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Saturday, 18 January 2014

Paris South September 2012

Day 1

I was in contact with a fellow cyclist through the crazyguy website who wanted to accompany me on this trip. At the last minute he informed me that he was definitely not camping, as it would be too much weight to pull with his trailer. Against my best instincts I agreed we would share the cost of B&Bs. We met at CDG airport and Rob seemed a good guy, we got on well from the start. I was a bit surprised by his small folding bike and huge suitcase trailer though.
 Off we headed in the dark for our first hotel. This proved to be harder than we first thought but eventually arrived to find the smallest hotel room that I had ever been in. But for E39 I could not complain. The staff were nice and stored the bikes in their rest room. The next morning we pulled the curtains of the room and found ourselves overlooking a Lidl car park. Lunch supplies sorted. After breakfast at McDonalds we headed out for Paris. The first thing we found was a bike path running alongside a hugely busy road. Great stuff. Off we trundled until I heard a crash from behind me. I looked back to find Rob spread-eagled under his bike. He was towing a two-wheeled trailer and forgets about the width of it.
Negotiating narrow bike paths with rocks or posts alongside ends up with the trailer wheels clipping such obstacles and throwing my new companion to the floor. After a few more crashes and curses [great entertainment for the drivers in the traffic jam at the side of us] we found a dual carriageway that was shared with thundering artics and crazy speed mad French drivers. I don’t know whether the blaring horns were abuse or greetings. Eventually we got off the highway of death and allowed the Garmin to lead us to the canal that would take us close to the centre of Paris.

If we thought the dual carriageway was bad, Paris was a nightmare. Crazy, crazy, traffic. At first you think how are we going to negotiate this mess? 
Then you watch as Vogue models on upright bikes with a basket up front just ride serenely past red lights and flow smoothly into the utter chaos. Cars, trucks etc just move around them with never a beep of a horn. Ok. That's how it's done. I just dive in and, hey, it works. Rob who is more of a gentleman than me waits patiently at each of the many red lights until I explain that he is the only cyclist in Paris obeying them and vehicles are actually encouraging him to go. He is in their way. Eventually we join the models and their mums and dads and anybody else on their trusty steeds to find our way to the Champs Elysees.
A place I’ve always wanted to ride, footsteps of Lance or Wiggo. Pictures of this, the Tower, Arc de Triomphe all bagged and time to find our way to Fontainebleau. Hah!! Not a chance, we are directed this way and that until we reach agreement to just head South following the compass. Big mistake. A couple of hours later, find we are on the wrong side of the Paris suburbs and need to head back. It is now 6.30ish and we have been riding in 30degree heat all day. Enough! I spot a rail station and dive in to negotiate tickets to Fontainebleau.
 I am no hero that has to cycle the full route. I’m a lazy git at heart and will dive on Bus, Train, Lorry, donkey etc if it makes life easier. I came to see France not to die! I don’t do misery.
 Tickets purchased with two changes. We pile the bikes on a packed commuter train and more models in business suits help us to squeeze the bikes aboard [I love the French]. One delectable creature in perfect English informs us that we have to get off at the sixth stop to change trains. She bids us au revoir at the fourth. We dutifully disembark at the sixth and another model tells u,s as we watch the train departing, that we should have got off at the eighth. So a wait for the next train and go back through the same process. Eventually after negotiating stairs, and escalators we reach the Gare de Lyon for the Fontainebleau train. 
More stairs up to the platform and settle into the train, which should leave at 7.49. It leaves at 9pm.
                    Never mind we are leaving the hellhole that calls itself Paris. But the lovely French are not finished with us. There is a problem on the track and we are moved off the train onto a bus for the last 15 miles of our journey. All of this takes time and we end up at our destination at 11pm in the dark accompanied by heavy rain. The place is deserted. France is now shut! Nowhere to sleep, no camping gear.
Needs must and we settle for a deserted old building near the station and bed down on the concrete floor supported by some old cardboard sheets and lulled to a cold, fitful sleep by the drips through the leaky roof. End of a perfect day? Err……

Day 2

So a new day dawns. I can’t believe it’s 7.30 and survived the night without being gnawed at by rats or winos. Must have slept after all and not even a stiff back. Plus its daylight and we can view our surroundings in all their glory. Our upmarket room has walls decorated with various graffiti and the floor is a mixture of pigeon droppings and bowls of rat poison. Still it was cheap.  Up and packed away smartish and dive into the rush hour traffic to Fontainebleau to enjoy morning coffee and fresh croissants at a pavement café as we watch market traders, setting up stall for the day. Now this is France. We make good use of the bars toilets for a wash and brush up before leaving for our next port of call. A route is agreed upon. We are making them up as we go [big mistake]. The next hour is pleasant enough with good progress through the French countryside. We soon start climbing and it is obvious Rob is struggling on hills with his loaded trailer. Still it gives me a chance for a breather as I wait at the top.
We reach a flat plain and now the heavens open so we stop to don waterproof gear and off we go. Another long hill then a straight run to the next turnoff through a small town. The rain gets heavier and I end up stood in the open waiting for Rob to appear. The last hill has been a long tough one and I expect he will be a while. As the rain gets even heavier and I have no shelter I decide to ride on to the edge of town to find a bus shelter or I’ll even settle for a tree. The turnoff is well signposted so I see no problem. I find a little bus shelter facing the road and settle down with a banana to wait for a drowned Rob. I must explain at this time that Rob had insisted that he was not taking a mobile phone as he considered his Canadian one would be too expensive to use in Europe. I waited and waited. 
40 mins passed without any sign so I rode back to the fork in the road and still no Rob. Well if he missed that turnoff he still knew the town we were heading for so I rode into and round the town centre. As is usual on this trip the place was deserted and I assume all the residents were dead, or walking/driving around Paris. Now I was in a dilemma. I needed to keep moving to keep warm and I was losing time reach tonight’s destination. I concluded Rob was also either dead or had got in front of me. 
Either way there was nothing I could do but follow the map towards the agreed destination. I headed off into a blustery headwind and set a good pace in the hope of catching my missing companion. No chance! I stopped at the first and only shop I saw and stocked up on fruit. They had not seen any other Velo. An hour later I found a bench to stuff myself silly before setting of again.
The rest of the afternoon the headwind stayed with me with the odd shower to keep me on my toes. I rolled into Gien just before five and stepped into the Tourist Info to find a room. The lady asked me where I had travelled from. Fontainebleau, I said. Oh she replied did you follow the river cycle route. What! There’s a route. Evidently I had added about thirty hill miles on to the journey. Doooohhh. The French beauty behind the counter showed me a list of hotels and I plumped as usual for the cheapest at thirty-five euros. It’s very nice she said directing me over the Loire to find this port in a storm. I never did find it! I searched in the rain for an hour, asked countless people and never found the ……g place. I gave up after I got caught in a storm on the outskirts of town where once again there was no shelter and the hailstones bounced off the road and my shoulders. You could not see more than about ten feet in front of you because of the curtain of rain. The road flooded before the cloudburst left to torture some other poor soul. Enough! The madness kicked in and I strode [or squelched] into the first hotel I saw as I rode back to the town. Chambre. Sil vous plait? Oui monsieur. Fifty-two euros. Who cares? Velo, garage? Oui. Petit da jeunier? Oui monsieur. Sorted. Bike locked away. Key handed over and I drag myself upstairs to open a door to paradise. A lovely room with En Suite. Wait for it! There’s a bath! My god a bath!  Yippee. Tea brewed with my electric element. Hot bath run. Fluffy white towels at the ready. I run the cold tap on the boiling bath water and it floods the bathroom floor. Arghhhh. No. No. No! It’s coming from under the bath. I’ve had enough water today! Sod it! I throw a bath towel to soak up the water and transfer cold water from the sink. I’m not changing rooms now and I’m soaking in that bath no matter what.
I soaked in that bath for an hour. Up and dressed and out looking for food at about eight thirty. Now, see, I’m staying in a Tourist town on the banks of the Loire and guess what. It’s now shut! Food, restaurant? Hah. All the shops, cafes, restaurants all closed. I wander the mean dark streets until I catch a young lad pushing his scooter into a doorway. I pounce, and in my worst French and ask him if there is a Pizza joint here. He’s young and surely he’d know if anybody does. Spot on. In perfect English he says yes. Parks the scooter and walks me up a side street to a little eat-in Pizza shop. It was packed. Not surprised as probably the only place with a light in the window in France. I have the best Pizza and beer I’ve had for a long time.
Now you may have noticed I have no thought for my missing companion. Not true, but there was nothing I could do without any way to contact him. I text my wife and asked her to check my e-mails to see if he was using his laptop and to leave him details of my whereabouts and route for tomorrow. And so to a lovely warm, clean double bed. Ahh.

Day 3

Alarm goes at 7.45. Do I get up? Is it still raining? I could just stay here. No I can’t. Yes you can.  I’ve developed an invisible friend since I started this lonely trip, who keeps arguing with me. Ok. Give up. Got to be done.  Check weather. It’s dry! It’s dry! Check last nights washing. Shorts still a bit damp, rest of gear ok. That’ll do. Breakfast is good and in true cyclist tradition I scoff the lot and more. Cross the bridge over the Loire and confidently turn left, two miles up the road and quick conversation with a guy mowing his lawn. Should have turned right over the bridge. Doohhh.

Ok I’m off and into my stride. Lovely sunny morning, bike humming away nicely. This is the life. Who wouldn’t want to be a touring cyclist? My faithful steed, and me, as one, traversing the continent. There’s just that funny noise now and again as I pedal. Probably nothing. I stop to check map, Garmin and sextant. I’ve leaned the bike up against the gate of a mini Château. The mini guard dog charges down to threaten me barking it’s tiny head off and then decides to take out it’s gallic temper on my rear carrier through the gate slats. It only gives up when I kick it in the head and squeals off to tell its mummy. Time to leave.
  The miles are flying by as I head south. Still very quiet though which is good but no people as usual. Until I stop for a comfort break that is [all that tea at breakfast] then half of France turn up on the road, including two cars full of Gendarmes. A loaded tourist barge also appears out of nowhere on the nearby canal. How can a barge just show up?  I’ve started so I’ll finish. Like the French care about anything. I ride off.
 That noise is back again. Never mind. More miles fly by and it’s now near lunchtime. Trouble is I’ve got no lunch and there’s no shops as usual. Two hours later I’m starting to chew on the flies that are hitting me in the face and still no shops. Past lunch, must be nearly teatime. And then I spy it. It’s a lane covered in blackberries in the middle of nowhere. I love blackberries! I have to gorge myself on pounds of the things as I out manoeuvre the wasps for the biggest and juiciest. A couple of good belches and stained red handed and lipped, I once again hit the road on my trusty steed. Sure that noise is getting louder. Stop pedalling. Noise stops. Hmm. Bottom bracket? My invisible friend says don’t go there so I won’t.
 I’m heading for Nevers so I check my directions with a couple of cyclists. They argue about the best way and then the guy tells me to cross the river and turn right, his lady disagrees but whatever. I cross the river as instructed and find myself in a small town. I’m now getting wary about being stranded without a roof over my head. It’s 4pm so I decide to stop for the day. It’s raining anyway. I look for Tourism office. Even if you don’t want anything you get to chat to a beautiful woman. But first there is a Patisserie open at the top of a hill. I get something edible and also directions to Office of Tourism. Can’t find it. Up and down that bloody hill in the rain I trudge and then I spot it. It’s down a back alley in a church courtyard, no signpost nothing!  The office houses a lot of hire bikes so I enquire about a bike shop. I’ve not got the tools to strip a BB. No there is no bike shop in town. The nearest is in Nevers. Oh well. I’m once again shown a list of available hotels by the resident goddess and dutifully [just to impress her] pick out the cheapest at E35. She rings up and books me in and as usual assures me that it’s very nice. But the room will not be ready till 5pm.  That’s ok I think. I’ll just sit in the hotel lounge in a comfy chair and wait, out of this damn rain. Hah. How do I manage it? I squeak [don’t mention Bottom Bracket] my way uphill towards the address and find it’s a restaurant with a tiny hotel sign over the top. There is no hotel entrance, just the restaurant door. Which is firmly closed.
It’s 4.35 and raining. I bang on the door. Nothing. I end up sat outside on the wall in the rain thinking about the leather chesterfield chair I should be sat in next to the roaring log fire while another goddess prepares my luxurious room, also running my bath prior to joining me. Work with me here, I need cheering up. At five to five a large [fat] scruffy guy comes round the corner and beckons me to join him. I don’t know whether this is for sex or a room, or both. But for a roof, a leather chair and a fire I’m now anybody’s.
The guy leads me to a pair of large steel double gates at the back of the building and ushers me in. He speaks perfect English. I enter the yard and nearly go ar.. over t.t as a large grey rabbit runs under the wheel of the bike. The large yard is full of all kinds of junk and populated by rabbits and guinea pigs running around. I pick my way across and he leans my bike up against a large rabbit hutch and he assures me it will be fine. Ok. Bike is secure with a furry set of guards. We go through the back door of the speaking kindly “hotel”.  Arghh! It stinks. Stinks of animal or dog or some horrible thing. Sticky carpets etc.  Now what? I’m outside town, its raining, tourist office shut. No choice. I’m issued with a room key, Monsieur informs me that it’s a shared shower on the landing [I think. “Shared with who or what? Rabbits, dogs? What is that smell?”] He disappears. I find the room, open door. Nice. Think. Air raid shelter with wallpaper.
The smell is just as bad or worse in here. There is a grubby partition in the room with a toilet and sink. No door, just a partition that does not reach the ceiling. Right then. Windows and shutters flung wide open and bed checked. Hey. It’s clean. Fresh sheets. Just don’t put anything on the floor.
 Not a bad little town I notice as I escape the rabbit warren to look for a meal. The well-fed proprietor said I could eat in the restaurant, but I did not have the courage. My bike could be keeping company with the contents of the menu. So town it is. 
The place is deserted as usual but I find an eating-place in a cellar and it’s pretty full. Weird. You don’t see people on the streets. How do they get here? Do they sidle down the wall, nipping from doorway to doorway? Is there a curfew on? Do they know the war is over? Am I sharing meals with the resistance? Still.  Had a nice ‘billy no mates’ meal served by a sultry but sulky waitress who threw the meal at me as I very unkindly interrupted her chain smoking conversation at the bar. 
When I asked for the bill she just nodded her head at the till to tell me she couldn’t be bothered to get up and stroll the full 3 yards to bring it over and I had to go to her and pay. I do love the French but they have yet to get the hang of customer service and this lovely was an “I hate my job”, star. I stroll back to the converted cowshed and enter by the restaurant, [there are actually people in there but doubt if they are resident], as I did not want to step on some furry friend and destroy tomorrow’s menu.
 Up to my cell and discover my room’s opposite the family’s room. Their door is open and the television is blaring, a five year old is screaming and crying and next door to me there is a loud American woman arguing on a mobile with somebody who does not want to ride a bike they have hired tomorrow. Oh well. Earplugs in, pillow over head. Tomorrow is another day.

 Day 4

I wake early in my carpeted dog kennel and check the weather. Wait, no need. I can hear the rain lashing against the unpainted shutters. I turn over and consider staying s. here for, oh, at least ten seconds. No chance! My nose could not stand it. Up and out [don’t stand barefoot on carpet]. Check washing. It will do. Check out breakfast, avoiding rabbit having a scratch on the stairs.
 Breakfast is not too bad for 1 euro. Trouble is I paid 6! No wonder I was lonely in the dining room. Apart from Topsy that is. Bless. Never mind, back to room and quickly pack up. S..t dropped washing on carpet.
 Still pouring as I pack bike up and wheel through mini zoo to rear gate. There is nobody about but big gate slides open and zoo inhabitants don’t make a run for freedom. Unlike me. I’m off! I find a Lidl down the road and provision up leaving unlocked bike outside.
 The town is quiet as I skitter down the wet cobbles to the Loire and turn left for Nevers. This is a pretty busy main road but well surfaced and I can knock some miles out. The rain however is getting heavier and I come to a sign for a rail station. It’s tempting so I ride down to check it out. Course it’s deserted, no booking office open and no human activity. Back to my route to find the road is closed and diversion signs. I’m not following a diversion in this weather so I follow the closed road. Eventually I come across the works, supervised by the hi-viz, professional shovel leaners. There is no road or pavement but that does not bother a cyclist. With the bike over my shoulder I tramp though the mud field dodging the odd JCB or tipper under the watchful gaze of Henri, Pierre etc who say nothing, just nod through the smoke from their damp gauloises. The road is its usual fine French self from here on in and once again the miles roll by. Rain stops and the sun decides to see what’s happening as I enter another charming village. I spot a human and ask a nice old guy to direct me to a cycle path that I have seen on my map. He immediately shakes my hand, what a lovely gesture, he  then gives me directions in very rapid French. I can just make out right and left and straight on. The rest I have no chance and, I think, I explain that my French is mon petite. He turns away and trots off to his car as I turn away to check the map. Next thing there is a tap on my shoulder and he has returned with a map he has drawn for me on a scrap of paper. What a lovely guy. I thank him and off he goes after shaking my hand again and patting me on the back. Not sure if it’s a sympathy thing.
 I then spot a Tourist office and decide to see if I can filch a local map. Well. My world has fallen apart! All my preconceptions about these Tourist offices staffed by a bevy of lovelies. It’s just not true! It’s a nice big well-stocked office and as I approach the desk I see two well fed ladies tapping way on computers. I greet them in my best French but am studiously ignored. After an age. They correctly assume, I won’t go away. The one nearest to me tears her self away from the “All pies are lovely” website and deigns to raise a bushy eyebrow in my direction. I ask if she speaks English. A sigh and a twitch from her rosy scrubbed cheeks and she nods her, I’ve not had time to comb my hair this year, head towards her companion. This lady struggles up from her seat, this one is marginally smarter, and bigger. She’s had a meeting with a hairbrush somewhere today though. She shuffles over to the counter. “Monsieur. You are in France. You must speak French.” This in terrible English. Nice. Thank you very helpful. That’s what I thought I was doing. {French customer care at it’s finest]. So I count to thirteen in French to her [as far as I got in school]  and ask again in French for directions and a map. Hey! She smiles. “See monsieur you can speak French.” No I can’t. Never mind. She throws me a map and clumps back to her desk to bury herself in the “All foreigners are s..t” website.
 The maps actually not bad and show me a cycle track out of town alongside the river. Trouble is it’s really for an MTB and before long I retreat to a busy Tarmac highway. The rest of the day is pretty uneventful. Fields, cows, hedges, deserted villages, rain, sun, rain, rain, rain. Get the picture, but it’s touring and I’m fine with it. Creaking bike though and I keep getting a whiff of something not nice. I think it’s coming from my shorts. No not that. I dropped them on the carpet this morning when they were still damp, Flopsy still with me. I reach another  village and stop for a comfort break as I spy a public toilet sign. Interesting. There is no door on the toilet and looks like there never have been so all your actions are open to public gaze. Oh well as I’m in France. It’s starting to reach that hour when I need to find a bed for the night. Luckily I come across a little town. Luckily there is one hotel on the main street. Unluckily it is shut! Hmm. I spot a supermarket down the road. This yields yet more fruit and a box of cream do-nuts on offer. Plus a bike lock. Good stuff.
I’m now on the outskirts of town with no sign of a room so I head back to the main street and bang on the Hotel door. No sign of life at all. I’m just wheeling my bike away when there is a shout from the side of the hotel. Madam comes striding round the corner. Now if you have ever watched Allo, Allo you will be familiar with Renee’s wife. It really is her. The living spit. Incredible. I stand gob smacked as reaches me, saying, I don’t know, something in furious French. Grabs the bike and wheels it away into the rear of the hotel. I run after her and she is propping it against the wall in the back. There is half a guy in the yard. Top half. He’s stood in a deep trench, leaning on a spade. He  reaches out his hand to me. I thought he was stuck! But he’s the owner he explains and he has a problem with le pipe. Madam [Edith]comes back and thrusts a key in my hand for the room. No English off either of them. Believe me or not, but the guy in the trench is a thin version of Rene' without the apron. It’s crazy. I’ve got a room, parked the bike and still no mention of price or whether I want it or not. I have to ask Rene' how much the room is. Thirty-five euros he tells me, writing it down on a piece of paper with a stub of a muddy pencil and eleven euros for evening meal. This while he is still down the trench and leaning on the paving to write. I’m on my knees in the muck  talking to him and working out French scribble. Hope he can't smell my shorts. I love France!
So. Up the creaking rear staircase to my room.
 It’s a step back in time. Think 1930s. Original furniture, huge bed, ancient window shutters etc with an old but really nice bathroom. A  candlewick bedspread for crying out loud! Lovely and clean though and smells fine. I like it. There’s also a  phone,  but its one of those with a big round dial. Great. I put a brew on and break into the do-nuts. Big mistake. Greedy git that I am I scoff the lot and promptly fall fast asleep. The phone wakes me. It’s got one of those rings that grabs you by the scruff and throws you round the room. It’s Rene' to tell me that evening meal is being served. I didn’t know that I’d ordered it! I head down and find the 1930s restaurant buzzing. I’m sure I’m the only guest.
 People are still coming through the door. It must be the only place in town for the locals. Renee seats me and I’m given the menu. Evidently the eleven euros is for a three-course meal and one of the options is steak! No wonder it’s busy. Madam is the only cook, toiling away in the kitchen and Rene' is the only waiter. He’s run off his feet but the meal is superb and I spend time talking to his son who wanders in for last orders. I think what a great end to a challenging day as I make my pleasantly, weary,way, upstairs to the past. 

Day 5

I awake in my 1930s boudoir and my invisible friend says. “Stay here longer, look how cozy and warm it is. You don’t want to be out riding a bike today. Lets stay in.” I resist such tempting offers, gingerly lower myself from this high old bed, and  flinging back the ancient shutters , check the weather. It’s sunny! Sunshine in France. Today will be a good day. My friend sulks off into the distance of my mind. I’m alone and ready for breakfast. Hey,  looking forward to this after last night’s superb meal. Rene’ is up and running about, expecting my appearance. No sign of Edith. 
I’m led to my seat in a now deserted restaurant and asked, tea or coffee? Looking good! Tea sil vous plait, he disappears and soon he is back and with a flourish deposits a cup of black tea on the table. Next, I am presented with two slices of bread, a knife and a tiny pot of jam. Viola! Breakfast is served. That’s it! Hell! They got me! Six Euros for that! My fault.  I was lulled into a false sense of bonhomie. Never mind, the room and dinner was a good deal so I have to let this one pass. I tuck in. Rene suddenly reappears with a wicker basket, I’m thinking, ahh got it wrong, more food. No. It’s full of freshly dug potatoes and he flops down beside me, pulls out an ancient peeler from his apron [yes he’s got the apron] and sets to, peeling a mountain of spuds while chattering to me about the day  in full ‘speed ahead French. Who the hell,  peels spuds anymore?
Rene’ asks about my route and then informs me that it is very hilly’. Great  something to look forward to!  I ask to pay ‘le Addition’ and he presents a hand written bill. Now, this is, an, all untouched by the modern day, hotel but as I pullout a MasterCard, an up to date scanner appears magically from under the counter. Bill paid. I weakly totter up the stairs due to lack of sustenance and drag my luggage down to my bike. I need to check what the worrying squeaking noise is before I go any further. I  find that my pedal is almost in pieces, as bits of it appear to have been falling off along the way. I’m either a very powerful rider or I’ve got crap pedals. Make up your own mind. I repair as best I can, using cable ties and thank the lord that the problem is only a cheap pedal. So off I squeak down the avenue for half a mile in completely the wrong direction until I see a sign, turn around to retrace my steps and hope that nobody is watching my embarrassing mistake from the hotel window. I streak past, head down, at five mph, but I’m sure I detected, out of the corner of my eye, a flash of light reflected from a shiny potato peeler.
Good progress this bright sunny morning but Rene’ is right there are a lot of hills and I’m working hard. The pedal is mocking my feeble efforts as it squeaks in unison to my laboured breaths. I’m making for a town called Chantelle [sounds like good song title] and I reach this sooner than I thought, so I pass on through, although in my weakened foodless condition I do have to stock up on more fruit. The gorilla look is starting to grow on me. I pass under a busy motorway, dodging heaving levanthians that threaten to sweep me within their huge wheels. I’m on one of the main feeder roads to Clermont Ferrand and the increase in traffic shows this. I don’t fancy hitting the A road to Clermont in the rush hour so decide on an early finish in the first decent town that might have a bike shop.
I roll into a pleasant looking town and engage two stout looking madams in a  conversation about the whereabouts of the Tourist Information. They must have worked out what I wanted [how I don’t know as neither spoke a word of English and I probably asked them if the river passed the bus on a Thursday] or something like. However they showed me the way, or told me to bugger off, don’t know, but I got to the Information centre and once again, faith restored,  there was a Lovely, waiting to attend to my needs.
The hotel book came out. There was only one in town and another close by that welcomed pets. I didn’t want another night being assailed by the essence of dog or rabbit s..t,  [my shorts still have a kind of odour there] so I plumped for the town one. They didn’t answer the phone so I trotted off to go bang on the door. I found the hotel, which was situated, in a nice square overlooking a fountain. There was a long table set up outside the bar that was populated by ten French guys in work clothes. They were all drunk out of their skulls and were busy throwing water over each other as I arrived. This was two thirty in the afternoon. The hotel bit was open so I don’t know why they weren’t answering the phone but whatever. There was a room available so that did me. I enquired about breakfast and wanted to know if it was Buffet. After my last experience I didn’t want to get caught out again. Yes buffet I was told and I could eat as much as I wanted. That’ll do for me. The room was lovely, overlooking the square and the P.. sheads down below but I assumed they would soon leave or fall into a coma before the day was out. Shorts drying in the window. I went for a stroll, the town was lovely and there was a bike shop. I needed to service my bike, buy and fit new pedals plus I was tired so I decided to book an extra night.
I set out for a meal in the town that night but I had not learnt my lesson and the town was as usual mostly deserted. I spotted a Pizza place at the bottom of an avenue and headed for that. Halfway down I thought there was someone sat on a bench. As I approached it appeared to be a midget [can I use that word?] not sat down, smoking a cigarette and leaning against the bench, wearing a leather jacket, she had long dark hair and a Sid James complexion. Bit of a rough diamond methinks. She had spotted me approaching and walked up to me, craned her head, way, way back and asked me if I wanted to have a Bon Time. I politely declined this scintillating offer at the same time thinking how her and six foot two me would manage that. I suppose love, lust or Euros would find a way.
 The Pizza place was empty and I was shown to a table in the middle of the room. My order took forty minutes to turn up. Biggest Pizza I have seen and it was terrible! With a large lump of iron settling in my guts I left the joint and made my way home in a roundabout route to walk off some of the carbs. Turning a corner I heard kids laughing and who should come into view with two youngsters in tow, but my long haired, tiny, leather jacketed sex machine from earlier and she had a guy with her. Very strange. There were no good times on offer now.
All was quiet back at the hotel. They seemed to have removed the bodies and tidied up. My bike had been locked away in the bar and I was looking forward to a day off tomorrow.
Night all.

Day 6

I wake and stretch in anticipation of a long lazy day in the sun. I’ve been promised a decent breakfast so skip down the hall to the dining room. It’s deserted! But the promised buffet breakfast is all laid out. It’s as they said, so I dive in, cereal, more cereal, quoisants, more quoisants, juice, cake, more cake. Oh what a lovely day. I stagger and belch my way back to my room to make plans. First stop find the bike shop.
 My bike has been moved from it’s overnight in the bar and is resting in the sun in the secure yard. These French are nice people. 
Off I trot and find the shop hiding away down a side street. Collection of old bikes outside. Looks good. I enter and Bonjour the proprietor who ignores me and carries on tidying some fancy parts he has in a glass case. I look around for a set of cheap pedals but don’t find anything. I ask Monsieur Ignorant but he sighs and says “moment” and carries on with his most important task of dusting a piece of shiny metal. I give it a couple of minutes and think “sod this, I’m off”. As I walk down the street he runs after me, horrified at the thought of losing a sale but I tell him “forget it”. It’s a beautiful day and I’m staying in a good mood.
Now I’ve mentioned that I embrace the bone idle lifestyle if I get chance, which unfortunately is not often. You see I have a flight booked from Beziers in a few days. I’ve established that from here on in the going gets even hillier and there is no direct train service after Clermont Ferrand. I’m unsure if I can complete the distance in time and the original plan was to ride as far south as poss and maybe jump a train.  There is a train station in this town though, so I go pay a visit. Nice modern station with a model working on the only ticket counter. I ask about trains south. She says she speaks no English at all and does not understand my French. I suspect she just thinking P..s off you old git and don’t bother me while I’m trying to read my French celebrity magazine. I give up and leave her to her French OK or whatever it is. Time to go back to the lovely in Tourist Info. This piece of heaven gets into the SNCF website and happily prints me off all the possibilities for onward travel and tells me about a Decathlon store in Vichy. I tell her about my experience at the station and my bewilderment that the station staff  do not understand one word of English. No, I am told “she does, they take it in school”. “She probably just could not be bothered”. I reluctantly leave the ever helpful lovely [who turned down my marriage proposal, can’t think why] and head for a fruit shop.
 I need to stock up as  France closes for two days from Saturday midday. Served by another lovely lady and my faith in the French [well the women] is once again restored. Humping my fruit back to my sun kissed  room over the bar, I’m aware I still have a pedal problem to sort.
After lunch, I head out for Vichy on an unloaded bike, which fly’s along and I soon knock the 30 kilometres out, apart from some of the hills that have my eyes watering. I shoot downhill towards the town over a big roundabout completely ignoring the huge Decathlon store on my left and stop at my first bar to ask some scruffy drunk rolling his own, where the Decathlon is?  I’m thinking he can’t understand my destruction of the French language but as I realise later, he is trying to get round the fact that I have just come down the road from Decathlon and am asking him where Decathlon is! He walks over and grabs my shoulder and I ready myself to whack him with my bike pump. But no. He’s just laughing and spinning me round to face the direction I came in. Doohh!!
 Back I go. It’s right in front of me now. Must try to get into the habit of actually turning my head when I’m riding. I’ve now decided to buy a tent and sleeping bag to try to get the hotel costs down. Unbelievable! There are no small tents in the store. Sold out! I do manage to nab a 12Euro sleeping bag though and some cheap pedals.
 If I have to rough it again at least I have a bag. Pedals are fitted outside the store. No they’re not! The squeaky one is but the other one, though damaged will not budge. So I give up and ride it as it is.
 Still it’s a quiet return journey apart from the startled dogs that have not heard my approach until I am on top of them. They bark and chew in desperation at garden gates for a slice of tasty cyclists leg. When I was creaking they had ample time to plan a strategy before I arrived.  I could hear their crazy barking well ahead of me. Now I was leaping in shock as they came from nowhere.
 The rest of the day is spent in delicious bone idle mode including an evening spent with my Kindle and more fruit. Clermont Ferrand tomorrow. 

Day 7

Time to get up and attack another huge breakfast. My friendly voice in my head is back arguing. Maybe I should keep riding south and see how it goes. “ You can’t do that. “course I can” But you’ve been told it’s all hills” “I can do hills” “Hmm. Maybe not these hills. Remember you’re a fat old bugger” “thanks I need you”. I decide I’ll see when I get to Clermont Ferrand. See how I feel and visit the station there. I pay madam and she warns me how much more expensive the hotels will be the further I ride and that Beziers will probably be double. Great. I don’t linger too long otherwise what I’ve stashed from breakfast may start slipping out from under my shirt. Monsieur has once again kindly parked the bike for me, so I saddle up and ride away into a sunny new day.
I was dreading riding on the busy highway. I saw it yesterday, signposted for my destination, but as I passed through the town I saw another sign for Clermont Ferrand and it turned out to be a secondary road. It was quiet , only the odd car passed me plus a gaggle of highly coloured Sunday French racing cyclists who swept past without any greeting and probably a gallic sneer at my Traditional English Touring bike. Bet I had a comfier bum though. 
This was a great ride on a great day. Sun shining, bike quietly whirring along. Long rolling hills. Love it! It’s over too soon as I’m soon riding into a quiet Clermont Ferrand. It’s early and the place is very still. I glide into the town centre and pick a bench in the sun for some banana time. Decision is made to take a train from here. But I need to find the station. I try to find the  Gare on the Garmin and hey it works!. I get a nice big pink line on screen to follow. Part of the route takes me through a big park which I suss out for a wild camp, if I can’t find a cheap room. Keeping in mind my last hotel telling me rooms are more expensive the further south I go. Clermont is a sizeable place and I imagine not cheap. The parks no good anyway. Too busy, bordering a main road and quite a few noisy French prats about with cans. Reminds one of home, you know those days when the sun shines and the tattoos need an airing.
Station looks nice and modern so I take the bike in and approach the info desk.
I start a conversation in my best crap French. The guy looks blank and peppers me in shotgun French and I reply, probably asking “is there a train in the garden with chickens inside the bicycle. We back and forth for a while. I’m thinking [probably unfairly “why do they not know any English at all?” When he suddenly chirps up in perfect English “Oh you want to buy a ticket?” Sh…tt. What happened there? Never mind. I’m directed once again in perfect English to the right counter where I have to start all over again to a non-English speaking ticket seller. Surely my French is getting better? I ask for a ticket to Beziers for tomorrow. Somehow I’m understood and when I ask if the Velo is okay to travel I’m informed that it is up to the conductor. Not very promising.
However that’s sorted and I sniff out the area closest to the station for a room. Everywhere is closed and the first two hotels I come across want 120 Euros a night. I do find a seedy looking craphole near the station for 54euros but it’s all locked up until 6pm.  I decide to ride back into the centre for a look around the town and come back. I’ve not been here since 1988 and thought it was a scruffy place then, but now it’s very bright and modern. I like it.  Great tram system.
I notice down a side street a hotel sign so I wander down for a look see. There is a guy on a modern reception just locking up so I ask about a room.50 euros he quotes. Now, I don’t really want to rough it. All very adventurous and all that but the reality is that’s it’s crap and I really don’t want to keep paying for hotels but sometimes you just think “sod it” lets have an easy life. I go for it.
 He takes my details, tells about how he loves Blackburn [first English conversation for a while] and gives me a key. You know I’m in the middle of France, having a conversation with a Black French guy about the merits of a football team just up the road from me. Touring is great. Breakfast I’m told is Buffet and “very nice”. “Yea right.” Said I’d see in the morning. He locks my bike up in the garage, gives me the combination for the door and he’s off home. Now this is a scruffy side street but I’m not expecting much but it’s town centre for eating and near enough to the station for my 12.40pm train. So off up to my room to dump my stuff. Hey, Talk about striking lucky! The room is greeeeat! Very modern with a fabulous bathroom, including a hairdryer. Satellite TV, Air con. Bottles of lotions to pinch, the works. It’s colour co-ordinated, all sexy red covers, couch and furniture. I’m well impressed.  Quick shower and a wander out into the town. They have a fabulous cathedral here.
I go inside, sit in wonder for a bit and then hear music out side to find a full orchestra in the cathedral square with a good-sized crowd enjoying the classical music.

I lean on the nearby bit of staging to get a better look as the tempo changes. Whack! I’m startled by a kick to my elbow. I’m that busy watching the orchestra I don’t notice a group of dancers climb up behind me on the stage and start their own traditional routine. It was probably quicker to kick my arm out of the than disrupt the dance. Aahh the French.
It’s good though if you like that sort of stuff. I’m not that into it, as the orchestra has stopped and the dancers have brought their own musicians. There are some big girls clumping about up there though.  I go for a long walk and as usual get lost but it’s a nice place to be lost in and I’d visit again. Got a huge meal in the evening at a burger place where you can eat on the pavement tables for 7euros including a drink. Wish I’d booked a later train now. Still I’m off to make the most of the best hotel room ever on this trip. Time to sleep alone in my sexy room. Sniff..

 Day 8

Time to go below and see if it’s worth paying for breakfast. Another shower first, in the splendid bathroom. Give the riding gear a blow over with the hair dryer [such luxury] before I pack it away, as its train day today. I love trains. Breakfast looks great. I’m in! It’s a large, but pleasant Madam in charge and I’m invited to help myself. She obviously doesn’t know I’m a starved cyclist who could bankrupt you. I find a table where madam can’t watch me, as I also need to steal enough for lunch. My table is soon groaning with all sorts of delicious items. Did I mention I eat anything? No? Oh well.
 The room starts to fill up with guests. A very smart typical, French looking, mature but very sophisticated and lovely, businesswoman type sits at the table opposite me. Heck! Now I’m too embarrassed to push too much food in my pockets. Bugger! The annoying thing is she has plenty of coffee but nibbles away at one croissant. What’s that all about? Six Euros for breakfast and they only take one tiny croissant. Good job I’m here to make up for these silly people.
The train does not leave for a while so I wander into town. It’s another beautiful day and I want to check out the shopping centre where I am told there is a big sports shop and maybe the opportunity to buy a tent. I follow the C&A sign. C&A?

Thought they closed down years ago. Obviously not in France. Look at this square. Fountains and things. Lovely. Why, oh why, can we not do this sort of thing in England?
Find the store and also a cheap tent, but it’s heavy and I will have to strap it to the top of my bag. I can’t make a decision and decide to chance doing without it.
Off to the station then.
I’m early but that’s fine and I’m into people watching. Closer to the time I hump my bike over to the platform, after of course I’ve translated everything from the, French only display. There’s a young guy with a large backpack, on a bench, that speaks a bit of English and I check with him that it’s the right platform and he say’s yes, he’s waiting for the same train and returns to playing/checking/texting, on his ever present phone.
No train yet, though a large intercontinental one arrives at the next platform. This is a six-hour journey I’m booked on and I’m expecting something the same for the long ride south. A small one carriage, shiny thing arrives on our platform with no signs on it and it parks on the end of the platform. I assume it’s a local service as people drift up to it from time to time. My young phone obsessed friend takes no notice so I think.”Ok”. Times moving on though and there is five minutes to departure time and no sign of my train. I ask phoney “That petite one is not the Beziers train is it?” “Yes” he answers and stands up to walk towards it. “Shiiittt!” The idiot never said anything to me. I run, grab the bike and leg it to the train. It’s now packed. Standing room only at this end. I have no time to look elsewhere and push the bike in amongst the crush. 6 hours stood up balancing a bike. Arghhhh!. A tap on my sweating shoulder. I turn around. It’s my young I Phone friend. He says come with me. Grabs my bike and heads back down the platform. I race after him. “What the H…”.  It’s ok. He’s found a space for the bike and me further down the train. I can lean the bike against the toilet wall and there is a nearby seat. There’s me cursing the guy and he turns up trumps. You just never know.
I thank him profusely and he shrugs with a “Vous êtes les bienvenus, pas de problème” and disappears down the other end of the carriage. I never see him again. I’m on an aisle seat opposite an elderly, very smart lady but I can still see my bike leant up against the toilet wall. I can’t hang it, as the seats under the bike hangers are full.
 I was under the impression that this train was non-stop, I was told it was a very slow train. I thought they meant slow moving but no it meant there were a lot of stops. And so it transpired. As we travelled, and stopped, the train was starting to empty, but it was getting up a fair old speed between stations. So fast and swaying around bends, that eventually due to a nice long curve the bike went crashing across the floor. Almost crushing my bananas, I’ll have you know.
 No good. I had to go and ask a guy occupying the bicycle seats to move so I could hang the bike up. He just shuffled up a bit and thereafter for the rest of his journey he seemed quite happy leaning his shoulder up against my dirty front wheel. Even though there were now a few empty seats. Weird. Although in his defence he was sat opposite a young beauty. Fair enough, but there again she was deeply in love with her phone for the whole journey. But  whatever. His shoulder helped keep my bike stable. Thanks mate.
The lady opposite me stood up and tried to move her bag out of the passageway and lift it onto the overhead locker. Gentleman as I am. I took it off her and lifted it up. She thanked me in French and I replied "Il n'y a pas de quoi".  Maybe I said “For you my sweetheart” but who knows? Certainly not me.  Well that was it. I was now presented with a torrent of French and had to own up to being an ignorant foreigner.
 She switched to English, apologising for thinking I was French. How can anybody think somebody with a face like a rock and 6’2” is French? It does’nt work does it? The French are all petite and finely featured.
However she was nice and we had a good old chat in broken English till her stop came. She also got the chap sitting next to her involved and after she had departed he carried on the conversation. For three hours! A really nice guy with not so good English. Three hours! A long time. He told me some stuff and I don’t know if it’s true even now. He has homes all over the world. Likes building houses, retired in his 30s. He was going to visit his parents who live in a dilapidated castle, has a Japanese wife who runs a gallery for Sony in Tokyo and his eldest son wrote Justin Timberlake’s hit record. That’s just the first hour, there was more. Much more! I don’t know. Don’t you just love travel? Still he was insistent to swap e-mail addresses before he got off, so I still don’t know.
We were about 40mins short of Beziers when the conductor came round, counted heads and told us, in French only of course, that we would have to leave the train and continue by bus. He assured me the Velo would be fine and he would be taking the bus as well. Evidently it is not worth taking the train all the way if there were only a few passengers left. Time was getting on and I did not want to be late into Beziers, as I needed to find a place to sleep.
The bus driver insisted on taking the bike off me and loading it himself in an empty luggage compartment. Off we go. Well the bus wended its way from village to village often on small lumpy side roads, lurching round bends etc.  Up and down steep hills. We stopped and dropped the odd passenger. It was getting on for 8.45 when we arrived at Beziers station. It was dark and starting to rain. Sounds familiar? Thoughts of my first night in Fontainebleau.
The bus driver handed my bike to me and disappeared. I headed off keeping an eye open for a hotel sign. Nothing! I turned off uphill toward what I thought might be civilisation and my right hand pedal fell off! Nooo! A little kid came running up to me with the pedal. I thanked him and he tootled off with his mum.
I screwed it back in but it was wobbling. So I headed downhill and tried the road out of town. No sign of life. I spotted a canal and headed for that thinking I might find a place to sleep rough. No space, too many houses.  My pedal fell off. I screwed it back and tried not to put any pressure on it. Rode away down a country road. Too busy and can’t see much. Go back. Find a back lane. Total darkness now apart from my feeble front light. I see some nice flat grass and a hedge. This looks ok. I can sleep here. I’ve some plastic bags to put over me and the rain is now only spotting. I lay things out. I’m just about to snuggle in, suddenly I’m lit up by car headlights and then more. What!!! A building nearby that I thought was all closed up suddenly lights up. It’s a flippin disco and the staff  are turning up. What the… Pack up, ride off and my pedal falls off! I’ve now realised. The bike was lay on it’s side on the floor of the bus balancing on the pedal and sliding up and down the floor as the bus braked and turned. All the weight on the pedal. Cheers SNCF. Waste of time cursing now.
I stuff the pedal  in my pocket.  Try unsuccessfully to ride with one foot and looking like a drunken tourist on a stolen bike head back to the station. I’m hoping to find a discreet spot and bed down there until the morning. If I didn’t have the bike, maybe an all night disco could have been an option as long as I don’t have to dance.
As I hit the station I see a sign for a Hotel right opposite. I didn’t spot it before because of the Bus being in the way. Doohhh. I’m now reduced to pushing the bloody bike. The hotel is open and I ask [or did I beg?] for a Chambre. The madam made a pretence of checking a register, tells me they only have one room left and it is sixty-two Euros. Yea right. The sign outside says from thirty euros. The place is obviously at least half empty, so I decline and move further up the street. The area seems to be full of Asian cafes and takeaways, Lots of young guys sat around outside smoking, also a few places with Hookahs bubbling away. I get a few odd looks and comments in a language that is not French [they could me muttering “These crazy Engleesh, funny handlebars and one pedal only. Huh.”] but I couldn’t care less. I just want a room. This must be the dodgy end of Beziers.
 I turn back and spot another sign. This says from thirty-five Euros. Worth a try and indeed the overweight guy [who exudes an air of ‘eau de sweat, been a week, time to wash my shirt’] on the desk shows me a menu of rooms, indeed one at  thirty five Euros and upwards. Now I’m tired, wet, frustrated with the pedal thing and it’s past 10pm in a rough area of Beziers. There is a double with en-suite at Fifty Euro [thought Beziers was supposed to be very expensive?] so I plump for the luxury. I’m past caring; it’s been a long day. Velo? Garage for the Velo? He says. “We keep in bar” Takes the bike from me, wheels it into bar area and puts it against the wall and pushes the tables around it. Secure enough for me. I’m given the key to my room.
The room is great! Very French/Moroccan. Little dining table and chairs. It’s huge, with a balcony over the busy street and a nice modern bathroom.

It’s a cup of tea, apples and bananas for supper and off to sleep in a huge, comfy, warm, dry double bed. ZZZzzzzzzz.

The last days.
Nice to wake up knowing I have nowhere I need to be, plus an opportunity to explore. I nip down to see if there is any food on the go. My large friend from last night is on duty and ushers me to a mediocre breakfast that was probably more substantial if you are up in time, but I am a bit late. Still it will do and Abba are singing away in the background. The breakfast area is empty apart from another diner, a smartly dressed guy, who keeps smiling over at me. Strange that. I avoid his eye and concentrate on food. A few single guys here, must be a business hotel.
I’ve got the bike to sort so I ask if there is a bike shop around, as I don’t have the tool to sort my problem. The Crank is completely stripped so I will have to replace it. Mine host gets out the yellow pages and assures me there is a shop a few streets away that should do. It a push uphill with the bike for about a mile but it’s a nice day so whatever.
I find the bike shop and of course it’s not what I want it’s a motorbike shop. They can’t help and tell me there is no bike shop in town, only Decathlon on the outskirts, about 3 miles away. We agree it’s a long push. Never mind at least it’s mostly downhill back to the hotel.
I re-enter the foyer to ask directions to decathlon and whoa! What’s this? Mine host is behind the counter holding hands with the other member of staff. Another big guy who evidently is his partner. Now I understand, the single guys and the breakfast thing. I’m in a gay hotel! Well a beds a bed and as long as I’m the only one in it. It’s now almost lunchtime and I’ve still not sorted the bike so I book another night.
Time for a soothing coffee, whilst people watching from my balcony.
 I set off on the long push to the store.
I’m about a mile into the journey when the heavens open and I’m drenched. No coat of course. It was nice when I set out. Twenty minutes in a bus shelter doesn’t help so I trudge ever onwards and find the huge store, tie the bike up outside and run in. I roam around for a while looking for the bike area. Listen! They have a huge stock of tents! One day to go and I find a tent. For f…s sake! Can’t find any bike gear so ask the staff. Monsieur is in the wrong store. The Velo one is further down the road. Off again in the rain, shortcut across the grass and mud, bike on shoulder and plant it outside.
I buy a tool and a new crank after conversation with the staff. Strip the bike down [it’s still raining] and fit new part. Pedal away and can’t pedal. New crank is not right. It’s out of alignment, which means I have to wait for left hand pedal to catch up before I can put my foot on it and pedal. Now what? I try it around the car park. It’s no good; I’m like a very wet, pregnant hippo on its first bike lesson. Great entertainment for the truck drivers at the fast food caravan in the car park. They’re nudging their mates and one is even taking a picture! Circus is in town.
It’s no good. I have to go back and try to sort it. I take the newly fitted part off try to explain my predicament in my worst French. They do not have the correct part and take me to talk to their bike mechanic. Much muttering, shaking of heads and Gallic shrugs and they walk me back to the aisle and point out that I can buy a complete set of cranks that will fix the problem. A more expensive solution but no choice. 
The mechanic takes the now mucky wrong part off me and has the checkout girl issue me a refund. Then he wheels my bike in and puts it on his work stand. Quotes me twenty euros to fit the new part. No! No! I tell him I can fix it. I have bought the tool. He nods ok. But this great guy says “Juste un instant, s'il vous plaît” and before lifting the bike off the stand, removes the old crank set from the bike to “make it easier for monsieur”. Again, I love the French.
I’m mobile again and speed back to base. The rain stopped of course as I re-entered the hotel.
I need to save some money so it’s off for a shop for supper to stuff myself with bread, cheap wine and pate for a fine evening meal, enjoyed on the tiny balcony, watching the world go by. Oh the good life….

Down early for a good hearty breakfast this morning. Have to get my moneys worth. It’s Kylies turn to serenade me today. The rest of the day is spent by doing some chilled out sightseeing around Beziers, in sunshine for a change. and then cycling unloaded, up and down the beautiful Canal-du-Midi.

I cycle out to the tiny airport to check out my route for tomorrow and find out it’s pretty easy and a nice ride.

I’m away in plenty of time for my flight. I told the partners of the hotel as I was leaving, that I was sure that the flight to Manchester would be fully booked. I explained George Michael was playing that night in the city. At this they held on to each other and almost swooned “ooh la la” explaining that they have always wanted to see “Georges Michael” live, but their hours of work prevented it.

Would I do it all again? You bet. Differently? Of course. I’d take a small tent and sleeping bag. Probably alone. I mean. Come on, who'd be mad enough to come with me? Mix up accommodation with Hotels, hostels, campsites, wild camps etc. Put my bike in the bus myself. Avoid Paris. Improve my rubbish French. Try it make it a perfect holiday and have nothing to write about. Hmmm…

Roll on next year.

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