Mike in Europe: Bike Touring Southern and Western France. The last leg.
“I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.”
― Robert Louis Stevenson
After my break in Italy I was eager and antsy to get riding again. My break was thoroughly enjoyed but it was time to get riding again and time to burn off the excessive calories I had taken in devouring pizza in Naples and multi course meals with my family. On August 5th I left Campiglione Fenile heading toward the Mediterranean in the area of Ventimiglia and the French border. After the rest and not having any interest in stopping along the French Riviera during the thick of the European holiday I wanted to put in some days and distance. Fourteen days and roughly 1,800 Km later I took my first day off on the ferry from Saint Malo to Portsmouth on my way back to London.
I don’t quite understand the reasoning behind every European taking vacation at the same time but I am sure there is a logical one. If you are near a coastline in Europe during August expect it to be absolutely packed with people and traffic. I knew this but didn’t really know it until I pedaled into that mess in full force. Most of the established cycle routes along the coasts of France put you directly in the crowds. After days upon days of this coupled with my lack of interest in stopping in any of these places I found myself getting way ahead of schedule (not that I really had one) and thinking about seeing just how fast I could cycle up the west coast of France and back to England. It’s not necessarily that I was not enjoying it but I found a different type of enjoyment in pushing myself. I had given up any notion of tourist like sightseeing so why not? I’m generally more interested in the sites seen riding along the road anyway. At this point my enjoyment was rooted in the simple pleasure of movement and making progress across the map.
My route took me through Nice, Cannes, Frejus, Le Luc, Marseille, Port-de-Bouc, Arles, and the beaches in the vicinity of Montpellier. It was from here that I turned inland and toward Carcassonne. At this point the crowds subsided but I quickly realized I was going the wrong way. For days I saw nothing but cyclists going in the other direction. The West to East winds in this area were brutal. Several days of heavy holiday traffic and headwinds left the idea of “cheating” and hopping a train but I was able to suppress those urges long enough to stumble upon the Canal du Midi which connects the Mediterranean to the Atlantic. Canals are great for cycling along and this discovery was huge motivator and spirit lifter. The thing with canal is that they are lined with trees and they have a very gradual grade. The trees block the wind and similar to old railroad grades, canal paths are a joy to cycle along. Two days after this discovery and kicking out consecutive 180 Km and 170 km days (the two longest days I have ever cycled) I was in Bordeaux. Looking at the calendar I started to think of other things I’d like after this tour. It was here that I made the change to my return flight to the US and move it up a few weeks.
Cycling up the Atlantic Coast of France I found myself again battling crowds and traffic. I think I might like the Atlantic Coast a little better than the Mediterranean. It certainly doesn’t have the dramatic views but I can actually see how this could be a relaxing place to take a beach vacation. The beaches have sand instead of rocks, the weather seemed much more refreshing, and the ocean actually has waves and I saw quite a few surfers. The crowds, however, were still relentless in areas and making it difficult to find camping. Somewhere near Saint Jean de Monts I decided it was time to give up on the coast and head inland and make a run for getting back to England as my interest in France had run it’s course. France has some stunning places but for me I find it a little dull, especially after Naples. In August the towns are either a madhouse of families on holiday or they are nearly boarded up and shut down. I believe a tour in the opposite direction I took at a different time of year would be awesome or from Bretagne down to Spain and Portugal along the Atlantic Coast would be great. I would say the Canal du Midi was the highlight and the beach towns my least favorite part.
With a week to kill in London I explored the canal paths of Regents Canal and did some museum hopping as they are generally free. London was a refreshing change as things generally open early and stay open late unlike much of the rest of the places I visited in Europe. London is also quite the cycling enthusiast city and I tried to get around to all of the recommended bike shops. Extra thanks to Darren for letting me camp on his floor for 10 days.
After arriving in Charlotte there was just one more leg to ride. I had considered the ride from Charlotte to Winston-Salem in the past but never gone through with it. After finding the distance of a decent back roads route was just in line if not a little shorter than my typical day in Europe I gave it a go. The week and a half lull in riding coupled with the humidity made it a little bit of a challenge but I arrived home quicker than expected and finalized this tour after 4,000 Km and some change.