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.

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Bridge over the Seudre, leaving Marennes – less than 1m wide with cars screaming past. Not nice.

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Oyster farms / mud flats, from the bridge. Not delightful!

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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.

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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.

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Our Rosie xxx

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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.

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Late in the day and the beach was still packed with sun-seekers. This stretched for miles!

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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?

Backflip!

Backflip!

And here he (?) comes again for another backflip. Aren't we lucky?

And here he (?) comes again for another backflip. Aren’t we lucky?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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Velodyssey

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.

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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 http://www.velodyssey.com. 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.

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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.

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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…

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3000km!

We are committed to keeping this blog as a keepsake for our family and for the enjoyment of our followers, but the other iPad stuff is a chore we would rather live without.

As well as using them for homeschool (although generally we prefer to work from books) we use them to check the weather, research upcoming routes, highlights, campsites and Warmshower opportunities, apply for house-sits (fruitless to date) and keep up with email and bills. The research benefits our trip, but this iPad time takes away from family time and we feel generally it is nothing more than a necessary evil. (Scrabble app excepted!)

Being without wifi from Saumur has meant our evenings are our own. There’s been more play time with the kids, more conversations as we ask locals instead of Google for information, more lying on our backs looking up at the sky. Our rest day in Magne was all the better for being wifi-less.

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From left: observatory, sacred site, town hall, library

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Time to lie back and look at the sky…

Shane took the kids fishing in the morning which delivered the usual challenges fishing delivers – broken line, the fish that got away, the fish that didn’t bite – and a catch of four small fish.

We learned that we had happened upon a very unique patch of France. The Marais-Poitevin area is a huge and wonderful wetland with over 4000km of canals, navigable and otherwise, and an extensive network of flat cycle paths to enjoy them. After the breath-taking ride into Magne last night we were eager to ride west through this area after our rest day.

Route 43 – Niort to Marans and EV1

The trail to Marans continued to deliver beautiful scenery, an interesting and varied trail, and some cute wildlife.

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Water rats – very cute indeed

If Route 43 was circuitous to Niort, it got completely out of hand after Magne. It twisted and turned towards – and alarmingly often, away from – Marans. We had to stay on red alert to spot the signs, often hidden away and once even pointing back the way we’d come!

Our fame from Le Courier de l’Ouest continued to annoy or titillate us, depending on our mood. Many people gave shouts of recognition as we cycled along.

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A very enthusiastic couple!

The ‘interesting trail’ featured a ridiculous number of very steep and narrow bridges, and not just one got the better of us.

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Little bit left, little bit left, little bit left…

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The lady here is hollering the bridal party in adjacent garden: minutes later, the groom and his friends air-lifted us over this obstacle!

After the ‘wedding stopper bridge’ – and given that by lunch time we had progressed about 5km as the crow flies- we proclaimed the obstacle-course-trail just too silly and took a perfectly sensible minor road along a major canal into Marans. I can’t say we flew along though; progress was hampered by sprays of fat and juicy blackberries and a rip-snorter of a headwind which saw Helen tucking in behind Rosie (quite a feat)!

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Long windy ride into town

We went to sleep very satisfied to have wound our way across country from Saumur to Marans, immensely relieved that tomorrow we would be following the less circuitous (hopefully) EV1, and looking forward to seeing the Atlantic Ocean 3000km after we last saw it in Den Helder!

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Le Thouet a velo continues

We’re under a bit of pressure to be in Bordeaux to meet Rosie’s friend Grace in 12 days. This changes things. Obliged to press on when we feel like resting, we have limited time for homeschool and our budget and appetites are getting out of hand as recovery food becomes a priority. It forces us out of the 100km per week stupor we slipped into with our friends on the Loire! Every afternoon we are exhausted; yet every morning we are thrilled to get back on the bike.

And so we set out for another medium-rated day of pedalling.

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First stop, the pretty village centre of Airvault

Le Thouet a velo – Day 3 Airvault to Parthenay

Stopping off in the very lovely village centre of Airvault to buy Le Courier de l’Ouest, in which we expected our story to be written, we discovered we were front page! We even won pride of place for the day, feature article on the banner outside the newsagents!

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FAMOUS!!!

We couldn’t stop giggling at our new found fame as the owners of the newsagent came out to see us on our ‘drole de velo’. As we rode out of town the streets were lined with well-wishers waving Australian flags! OK, I made that last bit up, but we were certainly now Highly Visible and for the next couple of days we had all sorts of people recognise and chat with us.

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Both Rosie and Tom were highly amused – we all were in fact.

Thanks Le Courier, you did a great job with our story and made our day 🙂

We got the cycling out of the way quickly, but it was a tough 30km and really hot.

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We were tempted to stay in this B&B in St Loup…

Ditching Le Thouet a velo, which has become unnecessarily ditsy, we followed a country road which ran parallel to an apparently unused railway and enjoyed the gentle if unending gradient up into Parthenay.

Moments after riding in through the rather splendid medieval gate of Parthenay, we fell into the first bar we saw which made up for its meagre portions of unexciting food with very friendly service. Part way through lunch the owners recognised us from the paper and we ended up writing in their guest book and arranging ourselves for yet another photo session!

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Medieval Parthenay

After another annoying helmet crush at the supermarket (bike fell over again, this time onto Helen’s helmet) we found our way to the well located and very good – but expensive – campsite. We were in the pool quickly; the weather’s up in the 30s again.

It was at Parthenay that we discovered the route we’re following is known as route 43 and now runs all the way through to Niort. It possibly continues to La Rochelle, but of course this is departmentalised France and so we can only find this out on arrival at Niort. Very, very silly.

Route 43 – Day 4 Parthenay to Niort

The 56km ride from Parthenay to Niort was Hot Hilly and Hungry. We should have followed the route Helen had mapped out to Coulon which had a good profile of a climb before a long and gradual descent onto the Niortais plain, but like lemmings we followed the signed bikepath. It was hard, hard work with unrelenting ups and downs. Helen set about shortening and flattening our day directing a number of obvious shortcuts.

The scenery – when we weren’t staring straight down at our sweat dripping onto the tarmac counting backwards from 100 to get up hills – was pleasant and bucolic with a couple of notable highlights.

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A local directed us to this Garden of Eden, an apple and pear garden behind the old monastery in a sleepy little village.

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Apples for public enjoyment. The pink one on the left was DIVINE!

At Niort we threw Argie Bargie up against a tree outside the first bar we saw and quenched our thirst.

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We cycled into Niort along this lovely waterway, but there wasn’t much else going for Niort.

Our hard day got worse as we learned that there was no campsite in town (we’ve been without wifi for a few days and are not as well-informed as usual). We discussed staying in a hotel but decided we’d rather blow our money on great food rather than on a questionably comfy bed, so pressed on to a campsite, fully committed to a three course dinner at our destination.

We’re all getting seriously and predictably hungry after four days of hard graft. Notably though, Rosie has, during the course of this bike ride, nurtured her already health appetite to one of O’Brien proportions.

Helen wandered over to the Tourist Office to seek more information on the bike path we knew followed the river west from Niort. She returned armed with nothing more than a badly photocopied bodged up map with no distance or direction on it, and hopelessly vague assurance from the hopelessly vague person in the Tourist Office that it would take “about two hours” to ride to the next campsite. By Helen’s reckoning from our 1:125,000 road map it would only be about 45 minutes along the river, so we pushed on hoping Helen was right.

Thankfully, the trail to Magne was as beautiful as any we’ve ridden on the trip; shady, peaceful and blissfully flat following a lily-laden crystal clear river full of fish. We duly arrived after 45 minutes, settled quickly and urgently (hungry, hungry) into a cool, green campsite run by a very friendly chap (another “hey! it’s you from the paper!” moment), leapt in and out of the adjacent municipal pool (hungrier, hungrier) and virtually sprinted down the road to an all-you-can-eat seafood buffet.

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Feast! Celebration of 3000km on the bike. And required recovery food!

We returned rather more sedately…

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Le Thouet a velo

Day 1 – Saumur to Thouars

Whoever designed the EV6 cycle route from Montsoreau to Saumur was overly proud of the regional troglodyte heritage, with twists and turns everywhere to explore subterranean dwellings. Interesting but frustrating cycling.

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Down into the old commercial centre when the locals lived underground

Once that was out of the way, we struck out up a new cycle route, Le Thouet a velo. Turned out this is route 43 which runs all the way to Marans via Parthenay and Niort – but we found that out as we went along. This route only opened beyond Parthenay in June 2013 so there’s a dearth of info on it. It wasn’t well signposted out of Saumur, but once on the trail it was very well indicated.

A couple of pastries in Saumur and we struck off into new territory, along the banks of the Thouet.

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Le Thouet, more tranquil than La Loire

Not five minutes along the way, a local journalist waved us down for our story and some photos…

Another five minutes in we were stopped again, this time by a barrier not built for regular tandems let alone our quad. Off with the trailer and rear panniers, through the barrier, back on with trailer and panniers. This is only the third time we’ve had to do this; not bad for nearly 3000km on our very long bike.

From then on, the day went from good to wonderful. The weather was magnificent! The soft summer sun reflected off the river onto the fluttering leaves of the tree-lined banks. Lily pads decorated the mirrored surface of the Thouet. Modest white tufa-stone church steeples pushed up above lego-block grapevines. A two-stoned clapper bridge reached impossibly across the river amongst pink flowers and tall lime green rushes. It was a very different landscape to the Loire.

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How old is this? And how did they put the stones there?

The houses changed too. No bombed and reconstructed buildings here; no status symbols; red Mediterranean-style terracotta tiles topped crumbling un-quarried stone houses in place of the fine black slate roofs and fine homes of the Loire.

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Flower-lined walls are part of the scenery in this region

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No Loire pretence here!

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We never see anyone tending these garden beds yet they’re everywhere

Montreuil Bellay, our fortuitously planned lunch stop, is perhaps the most picture-postcard town we have seen on this trip. Naturally, we felt obliged to indulge in a menu du jour and soak up the views of the barbican and spires of the citadelle.

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Fairytale. Castles don’t look much better than this.

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Kids were very excited by their lunch

The final 30km into Thouars flew by, simply enjoying the pretty Thouet river.

The campsite presented the perfect end to the day. Not because it was shady and friendly and quiet (SO pleased to leave the Loire crowds behind) but because it was at the bottom of a 12% hill and not at the top!

Day 2 on Le Thouet a velo – Thouars to Airvault

Clearly there’s not much big news in this rural part of France – or perhaps we’re more of a sight than we realise – but the journalist from Saumur phoned his charming colleague in Thouars who came to our campsite this morning for more photos and words for a story in tomorrow’s paper. By the time this was completed, together with wildlife spotting (Tom was intrigued for an hour or more by tiny little mice scurrying in the hedges and both kids got to see red squirrels jumping up the trees) we had a late start.

A stiff start to the day with a long push up the 12% grade we’d avoided last night. Thouars turned out to be a very nice town but deathly quiet, most of the shops were shut and there was no-one around. Is this just rural Deux-Sèvres dying a slow death or did we visit on a special day? We found a cyber cafĂ© for homeschool where the owner was quite happy to sell us canned drinks at cost and then he also locked up and disappeared, leaving us sitting outside his cafĂ© explaining to occasional hopefuls that il est disparu.

We started this much hillier and less scenic 30km with a massive navigational faux-pas, with Helen confidently directing us into a dead end at the bottom of a hill on the wrong side of the river. The bike route brochure rated today as medium difficulty, we would hate to experience a hard rated day.

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Snacks under the old bridge before Airvault. This stretch of river was a breeding ground for brilliant blue dragonflies. We watched them for ages.

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The old stuff’s everywhere

It all came to a fine end though, as is often the case. We cooled off with beers and ice creams at a very fine campsite run and frequented by mostly English people, at Airvault.

We passed a particularly pleasant evening in the company of Bob and Lee from Stratford upon Avon who were very keen to have us visit them in the UK. Both teachers, we received welcome reassurance that we’re going OK homeschooling the kids, after Rosie sat up late chatting with them animatedly about our trip to date. With Rosie very passionate about Shakespeare (after a year with an inspirational teacher, Jen, at her primary school in Canberra) we will add Stratford upon Avon to our list of UK destinations.

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Farewell to the Loire

After a brief tour of Henri and Marie-HĂ©lène’s garden (and the season’s first handful of blackberries), they cycled with us into Chinon where we all bought fruit and veg from the farmers market. Finding good quality fruit and veg is a challenge when you travel so this was a real treat.

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Henri lead us to lovely Chinon, with Helene behind us.

Many photos and goodbyes later we settled into one of nicest squares of the trip for coffee and homeschool.

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Homeschool starts again

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We were distracted from homeschool by Mr Pigeon taking a shower

A quick dash up to the castle for the view and we were on our way.

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Typical countryside en route to Saumur

Yet again we failed to find the reserves to pedal to our intended destination and pulled up short in Montsoreau (our justification for this was our recollection that Saumur campsite was over-priced and over-flowing). Montsoreau campsite turned out to be equally pricey but a lot of fun, with a dedicated cyclists’ shelter with fridges and two bunk rooms, one of which was perched tree-house like atop the shelter.

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Wish every campsite offered this!

A very nice bunch of Belgian girls had hogged the treehouse the first night and withdrawn close to midnight screaming because of spiders. We had a good Aussie laugh at that. The second night we moved into the treehouse and Rosie and Helen duly withdrew close to midnight because of spiders! Although relatively small and harmless, they were prolific after dark and the prospect of them scuppering into our sleeping bags was too much. So Rosie and I stealthily re-erected the tent and relocated ourselves.

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only the boys were brave enough…

North or South?

Monday 19th represented a major turning point for us. There has been much debate as to whether we turn north for Normandy and a September arrival in England by ferry, or turn south to complete our Tour de France with better weather allowing us to ride into October, making to England with Ryan Air. The decision has largely been influenced by the potential arrival of Rosie’s dear friend Grace, keen to join us for a few weeks.

It’s been quite an exercise but the universe always delivers a solution. The solution this time came from Bridget (mountain bike buddy from Canberra, famous for having other people’s children in tow and saying yes to every opportunity) who is flying to France early September and agreed to have Grace accompany her. This is a double winner for us as Bridget’s son Hamish is one of Tom’s favourite playmates, so not only does Rosie get to travel with Grace for a few weeks, but Tom and Helen get to catch up with their very fine friends as well. It’s taken quite a bit of coordination, but Helen’s now famous for that!

So South we go! We have stumbled upon a new cycle route from Saumur to a little beyond Parthenay, the Thouet Ă  Velo (Le Thouet is a river that flows into the Loire). From there it’s about 80km to La Rochelle on the Atlantic Coast, and then another 200km of cycling to reach Bordeaux. Grace will join us there and together we will pedal across to the Mediterranean. Helen is very excited as she will need to ride a separate bike to make room for Grace on the tandem. She can’t wait to have moving handlebars and freedom!

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