We had glorious weather and a very scenic introduction to the Loire a Velo (Loire bike route). This section of the Loire valley is composed of massive deposits of tufa stone... a soft, easily carved rock that is used for building and lends itself to huge burrows and caves. All along the Loire major populations lived underground for centuries and became known as Troglodytes. Today you can explore these dwellings, caves (of course wine caves), and tunnels - and you can even stay in them if you feel so inclined. Nearly all buildings in this area are at least partially underground and many have only a door into the rock and a chimney to indicate their presence. Huge colonies and extended families lived underground and whenever a new person was added, they simply carved out a new room in the rock. Entire wineries and other factories are entirely underground. Our first major stop on the Loire was Saumur. We got a very nice Airbnb house with a sunny deck and garden. The Saumur castle was huge and somewhat daunting.
Catching up on the blog. sorry for the delays... more on the why's later.
We really enjoyed Angers - lots to see and a great castle. And the amazing and massive Apocalypse Tapestry which dates from the 1300s and is still gorgeous - even I was impressed.
From Angers we set out toward Saumur - and FINALLY the Loire! Our first adventure was a long 10km trail winding trail through a park with deep quarries and huge slag hills made from the remains of slate mines. What an enterprise and no wonder every building for hundreds of miles around has a slate roof! They even serve food on slate plates!
After that we encountered a hand operated ferry, and then got on a high-speed highway by mistake, but eventually did make it to the Loire, and then on to Saumur.
Did you ever wonder what it would be like to live in an artist's or poet's garret in France? I did! From the time I was in High School I dreamed about my garret - it must have been that romantic English teacher's influence. Now I have a pretty good idea what it was like and I was not disappointed - it really IS romantic! We are comfortably settled in the attic of a 400 year old building in the oldest section of Angers (for fellow Americans without much French - it's pronounced onJAY (soft French J) - and Le Lion d'Angers has nothing to do with Angry Lions). Our particular garret was once again arranged through AirBNB and as you can see in the photos it is a perfect spot for us to enjoy this beautiful city and lay plans to begin our journey up the Loire Valley.
That building on the left is our Inn for the night! Located in an ancient mill beside a lock.
We fretted all night about the train ride from Rennes to Laval - and sure enough it was an ordeal. The French stations are all alike in that they don't announce the track/platorm until a few minutes before the train leaves - who knows why - it's the French way. Since we can't move unless our bikes are loaded up... and since the bikes don't fit in the elevators unless they are unloaded and stood on end and since you never know where the bike cars are going to be.... the whole thing is an exercise in frustration with potential for strains, sprains and other injury, not to mention missed trains... we did manage to get on.board and somehow get the bikes secured.... mine had to hang by its front wheel and Jim's was jammed in a corner behind 2 other bikes... Then when we arrived in Laval there were no elevators at all but 2 double flights of stairs to get to street level. We vowed not to take any more trains until we absolutely have to.
Laval is a fun city with cafes along the canal. Our hotel was a boring Etape (economy chain) Kyriad but very convenient in that we could pull the bikes right up to the room instead of lugging bags all over the place.
Nearly all the restaurants are closed - the French all go on holiday during August so a lot of things are closed. (this is also the French way - to close all the tourist facilities during tourist season.) We were too tired to ride back into town so we just had crackers and cheese for dinner which did not hurt us after all the French food, which is way too rich for us and too late at night.
Our first day on the Mayenne tow path was just about perfect - sunny and no wind, a gorgeous canal and a great trail! We had a short and scenic 30 km ride with NO navigation stops or reverses - just lots of photo-op-stops as evidenced in the slide show. LOTS of fishing going on all along the canal - note the multi-pole rig in the photo. Nearly everyone had 6-10 poles but we never saw anyone catch anything. We arrived early at our Inn, which is in an ancient mill at one of the canal locks. We enjoyed taking photos, working on the blog and a nice cold dinner in the kitchen of the small inn.
We had 2 nights in Rennes one cheap and one expensive that averaged out to our budget. The first was the Votaire - a couple of miles from the centrum in a very funny, quirky old 1950s type hotel with all sorts of funky memorabilia including manequins hiding in corners and old obscure movie and rock star posters. The room was tiny but adequate since we hardly spent any time there. We thought we were the only ones there, but in the morning the breakfast was mobbed with Italians who must have arrived late at night.
With google's help we found a nice bike trail along a canal - of course lined with boats including the indomitable "Marguerite". The trail lead almost to the heart of the old city avoiding much of the traffic we encountered yesterday.
From there we were able to find a great bike shop just north of Les Hall that fixed a few bike issues. Then we scoped out our expensive second night's hotel at Sympohonie des Sens. This was a recommendation by Maggie LaCoste who writes "Experience France by Bike.com" and it turned out to be a great find. Right in the heart of the old town an elegant medieval mansion complete with massive staircase, lounge with huge fireplace and central courtyard.
We had a memorable stay there and it really set the tone for a tour of Rennes. On Friday night Les Hall was deserted and looked like nothing would ever happen there... by Saturday morning it was transformed into a thriving marketplace with everything imaginable for sale.
After a lot of research at home, it turned out the best way to get from Belgium to the Britanny/Loire region was to go from Lille on the one TGV a day that both allows bikes and does not require a station change in Paris. So we headed south from Ghent toward Lille with an overnight stop at an AirBNB room just south of Oudenaarde.
Lille was a bit of a culture shock - going in a few hours from quaint quiet countryside to bustling transportation interchange metropolis. We were a bit apprehensive about cycling into a big French city and coping with language problems, the infamous French attitude, and massive urban sprawl - but it turned out to be much better than we feared. We only had to ride on really busy streets for a few miles and the rest was mostly roads with only moderate traffic and at least some semblance of a bike lane. Unlike Holland and Belgium there weren't lots of cyclists around, but people in cars were mostly polite and considerate. Once in the centrum there were elevated roads and tracks everywhere and we had no idea where to go because the address of the Airbnb apartment wasn't correct. We called the owner and eventually met up with him in front of a huge highrise.. We convinced him we needed to bring the bikes up in the elevator so after a series of tight squeezes, secret codes and keys we were finally admitted to a starkly modern efficiency apartment that reminded us of Korea. But It actually was quite comfy and had all we needed. Then came the problem of scoping out the massive train station... We talked to the ticket person and she explained that they don't announce the track/platform number until 15 minutes before departure. It comes up on a huge display like in an airport and then there is a mad scramble to get down to the platform and to a small display that directs you to the right car.
We rehearsed the train scenario a couple of times, but even so when the time came the next morning it was a real scramble. We got to the station early and had time to buy a sandwich for the train ride. We didn't see any other bikers. In fact we were such a novelty one French guy insisted on having his photo taken with me and my bike! We got down the elevator OK, but then the small display was to the right at car H... and our car of course turned out to be at W as far as possible in the opposite direction. We ran as fast as we could down the platform and with huge shots of adrenalin were able to shove the bikes with bags attached onto the car... then came the problem of removing the packs and literally hanging the bikes by the front wheels! Remember these bikes weigh 50 pounds each.
Somehow we got all this done and the rest of the trip was smooth sailing all the way past Paris and on to Rennes in Britanny. Once in Rennes the problems started all over... the elevator was way too small for the bikes so we had to remove all the packs and stand the bikes up on back wheels one at a time and and then the packs... so 3 separate trips. And then once in the station there seemed no way to get to the street level, but we finally figured out a way to slip out through the car park level.
Leaving Bruges and getting to Ghent was a piece of cake! We had a lovely canal trail and a downwind sail the entire way. First time we haven't had the wind in our face since leaving Haarlem! Getting TO Ghent was no problem but getting THROUGH Ghent to our place on the far side proved another matter entirely. The plan was to skirt along the north side of the city, but both our navie-buddies failed us and we somehow wound up going through some very unsavory neighborhoods and landing right in the middle of the bustling city - throngs of traffic and a baffling system of very wide very deep trolley track ditches going in all directions and reaching out to grab our tires. By the time we got to our AirBNB stay in Destelbergen, we were totally exhausted. I've learned that my state of exhaustion has more to do with the number of times I've had to dismount and restart than with the actual number of kms traveled, and this day I must have gone through that sequence at least 2000 times.
Nevertheless we finally did make it to the home of our friendly host Bob Rubens and his wife, and got settled in our perfectly lovely garden apartment. We stayed 3 nights here and thoroughly enjoyed it. Bob was the friendliest, most accommodating host we've had - he even rode around on his bike with us to show us the neighborhood, the secret paths, and the best way to get to restaurants and shops. He is a retired pharma executive who has lived all over the world and so was very knowledgeable about economics and politics as well as the local area. He invited us to spend evenings with him and his wife on their patio. It was a delightful stay. One day we pedaled back into Gent and toured the castle and got replacement keys made to replace the ones that were stolen. The other day we just relaxed and enjoyed our comfortable dwelling.
What is this picture? ? Is this the way Jim looks in the morning getting in to his bike shorts? Or is it the emblem for the famous Brugse Zot Beer? YES! You can read the story of the beloved Brugse Zot mascot - Joker, Jester or Fool - in the slide show..
We spent 2 days in Bruges. I'm sorry for the photo-overload in this post but Bruges has to be one of the most photogenic cities in the world.... you can't walk a block without taking a picture!
We got a hotel close to the centrum and they let us drop our bags. So that day we biked around most of the day, scoping things out and seeing the things far from our hotel. After checking in they let us put our bikes in the cellar. so we left them there and explored on foot on day 2. There is a canal around most of the outside of the Centrum that continues on to Ghent, and of course a cycle path all along the canal.
We noticed that the tour of the ancient Halve Maan (Half Moon) Brewery (where our favorite Brugse Zot or "joker" beer is brewed) got very crowded so we made that one of our first stops on day two and were glad we did. The brewery tour was really a highlight... imagine the same family brewing in the same place and with some of the same equipment for 6 centuries! Also the restaurant was great and it's really hard to beat a fresh draft Zot right where it's brewed!
There was an incredible amount of barge traffic on the small canal, and at one spot where there are 2 bridges close together with a lock between, one barge was so long it was actually touching both bridges and less than 2 inches away from a smaller boat already in the lock - much to the consternation of the woman driver of the smaller boat. The whole operation took about a half hour and drew quite a crowd but both boats squeeked through without damage. This all took place right by one of our favorite restaurants, Du Phare, which is also right by a replica of the wooden crane used to unload ships in medieval times.
Of course we went to the famous "homage to cyclist" statue and had our photo taken. Belgium is not the Netherlands.... while bikes are venerated, they aren't given separate paths everywhere the way they are in Holland. Plus the cobbles on the all the streets, while quaint and charming, make for a very rough ride and Jim (who did not opt for seat-post shocks) complained the entire time.
How did Jim get trapped in a Valentine? Read on for the full story.
We were excited to cross the Belgian border to Brugge - and NOT JUST for the beer (OK mostly for the beer)... Brugge is generally recognized as the most intact and well-preserved medieval city in the world and is a huge tourist attraction hence extremely well-off. The city's good fortune today is the direct result of about 500 years of rotten luck. It was a thriving commercial and shipping center known as "the Venice of the North" until around 1550 when its canals silted in. Since the big ships could no longer get in, they all went to Antwerp so all industry dried up and most people either starved or moved out, As a result there was no rebuilding so therefor no demolition and reuse of building materials as happened in most European cities... everything is just as it was when times got rough around 1550...
We pedaled on from the ferry landing toward Belgium.. STILL with the wind in our faces. It seemed another interminable long slog to windward, but we finally made it to Sluis at the Belgian border, where we had a nice lunch and from there we were on a lovely canal protected by an ancient windbreak of tall trees.
We arrived at our B&B de Vijf Zuilen (5 Columns) and were welcomed by Ginette and Butler the dog. What an interesting place! We got the "Romantic Room" which was like living inside a big Valentine. Very cute but a bit tricky to navigate our gear around all the cuteness... There was also a great pavilion in the yard... maybe we'll build something like this in our yard at home! Ginette gave us a great map and all kinds of hints, so even though we hadn't really planned to enter the city that evening, she made it sound so easy we just dropped our stuff and headed into town.
Tomorrow you'll hear a lot more about Brugge. (aka Bruges) which is now a definite fave destination - and it's still really hard to beat the beer!.
We took the train from Dordrecht to Vlissingen, a small seaport and resort town on the North Sea. We stayed with a lovely lady named Monique who we found the Vrienden Op De Fiets (Friends on Bicycles). She is a charming and industrious woman who runs a B&B in a beautiful classic house surrounded by gardens and who raises bees on her balcony! The Vrienden you only pay 20 Euros per person including breakfast so it is a great bargain. We enjoyed exploring the town of Vlissingen and took the ferry the next morning across the Westerschelde on our way to Brugge.