On Airport Ordeals, Bike Boxes, and a Toddler in Tow
We heard from several people that “you can’t go wrong” when going to France. However it seemed that in the beginning everything was going wrong. We arrived early in the morning to Paris after hardly getting any sleep on the flight. The flight was long but went well. We had an extra seat for Neil so it was a lot easier than to hold him on our lap the whole time. I discovered a while ago (or rather, he discovered) that stickers keep him busy for a long time, so I bought a dollar store worth of stickers to take with us on the flight. I think that by the end of the flight the whole plane was covered with smiley face stickers.
Once we got our baggage and bikes the real ordeal of the trip started, or a comedy of errors that left us in the airport way longer than we anticipated, in which dozens of elevators were taken with all of our gear, Neil, trailer and two huge bike boxes.
We arrived to the train station just to be told that we could not go on the train with such big boxes, and then we were told to leave the train station because we were not “paying customers”. After that, the woman in the tourist information told us that there was no way we could catch a taxi into Paris because no taxi was big enough to take the bike boxes. I started to feel like an alien, and considering the fact that France is a top world destination for cycle touring I was surprised that it felt like it was the first time they had ever encountered people with bike boxes trying to get out of that damn airport. At least they could try working on their hospitality a bit
Paris, Always a Good Idea…?
We didn’t intend to stay in Paris in the beginning, as we thought we would just catch the train from the airport to Rennes. In retrospect it was a stupid idea which cost us a few hours and a lot of energy. But we were able to find a cheap hotel in Paris through Booking.com and our nice Warmshowers hosts in Rennes told us it was no problem if we’d arrive a couple of days later.
It turned out to be no problem fitting the bike boxes into a big taxi van, so the first mission was accomplished, we managed to leave the airport! We all collapsed into the taxi and when I woke up we were by the hotel in the heart of Paris.
The hotel was old, but in a very central part of Paris, close to Montparnasse train station. Neil managed to continue sleeping and we all fell into a sweet sleep waking up after 5pm.
Now it was time to explore the area and Neil showed us the way on his balance bike. It was actually fun to follow him and not think too much about where we were going (just to make sure we’ll be able to find the way back). We found ourselves in a very nice park surrounded by Parisians who were finishing off their week and by dozens of kids screaming in French.
Things seemed to be picking up and even Neil went to sleep for the night easily. However apparently we could not avoid the infamous baby jet lag and at 2am Neil was up, ready to rock and roll. We realized there was no way to get him back to sleep so we turned on the light just to discover black ugly bugs crawling all over the bed. A quick internet check confirmed one of our worst fears – bed bugs! It’s funny that Gili and I slept in so many dingy hotels in the past, but the first time we found bed bugs was here in Paris.
So at 3am we changed floors and rooms and eventually got half of the night refunded. We had too much stuff to start moving hotels so after I ripped the bed apart and was pretty sure there were no bugs in the new room we could finally go to sleep for the night at 5am.
We did some mandatory sight seeing in Paris like checking out a strange looking metal tower and hanging out by a nice looking church. It was really hot and we were overly tired. At the train station we were told it would be no problem to take our bikes on the train, and there was actually a special car for people with bikes. Now we felt that things were really picking up. Rough starts are quite common on our trips, but it only ensures that the next part will be so much better.
Graceful Hospitality in Rennes
After a pleasant train ride and an even more pleasant bike ride along the canal to our hosts we found ourselves on a small road suddenly greeted by two young kids from the American family we arranged to stay with. The family has been living in France for three years for the dad’s post-doc position at the University of Rennes. They live in a classic French dream house in the small village of Saint Gregoire. They eat mostly fresh products from the farms nearby and the kids go to school learning a fair amount of French on the way.
They had three kids, aged two, four and seven so Neil had a blast, with plenty of toys to explore and a big yard. We had dinner with them the two evenings we were there which both started with grace, which was actually very nice (they are Mormons). One day we went to explore Rennes, the capital of Brittany, a very pleasant town with pristine gardens and even a bike share system.
The following night Neil must have broken the world record of sleep, sleeping for 13.5 hours straight, and we hoped that he was finally catching up on his sleep and jet lag. When he woke up we were finally ready to go!
Along the Canal
So we started figuring out why you can’t go wrong in France. It was definitely not our first cycling trip, but it was our first time cycling in Europe, and boy, the cycling infrastructure there is on a different level.
From Rennes we rode along one canal to Redon for about two days, finally connecting to the Nantes-Brest canal, a major cycling route in Brittany. We had a vague plan of our route, but since there were a few options we decided to keep it open and see as we go. The route along the canal was beautiful, passing through small towns each one more well kept and beautiful than the previous one. These are not well known towns or UNESCO World Heritage Sites, just regular towns where people live, which is just the beauty of it.
We heard that the markets in France are not to be missed, and we found out that on Saturday mornings there’s a market in Josselin, one of the liveliest markets in Brittany. By sheer luck, we were going to pass Josselin on Saturday, the problem was that we were more than 20 km away and we heard that by 12pm everything closed down. We made an effort to start early, but of course just as we were getting ready to leave we noticed a flat tire on my bike. Luckily it was probably the easiest 20 km of the trip, and what a surprise – the trail was paved on this section!
At the entrance to Josselin is a very impressive castle, one of the highlights of the trail. Then we found our way to the market which was up a steep street and we arrived just at the peak of the market.
It was probably one of the prettiest towns we passed, with medieval buildings all around and indeed a lively market that went on and on. There was bread, cheese, sausages, fresh fruit and vegetables and of course galette, a salty buckwheat crepe, the specialty of Brittany. Exactly as we had read, just before noon vendors started to take down their stalls and when the church bells rang for mid-day there was no evidence that there was ever a market in this town.
Along the canal there were many locks, where boats pass. Each lock was decorated with colourful geranium flowers and almost made us feel like there was a competition which lock was the prettiest. There were many boats going by, mostly of tourists. We were looking at them thinking it must be pretty boring, but maybe they were looking at us thinking the same.
Finding accommodation along the way wasn’t a problem. Almost every town had a campground not far away, many of them just by the trail anyway, so we didn’t need to make any additional detours. Every campground came equipped with a playground, and the price ranged from 4 euros a night to 14 (or free if the campground was already closed for the season). Since it was already September, most campgrounds were relatively empty and we could pitch our tent anywhere we wanted. The campgrounds included showers, laundry facilities, and sometimes wifi, although that was rare.
Our friends who cycled in France told us that in the campgrounds you can order fresh baked goods that arrive to your tent in the morning. We started to think it was a myth, because no one offered us that treat. That was until we arrived to the deluxe campground in Carhaix. As I was paying our 9 euros for the night, the woman said that if we want any baguettes or croissants in the morning we should just let her know in advance. Bingo! We could not pass on the opportunity and she ensured us that she would be going to the best bakery in the area to get the best and freshest pastries.
The Art of French Food
Food was definitely a big part of the experience. Every town, no matter how small it was had a well stocked bakery, full with the freshest baked goods and bread you could imagine. There was only one town with no bakery, but not to worry, they had a baguette vending machine, which was one of the freshest baguettes we had.
We have an excellent French bakery two minutes from our home in Vancouver, so we had a good introduction to French pastries. However every time I go to the bakery I am faced with the dilemma – should I order pain au chocolat or croissant aux amandes? It seemed that in France (or at least in Brittany) they solved this dilemma by creating a combination of the two – pain au chocolat aux amandes. What a genius idea!
At least one of our meals every day included fresh bread, either baguette or pain tradition and a big chunk of cheese. Neil grew fond of the stinky french cheese very quickly. In general I think he enjoyed the food as much as we did, and was capable of gulping down a pain au chocolat all by himself.
Finally a Rest Day!
We just kept going and going, and since the weather was generally good and the trail was relatively easy and mostly flat, we kept on postponing our rest day. Every day we said, well maybe tomorrow we’ll have a rest day. However, after over a week of cycling I felt like a rest day was well needed as well as a change of pace.
Since the forecast also showed some rain, when we arrived to Morlaix we decided that our rest day was finally going to happen. Morlaix was one of the only towns with no campground close by, and it was just for the best. We found a lovely B&B just in the centre of town and we were very happy to stay there for two nights taking advantage of the shower and nice comfy bed.
Morlaix has a very impressive viaduct passing right in the centre of town. On the top most section the express train, the TGV, goes by, but the bottom section is open to walk around, or in Neil’s case to bike around. Since we didn’t really have an agenda for our rest day except stocking up on supplies and doing laundry, we let Neil decide for us. We went out with his little balance bike and he just kept on going, and showing us around town, biking all the way to the port and then back to the viaduct for more riding.
A Little Boy on a Balance Bike
The balance bike was definitely one of the best things we brought along and Neil spent a fair amount of time riding along. Almost every lunch break Gili took him for a ride (aka nap time for me). He also rode in the campgrounds, in the towns, in Paris and along the canal and coast. It really empowered him to be able to do what we were doing and it was also a way to tire him out.
I was surprised how quickly he got used to the routine of the trip. On our previous long bike trip he was still an infant, who napped a lot and did not move much. Now he is a very active toddler, who sleeps less and spends much of his time running around. However he quickly switched back to two naps a day in the trailer, and even when he was awake he was happy and chatty, talking to himself, singing and shouting happily.
His vocabulary also improved tremendously during the trip and he picked up many words, mostly related to camping. Since he fell in love with the stove which became his favourite toy, he quickly learned the word esh (fire in Hebrew) and he kept going around camp saying esh, esh, esh all the time. Luckily no one understood what he meant.
We finally reached the ocean by Roscoff. It was a big milestone, and from then on our route changed to cycling small roads along the north coast of Brittany. We spent one day exploring Île de Batz, a beautiful tiny island only 15 minutes ferry ride from Roscoff. With no other vehicles other than bicycles and tractors on the island, it was a delightful ride and a relaxing day. Neil was also getting over a virus, so we were happy to slow down for a bit.
On the last week of the trip we just cycled along the impressive coastline. The views kept on changing from different rock formations, to beautiful sandy beaches, to coves, ports and light houses. Despite being on the road now, the roads were so small we hardly saw any cars. There were signs everywhere showing us which way to go and where to turn to follow the coastal bike route.
On the side of the road we met a French family with a three year old girl. They define themselves as nomads living out of their van and going on bike trips every so often. Their three year old had four options of seats – the back seat on either her mom or her dad’s bike, the trailer or in a carrier, on her mom. Poor Neil, he only has one option so far, although it doesn’t seem to bother him too much. It was neat to meet a family along the way for the first time, knowing that we are not the only “crazy'” parents out there.
We kept on camping in almost empty campgrounds very close to the ocean, so our days typically started with a stroll to the beach to play a bit before starting to ride. It felt like a dream being in such a beautiful place with Gili and seeing Neil having so much fun and feeling so comfortable climbing rocks and playing in the sand and streams.
Quick stop in Brest
On our last day of riding, just as we were taking our lunch break on the beach, we met Benjamin who was very interested in our trip and trailer. Benjamin was a fresh father of a one month old baby boy, so it was awesome to share some of our experiences with him. He and his wife have ridden from Ecuador to Ushuaia and really wanted to start riding with their son in not too long. I hope they do, and maybe we’ll meet them along the way one day again.
After leaving that beach the ride started to be a lot more urban. We were getting close to Brest, a big city and the last destination for us on the trip. Finally we were in the city itself, totally impressed how easy it was to enter a 200,000 people city with the bikes and trailer without cycling on even one main road. We were very happy and proud to complete our tour in Brittany of 750 km, but as always there were some mixed feelings involved.
We found our way easily to Claude’s house, who we arranged to stay with through Warmshowers again. Claude treated us to a crepe dinner and breakfast, and was very easygoing and friendly, and since he has a few grandchildren of his own he was quite fond of Neil and even had a few toys around.
Rainy Day in Paris
The train ride to Paris was long, but finally we were back in the city of lights. Since there was no way we were going back to the bed bug hotel we booked a really nice hotel a bit farther away from the station.
Our last day in Paris was very enjoyable. It was a bit rainy, but we didn’t have much planned except to stock up in the supermarket on cheese, chocolate and pack. Neil took the longest nap ever in the trailer so we could enjoy a little bit of quality time and eat excellent Moroccan food and the most delicious (and beautiful) ice cream. We picked up our bike boxes from the dingy hotel and Gili carried them all the way back to our hotel in the rain, getting a lot of strange looks from by-passers.
Since the rain eased down in the afternoon we decided to check out the area by the Seine River which was converted to a pedestrian and cyclist only area. We had our last dinner of baguette and cheese by the river like real Parisians and then caught the very efficient metro back to our hotel.
As always it was time to pack the bikes and our belongings, sadly forgetting our beloved e-reader behind. A big taxi van brought us to the infamous airport, where things went a lot smoother this time. After a long flight with an unnecessary layover in Calgary we finally touched base in Vancouver. It was a great trip and time away but it also felt great to be back home.
Despite the rocky start we quickly realized why you cannot go wrong in France – everywhere is beautiful, every town is out of a fairy tale, the food is unbelievable and the cycling is world class. Some people may want to work on their hospitality a bit, but if you don’t expect too much on that front you definitely cannot go wrong!