France Bicycling Trip, 2002, Part 1

france2.jpg (38575 bytes)

Chateau Chambord on the Loire River, central France.

Here’s the latest of our summer trip adventures. This one took major effort to plan but turned out well. My

thanks to the (generally) hospitable French people and their beautiful country.

The idea was for the five of us to spend 30 days camping and traveling by bike in France, all for around $100

per day. I decided on France because the UK and northern Europe has crappy weather and Italy is too

crowded and hilly, with crazy drivers. Spain is nice but everyone smokes and the roads are bad . Of course,

France can be horribly expensive, especially for a family. On the positive side France has a vast network of

tiny one-lane roads, camping in every town, good weather and I speak some French. . It’s a bike-friendly

country, everyone has a bike. It’s about the size of Texas with around 50 million people; most live in cities,

so France has a lot of open spaces. The French train system is world class and bikes travel for free in the

baggage car, making a combined bike and train trip easy to arrange. I figured if we mostly camp out and do

our own cooking we could afford it.

Nance and the kids went to Ohio in June, I stayed in Qatar, we were to meet in Paris on July 15 and return

to Doha together August 15. During June I contacted my old buddy Joe Stair, owner of Ozark Bike Shop in

Rogers, and ordered 2 new bikes for Tom and Margaret. These were Cannondale R500 road bikes, $1200

each retail, but Joe gave us the "family rate", bless him. He boxed these up, added a few goodies, and UPS’ed

them to Ohio. In July I boxed the three other bikes (Nick has a Cannondale mtn bike, I have a 12 year old

Trek road bike, Nance has a Miyata road bike , vintage 1984) and arranged for them to be air freighted to

Paris, since together they far exceed my baggage allowance. On the conditioning side we rode bikes and ran

the previous winter and as the spring got too hot for riding we took turns on a stationary bike. Nance started

training late but rode hard on the stationary bike during April and May, determined to come along. I studied

French 30 minutes or so per day. The French are annoyed by people who speak only English and in small

towns you find few English speakers. Sometimes they are cranky even if you speak French.

As July 15 approached I boxed three bikes, stuffed the boxes with a tent, sleeping bags, cook pots, cooker,

etc, and off they went to Paris. We expected to all arrive at Charles de Gaulle airport at about the same time

but my flight was delayed. Nance and the kids arrive, their baggage is lost, I am nowhere to be seen, and they

speak no French other than merci and beaucoup. Fortunately Nance had the name of our hotel and which bus

to take in her purse, so they took the bus to Gare Montparnasse, a large train station in Paris near numerous

cheap hotels. They walked several blocks, spotted our hotel (called the Petit Palace) and settled in. The

airport called a few hours later and delivered their luggage, two bikes in boxes plus about 6 other bags. Then

she got a fax, the air freight had arrived, 3 more bike boxes. We had a mountain of stuff.

I arrived the next day and was very impressed to find them touring Paris like old pros; Nance can truly cope

with any city in the world. Nick, Margaret and I went to the airport again, found the air freight, drug the boxes

onto the bus to Gare Montparnasse, then drug them some more 5 or 6 blocks to the hotel, the owner was

starting to wonder what we were up to. Nick put the bikes together and we organized the camping gear and

installed rear racks and panniers on the bikes, sort of like rear saddle bags on a horse. There was a bike shop

next to the hotel but when the guy saw our American and Japanese bikes he got a sour look and refused to sell

us anything. This was our first encounter with a French crank. Nance ran into some cranky saleswomen at a

clothing store who hustled her out 15 minutes before closing, taking away the items she wanted to try on and

locking the changing rooms. These folks watch the clock, and the employees will run over you on their way

out the door. We did some touristy stuff too, visiting the Eiffel Tower and walking along the Seine. Weather

was gorgeous, 70’s , 50’s at nite, and days were long, Paris is about the same latitude as Vermont. The kids

decided they did not like French food so had dinner at Speed Rabbit Pizza near the hotel.

france3.jpg (40251 bytes)


france4.jpg (26491 bytes)

Here’s the mandatory Eiffel Tower photo

The next day Nick had made good progress on the bikes, they were together, ready to go. Each of us got a

pannier about the size of a small backpack for his clothes and personal stuff. In addition we had 3 panniers

that carried a large and small aluminum cook pot, spices, cutlery, plates, stove, tools, extra tire, tent pegs, first

aid kit, toiletry kit, spare shoes, guide books and maps etc. We five shared a single, small kitchen towel for

bathing, try that for a month. The sleeping bags, sleeping pads and tent are strapped on top of the rear rack on

each bike, the panniers hang on the side. The load per person works out to about 30 pounds, about the same as

a backpacker carries except he plods along like a donkey with his load and the biker whizzes along 5 times

faster, the bike carrying the load. It’s also much easier for a bike tourist to buy fresh food every day, so you

eat better. A group of five also has a tremendous advantage over a lone hiker or biker in that the group shares

a single stove, tent, etc, reducing the load per person.

The next morning we were nearly ready. Our plan was to leave suitcases and extra stuff at the hotel, go

biking, then come back to Paris and fly home. Unfortunately our hotelkeeper absolutely refused to keep our

stuff, even though he had a roomy basement, and furthermore he told me we must check out ASAP since our

rooms were needed. I pleaded, offered him money, no use. It was 2 hours before checkout and we would be

on the street with all 5 bikes plus 5 or 6 suitcases. I walked to several nearby hotels, desperate to find one that

would store luggage but they all refused, saying they had no room or citing security concerns. This was

something I had not anticipated or planned for. While I was wandering around Nance and the kids checked

out, put all the bikes and stuff in the hotel basement (only today, the owner said), and sat in the lobby.

Then…….a miracle occurred. I found a small self – storage place at the train station, a totally new kind of

business in France. They offered to rent me a closet sized storage room for a month for 70 bucks, and I nearly

kissed the guy. I dashed back to the hotel, we hailed a cab, loaded the luggage, put it in the self storage, then

strolled back to the hotel and rolled the fully loaded bikes down to Gare Montparnasse, the train station. We

were ready to roll.

france5.jpg (31666 bytes)

In front of Petit Palace Hotel, on the way to train station

Our first destination was the city of Chartres, about 100 miles SE of Paris. Trains leave about every 30

minutes so we bought tickets, found the right train, then found the baggage car. We unloaded the panniers and

hung the bikes from hooks in the baggage car. Tickets were $10 each, not bad. We arrived at Chartres, a town

of 50000 or so, rolled our bikes out of the train station into rush hour traffic. Nance and the kids had never

ridden a loaded bike before and the first mile or so we had trouble, things falling off, we were pretty shaky.

We saw signs for camping and stopped at a small grocery where we bought supper groceries. Then we rode

slowly 2 miles out of town to a very attractive camping area on a river, across form an American student

group also on bikes. We set up camp, had some wine, cooked supper. It had been an incredibly stressful day

but we had survived and were traveling on "velos" (bikes in French).

The next day we went shopping at a better grocery, buying stuff like olive oil, tuna, cheese, instant coffee,

peanut butter, the staples we complement with fresh stuff each day. French campsites have no table or chairs,

just grass and trees, so we sat on the ground .We also had no icebox or cooler, which is a real pain, especially

if you like a cold Coke or brewski. We had to buy fresh milk and meat each day and had wine instead of

beer, olive oil instead of butter, cokes at room temp and used small disposable packets of mayo. Each

morning I filled a large coke bottle with cold well water and packed a "cool pannier" in a shady spot. France

has no raccoons, possums, skunks, bears, armadillos or other varmints that steal food from campers, which is

a big relief for people without a vehicle to lock up food. We had a visit from a hedge hog one nite, but that

was it. There were also no chiggers and very few skeeters..

france6.jpg (37785 bytes)

Camping at Chartres. No table or chairs, Nance supervises dinner. Sleeping bags airing on the line.

Below: Our faithful Eureka Outfitter

Tent never leaked a drop. We five slept in the main area, the annex tarp is for gear or cooking.

france7.jpg (28622 bytes)

We went on a short shake down ride, Nance was out of practice and Tom and Margaret had to learn the

new brake lever shifting system they have on high-end bikes. The brake levers on these operate the brakes in

the normal way and also shift the gears when you push them sideways, instead of the old system of separate

shift levers. They also had to get used to riding in traffic, the riding we do in Qatar is on deserted roads.

The next 3 days we spent on training rides , each day doing a loop of 25 to 40 miles thru the wheat fields

south of Chartres, Nance building up her wind and toughening her rear, the small kids practicing their

shifting. The countryside was beautiful and uncrowned, the wheat and hay harvest was in full swing. We

went to the world famous Chartres Cathedral several times, once to hear a choir sing. On our training rides we

could see the twin spires of the cathedral from five miles away, guiding us back to town. Nance and Margaret

whipped us up some fine dinners, the boys washed the dishes.

After four days at Chartres we had the bugs worked out of the bikes, had the camping routine established

and were ready to move on. One of our guidebooks suggested the little town of Chateaudun, about 40 miles

south on the small Loir river. We packed the panniers, rolled up the tent and sleeping stuff, strapped it all on

and took off. The bikes felt like lead but we soon got the rhythm, following the route of our training rides thru

wheat fields. We arrived around 4, a long day on loaded bikes especially for Nance. Thomas carried most of

her stuff the last few miles. Nick and Margaret were the real work horses, carrying heavy loads effortlessly,

both in tremendous shape. The campsite is on the river with a great view of the massive town fort or chateau.

The town looked like Eureka, very steep with houses built on overhanging bluffs, some streets going up hill

were stairs. The other campers were mostly French , using the campsite as their "summer home". Every

morning at

france8.jpg (57635 bytes)

No dieting on this trip. Bring on the chocolate croissants.. En route to Chateaudun, bikes loaded.

8 a tiny truck drove thru honking its horn, selling fresh baguettes, and everyone lined up to buy a couple, it

was a friendly place. They were very curious about us , they see very few Yanks in these small towns.

france9.jpg (28813 bytes)

On the road, fully loaded, south of Chartres. Nice easy riding.

Next day we walked up the hill to the chateau. Nance had a very painful rear end so it was a walking day. It

was very imposing but all the furnishings had been looted over the years and seemed rather bare inside. Not

very interesting. Nance made us some black eyed peas with delicious ham for supper.

Our next stop was the town of Meung-sur-Loire, on the large Loire River. We took off on a hot day, Nance

was feeling fitter so she carried her panniers. We were thirsty and stopped frequently in small towns for

water, which was delicious, like Perrier for free. We rolled into Meung’s dusty campsite only to be greeted by

the cranky manager who told us they were full. She pointed down river , saying there was more camping 3

miles away. We took off down the river road and after several turns the road turns into a sandy trail thru the

woods, not our favorite type of riding. I asked some people working in their yard and they said we needed to

head to "Santee" , down the main highway. We rode to the main road and saw no signs for "Santee", but there

was a sign for "St. Ay". We found the camping, the cranky manager of this place showed us to a spot on the

river, no shade but otherwise not bad. The Loire was shallow and cool, about as wide as the Arkansas River,

but French people have some sort of phobia about swimming in rivers, they prefer to sit on the bank and eat

cheese. We were 20 miles downstream from Orleans, a huge city, so the river is not drinkable, but it was full

of fish. The river banks were wild and undeveloped. I guess the French govt owns the banks and doesn’t allow

people to build summer houses and camps along it. Huge amounts of land taken from the Church and

aristocrats in the revolution is still owned by the govt, and the Green Party stops all development, so large

areas of France are wild. The French don’t approve of surburban sprawl. They would rather live in small

houses and have access to a park or woods for walking, rather like New Yorkers. Gas is $4 per gallon so

people live close to town or to the train station, none of this driving 30 miles to work.

france10.jpg (39847 bytes)

Hot ride to Meung. Margaret examines the hand-cranked water pump in a small town. . Iron man

Tom next to his small yellow Cannondale.

france11.jpg (24895 bytes)

Balloons on the Loire from our camp at St Ay

The next morning was another hot one. I found a shady place along the river bank to keep our milk and

butter and we rode into town. Nance stopped at a snack stand by the road behind a sign that said "ICI",

thinking maybe they had slushies or ice drinks. Ici is French for "here" as in "stop here" so she was

disappointed. I had a flat so they went ahead and I joined them later in town, near the very impressive Meung

Chateau. We bought some picnic goodies and had a nice lunch, tried to get the kids to try head cheese but they

said no thanks. The French love stuff in aspic (gelatin) like trout in aspic and head cheese . They also love

birdy bits like duck livers (made into pate called "mousse de canard") and gizzards, yum. They even make

soup from duck feet. I got the kids to try a few of these goodies but they were unimpressed, sticking to their

PB & J. This is too bad , but it kept our food costs down, which warmed this old cheapskate’s gizzard. They

did try goat cheese (fromage de chevre), which is very tasty and keeps well without refrig. For someone like

me who’s pork-deprived France is heaven , delicious bacon, sausages and ham are everywhere.

Anyhow the Meung Chateau was quite a horror show. Many chateaux had dungeons or torture rooms in the

Middle Ages, this is frequently covered up or de-emphasized. Meung was the house of the Bishop of Orleans

for several hundred years and its entire basement was a dungeon, with special rooms for torture. Their

favorite method was water torture in which the victim was pumped full of water with a hose then hung upside

down, evidently very painful. An even more horrible dungeon was uncovered a few years ago at Meung , a 30

foot deep circular cistern, 30 feet across, in which people were lowered. A 20 ft deep well in the bottom of the

cistern was for human waste and weak prisoners. Each day a few loaves and some water was dropped in , for

prisoners to fight over. Most prisoners lasted only a few days in this horrible pit, which served as a way for

the Bishop to eliminate his enemies without spilling blood or actually killing anybody. While his enemies

suffered , the Bishop could relax upstairs in his copper bath tub heated by a clever wood fired water heater.

In spite of its sobering history Meung is a beautiful chateau, well worth a visit.

france12.jpg (62537 bytes)

Postcard on torture from Meung .Bottom center is a view of the stone lined cistern, the well in the

center. Bottom right is the view from the bottom, ,lit up for the picture.

We rode back to Saint Ay, stopping for groceries and wine and relaxing at camp. A little Belgian man rode

up on his bike, cycle-touring alone. He was 64 years old and had traveled 15000 miles on his bike in the last

few years around Europe. He pitched his small tent and made some dinner. The kids and I walked down the

river to a sand bar and went wading. We had a fine dinner and fed some swans who swam by.

Next morning was travel day, we packed up and headed out, it was another hot one. We traveled over lovely

rolling hills toward the town of Mer sur Loire, on the Loire, and near the huge chateau of Chambord, one of

the most famous of the Loire valley chateaux.. I had a blowout in a small town, we parked in the shade . The

town was tiny but a lady directed me to a nearby interstate road with a WalMart type store, where I bought a

tire. We crossed the Loire river bridge at Mer and there was the camp, right on the water. We set up in a shady

spot, had some wine, started a load of laundry. Down the river from us was a gypsy camp, mostly travel

trailers swarming with unruly kids. The gypsies are disliked by most Europeans, they drift from country to

country in their trailers, doing odd jobs and collecting welfare. Some towns get so fed up with gypsies they

pay them to leave, then the next town pays them and pretty soon they have a nice car and a trailer. The gypsy

kids were all over the campground and walked right thru our camp so we kept an eye on them. We strolled by

a group swimming in the river, they’re a fun-loving bunch. We went for a nice swim, just perfect on a hot day.

Dinner was tacos, quite a surprise to find Mexican food in the groceries here. The gypsies strolled thru our

camp till late, shouting and singing at each other. That nite a front came thru and it rained; it was the end of

our warm sunny weather.

Awoke to drizzle, fixed breakfast and rode to Chambord ( picture on the first page). This is an old royal

hunting preserve used by French kings and later by Napoleon. It’s a lovely deciduous forest, oaks , chestnuts

with some high latitude trees like spruce mixed in. Chambord is world famous, and enormous, with over 400

rooms, 300 chimneys and 84 staircases. The main staircase is a design marvel, a stone double-helix winding

staircase designed by Leonardo da Vinci. There was local cider and venison sausage for sale, we bought

some cider and went back to camp in light rain, Nance staying to soak up more culture. We spent a fine

afternoon sippin’ cider in the tent and reading. The gypsies kept shouting and running around even in the

rain, nothing slows them down.

france13.jpg (32496 bytes)

Servants kitchen at Chambord

Go to part 2