This beautiful scene was one of only a few pictures I took as I travelled from a field of sunflowers in Rosieres Sur Saines, just south of Nancy, to Dévlliers, twenty five miles south of Besancon. Captured as the sun weighed heavy in the sky and the moon began to shine, it was the perfect setting for yet another wonderful act of kindness.
Arriving into Epinal courtesy of the River Moselle, for an over night stop at a campsite along the way, and after an incredible run of good weather, I woke to find clouds in the sky and before long, while making my way to Vesoul, the rain was literally upon me.
From Epinal to Vesoul a cat and mouse like game between the rain and I was in play, as I chased a clear blue sky mirage in the distance the whole day, whilst being constantly peppered with rain. I reached Vesoul as the sky darkened further, heavy thick rain clouds released their load and as I resisted the certainty of another campsite, I embraced the temporary shelter of a Kebab shop and indulged my hunger with a very tasty chicken tikka kebab and French fries, yum.
The rain stopped as the sun began to set and I made my way in the direction of Besancon, vowing to be braver and bolder, hoping to find a suitable place to make home for the night. Perhaps not home so much as shelter in the end, the view across Vesoul was beautiful when the clouds passed, I didn’t want to draw attention to my location with a flash, this was the view the next morning.
The road to Besancon was quite uninspiring and the weather was mainly overcast with occasional showers, the highlight was meeting a couple of fellow bicycle tourists visiting from Germany. Michael and his wife, who’s name was almost as beautiful as her, but unfamiliar and as such I have sadly forgotten, were on a three week tour (I must start writing these details down).
Besancon featured intricate architecture and had in places a medieval feel about it, none of which did anything to appease a rather ratty cyclist, expending time and energy circling the busy streets with the ‘aid’ of contradictory signage. I visited with two specific items to attain; a sim card and a more detailed map, I left frustrated, with neither.
I went where I knew I would find tranquility to reflect on my change in mood, the River Doubs. During times of frustration with the trivia, I have found in retrospect that usually, everything happens to work out better than intended, but not necessarily in the way originally sought. I did’t need a more detailed map because I did’t know, in detail, where I was going. I definitely was about to cross the border with Switzerland however, where money spent on a French sim card would have evaporated faster than you could say, ‘robbing b******s.’
Now cycling with a grin from ear to ear, I headed toward Lausanne, Switzerland and the hilly terrain I had been enjoying for several days, became more intense in the foot hold of the Schweizer Jura, the mountain range separating France and Switzerland.
It had been a long day and I was looking forward to finding a remote camping spot, preferably near a River, to provide a refreshing bath before bed. I was high up in the hills, steep tree lined banks both sides of the road made it difficult to find ground flat enough to sleep on. Continuing, eyes pealed, I did find a perfect place to camp, without the River, but, I could hear a River. Curiosity got the better of me and with a reassuring feeling from my gut telling me to cycle on, I descended at speed in the direction of the River, imagining a Huckle Berry Fin style oasis awaiting my arrival below.
Rivers and canals in France are almost always traced either side by foot paths which normally lead to a reliable place to settle. Not so on this occasion, you roll the dice and several expletives would not change the outcome, as I searched to find what was not there, the realisation of yet another climb, dawned on me. I had to laugh, dig deep and trust the feeling in my gut to keep going.
It must have been an hour later, a number of false hopes came and past, the gamble from earlier replaying in my mind, now what? I stopped to take a drink of water and the scene from above distracted me from my toil and compelled me to capture it. As I worked out how to use the panoramic function on the camera, I became aware that the tractor that was manouvering in the field to my left, had now joined the road behind me and was heading my way. Picture taken, I turned to see the massive machine pull up beside me, a perfect opportunity to test the scripted questions I prepared before leaving my sister, Jane, in Norwich.
‘Où puis-je mettre ma tente pour la nuit?’ I tried to say to the driver. The confused look on his face suggested my first attempt at saying this sentence out loud had not gone well. ‘Parlais vous Anglais?’ My default fall back position went better. Ýes, a little’ He replied. I showed him the question I had just murdered, to which he replied, Ýou can stay at my house.’ I could have hugged him but felt that would probably have resulted in an immediate and final retraction.
It was around 8:30pm and Pascal was on his way home after a long day working the fields surrounding his farm. Only a short distance from his home, after over 70 miles of hilly terrain, my legs were spent and as I struggled to keep up, he gestured for me to hold on to the back of his tractor – Fantastic!
Pascal showed me to his house and introduced me to his wife, Beatrice, whom, considering the circumstances looked remarkably relaxed about my arrival. Pascal, not only a farmer, was also a craftsman and in the process of skillfully fabricating the internal structuring of their home with wood. We talked for a while in garage attached to the side of the house, which Pascal had already fully sealed in wood and where I would sleep for the night.
Pascal and Beatrice invited me to join them for something to eat and I felt very grateful and privileged to join them, in a scene that reminded me of home. Over dinner Pascal explained that his farm supported cows, with the surrounding fields producing the feed, farming in the ‘natural way’.
Some of the cows were sold on to be butchered and the milk was sold in it’s natural state, unpasteurized, for consumption and used to make butter and cheese. Earlier in the year the French Minister of Agriculture visited the village to commemorate the 50th year anniversary of the Comté region setting the standard of quality for farming in the ‘natural way.’
Of course, the proof is in the eating and over dinner I enjoyed butter, cheese and meet, all produced using Pascal’s naturally farmed cows and washed down with freshly made apple juice, it was absolutely delicious.
It was a lovely evening, Pascal and Beatrice were able to speak English very well, I even had a brief discussion with one of their daughters, a recent mother, over the phone. After dinner, I was offered a shower and given a very comfortable mattress to sleep on.
In the morning, Pascal explained, that with so much work to do on the farm, it was difficult to find time to finish the rest of the house and that Beatrice would always remind him of what he still had to do. It was this comment and the way that Beatrice, effortless rustled up a beautiful meal in no time the evening before, that reminded me so much of my own parents.
Dad out all day tending to the garden, always in the middle of a protracted DIY project, meticulously engineered to aeronautical standards. Much to the frustration of Mum, waiting for him to arrive after rustling up a delicious evening meal, who just wants it to be finished!!
Pascal and Beatrice, thank you so much for your kind hospitality you are like my French surrogate parents! I very much enjoyed your company and although Pascal suggested such a gesture of kindness was normal, it was exceptional to me.
I joined Pascal in the stables after breakfast where he gave me two litres of fresh milk, to go with the wedge of Comté cheese, he gave me over breakfast. I discovered a number of years ago that unpasteurized natural milk is particularly good for muscle repair, although impossible to buy in the UK. It was just what my legs needed as I started, what turned into, the longest, toughest and most rewarding day of the journey so far.
It was a day of new highs and lows, literally and metaphorically, climbing from Dévillier to Mouthe, then over 1200 meters and the Swiss border to Le Pont to find Lac de Joux – Stunningly beautiful.
From the Lac de Joux, it was another 1183 meter climb to finally breach the Schweizer Jura and start my decent toward Morges on the bank of Lake Leman. The scenery was breathtaking and balancing my love for speed with sight seeing, cars, pot holes and the cornering ability of Shurly Anne, was exhilarating to say the least.
It’s taken almost 1000 miles to allow a name for my bike to emerge, and said in your broadest Glaswegian accent, Shurly ‘but she ain’t no sure thing’ Anne, is how she will be referred to from now on. Isn’t she bonnie, basking in the sun.
During the decent to Morges we reached a new top speed of 42.8 mph only 0.7 mph below my all time top speed, reached on a much lighter and faster Gennie, in the lake district, during the end to end last year. I must also add, that the previous trip top speed of 41.7mph, was achieved between Cantebury and Dover, with my Dad right behind me, not bad for a 66 year old, but age is only a number.
Reaching Morges was like stumbling on to the set of Beverley Hills 90210, beautiful people, scenery, smells, cars, shops, women and women, everywhere. All this beauty comes at a price however, my normal visit to the Boulangerie instantly doubled in price and sitting on a bench cooking up coffee, making Comté cheese sandwiches, was clearly an unusual sight for the curious onlookers. I didn’t care, I’d earned my place along the lake side the hard way, no private jets and supercars for me, just sweat, tears and burning thighs and it felt great.
Fully fed, I worked my way around the Lake side toward Lausanne in awe of the lifestyle. I watched every kind of sport play out around me, people running, cycling, roller blading, skateboarding and a striped down version of a skateboard, which looked like they had removed the board and just attached the front and rear trucks to either foot, making their way along the pavement like something out of Back To The Future III. I watched football, volleyball, beach volleyball, wind surfing, tennis and swimming, everywhere I looked people were exercising, it was really quite inspiring to see.
I Stopped to fill my water bottles at one of the many water fountains and engaged in an interesting conversation with a nice chap called Gaetan (I think, please correct me in the comments below if you’re reading?), who was heading off on his own adventure to Africa, to work on a social project to help children with the complex problem of obesity. He was also designing a sustainable bus which he intended to convert and live in, unfortunately, we were heading in opposite directions and after discussing potential camping locations, we went our separate ways.
From Lausanne to Vevey I found a secluded spot to freshen up in the lake, clean my clothes and prepare for a peaceful sleep. In this area, away from the lake side, exists the region of Lavaux which is famous for producing magnificent wine, and no matter how brave or bold, every piece of open land was filled with the grape vines of future fortune. Great news for the wine producer and consumer, not good for the opportunistic wanderer. When I reached Vevey, I deduced that my chances of finding somewhere to sleep were greater, nearer the waters edge, in between places of population, and so I headed.
In the darkness, I passed restaurants, bars, boats, recreational areas, buildings of seeming historical significance, but very little of what could be imaginatively considered, home for the night. I literally cycled to the end of the path and boldly decided that I would sleep in the open air, next to the lake, and went about scouting the area for potential risks. Fully surveyed, I laid out my tarp, sleeping mat, sleeping bag and got in. Listening to the sound of the lake lapping up just meters from my head, I felt at piece and despite my obvious vulnerability to anyone who cared to pass, I slept.
For about two hours, then, woken by the initially refreshing sensation of a fine spray of water onto my face, I realised I was getting wet. WTF, awake, I sleepily looked around for the source of the spray, the waves lapping in were now less than before, I assumed because the boats were no longer creating them. I looked beyond the path, out into the distance of the lake side curving away to the left, it appeared misty, but I could see stars in the sky above. My mind darted about like an erratic moth bouncing off a light bulb trying to narrow in on the source of the spray. The ground to my right was dry, from what I could tell I was lying in a localised wet zone, which in my sleepy vulnerable state led me to believe I was in someway being targeted. Frustrated, and aware that water exposure for the down sleeping bag I was inhabiting, would end in tears, I decided I simply must pack up and move on.
What can I say, I had searched for hours to find a place to sleep, gambled on both the weather and to remain undiscovered, only later to be baffled by phantom spray from an anonymous source. I had surmised in my mind the possible sources as; kids pissing on me; the bats I could see shuttling out from above, marking their territory, with piss; or some sort of weather front seeping around the lake side spilling into my path.
None of which really satisfied my curiosity, only when I had packed up and cycled back up onto the road did I discover the real source – time activated sprinkler systems, watering the plants which surrounded a flagship multinational place of work – Brilliant, I was really happy that the plants were fully hydrated. If I had a time activated explosive, I think I may have used it.
Turning back just isn’t possible and I continued on past Montreaux to eventually reach a campsite in Villenuve. Tired but resolute, I scouted the area for free camping alternatives, to no avail.
Eventually resting my head after 91 miles, a new one day record for distance and for speed, was a beautiful thing.
Only now a journey through the Alps becons; higher, steeper, tougher, slower, faster – no rest for the wicked…..