We loved France. There are many aspects that collectively make a place enjoyable for bike touring or not; the people, the scenery, the roads, the food, the weather, just to name a few. We had fairly decent weather and only had to endure a few miserably rainy days during our 2 week tour and aside from the fact that France is also a country who loves their always inconvenient siestas in the middle of every afternoon, we had no complaints.
It's always good to see other cyclists on the roads and though we only saw a couple of other touring cyclists, there was no doubt that France in big into cycling. Every day we passed dozens of riders which generally means that drivers are more aware of our presence, and that's always comforting. It makes for pleasant riding when vehicles actually slow down, move over and don't make you feel like you have no right being on the road.
France also was an extremely environmentally friendly country. The roads were void of broken glass bottles, there were recycling bins placed next to the garbage dumpsters in nearly every village and it was impossible to find plastic bags in the supermarkets; it was bring your own or go without. It was so nice being able to enjoy the natural beauty of the land without having to try and look past the ugly litter that can be seen in so many beautiful places. Instead we got to sit back and take in the fields of wheat waving in the wind, the cherry orchards with their branches dropping with sweet, red fruits, the endless vineyards, the river gorges and the towering mountains. The landscapes in France were diverse and beautiful and took our minds off the amount of effort required of us to pedal our way through the challenging terrain.
Of course I have to mention the food. Although we didn't indulge ourselves in their extensive wine selection, we did sample a fair share of their cheeses and being two people who love cheese, we were in high heaven. There were hundreds of varieties and we didn't find one that wasn't delicious. But the thing that sticks out most in my mind in relation to food is how much the French love their baguettes! We enjoy them too, to a certain extent, but can only eat so much of that hard, crusty bread before it tears apart the roofs of our mouths. We often ate our lunch in front of a bakery and during the hour that we sat there, literally every person that walked by and every car that drove past stopped and the customer came out with a baguette, or 2, under their arm. The French walk around with baguettes like Americans walk around with newspapers; it is quite a funny sight.
Cari with her baguette under arm.
I have to admit that I wasn't expecting to feel overwhelmingly welcome in France given the stereotypes of the French as being somewhat standoffish and though many of them know English, not wanting to speak it. I am happy to say that those stereotypes couldn't be further from the truth and for the first time since we left the U.S., we were showered with incredible hospitality. There were cyclists who passed us on the roads and people outside the supermarkets who offered to let us stay at their homes, shower, do laundry or whatever we needed. It was wonderful to once again have random strangers approach us, offer their assistance and even though it didn't always work because we either weren't going through their town or weren't ready to stop for the day, they still wanted to help so would give us contact info for their friends and family somewhere up the road. But every once in a while someone came along at just the right moment and we owe incredible amounts of thanks to many people in France.
To Brigitte and Jerome for letting us camp in your back yard, a delicious dinner and helping us map our route to the Alps. To Christophe and Sonia who happened to drive around a corner just as we stopped in a tiny village to knock on doors and ask for water. Before we knew it we had water, hot showers, dinner with their adorable family, maps galore pulled out to help us plan a spectacular, yet extremely challenging, route to Chamonix and we were sent on our way with beautiful gifts of wooden pens hand made by Christophe. To the family who was sitting on their front balcony having cocktails when we pulled up to ask for water. We were frantically searching for a place camp before the charcoal-gray curtain of rain and thunder and lightening that was chasing us up the valley engulfed us. Though none of them spoke a word of English and our 5 words of French weren't enough to legitimately ask if they knew a place nearby where we could camp, some tent and sleeping charades got our point across and without even a moment's thought we were showed to their side yard and invited to sleep inside their garden shed. Less than 10 minutes later the deluge struck and there was no way our increasingly worn out tent would have kept us dry in a storm like that. And finally to Johann and Emilie who pulled over while we were stopped and taking pictures on the side of the road. They had just returned a month ago from a year-long bike journey with their young son, Swan, and though they had only moved into their tiny house a couple of days before and didn't have enough space for us to sleep inside, we were invited to camp in their front yard. Again we had hot showers, a delicious home-cooked meal and wonderful new friends to spend the evening with. We are grateful to all of the people who showed us the real France.
Camping in front of Yohann and Emilie's little house.
Dinner with Yohann, Emilie, Swan, their brother-in-law and Mike.
Our final two days in France couldn't have been more spectacular. At last we had reached the Alps and the weather actually cooperated, enabling us to see the mighty Mont Blanc. Nothing we have ever seen can compare to the views of when you're standing down in the valley with Mt. Blanc and the Chamonix Needles towering above. It's as if these perfectly jagged, snow and glacier covered mountains jet out of the ground right in front of your foot and it feels like you're standing in the middle of a fairy tale painting. They are too big and beautiful to be real. I can't count the number of times one of us turned around, caught a glimpse of the mountains in the corner of our eye and did a double-take just to make sure we weren't seeing things. The scenery truly is that surreal and there couldn't have been a more perfect ending to an already amazing ride through southern France.
The view of Mont Blanc from Chamonix.