Back on the bikes

Reacquainted with our bikes and reacquainted with Besancon, we're now planning our route into Germany and to Donaueshingen, the source of the Danube. We're looking forward to getting back on the saddle and, having been in France for so long, starting what feels like a brand new leg of journey.

We had a fantastic break in Italy. Lynn and John's wedding was amazing, the food was absolutely delicious and the rolling Tuscan countryside was idyllic. We had a car, so we managed to take in Florence, Bologna, Chianti, Siena and of course we had to take Luca to see Lucca. He loved it, especially as we explored its cobbled streets by rented bikes!

We also managed to spend a few fleeting days in Switzerland. Being able to take in so much is one of the joys of travelling by car. But we arrived in Tuscany, having driven almost 1000km from France, nearly the same distance we had spent weeks cycling, without a sense of the place. Seeing it from behind a steering wheel and primarily by motorway, it's difficult to get a feel for a place. This brought home the joys of travelling by bike and reminded us why we set out on his trip. Cycling through a country allows you time to take it all in. The subtle changes in culture, attitude, food and customs between Britanny and the Loire regions were so apparent to us because the transition between the regions was so slow by bike.

The wedding was a great break from the cycling routine though. It was nice to be back in finery after weeks in cycling shorts!

It was also lovely to catch up with family..... and of course to call in babysitting favours!

But it necessitated more goodbyes...... it's not easy to explain to a 2 year old why his beloved grandparents, aunts and uncles have all gone home on the "big plane" and we're still pottering around on our bikes! But he loves his cycling life and seems as keen to return to the saddle as we are.


Farewell France!

We hit 1,000km this week, on our last day along the Loire. After four weeks of cycling, it feels like a significant milestone and well timed. We've averaged around 250km each week, usually managing to fit one rest day in per week. Luca has really settled into the cycling routine and loves it. He has become an expert tractor and farm animal spotter! But we try to give him as much play time off the bikes as possible, so we tend to set off late enough in the morning.... any other cyclists in the campsite are well gone by the time we're ready to go. But this gives Luca time to play in the playground or to have a swim. We also set up camp by early evening if possible, to allow him another chance to play and run around. We're happy enough with our progress though and reckon we're making good time overall.

Our time in France has flown in one way and yet when we think back to the first few days cycling through Brittany it seems like an age ago. So much has happened since then. We've had some amazing times, sights and sounds, but we've also had some less than amazing times..... unseasonal rain, dense gravel tracks, hills, wind and punctures spring to mind!

We're in Besancon at the moment. We cycled as far as Sancerre and, as we have to be in Tuscany for Lynn and John's wedding on Monday, had to take a train from there.... three trains with a toddler, two bikes, two trailers and all the gear was an adventure in itself.

We had looked into getting a train with the bikes, etc. all the way to Florence, but it wasn't possible. So after much map-gazing we decided to leave the bikes here in Besancon and rent a car to drive to Italy. We'll drop the car back here in two weeks, pick up the bikes and make our way to the Black Forest to start the Danube trail. We'll miss France, but are very much looking forward to the next leg.


Loire a Velo, composed in Beaugency

We've been cycling for over two weeks in the Loire Valley along the banks of its great river and, as with the Brest a Nantes canal, we have come to know its own particular character and charms; its idiosyncracies. The Loire Valley is fertile, verdant and lush. I recall as I cycle, Miss Reilly teaching us in geography class about its fertility , the details of which I've forgotten , but witnessing it now first hand is an education in itself.

The Loire is vineyard country – Saumur and Sancerre are on its banks. It's also Chateaux country. We visited the truly beautiful chateau at Chambourg yesterday, which is majestic and vast. We enjoyed a picnic in its grounds and we imagined being French Royalty of old for just an hour or so.

But, for me, as a Market Gardener's daughter, most notably the Loire is an agricultural and horticulural paradise. We've passed by countless fields of sunflowers – heads bent with the weight of their heavy load as though whispering sweet nothings to one another. There are lots and lots of allotments beautifully kept yielding plump vegetables. I've also seen lots of market gardens carefully cultivated, and, usually watched over by vigilant scarecrows. As I've seen the gardeners tending and toiling, heads bent and shoulders stooped , like the sunflowers in the neighbouring fields, my thoughts have turned to my own father and his Market Garden. As a child, I suppose, you don't appreciate all of the work which has to happen to keep you fed and watered and, well, to enjoy the life your parents provide. But, even unknownst to yourself, life legacies are bequeathed from your upbringing. A love of plants and gardening is one from my own particular childhood. And it has been carried forth genetically. Luca loves the outdoors and all of the plants and crops it yields. One of his favourite occupations at home is to water (to death!) the plants on his grandparents balcony and he has asked me, more than once, if he can go to his grandma's garden since we've left Dublin.

If you'd have met him, Dad, I think that you'd have loved your fourteenth grandchild. You'd have enjoyed listening to him tell you about, at least, this tranche of our cycling trip. How he knows that you can't eat corn, he sees growing on the stalk , until it's yellow, to identify sunflowers and poppies and to hear how he can recognise vines and can tell you what their grapes produce.

I'd love to be able tell you how I hear him and his Dada talk about all of the different species of birds that glide overhead as we cycle; buzzards, kestrels, starlings, swallows and swifts. I'd love to tell you how he knows that caterpillars turn into coccoons and then “beaut-ful” butterflies (The Hungry Caterpillar is the only child's book we have with us). Which in turn, reminds me of how you used to keep crysalises you found in “the gardens” in matchboxes for me. I hadn't thought of that in years and years. You see cycling affords one time for reflection. Especially after the first 20km of the day when you enter “the Zone” and every revolution beomes robotic.

I am only left to imagine how you and him woud have been together. And, so left, I see you both walking around the gardens with Luca “helping” you. I imagine you silently and solemnly picking the crysanthamums whilst he incessantly talks and asks you questions alongside. Then I picture you later that day, relieved of your charge, post-dinner and post radio news, in your kitchen chair, about to nod off and then, across those old blue eyes (think I've seen them somewhere since!) a glint of satisfaction that the apple hadn't fallen far from the bough afterall......


Tours sur Loire

Our last few days following the Loire cycle path have been truly spectacular. It has brought us through troglodyte dwellings - literally through caves and caverns - and through the most picture perfect villages imaginable. It has been an unforgettable and blissful cycle, where each day seems to surpass the last.

We're in Tours at the moment, which is the third major town we've hit on the Loire leg. Major towns are a pain! They're a hassle to cycle in to, a pain to navigate and a total nuisance to find accommodation in! One would be forgiven for thinking that a hotel in a town would be a welcome relief for cycle tourers who have been camping every night, but not so. When arriving in a campsite, we simply cycle in, pay a fee of as little as 6 Euro, head to a nice looking spot and set up the tent. Whereas with a hotel we have to find somewhere to leave the bikes, check in at reception, where we have to deal with the snooty receptionist who is disdainful of the two laden bikes, two laden trailers, two tired cyclists, one tired two year old and disinterested in solving the problem of where to store and house same. Towns really are a pain.

Alas, we don't have too many towns to go through before we leave France. We have to be in Tuscany in a little over a week for my sister's wedding and will have to take a train from somewhere along the Loire to make it on time.

We'll miss the Loire, but then each new leg and each new cycle path brings its own charms. Don't worry, Luca, we'll be beside water again and you can throw more stones....


La Loire à velo

We've been on the Loire à Velo route since leaving Nantes and it's been great. It's more varied than the canal, as the cycle path on the canal follows the old towpath along its entire length, whereas the Loire path weaves through countryside, cobbled streets and riverbank. We also saw the first vines of the trip on Friday, almost three weeks in. Until then we had been cycling through cornfield, wheat and artichoke country. The vines make a welcome change!

We've spent the last two days in Angers which we loved. It's a lovely city and has a beautiful, historic heart that's full of character. We preferred it to Nantes and found it a much friendlier city.

It's also been a welcome break from the routine of cycling and camping. Said routine goes pretty much as follows:
Wake at 9ish
Shower, tidy up, take the tent down, pack up the bikes and hit the road by 10.30ish
Cycle to the next town along our planned route for a coffee (chocolat chaud for Luca) and a pain-au-chocolat (croissant for Luca)
Cycle until 2ish, when we take a break for lunch
Cycle until 6/ 7ish, when we stop for the day, set up camp and cook dinner
After dinner we usually convert Luca's trailer to buggy mode and take him for a stroll in the hope that he might nod off. Either way, he's asleep in the tent soon after.....

Despite having said that a break from the routine is nice, after a day or two in the one place we tend to look forward to loading up the bikes and hitting the road again. Which is exactly what we're doing tomorrow morning, when we head to Saumur and further into Loire vineyard country.


Composed last Friday, 30th July, when still on the Brest to Nantes canal :

Having cycled exclusively along the canal for over a week now we've become accustomed to its unique rhythms and have atuned accordingly. As Luca puts it, like the wheels on the bus of the song of the same name, the canal goes “all day long” and we, in turn, if you'll excuse the pun, cycle along its designated cycling/walking/horseriding path all day long. By day it's “stilly greeny” with the serenity broken only by the comforting sound of crickets and the occasional boat gliding through. The latter and its occupants receive a very warm Bonjour, wave and a smile from Luca which is always returned. The boating fraternity seem a very pleasant lot! By day one's path is crossed by damsel flies, dragon flies (usually mating in flight) and lots and lots of butterflies.The countryside which adjoins is very agricultural; we pass field upon field of corn crops and neatly assembled hay stacks. Not a vineyard in sight in Brittany. And, joy of joys, Luca has actually witnessed first hand the farmers loading the hay upon the tractors – again to a warm smile and wave from mutually appreciative parties.

We usually leave our last campsite by 11am to arrive at the next campsite vers 6/ 7 pm and s'installer. Luca avails of the opportunity for a run around and to explore the new campsite and, especially, its playground. If he's become addicted to anything in France it's the playgrounds. While his parents have become (re)addicted to pain-au-chocolats fresh from the patisserie first thing in the morning. And, sure, while you're there, you might as well buy the auld baguette for lunch. Yummy! Dr. Atkins would turn in his grave at our French diet. But we're burning it off as we cycle - or at least that's what I keep telling myself.

Having set up camp we have taken to a crepuscular stroll along le canal when said canal is literally teeming with (wild) life. Our little budding Zoologist is just loving the wildlife spotting it offers We've spotted so many otters that we've, literally, lost count. Okay we've (at least) one ulterior motive. Firstly there's an actual Zoologist in our midst, who is a keen otter spotter. But, secondly, we've been trying to get Luca to sleep earlier than nightfall. You see, our little toddler was, like the French Supermarket chain, pretty much “open” “ 8 a Huit” when we were living conventionally in Ireland. In general he had a nightly routine of bath, brushing of teeth, story and to bed by 8.00pm-ish. Whereas he is only falling to sleep as darkness falls here – i.e 10.00/ 10.30pm. Hence our (primary) motivation for canal bank walks with Luca in his pj's in his very comfy chariot which doubles up as buggy as well as a child's cycling trailer. Not that it's getting much use as a bike trailer thus far in France but more of that in another post anon. We've had a certain amount of success with our evening walk tactic - so this may become a permanent fixture during our travels. You see it's just so, so lovely to all have this time together en famille and to have the opportunity to well, grow, en famille but “Mama and Dada” now have virtually no adult time alone together as we all wake up together and go to bed together. Both Phil and I are avid and nightly readers but even that hasn't been an option open to us as we just keep our head torches off in the hope that le petit va dormir. Ever the optimists!

We're nearing the end of our vie en canal but, if our crepuscular walk tactic keeps paying dividends, and the fertile Loire Valley is as beautiful as it sounds then the future looks very promising mes amis!

P.S: I know I'm biased but he's so cute he's worth the lack of adult time - it goes without saying!

Post Post Script (literally) : A couple of days later: We met up with a lovely couple from Nottingham when we were in the campsite in Nantes who are having a back-packing holiday with their 1 year old. They were a week into their 2 week holiday having been camping first in Paris and then in Nantes. We were seated at adjoining picnic tables having our evening meal and their daughter, Molly, and Luca started playing and we struck up conversation. About 10 mins into the conversation and upon hearing we were 2 weeks into camping with a toddler Molly's Mum, Tara, asked me if we'd any tips for getting some adult time. As per above Tara.