From Alsace to the Valley of the Kings

Bonjour from Tours, deep in the Loire Valley (otherwise known as the Valley of the Kings because of the plethora of gorgeous castles).  Sorry/not sorry for the very belated blog post; we've been quite busy exploring slowly (and also have not had any wifi for over a week... it is GREAT to be off the grid!).  What have we been up to?

Well, where we last left off, we had just arrived back in France after changing our itinerary and were preparing to ride westward along the EuroVelo 6 bike route, which follows the Doubs, Saone, and Loire Rivers to the Atlantic coast.  We are sticking to that plan, although we did skip a 400-km chunk of it (for reasons I will soon explain).

Part One:  Along the Doubs (Pronounced "Doo")

We spent July 22-24 riding along the Canal du Rhone au Rhin, an ambitious Napoleonic-era project that connected the Rhine River on the eastern border (draining ultimately into the North Sea) to the Rhone River (draining ultimately into the Mediterranean), thus providing a shortcut for transporting goods through France via boat.  The first section of the canal was located in the French region of Alsace, which is marked by its strong German influence, being located right on the border AND having been seized by Germany several times throughout history.  The German influence is really conspicuous in the architecture, the food, and even the names of towns (Illfurth, Riedisheim, and Eglingen all being FRENCH towns through which we passed).  We had one of the best meals of the trip in Illfurth at the tiny, welcoming Restaurant Au Coq, where we each enjoyed (for 10 euro) a huge bowl of "potage" soup that provided about three servings each, an ENORMOUS casserole of smoked ham and gratin dauphinois (basically scalloped potatoes), unlimited bread, and ice cream for dessert.  I literally could not make it through this meal, especially given the miles that we still had to bike that day, but fortunately Adam helped me out :-)

The ride along the canal was wonderfully flat and on a dedicated bike path, much to our delight after our grueling recent experience in Switzerland!  We passed through a bird sanctuary and past dozens of adorable little canal locks, through which cute little pleasure boats passed to dock at nearby ports.  Beyond the canal lay acres and acres of bucolic French countryside:  fields of wheat, grazing cows, tiny villages.  It was idyllic!  We stayed in one such tiny village, Joncherey, on our first night, and our trip to the nearest Intermarche (basically the Wal-Mart of France... kind of terrifying) convinced us that even France had its own equivalent of Iowa.  We went to Mass in Joncherey's tiny village church and everyone gushed over (or gawked at) the neon-clad young Americans!

Our second day along the Canal was more of the same, though we also passed by some old industrial areas that looked like they hadn't received much attention in many decades.  There were MANY Marine Le Pen posters around here... very interesting.  (Though we also passed through a wonderful little scientific park in Montbeliard, featuring a Foucault Pendulum, Galileo Fountain, and other delightfully nerdy artifacts surrounded by beautiful flowers!  It was awesome.)  Our campsite the second night was in a TINY village named Clerval, which would totally be adorable (great location on the river Doubs, pretty little houses, etc.) if not for the fact that there was literally NOTHING going on there.  Sunday nights are generally tough in France, but nowhere more so than Clerval, where the only place to find food that night was the kebab shop (which only opened because the owner saw me and Adam loitering outside).  We both wondered whether towns like Clerval would eventually take advantage of the recent growth in cycle tourism, or if they would just fall by the wayside...

On the third day along the Doubs, we busted out our ponchos for the first time all trip as we cycled towards the small university city of Besancon, located in the Franche-Comte region.  Our AirBnb host met us on the trail, which was adorable and made us feel very welcome!  After more than a week of camping every night AND staying in places for only one night at a time, it was HEAVENLY to have a real bed and our own shower, to stay for two nights, and not to pack up our tent in the morning!

We REALLY enjoyed our time in Besancon, even though it rained for a good portion of the two days we spent there.  Our AirBnb was right near the center city, which featured beautiful old architecture (including the birthplace of my literary hero, Victor Hugo!!!) and lovely promenades along the river, and we had a fantastic view of the Citadelle on the giant hill that overlooked the city.  We loved exploring the impressive St-Jean Cathedral, the recently-uncovered Roman ruins, the gorgeous alleyways between buildings, and the impressive Citadelle fortress (masterpiece of the famous 17th-century French military architect Vauban).  Bizarrely, the Citadelle's moat had baboons in it... a supremely random zoo exhibit in an otherwise historical site.  Let me tell you, baboons are CREEPY!

We also ate extremely well in Besancon, where we had another one of the best meals of our trip at a cozy, traditional Comtois restaurant:  delicious gratins, which were basically bowls of melted cheeses with vegetables and fish (in mine) or sausage (in Adam's)... the world's fanciest macaroni and cheese.  We loved this place so much that we came back the second night for dessert after dinner at a Congolese restaurant (random, I know):  I had a wild berry crumble, which was seriously one of the most delicious desserts I have ever eaten.

The only downside of our stay in Besancon was that we discovered a tick on Adam's chest, probably picked up somewhere in Joncherey or Clerval :-(  Given Adam's reduced immune capacity due to his psoriasis medication, we knew we had to get it checked out quickly, so I explained to a local pharmacist what had happened, she called a doctor right next door, and she set up an appointment for us literally right then.  The doctor's office was fascinating:  very low-frills (no receptionist or anything) and we had to wait, but he was super nice and reassured us that the tick's head had been removed successfully.  He also gave Adam an antibiotic prescription to fill in case he noticed any distressing inflammation or rash around the bite (he never did, fortunately!).  All in all, despite our lack of French health insurance, it was incredibly easy to get a doctor's appointment and a prescription... we were amazed!  Socialized healthcare...


Part Two:  Along the Loire
During our time in Besancon, we researched the upcoming part of the bike route and learned that it was basically going to be about 300 miles of more farms, canals, old industrial areas, and tiny villages until we got to Orleans.  We jointly decided that, as much as we had enjoyed the past few days, another week + of the same type of scenery wouldn't be the best way to spend our remaining honeymoon time, so we opted to skip over to Orleans via three trains instead.  We met some super nice cyclists at our Dijon layover who helped us carry our heavy baggage onto the train and offered to host us in Nantes, which was awesome!  We also had a four-hour layover in Paris, which we spent picnicking in the Jardin Des Plantes, just as we had on our first day in France!  We had to set up our tent (in a campsite just south of Orleans) in the pouring rain, which sucked, but delicious Cambodian food on the main drag of Orleans (Rue de Bourgogne) brightened our spirits!  (And yes... we have started branching out from traditional French cuisine.  There are so many other delicious types of foods to try in these small cities!)

Orleans is a really awesome city.  Again, we had two nights in a row there, so we had time to explore it (another lesson learned from our time in Switzerland:  it is unreasonable to expect to be able to really explore places when you only stay there for one night, and it's also exhausting to be on the move all the time).  We learned a lot about St. Joan of Arc, heroine of Orleans who saved it from destruction in the 1400s, and spent a ton of time exploring the INCREDIBLE Cathedral Saint-Croix at the end of Rue Jeanne d'Arc.  As Adam remarked, churches in Europe are like art museums, but BETTER, because everything there actually BELONGS there.  On an extremely serendipitous note, we discovered that there was going to be a free concert there that night by the Lydian Orchestra, a British group of talented 13-23 year old musicians.  After a dinner of Pakistani food (again, yes, branching out!), we headed back to the cathedral for the concert.  It was one of the highlights of our trip:  the music was amazing, the acoustics in this 400-year-old cathedral were incredible, and best of all, halfway through the concert, they opened the enormous (30-foot) doors in the rear of the church.  The view opened up onto sunset on the Rue Jeanne d'Arc, with beautiful French rooftops and blowing flags lining it.  After more than a week of rainy weather, it was amazing to see clear skies over the city, with this heavenly music in the background!  Truly a celestial experience.

From Orleans, we biked to a tiny, family-run campground in Huisseau-sur-Cossons, a small village right next to one of the most famous chateaux in France:  Chambord!  We took a day to explore the chateau, which was only a 20 minute bike ride (through vineyards and beautifully manicured hunting grounds) from our campsite.  We picnicked on the front grounds with a superb view of the castle, then went inside and explored.  It has all sorts of amazing features, including a double helix staircase that is rumored to have been designed by Leonardo Da Vinci and a magnificent rooftop with an amazing view of the perfectly manicured gardens.  It was a wonderfully romantic day!  Huisseau-sur-Cossons also happened to be home to the best croissant aux amandes (almonds) that we have had in France... I wish we had bought ten of them!!

Riding along the Loire is amazing.  As the last wild river in Europe (no dams, locks, etc.), it has a totally different look and landscape than the other rivers we've seen.  The scenery is just spectacular, especially with gorgeous towns (ex. Blois, Amboise) and beautiful chateaux overlooking every riverbend.  For the past few weeks, Adam had developed a longing to fish in the many rivers that we have followed, but lacking a fishing pole or any information about fishing regulations, we hadn't done anything about it.  However, we decided that the Loire Valley was going to be the PERFECT fishing location, so on our way out of Chambord, we finally purchased a cheapo cardboard fishing pole (which packs up quite nicely in our small luggage!) and a fishing day pass!  That night, at our campsite in Chenonceaux, Adam finally got to do a little fishing, while I napped in our hammock and cooked campfire pasta :-)  He didn't catch anything -- yet -- but we've still got a lot more Loire to cover!

We visited the Chenonceau chateau yesterday, and I have to say that I found it even more impressive than Chambord.  Spanning the lovely Cher River, it is impossibly romantic and wild compared to the stately, elegant, and highly curated Chambord.  Plus, most of its most famous occupants and advocates were women, which I enjoyed!  We danced in the beautiful, river-spanning ballroom and marveled at the flower-filled gardens.  I loved it!

We are now enjoying a much-needed "nothing day" here in our Tours AirBnb (after a delicious Syrian dinner last night!  Why have I never seen a Syrian restaurant before??), doing chores and just relaxing, before continuing our trip to the Atlantic coast.  From there, we want to explore Bretagne (Brittany):  we definitely want to go to St-Malo, Mont-St-Michel, and Normandy Beach, but are still trying to work out the rest of our plan for the remaining two and a half weeks on the bikes!  If anybody has any suggestions, please send them our way :-)  (And if anyone wants to Skype or FaceTime, now is the time, since we finally have wifi!)

Sending lots of love to everyone at home <3






















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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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