Rémi and I had already made two trips together. Last Winter we decided that our third trip would take us down the Seine river, along the Normandy D-Day landing beaches, to Le Mont Saint Michel, Saint Malo and through Brittany, all the way to a small village near Vannes, our final destination.
For both of us, all trips start in Paris. However, apart from a North-East exit along the Ourcq Canal or a few other fragmented cycle paths along the Seine, getting out of the capital city with a bicycle is a stinking, dangerous, noisy, very unpleasant exercise.
Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany offer a dense cycling infrastructure, linking all major towns and regions. Sign-posting is excellent there. The French "network", on the contrary, is made up of dozens of bits and pieces of cycle-only greenways and shared cycle routes, some short, some long... most of them unfortunately not connected to each other, due to a lack of interest, budgets, or 'big picture' vision...
To make matters worse, apart from the main paths, sign-posting is often not very good.
For all the above reasons, preparing a trip is a quite an undertaking. I find most of what I need searching the Internet.
To exit Paris as quick as possible and avoid all the head-aches of finding our way through the suburbs, we therefore agreed that we would catch a train from the city to Rouen and start the trip from there.
Carrying a fully assembled bicycle on a train in France is a relatively simple task in most cases. Only some TGVs (e.g. the double-deckers) and International high speed lines such as Thalys, do not accept them with their wheels on.
On Intercity trains or the current TERs (regional trains), bike transport is free of charge. No prior booking is necessary. No need to take the bike apart either.
Bike carriages on such trains are marked with the silhouette of a bicycle on, or near the carriage door. Storage depends on the type of train. Either hooks or a large open area.
Travelling with an assembled bike on the single-deck TGVs is possible but requires prior booking since there are only three spaces available per train. 2016 cost per bike is €10 flat. On these trains, no need to dissemble. The bike stands on its wheels and is just secured against fold-up chairs with a wide strap, usually in the first or last carriage of the train. (Carriage number will be indicated on the reservation voucher).
May 23rd 2016. Paris - Jumièges via Rouen..
The weather was rotten, but it had been the same for days. After taking all the bags down, I 'extracted' the bike from the apartment basement and loaded it.
Just as I was about to head to the station, the rains came down (once again), compelling me to jump into my waterproof clothing. It was going to be a long day and I had no desire of staying wet till evening. The only drawback with such clothing is that, in mild weather, the outfit quickly turns into a mobile sauna, in some way defeating its purpose.
Cycling to Gare St Lazare is no issue... when the streets are dry. The pouring rain seemed to have adverse effects on car and bus drivers, resulting in numerous traffic jams and lots of shouting.
The beauty of the bike, even fully loaded, is that it can weave in and out of traffic and leave the mess for others to sort out. The only real danger to watch out for are the people crossing the cycle lanes with umbrellas and head phones or cars that make turns forgetting to use their blinkers..
Rémi had already arrived. Soaking wet since he could not be bothered with his rain clothes.
A loud speaker informed us that the train would be 10 minutes late due to 'social unrest'. Further announcements were made, each time adding a little more delay, but finally, after 40 minutes extra waiting time the platform was announced and the rat race to the carriage began.
Murphy was on the same train... The bike carriage was at the very end, in the open air, which meant that we had to unload the bikes in the rain, on the wet platform, before being able to get them on board. On this train, the bikes had to hang from hooks. Only problem was that the distance from the hook to the carriage floor was shorter than the length of the bikes....
After many swear words and lots of sweat we managed to get our two bikes, plus a third one that was already there, all tied up to the two available hooks..
The trip to Rouen was uneventful. When we got there, a young man, travelling with a neatly folded up Brompton bike, gave us a hand to get everything off the train and onto the platform within the 2 or 3 minute stop.
We then all cycled to the center of the city and before leaving he showed us the way to the Normandie-Niémen embankment which was the 'official' start of our trip. The weather in Rouen was clear skies and sunshine !
After a quick stop at the Tourist Office where we obtained a map of the lower Seine river cycle paths (!!) we embarked on a rapid tour of the old section of the city.
Beautiful cathedral. Lots of narrow streets with interesting buildings. Incredible Clock tower... Time to get on our way !
The Normandie -Niémen embankment follows the river all the way to the edge of town. It is wide, safe for cycles and very pleasant.
Rouen, located on the lower Seine, is a major French shipping terminal. Big ships were docked, awaiting their turn under the huge cranes.
Gentle transition between the city and the country-side. Just after the Flaubert museum a new section of cycle path took us all the way to the ferry in Sahurs, where we crossed over to the other side of the river.
Due to time constraints and distance involved, we had decided not to follow all the bends of the Seine, but instead to use the two ferries that cut across the loops, so as to reach Jumièges, our first stop, before the end of the afternoon. (Use of the ferries is free of charge..).
The first ferry links Sahurs to La Bouille on the other side of the river. From there, the 'cycle path' is on the small embankment road. At La Ronce, left turn on the road that climbs over the hill to Yville sur Seine. First serious warming-up exercise of the day...
The countryside along the river banks is very pleasant and quite interesting.
Many beautiful houses, gardens, flowers, very green lawns, caves dug deep into the limestone cliffs... The sharp bend near the Yville château, this time downhill towards the second ferry, provides stunning views.
The second crossing was as simple as the first one. The Yville ferry had just cut 40 km and over two hours cycling from today's stage, enabling us to reach the Jumièges camp ground around 6.00PM.
On disembarking, we decided to try the "Chemin des Cornihouts" that follows the river for a while, instead of heading straight into Mesnil sous Jumièges. (and Jumièges thereafter).
It was a mistake since the path quickly deteriorated into a succession of grassy and rough tracks making it very difficult for our loaded bikes. After a while we got back onto the narrow road leading into Jumièges, that was 'signaled' from a distance by the sunlit white towers of the abbey, standing higher that the tallest trees surrounding it.
The camp ground was at the top of the hill...
To avoid having to unpack our tents, we had booked a ready-pitched large size tent that turned out to cost only a fraction more than two spaces in the tent section of the camp.
The roof lining in the tent was a sheet of thin cotton printed with a map of the world. Fortunately, our cycle maps were more accurate..
May 24th 2016. Jumièges - Fiquefleur-Equainville. (Near Honfleur).
The hundreds of birds in the neighbouring forest took care of our (very early) wake-up call. As soon as the first glows of dawn appeared in the East, they all started their joyous singing.
With very little to repack we were on our way pretty early and reached the 3rd and last ferry well in time for the first crossing....that was delayed till 10.00 AM due to maintenance.... We could have chosen to cycle along the river and cross the Brotonne bridge downstream, but the national road and large amount of early traffic would not have been fun, so we decided to wait.
Lots of big ships up and down the river. Le Havre and Rouen are very active. Finally, after a 3rd very short crossing to the left bank, we passed Heurteauville, La Mailleraye-sur-Seine, Notre-Dame de Bliquetuit on a very nice quiet road.
The truck and refinery strikes that the country had been experiencing during the past days were now starting to make it hard for drivers to find fuel.
After a brief stop at the 'Maison du Parc', we passed the very imposing Bretonne bridge and realized that we had made the right choice to wait for the ferry. The bridge was under repair with only one lane open, and crossing it with a bike under such conditions would have been quite an experience, if not forbidden...
It was getting picnic time and the bags were empty... Fortunately, the next village down the road, Vatteville-la-Rue, had a small grocery shop that was run by a lovely old lady who carefully wrote down all her sales in a school exercise book. Mauricette Lenormand saved our day (or at least our lunch..).
The village is beautiful and a visit was a must, especially the very peaceful 'thatched roof' street. Old and more recent half timbered houses with thatched roofs and irises growing along the rooftop appeared behind the tall hedges lining the narrow road. Flowers, bushes, trees, roses.. added vivid colours to the dominant green gardens. Magic !
The road from Vatteville to Val Anger, via Aizier and Vieux Port is splendid.
Time for lunch ! We stopped in Aizier in a meadow equipped with picnic tables, right alongside the Seine. The weather was superb, a very welcome change from the rotten Spring we had put up with for so long.
Back on the road towards Trouville-la-Haule. Second leg-warming exercise of the trip, complicated by the sun and the shade.
The steep hill wove through the woods for several kilometers.. Five hundred meters in the hot sun, eight hundred in the very cool shade...alternating... Perfect recipe for pneumonia..
We passed through Sainte Opportune la Mare. Then a long ride down-hill to the Marais Vernier, a place outside time and space..
You can't get lost in the Marais Vernier, there's only one road. It follows the arc of the ancient bend, with houses and farms lining it both sides. Narrow fields, separated by drainage ditches, extend below the road over the central part of the 'Marsh'. Cattle and sheep go about their business in the meadows..
Tall reeds, bushes, willows, fruit trees in bloom and hundreds of birds of all types and sizes add to the uniqueness of the area.
There is only one way out of the Marais Vernier : uphill, over the top of the cliff... So, at La Cour we turned left and patiently made our way to the top, before another downhill ride towards Foulbec.
The last few kilometers to La Rivière Saint Sauveur were no problem. A café helped us locate 'La Catinière' camping grounds, which we had passed on our way into town, meaning a 3km back-track.
The grounds were pretty empty and the lady in charge, for a miserable fee, suggested we try something neither of us had ever seen before : a wooden barrel complete with sleeping and eating quarters !
Of course, we accepted the offer and didn't regret it.
May 25th 2016. Fiquefleur - Bénouville (Pegasus Bridge).
It was quit an experience to sleep in a barrel. One only has to make sure that it is not standing on end.. The heat accumulated inside the wood structure during the previous day slowly dissipated during the night. In the morning it was quite cool inside. The river flowing nearby added to the feeling.. We had breakfast in our 'apartments', being very careful not to tip the gas burner... I don't think that the owner would have appreciated her brand new barrel going up in flames..
Being so close to Honfleur, we decided to cycle into town for a quick visit. Both of us had been there many times but it was nice to go around the little harbour once again. Cars were lining up along one of the streets leading into town in the hope they would be able to get the maximum 20 liters fuel allowed under the current circumstances, before the pumps ran dry..
Our next scheduled stop was Saint André d'Hébertot, the small village where Rémi was born. He hadn't been back there since he left as a child!
On the way we passed under the road that leads to the Normandy bridge. From our angle it looked like a huge 'sail boat' straddling the Seine estuary. Le Havre is on the other side.
After buying a small Normandy flag to add to my safety-flag mast we cycled around the little harbour where the cafés were busy setting up tables and chairs for the bus-loads that would be arriving mid-day.
The quickest way to reach Saint André d'Hébertot was to cycle back to La Rivière Saint Sauveur and follow the road South towards Genneville and Saint Benoît. The hill just outside Saint Sauveur was an excellent leg warmer.
In Genneville, the local petrol station was closed, 'No 95', No 98', No Diesel' signs stuck on each of the three pumps. The roads were quiet.
In Saint Benoît we stopped in front of the Town Hall to talk with the Mayor who was weeding the flower beds.. Rémi introduced himself and in no time the two of them were talking about people long gone and events that happened decades ago, remembering names, places and other occurences.
Time was flying, we had to go. Rémi's village was now only a few kilometers away.
The little one or two street place was beautiful. Very active and full of life in the '50s it has become a dormitory town. The streets were empty, the shops gone, the school barely survives thanks to bussing... Everybody now works in town..
In spite of this sad state of affairs that now affects so many French villages, the place was spotless and very well maintained. The main street was lined with low profile half timbered houses. The church closed the back-end of the street. It seemed to be keeping an eye on the village. Downhill from the church, to the right, behind the trees, the beautiful local château sat in the middle of manucured grounds.
The 'Green Way' from Saint André to Pont l'Eveque is an old converted railway track. It starts a short distance from Rémi's birthplace. Seeing his house some 50 years after leaving it was quite moving for him. Over time, many things had changed in the area, but memories of things past were still vivid !
The cycle path was a dream. It was slightly downhill all the way. The original track, built high above the surrounding fields, was shaded by rows of acacia trees and lined with shrubs and bushes.
The Tourist office in Pont l'Evêque was very helpul and gave us a file containing complete sets of all the cycle tracks in Calvados. This was the first time I had come across such complete and detailed information. Maybe things are finally getting better...Bravo !
Being very near June 6th, the immediate surroundings of the Tourist Office had been decorated along a D-Day theme.
One one side, the replica of an American fighter plane and a short history of its pilot, killed June 14th. 1944, were there to remind us of the high cost of Freedom and of the supreme sacrifice made by so many.
On the other side, the famous lines from Paul Verlaine's poem that were broadcast on British radio, announcing the unbelievable events that were to take place during the night of June 5th/6th... It is impossible to imagine the effect these lines had on those who were clandestinely listening to the radio, in France, that night...
The idea was to head towards Villers sur Mer and then follow the coast to Bénouville. This meant leaving Pont-l'Evêque in a NW direction. The small roads took us through 'post-card' Normandy : beautiful estates, half timbered houses, meadows, orchards full of apple trees in bloom.. It was like a trip through the label of a Réo Camembert box..
Bike trips are always full of surprises.. An old man was sprawling in the grass alongside the little country road. Another one was kneeling next to him, obviously trying to comfort him.. We stopped and asked if they needed help. It occured that the first one had fallen out of a van while phoning ! A youngster had been sent down the road to direct the ambulance they had called...
Shortly after, we reached Villers sur Mer. Nice long descent into town. The weather was superb but the Northerly wind was cold. Town gardeners were busy, preparing for the season..
In spite of the sun, tourists were still wrapped in their winter jackets.
Exiting Villers sur Mer was a first-class calorie burner. The road was straight, steep, endless , with no shade.. Midway up the hill I had to stop to peel off two layers. My waterproof wind- breaker had become a mobile sauna.. Arrival in Auberville, at the top, was much appreciated.
The coastal road took us through a series of small towns, each of them fighting the clock in order to be ready in time for the tourist invasion...
...painters and other council employees busy fixing, planting, cleaning their 'doll-house' city centers...
...flags everywhere, whipping in the wind... multicoloured windmills spinning like mad.. wind socks and kites making desperate efforts to escape into the blue skies...
The feeling was like childhood Summers on Brighton beaches in the early '50s...
Houlgate, Dives sur Mer, Cabourg, Merville-Franceville Plage...
The road finally swung to the South-West. After passing through Sallenelles we reached Bénouville where we had planned to stop. The first bridge crosses the river Orne. The second one, Pegasus Bridge, straddles the canal from Caen to the sea.
It is here that Bill Millin played the pipes while crossing over to the other side, early in the morning of June 6th 1944...
True to form, our campground was once again at the top of the hill, just beyond the village.
Pegasus Bridge. The original structure is displayed in the museum, located just behind the current bridge.
May 26th 2016. Bénouville - Caen - Bénouville.
The whole day was spent visiting the Pegasus Memorial in Bénouville and the Caen Memorial, in Caen.
No need for an early start since the Pegasus Memorial only opened at 9.30 AM. Our fist stop of the day was at "Café Gondrée", which, beyond its primary activity as a café, is an incredible mini museum full of all sorts of souvenirs, photographs, uniforms, documents, etc. accumulated over time by the owners, who claim that their house was the first one on French soil to be liberated during the night of June 5th/June 6th 1944.
No words can describe the Pegasus Memorial and its contents.
One can only look, imagine, keep quiet and meditate.
The main theme of the museum centers around the arrival, during the night of June 5th/June 6th 1944, of an 'armada' of Horsa gliders that silently landed a first wave of troops in the vicinity of the two bridges. These had to be secured, regardless of the human cost, in order to ensure free movement along the coast for troops arriving later by sea. Many of the wooden gliders were lost. Many men, overloaded with equipment, drowned in the marshes.
The museum displays a vast amount of material used in the exercise. In addition to 'hardware', maps, photographs, clothing... many personal items that had belonged to soldiers give an insight into the tragic period.
Bagpipes that belonged to Bill Millin, Lord Lovat's famous piper, who played them under gunfire until they were damaged by two mortar splinters, are displayed in one of the glass cases.
A replica of a Horsa glider is displayed outdoors. An authentic piece of fuselage is shown nearby in a neighboring shed. The original Pegasus Bridge takes up a large area of the outdoor space.
A very moving picture of Sergeant Lanternier, a Green Beret who belonged to the only French unit to have landed June 6th. Picture taken two days after the battle of Ouistrehan.
After spending two hours in the Pegasus Memorial Museum, it was time to race straight South to Caen, to go through the second part of our programme : The Caen Memorial.
However, before launching into the huge Museum we decided, that being lunchtime, it would be perfectly appropriate to 're-fuel' the cyclists.
'Quai 52', one of the many restaurants in the center of the city, took care of this in a professional and pleasant manner, suggesting the local specialty : tripe. It was delicious !
As in Bénouville, it is difficult to describe the place. One is immediately absorbed by the clever set-up of the displays and before long, thrown back in time.
To understand how madness prevailed once again, after the total devastation of the Great War, the Memorial time-line starts in the wake of WWI, The humiliation imposed on Germany bore all the seeds of revenge.. It would only take twenty years for the corporal-painter to drag the entire world into another round of absolute horror.
Many displays illustrate the entrenched beliefs, the intolerance, greed and hatred that led millions down the road to Hell.
The 1929 crisis and the collapse of world economy added fuel to the fire. Another World War would certainly be good for business..
To start with, Pétain, Laval and Vichy relegated France to the side-lines
For the Soviets, the objective was Berlin... They got there but certainly not with a smile on the face..
The many rooms concentrated on the various phases of the war; over land, at sea and in the air.
Horrors, madness, treason and the depths of human abjectness are all there to ponder over. But after hitting the bottom, the awakening of hope, followed by the allied successes that led to the final crushing of the the evil forces, are all richly documented.
We could have spent a week there but could only afford the afternoon. A reason to return...
Today, with dark forces on the rise again, visits to such places should be a must for all, a 'booster shot' to remind the world that Freedom is not an irrevocable 'given'.
While inside, we had not realized that the skies were getting as dark as the final years of the '30s...
Returning to the campground in Bénouville, 15 km away, was a very physical exercise, Hardly two minutes after putting the bikes away the storm broke out, and what a storm !
27th May 2016. Bénouville - Bayeux.
Early start on the last section of the cycle path linking Caen to Ouistreham. Continuation West on the quiet roads along the coast. Dense fog.
Lion sur Mer, Luc sur Mer, Langrune sur Mer, Saint Aubin sur Mer, Courseulles, Ver, Asnelles... Arromanches les Bains. Most of the time on shared roads but traffic was OK and the route pleasant.
Above the fog the sky was blue, the sun was trying its best...just a little wind from the North East. Perfect cycling conditions.
Several stops in the coastal Tourist Offices to enquire about the weather... would the fog dissipate ? Each time, we got the same optimistic answers. After all, tourists are a precious commodity,.
At midday the sun finally cleared the coast.
We stopped for lunch near the cross of Lorraine in Graye sur Mer. It marks the place where Général de Gaulle set foot on French soil June 14, 1944.
We reached Arromanches early afternoon. After seeing the incredible film in the 360° theater, we raced down-hill to Arromanches proper to visit the D-Day Landing museum. It displays very interesting models showing the construction of the artificial port that the allies built in record time to land the thousands of tons of equipment and other goods needed to defeat the enemy.
Time was flying and we still had another item on the programme. We wanted to try and see the Bayeux Tapestry before the museum closed.
After a nice long and steep hill out of Arromanches we got into high gear and covered the 12 km between the two towns in record time. The truth is that from the outskirts of Arromanches, it was slightly down-hill all the way.
First stop : book a small mobile-home at the municipal campground (managed by super people), then race into town, hoping it would not be too late.
We got there in plenty of time, and after hearing the story of Harold, son of Edward the Confessor, and his unfortunate dealings with William the Conqueror, described in detail along the 68m tapestry, we even had time to visit other parts of the museum and watch a film before returning to the campground.
28th May 2016. Bayeux - Sainte Mère Eglise.
Cold, fog, grey everywhere ... Early start through the old town. Brief stop at the cathedral. Continuation towards the cycle track that begins on the West side of town.
The track was rather well sign-posted until we got to an intersection at the city limits. With no counter-indication we crossed over and continued down a rough path lined with trees until we came across an old man walking his dog who informed us that we were going in the wrong direction.. Typical ! We should have turned right at the cross-roads...
The road to Colleville passed through a succession of small, rather sad, empty villages : Vaucelles, Sully, Maisons, Etréham, Russy... Fog made them look even worse..
Visibility was less than 50 m. This added an eerie feeling to the ride towards Colleville. Was the absence of any type of sound gradually preparing us to meet with the incommunicable?
Noboby enters the "Normandy Military Cemetery and Memorial" situated just above Omaha Beach, without going through security. Visitors and bags are checked and anything considered 'unsafe' is kept by the guards for retrieval on the way out. I was thinking that you can't kill people twice, but I guess that sick minds could still inflict some form of damage..
After passing through the metal detector, it seemed that we had suddenly entered another World. This was America in its most solemn portrayal : An absolute respect for the flag and for those who died to defend Freedom.
A very moving film depicted the lives of five servicemen now resting in the cemetery.
The Chapel, the Memorial, the Visitor Center, the lay-out of the gardens, the trees, shrubs, lawns... everything was immaculate.
The white crosses, and among them, a number of Stars of David, were placed in impeccable rows.
Being a few days from the 72nd anniversary of D-Day, all 9 387 graves were marked with small American and French flags.
Silence, Emotion, Reverence..
We spent some time wandering about among the graves, reading names and dates of all these young men who did what they felt they had to do, ultimately giving their lives for a fragile ideal that one should never take for granted : Freedom!
We left this place in silence, each of us in deep thought. Such a visit calls for no comments.
The D514 coastal road then passed through a series of small towns, a total contrast with what we had seen the other side of Arromanches. Lifeless places, many houses and shops for sale, run-down sad villages... quite a change from the spotless, colourful resorts we passed through yesterday. The cold weather and fog only added to the gloom.
Pointe du Hoc. Another place loaded with history, where unbelievable courage led a small group of men to achieved an impossible task... Climb a cliff under German machine-gun fire and neutralize the enemy on top !
A film relates the circumstances. Survivors testify, still overwhelmed by indelebile emotions that time will never erase.
In Grandcamp-Maisy we were 'greeted' by the huge stainless steel statue of Chinese sculptor Yao Yua, a gift from the Chinese people to Normandy, on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of D-Day.
The Tourist Offices in Isigny and Carentan are very active and gave us a lot of useful information. The lady in the Carentan office urged us to extend the trip to Utah Beach, North of Sainte Mère Eglise. We followed her suggestion and did not regret it.
The last kilometers of the day were a pain. The cold weather and fog were wearing us out.
One of the last villages we passed through is worth mentioning. Sébeville is 2.88 square kilometers, has 27 inhabitants and a proportionally sized Town Hall...
The day left us with a odd feeling. Was it caused by our visit to the American Cemetery, to the Pointe du Hoc ? Was it the weather ? Probably a combination of the two.
Late afternoon we finally reached the Sainte Mère campground run by a very active and pleasant couple. A warm shower and an excellent meal at the family run 'La Pomme d'Or', located just off the main square, dissipated a day-full of undescribable feelings. The shot of Calvados offered by the owner soothed the mind for a peaceful night.
29th May 2016. Sainte-Mère-Eglise - Utah Beach - Saint Lô.
Early start to have time for all the items on the programme. Beautiful weather.
First stop, the Airborne Museum where we were the first ones in.. It comprises several buildings, each with its own theme, but all mainly related to aviation. A Waco glider and a Douglas C-47 occupy large areas inside two of the halls. The glider is full of dummies awaiting to jump out on landing. The C-47 is surrounded by other uniformed dummies performing various duties around the plane. Many display boxes show equipment, clothing, documents, maps, song books, tools and personal belongings donated or collected.
Another building contains a life-size model of the cabin of a paratrooper plane, complete with dummies, 'light and sound' effects, the vibrations of flight, screens showing other planes and even cold air blowing through the rear door. Going through it was quite an experience.. Other set-ups in the same building showed ground action in or around Ste Mère during that first night.
The most moving part of the visit was the 15 minute film shown in the Ronald Reagan Conference Building. No words can describe the feelings produced by what was probably the most powerful message heard during our visit of the D-Day beaches.
The two hours spent there were far too short but we had to get on with the programme.
An incredible photograph showing German doctors (prisoners) working with American doctors in the Ste Mère Hospital.
Utah Beach is only a few kilometers from Sainte Mère. The small roads leading there run between hedges and drained grass lands. The spring breeze carried all sorts of scents that came and went : hawthorne, sorrel, hay, etc. and as we got closer to the coast, the strong smell of the sea. Patches of yellow irises grew in the ditches along the road.
During the war the area was a huge marsh that the enemy flooded in order to prevent allied troops from landing there. Today the marshes have been drained and are used for all sorts of agricultural purposes.
Our road to the coast ended in front of the Leclerc monument, where one is reminded of the Oath of Koufra. March 1st 1941, Général Leclerc's men took the following oath :
"Let us swear not to lay down our arms until our colours, our beautiful colours, fly atop the Strasbourg cathedral"
The sandy beach is huge and very flat and extends North and South over many kilometers. We got there at low tide. The sea was far away.
The Utah Beach museum was also very interesting. The theme here centered mostly around the sea, ships and landing equipment. But there was also an authentic B-26 "Marauder" on display, one of the very few left in the world. Many other items were shown. The Tourist Office in Carentan was right. Utah Beach should not be missed !
It was more than 1.00 PM when we left Utah Beach and we had only done 15 km... We caught the Euro 4 cycle track (Roscoff to Kiev...), but in the direction of Le Mont Saint Michel and Roscoff, since our route was similar.
Near Carentan, we were informed by the driver of a passing car that there was a seal colony on the West bank of the Vire estuary. Even though we were still many kilometers away from Saint Lô, we took time to cycle down a small farm road into the fields to observe the seals.
No doubt, they were neither logs nor tree trunks stranded on the mud banks. A low-flying plane rehearsing for D-Day went by and the seals all looked up to watch it !
In Carentan the Cycle track sign-posting suddenly stopped, leaving us on the main square with no idea where to go next. This often happens and is very frustrating.
Finally, a couple of elderly people got us back on the right track and soon we were cycling along the Taute, a quiet river lined both sides with willows.
One of the drawbacks of the official cycle tracks is that they often tend to take cyclists on long (unnecessary) tours through the countryside, between towns or villages.
Consequently, to save time and mileage, we chose to leave the official route since we still had quite a distance to cover. From where we were, we drew a straight line to Pont Hebert, saving at least 10 km.. From there we got back on the cycle track leading into Saint Lô, where we arrived at 6.30 PM.
We had no idea where we were going to stay that night. Fortunately we met a very helpful cyclist who directed us to the "Auberge Normande", a lovely little hotel managed by an elderly couple, just off the main square. Rooms and food were available !
The bikes were unloaded and stored in a shed at the back. The food served was excellent and at 10.30 PM the cyclists were in bed, lights out, their heads spinning like tops after having been exposed to so much during the incredible week along the D-Day beaches.
30th May 2016. Saint Lô - Sourdeval.
Probably one of the most 'physical' stages I have ever experienced !
We departed from our excellent little hotel rather early and headed to the Tourist Office on the square. The idea was to ask them to stamp our 'travel books'. No luck, it is closed on Sundays (yesterday) and only opens at 2.00 PM on Mondays.
Passing by the "Manche Libre" newpaper office we decided to have a go there. The super receptionist not only filled one more box in our books but also gave us a handful of give-aways, wishing us good luck for the remainder of our trip.
The cycle path follows the quiet Vire river through woods and fields.
I couldn't help taking a picture of an old Poclain excavator rusting away at the back end of a yard. Needless to say that it had known better days. Having worked for that company for many years, it was sad to see the old friend in such a miserable condition.
A new battery and a coat of paint and it would be back to work. (They leaked so much that they never rusted..)
Sometimes the cycle track was nothing more that a very narrow path sunk deep down between wooded banks. By experience it is in such places that holes and other wheel-traps hide..
No particular issue until we reached Tessy sur Vire. Quick stop for picnic food and off again towards "La Souleuvre".
The ambush was set up a few kilometers from Pont Farcy. The road turned left just after a self- catering holiday cottage near the river, and suddenly, the (first) 10% gradient was there, with no warning.
It was then up and down on roads like this for the next several kilometers -which seemed like hundreds... Sweating and cursing on the way up and holding the brakes on the way down, for fear of running into a tractor, a herd of cows or the post office delivery-van round a corner.. It went on, and on, and on...
At a cross roads we were about to embark on the signposted road when a small van stopped right behind us. The driver asked us where we were going. He suggested we take the other road instead. He explained that the cycle track we intended to follow went through another set of serious ups and downs.
Before leaving, he told us that he ran a small garage down the road and that we were welcome to stop there on our way by.
We followed his advice and within 10 minutes of a very acceptable road we were in his yard. After a bit of conversation and a tyre pressure check we were off again. He had told us to wait till we got to "La Souleuvre" to have lunch, since the place was supposed to be quite interesting and well equipped for picnics.
Once again we listened to our 'saviour' and after a long ride through the countryside on the Mont Saint Michel cycle route, we finally arrived at La Souleuvre, located at the bottom of a very deep valley that was once spanned by a viaduct.
The viaduct pillars are now used for bungee jumping (€140 per jump and € 60 for an optional picture session; thank you very much...).
The bottom of the valley was converted into a multi-activity leisure park, most of which was run by a young couple. We had a long talk with them. A lot of work and money had been invested in the project. Initial results were promising. Good luck !
Time was running and we were far from our intended stop. Additionally, the morning average had not been great..
Since we were not following the valley, there was only one way out : up-hill ! It was not as bad as we had expected and once on top again, the cycle path followed a former railway track on a very slight uphill incline. To add a little more flavour to the ride, from menacing, the weather turned to miserable.
Rainy Vire left no lasting memories. The cycle path skirts the city and we were in no mood for a visit. The day had been long enough.
Finally, in Sourdeval, after getting lost once again due to very poor signposting, we ended up at Mrs Boscher's lovely B&B.
[A few hundred meters from our destination we came across the first "Contribution to Culture" of the trip (see my other article on the subject..). It was sitting in the middle of a roundabout. It was supposed to represent a salmon....]
For dinner, we dug out all the left-overs from lunch to organise a meal in our 'apartments'. There wasn't much, but no way were we going back into town...
31st May 2016. Sourdeval - Courtils (Near Le Mont Saint Michel).
Needless to say, breakfast was more than welcome.. In addition to fresh strawberries and plenty of home-made goodies, our hostess had prepared a beautiful 'Teurgoule'. It's a brown-topped, slow oven-baked version of a rice pudding.. Delicious... We ate it all...
Too much talking = late departure (once again.. but who cares, this was not a race..).
The people at the Tourist Office were very helpful and gave us each a folder containing all the cycle paths ot the Manche département. Two in a row : things were improving !
Soon after leaving Sourdeval the weather screwed up once again, compelling us to pull out the rain clothes. Quick stop in Mortain to fill the food bags that had been depleted. From there we got on the Domfront - Mortain - St Hilaire - Mont St Michel green way. An endless and not very interesting route on moderate ups and downs.
In St Hilaire we took advantage of a new shelter built just alongside the track at the intersection of one of the main roads leading into town. Well equipped with benches and a large picnic table. Better than standing in the rain for lunch.
Last kilometers on the Mont Saint Michel cycle path. Much better than this morning since the rain had stopped.
When I came in 2012, the path ended in Pontaubault. It now goes all the way to the Mont Saint Michel, on small quiet country roads, more or less following the coast.
There was no sign indicating Courtils. Fortunately, before having gone too far a farmer redirected us and within a few minutes we got to our destination.
I had chosen to return to 'L'Antre de Brocéliande', a lovely B&B run by Mme Martine Ménager. Four years ago her hospitality had been 'A1'. This time was the same. Excellent hostess and very convenient address !
During the last 150 kilometers the bikes had been through rain and mud. Martine got her hose out of the shed and in no time bikes and bags were clean again.
For dinner, she drove us to neighboring Ceaux by car for an excellent meal at 'Le P'tit Quinquin' and came back to collect us when we were done !
June 1st 2016. Courtils - Saint Coulomb (near St Malo).
During breakfast we met a couple, both in their late 60's. The husband was from Hamburg in Germany. Having heard us talk to Martine of our ride along the D-Day beaches, they offered to share the most unbelievable, but authentic family 'secret', with us.
One of the husband's forebears was President of the Vienna Painters' Academy selecting-committee, at the time when a 'Corporal-Artist' applied for admission. His paintings were turned down and Adolf pursued another carreer....
When he finally became Chancellor, the husband's family ended up in jail. Obviously, they were eventually released.
It is difficult to imagine what might have happened to History had the 'Corporal-Artist' been admitted...
The bikes had spent the night in Martine's shed and were dry in the morning. A shot of grease and a brake pad change and we were off to 'La Roche Torin'. It was low tide and the sea was far away. Huge stretches of sand and mud lay before us. Pilgrims were out there crossing the bay in single-file, careful to follow the guide to avoid the many quick sand traps.
We spent quite a while there taking many pictures of the incredible view of the Mont Saint Michel beyond the 'prés salés' ('salt meadows' - meadows often covered by the sea at high tide).
After soaking up the incredible views, we left the 'prés salés' to the sheep and wind and headed towards the German Military Necropolis in Huisnes sur Mer, located a few kilometers down the road.
My feelings remained the same as during the first visit. Total incomprehension and infinite sadness. The remains of eleven thousand German soldiers rest here, side by side, in small tenebrous cubicles, condemned to the torments of eternal darkness... Was the impression of "Peace", felt in Colleville, reserved for victors alone?
Another quick glance at Le Mont Saint Michel that we were about to visit once again, only this time, as an island...
After cycling past the very controversial (compulsory and outrageously expensive) car park and the row of hotels and shops loaded with "Made in China" souvenirs, we reached the new bridge that now allows a free flow of water around the Mount. An all-day hop-on, hop-off bus service now brings the disgruntled motorists and other tourists from the car park, taking them back after the visit.
Cyclists are still relatively free to go right up to the main entrance. However, three quarters of the way there, we were told by an 'security' employee that bikes were prohibited on the bridge from 10.00AM to 6.00PM. Having seen no sign confirming this, we just continued our way, and once there, tied the bikes to a post right next to the local police van.
The place was already busy with tour groups following guides holding umbrellas, flags or other markers. Difficult to walk on the very narrow street leading to the top. Lots of people, lots of noise. Tourists came and went, running from one shop to the next like a cloud of swirling starlings in October. Picture sessions, selfies, post cards and a box of 'La Mère Poulard' biscuits and they were off, back to the bus... mission accomplished !
Not much fun fighting the swarms. When we left, the sea was still miles out. Hopefully, next time, we'll the see the Mount as an island ..
The cycle path follows the river Couesnon (border between Normandy and Brittany), on the right bank, for a while.
When you don't check the map, you end up in the middle of hundreds of acres of vegetable fields, on a path leading nowhere... Row after row of asparagus, red beets, carrots, potatoes, but no sign of the cycle path leading to the coast. Fortunately we met a postman on one of his rounds to the isolated farms. The good man got us back on the right road.
It took us through a succession of polders and "salt meadows", huge sand beaches where dozens of land sailing carts were having a jolly time.
The coast is lined with windmills. Some converted into houses, others still in working condition.
We stopped in La Saline to visit the Tourist Office and the windmill next door. Entrance is free of charge and the displays were all very interesting.
The road along the coast is very flat. All the villages seemed fast asleep. Maybe it was because of the cold North East wind that had been following us since we first hit the coast near Honfleur.
Le Vivier sur Mer, Hirel, Saint Benoît des ondes...quaint little towns still preserved from the appetites of voracious building promoters..
In St Méloir des Ondes, after many kilometers on easy roads, we were suddenly reminded that the coast is not always flat after all.. The hill up to the D76 was short but steep !
Sign posting for the 'Tour de Manche'/ 'EV4' cycle tracks (our road) was again very poor to non-existant. OK, it's difficult to get lost when one follows the coast, but when approaching a larger town, good signage helps save time and unnecessary kilometers.
The grey skies and North East wind put a dampner on Cancale, a usually cheerful place, where tourists were running around in ski jackets..
Contrary to the weather, the young lady at the Tourist Office was positive and full of enthusiasm, providing us with all the necessary information to reach St Coulomb where we had planned to stop for the night. The Tourist Office in St Coulomb was just as helpful, setting us up at La Guimorais, one of the small hamlets just outside the city limits.
The only negative point of the day was the feeling that we'd been seriously cheated at the local 'crêperie'. The food was bad and expensive, service was awful and the place noisy, a disgrace for the Guild they claimed to belong to.
2nd June 2016. Saint Coulomb - Saint Méen le Grand.
Early start towards Saint Malo under menacing skies. After a few kilometers of drizzle the weather stabilized and remained dry for the remainder of the day. We entered 'the Privateer City', as St Malo is called, along the sea front. The music of a gym class down on the beach was blasting out of a set of powerful loud speakers. The participants' enthusiasm was inversely proportional to the volume.
Inside the walls, the city was waking up. Streets lined with the same brand shops one sees in every town around the country, hotels, souvenir shops, restaurants... nothing very exciting.
After a quick look around we decided to go check the ferries to Dinard, located on the other side of the Rance estuary. A slight misunderstanding between Rémi and I on what we wanted to do next led us to board the 10.10AM ferry instead of the following one sailing at 10.50. (The events of the day finally confirmed that it was the right choice after all..)
We got to Dinard in a matter of minutes. From the boat, a concrete breaker led to the corniche road; at least that's what we thought..
At the end of the incline one had to climb a flight of stairs that linked the small ferry-office platform to the street above. From what we understood later, a boarded-up lift had been out of order for many years..
While we had been able to drive the bikes onto the ferry with all bags attached, we were now left with no other option than to take them all off, cart everything upstairs and re-assemble once on top.
In the process we ended up helping several elderly people with wheel chairs faced with the same dilemma. I complained to the ferry ticket office. Their only response was that they had informed Town Hall many times... Poor, very poor !!
There was not much to see or do in town. The Plage de l'Ecluse (beach) was empty. So was the sea-water swimming pool. After all, it wasn't Summer yet....
The Tourist Office 'noted' our complaint about the stairs. All involved seemed to be passing the buck : the ferry company, town hall, the region... Ten years from now, it'll still be the same !
Access to the green path was another frustrating exercise. It was finally discovered at the back end of a piece of waste-land behind the Media Center.
The green path, once out of Dinard, was a glorious ride. Well compacted dirt or gravel sections, narrow tar-top roads, lanes, river towpaths.. Quick stop in Pleurtuit to buy lunch food..
The green path ran through fields and woods, sometimes passing by interesting pieces of 'art', such as the fox and chicken painted under a bridge or the metal sculptures of a local artist, displayed in a field.
For a while we cycled along the Rance river, straight South towards Dinan. The ride then became a little more 'physical'. Finally the first signs indicating Saint Méen le Grand appeared. On entering the town, we passed the "Louison Bobet" water-tower.
The Tourist office was closed. As we were about to leave, an old man came out of the neighbouring building. We asked him if there were any B&Bs in town, or a small hotel. He had no idea but told us that the lady at the Tourist office was probably still at her desk, and opened the door with his pass...
Seriously annoyed by the intrusion of the former keeper, she nevertheless told us that there was a small hotel on the square, at the top of the hill. We apologized for the disturbance and thanked her for the information. The smile on her face told us there was no longer an issue..
Half an hour later we were in our room at 'Hôtel des 3 pilliers', the bikes locked up in the corridor downstairs.
Lovely little hotel, excellent food... and 777km on the odometer since we had left Rouen.
3rd June 2016. Saint Méen - Redon.
We were the first (and only) ones in the Louison Bobet museum, located at the rear of the Tourist Office.
The little museum is a jewel. The displays, photographs and films describe the life of this cycling giant of the '50's, born and raised in Saint Méen : three-time Winner of Le Tour de France (1953-1954-1955); Road Cycling World Champion in 1954 and Winner of Paris-Roubaix in 1956.
For 90 minutes we shared Louison's multi-faceted life. In those days, the word sport had a different meaning, and racing bikes weighed 11 kg..
Time to leave.
From Saint Méen it was straight South to Mauron. We entered Morbihan at Saint Léry.
Passed a meadow full of donkeys. Couldn't resist this one...
Signposting in Mauron was no better than elsewhere. But cyclo-tourists loaded like mules eventually find their way. Usually it isn't long before people come and talk, ask questions, provide directions (that can be conflicting if two people are involved..), and tell us how lucky we are to go on such trips etc..
We reached the next stop in Paimpont in time for our midday picnic that was had on a bench in the park, right next door to an old folks' home. We couldn't help thinking about the last comments heard in Mauron.
Paimpont is in the heart of the Brocéliande forest, an Arthurian legend mecca. The main street of the village, leading to the church square, is lined with shops selling all sorts of 'Round Table' junk ... fairy statues, swords, clothing, jewelry, postcards, books and other gaudy souvenirs most of which came from Asia..
The Tourist Information office was full of posters and offers for theme walks through the forest, conferences, and other Lancelot & Co events..
The Holy Grail is good business.
The up and down road through the beautiful forest then took us to Guer and then, on to La Gacilly, which was celebrating Japan.
The small city was decorated with huge posters of famous Japanese sites... Mount Fuji, cherry trees... A string of Koinobori flags (the carp shaped 'wind socks') spanned the river.
A delegation of officials was leading a group of Japanese people through town. A Samurai , holding a horse mounted by an imitation Geisha, opened the way.
In spite of running in 'overload mode', the Tourist office very kindly made hotel arrangements for us in Redon.
The last leg of the stage was long and rather monotonous. Most of the time was spent on the tow path of a section of the Nantes-Brest canal. Water on one side, trees on the other in endless straight lines. Not much to do other than look out for big roots cropping out from the poplar trees on the right side.
Hotel "Le France" (after the ship, not the country) was very conveniently situated in the city, near the canal. Pleasant welcome, clean and inexpensive rooms. The bikes were unloaded and stored in the basement.
Excellent dinner at "La Brasserie des Halles" run by a rather earthy but likeable individual.
No fairy tales needed. The 95 km done during the day knocked us out as soon as we hit the pad !
4th June 2016. Redon - Saint Nolff. Last stage of the trip.
Early departure on the road to Vannes, starting with a few kilometers on the D775, followed by a turn-off towards Rieux and St Dolay. Easy roads but quite a lot of traffic since the two main river crossings are located in La Roche Bernard and Arzal, the two towns we were heading to.
The road took us through Ferel and towards the Arzal Dam where we stopped for lunch.
After so many days of cold weather, it was finally getting warm. I guess the reason was that we were getting closer to the 'microclimate' that protects the Gulf of Morbihan.
Crossing the dam is no issue at low tide. It can take longer at high tide when one of the sections opens to let the boats through.
We passed through Arzal village but missed our road and went too far North. This added a few unnecessary kilometers to the ride, but as soon as we reached Muzillac we were OK. The road from Muzillac to Saint Armel/Le Passage, the "ferry port", goes through Ambon and Surzur. Being Saturday, there was heavy traffic on the first section. After Surzur we were back on a small country road winding through the scents of pine and oak forests, fields and meadows.
It was our lucky day in St Armel. The small ferry crossing 'Le Chenal de Saint Léonard', was operating. During Spring months, before the holiday season, it only sails weekends.. This option saved us many unpleasant kilometers. Had it not been running, we would have had to cycle along the main road and make our way to destination through a string of small villages, strewn over a rather hilly countryside.
Less than two minutes after the ferry left St Armel it reached Montsarrac on the other side. The final leg was covered in no time. The aluminium donkeys knew their way to the stables !
At 6.00 PM we crossed the finish line together, to the applause of our wives. Our third trip together was now over, but the 1,000 kms covered during the two-week outing were still packed tight and spinning in our minds.
As usual, it would take time to unwind.
Memories, Feelings, Emotions, History, Memorials, Pictures, Stamps in our travel books.. Wind, Beaches, Sand, Fog and Light, Hills, Rivers and Countryside..
People we met..and all those who came and never went back... yes, it would take time to unwind !