Round trip from London to Paris, it was a two week journey covering a total 1000km on a two wheeler. I didn’t have the comfort of being behind the wind shield of a car, but I had the flexibility to hop off and on whenever I felt like – if there had been Pokemon Go in 2014, I would be a rich man by now. Everyday I had to pedal to the next destination on time no matter how badly my butt hurts or how sore my thighs were, or I risk sleeping on the road (there had been a close call). I was so physically and mentally engaged that I felt this was the first time I truly traveled. It was an unforgettable life time experience: lead heavy legs climbing hills, cool breeze nosediving downhill, vibrant tapestry of landscapes, dangerous ride on a highway and occasional creative sign languages.
Before the English Channel
In order to travel light, I only packed things which were absolutely necessary: pairs of shorts, t-shirt, socks, underwear, lock, some cash, everything that can fit into a 14inch laptop backpack which I could mount at the back of my mountain bike. Here I traded the fast lightweight road bike to a versatile and sturdy mountain bike. The last thing I wanted was to repair a punctured tire during the journey. The bike didn’t disappoint me that it worked the entire journey without any glitch. And when Google Map occasionally led me to gravel roads, I was ready.
I started on a windy Monday morning, pedaling along the Thames, and ferried across the river towards Dartford which was to the south east of London. As I slowly moved away from the hustled city, it took a good couple of hours before it eventually dawned to me that I wasn’t going to office! It felt just quite surreal! I doubled my phone as a GPS navigation but I soon realized that it was such an effort to view GPS on one hand and keep the bike balanced with the other. In order to avoid all the hassle, I took guesses at junctions. That was how I remembered all the wrong turns very well: the nice, easy ride downhill quickly became painful uphill when I need to return to previous junction. Have you ever seen a rare Pokemon and run out of balls? That is how I felt when I saw fellow riders who mounted iPad sized navigator in front of their bikes. I wish at least I had fixed my phone on the bike!
The bicycle route Google Map recommended had a divine name – Pilgrim’s Way, occasionally there were even sign posts to show the way at junctions. I passed golden fields with black rusty voltage towers, expansive bridges overlooking valleys in Kent, streets in between quiet towns and narrow bicycle pavement near motoways.
It was a beautiful route, except that it had occasional patches of muddy and gravel sections. According to Google Map, it should be just an 8 hour trip from London to Dover. I left around 8:30am and by 6pm, I just reached the south coast near Folkestone where I could see the white cliff extending to Dover far in the distant horizon. By then, my whole body was aching; I felt that my legs, arms and neck would drop off anytime.
Just about one hour before the last ferry, I reached a dead end. I could see one road leading to a camp site, a green hill to my left and the blue, expansive English Channel to my right. The route marked on the GPS was nowhere to be found and the clock was ticking for the last ferry. It turned out that I need to climb some stairs and cross a bridge in order to reach the route which was densely covered by overgrown thorny bushes and worst of all, it was a 60% upslope! Google has been honest to tell me that the cycle route was still a beta version.
(the picture looked so flat that it could not do my ordeal any justice)
Pressed with time, cursed under my breath, I pushed the bike in an angle that I was almost carrying it. Somehow I managed to catch the last ferry from Dover to Calais – first time, I have CYCLED cross country!
Big sign with “Drive on the right side of the road” welcomed me when I reached the port. The next time I saw another English words would be when I nearly slept on the street. I collapsed onto the bed as soon as I reached the hotel. Not counting the lunch and ferry time, it took me a total 11 hours from London to Calais.
Calais to Paris
A good night sleep did wonders to my spirit and, equally imortant my butt. At least that was how I felt before I mounted to the bike again – I distinctively found where my sitting bones were. And soon neck and shoulder muscle remembered the 11 hours journey the day before.
I treaded south along the coastline, passing Boulogne Sur Mer, to reach 2014 Tour de France starting point Le Touquet. The route was the most beautiful part of my entire two-week journey. Sunny, spotless sky on an open, hilly road: to my right, an unblocked view of the blue English Channel and cream white Dorset cliffs; to my left, flurries of crops with varying hues of red, purple, golden and brown veiled behind a dreamy shade of vaporizing steams.
(One of the pleasant downward slope leading to Boulogne-sur-Mer)
I met many fellow riders on the road (all were on road bikes). I soon mastered the honorary greetings between riders – a gentle nod which was riders’ way of paying respect and wishing all was well.
Crimson roof, white washed antique buildings, leisurely roaming tourists filled the street of Boulogne-sur-Mer. I tried my first French dish in this small town – Moules-Frites: The white wine sauced, succulent and fresh mussels were best complemented by lightly salted golden crunchy potato wedges. Further south to the small town was Le Touquet. By the time I arrived, all riders have dashed away already. The confetti plastered beach, colorful air-pumped gate, grand stage and lingering crowd were all that left of an explosive and contagious excitement not long ago. This otherwise tranquil, green town had beautiful beach houses loosely dotted on the side of wide canopied roads.
(all riders passed the gate behind me not long ago.)
In general, the cycle road network is much better than the ones in UK. The French cycle route is normally wide and crack free.
(bicycle lanes in France)
I once slipped onto the moto way by mistake. Cars were traveling far beyond 120KM per hour and they stirred up such strong wind that were constantly trying to throw me off balance. I eventually had to hopped off and pushed my bike on the grass at the side of the road. I pushed my mountain bike on knee-high grass and bumpy surface for nearly a kilometer before the next exit. Upper body exercise for a change!
I cycled up and down between valleys, crossed rail ways along rivers, passed tall sleek wind turbines and Odyssey style wind mills. I took several stops along the idyllic small towns towards Paris. Rouen was one of the bigger ones. It had culturally rich old towns which featured a sophisticated antique clock. This is also where I dropped my bicycle lock on my mobile (if you were ever wondering why I don’t have any pictures of Rouen). The impact went through the case, shattered the screen and just made the whole journey half a grand more expensive (it was far cheaper to travel to Paris on a train or a plane anyway). I bought the cheapest GPS enabled phone from market and continued the last leg of the journey to reach Paris.
A vibrant, culture melting pot and a bit too smelly too. I held my breath rushing through stench metros in order to move around the city. Over the weekend, I ticked all the must visit spots: Notre Dame, Louvre, Arc de Triomphe, Champs-Elysees, Tour Eiffel, Palace of Versailles, each proudly symbolized the glorious French history. My favorite was the Versailles: elegance, grandeur and dedicate. No time, efforts, resources and creativity were spared to create this legendary place: admiring the lavish interior, boating in the lake, cycling between tall trees, or simply walking around the maze like garden, there were jewels at every turn.
Back to England Through Normandy
Ever since I changed to a smaller screen phone, I actually learnt (or re-learnt) to read sign post and try to follow them instead of loading my phone all the time – running out of battery was an imminent concern. I just realized that GPS to my life is as important as electricity to my house. It is almost impossible to imagine a life without it. I travelled straight west from Paris. I want to go back to England through the place allies landed 70 years back – Normandy beach.
One day I was running late and need to sleep in a hotel near a small town called Rambouillet, a day’s trip to the south of Paris. When I reached the hotel, the reception had long closed. I was supposed to get my key from an auto dispensing machine outside. Following the instruction on the machine (English friendly) I inserted my credit card, but however I tried, the machine refused to recognize my credit card! Just as I was contemplating the prospect of sleeping outside of the door, I saw there was a friendly sticker note on the machine reads:
“for emergency please call XXX”
It was written in English! I called the number with enthusiasm. A lady with lovely voice answered the call. “Je ne parle par francias! Parlez-vous anglais!?” I asked “can you speak English?”. She might think that if she spoke enough French to me, I will suddenly learn it. But for the life of me, I could not. I desperately tried to explain the situation to her in broken English words but she happily carried on speaking to me in fluent French. Since I could not communicate with her, I cycled around the area to look for help. Luckily, a German gentleman kindly offered to help me. It turned out that even in French we could not make the lady understand that why I could not provide her my room number – because I haven’t got one yet! The German gentleman just confirmed my earlier suspicion that she indeed spoke English but she had too much pride to let go her mother tongue. Defeated and fuming, I returned back to the hotel. Just when I was convincing myself that it is actually quite cool to lean against the door and sleep, an old French man drove in to check the hotel. I implored him to pay for me from his credit card and I will pay him cash. He agreed. Phew! As I hit the bed that night, I leant 3 things in life: 1) always check reception time when book a hotel; 2) room insulation is equally poor on both side of the English Channel and 3) world average is far shorter than what is in the movies.
Before my last drop to Caern, the capital city of Normandy, I stayed in an old cottage to the East of Vimoutiers. A retired English couple converted an old mill into guest rooms. By then I couldn’t tell you how much I missed British English! They had tall, café horses, 2 dogs, fruitful cherry trees and a well-tended garden. Some internal mechanism of the mill was kept intact to form part of its cozy decoration. I learnt how to use old CDs to wade off birds from the cherry tree and had delicious cherry jam they made from last harvest.
(everything in the house co-existed gracefully)
the Normandy beach was packed with scanty colorful bikini and noisy beach goers. People dipped in water to cool from dazzling sun, lay flat sun bathing, or lined up playing volleyball. If it was not the D-Day monument, this white, silky smooth beach could have been anywhere in the world.
(the war was 70 years behind us now)
I was a couple shades darker when I boarded the Michelle to return to Southampton.
Let me tell you how excited I was to see Markspencer – the cold chicken, lettuce sandwiches were delicious!
The two week passed much quicker than I had imagined. The first couple of days were dreadful. When eventually my bum got numb from the pain, the journey was immersing. Language was a challenge. One day I wanted to buy something looked like milk, even it had the word “lait”. But it wasn’t, because the shop keeper didn’t let me buy it! One more thing I learnt is to put sun screen on the all the exposed skins: back side of the neck and legs are easy to miss. It wasn’t until taking showers in the evening before I realized how badly I burnt. It took a few days to darken before layers of dead skin peeled off. When I returned with an exhausted body, I was amazingly high in spirit – a satisfying conclusion.
This is a long overdue article as I did the trip more 2 years back. But the thought of putting this amazing journey into words was daunting. But eventually I figure it is better to leave them on paper before my memory get blurry.