11 November 2008

The north-west coast of France (2008)

From Portsmouth there are ferries across the canal to several destinations in France. My plan is to cycle along the coast via Belgium to Holland and visit colleagues of mine at the Medecins Sans Frontieres Headquarters in Amsterdam.

The ferry to Le Havre seems the most obvious to me but after some thinking I book a ticket to St. Malo in Brittany - my friend Catherine had always told me how beautiful it is there...
...and beautiful it is! A wonderful rough coastline welcomes me and (in comparison to where I just came from) marvelous food. I always hated it when my French friends where so overly proud of their bloody „cuisine francaise“. But honestly – they have all reason to be proud. Crusty baguettes de campagne instead of British sponge-bread, creamy soft cheeses (goat!) instead of bulky chunks of artificially coloured cheddar and fresh red juicy Tomatoes instead of the imported Dutch water-enriched-but-no-taste-stuff. Yum yum.
St. Malo is a walled-in harbour town with numerous small fortifications on little islands and rocks in the adjacent bay. Rumors say that it had never been taken from the seaside... easy to imagine when one stands on the high stone walls and gazes onto the ocean.

In Cancales, a tiny little town on the coast there are plenty of signs advertising the "degustation" of oysters fresh from the ocean. I've never had oysters before (why swallow glibbery live animals?) and after having tried boiled rabbit ears and jelly fish in China I might as well get a taste of this stuff. At least then I know if it's worth buying two dozen and a bottle of Champagne next time I park my yacht in Monaco...
Well, interesting texture, salty (what else do you expect from something straight out of the ocean?) and definitely glibberish. It is said that oysters have a sexually stimulating effect - I have to admit that I definitely did experience better ones than this.

From St. Malo I take the route northwards along the coast.The bicycle path is „formidable“ - outstanding; little plates (with a dinosour riding a bicycle) signal the way at every crossing. One hardly ever gets lost. I follow small side roads and there is little traffic – a very recommendable route for a trip with children.
After a couple of days I reach the breath-taking town of Mont St. Michel. Entirely built on a rock in the ocean it is visible from kilometers before. And it grows and grows and grows with every meter that I get closer. Amazed (and tired from the gravel track) I sit and gaze at the old cathedral and the ancient town around it. And after some time of just sitting there I like the place so much that I finally put up my tent and stay over night with a magnificent view on the cathedral that one cannot buy for money in the nearby 4 star hotel :)

From Mont St. Michel I continue north-east wards direction Normandy. Lots of beautiful beaches there with plenty of history. The region is rough and hilly - strategically wothless - who would land here with thousands of soldiers? Smart thinking of the allies in WWII. "Juno", "Sword", "Omaha" were some of the names where artificial harbours were quickly installed by simply sinking dozens of ship hulls filled with cement.
Now, more than 50 years later, some of the cement blocks are still visible. One war memorial museum after another rows up along the coast filled to the brim with Canadians, Americans, British, Japanese and Germans. What makes me real happy here are not the pictures of who took this and defeated that but to see a colourful mix of all ex-warring parties together - Japanese asking Americans to "ple-se ta-ke pic-cha!", Germans asking Canadians "kuut you trenchlate siz hea foa me, sank you!?". In the evening, when the tourists are back in their hotels and caravans, I stroll on the empty beaches and set up camp in the dunes...

Then I continue east to the city of Le Havre where the famous river Seine (Paris) flows into the sea. Right here at the coast, a giantic suspension bridge streches over the river Seine. Cyclists have to share the narrow road with the french high speed autoroute traffic. Holy chainwheel - when big 40 ton trucks pass by then cyclists almost fly overboard (this is where the child-friendly part of the trip ends...)! On my map, Le Havre is listed as UN world heritage but passing through its center I cannot really figure out why. What impressed me much more than the city itself was the huge container port with ships coming and leaving from all over the world. There are dedicated terminals for Transatlantic traffic, for the Far East and for Africa and ships of all sizes and types. The funniest to me are always the vehicle carriers. (They look like swimming wardrobes – watch out when you are at the coast next time!) Those vehicle carriers not only bring you shiny new Toyotas and Suzukis from Japan and Korea, they also bring your trashy old car away. Many a Renault or Mercedes that doesn't pass the service check (TUV) anymore is shipped off to Africa where they run and run and run. In Ivory Coast a car is not called car but simply what it is: „France au-revoir“ - „Good Bye France“!

After Le Havre I desperately need a shower and a day rest. So i decide to stay on a camping site for a night. I unload my bike and make for the reception - 13 EURO (20 USD) for a night in my own tent!!! I curse the guy and the whole French tourism industry - but in the end I am too tired and I stay. The place is packed with tourists, tents and vehicles everywhere. I start enjoying to watch my neighbors and their attempts to set up their stylish but complicated tents with 12 windows and 500 poles... some youth are playing techno music from their car stereo (camping site rule no. 1: there are always some youngsters who think that everybody else loves techno just like themselves) . My German neighbors (I refrain from introducing myself!) get out their high tech chairs with integrated beer-can-holder and cooking equipment sufficient to accomodate a whole garrison (camping site rule no. 2: no matter what car people have, the trunk is always filled to the brim). To the left some people try to calm down their barking dogs (camping site rule no. 3: at lest one party brings a dog who then terrorizes all those who left their dogs at home during holidays in the hope to have some calm).
I sit back and relax and then go downtown to get a take-away pizza and sit on the beach. I meet Jerome, a belgian guy who cycles from Italy back home. We join up, buy a bottle of red wine and he puts his tent next to mine on the camping site 8without paying the 13 EURO which makes us both feel much better about the French tourism industry...).

Jerome and I stay together for a couple of days just before we reach Belgium. We have to fix his bike several times because he has shitty equipment and way too much of it and everything on a shitty rack in the back. I pity him but am also impressed by his patience to get all the stuff from Sicily all the way here. When we split ways I continue for a couple of kilometers and then meet a German couple who cycles with a dog in a trailer. They gave up everything back home and now plan a longer trip by bicycle. They have a bottle of Champagne on their rack (not the usual sight) and I inquire what that is for. "We have our 1000st km in 2 kilometers!" they reply and after a short discussion we decide that drinking the bottle prematurely but right here at kilometer 998 cannot cause much harm. Cheers and good luck to you guys!!!
In the evening I set up camp right at the border to Belgium.

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