Day 9: Arcachon. Rest day.

Day 9: Arcachon. Rest day.

Photograph of sand dune and blue sea beyond

This is the Dune de Pyla. Its just fantastic. About 117m high and almost as long. A great slab of sand on the Atlantic coast of France. It shifts inland every year. I know someone who came on holiday here as a kid and stayed in one of the campsites which back on to the dune. He remembers swimming pools which are no longer there having been swallowed by the sand. I’ve been on holiday here a couple of times and both my kids have had birthdays here. Jess got to leap off the top strapped to a complete stranger with a parachute canopy. Its a thing here.

Photograph of Sarah standing on Dune de Pyla with trees in the background.

The dune is extraordinarily steep on one side and brings out that innate human instinct to run headlong down things knowing that its only sand and won’t hurt. It has to be done and is worth every moment of looking like a squealing idiot. Rare moments of freedom of movement for the physically cronky and unadventurous are to be snatched without hesitation.

Photograph taken from top of sand dune at Pyla looking out to Arcachon Bay.

 

Keith being artistic with his sandals. I said artistic.

Photograph of brown leather sandals on top of sand dune.
The dune is on the edge of the Bassin d’Arcachon, a huge natural bay famous for its oysters. These photos don’t do the place justice for its scale and general stunningness.

Photograph of Pyla sand dune with the sea in the background.

Photograph of Pyla huge sand dune with people climbing up it.

Apart from climbing up and running down an enormous sand dune, we happily filled our fridge with food that has to be in a fridge because we haven’t had one for a week. Small pleasures are appreciated when they have been absent. Cheese that’s not sweating more than I am, for one.

We also took a trip to Decathlon for more inner tubes as I keep getting punctures. I’d like to say that Decathlons in France are one of my favourite shops. Where else can you buy a 14′ canoe, full horse riding kit and a fishing rod all in one place? English Decathlons are rubbish as we don’t have the environment to do all these brilliant outdoor activities just as a matter of normal existence. Loads of people in France have 14′ canoes. Why not? Plenty of rivers.

Photograph of Keith eating yogurt on hotel balcony in Arcachon, France.

And like the classy hotel clientele we are, we have dinner, hang up washing and change tyres (and explode tyres as Keith pumped this one up too far) on our 4 star ‘design’ balcony. Note the juxtaposition of the urban industrial metal with the organically arranged bamboo and the plastic washing line.

Day 8: Hourtin- Arcachon. 116km.

Day 8: Hourtin- Arcachon. 116km.

So, it turns out that I really can’t count distances on maps. Way too far today, we were wrecked.

Started the day with a measly breakfast of peanut butter and jam bread. We’d never had both together before, but today, in the spirit of adventure, we gave it a go. It was better than expected but I won’t bother again. How many times have I said that in my life?

Photograph of canal entering Lake Hourtin with small motor boats lining each side.

Pretty much all cycle path today. Most of it through pine forests.

Photograph of a long straight cycle path through a forest with a signpost to various villages.

Some crazy stretches barely wide enough for a bike and so rough we were bouncing about trying not to come off into the sand.

The paths are busy near civilisation but are virtually empty in between.

Sarah cycling along a narrow cycle path in Aquitaine, France.

Two punctures for me today. Mid-forest repairs by the resident mechanic. My job is to feed him biscuits while he works.

Photograph of Keith fixing a bicycle puncture in a forest in France.

 

Photograph of Keith fixing a puncture in a shaded forest in France.The route south ran along the edge of this inland lake (its not the sea) near Hourtin.

Photograph of Lake Hourtin river beach and lake in background.
It also runs parallel to one of the most beautiful stretches of coastline with some well known surfing beaches, such as Lacanau where we had chorizo and cheese sandwiches for lunch as a variation from ham and cheese coz we’re just crazy like that.

Photograph of Arcachon seafront with promenade.

The last part of today’s ride was horrible. We had blown the budget by booking into the last room in the whole of Arcachon, which was a 4 star nonsense affair on an industrial estate outside of town on the other side of a dual carriageway. Not fun. Arrived at 7.30pm after 10 and half hours on the road. Never have I been so happy to see a weird plastic moulded wall in my life.

Interior photograph of Best Western Arcachon hotel room wall which is white moulded plastic.

Don’t ask. The rest of the room is purple. We’re at the Best Western Design and Spa Hotel. I am always suspicious of anywhere that states so definitively that it is a ‘design’ establishment. It means its going to be tacky and have tried too hard. This place is no exception. Someone has written a review on Tripadvisor wondering if the owner had a plastic moulding factory that was low on business as the place is full of Gaudi-like wobbly walls. My first thought was what a nightmare they’d be to dust. I don’t know why, its not as if I ever dust.

Most excitingly, our new home has a fridge. As of this moment, we have nothing to put in it.

Day 7: Rochefort – Hourtin. 94km.

Day 7: Rochefort – Hourtin. 94km.

Photograph of the sea at Royan, France with boats in the distance.

Today we crossed the Gironde estuary into Aquataine – after a very late start due to Keith having to go and find a new bike chain following his off-road antics and fit it in the hotel car park.

The ferry departs from Royan, which is a sizeable city and port on the west coast. We didn’t have a chance to visit its striking and interesting church, the Notre Dame de Royan, which is made from rough concrete and was built in the 1950s after Royan had been razed to the ground by German bombs during the Second World War. The concrete has degraded badly over the years (I’m sure I read somewhere that this was due to the salty sea air affecting the steel reinforcing, but that might be wrong) and the place is currently being restored. The inside, which I’ve visited previously, is equally stark and bare, but huge in scale and presence.

Photograph of Royan Cathedral

 

Weather was blisteringly hot and we biked too far. Turns out I’m not very good at adding up distances on maps and we had to cycle farther than expected.

Photograph of ferry docking at Royan ferryport

The ferry trip from Royan only takes about half an hour and cost less than €10 euros for 2 people and 2 bikes but its like entering another country. The deciduous trees are replaced with pines and the earth turns to sand. It feels like the beginning of the south of France. The coast is Atlantic, the sea is rough, turquoise and full of surfers. Its a wild stretch of coast extremely popular with tourists at this time of year, and for good reason. It is stunning.

 

Photograph of Sarah on the Royan ferry looking out to sea across the estuary.

Cycling wise, there are many forested cycle paths, all well kept and well signposted. The roads are flat and very straight. We were doing stretches of 20+km with no bend it roundabout to break it up. At the end of a 94km day, the monotony of a long, straight empty road disappearing into the distance is like some kind of torture.

We booked into a campsite in Hourtin, called Les Ourmes, which was big but well run and had a good feel to it. It was late, we were exhausted. We ate good pizza and drank wine while watching the evening’s entertainment at the bar, which was zumba. Keith are I are not your natural audience participation types, but we love to people watch and ponder what in earth makes a bunch of people decide that demonstrating your special brand of Northern European lack of Latin American coordination in front of an audience is the thing to do. But we’re mighty glad you did. Half a litre of wine and I was beginning to think it was a ‘good idea’ myself.

Photograph of an outdoor bar with tables and chairs and a small stage with some people dancing.

Today’s achievement was reaching 500km. We burned over 5000 calories cycling. Why aren’t I thin yet? Zumba, anyone?

Photograph of Sarah holding a cycle speedometer. It says '500km' as the distance travelled.

Day 6: Lucon – Rochefort. 84km.

Day 6: Lucon – Rochefort. 84km.

Photograph of a canal and towpath with country landscape.

What a glorious start to the day. Set off early and travelled along a canal side cycle path across the flat plains of Loire-Atlantique towards the sea. Herons, storks, rabbits and a stoat all fled at our approach. It was magical, but very bumpy.
Photograph of two bicycles leaning up against a churchyard wall with a church in the background.

We passed into Poitou-Charente, probably one of my favourite parts of France which has beautiful, pale stone houses and white gravel drives. Proper ‘French’ country style. Charentais melons are the thing here at this time of year and they are bloody lovely. You can tell a melon that’s been grown in the sun rather than a greenhouse: properly ripe and they smell like a melon when you buy them. Melon sniffing has been a long standing habit of mine. I remember once decreeing that I wanted to live in a place where I could have melon for breakfast every day. Now I know that is technically possible in Worthing, but it wasn’t quite what I had in mind.

Photograph of French market stalls with produce

Photograph of a box of tomatoes on a French market stall.

 

Close up photograph of a box of red grapes

At 383km we reached the sea for the first time since St Malo. Very exciting.

Photograph of Sarah pointing at the sea behind her.

 

We cycled along possibly France’s nicest stretch of cycle path.

Photograph of a cycle path running alongside the coast in Western France.

 

Chateillon-place is a really pleasant, sedate holiday town with a gorgeous beach and some excellent ice cream. We had lunch and I had a swim. You have been spared a photo of that.

Photograph of various picnic food items spread out on a beach in France.

Photograph of Keith's legs and feet on a sandy beach with the sea in the background

The accommodation problem is a persistent one which I had anticipated but not known how to solve as I didn’t know how far we were capable of cycling each day (so couldn’t book anywhere in advance). We’re in an Ibis Budget in Rochefort tonight as all campsites we called were full. Sticking to our budget is going to impossible at this rate but we don’t have much choice.

Just before reaching the hotel, it started to chuck it down with rain and we biked really fast over a grassy piece of land to get to the dry. Keith somewhat enthusiastically cycled up a steep slope with a fully loaded bike and snapped his chain. Dinner in McDonalds because that was all there was (rain and only one bike).

Photograph of French countryside

Day 5: Lucon. Rest day.

Day 5: Lucon. Rest day.

Photograph of a tent, washing and bicycles on a campsite in Lucon, France.

318km cycled so far. Enormously satisfying to know we have arrived under our own steam at no cost to pocket or environment, and perhaps even looked after our own health into the bargain. Even when I wish each km was the last, I still love it.

We’ve realised that we haven’t exactly planned the Spanish leg of our trip well. Google Maps very helpfully provide bike routes across France, but not Spain. We use these routes as a basic guide as to where to quiet roads and cycle paths and then plot our own on a map. I love maps. We also weren’t able to find a map of the Spanish section that is as detailed as the French maps. In essence this means that we don’t know where we’re going, how we will get there or how long it will take. And it all looks very wiggly on account of a bunch of mountains called the Pyrenees.

Photograph of a lake with a sailing boat on it in Lucon, France.

Cold, weird pizza for breakfast in our tent in the rain. Keith had a dream that Dolly Parton was sharing our tent with us. It is officially a 3 person tent, so that would be fine so long as she doesn’t have any luggage, or personal space issues. Keith and I had a difference of opinion regarding a stain on my shorts which he said was poo and that I was taking up all the space in the tent. It was mud and I was. A 6′ x 3′ home in the rain is no place for petty domestics. No food so had to go shopping. In the rain. Don’t like it here. Toilet block and one plug socket is commandeered by youth straightening their perfectly fine as it is hair. Dolly wouldn’t stand for that shit.

Photograph of Sarah standing in a field in Lucon, France.

Our day off got worse as I left my phone literally momentarily charging in the toilet block (I had been sat in view of it previously) and someone stole it. This totally threw the rest of my day, both in blocking the phone, changing passwords and generally telling people I was out of contact. And just a general disappointment that that’s just not what you do on a campsite. It was obvious we were English (adapter plug) and obvious that we have no other means of charging a phone. I’ve been camping all my life and it’s one of those places where special rules apply because you’re all in the same boat. I know; naïve and deluded, but its just not what you do.

Not a great rest day but we’re here, we’re fine and after a period of serious self-talking to; I’m over the phone.

Day 4: St Philbert de Boutaine – Lucon. 80 km.

Day 4: St Philbert de Boutaine – Lucon. 80 km.

Photograph of Philbert de Boutaine Hotel breakfast

The one star breakfast wasn’t so bad.

Back on the road again. The landscape has flattened out now to constant minor inclines. Much harder work than they sound. There is no respite and no payoff, only a rollercoaster of emotion. The ups bring despair, the downs: elation. Sounds a bit dramatic but that’s the way it feels when it continues for hours. Tiny slopes, unperceivable to the motorist, become sources of hope and doom to the knackered cyclist.

Photograph of a field of sunflowers
Today we saw our first sunflowers. Fields and fields of them replacing the corn which had dominated up til now. What is it about sunflowers? Find me a person who is not warmed by the sight of a vast expanse of waving heads facing into the sun (mind your eyes, little flowers) and I’ll find you someone who needs to get out more. Or something.

Camping tonight in Lucon (missing a circumflex) at a proper holiday village, Domains de Guifettes. It has chalets, mobile homes, a bar and a lake. Woo hoo! We’re on holiday! But before we can hurl ourselves into the hedonistic world of the French holiday village, we have domestics to do. Clothes to wash and bikes to maintain. Just what you fancy after cycling 50 miles.

Photograph of Keith doing some bicycle maintenance.
Sat by the lake on the fake beach in the evening. The lake is unswimmable, probably due to being an almost fluorescent shade of green and somewhat gloopy with algae, but it looks nice. The landscape now is flat as a pancake and that fills us with a little joy for when we next hit the road.

Photograph of Keith sitting on a sunlounger on a sandy river beach in Lucon, France.
Had pizza in the beach and learned something new: it is possible to fuck up pizza. Who knew? I love French pizza. The base is super thin and they quite like chucking crème fraiche on them, which is fine by me. Sadly, these pizzas has a bizarre range of toppings,most of which were not on the ones we ordered and several of which were missing from the ones we ordered. Tuna, potato and bacon pizza, anyone?

 

Photograph of two pizzas in boxes side by side.

The bar was basically a gay disco pumping out techo Cher at 8pm whilst people are ordering ice cream for their kids, staffed by a large man with a lot of chest, chain-smoking and talking constantly on his mobile. He reached another pinnacle of achievement: it is possible to fuck up ice cream too. Bubble gum flavour ice cream on a waffle. My fault, my French wasn’t good enough to know exactly what delight from the menu I had ordered, but I wrongly assumed that all ice cream is good, whatever the concoction. Well, you know what they say in crap training courses about assuming (ass-u-me), turns out its true.