Archive for August, 2009

Biking Picardie and the Marne Valley

Monday, August 3rd, 2009

Right now I am in Greece, and even though I havn’t blogged for a while, I wanted to record some of what has happened in the past few days, because they have been among the most exciting and enjoyable on tour. After two months together, the Whiffs had a scheduled break from this past Monday (July 27th) to Friday (July 31st). The group returned a week-long trip to several Chateaux near Bordeaux to the south of France and Le Mans in the west. I was to return the car I was driving to Gare du Nord in Paris, and from there, we would be on our own for several days. Some members of the group decided to go to Berlin, others to Leipzig. Many stayed in Paris the entire time, but my friend Jamie Warlick and I decided to guide ourselves on a two-person bike tour of the Marne Valley and Picardie.

I had ordered a guidebook off Amazon.com a few weeks before, and, luckily, it arrived in time at the Chateau in Bordeaux. Not really knowing what I had bought, I opened it to discover several week-long bike trips through various regions of France, complete with maps, lists of accommodations, and descriptions of the sights worth seeing. I chose a route that began and ended relatively close to Paris so that we could save on travel costs and maximize biking time. The book seemed to be exactly what I was looking for. However, when I turned to the chapter on what kind of bikes to rent, I was a bit dismayed to find this advice:

If you haven’t already got a bike, make sure you buy one from a reputable bike shop.

It then continued with a long discussion weighing the pros and cons of composite aluminum frames, and extolling the virtues of getting a quality, well-fitted racing bike. “Uh oh,” I thought “maybe this is a bit over my head.” I tried work out the details over the internet; it was very difficult for two reasons: the city of Paris recently unveiled a new public bike sharing system, called Vélib. It is designed for short trips around the city; with the swipe of a card, you can take a Velib bike at any one of hundreds of bike stands, and return it to any other within an hour. It has worked very well, but it had the side effect of reducing the number of bike rental shops, since many tourists find the Vélib much simpler for the more typical intra-paris trips. The other problem: all the bike shops in Paris are run by Parisians. This means that phone calls will seldom be returned or answered, websites are rarely updated, and e-mails are usually ignored. My attempts to find a bike shop beforehand—necessarily limited by intermittent internet access—all failed.

So I showed up at Gare du Nord on Monday with a book in my hand and very little else. Luckily, just about everything that could have gone wrong did not. We found within the station a very inexpensive place to store the luggage we didn’t need. A tourist office provided me with a list of recommended bike shops and directions to them, and and inexpensive phone call verified that one of them was open. Of course, this bike shop, like all the others, was run by Parisians, so when we showed up 20 minutes later, it was locked and no one was there. I called again from a payphone at a nearby park, and someone picked up to say he had stepped out for a few minutes. Go figure.

Soon enough, though we were stepping of the RER into the Charles-du-Gaulle Airport station at the end of the line. By then it was around seven, so we had a little less than three hours of daylight yet. The highways around the airport had recently been upgraded, so the guidebook was out of date. After a few wrong turns put us on a four-lane road with 130 kph traffic, we stopped at a gas station to purchase a new map. Soon we discovered our error, and we were on our way.

We made it about halfway through the first day’s route when it started to get dark. We stopped for dinner at a truck stop, which, despite the manly paraphernalia on the walls and the burly drivers eating dinner there, was still amusingly French. The food and wine were inexpensive but excellent, and even the 300 pound men had impeccable table manners. We stopped afterwords at a “Formule Un” hotel nearby. I have never seen a place like this in the States. It was an entirely automated building; instead of a receptionist there was a machine that took your credit card and gave you a code for your room. The showers and baths were all self-cleaning. I think that once a day a maid stopped by for a few hours, but that was it.

As it happened we arrived at the same time as some bikers from the Netherlands who were doing the same thing as us. There were also a handful of french truckers who were already intoxicated. We stayed up late, talked, and played cards. Around midnight, one of the drunk truckers expressed (in French—none of them spoke english very well—his desire for some snacks and more booze). Since he and his friends were already wasted, he asked me to drive his truck into the nearest town a few miles away to stop at a convenience store. “Why not?” I thought. Luckily, he wasn’t driving an 18-wheeler, but it was still somewhat difficult to maneuver, especially when I was following contradictory directions in slurred French. We pulled into the centre-ville of Meaux, and he motioned for me to stop in front of a closed shop. Confused, I hit the brakes. He hopped out and started banging on the door. After a minute or two a bewildered store owner poked his head out of the alley to ask what he wanted. “Some beer and snacks.” We were allowed inside where we filled our arms with as many bottles and bags of chips as we could carry, and soon we were on our way back to Formule Un.  As we left the town, we passed a beautiful Cathedral, and my intoxicated copilot motioned again for me to stop so he could pee on the beautiful 12th-century structure. I wish I had had a camera.

The next day we started off early, determined to make us for lost time. The route paralleled the beautiful Canal d’Ourcq, below:

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We completed the remainder of the first route by around 1 and enjoyed a 2-hour lunch at a pizzeria in Charly-sur-Marne

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The next segment of the trip paralleled the Marne river of WWI fame.

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As we worked our way from town to town, it seemed that every cluster of more than 10 houses had three things: both a beautiful gothic or romanesque church, a monument to the soldiers from that town who died in the Great War, and at least two champagne vineyards, like this one:

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We arrived at our next destination, a town called Dormans, with plenty of time to spare before dark. Feeling proud of our rustic adventure, both Jamie and I were enthusiastic about taking it to the next level by camping that night. We used the guidebook to find a campground near town, and rented a plot of grass for nine euros. The next stop was a French version of Big Lots where we bought a delicious feast of wine, cheese, chocolate, fruit, canned salade niçoise, and, for sleeping, a lawn chair pillow. The idea was to put on every piece of clothing we had, and sleep on the pillow, covered by a poncho. Great idea, right? If you replied “no, you idiot” to that last question, then congratulations, you’re right! I have never been that cold in my life. The temperature was somewhat deceptive, because even though we ate our dinner comfortably outside after the sun had set, there is a serious difference between the perceived temperature when you are moving around and eating, and when you are lying still. As soon as there was a little bit of light in the sky, we stopped pretending to sleep and started on the next leg. Unfortunitely, this segment began with a long climb out of the Marne valley into the open countryside. Maybe I should take a second to say something about my friend Jamie. I didn’t know him before joining the whiffs, but he’s a really fun, relaxed, practical and flexible guy. And its a good thing too because if he had any less of those qualities, this debacle surely would have ended the trip early.

We rode for a few hours before crossing over the LGV Est tracks. We stopped for a few minutes to see if a train would come by. Sure enough, a Strasbourg-bound TGV passed under us at full speed. I got a video of it; Jamie was joking about how we might be able to pick up a Wi-Fi signal from the passing train. It was a bit too fast, though, as you can see:

After a late breakfast, we took a small detour to see the Ainse-Marne American cemetary, which is the second-largest American cemetary in Europe. It was pretty moving to see so many dead Americans in a foreign country.

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In spite of our occational disagreement, American and France really do a have a special relationship. The entire place was extremely well maintained—there were four gardners there trimming and grooming—though it was unclear which government was paying. There was a large monument at one side of the complex:

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Within one of the sides of a monument was a room with a stone map that showed which peices of ground were taken by American troops. We realized that we had basically be traveling through the former battlefield for the entire trip.

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I had never realized how close the Germans had come to taking Paris, but we could really feel how close we were because we traveled every kilometer powered by just our legs.

A few hours after the cemetery, we stumbled accross the ruins of an 11th century abbey that had been destroyed in the French Revolution. It was very beautiful, and very sad that it was desecrated.

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On the way to our final destination, we took a wrong turn and ended up on a highway. We stumbled on a construction crew repaving the road, and they were very helpful in directing us to a safer route. I was proud that I was able to handle the entire situation in French, because none of them spoke any English. It made me wish that I had done a little more in school to develop my French, but it also made me hopeful that if I can remember so much five years later, maybe I can pick up where I left off sometime in the future too.

Finally aroud mid-afternoon we pulled into Villers-Cotterêts. There was enough daylight left to do another leg, but we were so tierd from the night before and from the hills that we decided to stop for good. No restaurants were open, so we stopped at a Carrefour to get supplies for lunch. You may have noticed from some of the earlier pictures that I have been growing sideburns over the trip. I did this mainly for fun, but also because in a variety of contexts, audience members have approached me after hearing me sing to tell me things like: “I can’t beleive you’re a bass” and “you just don’t look like someone who can sing low.” I was pleased that in our concerts in France, the comments changed to: “you remind me of George Washington,” “you look like Abraham Lincoln,” and, my favorite, “you’re like Wolverine from the X-Men.” These were the perks of having sideburns. In that supermarket in Villers-Cotterêts, though, I incurred the first cost. When I walked in, the burly security guards took one look at me and asked me to give them my bag while I was in the store.

We ate our lunch our lunch to the town square, then retired to our hotel at 4:30. I slept for about 15 hours to make up for the night before. On the way to the train station in the morning we stopped by the house of Alexander Dumas, the fellow who wrote the Three Musketeers.

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When all was said and done, we had rode 160 km in about two full days. It has been three days since, and my thighs still feel like a block of lactic acid.