Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Route V - Tour de Beauce et Paris (Days 3 and 4)


A FLAT DAY TO CHARTRES (Day 3)

At the end of the previous day’s ride, we made our way to Auberge Ligérienne-Côte Loire, a small hotel recommended by the friendly proprietor in Chinon. A delightful little place. Before we knew it, we had locked up our bikes, washed off the day and were sitting down to a supper of stewed lapin – rabbit – cooked to the recipe of the owner’s grandmother and supplemented with a couple of glasses of red wine. 

This was followed by a night-time saunter through town. With the danger of repeating myself on this trip, the castle proved to be remarkable. Large, intimidating and with four sides from different eras, it was perhaps the best of the lot. Twisting alleyways bound round and then up the steep hill upon which the castle sat, interlinking different parts of town. It being a Saturday night, we found the closest thing the town had to nightlife and settled down to some strong cocktails in a bar dominated by eye-catching female manga prints. 
On waking the next morning, our route was still not clear. We very nearly followed the hotelier’s recommendation to stay along the Loire to Orleans before striking north-east via Fontainebleau. Three things kept us on our original google-planned course: it's a shorter distance, Chartres Cathedral and the hotelier’s description of the country we would be crossing, La Beauce. He described it as the most boring part of France. Pancake-flat from horizon to horizon, filled with nothing but corn fields. So boring in fact that it had the highest suicide rate in France. This I had to see.
Waving goodbye to the Loire and all its riches, we managed to get lost again on our way out of town – I refuse to navigate by sat nav – before a kindly old monsieur in cycle gear pointed us in the direction. We left Blois through the dull minor industrial estates of modern mediocrity and entered the fields.

There is not really much to say of the next half-day of fast peddling. Fields, followed by more fields and then, you guessed it, some more fields. If we were very lucky, a slight rise in the land or the odd tree. To make it worse, the road was dead flat. It was like crossing rural Iowa. Oddly enough, this proved to be a relatively dangerous part of our cycle. After long periods where nothing would pass, a large truck would whizz by, its air-stream knocking us sideways. Worse, the monotony was such that, trance like, we both individually skidded off the tarmac, only arresting a fall on the skiddy gravel outer-surface. To bring some life into the day, we resorted to a fiercely competitive game of spot-the-tractor (plus one for a find, minus one for a false spotting – especially diggers). There's one!
Fortunately, right in the middle of the Beauce is an isolated town, Châteaudun. This proved a very pleasant refuel stop for lunch. Yet another impressive castle and, more importantly, a pretty town square where we could eat more steak-frites and drink beer. Delightful in the spring sunshine.
Fully loaded with carbs, we spent some time investigating the narrow old warren-like streets around the castle, before climbing an unexpected and steep hill. All of a sudden, the town came to a halt and it became clear that the castle was not built here by coincidence. The land fell away sharply, before molding back into the surrounding plateau, giving the fortifications a dominating position above the otherwise drearily flat Beauce.

This resulted in a nice view and, more importantly given our fat full lunch, a gentle easing back onto the road via a lengthy descent to the valley floor.
To give it credit, north of Châteaudun, the Beauce did take on a bit more character. The land became a little less flat, the villages more regular and interspersed with copses and streams. The road also began to wind, providing a pleasant afternoon cycle, before pleasantness gave way to a spectacular sight. 

Still some 10 km our from the city of Chartres, we rode to the crest of a ridge, looked ahead of us and were greeted with a view that will have amazed travellers for the best part of a 1000 years. Rising out from the fields in dark, towering outline, the cathedral of Chartres appeared as if from nowhere. 
Residing at the high point of the city, unblemished by modern high-rises, it broke and dominated the horizon. A simply wonderful sight. The cathedral sunk out of view as we pelted downhill, before announcing itself even more distinctly at the top of the next rise. 
It guided us to the end of our day’s ride, first to the outskirts of Chartres, and then to the medieval city centre via a circuitous route around the city’s parks. The final section took us up the painfully steep old streets to the front door the medieval cathedral itself. Another 110 km in the bag, we rested the bikes up and lay back on the pavement, face up to the sky and the domineering height of the cathedral’s intricate stone facade and twin towers. 
I have rarely been so impressed. At length, we walked around the cathedral, marvelling at each new angle and style, before venturing inside to sneak a peek at the renowned stained-glass windows, which sucked in the horizontal day’s end light, enlivening it with colour.Truly a wonder of the world.
With the interlude of a rat run between a dozen hotels to try and find a room – we must have tried half a dozen hotels before the gods smiled on us with a last-minute cancellation – we found ourselves in pretty much the same spot a couple of hours later. The difference being it was dark, we had downed a couple of beers and, most importantly, had accidentally stumbled upon the opening night of Chartres en Lumieres (festival of light). 

While I was vaguely aware that the French dud extravagant light shows, accompanied by 1980’s electronic music, I can’t say it was ever a concept that tempted me. Jean Michel Jarre is not exactly my cup of tea. This, though, was remarkable. In 20 minutes of beauty and ingenuity, we saw the face of the cathedral light up, melt, transform and engage with strong hallucinogenic effect. Check it out - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WSoVLlF1-5c 

I was staggered. We stayed for a repeat and then wandered the city, staring at one transformed edifice after another. In total, we must have seen a dozen different buildings transfigured by lasers, but nothing beat the cathedral. I would never have thought that a couple of light projectors could so enhance one of the world’s great buildings. Different eras of design and ambition synergising with such perfection.

TO LA CHAMPS ELYSEES (Day 4)

Grey skies greeted us for the final day of the trip. The centre of Paris lay 90km ahead, with the twin barriers of the hilly Ramboillet forest and the famously ugly outer parts of Paris in between. As ever, slightly daunted by the prospect of navigating our way into such a big city, we were fortunate that the first half day was through beautiful countryside.

Following the L’Eure river to the north, we passed one pretty village after another. The undulating route was perfect for tour cycling, as highlighted by the numerous MAMIL (Middle Aged Men in Lycra for the uninitiated) we encountered voyaging out of Paris for the day. Our major pre-Paris stop was, predictably, in the shadow of a chateau. The town of Rambouillet was in full Sunday-market mode and we stopped for coffee and croissant in the midst of the bric-a-brac selling mayhem. A good kilometre of street was brimming with small stalls and perusers. Escaping into the adjoining park, we pedalled to the town’s chateau (thinking about it, given the palatial nature of the chateau, it is probably more fitting to talk about the chateau’s town). Here amongst the manicured gardens and the wildfowl of the lake, we devoured our lunch in preparation for one final push.
Having parked bum back on saddle and tackled the melee of the market on two wheels, we still faced a pretty mighty obstacle to get away from the town: a deep ravine. The only road that crossed it was a major dual-carriageway (N10), which looked rather suicidal for cycles. Faced between a few kilometres of hairy road and doubling back adding who knows how many kilometres on unknown roads, we decided to press forward. No verge to speak of, let alone cycle lane, we kept the wheels on the line as HGVs whizzed past, blowing us sideways. Twenty tense power-cycle minutes later, we were relieved to find a scratchy path emerge by the side of the road and duly took it. Unfortunately, concentrating so much on peddling fast and not being knocked flying, I had zoned out from the passing of the countryside. We had crossed the Foret de Rambouillet and days of natural surroundings had been replaced by the outskirts of Paris…

Any elated feelings of making it to the edge of the city were buffeted out by disappointment at the ugliness of industrial low-rise. Dirty streets strewn with chips of glass and sided by work-shops and depressing estates. Soon we were evicted from the main road by a strictly-no-bikes overpass, stopped and scoured the map for a Plan B. The less said about the next hour or so trying to navigate a series of twisting, turning, dead-end-shit-arse-end-of-nowhere city roads the better. 

Finally, thinking that we were heading the right way, we checked the compass and found we were heading in nearly precisely the opposite direction. I hate cycling into big cities! We chucked a u-turn, interrogated a couple of locals, redirected ourselves and were soon following signs to Versailles down a sharp ravine. The city disappeared as we plunged down, freewheeling at 50 kph through a jungley mini valley. Up the other side, through a tunnel and we were in the opulence of Versailles.
Suddenly all was sweet plain sailing. We took a pit-stop at the mighty Palais de Versailles - equally incredible for the magnitude of its buildings, gardens and flag-waving Chinese tourists. We were keen to keep going. From the palace a gentle, curving road ran through the pretty, rich outer suburbs all the way to Bois de Bologne. We cut through, paying our respects to Roland Garros, dozens of manicured Parisians out on their Sunday jog and too many rat dogs. 
Out of the greenery and we were at the top of the Champs-Élysées. Is there any place more iconic for cyclists? In a word, no. Four days and 420 km from Poitier, we had made it. The shuddering jolts from the infamous cobbles provided a teeth-juddering victory massage.
 
Once around the death-wish round-about that is the Arc de Triomphe, we gave in to the necessity of celebratory beer. We pulled up our faithful bikes and parked our weary behinds in a boulevard bar halfway to the Obélisque de Louxor. Sipping the golden nectar, we watched Paris flow by in all its pomp. A bill of EUR 25 per beer putting us off a chaser (I shit you not), we climbed back on the bikes and set off to catch our ride home. A wave to the Eiffel Tower and wink to the Louvre later, we were back where we started. The Gare du Nord. We jumped on the train to London and I fell asleep.
Poitier to Paris complete. Overall, five tours, 1900 km and Poitier to Copenhagen done. Where to next year? I fancy Sweden…
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