Archive for the ‘France trips’ Category

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.

With my now broken arm in a velcro cast, we spent another night in Lyon. Unless I put weight on it the arm it really did not hurt much.  Having spent most of the day waiting around a hospital, at least we had a nice late dinner on the street near our hotel.

First course was cold asparagus soup. The Lyonnaise do not seem troubled by fat or cholesterol.  This soup was like a tall cold glass of whipping cream, gently flavored with asparagus and herbs.  What’s not to like?

My main course was steak tartare, a dish I had heard about all my life but had never eaten.   Lyman got something resembling steak salad.

 

The proprietor had recommended we not eat outside because the only table available was next to this group of rambunctious regulars.  We told him we did not mind.

 

 

The next morning we went out on the bicycles to “try again”; maybe not fall over this time.    Our day’s destination was somewhere thirty or forty miles down the Rhone River.    Since this time I only had the use of one arm, we took the online advice.   We bicycled a mile or so over to the main Lyon train station and took the commuter train ten or fifteen miles south to the village of Givors.   Finding the train, paying for the tickets, and pushing the bicycles on the train was all surprisingly easy.

At the Givors station Lyman used their high tech public bathroom.  Nowhere but France would you find a facility like this at a rural train station.

 

Givors was indeed a good place to start a bike ride; in short found the bike path along the Rhone River.

Which then transitioned to a country road.

And then transitioned back to a bike path.

 

In the town of Ampuis , at 1:45 PM, we were shocked that none of the three restaurants (one cheap, two expensive) in this town would serve us lunch.   They all said it was too late.    The French, we learned, have very defined hours when both lunch and dinner should be eaten.   We made do by sharing a plate of delicious charcuterie at a tony wine shop that sold snacks to accompany their customers tasting expensive wine.

 

After lunch we biked on further and looked for a room in the town of Condrieu.    The only real hotel in town was the Beau Rivage, at 118.00 Euro (about $132.00) the most expensive hotel we stayed in the whole trip.    The restaurant was also by far the most expensive at 64.00 Euro per person + wine for a three course meal.  There was really no other place in this small town to eat and we chalked this up as “let’s have a one time rich person’s experience”.  People were pulling up in their Audis and Land Rovers,  seemingly like the cast from the 1970’s movie Discrete Charm of the Bourgeoisie

Like almost everywhere on this trip, there were no Americans.

We chilled in the room for a while.  Later on, after a beer at the fancy bar, we sat down to dinner.  In late May it did not get dark until after nine at night.

 

In our hotel room there had been a pamphlet, in both French and English, about the hotel’s restaurant and its “rules.”   Everything about this restaurant reeked of fru-fru-edness; they pulled out all the stops to be pretentious.  Yet the pamphlet said that if you brought your dog into the restaurant for dinner, it had to be well-behaved.   Of the about ten occupied tables, two had dogs underneath.   One family had two small children, a baby, and a dog,   The dog at that table yapped repeatedly.

There were multiple multiple courses.

My appetizer was scallops carpaccio.

 

Lyman’s appetizer was paté of foie gras.

My main entree was duck breast with filipino spices.

 

His entree was lamb chops.

 

There were amuse bouche, sherbet between the courses, and complicated desserts I do not remember.   While it does not look like a lot of food in the pictures, I do not remember leaving hungry.

The food and the whole experience was quite satisfying, although in hindsight it was not all that much better food than much lower priced places we had eaten at, or would eat at.   Pretty much everything one eats in the country of France is delicious.

The next morning we pushed on downriver.   As always, I would ride the bicycle with just one hand.

 

The ViaRhona cycle route is planned for all the 449 kms along the Rhone River, from Geneva, Switzerland through Lyon,  to Marseille on the Mediterranean.   Some sections are not complete.   In most areas it is well marked, though I did have to pull out my Google Maps a lot.  Much of it is a paved bike path, connecting existing small country roads.   The path is almost entirely flat, even though steep hills rise up alongside.

 

Most of the time you have to get off the trail and go a half mile or so into a town to find something to eat or drink, but this day there was a pizza place with excellent salads right on the trail.

 

 

Mine was a salad with smoked salmon and little raviolis.  Each little ravioli was separately delicious.

 

 

 

After lunch Lyman catnapped.

We had wanted to get all the way that day to the small city of Valence. On the way the town of Tournon is right on the river.  We stopped there about 4:30 PM  to get an ice cream.   We liked the town so much we decided to stay.

 

We found a room in this place where the room looked out over the river.

 

 

Low cost hotels in France seem to like to display homemade art.   The nice young lady at the front desk said the paintings were by a local person; pictures lining the stairwell with gaucho and tango themes.

 

 

 

Back in Lyon two days earlier our hotel had the stairwells lined with rock and roll and movie stars.    Were these paint-by-number?

 

 

Tournon has a wonderful street scene with tables laid out on the Main Street with a view of the river.   We had a beer at a cafe before looking for a restaurant.   We found an informal steak place with the menu on the blackboard. It was packed this Saturday night and we had to wait for a table.

 

 

 

The next day we continued cycling down along the river, the path switching sides of the river back and forth.

In the city of Valence there was a Sunday morning market, selling everything from food to sunglasses.  We decided we would feel healthier if we ate something other than just meat.   I started by buying some  olives.

We followed that with a loaf of bread.   Lyman went to buy fruit while I waited in line at a cheese trailer.   I bought a wedge of each of four different types of cheese at random,  not knowing anything about them.   I then searched the market for a corkscrew.  We stuck all the food in our bags and continued down the road until lunchtime.     For the next two days each day we would have a great picnic lunch.

That first picnic lunch out in the country, I set up and and opened the four types of cheese.   Each had come to room temperature and each gave off a different glorious stink,  apparently unique to that type of cheese.  It underscored the powerful flavors that cheese has; I do not remember ever being so impressed with smells.   The second day we tried to repeat the lunch;  that time we had bought the bread and cheese at a Carrefour supermarket.   It was fine but just not as pungent as the stuff we had gotten the day before at the outdoor market.

In America we have Route 66 and maybe US1.  N7 has a nostalgic hold on some of the French.  It is the old two lane highway that one drove in the 1950’s and 60’s from northern France, including Paris, down to the French Riviera.    I first heard of N7 about three years ago as the name of a French restaurant in New Orleans that uses images of N7 highway nostalgia.   We biked down N7 for about the last ten miles into the town of Montelimar, where we would spend the night.

I learned from Wikipedia that Montelimar’s claim to fame is its candy, called nougat.  I learned that George Harrison’s song Savoy Truffle on the Beatles White Album opens with the line “creme tangerine, Montelimar“.  The song is about candy and so is the town.  In Montelimar there is a government funded Candy Museum.   Buying nougat in Montelimar used to be a special stop for tourists in the drive to the beach.  But sometime in the last twenty or thirty years a new freeway bypassed route N7.   And the tourists apparently stopped coming to Montelimar.

 

Lyman and I got a hotel room for less than ninety Euro at about the nicest place in town.   We ate outside.    It was still a pleasant town and fun to people watch.

 

 

Walking around at night we saw more candy stores, some still in business.

 

 

 

Lyman was still sleeping when I got up the next morning and walked around some more.   I bought some nougat to take home to Tootie.

We spent another full day bicycling along the Rhone, mostly on that great ViaRhone bike path.

 

We got off the bike path briefly to push the bicycles up a steep hill through narrow streets to see the lovely medieval town of Viviers.

Eventually we parked the bikes and just walked.

 

At the top there is a cathedral, Lyman took this picture

 

This is the town from a distance.

We spent this night in the town of Orange, which has two significant Roman era buildings.  I never realized how many Roman buildings there are in southern France.    I hesitate to call them “Roman ruins” because many are not even ruined.    They were built to last.

There is the Triumphal Arch of Orange, 2000 years old.    There is a traffic circle around it; the grassy park was in the process of renovation.

 

While the Arch is about a mile from the central downtown, the Roman Theater of Orange, 1900 years old,  is right adjacent to the central old city.   It is still used for performances now, including opera.   We only saw it from the outside.

 

 

From Google Images, here is what is behind the wall.

 

We ate outdoors that night on the street in the medieval old city.

My appetizer: crab stuffed tomato

 

My main course:

 

My dessert (right on the menu!) Irish coffee

We had a nice chat with a fifty-something English couple who live a couple hours north in Dijon.   They were describing how many English people now live in France.  If you have a portable job, are retired, or are independently wealthy why would you stay in England?  The food and the weather are clearly better here, more often at lower cost.

The next morning Lyman and I plotted strategy.  He is a retired architect who specialized in historic preservation.  He was passionate that we see more Roman buildings including the Pont du Gard (Bridge of the Gard), a huge Roman aqueduct that is, you guessed it, 2000 years old.

To see this aqueduct we would have to cycle west,  away from the Rhone River and the bike path, on conventional highways.  (South of Orange the ViaRhone bike path is largely incomplete anyway.)

 

We climbed up into the hills.  The further south one goes in France the terrain becomes more Mediterranean / California looking.   We started to see what looked like second homes for the wealthy.

 

After a vigorous more than three hours of bicycling over steep hills in the sun, we pulled into the dusty and working class looking town of Remoulins, on the flat land along the River Gard.  We first went into this place where the locals were drinking rosé at 11:45 AM.

We refreshed ourselves at this cafe, but we really needed a place to have a nice lunch.   Just down the street was another establishment that seemed to place more emphasis on food.

 

When you looked inside there did not seem to be anyone around.   Everyone was out back on the terrace   and lots of people were eating here, including the cops.

 

 

 

 

So we sat down to a wonderful lunch.  My first course:

 

Lyman’s first course

 

 

My main course was chicken in cream sauce over couscous

 

Lyman’s main course was asian noodles with beef and asparagus

And of course there was dessert, something.  And expresso coffee.

We staggered out and got back on the bicycles to ride in the hot sun about three miles to the Pont du Gard.   Unlike almost everything else on this entire trip, Pont du Gard is a government run tourist destination with entrance fees and a large parking lot filled with tour buses.   There we lots of Americans and many other nationalities.   Despite the fees and the crowds, this was a 2000 year old aqueduct definitely worth seeing.

 

We wanted to see more Roman buildings in the city of Nimes, just to the south.   First, however, we would cycle about ten or twelve miles to the medieval town of Uzés where we would spend the night.  I booked a room over the phone before we left the aqueduct.

On the way I saw vegetables for sale by farmers.   Asparagus, cherries, and strawberries seemed to be what was in season.

One advantage of a bicycle is that when entering an old city like this you can just ride in and not have to worry about parking or one way streets.   Our hotel was on this street.

 

The restaurant that evening in Uzés was my favorite of the whole trip, maybe because after many days of pork, sausage,  and cream, the dishes here seemed lighter and healthier, but still very French.

 

The food was so good that I took a bite before I remembered to take a picture.  Both of us got the same things; arugula salad with cheese and melon

grilled tuna steak on ratatouille

 

and their dessert autour de la cerise (around the cherry); a plate with three or four different small portions of cherry-based desserts.

The wine was very local; I checked the address on the bottle on Google Maps and it was from less than ten miles away.  The bottle of wine we shared cost about 19 Euro and it was not the cheapest one.   Amazing gourmet food for 25 Euro + wine.   We were the last ones to leave on this Tuesday night.

 

We walked around town after dinner.

The next morning I walked around early and took pictures.

We wanted to get to Nimes and see the Roman structures there.  It was only about twenty miles but it involved cycling over a pretty fair sized mountain.

We glided into Nimes about lunchtime.   When traveling by bicycle the size of cities and towns become amplified.  Nimes (population 147,000) really felt like the big city.  We had to look up the pronunciation; the “s” is silent: Neem.

We stopped at a cafe in downtown Nimes just to get something to drink but decided to stay for lunch.   We got salads, mine was salade nicoise.

 

Eating in this public square under an awning I could watch people walk by in the sun.

 

 

 

 

 

 

We found a hotel room.

 

Later that afternoon we walked over to the Roman Arena,  paid the fee and walked around inside.  It is 2000 years old and pretty much all intact.   Yes, they used to have gladiator fights here.  In the more modern era bullfights became popular in southern France and in about 1860 they started using the  Roman Arena as a bullfight ring.   They still do bullfights here along with other stuff.

 

 

 

 

We also walked over to what the French call Maison Carrée.     It is essentially the only completely preserved Roman temple.   It has stood in this square of Nimes for 2000 years.   In 1785 when Thomas Jefferson was U.S. Ambassador to France he ordered a stucco model and used it as an example when he designed the Virginia State Capitol building.

Catty-cornered is a modern art museum designed in 1986 by the British architect Norman Foster.

We hung out in central Nimes.   Sitting outdoors in cafés in Nimes is a great way to spend time.

Later on the restaurants are were all crowded and we had trouble finding a table.   We finally (of course) had an excellent dinner on the streets of the old part of town.

My appetizer was tuna tartare

 

This was Lyman’s appetizer; beef carpaccio

 

My main course, their take on bouillabaisse.

 

Lyman’s main course, I think it was some kind of steak.

 

 

Adjacent to our restaurant was another café where young people were hanging out.

We had purchased tickets on the  TGV high speed rail from Nimes back to Lyon.   A hundred and sixty eight miles in an hour and twenty-seven minutes, including stops.

We biked over the next morning to the Nimes train station.

Unlike the commuter train a few days earlier, taking a bicycle on the TGV was more complicated.  We had to fold up each bicycle and put them in a carry-on bag.

We had assigned seats on the upper level.

 

Back in Lyon we had a late salad lunch (listed as Entrée XL at this place.)

 

 

We had our flights back home early the following day from Lyon airport.   Walking around downtown Lyon that last evening, we saw that these people had taken over a street as their own.

 

 

Lyon is France’s second largest city.    I was there with my longtime bicycling partner Lyman.   We had both brought folding bicycles with us on the airplane, and bags to carry all our luggage on the bicycle with us.    We had no real preset agenda or reservations.  Before and after our eight day bike ride down the Rhone River we bicycled around the city.

Bicycle commuting seems to have taken off recently in Lyon.    You see crowds of bicycles on the major streets.   Lyon is at the junction of two rivers, both wedged between steep slopes, but most of the actual city is nearly flat, making bicycling easy.

Unlike, say, Holland, or I assume Germany, but somewhat like the USA, bicyclists in Lyon ride around in all directions.    No one bicycling seems to care about the traffic rules.  People cut across sidewalks and public squares.   After stopping to check, bicyclists seem to always run red lights.

The signs designating one-way streets apparently apply only to cars.    Many of the one-way signs say”sauf velo.” (except bicycles).    Bicycles loop around all parts of Lyon, most seemingly oblivious to traffic rules.

There are bicycle lanes on the major streets.   In addition, there are a series of lovely bike paths paralleling the two rivers.

 

 

 

 

 

On a Thursday morning we put our two bicycles on the street, strapped on our gear, and headed off bicycling south for an eight day ride along the Rhone River.   We would first have to bicycle out of the city of Lyon and its suburbs.   One bicycling guide online had recommended that instead of bicycling the first ten miles out of Lyon, one should take the commuter train to the town of Givors, to avoid riding in all that traffic.  Lyman wanted to take that advice, but I convinced him that we should just tough it out.

We had not gone more than six blocks when I stopped at a red light, in traffic.   I was not disobeying any traffic rules.    I came back much later that day to take this picture.

 

Under the blue arrow I was stopped with a bunch of car traffic, trying to meander around a construction zone.  Like an idiot, I was using clipped in bicycle sandals.   Watching the traffic instead of where I was going, at a speed of about two miles per hour ran over I the base of that blue sign.   I gently fell over.

I got right back up and continued bicycling but I knew right away that something was wrong.  I had hurt my arm.   It felt broken.

Lyman and I pulled over and discussed the situation.   We were about to leave a major city.   If I needed health care it would likely be easier here than in some small town.  Plus, I could not put any weight on my arm at all.   I could only bicycle with one hand.

We bicycled about three blocks further down this street.    When we had stopped there was a large building with a sign saying Hopital...

A note about language.  Romance languages are all similar.   I know Spanish the best because of my college study abroad in Colombia.    I had taken an intensive course in Portuguese for one year in 1979 and thus I can haggle reasonably well with Brazilians.  I have bullshitted my way through Italian and French for years but it is always a struggle.   Before this trip I had memorized several phrases in French, and this worked out reasonably well, if one needs to say something in a restaurant like: Hello sir.  I need a table for two persons, please.  I do not have a reservation.    But how do you say:  I think have broken my arm; can you help me?  I have no idea how French health insurance works!

The receptionist in this “hopital” building was quite helpful, and in a combination of French and English she indicated that this “hopital” was an office building for processing medical paperwork.    She told me the name and address of an emergency room three and a half miles away.  With the beauty of Google Maps on I-phones, Lyman and I got back on our bicycles and headed off in that direction, me with one arm dangling by my side.

It took about half an hour bicycling a mostly a straight shot down Cours Gambetta to Hopital Edouard Herriot.

Inside, it looked a lot like a small hospital in the USA, except maybe a little rattier.    You walk in a small dated looking lobby, and there is a window with a couple of receptionists.   You talk to them a while, they take down some information, then the automatic doors open, and you walk to another counter where a nurse briefly checked out my condition and took my blood pressure.   He directed me through another set of double doors, point to a small waiting room, and said something in French meaning Wait Here.   Lyman and I sat there many many hours.

 

Every half hour or so we would see the crew from an ambulance come in the hallway outside, with apparently the results of Lyon’s latest car wrecks.

There was a coterie of people who had broken bones, and we felt like a small club as we sat around waiting for something to happen.  After about five hours, my name was called,  and I was taken to a small room and told to Wait Here.    Lyman was a super friend and hung with me.  We then sat there another hour or so.

 

Eventually a young man who I later learned was a medical student came in an examined my arm.    He did not immediately ask for an x-ray.     He reported back to someone.   About half an hour later a friendly thirty-something doctor walked in.  She was kind of peeved at the medical student for not sending me to x-ray.   She gave me some papers and sent me down the hall to x-ray, where I was directed, of course, to a waiting room.   I only waited there about five minutes when they took the x-rays.   I went back to the room and sat again on the examining table.

Our fetching young doctor walked back in with the x-rays.    She said that she could not find a fracture on the x-rays, but that forearms are complicated and that there might be a break that did not show on the x-ray.   She put my arm in a removable cast, a velcroed wrist brace.  She said to stay of the arm completely and go see another doctor if the pain did not go away in ten days.  She gave me a big envelope with my x-rays and a printout in French of the medical record.

So the next day I bicycled the first of eight days in France using only one arm, with the x-rays stuffed in my rear trunk bag.

Two observations:

  1.  The arm to me still seemed clearly broken.  When I got back to the USA nine days later, I went immediately to an orthopedist.   Both a PA and an orthopedic nurse looked at the French x-rays and immediately saw a small fracture.     Did the French doctor not see this, or did she chose to ignore it for some unknown reason?  The hospital was really busy that day.
  2. As I left the French hospital in a cast carrying my large x-ray envelope, I blatantly paused in front of both the check-in windows, on both sides of the electric double doors.    Nobody asked for payment or anything else.   They have my USA name and address, but it has been over 30 days and I have not received a bill in the mail.   So I guess this is all free!

It was 5:30 PM and we had had no lunch.    Back near the center of town we shared a charcuterie plate.to hold us over until dinner.