Giles and James were in Geneva, I was in London and we had to meet up somewhere in the middle. The first plan was to cycle the Loire from Nantes, but Giles’ and James’ lack of foresight and competence nixed that – though only after I booked my tickets from London to Nantes. Cursing I changed my tickets to Dijon, which is at least a lot easier to get to by train. From Geneva.
But no matter, I was too excited to stay vexed for long. The reason you see dear reader was that I had bought a shiny new ride.I know that on proper bike-tour blogs you list out every component of your rig plus all the gear, but this isn’t a proper bike-tour blog, at least not yet, so I’ll just say that it’s a Surly Cross Check, bought stock from brixtoncycles.co.uk/ and I moisten up just looking at it.
I set off to Kings Cross station very early one Thursday morning in September and caught the train to Paris. I had been apprehensive at the idea of having to ride a loaded, unfamiliar bike with weird bar-end shifters across Paris, a city famous for hectic traffic and bad tempered natives. Then I had a brainwave, and clicked through the route about four times on Google Streetview.
This is a genuinely good lifehack. I confidently rode the (admittedly short) distance from the Gare du Nord to the Gare de Lyon like a local, grabbed a boozy lunch with my old friend Romain, jumped on the train to Dijon, met Giles and James in a bar, downed a couple of cold ones and hit the road. Giles and I had already cycled from Dijon to Lyon but realised in retrospect that because we are idiots we had missed something which no self-respecting pisshead wine connoisseur should ever miss: the Route des Grandes Crus. It runs straight out of Dijon into the vines and winds through villages whose names alone provoke a semi: Marsanney, Gevrey Chambertin, Chambolle Musigny, Vosne-Romanee and Nuits St Georges, and that’s all within the first 20 km. Plus it’s beautiful. See for yourself. Apero’clock saw us roll into Nuits St Georges where, after a drink or two – and well before nightfall – we set about looking for a place to sleep. When camping rough, always start looking for somewhere to crash before it gets dark and before you get drunk.
It had it all, close to town, sweet view, private, flat and shady. It made us very happy and excitable and as a result that evening we drank just exactly the right amount of Burgundy (which as it turns out is a lot) and James fell over.
The funny thing about James falling over (apart from the obvious) is that the next day at breakfast, examining some rather hefty bruising, he asked us whether he had twatted himself whilst pissed and both Giles and I replied no absolutely not, we’d definitely remember if you had done.
Day 2 started early and badly: I woke up around 3 am with an excruciating headache, what I imagine a migraine must feel like, and the worst leg cramps I’ve ever experienced, all on top of a bastard hangover. I swallowed as many painkillers as I reckoned my liver could cope with and went back to sleep.
Next morning, I went to the pharmacy to ask what the hell that was all about and how could I make it not happen again. The pharmacist asked whether I’d been drinking isotonic drinks. When I said no he just gave me a look which said “Well do. You fucking idiot.” So now I do and nothing like that has happened since.
Isotonic drinks taste filthy, incidentally, because they’re essentially salt flavoured with all sorts of crap in an effort to get them to taste sweet. The only “flavour” I’ve ever tried which didn’t make me gag is tomato which embraces its saltiness and tastes like tomato flavoured crisps, but it’s very hard to find.
Anyway we finally roused ourselves, packed up and headed off to get breakfast and take a shit. That was my plan at any rate, but Giles had drunkenly locked his bike to James’ and mine, and now couldn’t find his keys.
After some time this became a big problem because by now I desperately, desperately needed to take a shit. Granted, I could have shat in a bush but we were right on the edge of town in a beautiful place where we had just slept and it felt wrong. By the time Giles found his fucking keys I was in a lot of pain. I needed a crap so badly that I couldn’t even sit on the saddle as we rode into town. Luckily the toilet in the local café was unoccupied, or things would have ended very badly one way or another.
Burgundy is (I’ll say it again) a very pretty place, and riding peacefully through mile after mile of some of the world’s best vineyards on a warm September morning is as close to paradise as a godless heathen like me will ever get. We spent the morning on the Veloroute la Voie des Vignes and nothing is better than that.
Lunch was partaken of in the small town of Meursault where we drank a 2010 Meursault. It was so absurdly delicious that someone was moved to photograph the bottle.
Incidentally the food in that shot was a “Tartipoisse”: a Tartiflette made from Epoisses. I can’t be bothered to explain further but if you know what that is then you’ll know why I mention it, and it was even more delicious than it sounds.
My recollection of that afternoon is pretty hazy: warm sunshine, little roads winding through idyllic vines, the odd château, lots of bucolicness and a canal.By evening we had arrived at Buxy which ain’t much but has a restaurant where Giles and I had eaten well on a previous trip so we stopped there for the night.
For reasons which now escape me we elected to rig up a portable shower in a little copse in the middle of a roundabout, and shower naked a few feet from innocent civilians. James, being a pervert, took photos of Giles which I am forced to publish here. Sorry Giles.
Ablutions performed we mooched around looking for somewhere to camp until a gnarled rustic approached us. We’ve camped wild countless times without ever getting any grief but we all felt slightly uneasy. Was he armed? Did he think we were trying to steal his potatoes?
Neither of course. Instead he chatted away amiably, recalling the days of his youth when he was a keen cyclist and ribbing us gently for avoiding all the hills. Then he advised us on the best place to camp (“Derrière la Madonne”) and buggered off.
Strange, must be something to do with being a city dweller, but I can never quite get over that feeling that I’m transgressing when I sleep rough.
That night we fucked up royally by going to a fantastic restaurant. What we should have done is go to the local bar which was full of rowdy youths. Parked next to it was one of those French pizza vans which should be gross but are actually great. You can overdo good restaurants and on occasion beer, pizza and noise is far more gratifying.
Feeling slightly underwhelmed we hit the sack…
… and awoke the next day to this:OK it’s no five star hotel, there were no dusky maidens serving us fresh figs topped with honey, and delicious tiny cups of coffee, but an unbeatable start to the day nonetheless. After all, you could wake up here:
Giles and I had already ridden the next part, from Buxy to the Beaujolais. You’d think that riding the same route would be tedious but it’s not. You get to relive memories from the previous ride and enjoy the present one.
Still slightly regretting not having eaten pizza the night before we stopped in Cluny and lunched on a cheap delicious Turkish meal of Grilled Meat And Stuff before hitting the hills of the Beaujolais.
Hills were a new thing. Until now we had assiduously avoided them because of laziness and a vague worry that they might break us. But I had invested in a proper bike with more than 8 gears, and these were very little hills – anyone who has ever cycled over a mountain would sneer at us for even noticing them.
Miraculously we arrived into Julienas (twinned with the hilariously named German town of Assmannshausen) at the north point of the Beaujolais at exactly the right time for a drink. Julienas is one of the best crus of the Beaujolais so we stopped and drank a lot of it. The other best crus, incidentally, are Brouilly, Régnié, Chiroubles, Côte de Brouilly, Fleurie, Saint-Amour, Chénas, Morgon and Moulin-à-Vent.
Beaujolais is great, both the wine and the place. After two days in the mighty Burgundy the Beaujolais is a blast of fresh air. I hate to use women as a metaphor when they can be used so gratifyingly for other things, but Burgundy is a beautiful haughty socialite with perfect tits (real ones, the result of generations of high class genes) who affects perpetual boredom, clearly doesn’t like you very much and is only bothering to hang around with you because of your money. Beaujolais on the other hand is a loud blowsy slapper who is getting on a bit and will happily sleep with anyone. She doesn’t give two fucks what you think of her and is therefore hugely endearing and fun to hang around with.
It really is quite remarkable how different the two regions are, considering they’re about 3 km apart and have done exactly the same thing (make wine) for hundreds of years.
The wine perfectly mirrors the place. Burgundies are of course complex, refined, elegantly structured, speak majestically of the Pinot Noir characteristic and all that sort of crap which does undeniably make them damn good to drink. Beaujolais wines by contrast are cheap and cheerful, made entirely of Gamay and are drunk cold more often than not. They go down ridiculously easily and should be quaffed in extravagant quantities.
A word about drinking red wine cold. There are those (idiots) who will inform you that red is always drunk at room temperature. Ignore them, better still dismiss them with a disdainful wave of the hand. Lots of red wines are far nicer drunk cold, as everyone in Southern Europe knows. I have been patronisingly informed on more than one occasion (usually by some wannabe actress waitressing in a “French” restaurant not actually in France) that you don’t do that. One even refused to put my bottle in the fridge.
We spent that night in Fleurie, and stayed up late drinking, smoking and talking about wine making with two vignerons. We were there for a long time after the restaurant closed, but more wine kept just miraculously appearing. I’m still not sure where it came from, maybe Jesus was sat round the corner wishing we would shut the fuck up and fuck the fuck off so he could be done with turning water into wine and get some fucking kip.
We camped next to a graveyard in yet another vineyard just outside town. It was very comfortable but surrounded by infernal hounds that barked all night. As a consequence I had anxiety dreams about being licked by giant wolf-dogs. Anxiety dreams are just like other dreams except they’re terrifyingly realistic, so that you wake up in a panic convinced that what you just dreamed is real. I lay there like a twat for about 5 minutes wondering where the huge dog thing had disappeared to and why my face wasn’t wet before realising DOH: dream. Anxiety dreams only ever happen when I’m sleeping outside and they make me feel like a massive wuss but I’ve no idea what to do about them.
Day four saw us meandering happily and rather hungoverly through Morgon, Brouilly and Cercié until we ended up in Saint Lager at the southern end of the Beaujolais where we stopped for a mid morning reviver in the Restaurant le Tassée. It was, it must be said, a sorry shithole full of unnerving alcoholic throwbacks, but the wine was cheap. It was also revolting, even served straight from the freezer.
We left most of it and hastened towards Villefranche sur Saone where we picked up the river for the last leg of the journey. By around 1 pm James and I were starting to get hungry and consequently pissy. Someone had just said the words “what we need now is a really good restaurant right by the river that does good fish” and seconds later one appeared. It was packed but they found us a table, and we sat down to a very good lunch, much of which had pulled out of the river earlier that day. It hit the spot in a major way.
One quick nap by the river and another 20 km got us to Lyons which after 3.5 days off the grid felt like down-town Tokyo. We caught the train back to Geneva and went and sat in 1st class, which for some reason no one bitched about despite the fact that we only had 2nd class tickets and were dirty and smelly. We cracked a decent bottle of red and went home.