Another World – La Ferte-Mace, Orne, Normandy, France

3 weeks since we left sunny California. Despite my fears our flight might be cancelled, our journey from San Francisco to Heathrow was painless. In fact British Airways exceeded expectations. Inflight service and crew were good. Certainly better than Air New Zealand. The only negative, a slow check-in due to only 2 staff manning the economy desks. 

On our return to our place in Wineham, West Sussex we found Poki and my Mini Cooper under shredded covers, which neighbours had kindly tried to tape together. The covers were brand new when we left in October 2020. A series of severe windy storms had done the damage.  Dennis still managed to get both vehicles started. Next morning, the Mini got through it’s MOT (road worthiness test), but Poki failed!

My brother-in-law, Dave, who owns a garage, came to our aid ordering parts for Poki and he and Dennis soon had her roadworthy again. The next few days were spent organising insurance, road tax, cleaning, the lodge and  Poki, setting up our bikes and provisioning for our travels.  Soon we were ship shape and ready to go. 

One minor panic. The bike rack we had ordered to carry our bikes on the back of Poki, hadn’t turned up. In order to get it on time we rushed to the Parcel Force depot at Gatwick to pick it up. Then a bit more trauma, was it was going to fit? Fortunately all was well and we got to France with the bikes still sitting snugly on the rear door.

On to France.

On 18 May we left British shores for France. A more complicated procedure than before Brexit. Queuing for passport checks at both ends and I even got an entry stamp at Dieppe – something I had not had for years! Leaving Newhaven in the sun, by the time we were mid Channel, the ferry’s foghorn was blaring. Thick sea mist. Pulling in to Dieppe beautiful sunshine again.

Once in Dieppe town we were held up for 30 minutes or so by a procession or march. We didn’t know what it was about, but confetti was being thrown everywhere and people were in fancy dress. Many of the participants had a disability of some description though. We reached our overnighting campsite at about 1800. The Municipal Camping at La Mailleraye sur Seine. After a parsimonious dinner of left over sandwiches from lunch time, a walk was required. We ventured down to the river and sat and watched river traffic for a while.

Our meeting in Belleme with Adam to discuss travelling to South Africa has been postponed, so next morning we headed to our friends, Mike and Wendy’s place in Villers en Ouche. (Once there we learn they are actually just outside the village and are in Boquance.) During a delightful afternoon and over a lovely dinner, prepared by Wendy, we caught up with everything that had been happening in our worlds during the long Covid lockdowns.

Next morning’s plans to set off early on the bikes came to nothing. It dawned very wet.

During a break in the rain we made sure we had transferred everything we needed to cycle for a month from Poki. The rain returned so Mike and Wendy kindly invited us to stay for lunch. It did clear, so we set off and covered 17ks to the first available campsite in Gace. Quite enough for our first efforts with heavily laden bikes and after not having ridden since 2017!

I was ecstatic to have managed the next morning’s steep climb out of Gace. However, it took it’s toll. Later in the day when faced with another long climb, I hit the wall. Legs had turned to jelly. I was not helped by the fact that my undercarriage wasn’t getting on well with my new pair of padded shorts! Agonising. Having walked to the top of the hill and attempting to remount, the heavy bike toppled over with me on it into the road. A van screeched to a halt and a very concerned driver came running to my aid. I was fine, but severely embarrassed. Later I found a whole host of black bruises.

After a ride of 28ks we stopped at the Municipal Camp in Argentan. A beautiful campsite. Excellently run, spotlessly clean. All facilities for the princely sum of EUR9.70. Too exhausted to cook, we went into town for a beer and a pizza. Later we walked around the lake next to the camp. A kiosk was serving drinks, so we sat by the water listening to music and watching a host of fishermen catching nothing.

After setting off in the wrong direction, we headed for La Ferte-Mace. Another hiccup in the country lanes led to us adding a few extra kilometres. Again I found it very tough going, but Dennis is a machine. No hills faze him. He just slowly pushes the pedals around and grinds his way up. I give up and walk! 

Getting a second wind after lunch we headed for a farm campsite I had found via Google. It was well signposted and I was expecting something quite swish. Horror of horrors. It was a dive. About 10 rotting caravans, overgrown, full of cow pats and with an amenity block that might have been acceptable 20 years ago. Peeling paint, dripping pipes and rusty radiators. Obviously it had once been a thriving site, but was now totally neglected. With a vehicle you can just drive another 20ks to find another camp, on a bike when you are knackered, it’s another matter.

I went to the farm house to find a whole family sitting outside having a late Sunday lunch around a large table. I got a shocked look when I asked if we could camp. The son explained it had been his father’s business. He said we could pitch our tent anywhere, but he had no idea what to charge us. He said he would ask his father and let us know in the morning.

The camp was actually quite adequate. Very peaceful. The aged facilities had electricity to recharge our devices and copious hot water in the shower. Wendy had messaged us telling us to prepare for wet weather. We made sure the tent was securely pitched and our bikes covered. It rained all night, accompanied by lightening.

As it was so inclement, we were in no hurry to get up. At about 0830 steps could be heard outside the tent. A deep voice bid us good morning and asked us to leave EUR5.00 in the amenities block.

The rain persisted so we spent the morning reading in the tent. A break occurred just after midday, so we hurriedly packed up. As soon as we were ready to go the rain restarted. Instead of heading for Domfront, we decided to head into the centre of La Ferte-Mace and to a hotel. Cycling the just over 4ks, we were soaked. On arriving at the hotel it was closed and shuttered. I asked in the neighbouring cafe if it was open for business and was advised to telephone the number on the door.

A very helpful owner, Stephan, gave us the code to get in, told us where to locate a room key, said we could park the bikes inside and he would come and prepare breakfast for us tomorrow morning.

First lunch on the road. No, the gypsies haven’t moved in..:)

After lunching at the neighbouring cafe we wandered around the town. A rather sad place. Being a Monday many shops are closed, but a large number were permanently closed. As a result of lockdowns, or internet shopping.? We located a supermarket on the edge of town and restocked with provisions, including some emergency rations, just in case. Back in our hotel now the rain has resumed. Tomorrow’s forecast isn’t looking too good either 😊

Saturday, 11th June La Rochelle. The end point of our chosen route, the Velo Francette.

You will be wondering why my previous blog remained un-posted for so long and why there has been such a long gap in adding further posts. A technical issue, I’m afraid. My very old iPad will no longer allow me to add new posts.

So, here is a summary of the last 3 cycling weeks. The Velo  Francette proved to be a mix of easy, well sign posted, pretty paths beside rivers and canals, along old railway lines and with some pretty tough hilly sections. Particularly the 5 days south of Montreuil-Bellay.

Montreuil-Bellay

On the dedicated cycle paths the route is well sign posted, but where it heads into villages and on small roads, we found ourselves getting lost on several occasions.

On the outskirts of Laval we stopped to ask for directions from two mature French ladies on e-bikes. Lovely ladies, Claire and Nicole. There was no camping in Laval so they proceeded to take us all around the town through industrial estates. Going way out of their way, finding the least hilly routes, until they could point us in the direction of camping in Saint Bethevin. Thanks girls for your generosity of time and friendship. This experience showed me how much easier it would be for me, if I change to an e-bike!

Next morning we set off from Saint Bethevin to streets lined with families and with cycle racing support cars passing us and cheering us on. A race was obviously taking place some where/when. We found our way back to the Velo Francette route south of Laval and some pretty cycling next to the Mayenne River. 

Late in the afternoon we emerged from the track beside the river onto a small lane, just outside Chateau Gontier. There were families beside the road, we thought picnicking or fishing, as we were still beside the river. Seconds later 6 gendarmes on motor bikes were screaming and gesticulating at us telling us to get off the road, immediately. Again within seconds leading race riders stream past us followed by the peloton, a helicopter filming overhead and support cars hurtling past. We had inadvertently almost become participants in the Boucles de la Mayenne third stage cycle race.

The motorcycle Police insisted Dennis got off the road…..just in time. These guys were flying.

Next stop on our itinerary was Le Lion-d’Angers. Leaving the cycle route to find camping, we found ourselves in the centre of, and unable to find away out of, a huge equestrian complex. A cross country course, show jumping arenas, lines of stabling, even a beautifully manicured race track. Eventually we found an exit and the town, only to discover the camping was closed and so had to continue to the village of Pruille.

Two days later in Bouchemaine we were joined by Dennis’s brother, Ash. Ash had cycled all the way from Northampton in the UK to Portsmouth, caught the ferry to Saint Malo, then taken a cross country route to catch us up. Ash is a regular cyclist and far fitter and faster than us!  We completed the route to La Rochelle together. 

The route from Thouars to Niort was pretty hilly and much tougher going. The town of Airvault was a highlight. A very old castle, quaint narrow streets and a covered market place.

Airvault old town walls
Airvault castle walls.

During the last few days we were in the Marais Poitevin region. A national park of 37,000 hectares. An area of waterways and canals with pretty villages offering many opportunities for holiday makers to hire boats of various descriptions and bikes. Lovely for cycling.

La Rochelle, at the end of our route, is a lovely old city. The original fortifications at the entrance to the port being built under the British King, Henry III in the 13th century. Later the port became one of the largest slave trading ports on the west coast. Luckily the weather was glorious so we spent a day wandering, exploring and having a lazy lunch in a waterside restaurant.

Entrance to La Rochelle harbour with it’s 13th century fortifications.

Travelling quietly by bike through the countryside offers the opportunity to encounter wildlife. Red squirrels, a young fox and a large variety of bird life, especially waterbirds, herons, egrets, moorhens, ducks swans etc. Butterflies and dragonflies abound.

Eating a riverside lunch in Marans we were entertained by a cormorant catching an eel. The ensuing struggle by the eel to survive and by the cormorant not lose it’s lunch, was an amazing sight. The cormorant won but it must have been a painful experience, as the still alive eel was struggling and convulsing all the way down inside it’s long neck for several minutes.

Our day’s enjoyment starts with a visit to the local boulangerie to stock up with a baguette (usually about 90 cents) and various other tasty morsels – pastries and cakes of all descriptions. The good thing about cycling is you need to eat for energy to turn the pedals. One can be seriously greedy without feelings of guilt! Lunch time is a gourmet experience with every possible type of cheese to go with the baguette and tea brewed on the camping gas.

Ash and I having to make mouthwatering choices for lunch.

Campsites vary tremendously. Some meticulously run. Brilliant facilities, lovely, entertaining hosts. Others pretty basic. Catering for cyclists varies widely too. A few have special rooms with kitchen facilities, others don’t even provide a table. When you are getting on in years, it is much more comfortable to prepare a meal sitting at a table rather than on the ground. We became very adept at “borrowing” tables from unused cabins, recreational areas etc. We did always return them, of course.

One thing that has surprised me about France is the number of people still smoking. At social gatherings with drinks and food, so many people light up. Have become so used to a smoking free society, it seems gross. 

It’s been 5 years since we last rode our bikes. Technology has moved on and due to our increasing maturity, perhaps it’s time to look at upgrading our faithful machines. Overall though, few wet days, beautiful scenery and 600+k’s of most enjoyable typically French country and ambience.

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4 Comments:

  1. Glad to see you guys on the move and sorry we weren’t able to connect when you were in California. Someday our paths will cross again (I hope)!

  2. Excellent summary Jen

  3. Hi guys, so pleased to hear you are travelling again, and all going well. Full of admiration for you cycling, what a great way to really see the country and meet people. We have been getting itchy feet too, planning to got to Europe, will probably be next year now, and A trip to Japan with friends from England planned. All the best for your travels!

  4. Hi All,

    Thanks Phil, yep, maybe we’ll catch up but meanwhile, enjoy your journeys.

    Cathy, wonderful to hear from you and to hear you are scratching your feet..:). Little evidence of C19 here. Now in Germany and it’s 32.4deg at 5pm!!

    Ash, keep those paddles turning and look forward to catching up in the UK. You’ll be like a racing sardine!!!

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