Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Cherbourg, France

Friends: It took us six tries, our most by far, to find a suitable campsite on our ninth and final night of camping together. The farms were smaller and closer together as we approached Mont St. Michel in this part of Brittany, and the pockets of forests were more lines of trees than clusters.

We were in no panic though, as it was only seven p.m. when we started our search, with more than three hours before dark. It was ironic, as the night before, within a tenth of a mile after we reached our goal of 100 miles for the day, we came upon a field that was just perfect for camping, as had generally been the case our entire time together. The cycling gods evidently didn't wish us to be quitting so early this night.

The first place we attempted was near a pond where someone was fishing. The next was on the fringe of a wheat field that we learned was a walking path. As we were scouting it out, an elderly couple out for an evening stroll came upon us. We tried turning off on a couple of dirt roads a bit later, but one ended abruptly with a sharp drop-off before it had gotten far enough from the main road and the other dead-ended at a field of wheat with no gap for our tents. A nearby pile of manure sent us on our way as well. We tried another slightly overgrown farm road, but some
of its vegetation included the dreaded stinging nettles, making it another no-go.

A few miles later we chose to turn off on a small side road which led to larger fields with more trees and fewer farmhouses. In less than a quarter mile we had our field, and none too early, as for the first time in our time together it started to sprinkle. Craig never got a chance to test his tired, old, leaking poncho, which he had revitalized with a bottle of "water-proofing" spray that had cost him ten euros. Nor did he get to see how easily the rain can penetrate his non-waterproof panniers and the plastic bags he had all his clothes wrapped in. If we'd had rain, better rain gear and panniers would have been at the top of his list of things he'd do differently next time.

He was so well prepared otherwise, he'd probably only make minor adjustments to his gear and set-up. One thing he'll probably add is a kick-stand. Several nights he had no tree to lean his bike against and had to lay it on its side. He also had to restrict his pee stops to places where he could lean his bike. Other times when he had small mechanical problems (a thrown chain, a ripped off hook on his front pannier, debris caught in his spokes or fenders) there hadn't been something to lean his bike against either. I went years without a kickstand until I traveled with someone who did and I saw how much easier it made the touring.

Craig will only bring two shirts, rather than three, next time. As it was, he wore the same shirt, just as I did, the entire time, washing it once or twice a day and letting it dry in the breeze on our backs. He wouldn't start out with as much food. He only ate half of the two pounds of figs and pound of almonds he brought. And he might bring one of Onni's "New Yorkers" for evening reading. It wasn't as easy finding discarded newspapers as he thought it would be. Nor was he interested in reading the year-old paper he found along the road one day.

It was a short 42 miles to Mont St. Michel after our final night of camping. As we neared it, road signs began referring to it as "Le" Mont St. Michel, giving it that honorific "Le" such as precedes Mont Ventoux and Alpe de Huez. It wasn't until we were within three miles of the final straightaway that it suddenly popped up above the trees and we saw it for the first time.
Close to four million people visit it each year, making it France's second biggest tourist attraction after Disney Paris. That's over 10,000 a day, and many more during peak season.

A Monday in early June was probably an average day. The traffic wasn't bad, but the tight confines of the Mont's streets made it seemed mobbed. Most people were hiking up to the Benedictine Abbey at its summit. Few hiked the kilometer around the base of this former island now linked by a high enough road that it rarely is submerged, though the parking lots around it
can be at high tides. The person at the tourist office wasn't recommending the perimeter walk, as there were stretches where we had to cling to a fence if we didn't wish to get our feet wet.

We spent a couple of hours at Mont St. Michel, enjoying one final picnic together. We sat across from a parked loaded touring bike, hoping to meet its rider. Based on his bike and equipment, he was English. I wanted to ask which ferry he might recommend to England. The people at the two nearby tourists offices didn't have much information. I didn't know whether to take the one from St. Malo, about 30 miles to the west, or the one from Cherbourg, 90 miles north. There were too many considerations to go into here, but as you can see from this dateline, I opted for the longer ride up to Cherbourg for the four-hour, rather than the eight-hour ferry.

I was hoping Craig might decide to continue on to England for a few days, as it was only June 11, and Onni wasn't expecting him back until the middle of the month. His translating abilities could probably continue to be helpful on the other side of the Channel, as I accustom myself to their version of English. Plus I was getting used to our shared grapefruit each morning before we set out. And it was nice to have that extra pair of eyes to appreciate all there was to see along the road. The rolling, lush green landscape was never without interest and there were plenty of sights to behold beyond the countless chateaus and cathedrals and medieval farm houses. We'd become adept at spotting the same things, even when we were tightly drafting. When I asked Craig, when he was on my wheel, if he had noticed the upraised thumb from a passing motorist, he said he did and then asked, "Did you see the blond beside him? We should have given him an upraised thumb for his trophy wife."

Before we set out Craig wasn't sure if he would take a train home or possibly bike. At 135 euros the train would cost more than twice as much as he spent in his ten days of biking. When we parted, he was headed to the train station 40 miles away in Rennes, but I was hoping he would be so infected with the joy of being on his bike he would just keep on riding all the way back to Notre Dame de Riviere.

Regardless, I continued on feeling Mission Accomplished! I'd had a great ten days with Craig and I had at last given him a good taste of the incomparable joy and ease of touring France by bicycle. It is almost criminal that he has spent six months or more the past twelve years in France and never ranged further than 25 or 30 miles from his home on his bike despite his great passion for riding.

He has ten bikes hanging in his French basement and another three back in Chicago. For years he has told me about his many biking friends in Chicago, some of whom have become friends of mine, who vow every year to come visit Craig and bike around France. But every year they find a reason to postpone, promising next year will be the year. Maybe now that Craig has done it himself, his enthusiasm will finally inspire them. Its a shame so few are enjoying the fabulous French byways on their bikes.

On to Great Britain, George

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