I love France. For any Brit looking to do a first cycle tour, it’s the ideal place: friendly drivers, good roads, better food, lots of wine and a climate that manages to be pleasantly warm although not so different from England that we die of heat shock when we get off the boat.
But not this time.
My first tour abroad was in France, with Andrew in 2010, from Caen to Marseilles via My Ventoux. That time we’d had balmy sun almost the whole way through, with maybe a day of rain. This time I’d got thoroughly burnt on the way down through England, the result of virgin skin that had spent too long indoors finishing work projects and trip prep and not enough outside cycling. The sky was cloudy and grey as I disembarked in Dieppe, and it didn’t get better from there. Within mere hours I was a foot deep in field runoff, as thunderstorm drains overflowed and cascaded down what might once have been roads. The pattern was set to continue: every single day in France would bring rain, and most of them thunderstorms. So much for my gentle start to the trip.
France is a relatively expensive place to tour, especially if you want to get accommodation – I’d intended to camp but during the first day’s thunderstorms I made a rule: if it rains, I get a room. I didn’t even stick to that – my budget was blown out of the water enough as it was.
Where France made up was in the masonry. Rouen, the first night’s stop, had three, each of which would have been the jewel in the crown of any English city. Chartres was next, and was possibly more impressive still – even to a rain-drowned Englishman on a bicycle, looking for nothing more than a warm blanket and a bed for the night. Then there was Neuvy Saint-Sepulchre, a scale replica of of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where I could almost feel myself joining the folly of another age, leaping into chain mail, mounting a charger and galloping off on crusade – though I was headed in the other direction, and I don’t think such things are strictly PC in Emmanuel Macron’s present-day France.
There were simpler pleasures too: the Normandy Apple tarts, and croissants for breakfast. There were friends: I took a much-needed rest day with Peter and Shemine who if known almost since birth, in their house near Toulouse. There was the following in the tyre tracks of my sporting heroes up the famed climb of the Col du Tourmalet, the randomness of bumping into most of the British Bassett Hound Society at my first campsite and the serendipity of meeting two touring cyclists sheltering from the rain in a hotel bar, who were recognisable as Brits before I’d even meet them due their supremely British bikes parked outside: frames by Mercian of Derby, with waxed cotton luggage by Carradice of Nelson.
I finished France in St Jean Pied-de-Port, the start of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route and amazingly, a town where the cliches berets were still in style. I camped amid more lightweight tents than I’d seen in a week -the homes of so many pilgrims that I felt heathen just being there. Yes, France really was one of my favourite places to touly
Just not this time.