Post di Viaggio

France on the road with the French Divide

“It’s
time to roll again” … this thought was bringing me back to John Lennon’s
“Watching the Wheels” when I was at low tide on Bray-Dunes beach, on the
Channel on August 5th at dawn, ready to start with my mountain bike
for the French Divide, 2,200 km of French landscapes and culture, crossed from
the North-East of the French-Belgian border to the Southwest of the Basque
country.

From this
point on, the tale could become the chronicle of a beautiful ultrabikepacking
event (on this blog we have already talked about similar events when I reported
my experience at the Tuscany Trail) but on my way back to Italy, reading also
the reports published by other “divideurs”, I thought that a timeline
of the ride, enriched by too many technical details, was not the best for who –
like me – reads this blog to dream about far away places and to manage an
escape from everyday life.
Taking also
into account the few bike-friendly Italian people, making such an essay would
have prevented many readers from fully enjoying the interesting ideas that can inspire
to organize a trip to France.
Therefore here is a flavour of an almost “France coast to coast” trip from the North Sea
to the Cantabrian Sea. 
But to start with a trip like this one, two are the fundamental pillars:
# 1: we can
start planning our adventure on the road reading the detailed carnet de route
made by the French Divide team, Samuel, Lionel, Thibaut and Céline (in a strict
beauty sequence)
. It’s enough, to have the tourist references of the natural
parks and the main places to visit along the way. The most important thing is
not to follow unwisely the GPS tracks, which would lead you to trails and
single track that was sometimes difficult to ride even in MTB (we often thought
about the whole team, while in the mud or under the sun , for dozens of miles we
had to cope with steep climbs without meeting people or a water source).
# 2:
chosing the means of transportation.
You can’t imagine how many times I wished
to be riding a motorcycle, heading towards one of the many public campsites
scattered along the itinerary, or sitting on a comfortable motorhome with all
the luxuries I forgot while riding my MTB. The only vehicle that wouldn’t be
the best, although the most common, is the car, since it would not respect the
spirit of the journey, although it is more practical than the motorhome and it
stands on against the weather – hot sun and / or rain – that the French August and
the difference of latitude heading South, can give us.
Now that we
have the basics, I can give you some more personal travel sensations, about this
French coast to coast along with the French Divide, the places I visited and
the season I traveled.

Part 1

We start
from the beginning: Dunkerque, near which there is Bray-Dunes, the place from
which the French Divide departed, although in 1940 there were other vehicles
deployed for the operation Dynamo, reenacted this year by Christopher Nolan’s
movie.

The wide
and well-kept beaches overlooking the Channel are not the best for the
Italians, used to warmer climates, but I suggest you to take a walk or to have
a beer in the waterfront, after walking by the streets and park of the town.
The town ofthe hero Jean Bart, offers several cultural opportunities. You can’t miss a
visit to the operation Dynamo museum – arranged in the only bunker that has not
been cut down or reused – and the port museum, set in a former tobacconist’s
factory, which, alongside relics, naval models and reconstructions of nautical
environments, can even show three ships that can be visited, permanently moored
in the nearby channel.

Going
south, our French Divide carnet de route invites us to overflow into Belgium. There’s
a difference between the buildings in the two countries, although a common
feature is the presence of so-called villages, those groups of houses that do
not have any type of public service, such as shops or simple fountains. From
here on, it’s always good to have small stocks of food and water and keep in
mind the timetables and the closing days of the few shops that you will meet on
the itinerary. For a few hundred miles, we will cross the countryside: the
French proudly use that word for the rural part of their country, in which
extensive crops and cattle breeds make the human presence constant but
discrete, leaving nature prevailing .
Another
common feature of the Flanders, between the two countries, is the presence of many
cemeteries dating from WWI, in which you can appreciate the brilliant green of
the grass surrounding the lined up tombs, while thinking of the soldiers
fallen. It is also easy to meet other monuments in the open country,
commemorating the battles of 1914-1918, as well as in the villages. Many of you
will remember for sure that the Flanders have been a battlefield for centuries,
for economic, territorial and dynastic reasons, with other contenders: in
Cassel‘s town, history brings our memory back to events that are now only reported
in our school books, but offer us a landscape deserving a stop.

A
difference between the Belgian and the French villages, however, is the
initiative of villes et villages fleuri that for more than 60 years now on makes
the French villages prettier, increasing tourism and local economy. In August,
this proposal joins to the local events that take place almost everywhere, for
the grape harvest or during August. In France, there’s the tradition of
organizing festivals, including the vide grenier, the markets which lasts from over
seventy years, during which people empty out cellars or barns and, for a few
Euros, you give new life to neglected stuff. Next to these are the braderie,
the markets run by professional traders, spread everywhere, but among which is
well known the one of Lille, the first weekend of September.

Going
straight to Lille, for cycling enthusiasts, it’s necessary to take a trip to
the paved trails of the famous Paris-Roubaix race, less comfortable but with an
appealing charm.
Our next
stop, where to find a bit of refreshment, nice places and some summer events,
is Le Quesnoy: a fortified town whose walls are crossed by tunnels, which you
reach crossing a well-kept park built in defensive trenches. However, along our
path, such looks are a rarity, maybe due to the strong French monarchy.

Something
particular I noticed, of which I did not find an explanation, is the presence
of the same decorative frieze on the vast majority of the French private gates,
all over the more than 2.200Km pedaled. I photographed some, hoping somebody know
the origins of it…

Going on
through cultivated fields and wind farms, we quickly reach the Champagne, a
geographical area whose evocative name is confirmed by the rows of vines and the
wineries everywhere. Here, following the route touristique du Champagne, after
crossing Epernay, the first checkpoint of the French Divide, we also reach the
Marne, the longest French river, known for the tenacious resistance that stood
there during the Great War. Taking a leap back a few centuries, to the 12th, we
start dealing with the order of the Templars, whose story is closely tied to
that of Champagne and the city of Troyes. The regional natural park of the Forêt
d’Orient
, which we cross, thinking about the intrigues, the alleged treasure
and the area that belonged to that knight’s order until it was abolished in the
14th century.

Going back
to our trip, it is worth visiting also the pretty town of Tonnerre, overwhelmed
by the Saint-Pierre’s church.
Out of
Tonnerre, you already are heading towards Morvan‘s regional natural park, the
green lung of Burgundy, dotted with lakes and hills. The next stop, as well assecond checkpoint of the French Divide, is in Quarré-les-Tombes where, following
a travel companion, I indulge myself and give me the second comfortable night of
the trip in the hotel “Le Morvan” – very well kept and therefore
worthy of a particular mention – in which I also like the surprise of finding a
bidet, thus disfiguring the myth of the Italian-French querelle on hygiene in
the bathroom…

From here
on, the GPS track leads us to an impressive trail, the Great Traversée du
Morvan. As far as you reach the ancient Roman city of Autun, you can afford a few
miles of relaxed riding in the local park along the river.

Another
pretty town on the French Divide route to the Southeast is Toulon-sur-Arroux.
Here, you must stop at the Le Méridien café-restaurant, where the service and
the quality of the dishes are not second to the kindness of the Staff (a very
friendly maid assisted me during an overtime break, after which I did some
extraordinary maintenance to the MTB). The region we are crossing, however, has
still some pleasant surprises: we cross Bourbon-Lancy with its historical
buildings and the well-kept park with lots of cycling paths, then quickly
passing through the village of La Chapelle-aux-Chasses with the pretty little
church of Sainte-Anne, then still the town of Moulins, where it is possible to
walk by in the center and to relax in the camp sites along the Alliers River.

Finally, we
reach the seductive medieval village of Verneuil en Bourbonnais, which would be
a shame not to visit considering the well kept medieval buildings and the balade
des épouvantails, the festival of the scarecrows, put here and there in the
village for it’s nineteenth edition, taking place from June to September.

Part 2

The
odometer now tells us that we have just crossed the middle of our French Divide
route, which is about 1,150 km. A considerable distance, but we still have not
crossed high mountains: on the total of 35,000 meters of D + (uphill), we have
just gone over 11,000.
The Central
Massif and the Pyrenees – which we will meet in the 1,100 Km to follow – will
claim their duty, which will result in a large number of people giving up, due
to fatigue, accidents, psychological breakdown, mechanical failures. In this
kind of event, those who do not reach the finish line are always around 40% of those
at the starting line: a remarkable percentage, but with a bit of goodwill and
good luck, you can reach great goals. There is also to remember the support of
the people who meets those perfect strangers who ride towards them dirty, tired
and overloaded, but with a great smile.
I must admit,
in fact, that the human aspect is one of the most intriguing elements of the
bike trail. In an event such as French Divide, where participants have a GPS
tracker that reports their real-time location, there were several enthusiasts
waiting for us in the street and pushing or even pedaling with us for a few
kilometers, talking friendly. These things make this sport something out of
time. Even those who didn’t know about this event, gave us a warm welcome. I
received water, jam, handshakes and compliments from those who had already seen
other participants in the days or hours before. Every minute spent talking was
an investment in the quality of the route, rather than a delay on the roadmap.

Now, let’s
go back to the trails: Clermont Ferrand and the Massif Central, a mountainous
area of old volcanoes and natural parks – the Parc des Volcans d’Auvergne – are
waiting for us for several kilometers, along with the luna park Vulcania, having
a naturalistic-environmental theme.
Before
arriving, however, it’s nice to pass by Chantelle with its abbey, the
picturesque medieval fortified village of Charroux, reached by passing through
fields of sunflowers, and Ébreuil. From here to La Bourboule, a winter ski
resort, the trail is becoming harder. In this latter city, you can have a good
meal and, if weather allows, also spend a nice summer day in a tourist
environment.

Something I
noticed is that along the closed mining sites, all industrial structures have
been converted to tourism. For example, the railway lines that carried the dig minerals
have shifted into cycling paths, helping the economy and tourism of the
territory.
This day,
started in Olby where finally – after three days when I slept directly on the
ground – I had time and a fountain to repair the sleeping pad, lazily ended
with another night at Hotel Relais Arverne in Saignes, just out of the track.
This has been a useful detour to understand how French towns can still offer
something, a pub, live music, although it is necessary to wander about to find
it.

Going on we
cross the Dordogne, a river that creates many lakes where it is possible to enjoy
water sports. Later, the landscape turn back to mountains: we reach Rocamadour,
with a castle and fortified bishop’s palace, too much a touristic place. From here,
you can walk by the Santiago de Compostela Way, with still few pilgrims before
the Pyrénées.
Along the
way we reach the third checkpoint of the French Divide: Cahors, a middle-sized
town, from which – once crossed the river Lot on the fortified bridge of the 14th
century, called Valentré (also known as the Devil’s Bridge) – we head towards
the Garonne River.

Moissac is
a stop not to be missed, with its abbey and many shops, but the mountains are
in sight. After a short stroll to Saint-Bertand-de-Comminges, head for
Sarrancolin: we are all in the Pyrénées, climbs are tough and, if you are not
fast enough, remember that at 14:30 the restaurant’s kitchen closes… even if
you arrive with just 5 minutes late. Climbing the Col de Tourmalet with only
one ham sandwich is not encouraging, but a couple of beers re-integrate the energies
lost up to that point! Crossing the Pyrenees is also possible by motorhomes and
motorbikes, there are many places to camp freely or to enjoy services,
including hotels and restaurants that, honestly, have appeared to me as monster
buildings. Perhaps this is why I spotted a rentable wooden house that leaves at
least the idea of being in the f nature, rather than violating it. The good
weather allows you to tackle a dirt track that is steep but quite jammed, in
the last ten kilometers on a tarmac to the legendary climb of the Tour de
France.

This
reminds me that before stepping the top of the Tourmalet, it is necessary to
stop (always just in time with the closing times of the restaurants) at La
Mongie
, a ski resort a few miles downhill, for the usual beer-based
reintegration, this joined by kebab (in sight of a huge Pyrenean Shepherd dog,
the white dog of the old cartoon “Belle and Sebastien”).

Rather than
going on eating baguettes (bought two or three at a time and carried tied to
the handlebar in a waterproof bag) accompanied by canned sardines or mackerel –
which they shifted by emergency meal to the main food for breakfast, lunch and
dinner – Any other type of protein is always welcome. I recall that when I had
the opportunity I had always eaten at the restaurants met along the way,
generally based on local beef entrecote, until in Basque countries was easier to
eat meat coming from Spain.
The
Tourmalet’s night shift was one of the most impressive things during the French
Divide. After disturbing couples and people watching the stars to take a selfie
at the fourth and last checkpoint, under the statue of Octave Lapize at 2,115
meters, the wonderful sky full of stars in a moonless night has paid back many
of the efforts made to reach it. The downhill, on the contrary, was too fast,
partly by dodging sheep and cows on the roadway.

Part 3

The other
side of the Tourmalet reveals an unexpected night life, up to that point,;
here, in addition, memories of Napoleonic campaigns merge with architecture. After
all, the miles from the goal of the French Divide decrease but not so fast.
The next
day, there is still to cross Lourdes, the “Las Vegas” of
Christianity, where to find a restaurant already opened in the morning is easy.
The problem is the weather: it started raining from late morning, so I had to slow
down and considering lost the party scheduled for Saturday at noon, instead of
pedaling all night I decided to spend the last night in the Hotel de France – receiving
a warm welcome by the owners, even if I was completely covered with mud – in
the nice Oloron-Sainte-Marie, with restaurants opened until late-night and
summer festivals which unfortunately I did not attend .
Talking
about the hotels not belonging to chains, my short experience has taught me
that breakfast is light, don’t expect any continental buffet. Half baguette, a
little butter and jam, is what is generally offered with a tea or coffee. It’s
better to keep that on mind, because it’s likely to ride up to 30-40 kilometers,
before finding a village with a boulangerie opened and having still stocks of pain
aux raisins or au chocolat.
On the last
day, Saturday, August 19th, the weather is good once again. This allows me to
fully enjoy the beautiful and tiring track that, often overlapping the Santiago
Way, leads me to Mendionde. I missed the rendezvous for the party at lunch, so I
can take it easy and get there for dinner, once again behaving as a tourist.
Dirty and tired, but always curious to know the places I pass through!
Remarkable
are Navarrenx, the fortified city well known for the three Musketeers of Dumas,
and Saint-Jean-Pieds-de-Port, very well known to all pilgrims and very typical,
although there are too many souvenir shops.

The goal
is, as it has already been said, in the Etchebarne restaurant of Mendionde, in
the heart of the Basque Country, where there is a second language and the most
practiced sport is the Pelota basca, so that in every village there’s a high
wall (called fronton), as well as a gym, to allow young athletes to practice
outdoors as well.

The bike
ride ends here… with the MTB boxed for the return flight home, from Paris
Charles de Gaulle, in which I also arrived. I traveled in France by TGV or TER,
which allow to carry the bike but with exceptions, so it is good to plan
carefully if you would like to travel this way.

I had a
small holiday add-on in Bayonne, lacking the time to reach the famous Biarritz
seaside resort and thus complete the ideal trail of France coast to coast.
However, I was happy with it, because Bayonne is a nice town with an old town
center and many restaurants lying along the River Nive, crossing it along with
Adour.

To close
this essay, especially on behalf of any strong cyclists reading this, I want to
express a few thoughts on the French Divide as a competition.
I do not
think there is a proper way to deal with a bike trail, the perception of fun is
personal, so those who trained hard in the months before departure (like AnnaMc Leod, first of the womens at finish line), deserve the same respect as those
who preferred not even take a glance at the Trackleader site, so as not to be
afraid of the cyclist to chase or to be overtaken by. Always taken into account
the differences in physical abilities and training, of course. The same is for
those who have always slept in hotels, and who instead camped. Those events are
nice because, in my opinion, you spend alone most of the time searching for
what you like more!
Obviously,
who is evaluating to ride the French Divide bike trail should follow the carnet
de route, remembering that to live to the French mood, the best way is to
participate in the third French Divide, hoping in a larger presence of
Italians! This year, in fact, there were only two of us: the second one, who
did a good performance – despite various failures – was Daniele Bifulco, a strong
cyclist and one of the two managers of the Lazio trail, the tour of the Region
of the Capital city Rome, another track to be kept in mind.
It could be
the subject of my next article, if the girls of “Viaggi e delizie” will offer me again to be their ”guest”!

4 Comments

  1. Elena ottobre 21, 2017
    • Unknown ottobre 30, 2017
  2. Unknown dicembre 28, 2017
  3. Anonimo maggio 11, 2018

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