If Andrew and I were giving tourist offices stars according to their helpfulness, the one in Boulogne-Sur-Mer, Ville Arrivée for Stage Three, would have earned four stars, our highest rating. The woman in charge eagerly answered all our questions and offered to make a copy of The Tour's third stage without our even asking. She also gave us detailed instructions of how to find a bike shop and the library and wrote out their names for us, unlike most tourist offices, so we knew precisely what to look for. Her only slip was assuring us the library was open on Mondays. I know they often aren't, and this one wasn't, a bummer not only denying us Internet, but forcing us to go up another of the long steep climbs that lace this city along The Channel. One of those long steep climbs will be the finishing stretch for the stage, once again thwarting the sprinters.
Nor was the bike shop open on Monday, but that allowed us to go to the huge sporting goods chain department store Decathlon on the outskirts of the city. They offer some decent quality goods. Andrew was not only able to replace his sagging and sodden leather seat but acquire a set of rear panniers for a mere 18 euros. Now he looks more like the serious touring cyclist that he is rather than just some dilettante with bags piled up on his rack. And it greatly expands his carrying capacity.
This Decathlon also offered free showers, catering to its outdoor clientele. We we short on time and not all that desperate, but that is something we could take advantage of when we return to Boulange in two weeks. I am very curious to learn if all Decathlons offer such an amenity. This was the first I'd ever noticed. They can be found at most of the larger cities in France. If they all come with showers, that will be almost as great a discovery as that cemeteries have water. Andrew didn't know about the cemeteries on his first bike tour in France and was often desperately floundering about, even knocking on people's doors asking for water. Now he's developed a sixth sense for cemeteries. He spotted one off in the distance that hadn't caught my eye as we left Abbeville, start of Stage Four, Sunday evening.
Filling up with water there allowed us to camp a little sooner than we had anticipated. We were both exhausted after a day of steep climbs on narrow roads. We had entrusted our navigation from Albert to Abbeville to Andrew's Garmin GPS device, entering in shortest route. It took us along an extraordinary array of small byways that locals probably didn't know about--farm tracks through fields mostly used by tractors, a three-mile stretch on a dirt service road under a column of wind generators and on narrow paths for non-motorized vehicles. It made for a fascinating ride, but also very demanding. We were happy to make the final ten-mile run into Abbeville on a real highway even with all the traffic.
But we needed that quiet respite after being on main roads from Epernay to Reims and then to St. Quentin. We wanted to get to all three cities in time before tourists offices closed. It was a struggle finding the one in St. Quentin as it didn't have the usual banner out front but rather a new version that our eyes just glanced past. We biked right by the tourist office and then had to start asking, as the signs to it were limited, in contrast to most towns. We'd been feeling great about being in St. Quentin as the roundabout that welcomed us had a flower display of France with a bicyclist and also a pair of sculptured bikes, one with a cyclist in a yellow jersey and the other in green, letting all know it was a Tour Ville Etape (photos at http://fatseas.com ). While we lingered taking photos motorists gave us friendly toots and waves, including a Tour team car. The town plaza also had a few original bike sculptures.
The woman at the tourist office apologized for not having a schedule of Tour events available yet. She also apologized for her English, though it was perfectly adequate. She was quite a contrast to the man in the tourist office in the large city of Reims. He acted as if he expected an apology from us for intruding upon him. He let us know in four different ways that he wished we'd go away. It was almost like a Monty Python routine. Andrew and I were so entertained by him we lingered as long as we could. He was an older guy with the air of a university professor way too good to be dealing with tourists. He might have been auditioning for the Paris tourist office by being as rude as he could be. He at first ignored us when we came up to his counter. When he finally gave us some attention he only allowed us a couple of questions, then turned his attention to someone else who had stepped up to the counter. When he finished with her and saw that we were still there he disappeared into the back. When he returned and we were still there, he went to a drawer for some brochures to restock a cabinet out front.
He took offense to my very first question, asking if he could tell us how to leave the city towards St; Quentin. "You're traveling by bike and you don't have a map?" he exclaimed. "You can go next door and get a good Michelin map for six euros."
"We have a good map, we just need to know how to get out of the city," I replied. At that he pulled out a city map and showed us the way. We asked about the Carnegie library we had just visited, if he knew if the Art Deco chandelier was an original. "Of course," he said. Then we quicly bombarded him with an array of questions we had been wondering about--how it came to be that all the kings of France were crowned in the Reims cathedral, if Joan of Arc had visited, how near was it that Louis XVI had been apprehended when he tried to flee the country. At one point I said, "I have just one more question." That was the Louis XVI question. It was less than 50 miles to the east.
He let me sneak in an extra question with only minimal protest when I asked if a monument marked the spot. "No," he replied, but then added, "It is a very important event in the history of France so there is of course a plaque." After we walked out, we wanted to go back in and ask him if it was done raining, but only knew he scream at us that he wasn't a weatherman and how dare us bother him with such a question. After that I would have asked if a French rider had a chance to win The Tour de France to see if he would fully explode, but we left him in peace. But recounting this episode with the most easily aggravated tourist official in all of France the next few days kept us mightily entertained.
We encountered an even less helpful woman at the Metz tourist office, another Ville Etape, who wouldn't go to The Tour website to provide us with The Tour route into Metz as most tourist offices had. But she was a summer intern who had much to learn. Andrew gave her a slightly higher rating than my zero stars because she was the prettiest woman in a tourist office we have dealt with.
We're presently closing in on Belgium and The Tour start in Liege. Andrew manages a daily update with photos at http://fatseas.com in his tent every night on his Iphone, so I don't feel as pressured as usual to try to find Internet. We were lucky to find this place just before closing time late this afternoon.