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On the road . August 2010 . Belgium and France

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Library in Morez, France, 31-08-10

Londerzeel - Belgium to Paris - France (4 cycle days; 15 rest days; 347km; 2242m)

Londerzeel to Mons (84km; 462m)
Mons to Saint Quentin - France (97km; 802m)
Saint Quentin to Pont Sainte Maxence (99km; 486m)
Pont Sainte Maxence to Paris (67km; 492m)

Well and truly ready for a day of cycling, we set off towards Brussels along the same route we had ridden yesterday evening taking James to the Eurostar train. The route becomes easier once you know where to cross and which side of the road to travel on. But normally bike paths in Belgium cities can be very confusing. Everything seems so random. Sometimes a red path, sometimes marked as a bicycle route; sometimes just like a plain ol' footpath; and sometimes ending so abruptly with no indication where you should cycle next. Quite often though they are in really poor condition and not signposted. A quick internet stop and bread purchase in the city before we move out of town in the direction of Mons.

By lunchtime the sky is grey and we have had one small five minute downpour, but enough to put the raincoat on. By mid afternoon we have been through so many small villages and towns and bypassed any storm that looked ominous on the horizon. Sixteen kilometres before our destination however, we are well and truly hit. A 45 minute shelter next to a very tall farmhouse is only a time waster and we have to brave the rain or we may still have been sitting there.

As I'm putting on my new raincoat and fastening the velcrose on my Goretex shoe covers, I have that eerie deja-vu feeling. This was just how it was when we first left on our tour four years ago: flooded roads; terrible potholes; bad cycle paths or just a plain lack of them which lead to riding on busy highways. The last exercise being pretty much the rest of the ride into Mons (84km; 462m).

We get trapped into following the signs to Camping Waux Hall, adding another couple of unnecessary kilometres to the journey. Councils insist on leading caravan traffic around cities towards the campgrounds. And that's unfortunate for us, because it not only means more cycling, but pedalling along a glass strewn path. Subsequently we are waylaid with a flat tyre. During the repairs, the sun comes out.

The next three days of cycling are a bit of a blur really and at the end of each, I strangely enough don't take any notes - either I can't be bothered or I'm too tired: I don't even remember which is true. But it sure makes writing about this stretch now almost impossible. I remember passing very unceremoniously across the French border. It was miserable weather and we had no map, so Ali continuously had to ask for directions. His notes naming each town we had to head towards turned out to be not quite enough detail to get us smoothly to where we wanted to go. It seems that the villages he considered important - mostly due to size, were not in the eyes of the French road department. They in turn pointed markers to more obscure destinations.

We stay in a well serviced, though 'nothing to write home to mum about', Municipal campground in Saint Quentin (97km; 802m) for half the value of the very rundown Camping Au Bon Accueil in Pont Sainte Maxence (99km; 486m) the following evening. The only benefit of the latter is the Leclerc supermarket across the road where we purchase a decent road atlas.

Getting into Paris is relatively simple considering the massive metropolitan sprawl. The only real issue are the number of road works, which all join up together to make one very long disruption to traffic. They get my number one vote for absurd rationale: not only do they run for kilometres long, but due to the weed growth and piled-up rubbish, there doesn't seem to be much activity in certain sections. All in all, it gives the impression that things don't move very fast here and the consequential daily traffic jams are probably the norm for Parisians living or travelling through this area.

Signposting is at a bare minimum, but Saint Denis is a pretty famous landmark, so asking for directions leads us straight there. And once closer to the periphery of Paris' centre, bike paths materialise and it is impressively easy to navigate our way into Barrabas Paris (67km; 492m), where Pierre-Yves lives. There are plenty of other people: tourists and Parisians alike on bicycles too and probably due to the introduction of the Velib bike system a few years back, where you can pick up a bicycle and cycle for the first half and hour for free and €1.00 for the next. After that you pay quite heavily for the use of them, but seeing as there are so many return points, in principal you can cycle the entire day for very little indeed. Ligue-Île-de-France de Cyclotourisme has detailed downloadable maps and information about bike paths and routes through and around Paris. Likewise, Fédération Française de Cyclotourisme also has information concerning cycling in France.

Two weeks in Paris
What can I say? We are living for two weeks in Paris: in the excitement, the hustle and the heart of a city as beautiful as it is notorious; as diverse as it is confident; as cultural as it is grubby; and as alive as its miscellaneous grasp on traditions. It has everything on offer. You just have to work out what you want to see; what you are prepared to miss out on; and what you'll turn a blind eye to.

Cultural events and museums and palaces and churches could take you months to visit. You'll be cow herded along some of the most celebrated works of art and legendary buildings you will ever lay your eyes upon. You may only get the chance to see everyone else taking photographs of these treasures before giving up and moving on to a place less populated. Then again, you can just claim a stool at one of the boardwalk brassieres and watch Parisian life wander by: more often than not with a baguette tucked under one arm and a bottle of wine in the other.

We reunite with Pierre-Yves for the first time in 3 years, having originally met in Greece, close to the Turkish border, while on our way to Istanbul in the first six months of our world tour. Two more encounters followed: in Doğubayazıt - Eastern Turkey and Tehran - Iran, before parting ways in April 2007. Since then we have kept in contact with him and his cycling partner Simone. Unfortunately, Simon is currently on holidays in Georgia with his girlfriend Celine, but we do get the chance to meet up with them, before we leave. Hence our longer than expected stay in this mixed bag city. It was worth the extra few days wait, just to witness Simon's face: a combination of surprise and appreciation.

Seeing good friends again is just great. It is reassuring to know that after so many years, travels of time; distance and life don't really come in the way of solidarity. It is reassuring to know, we have good friends everywhere in the world.

We can't thank Pierre-Yves enough for giving up his apartment, so we can hang out in the core of a very multi-cultural area of Paris. We also enjoyed meeting Tifenn - his girlfriend - of equal kindness; and Laure - another wonderfully thoughtful woman. Two weeks in Paris was immensely profound.

Eat. Drink. Man, Woman Get Fat.
Paris to Morbier (7 cycle days; 1 rest days; 530km; 3181m)

Paris to Samoreau (86km; 360m)
Samoreau to Joigny (88km; 393m)
Joigny to Tonnerre (57km; 130m)
Tonnerre to Veneray-Les-Laumes (69km; 263m)
Veneray-Les-Laumes to Savigny-Les-Beaune (81km; 548m)
Savigny-Les-Beaune to Poligny (90km; 479m)
Poligny to Morbier (59km; 1008m)

Cycling out of Paris is pretty easy considering its size. The luxury of a network of cycle paths helps, though they do have the tendency to stop abruptly, leaving you wondering where you should pedal next. It takes us almost three and half hours to get to suburbia's edge and from then on the route following the River Seine is wonderful: lots of winding roads through small villages and long stints on a bike path next to the river itself. Here, grassy green banks shaded by giant willows are the perfect spot to stop for a rest. We keep cycling until the Camping Municipal at Samoreau (86km; 360m).

The morning of the next day is also a wonderful ride: country lanes with plenty of shade from the sun, which at 10 am already has a kick. The Seine remains by our side until Montereau-Fault-Yonne and then we follow the river Yonne. The route is not quite as picturesque, as we mostly stick to a railway line. Views of canals, rivers and all the summery activities bought to life by these waterways are hidden. There is little shade either and the sun reaches an intense 31° Celsius by lunchtime.

Finding the campground at Joigny (88km; 393m) is easy. There are enough signs directing you there and it is just as quaint and "French" as the reports on internet. It also costs a ridiculously inexpensive €5.40 for the two of us and our tent and a car if we had one of those too. Facilities are good: even the baker comes around in the morning selling fresh baguettes and croissants out of the back of his van. Now that truly is "French" and one of those pleasurable little traditions you appreciate is still flourishing.

An extra 30 kilometres is the cause of our later than expected arrival. Don't think it much matters to Pierre-Yves, Tifenn and Laure, when we cycle in at three in the afternoon. They are lazing the hours away reading and sleeping in the shade next to their tents.

A night of delicious food, beer and wine combined with great conversations is just the way to spend the wind down from a stinking hot day. The next morning, a storm breaks the heaviness with some of the loudest claps of thunder and blinding strikes of lightning we all have ever experienced. And although the day is a little miserable to start with, by early afternoon and after a wander around the old city of Joigny, the sky is blue again and the sun out in force.

Soon enough, the fun comes to an end and it's time to say goodbye: always a minus point of continually being on the road. It is a sad moment.

Following morning we are ready to start dissolving the fat bundles on our waistlines. It is amazing how you can grow when all you do is eat, drink and generally be merry. Something we'll have to watch out for when we actually finish this trip. I think I'll need to get signed up to a gym or swimming club immediately. One look in the mirror at the campground and I'm in shock at the transformation. All that sitting around; nibbling on snacks; dining on pancakes; gorging on brie and fresh baguette and of course the copious amounts of delicious wine and boutique beer has created a comfort bulge in just a matter of months. Eat, drink and man, woman certainly get fat.

Familiar ground
We follow the Bourgogne Canal: a reminiscent route for us and as well as the cycle path not having changed much, neither has the serene nature of this trip. Memories from four years ago of monster walnut trees; heavily laden crab apple branches; fallen cherry plums; dancing willows; and engines purring on canal boats decorated with geranium pots and brightly coloured enamel paint come to life again. Écluse [lock] houses all seem recognizable as is the iron bridge just before the town of Tonnerre (57km; 130m), where we spent a few nights last time around too. Camping La Cascade looks different at first, but as we settle in everything becomes more familiar. It is here that we dried and cleaned all our gear when we struck a couple of warm weather days. Unfortunately, our luck isn't with us this time around: a couple of hours later and the heavens open up.

And on to another place I can't pronounce
It pours the entire evening and a little in the morning too: enough to keep us in the tent before the rather late start of 10am. Just like our last European tour. Luckily not completely the same: as the day wears on, the sun picks up too. A dappled path lay ahead of us along the Bourgogne Canal. What a superb way to wind your way through France. Not everyone thinks it is great to be here though and we pass a couple of teenagers obviously bored with being placed on 'canal duty' by their parents. It is definitely a cumbersome task letting the boats through. The lane becomes more like a bike path halfway between Cry and Buffon.

Easy kilometres pass really old villages; buildings of carved stone and ornate architraves; ample fishermen; and other cyclists take us on to another place I can't pronounce. Veneray-Les-Laumes (69km; 263m) has a decent campground with great showers and a common room, all for around the 10 euro mark. Time slotted internet is also available at Camping Alesia for those wanting to fork out six euros extra.

Many things to celebrate
Another wonderful day of cycling the Bourgogne Canal: grand castles; fields of green; quaint villages; and lots of canal action since the first section has a series of closely placed locks. There is ample morning boat traffic and it must take them all day to get through this part. It is nonetheless entertaining for us to watch as we pedal past carefree and at almost double their speed.

The day is however, not entirely without concern. Soon after starting off this morning my rear tyre has worn through enough to produce a small slash. We repair it with some sturdy garden-awning material and although it continues to split, it seems strong enough to last the next 40 kilometres into Pouilly-en-Auxois. The diversion is not fruitful however, with the town having only a Leader Price store and a bike shop whose owner is on holiday. Even if he had decided to spend the holidays at home, we still would have had to wait and hour and a half. Businesses, apart from large chain supermarkets, close between 12.30 and 2 pm in smaller places in France.

We swap the tyre over to the front giving it less pressure to contend with and make our way back to the cycle path. Another 40 kilometres and we'll hit a larger town. At one stage we actually pedal on top of the canal as it becomes an almost 3000 metre tunnel. Pretty scary stuff for those venturing through it in a boat, if you ask me.

After Pont de Royal and Écluse 15, the path becomes a little wilder and we are not sure what is going to happen when we reach the lock number one. According to the map, there is still way too much canal left. We find out soon enough though that the numbering starts again since it is the peak of the canal, meaning at least two rivers must source the water here. From now on in, we descend slightly. An enjoyable activity.

The journey continues to be a perfectly serene way to travel through this region and I'm really disappointed when we finally have to leave at Le Pont D' Ouche. Instead of following the canal all the way to Dijon, we branch off on the D18 heading towards Bouilland and up the steady six kilometre climb at between 4-6 % gradient. The 30 kilometre plus per hour yehaa-ing, yahoo-ing freefall makes up for all the hard slog. Roughly the entire 12 kilometres to the campground at the little town Savigny-Les-Beaune (81km; 548m) is downhill. Stupendous riding.

The town is full of wineries and cellar door sales, while the Municipal Camping Les Premiers Prés has almost as many Dutch on its grounds. Next to a fresh flowing river, the peaceful setting is shattered come evening time, when the four Belgium boys next to us, decide its time to celebrate.

Ba-guette Up!
Not much sleep is obtained during the campfire festivities, but the thought of fresh baguette waiting at the entrance of the campsite is enough to stir us at 7am. Just love this little French custom. It is five kilometres to the Intersport store in Beaune and they have a couple of decent enough looking tyres for 10 euros each. At least we are out of the fix for the interim.

We continue course along small roads in between the ears of corn and drying sunflower heads; through forests until the road becomes a country lane that spits us out into vast French farmland with panoramic blue skies. This is complete openness: away from the cars and hassle and people and stress. This is what makes France such a great place to cycle in. Going to have to seriously think about making "We love cycling in France" T-shirts.

The route goes something like this D20; D116; tiny bit of highway to Seurre, where we see as many cars in one kilometre as we have all morning; D35; D110; D11; D9; D22 and then the last leg on Highway N83, where there's enough trucks and buses and cars and caravans to make us wonder if we haven't entered an entirely new world. I liked this morning's one much better. The weather was also more pleasant. The heat intensifies enough to realise we will be in for a storm tonight. Wind strengthens too at the six euro a night Municipal Camping: Croix Du Jan in Poligny (90km; 479m). Shady and pleasant overnight spot before we ba-guette up once again: ready for the first decent climbing session since arriving in Europe.

And the warm wind doth blow and we shall have rain
A storm is whipped up overnight, sending leaves flying horizontal to the ground for metres before they scuttle along its surface. The tent flaps and wobbles in agitation. It blows and blows warm and sultry until the rain clouds fly over. Then it rains and rains. This activity is still going on when we wake at 7am. And since there is no point in rising in this squall, we shut the eyes for a little more sleep. Finally, it subsides a fraction and Ali proclaims that the blue sky is being blown in courtesy of this strange wind.

Sure enough it comes and as the bluster dies down, we pedal out of the municipal campsite to the "Bon Courage" salutation from a local homeless man on the scavenge for anything of value.

The climb starts immediately and we gain roughly 200 metres over 5½ kilometres of highway cycling. We decided to give the main road a go for the first stretch and its not too bad. Cars are pretty patient and the road is wide enough. About 8 kilometres before Champagnole there are plenty of opportunities to steal off into the roadside abyss and set up camp. No barbed wire, or as they now prefer in France: electric fences. This is a first in a very long time that there have been such obvious wild camping possibilities.

Champagnole is a very touristy town, but quaint with its traditional bars; pastel painted shutters against contrasting pastel cement walls; wrought iron balconies and window decoration. Enough large supermarkets too. Stocked up with a few goodies, we head out of town on the D127 towards Syam.

It turns out to be so wonderfully scenic and quiet- we see 12 cars in total during the 19 kilometres before turning off onto the even smaller D62. The weather is incredible after such a wooly start: blue skies and hot sun, but it soon becomes as predictable as a teenage love affair: moving from raging sun to subdued shine; moody clouds and then finally, following a short stint on highway D437, all hell breaks loose and the downpour tumbles out of the clouds. It tries with earnestness to win all records in unrestraint. My new jacket gets its second tryout and also wins a gold medal. I stay completely dry. While some in the cycle touring world profess that riding in the rain can also be a good experience, if you have the correct attire, I still say: good rain gear or not, its not my favourite pastime and I will certainly never get enthusiastic about it.

Totally drenched, we arrive at La Bucle Campground in Morbier (59km; 1008m): The town is not only famous for its cheese, but the long abandoned craft of clock-making and the slow dying industry of designer glasses. It is just good to get here, set the tent up and while I go and rummage up some supplies, Ali showers. I return, drenched once again from the supermarket to follow closely in Ali's footsteps to the communal washrooms: another characteristic convention in France. I emerge surprised by radiant sun and blue skies. It doesn't last too long.

A taste of it all
There is hardly a moments break in the rain throughout the night and the morning doesn't look too promising either. Sara and Sébastien come to pick us up from the campground and take us to their families apartment in town. We stay for two nights before anticipating our return to the grassy plots and fast flowing stream at La Bucle.

Our days are filled with sight-seeing and driving around the mountainous landscape of the Haut-Jura: a province renowned for its skiing; its unique white wine: savagnin; its cows and its cheese. We get a cultural taste of it all. It is also home to a series of lakes. An afternoon's walk along the Cascades du Herisson; a day trip to the cheese factory in Les Moussieres are among the outings, but the event which tops the weekend off, has to be eating fondue made from the Jura region's white wine and Comté cheese. It may be summer on the calendar, but here in Morbier it feels like winter, so it is a perfect way to spend our last evening together.

A little bit cheesy
While the cheese factory was more interested in selling products than educating its foreign visitors, we have an insight into the whole process of producing Gex Blue and Morbier with the help of Sara and Sébastien's translation skills. And quite a number of interesting points pop up.

Firstly, the cow used to produce the cheese is not just your average Buttercup: much beefier, these chestnut and white beauties are prized for their good yields of milk. And for this they are well looked after. They have the farmers building homes with enough room to house them during the colder season and they are fed only grass; of which another portion of the farmhouse is dedicated to storing. What is left over is just a small space for the owner and his family to endure the hard cold winters in this region.

And these cows are quite happy to remain in their confined areas. In fact, they must if their milk is to be used for making the cheese exclusive to this region. Though after the shed restrictions of the winter months, they do go a little berserk when let out into pasture for the first time: acting more like frolicking sheep than cows.

Making the cheese is also a story and a half, but I'll leave that up to you to find out for yourself if you are really interested: Maison Des Fromages website has all you need know, except a little tip I will share with you for purchasing this delightful delicatessen: check the date of manufacture and buy cheese made during the summer months. Reason why?: the milk is produced during the fresh grass grazing period and is therefore said to be much better in flavour. Does make quite a bit of sense really.

Back at the campground, we discover that, as of 30 August, it is closed. Luckily Sara and Sébastien allow us to stay a couple of nights extra in the Morbier apartment. We hurriedly finish the updates and get ready for the next leg of the journey. It has been planned by map only. We can only concern ourselves with the cycling side of things at the moment. Researching where we are going is not an option. Neither is writing; skyping; internetting; twittering or visiting facebook. These activities have been kept to a minimum.

Point I am making here: there is hardly any chance to link to cyber space, unless you want to pay an exuberant amount for the privilege - five euros for 60 minutes being the going rate: an hourly amount which will probably pay for most person's full monthly connection. Furthermore, finding campgrounds with a normal electrical input is also difficult, unless you want to sit in the toilets all evening tapping away at the keyboard. The strange thing is, we are in Europe and yet it seems so backward when it comes to these simple commodities that are readily available in Asia and Latin America. If they can have wifi points in plazas, cafes, campgrounds and hostels, why can't Europe too?

Another month has passed with very few kilometres pedalled; and the next month will probably be the same, though our intended route into the French Alps will produce plenty of days of altitude gain. Getting back into the swing of cycling again on country roads and winding mountain passes is something we are really looking forward to. A way backward into back country. So, until our next interception with internet, wherever that may be, I guess all that is left to say is: "au revoir".

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