My buddy Lyman and I stumbled upon some lovely bicycle routes while cycling for almost two weeks through eastern France.
We also discovered that France might have some of the same divides that we speak of in red/blue America. Paris looked prosperous and multi-racial. In the rest of France the people looked much more stereotypically French. I am not sure of the politics, but as we cycled through lovely countryside on back roads, canal paths, and cycle tracks, we could see cities and towns clearly in decline.
Searching for an agenda for our bicycle ride, we decided to cycle north from Lyon along the river Saone. To give us something to aim for we picked two destinations: a modernist church near the town of Ronchamp, and Lyman Labry’s supposed ancestral base, the town of Labry, which he had never visited. Lyman is an architect originally from New Orleans who has been living in Austin, Texas for over twenty years.
To travel to Lyon where we would start our bicycle ride, the two of us landed on an overnight flight at CDG airport Paris about eight in the morning, each with a folding bicycle in a suitcase. We took the RER commuter train to central Paris to drop off our bicycle suitcases for storage at a hotel there. We would then bike across town to take the TGV high speed rail about two hundred miles southeast to Lyon.
Arriving from the airport about eleven in the morning to the Luxembourg neighborhood of central Paris, we lugged our suitcases up the stairs to the street. Near the hotel and alongside a sushi restaurant Lyman claimed a spot of sidewalk to put his bicycle together.
Lyman has a cool new (for him) folding bicycle that he had recently bought for less than a thousand dollars on E-Bay: a fifteen year old but hardly ever used Bike Friday with high end Dura-Ace components. (list price for the current model of this bike is about $ 4500.00!) It only weighs eighteen pounds. This is not the same Bike Friday that he has taken on previous trips with me. Lyman has definitely upped his game.
I picked another spot just down the block to put together my scratched but trusty sixteen year old PBW.
We dropped off the bicycle suitcases at the hotel where we would claim them in two weeks. We each had small trunk bags for us to attach to the bicycles. We had a couple hours to kill before the train left. There are lovely bike paths on both sides of the Seine.
We also biked in traffic, which was a delight. France does not seem rigid about traffic rules for bicycles. Cars and bicycles both jostled for position.
I wanted to photograph stylish women in Paris riding bicycles, but they were almost always faster than me and it was hard to bicycle while also trying to take photographs. Lyman finally took this picture at a stoplight. She is riding an elegant Dutch style bicycle, but on the streets of Paris one sees all kinds of bicycles.
We stopped for lunch at a place we found pretty much at random and ate outside. Being France, it was, of course, delicious. Veal chops and something like macaroni and cheese.
Using Google Maps we found the train station fairly easily and arrived there by bicycle. To take the bicycles on the train, we folded them in a much simpler way compared to what had been necessary for the airplane, and we each carried our bicycle on board in a nylon bag. The two hour train ride to Lyon was a breeze (at nearly 200 mph!).
Arriving central Lyon at about five in the afternoon, we biked across town. Lyon is a really nice city and pleasant to bicycle in. It feels to me more French than Paris. Making up our itinerary as we went along, we decided to stay in Lyon that night and then get an early start the next day.
The outdoor cafe across from the hotel we found was inviting but there were no empty seats.
Instead, we found another place for a beer and a light meal.
The next morning we walked back across the street. Europeans love to sit outside, even if it is a cold and gray day. We got a coffee and a croissant at the cafe that was so crowded the evening before.
The hotel had insisted we store the bicycles down a steep flight of stairs in their basement. We lugged the bicycles back up the stairs and hit the streets. Lyon is at the conjunction of the Saone and Rhone rivers. We were going to bicycle up the Saone for at least a few days. It was only a couple of blocks from the hotel to the Saone river. We biked across the bridge and made a right turn, heading north.
There was almost immediately a bicycle path that followed the river.
For the next week this bicycle tour of France would be about navigating upriver along the Saone. We had not really researched this in advance, but it turned out that much of the way along is river is either dedicated paved bike trails, or signed bike routes connecting small paved farm roads. And because most if it is a flood plain, the terrain is largely flat.
The bike path was not continuous, on occasion we had to bike on the regular highway.
We crossed back and forth on both sides of the river.
We stopped at an outdoor market about eleven-thirty in the morning. I was surprised that the number of vendors who specialized in Italian items, such as one vendor who specialized in Italian cheese.
We established a precedent this day that would carry on for many lunches on this trip. We bought our lunch “to go.” Bread, wine, terrine (coarse paté) and cheese selected pretty much at random, and an apple each. We strapped the food on the bicycles and headed down the road, looking for a picnic spot. On our previous trip last May we neglected to bring a corkscrew, we would never make that mistake again!
This day was the first of many excellent picnic lunches.
We spent the first night on the road at the very small town of Montmerle-sur-Saone, where we discovered a small hotel that also had a somewhat fancy looking restaurant attached. I walked around the town riverfront at dusk.
The sun came out just as it was going down. Lyman wanted to get a shot of the buildings in the setting sun.
The restaurant at the hotel was a little expensive for our taste, and I do not remember it being all that memorable. Before dinner, a few blocks away from the hotel, we had stopped at a small cafe bar apparently run by just one young woman. There were only a couple of other people there. She helpfully (in English) explained many nuances of French aperitifs.
The next morning we elected to find a cheaper breakfast than the one at hotel, and went back to that same bar. At 8:30 AM on a Saturday morning it was unexpectedly crowded with men mostly about my age, drinking wine. There was clearly some kind of event going on.
The young woman running the bar somehow found time to talk to Lyman and me and helpfully suggested we walk around the corner and buy croissants. She would make us two cafe au lait to be ready when we got back. Meanwhile, she and a couple helpers were making some kind of complicated heavy meal for all these guys, who were were starting to put distinctive hats on.
You can see the name and logo of their club on the apron of the man in the center.
By the time we left about 10:00 AM, everybody was eating and they all seemed to be having a good time. Each guy had been served a plate with the main course being something like beef stew. If I regret anything, it is that I failed to ask anyone exactly what was the meaning of this club. I really could not pull the young woman aside, she was so busy serving. I want to start a club like this in Chapel Hill. Anyone interested? Silly hats required.
We cycled away into the Saturday morning. We followed the river north for a while, but just before the small city of Macon there was a black line on Google Maps, indicating some kind of trail or bike path. We would have to check it out. We discovered one of the nicest rail-to-trails that I have ever seen. The Voie Vert (Green Route) was beautifully paved and extended over fifty miles on a former rail line as it wound into the small mountains that line the Saone river valley, all the way from Macon to Chalon-sur-Saone. We would cycle this trail partly this day and partly the next. Frequently there were vineyards on both sides of the trail.
In a strip mall along the trail we found a kind of gourmet shop to buy pate, cheese, and wine. Next door was a bakery. We carried the supplies on the bicycle for a while.
We found a picnic table right on the trail.
After lunch the trail wound into higher elevations, but we were spared much of the climb because of the well graded path. The former railroad went through a tunnel, which was locked!
We had to backtrack just a little and follow the signs for the French word for “detour.” It was lovely scenery but the hills were steeper.
We spent the night in a small town called Cluny. We found a room for only forty Euro in this unusual place that called itself a hotel, in a building several hundred years old.
Apparently the building had been hollowed out and completely redone in the 1960’s, in what I was later told was a conversion by the Catholic Church of this building into an orphanage. Now it is a hotel. Everything was institutional grade metal and concrete, with a bathroom at the center of long hallways. Our room was something out of a prep school movie.
The bathroom down the hall was institutional as well, and included a stray sock on the floor, left by someone else.
Good news was that the “hotel” felt relatively empty, but not creepily so.
Cluny had young people appearing in crazy looking long grey coats with patches sewn on. What was this? The next morning I talked to a couple coat-wearing people at the hotel. They said that it was a tradition of the local university, where you sew your academic and other accomplishments onto your coat. Most of the coats did NOT have pictures of racy women like this.
(this photo courtesy of the internet)
Since we had such a great deal on the hotel we tried to get a nice meal that evening. The streets of the town of Cluny were quite empty on this Saturday night, but there were about four restaurants, two of them Italian style. We first had a drink at an almost empty bar.
We walked around the corner to a restaurant that advertised a twenty-one Euro “menu.”
We were so hungry that often we started eating before I could photograph everything! First course for me was escargot in garlic-herb butter.
First course for Lyman was salad with terrine.
My main course was beef bourguignon, the well-known stew that is native to this region of Burgundy.
He got pasta with chicken and cream sauce.
My dessert was creme brûlée.
For him chocolate mousse.
Note that the portions were helpfully not all that large. We had an excellent food experience without being overwhelmed. In France one normally does not tip, so at 1.18 to the dollar this comes out to about $ 73.00 including tax and tip, and also including two half liter carafes of wine, one each of the red and white house wine of the region (Macon).
We walked around the streets of the old town after dinner. On this Saturday night there was really no one around.
The next morning we had to wait a while for the rain to stop, but just a quarter mile from the hotel we were able to get back on the lovely Voie Vert bike path.
The bike path ran along a ridge overlooking the vineyards of the Saone valley.
By lunchtime on a Sunday we were cold and ready to eat. We skipped the idea of a picnic and looked for a restaurant. This sign was right on the bike path. Sounds great!
But being Sunday the advertised place was closed! We did find this other restaurant just a few hundred yards further into this town.
Everybody was either eating (a very good sign) or watching highlights of American football on the TV.
After lunch, despite being full of food and wine, we again found the rail-to-trail and continued bicycling almost another thirty miles, ending up in the late afternoon at the obviously working class small city of Chalon-sur-Saone. (Does everyone who lives here really say the “sur-Saone”?). There were several large dead factories near downtown. We found one hotel that appeared closed at 4:30 PM. Standing outside was a Danish guy who had a reservation there; he did not know what to do. We learned that many small French hotels are closed during the afternoon hours. We found another place instead.
The next morning we got croissants and coffee at a bakery down the street.
I snapped pictures as we biked out of town.
While the rail-to-trail had ended there were country roads and bike paths clearly marked Voie Blue, as we biked upriver along the Saone.
Lunch this day was my favorite meal of the entire trip. In fact, one disappointment of this trip was that we did not run into more country French restaurants like this. It was in a tiny town, on a side street by itself.
Le Bon Accueil was very French about its meal hours; the restaurant is only open about three and a half hours a day, one seating per meal.
This was on a Monday at 1:00 PM. There were only about five other people eating there, all men.
Like many French restaurants, there was a house dog.
We both got the fifteen Euro three course “menu.” First course was terrine.
Second course was the best steak I remember ever eating; artfully burned on the outside, medium rare “au point” on the inside, with a dollop of herb butter on top, the plate sizzling hot.
In this grape growing and wine producing region, dessert was tart of fresh grapes. Amazingly sweet, you had to take out the pits.
Despite all the food and wine, we had to get back on the bicycles and head down the road in a chilly drizzle. The scenery was lovely, however, as we rode alongside several canals.
Lyman the architect was impressed at the age and quality of construction of this building. He wondered how many hundred years old this was.
We were tired and cold when we pulled into the small town of St. Jean de Losne, the only nearby town that showed having a hotel, and only one hotel at that!
The front door was unlocked and we walked in. No one was around. Maybe because it was Monday the adjoining restaurant was closed.
We called one of the phone numbers and got the owners on their cell phone. They offered us a room for eighty Euro, (which seemed like a lot.) We accepted, and they told us to walk behind the front desk and open the top drawer and take the key marked “6.”
The room was fine, and the owners, who we met later, were quite nice. When Lyman paid the next day the proprietor offered him a lower price of sixty-five Euro, if he paid in cash and did not ask for a receipt!
There was a nice view of the town from the hotel window.
There was not a whole lot going on in this town. The next morning we biked around on our side of the river, looking for a cafe for coffee and croissant.
We could not find even one café, so we crossed over to the other side. This was the only place open.
They were quite cordial, an older woman serving old men. Lottery tickets seemed important here.
She suggested we go across the street and get croissants while she made us two nice cafe creme.
After breakfast, back on this bikes, there was a marked paved trail along the Saone river.
In the picturesque but depressed looking town of Auxonne we looked for somewhere to buy picnic materials.
We found a very professional looking boucherie on a side street, to get some terrine and paté.
We separately found a bakery and a wine/cheese store. With all these yummy supplies strapped on the bicycles, we headed further down the road.
We picnicked in the churchyard of in a tiny village, a village so small that there were no stores, just a church. There were not more than ten or fifteen of houses.
I was depressing but we saw this all over France. In just about every town there were similar monuments to World War One. All these young men died from this tiny town.
Every day after lunch Lyman wanted to take a nap for twenty minutes. My father used to tell me “the greatest men in history were cat-nappers.” Of course I am not one of them. Usually Lyman slept while I either read a book or nervously walked around in circles.
Back on the bicycles the countryside was enchanting.
We spent the night in another town that was lovely from a distance but ragged around the edges. This one is called Gray. Just Gray.
There was an older motel downtown with reasonably priced rooms.
The streets were so empty at night that when I walked around it felt vaguely uncomfortable. The next morning, as we were biking out of town, I did see two cool looking pieces of decaying modernism.
The Saone river spreads out into several connected tributaries in a large floodplain. There are well marked bicycle paths running through this as we continued upriver.
There are canals as well, I assume built to bypass curves in the river. The towpaths of the canals make nice bike paths. Twice this canal went through a tunnel. Unfortunately that meant we had to cycle up over the hill. I cannot really speak all that much French but it is fun to pretend.
For lunch, in a somewhat prosperous looking small village we had my second favorite meal of this whole trip. Chez Yvette was in walking distance from the canal bike path.
We were seated in the small front room at a communal table with other patrons.
There was no choice but the daily three course “menu.” First course was terrine.
The main course was lamb shanks in beans, one serving plate for the two of us to share.
Dessert was chocolate mousse.
The restaurant had a large group coming in for some kind of late lunch special event. I am guessing it was a work-related, maybe a retirement party.
Not only was our meal delicious but it was a good deal. This included wine and decaf coffee.
My general disappointment in this part of France was that there were not enough genuine French restaurants like Chez Yvette. Many small towns would have two restaurants: a kebab joint and a pizza place.
We somehow we got back on the bicycles and headed down the trail. The scenery did not disappoint.
We spent the night in the small city of Vesoul. At 8:30 PM walking around the streets were empty.
On the building: Liberté Egalite Fraternité
The next morning Lyman was still sleeping and I got up and walked around again. The older part of Vesoul was quite beautiful.
We got breakfast at a cafe. Lots of elderly people here.
Ronchamps, the town that we had thought of an our intermediate Holy Grail, lay just thirty-something miles down the road. We stopped on the way for a picnic lunch at a bench overlooking a stream. Lyman took his customary catnap.
Ronchamp is a small played out mining town.
But up above the town on a small mountain was Notre-Dame du Haut, the piece of modern architecture that Lyman had been telling me about for weeks. Intentionally isolated as a monastery, it is reachable only by 1 – 2 mile dead end road up an insanely steep hill.
The church in question was built in 1954 and designed by the French/Swiss architect who had pretentiously changed his name to Le Corbusier. Le Corbusier is better known for his now-discredited 1920’s ideas of tearing down urban centers and replacing them with Towers in the Park.
But Notre Dame du Haut even now, sixty-something years later, looks like nothing else.
Quite impressive, and we walked around for an hour or two, and bought souvenirs at the gift shop. Back downhill in the town of Ronchamp we looked for somewhere to stay. There is only one real hotel in Ronchamp. It all sounded fine online but in reality it was closed and locked. I called their phone and left a message in fractured French.
Looking for somewhere to get a drink and look at other options, the only real café/bar in Ronchamp was this gas station, sort of a French version of Sheetz. Yes, it sells cigarettes and junk food, but also has a bar. Lots of people, including families, seemed to be just hanging out. We got beers.
We took our chances on the hotel and went back there about 5:45 PM just as they were just opening up. They somewhat rudely agreed to give us a room.
We still had to eat somewhere. While Google showed three or four “restaurants” in Ronchamp, two were closed and boarded up, and one was a kebab joint, brightly lit with hardly any seating. Restaurant Cook advertises itself as a pizza place, but it is really a French restaurant, except that you can order pizza or spaghetti if you like. We saw this Italian trend with many lower cost restaurants all over this part of France. The food we ordered was French and delicious. I think I got lamb chops. A family behind us had very well-behaved children, sitting in front of the wallpaper depicting Italy.
We walked back to the hotel along the highway in the dark.
We had one more major destination in the coming days: the ancestral home of the Labry clan, in Lorraine (as in Alsace-Lorraine, or as in quiche Lorrain!).We had only about four days to bicycle there. We departed Ronchamp the next morning, and had to deal with a constant drizzling rain and temperatures in the forties and fifties.
Unexpectedly the town of Luxeuil-les-Bains had a fascinating and historic central city. I wish we could have stayed overnight in this town, but it was only lunchtime.
Lyman noticed this house, it has stood on this street corner for six about hundred years.
It started to rain so we had our picnic lunch on a bench downtown.
After lunch we headed out of town on generally beautiful roads, climbing through small mountains.
Google maps had shown several hotels in the town of Bains-les-Bains and we struggled uphill to get there. On the surface the town looked pleasant. It clearly had been some kind of spa town. We learned that the “Bain Romain” in the center of this photo is locked and essentially abandoned.
Across the street we walked into in this “hotel restaurant.”
We figured we would get a drink, then negotiate for a room and maybe see about dinner. Several old guys were hanging around the bar.
At some point there was activity outside and everybody looked to see what was going on.
We later asked about room rates and learned that their “hotel” was no longer in business. We also asked about dinner, they said they served lunch only. We also learned that most “hotels” in this town no longer offered rooms. Almost all of the businesses in the town were closed storefronts.
A few blocks down there was one unusual hotel that actually offered us a room. It was built years ago in a style that to me conjured up visions of Tiki or Polynesia but was owned and operated by a family from Reunion Island, the French overseas department in the Indian Ocean near Madagascar. They had lots of junk lying around the bar area. I got the feeling we were the only overnight guests.
That evening there were two or three other diners in the huge empty restaurant; cuisine reunionnaise, based around rice, was quite nice.
After dinner I walked around the town of Bains-les-Bains in the dark.
We ate breakfast at the hotel the next morning. I am not sure if this woman was staying there or not.
We were running out of time on this trip; we had two days left to bicycle north, first to the city of Nancy, then the city of Metz.
Once again, we just stumbled onto one of the most beautiful bicycle paths I have ever seen, a paved towpath along the Canal d’est. This continued for over thirty miles.
The vast majority of the boats we saw on the canals of France were pleasure boats or houseboats, not commercial cargo vessels. Some of the pleasure boats are converted old commercial boats.
Around lunchtime we looked for somewhere to eat lunch and this restaurant was right on the canal. It was the only restaurant in sight and we were shivering in the damp cold.
It was just after noon on a Saturday. This was a relatively fancy place and was full of people. The menu was generally French, but they had a big wood fired pizza oven and an Italian name Le Capri.
It was a really nice lunch. I got steak frites, again. After the extended meal, and the aperitifs, the cycling along the canals continued.
We passed abandoned factories.
There were no major towns on the canal before we would get to the city of Nancy, which was still about forty miles away. We stayed at this weird motel on the highway. Other than two other people I am pretty sure we were the only guests. For such a lonely place it had an impressive lobby.
Sunday morning the temperatures were in the low forties, not actually raining but the air was heavy with moisture. The weather would not respond to the question: is it going to rain or not? Our intermediate destination was the relatively large city of Nancy. We got wet gradually, mile by mile, cycling hard to keep from freezing, on a combination of backroads and canal paths.
On the outskirts of Nancy it started to actually rain, hard. We were lucky to find this overpass. We stood there shivering.
We watched these two huge birds having some kind of altercation. Was it sex, or two males fighting for the right to have sex?
For my two regular readers named Nancy (you know who you are!) I had been planning this whole trip to photograph myself beside the sign announcing the city. But we were really cold and I was not going to stop for anything. Sorry. I did get a picture of a street in a town just before Nancy.
Maybe it was the weather but Nancy downtown seemed depressed. Because it was Sunday most of the restaurants were closed. We found this large Italian restaurant that was quite busy as it was essentially the only place open. From the menu we learned that this restaurant is a chain, with four locations in Nancy and Metz. The lasagne was not French but it really warmed us up.
Because our return flight to the States was in three days we did not have enough time to bicycle the fifty miles to Metz. Luckily, there is a commuter train vying this route, almost one every hour or two. You can take your bicycle onboard, no folding required. We were in a rush to make the train and could figure out the ticket machine. Luckily no one ever asked!
Both Metz and Nancy have impressive turn of the twentieth century train stations.
Maybe because the sun had come out but Metz seemed a much more upscale place than Nancy. I pick Metz as my favorite city we visited on this trip.
We walked around the city in the dark.
The northeastern part of France, sometimes referred to as Alsace-Lorraine, has a pervasive beer culture not present in the rest of France. There were beer halls filled with young adults spilling onto the covered sidewalks.
The beer halls on the a main square were jammed with people and no one seemed to be eating. Instead we found a quieter place around the corner. We had a beer and shared a charcuterie plate, sitting at the bar.
The next day we found time to visit the Cathedral of St. Stephen in Metz. Parts of it are as old as the fifth century, but it was mostly built in the thirteenth century, with a major renovations in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
It has beautiful stained glass windows, some modern. Not only were there windows from the 1950’s done by Marc Chagall, there were a few 1940’s windows from someone I had never heard of; the cubist Jaques Villon. To my untrained art eye it looks like Picasso.
Labry is an unusual last name, even in France. Lyman says that his ancestors named Labry immigrated to New Orleans, via Canada, sometime before 1800, and that they came from the Lorraine region, where the town of Labry in located. Lyman says that in the 1970’s he looked in the inches-thick Paris phone book and there were only about six Labrys listed. Lyman says there are a few Labrys in the New Orleans area but they are all his relatives.
Our visit to the town of Labry was to be a day trip, about twenty miles each way up and back from Metz. We expected a warm reception.
Part of the bike ride to Labry was through fields that felt almost midwestern American.
Labry is a small town with two bakeries, one bar, one church, a post office, and one auto repair shop. We picnic lunched around the churchyard.
Like other French towns next to the church was the depressing World War One memorial.
After lunch we went to get a coffee and an apertif at the one bar, a place that sold magazines, lottery tickets, and vapes.
The woman running the place and her one customer were certainly friendly and welcoming.
While they were glad to see us, I guess, they seemed unimpressed at Lyman’s American passport with the Labry name. Lyman also talked to the woman running the post office and she had a similar reaction. She thought it was no big deal. Oh well.
On the outskirts of Labry we saw this nice new public library they have built.
They went to the trouble of building the place, but it is only open two hours a day, three days a week!
The next day we took the TGV train from Metz to Paris. Bicycling across Paris from the train station to the hotel we picnic lunched in the Square Emile Chautemps, near the Centre Pompidou.
The following morning we flew back home to America.