Tour de France

Published on 10 October 2021 at 18:16

We try to suppress our dreams about a new world trip for the time being: save for a while and hope for the world to open up again. So now we limit ourselves to stay in Europe and to spend one month. Corona still causes a lot of uncertainty when planning a summer holiday in 2021. At the beginning of July, the number of infections is rising rapidly and the Netherlands is turning dark red on the international corona map. What really don't want to go into quarantine somewhere. A wide round from home around Paris is our final plan, a tour of approximately 2,300 kilometers.

Weather forecasts are another concern. There are persistent warnings about heavy precipitation that previously led to natural disasters in Germany and Belgium. What awaits us when we leave? Roads washed away, destroyed villages, broken bridges and evacuated campsites. We postpone our departure by a day and then by another day and another. The departure day eventually falls on July 29, 2021 and we have the entire month of August: On y va!! 

 

From Helmond we cycle against the strong southwest headwind along the Eindhoven canal. Until the French port city of Dieppe we keep cycling in a south-westerly direction and until there the wind tries to blow us back to Helmond. But already in the first kilometers between Helmond and Eindhoven, our cyclist's heart starts to beat faster. All thoughts of work leave our head and the great enjoyment of traveling by bike can begin again!

Our first overnight place is a Belgian bivouac zone. That is a legal spot that comes closest to real wild camping. Belgium counts several more. About 3 kilometers before the bivouac zone Wortel Kolonie we stop to look for the exact location and then find out that there is no place for us. A reservation system has recently been introduced for the bivouac zones, probably because of corona. We didn't know that.

We move to camping Molenzijdseplas and that turns out to be the most expensive campsite on this trip and the least pleasant. We drive into an ugly terrain with all semi-permanent "caravans" and semi-permanent residents who have taken refuge in this "free state". At the edge of the large "campsite" is a narrow strip reserved for people who want to stay less than a few years. We pitch our tent there and look forward to an invigorating shower. The sanitary building is quite a distance away and has no disinfection, hand soap or toilet paper. For €35 we expected some hygiene measures. But we are camping again and while enjoying a glass of wine we prepare our favorite pan of pasta in the evening sun. Even at this disappointing campsite, the unique feeling of the combination of physical fatigue and mental euphoria overwhelms us.

 

The ride further through Belgium takes us through the city of Antwerp and - which is quite exciting with the packed bicycles - on the steep long escalators into the tunnel under the river Schelde, to bivouac zone Stropersbos. This time we placed a reservation on time and we are aloud to go there. The bivouac zone is hidden in the forest and if there hadn't been a motorway nearby we probably would have had the feeling of being allowed to camp in the middle of the wilderness. When we arrive it turns out to be a "luxury" place with picnic tables, water pump, sort of toilet (with toilet paper) and a possibility to sit around a campfire. And it's free.... Belgian bivouac zones are great! Between the fences, to keep the horses out, is room for 3 tents and later in the day we get company: first the horses come to inspect us, later two cyclists from Liège arrive and two hiking dads with their offspring. In the evening we all sit around the campfire chatting and we bake marshmallows on a stick that the hiking dads have taken with them.

 

We cycle on to Ghent and when a lady cyclist takes us on a nice route to the city center. Ghent feels very different from industrial and multicultural Antwerp: historic and fashionable, hip and atmospheric. When we wander in the center we are approached by a male cyclist who then gives us a tour through the center. Ghent is a beautiful city with nice people. We sit down for a cup of coffee and then continue to a small town called Aalster. The town has a nice square with some restaurants, but it doesn't have much to offer. The weather is so bad that we book a hotel. We buy two take away pizzas and watch the Olympic Games in Tokyo and bags on the couch in our hotel room. The XL version of the pizzas were indeed mega-sized this time and after eating too much we crawl under the sheets, while it is pouring outside.

Next day we cycle in the persistent rain to Ypres, a town that was completely destroyed in the First World War and was subsequently rebuilt authentically with German reparations. Added is the Menin Gate where the names of 50,000 fallen Commonwealth soldiers are inscribed, soldiers who traveled from afar (and sometimes literally from the other side of the world) to Ypres, to the front and were never found again. Around Ypres, the many cemeteries and references to trenches already give an impression of the massacre. These impressions are in severe contrast to the noisy and colorful fair on the Ypres market. In a week or three we will cross the trench line of WW1 again near Verdun on the way back.

 

On day 5 we cycle into France along with the first altitude meters. So far we have cycled through the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium. We cycle through French Flanders and although the place names are absolutely Dutch, French has substituted Flemish here. Today it immediately becomes clear that our French is poor. In the afternoon we order a cup of coffee at a village cafe, that went well, but the pear tartin that we had ordered as a sweet treat with the coffee turned out to be a leek quiche. And in the evening we arrive at the campsite that we saw on GoogleMaps. However, the camp hostess stops us and we understand that we are not welcome. We try to make it clear that we do have a sanitary pass, that's what the French call proof that someone has been fully vaccinated or tested negative. Stricter measures are just in order in France and we wonder if we did the right thing to travel to France. A campsite around the corner welcomes us as normal. Only then does the penny drops and we suspect that the sanitary building on the first campsite with mainly permanent places is not open. Yes indeed "pas de sanitaire". We can laugh about it now, but we also realize that the French language could become a thing in the coming weeks...

 

We cycle further into France along the coast via the North Sea route without often seeing the sea. Today's target is Dieppe, a pretty nice harbor town with a pebble beach and fantastic views. The weather is also not good today and more trouble is forecast for tonight. We are booking a hotel for the third time and really hope that this will not become a habit and that we will be able to camp more soon. Behind the hotel is a large fair that is closed due to the increasing infections. It offers a sinister sight. We treat ourselves to the first restaurant of our trip, in the end we only do this one more time in Verdun. The eye catches a Lebanese restaurant with great reviews on Trip Advisor. It was indeed delicious. We can't say that about the breakfast at the hotel. Also because of Covid there is no general breakfast with buffet, but you get a tray with some sweets in plastic and a piece of baguette. The entourage of a completely empty and deserted breakfast room doesn't help either. From the coastal town of Dieppe we take the Avenue Verte inland, a cycle route that connects London to Paris. The first 50 kilometers we cycle on a former railway line in the valley of the river Epte.

 

The Epte valley is decorated with many country houses, castles and abbeys and if a bridge is closed somewhere, we find a nice path with a pedestrian bridge. The weather is very changeable with sun, rain and wind.


At the campsite on a lake near the village of Dangu, the campsite manager assigns us a beautiful spot on a kind of mini peninsula. It's littered with goose poop, but that doesn't deter us, although geese can be quite territory-protective. However, the wind is blowing hard and the peninsula offers no shelter at all. All our camping gear is lightweight and can easily take off in the direction of the lake. We just manage to set up the tent but not to set up the tarp or put down our chairs. Above us, threatening storm clouds are also developing and we decide, before we settle further, to walk around the campsite and see if we can find a spot that offers a little more shelter. Soon we see a spot in the lee of a hedge and near a large shelter in case there is a thunderstorm. Much less beautiful but a wise choice. We ask permission and then walk back to our tent, pull out the pegs and lift it without breaking off in its entirety to the new place. Oh yes, luckily we were spared the storm.

 

About 40 kilometers before Paris we leave the Avenue Verte and we cross over to the Veloscenie, a route from Notre Dame in Paris to the bay of Mont Saint Michel. According to the website consulted (francevelotourisme.com), this is one of the most beautiful routes in France, so we're really looking forward to it.

 

The crossing contains the cycle route along the river L'Eure. Above Ezy-sur-Eure there are again those dark clouds. We decide that we don't go to the campsite but to a B&B in Croth, one village further. We are a bit too early to check in and then stop at the only cafe that Croth has and we don't do that a minute too early, because the storm breaks and in no time the streets are flooded and we are dry inside with a beer to drink. It is a cute B&B with a cozy and very hospitable lady who fortunately also speaks a nice word of English. At breakfast there are at least 15 different flavors of homemade jam on the table. We have a nice chat with the owner and then continue cycling via the L'Eure route that connects to the Veloscenie. Nice route by the way, de l'Eure. Although there are many of those bicycle-unfriendly gates at road intersections. The cyclist is definitely at the bottom of the traffic ranking in France.

 

Chartres is the first town on (our part of) the Veloscenie route and is known for its cathedral in the medieval center of the Ville Haute; the high part of the city. To reach the cathedral we have to do a steep climb in the city through the narrow streets. We later learn that the cathedral is a must for pilgrims who plan to arrive on a Friday and then walk barefoot through a labyrinth inside the cathedral.

We cycle around the church and then descend to Basse Ville. The Chartres campsite is nice and huge: everyone can pick their own spot, from neatly raked spots to the tall grass between bushes and under trees. And quite nice for us, the manager speaks good English, haha. But the best part is yet to come: at the end of the afternoon the site is filled with cyclists. We count at least 40 spots with cyclists at the end of the day. When we pick up fresh croissant and a baguette from the campsite manager the next morning, he tells us that this is not normal and that he welcomed a record number of cyclists yesterday.

After the L'Eure, the Veloscenie route is boring. The first kilometers after Chartres are still okay, but then follows a very boring part between the meadows. The weather is also a bit drizzly and that doesn't help much either.  

 

We cycle to the camping municipal of Nogent-le-Rotrou. There is no reception and we call a telephone number that is listed somewhere. Luckily the lady on the other end of the line also speaks some English. It turns out that we have to choose a spot and that the next morning an official comes by for payment. We choose a spot (spot? the place is huge!) with a picnic table. It's going to rain again and again we are very happy with our Tarp. Some cyclists trickle in again here too, but there are much fewer than in Chartres. The next morning no one comes to collect the money. We wait a little longer and make an extra cup of coffee, but one after the other cyclist leaves and eventually we too. Our second free night, made possible in part by an official who probably overslept.

 

Via the Veloscenie we quickly arrive at a former train track. Much nicer than yesterday's route, but after almost 80 kilometers on the muddy path where a green hedge blocks all view of the landscape around us, we literally suffer from tunnel vision and we are a bit tired of it. Finally we arrive in Alençon, a beautiful and stately city and also the terminus of the railway line.

 

At the campsite of Alençon we decide to stop cycling the Veloscenie and to follow another route from the website francevelotourisme.com: the Velobuissonniere, a route from Alençon to Saumur. This turns out to be a surprisingly nice route with plenty of variety in landscape and picturesque villages. But first we cycle around the church (cathedral) of Alençon.

 

In Beaumont-sur-Sarthe, campsite manager Michel welcomes us. He cycled from France to Hong Kong 35 years ago and shows us the bike from back then. In the evening he comes over for a chat. Michel would like us to stay an extra day so that we can exchange many more stories. He is a loverly man with tons of stories,  however we prefer to continue our trip. The weather is finally nice. He shows us how we can cross the old bridge to pick up the route again. On to the next campsite in Baugé.


Anyone on the Baugé campsite can also go to the adjacent swimming pool. It's a bright and even warm day, so we decide to go for our first dip. We get a bracelet on presentation of vaccination certificate and walk to the pool where a lady addresses us. We think she is making a comment about Harry's legs. His cycle shorts are a bit longer than the swim shorts and reveal a strip of leg that hasn't seen the sun in ages. When a colleague of the lady comes in who also speaks a few words of English, it turns out that Harry's swim shorts are rejected: only tight "ball clamps" are allowed here. He is not allowed in the pool. Harry still wants to say that his shorts have inner pants, but his French falls short and to give the ladies a look in his pants goes a bit too far. Oh well, the pool also looks far from cozy and there is are no chairs available, which is not surprising because it is busy and there are hardly any chairs. We have no scrupules about going back to the tent.

Scissors or a knife need be used to remove the bracelet. We use the pocket knife and in all clumsiness Roelie manages to cut herself deep in the finger and a bandage has to be put on because a plaster simply won't stop the bleeding.


At Saumur we pick up the route La Loire a Velo. But first, let's go to Decathlon for threaded gas cans. Harry had asked the group of world cyclists on Facebook for tips on whether they would be for sale anywhere - in the country of the blue cans of Campinggaz. Tips were the big Intermarché's, hardware stores and Decathlon. Decathlon Saumur was almost on the route and there indeed appear to be cans so that we continue to use gas. We also have petrol with us for our multi fuel burner, but that is more hassle.

The Loire is a beautiful river. It is wide with sandbanks and elongated islands. It is shallow and not stowed and therefore only navigable with a canoe, so that no industry has arisen around the river and nature has free rein. We see a lot of birds.

 

The beautiful Loire has cut itself into the higher landscape. As a result, cliffs have arisen where houses have been built. In a number of places the houses have been cut into the rock wall. The route takes us through narrow streets, past those houses. Every now and then a steep climb takes us to the plateau 40 meters higher, which turns out to be full of vines and then descend again to the villages and the Loire. But most striking are the crowds on the route. We have now been on the road for two weeks and only on campsites do we occasionally saw other cyclists, almost never on the road except for a single road bike rider. 


At the reception of the campsite, Harry is recognized by a Dutch cyclist, called Rob, who has followed our blog of the cycling trip around the world. Together with his wife Linda they also cycle along the Loire, but in the opposite direction. The campsite has a special area for cyclists with a cabin where bicycles can be stored, but also bunk beds, a picnic table, a microwave, a washing line and a number of refrigerators. That sounds like a Walhalla, but the field next to the building is so small that even small tents barely fit in. Fortunately we have nice neighbors: Rob and Linda set up their tent next to ours.
It's another hot day. The campsite has a swimming pool and we first go for an inspection. We see men in swim shorts and also enough sitting chairs. Let's give it another try. Rob and Linda are also in the water. Our heated cycling legs and bodies appreciate the cooling and we are in the water for almost an hour. It's lovely and we chat endlessly with Rob and Linda. We don't know yet that it will be the first but also the last swim of the holiday.

The weather is again beautiful as we continue cycling along the Loire to the east the next day. It is blowing quite hard but it's a tailwind so we fly over the dikes and paths to Tours. It is Sunday, and also a Catholic holiday (the Assumption of Mary) and the city is almost extinct. Even the Carrefour City is closed. We still have something to eat and drink and plop down on a bench in the city. Thanks to the wind it is still early and we decide to cycle a bit further and after a few hours we arrive in the beautiful old town of Amboise.
Next to the reception of the gigantic campsite is a terrace where a band is getting ready for the evening. The sounds of the band remind us of Broome two years ago and suddenly tears are streaming down Roelie's face. We were so happy then and we miss those nice people from Down Under. We had just cycled from Sydney with Henry for about ten days, we stayed with Max and Fleur and listened to Bec's singing in the garden of a hip tent in a remote corner of Australia.

 

When we wake up in the morning, it's raining again. There is a shack near the tent field where we make coffee and breakfast. The neighbors also come to the shack. They live in Paris and cycle the Loire route with their three sons. The luggage is brought to the next campsite by an organization, so they could take a lot with them. Half the shack is filled with their luggage.
We want to collect the power bank from the toilet block, where it we put it to charge last night, but unfortunately it appears to be stolen, including the iPhone plug. A salient detail is that the toilet block makes no separation between men and women and that as a result Harry witnessed Roelie's habit of hanging the power bank on the power in the least visible place and contested that habit. To put it to the test, Roelie went along with it, choosing the most visible spot at the entrance this time. Well it's clear now who was wrong...
To be sure, we ask at the reception whether perhaps a cleaner has taken the power bank, but that turns out not to be the case. For a new one, he advises to go to E Leclerc, a big retailer. The worst rain is then over. Let's go.

 

We cycle through the rain to the E Leclerc of Amboise and buy a new power bank with a iPhone plug.
Near the Saint-Laurent-Nouan nuclear power plant - the only ugly industrial dissonance on our route along the Loire - we see something moving at the bottom of the dyke and we stop to look. Cute! A whole family of fluffy beavers? With long tails? No, that's not right. Those aren't beavers. Could it be muskrats? We google images and immediately come to the conclusion that we are looking at a family of muskrats. In the Netherlands we would immediately call pest control to protect the dikes. Here we stay for a while to watch the cheerful family.

 

In Orleans we exchange - after a not so tasty cappuccino and (of course) a tour around the church / cathedral - the Loire route for the Canal d'Orleans. Because of this we take an abbreviation on the plan to follow the Loire route to Nevers and from there the "Along the old roads and pilgrim towns" back to the Netherlands.

 

Canal d' Orleans is no longer used for shipping and the path along it apparently becomes very little. For a few cyclists, walkers and fishermen it is old-fashioned quiet again. From the town of Montargis we leave it to the Komoot app to plan a route to the northeast and that route is also fun and varied through villages, forests and meadows. We spot our first (wild) deer.

In the village of Joigny on the river l'Yonne we adjust the route again. We planned to cycle back to the Netherlands via a route called 'Along old roads and pilgrim towns', but now set course for the Meuse route. The 'Along old roads' route would take us through a relatively empty area and we suspect that we will encounter more campsites and villages with supermarkets and bakeries along the Meuse. If the weather forecasts, which look bad, become true, there is also the possibility to spend the night in a hotel along that route.

 

We cycle along a gigantic reservoir in the Foret d'Orient with beautiful cycling paths through the forest and along the lake. The reservoir was created to prevent Paris from being flooded if the Seine gets too much water to store.

 

At camping Lac du Der we are in a nice spot along a stream at a ridiculous distance from the sanitary building. We take the bike for a pee and we ask the Dutch neighbors with their caravan if we can charge our phones with them. We again adjust the route a bit so that we can go to the Decathlon of Saint Dizier to buy a new cushion. One of the pads has always had a valve problem and was difficult to inflate and deflate, but now it is leaking and needs to be checked regularly at night. With a new pillow we cycle on to Bar-le-Duc. The town is located in a valley and in the last kilometer we plunge almost 100 m down where we can camp in the backyard of a castle. The supermarket is a stone's throw away as the crow flies, but it is almost half an hour's walk via a path with 350 steps that takes us 70 meters higher. It's hot this afternoon and sweat is pouring down our faces. As announced, the sunny and hot weather gives way to wetness towards evening. The wetness eventually turns into serious thunderstorms that linger for a long time in the valley of Bar-le-duc. Fortunately, we keep dry under the tarp. To repeat one more time: we are so glad we took it with us on this trip. We are curious whether the tent will endure well. We have read a review that the tent is not sufficient in torrential rain. But the MSR tent withstands the force of nature much better than our previous Nigor Guam and Exped Gemini tents, but is also a bit heavier than our previous tents. The last concern of the torrential rain is whether we will wash away in this valley where the last few weeks have seen the terrible images in Belgium and Germany, but luckily that also goes well.

 

The next day, south of Verdun, we eventually end up on the Meuse Route and immediately cross the Meuse once. It's Sunday: we didn't come across any supermarkets in the morning and the ones in Verdun are closed in the afternoon. There are a number of restaurants along the river Meuse where we can have lunch. We book an apartment for tonight and reserve a table at a popular restaurant for the evening, the second only during our trip. That's how we used to do it before we cycled the Great Divide and found out that we like camping. What we didn't see when booking is that we can't check in until after 5pm and it's only 3pm. Along the boulevard there are information boards about the history and especially about the horrors of the First World War. As before in Ypres, it touches us deeply how only 100 years ago young boys from all over the world went into the trenches and ended up in a hopeless deadlock and often never returned. The next day we cycle on a road that is indicated as La Voie Sacree, the sacred path, the supply route to the front. We also catch glimpses of the military cemeteries from the cycle path along the Maasroute.

 

The cycle route often runs along the canal next to the Meuse and occasionally leaves the Meuse. As a result, we do not cycle through the village with the nice name Brabant-sur-Meuse, Brabant is the region we live in The Netherlands. We cycle through an increasingly beautiful area and end up at a campsite in Inor that is listed as a campsite with the most dilapidated and dirtiest sanitary facilities. We can sincerely endorse this qualification, very much the next morning. It's actually not a campsite either. There are maybe 5 places for campers, the other places are mobile homes or what should pass for that. There are no campers and caravans here, only cyclists settle here out of sheer necessity. There are also cyclists on two other fields.
Who also gets a mention is bakery Ciofani in Moezon for the tastiest sandwiches and later in the day the city of Charleville-Mézières for the nicest square.

The weather is beautiful when we cycle into Charleville and search on google for a cluster of bars / restaurants. We do feel like a cold beer and end up at Place Ducale. It is an impressive wide square full of terraces and surrounded by 17th century buildings, beautiful but strangely enough in almost the same style. We settle down on a terrace where a few more people are seated and 6 police officers are standing. We hear that the agents have just carried out a check on the pass sanitair of the guests. No one was in violation. The waiter does not expect the agents back soon and he leaves our QR codes unscanned.
The Charleville campsite is located right next to the center on a spacious site that is not nearly full. We are located in the middle of the campsite in a nice cluster that is especially intended for tents. We see a camper driving around probably looking for the best remaining spot. He chooses a spot diagonally across from us and we see him maneuvering. Such a motorhome can be parked in different ways and that apparently leads to choice stress. When the camper is finally standing, he finds out that he can't connect to the power. The column has 2 connections and they are both in use. He gets the lady from the reception and then it turns out that behind the camper is a retarded large place where 2 different Dutch couples have parked a caravan. The French motorhome man is relentless: a plug has to be pulled out and the Dutch solve it among themselves but whoever moves. One of the Dutch suggests to coordinate when who needs power, but the Frenchman is relentless. He's entitled to power, period, get out. Great to watch the discussion (with no power needed) from a distance.

 

The next morning we eat stale baguette from the day before, when a baker drives by who occasionally stops like an ice cream man to sell his delicious fresh baguettes to the camping guests. Oh well, if these are the setbacks of a cycling trip, then we sign for it.

We have now arrived in the French Ardennes and the landscape is becoming more and more beautiful. Ultimately, this will be the most beautiful cycling day in terms of landscape and cycle path! The Meuse meanders and makes its way between the steep eroded rock walls of the Ardennes. At the village of Givet on the French side of the border with Belgium we arrive - again - on a campsite full of mobile homes. At most, a cyclist will land because there is little to choose from. The other campsite at Givet is said to be completely dominated by motorhomes. We report to the reception and the manager points to the best spot: we get a top location on the Meuse with a view of the fort. You won't hear us complaining in the afternoon sun!
In the morning the sky looks very different and it drizzles a bit. We immediately dismantle the tent and shortly afterwards it starts to rain heavily. Fortunately there is a picnic table under a roof where we can have breakfast. A cycling French family soon follows us. For the 3rd day in a row we are at the same campsite with these three. So they cycle the same route and also the same distances as we do. We ask them where they plan to camp tonight (luckily the father speaks English very well). We cannot find a campsite beyond Namur. Although they intend to continue cycling the route, they leave it at Namur. We decide to take stock once again in Namur and whether we will also leave the route there.

 

The Meuse route between Givet and Dinant is beautiful and between Dinant and Namur quite nice. There are some diversions due to the recent high water. In Namur we decide to continue following the Meuse route to the dutch city Maastricht. That's the fastest route and the weather forecast looks lousy. No campsites does not matter anymore. We'll take a hotel.
After Namur the industry takes over and after Huy we actually only cycle over an industrial area and the route is extremely ugly. Rarely cycled such a depressing route. What terrible violence is being done to the Meuse (and the Meuse valley). No wonder there are no more campsites. The city Liège is no exception. We also can still see the consequences of the high water here: the cycle path along the L'Ourthe has become a sandy path and the entire ground floor of every house in an adjacent street has been evacuated. There are several vans from companies that repair damage. Between Liège and Maastricht, the route is again a lot more pleasant, although there is plastic hanging high in the trees along the bank.
In Maastricht we're happy that cyclists are not pariah but are dominant in the traffic. We stop to have a coffee and pie and then we cycle on to Sittard, where Harry has lived for a long time. Until late in the evening we sit on the terrace of the market in Sittard. And then the last leg remains with a stopover at Harry's mother and his son and heavily pregnant daughter-in-law. That was it: the Tour de France 2021 over almost 2400 kilometers and despite the changeable weather and the lack of real adventure, it tastes like more. Much more!