Rolling along

August 22, 2013

Distance: 39.2 miles                        Climbing: 2231 ft

Today felt like we went over a hundred little hills. It wasn’t too bad, but we have become accustomed to easy, flat roads. After many weeks of coasting, it felt like a bit of a workout.

Despite the hills, we had a nice day in the French countryside. We passed through a number of quaint villages.

Old house

Old house

Sunflowers

Sunflowers

French countryside

French countryside

We saw some interesting monuments along the way. Several pyramids were erected by monks around the area in the 18th century. Apparently, they were put up as meeting points for hunters.

Mystery pyramid

Mystery pyramid

The GPS showed a bunch of dirt roads leading off into the woods and figured we would be able to find a place to camp. The first road took us to a lake with a gazebo and one million mosquitoes. Not wanting deal with the bugs, we moved on. The next road was bug-free and quiet. We found a nice clearing and set up camp. As usual, we shared a bottle of delicious French wine with dinner. I found out we had some uninvited guests later in the evening, giant slugs. Quite the surprise when I tried to put my sandal on for a nighttime bathroom trip.

Big slug

Big slug

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Getting ready for the farm

August 21, 2013

Distance: 15.7 miles                         Climbing: 1322.2 ft

Another castle

Another castle

Our original idea was to go up to Tours to go to a store called Decathlon and pick up some items. We didn’t want to use our current clothing for farm work. We got through the town quickly and hit the “bike path” to Tours. The bike path ended up being a major highway with a decent shoulder. There were lots of semis and cars passing to close for comfort that we quickly ditched the current plan. There was a McDonald’s and we figured we could get internet to help us form a new plan.

We ended up pulling into a huge shopping area and decided we might be able to find what we needed there. We spent the next several hours looking for shoes for Chandler and jeans for me. We also spent a painful amount of time trying to connect with the internet.

When we finally left the mall megaplex area, we opted for the rural route. While passing vineyards and villages, Chandler and I played the name game for hours. The name games is very simple, One person picks a famous person, say Tom Hanks, then the next person must come up with another famous person who’s name begins with the first letter of the last name of the last person said, so Henry Kissinger could be the next name. It was actually pretty fun and we found ourselves at the campground before we knew it.

Vineyards

Vineyards

The campground ended up being in the middle of town and almost empty. Apparently, we are getting close to the end of camping season.

Standard French snack

Standard French snack

Loire meanders

August 20, 2013

Distance: 20.5 miles                      Climbing: 1551.8 ft

We woke to another beautiful morning. So far, France is treating us well with good weather, great food and friendly people. Apparently, we had camped at someone’s fishing spot and woke to the sounds of a lure hitting the water and the reel pulling it in.

Along the Loire

Along the Loire

Dragonfly

Dragonfly

Since our long stay at the campground, I had taken control of the GPS and determining our route. We traveled along the Loire for a while until I noticed signs indicating that the bike route made a turn away from the river. Figuring it would be nice to get away from the traffic for a bit, I followed the signs up a hill. I wasn’t so sure I had made a good choice until we went through an arch built into the limestone.

Not sure where we are going

Not sure where we are going

We ended up dead-ending at a troglodyte home or cave dwelling. There were a number of signs explaining what we were looking at, but with my rusty French, we could only understand the very basics. What we gathered was that the caves were originally made from people removing the tuffeau limestone and then people moved into them.

Looks like a nice place to live

Looks like a nice place to live

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Lots of rooms, too bad they are closed off

We couldn’t quite figure out what was going on with whatever we stumbled upon. There were a number of rooms closed off with danger signs, but then there was a working bathroom and pizza oven and the room full of household items on display. Maybe someone is setting up something more touristy.

After poking around for 20 or so minutes, we got back on the road. I continued to follow the bike route signs. It wasn’t most direct route, but we went through some beautiful countryside. There were miles of vineyards in every direction and the roads were quiet so Chandler and I were able to ride beside each other and chat. It was a really pleasant afternoon.

Chandler and the chapel

Chandler, vineyards and a chapel

After a little while we came to a split in the river, where a tributary came into the Loire. We found a little shaded park on the bank of the river, and made another round of burritos with our leftovers. Canned ratatouille is available at all the markets, and once propped up with a some spices makes a great tortilla filling for a quick cycling meal. Our route towards the farm led us away from the Loire to the south east, along the tributary.

We reached Chinon in the early evening and found a campground in the center of town. As far as campgrounds go, French campgrounds are the best. There is generally area set aside for just bicycle tourists and our rate is much cheaper than the giant caravans. The campground in Chinon also featured a bit of evening entertainment, a musician.

The night's entertainment

The night’s entertainment

The wine cave

August 19, 2013

Distance: 17 miles                           Climbing: 941.6 ft

We were excited to be biking again, especially since we had a plan. Ultimately, we were headed to Nouans les Fontaines which was a few days riding away. We enjoyed the scenery along the river, so we decided stay along the Loire as long as possible.

Nice start to the day

Nice start to the day

This area of France produces some nice wines and tuffeau limestone. The iconic building material can be seen everywhere, most walls and stone builings in the Loire Valley are built using tuffeau limestone. The material was mined by prisoners in earlier centuries to provide material for the magnificent châteaux lining the river. The caves that remain now are used for a number of different purposes, from restaurants to art galleries to wine production and storage.

We headed to one such place which makes and store wine inside the caves, Louis de Grenelle. The caves offer a perfect environment for store wines while its ages, the temperature stays at a constant 12°C year round. With over 2.5 km of caves, there is more than enough space for for their 4 million bottles.

In the cave

In the cave

Dusty rosé

Dusty rosé

Exploded bottle

Exploded bottle

Louis de Grenelle specializes in producing sparkling wines. The process is the same as used to make Champagne, which of course is a regional designation. The main grapes they use are Chenin blanc, Cabernet franc and some Chardonnay. From what we understood, this is the last wine cave in the region that is still actively used as a production facility, as opposed to just a storage site. Unconditioned wine is trucked in from the family’s estate and stored in large underground vats. The one million bottles of wine are all filled with one small machine in the cave. They cap the bottles with a regular beer type bottle cap and let them age. The owners apparently enjoy their wine without any further processing, but the suspended yeasts create an ascetically unappealing cloudiness.

The consumer destined bottles go through a unique process called “riddling”. It used to be a laborious manual process where each bottle was slowly inverted and rotated over the course of around two weeks, so that all the solid residuals settle at the top of the bottle neck, against the cap. The process is now automated with big robots that carefully rotate huge crates of the bottles. Next, they flash-freeze just the neck of the bottle and remove the temporary metal bottle cap. The frozen plug of sediment is ejected by the carbonated pressure in the bottle. A cork is quickly inserted and the clear, sediment-free sparkling wine is ready to go!

As part of the tour, we also enjoyed a tasting. The wines were all quite nice, but we really don’t know much about wine appreciation. To us the most interesting one was the sparkling red wine. At first, it tasted like a normal red, but then the bubbles explode in your mouth and things just get a little confusing for your brain. Hard the explain, but it was very tasty and we ended up buying a bottle.

Enjoying the tasting

Enjoying the tasting

After our tasting, we didn’t really feel like cycling anymore and just wanted to enjoy a bottle of wine. We cycled through the town of Saumur, which was cute and situated along the river. It seems like every town has a castle or giant château and this village was no exception.

Château will might consider buying

Château we might consider buying

Saumur

Saumur

We went to a few campgrounds, but they were all the bizarre resort type places and nothing was less than 25€, which was way out of our price range. We figured we would keep biking along to Loire and either come across a place to free camp or another campground within our budget. We were lucky and found a great free campsite right along the river. We were hidden from the road and people boating on the river didn’t seem to care we were there.

Our first order of business was to chill our wine in the river, then make dinner. We had delicious veggie burritos with lots of guacamole. A perfect Mexican meal to go with a nice bottle of French wine. We were feeling very multicultural. Once dinner was cleaned up and put away, we were ready for dessert. I pulled our wine from the river, only to discover the bottle was warmer than when I had originally put it in. The water was actually perfect for swimming and warmer than the air temperature. So much for that idea!

Fishing for wine

Fishing for wine

Chandler popping the bottle

Chandler popping the top off

A vacation from traveling

August 15 – 18, 2013

Distance: 19.8 miles                     Climbing: 757.9 ft

We left Saint George du Bois in the afternoon and didn’t make it too far before finding a campground right on the Loire. One night turned into a second and then a third.

Since leaving Holland, we have lost a lot of our enthusiasm for cycling. The logistics of planning everything was stressful. Finding a nice place that wasn’t just some crappy expensive campground full of RVs was hard. When we did get internet access we had to research our route, things to do and see, places to stay without knowing when we’d get good internet again. There is so much written about travel in Europe for travelers of all types, it was hard to parse and find threads of information that applied to us. and our budget It sounds nice to be in Europe with lots of time and no commitments, but it sure is a lot of work to make sure we’re going the right way, not missing something important, etc. Long term budget travel is not a vacation.

We were feeling burned out. The repetition of the typical day of cycle touring had us feeling like we were in a rut. Part of us just wanted to go home, somewhere familiar and comfortable, relax, reset, then come back and finish our trip. That was not really a logical possibility, so we needed to come up with another plan. We decided to just hang out at the campground for a few days reading, drinking French wine, eating baguettes, catching up on the blog and figuring out what we wanted to do.

Baby animals

Baby animals

Chan using his bike to carry proper items

Chan using his bike to carry proper items

Breakfast of champions

Breakfast of champions

Suntset

Sunset

We ran through a few scenarios, including changing our flights and going to South America early. However, during a skype conversation with Chan’s mom, Jeanne, she casually mentioned WWOOFing, which planted a small seed in our mind. The more and more we thought about it, the more excited we got.

WWOOF stands for Willing Workers On Organic Farms which is a program that pairs up farmers and travelers for an exchange of room and board for farm work. Just the prospect of a change in our routine boosted our spirits immensely. We immediately signed up with the French branch of WWOOF, emailed a few people and made a plan to begin work the next week. Once again, we were excited about what we were doing.

The Luc and Lea Show

August 12 – 14, 2013

Prepare for an overload of photos of my niece and nephew.

The three days spent with family were fun and about as relaxing as a 4 year old with endless energy will allow. I spent as much time with Luc and Lea as I could. This meant hours of peak-a-boo and putting balls into baskets with Lea, who is 13 months old, and running through sprinklers, coloring, racing and invented ball games with Luc.

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Very brave

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Super cute Lea

Jump ropes are complicated

Jump ropes are complicated

Alyssa and Lea

Alyssa and Lea

Everyone loves this game

Everyone loves this game

Luc on the Loire River

Luc on the Loire River

Family photo

Family photo

Lea knows how to take a nap

Lea knows how to take a nap

I also spent a lot of time trying to convince Luc to hold still long enough to take a photo. Lea ended up being my model most of the time due to her limited mobility. It was wonderful to spend time with family.

I must say, I think I have the cutest niece and nephew ever!

Driving around France

August 10 -11, 2013

Since we spent so much time in Holland and Belgium, we knew we would never make it to meet my sister in time if we tried to ride there. So, we went to plan B and rented another car and road-tripped through France. It is really expensive to rent a car in one country and then drop it off in another, so we rented the car in Lille, France on the other side of the border. Chan rode there on his bike, then broke it down, stuck it in the trunk of the rental car and drove back to pick me and all our stuff up. We made a slight diversion on the way to taste what is supposedly one of the best beers in the world, Westvleteren’s 12.

The high status of this beer is certainly partially due to its exclusivity. Westvleteren is a Trappist brewery and only produces 3 beers: the Blonde, the 8 and the 12. All beers come in unlabeled bottles and can only be purchased at the cafe or ordered in advance from the monestary. Considering this was probably our only chance to try these beers, we shared a glass of all three. All three beers were certainly tasty, but not sure if the 12 is the best in the world. We’ll have to continue our exhaustive research before we come to any hasty conclusions!

From left to right: Blonde, 8, 12

From left to right: Blonde, 8, 12 Good, Better… BEST???

The next item on the agenda was to head to the north coast to see the Normandy coast and site of the D-Day landings.

Omaha Beach sign

Omaha Beach sign

We arrived too late to see the museum, but had plenty of time to explore the beach. Ohama Beach is the actual name of the beach now, adopted officially by the French from the code name used by the Allies. The beach is hemmed in by some steep bluffs, up to 50 meters high. It was almost unbelievable to think that Americans stormed the beach under heavy fire and were successful.

The bluffs

The bluffs

Sunset behind the bluffs

Sunset behind the bluffs

The other surprising thing was that the beach was being used for recreation. There were many war memorials and remnants of the past, but we were just a little shocked to see swimmers, sunbathers and kayakers. It makes sense that the beach would eventually be used for pleasure again, but we just weren’t expecting it.

Memorial

National Guard Memorial

Chandler also took the opportunity to take a little dip. As usual, I stayed behind to document the occasion.

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Diving

After Chandler’s swim, we walked around to give him some time to dry off. We found an American memorial on top of a German bunker with a large gun still inside. We also found the museum, but knew it was closed. However, there was a few items of interest on display outside.

Captured German gun

Captured German gun in bunker

Tanks and tank trap

Tanks and tank trap

The sun was setting and we still had several hours of driving, so we had to hit the road. I wish we had arrived earlier to see the museum and explore the hillside more, but at least we got to see something. The rest of the night was spent driving and it was a little stressful. We discovered there are two Saint George du Bois in France and I had picked and routed us to the wrong one. To the one 400 miles in the wrong direction. Luckily, we were still north of pretty much everything in France, so redirecting wasn’t a problem. We did have a little bit of drama determining if we could drop off the car in a different city than originally planned.

The next day proved to be extremely stressful. It was a Sunday, so pretty much everybody in France has the day off. When I finally got someone on our cellphone from Ulrich, and I had explained the situation in my poor French, we ran out of minutes and the call was cut. We decided to just drop off the car in Angers, which was close to the correct Saint George du Bois and just deal with the situation when things were open on Monday.

So, with one problem taken care of, we next had to refill the gas tank. Normally, not a problem except that French credit card swipes don’t accept American cards. And since it was Sunday, there was no attendant whom we could pay in person. We went to three or four different gas stations before Chandler convinced a very kind woman to use her credit card and then we could pay her in cash.

Eventually, we got the car returned, the bikes put back together and on the road. We went straight to the campground, but first we took a nap. We had spent the night in the car and gotten very little sleep, so when we noticed some trees along the bike path, we strung up our hammocks and enjoyed a snooze. Once refreshed, we continued on to the campground to relax some more.