Neither Versailles nor Paris have ever been on my bucket list of places that I feel an overwhelming urge to visit, which is not really surprising as that particular list is completely empty. I also have no burning ambition to watch the sunrise over Angkor Wat, or to lie on my back on the floor of the Sistine Chapel and admire the intricate work of Michelangelo; though if I happen to stumble upon these things then I would certainly like to take the time to appreciate them. I enjoy travelling for just that – the travelling. It may be a little clichéd but almost all of my favourite experiences seem to happen not where the black dots sit on the maps of travel guides but within the empty spaces that lie between them.
After the 2hr ferry ride from Guernsey to St Malo we (Lucy, me, and my dad – who is joining us for the first 1500km) climbed onto our heavily laden bicycles and set off, slowly and cautiously, into a damp & drizzly evening for the first 20km of this long awaited adventure. The whole affair was a little anticlimactic – the excitement of the day was offset by the anxiety of leaving behind everyone and everything that have made up our lives recently, the sadness of so many difficult good-byes, the gloomy weather, and even the lack of a photogenic “Bienvenue en France” sign seemed to make this day, that we had been anticipating for so long, fall a little flat. This may have been the beginning of the biggest adventure of my life so far but as we cycled out of St Malo, just like I have numerous times before, the reality of what we were embarking on hadn’t yet sunk in.
It has become a ritual for Lucy and me that once we have set up camp on the first evening of any cycle trip that we raise a glass (or water bottle) and pour on to the ground a splash of something home-brewed in memory of two truly wonderful people – Pete & Mary. This time though, as the two of us toasted them with some of last year’s cider saved especially for the occasion, it felt particularly poignant and more difficult than before – it was at their leaving do, just over 10 years ago, a few days before they set off on their own world bicycle trip, that I saw them last, a trip from which they never came back. As we embark on our own world adventure, inspired in no small part by the videos that Pete and Mary created of their amazing experiences, we hope to carry with us some spark of the energy that they have left in their wake – for that reason we dedicate this trip to them.
Most of the route that we took to bisect France from west to east involved weaving in and out of sleepy old railway routes and tranquil canal paths – both of which are easy on the legs and on the mind and also gave us so many wild camping options and picturesque waterside and woodland picnic spots for lazy lunch stops and dream-filled power-naps beneath the warm afternoon sun. We could have followed these routes almost the entire width of France but to save a couple of hundred kms we cut a few corners and took some more hilly roads. One of these detours was on the day that we were approaching Versailles and Paris. Perhaps predictably we ended up on fast noisy roads with impatient drivers and endless roadworks that sent us on various diversions. I dislike the constant noise, fumes, and activity of cities even at their best and so we always promise ourselves to avoid them wherever we can – the draw of Paris however was too tempting – it is a significant point on the map, one of those black dots in the guidebooks, and a large dot at that, recognisable by just a single image – one of the most famous landmarks in the world. We should have known better and taken the more cycle-friendly routes for as long as possible and accepted the hit on the extra kms, but we didn’t. We had already planned to book into a camping cabin in Versailles for 2 nights so that we could wash some clothes, sleep in a real bed, and so that I could catch up with some work. This break was welcome, some peace away from the manic roads and cycle paths that, despite being immaculate in much of the rest of France, had become increasingly poorly maintained as we got closer to the capital. As I had a full day of work and bicycle maintenance to do I didn’t venture far from the cabin and so didn’t give Versailles or Paris a chance to impress me – I left feeling quite underwhelmed – the excitement of glimpsing and then passing “La Tour Eiffel” was of course a highlight but I felt real relief (in part because of the lack of public toilets in the city!) as we rejoined the familiar calm of the canal path and left the hustle and bustle behind us.
It is now two weeks since the three of us pushed our bikes down the RoRo ramp in St Malo, 900km of pedalling are behind us, we are starting to find our routine and our rhythm, we have rattled our bikes, our panniers, and ourselves enough to loosen any bits that might drop off or break, and I now feel ready for this adventure. To have been able to share this leg with my dad has made it even more special – as we search each night for a secluded spot to set up camp I am reminded of the times he would take us as kids hiking and wild-camping in Dartmoor or bivying on the cliffs back home in Guernsey where I remember sampling limpets for breakfast… luckily, as a vegetarian my foraging options are now limited to blackberries, nuts, and apples.
Despite 2 days of busy roads, a few mosquito dominated evenings, a round of mild stomach upsets, and some rain, France has provided us with such a good start to our journey. Now, as we approach Germany, with the plan to cross the border in just 2 days time, I know that the terrain dial is going to be wound up a few notches and we hope that the past 2 weeks will have prepared us enough for the next leg of this journey.