Thursday, July 24, 2008

River Dream: Loire Valley to Burgundy

Chateau Sully

Bressan farm

Loire after rainstorm, Chatillon-sur-Loire

Escargot de Burgougne


Orleans, Chateauneuf-sur-Loire, Gien, Chatillon-sur-Loire, Saint Satur, Nevers, Decize, Digoin . . . the nine days I spent on the Loire drifted by like the river. An ideal day went something like this: up early, pedal into town for ''un petit cafe" and "pain au chocolat" and pick up a fresh baguette. Cycle up river through the fresh morning; after an hour or so, find a picnic table for a morning tea (fired up on the pocket rocket stove). Cycle on, arrive in the next town around 2; set up camp across the river from the town, maybe take a dip, then cross the bridge and check out the historical center. (Every bridge is a bit of an event in itself, with its sturdy spans braced against the river's flow.) Then, usually as the first customer around 7:30, dinner in town--a different terrine to try as entree each night, a different cut of steak or salmon with delicious sauces, various wines, and desserts--creme brulée or local ice cream. I kept myself well-fueled.

The Loire has been through the centuries a key route for the carriage of local products and commodities such as wine, salt, and grains, and there is a lively culture of the people of the river--the "mariniers" (boatmen), the fishermen, the millers (working their boat mills), and the "lavandeuses" (the washerwomen). Also, in the old days, there were the tax collectors watching the boat traffic from their posts high on the chateau walls and taking their lord's due from the passing cargo.There's lots to celebrate about the river culture, hence the ''Caravane de la Loire" in the first week of July. Each day, a different community had a schedule of music, drama, acrobat feats, and parades. The Caravane was progressing downriver, toward me, so I aimed to intersect with the festivities in Gien. There on the grassy banks of the Loire under threatening skies, I gathered with an audience who knew the words to enjoy the Loire Mariners Choir, "Le Fils de Galarne.'' The choir was about thirty high spirited men who looked as if they'd come straight from their boats, having put on their choir outfits seconds before disembarking: traditional black tri-corner hats, white shirts and red scarves. Their songs were bawdy and sentimental, with the Loire as mistress--"j'aime ta voix, j'aime tes contours"--as well as the site of shenanigans between "les lavandeuses" and "les mariniers". Arms punched the air, hats flew.

And always a chateau to visit, though they're humbler than those the other side of Orleans. I find it hard to ride by when the moat bridge is down and the portals open.

On my road, corn and wheat gave way to vines; I was in Loire wine country. And as I got further east, the land started to rise. I climbed up to Sancerre, a wine-producing town since the first century (although the Augustinian monks really got it established in the eleventh century). It had a panoramic view of its vineyards and neighbouring town, Saint Satur, enclosed in ancient walls. (I learned another expression from the lady who gave me directions to Sancerre, that I've since had frequent occasion to use, on approaching Switzerland: "Ca monte!")

The weather in the first week of July was wildly changeable. Several times, intense heat and clear skies gave way by day's end to dark clouds from which thunder cracked and boomed; then came wind and torrential rain. I cowered in my tent at these times, unable to read or write for the flashing sky and the percussion on my tiny tent. But these storms didn't last long, and after a half hour or so, the drumming slowed to intermittent taps, the inside of my tent brightened and became too hot, and the birds resumed full song. The river steamed in the aftermath, and the evening sun lit the departing whisps on the moving river.

As a result of these storms, the river is a bit higher and faster than usual. I saw that this had caused the cancellation of at least one annual event which involved bridge jumping, but holidayers were still able to rent canoes. I was sitting by the river writing in my journal one afternoon, and had observed the rapid speed of the flow, and how the water dragged the branches of a tree on the steep bank. There was an extra splash behind the tree, and then I heard a small voice call "Mummy!" I jumped up in time to look down on a family of four, hanging on to their submerged canoe. It looked like a routine wet exit practice to me but when they looked up at me and I asked if they were OK the woman shouted "help!" and the family continued bobbing downstream and disappeared from my vlew. I realized I knew nothing about navigational hazards on the river-for all I knew, Niagara Falls awaited them-so I ran back to the campsite office where among other things, I may have informed the woman there that the family had been deeply moved ("bouleversée"); nevertheless, getting to the heart of my message, she asked if we needed "les pompiers". I was pretty sure they had something to do wtih rescue, so replied "oui, oui, les pompiers!" and she got on the phone. The firetruck arrived about twenty minutes later with the siren hee-hawing, but by then Dad, Mom, and the two kids had got back on land not too far down river. Brother and sister were enjoying the aftermath of the drama, but Mom and Dad were frantic about their money and passports, floating in a large white barrel fast toward the Atlantic. It seems they had foreseen the need to keep these items dry, but not the need to attach the barrel to the boat. Bedraggled and still wearing his lifejacket, Dad was next seen running down the road to town. About fifteen minutes later he appeared as passenger astride a jetski, which seemed to barely touch the water as it overtook the current downstream. The jetski disappeared from sight and sound and I learned later that they did recover the barrel.

I was reluctant to leave the Loire (would like another time to continue to its source, and head from there to the Pyrenees--just one of many French cycling itineraries I have in mind for the future) and so, after a scant 25 kilometres on a canal-side bike path, stopped off for a couple of days in Paray-le-Monial. This town is a kind of spiritual centre, a twin city to Bethlehem, which must have been a coup. It has one of the best preserved basilicas associated with Cluny, which had the largest and most powerful church in Christendom in the Middle Ages. There I met the owners of the 5-day-old Café des Artistes, visited the Basilica and some amazing mosaic exhibitions, and took some reading and writing time at my camp, which also had a small but spotless pool.

From Paray-le-Monial, you can go north on the (unsigned, future) Eurovelo 6 route, following canals and the Saone River. However, I had decided to go to Geneva and needed to go due east, through Cluny, Bourg-en-Bresse and Nantua. I noticed on the Burgundy Department bicycle route map that there are bike routes all over Burgundy, particularly, running north-south, but not between Paray-le-Monial and Cluny. At first I wondered why, as the route I had chosen for myself was scenic --long flying descents with vistas of far-off little houses, neat fields with white cows and huge rolls of hay on the hills. Oh yes, hills, and descents that you have to pay for with ascents--that's why it's not a bike route. I also passed through a mountainous evergreen forest in the afternoon, which was welcome for its shade. The forest was familiar to me, with fireweed, foxgloves and huge ferns. In spite of the tough ride (relative to the Loire Valley), I loved this route, with its towns still in the early summer heat, flowers bright against the creamy yellow sandstone houses.

The following day, from Cluny to Bourg-en-Bresse, was a long day, but notable for several wonders of man and of nature. The first thing crossed my path, literally, but you would have to measure its progress in millimetres--it was the biggest snail I've ever seen in transit. Over the next couple of days, I saw more of these, but the first, because of its novelty, was the most awe-inspiring. It was the size and appearance of a healthy Canadian west coast slug, with its shell perched on top. After marvelling at this intrepid traveller, I haven't had the desire to try "Escargots de Bourgogne" (Burgundy).

The next wondrous thing was the 1.6 kilometre greenway tunnel which allowed me to go through a mountain instead of over it. Near the entrance, a large sign explains that bats occupy this tunnel. At the bottom of the sign is a cartoon of them, with the caption "Desolées, on dort". "Sorry, we're sleeping" is how I would have translated it, but the English translation on the sign is "Afflicted, we sleep." The tunnel is closed from October 15 to March 31, when the bats are afflicted.

The third wonderful thing on my road, unexpected, was the Museum of Bresse, with displays of rural Bressan culture (beautiful clogs and hats for special occasions, sturdy versions for everyday on the farm), and a farm which had been in continuous operation for over 500 years, from the Middle Ages until the late 1980's. The last occcupant lived there until 1992. The farm has been restored to how it would have been in the 19th century. During my visit there the skies opened and dumped rain, making the mud jump in the farm courtyard. The buildings are constructed so that when this happens, the wood beams won't rot--the base of each buildings is brick, with the wooden supports starting about two feet off the ground. The torrents delayed my departure until 5:30 and by then the skies were dark but the rain was holding off. I had been on the road for about five minutes when I startled a large deer at the edge of the road on my right. It bounded through the wheat field, its body appearing and disappearing with each leap. I stopped to watch in amazement, and after a few bounds it did too: I could just see the V of its two deer ears among the wheat ears. It must have thought, "oh m*rde, she's still there," because it took off again, in graceful flight, out of sight.

Next post--only one way into Switzerland . . . up and over.

Basel, Switzerland, 2773 km

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