Cycling across France Part 1
First published in German under „Reisegeschichten“ (travel stories)
For a long time I wanted to go on a really long bike tour again. And get to know France more. Best to do both together. After the little warm-up – tour on the Vennbahn cycle route and the visit to Luxembourg City – what could be more obvious than just getting started. From east to west through France, as far as Brittany. Destination: the small Breton port city of Roscoff (or Rosko, as it is called in Breton).
No sooner said than done. In Luxembourg I pulled a .gpx – track with from maps.openrouteservice.org For the time being only for the first stage from Longwy at the Luxembourg border to Rouen – where I would be „glad if I could do at least that„. At least that’s my somewhat sceptical initial attitude. Openrouteservice.org is based on openstreetmap – charts, as I use them for my small Garmin – GPS – device. I searched there for a route for cyclists and decided with not for „fastest“, also not for „shortest“, but for the third option. No, not „most comfortable“, although sometimes I would wish for something like that. I think it means „recommended“.
Also I loaded a cyclist map for France based on openstreetmap on the Garmin. I have never had such a map before, so I am curious how it looks like.
By train I still travel free through Luxembourg to the last station Rodange. There are also some trains that go through to Longwy, but that costs 2,50€ for just 8km. I can cycle it in 20 min. without additional costs.
Well, the station is under construction, so I carry the heavily loaded bike into the underpass and back up again at the station. The road after that is not so nice either – heavy traffic, it seems as if everyone finally wants to go back to France after the Corona barriers.
On the last kilometer before the border there are at least 6 gas stations in a row – on each side of the road! And all tank customers come from France. In Luxembourg gasoline is only slightly taxed and costs about 1,10€/l. So the little trip over the border is worth it.
The only thing I notice that I am „over there“ is that there are no more petrol stations. And that the orientation leaves me immediately. I don’t know the names of the places, and besides, at the first roundabout there is a bypass and another exit is more like the access to the town – I don’t know. First I have to „focus“ Garmin. A little bit off the road I squat down on a freshly mowed lawn. But Garmin does not want to. The file seems to have an error. So I download the map of France again via LTE stick. Then it finally works. My track begins in Longwy at the station. Until then it is still a short way. Besides the hunger comes slowly – it would be nice to get something to chew. Garmin asks – there is a kebab man only 1.5 km away. Let’s go. But the road is a bit unexpectedly steep – the centre of Longwy is on a high mountain top and the access roads are serpentine and steep ramps. So I have to push a bit for the first time. But the way is worth it. Not because of the doner man – he is closed, it is only in the afternoon around 3 o’clock and most of the restaurants are closed until the evening. But Longwy turns out to be a pretty little fortress town on the mountain, with imposing ramparts, casemates and gates that glow in the afternoon sun.
But hunger is not interested in old stones – I have to give in and urgently need something between my teeth now. As if he suspects it, one of the Frenchmen speaks to me in front of a small stand-up bar and asks about my needs. He takes care of me and leads me to a restaurant across the street, in front of which some people drink beer. The pub owner is very nice and speaks some English. Quickly the subject is cleared – I simply follow his suggestion: a cheese plate. Something against thirst? Oh yes, I also have a beer (even if it is much too early for me and on an empty stomach). In no time at all, 8 kinds of cheese are draped on a wooden board, plus a basket with just as many slices of bread. I take a seat outside at a barrel table and start – a feast. This is not just cheese, this is a feast for the palate! Of course, my hunger makes sure that I don’t eat it all very slowly and with relish. But I can still enjoy the eightfold noble mould.
Afterwards I make a round in the city. I leave the bike with the luggage at the pub. There are some who asked me about my journey during my meal and now they have an eye on the bike.
The fortifications are already impressive. Also some houses, which probably served as guard rooms and offices for the crew, put you a bit into the 19th century. What I also find good – here not everything is always polished to „high gloss“ like in Germany, what can be historically marketed and thus possibly brings in money. The buildings haven’t seen a paintbrush for a long time and there is a little „patina“ on the walls. But that’s exactly why everything looks much more authentic and not like a history Disneyland. I am all for preserving historically valuable buildings – but we should also accept that everything ages and „matures“ and doesn’t always have to look perfect and new…
The market of Longwy is for the most part a car park, but the church and town hall fit in well with the impression of the old fortified town. In France I can always enjoy myself about some additional notes to traffic signs. One of the highlights beside the city hall of Longwy: a no stopping sign with the indication „Sauf Police“ („saufen“ in German means „booze“)… everybody can imagine what I imagine under it…
In the Citycarrefour I buy the most necessary things for the next stage, then I set off. Now I have to get off the mountain somehow and get on my track. Raging downhill, then it goes along a miserable arterial road.. When I already think, well, this track is not cyclist-friendly, suddenly a foot/bike path comes up in the river valley. Away from the road, this way cycling is fun! I can continue like this until Rouen!…
Glad too early. Soon this track is over and I am on a road again. Of course not without passing already a first old castle. And a strange tower is also standing beside the road. The monster turns out to be an old blast furnace, which is currently being examined and will probably be conserved as a technical monument.
In the meantime it has become evening and I start looking for a suitable place to sleep. For today I have no more desire to cycle on. In front of another hill there is a small creek coming out of the mountains at the side. Left and right of it the slopes are forested. I walk a bit along the path that runs beside the creek. On the other side of the dried out brook bed there is also a path – not used for a long time and overgrown. There I push my bike – down the slope, a bit along the creek and up another slope. The path is even, dry and overgrown with grass. It is hardly to be expected that someone will come here today. So this will be my night camp. Between two trees I stretch the line, over it comes the tarp against dew and possible rain. Sleeping bag and mattress underneath and into the bunk. We’ll see what the next day brings. Further on these roads I have actually no desire…
But first I continue on the road… After I fought my way up the first mountain for this day, I find a small snack place with table and bench right at the entrance of the village. I always like to use these opportunities for my breakfast. Yes, I even get into the habit of cycling a few kilometres in the morning, freshly rested, until I discover such a place and then I settle down for breakfast. Today I even check my mails with the computer. That is unfortunately a problem – because I have no power source. I don’t want to waste the few hours that the battery lasts. Because of Corona many facilities are still closed and so the access to power sockets is very limited.
Next to the breakfast place on the meadow I discover a vine snail and take some pictures of the little animal fighting over the juicy wild salad leaves.
Then it goes through the village and downhill again. It was already clear to me that this route would become mountainous. First it is the foothills of the Ardennes, then the Argonne forest, and then again and again brook and river valleys. The coast lies north, i.e. the rivers drain to the north and a bicycle route from east to west must cut river valleys again and again. In the next village, which is uphill again, there is an older man standing at the top. When he sees me, a smile comes over his face and he calls out joyfully „Allez, allez allez…“
In the meantime I have also come to terms with these streets. It turns out that – apart from the access roads to larger towns – the suggested routes are very small, little used roads of the lowest category. openrouteservice has selected really nice routes :-). Sometimes I’m on the road for half an hour without seeing any cars or people. Then I come through small villages, a few houses, a church, the „Mairie“ with a bleu blanc rouge – banner and many colourful flower boxes (the mayor’s office), and it’s all over again and in the distance the next church tower appears. In somewhat larger places there is often a bar – I quickly say „FDJ shop“ to it. Because outside I find among other things the FDJ advertisement, which is probably a form of the Lotto in France. I associate something else with it – today: „Aha, there you can get my breakfast coffee!“ But as an old Ossi (East german) of course the „FDJ“, the „Freie Deutsche Jugend“ (Free german youth) which I left in free decision at the end of 1988, which caused me some difficulties up to a part of a job loss in spring ’89. The FDJ was the quasi-obligatory youth organization in the GDR, without which you couldn’t really start studying… Anyway, in the first days of the bike tour through France I always had my morning coffee in the FDJ shops.
Unfortunately, monuments to the victims of the First World War, more rarely those of the Second World War, are also part of the townscape everywhere in this region.
Many of the houses in the villages are visibly older, but characteristically designed. A kind of classicism in the country. Sometimes they are real small country castles, chateaus even with parks and avenues all around. This somehow seems to be much more „cultivated“ than it is the case in Germany.
The drive goes through a diversified landscape. Unfortunately, chains of hills are mostly transverse to my driving direction. These are normally wooded. In between there are plains where grain ripens, cows stand on pastures, sometimes corn or flax grows. The narrow roads often lie between two ramparts, which are crowned with hedge plants. Vetches, funnel winches and many other flowering plants bloom in the ditches – it looks quite colourful.
The next night I spend at the edge of a forest behind the hem hedge. Before that I have cooked a soup for dinner on the adjoining field path. This was the first attempt with a beer can – spirit stove. Already in Kalterherberg I added a bottle of methylated spirits to my storage in the left bicycle bag. In Longwy in carrefour then the corresponding can of beer. This was cut open and shortened in the middle, the two parts pushed together are only about 4cm high. Lateral holes around the rim of the lid should represent the burner nozzles. Two, three caps of spirit into the container, light it, off you go… Well, the result is not quite convincing yet. I have to relight it several times, the wind blows the flame out several times. But I can manage a soup after all. Since it is long bright, I make myself comfortable at a tree trunk with the Insulation-mattress and write on the computer my post text to the Vennbahn – bicycle tour. Unfortunately this is supposed to be the last text for a long time due to the lack of electricity. My illusion before the departure was to go out for a meal somewhere and then have always the computer loaded. And to use the long evenings of June for writing. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work out – many small snack bars have only take-away because of Corona and also the accessible power sockets are very rare…
In the morning I cycle through the forest and then again between pastures. Behind a turnoff I come across a German military cemetery from 1914-18 near Damvillers. It is not far to Verdun… Just a little moved I look at the long rows of crosses. 1113 pointlessly wasted young lives.
Only a few kilometers further on there is the next war cemetery. It is a real park, with a rotunda in the passageway and on the right and left, on slight hills, the cemeteries with hundreds of white crosses, exactly aligned in a row. A bell tower stands at the edge, every quarter hour a bell signal is played, at the full hour there is a whole melody. Flags wave and spread heroic pathos. This is an American war cemetery.
At the entrance to the adjacent place there is a small clear stream and next to it there is a good breakfast place. Strengthened I can continue the trip.
During the first days I have doubts if I can even make this long distance. Especially as the mountains really make me feel quite well. And Garmin often shows only 38 – 45 km as a day stage, which is really not much. However, as later confirmed, this is only the linear distance. The actual distance is quite a bit longer because of the many curves, serpentines, valley cuts etc. And the gpx-track, which I follow as far as possible, shows the kilometres driven. Well, nevertheless, they are 450km until Rouen alone. On the first day, where I was also annoyed by the unfriendly roads, I even went to the train station in Longuyon. There I wanted to find out how much the trip by train would cost. And if I can go with the bike at all etc. But unfortunately the service is very limited. There was nobody at the station, there was no machine with information. The notices did not tell much. As it looks, the regional train traffic in France is really concentrated on the regions – only the TGV is running supraregionally. And that was not really an option for me.
Another fantasy was in between times to buy a moped. I really sneaked with the luggage only with 10-15km/h average speed through the country. Even a moped with max. 45 km/h would be three times faster. And then my main argument for this recurring consideration was that such a moped produces 12V- electricity. With a little tinkering I could connect a power supply for the laptop and would be independent.
But the further I get with busy pedaling, the more I have buried this idea. It is going forward after all… A memory has often inspired me. In the south of Spain I met a young Scotsman in a kind of eco-settlement years ago, who rode there from Scotland on his bike and a small trailer. Later he wanted to go on to Morocco! In spirit I admired him again afterwards.
The topic of personal hygiene is of course also virulent on such a tour. Like on the Vennbahn cycle path, I wanted to use every „natural“ washing opportunity. With the beautiful weather in mid-June, a full bath is the best option. And this was the case again on the third day, when the path led over a small river. Under the bridge a gravel bank stretched out and provided downriver for a quiet sun-warmed pool. Unfortunately there were fences on both sides of the bridge, on one side even dense bushes. But at the southern crash barrier there was a small loophole, only slightly overgrown. With my mini-multitool from the Chinese market in Bangkok I trimmed the thorny branches of the sloes so far that I could push my bike through the narrow path. Well, I just had to ignore the nettles and hope for cooling soon. Then with big steps down the embankment and already I reached the gravel bank under the bridge. There quickly out of my clothes and in is fresh wet! That feels good!
It surprises me a little bit that there are no more bathers around here. At least the village children could be grateful for such a nice bathing place… Refreshed and clean I continue my way.
At a campground I ask for shopping possibilities. Because it’s weekend – I didn’t really think about it – and my supplies are exhausted. In the small villages there is only one „Aunt Emma“ shop, and it closes on Saturdays around 12. The friendly campground keeper tries to speak a little German and points to a gas station with a small shop. That is 5km, unfortunately in the wrong direction. As a precaution, I buy a completely overpriced bottle of water from him and make my way to this gas station anyway. This one is not cheap either, but has little more to offer. Only bread or baguette is not available. The cashier with mask and behind plexiglass totally misunderstands my question and offers me card payment. For that I also don’t get bread. Outside it begins to rain easily. I open the orange juice and drink half of the cardboard empty. When I turn around and look around, I notice a red box at the edge of the driveway. Then I remember again – the campground keeper had spoken of such a bread baking machine! Actually the thing turns out as such. This seems to be the latest trend in France. You put one Euro in it, then it rumbles for a while and after about one minute a small round flap opens in front and an oven-warm baguette slides out in front. Well, only Santa Claus believes that this was „baked“ in the short minute. But it doesn’t matter to me now – my breakfast for tomorrow is secured!
With light drizzle I continue my journey. Fortunately it stops soon, but the super friendly weather seems to be a little bit over for the time being. I am in the valley of the Meuse. Actually I wanted to cross it already in the Sivry-sur-Meuse. But because of the detour to the gas station „Meuse-upward“ I drive a long way along the river valley. Unfortunately partly on more busy roads. Next to it runs an old, overgrown railway line. Now I wish I had a cycle track like the one of the Vennbahn! Well, I’m still riding now until my strength wears off and I need a place to sleep.
The next day is a Sunday and I am approaching Reims. Okay, I have to ask myself the question, do I go there or not. Because actually my track leads north of Reims and the (third) visit in this beautiful city will cost me about 20km more and at least half a day. But what the heck – Reims by bike, who can put that on his tour list? After all, it’s a first place from which I can send stage pictures to friends. In other words, where it immediately occurs to many, where it is and how far away it actually is. So go ahead. Today it won’t work, but tomorrow. And I still have to do some shopping anyway, even if it’s Sunday. In this weather I’m thirsty for beer in the evening and a good breakfast with baguette is simply necessary. Garmin tells me that the next intermarché is supposed to be on the way to Reims – 10km stupid main road. What to do for your evening – beer. Meanwhile I’m driving over wide agricultural steppes. Only fields, fields, fields. Power lines as the only change. It could be exciting, where I find a place to sleep today. The place Pontfaverger – Moronvilliers with the Intermarchè is a small town at a river. Unfortunately the petrol station is fully automatic and the Intermarché is closed. The park next to it really invites to bath in the river – but everywhere big „bathing is forbidden!“ – Signs. Could also be a bit dangerous, it is a fast flowing current. Hard to believe in this relatively flat country. On the search for other shopping possibilities I make a few rounds through the city. I notice a „Boulangerie“, where cars stop again and again. It is open on Sunday evening! There I get my bread – and after a look in the fridge also my beer! It says 86 on it… a bit expensive, but well. After one day of biking it’s earned.
Now there’s still the question of my sleeping place. Below the river and the park there is a railway station converted into a residential building and again an abandoned, overgrown railway line. Behind it is a field path. I drive along it for now, always with a view to bushes, hidden small green areas etc. But that won’t work here – on the other side everything is still built on. Trails indicate that the house owners walk here with their dogs. And nothing is more unpleasant than being woken up early in the morning by a yapping dog before getting up. On whose leash hangs a curious staring dog handler. The Openstreetmap – chart on the Garmin* shows me in a distance of about 1,5km some small woods between the fields. Easily up the slope, I see them too. Only that the way there is actually too open for me. Well, then that’s just the way it is. It’s half past eight in the evening, so I’ll probably be allowed to make a little bike tour into the forest.
It is a pine forest, about 30 years old, the rows of planting are still clearly visible. Unfortunately there is garbage lying around in some places. I push my bike through between two rows and look for a suitable place. A nice soft place on the conifer litter, halfway covered by some fallen trees towards the path. Quickly the tarp is built up, because it starts to rain again. Then I enjoy the beer – oops! That’s great – I now recognize 86 as 8.6 and that’s the alcohol content. Well, not from bad parents 🙂 What was Harald Juhnke’s saying about the good life? I can only think of the second part „… and sit down easily!“ (means „Slightly tipsy„) So I feel straight, slightly turned on, free and unbound, with a nice piece of way behind me and still some adventures ahead. My thoughts are flowing and it’s just beautiful…
The night remains without disturbances, the rain stops sometime and I can sleep well.
The next morning I drive back to the village – shopping in the intermarchè, refilling the supplies. With the bike I can’t carry too much with me, so I often have to use the opportunities for shopping. For my breakfast I have honey with me, because of the weight and the handling in such a plastic „fart bottle“, where the honey drips out by pressing. Unfortunately therefore only honey „from EU and non-EU – countries“, thus adulterated waste honey. Normally I am just with honey for local harvest, already because of the special health effects.
In the shop I am now looking for a second morning energy source. And with success – there is a discounter – chocolate cream in a giant glass. And that is not a glass, but also plastic. Otherwise I would resist – glass can at least be recycled properly (I worked in the glassworks for a year!). But here it’s about the weight, I have to set a limit. And so this half kilo mug of chocolate cream, called „grease for the car“ since my student days, goes to my „food-compartement“. Speak – left bicycle bag. Just what I needed for my power breakfast.
Yeah, and then there’s one thing missing – the coffee. Since neither petrol station nor Intermarché have a coffee machine, I sneak on towards the city centre, slightly addicted.
I pass a pizzeria where I thought last night – ‚It would be nice if it were open…‘ Today the door is open and I see two or three men inside. Do I ever … Yeah, I’ll just ask for coffee, Corona or not! And lo and behold, the espresso machine starts and 3 minutes later a steaming black coffee is standing in front of my nose! What a chance for a perfect Monday! It will cost only a modest Euro!
20 minutes later I am back on the slopes. Since Reims is not part of the track, I asked Garmin for the best cycle-way and he gave me a suggestion. Unfortunately, I soon end up on a car-route-accompanying way, the service way next to such a highway. Bad surface, noise and dirty air from the road… no nice cycling. But I almost expected that. The big cities rarely have nice access roads suitable for bicycles.
At the entrance of Reims even this side road stops and I have to take the road, which is now „only“ a simple main road. Meanwhile it is almost two o’clock and my stomach growls suspiciously again. Well, at least the weather gets better and better, blue sky and friendly warm sunshine welcome me here. As in many French cities, at some point the crossroads comes, where at least the trucks are not allowed to go further and I only have to deal with cars and motorcycles. At times there is even a bus lane, which I may use as a cyclist. And then I find a kebab man again, which I have to use in favour of my stomach. But unfortunately again no socket…
Strengthened and warmed by the sun, I now make my way to the centre. In front of the town hall, there is also the city name in large letters in Reims, which is now becoming more and more common. So I lean my bike against the „S“ and position my camera for a few selfies. I’m quite proud of the fact that I made it to Reims at least! I went there for the first time almost 20 years ago with a friend and his little cabriolet – he will be amazed when he sees the picture and me with my bike on it!
Then I’ll take a stroll around town. Actually always somehow with the comparison in my head to my previous two visits – first on a road trip, the second time I went by river boat and had „shore leave“ for a few hours in Reims. Today the fear of Corona dominates the cityscape – not me, but there are almost no tourists to be seen. Except for a few students on the way home I have the cathedral and the squares around it almost to myself. A disadvantage of cycling tours is that you always have one eye and one arm on the bike. Long museum or cathedral visits are difficult to realize. But almost everything that is worth visiting is closed anyway.
Then I set off on foot, pushing the bicycle, on my way west. I want to go to the Canal del Aise a la Marne, on which I crossed Reims on my second visit. On the one hand because of memories and on the other hand because this waterway through the city with its small harbour and houseboats is a beautiful sight. And third, however, also because there is a path next to the canal to the northwest – and this offers a good opportunity to leave Reims again. Beside the canal, the path is of course without any significant gradient and on this hot afternoon it is a refreshing walk in the green. After a loop around the harbour and over the bridge at the lock, I head north along the west bank. Passing the Congress Center, an older industrial landscape soon begins on the east side with decaying quay walls, rusting unloading facilities and overgrown railway tracks. Several bridges cross the canal and cycle path. In the beginning there is still a lot of life on the paths – walkers, joggers, cyclists are scurrying about and I have to be careful with my wide, slow-moving bike. Before unclear places at the bridges I let my Indian two-tone bell sound. But outside of Reims the developed part suddenly stops with one blow and there is only a half overgrown path between high grass. Nevertheless, I continue, always with the optimism that the canal can be accompanied over the whole distance. In front of me in some distance a jogger is running. But on the narrow path with grass humps and with the luggage over my back wheel I don’t catch up with him.
Later, at one of the next sluices, the hump trail is over and there is again a more cultivated wide split path. These locks are all built in a pretty similar way. Built in the 19th century, old lock keeper’s houses with small gardens from this time are still standing everywhere. Some of them are in ruins, some are now normal dwellings. The name and the distance to the next lock up and down the canal can be read on boards. This looks similar to the barrier keeper’s house. Directly at the locks probably in the 60s or 70s more modern dispatcher houses with large glass windows were built. They are apparently all the same, down to the last dowel. But even this time is over – meanwhile the operation of the locks is mostly self-service. For this purpose a pole hangs about 100m before the lock above the canal. By turning it, the skipper can unlock the lock entrance.
In the meantime the path next to the canal is even an asphalt cycle path again. Quickly I make progress in the warm evening sun, to my right the turquoise blue water of the river and on both sides a green belt of bushes and trees. Behind it are mostly fields with grain, corn or pasture. Some times also swampy forests. Anglers sit on the pier in the surroundings of the small villages. No ships, no traffic. Also on the way I am alone most of the time. A few walkers sometimes, rarely another cyclist.
Just before Berry-au-Bac, the canal makes a wide bend. Here I sit down on the embankment in the shade of a tree and make dinner. Then I drive the bend around. A riverboat is about to moor on the bank of the canal. Two more are already lying here. A nice anchorage for a quiet night. Next to the canal there is a mill, whose pipes for blowing flour end at the canal. I wonder if they’ll all be loading here tomorrow. Behind it I meet the Aisne – the canal flows into the river with a lock. Or not really. This is also a canal, the Canal lateral a l’Aisne. On many of the meandering rivers, parallel, dead straight canals were probably built in the 19th century, making navigation possible. Thus, especially in the north-east of France up to Belgium and the Netherlands, there is a branched transport network that is at least partly still used today. But some of the routes are now mainly used for water tourism. The Aisne river runs north of the canal. Over several bridges I drive over the canal mouth T and to the actual river course. There is also a small caravan – parking lot here, including „disposal station“. The Aisne itself is a winding watercourse in the landscape with a small accompanying floodplain forest.
Along the lateral canal there is again a path westwards. This one is mowed, but basically just a strip of meadow, not a real path. This will be too exhausting for me today and it doesn’t look like there will be a good campground here soon. Therefore I drive the 2km back to my dinner place. It is already after eight, but the sun is still warm in the western sky. I have to take advantage of that – I first go swimming in the very clear, refreshing water of the canal. Afterwards I sit on the embankment for over an hour and read with my eReader. After the sun has set and dusk is falling over the land, I push my bike up the embankment and a few meters along the edge of the field behind the bushes. I am always careful not to damage any field plants. Here it is wheat, which is already ripened far. On the lynchet I prepare a lying area and roll out my sleeping bag. I waive the tarp today – it will certainly not rain. With a last look at the starry sky this travel day ends for me.