Close Encounters of the French Kind

Bonjour from the train station in Rennes, in the Bretagne (Brittany) region of northwestern France!  (This is Caitlin, by the way, even though it says Adam is the author).  Where we last left off, we were chilling in our Tours AirBnB, trying to plan out the rest of our trip... and now we have a plan!  We are heading to Saint-Malo today, which is where a magnificent novel that we just read (All The Light We Cannot See; I can't recommend it highly enough!) mostly took place.  I am so excited to be by the sea for a while!  We will spend a few nights there and then bike to Mont-Saint-Michel, the famous tide-surrounded abbey that I have wanted to visit ever since I was little and my mom told me about it!  From there, we will bike to the Normandy coast, where we will explore the D-Day beaches and war memorials.  Finally, we will take the train back to Paris for our return to the US :-(

Our past few days have been marked by incredibly generous, fun, and welcoming encounters with sooooo many French people.  We both feel so overwhelmingly blessed to have met so many locals and to have made new friends on this trip!

Our first day out from Tours was our longest biking day yet:  97 kilometers (about 60 miles); however, it wasn't nearly as difficult as I was anticipating!  I guess we are in pretty good biking shape now ;-)  (not to mention the fact that the route was almost entirely flat).  This was a gorgeous section, passing through innumerable charming villages, vast stretches of vineyards, and, most shocking of all...CAVE DWELLINGS!  The region is chock-full of former limestone quarries that people turned into homes, stores, and even underground streets starting back in the 12th century.  There are still people living and working in some of these "troglodytes" today!  The bike path went right through one of these old underground commercial districts and it was absolutely incredible.  Our campsite, located in part of the regional park surrounding the Loire river, was again run by the nicest, most relaxed couple ever.  We have decided that the chillest people in France are the campsite owners -- it seems that all they do is point people towards their campsite and hang out drinking coffee and wine all day in the sunshine.  Not a bad life!

We stayed in this campsite at St-Martin-de-la-Place for two nights so that we could explore the large town across the river, called Saumur.  Saumur was absolutely lovely:  sparkling limestone buildings, an immense and beautiful royal palace overlooking the city (we took a nap on its lawn), and an incredibly beautiful limestone church called Notre-Dame des Ardilliers.  In about the 1400s, a peasant dug up a Pieta statue in his fields one day at the current site of this church, so it became a pilgrimage destination that was very popular among the French for several centuries.  The statue is on display there, along with larger, even more magnificent statues and Pietas.  It was a very special place!  We spent the evening listening to the music from a local food festival along the riverbanks (including a ragtime band that covered "Puttin on the Ritz"...?), and then we ate dinner in a troglodyte restaurant, recommended by our Tours AirBnB host!  This was one of the coolest gastronomic experiences of our trip, and also one of the most filling... they never stopped bringing us more servings of their delicious side dishes and amazing, pita-like breads, called fouees!

Adam also tried his hand at more fishing along the banks of our riverside campground, while I napped in the hammock.  Sadly, the fish weren't biting, but he had a lot of fun re-learning how to prep a fishing rod and trying out different techniques!  I am confident that, one day soon, he will catch me something to eat :-)

From Saumur, we had a short and cloudy bike ride (during which we stopped at an AWARD-WINNING patisserie!) to the small city of Angers, where we stayed with WarmShowers hosts named Patrick and Karine.  They were unbelievably kind and welcoming!  Patrick left work early to meet us at his house so we could start making a vegetable gratin together, which we then put in the oven so we could take a small evening bike tour of Angers (in the rain!) and pick up Karine from work.  These two are clearly very passionate about cycling and living a sustainable lifestyle -- it was inspiring to observe them!  Maybe now I won't be so reluctant about biking in the rain at home...

During our evening tour of lovely Angers, we stopped at a riverside cafe to meet two of their friends, which eventually turned into a feast on fries, charcuterie, cheeses, and pates.  (Fortunately, Patrick called his father and told him to take the uneaten gratin out of the oven!)  Speaking of Patrick's father, one of our favorite parts of staying in Angers was having breakfast with him the next morning.  He was 7 and living in Paris when American troops came to liberate France from the Nazis, and he has had a strong affinity for all things American ever since (plus he's fluent in English, having spent most of his adolescence after the war in Britain).  It was quite moving to hear his stories about watching the bombers overhead, being knocked to the ground when an ammunition train in his town was bombarded, and chatting in what little English he then knew with the dashing American soldiers patrolling his streets.  During our entire honeymoon so far, I have felt pretty ashamed to be an American (given the disastrous state of our presidency at the moment, and the unabashed shock that all French people have expressed to us about Trump), so it was nice to leave that behind for an hour and think back on a time when we used our power for good and were admired throughout the world!  I hope we can return to that some day.

From Angers, we had another LONGGG day of biking (exactly 100 km, in fact) to Nantes, a large city close to France's western coast and the mouth of the Loire.  We stopped for a lunch of galettes (savory crepes, a specialty of the Bretagne region) along the way and continued to admire the ENORMOUS number of cycletourists in the region.  It is unbelievable how popular it is over here; meanwhile, back at home, everyone thought we were crazy for embarking on this kind of trip!  Perhaps we can bring what we have learned about European bike touring back to the States...

In any case, our lodging situation in Nantes had an incredible origin.  When we took the train from Besancon to Orleans a few weeks ago, we had a layover in Dijon.  While waiting at the Dijon train station, we had taken all of the heavy panniers off our bikes so that they would be easier to load onto the train when it arrived.  However, when the train pulled in, it soon became clear that the bike car was WAY down at the other end of the platform!  There were also about ten other cyclists, all in a big group together, planning to get on this train, and we panicked that there wouldn't be enough room for everyone (and that we would never make it on in time!).  Suddenly, though, these other cyclists started picking up our panniers and running with us, our panniers in one hand, their bikes in the other, over to the bike car!  Everyone made it on safe and sound, though we never would have made it without their help!  While on the train, we talked with this group of friends and learned that they were passionate cycle tourists who took at least one large trip together each year.  When they heard we were eventually heading to Nantes, one couple, Gilles and Pascale, gave us their contact information and insisted that we let them know when we ended up there so that they could host us!

So.  We had literally known these people for about 20 minutes... but we knew that they were: a) incredibly generous and helpful and b) fellow bike tourers, so we took the up on their offer!  They had a lovely house on the eastern edge of Nantes and welcomed us with open arms.  That first night, we had a wonderful soiree with Jacques and Marise (another couple who had been on the train) in their beautiful backyard, and yesterday, they treated us to a guided bicycle tour of Nantes!  Every summer, Nantes has a series of modern art installations (ranging from murals and sculptures to marionnettes and slides) along a path throughout the city called "Le Voyage a Nantes".  We saw dozens of fantastic things along this path:  a slide going down the ramparts of the chateau, a curved soccer field, and even a GIANT mechanical elephant made of wood that was walking up and down the street with people on its back!  It was truly incredible.  The two couples generously treated us to oysters for lunch (a local specialty) and we had a lovely evening at Marise's home with several other cyclist friends.  It was amazing to be integrated so effortlessly into their lives, and we had so much fun!

We also had the great fortune of meeting up with our new friend Alicia, whom we had met during our first WarmShowers stay with Claire-Marie in Valence.  She had literally just moved to Nantes this past Friday, so we looked her up on Facebook and met her for an afternoon drink in downtown Nantes.  It was so much fun to see her, and also to encourage her as she embarks on the scary but wonderful adventure of starting life in a new city!

Overall, we feel enormously grateful to have met so many incredible people on our journey so far.  It really has helped to reinforce our value as a couple of being hosts:  welcoming as many people into our home as we can, whether for a few weeks or just a few hours.  I am so excited about paying forward the endless generosity of spirit that we have encountered here when we get home!

OK, that's it for now... on to St-Malo!!





















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Legend

  • Red = We're going to bike that
  • Purple = We're biking that now
  • Grey = We biked that!
  • Black = We decided not to go that way
  • Yellow = We took a train
  • Magenta = We took a plane

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