Hello everyone and welcome to the latest blog from The Olivia Rose Diaries on July 29th 2022.
This week we have covered 200 kilometres and crossed four rivers – but not by boat. This journey was made on our bikes. There comes a point each year where we reach a good position for going back to pick up the van. We had left it behind in a car park by arrangement with a boatyard in Migennes just over a month ago. Normally Michael goes back by train to pick it up, but this time that would mean three hour-long hops: one into Paris, another across the city and then another connection out to Migennes. For various reasons this wasn’t a particularly appealing option so instead we decided we would cycle the whole route together, cross-country, and avoiding Paris completely.
Ideally we would have given ourselves a little longer before cycling such a distance, just to check we were definitely fit enough after our bout of Covid, but we didn’t have that luxury. There was a narrow weather window when the temperature would be between 25 – 30 degrees before getting hot again, and Olivia was tucked away in a safe, free mooring. This was the right time and the right place for us to leave her.
We split the trip into three days, each one roughly between 65 to 70 kilometres, and we booked ourselves into Airbnb’s for the first two nights. After the third day, assuming we felt up to it, we would drive straight back to the boat. This was quite an adventure for us as we had never cycled this sort of distance before. I knew we would be fine for the first day – I wasn’t so sure how the buttocks and legs would be coping by the third day!
Day One – from the River Aisne to the River Marne. Distance traveled – 64 kilometres. Total climb – 661 metres.
I know I’ve said this before but France is such a great country for cycling. Hidden away between the main arterial routes and the big cities is an intricate spider’s web of country roads and single track lanes with hardly any traffic on them.
This part of France is largely arable, and we were cycling through it at harvest time. We met far more tractors than we did cars, rumbling along with their trailers full of grain. Vast fields of golden stubble, some dotted with round bales waiting to be stacked, spread out all around us.
You cannot spend any time up in northern France without stumbling across a war memorial. It might be no more than an obelisk, sometimes a simple graveyard full of crosses, whilst other monuments can be grand and imposing affairs. Often it is the simplest that are the most moving. Michael spotted this sign underneath a stunted tree, one that we could have easily cycled past without even noticing it.
If you look at the black and white photo, partially obscured by my handlebars in the first picture, you can just make out rows of crosses. The area we were standing on had been a temporary graveyard for American soldiers in 1918. We were literally in the middle of nowhere and I wondered whether this was the actual place that they had fallen, and where they had eventually been laid to rest. It was hard to reconcile this peaceful spot in the sunshine with the bleak photo in front of us. It was a sign of very different times and a stark reminder of how lucky we are not to have lived through such horror.
We took a short detour off the road to look at the Cistercian abbey at Longpont, an imposing ruin that reminded me of Tintern Abbey back in Wales. There were no hordes of tourists or gift shops here, just us.
A shady area under some trees in front of the church in the village of Chouy provided the perfect spot for lunch. The café looked as if it had not seen any trade for many years but we have learnt from experience that it is best to carry your own food and drink with you whilst travelling. You might find a charming village selling the best bread and pastries you’ve ever tasted – or you might not.
Inside the church there was a small exhibition of faded black and white photos showing a very different village to the one we could see as we sat on the grass eating our home-made peanut butter and cucumber sandwiches. The terrace of houses next to the café, as well as the church itself, had all fallen victim to a bombing raid during the First World War and had been reduced to rubble, the roofs blown away, and just a few fragile walls left standing as a sad testament to the fact that this had been someone’s home.
Our destination on this first night was Nogent L’Artaud on the River Marne, staying in a small B&B, a self-contained annexe adjoining the owner’s home in a quiet side street not far from the small town. For a mere £38 we had our own kitchen, bathroom, sofa and bed and a little terrace outside to sit on. It all seemed quite new, was immaculate and just what was needed after a good day in the saddle.
You can see from the picture below that the Marne looks a little gloomy under grey skies but we had found it so much more easier to cycle without the sun beating down on us.
Day 2 From the Marne to the Petit Seine. Distance traveled – 66.4 kilometres. Total climb – 517 metres.
We woke to sunny skies and the temperature a few degrees warmer than yesterday. Leg muscles and seat bones had survived the first day and seemed happy to carry on so we breathed a sigh of relief and set off, straight into the first hill. Our choice of route had been made with only three things in mind: that it was as direct as possible, that it avoided all major roads and that there was a place to stay at the end of each day. The terrain, and the number of hills, would be whatever they would be. We didn’t look for any tourist attractions as part of the route, but we knew there would be something to catch our interest. There always is.
Although this was by no means mountainous countryside, it still had its fair share of hills, rolling endlessly up and down ahead of us. At times the arable land would be broken up by a forested area, an abrupt switch from an arid, dry landscape into a leafy canopy, soft on the eye and wonderfully cool, as if we had suddenly cycled into an air-conditioned green room. In one of these green sections we came across an unusual tourist attraction that made use of an old railway line.
Imagine a pedalo which rolls along a railway track rather than across the water, big enough to take two people sitting on the outside doing the pedalling and a further three passengers sitting between them. We perched on the wall, had a drink stop and watched in fascination as a group of about thirty retired French people were given an introduction on how to operate their railway pedalos by an enthusiastic young woman in her twenties. The introduction seemed to take a long time, and getting them all sorted out in their carriages took even longer. We had hoped to see them in action, but we had still got many kilometres to go and so, regretfully, we left them to it, still chatting, still laughing, still trying to decide on who was going to do the hard work and who was going to take it easy.
Our destination on this second day was another Nogent, by pure chance, this one Nogent-sur-Seine, where we had booked a room in the owner’s house for £28. She had hoped to be there to meet us but unexpectedly had to go to work. She left the front door unlocked for us, a spare key on the table and told us to make ourselves at home. She worked as a nurse in the nearby hospital and wouldn’t be home until 9pm. It’s amazing how trusting people are.
One of the best things about this charming home was that it had a bath! Heaven after a long hot day and too many hills.
Day three – From the Petite Seine to the Yonne. Distance traveled 71 kilometres. Total climb – 574 metres.
We woke up the third morning, looked at each other and, with the unspoken intimacy that comes after years of blissful marriage, both knew we weren’t particularly looking forward to what lay ahead. This was the longest day and the one with an unforgiving arrangement of hills. Our leg muscles felt tight, as if another 70 kilometres might snap them, and our buttocks were now permanently shaped like our saddles, not a shape they were ever meant to be.
It turned out to be a long, hot day’s riding. The arable landscape in this section of our journey had taken over completely, and without the cool forest or sleepy villages to break the journey up the hours passed by ever more slowly. The scenery almost became monotone, an endless blanket of stubble fields shorn of their crops, the tawny-coloured stalks and dry earth rolling away from us like dunes in a desert and as the heat grew during the day I felt like some tiny beetle, my bike helmet a poor excuse for a carapace, scuttling along a track, longing for a rock to crawl under.
We saw fewer and fewer cars, our only company a far-off combine harvester or a tractor ploughing up the parched fields, sending billowing clouds of dust across the road. It felt as if we were truly in the middle of nowhere and it wasn’t the most hospitable of places.
It gave us some welcome relief when we cycled through this village with the quirky name of Saint Maurice of the Rich Men. I wondered if I could swap Michael in for a sugar daddy – but then thought better of it.
Finally, we arrived in Migennes on the River Yonne, the picture below our proof. It was 2pm, we had made good time, so we got into the van and headed straight back to Olivia. Just another 200 kilometres to go.
We left Migennes on Olivia one month and three days ago. On our bikes it had taken us roughly fifteen hours over three days to do the same journey by road. The return trip in the van was just three and a half hours. It becomes clearer to us with each passing year that our mode of transport greatly affects our experience as travellers. It will determine what we see, the people we meet, how our bodies feel at the end of each day, and the sense of satisfaction that we feel as we drift into sleep. If the journey is simply about getting from A to B as quickly as possible then expectations will be low and so there will be no reason to feel disappointed. But time and again we find that the experience is richer if the journey itself is more important than the destination. We have long felt this way about Olivia and now we have the bikes coming in a close second.
Having said that, nothing on this earth will get me back in that saddle again today. I need a day of rest. But tomorrow…. well, I could be persuaded.
Next week’s blog sees us back on the water and into another heatwave – deep joy.
Take care everyone. Best wishes.