France Day 1: Roscoff to Carhaix-Plonger


Our ferry arrived in Roscoff on Saturday morning. Although we’d had little sleep having been woken just before five, English time, by an alarm call of traditional Breton music, we were in high spirits, excited about the trip. After passing through customs and briefly cycling around the town we stopped at a café overlooking the harbour. It was sunny and already warm. We drank coffee, doused ourselves in sun cream and filled our water bottles before heading to the tourist office to enquire about the route.

Our morning’s ride was towards Morlaix. We were following the Eurovelo 1 route (which tracks along the Atlantic coast and eventually finishes in Faro). We cycled along the D58 for a short while, climbed hills and freewheeled down, before the trail took us onto a quieter road. Along dirt tracks we cut through fields of wheat and later globe artichokes. I could hear chiffchaffs singing as we weaved our way along the path following the estuary.

I was nervous about the trip. Unsure how I would balance the physical demands of touring and covering the distance to Milan, with my ambition to photograph and interview the people we met along the way. Furthermore my French is basic, although my comprehension is better. I knew this was an obstacle that would limit my ability to talk freely with everyone we met and I supposed would confine the project to the views of those who were more outward-looking.

After a couple of hours we reached Morlaix, and there we stopped for lunch. We bought sandwiches from a nearby boulangerie and took it in turns to explore the market underneath the aqueduct. There I noticed leaning against a fence two electric touring bikes. Fastened to one was the pilgrim’s scallop shell.

As we left Morlaix we stopped at a supermarket to buy supplies. While the others went in I waited outside, guarding the bikes and observing the passers-by. I saw women and men, some dressed smartly, others casually, and realised I should take the opportunity to photograph them going about their daily routines.

A man in a hat caught my attention.

Taking courage I called, ‘Bonjour,’ gestured I wanted to take his photograph.

‘Of me?’ he responded looking bemused.

‘Are you English?’ I asked.

‘No, Welsh,’ came the determined reply.

Of course, I noticed then a red dragon pinned to his hat. He’d lived in Brittany for 27 years, said it was his home, that he wouldn’t go back. The others returned with supplies in hand. He asked about the election, if we were going to vote.

‘You’re young,’ he said, ‘the one thing you must do is save the NHS.’

He told us that if they privatised national health everyone should receive a handout – he’d paid his taxes – it belongs to the people after all. I asked him if he would vote.

‘No,’ was the answer, ‘none of them are any good. But if I had to,’ he offered, ‘it would be Corbyn.’

Back on the road we made our way towards the old railway line, which runs through the Armourique national park and makes up the route towards Carhaix-Plonger. There at the junction studying a map were the pilgrims. Impressed, I asked the woman in a combination of faulty French and English if they were heading to Santiago.

‘Non, non,’ she shook her head.

In French, she said they’d cycled the route a couple of years before. As we readied ourselves to set off again, her husband clenched his fist and exclaimed ‘real Brexit’. We were confused and didn’t understand. Defensively we reassured him Brexit was bad.

On the gravel path we climbed slowly up. Our bodies were tired. Our muscles were tight and groaning after the break and we were still digesting lunch. When Matt 2 said his legs were cramping, twenty kilometres or so of shady track leading downhill saved us.

At Locmaria-Berrien at the edge of the national park we came off the Eurovelo 1 to look for a café. On the main road we passed a rundown bar, boarded and closed, cycled up to a sleepy, seemingly deserted village. In an empty car park we found a blazing pizza oven. Already hot and sweaty, the heat from the flames was stifling as I searched through my pannier for the camera. We abandoned the village, cycled back down the hill. Everything new and exciting, we marvelled at the pizza oven.

I was a little way behind the others. A man on the roadside gestured there was a café further on, no more than 100 meters away. As we approached we heard the strumming of a lawn mower. Situated next to the river and cycle path, the café offered refreshment and comfort. We parked our bikes and sat down at a table dressed in a chequered tablecloth, under a cooling parasol.

In time the mower fell silent and the owner appeared. He greeted us, and then apologised in English for the delay. We asked for three beers. Since leaving the path earlier we’d been practising how to say 1664 in French.

Three cooling beers were placed in front of us. I drank mine quickly, greedily, the sugar and alcohol reviving.

The proprietor was welcoming but seemed gloomy. Someone had parked in one of his spaces while they went for a walk and had been gone several hours. Frustrated and annoyed, he explained the car was taking up the space of potential customers.

‘Where are you from?’ I asked. 

His reply was abrupt and distinct. ‘I am Bavarian, from Munich.’

‘Are you European?'

‘Yes.’ Then he ordered his identity. ‘I’m from Munich first, then Bavaria, then Europe.’ I noted he didn’t say Germany.

I asked him what he thought of Europe.

‘The problem with Europe, is it's not the old idea any more. It was really good. For trading it was good, between the strong [Western European] countries. The inclusion of the Eastern European countries has brought it down, closed down businesses, because there is too much competition, too many immigrants. In Munich I had my own freight business, but it became cheaper for me to stay at home and watch TV.’

I asked him about Brexit.

‘It’s stupid,’ came his angry reply, ‘like Trump. You’ll only suffer. Your people are not totally sane. What happened to your guys Farage and Johnson? What happened to them now – they’ve totally disappeared!’

We were interrupted by the arrival of an older, refined looking gentleman. Although it was hot, he was wearing a suit jacket and waistcoat. In his hand he carried a walking stick. I watched him as he shuffled towards a chair and joined our table.

To say he spoke impeccable English describes his manner more generally. The owner asked what he would like to drink.

‘I think today I won’t have tea,’ he said in English and then seemed uncertain what to have instead. The owner placed a hand on his shoulder and suggested a coke.

‘Yes,’ he agreed, I’ll have a coke.’

‘They are asking about Europe,’ the owner explained.

‘What does it mean to be European to you?’ I asked hopefully.

‘That’s a big one, a big question.’

He thought for a while.

‘It’s not political. It’s more than that. For nearly 60 years of my life I have lived outside France, in Scotland and in Spain. When necessary I feel Scottish, I am from Hamburg, Edinburgh, Madrid. It was dangerous to live in Spain in the Franco time. I live here now. It was an accident, but I live here, my sister is here. I like to travel, but to travel intelligently, not just to tour and drink German beer. I like the possibility to go everywhere. I am a linguist. I study languages.’

We listened to his anecdotes keenly. He told us how he interpreted the different countries of Europe through language. Sometimes he seemed to lose track of what he was saying. He was clearly a learned man, who had read and studied throughout his life and he connected Europe’s shared history through the routes of language.

It was time to move on again. I entered the bar and paid for our drinks. When I returned the old man was talking about the fête committee. We mentioned the pizza oven.

‘Oh that is a little ridiculous,’ he said, amused. ‘The village raised the funds to build it a couple of years ago. A man in the village takes care of it, stocks the wood and lights it, but hardly anyone really uses it.’

It was interesting what he said, his insights into the local community. It reminded me that scenes we glimpsed on our journey held deeper, more complex meanings and I resolved to keep this in mind as I noted down my impressions of the trip.

We said our goodbyes, mounted our bikes and returned to the path now running along the river. At a bridge, where ten or more woman on bikes had stopped to swim, we paused to watch the water and look for fish.

It was early evening by the time we neared Carhaix-Plouguer. We had asked the Bavarian proprietor to recommend somewhere good to eat in the town. On our arrival, we cycled around looking for the recommended Turkish restaurant, passed the church, a busy looking brasserie, its tables filled with other cyclists, only to discover the restaurant was closed.

We were tired and no longer thinking clearly. We headed back to the square and gladly grabbed a table, ordered hamburgers and chips. A young man on the table next to us advised that we try the beer. 'In the Loire you drink wine,' he explained, ‘here you should try the excellent local beer.’

We had fifteen or so kilometres to ride until we reached our accommodation for the night. We descended from the town and followed the dusty path along the canal, lined with trees. It was late but still light. Nearly midsummer and being so far west the sun did not set until after ten.

I was tired. It was hard work both physically and mentally to keep going. I cycled alone, ahead of the others. Across the water I thought I heard the virtuosi song of a nightingale, the intricate pattern of shrills and calls reminding me of the beauty and luxury of being on the road and outside all day.

We left the canal. Not yet knowing that écluse means lock or sluice we took a wrong road. As we cycled through an empty village, two small dogs chased us, growling and snapping at our wheels. Once we’d passed them, we stopped and in the twilight we tried to orientate ourselves using a phone, to work out in which direction to cycle the last kilometres of the day and where we could rest.