the loire valley & my parisian birthday

Here is my route since I left off at Mont. St. Michel:

For whatever reason, dogs chase bikes and I had a number of farm mutts chase me from Mont. St. Michel to Nantes. You see why I am a cat person? When a cat sees me on a bike, it runs (adorably). When a dog sees me on a bike, it sees meat on wheels. Not OK. On the other hand, I think I ate my weight in roadside cherries on the way to the Loire, so that wasn’t too bad.

Campsites in France are rated in stars, like hotels. Whoever does this rating system has never actually camped before, because, in my opinion, there is absolutely no correlation between the star rating, price and quality of the campsite. As far as I’m concerned, a 5-star campsite is one where the washrooms have toilet paper and power outlets. Bonus points if I can control the temperature of the shower and don’t have to press a button every five seconds to keep it running. That’s glamorous. I come from the 5-star camping of Iceland where a shower means, “Here’s a Wet Wipe and a glacial stream! Have fun, kid!” I don’t really consider staying at a campsite, “camping”; I call it “sleeping in a tent”.

I freely confess to being the worst tourist there ever was. This is how I feel entering a big fancy city like Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Bruges, Nantes, Tours: LOUD NOISES. Pedal, pedal, pedal. Argh! Glass! Dodge the glass!! Pedal, pedal. Holy @#&* that truck was way too close. Pedal.Ooh, nice cathedral. And I don’t even stop; I do drive-bys of all the tourist hot spots, if they happen to be on my route. Traffic, go away.Pedal harder. Get me out, get me out. And then I am promptly back in the fields of France, corn on one side, sunflowers on the other, on a road that is 2.5 meters wide, dodging farming equipment every so often. Meanwhile, behind me is the museum that Leonardo de Vinci lived in, priceless art, and about four churches with a brutal history and I’m like, I like the size of aggregate they used for this road. Very smooth. Nice. There is something wrong with me; I would rather jump in the river and set my tent up on the bank than spend an hour in a museum. So… that’s what I did.

I aimed for Paris, following the Loire River from Nantes and accidentally ran into a bunch of chateaus/castles. Oops!

I flew through sunflower fields, vineyards and wheat fields so extensive that sometimes it was all I could see.

The Loire Valley is an extremely easy ride. It’s so easy that I’m afraid it’s made me soft and I’m not ready for that small mountain range they call “The Alps”. A child could do it. A 70 year old could do it. I know that because I saw both doing it, no problem. I saw a guy loaded with 4 panniers, with a tandem bike attached with a 7-year-old riding it, and attached to the tandem was a trailer with two small children in it. That’s not a bike anymore, that’s a train. The bike routes are labeled, although sometimes the term “bike path” might be a little generous. I thought I was buying fat durable tires for Iceland. Wrong. I was buying them for France, where I have cycled over uneven loose cobblestones, glass, pebbles, dirt, horse poop, mud, grass, planks, grass, sand… so, everything. Those skinny little racing tires will not do here.

I meandered my way to Chartres and then started the battle into Paris. As I neared Paris, the campsites thinned, the freeways thickened and navigating became tricky. I had to use sidewalks. When I arrived at the campsite near Versailles, I was in a bad mood. It was 7:00 PM, the campsite was closed, the next one was 15 km away on the other side of a freeway, I had nearly squished a dog the size of a rat (the only reason it lives is because I managed to stop six inches before I pummeled it, while its owner uselessly cried, “Snoopysnoopysnoopy!”), I came within a foot of my death in a roundabout and nearly had a collision with another cyclist going the wrong way on a blind corner in a bike lane. There I was, nearly in tears in front of locked gates (I felt pretty bad about Snoopy), staring down at my iPhone, trying to figure out the safest overpass to take over the freeway to head to the next campsite when a woman came up to me and asked, “Tu… something… recherché…something… le camping?” Oui. So she asked, in English, and made my whole day: “Oh! Would you like to sleep at my house?” OUI. Off came my panniers, the bike was shoved into the car and within 5 minutes we were happily buzzing down the freeway en route to delicious dinner, white wine, a machine wash of laundry and a queen sized bed in a little loft. Yep, that’s what happens when you go home with strangers. Suddenly, my clothes were clean, I was full, my gloves were white again and my pack towel smelt so delightful that I breathed through it for five minutes just for fun.

They asked what I wanted to do the next day and I explained that I planned on cycling into Paris in search of a bike shop for a full tune-up. Instead, they said, “Oh! We will take it to Decathlon in the car! You stay here tomorrow night. Then I will take you to Versailles, then we go back for the bike later, eh?” Oui. So with my stand-in French mom as my translator, I was able to explain at the bike shop everything I needed to, and then we went to Versailles and buzzed around at 10 kph in a golf cart for an hour. I’ve had worse days.

After she woke me up on the 16th by singing “Happy Birthday” en francaîse, she fed me hot croissants, jam, butter, bread, tea and brownies. Would you like some breakfast with your fat and sugar? Nah, I’ll manage, merci! So she helped me onto the correct train and instructed me, “Your stop is Javel”. Trains in Paris aren’t all that bike friendly; to get onto the train there is a 3’ height difference between the platform and the train car, barred by poles. The poles allow enough space for me to get my bike between them, fully loaded with about 2” of clearance, but try maneuvering a 120 lb unwieldy bike upwards through those poles while the sign clearly says, “2 minutes to departure”. She helped me in, the doors closed, we blew kisses and I moved faster than I have moved since… a long time ago. To be frank, I was completely out of my element and my eyes were probably deer-in-headlights wide. The train station is not my territory. I don’t like trains. I got down the 3’ drop between the poles with the help of a few people behind me (“Merci beaucoup! Merci!”). As I was happily walking toward the sortie, like a sheep, following the rest of the crowd, my heart dropped as many stories as the stairs in front of me climbed. Oh no, I did not cycle 4,548 km to be stopped by two flights of stairs. I stood there, bottom lip quivering, debating whether I was physically capable of tackling this obstacle when two women offered to help me carry it up. So with me carrying the back and the two of them on the front, a backpack strapped to my back, we managed, and I was shown out onto the street. A couple hours later, there I was, not hit by a car, with my cousin, wandering around Paris on my 23rd birthday. She made me think we were staying with her friends in a flooded apartment (which I’m pretty OK with) and proceeded to check us into a ridiculously nice apartment more or less next door to Notre Dame and in the center of everything. The guy at the front desk apologized profusely that he didn’t have a birthday treat prepared and 40 minutes after my life had become four panniers’ contents spewed across the kitchen floor, he knocked and handed us pastries straight from the oven. We liked him.

We had a productive full day in Paris; I was able to give a lot of things I don’t use to Jess, so I don’t have to carry them (I have to get over the Alps somehow), we went shopping and hit a number of tourist stops. AND we avoided getting impaled by selfie sticks, so that was impressive.

A couple of days ago, I looked into trains from Paris to Marseille or Nice, in southern France. After five minutes of reading, “This train does not take bikes”, I made up my mind. I’ll just cycle there instead, because why not? I would rather cycle 1,200 km and traverse the length of a mountain range than take a train. I am about to head off on a spontaneous extremely mountainous adventure through Geneva towards Nice, that I have not Googled and don’t really plan to. Because pourquoi pas? I suppose I should probably put the dresses back in the bottom of my panniers…

Cheers from Paris, France.

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