Finally cycling

(Originally posted Saturday 05 May, 2007)

A Letter From Epernay, Champagne, France

First update! A little tricky to get internet access or time so far – sorry.

Over a quarter of the way to Rome already – 500km – or is that roughly 500 towns? [It’s actually 637km in 7 days of cycling; average 91km per day.]

Highlights! For cyclists and farmers it’s the same topic – the weather. Not a drop of rain and only a day of moderate head wind – has suited us but not the farmers.

Day 1, Sat 21 April -Rotterdam to Rockanje 41km

Rotterdam is not looking its best at the moment despite having many buildings draped in purple to celebrate its modern architecture. The city streets will be a construction zone until 2010 when a whole new public transport system is finished. The Erasmus Bridge did give a great view though as we cycled away. Arrived at my sister’s home intact and in time for tea, despite Billy having a collision with the kerb 50 metres from the house.

Day 2, Sun 22 April – Rockanje to Brugges, Belgium 121km

Packed for an overnight stay, so we noticed the extra weight up the hills. [Hills meaning the slight variation in flatness of the bikepaths that we used across the islands and Belgian mainland!] Being a Sunday there were thousands of people out walking and cycling around the coastline, enjoying the sun. Lunch at Middleburg where we chatted with other tourists who were acquainting themselves with the medieval town. Ferry trip to Breskens gave additional rest time, before marveling at the Schwarzeneggers of the cattle breed – the Belgium Blue. A deepfried tea at Dudzele where we camped at a youth hostel.

Day 3, Mon 23 April – Brugges to Bailleul, France 91km

Breakfast then Brugges. Well-written about in guide books and for good reason. Magnificent fortified town with all the trappings to match eg cobbled streets, churches, horse-drawn carriages for the tourists, old buildings and monuments. A must visit. In our 3 hours we checked out a Salvador Dali exhibition, sampled the wares from the Chocolate Museum and lunched with guess who…the support crew of family who arrived from Holland at a parking place beside us at the moment we were putting on our helmets to leave town! Met them again of course at our gite [self-catering farmhouse] at Meteren. Billy was happy with the day because I fell off into nettles when stopping at an intersection – unclipped the wrong foot!

Day 4, Tues 24 April – Quick drive to Moringhem village to see the scarecrows that everybody there makes during the month of April. Not a must visit. To Ebblinghem Cemetery to photograph the grave of great uncle Edward George Spencer, died of wounds World War One. Repeated the process later for Elly’s great uncle Samuel Harold Northey at Ploegstreert after a picnic lunch of regional delicacies from the Bailleul market. Into Lille city still squashed in the car. Not overly impressed, but our main purpose to visit was to catch up with Johanne, the sister of Pauline, a French exchange student we hosted in 2005. Also chatted with MSF volunteers who were canvassing the malls of Lille for potential subscription donors – the French population are good supporters.

Day 5, Anzac Day Wed 25 April – Forced everybody out early to get to 9am Australian service and breakfast at Zonnebeke. Other Aussies in attendance including the Ambassador to Belgium, and the brother-in-law of MSF past president Rowan Gillies. [If you read this Rowan, it was partly your interview on ABC radio years ago that inspired us to do this project.] Onto Tyne Cot Cemetery, Paschendaele to lay wreaths, then quickly to Ypres for 11am March to Menen Gate. Last Post played then returned for speeches with the New Zealanders at the famous Cloth Hall. Sensational, emotional, inspiring…Toured old trenchlines at Diksmuide then returned to Ypres for the 27,001st playing of the Last Post at Menen Gate at 8pm. Got the audio and that was played back a few hours later during an interview with ABC Radio Mt Gambier.

Day 6, Thurs 26 April – Bailleul to Ayette 114km

Just a moving on day really. Tried to choose a quiet route through Dieppe Forest [nice], Bethune [not nice], and Arras [nice]. Again not much time to do anything other than look at things briefly. And despite some unintended deviations was happy not to have detailed maps because if you knew where you were all the time, you wouldn’t meet people to ask them directions. We were chuffed when an 80 year old lady invited us in for morning tea and a chat, very disappointed we had to decline and push on. Mont St Eloi was the standout sight of the morning – ruined church on hilltop overlooking Arras. Checked emails in Arras and thereby managed to pick up nephew Cal in Bailleul as we returned to gite by car.

Day 7, Fri 27 April – Billy and Cal went to Amiens by train while we all drove. Checked in at hotel and went out 10km to Franco-Australian Museum at Villers-Bretonneux to prepare for our presentation that night about the Great Ocean Road and MSF for ‘Recontres Australiennes’ week. [See speech elsewhere on blog site]. Tea at the local kebab house shouted by Monsiuer Le Mairie [the Mayor] was delicious. Not a huge crowd at Victoria Hall; having limited preparation time with the French translation and powerpoint show that was probably a good thing. A few glitches in the gig, but made up with by all the presents we gave away.

Day 8, Sat 28 April – Ayette to Amiens 60km

Poodge and Elly drove us back north to resume our route. The rest got dropped at Samara Gaul Prehistoric Park to spend the day. This was our best day of all the good days thus far. Perfect weather, deserted lanes, picturesque scenery, opportune passings, and an unexpected phone call from Australia. The rolling hills and valleys of the Somme belied the tragedies of the past. Even the numerous cemeteries could not darken the day. Finding the paddocks of Mouquet Farm in which my great uncle Jack McDonald lies was a satisfaction rather than a horror. Through Pozieres and Le Hamel to Villers-Bretonneux.

Met up with friends, Dickmans from Dusseldorf, picnicked in the park, and then went to the town church to listen to classics played by the Orchestra of Picardy. Brilliant experience.

Day 9, Sun 29 April

Met Dickmans at Vill-Bret for the last of the ‘Reconntre’ week’s activities – a walk across country from the Aust Memorial at V-B to the 1st Division Memorial at Le Hamel about 8-10km away. About 40 local strollers to guide and talk with us so it was a great experience wandering past the fields of peas, wheat, canola and sugar beet while trying to converse in foreign tongues. Picnic lunch back at V-B Memorial before searching for the local Dartmoor district names inscribed thereon who have no known grave on the Somme. Into Amiens for a perusal of the famed twice-yearly antique and bric-a-brac stalls. Mandatory souvenirs purchased of questionable appeal! The appeal of Amiens Cathedral – the largest in France – is not questionable however. Another must see. Finished the day with our first restaurant meal…special 3 course deal at one of the Buffalo Bill chain of eateries. Yee haa!

Day 10, Mon 30 April – Amiens to Vailly-sur-Aisne 146km

Our biggest day on the bikes so far. More undulating country made it reasonably tough too. Nice countryside, but the town of Roye was uninspiring. Passed through Noyon at siesta time [12-2pm] so were glad the family had lunch organized there. The others inspected the cathedral in which Charlemagne was crowned, but we were away along the roads still adorned with poppies even though we had left Flanders and the Somme. Old wars were in our mind too when we saw an old artillery shell by the side of the road waiting for the bomb squad to come along to handle it – it had been uncovered by trench digging equipment and painted flouro orange to highlight it. Long freewheeling descent into the camping ground at Vailly was just reward for a long day. Major discovery was that Monday is lawn-mowing day in France!

Day 11, Tues 1 May – Vailly to Epernay 64km

We didn’t leave Vailly until after lunch, having driven into nearby Laon for a morning wander. It was a public holiday for Labor Day so most shops were shut but not the old cathedral or of course the medieval ramparts that surround the hilltop city. Only 60km of cycling in the afternoon but it seemed 3 times as long. Blustery head winds and solid climbs took our attention away from what was an attractive route along the Aisne River to St Gobain, then through forest and field to the vineyards of Champagne. What could have been a 2 hour cycle became 4 hours. But we did see lots of people out walking in the forest collecting Lily of the Valley flowers to present to family – a tradition on May Day in northern France.

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