Ill prepared and ill equipped on my first trip, 300 km in the saddle had taught me a few things. I was now a seasoned bike traveller. So for the second trip I thought long and hard about what kind of bike I should have, what I should wear and what I should pack. Then I went ahead and took exactly the same bike, clothes and kit as last time. A combination of laziness, skintness and not really giving a fuckness meant that since I’d muddled through last time, I figured I could do it again. I did, however, buy my very own non-yellow, non-Arsenal shirt.
We boarded the train to Dijon and found ourselves sitting across from three young Swiss tourers, with professional looking bikes and kit, dressed head to toe in straight-from-the-catalogue branded sportswear. We were fully preparing to despise them when they whipped out cheese, meat, bread… and a chilled bottle of white wine. At 9am! Rock on! Suddenly they became our best friends, although I don’t recall the fuckers offering us any of that wine.
As we headed towards France, the train slowed and a herd of French customs officers boarded. At the sight of them Giles made a noise like a politician caught round the back of a rent boy. He’d forgotten his passport. Typical. Luckily this particular breed of customs officer was even more stupid than it was officious, and Giles evaded them by hiding in the toilet so we made it to Dijon.
Our plan was to start there and follow the canals and the Saone river down through Burgundy and into Beaujolais. Incidentally, if you’re reading this blog the way it’s supposed to be read, earliest posts first, then you’ll have noticed that all our routes involve cycling next to French rivers or canals. This is for three reasons. Actually four reasons.
Reason one, canals and rivers are flat. Bear in mind I’m riding an 8 gear urban commuter bike several sizes too small and Giles is on some Heath Robinson contraption that weighs the same as a baby elephant. Plus neither of us is keen on exercise, we’ve usually just eaten too much or are hungry, and we’re getting on a bit. Hills are therefore an aggravation and an affront to our self-esteem.
Reason two. A major challenge to being a cyclehobo is staying clean. It’s hot, you’re sweating buckets and nature is a filthy place, as you can tell by observing the people who live in it. Camp-sites, public swimming pools etc. can provide welcome respite for the fetid, but aren’t always there. The river is (always there), and it’s extremely satisfying to wash in.
Reason three. The French are always keen to get their hands on anything they can eat, including fish, so there are always lots of great little sleeping areas right by the river that have been previously colonised by French fishermen and sleeping rough is common practise for anyone whose idea of fishing is to sit next to a river drinking all day, then pass out. It’s considered perfectly reasonable behaviour, so you won’t get woken up at 7am by an angry French policeman waving a gun about.
Reason four. Rivers are delightful places next to which to drink booze.
After a leisurely morning’s cruise we arrived in a little town called Saint Jean de Losnes where, as it happens, many years earlier Giles and I (and other disreputable reprobates) had spent a week pissing about on (and in) the river on a rented barge which we crashed into things, set fire to and almost sank in a lock. Luckily no one appeared to recognise us so we stopped for lunch.
I forget what we ate but I remember it being delicious.
And I don’t remember what we drank either, but the photos tell us we drank beer before lunch…
… and a bottle of cold Macon Villages during lunch, and probably something strong like marc de Bourgogne to wash it all down.
After lunch we set off again in battering heat, thoroughly shitfaced, stuffed full of food and in excellent spirits, reflecting once again on the blessedness of being able to eat and drink yourself comatose, get on a bike and feel fresh as a daisy again after 45 minutes. Then the booze started to wear off so we stopped here:
And a little further on we stopped for a swim in the river and bumped into David Beckham who was on an extended fishing holiday, living out of his beaten up old Land Rover. Of course it wasn’t really Beckham, it was an English posh boy who looked incredibly similar and had slept with half the local female population by pretending to be the esteemed deliverer of deadballs. Or so he claimed.
Then we put a few more kilometres behind us to reach Verdun sur le Doubs that evening.
It’s a lovely place and it taught us a valuable lesson: restaurants in small French towns can’t be arsed with you much past 8 pm. To be honest we already knew this, but the call of the aperitif was too strong to resist so we didn’t. Then we didn’t again, and probably again after that. Finally we sauntered over to the charming bustling terrace of the Restaurant Le Soleil d’Or, nabbed a table in the evening sun and were politely asked to fuck off we’re closed.
No problem we thought, there’ll be plenty of other great restaurants in town and they’ll all be grateful for our patronage, even if we smell a bit gamey. Wrong, and wrong. There were two other decent restaurants in town, and neither wanted anything to do with us. We ended up getting takeaway kebabs. They were delicious, and we ate them on the terrace of the bar we’d tarried in at apero time, washed down with some gallons of rosé.
As usual when things don’t work out as planned it was was all fine. And actually after an enormous lunch, a kebab hit the spot. Nonetheless, lesson learned.
We slept here, on the other side of the river from:
Believe me, when you’re woken at 9am by the sound of a barge drifting gently past, and you sort of stumble over to take a long piss into the river and all is calm and you’re staring at a scene like this you seriously consider packing it all in: the job, the mortgage, the whole shebang, and hitting the road permanently. Then you realise you’re badly in need of a coffee and a crap so you pack up and get the fuck out.
Day 2 saw us follow the river in the morning and to be honest I can’t remember much about it. We stopped here (I have no idea where this is)…
…for a beer, which I don’t remember either but it’s safe to say it was cold and delicious and I doubt we had less than three.
But the real action started just before lunch when we hit the Voie Verte at Chalon sur Soane.
The Voies Vertes are cycle paths that run through some of the quaintest, prettiest countryside France has to offer. They are entirely self-contained, meaning no traffic, meaning no getting flattened by a truck. Many of them are old railway lines that have been tarmacked over, so they don’t go up and down too abruptly, and you ride through scenes like this:
Buxy, incidentally, is where we ate a seriously excellent lunch. Ever had a granita of grapefruit and prawns? Well I have, and it’s delicious. I don’t specifically recall what we drank, but I do remember it being cold, white, cheap and so good that the world stopped when you took a sip. We drank far too much of it, really far far too much.
When we (finally) left we were very very drunk, very very full and it was very very hot. My nose had started to melt off and Giles’ hair was smouldering ominously when we spotted a small lake, evidently put there by God purely for our well-being. We swam in it and dozed by it and felt 178% better.
This particular Voie Verte runs for over 60 km from Chalon Sur Soane to Macon, through the South of Burgundy, and through miles upon miles of vineyards.
Being surrounded by vineyards gives one a sense of enormous well-being, a sense that literally nothing can ever go wrong, and that the universe is a tidy, well ordered place whose every last molecule has been meticulously positioned to ensure your utmost comfort and happiness. Particularly when you’ve just put away the best part of a vat of wine.
The day unfolded at a leisurely pace, and we stopped a number of times at bars full of happy cyclists who had earned their drinks and for whom a cold beer was a wondrous, magical thing.
We ended up in a cute little town called Cluny. When I phoned the missus and told her where we were she said “Ah yes, the abbey”. Apparently there’s a famous abbey there dating back to some ancient time that Jesus and one of his apostles built with their bare hands or something. Far more importantly, Cluny has several good restaurants with well-stocked cellars.
We slept in a sports complex on the outskirts of town, having realised that the French generally aren’t all that fussed about you sleeping rough as soon as they see the bike.
Day three started with a hangover and annoyingly steep hills, which at least served to flush out the hangover.
Then we went into a tunnel – remember this was an old train line. It was extremely cool, in both senses of the word.
We followed the Voie Verte up hill and down dale, and a thoroughly splendidly magnificently wonderfully lovely experience it was too. And then it ended, but right at the end, as a kind of final flourish, was this place:
How perfect is that? We went in and ordered a pre-lunch jar of white Burgundy… and experienced complete happiness, which is interesting when you think about it. People fork out all kinds of crazy money in pursuit of happiness, but it’s available for just a few euros in a cute little roadside café in Burgundy. You just have to sidle up to it from the right direction.
Thereafter things went downhill astonishingly quickly. Having failed to plan ahead for lunch we found ourselves passing through one fly blown shithole after another, without a restaurant in sight. It was very hot, we were getting very hungry and we were on a big road with trucks howling past at 120 km/h kicking dust into our faces. It took a huge effort not to have a massive sense of humour failure, something neither of us managed. In the end we did find somewhere to eat. It was supremely mediocre but at this stage we were just happy not be eating mud and gravel.
Luckily, after lunch we found a camp-site. When you’re a vagrant cyclist, camp-sites are your friend. You just cycle into them – no one will ever challenge you – and take full advantage of showers, pools and little bars with fridges full of cold beer.
Refreshed and full of optimism we set off again, only to hit a bastard headwind. Headwind is the enemy of cyclists. It’s tiring, depressing and almost but not quite relentless, so that every so often you think (hope, pray) that it has dropped and then a huge gust almost dumps you in the nettles. It gives you a headache and makes you angry with everything, but luckily our kind of cycling has nothing to do with challenges or self-actualisation so we simply turned right and took a detour into the Beaujolais, with the wind behind us.
In Beaujolais we spent a very pleasant afternoon mainly drinking Beaujolais, but since anywhere to get food was shut for holidays we were forced to leave. We struggled again to find somewhere to eat, ending up in a terrible dump called Belleville which, ironically, means “pretty town”. It had lots of restaurants but all of them looked dismal. It was getting late and after the experience at lunch we were starting to panic. Eventually we found someone with the correct amount of DNA who pointed us towards a restaurant near a bridge which he said was good. Our hopes were not high, but we had no choice so we went. It turned out to be excellent and as a result we got rather carried away (drunk), and thus was born the concept of a night-ride.
Riding at night is different from riding during the day. For a start, it’s dark, but of course dear reader you figured that out for yourself and if you didn’t I have a 100% risk-free investment scheme you’ll be interested in. Dark, and also cooler, which in the middle of August during a heat wave produces a sense of liberation much like getting naked and running around in a sprinkler shrieking does for 5 year olds. And there are very few cars so you can go on bigger roads, ones with tarmac, and get some proper kilometerage under your belt. In short, it’s great.
This particular night-ride had something that made it extra good. At about midnight we were rolling through little rural villages speculating on the likelihood of finding an open bar and concluding that the chances were close to zero. About 3 seconds after Giles had wistfully imagined a bar with a pinball machine in it we came round a corner and saw this:
We stayed there happily knocking the shit out of the pinball machine until the bar closed. As he chucked us out the friendly barman gave us fig liquor which was like drinking Mike Tyson’s fist, and sent us on our way and we learnt the downside of the nightride, which is that when you’re happily shitfaced you don’t give much of a shit about anything, including where you sleep.
We slept in a little area by the river which looked cute and everything, and would have been perfect except that many Frenchmen had previously used the place as a toilet. Luckily neither of us actually slept in shit but we slept quite near it which is bad enough.
Day 4 went pretty quickly and nothing much happened except we went down a road that looked like it was heading to a hydroelectric plant and found a lake to swim in with showers next to it and a bar that served cold beer.
Right next to the water there was a big sign, in French, saying DANGER DO NOT SWIM IN HERE OR YOU WILL DIE OH FUCK SHARKS or words to that effect. Everyone, adults, kids and disturbingly attractive teenage girls just ignored it and swam anyway. I love the French. Sometimes.
We arrived in Lyon, drank a beer, got on a train, went home and took 2 days to recover.