Is riding a bicycle around the backroads of France a good thing or bad? That depends on who’s doing the riding and when you ask them.
Pretty much everybody agrees it’s a good thing when the sun is shining, a tailwind’s blowing, you’re rolling downhill and it doesn’t last long. The disagreement begins when the contraries arise, and arise they always do. Then, no matter how beautiful the scenery or charming the company, the unprepared are likely to apprehend the day darkly. The pedals become pebbles in their shoes, the saddle naggingly ill-fitted, the whole machine a pig on wheels. Get ready. The whining can start at any time.
“You need to listen to me!” said Lucie. “When I say I can do sixty kilometers, that’s means sixty kilometers! It doesn’t mean ninety!”
The 1000-year-old port of La Rochelle is a logical gateway to the Marais-Poitevin region, just three hours by train from Paris.
The problem was that we were now in the middle of the Marais-Poitevin region of western France, which is beautiful but nearly barren of civilization apart from the occasional farm or deserted hamlet. A veritable oasis for the city cyclist put upon by threatening motorists, the Marais-Poitevin is a vast marshland criss-crossed by innumerable rivers and canals, most of which feature smooth gravel tow-paths ideal for bikes. But I’d already reserved a room in the town of Coulon, on the region’s eastern edge, and we still had a fair distance to cover. We had no choice. We had to keep going. It was hot. We had a stiff headwind. Our water supply was dwindling.
“Look,” I said during a brief stop to consult the map. “The next village is only four kilometers away and it looks like there are a couple of cafes. We’ll stop and relax for a while, drink a Perrier. You’ll get your energy back and we’ll be good.”
Lucie looked at me. “Yeah ok but I’m just saying, you do this all the time and I don’t. I’m tired and sore. I need to rest.”
“We’re going to rest, we’re going to rest!” I parried. “Just a little bit more and we’ll be taking it easy. I promise.”
But when we got to the town we found the cafes closed and nary a denizen shuffling the dusty street—another blow to biker morale.
Extreme measures were now in order. Without words we pedaled forth until a pretty house came into view, its toes nearly touching the still waters of a narrow canal where frogs croaked back and forth. A woman crouched over a flower bed. The roar of a lawn mower came from the backyard.
It wasn’t Perrier, but the friendly woman returned with our bottles full of chilled water, which Lucie and I drank while sitting in the shade by the canal, listening to the frogs. It wasn’t Perrier, but it was good.
Top photo: Canal bridges are common in the Marais-Poitevin, where pleasure boats shelter in the mouths of inland waterways.
Bottom photo: The region features an extensive network of fine gravel walk and cycle paths dotted with casual eateries where "moules-frites" are always on the menu.
That was June 21, the longest day of the year and the day on which all of France celebrates the so-called Fête de la Musique. In Paris that means large concerts with well-known performers and huge speakers blasting across the Place de la Bastille, for example. In Coulon, population 2264, it was an opportunity for the local music school to ensure that every student got to play—accordians, drums, flutes, guitars, whistles and bells. After 90 kilometers and a hot shower, we found that this music went well with a bottle of local beer. The sun was still high over the west side of the town square. It was 8pm.
Our problems were over for that day. There would be others the next and the next and the next, but who cared? What are you going to do without them?
Lucie and I stood on the train platform in Poitiers early on the morning of our fourth day. She was going one way, I the other. One by one we’d put the hills and miles behind us. We’d seen a beautiful bit of the world, and I think we had an unspoken deal. In spite of the aches and pains, there will be a next time.