Day 4 - May 17th - Ronse to Fourmies - 78 miles
A good day today. I left at 8.30 am as the patron said that I could have breakfast any time after 6 am because it was market day and there would be lots of customers in early. Before leaving Ronse I took a picture of the market square and the town hall to remind me of Beryl.
After the previous nights storm there was a marked change in the weather. About 12 C when I left, quite breezy and overcast.
I decided that I could not head South without looking up Jimmy, my companion of the previous day. The ride to the camp site turned out to be nearer to 10 miles rather than the alleged 10 km, with the final one and a half miles up a long and steep cobbled climb. On finding his tent I discovered him to be in good spirits despite his previous nights soaking and he wanted to wait a couple of hours to allow his camping gear to dry out.
I bade him "Bon Voyage" and "Bon Chance" and carried on alone, heading South for France. South of Ronse the terrain was very pleasant, as I quickly travelled from a completely Flemish speaking environment to find many place names and road signs in French.
About 12.30 I passed into France between Valenciennes and Mons, unaware that I had crossed the unmarked border. The first I realised was when the style of road signs changed and the familiar French numbering of roads appeared, with the "D" and "N" classification system. Another indicator was the disappearance of the cycle paths which had been so prevalent in Belgium. This was of no great concern as the last hour or so of riding in Belgium had been on awfully broken up paths which I had tended to ignore in favour of the roads.
About 3pm I reached the town of Avesnes sur Helpe and, to my surprise, spotted a tourist information office which had just reopened after a three hour lunch break. Here they suggested an Ibis hotel which was in a holiday complex based on a large lake (etang) and which, they stated, was about 12 km to the South the right direction for me. Once more their estimate of distance was inaccurate as it turned out to be nearer to 12 miles! Can it be that "normal" people only travel by car and have very little concept of distance?
The terrain was quite rolling. I missed a vital turn off and had to retrace with the result that I was a bit hot and bothered by the time I reached the hotel. Only to be told that it was full! This surprised me as I was in a non-touristy area, out of season. Perhaps they did not like the look of me!
Not knowing what lay ahead, and having passed through a small town called Fourmies about 4 miles back, I decided to retrace a bit (this always goes against the grain with me). The first hotel I tried looked very promising, but no amount of bell-ringing or door-knocking could rouse anybody. To my surprise the next one I tried was full and eventually I ended up in the "Hotel de la Gare", which (probably because the "gare" had been closed for years) left much to be desired, but was cheap and cheerful and , after the longest day of my trip so far, I slept the sleep of the innocent.
Total miles to date 261
Day 5 - May 18th - Fourmies to Reims - 72 miles
A mixed day today. When I awoke at 7 am it was pouring down. When I left the hotel at 8.30 it had stopped, but about 500 yards up the road it started again and my waterproof jacket was donned. It was quite cold and blustery with a strong West/Southwest wind. When the rain eventually stopped I left my jacket on for warmth.
The terrain was undulating and pleasing to the eye, with some extremely quiet near deserted back roads. The odd stretch of main road which I had to use tended to be very exposed as there were vast fields of cereals on either side, with no hedges, walls or other wind breaks. Despite the open-ness of these main roads there were no long and straight, soul-destroying stretches which one associates with Northern France. By keeping well to the East I had managed to avoid these.
About 11 am it became much colder and I had to resort to donning my long tights for the first time. A marked contrast to my first few scorching days.
Lunch about 12.30 was taken in one of the "Les Routiers" restaurants in a village called Dizy-le Gros (what a delightful name!). I suppose it could have been called an up-market transport café. The place was full of an assortment of farm workers, truck drivers and other local workmen. I was found a place amongst them and within minutes the first course of "Le Menu" was put before me, together with a quarter litre of red wine and a large basket of bread.
I had come across this "you eat what everyone else does" type of establishment on previous trips to France, so it came as no surprise. There and then I decided that if I was to survive the trip I would, at times, have to ease up on my usual vegetarianism.
The outcome was a very satisfying three-course meal with bread, wine and coffee for the sum of about £5.50. Amazing value. It was here that, as I rose to pay, I was asked from whence I came and to where I was going, with the result that, on telling them, I had a small knot of amazed people congratulating me!
About 3 pm the sky blackened as a storm approached and I dived for shelter under a very ancient barn. The wind blew fiercely during the storm and I was a bit afraid of the old barn collapsing on me. Eventually, things abated and I continued South towards the famous cathedral city of Reims.
Arriving in Reims about 4 pm, I found the tourist office, close to the cathedral and quite busy with people of all nationalities. I was advised that there was an international paediatric conference being held in the city and that all the 32 local hotels were full! The nearest one with any room was about 6 miles out, in the wrong direction, but, as it was quite early I pedalled the very busy main road to an "Economy Hotel" which was clean and adequate and cheap.
Total miles to date 332
Day 6 - May 19th - Reims to Vitry le Francois - 56 miles
Leaving my overnight stop on the "wrong side" of Reims I retraced into the city and took the opportunity of a photo stop at the cathedral and, at the same time, to see if the famous Jackdaws were in evidence. Alas, there were none in sight. Yet another myth exploded!
A pleasant, cool, but sunny morning found me travelling in a South-Easterly direction on a superbly surfaced and very quiet "D" road in the direction of Chalons sur Marne. This led to my first encounter with the river Marne, on of the many great rivers of France and well remembered, of course, for the First World War battles which took place in the area. My next few days would be spent criss-crossing large rivers, first the Marne and then the Saone.
Just South of Reims I entered the famous Champagne region with its huge and very prosperous looking vineyards. In the past I have cycled through many French wine producing areas such as Bordeaux, Languedoc-Rousillon and the Rhone Valley, but these field of vines in Champagne were so vast, surpassing anything I had previously encountered.
Passing to the West of Chalons I found the area very rural, sparsely populated and a joy to cycle through as the terrain was interesting and the roads quiet. Being in a non-touristy spot again I had to plan an overnight in a reasonably sized place. This lead to one of my shortest daily mileages when I found a hotel in Vitry le Francois which stood on the Marne and turned out to be quite an imposing looking little town
Total miles to date 388
Day 7 - May 20th - Vitry le Francois to Chaumont - 77 miles
An early start in improved and warmer weather, again heading in a South-Easterly direction, I left the valley of the Marne so as to avoid the town of St. Dizier, which lay on the N4 and would, I suspected, be very busy. My chosen route took me by a large lake, about 10 miles x 6 miles, which, I noted, was classed as a bird reserve. This was called the Lac du Der-Chantecoq, but try as I may, I could not hear the "singing cocks"! What I did hear was the incessant chorus of song birds which had accompanied me every day since I entered France, something which helped to make each day sheer joy. Added to the song birds was the call of the Cuckoo which seemed to fill the air every day.
Once more, deserted roads and good surfaces made for an enviable mornings ride. Much warmer weather persuaded me that I could picnic for lunch so a stop at the "Alimentation" in the next small village provided me with the wherewithal for an al fresco feast. A baguette, a tin of sardines and some fruit, washed down by French tap water from my bidon. What luxury!
Plenty of map reading after lunch provided me with yet more quiet lanes and empty villages and lead me quite close to Colombey les Deux Eglises, the small town chosen by Charles de Gaulle for his final resting place.
For the last few miles into Chaumont I decided to use the main N 19, as it was not too busy. It was here that I encountered something which I was to find later in both Italy and Austria. A stretch of road had been "improved" with a bend straightened out and a length of dual carriageway introduced. The responsible authority had, in it`s wisdom, turned this new stretch into a mini motorway with the blue and white signs indicating that only motor vehicles could use it. O.K. if they want a motorway, fine, but they forgot to indicate where a cyclist or other non motorised road user was supposed to go.
By the side of the "improved" section was a lane which appeared to follow in the same direction, but after a couple of kilometres the surface deteriorated and shortly afterwards the road came to a dead end! I found my self perched about 30 feet above the motorway at the top of a steep embankment. Cursing everything French, and especially their road builders, I proceeded to slither and slide down the embankment with my loaded bike to reach the road. Here I jumped on my bike, put my head down, and pedalled like hell for the next four or five kilometres until the motorway bit ended and the normal N 19 resumed. All in a days ride!
Chaumont turned out to be an attractive small town. The Hotel les Remparts was cosy and reasonably priced and a stroll round revealed a lovely old square and Hotel de Ville (Town Hall) which was utterly spoilt by a large stage and an extremely noisy pop concert. Culture, I suppose!
Total miles to date 465
Day 8 - May 21st - Chaumont to Gray - 74 miles
Heading South again, rejoining the Marne and then criss-crossing it all morning. A day of delights and disappointments.
The delights were, firstly the incredibly quiet and well surfaced roads through gently rolling terrain. In addition, the local farming had changed, leaving behind the huge fields of cereals and the extensive vineyards of the Champagne region and into small fields of mixed crops and lots of meadows. This was the countryside of Cheshire as I remembered it in the 1950`s and 60`s.
The extra bonus was the birdlife, with Skylarks in abundance. I was accompanied by a continuous chorus of birdsong. Lots of raptors were around, with Buzzards, Kestrels, Black Kites and, what I thought were Peregrines.
The disappointment today was the weather. Quite cold again, with the wind back in my face. I had to stop about 11am to don extra clothing and it did not warm up until 3pm. The one compensation, of course, was that I had no cause to worry about sunburn!
Gray was a fairly ordinary small town, completely non-touristy, but, to my great surprise a British coach arrived at my hotel about 8pm. I discovered a party of "pensioners" from Cheltenham who were en route for the Italian Lakes.
At breakfast next morning I strolled over to the driver who said "I heard about you. You are the chap who is doing it the hard way". "No" I replied, "I am doing it the easy way. If I had to sit in your coach all day that would be the hard way for me".
Total miles to date 539
Since entering France I have been pleasantly surprised by the behaviour of the great majority of motorists. Just prior to my departure I read a letter in "The Guardian" which praised French drivers for their attitude to cyclists and I must admit that I rubbished this view.
With my experience so far I must say that the Guardian correspondent was correct. It is quite common for drivers to wait patiently behind me until the road is clear to overtake. This is particularly noticeable with heavy trucks, where, if they cannot swing right over to the other side of the road to overtake, they will wait behind at a respectable distance.
Although the French, as a nation, are not well known for being active cyclists perhaps their love of watching bike racing rubs off somewhere?
Day 9 - May 22nd - Gray to Champagnole - 64 miles
A nice early start (8.30) on a bright and sunny morning. Promising to be a good day.
Quickly out of Gray, which lay roughly between Besancon and Dijon, but my weather hopes were soon dashed, as by 9.30 it had clouded over and become quite cold. The sun appeared in short bursts and rapidly warmed me up, only to retreat again and a cool wind took over.
Heading in my now familiar South-Easterly direction, towards the Jura, it became quite hilly and took on the typical Jura terrain of wooded valleys and high pastures. The other clue to my whereabouts was the tinkle of cow bells, so typical of the region.
Too cold to picnic, so by noon, with 39 miles on the clock, I was looking for an eating stop. I spotted a very old and rustic looking place with the name "Restaurant D`Hoop" obviously some Flemish connection. This intrigued me so in I went. The place turned out to be run by an octogenarian Dutchman who was living in a time warp, both mentally and furniture/furnishing wise. Quite a bizarre place, but his food was good and the bill even better!
I was obviously in an area of salt spas ( if there are such things) as I passed a very Romanesque type building which turned out to be the entrance to a "Saline" and as I progressed further South I came to the town of Salins les Bains.
The terrain was now getting decidedly hilly, with climbs up to 2000ft, and also for the first time on my trip I was getting into a really touristy area, with roadside signs for potters and cheese-makers. I was also noticing a bigger choice of overnight stops.
My destination for the night was one of the very few pre-determined ones. It was the town of Champagnole, which, from an earlier glance at the maps, appeared to be on my general route. I also knew it from a brief dash through the area a few years ago, by car, en route home after visiting the World Road Race Championships in Sallanches.. I remembered seeing that this small attractive town was twinned with Dukinfield of all places and later discovered that Doreen Cartwright (Cyril`s wife) had served on the twinning committee when she lived in Dukinfield.
Some of these "twinning" alliances do sometimes amaze me with some most unlikely alliances..
Champagnole was a bustling, pleasant town with an attractive "Hotel de Ville" and a wonderful old-fashioned looking hotel, called the "Hotel Ripotot". I couldnt resist stopping there for the night and sampling its Old World charm. The middle aged lady owner was as charming as her hotel and in perfect English informed me that Ripotot was her name and that she was the fourth generation of the family to run the hotel.
Hotel keeping is still a family tradition in France, and many other European countries, unlike Britain, where all the faceless chains have taken over.
Champagnole lay just to the North-West of Lausanne. From there I could have reached my mid-way destination of Grenoble in 2 or 3 days by heading due South and thus avoiding the high Alps,but the high Alps were part of my goal (I also needed the practice in readiness for my crossing into Italy). My plan for next day, therefore, was to continue heading South-Easterly to pass just to the West of Geneva.
Total miles to date 603
Chapter 2 - Chapter 4