I was nudging a significant birthday and decided that it should be recognised in an appropriate way. A normal person would throw a wild party or jet off to a destination to wallow in decadence and luxury. Me? I thought three weeks cycling in France would be a suitable acknowledgement of the previous mumble, mumble years. Seeing it was my birthday, The Brave Man* could only agree to come along.
After the usual research and bookings, a little training and a lot of packing, we were in the plane and touching down at Charles de Gaulle airport before we knew it. Even though I love that city passionately, I always cringe a bit when I get to oh-so fashionable Paris, as we are your typical daggy Australian travellers. In this instance, we were jet-lagged daggy Australians dragging large bike boxes onto an early morning commuter train. Pardon, pardon, excusez moi, excusez moi, said I in my best schoolgirl French and we received rolled-eyes and black looks in return.
More black looks as we dragged ourselves and our boxes off the train at Gare du Nord. The looks turned to puzzled sideways glances as we commandeered a corner of the station to unpack the boxes and reassemble our bikes. Within minutes we were packed and loaded and out into the Paris traffic. This may seem a bit crazy – being foreigners, being deliriously tired and being on bikes – but I think we perfectly matched the mental state of the standard Parisian driver and we easily navigated our way to the hotel, unscathed and way too early.
Full of enthusiasm and refuelled on coffee we decided that instead of waiting patiently for our room, we would enjoy the sights of Paris. It was a ‘pinch myself’ moment as we cycled along the Seine, in the shadows of Notre Dame Cathedral and the Eiffel Tower. I think it is surreal to step on a plane in Sydney one day and be cycling through Paris the next. Just too weird!
From the start, our plan wasn’t to spend long in Paris but to use it as the hub, in a hub-and-spoke model of travel. I had planned our trip using the Lonely Planet Cycling France guide and had selected three main tours with a little customisation here and there.
The first tour was to head north-east out of Paris to Compèigne and then work our way roughly south-west to finish in Giverny – Monet’s stomping ground. So, the next day we were back to the Gare du Nord, and back on the train for the short trip to Compèigne.
Cycling is certainly a good way to get into sync with a new time zone – all that fresh air and exercise. After a sleep of the dead and an early morning raid on a patisserie, we breakfasted in the Clairière de l’Armistice – or Armistice Clearing – where the armistice was signed at the end of WW1. Interestingly, in the same carriage at the same site, during WW2, the Germans forced the French to sign an armistice recognising the German conquest of France. Tit for tat I guess.
Day two took us out of the forests and into the fields on our way to Chantilly – famous for its horse races, lace and cream. It was only a brief visit as we wanted to immerse ourselves in the artistic connections that lay just to the south-west of this city.
The first arty destination was Auvers-sur-Oise – the final home of Vincent van Gogh. As we neared the town, we rode past replicas of paintings by van Gogh, Cezanne and Pisarro, juxtaposed with the actual landscape depicted in the painting. Those reproductions provided the perfect excuse to stop, admire, read the interpretative information and catch our breath.
Van Gogh lived in Auvers-sur-Oise for only 70 days before taking his life, but during that time he managed to generate an amazing 70 artworks. What a sad end to such a prolific and creative genius. We learnt more about his life after a visit to his home – now a dedicated van Gogh museum. The Brave Man* dazzled me with his art history knowledge (he was obviously paying some attention at school), then we bought the obligatory fridge magnet and postcards, checked the map and pedalled on.
Not that we are Culture Vultures or anything but our next destination was Claude Monet’s house at Giverny. We had to tack together a couple of Lonely Planet routes and add a bit of guesswork as to how to connect one map to another that was a few pages further on in the guide book. The result was a very long, hot day mixing it with highway traffic, and a distinct lack of confidence as to exactly where we were. Our leap of faith rewarded us with our first ever stay in a Formula 1 hotel and a trip to an Aldi-style supermarket. We had never stayed in a pre-fab hotel before but it was clean and convenient AND they let us park our bikes in the room! The supermarket was equally convenient but confusing with its pallet-rack system and requirement to bulk buy. We walked out of the supermarket carrying our body-weight in lollies, fruit and nuts – enough to last us our entire time in France. Yes, we were sampling French culture on all levels.
But I digress…
Similar to van Gogh’s home, Giverny is incredibly proud of their most famous resident and again we enjoyed roadside artworks as we pedalled by.
Monet’s house and gardens at Giverny were all that I had hoped they would be. Even though we were there in September (their Autumn), the gardens were in full bloom and I counted six individual gardeners busy amongst the shrubbery. Another of those ‘pinch myself’ moments as I stood on the arched bridge and pondered the lily pads. I do not possess an artistic bone in my body but even a Joe-average like me can appreciate the impact of such a talent as well as the special significance of that simple building and its lush, green surrounds.
Reluctantly we packed away our mementos – yep, more postcards and fridge magnets – and said a fond farewell to that picture-perfect landscape. All too soon we were back on the bikes again and riding to Vernon to catch a train back into Paris. We could tick the ‘art history’ box of the tour.
Next stop the Loire valley and chateaux, chateaux, chateaux!
*The Brave Man refers to my husband. He is indeed a brave man for marrying a crazy woman like me!