Châteaux and Cycles

Picture this: it’s late Friday afternoon in Paris. We have finally arrived back in the City of Light after missing our train in Vernon (near Monet’s home at Giverny). The reason for the missed train was because we had been advised by some officious Frenchman, that we must pull our bikes apart, and bag them up, to be allowed to board the train. Sparks flew from both our spanners and our finger tips as we frantically disassembled the bikes but alas, the train doors slid shut and the train slowly pulled away from us and out of the station.

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Who Says Cycling and Culture Don’t Mix?

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.

Notre Dame

The Brave Man zips along the Seine.

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.

Eiffel tower

Daggy Australian tourist takes in the sites.

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.

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Forest riding

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.

Fields riding

And into the fields…

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.

Roadside painting

Roadside paintings

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.

Monets house

Claude Monet’s home

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.

The Lily pads

Pondering the lily pads

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!

 

September 2005

*The Brave Man refers to my husband. He is indeed a brave man for marrying a crazy woman like me!

The Luck of the Irish

Some people lay claim to convict heritage on even the most remote branch of their family tree. I like to think Irish blood runs through my veins but I am kidding myself too.Guiness

My love affair with all things Irish (Riverdance, van Morrison, U2, Guiness) culminated in my first ever cycling adventure. I started off, over-packed, under-trained and over-optimistic about both the weather (warm and mild as promoted by the Irish prayer) and the hills (gentle and rolling). Before my departure from Australia, I would explain in suitably Irish fashion that I intended to ride only the downhill sections of Ireland. If only that were possible.

I think I was the first person in the history of Ireland to cycle around the island in an anti-clockwise direction. Traveling solo, I was desperate to meet other keen cyclists but the handful I did see were all riding in the opposite direction, i.e. clockwise. A quick wave, perhaps a hello, and they slipped from view.

Giant's Causeway

Giant’s Causeway. Souce: Wikipedia

I hugged the coastline, pedalling my way from Belfast to the Giant’s Causeway, to Bushmills and on to Londonderry (or Derry if you still despise the English). Yes, Bushmills is the namesake of the whisky although I distinctly remember spending most of the time at the Distillery in the ladies’ toilets – stripped to within inches of decency – and standing under (as best I could) the hot air hand dryer. That day’s ride featured rain so hard and consistent that my shoes filled and overflowed and I was rinsed clean more thoroughly than the best German-designed washing machine. So much for my dreams of soft Irish weather.

I must have seemed a little odd to the locals – a single woman, riding solo, anti-clockwise. Striking up a conversation, the Irish would marvel that I was riding so far (only 50-60kms a day) and then comment “I don’t even travel that far on my holidays”. They are in for a rude shock if they ever come to Australia.

One thing about cycling, a bit like walking, is that you have plenty of time to think. I roll along, or struggle along depending on the terrain, and my mind wanders to all that I see. It also gives me the perfect opportunity to develop theories of how the world works. Very quickly, I developed a theory relating to Irish signs. My theory is that there is a factory somewhere in Ireland that manufactures distance markers but to save hassle, the same distance is printed on every sign. This theory is supported by a tough ride into Londonderry. I was sweating it out and reviewing the wisdom of this sort of ‘holiday’, when I saw a sign Londonderry – 45km “You beauty,” I thought “I’m almost there”. I rode for another two hours and passed another sign Londonderry – 45km. What sort of sick joke was that? When I did get to Londonderry finally, and rode out the other side, for interest’s sake I turned around to check the distance sign and, you guessed it, Londonderry – 45km! It was times like that when I knew I was truly in Ireland.

In Donegal, one morning dawned bright and clear but I could see there was a serious wind blowing as I peeked through the B&B curtains. As my ride/route would be changing direction a number of times that day, I was confident that I would soon be enjoying a supportive tailwind, for at least part of the day anyway. My path was to take me to Dunfanaghy, Falcarragh, Meenaclady, Bloody Foreland, Derrybeg, Bunbeg and Gwedore. Don’t you just love those names?

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Co Donegal, Inishowen Trawbreaga Bay, Five Finger Beach. Source: http://www.irishcentral.com

Needless to say, I had little love in my heart after a mongrel headwind dogged me at every turn. At one stage I had to change down a gear to cycle down a hill. You tell me there wasn’t someone upstairs looking down and having a great, old laugh at my expense. It was a headwind straight from Hell and I developed yet another theory but this one related to conspiracy.

The day wore on and it got to about 2pm and I had had it. It had started to rain again and the time was right to throw an almighty tantrum. Picture: grown woman, kicking bike and shaking her fist at the heavens. “Right,” I said “the next damn B&B I see, I’m stopping. I am officially over it!”

Sure enough, I rode around a corner and there was a rickety sign for a B&B. I rode up to the house, knocked on the door, knocked again and then just opened the door and walked in. Finally an old, bustling Irish lady appeared, took one look at my cold and bedraggled state and pushes me into her warm lounge room. Imagine my surprise when I saw that every

inch of her lounge room walls were covered with gold and platinum records. It appears that I had just invited myself into the family home of Enya and the famous Irish band – Clannad. My B&B hostess was the sister of two Clannad band members and an aunt to three others. I had been priming myself on Irish music before leaving Australia so this was a dream come true. Six degrees of separation and

I was almost a band member. Who would have thought I would have a brief brush with fame in the ‘back blocks’ of Ireland?

The next day I rode into the misty rain, thankfully without the headwind, but with Orinoco Flow ringing in my ears. That damned headwind had been lucky after all.

Sept 1996

On a Bike on the Banks of the Murray

I think I may have mentioned before that I am a late bloomer and as a result, have taken to the art of cycling somewhat later in life than many people. As kids we didn’t have push bikes on the farm – preferring the motorised version – but I have now taken to this form of transport with gusto.

One day I will blog about cycling in Ireland and France but this post focuses on the desire to experience an iconic part of Australia – the mighty Murray River.

My thoughts are constantly on the next overseas adventure but there are parts of Australia that capture my imagination too. ‘How about we cycle from Mildura to Albury?’ I ask The Brave Man*. His eyes widen, he shakes his head and agrees ‘that is a fabulous idea, dear’.

Half the fun of travelling is in the planning and I soon had the route worked out and transport booked. Without a back-up vehicle I had to work out how to get two

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Ready to ride….the bus!

people and two bikes from Mudgee to Mildura and return from Albury to Mudgee on the return trip. Countrylink buses were happy to take us and our bikes (packed in boxes) from Dubbo to Mildura via Cootamundra for around $100 each. Cheap as chips for a long but interesting trip through the Australian landscape. Our adventure got even more interesting late in the evening after a change of bus driver at Hay. I am not sure what the bus driver was taking or where he got his licence but we spent a good portion of the remaining two hours of the bus trip driving on the wrong side of the road. Yes, I was very pleased to see the late night lights of Mildura and yes, I did report the experience to Countrylink.

Mildura is a lovely regional city nestled on the banks of the Murray River, nice mix of river heritage and multiculturalism. Of course we had to sample of the delights of Stefano de Pieri’s café – we would be burning it off in the next 10 days anyway – but we also took in the history of the place. The locals are obviously keen cyclists too as they have a purpose-built bike hub with showers and lockers for commuter cyclists, and secure storage for bikes. If only other communities could be so forward thinking.

We were soon on the road doing our usual early morning bakery raids before putting foot

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A well-earned rest…

to pedal. In the planning phase I had been advised to ride west to east. After the ride, everyone advised that we should have been riding east to west i.e. down river and theoretically downhill. A fat lot of use that advice was after the event! While you might wonder how much difference it can make, experience has shown that it would have helped us avoid a soul-destroying headwind every single &%$#!! day. Yes, we were doomed from before sun-up until we stepped off the bikes, exhausted at the end of each leg.

Despite the headwind conspiracy it was beautiful and, at times, dramatic riding. We did our best to stick to back roads and aimed to ride as close to the river as possible. Most truckies and grey nomads were kind and gave us a wide berth, which was much appreciated by we two flagging cyclists, as the verge of the roadside was mostly non-existent.

Our route took us through the abundance that is adjacent to the Murray River. We rode past and through limitless olive, orange, avocado and almond groves with their heady Spring blossoms and scents. We rode past wheat fields so thick and uniform it looked like you could cut them with a knife. The magnificent Murray River red gums (I am guessing at the species) were surrounded by carpets of wild gazanias, pigface and purple and white statis. A spectacular Spring showing and a welcome distraction from the kilometres.DSCF0761.JPG

Pushbikes allow you to move slowly through the scenery and also give you time to meet some lovely locals. On our first morning out – picture us with very tired legs and sore backsides wondering why we were doing this when other perfectly good travel options were available – we stopped for our breakfast at a deserted fruit stall. Within seconds a little old woman – as wide as she was tall – bustled across the road, making a beeline for us. I thought we must be in trouble for trespassing but she came to see if we were riding for charity and wanted to give us money. When I explained that we were doing this for ‘fun’, she left and returned minutes later with seven avocados and four of the largest oranges I have seen. “To give you energy,” she said in her thick Italian accent. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that we simply didn’t have the room to carry all this additional ‘energy’ and we proceeded to juggle and repack our panniers.

Another morning we had one eye on the road and another on the threatening clouds when a lady stopped her car and flagged us down telling us to quickly take cover as wild storms were predicted. We thought that may have been a little melodramatic but took an early break at a rest stop to assess the situation. Our coffee hadn’t even made it out of the thermos before the skies opened with tree-shattering lightening, deafening thunder and a deluge of wind and rain. We grabbed our bikes and wheeled into the His and Hers toilets taking refuge for over an hour. Not the most glamorous spot on the Murray but perhaps the most appreciated by us, and the most surprising to others who dropped in to use the DSCF0766.JPGfacilities.

We took eight days to cover the 680 km from Mildura to Albury and on some days covered over 100 km, necessitated by the distance between towns. A rest day in Swan Hill gave us time to visit the Big Cod and the Lake Boga Flying Boat Museum. Who would have thought that we had flying boats in Australia’s World War II arsenal? Another rest day in Echuca allowed us to bury ourselves in paddle boat history. What a magical but tough era to live in.

Australia is truly a magnificent country. So much fascinating history and stunning scenery – not all of it bike-friendly of course, but there are still plenty more cycling adventures waiting for us.

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Still smiling (and talking to each other) after 680 km!

Sept/Oct 2011

*The Brave Man refers to my husband. He is indeed a brave man for marrying a crazy woman like me!