling required (due to the headwind) all the way to the ferry port. We chatted to another cycling couple in the queue – ‘Have you come far?’ ‘Well, we started in Turkey…’ ‘Oh, wow! We just came from Paris…well actually we cycled there and got a train back to here’. They were lovely. And we know the cycling isn’t about how far you’ve gone or where you’ve been. It doesn’t matter what distance you cover in a day (well it does to some people, but people have different motivations for travelling by bike) but it did almost sound strange to myself. We cycled from Turkey. We cycled 3310 km (2069 miles) from Turkey to the UK through ten countries. I’m feeling very proud of that.
PS. This is a small aside that I feel is necessary to add regarding France. Now, I had really high hopes and expectations for France. For two reasons. 1) Nico’s, Michi’s and Greg’s constant mocking of France had grown quite intense and I really wanted France to prove them wrong and 2) because I had just assumed that the further west we travelled through Europe the better it would get for a cyclist – this from things I’d heard and read. Sadly, stupid France totally let me down. I must say first that all the French we’ve chatted to and interacted with have actually been totally lovely and those that speak no English have humoured me in my attempts to speak French, albeit with some snickering and chuckling (totally understandable) and those who have spoken English have welcomed my small attempts to still speak what I can in French. So for me, slate wiped clean regarding the mean Frenchman that shouted at me a few years ago. However, here are all the reasons France generally turned out to be the most disappointing country of our European cycle trip:
1) Toilet seats – the French seem to have an aversion to them. Over the last 12 days, I have had the pleasure of sitting on just one toilet seat.
2) Toilet paper – it seems the French do not trust people with responsibly using toilet paper. In the rare instance it is provided, there will be a sign dictating ‘respectful use’ of it.
3) Refrigerated milk. Doesn’t exist here. I had become accustomed to enjoying a refreshingly cold drink of milk everyday (don’t get me started on Greg’s choco milk addiction – I think I have actually witnessed withdrawal symptoms these last two weeks). It doesn’t exist. Non-refrigerated UHT, gross milk is the only option.
4) Bakeries. This is supposed to be France’s specialty. I have had two divine pain au chocolats. That is an extremely poor proportion given I have bought about 20 in the last couple of weeks. Always living in hope.
5) Wind. OK, so this could happen anywhere, but it just so happens it’s been windiest in France. And all the time in my face.
6) Thieving children. Granted they were German, but it happened on France’s turf.
7) GPS – whoever in France is providing road and route information to google and OSM is taking the piss.
8) Closing supermarkets and food establishments at lunch time. At a time when people want to eat. In fact, just shops being closed generally. We have cycled through numerous towns with shutters down. And this has been the case every day of the week. Seriously, when is anything open in France?!
PPS. At some point over the next couple of days I’ll add a page to our ‘cycling’ section detailing our route and distance traveled each day.