Sorry for the lack of updates; finding internet access in France is turning out to be trickier than we expected (and we can’t quite bring ourselves to use McDonalds’ wifi. Yet).
So, where were we? Oh yes, in Saint-Nazaire, and about to cross The Bridge of Terror (I think it’s also known as Pont Saint-Nazaire). It might have been the relief at having survived, but reaching the south side of the Loire felt a bit like reaching a new country. Immediately the sun seemed yellower, the buildings whiter, the sky bigger and bluer. And, within minutes, we stumbled across the Atlantic coast cycle route, which we’ve dipped into and out of ever since. Bliss.
Something strange has started to happen; we’re getting fitter. Not fit, yet, but we can now cover 60 kilometres in the same amount of time and effort it took us to cover 30 a couple of weeks ago. So, with the cycle route doing the map reading for us, we began to emerge from the acute self-absorption of extremely unfit people exercising, and to notice the world around us a little more.
The Atlantic coast region seems to contain hundreds of tiny microclimates and miniature worlds. One minute you’re pedalling through a mossy, tufted moorland, the next through a working sheep or beef farm, a wildflower meadow, a stretch of mussel beds, a pine forest, a slalom of dunes, a broadleaf woodland, a wetland or a prairie. A thriving fishing port might sit next to an industrial town, followed by a drowsy colonial looking village full of whitewashed houses with faded clay pantiled roofs, or a ghost town of breezeblocked holiday homes, dead until the August onslaught of sea-seekers from the cities.
One day I saw an otter. (It was my first ever sighting; I’ve spent days looking for otters on the Isle of Skye and in other ottery places and finally I saw one, sitting next to an agricultural channel a couple of metres away from the busy route D38.)
Another day, we detoured into the Parc Interregional Du Marais, a bleak swampland reclaimed from the sea by monks centuries ago, and now a wetland haven for waterfowl and other migratory birds. The bleakness reminded me a little of a very compact Patagonia; the only features were fences and telegraph poles, and occasional villages where the buildings huddled together to outwit the brutal winds (headwinds, for us).
As Huw wrote, open campsites are hard to find at this time of year so we’ve been experimenting with all sorts of sleeping arrangements. Our best one yet: a gite whose owners set us up in their hay barn, gave us fresh eggs (delicious, despite the resident chicken-torturing goat), and invited us to join them for breakfast. At dusk, we listened to storks flying overhead (if it’s quiet, you can hear their wings beating before you see them) and waited for the stars to appear.
We’ve just had two days off in the port of La Rochelle – not least so we could look at something other than each others’ rear ends for a while. Lovely. Here, we’ve also met our first tourists of the trip: a young English couple driving a Morgan (which, Huw tells me are beautiful cars, works of art, one of the last handmade cars in Britain) down to the South of France. Very carefully.
We didn’t really have a schedule, but I can’t help feeling like we’re behind it already. After a few years of city life and nine to five work, I have to keep reminding myself that there is no time limit, it doesn’t really matter when we get where (apart from the Sahara, to avoid the heat), and that the point of this is to see, to listen, to learn and to enjoy what interests us. Huw is having no problems on this score, so I’m learning fast.