Afternoon in Pompeii and sunset over Sorrento

I had a lazy start to the morning, taking advantage of the breakfast hall at the campsite. Every morning they would play pop music videos during breakfast and I had forgotten how terrible that can be. I don’t think I’lll ever get that awful “World Cup” song out of my head now, you know “show the world where you’re from, show the world that we are one…” gah! After breakfast I headed back to the info point, where the girl helped me to work out what trains would take my bike as I headed to Sorrento today. It seemed that the train form Rome to Napoli would be no problem with rolling the bike on, but the small regional train that ran from Napoli to Sorrento would require me to bag it up again.

I packed my things and headed back down the bike path into the city. I was now familiar well familiar with this route into the city, particularly the little tricks like knowing when to take that unsigned turn and when not to follow that section of the path to avoid being confronted by a flight of stairs or being launched into the Rome traffic. As I said before, it all kind of works, but not quite. I had to find a spot to get off the path, and up to one of the bridges to cross the river. The path is quite low, near the water, bordered by tall walls on either side up to the road level. Consulting my map, I needed to get off about here and head to the station. I came to the bridge and there was no ramp, only a long flight of stairs with a very narrow metal ramp for wheeling a bike. No chance with a full loaded touring bike, so I kept going. I passed 4 more bridges before I came across a suitable ramp that I could ride up. Even then it was covered in cobble stones.

The ramp popped me out near the Circus Maximus, where I was the day before, which was great because I got to check it out sans Rolling Stones. However, there was still an aftermath of the event, with crowd barriers that had been removed from the road, but dumped in the bike path, that I had to negotiate. Before long, I abandoned the bike path altogether and headed into the traffic. If you are confident, riding in Rome traffic is actually not that bad. In fact drivers here still seem much better than drivers I encounter in Australia with regard to bikes. Perhaps it’s because there are so many scooters (if not bikes) that the drivers are constantly aware. Also the fact that they driver smaller cars helps a lot, since bikes can be invisible from the lofty heights of a Toorak tractor driver’s seat.

Making way way through the crowd at the station, I purchased my ticket from an automated ticket machine, including an additional ticket for my bike. Simples! Check the boards I had about 20 minutes to kill, so it was gelato time! When the train came, I made my way up the platform to find a spot for my bike and the conductor. It happened to be right up the other end! When I got there, far from “rolling on” the bike, I had to haul it up four big steps, but with the help of the conductor we got there in the end. He then told me, regrettably, that I need to walk the length of the platform (again) to validate my ticket at the machine. Wah.

Once I was aboard it was a smooth ride all the way to Napoli, with some spectacular views of the surround hills and towns. I was glad to avoid Napoli, the city. I had heard that even by Rome or Torino standards it was a  scary place to ride a bike. The way things worked out, I only needed to see the inside of the station. I’m sure it’s not all bad but on this occasion I was glad to pass it by. I bought my ticket from the ticket office and asked about my bici. The guy didn’t seem to care at all, so I took that as permission and wheeled it through the gate. Then I got to the platform entry, but there was no lift or ramp, just more stairs. I had to carefully nudge the 40kg bike step, by step, fingers gripping the brakes to avoid losing control. Once on the platform I met another Aussie family, from Brisbane with 4 kids under 10! It looked like they were still having fun, but the nerves were getting a bit frayed. They were going to Pompeii for a night, then spending a few days relaxing on the Amalfi coast.

On the train to Sorrento, I stood and held my bike as there was no luggage area to place it in. This seemed to work fine as I was not obstructing people getting in and out. After a while, four Americans got on the train, and one of them, wearing a name tag Jack, asked me about my bike. We got chatting and he told me they were here on a tour visiting Pompeii and a few other places. I told him I probably wouldn’t make it to Pompeii as I was heading to Sorrento, but he was adamant I see it. “It is amazing” he said. He had convinced me, and knowing my schedule was dictated by nothing other than what I felt like doing, I got off with them at the next stop and walked up to the entrance of Pompeii Scavi.

After some preamble of locking my bike, putting my panniers in the luggage storage, grabbing an audio guide I jumped right into the complex. Wow. Pompeii is amazing, and it is huge. I thought I might spend an hour there, but you could easily spend two days. Apparently the area is 14 hectares, a real a city with so much complete detail. If I was impressed by the ruins in Rome, this was an order of magnitude more impressive. So much has been preserved, since it hasn’t been subjected to wrecking and rebuilding of subsequent empires or pillaging for creation of new temples. There are complete mosaics, Roman baths, theatres, Roman style ‘fast food’ outlets, even rude murals on the walls of the brothel. More than any other place I have seen, you get a true sense of what life was really like for these people. And I met a real life archaeologist, a team in fact, but I was too star-struck to speak to them, so I just took a few sneaky pictures. I wish I had more time, but I had to rush and get my bags before they closed at 7PM.

From Pompeii, I jumped back on the train and travelled the rest of the way to Sorrento. Negotiating the gates at the station was a challenge as I managed somehow to get my bike caught between the barriers, until one of the station staff came to rescue me. I’m increasingly getting the impression that Italy is not that bike friendly 🙂 I didn’t stay in town long, but headed up the hill toward the camp at Nube??? After checking in, I made my way down to the terrace over looking the beach to pitch my tent. There was another cyclist there cooking noodles for dinner. His name was Anton (or Antonio in Italian) from Munich, another really nice guy, who was riding his bike for 3 weeks, while contemplating his future. He had worked for a big bank for 35 years, and now with a recent merger his work life was terrible. I could relate to that somewhat. It caused me to reflect on where my own career might lead me once this cycling adventure was over. It had been an intention of mine to use this time to work some of that out in my mind, but I have found myself so caught up in the moment of every day adventure, I’ve hardly given it a thought, but there is still more than a month to go before I face the real world again.

After setting up my tent, I made my way to the restaurant and sat at a table outside to admire the sunset over dinner. Tomorrow will be an easy day, cruising around the Sorrento peninsula and the famous Amalfi coast. It’s going to be great!

Roaming Rome

The campsite I stayed in was Flaminio Village, and I would recommend it to anyone visiting Rome. If you want to pitch a tent or park a camper van, it is ideal, but if you just want a place to stay that is away from the city they have bungalows too. The train station is right across the road, the bus stop is a few metres away and it is a short journey to the bike path on the river that leads all the way into the city centre. I found all this out in the morning when I went to the information centre in the campground. The girl there was very friendly and helpful. Her mother was Australian, so she spoke english with a familiar accent. She gave me a map of the main attractions, circled the ones I should check out first, and gave me directions to the bike path that I had lost somewhere the night before.

I left my luggage in my tent and only took my crumpler bag with my usual kit (laptop, camera, phone, passport, guide book). Once I found my way through the traffic to the bike path it was hard to believe I was still so close to Rome. Long grass encroached on the sealed path as it roughly followed the direction of the river passing sports grounds and even an equestrian centre. There was a steady stream of joggers, dog walkers and other cyclists out and about on a Sunday morning. As the path neared the city, the signage became more inconsistent. It is great that the path exists, but it seems a bit piece meal with the way it has been implemented. Following the path I came to a set of stairs going down, with no choice but to hop of and walk down. Thankfully there was only 10 or so steps, but the poor woman on the fully loaded touring bike next to me found it difficult. The contrast from the Loire à vélo in France could not have been more distinct.

The path led me to a ramp of cobble stones up to the street level again, where I rejoined the chaotic traffic. Crossing the river and riding back a little way in the direction from which I came, I could see the massive crowds gathering. The Rolling Stones happened to be playing at the Circus Maximus that day so in addition to the usual peak season tourist crowd, there were blockades, concert goers and an entourage of security. With the bike it was actually and advantage as I could quickly weave my way through the pedestrians without concern for traffic.

Coming into the old city of Rome I was struck by the magnitude of it. Everywhere you turned there was piece of history. Some archaeological sites fenced off on the side of a road with explanations of discoveries dating back to the first century A.D. I made my way up the cobbled street to explore the ruins of Marzio field where a building with arches like a miniature colosseum and three columns still stand. Here I found the remains of the oldest quadriportico in Rome, dating back to 146 B.C. After milling around here for a while in constant awe of the buildings that surrounded me I turned back onto the street and headed up to Campidoglio. I parked the bike and went up the steps to explore. Here there was a crowd of people queuing to enter the Michaelangelo exhibition, in honour of 450 years since his death. I considered checking it out, but with the mass of people, I decided I’d rather spend the time exploring the city. Down from the Campidoglio is the impressive white marble structure of the Altare della Patria, adorned with bronze statues.

Eventually I turned down the cobbled street, past the Colosseum to the entrance of the Palatino. At the place where I entered there was the Arch of Titus, dedicated to the emperor after his victory over Judea in A.D. 70. Weathered over time, you could still see clearly the sculptured panels showing the sacking of the temple, carrying away the seven branched candlestick, and the procession of Jews, now captives of Rome. It was chilling. The Palantino is a huge area of Roman ruins, and I wandered up and down exploring the sites where this once great empire existed, now mostly reduced to rubble.

Exiting the Palatino and the Forum, I found myself on the opposite side to my Surly, and had to walk the way around through the crowds to get to it. It made me really appreciate how good the bike is for getting around the city, as the walk in the hot sun seemed to take forever. Grabbing my bike from where I left it, I check the times for guided tours, and saw there was one starting at the colosseum in a few minutes. I bounced over the cobbles with my bike and headed down there. Riding a bike around Rome on these cobbled streets and negotiating the mass of people was great fun, and the Surly Crosscheck was perfect for it. I think I would have felt very nervy on a regular road bike.

I joined the tour for the colosseum, with a crowd of mostly americans, but also another couple from Brisbane and a family from Mexico. The tour guide was quite a character, and as he went around asking everyone they came from, he made reference to Australia as being the home of Russell Crowe, from the Gladiator movie, that was actually filmed in Malta. Having a guide’s perspective and insight was really valuable and I got a lot more out of the experience while having some fun. The colosseum is immense and given the amount it has been plundered over the years by the Vatican and the numerous earthquakes it has withstood, it has survived quite well. I was surprised to learn in fact that most of the Roman monuments where used as quarries by the Catholics to build the Vatican, with the Pantheon being an exception because they turned that into a fancy church.

From the Colosseum I headed north taking in the Piazza Navona, Pantheon, Palazzo Chigi and found myself at the Piazza del Popolo. I climbed the hill to the top where I stopped to survey the city below. It was only 7PM but I was wrecked. I found a park to sit for a while under the shade of a tree and watch the world go round for a while. As much as I wanted to keep going, I thought it best to start making my way back to camp for a big bowl of spaghetti and an early night. Rome had been an amazing experience, immersing myself in this ancient history that had such a significant role in shaping the world. To see, to touch, to feel the remnants of a civilisation thousands of years old was incredible.

Across the five lands

Despite not getting much sleep, I still woke early so decided to make the best of it and get on with packing my things to leave. It was about 7:30AM when I gently knocked on the door of the car to wake Daniel and Leyla. They asked me to make sure we said goodbye before setting off. They were headed in the opposite direction, to La Spezia, so we wouldn’t pass each other again on the road. With a quick good bye and another big thank you, I set off in the direction of the next village, Manarola. It wasn’t a long way down the road, but I was already climbing. I knew it was going to be a big day.

Crazy tent setup

Crazy tent setup

Deciding that it would be too much to visit every village on the way, I set Vernazza as my goal for breakfast. My friend Tony had been to Cinque Terre only last week, and said of all the five villages this was his favourite spot. After about an hour of fairly constant climbing into the hills, with an outstanding view of the coast below, I came to the turn off for Vernazza and Corniglia. I knew from the description Tony gave me, Vernazza was right on the water, which from this altitude was a long way down. Over 400m down to be precise and in only 5km. Unlike the night before, when I thought I only had to go down the hill, this time I knew full well that every metre down was another metre I had to make up again. I made the turn and started down the hill. Gliding, winding through the switchbacks, I dare not take my finger off the brake. Every now and then the road would pitch even steeper as the descent went on and on. After more than 10 minutes I reached the bottom and a little cafe called “il Pirata delle 5 Terre”.

After a breakfast of coffee, panini, juice and brioche, I set off to explore the little town. There were many tourists, mostly american, but I got the impression from the looks people were giving me (locals and tourists alike) that they don’t see many people ride a fully loaded touring bike into town. I suppose not many people are that crazy! It was worth the journey though. The village was a gem, with colourful apartment buildings clinging to the cliffs around cobble stone streets that lead all the way down the water where some small boats were moored. I could see why Tony had recommended this tranquil little paradise. I lingered for a few minutes, then turned around to begin the long journey back out of the village.

I started off slow, strong and steady, pedals turning in rhythm grinding up the climb. It didn’t last long before the gradient became overwhelming and I could pedal no more. Riding with 40kg up a hill is bad. Pushing 40kg up a hill is worse. I watched my speed with gritted teeth as it hovered around 3km/h. At this rate it would take me an hour and a half to get back to the road. Every now and then when a car would come past, I would look over my shoulder longingly to see if there was any chance they might give me a lift back to the top, but most of them were little hatchbacks or delivery vans. I had cursed the noisy little Piaggio 3 wheelers the night before, but now I wished one would come along and save me. What is more, the sun was now up and beating down on me, even though I could find shelter and get some relief under the trees. I continued the dance of riding where I could, then pushing when I was spent. Pausing a moment for a gulp of water, or to take a picture of the awesome surroundings. I pressed on and eventually reached the top. What had taken me ten minutes going down, had taken an hour to come back up, but I was back on the road to Monterosso al Mare, the last of the five villages, with no thoughts of regret.

With the road still constantly winding it’s way through the hills I eventually passed Monterosso al Mare, and began the rewarding descent into Levanto. Levanto is the only place along the route that naturally leads you to the sea. I arrived just after 11:30AM and found a cafe right on the beach for an early lunch. In front of me there were rows of beach chairs laid out under umbrellas with people laying down basking in the sun. I was tempted to don my board shorts and go for a swim to myself, but decided that salt water and cycling up hills don’t mix well. Looking at the map, I still had about 40km to go until Sestri Levante. With my train scheduled for just after 3PM, that left me with 3 hours to make the journey but the Passo del Bracco still stood between me and my destination. Now at sea level, I would need to climb 615m to its peak.

Immediately after leaving Levanto, the road headed up into the hills once more. Looking back I could see the beach where I had taken lunch and the rugged coast of Cinque Terre beyond. Soon the road swept inland away from the coast, the climb winding its way. While not as steep as the morning climb from Vernazza, the road to Passo del Bracco had very few trees and with the midday sun directly overhead there was no relief from the heat beating now. Not even a breeze to cool me down. I was wet from head to toe with sweat pouring off me, but pressed on. Whenever I came to a spot with even the slightest shade, I would slow for a moment’s reprieve, then continue on my way. My mind wandered back to the beaches of Levanto and Vernazza thinking how good a refreshing swim would be. I watched my Garmin slowly ticking through the distance travelled and altitude gained. Lycra glad cyclists would occasionally come whizzing down the hill in the opposite direction, and call out with a smile. I knew what they were thinking – crazy tourist. An hour passed of constant climbing, then soon after I saw a spray painted marker on the road “Ultimo KM”. I’ve watched enough of the Giro d’Italia to understand what that means and my heart kept for joy. 1 kilometre to the summit! I pressed on. Then came 500m. Then 300m. Then 100m. Then finally “Arrivo”. I had made it to the top.

The road undulated for another few kilometres then turned straight downhill and I coasted all the way to Sestri Levante. Nearing the town, the traffic began to increase. I wound my way through the city streets following the “Statiozione” signs to the train station. I arrived well in time before my train. I was exhausted but it had been one of the most rewarding and memorable days of cycling I had ever had.

I approached the ticket desk to check the details for my train and make a reservation. The plan was La Spezia first, then change for Rome. The man behind the counter spoke no English, but told me “No Bici! No Bici!” which meant that I couldn’t take my bike on the train. In desperation I underlined the passage in my Lonely Planet with the phrase “La bici dev’essere in una sacca”, which translates to “The bike must be in a bag”. “Si!” he replied, and I told him “No problem”. Satisfied, he issued my reservation and I found a quiet place in the station to begin the bagging.

The platform change at La Spezia was awkward, since the lift wasn’t quite big enough for the bike. Struggling down the stairs with my bag and bike an American guy, stopped and offered help, for which I was very grateful. I jumped on the train, found a place for my bike and we were on our way to Rome. Once I got on the train it hit me how tired I was feeling. An espresso from the on board cafeteria did little to keep me awake and I drifted in and out of sleep all the way to Rome. One cool thing about the long distance trains in Italy and France is they all have a power point at your seat, so I pulled out my power board to charge my array of gadgets.

Arriving at Rome, I reconstructed my bike on the platform, putting everything in its right place before wheeling my bike out of the station onto the street. I had been warned about the traffic in Rome – that it was crazy and I should really play it safe. I had a campsite booked in the north out of town, and I knew there was a cycle path that ran along the Tiber river, so I just had to make it across to the river and I should be ok for most of the way. Most of the time it was 3 or 4 lanes of cars moving at speed, with little scooters darting about. It was almost 9PM so the light was fading fast, so I was glad to have lights on the bike. As I rode, I passed monuments, statues, fragments of ruins from thousands of years ago. It was a bizarre clash of the modern world with the origins of western civilisation. As I cleared the worst of the traffic I noticed a few more cyclists on the road. Feeling a sense of safety in numbers we rode together up to each traffic light. Soon I had found the river, but there was no clear access onto the bike path, I had to hunt around for a while until I spotted a suitable entry. It was a relief to get away from the traffic. I stayed on the path for a while until it started getting increasingly rougher. Giant gaps in the concrete panels emerged like tram tracks running up, down and across my path. After a while I came to a spot where some people were fishing. Ahead, it looked like the path was blocked, and it was confirmed by one of the young boys who called out “blockade!” I had no choice but to haul my bike up the stairs to the street again. With no signs back to the bike path, I continued as best as I could following the foot path but eventually ended up back on the road. The campsite was not so conveniently located off a major highway, so for a few kilometres I had to brave it in the dark, riding with cars zooming past me. Soon I saw the campsite to the left of the motorway, but I was in the rightmost lane and there was a barrier. I had to exit and make my way across the overpass, but got there without incident.

I checked in at the reception and was delighted to hear the restaurant was still open. I headed directly there and parked my bike. The place was packed, and I had to wait for a table. When I finally got to sit down I ordered a bruschetta, mixed grill and mixed salad. Followed by an espresso it was just what the doctor ordered and about 11PM, I got to setting up my tent. I had made it through another big day full of adventure.

The kindness of strangers

Breakfast at Fabrizio’s place was great. Coffee, cake, juice and toasted sandwiches. I was well prepared for the day ahead. Fabrizio and I said goodbye to his mum then set off together for the Fablab. As it was dark when we arrived the night before, I didn’t get to see much of the place, but as we headed to the car I was surrounded by tall trees, with the mountains in the background. Fabrizio told me it feels like he lives in the forest, and it really did. It was breathtakingly beautiful with the fresh morning air.

We got into the office just before 9. As we walked through Toolbox there were a few people hanging around the front desk chatting. We were the first to arrive at the Fablab. Fabrizio began setting up the (very cool) laser cutting machine and I starting packing my stuff. I thought the chances of me getting gas for my camp stove and an Italian SIM card were pretty good in Torino, so Fabrizio showed me where to go and I headed off on my bike. There was a big sports and camping store across town, so I went there first but despite selling the same stove as mine they didn’t sell the gas. The guy at the store said I might try another place at a shopping centre a few km down the road. I found the store, but they didn’t have it either. Still I managed to find a phone store and get a SIM. By this time it was already after 11 and the train I wanted to catch to La Spezia was at 1:30PM. I had to get moving!

After a few wrong turns, and blasting of horns from morning traffic, I made it back to the Fablab in one piece. I was finishing loading up my gear when I got a message from my friend Jordan. His wife, Brooke had just given birth to their son Dustin Alessandro. I was very happy to hear the news. I told him I would have a coffee and gelato in Torino to celebrate. “Make sure it’s from his namesake’s cafe” Jordan replied. That sounded like a challenge!

I said my final farewell to my friend Fabrizio and thanked him for his generosity in showing me an amazing time in Torino. We would keep in touch and hopefully, if things worked out, meet up again somewhere. Bike fully loaded, I set off to the station, but first I made a detour. I happened to find a cafe called “Lilla Cafe’ Di Cappucci Alessandro” on the way. While they didn’t have any gelato, I stopped for an espresso to celebrate little Dustin’s birthday and send his dad a picture.

Happy Birthday Dustin Alessandro!

Happy Birthday Dustin Alessandro!

The journey to La Spezia was fine. There was provision for bicycles on the train so I could just wheel it on – much better than the bagging ceremony. I removed the panniers, hung the Surly up in place and locked everything for peace of mind. The journey south to the coast and the start of Cinque Terre took four and a half hours. Along the way we passed through a few of the towns I would later visit and I got my first glimpse of the stunning Italian coastline.

La Spezia itself is not that impressive. It’s busy, a bit run down and a home to a big shipping port. I made my way as quickly as I could out of the traffic and followed the signs to Cinque Terre. On the way out of town I stopped at a tiny cafe for a coffee and something to eat. The lady spoke no English but it was simple enough to point at things in the pastry cabinet and ask for an espresso. Italy was playing Costa Rica on the TV, and a couple of other guys were there fixated on the screen. I watched it for a few minutes as I finished eating, then got back on my bike. As I was about to ride away I heard these cries from the cafe and apartment above. Someone must have scored but I didn’t hang around to find out who.

Cinque Terre is a remarkable place, that I only found out about a few days before left from Tim and Sarah. When they described it to me I knew it was a place I had to visit. Roughly translated, the name means “the five lands”. It is a rugged and remote part of the Italian coast, consisting of a network of walking trails linking five villages, with houses, restaurants, hotels surrounded by hills with farm land, grape vines and forest. The whole area is designated as a UNESCO world heritage area, to protect it from development and preserve its unique environment.

My lonely planet guidebook indicated that there was camping at the first village, Riomaggiore so if I could make it there and set up camp tonight I could continue the ride tomorrow. The climb out of La Spezia was a big wake up. I hadn’t done much climbing yet on this trip, since the route I took in France was mostly following the valley. From almost sea level it rose to 300m in less than 10 km, but it was rewarding to glance over my shoulder and see the cliffs of coastline unfolding. Along the way there were a few tunnels cut into the rock, which spooked me in the dark, so I my lights out to see. Further along the Cinque Terre road the traffic died down considerably and it was lovely to have a quiet road with an amazing view. The evening weather was perfect for cycling and the sun, low in the sky gave the place an enchanting glow.

Finally reaching the sign to Riomaggiore I could see the road led straight down to the cliffs on the coast. It was only 800m to the town from the top, but I knew if I went down, I’d need to come up again. At least I could get a good night’s rest at the camp site and worry about tackling that in the morning. I flew down the winding hill with a thrill with the amazing scenery washing over me. When I got to the bottom I hesitated looking for signs to the campsite, hoping that I hadn’t missed something coming down. All of the villages are blocked to traffic with boom gates, so I stopped at the boom gate and asked the locals about camping. Once we got through the English/Italian translation, they told me there was no camping in Cinque Terre, only in Levanto (on the other side). I was distraught. I pulled out my lonely planet book with the camping sign clearly shown and he just shrugged. Another guy made a phone call to see if he could get me accommodation at a hostel but they were full. Doh! Since I was here, I took the opportunity to roll down to the town and around the streets. Such a beautifully strange place, with cobbled streets and these buildings literally stacked on top of another, etched into the sides of the cliff. It was hard to see where a camp ground could have been because there was no flat ground to speak of. The lonely planet had clearly been wrong. There was nothing for it, I had to climb back up to the road and keep going, in the hope I might find somewhere to sleep.

The steep ramp out of Riomaggiore was taxing, but I got into a rhythm and managed it at a slow and steady pace. I rejoined the road where I had left and continued on my way. The vista was so irresistible I stopped frequently to snap a photo. As I rode my eyes scanned the sides of the road for a place I could pitch my tent. After a while I came to a vehicle turnout with a view of the Riomaggiore town below and few cars parked there. I saw a couple there with the hatchback of their car open, and a camp stove cooking. I pulled up to take a picture from the look out and called out “Hello”. They replied in English, so I moved over to start up a conversation. I told them how I had got Riomaggiore expecting to camp but was now stranded. They told me how they were going to sleep in their car. They had a quick conference in German, and then the guy said to me “Would you like to join us for dinner?” I was taken aback, but he was very earnest, and I gladly accepted.

Leyla and Daniel were from the south of Germany, a really lovely couple. We had a great time chatting, sharing stories and enjoyed a delicious pasta dinner together as we watched the sun go down over Riomaggiore. Their kindness was heart warming and just what I needed. As it got dark, Daniel suggested I find somewhere for my tent. I looked around the place, but to no avail. There was just no flat ground. The only option it seemed was to put the tent down on the asphalt near their car and somehow fix it down without any pegs. Daniel was feeling ill with a cold, so he went off to bed early.  With Leyla’s assistance, I managed to erect the tent using a sophisticated system of bungees and counterweights to support it. It wasn’t great, and if it got windy or rained I was probably stuffed but it should do the job for one night.

It was a long night. The wind picked up on the top of the mountain and the tent flapped around mr ears threatening to collapse. Every hour, right through the night I heard the church bells sound, and for hours after I went to bed I could here the distinctive sound of Piaggio 3 wheelers screaming past on the road. As the church bells sounded 1 o’clock, then 2 o’clock, the wind continued with me drifting in and out of consciousness. Sometime around 3AM the wind was intense and the front of the tent started to collapse around me. I grabbed my rear panniers, weighted them down a little more and managed to use them to anchor the tent just enough to keep it standing, and slowly drifted off to sleep.

The night certainly hadn’t gone as planned, but meeting Daniel and Leyla was a highlight of my trip. Without their assistance and generosity, I have no idea what might have become of me, riding alone in the dark, cold and hungry. I’m truly grateful for the kindness of strangers, but who are strangers anyway? They’re just friends you haven’t met yet. So, to my new friends Daniel and Leyla I say thank you.

Ciao Cicerone Fabrizio!!

It was a 6AM start to get ready, have a bite to eat and catch my 7AM taxi to the station in Lyon. I was still eating when the taxi arrived by the guy at the hotel started loading my bike into the taxi for me while I finished. It was a bit of a challenge putting the seats down in the little Mercedes hatchback and sliding it in, but we managed. Although my train to Chambéry wasn’t leaving until 8:40AM I thought it couldn’t hurt to get there early, since I didn’t have a reservation and the transport strike drama continued. Lucky I did, because my 8:40AM was cancelled and I had to jump on a 7:30AM train to Chambéry immediately to have any chance of making the 11AM connection to Torino. I was very grateful to the station staff who carried my bag for me to the platform to be sure I made it in time. The train was almost completely empty and there was even a dedicated space where I could hang my bike. Arriving into Chambéry, I went to the information desk to ask about my train to Torino. Surprise, surprise that was cancelled too. The next train would leave at 1:30PM and again, there was no chance to make a reservation, I just had to hope. The station staff kindly offered to make an exception and let me store my luggage in one of their offices until my train left, so I could freely explore the city.

It was only 9AM so I had a good four hours for adventuring. First stop was the tourist information office where I picked up a map with all the sites. I then headed to the vélostation where I hired a bike for 3 Euros to get around town. The map had all of the major sites numbered so I started at number 1 and made my way through the list. I visited the Chateau (of course!) that was once the residence for the dukes of Savoy. While the building is still in use for county council offices, the gardens are open to wander around and there is a museum for free. Next I went down the Rue Basse Du Chateau, a very cool  medieval street with one of the last overhanging footbridges left in the town. Then I came to the Elephant fountain in the centre of the old town with the mountains in background. I only passed through the museum, because I was short on time and stuck my head in the Cathedral to check out the painted ceilings, apparently unique in style. Around midday I found a brasserie and enjoyed double steak blue cheese burger with all the trimmings for lunch, before riding back to the vélostation to return the bike. At some point I realised that in the rush, I had forgotten to return my room key at the hotel, so I dashed off the post office and sent it back with a very apologetic letter. I’ll have to watch my credit card over the next few days to see if they charge me! Chambéry was a really lovely place, and not too big to get around in a day. It was great that things had worked out the way they did and I got to spend some time there.

Soon it was time to board the train and say goodbye to France. With all my luggage in tow (fortunately they had trolleys at the station) I waited nervously with a crowd of people on the platform. When the train arrived it was already full. I approached the conductor, showed him my rail pass and explained I needed to get to Torino. To my relief he was very cool about it as he looked at my bike and other luggage and basically wished me luck in finding room. If I could find a place, I was in. I went up and down 2 or 3 carriages, looking in the baggage areas. Stuff piled up everywhere, it was crazy. Eventually I came to the last carriage where there was a tiny bit of space to squeeze into. I jumped aboard with my bike and bags. It would be a rough ride for the next few hours, but at least I was going. On the train I met a couple of guys from Pensilvania, Connor and Zack, who are spending 24 days on a summer vacation backpacking around Europe. There was a another guy travelling with them, but he had managed to find a seat in one of the other carriages. They had already been to Spain, Holland, Italy, France and were now getting to the end of their trip, but having the time of their lives. There was a scary moment at one point when I got off the train to let another passenger out, then mistakenly thinking it was Torino, put my bag down on the platform. As I turned to get my bike and other gear, the doors closed. I called out in panic, my mind racing, trying to think how I would get myself out of this predicament with my bike in Milan, and me stranded in a regional town somewhere near the French-Italian border! Luckily that didn’t happen because one of the station staff saw me and the doors opened again.

One of the main reasons for visiting Torino was to meet one of my fellow students, Fabrizio, who is studying the Design Anthropology course at Swinburne online. We had commented on each other’s work throughout the semester and exchanged a few emails about meeting up. With all the train cancelations, my plans had been shuffling around, but luckily i still had some credit on my french prepaid SIM so i could keep in touch by email as things changed. After mistakenly sending him to the wrong station in Torino, the “bearded guy on a blue bike” was there to greet me when I arrived. It was an amazing experience for both of us, having only exchanged messages online, to now meet one another in the flesh. “You’re real! Swinburne is real!” he said when he saw me. Fabrizio is a super cool guy and was keen to be my “Cicerone” (tour guide) around Torino. The first stop was Toolbox and the Fablab, the coworking space and maker lab where Fabrizio works. I had heard a bit about it, and done my research project this semester on coworking so I was really interested to check it out. Fabrizio gave me the tour and introduced me to a few people, before we left my bags and headed off on the bikes to check out the city.

Riding in Torino is a bit scary. In France, bikes are king, so much so, when the Loire à vélo crossed the motorway outside Tours, I had a line of 20 cars on either side stop and wait for me to pass! Not so much in Italy. It’s more like Melbourne where you get the impression most drivers don’t like you and you live in constant fear of your life. That didn’t deter us though. We cycled along the river seeing castles and parks. We crossed the river and saw the bridge that inspired the iconic Fiat 500 logo. We climbed the hill where we had an unimpeded view of the city. We then flew back down the hill, crossing the river the historic part of town seeing piazzas, palaces, statues and theatres along the way. After a while we stopped and Fabrizio bought me my first Italian gelato, a delicious combination of Baci and Pistachio. I don’t think I will ever be able to have ice-cream in Australia again. It was a brilliant way to see the place. After gelato we headed back to the Fablab for dinner.

The Fablab is a super-cool place where awesome people make some amazing things. I was really fortunate to meet a bunch of these people who welcomed me so warmly. Maria at Toolbox was lovely. Christina was fun trading ideas of Aussie and Italian stereotypes. Davide and Christian shared some funny anecdotes about shoes… The conversation with Julia was hilarious as Fabrizio introduced us, she said in Italian “I don’t speak English”, which Fabrizio interpreted for me, and I replied “That’s ok. I don’t speak Italian.” Enrico showed particular admiration for my bike (he clearly has impeccable taste). There was also Diego, Elena, Pedro, Giancarlo… and many more. A truly great bunch of people, that I was so glad to meet and really hope I get to see again someday.

Dinner was a traditional Italian pizza (Christina and Fabrizio ordered a delicious Quattro Stagioni for me) while there was presentation made discussing the recent activities and achievements of the Fablab community. Despite it all being in Italian, I got the gist of some really good projects that they are working on in RFID, Arduino and 3D printing. After dinner, Fabrizio and I were both feeling pretty tired. We went back to his place, in the village of Villarbasse where he offered for me to stay for the night. Fabrizio’s mum was very kind, making up a bed for me to stay and offering me something to eat (although I refused). I was really touched by the generosity of these people who I’d only just met, but welcomed me so warmly into their home. After playing with Fabrizio’s dog Kirra for a while and meeting the cats, Phoebe and Mia, it was a quick shower then off to sleep.

Freebies and the tip of the iceberg

After the disappointment of the night before I woke up early to quickly pack my tent and get out of the park before too many people were about. By 7AM I made my way back to the Mecure to sort out my refund from the night before. The office didn’t open until 8AM UK time, which was still another 2 hours away. When I arrived the lady at the front desk knew all about my issue, and assured me they would sort it out. She found a place for me to park my bike and I went off to use their bathroom. The buffet breakfast was being served, so I made my way into the dining hall and found a table where I could sit, charge my batteries, and use my laptop. I helped myself to the breakfast of croissants, bacon and eggs, fruit, toast and of course coffee. Slowly the guests of the hotel starting filtering in until the place was buzzing with activity. After 2 hours, when the rush was over, the place was empty and the staff were busy cleaning tables I packed my bag and went back to the front desk. This time there was a different woman, who showed me the email she had sent the agent, and also sent me a copy to resolve any issues that may arise. I was satisfied I’d get my money back now and I got a free breakfast. The day was looking up!

Next stage was to ride back to Tours train station and see if I could get my train to Italy. This time riding from Tour Sud, I found the Loire à vélo again, the same way I had first approached the city. When I came to intersection at the motorway, this time I followed another road, rather than the bike path. Further down this little road led me around the back of a golf course and then river once again with signs for the Loire à vélo. Coming this way into Tours was a completely different experience, riding through wooded areas along the river that avoided the motorway completely. There were joggers, cyclists, dog walkers, even a few people out tending to little vegetable patches that led down to the banks of the river. When I finally reached the city, it was simple to retrace my route from the night before and find the station again.

The ticket office at the station is like a deli, without the small goods, hairnets and plastic gloves. I took my ticket and sat down in the waiting area with a crowd of people. Number 2014 was being served. My number was 2048, so I had a while to wait. When my number came up a lovely young girl Mavel, helped me with my enquiry. “It’s a bit complicated” she said. To get to Torino, I had 2 options. Go back to Paris first, or go via Lyon. I was keen to take the opportunity to see a new city, and it seemed silly to go North again, only to come back south so I went for the Lyon option. Still it wasn’t that easy. All the services to Lyon were booked out, all the services from Lyon to Torino were also booked out. She said I could just get on the train and buy a ticket anyway, even without a reservation, but that was at the discretion of the conductor. “Just smile and say you are desperate” she said. Ok. Sounds like a plan. I would travel to Lyon today, stay the night, then catch a morning to train to Chambery and change for Torino, all without a reservation and carrying my gear. It was a gamble, but I didn’t really have any other options. To complicate things further, the strike was still in effect and there was no guarantee that any of the trains would be running.

To cover the ground I want to cover in the limited time I have, and get to visit all the places I want to see, train links are a vital part. This was my first big test. If it didn’t work, then the rest of my plans could go out the window. The trains I needed to catch required my bike to be packed, which means removing the panniers and pedals, turing the handlebars parallel to the frame and wrapping it up. Of course lugging a bike box all over Europe was completely impractical so I had purchased a tough plastic bag for this purpose. I rolled my bike in the walkway between platforms and began packing. It worked a treat. All my gear fit it one bag, and the bike was wrapped neatly. The only difficult part was carrying the weight, but I managed to get it all up to the platform and onto the train. The train was very crowded, but at least everyone had a seat. It was a very comfortable ride with the countryside whizzing by. I kept an eye out for the conductor to buy a ticket, but they never appeared, so another freebie. The day was getting even better.

Arriving into Lyon about 5:30PM, I couldn’t manage to walk very far carrying my gear. Because I was (hopefully) catching a train early in the morning, I was reluctant to unpack my bike so I booked a room at a reasonable price at the Hotel du Dauphiné in central Lyon and hailed a taxi. Putting the seats down in the back, the driver managed to fit all my gear and we were away. My first impressions of Lyon, were this strange clash of heritage and modern life. The style of the architecture is similar to many of the buildings I saw in Paris, but the difference in Lyon is these builds are often adorn with large neon signs or advertising billboards. The city just seems really functional, while still paying homage to it’s origins, not just monuments for preservation and tourist attractions, which is the sense I got from Paris. I told my taxi driver I was from Australia, and I was keen to see how they were going in the world cup game against Holland. He told me if I wanted to see the game, there was an Australian bar on a boat called Ayers Rock and I would be able to watch it there. Now that sounded like fun.

When I got to the hotel, I checked in, dumped my luggage and headed off in search of Ayers Rock. In Lyon, just like Paris, there is a public bike share scheme called Cyclocity. I found a station around the corner from my hotel, bought a daily ticket a couple of euros and grabbed bike. It took a few moments to get accustomed to the strange feeling of the wide squishy saddle and the operation of the 3 speed grip shift, then I was away. I crossed the bridge and followed the river until I spotted the Ayers Rock boat. Leaving the bike at a station nearby I ran down the steps to the bank. Expecting to see a crowd of enthusiastic Aussie supporters, the bar was really quiet. I arrived in time for the second half, the game was showing on a screen behind the bar so I took a seat in prime position. That is when I met Amanda and Gijs.

Amanda was in Lyon studying at the University as part of her cultural studies degree from University of Technology Sydney. It was refreshing to hear an Australian accent, probably the first I have heard since I arrived in France. Gijs was visiting Amanda on holiday from Amsterdam, but had also lived in Melbourne for a year while studying at the University of Melbourne. Amanda and Gijs filled me in on all the best places to go while I was in Lyon and we had a fun time together watching the game, stirring Gijs the dutchman when Australia took the lead, then being berated by his taunts when they got back on top. I admit I was getting a bit passionate and animated with the match, which is nothing unusual for me but not sure what the locals made of it. In the end, the Netherlands were victorious, but with such a valiant effort from the Socceroos it was hard to be disappointed. During the game the rain had set in and being in such a hurry, I had left the hotel without even a jacket, but by the time we left the bar the rain had stopped.

I walked with Amanda and Gijs across the bridge to the old city centre and then said goodbye as they headed off for dinner. I found another Cyclocity bike and headed off to discover the city. l stopped to take a picture of a building with the Lion of Lyon emblem, when I guy called out to me “I am a lion!” I laughed and we got chatting. His name was Mark, and I told him I had a brother called Mark! I asked him where are the best places to go in Lyon. He suggested the Cathedral that is right at the top of the hill over looking Lyon. Sounds like a plan, so I headed off in that direction to conquer the hill with my 3 speed vélo. It was a brutal steep climb to the top, up a narrow winding street lined with cars. As I pedalled a few people called out and took pictures. Eventually, legs burning, still smiling, I reached the summit to enjoy the view. The roll down the hill was much easier, but by this time it was dark and confronting cars coming in the opposite direction up the narrow street was a bit hairy.

I spent the next few hours riding around, parking my bike, walking a bit, grabbing another bike. It was brilliant. Lyon is a pretty cool city. Lots of open public spaces, statues, many beautiful buildings and a nice path along the banks of the river. I knew I had only caught a glimpse. About 11PM I stopped and grabbed a pizza napolitaine from a van parked on a street corner. I ordered the “petit” but it was actually more like a large. I still devoured the whole thing of course. Eventually I found my way back to the Hotel du Dauphiné for some sleep. I had a taxi booked to take me to the station at 7AM. If I could get my train to Torino tomorrow as planned, tonight would be my last night in France and I couldn’t think of a better way to have spent it.

L’Indre à vélo

When I set off in the morning, it was chilly and there was no one in sight. With a big day on the bike ahead of me I set Loches as my goal for breakfast. As I pulled out from the camp site and crossed the river I saw a sign to Francueil, my first waypoint, with a familiar bike route sign. Much like the signs indicating the Loire à vélo, these were for the L’Indre à vélo, the bike route following the Indre river. I wasn’t sure where it would lead me if I followed it all the way but it would get me to Francueil at least on a safe cycling route which a good start.

The route wound its way through wooded areas, along the river, up out of the valleys and through little villages. Unlike the Loire, this route was not flat, constantly rolling up and down. Some of the climbs were a bit of a pinch, particularly around the villages, but nothing too difficult. I didn’t quite make it to Loches before the hunger pangs hit me. It was 8AM and I had already been on the road for more than an hour. I found a boulangerie (bakery) with fresh croissants so grabbed a couple, then a little way down the road spotted a brasserie serving coffee. Perfect! Fuelled up I was back on my way.

Breakfast on the go

Breakfast on the go

With plenty of meandering and dawdling in the picturesque countryside, I got into Loches about 9AM as the town was just waking up. Loches is another awesome medieval town with narrow cobbled streets and buildings with impressive facades. On the wall next to the archway that leads to you to the citadel, is a plaque commemorating when Joan of Arc persuaded Charles VII to march North from here and claim the French crown. Heading through the archway I was greeted by more winding cobbled streets, that pitch quite steep in places. Reaching the top I found what remains of the Citadel, and did a lap to take in the views, before making the steep and narrow descent. I had been riding South all morning and now it was time to turn back and head North, still following the L’Indre à vélo. Just outside of Loches I found the ruins of a Gallo-Roman bridge. I was struck by the precise form of the bricks and neat shape of the arches. Pretty cool.

I continued on my merry way, through many little towns and breathtaking countryside. I stopped for a snack by a park in Montbazon around 11:30AM and set my goal of lunch at 2PM in Azay-le-Rideau. I was going well until I got into Mont where the directions for the track led me down a road with a sign “Route Barre” and “Deviation”. Having encountered road works before, this usually meant the road was closed to cars because of some minor repairs, but you could easily sneak through with a bike. Having no idea how I would find the route again I pressed on. The track took me away from the houses to a quiet narrow road through the trees then all of a sudden the road disappeared and I was presented with a sea of gravel and cars screaming up the Tours motorway. The road the route used to follow had been completely blown away. I felt a great disturbance in the force as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror and were suddenly silenced… I had no choice but to turn the ship around (luckily there was no tractor beam to contend with). Finally after backtracking and following the “Deviation” around suburban Monts I bumped into my old friend L’Indre à vélo again and we were on our way. It is comforting not to have to worry about navigation and just pedal away grinning like an idiot.

Roadworks: Ain't nobody gonna cross it

Roadworks: Ain’t nobody gonna cross it

Many miles later I was ahead of my goal time and came upon Saché, the place where single servings of ketchup were invented (ok, that fact is unverified). Saché has a Chateau and I just had to sneak a peek. The turn off took me across a series of narrow one-way bridges as the river criss-crossed the path to the town. Then there was the hill, surprise, surprise, another Chateau built on top of a hill… will I ever learn? I made the climb to the top and found a relatively modest building surrounded by a wall and gardens. The building was only 19th century (still older than the federation of Australia), and favoured by Honoré de Balzac, the famous(?) French novelist. Balzac was inspired by a lot of this area, and spent considerable time here (honestly I’ve never read his stuff, but apparently it’s good). So even with the detour to Château de Saché and the unplanned laps of suburban Monts, I rolled into Azay-le-Rideau about 10 minutes after 2, bought my ticket and took a seat at the cafe for a quiche Lorraine while I listened to the audio guide.

The Azay-le-Rideau Chateau was pretty cool. Originally constructed in the 16th century, it is lovely moat-ringed mansion with geometric windows, decorative stonework, towers and a wall walk to survey the surrounding gardens. One really interesting feature is the attic which still has the original massive wooden beams of the roof. The rest of the Chateau is decorated in an 18th century style when a good deal of restoration and alteration was done by the new owners. Still plenty of homage to François I though.

From Azay-le-Rideau I trekked north to Villandry, my brother’s favourite and as soon as I arrived I knew why. The gardens were amazing. I have never seen anything like it. An immaculate veggie garden was my favourite, so colourful and decorative. Who knew that food could look this good! The building itself was built really to show off the owners wealth, and you can see by the layout and function it was really designed foremost as a family home. However, much of the building is now a gallery for showcasing art, the majority of which is religious and a whole lot of creepy macabre stuff too (and the original LOL cats).

The original LOL cats

The original LOL cats

I left Villandry about 6 following the Loire à vélo, to give myself ample time to get sorted in Tours. Tours is the major rail hub for the region and it was from here that I would need to arrange the next transit stage of the trip to get into Italy. Tours is a big city divided by the Loire into Tours Nord (North) and Tours Sud (South). Just outside the city the cycling route leads you across the motorway and then I lost the signs. Just the appearance of a motorway was distasteful after so much tranquility, and now I found myself riding along side cars and trucks. As I crossed the river there were high rise apartments, shopping malls, and it put me off immediately. Get in. Get out. That was the plan. I got googled again finding the train station, but when I eventually did it was just before 7. I approached the information counter and it was bedlam. The transport strike was still on and I had no option but to come back tomorrow. I crossed the road to the tourist information office just in time to see the woman bolting the door for a 7PM close. I put on my best puppy dog eyes, and she grabbed me a street map. So now, armed with a street map in a big stinky city I needed some place to stay. I remember my brother suggest Fast Motel so I headed off there. Unfortunately it was all the way down in Tours Sud (Chambery), which was a decent 30 minute cycle navigating the roads and traffic, but I found it. I rocked in the door and asked for a room, and the girl politely informed me they were booked out. So I went next door and it was the same story. Every hotel in the area was booked out. Getting desperate I jumped on to see if I could find something and the only option was a $200+ room at the Mecure in another part of town. Tired and cranky, I gave up the dosh then rode over there. At least I would have a good meal, a bed to collapse into, a hot shower, WiFi, the World Cup, breakfast. Ah.

I arrived at the Mecure a little more tired, a little less cranky and showed Laura at the desk my booking confirmation. She informed me that the hotel was already full and they had nothing for me. My heart sank. Now I was really cranky. Despite getting a confirmation and spending 200 clams I was still stranded. Not happy. Laura did her best ringing literally every place in the area. It was now after 10 and there was nothing. I mentioned that I had a tent and she casually said, there is a lake beyond those woods, you can sleep there. Really? All this stress and I could just pitch a tent in the park? I just hope I don’t get arrested. I told Laura I would be back in the morning so they could sort out my refund with and reluctantly went off to McDonalds for a feed before setting up in the park under a tree with a view of the lake and the chateau. Nice, but still not worth $200. I love spontaneity, flexibility and not being too constrained by planning, but sometimes it bites you on the bum. Here’s hoping Tours gets better tomorrow…

A day with Da Vinci

The campsite at Amboise is located on a little Island in the middle of the Loire river with bridges to the banks of the river. It wasn’t very crowded so when I came in late I just set up my tent close to some other tents with touring bikes parked outside. I had a bit of a sleep-in until 8 or so, and when I emerged I met Kim, cyclist from North Korea who has been on the road for 3 years. He is planning to cycle to Santiago. He has already been to Australia and was very fond of the place. He was meeting a friend in Istanbul in September so he had to keep moving on at 100km per day. He was very helpful in directing me to the local Aldi supermarket too 🙂 Had he not been riding in the opposite direction, I might have travelled with him a bit, but I had other plans today.

After a quick trip to the supermarket for basic supplies, I packed my bags, left them in the tent and rolled over to the town of Amboise for a late breakfast. It is a cool place with narrow winding cobbled streets surrounding the Chateau set up on the hill. I had a baguette with jam and a coffee, then made my way into the Chateau. As the Loire river narrows at this point it had an important strategic position too during the 100 years war with England. The castle itself is surrounded by gardens that have evolved over centuries to represent significant historical figures associated with it. From the wall and the towers you get a brilliant panoramic view across the Loire. This was also another favourite place of François I (who is quickly becoming my favourite French monarch). One of the reasons I have begun to admire François so much is his friendship with Leonardo Da Vinci.

Later in his life Da Vinci came to live in Amboise at the request of his friend François I. He had a great influence in France at this time with architecture, engineering and art. His last dwelling place, Clos de Lucé, is just up the road from the Chateau at Amboise and has a brilliant museum dedicated to the great man. I was amazed to learn that in his 60s, Leonardo crossed the Alps from Milan on the back of a mule, with the Mona Lisa in his leather saddle bags!

The Clos de Lucé building itself is decorated to reflect the style of the renaissance, as it would have been back in Da Vinci’s time. Most of it is 16th century, although there are a few newer items present now. In the basement there is a display explaining and reconstructing 40 of Da Vinci’s inventions, many of which were not realised until centuries later. This guy was not only a genius, but a prolific genius in just about everything. A highlight was Da Vinci’s bicycle (of course) but the authenticity of this particular invention is still disputed.

In the gardens surrounding Clos de Lucé a selection of Da Vinci’s creations are also reproduced in full scale, so you can interact with them. Seeing his devices like the archimedes screw, pedal boats, the swing bridge it was very cool. Beyond the gardens there was an exhibition of Da Vinci’s artwork and a history of his time in France. While I missed out on seeing the real thing at the Louvre, I got to see a reproduction of the Mona Lisa without the crowds. Also the last supper, Saint John the Baptist and many others. Also some of his original manuscripts were on display. A very cool item was a reproduction of an automaton he created for François I, a Lion that would walk and then open it’s belly spilling out fleur de luce. Da Vinci must have been a real hit a parties!

From Amboise, the next place to visit was Loche, which would take me south away from the Loire. I packed my bike and headed off in the late afternoon. Loche was about 45km from Amboise, probably a 3 hour ride, so I should have made it well before dark. However, about 20km from Amboise I came through a delightful little village called Chenonceaux. I slowed right down to admire it as I passed, and then saw a sign for (yet another) brilliant Chateau. I had planned to camp in Loche, but I could hear the wise words of my friend Katie ringing in my ears “don’t deny yourself seeing that small town – that’s what you will remember not how far you rode”. The pull was too great, so I decided to stop as soon as I found a suitable place. Not 5 minutes down the road there was a sign for a picturesque campsite right by the river. The script was written for me so I pulled off the road and headed to the camp.

The site was almost empty, but the gates were still open. A man came out to greet me and I asked if I could camp for the night. He spoke very good English and gave me a warm welcome. There was a restaurant there too and the kitchen was closed, but the woman who was working there made an exception for me and cooked a lovely leg of duck with chips, salad and vegetables. Over dinner the guy, who also drove the paddle boat for river cruises, told me there was an excellent view of the Chateau – the only river Chateau in Europe just down the river. So, after a good feed, I set up my tent then took my bike to explore the Chateau. It was a brilliant way to finish the day, just rolling around, and taking pictures. Finally, it started to get dark so I headed back to camp for another good night’s rest. Tomorrow would be a big day now. Having stopped 25km short of my goal, Loche, and wanting to reach Tours tomorrow, it would be a 100+ km day. But I was feeling good and excited about the prospect.

Tintin and the Chateau explorer

Apologies for the delay. This post is from Sunday 15 June…

The first night in my tent was great. One advantage of planning this trip for so long has been to accumulate some really good gear and test it out. I really look forward to camping because I am genuinely comfortable, whereas hotels can be a bit hit and miss. I still woke early, as I do always when I’m camping but felt well rested. However, my gas canister was confiscated at the Eurostar check-in and I haven’t been able to find a replacement yet so I am without cooking (especially coffee) when camping so I jumped on the bike and rolled back down the river into town for breakfast. I rode all over the town, but being early on a Sunday, not much was open, so I settled for the brasserie I had passed on the river. After the usual croissant, cafe and orange juice, I climbed the hill again to the Chateau of Blois.

I had learned most of the history of the Chateau of Blois at the sound and light show the night before, but we were only permitted access to the court yard. Now I could explore inside too. The contrasting styles of the four stages of construction were really evident throughout. The one thing that really struck me (almost literally) was the low doorways. I suppose most people were a lot shorter back in the 15th century. A highlight of the display were samples of stone that had been removed for repair, including some really creepy gargoyles in human forms. Also some beautifully ornate fireplaces and a brilliant atrium for the grand entrance to the newest section of the Chateau.

After the Chateau, I packed up camp, said goodbye to Blois, and headed inland to Chambord. The Chateau at Chambord is amazing. It borrows a lot from the Italian style, but is also uniquely French. It is not known exactly who worked on it, Da Vinci is even humoured to have played a part too. The centrepiece is known as the keep, due to it’s style of four towers. Inside there is a central double spiral staircase by which you access the four levels of the building. These staircases, used by the King for parading, were usually positioned outside so people could view from the courtyard, but instead this one is inside and instead there is a great hall for people to gather. Francois I has left his character all over the building with repeated styles of salamanders inlaid in the stone work. I was really just blown away by the style and scale of the whole thing. There was also a massive dog show going on (what the…?)

From Chambord I pedalled through the forest and along quiet country roads to Cheverny. Cheverny is a much smaller Chateau, less grand in its architecture but it is immaculately furnished. Amazing tapestries adorn the walls, beautiful pieces of antique furniture, amour and weapons. It also illustrates how the fashions have change over the centuries. As a bonus, there was a Tintin exhibition at Cheverny too. It seems Hergé was inspired by Cheverny in the creation of Marlinspike Hall. The exhibition was great fun as you followed the footprints of Snowy through different Tintin adventures and interactive displays. There were even items of original sketches. Very cool.

From Cheverny I still a way to go to get to Amboise, the place I had planned to camp that night, and it was already about 6PM. My GPS battery had died, but now I had a SIM card I thought I’d use Google maps to give me a route to Amboise that avoided major roads. It avoided major roads alright! It even found dirt roads. A journey of about 40km, that should have taken about 2 hours ended up taking almost twice as long as Google led me all over countryside. In the end I pulled out the old paper map and heading for the next town as a waypoint. Finally I found my way but it was getting late and I was chasing the sun, which is never a good feeling. What concerned me most was getting some food. I had nothing with me and the last time I ate was at 1PM in Chambord, so you might say I was getting peckish. As I approached Amboise, I was glad to see the sign for the golden arches. Not because I planned to eat there, but it meant they would be some other places to eat, wifi, and a good chance of a supermarket too. I eventually rolled into Amboise at 9:30PM. I locked up my bike and sat down in the closest restaurant I could find, which was crowded with people watching France play at the world cup. A few minutes passed until the waiter approached me and told me they had stop serving food at 9:30PM. It was 9:35PM. I was devastated. He offered me some shallow sympathy and said I might try my luck elsewhere. Lucky I didn’t have to go far to find an Italian restaurant that was still serving meals. I ordered a salad to start, followed by a bowl of pasta, then pizza. The waiter looked at me in disbelief but I assured him I was very hungry. I don’t know for sure, since my GPS died but I reckon I did close to 100km that day and LOTS of stairs so i think i’d earned it.

After dinner I found the campsite in the dark but it was closed, so i jumped the fence and set up anyway. 3 Chateaus in one day is not bad going, but tomorrow I’ll take it a bit easier. Still a long way to go and lots more adventures to be had!

Joan d’Arc and Loire à vélo

I woke early to pack my things and give myself plenty of time to get across town to the train station. My train to Orleans was leaving at 6:50AM and I didn’t want to miss it. There was a transport strike on in Paris when I arrived, so getting a train that would take my bike was difficult. I had to abandon my original plan of starting at Saumur and riding East along the Loire valley, in favour of starting at Orleans and riding west to Tours. I would still follow roughly the same route, just in reverse. When I got to the station, my train had been cancelled, but I managed to get a place on the next one at 7:05AM. Trains here are big clunkers, a bit like our older V-Line fleet back home, but each seat has a drop down table and ample room so I could get the laptop out. I sat down next to a guy reading the paper who immediately started chatting to me in French. I had to apologise and told him I only spoke English, so we managed some small conversation.

The train arrived into a train station on the outskirts of Orleans and it was a simple 5km ride into town. As I came into Orleans I saw the magnificent cathedral. Then turned right up a promenade with shops and tram lines running up the centre. It was still early, so the streets were quiet and a perfect time for rolling around and checking the place out. I discovered the house of Joan of Arc and a statue of her in the centre square. With no one around it was a chance to take some photos with minimal chance of photo bombers. The tourist information opened at 10 (or so I thought – I later discovered it wasn’t open at all on Saturdays) and the phone shops where I could buy a SIM were also open at 10, so I found a cafe to sit and have some coffee.

After getting my SIM card, I headed back to the house of Joan of Arc, where I met Jim. He approached me and asked where I was from, and where I was going. He is a member of a website called that offers accommodation to cycle tourists. Although I planned to camp wherever I could it might be a good option for the big cities, so I was very grateful for the tip.

The house of Joan of Arc was a reconstruction, and they played a video (in English!) about her life. Orleans is of particular importance because that was the city that she liberated from the English. I admit I didn’t know much about her, just an English history perspective, but basically she heard voices telling her to fight for the French king, she went to the king and clergy who made an exception for her being a heretic by allowing her to cut her hair and dress as a man, she won the battle at Orleans, she was later betrayed, tried as a heretic (if she wasn’t a heretic she would have been delivered to the English), she renounced hearing the voices, then changed her mind about that, was found to be a heretic, burned at the stake by the Catholic church (who later made her a saint). From there I also checked out the archaeological museum, which had some interesting things from around Orleans, but I was itching to get riding so I headed off.

Because Orleans was never on my original plan, I made my way down to the river and from there found the Loire á velo, a cycle route that runs the length of the Loire river. From here it was clearly sign posted and I couldn’t go wrong. Most of it was paved and occasionally it would turn into loose gravel, but the Surly Crosscheck was perfect for the terrain and with the extra wait of the panniers was really stable. The route gave a perfect view of the river, often diverting and winding through little towns and fields along the way. This was it. This is what I had been looking forward to. Cycling bliss.

I stopped in at a little town with a Chateau for lunch and there met a french family with two children (2 and 8 months old) who were cycling the Loire for 3 weeks, camping along the way. What an awesome family holiday! The kids had their own trailer towed by Dad and Mum carried the rest of the gear. There was also a couple cycling between towns and they told me the best places to visit in Blois.

When I finally arrived in Blois, I was struck by the impressive Chateau set on the hill, with the buildings of the city that surround it. I went in search of the tourist information centre, which is located (rather inconveniently) at the top of a hill near the Chateau. I would become intimately familiar with these hills as I rode up and down them over and over during my time there. They pointed me to a camp site along the river just out of town, and told me about the sound and light show at the Chateau that night. With all my gear, I didn’t really want to hang around town for too long, so I headed out to the campsite, set up, then came back into town. I had a dinner of sardines and bread on the banks of the Loire, then made my way back up the hill to the Chateau for the show. It was really good, with an English audio guide, and told the history of the Chateau, which is actually four stages of construction with distinctive styles over centuries. It was from Blois that Joan of Arc set off with the army to retake Orleans. It seems that Joan of Arc was the bookend of my day. From there I pedal back along the Loire, trying not to swallow flies, to the campsite and crashed in my little home away from home. Another big day done, the first proper cycling touring day and many more to come.