Loving Lauzun…we don’t want to leave…

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We’re staying an extra week in Lauzun and then booting it up to the border in a car so that we don’t overstay our Schengen visa and potentially mess up coming back (remote chance but we are so in love with France we don’t want to risk it).

Yep. We are both in love with this area and we are plotting and scheming to figure out how we might make it a part of our lives on some kind of regular basis.

The cheese is fabulous and during the summer it arrives in a cheese truck that parks outside our house so that I can wave to the cheese lady on Saturday mornings. Aside from various tommes and chevres (including the local cabecou) she sells crème fraiche. What’s not to love…

The bakery is less than 100 metres away around the corner. The croissants, pain au raisin and baguettes are fresh every morning. We have restrained ourselves and only bought dessert once – a pomme tarte with almond pastry crust to eat with vanilla ice cream and the sauterne style wine (sweet white dessert) from Montbaillac, the 15th century chateau and vineyards 20 kms from here.

There is another guy who sells right in front of our house on Saturday mornings. Wanda discovered his smoked duck. It was so good we looked up regulations on bringing food back to Canada. (Sorry John, it would have had to have been in a can. I hope you enjoy the foie gras instead).

The skinny capris are struggling to keep up. We are cycling on average every second day and the rides are hilly and we usually do more than 20 km. However, I believe I need to pump up the volume and try for longer rides and average 5 times a week for next two weeks. Oh yeah. The wine lady also sets up in front of our house on Saturdays and sells 5 litres of decent rose (really) for 10 euros (14 dollars). Ok maybe I need to ride six times a week…

When we do ride, no matter which way we go, the scenery is pastoral and lovely – fields of wheat or sunflowers, sometimes vineyards, rolling hills with patchwork quilt fields and the odd chateau for visual interest.

The villages are quaint and charming and most of them host street markets and festivals throughout the summer.

Real estate is cheap.

The people are friendly. The people are so friendly in this village we are thinking our love affair with France may be somewhat the result of their influence. Ian will be singing with a local folk group here one night next week and we were invited to and attended a local birthday party last week. They couldn’t be more welcoming.

From Lauzun as a base, we can drive to Bordeaux in an hour. We can be in Spain in 5 hours.

I’ve always wanted to learn French….

Four Visits later and France is still Fabulous.

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Pisa to Bastia Corsica (ferry)
Toulon to Sanary sur Mer 18 km
Sanary sur Mer to Cassis 32 km
Cassis to Marseille 23 km
Marseille to Montpellier (train)
Montpellier to Sete 39 km
Sete to Villeneuve les Beziers 56 km
Villeneuve les Beziers to Capestang 30 km
Capestang to Le Somail 19 km
Le Somail to Carcassonne 63 km
Carcassonne to Castelnaudary 45 km
Castelnaudary to Avignoet-Lauragais 20 km
Avignoet-Lauragais to Toulouse 45 km

When Ian and I were cycling in Vietnam we spent a lot of time analyzing why we were struggling with it. Ian finally summed it up by saying there just wasn’t enough yin for the yang – like when you are cycling somewhere and the traffic is busy but the food is amazing –more yin than yang so it is ok. Or, the food sucks and the traffic is bad in places but the people are amazing. In Vietnam, the scenery was amazing – some of the time. That was all the yin there was.

So here we are on the canal du midi trail with a few hundred kilometres of cycling on our France trip odometers. The people are terrific (I don’t get that stereotype about snotty French people. I have been here four times now and very rarely experience anything but friendly no matter how badly I butcher their language). The food ranges from mediocre to astonishing and this is in the cheap places. The scenery is often breathtaking. The cycling is fabulous and people’s attitude towards cyclists is heart warming.

Yep. It’s love. I don’t think I could ever get tired of France.

So our recent travels: We took a ferry from Livorno Italy to Corsica and stayed for a couple of days without cycling as I caught yet another cold. Our first morning we enjoyed the Sunday market and despite being sick I was giddy at my first sight of all the old French favourites: astonishing cheese that is worlds apart from what we get at home generally (and this makes me want to declare war on the Canadian Dairy board because of the insane prices we pay and the ban on raw milk cheeses); fresh fruit that tastes just as it should: tree-ripened and lush; and baked goods that inspire exclamation (oh oh ohhh). And in Corsica, a kind of throw back to France in the fifties, we strolled the streets alongside old men in white shoes and old ladies in prim skirts on their way home from church, church bells chiming through the ancient, narrow streets.

We landed in Toulon after taking a ferry from Bastia (Corsica) and hit some traffic and a few hills when we started cycling but I didn’t care, especially when we arrived in Sanary sur Mer and found yet another market and a beautiful harbor filled with restored wooden boats on display for a summer festival.

The ride to Cassis was hilly but we found a bakery that made me want not only to learn to bake the French way but also to paint…the cherry galette looked that good. I didn’t taste it though as we were being a little careful (there are bakeries in every French town) and stuck to a ham and brie baguette and fresh peaches.

We descended to Cassis and then climbed again to a non-descript campground that was packed and a reminder that French campgrounds are not usually something to write home about (a little yang for our yin). However, this one did have a bar and we enjoyed a glass of rose while we watched the camp workers playing boules after shift. This was also where we had an impromptu French language lesson on the various uses of bon (versus bien which always confuses us). Our neighbors were only a metre away in their tent when they opted for some morning amour and we distinctly heard the woman exclaiming bon (not bien) a number of times…

The ride to Marseille was painful for me on a hot day and still sick but once again stunning and the French, bless them, have made this D road highway into a bike route, providing well-marked bike lanes on both sides of the highway despite it being narrow. The descent into Marseille was nothing short of magical and the highway section ended on a bike route right through town leaving us only a couple of blocks in real traffic which was, as it turned out, light around the old port.

Marseille, however, is rough. We appreciated the historic port and surrounding streets but noticed a lot of unsavoury looking people hanging about and the graffiti and smell of piss on some of the side streets not far from the port was not pretty. Studying our maps over morning coffee, we realized that the ride to Montpellier, where we planned to pick up the canal du midi bike route, was going to be busy and hot and so, on Bastille day, made what turned out to be a wise decision to take the train to Montpellier.

The historic center of Montpellier seemed a bit touristy although we admired the architecture. We were very impressed when the receptionist at our train station hotel told us to follow the tram lines to get to a river and bike route that would then take us along a canal bike route to Sete, the official start of the canal du midi bike route. Following the tram line eventually to the plaza de Europe we were able to appreciate more architecture and pedestrian only spaces before finding the river bike route as promised.

It was once again very hot (no shade and 25 km paralleling the ocean), but we appreciated riding a route with no traffic and ending up in Sete which is a very scenic French Mediterranean town. It was here we discovered beer Monaco (beer with grenadine and lemonade…crazy colour of pink but very refreshing on a hot day). We struggled to find the bike route through Sete and Agde but with the help of tourism offices in both places finally arrived at the canal.

The canal du midi was built in the 1600s for commercial transport. In the old days there were toe paths along either side for donkeys to pull boats along; these paths are now bike routes. The canal is very popular with tourists who rent canal boats for their holidays and home to a number of people who live on the long narrow barge boats tied up to the shore. Both sides are lined with huge, old plane trees which provide shade and in some cases a canopy over the canal. It is beautiful in its own right and a treat to ride without traffic. It is popular with families and we have met friendly people at all the campsites, brave souls cycling with their kids and tenting along the way.

The sad news is that the plane trees have some kind of disease which is forcing the French government to cut them down. A tragedy. We found small sections where this has been done already but this is a minority of the trail. There is a program in place to cut down the diseased trees and replace them – about 3000 euros a tree. Here’s hoping they can stop the spread without having to do further chopping as these trees, aside from providing necessary shade, are also so integral to the southern landscape it would be a shame to lose them all.

The path itself is a bit rough (riding over tree roots) and it gets narrow in places and lacks signage but we have a great map from the tourist office that has kept us on track. There are times where you have to cross a bridge and ride on the opposite shore because of some obstacle or other or to get around locks (which are great places to take a break and watch the lock keepers and boats work to get through the lock). We have seen people with one-wheel trailers which work ok but the two-wheeled versions can be a problem in narrow sections. We met a family whose bike and trailer toppled into the canal – luckily the trailer only held luggage. So travelling with a child in a trailer requires some research as to appropriate sections.

We have been surprised all the way by beautiful French towns and villages that are on the path, most notably Le Somail where upon our approach we were so charmed by the ancient canal bridge and old tower we stopped for lunch. We noticed a small auberge across the street and sure enough got the last room in a restored 17th century house and for 55 euros had petit dejeuner on the poolside terrace with other guests. Oh yeah and our room looked out on the pool and the vineyard.

Carcassonne is also on the trail – and I liked it the second time round (I saw it ten years ago). It is a huge fortified town and castle (with 54 towers). It was stronghold of the Cathars in the 1200s and also the scene of some very horrific Catholic inquisitions. It is now very touristed and full of shops and restaurants but it is so unique and so big it is well worth putting up with the hordes.

We’ve also done a lot of camping these last few weeks and I am surprised at how much I am appreciating it, despite some crowded conditions at times. It was in the Carcassonne campground that I finally got round to making a campside meal I was very proud of – filet mignon du porc marinated in red wine with garlic and capers (and the pan juices with butter and more wine became the sauce) a green salad with oil and vinegar dressing and local fresh chevre and boiled new potatoes with a bottle of local Corbieres wine. It is possible to live with some luxury in the campgrounds here…many have pools and bars but it is hit and miss as to how crowded they are and what kind of ground is available for the tent.

We’ve also had many happy lock side lunches, munching on rustic Camembert and baguettes while watching the boats go through the locks.

I am writing this from Toulouse, the end of our first canal route ride and the beginning of the Garonne canal route. It looks like we will be able to ride along the second canal route all the way to a town called Marmande, a mere 30 km from our resting destination of Lauzun (where we hang up our helmets for a month). The two canal routes will end up providing us a trail ride all the way from the south in Montpellier to the southwest 100 km from Bordeaux (and if fact we could ride all the way to Bordeaux along the canal). This is about 550 kms of cycling off road on relatively easy path.

I can’t think of a better way to see this beautiful country.

Vive le France — more yin than yang — it is wonderful, even the fourth time round.

If it’s Tuesday it must be Greece…

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It sure went by in a blur. Here we are already in Italy, getting ready to leave for France tomorrow.

Cycling Distances:
Piraeus to campground 30 km east of Korinth 55 km
Camp to Korinth 30 km
Korinth to Akarta Beach 65 km
Akarta Beach to Rio 63 km
Rio to Patras 12 km

Even on a trip of this extended length there are sites we miss and places we’d like to linger but we manage to run out of time. Greece and Italy are getting short shrift this trip as we refuse to change our relaxed pace and we are restricted to 90 days in Europe as a result of the Schengen visa. Given we have rented a place in France for a month and that when we conceived the European part of this trip it was to be about cycling in France, we have missed much of Greece and will miss much of Italy to make sure we get that time in France.

So we are following the first rule of travel – always tell yourself you will be back. “Trip of a lifetime,” a phrase my Mom is very fond of, is great for pumping up the adrenaline about a trip but ultimately relaxed travel is the key to experiencing a destination rather than ‘doing’ it.

So. I loved what little we saw of Greece. We divided our time between Samos and Korinth.

Ian’s suggestion to ‘take a week off’ in Samos met with no argument from me as we wanted to unpack our bags for an entire week, in a place we actually planned to stop (rather than unplanned extensions because I was sick). Samos is one of Greece’s most easterly islands; it is closer to Turkey than it is to the Greek mainland.

We took a 90 minute ferry from Kusadasi and landed in the port of Samos.

We rode a pretty 2 km road out of town and wound our way up a cliff to the Scorpios Apartments. We rolled our bikes through the bougainvillea covered gate and admired the stone floors of the whitewashed lobby and then stopped to admire the pool, and the stunning view of the Aegean from the pool deck. We loved the place even before we entered the apartment and discovered a balcony with the same stunning view and a small kitchen. I noticed a giant rosemary bush on the grounds and after a trip to town to provision I was humming away to music playing on our ipad as I marinated chicken legs in Samos white wine, rosemary and capers and then baked them basting them with honey. We ate them with rosemary and garlic mashed potatoes, drinking white wine on the balcony watching the waves crash onto a cliffside far below. Heaven.

We used booking.com to make our reservation just outside of high season and thought 40 euros a night was an absolute steal. The owner Nansy is an artist and her work is displayed throughout the hotel and we appreciated her artistic touch noticeable throughout the property.

Nansy recommended that we rent a car to tour the island and gave us a great itinerary. We found a car down the road for 28 euros a day including insurance. We drove to Pythagoria (the hometown of Pythagoras — yes responsible for the Pythagorean theorem on right-angled triangles). The town hosts a small boat harbor for people cruising ‘the med’ and we had a nice seaside moussaka lunch watching people back in and do ‘the med tie’ which involves tying up the stern of the boat and throwing an anchor down off the bow. We also drove the narrow winding mountain road up a few hundred metres to the town of Manolatas. The houses and shops are all built on steep slopes on top of the mountain and we enjoyed walking the stone streets and admiring the views and a beautiful little chapel and bell tower.

We spent 9 days on Samos and between our day of touring by car, checking out beautiful beaches, hanging by the pool, visiting Samos town itself (there is a good archaeological museum as well as a wine museum which includes wine tasting – Samos is famous for making great dessert wine using muscat grapes), we were not bored.

From Samos we took a ferry to Piraeus, the main port for the city of Athens. We took NEL lines, a little bit of a rust bucket but very affordable at 80 euros each for a cabin and a 16 hour journey. The cabin was clean and just as nice as the one we had on the more expensive Superfast ferry line which we took from Patras Greece to Ancona Italy – (although the Superfast ship was a very luxurious new boat with a pool).

We landed in Piraeus and it was Ian’s experience from 20 years ago where he cycled the same route in reverse that helped us navigate to the ferry terminal for Salamis island (about 10 kms away from the port). We rode across Salamis Island (12 km) and onto another ferry to get us to the mainland, now the Peloponnesus peninsula. This shaved off a significant chunk of heavy traffic highway riding and the ride across the island was quite lovely. From that ferry landing, we followed Ian’s instincts to get us to highway 8 (the old national road) and then were very happy to follow that all the way along the coast, eventually to Patras.

It took us a few days to get across the peninsula to Patras, with a longish stop at Korinth.

Korinth is home to the Korinth canal (very narrow and steep canal that allows boats to get from the Gulf of Corinth to the Aegean without a big detour around south of Greece.)

We stopped at the canal enroute to the Blue Dolphin campground, close to the ancient city of Corinth. (Corinth is spelled both ways with a C or a K).

We almost gave ancient Corinth a miss – if Ian had not made the connection with Corinthians and St. Paul we may have just kept barreling across Greece. As it was, I spent the night before we checked out the ruins reading up on St. Paul.

This is where slow travel really pays off – exploring the ruin sites at a leisurely pace and cycling to them enhances my experience of actually feeling the history. I walked around that ruin site imagining Paul walking the same ancient road (the road through the old town is still partially intact); in my mind’s eye I watched him eating in one of the restaurants, looking up at the acropolis, buying olives and wine in a shop, (they had rows of shops along the main road through town and there are stone remains of the shop buildings) and writing his epistles to the Corinthians. He became a man for me, a historical figure not so far removed in time as he had been the day before for me, and this took him out of the mythical category he was filed under in my brain. That led to really trying to understand his experience and once again crawl my way through Catholic theology trying to understand what it was I was really supposed to believe when I was a churchgoer as a child.

Sure enough I discovered a contradiction that I am still puzzling over – St. Paul was very clear that he believed in the resurrection of Christ in a literal way. The current pope does not. So here I am feeling vindicated again — all those years in catechism class and hours spent in mass and I could never get a straight answer on theology questions and fought bitterly about being forced to believe in something I could not understand. (I gave up God when I gave up Santa Claus as it was about then that my brain started rejecting imaginary creatures of all kinds and none of the answers I got about what God is made any sense to me at that time.)

I have a much more sophisticated idea about what God is now and in very minor circles might be considered agnostic because I can come up with definitions that allow me to say “I believe under certain definitions.” In most circles I would be considered an atheist because I reject what I have come to believe is the common conception of God and I believe that conception is unsophisticated and wrong. But hey, not to pick on Catholics — they are not the only people confused in their theology – this is true of all major religions but I like to find evidence to back up this theory I have.

And there you have it, what I learned on my summer vacation and I am inspired to read on. Thank you St. Paul and ancient Corinth…

Well. Back to modern-day Greece…and then we cycled back to the campground….We spent four nights at the campground, partly so we could do laundry and take a day to see the ruins, also because we met a British couple there named Ian and Sue and so we had to stay up late and drink gallons of wine with them, delaying our departure by yet another day…

The ride from Corinth to Patras took three days. The first day was beautiful along the old national road which parallels the highway. It was Sunday, there was virtually no traffic and we were treated to ocean views the whole way. The only challenge was a very strong headwind that kept us pedaling hard the entire ride. Then next day we rode from Akarta Beach where we had camped to Rio which is just outside of Patras; there we found a great hotel for 65 Euros a night that included breakfast and had a lovely beachside bar where we could say goodbye to Greece at sunset.

We rode 12 kms to Patras the next morning, found a ferry booking company and two hours later we were on the Superfast ferry to Ancona, a 20 some hour ride that was very luxurious.

Ancona itself is a dirty little port town with nothing to recommend it but we stayed overnight near the train station and then cycled out to the airport the next day to pick up a rental car and then whizzed across the entire country to Pisa, bikes and panniers in the hatchback. We admired Tuscany as we drove through, and reminded ourselves of other times we’d been in Florence and told ourselves we would be back one day as we negotiated out of central Florence in rush hour through a traffic jam…

And here we are in Pisa…whew….off to France tomorrow.