Sunday, July 31, 2016

Getting lost in Bristol

My house sit in Bristol for three weeks in August is a tiny flat in a northern suburb about 4.5 miles from the city centre (except Bristol doesn't really have a centre as such - it lacks focus, is drowning in commercial development that doesn't seem to have any coherence). I have a talking cat to care for. She wakes me at sparrow fart to go outside, tells me when it's mealtime and likes to just say hello every now and again. Really, she clearly says "hello".

I arrived in the rain which seemed appropriate for this mid-war dreary suburban sprawl with strip development comprising off-licenses, indian take-aways, sex shops and the like.

The first day I rode into the city, had coffee in the Bristol University precinct, visited the Museum cafe but not the Museum (typical) and spent the afternoon having coffee in Waterstones and reading books from the travel section.
Bristol has a big initiative to be a Green Capital with the aim of reducing carbon emissions.
This is the Cathedral on Green Square.

It is ironic in a way that this green city is built on nine hills. Cycling here will certainly keep me fit. Bristol was the European Green Capital in 2015, an award won for cross-sector efforts to make Bristol a healthier, happier city. They project and image of a circular economy based in recycling and waste prevention. Instead of putting my food scraps into the tiny yard behind the flat, they go into a food collection bin that council empties once a week.

So I picked up all these maps showing the cycle routes and studied them carefully. Next day was Saturday so I set off to see one of the major landmarks, the Clifton Suspension Bridge (lured by promises of pleasant cafes in the oh-so-genteel Clifton Village). It didn't take long to get side-tracked - how could I resist a bakery with this name with a table outside in the sun?

From then on it went seriously wrong. Yes I picked up the now-familiar National Cycle Route 4 which was meant to take me towards Clifton. Except I happily headed off going the other way, didn't I.

Call it a day of exploration. Blaise Castle Estate was my first discovery. The Castle itself is a folly and anyway there was some children's fair happening. But then there was a road sign saying Blaise Hamlet. Whip out the phone, dear google, what is it? What a treasure. Nine rustic cottages around a small village green with a pump.

Blaise Hamlet was given to the National Trust in 1943. The cottages, which are still lived in, have been modernised inside, but keeping the tall chimneys, thatches and seats. They were designed by John Nash (who also did Buckingham Palace and Brighton Pavilion) in the 1790's, his commission being to provide housing for the servants of Blaise Estate when they retired. If only there were more people like the Quaker owner of Blaise who had these houses built.

Then I came across another vast historic estate, Kings Weston. It used to be a royal manor in medieval times. The mansion is mostly used for weddings now and surprise - has a lovely cafe with a terrace looking out over the Severn. The wind turbines being one of the best features of the view - anyway, the pea and spinach soup was really good and it was a good spot to sit a while with the Guardian. In the sun!

Another cycle path goes 9 miles along the River Avon into the city centre. Passing under Clifton Bridge. Yay. The tide was out so the river didn't look so great, but it has a 13 metre tidal fall so would be quite different at high tide.

Getting to the bridge was a really good ride, but then I had to push the bike a long way up to the park at the top of the bridge, which is the site of an Iron Age settlement, 2000 years ago.

I was going to say the bridge was designed by Brunel, but it turns out that his original design didn't actually get built at all because of the Bristol Riots.

In 1794 the populace of Bristol were said to be "apt to collect in mobs on the slightest occasions; but have been seldom so spirited as in the late transactions on Bristol-bridge." The Bristol Bridge Riot of 30 September 1793 began as a protest at renewal of an act levying tolls on Bristol Bridge, which included the proposal to demolish several houses near the bridge in order to create a new access road, and controversy about the date for removal of gates. 11 people were killed and 45 injured, making it one of the worst massacres of the 18th century in England.  (from wikipedia)

Apparently the first bungee jump was off this bridge. Did that have anything to do with A J Hackett?

I was going to ride home across The Downs, but meandered down a quiet residential street called College Road. So here's Clifton College. Isn't that where Harry Potter went to school? I rode through a wedding party, which seemed to include about 20 bridesmaids in royal blue gowns.

Yep, I did make it home, past this lovely little cottage sitting splendidly among the boring stucco row houses along Henleaze Road. It's The Old Lodge, and it is the only privately-owned thatched house in Bristol. How about that for a discovery? It has spy windows so the Coach House man could keep an eye on passing coaches while he was having his lunch.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Amboise to Angers - and places in between

So my last post ended with Tours. Oh yes, I remember, that was the town with the cathedral (basilica, actually) where over a quiet Sunday lunch I talked to the American girl doing the same thing as me - sitting in the cafe reading a novel in French and consulting a dictionary every few sentences. And there was that older French man who joined in the conversation to tell us about how he was helping with the Cathedral's 700-hundredth year celebrations for Saint Martin and how so many countries were participating but not England. Mais je suis Australienne. Except when I bump into kiwis, and at the Musee des Beaux Arts in Tours that afternoon there was a Chinese couple from Auckland who were amazed that I would be travelling by bike and sleeping in a tent. I amaze myself too I have to say. But I have my very own Betty-bien-etre. The massages are a bit rough and she leaves my muscles a bit sore some days, but what a workout she gives.

And what came next? Well that would be Villandry. I missed a turn and had to ride back 5 k but it was worth every spin of the pedals. There is some thing magical about cycling right up to the front gate of some magnificent site, not having to find a car park miles away, never having to pay for parking, Just tie up the bike, and wander in. Oh, best to take off the high-vis vest though.
In case you havn't guessed, by this time I had fallen deeply in love with France. And now my time was running out and that made my visit to Villandry even more heart-wrenching. I don't know what it is about France that brings emotions to the surface. I was a bit raw all of that last week and a bit numb for the first week in England. At Villandry it was the elegance of the chateau itself, the fresh flower arrangements in every grand room that set off the decor, the superb formal gardens, and the landscape all around - wooded hills and green valleys and a little village nestled up against the chateau grounds, looking as if it had been there as long as the hills themselves. I wasn't expecting to but I loved the geometric gardens.

Villandry is one of the most-visited tourist attractions in France and I absolutely know why. A huge percentage of visitors are French and I love that too, the respect for their own heritage.

A bit of a misty grey day, matching my mood perfectly, and suiting a gorgeous silent ride on smooth trails.

Ending up with the romantic Château d'Ussé with its turrets round and square, cream stone and grey tile roofs and a matching medieval chapel in the trees nearby.

 The Château dates to around 1462, but most of what remains today is what happens when a fairy tale castle is adapted to become the country mansion for the aristocracy. It still has the fairy tale air though - in fact this is the castle that inspired Charles Perrault to write Sleeping Beauty. The approach road is stunning, a quiet little side road that runs straight towards the mansion, across a small bridge with a pond alive with the sounds of frogs. The municipal camping area was not far away, a short ride through the village of Reigny-Ussé.

There over 300 châteaux in the Loire Valley. But for the next couple of days my big excitement was reserved for.....

I knew it was around this time, but I wasn't getting much news. Keeping my phone charged was a constant challenge and I was conserving battery time for all map look-ups. So it was a 15 km gentle uphill ride the next morning before I arrived in a tiny little village with a tabac. A not-so-historic village, with a block of very modern mixed residential/commercial buildings facing the town square, all with green roofs and solar panels.  In the middle of the countryside. I'm skimming the local paper and I realised that the Tour and I would be in the same place this very day. The excitement!

I rode into Saumur that afternoon, the very place the riders had left from that morning. No, I didn't see them, just the remains of the media circus that had moved on with the riders, but I was close enough. I chatted with a man from the north of England who had stopped to eat a sandwich at a bus stop and as a result accidentally found himself inside the restricted area on the first day, sitting right there where the vans pulled up and the riders themselves got out and got on their bikes.

But before Saumur, Candes-Saint-Martin 
As well as being one of the most beautiful villages in Frances, it is the place where Saint Martin lived and died.

He was the man who cut his cape in two to share it with a beggar. The piece of cape he kept then became an object of worship and is the origin of the word chapel. You can visit the Saint-Martin collegiate church where his house once stood. This is where the legend of “Saint Martin’s summer” was born. Legend has it that the flowers bloom along the Loire in November to accompany Martin's remains which were transported by boat to the cathedral in Tours.

The village marks the confluence of two rivers, the Loire and the Vienne. I hiked up to the Panoramique, which has grand views across the Loire valley.

Quite a hilly afternoon ride through vineyards, hilltops marked by church spires and crosses, and then through a stretch of troglodyte caves. Some are studios and holiday homes now, others are just garages or store rooms. Some look just as they probably did in the 12th century when they were first inhabited.

And into Saumur itself, 'home' for two days. And finally, some sunshine.

Final stretch of the trip for me was into Angers. I camped the first night just outside the city at Les Ponts du Ce. In a bogan bar where I stopped in desperate need of water in the middle of a particularly hot afternoon, the barman filled my water bottle without being asked. He gave me directions for a short cut to the island where the camping resort, and told me that the name of the place was meant to be the Bridges of Caesar, but a painter making a sign got interrupted in his work and the short version just stuck. 

The only other cyclist I saw here was a girl from Whanagarei on the second day of a two-month ride she hoped would eventually take her up to the Rhine, north through Germany and around into Holland.

But for me this was the end of my bit of the Loire. I crossed the river for the last time and rode into Angers in the morning traffic, and spent the next two nights in a quiet youth hostel where I had my own ensuite room. From there I took the train to St Malo and a ferry to Portsmouth. Damn that Schengen Agreement that means I now have to stay out of France for 90 days.  
Stunning riding along the river down from Saumur on quiet roads

The chateau in Angers is well fortified with a moat and these walls

Inside the walls

More of the castle and a view over Angers

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Loire a Velo; Chaumont-Sur-Loire to Savonnieres

My usual early start from Chaumont-sur-Loire and not an open cafe to be found in the town. I skipped the chateau visit but it was a nice place to camp.

So now it is Saturday, and I'm cycling through these small villages and some stretches where there are modern housing developments, and I decide it must be Saint Cut-the-Hedges Day because that's what everyone seems to be doing. I'd be quite happy cutting my hedge if I lived here, and I'd offer cold water to the passing cyclists and give them vegetables from my garden.

Wait, I want to live HERE

No, forget the hedges, I want a house with dormer windows

Amboise is the next biggish town. Leonardo da Vinci spent the last years of his life here at Le Clos Lucé. The Royal Chateau of Amboise is an expensive one to visit, 12 euros. I opted for lunch in a tiny restaurant and tea rooms on the side of the hill.

The camp ground is on an island in the river. At the office - this conversation all in French - I learned that there was a music festival over the weekend.

She said the music would be going until maybe 3.00 am. In fact it was still going when I had my morning coffee and croissant in the campground cafe on my way off on Sunday morning. After days like these I'd sleep through anything.

Sundays in France can be a bit dreary with everything closed up, but Amboise has a wonderful market along the riverbanks. Farm produce, ethnic foods, even a bit of brocantes (antiques and junk).
Amboise, views from where I had lunch

Arriving on the island where the camp is.

From the island, looking back to the Chateau Amboise
Only 28 km to Tours, and I was there by lunch time. Some images from the route follow.

In the midst of acres of vineyards, a church on a small hill

And now Tours.
The Tours Cathedral. Bits go back to the 4th century 

Cathedral built during 12th to 15th centuries

Just the Tours Prefecture 

I got to see quite a bit of the suburbs of Tours, more than I wanted to actually. I missed a Velo Route pointer somewhere. Followed marked cycle paths through a large park, past the university, over a couple of bridges that might have crossed the Loire, or was it some other river? and through another park past a lake or two. An hour later and lots of google maps look-ups, getting more and more confused about which way my location pointer on the map was pointing and how that correlated to the way I was heading, I came to the realisation that I here I was going through the same carpark with this same children's playground that I'd ridden past ages earlier. You could say, well, I wasn't exactly lost. The maps told me exactly where I was, only thing is they did not tell me where to go next.

I just didn't know which way to go. Cycle paths in all directions, but where WAS that Velo Route? Google doesn't show it at all. I gave up on cycle paths and took to the roads where at least there were some signs reassuring me that I would be heading towards Saumur. I asked a few people and enjoyed being able to ask and get directions in French, and followed a bit of a shortcut past a gypsy camp. Not so reassuring. But after about 5 km I finally picked up the route again. Not a bad way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Camped in a tiny little place at Savonnieres where there are caves that you can visit, though I didn't. But there was an interesting deli attached to the caves visitor centre, and I made the best picnic meal ever - chorizo and olive bread, with salty tapenade and feta in herby garlic oil and a bag of mixed salad greens.


Day three of following the Loire down river - how hard can it be? But coming out of Suevres I did my old trick of going the opposite way to that intended. I think it is to do with the sun being in the south and my direction-finding brain saying if you are facing the sun, east is to your right, but it's not, because this is the northern hemisphere isn't it, so get used to it or get lost. I keep getting lost. Except if you head off in the morning with no destination in mind, there is probably no such thing as lost.

This day turned out to be a ride from Muides to Chaumont and it might be one of the best on the whole Loire, but heck, they were all so good it is impossible to choose one day above the others. Villages, old stone arch bridges, some hilly stuff, woods, quiet shady backwaters riding along levees, a bit of gravel and some sand just to keep things interesting, riverside mansions. Mostly I was grateful for shelter from the head wind. This was the only day I rode in showers. It was actually cold most of the day, and the cold sank into my joints. 

Lots of other cyclists along the way, everyone calling out 'bonjour' as we passed. In Blois I stopped and had a pretty disgusting bit of quiche sitting in the street, chatting with an English couple cycling in other direction. Blois is hilly. I set off pushing the bike up a steep shopping street towards the Tourist Office and just came around a corner to find this in front of me. With the Orangerie off in a little park on the other side of the road. Chateau de Blois.

Now a national monument, it was home to King Louis the Seventh and several other French kings, and was also the place where Joan of Arc went in 1429 to be blessed by the Archbishop of Reims before she departed with her army to drive the English from Orléans.

Blois has a lot of medieval buildings but in the end it is another busy town and I prefer the smaller villages, so off into the peace and quiet along the river.

Now wouldn't you love to live in this riverside mansion?

With it's own 700 year old church? 

Maybe something a bit smaller? 

In one of the villages I passed this day - which I can't say.

I rode on through the wheat fields into the evening, and had begun thinking seriously about a stealth camp in the woods off the path. I had just picked a suitable bit of woodland when a snake crossed the path. The fourth snake I had seen in France, and the biggest. I know they are harmless grass snakes, but it seemed like a sign so I kept cycling. A tiny little campsite turned up and I got the tent up just before another shower. As it got dark I sat under a shelter with a Dutchman cycling on up river to join with the Rhine. How is it that you meet some people who you just feel you have known all your life? One of those amiable and meaningful conversations that flow so easily. 

In the night I had to put all my clothes on - I mean ALL, but I was still cold. 

Here's something good - I had bought all my camping stuff in Montpellier in a cheap warehouse called Decathlon that Nicholas took me to. Decathlon has a chain of stores across France, and a few days later I went to the one in Saumur to buy a heavier sleeping bag. A young shop assistant came to help, said, I can speak English if you would prefer. I would, I did, and for the sake of a ride back to the campsite on the other side of the river, was able to exchange my 3-week old used sleeping bag for a warmer model and only pay the difference.