Friday 30 July 2010

La Rochelle, France - mini update

I've now reached France's Atlantic coast. Photos from the Loire Valley are now added to the France album on my Flickr page. Many thanks to everybody who's donated to Oxfam on my Justgiving page.

Wednesday 28 July 2010

Doue-la-Fontaine, France - Lardons on the Starboard Side

This blog comes to you courtesy of the postman in Doue-la-Fontaine. I've found internet access erratic but had a tip there was a terminal in the local library. I asked the postman, who was also on a bike, for directions and before I knew it he said "follow me" and our mini convoy was scooting across town to deposit me at the front door of the library! I love the French.

This is the last day of my journey along the mighty Loire River, France's longest at 1020km. I joined the Loire at the canal town of Briare, France's answer to Kirkintilloch, "canal capital of Scotland". It had the bustle that pottering about in boats brings and was very pretty even in torrential rain. My first sight of the Loire itself was from the impressive Pont Canal which claims to be Europe's longest aqueduct and was built by Eiffel himself. It's been quite idyllic pottering alongside the river. It's course is punctuated by the prettiest little towns imaginable with narrow cobbled streets, airy squares around churches that toll the hour, fairytale chateaux and flower displays like Pitlochry in Bloom on a Babybio overdose.

For much of the way the cycling has been quite easy along the flood embankments called levees. The Loire has been pretty destructive in the past and these provide some protection and excellent cycling. As you pass by little villages you can have a nosey from your lofty position - it reminds me of entering Kirkcaldy on the train from Edinburgh and being able to look into all the back gardens. But here you are looking into pretty courtyards formed by red brick cottages with colourful wooden shutters, tumbling orange nasturtiums and perhaps a table set for lunch under the shade of a chestnut tree. Oooh, it's just lovely . . . and so very . . . what's the word . . . French!

Talking of lunch, I've been extending my camp stove cuisine. I've now cooked lardons - quite tasty but I recommend the better quality ones, those labelled "without cartilege". I do ratatouille, stovies and numerous rice variations. Breakfast is usually scrambled eggs or a big fruit salad or rice cakes with honey. I've also started making banana smoothies - I mash a banana vigorously in my mug with a fork, follow that with frantic whisking with milk and in several hours I have what a smoothie machine will provide in seconds! I really enjoy pitching the tent late afternoon and then going to buy my groceries to prepare supper in the shade of a tree while practising my French with the neighbours. I feel very content with my simple life on the road.

My route along the Loire has taken me through Orleans, its old centre a maize of streets so narrow you could almost touch both sides with outstretched arms. Every now and then they open into impromptu squares with a scattering of colourful cafes. The last couple of days in the Loire Valley have been stinking hot and I've had to do my first pushing of the trip. Not that there are any hills around here but I passed through the troglodyte villages of Turquant and Souzay-Champigny, originally cave dwellings in the limestone cliffs above the river that have been added to by successive generations. They have steep little roads that zig-zag through the houses and at one point the cycle route even passed through the caves!

On the downside the Loire Valley is very busy and touristy but I continue to be amazed by the friendliness of the French. I no sooner have to start putting my tent up than a husband is despatched with a mallet from a neighbouring caravan (French campgrounds are very hard); I have been served iced water and again invited in for coffee!

Now I'm planning to head south down the Atlantic coast towards Bordeaux. I'll get more photos on Fickr for your viewing pleasure as soon as I get full internet access.

Sunday 25 July 2010

Chissay, France - mini update

Continuing west along the Loire. Cycled through Orleans a couple of days ago. Weather mixed. Full story to follow.

Monday 19 July 2010

Sens, France - Fields of Gold

Did you hear the one about the Scotswoman who went into a bar and asked to use the Internet? Well, I was led along a dark corridor to a toilet around the back and I thought, surely they don't keep their computer in there! A simple problem of translation.

This last week I have cycled across the Ardenne through fields of wheat that stretch to the horizons under big, blue skies. This may sound a bit boring but it's not at all. I have been on the move early as the morning sun casts a golden light over the golden fields; there is a cool breeze; I have the quiet back roads to myself; it's a kind of meditation. Every now and then I pass through a sleepy village. At one village, Pierrepont, I stopped to eat breakfast. There were no cars, there was no activity except the occasional local shuffling back and forward to collect their baguette and the only sound was the creeky door of the boulangerie each time somebody went out or in. Soon I passed into the Champagne region with its rows of vines, funny shaped tractors and pretty little villages.

A few days ago I cycled for the day with Walter. He is riding his tandem from Germany to Bordeaux - his wife is joining him halfway. Walter had two great pieces of German wisdom to share. One is 'the first one, is the last one' meaning that the person who focusses only on winning, misses out on so many more important things, that he really loses. The second is that beer is a good isotonic drink after a day's cycle - not so sure about that one, Walter. The day after I passed through a small town called le Ferte Gaucher and was invited into the home of an elderly couple for coffee. Monsuier is a retired farmer, he bought the farm from his parents and renovated it, adding bedrooms. It is 12km to the east of town. Now he keeps a small vegetable patch. He is very proud of the flowers in his garden but disappointed that recent rain finished the blooms early. He enjoys the Tour de France and was excited that it passed through the touwn this year. Many cyclists pass their way but never anybody from Scotland before. He doesn't speak English so I hope that you're impressed that I gleaned all this in French.

Yesterday I crossed the Seine, today I'm on the banks of the Yonne and tomorrow I'll begin heading west along another great French river. So hopefully my next blog will be all about my journey along the Loire.

Don't forget to visit my Flickr site with new photos loaded and my Justgiving page.

Saturday 17 July 2010

Montmirail, France - mini update

I've crossed the golden fields and big skies of the Ardenne and I'm now in the Champagne Region. All well.

Fuller blog and hopefully photos soon.

Monday 12 July 2010

Guise, France - Thunder and Lightning

Here I am in Guise, a little French fortress town, dodging thunder and lightning storms.
The big send-off already seems so far away. Graham [aka base camp manager] made a brilliant START banner and the Laing Terrace community came out to see me off. Then my folks waived me off on the ferry. Yes, there were tears. The ferry trip was brilliant and the best way to start. As the boat chugged its way out under the bridges and passed my beloved Portobello, I waved it goodbye. It seemed as if I could almost touch Inchcolm as we passed and then my senses were hit with the pungent smell from the Bass Rock and its thousands of wheelign and diving gannets. The cabin was gorgeous and I had a really nice meal with a couple I met who live 5 minutes around the corner. Needless to say, I slept well, any nerves or worries dissipated now that I was on my way.

As soon as I was off the ferry at Zeebrugge I picked up the North Sea Cycle Route, or Nordzee as they say locally. This same cycle route traces a route all the way to Portobello and I was tickled by the thought that if I kept following it I would end back home. It sure is busy with cyclists though. After a couple of days on this route I turned south and cycled across Belgium in a couple of days - as you do. Belgium is a bit like my life before leaving on this trip - very pleasant but not wildly exciting - but does have some gorgeous wee cathedral towns with cobbled squares and colourful cafes. Sometimes I'm joined along the road for a while for a bit of chat by the Lycra Lads - the superfit, Tour de France types - which is nice but their pace is obviously a bit too fast for me.

Before long I crossed the border into France and found myself yabbering away with a modicum of proficiency in the local lingo. Which was just as well as I soon had a bit of explainng to do. I had pulled into a French supermarket to buy some food and to save carrying my huge amounts of luggage around, I loaded them into my trolley. At the checkout, the assistant said she would hve to check my bags as I'd taken them around the store. Well imagine my horror when we both discovered a tin of tuna in there that I'd bought earlier that day. My heart sank as I thought I was going to be arrested for shoplifting and would join the infamous list of Brits Banged Up Abroad. Somehow I explained myself and got off with it.

Aside from this, I have unwittingly featured as the crowd's entertainment in a strong-man competition and have been stalked while camping on a farm by a rogue peacock and its gang of chickens. And, yes, Forbes it has rained.

Friday 9 July 2010

Oudenaarde, Belgium - mini update

After a couple of days on the north sea coastal route in the Netherlands, I've now cycled across Belgium to south of Gent and now heading for France.

Monday 5 July 2010

Edinburgh, Scotland - Tiger, Tiger

This is my last blog before setting out on the trip and I'm writing it sitting it in my wee garden. The sun is shining, the birds are hopping about and insects are buzzing around. I'm wondering when I'll next sit here, what experiences I'll have had and, most importantly, what the garden will look like when I get back! My overwhelming feeling is one of excitement but of course there is a nervous knot in my stomach too. I'm not worried about cycling the distances, travelling and camping alone, or getting over the Andes and across America. These things are second nature to me. Like most people I suppose, I worry about failing and looking stupid!

Whenever I have any doubt, I remind myself of a favourite saying which is an old Tibetan proverb - "it is better to have lived one day as a tiger, than one thousand years as a sheep." I also think about all the support I've received from family, friends, colleagues and neighbours, especially from my best friend, Graham, who's helped me a huge amount. And I know so many people are sending me off with their best wishes which include this brilliant poem from a colleague in Motherwell:
Pauline's leaving JCP, to travel over land and sea,
Embarking on a worldwide trip; buses, trains and cargo ship,
She's off to far flung places; just a backpack, no suitcases,
An exciting lifetime hike, with her trusty little bike,
On your travels spare a thought, on dry land or at some port,
For all of us you've left behind, still subject to the daily grind,
Keep in touch and let us know, where you've been and yet to go,
Though we're just as jealous as hell, we all wish you a fond farewell.
So all my worldy possessions are now safely deposited at Dad's Self Storage facility, the bicycle is loaded up and I'm ready for an adventure that I hope will be my "one day as a tiger." Mind you, given that my only travelling companion is a 3-inch-high, bright orange, stuffed Disney toy, perhaps that should be "one day as a tigger."