I am a South African who lives in London, so when Dave hooks up with me for a beer recently in Leicester Square, I stare at his tan and relaxed demeanor longing to get back to where he is from, Zimbabwe, and join him on his many adventures in the bush. After a few stories and catching up on things he stares at me smiling across his Guinness (Can’t get decent Guinness in Zim he keeps telling me). ” I want you to write an article about your adventures on a bicycle in France “. Now I like writing, and especially if its about adventures on a bicycle in France but I sense a catch. I nod as Dave continues.”Its for our travel insurance website so it must be about travel insurance adventures on a bicycle ride through France. ” Ok there is the catch. What can I say about it, before I get on my bike I buy travel insurance online, I get an email telling me I’m covered and ride my bike with 35kg of kit on it out of my gate and I am gone, ready to face whatever is coming my way in the next two weeks. Myself and my bicycle and adventure, I don’t even think more about travel protection thereafter. That takes care of the journey protection/travel insurance aspect so now I’ll write about the interesting stuff.
For those of you that don’t know a bicycle tour the way I do it is my own self-made tour. You can get some excellent tours organised by professionals who provide you with bikes and accommodation as you go, but if you haven’t guessed, I like adventure, in particular adventure where you have to be self-reliant. Now there is nothing non-adventurous about an organised tour and I can recommend a few but its the self reliant aspect that adds the tang that I need. The problem with being self-reliant is it involves time and particularly some planning and organising. So if you don’t have time and you are not a planner and an organiser this may not be for you, then rather go on an organised tour with everything laid on. However, the planning is the one of the most exciting parts of the whole exercise. Fly over google maps and check out the towns, the terrain. Where are the forests, the sea, the lakes. You can fly from the start of your journey to the end in seconds, something you remember when you are actually on your journey sweating up a hill in 30 degrees. Whilst doing this I lay a track of my route, I study the towns and look up what they say about the area I am travelling in and I divert my route according to my interest. Then I look at the kilometres I have to go and divide it up into days so I know I can get to points where I have to catch a train or a ship or a plane.
I put all I need on the bike including spares, camping equipment and clothing. One thing you learn is minimalism in wearing clothes and washing clothes every day along the way is a painful necessity but generally I prefer comfort to lightness, so that if I camp I really feel comfortable. All in all the bike carries 35 kg in kit on back and front paniers.
The starting point was London, so I cycled out of my gate and to a station in Woking about 14km where I caught a train to Portsmouth. From there I cycled onto a ferry tied my bike to a railing that caters for cycles and headed to my cabin that I had booked for the night headed for St Malo in France. The ferry trip is pleasant with a selection of restaurants and some entertainment but I was happy to be out of the cramped cabin and ride off the boat onto the streets of St Malo. From there I caught a train to Nantes and then the cycling began.I rode from Nantes into countryside which was flat farmland. I selected very minor roads with very little traffic and the going was very pleasant if not a tad boring. After a 53km slept a night in a campsite on a little pond. I pressed on and passed some very interesting little French towns, situated on rivers.
I went to the famous coastal tourist town of La Rochelle and beautiful as it is, I could not help feeling like a tourist there as it caters for tourists much more than in other towns. I headed across the long bridge to the island Saint Martin De Re and camped the night there, a distance of 75km. Tiredness starts to set in in the evening and after a beer and meal I was soon asleep on my comfortable air mattress.
After crossing the bridge and a quick breakfast and getting lost in La Rochelle the next day I set of for the Ferry in Royan. This was a long cycle and the countryside pretty flat so I went as fast as my tank-of-a-bike could take me to reach the ferry in time to cross the Girond. The terrain on the other side of the Girond changes drastically. The coastline here is planted with pine forests and is one of the largest plantation forests in Europe. To the east along the Girond are the vineyards around Bordeaux. I elected to take the amazing 300km long bicycle track along the beaches and sand dunes of this stretch of south west France. The long cycle track is a result of roads built for motor bikes to travel between German pillboxes during world war 2 and although a bit dilapidated in small parts by tree roots, the track is in magnificent condition.
I then spent the next 4 days cycling through pine forests with beautiful dunes and long beaches on my right. I was impressed with the beaches and there many camp sites and little towns to call into where I did my fair share of body surfing to cool off and take a break from cycling. The area also has some lakes that feed into the sea making it very interesting place to cycle along indeed. I won’t mention the plethora of nude beaches which attracts many people at that time of the year.
Heading to the Spanish border I passed through the picturesque and popular tourist city of Bayonne. A very French and upmarket coastal city, it is a popular surfing destination. Here, the terraine starts to become steeper as you get closer to the Pyrenees mountains.
After Bayonne I stayed in a small town just before the Spanish border called St Jean De Luz. For South Africans, all these little coastal towns are very different to what we are used to. The beaches are excellent but the French food, ancient history and the people make it a very exotic and worth while experience. I crossed the Spanish border at Hendaye and cycled to San Sebastian about 30-40km. The road into San Sebastian was one to be avoided. You cannot get in on minor roads really and so you are forced to take the busy roads through industrial areas. Not recommended. San Sebastian, however, is a delight. The city is built around two very picturesque bays, one good for surfing and the other is calmer water. It is surrounded by hills and old architecture to compete the pretty picture. This is also the city for the famous Tapas. Almost every bar serves tapas which is lined up at the bar. I met many interesting people from all over the world standing at the bars eating tapas which the barman has an uncanny knack of keeping tabs on.
I rode out of San Sebastian for a 200km haul to Santander. The ride from here is stunning though the mountainous terrain and green forests and fields filled with cow bells and quaint and remote Spanish bars and rivers and streams. The coast line is precipitous with very quaint Basque towns with strong local traditions.
Finally I reached Santander and after crossing the bay in a small ferry, I had time to kill before the ferry back to Porstmouth. Santander has been much maligned as a city, but I like it. It has a long boulevard stretching around the city along the sea and into the massive bay with beaches and shops that rival any tourist destination. I liked the vibe there and the people I found friendly and relaxed.
Once you ride onto the ferry for the return trip to Porstmouth you really feel like you need a rest. After over 1000km in 2 weeks you are happy to get the backside off the saddle and rest the legs. I had some near misses along the way nearly falling off the bike, angry Frenchmen or nearly missing a train but thank goodness I had no need to use my travel insurance on a bicycle. There is a lot that could go wrong so I would not cycle out without it.