martedì 17 ottobre 2017

France on the road with the French Divide

"It's time to roll again" ... this thought was bringing me back to John Lennon's "Watching the Wheels" when I was at low tide on Bray-Dunes beach, on the Channel on August 5th at dawn, ready to start with my mountain bike for the French Divide, 2,200 km of French landscapes and culture, crossed from the North-East of the French-Belgian border to the Southwest of the Basque country.

From this point on, the tale could become the chronicle of a beautiful ultrabikepacking event (on this blog we have already talked about similar events when I reported my experience at the Tuscany Trail) but on my way back to Italy, reading also the reports published by other "divideurs", I thought that a timeline of the ride, enriched by too many technical details, was not the best for who - like me – reads this blog to dream about far away places and to manage an escape from everyday life.
Taking also into account the few bike-friendly Italian people, making such an essay would have prevented many readers from fully enjoying the interesting ideas that can inspire to organize a trip to France.

Therefore here is a flavour of an almost "France coast to coast" trip from the North Sea to the Cantabrian Sea. 
But to start with a trip like this one, two are the fundamental pillars:

# 1: we can start planning our adventure on the road reading the detailed carnet de route made by the French Divide team, Samuel, Lionel, Thibaut and Céline (in a strict beauty sequence). It’s enough, to have the tourist references of the natural parks and the main places to visit along the way. The most important thing is not to follow unwisely the GPS tracks, which would lead you to trails and single track that was sometimes difficult to ride even in MTB (we often thought about the whole team, while in the mud or under the sun , for dozens of miles we had to cope with steep climbs without meeting people or a water source).

# 2: chosing the means of transportation. You can’t imagine how many times I wished to be riding a motorcycle, heading towards one of the many public campsites scattered along the itinerary, or sitting on a comfortable motorhome with all the luxuries I forgot while riding my MTB. The only vehicle that wouldn’t be the best, although the most common, is the car, since it would not respect the spirit of the journey, although it is more practical than the motorhome and it stands on against the weather – hot sun and / or rain - that the French August and the difference of latitude heading South, can give us.

Now that we have the basics, I can give you some more personal travel sensations, about this French coast to coast along with the French Divide, the places I visited and the season I traveled.

Part 1

We start from the beginning: Dunkerque, near which there is Bray-Dunes, the place from which the French Divide departed, although in 1940 there were other vehicles deployed for the operation Dynamo, reenacted this year by Christopher Nolan’s movie.

The wide and well-kept beaches overlooking the Channel are not the best for the Italians, used to warmer climates, but I suggest you to take a walk or to have a beer in the waterfront, after walking by the streets and park of the town.
The town ofthe hero Jean Bart, offers several cultural opportunities. You can’t miss a visit to the operation Dynamo museum - arranged in the only bunker that has not been cut down or reused - and the port museum, set in a former tobacconist's factory, which, alongside relics, naval models and reconstructions of nautical environments, can even show three ships that can be visited, permanently moored in the nearby channel.

Going south, our French Divide carnet de route invites us to overflow into Belgium. There’s a difference between the buildings in the two countries, although a common feature is the presence of so-called villages, those groups of houses that do not have any type of public service, such as shops or simple fountains. From here on, it's always good to have small stocks of food and water and keep in mind the timetables and the closing days of the few shops that you will meet on the itinerary. For a few hundred miles, we will cross the countryside: the French proudly use that word for the rural part of their country, in which extensive crops and cattle breeds make the human presence constant but discrete, leaving nature prevailing .

Another common feature of the Flanders, between the two countries, is the presence of many cemeteries dating from WWI, in which you can appreciate the brilliant green of the grass surrounding the lined up tombs, while thinking of the soldiers fallen. It is also easy to meet other monuments in the open country, commemorating the battles of 1914-1918, as well as in the villages. Many of you will remember for sure that the Flanders have been a battlefield for centuries, for economic, territorial and dynastic reasons, with other contenders: in Cassel's town, history brings our memory back to events that are now only reported in our school books, but offer us a landscape deserving a stop.

A difference between the Belgian and the French villages, however, is the initiative of villes et villages fleuri that for more than 60 years now on makes the French villages prettier, increasing tourism and local economy. In August, this proposal joins to the local events that take place almost everywhere, for the grape harvest or during August. In France, there’s the tradition of organizing festivals, including the vide grenier, the markets which lasts from over seventy years, during which people empty out cellars or barns and, for a few Euros, you give new life to neglected stuff. Next to these are the braderie, the markets run by professional traders, spread everywhere, but among which is well known the one of Lille, the first weekend of September.

Going straight to Lille, for cycling enthusiasts, it’s necessary to take a trip to the paved trails of the famous Paris-Roubaix race, less comfortable but with an appealing charm.

Our next stop, where to find a bit of refreshment, nice places and some summer events, is Le Quesnoy: a fortified town whose walls are crossed by tunnels, which you reach crossing a well-kept park built in defensive trenches. However, along our path, such looks are a rarity, maybe due to the strong French monarchy.

Something particular I noticed, of which I did not find an explanation, is the presence of the same decorative frieze on the vast majority of the French private gates, all over the more than 2.200Km pedaled. I photographed some, hoping somebody know the origins of it...

Going on through cultivated fields and wind farms, we quickly reach the Champagne, a geographical area whose evocative name is confirmed by the rows of vines and the wineries everywhere. Here, following the route touristique du Champagne, after crossing Epernay, the first checkpoint of the French Divide, we also reach the Marne, the longest French river, known for the tenacious resistance that stood there during the Great War. Taking a leap back a few centuries, to the 12th, we start dealing with the order of the Templars, whose story is closely tied to that of Champagne and the city of Troyes. The regional natural park of the Forêt d'Orient, which we cross, thinking about the intrigues, the alleged treasure and the area that belonged to that knight's order until it was abolished in the 14th century.

Going back to our trip, it is worth visiting also the pretty town of Tonnerre, overwhelmed by the Saint-Pierre's church.
Out of Tonnerre, you already are heading towards Morvan's regional natural park, the green lung of Burgundy, dotted with lakes and hills. The next stop, as well assecond checkpoint of the French Divide, is in Quarré-les-Tombes where, following a travel companion, I indulge myself and give me the second comfortable night of the trip in the hotel "Le Morvan" - very well kept and therefore worthy of a particular mention - in which I also like the surprise of finding a bidet, thus disfiguring the myth of the Italian-French querelle on hygiene in the bathroom...

From here on, the GPS track leads us to an impressive trail, the Great Traversée du Morvan. As far as you reach the ancient Roman city of Autun, you can afford a few miles of relaxed riding in the local park along the river.

Another pretty town on the French Divide route to the Southeast is Toulon-sur-Arroux. Here, you must stop at the Le Méridien café-restaurant, where the service and the quality of the dishes are not second to the kindness of the Staff (a very friendly maid assisted me during an overtime break, after which I did some extraordinary maintenance to the MTB). The region we are crossing, however, has still some pleasant surprises: we cross Bourbon-Lancy with its historical buildings and the well-kept park with lots of cycling paths, then quickly passing through the village of La Chapelle-aux-Chasses with the pretty little church of Sainte-Anne, then still the town of Moulins, where it is possible to walk by in the center and to relax in the camp sites along the Alliers River.

Finally, we reach the seductive medieval village of Verneuil en Bourbonnais, which would be a shame not to visit considering the well kept medieval buildings and the balade des épouvantails, the festival of the scarecrows, put here and there in the village for it’s nineteenth edition, taking place from June to September.

Part 2

The odometer now tells us that we have just crossed the middle of our French Divide route, which is about 1,150 km. A considerable distance, but we still have not crossed high mountains: on the total of 35,000 meters of D + (uphill), we have just gone over 11,000.
The Central Massif and the Pyrenees - which we will meet in the 1,100 Km to follow - will claim their duty, which will result in a large number of people giving up, due to fatigue, accidents, psychological breakdown, mechanical failures. In this kind of event, those who do not reach the finish line are always around 40% of those at the starting line: a remarkable percentage, but with a bit of goodwill and good luck, you can reach great goals. There is also to remember the support of the people who meets those perfect strangers who ride towards them dirty, tired and overloaded, but with a great smile.
I must admit, in fact, that the human aspect is one of the most intriguing elements of the bike trail. In an event such as French Divide, where participants have a GPS tracker that reports their real-time location, there were several enthusiasts waiting for us in the street and pushing or even pedaling with us for a few kilometers, talking friendly. These things make this sport something out of time. Even those who didn’t know about this event, gave us a warm welcome. I received water, jam, handshakes and compliments from those who had already seen other participants in the days or hours before. Every minute spent talking was an investment in the quality of the route, rather than a delay on the roadmap.

Now, let’s go back to the trails: Clermont Ferrand and the Massif Central, a mountainous area of old volcanoes and natural parks - the Parc des Volcans d'Auvergne - are waiting for us for several kilometers, along with the luna park Vulcania, having a naturalistic-environmental theme.
Before arriving, however, it’s nice to pass by Chantelle with its abbey, the picturesque medieval fortified village of Charroux, reached by passing through fields of sunflowers, and Ébreuil. From here to La Bourboule, a winter ski resort, the trail is becoming harder. In this latter city, you can have a good meal and, if weather allows, also spend a nice summer day in a tourist environment.

Something I noticed is that along the closed mining sites, all industrial structures have been converted to tourism. For example, the railway lines that carried the dig minerals have shifted into cycling paths, helping the economy and tourism of the territory.
This day, started in Olby where finally - after three days when I slept directly on the ground - I had time and a fountain to repair the sleeping pad, lazily ended with another night at Hotel Relais Arverne in Saignes, just out of the track. This has been a useful detour to understand how French towns can still offer something, a pub, live music, although it is necessary to wander about to find it.

Going on we cross the Dordogne, a river that creates many lakes where it is possible to enjoy water sports. Later, the landscape turn back to mountains: we reach Rocamadour, with a castle and fortified bishop's palace, too much a touristic place. From here, you can walk by the Santiago de Compostela Way, with still few pilgrims before the Pyrénées.
Along the way we reach the third checkpoint of the French Divide: Cahors, a middle-sized town, from which - once crossed the river Lot on the fortified bridge of the 14th century, called Valentré (also known as the Devil's Bridge) – we head towards the Garonne River.

Moissac is a stop not to be missed, with its abbey and many shops, but the mountains are in sight. After a short stroll to Saint-Bertand-de-Comminges, head for Sarrancolin: we are all in the Pyrénées, climbs are tough and, if you are not fast enough, remember that at 14:30 the restaurant's kitchen closes... even if you arrive with just 5 minutes late. Climbing the Col de Tourmalet with only one ham sandwich is not encouraging, but a couple of beers re-integrate the energies lost up to that point! Crossing the Pyrenees is also possible by motorhomes and motorbikes, there are many places to camp freely or to enjoy services, including hotels and restaurants that, honestly, have appeared to me as monster buildings. Perhaps this is why I spotted a rentable wooden house that leaves at least the idea of being in the f nature, rather than violating it. The good weather allows you to tackle a dirt track that is steep but quite jammed, in the last ten kilometers on a tarmac to the legendary climb of the Tour de France.

This reminds me that before stepping the top of the Tourmalet, it is necessary to stop (always just in time with the closing times of the restaurants) at La Mongie, a ski resort a few miles downhill, for the usual beer-based reintegration, this joined by kebab (in sight of a huge Pyrenean Shepherd dog, the white dog of the old cartoon "Belle and Sebastien").

Rather than going on eating baguettes (bought two or three at a time and carried tied to the handlebar in a waterproof bag) accompanied by canned sardines or mackerel - which they shifted by emergency meal to the main food for breakfast, lunch and dinner - Any other type of protein is always welcome. I recall that when I had the opportunity I had always eaten at the restaurants met along the way, generally based on local beef entrecote, until in Basque countries was easier to eat meat coming from Spain.

The Tourmalet's night shift was one of the most impressive things during the French Divide. After disturbing couples and people watching the stars to take a selfie at the fourth and last checkpoint, under the statue of Octave Lapize at 2,115 meters, the wonderful sky full of stars in a moonless night has paid back many of the efforts made to reach it. The downhill, on the contrary, was too fast, partly by dodging sheep and cows on the roadway.

Part 3

The other side of the Tourmalet reveals an unexpected night life, up to that point,; here, in addition, memories of Napoleonic campaigns merge with architecture. After all, the miles from the goal of the French Divide decrease but not so fast.
The next day, there is still to cross Lourdes, the "Las Vegas" of Christianity, where to find a restaurant already opened in the morning is easy. The problem is the weather: it started raining from late morning, so I had to slow down and considering lost the party scheduled for Saturday at noon, instead of pedaling all night I decided to spend the last night in the Hotel de France – receiving a warm welcome by the owners, even if I was completely covered with mud – in the nice Oloron-Sainte-Marie, with restaurants opened until late-night and summer festivals which unfortunately I did not attend .
Talking about the hotels not belonging to chains, my short experience has taught me that breakfast is light, don’t expect any continental buffet. Half baguette, a little butter and jam, is what is generally offered with a tea or coffee. It’s better to keep that on mind, because it’s likely to ride up to 30-40 kilometers, before finding a village with a boulangerie opened and having still stocks of pain aux raisins or au chocolat.

On the last day, Saturday, August 19th, the weather is good once again. This allows me to fully enjoy the beautiful and tiring track that, often overlapping the Santiago Way, leads me to Mendionde. I missed the rendezvous for the party at lunch, so I can take it easy and get there for dinner, once again behaving as a tourist. Dirty and tired, but always curious to know the places I pass through!
Remarkable are Navarrenx, the fortified city well known for the three Musketeers of Dumas, and Saint-Jean-Pieds-de-Port, very well known to all pilgrims and very typical, although there are too many souvenir shops.

The goal is, as it has already been said, in the Etchebarne restaurant of Mendionde, in the heart of the Basque Country, where there is a second language and the most practiced sport is the Pelota basca, so that in every village there’s a high wall (called fronton), as well as a gym, to allow young athletes to practice outdoors as well.

The bike ride ends here... with the MTB boxed for the return flight home, from Paris Charles de Gaulle, in which I also arrived. I traveled in France by TGV or TER, which allow to carry the bike but with exceptions, so it is good to plan carefully if you would like to travel this way.

I had a small holiday add-on in Bayonne, lacking the time to reach the famous Biarritz seaside resort and thus complete the ideal trail of France coast to coast. However, I was happy with it, because Bayonne is a nice town with an old town center and many restaurants lying along the River Nive, crossing it along with Adour.

To close this essay, especially on behalf of any strong cyclists reading this, I want to express a few thoughts on the French Divide as a competition.
I do not think there is a proper way to deal with a bike trail, the perception of fun is personal, so those who trained hard in the months before departure (like AnnaMc Leod, first of the womens at finish line), deserve the same respect as those who preferred not even take a glance at the Trackleader site, so as not to be afraid of the cyclist to chase or to be overtaken by. Always taken into account the differences in physical abilities and training, of course. The same is for those who have always slept in hotels, and who instead camped. Those events are nice because, in my opinion, you spend alone most of the time searching for what you like more!

Obviously, who is evaluating to ride the French Divide bike trail should follow the carnet de route, remembering that to live to the French mood, the best way is to participate in the third French Divide, hoping in a larger presence of Italians! This year, in fact, there were only two of us: the second one, who did a good performance - despite various failures – was Daniele Bifulco, a strong cyclist and one of the two managers of the Lazio trail, the tour of the Region of the Capital city Rome, another track to be kept in mind.

It could be the subject of my next article, if the girls of “Viaggi e delizie” will offer me again to be their ''guest''!

4 commenti:

  1. Although I am a huge fan of bikes, I never participated in any event of this type, but now I wish I could do it at least once in my life. It seems both fun and challenging, and if you add the travel experience, I bet it would be amazing. By the way, congratulations for your perseverance to be one of the few that finished the tour!

    1. Dear Elena, I'm glad to hear that you appreciated the way I reported my experience. The goal I tried to reach was to show that there are several perspectives to manage such an event

  2. Ciao Mauro

    I just stumbled upon your blog entry, nice to relive some FD memories. So good to hear you had a good time! Until next time at some starting line :)!


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