The last hoorah

Isabelle loves Toulouse. We didn’t. Maybe it was the tired red brick, maybe it was the homeless people in their tents alongside the canal, maybe it was Helen having a “must eat, NOW” day, or maybe its joys were simply overshadowed by the challenges of riding the bike through a city. It was pleasant enough, but no more.

Isabelle rode with us into Toulouse. Small in stature, she fitted Rosie’s seat on Argie Bargie, so the children took turns to pedal freely on her ‘normal’ bike. A thrill for all parties.

Isabelle made a fine cycling companion, riding strongly and chatting amiably.

Grace got one small step closer to becoming famous when we were stopped by TV channel France3 for a segment on the evening news. The girls were particularly cute about it all – urgently removing helmets and brushing their hair!

A little bit of fame via French TV. Note girls looking their best / boys not caring too much either way.

After warm farewells with Isabelle, we rolled on down to the canal to our home for the night; another Warmshower, this time on a boat!

Our hosts’ boat Elorn, tied up on the Canal du Midi.
A quiet ale on the main deck with Fabien. Note Argie Bargie on the roof!

Our hosts this evening were Clarisse and Fabien, and their 3 year old son Gregoire. They bought the boat a few years ago “it was a compromise between Clarisse’s desire to live in the country and my desire for a complex engineering project” explained Fabien. We took care around the electrical wires over the bath/shower, slept in 100 year old timbered quarters (very confined) and had to contort ourselves to get up and down the steps. It was a novelty for us, and an adventure for the kids, but after we left we all agreed we couldn’t live on a boat.

The kids playing with Gregoire.

Fabien was a contemporary thinker and perhaps the ‘youngest French brain’ we have stayed with. We enjoyed sharing a beer and hearing his views of the world, and watching Clarisse ‘mother’ in an oh-so-French way.

The girls helped Clarisse bake a cake for Gregoire’s birthday

It was with great trepidation that we set off in the direction of Castelnaudary – we had heard and read many reports of the trail degrading from a good bitumen path to a single-trail rut replete with tree roots and pot holes, perched perilously close to the water’s edge. Just two weeks ago Helen had met someone who had helped retrieve a rider and his bike from the canal!

On the other hand, albeit not quite in equal measure, we had had such reports dismissed as being written by road-riders and others unnecessarily scared by dirt. Despite years on mountain bikes, with our quad tandem we probably fell into the scared road-rider category! We would discover The Truth for ourselves.

Abruptly on the ‘You are leaving the Haute-Garonne’ sign, the trail turned to dirt and narrowed. That said, it was entirely rideable all the way through to where we broke out for Mas-Saintes-Puelles for our third successive Warmshower. We started to diss the nay-sayers.

Our greatest challenge was the wind. Luckily Rosie was at full pedalling capacity again, her ankle quite recovered, as the gusts almost stopped us in our tracks. Helen in particular, with full front panniers creating a very un-streamlined profile, struggled to make forward progress. With the skies darkening we were happy to arrive at our destination. With our hosts coming home late, we hung out at the tiny general store, eating cheese and salami wrapped around madeleine cakes!

Lionel and Nathalie delivered a very fitting last Warmshower; two comfortable rooms, great food and most importantly a warm welcome and regional insight. They were incredibly sincere people and we hope we meet them again.

In such a nice home environment and with 85kmph winds forecast for the next day, we were relieved to have the invitation to stay extended. We readily accepted on the condition that we could supply dinner – a regional speciality, cassoulet du porc et canard. Nathalie had been adamant we try the Castelnaudary cassoulet and not wait until Carcassonne for an inferior product. Such is the way with French and their pride in regional foodstuff.

Our wonderful hosts and our soon-to-be savoured cassoulet, accompanied by a sauterne – as tradition begs.

And so, well fed, well rested, we rolled out the driveway and back down to the canal for the final stretch to Carcassonne, our fabled end-point. Again, we were curious to see how the trail would be.

The trail was very good to Castelnaudary
The canal bellied out in Castelnaudary

Just south-west of Alzonne the trail narrowed but was still rideable, even with the tandem. And then the sign ‘Fin piste cyclable’ and we were spat out onto a road. We knew the trail continued, and were about to hunt for it, when we spied a sign for a local campsite, Camping du Pujole. In no hurry to get to Carcassonne, and with rainclouds overhead, we headed off to break the journey.

And then it happened. After 3942km, Argie Bargie failed. Just 15km from the end. Bottom bracket not just creaking but cracking constantly and feeling rough as guts. We all saw the funny side of it and pushed her the last 2-3km to the campsite, with plans to push her the rest of the way tomorrow.

The campsite proved deserted and run by an unfriendly fellow who advised us against staying, because the grape harvest was scheduled to start that evening in the adjoining fields, with loud machinery running for 72 hours straight. Whether this was the truth or whether he just didn’t want us there we couldn’t be sure, but we wanted out and so did he.

After an hour of tossing around options, we decided to call Lionel who had been very firm about calling him if we ran into any problems. So we did! And half an hour later our knight in shining armor drove Helen and the kids to Carcassonne. We left Argie Bargie under a tree, and Shane rode the ‘normal’ bike into Carcassonne, happy at the prospect of riding solo, finally.

And so, not together, and without the grand entry we had all quietly imagined, we unceremoniously arrived in Carcassonne.

We explored all sorts of options about how best to retrieve the quad tandem (note Shane’s not naming it affectionately) and the long and short of it was that Shane was nominated as ‘most suitable person’. His day went something like this: rise at 5.30; walk 3 km to the train station; catch a train to the village of Alzonne – sorry Monsieur, the train only stops at the next village; did his best to locate a bus or taxi to get back to Alzonne; tried hitching alongside a busy road with no verge; arrived at the bike after walking 7km; rolled down the hill from the campsite (yay!); walked or scooted (not very often) the 18km to Carcassonne (grumble!).

Grumble, grumble …

Shane and Tom accompanied Grace back to Paris. Helen and Rosie did some desperately needed clothes shopping. We had a last shopping spree in Decathlon. We wondered around the magnificent old and new cities of Carcassonne. It rained for two days straight. We moved into a hotel for the last two nights when the campsite closed for the season. And we packed up our bikes and belongings.

We sit here ready to fly to England. Our bike trip is over; our love affair with France is not.

Back on the bike

Our gorgeous Warmshower hosts Laurent and Gwén had garaged our bikes for ten days while we drove around Languedoc Roussillon, and welcomed us back for another night at their spick and span home. They were out at a birthday party so we cooked up in their kitchen and made ourselves at home.

Using the inner part of a crutch, we rigged up a footrest for Rosie, and Shane took her for a quick spin to make sure she could balance with both feet up. Helen seriously doubted this plan was going to work, even with our planned daily distance revised down to 25km per day… But as usual Shane and Rosie were optimistic. So, after an epic re-pack and lots of well-wishing we were on our way, with Argie Bargie’s dead weight increased by 37kg and watts output decreased by the (sometimes) strongest rider on the bike. Would Shane cope???

The first day to Valence d’Agen proved to be 37km and not the 25km we had estimated from the free tourist map. It was also really hot! So it was with relief that we pulled into the municipal camping at Valence d’Agen; if Shane and Rosie could survive a hot 37km day, we would be able to complete our bike ride to Carcassonne. Optimism wins again.

A celebration of pear-shaped ladies! We loved this sculpture.
We enjoyed pizzas (budget staple) at this fine square in the bastide of Valence d’Agen.

Next day we cycled just 15km to Moissac where we found the particularly pleasant Camping Ile du Bidounet.

It was lovely to roll along the Canal de Garonne again.
View of Moissac from our campsite.

Shane and Helen had been confident Rosie’s foot would improve faster with her back on the bike, as she holds her injuries in her head; taking her mind off them would hasten recovery. They were proven right. This morning she threw away one crutch!

Venturing into Moissac we were all thrilled with the Abbey St Pierre. The fact that, after 4 months in this country, we can still be so roused by a building, speaks volumes of the richness that is the built environment of France. We loved it! Actually the whole town was lovely and we would have liked to spend more time there.

UNESCO 12th C splendour
Eve being tempted by the devil (right side). All very freaky stuff.
Why is one mouse in a different stone?
A lady cleaning the Chapel of the Holy Sacrament pointed out this little known Chagall painted window given to the church in 1960 to celebrate its 1000 years birthday.
Painted walls and highly decorated ceilings – very different from other churches we have visited.

We pedaled onto Montech – with Rosie contributing to the pedaling from time to time, much to Shane’s relief – where there’s a very pretty port (?) and a massive campsite that was spookily quiet. We were happy to press on the next day to a Warmshower at Grenade-sur-Garonne.

Staying with Henri, Isabelle, Clare and Barthemé was a rare treat (their two older children were away at a music boarding school). Their house was filled with love, surprises and the theme music from Betty Blue. From the moment we were greeted by their remarkably confident 9 year old daughter Clare who was keeping house by herself, we knew this Warmshower would be memorable.

This family had cycled / train-hopped our route in reverse last year – their stories of squeezing six bikes into third class Trans Siberian trains kept us open-mouthed! Then 8 year old Clara pedaled 8000km on her own 20″ wheeled bike. It wasn’t all fun and games though – none of the kids were keen to cycle tour again!

There’s a wonderful video of this family made my three very fun-loving South American travellers who they happened upon in Siberia. Watch it. Watch it! Now!

Sixtette a roulette

We enjoyed a fabulous, typically late, dinner and stayed up until 1am with Isabelle and Henri, drinking our way through pastis, wine and armagnac. Another Warmshower and another highlight. We would sincerely have loved to spend more days here and get to know this extraordinary ‘Sixtette family’ better.

Painstaking restoration of the building up top of this magnificent market place. Grenade.
Rosie and Grace’s sleeping quarters at Isabelle and Henri’s Warmshower, Grenade.
The older daughter, who we didn’t meet, loves the circus. Lucky Tom got to sleep in the Circus Loft.
Lots of surprises in this house!

A jaunt to the Mediterranean by car

With continuing grey damp weather forecast for the Dordogne, a boot-load of wet camping gear and a child on crutches, we drove rapidly South and East until we could feel sunshine warming our bones. At a rest area east of Carcassonne we spent a very windy and very funny half hour drying out our camping gear. We thought putting Tom inside the tent while it dried would hold it down, but this proved not to be the case, and within seconds he was tumbling along like spinifex in the desert! Tumble-dried, we pushed on to Collioure, a Michelin two-star Mediterranean town in the Pyrenees Orientales department just 40km from the Spanish border. From very brief research, it seemed everywhere else on the Mediterranean coast in this part of France – a drained swamp now boasting long sandy beaches and mid-rise apartment blocks – threatened to compare with Australia’s Gold Coast and was to be avoided.

The kids decided to spend their pocket money on upgrading to a cabin, at a campsite between Collioure and Argeles-sur-Mer. From there we made various day trips, including one to Perpignan Hospital to get Rosie’s ankle x-rayed as it wasn’t improving. Sprain confirmed.

Collioure - a classically beautiful Mediterranean town
Collioure – a classically beautiful Mediterranean town – replete with overlooking hilltop fortress chateaux
The kids loved Collioure beach. Tom rolled in the sand and then leapt into the water to duck dive for a rock, while Rosie bathed her ankle and found pretty rocks with Grace.
We home-schooled at Cérét, a very nice lived-in Spanish-influenced town.

We were also keen to ‘tick a box’ for the kids – going to Spain. Well, might as well!

Close to the Spanish border we turned off to view ruins at the Site de Panissars, a site based around the Roman Via Dolmitia winding its way from Rome to Spain – a route that existed for a thousand years!

Site de Pannisars. Site of the ancient road as it crosses the French/Spanish border. It even has modern road signs!
The Via Dolmitia becomes the Via Augusta right here on the France Spain border.
Roman ruins dated 71AD overlaid with 11C monastery AND 17C fortress behind. Rosie is tending on the road itself
Roman ruins dated 71AD overlaid with 11C monastery AND 17C fortress behind. Rosie is standing on the actual road.
It wasn't just a quiet outpost. You can clearly define where the cart wheels have worn away the rock.
It wasn’t just a quiet outpost. You can clearly define where the cart wheels have worn away the rock. We all had great fun trying to unravel some of the site’s mysteries
Yet another fortress ingeniously designed by Marquis Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban - 17C military engineer to Louis XIV. Aah, those were the days.
Yet another fortress ingeniously designed by Marquis Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban – 17C military engineer to Louis XIV. Aah, those were the days.
The internal court of the fortress felt spookily like we should see a 17C soldier come round any corner soon...
The internal court of the fortress felt spookily like we should see a 17C soldier come round any corner soon…

We thought we’d find some tapas and a generally Spanish experience, but this NE corner wasn’t going to deliver and we couldn’t get back to France fast enough! The only attraction was the Dali Museum in Figueres but that was shut. The coastal villages – armpits really – were terribly depressed.

Shane was desperate to get up into the French Pyrenees, remembering them as verdant, precipitous and dramatic, full of rustic stone buildings, ancient abbeys, fortified towns, peeling church bells, ancient pathways, roman ruins, olive groves, nut orchards, oak forests and… they were just as he remembered.

Short driving forays were in order, with Rosie out of action. Castelnou was one of those stunning little villages.
Short driving forays were in order, with Rosie out of action. Castelnou was one of those stunning little villages.

Unable to hike because of Rosie’s ankle injury we saw what we could of the mountains by car. The only walk we did was up to the still functional Abbey St Martin monastery, set high in the mountains. Unfortunately from the budget’s perspective we stopped at the lovely mountain village of Vernet les Bains on Market Day and left with a salubrious picnic on which we fortified ourselves for the huge 30 minute climb to the monastery. Finest goats cheese, plump juicy olives, crunchy-crusted baguette, sweet red grapes and exceptional raspberry juice. Well, we didn’t want to go hungry…

We did the walk in shifts, with Helen guiding Tom and Grade while Shane stayed at a cafe with Rosie, then Shane ducked up no his own.

Abbey St-Martin. On Shane's trip to view it he was fortunate to see many nuns and monks making there way busily amongst the buildings.
Abbey St-Martin. On Shane’s trip to view it he was fortunate to see many nuns and monks making there way busily amongst the buildings.

On the way down, Tom’s perpetual game of Jelly Legs – which sees him running downhill with arms and legs apparently out of control shouting “Jelly Legs!” – went horribly wrong and we had to scrape him up off the trail.

We came to find that this corner of France has a long history of being dominated by both the Cathar religious ‘sect’ and the Spanish. These influences were apparent visiting the fortified town of Villefranche-de-Conflent later that day, where we deposited Rosie and Grace at a cafe whilst the others went for a quick explore of the town. H and T chose to then explore the fortress located above the town, whilst S chose to explore the walls enclosing the town.

The walls of the city
The walls of the city – Villefranche-de-Conflent
You can see the hilltop fortress sitting above the town.
You can see the hilltop fortress sitting above the town.
Helen and Tom were very excited (or perhaps overwhelmed?) to walk the 738 subterranean steps to the Vauban designed hilltop fortress above Villefranche
Helen and Tom were very excited (or perhaps overwhelmed?) to walk the 738 subterranean steps to the Vauban designed hilltop fortress above Villefranche
Shane did a tour of the walls of the town, which were 'thickened' to cater for two levels of soldiers to patrol and defend the town. Another enhanced military asset designed by Vauban
Shane did a tour of the walls of the town, which were ‘thickened’ to cater for two levels of soldiers to patrol and defend the town. Another enhanced military asset designed by Vauban

The next day was focused on visiting some exceptional Cathar fortress chateaux and getting there involved incredibly scenic winding mountain roads. The weather gradually got more grey as the day wore on, which didn’t show the chateaux in their best light, but they were both truly remarkable.

Here is just some of the stunning scenery we were driving through
Here is just some of the stunning scenery we were driving through
Believe it or not, there is a chateau up there. Chateau de Quèribus.
Believe it or not, that lump of rock is Chateau de Quèribus.
There is also a chateau on that stony ridge line. Chateau de Peyrepertuse. The site was occupied since roman times, the fortress was built by the Cathars some time before 1070 and became French property in the 13C
There is also a chateau on that stony ridge line. Chateau de Peyrepertuse. The site was occupied since roman times, the fortress was built by the Cathars some time before 1070 and became French property in the 13C
A super defendable fortress, but how do you get to do the shopping?
A super defendable fortress, but how do you get to do the shopping? This shot is taken from the upper part of the fortress.

On the way back to Agen, we camped at Axat, the campsite very dramatically located beneath a massive stone cliff with a clean and inviting river flowing by.

All in all, we were glad to have had an excuse to explore this extraordinary, wild, raw corner of France. Now… To get rid of Rosie’s crutches and get back on the bike!

Four wheels and two crutches

It’s not often a campsite really wows us but Le Moulin St Laurent certainly did. Almost non-existent on the Internet, it’s nestled in apple orchards 2km south of Port Sainte Marie behind a formidable four storey u-shaped mill-house, with huge chimney stack.

The children amused themselves feeding pigs, goats and chooks.
We enjoyed a fine picnic dinner in soft summer evening light

The crumbling town of Port Sainte Marie was everything we associate with the south of France: winding narrow streets punctuated with small squares shaded by sprawling plane trees, hemmed in by grey weathered shuttered buildings, and brought to life – just – by small elderly people who’ve probably never left these winding narrow streets.

It was in the heart of this pleasing old town that we met – for the second time on this trip – our good friend Stuart, returning from four weeks of flying in Spain. We agreed to explore the nearby village of Clermont Dessous. The uphill race to get there finished predictably with Stuart and his outrageous mini in first place, Helen on the ‘normal’ bike in second, and The Pied Piper of Hamlin encouraging his followers into distant third.

Clermont-Dessous was worth the climb, offering up a menu of delights we hadn’t seen on this trip. Very small in stature but huge in personality, her narrow, white stoned lane ways directed us around heavily laden fig trees (we were obliged to lessen their burden), stone buildings which looked as though they had pushed themselves out of the ground on which they stood and a very simple old church.

Clermont-Dessous – small, simple, tourist free – we loved it.
Church at Clermont-Dessous

The other menu of delight we found at Clermont was at a pizza parlor where we indulged in the Best Pizzas Ever.

How can you go wrong with goats cheese, honey and apple pizza, washed down by rosé?

The proprietor over ordered on our behalf and we carried a box of leftover pizza downhill with us as we waved goodbye to Stuart. The leftovers ended up going to the chooks, pigs and goats…

The garden of France – tobacco…

We covered a whopping great 15 flat kms that evening to our first Warmshower in a while, Laurent and Gwen, who reside south of Agen. This young couple did an amazing job of welcoming us despite being busy working, as well as training for a half marathon the coming weekend. Gwen had spent an action packed 7 months in Australia recently and we were all happy to share her photos and stories from her time as a jillaroo on a remote NT station.

Our gorgeous Warmshower hosts Laurent & Gwén just back from a laser battle!

Agen lies just to the south of the Dordogne, a fabled area of France much loved by the English and especially abundant with 2 and 3 star Michelin villages. The area is also abundant in hills, so it’s not ideal for cycle tourists with long heavy bikes. We decided to hire a car for four days to explore.

And it all went belly up!

The weather turned grey and wet 😦

Our faithful Sierra Designs tent decided she could no longer keep out rain 😦

Rosie sprained her ankle – badly – playing soccer 😦

We bought crutches and tried to keep our spirits up by visiting villages from Les Plus Belles Villages de France and the caves of Lascaux. The caves were exceptional – although you can’t visit the original (carbon dioxide was trashing the art) they have created a duplicate cave to within 10% of the original’s accuracy – we were all in awe of these 17,000 year old cave paintings. Exceptional.

Homeschool at Prayssas
Poor Miss Rosie
Bonaguil castle – a fine find for Grace’s first ever castle visit!
Grace was in awe of everything at Bonaguil – underground passages, twisting stairs…
Medieval graffiti protected from the elements by a (now removed) layer of plaster.
The river Dordgone at Cénac et St Julien municipal camping
Chateau des Millandes – disappointing inside
Beautiful views from the fine town of Domme

But wet weather, soggy gear and three children no longer able to get rid of energy by pedaling got the better of us and we ran with the proverbial tail between our legs to the only part of France still bathing in warm sunshine. Languedoc-Roussillon, specifically the department of Pyrenees Orientales.

On y va

Grace was keen to experience cycling on the quad tandem, sharing a tent with best-buddy Rosie and experiencing life on-the-move.

Leaving Bordeaux the weather started fine-ish and we were left a little uninspired by mansions located beside the muddy-banked tidal Garrone River. Moving away from the river things improved somewhat as we moved amongst infamous Bordeaux vineyards.

No! Our children weren’t tasting the grapes!

We were keen to get the camping underway, but when we got the outskirts of Crèon we found that the campground was located 2km up a very busy road with little to no verge. We considered the risks and chose to play safe, booking ourselves into a two star cheap and cheerful hotel.

The following day dawned grey and raining so we were forced to hunker down for a second day in uninspiring Crèon. We didn’t get up to too much other than extended homeschool and a short walk.

We find that although we enjoy camping, when offered comfortable surroundings we’re fairly uninspired to venture too far. We get very excited about a comfortable pillow and a real towel, drinking out of glass glasses, cooking with more than one burner… Tom’s first response is reliable – to immediately make use of a toilet other than that found in a campground. Funny.

This region of France is somewhat renowned for medieval fortified towns called bastides, built by the occupying English forces during the Hundred Years’ War. Uninspiring Crèon was one of these towns, however cycling from Crèon we ventured upon Sauveterre which had significantly more charm.

The bastide of Sauveterre.
En route we happened upon these remarkable graves – just below the village church.

The clouds started to loom. To sprinkle. To rain. Then to pour just as we made it to the village of Frontenac and its local bar for a session of hot drinks and home school. We were fortunate to happen upon a local cycling promotional event with hot lunch and live music being offered under-cover.

Bellies full, good music, out of the rain…

There were many more locals than participating cyclists present and it quickly turned into a lively charming event.

Being Aussies with a weird bike at a bike fest meant attracting lots of interest. Being offered local wine, being photographed for the local newspaper, being asked lots of questions about our travels…

The weather had remained grey and annoyingly drizzly throughout the day when we arrived at the town of La Reole for our next nights stay. Perhaps it was the weather, perhaps it was the heavy rock concert playing directly across the river from the campsite – finishing up at 1am, but we don’t have any particularly fond memories of the town. In fact, one of the streets reminded Shane of a section of Darjeeling in India.

A little bit of best buddy time.
There were some good parts of La Reole.

In response beauty and tranquility were now becoming ever more abundant on the Canal de Lateral cycle path. The signs of autumn were becoming ever more apparent: leaves turning in colour; the light becoming soft and clear; the clouds becoming soft and fluffy; the air becoming occasionally crisp. Sun was shining through the trees, creating perfect weather for cycling.

Serene, beautiful, good cycle paths and the sun did shine most of the time.
Autumn colours just starting to show.

Following drab La Reole, we spent two nights camping in Damazan, a bastide town that has retained a bunch of character. Our spare day was spent doing washing, bike TLC, blogged… The kids helped Shane with the bike, played in the cornfields, buried their beetle Fred and the girls organised a party for Tom – because he doesn’t have a friend traveling with him. Sweet.

In the afternoon we all ventured into Damazan for shopping and to photograph the medieval town centre.

The kids make quite a sight together on the bike, waving and calling ‘bonjour’ to passing cars, singing songs, chatting. Often they invoke some rowdy yells, ooh-la-las and car bipping. Shane feels like a mix between Pied Piper and gym instructor – the gym instructor having to coax more consistent participation on the bike.

Lots of laughing and chatter.

Now we are five! In Bordeaux.

Bordeaux is magnificent! Locals tell us that until ten years ago Bordeaux was moche (a very fine onomatopaeic word for ugly). Well moche no more! A mayor dedicated himself to cleaning the place up and it’s now a diamond. Take Paris, remove the Tour Eifel, the dust, grime and rude people, add a majestic and spacious riverfront et voila, Bordeaux.

Looking back the way we cycled into Bordeaux. What an approach!

We were lucky to be in town at the same time as eleven monumental sculptures by Jaume Plensa which took our breath away.

We loved the transparency of this one outside La Bourse.
Close up of the sculpture at La Bourse
Close up of the sculpture at La Bourse
We thought they looked made of liquid bubbles
Close up and transparent again
We picnicked close to these

Rosie and Helen took a TGV up to Paris to pick up Rosie’s friend Grace from the airport. It was a very functional trip with no sightseeing – not even a glimpse of Paris from the train window – although Grace and Rosie were excited to see the Eifel Tower in the very very very distance, from the hotel hallway.

Grace was introduced to Orangina on the train. Goats cheese and pastries were to follow.

So now we are five.

Shane and Tom relocated us to the very nice cabin behind and put on a Welcome Grace Party.

Staying at the Camping Village du Lac added greatly to our enjoyment of Bordeaux. Set around a cluster of lakes it feels a million miles from a big city yet it’s only 7km by bike to the city centre. Highly recommended.

No permission note for jet lag, we escorted Grace (via Decathlon, to stamp her “French” with own brand bike nix, water bottle and travel pants) to the heart of this great city. Grace, always aching for fame, inspired the kids to start waving at passing traffic and they are now counting the waves, toots and hollers with the goal of 300 for a celebration party. Anything to justify lollies!

Eglise Notre Dame
Cathedral de Saint André
Cathedral door being restored

By the end of the day, after a walk linking two churches, a cathedral and a basilica in temperatures soaring to the high 30s, we downed ice-creams and paddled in the inspired Le Miroir d’Eau before peddling ‘home’ for a swim.

Miroir d’Eau, Place de la Bourse
Look closely. No further caption required!

Atlantic to Bordeaux

The beaches of Royan reminded us of Sydney’s north shore

Many Europeans have raved to us about the Atlantic coast from La Palmyre to Royan, but for us it was the stretch from Soulac-sur-Mer southwards to Lacanau which delivered.

Easy going after the ferry from Royan

The beaches became less manicured, the bike paths quieter, each town more defined by its own character.

We escaped L’Amelie’s unexceptional municipal camping to eat dinner at the beach
America’s out there somewhere…
Rosie and Tom have shared a thousand fun times. And 999 arguments…

The trail south from L’Amelie to Hourtin Plage was unexciting with the flat, well surfaced trail often running parallel with deserted roads. We broke the boredom with the second best roast chicken of the trip, bought from the markets at Montalivet, and some very fine company from an Irish couple Mick and Norma who we met at L’Amelie campjng. Mick and Norma are cycling from their home near Cork down EV1 to join El Camino de Santiago.

Hourtin Plage offered an eclectic mix of surfing culture (replete with Aussies kicking a footie in the park and – in name only – an Australian Cafe) and families filling a five star enormous campsite. Not really our scene. Discussing our options, we reached for more rations of Toughen Up Princess and tackled the 17km south to Carcans Plage, rated ‘Expert’ by the Velodyssey site. Gulp.

But the Expert section had been replaced by a new Family rated bike path along which we positively zoomed.

Each in our own way, we have become nostalgic for Australia these last few days.

The open, sometimes scrubby country, with big skies and few people made us feel at home.
If only I had my mountain bike…
We dropped into some very fine forest to Carcans Plage

We loved staying at Carcans Plage, a well executed, purpose-built, small seaside village with an enormous campsite just minutes from the beach. It was here we finally plunged into the waves and had so much fun we determined to free up time tomorrow for more beach capers.

The trail south from Carcans Plage to Lacanau village was unrelentingly hilly. Shane, doing the lion’s share of the work in front of the two young cubs on the quad, was unable to enjoy the wonderful forest.

Helen loved this trail, both the exercise delivered by the frequent hills and the magnificent oak forest on sand.

The oak forest on the dunes here is ancient. The pines have been planted more recently to retain the dunes on the Atlantic side of the oak forest. Where the two landscapes meet, some rare ecology has formed, including some very large freshwater lakes. We refreshed ourselves in one of these before spending a very fine evening at the Camping La Praise at Lacanau. We feasted on figs, melon, cucumber and capsicum before progressing to pizza, all served up right outside our lush and friendly €10 campsite. What more could we want?

And so we find ourselves cycling into the last 56km (unexciting rail trail) of our push to Bordeaux. And quite a push it has been. From when we committed to being in Bordeaux to meet Grace – way, way back in Saumur on the Loire – it has been go go go. We have enjoyed ourselves immensely but we really, really don’t like cycling to deadlines. I think I can feel a celebration coming on…

It’s quite a beast viewed from behind…or perhaps a toy shop?

Sand dunes and pine trees

You always have to be careful with alternative routes…

We read on the Velodyssey site that the 1km bridge over the Seudre river was dangerous, with the cycle route narrow and separated from fast traffic only by some very low blocks. We also read about the alternative of taking the passenger boat over the Seudre from La Cayenne to La Tremblade. And so we duly cycled 5km through utterly ugly oyster farms (a tourist attraction, we couldn’t believe it) down to the port … to find the boat wasn’t running today. So 5km back up through the utterly ugly oyster farms and we arrived on the bridge, dangerous as described, with nearly 15 unnecessary km already on the clock. Hrmphhh.

Bridge over the Seudre, leaving Marennes – less than 1m wide with cars screaming past. Not nice.
Oyster farms / mud flats, from the bridge. Not delightful!
Massive jellyfish got whoops of delight from the kids

Once we’d passed the very tacky tourist town of Ronce les Bains the cycle path improved and flowed through some very lovely forest behind sand dunes.

Look! That’s our little girl up front pedalling with panniers on the new bike!

There were hundreds of cyclists enjoying the trail, though notably few tourers (no panniers). Apparently 10 years ago France had almost no cycle paths; now they are everywhere and very heavily used. Everyone goes on holiday with bikes on the back of their car or campervan, great to see.

Our Rosie xxx
Next time I think we’ll tour with individual bikes?

A little before La Palmyre we climbed the sand dunes to see why hundreds of cars had parked alongside the bike path.

Late in the day and the beach was still packed with sun-seekers. This stretched for miles!
We were homesick for Australia … even though we don’t like the beaches.

Tom recently reached 300 stickers for great team work and good behaviour and chose La Palmyre Zoo for his reward. Lucky Mum got to accompany him. Tom will blog about his day out, but Helen needs to share the story of how she watched a young polar bear swimming and doing back flips in the water for half an hour. Staggeringly beautiful and right up there with the best moments in her life.

What can I say?
What can I say?
And here he (?) comes again for another backflip. Aren't we lucky?
And here he (?) comes again for another backflip. Aren’t we lucky?

A new bike!

With Rosie’s friend Grace joining us in just one week (Rosie and Tom barely able to contain their excitement) we needed to free up a seat on the quad tandem and extend our tent/sleeping capacity.

Although EV1 from La Rochelle to Rochefort was unimpressive, often running alongside the freeway, it rather conveniently spat us out right next to Decathlon, the fabulous French chain of outdoor stores. Usually Decathlons are a long way out of town in industrial areas served by busy roads, so to find one next to an EV route was a sign to us that we should Shop Now.

An hour later, we rolled out on two bikes! Helen has Freedom! It felt unbelievably good and very, very peaceful! So now Shane’s rolling with over 100kg less as Helen carries the overflowing Ortlieb panniers and the ridiculously heavy iPad/camera bag.

A real bike! With moving handlebars!

Our cache also included a replacement helmet for Helen (crushed), new gloves for Shane (lost), monocular for Tom (saved pocket money) and the ubiquitous 2 second 30 euro Decathlon tent for Rosie and Grace to sleep in.

Ready for Grace!

Leaving very grand Rochefort the scenery improved rapidly. The Tourist Office gave us a very useful map of local cycle routes and we took their advice to follow a shortcut out of town connecting back up with EV1 south of Echillais‘ excellent bakery (first decent almond croissant in over a week!) at Saint Agnant.

Funky pedestrian ‘bridge thingy’ south of Rochefort

The cycling between St Agnant and Marennes was sublime. Narrow canals and wetlands rich with wildlife and flowers, illuminated by the sun of a long late summer evening – cycling doesn’t get much better than this.

The cycle path deteriorated somewhat, but the scenery improved.

Well it could have been a bit better for Shane, but Helen thought it was Absolutely Fabulous!!!

Shane, Rosie and Tom all commented on the lack of pedal power coming from now-empty Seat 4 – despite being 100kg lighter, the big bike was harder work. Being free of the front panniers though the bike was far less twitchy.

Arriving very late into Marennes after 65km and some splendid shopping, we accosted a local cyclist to determine the whereabouts of the municipal campsite and a supermarket.

Dominique turned out to be yet another remarkably polite and kind Frenchman who remarkably pedaled with Helen to the supermarket and then pedaled with all of us to the very fine municipal campsite at Marennes Plage. He was very effusive with his appreciation for our family adventure and his spirit added to the warm glow of the evening.

We’re really appreciating the flexibility an additional bike brings to our fold but it’s also a bit strange riding with an empty seat on the quad.

It was dark by the time we had our tents up!


OMG it bucketed down this morning! What a predictable welcome to the Atlantic! The kids were allowed some rare iPad game time as we stayed snuggled up in our tent, but eventually our appetites got the better of us. We relocated to the campsite’s marquee, where a boulangerie sets up daily for campers, and the baker put his kettle on for us!

By 2pm everything had dried out and we cycled off in search of the Eurovelo Route 1, aka Velodyssey.

We’ll be following these signs for a while

The Velodyssey is a marked cycle route which follows the Atlantic Coast from Norway to Portugal. We’re glad to follow it for a short time only; we’re not lovers of wind and sand and the Atlantic delivers more than its fair share of bad weather. There’s an excellent website for EV1 This nugget of gold displays recent reports from cyclists for each leg of the route, so we were able to learn that the route out of Marans is on a grassy MTB trail and cyclists recommended following a D road for the first 3km. We followed their advice, doubting that they could be right – this was Eurovelo 1 after all – but sure enough we saw the evidence. This gave us the jitters for what lay ahead.

20km further the route became grass again, but another quick D road deviation to Dompierre and we rejoined the route on a good quality compacted dirt trail.

Thunder rolled around us and we donned our rain jackets for the unremarkable ride into La Rochelle. Unremarkable save for the first signs of autumn; the leaves of the horse chestnut trees are the first to change the colour and the trail was littered with their orange leaves.

As we didn’t leave Marans until 2pm we didn’t give La Rochelle the time it probably deserved, just a quick stop to say g’day to the Atlantic and snap a photo of its famous port before running into McDonalds.

The lovely port town of La Rochelle

McDonalds in France deserves a few words. Firstly, no lurid plastic red and yellow signage here in France, no giant yellow arches; instead, discreet muted brown and yellow signs. Secondly, it’s very rare to find a McDonalds as a cyclist; they’re nearly always on the outskirts of towns on busy highways. Thirdly – and most importantly – it’s the only place in France to get a real Australian-style frothy latte or cappucino. French drink their coffee short and black and when they bow to the demands of tourists and make latte it’s with UHT milk and it tastes BAD.

Gosh! This place made us think of our friends Amber, Marcus and children who are sailing around the world right now – hello!

The route out of town tried too hard to hug the coast and set up for us an obstacle course of tight turns into narrow, short-lived shared paths, busy with pedestrians.

Over-cosy shared paths for a major cycle route
Over-cosy shared paths for a major cycle route

It was pleasant enough, but the coast is the coast and on a grey day it was just a windy place where the soil meets the sea.

We rolled into Camping Deux Plages La Corsaire where the staff were running around with silly pirate hats on their heads and an inaccessible pirate ship sat jauntily above the swimming pool. All the camping around here is expensive (it’s a big destination for European holidaymakers) so we thought we might as well go to one that would be fun for the kids, but it was disappointing on all fronts.

Arriving at 7pm we took the obligatory swim in the pool. Cold and wet, grey skies threatening more rain, wet and sandy panniers, an unsheltered and very public and sandy campsite – it was all too much. Without enquiring about the price, Helen announced she had upgraded us to an on-site cabin! Lots of whoopees from the kids and sighs of relief from Helen and Shane and we were drinking tea out of real cups, using our own shower, our own toilet, walking around in our undies and generally luxuriating in the simple little box we were calling home.

Luxury home!
Luxury home!

The next morning dawned fine and the kids had a quick bounce before we left.

Essential playtime. Not much homeschool happening lately...
Essential playtime. Not much homeschool happening lately…