. . . and thence to Auvers-sur-Oise. I settled in for a couple of days, pitching my tent by the river at a 2-star campground. Two stars means it has clean toilets and showers, a place to wash your dishes, and a grassy pitch for your tent. This one was managed by Maria, who watered daily the flower pots of pink geraniums cascading down the stairs of the "bloc sanitaire". By day I could walk into town by the riverside path.
Auvers-sur-Oise is a small, unpretentious and gracious host town to impressionist art pilgrims, and especially those seeking signs of Vincent Van Gogh's final burst of artistic output. He stayed here for seventy days in a tiny room over a bar, and in that time produced 72 paintings. Then he shot himself in despair and died in that room, which was never rented out again. In spite of the loss of income for the Auberge Ravoux, Vincent's prolific output and his suicide were a gift of eternal tourism for this town. There are signboards with paintings posted around the village in the places they were done, so you can compare the finished painting with its subject. A lot of these are Vincent's, because he seems to have painted everything in sight, but many other artists congregated here, including Paul Cezanne, Charles-Francois Dubigny, Camille Pisarro, and Camille Corot. I even found the site of the wheatfield and crows, which is not far from the cemetary where Vincent and his brother Theo have plain graves side by side. I was more taken with the wheatfields and crows I had seen further north, but my vision was not the one of loneliness and despair that inspired Vincent. As I and other tourists haunted the flower-lined lanes looking for the paintings, gentle residents doing their street gardening were ready with a warm smile and "bonjour". The civic "je jardine ma ville" program has paid off--the lanes are alive with the colour of towering hollyhocks, roses, foxgloves, and lavender.
My two favourite places in town were the houses and gardens of Charles-François Dubigny and Dr. Paul Gachet, both people who gathered artists together, providing mentoring and refuge. Daubigny must have had a great sense of humour. He painted almost all the inside walls of his house with country scenes, flower wreaths, and animals. His atelier, reaching two stories, is completely covered with huge murals, done by him and other artists. Dr. Gachet, another interesting character, was a long-time member of an "eclectics" society. He would barter his medical services for artists' work. He had some knowledge of Vincent's medical problems and advised him to paint as much as possible--the results of that advice is many paintings that are famous today. You need live in no more than a garrett to produce great work, but if you've got more, you can also serve history and art.
I got back on my bike nourished by my stay in this town that hosts greatness, and headed west, in order to better skirt Paris. (I had considered taking a train into Paris, and even carried the transit map around for a few days until I was well clear of it, but couldn't face going urban.) West took me through more forest, the ancient hunting forests of the dukes and princes and kings for whom this area was a playground, and the rolling hills of the French Vexin, a huge parkland dotted with ancient settlements.
I had lost the Green Meridian back at the abandoned campground in Ailly-sur-Noye, but now my path joined one of the routes to Santiago, the "route de Saint Jacques de Compostelle" through Chartres. I made a reservation early in the day for a hotel, since there were no campgrounds or hostels nearby. The afternoon I spent at Théméricourt, only about seven kilometres from my destination, absorbed in a museum about the area. (The chateau of Théméricourt was last owned by J-C Duvalier, dictator of Haiti.) I cycled off to the hotel in a meditative mood, through rolling wheat fields lit with afternoon sun, and arrived at an intersection where I stopped to take a photo of a house whose sides were peeling off, revealing ancient layers. I was snapped out of my reverie by a large brown SUV jumping across the road, and Fernando, my host, pointing and shouting with joy, "C'est par là, 5 metres!" Apparently he'd been lying in wait at the intersection for me to arrive at his hotel. And Fernanda, his wife, was standing in the road in front of the hotel in case I missed it (which I very well might have. At my jasmine-scented campground in Auvers-sur-Oise, I learned a new expression when a man suggested a good campground near Orleans, "on ne peut pas le louper"--you can't miss it. Just try me, I thought, a little bitter.) The 2-star La Cressonière was expensive by my standards at 45 euros, and the decorations floral and florid, but it was fun to be greeted with such eagerness. If you guessed that I was the only one staying there, you would be right. We watched a French quiz show on TV while I ate dinner, the sole diner in the dim dining room, and discussed the possible answers. Some of the questions were unbelievably easy, so that even I could get the answers. Who sells real estate? Multiple choice answers included "immobilier'' which I have seen on many a roadside sign. Bravo! Twelve thousand euros for me. (Also spotted roadside, this version of "sold":"trop tard! déjà acheté!" Too late! Na na na na na!)
The next night, another wedding Saturday, they would be "complet" at La Cressonière, Fernanda told me with satisfaction. She didn't have advice about where I might stay down the road, telling me regretfully that the others (pilgrims on the St. Jacques route) all had guidebooks that told them where to stay. But I didn't mind. I have nothing against guidebooks, but the cycling guidebooks I brought with me have been more a source of frustration than help. My method is to plan my route on the Michelin Departmental maps (1 cm = 1.5 km), which so far I've been able to buy in bookstores in fair-sized towns like Amiens and Orléans, choosing the narrowest white roads possible, and avoiding any roads of colour, except green, which means a scenic route. These little white roads have so far guaranteed me great cycling. Then I get myself to the Tourism Office in town and ask for a list of accommodations for the next department. The departments could be likened to a state or a province, except that they are much smaller, which means a visit to a Tourism Office every day or two.
Another advantage of not using a guidebook for cycling is that the day can be one surprise after another. When I left La Cressonière in Seraincourt and aimed my bike south for Orléans, I didn't know what I was going to find or see, and I had several good "finds". The first was the bakery, open at 7:00 a.m. I bought a quiche, a small loaf of brown bread, and a chocolate croissant. A picnic table soon appeared for me to enjoy my picnic. My road was through rolling hills of cultivated land, the corn getting taller and sturdier by the mile. I came upon the town of Montfort l'Amaury by 11 am, and this was my next surprise--it had been but a name on a map, my mid-day destination, and it turned out to be an attractive and historic town of old stone buildings and narrow streets built on a hill. It was bustling at its centre, with people coming and going from the shops and greeting each other this Saturday morning.
From there, my next happy discovery was a "piste cyclable", an 18 km cycle path all the way to Rambouillet, my final destination for the day. (After about ten kilometres of travelling in the forest, however, I decided I preferred the white Michelin road and its vistas.) I arrived in Rambouillet around 4:00, and people were out in force, hanging out in the cafes and strolling the streets. But there was more . . . a black guy in a purple robe was orating from a second story window to people looking up from the sidewalk on the other side of the street-"Ecoutez mes enfants!" Music was being played at an outdoor stage. Kids were scrambling up a climbing wall. Pleased-looking old men were parading old cars . . . it was a festival called "Que des histoires! dans les rues de Rambouillet", something like Vancouver's "Word on the Street". And I was lucky to have stumbled on it.
(My final surprise of the day was a 3-star campsite which cost 18 euros, about $30 Cdn--not one of the nice surprises. The wonderful chambre d'hote in Assainvillers, by comparison, was 23 euros, not much more than a hostel.)
And from Rambouillet, one more day of cycling to Orleans. This day I covered more ground than any to date (119 km) but it was easy with the wind blowing me along, fair weather that wasn't too hot, and not many enticements to stop me in my tracks. Along this route, the cultivated land became more industrial: the fields stretched further, the corn grew about seven feet tall, the towns were dustier and spread further apart, and the land flattened. Huge silos sprouted along the road. And then I was at the Loire River in Orléans. A thrilling moment, looking at the river I would be following east, the water churning around the bridge pilons below.
Not as many other delightful surprises this day, except for the fact that I did, in fact, find the campground in Olivet, just south of Orleans: je ne l'ai pas loupé. I put my tent riverside (on the Loiret, not the Loire) with ducks leading their charge on the sunlit river by my tent; sort of like camping in Stanley Park at the lagoon. And for only 5.75 euros ($9 Cdn).
And a new phase of the trip begins: the Loire Valley. A future post.
Nevers, 1912 km