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!
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.