Friends, we’re getting close to the end of this trip. It’s weird and wonderful to look back on this year and consider all of the things we’ve seen and the friends we’ve made. I’m writing this post to talk about the kilometres that we’ve clocked along the west coast of France and what life has been like since we turned east into the grand continent and away from the constant Atlantic.
When we left Stéphane’s place in Saint-Jean-de-Monts, we continued the journey south and had our sights set on Olonne-sur-Mer (“Olonne on the Sea” if you’re paying attention) and Les Sables-D’Olonne (“The Sands of Olonne” – do they have great place names in this country or what?) where we knew we’d need to make a stop for some camping fuel. Our trusty Primus lightweight camping stove has been feeding us for the entire trip. Honestly, this stove deserves a lifetime achievement award after all of the camping and cooking we’ve used it for since we bought it back in 2010.
After a total of four hours of active cycling time (according to the Strava clock, which pauses the timer whenever we take a water/pee/photo break), we were on the cusp of a sixty-kilometre day before deciding to slip into a forested patch just off of the bike trail. The tent went up in record time just as the clouds opened up like they were carrying a grudge.
I quite liked our little forest nook; it was a small clearing beneath some tall pines that looked made just for us. A bit of rain protection over the bikes with our conveniently-coloured green tarp and we were off to sleep for the night. The $2 ponchos we had been carrying around since Bali also came in handy and needed an airing out the next morning.
The next day was our longest day of the trip to that point, clocking in at 98.2 km as we booked it across fields and canals with the wind largely at our backs. I find these long rides to be both exhausting and highly gratifying, although when we came upon our perfect little camping spot in Marans (after a long stretch withough seeing anything resembling an acceptable place to sleep), it was hard to stop. I was really keen to complete our first metric century (of 100 km) by noodling around in circles for an extra 1.8 km, but it wasn’t in the cards.
I know, I know. It’s just a number. But it would have felt like a big milestone to complete that 100K with all that weight on our bikes. Either way, 98.2 felt pretty good and the picnic benches in Marans were tough to beat.
Our third day out would take us through La Rochelle as we cycled back out to the coast and took in the sights of the town. The Velodyssey route took us uncharacteristically through busy cobblestone-lined streets of crowds and construction areas. We stopped for some lunch and made a detour into town, taking a long break with the wifi in order to Facetime with our families at home.
La Rochelle actually seems like it has a lot of cool things going on: there’s marinas in the middle of the town, a maritime museum that sits in an old ship liner and old and new buildings sit side-by-side along the main street. Kiteboarders were ripping through the shallow waters south of the town in an otherwise quiet bay.
By the time our stomachs rumbled to indicate the end of the day, the closest thing we could find to a campsite sat in a thin forest near the beach and we needed to negotiate a slightly wilder wild camp spot than we were used to.
The sunset was glorious and it was really just a matter of hoping that there weren’t some aggressive snakes hiding in the tall grass where we set up our tent. Bronwyn found another dog friend as she prepared our dinner of peanut butter and banana wraps – a staple for our snacks on this trip that supplanted the evening meal for its convenience and our fatigue.
The last night of camping before the next WWOOFing stop was actually the first night of camping that we paid for since landing in France. While the facilities were nice, it was tough to swallow the pill that setting up our tent was actually going to cost us money.
We’ve been spoiled by the generosity of the Warmshowers hosts and all the great freedom camping. The highlight of the day was the last 20km of an 86km day between Fourans and La Palmyre, a stretch that took us along a gorgeous paved cycle road directly through a forest reserve. Initially, we felt as though we could probably sneak off of the road under the cover of dusk to pitch our tent, but the signage along the route was pretty clear in stating that camping was not allowed.
I imagine that the concern lies with people lighting campfires (something we never do) and generally leaving a mess. We’re really careful to cook our food on our contained stove and have been trying to adopt the policy of leaving our campsites cleaner than how we found them. In any case, there was a commercial campsite at the end of the route and we thought that the €21 fee was nearly worth it for the hot shower alone after clocking nearly 500 showerless kilometres on our bikes that week. It would be our last full day on the Velodyssey route as the next day would take us through Royan and eastward into the continent yet again.
A hot shower and solid night’s sleep later we we back at it, working our way along the Gironde Estuary and down to the verger – the orchard – where we would WWOOF for a week with Annie and consume more strawberries and jam than I’m comfortable admitting.
France has truly been a pleasure to cycle; credit is surely owed to the magnificent cycle routes that are set up to the delight of cyclists. Suffice it to say that leaving the Velodyssey for the final 50km of the day meant that those 50 km were a lot more difficult than the nearly 900 km that preceded them.
We were suddenly dealing with light car traffic and a propensity for getting lost while relying on what can only be described as “the Google guess” for route making. The departmental roads in France (identifiable by the “D” that precedes their number) can be really hit-and-miss for vehicular presence. While it’s nice to have consistently well-paved roads, it’s tough not knowing whether or not you’re going to be dodging the girth of an eighteen wheeler as it overtakes you on a narrow backcountry road. We’ve been spoiled, I suppose.
Next: our week WWOOFing at Verger de L’estuaire in Saint-Bonnet-sur-Gironde and a near overdose on strawberries.
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Middle school teacher on hiatus/budding permaculturalist currently cycling the world. Sometimes he acts in plays and film. Mostly he travels and blogs about it. Christian is one of the founders of onlyamazingdays.com