Day 14: Saint-Benoit-sur-Loire to La Ferté-Saint-Aubin. Équipe Downhill’s Ultimate Day of cycling the Eurovelo 6

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Équipe Downhill’s final pastry tasting: in Châteauneuf-sur-Loire

Day 14 (a.k.a. Équipe Downhill’s Ultimate Day of cycling together) dawns with blue skies, and predictions for warm temperatures; a perfect day for cycling. We do a bit of desultory foraging at La Madeleine‘s breakfast buffet: an extra yoghurt for later; an orange; a couple of bits of baguette; but our hearts aren’t really in it. There’s some sadness in the air—as you’d expect when friends part after 14 days of living in close quarters, cycling together along shaded canals and rivers, exploring village squares and churches, picnicking, dodging rain showers, and discussing life. Sharing pastries for two weeks straight is just a sweeter version of breaking bread together, and we seem to take a few more group selfies throughout the morning, perhaps to help hold on to all the wonderful memories we’ve made.

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Starting selfie: Hotel La Madeleine

It’s been an amazing trip: all the way from Switzerland under our own power (we describe it thus to distinguish ourselves from those who ride electric bicycles—for whom we have a lot of respect, too, I hasten to add). Even having skipped a short bit by train on Day 2, we will have pedaled more than 700 km by the end of Day 14 (743 km for those who prefer precision). As A phrases it while we’re trying to put this into perspective: that’s like cycling from Vancouver to Prince George, or Stratford to Montreal, or Nice to Rome.

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Approaching Châteauneuf-sur-Loire

 

From Saint-Benoit-sur-Loire we continue west along the Loire towards Châteauneuf-sur-Loire, where we plan to have our final Équipe Downhill Official Pastry Tasting. As with much of Day 13, the cycle path is along the top of the levees, which guard against seasons of heavy rain. We’ve occasionally seen high-water marks engraved on the sides of buildings located near the river, so we know the risk is real, even though the Loire seems quite tranquil now.

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Cracking the 700 km barrier

Just before Châteauneuf-sur-Loire, J announces that we’ve cracked the 700 km barrier, which seems a good excuse for another group selfie.

 

In Châteauneuf-sur-Loire we find an excellent patisserie (excellent patisseries seem to be the rule rather than the exception in France), one which claims to make all of their pastries in-house. We join the queue, and salivate while considering: Pavé Castelneuvien or Charlotte Framboise? Sabatier, or another Paris Brest? One pastry? Or might two be better?

 

By the time we reach the register we’ve decided: two pastries seem appropriate for this special occasion; our selections: a Millefeuille Nature (with the optional green glazing) and a Trois Fruits Rouges. These are documented, divided, and eaten with our coffees at a nearby café, A sporting a rose in his bicycle helmet for the occasion. Meanwhile, across the street, bells sound a melancholy funeral toll, and mourners watch as a flag-draped coffin is carried solemnly from the local church. Memento mori.

 

Friday happens to be market day in Châteauneuf-sur-Loire, and the merchants have set up their stands around, and beneath, the town’s old (circa 1903) roofed market shelter. We walk our velos carefully through the aisles, admiring the things we don’t have space to carry (though J does make one purchase from a crazed—or is he merely leering?—day-vendor: an extensible magnetic device for picking up boules: a birthday gift for M).

 

Châteauneuf-sur-Loire is the first bridge over the Loire west of Saint-Benoit-sur-Loire, so it’s the first opportunity for J & I to veer off the Eurovelo 6 route to head towards La Ferté-Saint-Aubin. After crossing the bridge (which is undergoing maintenance work) we finally reach the point of parting: another group selfie, a round of hugs, and before you know it we’re each pedaling off on our respective ways.

 

A’s route will take him into Orléans (hopefully via a proper cycle path); J & I will pick our way cross-country, using a combination of GPS, maps.me, and a photographed section of Michelin map. The terrain is mostly flat, and forested; we picnic at a crossroads in the forest, about 12 km from our destination.

 

In La Ferté we select some bio wine, and (why not!) some pastries for our hosts: D, and the lovely L (who introduces us to her menagerie of escargots). Later, we are joined by E, who is returning from a conference on Ursula Le Guin and the Anthropocene, held in Paris (“Héritages d’Ursula Le Guin : Science, fiction et éthique pour l’Anthropocène”).

 

And this is where we’ll end Day 14—and our adventures on the Eurovelo 6; all’s well that ends well.

The members of Équipe Downhill thank you for your kind attention; we hope that you’ve enjoyed the ride.

Next stop for us is Paris. A bientôt!

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Day 13: Briare to Saint-Benoit-sur-Loire. Our penultimate day of cycling

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On the grounds of the château in Sully-sur-Loire

Hard to believe that A, J & I have just two more days of cycling together. One and a half days actually, since early in Day 14 we will part ways, with A continuing to Orléans while J & I veer off the Eurovelo 6, away from the Loire, to head towards the village of La Ferté-Saint-Aubin, where we will spend a couple of days visiting with friends.

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Équipe Downhill and “stalker”

On Day 13 the sky looks dangerous: dark clouds in the west, but no rain falling as we pack up and prepare to depart. While we are taking our starting selfie in front of the Auberge du Pont-Canal, our “stalker,” Urs, photobombs us. He’s taking a different route, cutting across a section of the Berry region via small roads to bypass Orléans, then rejoining the Eurovelo 6 and continuing to the sea at Nantes. We say our goodbyes and wish him bon route.

Before crossing the Pont-Canal, A, J & I head into Briare, to visit the church, with its simple but beautiful floor mosaics. In the town square stages and awnings are being set up, preparing for a town fête. We watch their labours with interest from our café table (this is one of the particular pleasures of retirement: watching other people work).

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Patisserie in Briare

There’s a fine patisserie on the square, so we decide to do our Daily Pastry Tasting here in Briare; a bird in hand etc. We are particularly intrigued with a pastry called Gland. But I can’t shake the thought that the pastry chef might have some sort of special arrangement with a local surgeon—so the Gland remains untasted.

Instead of the Gland we choose a Délice de Briare, which you see above (for those wishing to reverse engineer: pastry crust, whipped chocolate ganache; almond paste, liqueur-soaked cherry; white chocolate shavings, meringue).

Departure is delayed due to rain, but eventually we start out: across the Loire via the Pont-Canal. Through the morning we admire flowers in the fields, a tasteful chateau in Sully-sur-Loire, and the view of Gien with its beautiful stone bridge, from the opposite bank of the Loire.

Lunch in Lion-en-Sullias, with its 11th C church and amazing 16th C caquetoire (such a great word: a place where people chatter). For some reason the town has decided to distinguish itself from other French villages with 11th C churches and 16th C caquetoires, by encouraging its citizens to do clever things with decorated plastic chairs at the end of their driveways. A bad idea.

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The biker bar at the Hotel La Madeleine

In the early evening, checking into our hotel in Saint-Benoit-sur-Loire (La Madeleine), we’re offered a choice of rooms: one under the eaves, with an angled ceiling (the hotel manager forms a small tent with his hands to illustrate), the other with a more standard ceiling (hands illustrating a rectangle). We chose the room under the eaves, and bang our heads repeatedly while unpacking.

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A, tucked under the eaves of the Hotel La Madeleine

Update on ‘riding’ and ‘wearing’ on the No. 6

There are a variety of groups using the Eurovelo route Six. Occasional blade skate groups on the smoother sections.

But mostly it’s small groups of cyclists that are found on the No 6. However, cycling is a broad category as shown by these US ‘bicycles’ that have been designed for runners…or at least, that appears to be the ‘unique selling feature’.

There are two main groups of touring cyclists. Those that are staying in hostels/gîtes/chambers d’hôtes/hotels etc and those that are camping. The camping cyclist carries plenty more equipment, often in a trailer. There is the long-wheel based trailer

and the ‘shopping trolley’ approach.

img_1921Carrying camping gear can also be achieved with a bike alone, as long as it is well packed. Below is an example of experienced touring cyclists from South Africa and New Zealand.

img_2007Lastly, a brief look at two eye-catching styles in men’s cycling wear.  There is our Swiss friend Urs’s versatile rolled up trousers. There’s no chain grease on these trousers and they can easily rolled down for more formal events?

img_2081But there can only be one prize for the most elegant and practical cycling clothing, and that has to go to M’s ‘shower hat’ helmet, or as the French say…mon casque de douche (and the Finnish, minun suihku hattu kypärä)

Signs and Surfaces: Navigating the Eurovelo 6

It’s J here. Now in the final day of our cycling expedition, it’s time to reflect on the amazing infrastructure and support in place for those cycling in France. Perhaps it stems from the French love of cycling (reverence for the Tour de France) or simply recognizing the economic opportunities of cycle tourism, making use of existing canal paths, country roads, and former rail beds. What’s remarkable is the distances one is able to travel with no or only limited car traffic.

Here are a collection of photos brought to you by Équipe Downhill that give you a sense of what to expect on the road should you decide to cycle the Eurovelo 6.

First of all, the route markers are very clear. There are multiple Eurovelo routes in Europe, so look for the number 6 and/or specific place destinations on your way.

Since the Eurovelo 6 takes you along regular  roads as well as dedicated bike routes, it’s comforting to see signs such as the one below. (Some roads have so little traffic and are narrower than North American roads, that you can forget when you’re not on a dedicated road. We’ve estimated that we’ve been on greenways more than half the time.)

On some roads, drivers are even told how much clearance to give cyclists. This we encountered as we approached Sancerre on Day 11.

When on roads, motorists get lots of warning that they’re likely to encounter cyclists. (Be careful though when you’re entering and exiting larger towns when you need to be much more vigilant.)

Warnings about road surfaces ahead are sometimes posted, such as this one about tree roots.

And of course, how long it takes you to get from A to B depends a lot on road surfaces. While most are smooth and paved, short distances can be rough or otherwise slow you down. All in all, it’s a dream cycling the Eurovelo 6.

Day 12: Saint-Satur to Briare. We reach Eiffel’s Pont-Canal

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The Auberge du Pont-Canal in Briare

Due mainly (but not exclusively) to the poor WiFi at our hotel in Briare, today’s posting has been delayed; we apologize to our Premium Subscribers. By way of compensation, head office staff has been instructed to issue a special discount code, good for 25% off all merchandise sold in our online shop; use code EV6 when placing your orders.

After 11 days of cycling, routines develop: wake to a 6:50 alarm; a bleary breakfast at 7:30 (croissant, bread/butter/jam, cheeses, yoghurt, coffee, juice); forage for a picnic lunch; check out of the hotel/auberge/chambre d’hôte/gîte (& pay any foraging fines); load panniers onto our bikes; start another day on the Eurovelo 6; Day 12 followed this pattern.

 

As has been mentioned before, the Eurovelo 6 route is extremely popular: we’re always crossing paths with other long-distance cyclists, from many nations: German, Swiss, Belgian, French; today we had a good chat with a couple of experienced cyclists from South Africa (he: a New Zealander; she: South African) who’ve been cycling in France since April.

 

As we’re exchanging anecdotes and notes (recommended app: bicycle.travel; recommended place to stay in Bourbon-Lancy: Chez Mimi), a young German cyclist joins us. He’s heading east, and points to his two partially flattened tires, asks for help. He’s cycled all the way from Germany, camping along the way. He’s heading to Lyon—but had not thought to replace his worn tires before setting out; nor had he brought a proper patch kit or a set of tools; now he’s got two slowly-leaking tires. He’s left his tent and gear about 6 km back, hoping to find a bicycle shop in Belleville-sur-Loire—which is in the opposite direction to the way that he’s heading. “Do you have a GPS?,” we ask, concerned. “Oh yes,” he says. “Everything is under control.” Faced with such unbounded (and unfounded) optimism, there’s not much I can do but help him patch one of the leaks, give him some extra patches and my extra tube of rubber cement, and wish him well.

 

When we reach Belleville-sur-Loire we stop for lunch at a roadside restaurant decorated with music posters (and the best collection of politically incorrect scale model musicians I’ve seen…)

 

On the pastry front: regular readers will know that Équipe Downhill takes its responsibilities as Roving Pastry Samplers seriously. Which is why we’re discouraged at the lack of pastry and café opportunities along this section of the route. We detour from the Eurovelo route to investigate Beaulieu-sur-Loire; café: check; patisserie across the street: closed. The ever-hopeful J goes on a foraging expedition, returning shortly with a big smile, and carrying a cleverly constructed paper pyramid, which contains not one, but two of the pastries requested by readers through our Pastry Tasting Service: a Baba au Rhum and a Tarte au Citron.

 

Post-pastry, we rejoin the Eurovelo route, crossing the Loire just south of Briare, where we wait out a brief downpour.

 

 

Tonight we’re staying at the Auberge du Pont Canal in Briare, in their last-remaining room, booked earlier this morning. The Auberge is one of those slightly-faded places, with a great terrace, and a perfect location overlooking the north end of the Pont-Canal at Briare. The Pont-Canal is a Jules-Vernian marvel, and was a remarkable engineering achievement in its day (it was built between 1890 and 1894, and for 107 years was the longest navigable aqueduct in the world).

img_3257As I think was noted in an earlier post, the Pont-Canal was built to carry the waters of the Canal Lateral à la Loire over the Loire, connecting with the Canal de Briare. The decorative parts of the Pont-Canal are the work of Gustave Eiffel, with the overall design done by others; but Gustave seems to get credit for the whole thing.

 

As we’re locking our bicycles behind the Auberge, A thinks he recognizes Urs’s bicycle, also locked, and sure enough: our “stalker,” Urs, is staying at the same hotel; we’ve been leapfrogging each other since Verdun-sur-le-Doubs. The four of us have dinner on the hotel’s terrace, Urs suggesting that we might be the stalkers, rather than he. After dinner: a stroll to admire the Pont-Canal at dusk. Returning, we are amazed to spot a large, beaver-like critter paddling in the canal with one of its young. Wildlife experts among our readership are encouraged to help us identify this creature.

 

Tomorrow we will cross the Loire once more, this time via Gustave’s Pont-Canal, to start our penultimate day of cycling.

Day 11: Cuffy to Saint-Satur. We dare to eat a Pêche

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The église in La Charité-sur-Loire

After a delicious petit déjeuner at Le Nid du Marinier we set out from Cuffy, following the Loire and the Canal Lateral à la Loire, which parallels the river between Digoin and Briare. Along the canal path we see the bornes, or distance markers (anyone else play the card game Milles Bornes as a child?). Every now and then we spot one of the old cylindrical markers, which show the kilometers to the canal endpoints. I’d wondered: why Briare? Why not give the distance to Orléans, a more important city? A’s suggestion: another canal? And in fact Briare marks one end of the Canal de Briare, one of the oldest canals in France, connecting the Loire to the Seine.

A & I cycled this first section of canal in 2015 in the opposite direction. At one point, as we pause to photograph a scenic section with its lock, things click into place: I’d photographed this same lock before. J takes a photo of the two of us beside the lock keeper’s hut to commemorate this encounter with the past.

At times we’re cycling along long sections of a reclaimed railway line. It can in fact become a bit monotonous (the railway lines tended to avoid trees, perhaps because of the risk of fire from sparks, while the canal paths are shaded by trees).

We take our morning café and bakery stop in the first sizable town: La Charité-sur-Loire, site of an ancient priory, one of the satellites of the great abbey at Cluny. Later we learn that this is where Joan of Arc, the Maid of Orléans, was captured by Burgundian forces. The steeple of Sainte-Croix-Notre-Dame towers above us from across the street while we trisect (and photograph) our Patisserie du Jour: une Pêche.

I’d remembered seeing a recent reference somewhere that La Charité-sur-Loire was the village where Barbara-Jo, a much-loved Vancouver foodie and bookseller, had moved after closing her Books To Cooks bookstore. She’d written a bit about her plans on her blog, with a contact email, so I’d sent off a message the previous evening to say that a couple of Vancouver cyclists (and an Irishman) would be passing through her town. She’d responded with an invitation to drop by, so when we arrive at La Charité-sur-Loire we use GPS to find her door, not far from the église. We knock and are ushered into the cool interior.

She’s done amazing things in restoring the ancient stone house, which has a hidden courtyard garden and a deep well, which may at one time have served as the town’s well. She plans to offer food-themed stays to guests when the renovations are complete. Visit Barbara-Jo’s blog for updates.

This night we’re staying at a hotel in Saint-Satur, which is situated just below the hill-top town of Sancerre. After checking in, and performing the usual end-of-cycling-day rituals (shower, hand laundry, a change of clothes) we set off, uphill, walking through the fields and vineyards planted (mainly) in Sauvignon blanc.

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Walking through fields and vineyards to Sancerre for dinner

Barbara-Jo had recommended three restaurants in Sancerre, and after scanning menus we opted for La Tour, where we had a sumptuous multi-course meal (I think our digestive tracts were stunned, being more accustomed to bread and cheese). Afterwards, we stroll downhill through the warm night air, lighting our way with iPhone flashlights, and watching the just-past-full moon rise over the vineyards.

 

Day 10: Decize to Cuffy. We crack the 500 km barrier

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Cycling beside the Canal Lateral à la Loire in the early morning

Day 10 is a record day for Équipe Downhill. At the end of the day, in Cuffy, when J adds our day’s km to the running total, she gleefully confirms that we’ve cracked the 500 km barrier: 531 km from Basel to here (we’re not including the ~100 km we skipped—and looked longingly at through a rainy train window—on Day 3).

img_9670In an even more astonishing development, we realize that Day 10 has been our first no-pastry day! We’re not entirely sure how to explain this derangement: distractions, fatigue, lack of opportunity (most bakeries close on Monday; and we think Day 10 has been a Monday…) This lack of pastry may explain the trembling in A’s hands: withdrawal symptoms. We apologize to our followers, and vow to redouble our efforts; there is a growing backlog of requests which have come in through our Pastry Tasting Service hotline.

The highlight of Day 10, though, is our lunch with Monsieur et Mme B, the parents of D, whom you first met on Day 7. As readers will recall, D is one of the children of la famille B, whom I’d met in 1980, on my first bicycle trip though France. After 39 years, I’d managed to contact D via Facebook, just before this trip. I’d learned from D that her parents’ health had declined, that they had sold the family home in Cuffy to move into assisted living in Nevers, about 15 km away. Monsieur et Mme B had invited us to have lunch with them there.

 

We leave Decize by 8:00, our earliest start yet, in order to make it to Nevers by lunch time. The sun is low, and the air cool beside the canal: perfect cycling weather.

 

Nevers is a large, busy, noisy town, and we approach it with caution, sneaking in from the south on a branch of the Canal Lateral à la Loire. We do a minimum of tourism—a quick peek into the cathedral; a respectful pause as we cycle past the Ducal Palace—while picking our way through the twisting streets.

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At the entrance to the assisted living facility

Outside the assisted living facility, we take a group selfie with the decorative blue hippopotamus—because this is what one does when confronted by a blue hippopotamus outside an assisted living facility in France.

 

Monsieur et Mme B meet us in the lobby, and I am quite moved to see the effects of time, and failing health. They, in turn, have some difficulty recognizing me, since time spares no one; but eventually we sort everyone out. I present Mme B with a small gift—some maple syrup—that we’ve brought from Vancouver. After lunch, as we say our goodbyes, we thank them both for their welcome and their generosity, and I thank them again for their kindness to a solitary cyclist so many years ago.

 

Later that afternoon, about 11 km from Nevers, the Canal Lateral à la Loire crosses the Allier: another pont-canal. As we walk our bikes across the Allier, I see below us the beach at le Bec d’Allier, the setting for the photograph of my younger self with the four B children, nearly 40 years ago.

 

After checking in to our chambre d’hôte, le Nid du Marinier, I walk down a lane just behind the hôte, and find the B’s family home, where Monsieur et Mme B had lived, and raised their family, from the mid-1960s until their move into assisted living a couple of years ago.

 

The new owners of the B’s old family home have been renovating; they’ve coated the stones with something that gives the front facade a contemporary sheen. A woman watches me curiously from an upper window of the house; after she descends, I explain why I’m there. I show her the old photograph of myself standing in her front doorway with Mme B beside me; the post box is gone, but the stones around the doorway match.

So much has changed since those photographs were taken, but I expect that the home will still be standing a hundred years from now, long after Monsieur et Mme B—and we—are gone.