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  • Jamie Shannon

Cycling the Loire. Paris to Nantes. How many Pain au chocolat can you eat in one morning?

What with the difficulty and sheer frustration in reaching Paris a few days ago, I was determined not to make the same mistakes on my departure. Rose had told me about a route that led 15 km’s into the leafy suburbs in the south called La coulee verte (the green route) and with my own research having come up with the same route, I decided this was the way to go.

It was mostly well signposted until around 8 km’s where a diversion had been erected and having made my way around, I found the path relatively easy again. Challenge number one completed.

Having made my way through the leafy suburbs of Southern Paris, I cycled through Palaseau where Rose had told me she had grown up and found a quite amazing forest/park in which to camp on the edge of Palaseau. It was truly a perfect spot. It just goes to prove my theory that most good camping spots are, ironically, on the edge of small towns and not in fact in the countryside at all.

Waking up the following morning, I couldn’t believe how the weather had changed from just a few days ago. It was 8am, the air was crisp and very warm and there wasn’t a droplet of dew on my tent. It was unbelievably warm and I was extremely happy with this arrangement. Another five months of this would be my next wish I think.

Before continuing on towards Orsay, I had to first push my bike up a ridiculously steep hill. I think from this point on, I shall do this whenever the hills have a gradient that will undoubtedly hurt my knee’s as I really need to look after them. I may need them for a few years yet.

The landscape became more interesting the further south I cycled; lush verdant forest lined the side of the road, and unlike the countries I had previously passed through, forest could be seen in almost every direction.

All in all though, It was a joy to cycle. With the temperature pushing 25 degrees and the road so smooth, I could hardly wish for more. If I could be negative for just one moment though and say that for the entire day, I had a ferocious wind in my face, delaying my every turn of the wheel.

I stopped in a village and asked a couple which way the next town was as there were no signs to speak of, and as is often the case, they insisted on giving me these complex set of directions for the following 10km’s when all I really wanted was a finger in the right direction. This is always really nice, it really is, but when you don’t come from that town, there is no way you can remember every right or left turn and little street which they roll off their tongues. I don’t mean to sound ungrateful because I’m really not. I’m simply saying it’s an impossibility to remember all that information with my tiny brain. They were lovely people though. I noted the man was carrying a bag of five baguettes under his right arm, nothing else, just five baguettes. Damn it! Next time for sure. I have a feeling it won’t be the last time I’ll see a walking bakery.

It was only fifteen minutes later that I looked down at my computer to see what the time was that I realised I had no computer with which to look at. Not again! I thus retraced the last five km’s or so with my head fixed permanently on the ground. It was all to no avail though and so I just cycled on. I was reasonably gutted but I also knew that I only used it for the time and to see how many km’s I had cycled so it wasn’t a tremendous loss.

Objects lost from the bike now consisted of the computer, a hi-vis vest, one pair of shades and a pair of sandals. I suppose it is one way to lose a little weight, not the best way though I’ll admit.

Cycling along the road into Chartres and then stopping for a couple of minutes, up parked a car on the hard shoulder just behind me and out popped a man. He just wanted to know if everything was okay. I told him there was no problem at all and that I had only stopped to use France’s lovely outdoor bathroom. He laughed and then asked if I had enough water and food. I told him I had a bag full of baguettes to snack on which he seemed quite happy with before we both got on our way, bell and horn sounding at the same time. He was a little faster in his acceleration though.

I saw there was a smaller D road leading south west out of the city. I was aiming in the direction of the first village along the road on my map but this wasn’t on any of the signs. The only signs I could see were for another city, Nogent le Rotrou, which was indeed in the same direction but much further on, and so I took this one and hoped for the best.

As always, I woke up feeling decidedly groggy, but with a hot steaming cup of coffee down my throat I was well on my way to feeling normal again. Looking out of my tent, the weather seemed a little disagreeable as the landscape was hidden behind that snowy mist you only find early in the morning.

Having packed up my stuff, I wheeled my bike out of the scrub area and immediately saw an outdoor tap that they sometimes have in those large workshop/garages you see. The gate was even open for me! What a stroke of luck. Most of the amenities of a campsite but for free; if it was only this easy every day.

Anyway, back to the cycling because I do a lot of that these days. I pressed down on my right foot with the left naturally following allowing the peddles to pull on the chain which in turn grips the sprockets before forcing the wheels around. It’s all very technical but I’m sure you understand the mechanics of it. This is what I did for the remainder of the day. And yes I am going ever so slightly mad.

As the heat continued to increase, so did the beauty of the landscape. No longer was I surrounded by forest and farmland on either side. Instead the elevation increased producing these huge thumping hills and valleys with thick woodland lining the edges. I was completely on a high. Everything was going great; the 30 degree he, huge rolling hills, beautiful scenery and hardly any traffic with which to speak of. I simply couldn’t stop smiling.

I stopped off in Nogent Le Rotrou to see a little of the town before taking a look inside a super expensive supermarket just to see if I could somehow acquire a beer. That would have been nice. They only sold the beer in six packs though and the other single beers were all half litre cans. I just wanted a small one so I left without my prize. Tomorrow perhaps.

After picking up some food, mainly bakery products at the supermarket, I headed into Le Mans the following day. The road became immensely busier as I neared the city but it also had a decent sized shoulder on which to cycle so the huge trucks and cars didn’t affect me so much.

I was now beginning to think about the climate a little more the further south I went, particularly what it would be like heading into Spain. The heat I though wasn’t much better than the cold I had endured in the mornings at the start of the trip and was now thinking about the best ways to avoid this in Spain. I thought that maybe I would just stick to the northern reaches of the country and to also get the hell out of there by July when it really became unbearable. I’ll decide in the following weeks however.

Coming out of Le Mans was fairly easy; I think I’m getting better at navigating the roads out of major cities now, using the internet and drawing a map with the names of the suburbs I need to pass through on the way. The map I was using is quite adequate for the country but the cities were always a real nuisance.

Cycling towards the city of Angers, I came to a fork in the road. I could have gone either way but the road to my left seemed a little more inviting with less towns lying along it on my map. Looking back, I couldn’t have chosen a better route to take as it was lined on both sides with thick forest and the odd pretty little house.

I stopped in one village to take a few photos and, parking my bike up next to an open window, I noticed an elderly chap pop his head out. As was becoming common, he immediately asked if I needed some water or some food. I said water would be brilliant as the water I was carrying was about the same temperature as the air I was breathing. I asked If I could take a photo of him but he declined indicating that he might break my camera. I continued cycling along the narrow wooded roads when a school bus came pass me for the fifth time. I waved to the driver again as I had seen him quite frequently up to this point and thought I was getting to know him. Cycling in the sticks is quite enjoyable.

I cycled on a little more before finding a suitable entrance to the woods with no signs saying “private” or “do not enter” to be seen. Even so, I waited until the sounds of engines had disappeared in both directions before quickly pushing my bicycle in. This is always the safest way in which to camp; simply make sure no one sees you at all. With my tent up and my things in, I even afforded myself my first homemade bath. I was dripping with sweat, felt disgusting and so needed to wash before climbing into my tent.

The next day I made my way to the city of Angers. Quite a straight forward journey really if you don't lose your concentration. Yes, I had entered another lovely motorway. Now, we all make mistakes. Some of us even take the wrong exits whilst driving but being on a bicycle however is another matter entirely.

It involves a lengthy walk back up the inside of a curved slip road, stopping every few seconds so cars can pass before a long and heavy push through the grassy, uneven embankment. At this point comes the realisation that there are no gaps in the metal barrier in which to get through thus requiring another lengthy walk through metre high grass back to the start of the barrier so could get to the other side of it. Fortunately, from that point it's just another half kilometre push back to the roundabout. It's not my favourite part of the day and I had not learnt.

Having reached Angers, I arrived near the centre where I was confronted with a nice little Irish pub. I used the internet and found a really nice dedicated cycle path from Angers all the way to the next city I was to stay at, namely Nantes. It was now Monday and I had arranged a couch surfing host in Nantes to stay with. Having told her I would be there at around midday on Wednesday, I still had plenty of time to enjoy this new route I had found.

The route followed the Loire river out of the city and alongside the cities expansive parks and forest on the other side. It was all very nice, marking a huge difference to the country roads I had been travelling on before. Having said this, and despite the fact that dedicated routes like this were perhaps more scenic, I wouldn’t want to use them all the time simply because of the roughness of the ground. If I continually cycled along these kind of paths, my bike simply wouldn’t last the distance. I had to take care of it I reminded myself. I had to nurse it.

I passed plenty of places to camp during the day, but it being far too early to stop, cycled on and when I eventually decided the time was right, I couldn’t find anywhere whatsoever. It was simply too difficult. With this in mind, I took the decision that it might be easier to get off the path and back onto the roads along the river instead as there might be more opportunities there. This sadly wasn’t to be the case and with night approaching and the light fading, I made the decision to stop at a campsite to enquire about the cost for the night. If it was more than ten euro’s then I would carry on even though it was nearing 10pm. I was simply not prepared to spend more than that on a patch of grass and some water.. Imagine my relief and surprise however when he said it was only seven euros and this included water and electricity right next to my tent. Electricity inside my tent! Can you believe it? I snapped it up, pitched my tent and had a sound sleep. All in all, very nice.

As I made my way back along the Velo route the next day, I started seeing many more people touring on bicycles. We always offered up a courteous hello to one another. Older and younger people, solo cyclists like myself and families. It was quite a diverse group of people.

Having cycled the remaining 60 km's the following day, I arrived in Nantes. Upon my first sighting of the city, I was thoroughly delighted and within an hour, a beer already in my belly, I had arrived at my hosts apartment, conveniently located in the centre. Salad days. I had a couple of days rest and sightseeing to do including finding a giant, mechanical walking elephant before I headed south towards the small island of Noirmoutier in order to visit a friend whom I had worked with back in Amsterdam.

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