Sunday, July 31, 2016

Working in France

Gordon:  We have survived "Black Saturday", the busiest day of the year on the highways of France.  Many people still take their annual vacation in August, and this was the kickoff weekend.  According to the media, the roads, hotels and campgrounds are all at the bursting point as people make their way to their holiday destination, often the sea or the mountains.  Fortunately, we were almost oblivious to all this movement, as we have spent the weekend almost entirely on bike paths running beside canals.

While much of the working population is temporarily away from work in August, more permanent changes are occurring that lead to the chronically high unemployment rate. We have previously commented about the loss of bakeries and food stores in small towns in France, victims of the car culture and supermarkets, but we have noticed some new changes on this trip.

We book most of our hotels through an app that finds good rates in a specified area.  As a result we have encountered the future of budget hotels, and it doesn't involve a lot of employees.  Chains such as F1 and B&B Hotels (a very deceptive corporate name) have an electronic check-in process and provide minimal services, with the result that at certain times of the day you would be hard pressed to find an employee on the premises.  These are large chains, with hundreds of hotels, and they are successful because cheap people like ourselves are willing to accept fewer amenities if a hotel room costs a little less.

Another innovation we noticed today is the automated baguette dispenser.  We passed several towns where these vending machines have replaced the boarded-up bakeries.  A local who was purchasing a loaf assured us it was as good as one from a bakery, and they can be bought 24/7.  The price is comparable to a bakery.

Of course these types of changes in the economy are occurring everywhere, and it leaves me feeling relieved that I no longer have to participate in the world of employment.

On a personal note, today marks the anniversary of Ruth and I commencing our relationship.  It has been 26 years since we began our cross-species (Amazon/Troll) breeding efforts.  Although we have yet to have any tangible output , we continue with our efforts.  I am sure that it is just a coincidence that the hotel where we are celebrating our anniversary is located on Rue de la Sinne.  Really. 

Friday, July 29, 2016


Gordon: After 19 days of riding, covering 1150 kilometres, we are taking a rest day in Besançon.  The ride from Dole was glorious, as we followed the Doubs River and associated canals upstream through the foothills of the Jura Mountains.  At one point we paused for an excursion through a canal tunnel that has been turned into a work of visual art, as well as maintaining its original function.

Besançon is located on an oxbow in the river and cyclists and boats enter the city on another 400 metre tunnel that crosses the neck of the oxbow, passing under the old city.

Besançon is situated on a natural defensive site that has been occupied since Neolithic times.  It has UNESCO world heritage status for the 17th century fortifications, designed by Vaubin, located on the heights above the city.  We spent about 4 hours there this morning.  We are not that interested in 17th century defensive structures, but there are a surprising number of attractions within the fortified walls.  A visitor first notices that the site has been put to creative use when crossing the dry moat between two defensive walls: it houses a troupe of Gelada monkeys (a baboon like monkey from the Ethiopian highlands).  Inside the inner walls of the fortress is a zoo, an aquarium, a noctarium (of night animals), a folk museum for the region, a museum of the resistance, and the list goes on.  We passed the greatest portion of our time in the zoo, which has a great collection of primates, many quite rare in the wild.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

On and off the tourist circuit - Beaune to Dolen

Gordon:  In cycling from Beaune to Dole we journeyed from a node on the travel circuit to a relatively unknown city.  Mostly due to wine, Beaune is teeming with tourists, many from other countries (we even noticed a significant American presence).  The historical core of the city is buffed and polished, with every second shop offering wine tastings and sales.  We had to stay outside the old city to find an inexpensive hotel, and there were few of the modestly priced fixed lunch menus that we prefer.

Dole, on the other hand, is not listed in the Lonely Planet guide, and has a much lower tourist profile.  Although it lacks a blockbuster site such as the Hotel-Dieu of Beaune, Dole does have a fascinating historical core with many buildings dating to the 13th to 16th centuries.  It cascades down a hillside to both the Doubs river and the Rhone to Rhine canal, and it has developed these water features to beautiful effect.  Once we got over our disappointment at not finding great deals on bananas and canned pineapple, we found that we were very pleased to have happened upon this city.   Discovering lesser known places in between is one of the joys of slow travel.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Side trip to Beaune

July 26, 2016
As soon as my sister heard we were going to France she started researching different towns that we shouldn't miss and adding them to my google map of the trip. Beaune in the heart of Burgundy,  was one of the first towns she included. We have not followed all of her suggestions but today we did taking a side trip on a beautiful bike route through vineyards and manicured towns to Beaune. 

Beaune is famous first for it's wine, but secondly for the 15th century Hotel de Dieux, a hospice that cared  for the sick from its opening in 1443 until the hospital was moved to a newer facility in 1971. Initially, in the hall for the paupers it was two to a bed, but with a view of the altar for mass. 

It is a long day when you bike 50 Kms and then set off to sight see and I am looking forward to a day off the saddle in the near future.  We completed the first thousand kilometres of our trip today, and we have not had a rest day since we were at the Atlantic.

Gordon:  Of course, any day is enhanced by the sight of a Chateau de Vapeur or a Last Judgement.  We have been fortunate in seeing both recently.

The Hotel de Dieu in Beaune houses a magnificent 15th century Last Judgement polyptych by the Flemish painter Van Der Weyden.  The colours, the realism of the facial expressions, and the emotional content of the painting are extraordinary.  If I had been a 15th century peasant it would have scared me onto the straight and narrow.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Cycling the canals

July 24, 2016  Paray-le-Monial

Gordon:  After 800 kilometres we parted company with the Loire today.  In its stead we are now predominantly following canals.  These make for lovely cycling: they are flat, lined with trees, and you see interesting things such as canal boats, locks, and canal bridges.  The later are particularly interesting, as they involve the construction of a usable canal above a river.

The canal system we are currently following is marketed as a circular cycle route in the Bourgogne (Burgundy) region. Like the Loire velo route, it would make an excellent and accessible region for a two week cycle holiday.  It would not be necessary to bring your own bike, as there are many rental companies.  These often cooperate so that a bicycle can be rented in one town and left in another.  Just a suggestion for anyone  casting about for vacation ideas.

I had a cautionary experience with some of the excellent cycling infrastructure today.  We encountered one of the cubical, stainless steel toilets that are self-cleaning.  In a bid to save water Ruth held the door open so I could use the facility after her.  Of course, as soon as she closed the door the toilet roared into its self-cleaning routine.  There was water everywhere, and in particular sheets of it flowing across the floor and soaking my shoes.  On the plus side, I can vouch for the thoroughness of the cleaning of this type of toilet.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Never say never about Nevers

We last visited Nevers while on the Vezelay pilgrimage route to Santiago.  During that visit it was cold and rainy, and we were staying in less than ideal pilgrim accommodation.  This visit has gone much better.  The temperature is a pleasant 25 degrees, allowing us to read and eat in the atrium of our hotel.  We are staying with the Cat Lady of Nevers.  The reviews of the hotel are divided, with the watershed being your opinion of cats.  We are cat people (sounds like a 12 steps declaration, doesn't it) so it has turned out to be a good choice for us.  We have counted 10 cats so far, with up to 5 joining us at any particular time.

Nevers is also the city where Bernadette's body is on display.  In 1858 the Virgin Mary appeared to the 14 year old Bernadette in a grotto near Lourdes.  She later joined a convent in Nevers, where she lived until her death in 1879.  She was canonized in 1925.  Her incorruptible body has been on display since that time, and admittedly she does look quite good.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Les Chansons de Ruth: La Charity sue Loire


We saw a cock pheasant running along the edge of a field yesterday.  It was magnificent, although it was strangely without tail feathers.  The image inspired Ruth's first musical composition of the trip, a blues / funk number we will call "Hey pheasant, who took your feathers?".  It joins works from earlier trips such as "The KVR, McCulloch's Wonder", cowritten with Bruce, both heavily influenced by alcohol, while we were cycling the Kettle Valley Railway.  And who can forget the charcuterie cabaret classic "J'aime bien le saucisson".  C'est ecrit complètement en français, et c'est seulement pour les adultes.  Other notable works include the intimate love song "I love you in the morning", only heard on pleasant mornings after breakfast and while we are coasting downhill.  

I am sure that during this trip the Pheasant Song will be joined by others, although I am concerned about the possibility of an international incident when Ruth starts composing in German.

And for Neil, another nuclear power plant.  We cycled along the perimeter fence surrounding one this morning.  I would have submitted an image closer to the containment vessel, but Ruth was uncooperative. 

Playing in the Castle: Sully-sur-Loire to Ousson-sur-Loire

July 21st, 2016
When the Lord is away we certainly do play.... It turns out that our ancestors may well have come from this region. It was hard not to notice the close family resemblance to both of us in the paintings at the Chateau de Saint- Brisson-sur-Loire. 

Our ride yesterday was just dotted with Chateaus but we stopped to visit and play at Saint-Brisson.
The minor Chateaus go to great lengths to attract visitors and this one had all sorts of activities to entertain children or odd older couples. 

Our day ended at a lovely gypsy caravan in the town of Ousson-sur-Loire. 

And of course for Neil des chateaux de vapeurs.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Camping on the Loire Part Two: Sully-sur-Loire

They say a man's home is his castle, but there are castles and then there are tents.   

We are camping tonight just across the river from the Chateau de Sully, but don't despair, this is no hard luck story. Tonight we are trying out a three star campground. The extra star brings with it a swimming pool, mini golf and the all important toilet paper. 

This is a great place to be when the temperature rises to 36 degrees. Gord and I have been jumping on the pool continually to stay cool. 

Speaking of cooling, here is another type of chateau for our friend Neil. 

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Camping on the Loire

Last night we finally used our camping gear at a lovely spot on the river between Tours and Blois. There are lots of municipal and private campgrounds dotting the shores of the Loire in fantastic locations. Cycle tourists are waved in even when the designated spots are full. Camping French style, however, is not roughing it. At our spot near Mesnes we had wifi, power, hot showers and a trampoline.  No tent you say? No worries, they have everything from three bedroom manufactured homes on down to what was described as "the Canadienne," a canvas walled tent. For breakfast there was no squatting over a shared granola bar, but a complete breakfast served to us with hot coffee, croissants, pan au chocolate, bread and jam. It was fun nibbling on our goodies watching ladies in their house coats emerging from their mobile homes to collect their own breakfasts.  

Tonight we are in a hotel again  right in the heart of Blois.  It is a lovely small city with shady squares that are needed as the heat rises. There is a Blois surname in our family tree if you go back far enough so I wanted to see the chateau, and see if it felt familiar. Gord thought I should check out the stables because in all likely hood that would be where my people were really from. 

Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Loire Valley Saumur, Tours, Amboise and Mesmes

Saumur's Chateaux as seen in the Duke de Berry's Book of hours. 
Gord:  I am a big fan of fireworks.  While Ruth will generally decide in favour of sleep on an evening when there is a fireworks display, I show an unusual willingness to postpone my (ridiculously early) bedtime and take in the show.  One of the many things I like about the French is that they share my passion.  On Bastille Day in particular, even small towns host a good fireworks display.  This year, for some reason, many communities had their fireworks on July 13th, the eve of Bastille Day.  And so it came to pass that I was able to see outstanding fireworks on two successive nights.  The display in Saumur on Bastille Day was easily better than anything I have seen in Victoria.  The show the previous evening, in Angers, was an order of magnitude better.  The theme was the 2016 olympics, so the musical selections that accompanied the show had athletic themes.  There were 9 launching platforms located in the Maine River, often all in action at once.  The overall effect was magnificent, and I was left smiling from ear to ear.  It was of course disturbing to later learn that another Bastille Day performance, in Nice, ended in the tragedy of a murderous rampage with a truck.  I have no doubt, however, that on the next Bastille Day the usual fireworks will be seen throughout the country.

Ruth: We are now in the thick of Chateaux country, with the minor and major ones popping up all along our route. My only complaint is that they are too ornate for my drawing skills. Now Da Vinci wouldn't have  been put off by the complex spires  and multitude of angles. He spent the last years of his life in Amboise at his not so humble Chateau du Clos Lucé. Visiting Clos Lucé I gained a new appreciation of what patronage of the Arts really looks like when you are a favorite of the King. 

The Cathedral at Tours