A sobering quarter century or so ago, I recall appearing with our Barbershop Quartet The Four Tones in the British Embassy Pantomime (can’t remember what the nominal theme was, but it was hilarious) in Peking-as-was/Beijing-as-is with a jaunty, entertainingly xenophobic song that had as its refrain “Zat’s why you lurve ze French.”
(Cliche-laden photo right of, right-to-left, baritone Jasper Utley, high tenor Bill Zaritt, low tenor self and bass Darryl Johnson, and click the image to hear the song as we performed it at the Great Wall Hotel, Beijing at Christmas 1986…)
I was repeatedly reminded of those cliches in late August/early September this year as Sue and I tandemed our way boozily and enjoyably north across La Belle France from Montpellier in the south to St Malo in the north-west, whence home by ferry and train.
Eight hundred miles nearly, and knees and kneck (nees and neck?) held out gratifyingly well, as did Sunshine our tandem, glossing over a bad day with multiple punctures in the searing heat.
But what constantly got our goat, with alternating smiles and angry bleats, was how France, mostly, is shut.
OK, France has its food and the TGV, and at least in the bigger towns, wonderful cafes and restaurants.
But if it’s Monday, everything else is definitely shut.
Tuesday can be dodgy, and if it’s Wednesday, it’s early closing.
Thursday you take your chance, and if it’s Friday, we’re already off on le weekend.
If it’s September, it’s conge annuel.
And if it’s lunchtime, anywhere, well, forget it.
And, what is it with France’s architectural legacy?
The bigger towns and cities seem largely fine. But across hundreds of miles of smaller-town and village countryside, not since late 1950’s North Norfolk or old East Germany as it decayed towards collapse in the 70s and 80s have I seen so much dereliction and abandoned businesses.
Friends tell us the French, with so much spare land and relatively so few people, prefer to build new (mostly, it seems, horrible and identical little
one-storey matchboxes) rather than renovate old.
Monster hypermarchés have leached almost all business except an open-only-in-the-morning boulangerie from most smaller settlements, and French inheritance laws that insist on equal shares for all offspring mean that when there’s dispute with a will, there can be decades and more of crumbling inertia.
But comparing France with Germany or even Britain, as Sue and I constantly did as we travelled, I find it hard to stomach such neglect.
And the French have the gall – or is it the galle? – to lecture the Greeks on hard work?
But that said, the food was fabulous, the wine to die for (or of), the people quite delightful, and we had one of our very best rides ever – map follows (on which note that Montelimar to St Etienne, and Migennes to Epernon we cheated on the train….)
Rostbif xenophobic rant over, let me relate a little, avec illustration, how we started, with the European Bike Express
ferrying us and Sunshine overnight a smooth 24 hours from South Mimms north of London to Montpellier. From there we set out first east into the deepest Camargue,
and then north up the Rhone Valley through Arles (at last, I understand where Van Gogh found his light), Avignon (past le Pont de…) and especially Chateuneuf du Pape (whose wine was indeed celestial, from grapes nurtured to perfect ripeness 24/7 by a plateau-full of heat-retaining stones).
From Montelimar of nougat fame we cheated with SNCF to leapfrog via Lyon for a night with old Uni friend John Laxton and his partner Denise in St Etienne, whence with hard pedalling to the upper Seine at Roanne.
The Burgundy cycle circuit along the canal turned out magnificent, and to Sue’s joy, largely flat, with the exception of lock-flanking Jeffalumps as we called them, in honour of our fellow Cirencester cyclist Jeff Blumsom. Pursuing his wife Meg up these same inclines a month earlier than us, he had found them rather tiring…
In Auxerre, after dinner in the open air the previous night under extraordinary phoenix clouds, the tourist offices were shut .
But the SNCF staff at Migennes just to the north were charm itself as we man-and-woman-handled Sunshine onto the train, for a further shortcut across France’s most boring bits out west through Paris to the village of Epernon where we joined France’s newest long-distance bike route, the Velosceniefrom the capital to Mont St Michel.
This being France, we found our first information about the new route on an English-language website. And as for leaflets or info in the local tourist offices, well, on s’occupe seulement avec notre terroire. We only deal with our immediate region.
Mostly – except for the violently hilly bits east of Domfront
which caused a brief but serious sense-of-humour failure in Sunshine’s engine room – the Veloscenie follows old railway lines towards the coast.
Lovely for the flatness, but after a while a bit samey in terms of views to the front. Mont St Michel, the ultimate tourist trap, is more organised than I recall it as being on my last visit there in 1976.
As we arrived, heavy bulldozers and earth movers were hard at work digging away the old causeway on the landward side of the Mount ready for a new bridge that will return the mount to its old island status washed all around by the coast’s legendary fast-as-a-horse tides.
As we emerged from the Mont’s top viewing terrace by the abbey church, however, it was a weekday lunchtime.
And everyone – every single one – of the workers had disappeared. All was silent and unmoving, like a Sunday, while somewhere on the mainland, the Mont’s labour force was no doubt enjoying a long and pleasurable lunch, while millions of Euros-worth of idle machinery just had to wait.
Out of St Malo, a short hop straight into the wind to the west, the town’s most-recommended
restaurant was, of course, shut, but the French-run ferries, thank goodness, were working.
The food on board, with Sunshine packed away safely below decks, was stunning and the staff as friendly as one could imagine.
Lucky we didn’t travel a week later. Then, Brittany Ferries’ French workforce were on strike and all was silent, apparently something to do with lunch break entitlements and Spanish-practice perks that we Brits were forced to foresake decades ago.
Plus ca change.
But what a great trip. Next stop on Sunshine? Hook of Holland to Berlin and Krakow next summer. After, that is, 1000 miles on Raven, my single tourer, through New Zealand at Christmas and New Year. In the meantime, back to psychotherapy and EMDR, and lots of healing choir singing.