Mont St. Michel

Started today quite early as I wanted to be on the causeway at sunrise. That didn’t turn out to be all that spectacular, but I was still glad to be up early.  Did the tour of the abbye, which was interesting and accompanied by a good audio guide.  Had a quick crepe for lunch and then went on a 3 hr. Mud flats tour.  That ended up being a long walk as we walked 3km out to an island in the bay.  Some interesting demonstrations of quicksand and crossing a few rivers in the process.  The cool part was shortly after we ended the walk, the tide came in.  This is extremely rapid here and the place we had just walked to became completely covered in water.  After the walk, a quick regroup and a glass of Sancerre with a few oysters, then off to the “mainland” for dinner at a local farm oriented restaurant.  Local products, good food, but nothing life changing.  The Cheese cart was amazing and came with the meal, so I tried some very potent cheeses, every one of them would have your dog rolling in it.  

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Caen to Mont St. Michel, train and then 10km ride.

I wasn’t really thinking of this as a pilgrimage, nor do I usually think of travel in the context of it’s root word “travail,” but it did take on a little of both of those aspects today.  In any case, after scouring Caen for something GF for breakfast, finally found the buffet at the local Ibis hotel and they had some GF buns.  Then it was off to the train station for a two hour ride to Pontroson-St. Michel station which is about 5 miles from the island.  On to the bike and found the bike path for a fairly pleasant ride along a muddy stream.  Fun to come around a corner and get the first view of the island.  Unfortunately on arrival at the causeway, bikes are prohibited, according to the sign until after 6:00pm.  It is then 4:30pm.  I ride back to ask someone if I can get a taxi to take my bike and end up spotting a car full of the local Gendarmes.  They say that after 5:00pm I’m good to go, so I decided to stall for what is only about 10 minutes at that point.  Just as I’m about to launch another car load of Gendarmes comes from the island.  These guys seem pretty senior, and affirm that it is fine after 5:00pm.  Off I go at warp 5 before anyone has second thoughts and no problems.  Find my hotel and they have a spot to stash the bicycle and give me the key to the room.  Don’t come here if you don’t like stairs….After climbing many flights, I get to a fairly large room with an excellent bay view, a huge bathroom with both a shower and a tub.  Wash all the clothes, have a hot shower and then head out to explore.  There’s the possibility of a mud flat walk tomorrow, but it takes 3 hours and they want you to wear shorts.  Sounds interesting but I’m not going to commit until I see what the weather is doing.  Today, while I waited for the train I had lunch at nearby restaurant, and a thunderstorm came through with some vigor.  Don’t want to be out in the mud flats for that.  Anyway, Mont St. Michel kind of fills all of your medieval castle fantasies, with great ramparts, nooks and crannies galore, and did I mention, lots of stairs.  Looking forward to after dark when the base level tourists clear out.  Just ate 6 of the local oysters with a glass of Sancerre, now off to dinner.  Photos to come later.

Alencon to Caen via train

Took the train a little over an hour from Alencon to Caen this morning.  Sundays in France are always problematic as many things are closed and transit is at a minimum.  There was one train all day.  Caen I was not prepared for.  This is a city of about 110,000 people but almost half a million in the immediate metro area.  After the tiny places I’ve been, it’s really the big city.  At the center of Caen, pronounced kon, is castle built by William the Conqueror around 1080.  The city was bombed during WWII, so it has an interesting mix of the old and the new, often side by side.  On arrival there was a huge market going on, so I immediately headed for that and wandered up and down the various booths.  Lots of Moroccan things and lots of Paella on offer.  After a quick bite, I headed for the castle and then to the war memorial museum.  I just wasn’t prepared for it.  This is probably the best curated museum I’ve ever been to, with video footage, sound and explanations of all the activity in a time line for the war.  If you are a WWII history buff, this is where you need to start.  They have a whole command bunker under the museum preserved.  The whole part of the rise of Hitler and the start of the concentration camps has some erie echos in the modern world.  Anyway, days could be spent at this museum, and it is clear this history is still very much alive in this area of Normandy, not far from the D day landings.  And, Caen was bombed by the Americans who were trying to take out bridges to keep the Nazi’s from reinforcing, but missed and wiped out a lot the city.  Very intense museum.  Photos posted soon when on wifi.  Memorial Museum Caen

Mortagne au Perche to Alencon, 38km

Hotel au Tribunal turned out to have a very good dinning room.  Had an excellent dinner with a modern tinge to it.  This morning was their market day, so made the rounds, mainly things not practical for bicyclist, but fun to see all the fresh produce etc.  Rejoined the Voie Verte and cranked along at a reasonable clip.  Amazing how even a slight downhill grade with no wind can give you much better conditions.  After about 20km give or take it was lunch time, so located a nearby town with a creperie and did a diversion for lunch.  Glad I did, a gentleman and his son ran the place and he was very proud of his Texmex crepe which was actually pretty spicy.  Repelenished I set off for the remaining 18km, which seemed to take forever, and ended up with about an hour of solid rain.  By the time I got to my next hotel I was thoroughly soaked.  Luckily, they are part of the velotourisme network and therefore are used to bedraggled cyclists showing up.  Alencon seems like a big city after the last few towns, and is in fact the regional capital of the Orne department.    Big church, pedestrian center etc…  Based on generally being tired of riding, tomorrow I’m going to hop the train to Caen, spend the night and then will head also via train to Mont St. Michel.  Thought of renting a car, but of course they are closed this afternoon, closed tomorrow, so may as well take the train.  Pictures to follow.

Thiron Gardais to Mortagne au Perche, 58.5km+

The Abbaye hotel in Thiron Gardais turned out to be a very pleasant surprise.  They were used to catering to cyclists.  Two brothers completely remodeled the place about 2 years ago, took them a full year to do it.  Everything new and a great shower!  Dinner in the hotel dining room was excellent.  Was off at about 8:30am heading towards Nogent le Retrou.  The Perche region is famous for its rolling hills and of course the Percheron horses.  Managed not to have lots of wind today, but the occasional heavy rain showers kept it interesting.  After Nogent le Retrou, you are officially in Normandy.  I ran into some other cyclists at the hotel last night and they recommended a hotel at about the right distance in Mortagne au Perche.  Very classic looking as you’ll see from the photos, and well known for a high quality dining room.  A lot of today’s ride was on a Voie Verte, a greenway for bicycling, in this case it was clearly an old railroad grade as I passed several decommissioned stations.  The nice part of this is that you are completely away from traffic, the bad part is that it is almost a tunnel of trees, so you miss much of the scenery.  Come lunch time I diverted to a nearby town for a basic lunch of salad and brochette d’angeau, the only thing on the menu and offered.  Mortagne au Perche ends up being at the top of a hill, so after riding all day, that was a fun climb.  Anyway, tomorrow, I’ll likely take a shorter day, just to Alencon, a bigger city, and then for timing reasons will need to decide whether to hop a train for a few miles.  

Chartres to Thiron-Gardais, 58km

That was a long and tiring day.  Heading out of Chartres, even with GPS took some doing to find the trail.  Once found, it followed the river out of town providing a nice bike path and some beautiful scenery.  Unfortunately it was extremely windy and of course that wind was a headwind.  This combined with some reasonably heavy rain showers to make for a rinse and repeat kind of day.  Had lunch in Illiers Combray, unexceptional, but needed a break and some fuel.  Onward into the Perchon region, of large horse fame.  This region has rolling hills so there are lots of gradual ups and downs.  I had originally planeed to head for Nogent le Retrou, but it was clear that was going to be too far.  Found a charming hotel that is a recently remodeled Abbye.  Everything looks better after a hot shower!

Chartres, rest day. 

I decided to take a day off today, proved to be wise as it was raining most of the day. I had a cathedral tour with Malcom Miller who spent his whole life dedicated to it and was quite interesting, an older British gentleman.  Chartres Cathedral is unique in a bunch of ways, partly because it was built in a very quick period of time. Most cathedrals take centuries to complete, not so with Chartres.  Windows were sponsored by local merchants of different guilds, a representation of the sponsors of the window in the bottom corner.  I’ll post pictures where hopefully you’ll be able to see this. Windows are normally read panel to panel left to right from bottom to top. Darker windows often represent the Old Testament north side  of the church and lighter on the south side of the church.  

 Why yes, I’ll have the duck, potatoes with chanterelles.  

Versailles to Rambouillet, C.38km, train to Chartres.

Versailles was quite enjoyable, and the place I stayed was large and had room for the bike inside without having to carrry it up any stairs.  I got a reasonably early start this morning and was loaded and riding shortly after 8:30am.  After getting clear of Versailles, there are quite a few up and downs along the way.  Mostly up, as the forest of Rambouillet and the approaching towns seems to be on a slight plateau.  A few things to think about on this second day of the Veloscenic:

1.  Signposting is ambigous and erratic.

2.  Be sure you have a functioning off-line GPS program and download the tracks from the web.  Without these two things, you will likely get very lost as mentioned by Tracy in her blog.  In fact I wouldn’t even attempt this without the GPS tracks.  Unfortunately, none of the various guides books, and I bought all I could find, contain verticle profiles.  When you are bicycling, altitude gains and losses are way more indicative of how hard a day it will be than distance.   Be sure to bring a back up battery for your phone, GPS eats battery life.  

3.  Be flexible:  I had planned what I thought would be a decently long day from Versailles to Chartres.  It quickly became apparent that it wasn’t going to happen, but I’ve realized that most towns along the Veloscenic have a train station. Voila!  Instead of rearranging hotel reservations and taking a penalty, a quick stop at the station, and there is a train in about an hour and forty five minutes.  

4.  Bicycling in France is not like the Camino de Santiago.  Many of the small towns in France have no sign of life, no stores, no cafes, no restaurants and often not even signs of living humans.

5.  When in doubt and while waiting for a train, have a crepe and some cider.   Definitely improves the mood. 

6.  I love google maps, and I find the driving times and walking times to be generally accurate.  The bicycle times must have been recorded by Tour de France riders.  I’m finding that they need to be doubled for me. 

So, I’m sitting at Creperie du Roi in Rambouillet writing this as I wait for my train.  I keep thinking “when you’re up to your ears in alligators, remember whose idea it was to drain the swamp.”  Might just have been easier to rent a car or motorcycle to do this trip!  The hotel I’m planning to stay at tonight in Chartre, the Grand Monarque, was reccommend to my by a friend in Paris, who knows the owners.  The reviews suggest that it is probably a touch more luxurious than I usually book, but the price was reasonable, so how could I resist?  Further report later.

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Paris to Versailles, 23km

Off to a good start.  Picked up the bike yesterday and planned for a short day today so that I could figure out how to load the bike and generally get used to it.  Basically, I’m not a hardcore bicyclist, so I carry a pack of some sort put my clothes in 13L dry bags.  When I get on a bike, I can put the dry bags in the panniers and strap the pack on top of the rack.  This seems to work well, in that if for some reason the bike doesn’t work out, everything still fits in the pack.  For this trip, I’m trying out the Rick Steves convertible bag, but my normal walking pack is a Gregory Savant 48L.  So, the guide book suggested a route south out of Paris to Massy, that didn’t sound attractive.  In fact they suggested just taking the train.  I decided to use google maps and just ride along the side of the Seine and then cut across to Versailles.  This worked reasonably well, although dealing with city traffic etc. is never the most pleasant of bike riding.  The ground floor apartment I rented in Versaille is quite large and allow for easy rolling of the bike into the unit.  Had a great lunch in the market square at Le Bouchon du Marche, and then rode the now empty cycle around the gardens of Versaille, until it started raining.  See the pictures:

More Paris

Got an early start today as Yannick delivered my bike first thing.  It’s a Specialized Alibi with racks and Ortleib bags, as well as fenders.  Interesting that it comes with run flat tires.  These are tires made with foam filling.  All reviews seem to be good.  After securing the bike it was off to Chamballand for some GF breakfast, and then the Place de Monge to check out the Sunday market. From there a walk up and down Rue Mouffetard and some oysters.  After that, some more walking and a quick lunch near Odeon at Breizh Cafe.  

These were some really delicious oysters, much more salty than any I’ve had in the USA.