It's quite heatwarming to see such trust in a total stranger, she even offered her car keys and phone to make local calls but I had to refuse.
Laetitia lives on her own in part of a beautiful farm, there are a few other youngish tenants and she has a friend in Niort, as well as good workmates, but it strikes me as a very solitary place to live. The nearby Villiers en Pliene translates as Villiers out in the open and it certainly lives up to its namesake. It's so open and barren, and with the freezing temperature and misty light it had a really eerie feel to it.
So Monday morning I left Mr et Mme Girling and set off at sunrise. It was the first day I had no confirmed destination, I had the possibility of staying in a place called Cholet but the host hadn't replied to my request. So I set the GPS to guide me there, and if I didn't get a reply by 4 or 5 I would find a hotel. It was going to be a big day, 120km but I was up early and feeling much fitter than the day before. It was a frosty start, and the GPS took me down an 'unpaved' route which was blocked with a chain and a sign saying 'passage interdit.' A local said yes c'est interdit but beckoned me past when I explained the GPS suggested I go there. It was a few miles of beautiful forested track, but with a car behind me I dare not stop and take a photo. The track eventually rejoined a road and I cruised on south to la vallee de la Loire.
I had heard how the weather was considerably different south of the river but actually it seemed to get colder. It was however quite noticable how the landscape and architecture changed as this was suddenly wine country. Big vineyards and terracota roof tiles, I felt pretty smug having seen such a change from Bristol landscape using leg power.
The day progressed, and I kept on pedalling through rural France. I stopped at a patisserie for a bit of energy and met a friendly local who wanted to know my destination. I hear a lot of 'bon courage' from people, it's good moral support.
I reached a village and stopped for a steak and chips in a local bar and was naturally the centre of curiosity for the patrons. It's amazing how noticable food can pick one up, and straight afterwards I was back on the saddle pedalling away. The weather got colder, but I realised this was in my favour, since the cold northerly wind was behind me. By 4pm I kept my eye out for a phone box. Naturally these seem to have disappeared since mobiles, and more so in France. Eventually I found one, and used the GPS to find nearest hotels. This little device is a godsend as it not only lists the closest lodgings but stores their phone numbers. So I shopped around, and with the hostel closed on Mondays I opted for the cheapest hotel, 6km north east at Les Herbiers. I realised how beneficial the wind was beforehand, as now I had to fight it with tired legs. The clock showed 76 miles and this last little bit seemed to take forever. It was getting close to 6pm and I was so glad to step into the warmth of Le Centre, a 2 star hotel, tired and cigarette tainted but trying to be smart. I took a very small en suite for 41 euros, showered, found a boulanger and bought lots lots of pizza and watched the Météo. Then I fell into a deep sleep.
So I woke at a leisurely hour and went out for a café and 3 patisseriés. I checked out and got on the bike at 10.30. It was very cold and was gently snowing so I donned all my gear and got going. The going was ok, gently up and down quite a bit. The route today was further inland, so the going became more undulating. Not quite Somerset and Dorset but more gentle. The icy wind behind me made the gentle uphills less noticable though. Lunch time I stopped at another bar tabac and got a quiche, baguette and paté. The barman asked me to go and get a pain from the boulanger, where a customer told me that 60% of the inhabitants of the village were english. Throughout the day I had only seen about four or five people out and about, it was so deserted it felt like an apocolypse had occured. So towards the end of the day the landscape became more barren and flat, and it started to snow again. I eventually got in to Villiers, where I called Laetitia and she came and collected me. We ate endives in bechemal and drank red wine. It was nice to talk a mixture of French and English for once. I was glad she wanted to go to sleep early as I was flagging after a couple of glasses.
07 Feb 2010 : Ok, so I have made some headway. I am 20km north of Nantes (yes I am metric now) and I've got a lot to catch up on. So, after the last entry I went to a pub in Bridport with Gitte and Tim and we met the skittle playing locals. Watching some of the players throw themselves onto the floor as they launched the ball with two hands, it dawned upon me how local customs such as this were already becoming quite different, and they were going to become considerably more so as I go to France.
So I got up, had some breakfast and left in the pitch dark towards Weymouth. The going was tough with some pretty gnarly hills, but the sunrise over the hills and the view of Chesil Beach made it worthwhile. I got there by 9am, got on the boat and had a pretty uneventful crossing to Jersey. I passed 5 hours in St Helier where I changed the brakes (2 days of rainy Dorset hills had taken their toll) and strolled through the town centre, fairly uninspired by it. I couldn't figure out what it was about the place, it felt a bit like Essex.
After a while of wandering I returned to the ferry terminal and bought a paper. This entertained me on the énd crossing and by 10 at night I left the port of St Malo and set the GPS to Plouer Sur Rance, home of Stephane et Sophie, the first French couch surfers. The 14 mile ride was lonely, rainy and windy, and for the first time it hit me what I had ahead of me. I don't yet know but I fear the real challenge will be much more mental than physical. I have spent six weeks alone before, backpacking in Asia when younger, but there's something much more alone about this adventure. The appreciation I have for my couch surf hosts is much more than just for their amenities, it's the humanity and curiosity they have for me, and that is so much more valuable than a means of saving money. So Stephane and Sophie (a fork lift driver and a nurse) greeted me with wine, gateaux, shower and a bewildering curiosity, pourquoi tu faites ce voyage extrordinairre? I had forgotten that it was their night off and they were happy to stay up until 1am conversing.Breakfast was nice and late and French, with yet more generous offerings as well as some English conversation with their 7 year old son, and then I set off for Bruz. The going was excellent, the roads are so much more pleasant for cycling than in England. Wider, flatter, smoother, a fraction of the traffic and the few cars that do pass give loads more space. The landscape felt like it whizzed past, and my spirits were much higher with the mp3 player. It felt like no time before I arrived at my destination and met Reno, a chap about my age who lived in a shared house on the outskirts. A very agreeable chap, he cooked me some pasta and chatted away about allsorts. We went to the shops and bought some provisions, and then the housemates and friends all came round for dinner. One girl recounted on her excellent time in Wales but she could never pronounce the name, 'M... ' to which I replied 'Machynnlyth?' It turned out she was good friends with several of the people I had gone to Spain with the year before. So we ate, drank, were merry and played poker until I realised I had to sleep. I could have happily spent all night up, but I have to push on. Shame!
Sunday- a tardy start and never felt awake, but left the new friends and set off for Saffré. The day started sunny but the going got windy and I realised that I didn't feel on top form. The route took me for the most part on a hard shoulder of a dual carriageway, with slightly more hill and a headwind, so the pleasant ride I felt yesterday was not so pleasant today. I rested in an Aire (service station) and a couple of hours later arrived in a very remote hamlet where Mr et Mme Girling lived. They were the parents of a couchsurfer who had happily put me up when their son was unable to, yet more superb hospitality. Yet another treatment of great hospitality and curiosity lifed my spirits, along with a tarte au citron to die for. I like the French!
04 Feb 2010: Well I m in Bridport at my first Couch Surf hosts. The really hot shower and spaghetti bolognaise are already so appreciated after two very damp days in the saddle, with the first night spent in the back of a Transit in the muddiest farm yard I have ever seen.
I left Bristol with my mate Jack who kindly saw me off on the first leg. The first two days encounter about 1/8th the total climbing, and the sheer weight ( yes it is heavier than the training run ) put the thighs to the test. The tops of the hills were in the drenching clouds and had a bleak wintery beauty to them.
We descended into Wells and Jack parted, leaving me to this adventure. 20 miles in and the sheer scale of the trip becomes apparent. I get to Muchelney, south of Glastonbury where I stay with Julia and Justin, two vegans who live in a beautiful romany caravan round the back of a beef farm. Julia warned me to keep pedalling when I get there as I had to traverse enormous floods of mud and cow shit. The momentum of the extra weight of the panniers helped, but my confusion of which caravan they lived in didn t. I m going to have to put up with that poo smell on my trousers for a little while. So Julia and Justin hosted me delightfully with lots of cups of tea, a delicious hearty soup and some porridge. I checked out her jewellry workshop and gallery in another vintage caravan in the adjacent farm the following day, and donned my waterproofs for day 2.
The going was tough, headwind and plenty of undulating Dorset countryside. It was a short day today but my legs were quite tired. I freewheeled down to Bridport, straight into a timewarp greasy spoon to pass the time and top up the calories with some good old fashioned stodge. Anyway here I am with Gitte and Tim and I feel pleasantly recharged for my dawn start tomorrow. Thank you kind hosts!