Sore Arsed Chronicles #3: Burgundy, Jura Mountains, Romandy

Day 9, Paris, 3:39pm – I’m sat on a train rolling slowly out of Paris’ Bercy station, on an insufferably hot, muggy day. Of course, I should be cycling my way out of the city, but I made a few big changes to my plans in the last couple of days.

While France is a beautiful country, the prospect of a long detour southwards to meet the Loire just didn’t inspire me with as much excitement as it did when I planned the route. So, the next leg of the journey will be pretty different to how I’d envisaged it. I’m taking a train south east to Dijon, thus skipping about a week of cycling through central France, and instead put those days towards a sojourn east into Switzerland.

I’d already planned to go, but instead of a couple of days in the relatively flat north east, now I will be passing through the hills of eastern France into the centre of the country, to thread my way between lakes and through valleys, and with enough rest days planned to allow me to get up into the mountains and see the beautiful scenery.

In theory, it sounds much more interesting. Time will tell how it goes, but I’m more excited about a week or two in a spectacular landscape than I was about plodding through France. I do, though, have a few days left in this country, and I hope to enjoy them.

Day 10, Dijon, June 22nd, 5:58pm – I’m sat here on the edge of a fountain here in the centre of Dijon. It’s another hot, sunny day, and I’d dearly love to strip off, hop in and go for a little splish splash, but I still have a bit of dignity left and I’m determined to hang onto it.

Today has been another day off, and I’ve had a nice old time ambling about through this beautiful city, following the little trail of owls imprinted on the floor leading tourists around the places of interest. It’s probably the sort of place you’d picture when you think of the archetypal French city: cobblestones, gothic churches, restaurants and cafes spilling out onto the streets, that sort of stuff.

For my two nights in the city I’m staying with another amazingly hospitable local couple- and their exploits on a bike make mine look rather more humble. One of them once cycled between Alaska and Patagonia- even pushing his bike through the otherwise impassable jungle of Panama that links North and South America- and then together they spent two years cycling across Africa. Mind-boggling stuff.

Staying with locals is a great way to experience the reality of the places I visit- besides the obvious budgetary reasons, it’s a big part of the appeal of websites like Couchsurfing and Warm Showers. That’s how I found myself sat in a surburban garden with ten-or-so middle aged French people, few of whom spoke any English, drinking sangria and eating… erm, miscellaneous French foods.

(Incidentally, while I’m on the subject of French cuisine… Having spent much of the last week in French households, I can confirm that at least one part of the “cheese eating surrender monkeys” stereotype is dead on.)

Anyway, I couldn’t offer much to the conversation, merely blurting out my schoolboy French when the opportunity arose: le foot, bon anniversaire, nord, champignons, and other such uselessness. Though when I stood up to leave I did understand the usual height based natterings in a new language: “grande”, “deux metres”, and “le basket”.

Yesterday, as it happened, was France’s Fete De La Musique, a music extravaganza held annually on the summer solstice. I walked through the old town in the evening, coming across all sorts of music on every corner: from choirs to metal, salsa to punk, bongo troops, techno DJs, and rock bands. My favourite by far was the huge percussion ensemble marching their way through town, playing the most infectiously uplifting Brazilian samba beats imaginable. I now know what I need to do to enrich this journey: find more live music!

Day 11 – June 23rd, Dijon to Pontarlier, 136km

What I expected to be a leisurely 50km, flat ride along to a nearby town quickly escalated into something much more ambitious. I left Dijon at about midday, but made such good progress along the straight, flat roads out of town that I realised my day would be over after a couple of hours if I stuck to the original plan. I was feeling refreshed after a few days of little or no riding, so I decided to push on to do two days of cycling in one.

The problem with this masterplan was that not only would I have to cycle further than I’d travelled on a bike in my life, much of the second half of the route would take me uphill into the Jura Mountains that lie along the French border. The wide plains and sprawling farmland of the Burgundy region gradually gave way to forested hillsides as I sped along, only stopping to buy food and drinks.

There was one morale-sapping hill in particular that went on and on for a few miles, that made me just want to give up and go home. In the 30°C afternoon heat, it wasn’t much fun at all. Some people seem to choose their cycle routes based on how hilly they will be, even professing to love the struggle of getting to the top, but in my opinion these people are abnormal, freaks of nature if you will. I, on the other hand, have a well functioning brain that does the natural thing, flooding me with unhappy chemicals the whole way up and whining: wah, wah, stop, you idiot, this is horrible!

Fortunately, my willpower was strong enough to ignore its advice on this occasion, and after eight hours of almost incessant pedalling through some beautiful countryside I made it to the town of Pontarlier, to be met once again with a nice meal, tasty local beer, and a comfortable bed.

Day 12, June 24th, Pontarlier to Yverdon via Neuchatel, 104km

For the second day on the bounce I cycled a lot further than anticipated. I left Pontarlier under cloudy skies that gradually brightened as the day went on, crossing my first land border of the trip into Switzerland after about an hour. I’d like to make a quip about a British person leaving the EU again here, but I’m drawing blanks- sorry.

So, accompanied by the tinkling of cow bells, I headed downhill to the city of Neuchatel by the eponymous lake, getting up to about 60kmph at times. Normally, I love riding downhill more than almost anything else, but thus far I have felt irritatingly ambivalent about downhills. Every time the road plunges, my brain unhelpfully reminds me: yeah, yeah, enjoy it, but you’ll have to cycle back up another hill when you get to the bottom, chump. Damn my gloomy farsightedness.

Thankfully, the Swiss are apparently quite good at tunneling, so what would once have been an arduous journey across mountain passes didn’t take all that long, and I soon found myself in lovely Neuchatel, perched between the hills and the blue expanse of Switzerland’s largest self contained lake. It would be clichéd to say it was the sort of view that made the journey across the mountains worthwhile, but hey, I think I can be allowed a grandiose statement once in a while.

In the end, I pressed on to the south side of the lake, where I stayed for the night for the night, en route to Lausanne and Lake Geneva. It’s quite a detour, but hopefully a worthy one!

Day 13 – June 25th, Yverdon to Lausanne, 38km – Quite a short, largely unremarkable day on the bike. I travelled from one French speaking lakeside city to another, crossing through more lovely Swiss farmland as the Alps loomed ever larger on the horizon. Eventually, the road dropped down rather steeply into Lausanne. The city is built on the side of a big hill, which leads all the way down to the huge Lake Geneva, with the French Alps visible across the water.

This is actually my second time in Lausanne- I visited with my school 15 years ago, a trip that perhaps a few of my readers may have joined me on. I’m getting a real nostalgia attack remembering all the cool places we visited. The guy I’m staying with in Lausanne told me he’d just been to a water park that day, and upon describing it I realised it was the same one we’d visited on the school trip all those years ago!

Ah, memories…

Day 14 – June 26th, Lausanne to Montreux and back, 56km

2:18pm – I’m sat here on a pontoon jutting out into Lake Geneva- or Lac Leman, as the locals call it- near the small town of Montreux. I could get all poetic about the landscape, but I guess when I put this up I’ll just pop a picture below to save myself the trouble.

I’m tempted to go for a swim, but a large ship just bombed past, and the risk of the most ironic of all deaths- being mowed down by a boat in a landlocked country- is an indignity I’m not sure I want to risk. So for now I just shall sit here and relax.

My journey to this eastern fringe of the lake is a detour in totally the wrong direction, and I will later have to double back along the shore to Lausanne and return northwards to central Switzerland. Normally I prefer not to retrace my steps like that, but so scenic is the lakeside road that I’m quite happy with my decision to head this way. This place must be up there with the most scenic spots in Europe.

Day 15 – June 27th, Lausanne to Bern, 116km

A tough day of riding. Who could have predicted roads in Switzerland would be so undulating? And it’s not as though my background as a student and enthusiast of geography could have given me that foresight…

So, I battled on through the Swiss countryside, stopping occasionally to appreciate the quaint little farms and villages, full of ancient-looking buildings with huge, steep sloped roofs. Enlivening the journey was the sighting of an autonomous lawn mower, a village full of huge painted frogs hanging above the streets, and a couple of military jets that were buzzing overhead for a while.

As I was riding northwards, nearing the centre of the country, the signs quite abruptly changed from French to German, meaning I had crossed Switzerland’s otherwise invisible linguistic boundary. I’ll miss all that soothing French vocabulary I’ve become accustomed to in the past fortnight, and I’m already bracing myself for weeks of attack in Switzerland, Germany and Austria by the auditory chainsaw that is Deutsch.

I arrived in Bern, the oft overlooked Swiss capital, to discover a surprisingly rapid river flowing through the centre. I was even more perplexed to realise that there were lots of people in there, zooming downstream with the current. Had there been some dreadful accident, I wondered? A capsized boat, or a collapsed bridge?

But no, these people were drifting down with the glacial meltwater for sheer pleasure, and within an hour of arriving I was doing the same, floating down for a mile or so in just a few minutes. Quite a surreal experience in the heart of a capital city, especially one in a country as supposedly staid as Switzerland!

Day 16 – June 28th, Bern, 956km overall

Today is simply a rest day for my weary thighs, so I’ve just been wandering around Bern. It’s a nice little city, so sedate and charming that it’s hard to comprehend it’s actually a capital city.

There’s not much else to report from this lazy day, and it looks like it’s about to start tipping it down, so without further ado I’m going to hit send and get back before the heavens open! See you next time- and if you made it this far, well, I’m both pleased and surprised.

——

Oh, and since a couple of people asked for a picture of my bike, here he is in all his glory, the two-wheeled beauty turning heads across Europe, an emerald stallion turning his bicycle brethren green with envy. That’s Darren for you.

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Sore Arse Chronicles #2: London to Paris

Well, I’m in Paris. Feels like an achievement in itself getting here from London, but of course it’s only a fraction of the way to my final destination, so I won’t be popping the champagne corks just yet. It’s actually been quite a challenging first week, more so than I’d anticipated. 

While physically I think I’m up to this whole trip, it’s proving to be a real mental challenge that I didn’t quite anticipate. First of all, to my surprise I actually feel a bit homesick- not something I’ve ever really experienced in all my years of travelling. Maybe it’s because, unlike other places I’ve been to, I’m often packing up and leaving for my next destination after one night, rather than three or four as I might usually. 

Besides that, all the planning of places to stay and directions to follow is already becoming tiring. There’s also the loneliness factor, the stress that comes with being out my own in foreign countries, knowing that if anything goes wrong I can’t just call family or friends for help. And the whole scale of the journey is becoming clear. I feel like I’ve been away an age already, but I’ve only completed a fraction of the trip in time and distance. 

On the flip side, I know how beneficial this whole experience could prove to be should I get through it all without giving up or going crazy. It’s going to require a lot of patience, persistence and self reliance, and I will have to step outside my comfort zone and learn to deal better with difficulties than I currently am able to. 

Fortunately, there have been good times to. I’ve already visited two of the world’s greatest cities, met some wonderful people, passed through pretty countryside and small rural villages- and I have the satisfaction of knowing that the most interesting parts of the route are still ahead of me.

So, here are a few things which happened in week one, starting with a first day that was unforgettable for all the wrong reasons… 

Day 3, June 15th, London to Brighton, 110km (207km overall) 

After a couple of days exploring London, Thursday was my first day of the journey proper, heading from the capital down to Brighton on the south coast. I’m not going to sugar coat it: it was a disastrous day, one that even in my worst expectations I did not foresee! I wouldn’t say I’ve been taking this whole trip lightly, or that I’ve not done enough planning, but my experience today would suggest things are going to be more difficult than I’d anticipated. 

After two punctures, failed attempts at fixing them despite the help of passers-by, a trip to the bike shop to buy equipment in the back of a friendly stranger’s van, twenty minutes of pushing the bike through a forest after getting hopelessly lost, a route that passed through Gatwick Airport, and numerous morale sapping hill climbs, I made it to Brighton. 

At this point, what I wanted to do was throw my bike in a skip and never ride again. But what I had to do instead was set an early alarm for a 20km ride to Newhaven for my ferry ride to France… 

Day 4, Brighton to Newhaven,  20km & Dieppe to Forges, 60km

The ride along the coast out of Brighton was a really nice route between the chalk cliffs and the pebbly beaches, but sadly I was in to much of a hurry to appreciate it. I didn’t really have time to see much of Brighton, either. Shame, because it looked like a nice city. 

After the ferry arrived in Dieppe on the Normandy coast, I wasted no time setting off southwards. Immediately, it became clear that the French half of the London to Paris route was going to be easier than the British one. The route was much more clearly signposted, and the roads were far more suitable for cyclists. Most of the first part of the route was on the Avenue Verte, a long, flat traffic free cycle route cutting through the countryside. It wasn’t particularly exciting, but it was quick and unstressful compared to the English roads.

On my first night on the continent I stayed with more hosts from the cycling hospitality website Warm Showers, as I had done in Brighton and have done again since. I was a stranger to them, yet they were happy to give me a room to stay in, and shared loads of local food and drinks with me, including fruit and vegetables they’d grown themselves in their garden. The French really do know how to live!

Day 5, June 17th, Forges to Gisors – 76km

10:10pm – I’m writing this lying on the grass in a campsite- the first time I’ve been camping in years- the shore of a big lake just a few metres away. The sun has set but it’s still pretty light. It’s really quiet, except for the distant hum of a road, an annoying kid whining away in the tent nearby, and a few of the animals in and around the lake are blabbering away. Seriously, geese, you need to find a better sound. 

Today’s riding was more of a challenge than yesterday, but the route was more picturesque. The first couple of hours were great, riding in the sunshine on quiet country lanes through the rolling hills. The temperatures were reaching 32°C, apparently, and I could certainly feel it on the long inclines. 

I ended up getting quite lost on the second half of the route, which was annoying. I look forward to the days of following rivers or coasts, and all I’ll need to do to stay on the right track is keep the big blue thing within sight. After a few hours wiggling through the countryside I found my way to the campsite and had an early finish. 

And that’s about all I have to say, except oh-my-god a hedgehog just walked past. What a thrilling way to end the day. 

Day 6, June 18th, Gisors to St Germain, 86km – Another slightly unremarkable day. Once again I managed to totally lose the proper trail, and wasted loads of time trying to improvise a new route. I ended up spending much of the day on the roads, but fortunately it didn’t feel particularly dangerous, the drivers are quite respectful. I eventually got to my destination and spent another nice evening with a local family. I’m so grateful for all the help I’ve been getting from people. 

I’m realising quite quickly that my focus on racking up the miles every day is rather preventing me from properly appreciating the places I am visiting, and I’m starting to seriously consider something that barely even crossed my mind before I left: that I might take a train to skip certain sections of the route, starting in a few days from Paris. 

The obvious drawback is that it would stop me from doing the whole journey under my own power as planned, which to some extent would take away the sense of achievement, and that would obviously be a shame. And yet, I feel I could enjoy this thing a lot more if I can take my time a bit, stop to relax and enjoy the scenery a bit more often, and avoid spending too many hours toiling away in the summer heat. It’s personal pride versus pragmatism, and I’m still totally undecided. 

Decisions, decisions… 


Day 7, June 19th, St Germain to Paris, 49 km

6pm – I’m sat here in the shade of a tree by the banks of the River Seine in Paris. I’m dying for a whizz, but I have my bike and all my belongings with me, and I’m thoroughly, perhaps delusionally paranoid that I’ll come back from a quick trip to the loo to find that all my stuff has been pinched. These are the complications you don’t really consider when planning a solo cycling trip! 

I won’t bother describing Paris much, I think everyone knows how beautiful it is. It felt nice arriving, seeing all the sights, and realising how far I’d travelled to get there. And it was surreal to travel down the Champs Elysees by bike- those cobblestones are a nightmare for cyclists! 

Every day I’ve cycled so far has been mostly sunny and warm, but the further south I go the hotter it is getting. (Honestly, who could have predicted that?). Here in Paris this week, there’s a heatwave pushing temperatures into the mid thirties. It’s a good job I didn’t have so far to travel today, but god knows how I’m going to cope when I have to battle through 40°C days in Central Europe in a few weeks’ time. 

I’ve racked up exactly 499km over the past week, and I think it’s time to give my titular sore arse a much needed rest for a day or two. I guess Paris is a good place for a break- there are a couple of nice things to see in the city, so they say. 

Update 11:35pm – Holy moly, there was an attempted terrorist attack on the Champs Elysees only a few hours after I was on there…