Tour of Europe Planning Blog

Thursday, 8 September 2011

The London to Paris Cycle - June 1-4 2011

On Wednesday June 1st, 2011, I began my intrepid cycle to Paris from Fenchurch Street. Above my double pannier bag was strapped my tent, sleeping bag, sleeping mat and a pair of 3 liter bottles of water. I had hardly cycled a hundred metres when both bottles came loose and rolled off onto the street. A taxi kindly beeped to draw my attention to them. Luckily, they weren't pierced open. I re-positioned them and tied the elastic straps on much tighter this time. That did the trick. The goal was to cycle to Newhaven by 10pm that day following route 21. I had made copious screen shots of the route and was assured that this was a well sign-posted route. I felt confident that the time allowed for this was sufficient. The first 10 miles were straightforward, but I soon discovered that once I got past Vauxhall, signage was to become intermittent and frustratingly absent. My early confidence subsided as I kept going off track and found myself constantly having to work out a route to the next part of the map. At one point around Clapham Common, I became completely mithered and ended up cycling in the direction of London city center again. Eventually, as I reached Morden Hall Park, I felt I was making some progress as the urban landscape gave way to more of greenbelt countryside.

Losing track of the route was as regular as clockwork and it made me wonder why more signs weren't put in place. I reached Redhill and my closeness to Gatwick airport was apparent by the sight of planes going to and from there. There were signs that led me into housing estates and then left me to figure out the exit to the next part of the route, all these things slowed me down and added to a sense of panic that my target of reaching Newhaven and the ferry that evening might have been optimistic. While trying to cycle up what amounted to no more than a mucky bridal path, I decided to stop near a farmhouse for lunch. Within minutes, I had my gas stove in action, the couscous was bubbling away in the mess tin and then a can of mackeral with tomato sauce was added. It was quite tasty and raised my spirits.

After the use of several alternative routes and lots of what can only be described as offroad mudpaths (and I was on a Trek roadbike, which has narrow wheels), I made my way eventually to East Grinstead. It was now coming up to 6.30pm. The ferry would need to be reached by 10 pm. Three and a half hours didn't seem to be enough at the pace these tracks were allowing me, plus my energy levels were beginning to flag. I had to make a horrible decision, that as this was the last station before Newhaven, I would need to take the train now if I was to avoid missing my connection. This meant I would be going all the way back to Croydon in order to come back in to Newhaven. Needs must I suppose, but I wasn't happy about that. I reached it in plenty of time and it allowed me a chance to rest before the sail. On board, I rolled out my mat and sleeping bag and tried to catch some shut eye. I reached Dieppe at about 3.30am. After getting my bearings, I headed east out of town in the dark. About 10 miles out of town, there was a heavy fog, so I found a clearing off the road and set up tent till the morning. I woke later a little cold and very hungry. I tried out a boil in the bag type porridge and raisin breakfast. It was loaded with energy and absolutely delicious - what a start to my cycle on the French side! I found the sign for the Avenue Verte about 10kms after departing in the morning, which was probably as early as 5.30am. This cycling path was truly amazing: 3 meters wide, smooth tarmac and it had a sign every 500m telling the cyclist how far to the next destination. I took this photo of a pond next to the route, which was typical of the beautiful surroundings typical of the Avenue Verte.

The cycling that morning was very pleasant at first. The route was flat and smooth and the views were breathtaking. With porridge inside of me, I found I was much more energetic than the previous day and covered ground quickly. Finding a toilet near a cycle path is often a difficulty, especially if you are uncomfortable with the thought of crouching behind some tree and it was so early. But by 8 in the morning, when I arrived at one of the numerous towns peppering the route, I came off the Avenue Verte and looked for the public toilets. I found a shopping area with a MacDonalds and a Leclerc. I'm in luck surely. I went up to the doors to find that they didn't open till 9am. A whole hour away. I couldn't afford to stay put for that long, so I got back on the bike and decided to cycle on for another hour till I found one at opening time. The day was very hot and I drank lots of water through the day, stocking up with more when I passed a shop, which wasn't always easy, as many of the towns along the Avenue Verte incredibly didn't sell water, but sold bread, cheese or meats. On one occasion, I took the wrong turn and when I realised my mistake, stopped to view my map and noticed a shopping center to my right. That was lucky, a chance to get water. Stopping off later at a carpark, I had a chili con carni (another camper ready meal that just required pouring in hot water). It had lots of red kidney beans. By 6pm, I reached Gisor, I had cycled 118km according to the Cateye. I had the option to camp somewhere, but I wanted to get a room for the night and get a shower. I booked into a room at a bar and was shown to a ground floor chalet.

I left at 8am the following morning. It was late for me, as I usually like to get the best cycling done before the sun comes up. There wasn't much sign of the Avenue Verte that day, but I used a lot of quiet roads. It was nice to stop and eat berries from the hedgerows, who says there is no such thing as a free lunch? I did lose track of the intended route several times and with the aid of my compass, I plotted to reconnect to it. In the late afternoon, I stopped to take shade from the sun and get some grub, nothing exciting, couscous, tomatoes and fish. I found this bus stop shed in from the road, that was perfect for both purposes. 


I got back on track at Villarceaux after passing through several towns that had good hill climbs. I paused there to view an impressive Chateau, which had picturesque gardens and a beautiful lake in front of it. It was nice to take time out to take some photos, which I hadn't taken many of on the trip. In the effort to get to Paris, it was easy to forget that the beauty on the way was just as important and ought to be savoured. I was confident now that I was going to reach at least the outer ring of Paris that day, due to the number of landmarks on the map and the decreasing distance left to cycle. Cycling past the fields in the area called Bois De La Bucaille, I stopped to munch a pod of peas. (They were delicious!) The sun was high in the sky and I sipped from my water bottle repeatedly. I also saw this beautiful water scene, whose location I unfortunately didn't think to record at the time.
As the day wore on, I reached the outskirts of Paris. I found myself unusually on a busy road, a very steep hill faced me. I walked the bike on a grass verge for miles. As I got further up, I was able to cycle again, when traffic permitted. A car beeped its horn and I saw a woman applaud my efforts, it was a nice welcome to get coming into Paris. A sign labelled the area as "Mont d'Eveque", Bishop's Hill. I was tempted to camp in the woods there, but thought better of it, not in Paris! I kept going and eventually, I began a rewarding descent from the hill with a view of Paris before me in the distance. As I cycled on, I reached the Seine for the first time. There were lots of trees along the banks. It felt amazingly rural for somewhere in the greater area of Paris. It was coming up to 8pm at this stage and as I passed various barges and boats on the river, I smelt the scent of Thai food in the air. It was a virtual "Little Thailand" there, all thoughts of getting into Paris city centre that day vanished, all I wanted to do was eat. I found a cheap hotel nearby. I was met by the barman/hotelier at the door and asked him if they had any rooms available. There was! I mustered up what French I could, but being so tired, it was difficult. I wanted to know where I could keep my bike. He said I could keep it overnight in the restaurant part, I was slow to understand what he meant. The people in the bar overheard the proceedings and laughed at my pidgin French. Getting my key, I ferried my gear to my room, showered and changed into non-cycling clothes. I returned through the bar, there were many extroverts there, I felt overawed at first, having not spoken, apart from in shops the past 2 days. One jolly man with the frame of a rugby player asked me where I was from. Once I told them, I had cycled from London, I suddenly became a celebrity or some form of sporting hero. An attractive Chinese woman was trying to chat me up. I must admit that being so tired and hungry, I unusually took little interest. I was really starving and I felt like I needed to fight my way through to get to the restaurant, such was the overwhelming kindness of the people and their interest in my adventure. Have I become a proper cyclist now I wondered? The Thai restaurant lived up to my expectations. The waiter was from Campodia and spoke to me in perfect English with a slight American accent. He also was very kind. I left him a generous tip - the food and service were incredible. Saturday, (the following day) I would tackle reaching Paris city center. I had a hostel booked for there, which was the only accommodation I had pre-arranged.

                                             Crossing the river Seine

I got up nice and early to set out for the city center. I figured I should manage to get there by the afternoon. I crossed the road to the cycling lane. I was about to set off, when a man in his 50s called Pierre, who was dressed in lycra shorts and a flashy cycling top, got off his roadbike, stopped me and asked about my bike. He knew his stuff and said Trek was a great make and French too! He stared at it admiringly, asking questions about my journey. We alternated between speaking French and English. He told me of his adventures back in the 70s, including a cycle across the mountains of Morocco, when he would sleep rough on the ground at night, without a tent. I was impressed. He told me too that he had, as a 19 or 20 year old, hitchhiked all the way across England to Manchester with hardly any money on him and somehow made his way back again to France, through a series of good fortune and ingenuity. This guy was cut from the same cloth as me and had that same desire for freedom and adventure. We spoke for close to 30 minutes. He warned of something later that day, but I didn't remember the word. "There's a storm on the way", he said then in English, "Lots of rain coming later today". I thanked him for the tipoff, I hadn't seen the news in days. We then said our goodbyes and I made my way. Many people think that Parisians are unfriendly or arrogant, and I must say that I have never found that, they have always been just as kind as the French anywhere else in the country, which is why I love the country so much. The route was principally along the river Seine. There were several river crossings, as I followed the river with its twists and turns. The scenery was varied: sometimes it seemed I was back out in the countryside as I passed through farmland, othertimes it was heavily industrialised, especially when I passed the Sewage works of Paris. The track was sandy, gravelly and tarmac at different points; of these the sandy tracks were tricky to cycle on with narrow tires and I wished I had a hybrid or mountain bike. The route suggested by my map was to go all along the western and northern circuit, then head south into the city for Notre Dame. After hours and hours of cycling, I had finished the remainder of my water, so I decided to take a shortcut east instead. I crossed the bridge at Quai Jean Mermoz onto Av de Maréchal Foch, then  took a left onto the island there by mistake, not realising I hadn't crossed the whole river yet! Soon, I found a bar and bought a drink at the "tabac" side, which was a great relief, as it had got quite hot by then. I thought it would be good idea to use the toilets, when I got a chance. The owners were Chinese and I asked the husband of the woman who had served me whether they had toilets. I asked in french. He looked at me blankly. "WC?", pronouncing it slowly. No comprehension. I used the word "toilet" in a french accent. Still a blank expression. Eventually a French customer explained what I wanted. He pointed to them. Returning I sat down, picked up the menu and chose from the A La Carte. Again, the same routine, he didn't know what I meant. "You want a coffee?" he said in French. "No, I want a meal" I said, my voice raising in exasperation. I thought to myself, "I am pointing to what I want on the menu, how hard can this be to understand?" Deadlock. A customer again explained that I would like lunch. The owner communicated back through him, that they didn't do lunch on Saturdays. I couldn't wait to get out of there. Outside looking at a map on my Blackberry, I figured if I head due East along Av de Colmar towards Puteaux, I should be able to pick up the remaining streets. I cycled some of this, but I also got off to walk it to take in the view of the city. I eventually reached the "spaghetti junction" of Paris and try as I might I couldn't figure out which road it was to cross the river. I walked into a place called Jardins Boieldieu and a garbage man, kindly pointed me in the right direction, which as it turned out was just around the corner.

What a sight it was! Off in the distance was the Arc de Triomphe. A straight road all the way! Fantastic. I soon crossed the bridge and I cycled down Av Charles De Gaulle. It was so exciting to be entering the city center by such a breathtaking route. Not long down this avenue, I stopped off in an Irish pub for a celebratory tipple. Returning to the bike, I soon made it to the Arc de Triomphe and along the Av Des Champs Elysées, where I snapped a photo of a long car parked next to a Smart car, which I found strangely amusing. 

I found my way to my hostel, which was in the Montmartre district. I then had a wander around and booked my ticket for the following morning at the Saint Lazare train station. I sat outside in the terrace garden of the hostel, as the first rain began to fall. I was lucky I had all my cycling done before that began, I thought. The hostel didn't have a very social feel to it and the closest thing I came to banter was that  from the Austrian receptionist, who took the mickey out of my pidgin French accent, when I ordered a pint there. So,  afterwards I went out to a cocktail bar instead, a short walk away. (It had to be, because at this stage the rain was getting quite heavy). The barman was in his 60s and another jovial individual I had met, who clearly loved people, and would come around the bar and sit down next to someone, especially if they were by themselves, for example, a beautiful Brazilian woman, who looked like Cleopatra. He nodded to one of his staff, when I had finished my drink, to give me another on the house. I could get used to this, I thought to myself, how kind! He explained that we were near to the Sacre Coeur Cathedral and he was doing it out of the goodness of his heart! Wow, you don't hear that said too often. 

Waking up early next morning in the hostel, I took a walk to the Sacre Coeur. When I returned I met two beautiful Indian women in my room. We chatted for some time about our lives. They recommended that I should try India sometime for a trip. We went for breakfast together and it was good to have the opportunity to talk, sharing our experiences and something of our own cultures. One of them lived in London, but pity for me was very much married. I then set on my way, departing on the train back to Dieppe. What am I going to do for the several hours till the ferry left, I wondered. When the train reached the end of the line, a small sprinkling of rain was beginning to fall. I threw my luggage out next to the train, then ran to the back of the train to get my bike in the bike carriage. I noticed there were other bikes there too. Returning to my luggage, a tall French guy, not dissimilar in appearance to Christopher Reeves of superman fame, spoke to me of a bicycle festival happening that day in Dieppe, by this time, another guy came along who also had a bike, he was told too. As it turned out, this last guy had cycled also from London to Paris, but with a single gear bike! Within minutes, we decided to find a restaurant and all three of us sat down to eat and exchange our stories. There is something cool about when perfect strangers who share an interest in something get together; in this case, a form of instant bonding occurred between us, like we had known each other for years, friends from home, who had as it were arranged to meet like this. The French guy only did short but regular cycles. The English guy liked his fixed gear bike, which didn't allow freewheeling and whose pedals continued to turn when the bike was in motion. He had to simply pedal slower if he wished to stop and squeeze the front brake. It was a very strange notion for a bicycle, I thought. Also, how did he get over those hills without a low gear? It amazed me.

Soon, we were on the Ferry, heading back, just a few train changes and then into London. I met another cyclist, when the "Londoner" and I parted, a middle-aged Mexican, who had worked as a freelance photographer for  years. He had cycled to Paris and back from Dieppe; I felt like such a wimp, but mind you, he did use the main roads, which were quicker. His back axle had broken on the return journey 10 miles from Dieppe. He shared stories of his cycles in the French alps. He was in a different league to me. We arrived in London and I felt a great sense of satisfaction. I thoroughly enjoyed the trip. Despite getting lost several times - and signage no doubt is still an issue - I would highly recommend the route to anyone, whether traveling in a group or alone as I did.


Monday, 5 September 2011

The Cyclist

May your shadow be your company on a morning heading south
By your right hand side, all stretched out
And the cool air will revive you and quench your mouth,
The green landscape will calm your eyes, no doubt.
I heard your pedals clacking, as the spokes go all about
Your head was tilted slightly, at the gps scout
I wonder if you're going far, there's some luggage on the back
It could be a hundred miles down the road, or 10 if off the track.