Friday, 8 November 2013

Our little velo ride

As we write this update, we are relaxing at a gite in a small village called Mauroux, in the Gers region of the South of France, before we start our next workaway on 11 November. 

Time to relax :-)

We even get a free cat with the gite

And a free dog, meet Brador

Looking back at our diary and photos from the past couple of months has made us realise what an incredible adventure we've already been on during the 1900 or so kilometres we've cycled from York, camping in our tiny green tent every night. Ok, not every night in the tent and we might have had one or two rest days. We stayed in a lovely gite near Moret-sur-Loing for five nights, with a day trip to Paris, then there was the four nights camping at Braxieux, and maybe a rest day at Avanton and another two at Périguex, there might have been a few more...

People watching fro, the Sacre Coeur in Paris

Can you spot our lock?.. No, of course we didn't, Rob wouldn't allow such romantic gestures!

Worth taking the metro to Belleville Park for this beautiful view of Paris. 

We’re very proud of our bikes, Juno and Jimmy - don't judge us, we've been on our own for two months -  who had rarely ventured outside The York City Walls before this trip and had all but accepted a life of tiny commutes before living out their days in a cold shed, bickering about what could have been. Instead, they’ve travelled across three countries enjoying the beautiful countryside while carrying baguettes, with only one puncture repair, a little oiling and no complaining when they had to sleep outside every night.

New challenges everyday
Lovely quiet roads in Northern France
One of our hottest days at the end of October on the way to Mauroux

We’ve not done too bad either, our legs have definitely had to get stronger as the hills have got bigger and steeper on the way South.

At the top of a very big hill in Beauville

On our way to France we could have probably crossed Belgium in a couple of days, but in keeping with the philosophy of our trip we wanted to experience all that Belgium has to offer - mainly chocolate for Louise and beer for Rob. A friend recommended visiting Leuven, so we spent a couple of nights in an apartment there, nothing to do with the Stella brewery, but of course we went on a tour.

Inside the Stella brewery 
Cheers, the 7 euro ticket included a few drinks
And of course you should always wear hi-vis when drinking Stella
Look at the moon, Leuven
This blog is just a lot of waffle...

Whilst in Belgium, we also visited Charlois so we could see Europe’s biggest photography collection which is housed in a brilliant museum just outside the city. The leaflets about Charlois gave us the impression that the city would be very interesting, so we decided go into the centre for an explore. Unfortunately the city hasn’t quite caught up with the marketing blurb and we didn’t stay long. The friendly locals were a bit scary. The first man to approach us had long matted hair, a scraggy beard and long tobacco stained fingernails. He told us that the city has lots of problems and we should be careful of our security. Outside the post office while Rob was posting a parcel, Louise met another two locals who were equally friendly and equally scary. Shortly afterwards, a group of students approached us, they were compiling a survey on reasons why anyone would want to visit Charlois and hadn’t had much luck finding tourists… This all happened within 10 minutes, so we decided to cut our visit short, very happy to be camping in a quiet campsite about 10km away.

We enjoyed exploring the Netherlands and Belgium, but as soon as we arrived in France we felt at home. It was lovely to graduate onto the quiet country roads of Northern France after completing our cycling by numbers journey in the Netherlands. We also enjoyed trying to speak to the locals, after failing miserably at Dutch. It didn't help that everyone in the Netherlands speaks impeccable English. We're getting much more practice in France where even if people can speak brilliant English, they refuse to speak a word of it to us. Probably because they're enjoying the spectacle of our terrible French in Yorkshire and Scottish accents. 

When we first arrived in France, we set off each day pedalling in the general direction of the farm we’re heading to for our next job, which is quite near Toulouse. We enjoyed lovely mornings taking in the beautiful views as we cycled for hours without seeing another person, except on Sundays when we had to watch out for the men with orange hats, guns and dogs – hunting season runs from September to February and we wouldn’t be the firstpeople to get mistaken for a pheasant. 

We've been hunting for our own food too.

Lots of chestnuts

At home, it's often said that your never more than a few feet from a rat. In France, it's much more appealing as you're never a more than a few feet from a Boulangerie. This meant we could stop in tiny villages to pick up fresh bread for lunch everyday. Note from Rob: to anyone travelling to France, they don't understand if you ask for a French stick even if you say a stick de Francais! 

After lunch, we would often start to stress out a little, worrying about whether we would find somewhere to sleep that night. It's possible to get away with wild camping in France, but it's technically illegal and we were quite scared of the men with guns roaming the woods. We preferred to find cosy campsites where we could relax, cook dinner and have early nights. After a few days we decided to purchase a campsite guide, choosing the Routard guide because of the front cover.

Aww, Louise thought we'd be doing this, but Rob pointed out that the sleeping bags would get dirty.

Another reason for buying the guide was that we were travelling a little out of season and had started to notice a worrying trend for campsites to shut down for the winter. Our new book showed us that there were enough sites open for us to join the dots between them and plan a route south, we just had to finish our trip by the end of October when almost everything would be closed. The guide did let us down twice, the campsite we'd planned to stay at in Amboise had already closed for the season when we arrived, so we watched some people pedalling a little quicker than us, had a quick look at the town and continued cycling along the Loire. We knew from the guide that there was another campsite 12km away in Montlouis-Sur-Loire and luckily that one was open. 

Bike race in Amboise

Unfortunately, we weren't as lucky when we arrived at another closed campsite which was in the middle of nowhere near Guesnes and this time there were no backup options nearby. We'd been cycling in the rain all day and couldn't face trying to find anywhere else to sleep. The toilets and a big room full of picnic benches had been left unlocked, so as there was nobody else around we did some 'wild camping'. Louise got a little bit scared when what was scenic beauty spot during the day became a creepy, remote, Blair Witchesque forest at night. This wasn't as scary as when we accidentally left our rubbish tied to the side of the tent and an animal rummaged through it looking for food in the middle of the night. With only the thin tent separating the animal, hopefully a cat, from Louise's face, Rob refused to swap sides and went back to sleep leaving Louise awake and slightly terrified. 

Wild camping in style at Guesnes
We’re not sure what criteria were taken into consideration when Routard selected its ‘best campsites'. Our favourites have had lovely managers, free wifi, toilets with seats and paper, soap, hot water and somewhere to hang out if it rained. Our all time favourite was Camping Du Futur which had the nicest campsite manager in the world ever. He gave us free beer, let us take over the games room and cafe area to cook our meals and even complimented us on our French before waving us off.

Dinner at Camping Du Futur

The guide book wasn't interested in the standard of the toilet blocks and seemed much more concerned with choosing campsites in very pretty towns and villages, surrounded by as many trees as possible. This took us to some interesting places and helped us plan a very beautiful route south.

Stepping back into the 1920s in Périgueux
Assault course at our first Routard guide campsite in Nouvion-en-Thierache 
Western style camping in Suzi

However, it did leave Rob a bit bemused to what was required when going to the toilet in France. Sometimes there was a seat, sometimes not, and sometimes no toilet at all. Sometimes the toilet paper went in the toilet, sometimes it went in a bin and quite often you had to bring your own. Yes, he does sound like an idiot abroad, but he's getting better and has adapted to some aspects of French life very well. He confidently pees at the side of the road in full view of everyone just like the French men who don't seem to have any inhibitions when it comes to getting their willies out. He also enjoys sitting outside a tabac with a small beer instead of a pint and has learned how to fill up on red wine at a Maison du Vin.
Outside a tabac in Cadouin with a demi Stella
5 litres of red please, Fleurance

Our journey through France has been taking us through some incredible scenery. Louise got excited when we cycled past baby animals.

Lots of calves made us smile on a hard day
Through fields of dying sunflowers.

Or wild flowers

Or vineyards

Cycling through the Champagne region

Rob was more impressed by the sights that made him feel like he was in an episode of Eddie Stobart Trucks and Trailers.

Chipping wood along the Loire
Crushing cars near Charlois

Generally after cycling for four or five days we would start to get grumpy with each other. We took this as a sign that we needed a rest day. Excited to explore France, we didn't want to waste these days. But with our bikes as our only method of transport, we would often end up cycling even further than we did on normal days so that we could visit tourist sights and supermarkets. Rest days were becoming very tiring, so we decided to have regular stops of several days enabling us to do some sightseeing, try some local delicacies, stock up at the supermarket, wash some clothes, plan the next stage of our trip and get a little rest. 

Market day in Périgueux- spot Rob
An evening stroll in the very beautiful Chinon
After a tasty meal with some local wine
Hotdogs in Moret-Sur-Loing
Too many gallettes to choose from in Paris

Travelling by bike isn’t all glamorous of course, we’ve had a few rainy days when we’ve been lucky to find a bus shelter to eat our soggy baguettes in. 

We've set ourselves a goal to learn to speak French before we leave France and it's going reasonably well. We quickly learned "pouvon-nous rester pour une nuit" so we could stay at campsites, "où est l'eau potable" to keep us hydrated and 'pouvez-vous couper la baguette' so we could fit baguettes in our panniers to stop them getting soggy! 

It hasn't been necessary to learn to ask for directions because everyone in France seems to want to give them to us, and then repeat them several times, even when we’re not lost. In Courplay, this went a step further. Five minutes after getting directions from a council worker and setting off towards a campsite, a van pulled up next to us and another council worker rolled down his window asking us to follow him… We obliged and it was hard work keeping up with a van going uphill for a couple of kilometers after a hard days cycling, but luckily he took us to a very nice campsite.

To increase our vocabulary, we're invested in some audio books that we listen to and repeat every day. They’ve taught us all the important things, like how to book a room in a hotel, how to say we prepared the coffee and how to tell someone their father is exotic!... We try to practice these phrases as often we can, but don’t always get it right. Sitting outside a little restaurant in Périgueux, we successfully ordered a three course meal. We’re on a very tight budget, so chose the set menu and carafe of water. This would have been a very cheap meal, but Rob got a little mixed up with his French and accidentally gave the waitress all our money as a tip. 

View from the cheap/expensive restaurant
As you can probably see from the photos, food and drink have played a fairly large part in our journey. Well, you have to keep the energy levels up. However, we might have got it slightly wrong as we've both managed put on weight despite cycling more than 1000 miles! We're going to have to work extra hard at our new job to get back in shape.  

Au revoir, xx

Thursday, 26 September 2013

Becoming fietsters

So we left Iceland, a place and people we’ll never forget, and have started our cycling adventure around Europe. Just like in Iceland, we want to really get to know the places we visit, live with the locals and absorb the culture of each new country – the rest Europe has a lot to live up to!

We cycled to Hull to get the ferry after a quick stop in the UK to pick up our bikes. As we cycled on board it felt the beginning of a real adventure… And the Netherlands didn’t let us down. Rob lost his phone on the first day, we fought killer Christmas trees, got fleeced at a Dutch car boot sale and were attacked by hailstones the size of golf balls.

As two novice cycle tourers, we decided to start our journey in the Netherlands where bikes rule the road and there’s an amazing network of easy, flat cycle paths.

Our bikes rest at one of the many route signs
After a shaky start trying to navigate through Rotterdam we learned how to follow the scenic green cycle routes and quickly fell in love with the quaint towns and tasty cheeses of the Netherlands.
The bikes enjoy hanging out in Gouda

Our first stop was a ‘Gouda’ one, sorry for the 'cheesy' joke… where of course it would have been rude not to have bought some of the local delicacy. Not sure the Dutch would approve of the way we ate it though!
Rob enjoys a smashing meal
Endeavoring to get to know the Netherlands a bit better, we arranged a work exchange at a bamboo nursery in Leusden near Amersfoort for two weeks through

Sunset on the nursery
In exchange for feeding and watering bamboo plants and Christmas trees, weeding, cutting and potting bamboo and generally helping around the nursery four days a week, we got to unpack our panniers in a caravan, were given access to a vegetable garden, some euros to buy food each week and got to spend time with some lovely people.
Our home for two weeks
Louise excels at potting bamboo... 
Rob wanted to make a Holland pot joke here, Louise wouldn't let him...
Over the two weeks we learnt a bit about bamboo, a few Dutch words and how to avoid being prickled by Christmas trees after making the mistake of wearing shorts on the first day. We also got a real insight into life in the Netherlands, we explored the area, ate some chocolate sprinkles on toast and we even went to a Dutch car boot sale where you could buy everything including the kitchen sink.
Our hosts didn't find the joke as funny as we did...
Exploring at a nearby lake
Street art in Amersfoort
We got fleeced six euros for two camping stools at the car boot sale, but at least we’re using them.
Louise drafting the blog on a €3 stool
We’ve set up our next workaway job and it’s just around the corner, in the Midi Pyrenees! So we’ve got six weeks on the road, google maps recons the 1500km or so will take us 80 hours to cycle, but we thought we’d give ourselves a little bit longer just to be sure. And the whole point of our adventure is to take our time getting to know places, taking detours and getting a little bit lost – all part of the fun.
And there's always something to see

Campsites can be quite expensive, so our best option is wild camping. Unfortunately it’s impossible to find a pitching place that isn’t in view of someone’s house in the Netherlands, and it’s illegal… Luckily we discovered Paalkamperen sites, literally translated as pole camping, these are very basic free campsites usually found in forest with a water pump and room for a couple of tents.
Drying out after a night of thunder,  lightning and very painful hail stones
This campsite in the middle of a forest was hard to find, but we loved it
And of course the money saved on camping has to be spent on something else...
Rob cleans up nicely when we splurge on a B&B
We’ve found the Dutch to be very nice people, or perhaps the people we’ve met just feel sorry for us cycling with all our belongings in the rain… So far, we’ve been given a bottle of wine, a bottle of coke zero, the use of camping chairs and a free night in a B&B in Dordrecht where the lovely lady who runs it washed all our clothes, let us take over her basement to dry our tent and fed us lots of tasty food. Her equally lovely husband gave us his map collection for our onward journey through Belgium and France making Rob a very happy boy! And cycled with us for the first 10 minutes (and nearly came to France) to make sure we took the nicest route.

Next stop Belgium, beer, chips and chocolate here we come.