France Day 2 & 3: Carhaix-Plonger to La Gacilly

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 I awoke feeling stiff, but eager to get on the road. There was disappointing news. Matt 1’s tyre had split. He thought it’d happened before we set sail, on the Bissoe trail on the way to work. We rummaged through our puncture repair kits looking for something to seal it with until we could find a replacement. It took us an hour to fix.

 Already behind, we stopped at the tabac in Saint-Hélène for coffee. It was ten in the morning and busy. At the bar, locals were drinking beer, small glasses of cold wine. Others were smoking outside.

I ordered a grand café au lait, and went to find something for breakfast in the shop next door. It was Sunday and I was concerned we would find nowhere open later. The shop had a surprisingly good selection and there I bought three croissants as well as fresh bread, local pâte and cheese, tomatoes, biscuits and chocolate.

When I returned there was far worse news. 4G-restored Matt 1 announced there had been another terror attack in London. The details were unknown. I looked at my phone. My mother-in-law had texted to say she was safe, enquiring about other family members.

A feeling of dread took hold of me. I live in London. The attacks in Manchester had happened the week before we left. Then, being the parent of a teenager myself, I’d felt a great empathy for the victims and their families, but I hadn’t felt unsafe. I’d told myself the chances of being caught up in an attack were remote. Now away from home, the threat felt more imminent. I feared for my family, the distance between us amplified my worry. Subdued, we tried to find out more.

That day we planned to follow the Nantes-Brest canal towards Pontivy. Having finished breakfast, we packed up and continued on our way. While we cycled we talked about politics, and the events preceding the recent attacks across Europe.

The towpath was lined with fresh green verges, the sky reflected in the gently flowing water of the canal. My apprehension eased but did not leave me as I focussed on the route, took in the scenery. The previous evening we’d passed a small lake, and here Matt 1 stopped briefly to watch the carp spawning amongst the weeds in the shallow water. 

The day before I’d decided to aim for an interview a day. I’d also decided I would need to give myself time to adjust to the physical demands of being on the road day after day, having completed only a few training rides before we left. That morning, feeling tired I told myself I could have the day off.

As we cycled we heard more chiffchaffs. Watched the swallows darting and looping as we passed fields of wheat. It was warm and sunny, but rain was forecast later.

Near Glomel we came across a man leading a laden donkey. I stopped to take his picture. He told me he was from Perpignan. The donkey’s name was Perla. He’d bought her from some Catalans in a nearby village. They’d been walking for three years. They spent their first winter near Paris, the second in Brittany with friends. That summer he planned to walk to Bordeaux. When I asked how long it would take, he shrugged his shoulders, his body language suggesting – as long as it took to get there.

After stopping for a crêpe, further along the towpath we heard music coming from across the water. We crossed over to investigate. In a car park outside a grand-looking house a family had gathered. Two young musicians were playing traditional Breton folk music. A small group were dancing. Their little fingers linked, their feet performed intricate steps in time to the rhythm. I laid my bike down and headed towards them.

The dancers were obliging. Smiled for the camera. Children were playing on the swings in the distance. Near to us a baby was being passed around and I wondered if it was a christening party. The musicians finished their tune and the dancers dispersed. The group began to wander over to the restaurant. One woman approached us and I asked her who the party was for.

‘It’s a 90th Birthday party,’ she explained, ‘for my grandmother.’

Hungry, we thought to follow them into the restaurant and then decided against it. Instead we stopped for lunch at a picnic table a little further on. Next to us a family gently mocked our foreign accents. It was Sunday and we’d passed others picnicking along the canal, couples fishing, and countless cyclists, mainly retirees, heading towards the coast. It’s no exaggeration to say everyone we met called ‘Bonjour’ as we cycled past.

After lunch we saw children canoeing along the river, weaved our way between runners competing in a triathlon. Soon after we passed a grand, derelict house, the path led us away from the water’s edge and we climbed a ridge overlooking Lac de Guerlédan.

There it poured with rain. We sheltered under the trees while we unpacked our waterproofs. On the path the sand and gravel turned to sludge; it weighed us down, slowed our progress, so that we had to pedal harder.

We reached the mediaeval walls of Pontivy comfortably by early evening. While we were searching for our accommodation I met another cyclist, an older woman on her own. She was tanned with long white hair, a touring bag attached to her handlebars. She approached me, asked in French if we were staying at the municipal campsite. I explained we were staying on the street and after wishing us a good trip she departed.

We were hungry. Hungrier than the night before and unable to get into the apartment, we went to find food instead. We ate meat and cheese, salad and steak, drank beer and wine. Matt 1 and Matt 2, still hungry, ordered a café gourmand each, followed by brandy.

When it was time to leave Matt 2 stood up. As he went to put his phone in his pocket he noticed it felt lighter.

‘Where are my credit cards?’ he asked.

Unbelieving, I said ‘they must be there.’

‘No, no. They’ve definitely gone.’ he said adamantly.

My hopes for an early night began to evaporate.

‘They must have gone under the decking,’ he said, getting down on his hands and knees.

‘Really, are you sure?’

Matt 1 handed Matt 2 a torch. 

‘Yeah look,’ Matt 2 exclaimed, peering between the planks ‘there, there I can see Cath’s cinema card!'

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In the morning we planned our route. We were up for increasing the distance covered to over a 100km and chose a campsite north of Redon. Days before, a fierce storm blowing in from the sea had been predicted for the afternoon. But, when we checked again, sunny spells and blue skies were forecast. The pressure off, we relaxed a little. Felt there was no need to hurry.

I felt tired. For three nights we’d had just a few hours sleep. We’d gone to bed around one, after Matt 2 had retrieved his bank cards, fishing them out one-by-one, with a retractable trouser clip and some medical tape.

Before we set off we cleaned our bike chains, removing the fine dust and grit, which had been thrown up by the previous day’s rain. By nine we were ready. Out on the street we encountered a large group of ramblers who wished us well. Took a moment to cycle around Château des Rohan, before rejoining the towpath.

Feeling groggy, I cycled in silence. Leaving Pontivy behind us we headed northeast, passing unidentified factories and a run down mill. Near Gueltas, as the canal bowed south again, I stopped to take a picture of an ‘En Marche’ poster featuring Macron’s face, assuming it was a remnant of the recent presidential elections, not yet realising it was current. 

By mid morning we had reached the outskirts of Rohan. We stopped in the centre and debated whether to have a coffee. Here the lone female cyclist from the night before rode by. I smiled. Called out to her. Said we were going for a drink and invited her to join us.

‘Why not?’ came her reply.

As we looked for a café I explained to her about the project and asked if I could interview her.

She shrugged and with a smile said, ‘Of course.’

She told us her name was Matilda.  She was from Strasbourg. She’d cycled to Brittany along the Eurovelo 6, through the Loire valley. She was glamorous, well prepared and exuberant about her time on the road. We were all impressed. Later she said on a previous trip she’d cycled 4,000km in 2 months, covering 500km a week.

Our drinks arrived.

‘Around Orléans is the most spectacular scenery,’ she said, showing us her route on an ancient map, conjuring in my mind images of rocky cliffs, trees, and the cooling river. One day she told us she planned to follow the Route 6 all the way to the Black Sea, but she’d met a man in Nantes and was going to meet him in a couple of days.

When I asked her what she did she said playfully,

‘I’m Mother Christmas. I work very hard for three months. I make fruit cake with spices and sell them at the Christmas market. Then I cycle. I like to see countries the silent way.’

‘What about Europe?’ I asked.

She thought for a while.

‘It’s my home,’ was her reply.

‘It is very good to feel you have a big, big home. It’s very nice, very safe. I like to have the possibility to go everywhere. I love to travel because places are very different, everything is new. I remember how exciting it was, the first time I went to Holland to the grocery shop to buy cheese. Italy is magnificent… But now things are changing. Everywhere is more uniform, things are more the same.’

I asked whether she saw any problems with Europe.

‘I had more money before,’ she paused. ‘That is very clear. I travel, I take a lot of money with me but now it is never enough. It was cheaper before the Euro. I paid [the equivalent of] 5 Euros for camping. Now I pay 10, 15 Euros. It’s a lot more expensive. A lot of people feel the same as me.’

Next I asked her how she felt about the European Union.

She thought for a while, then said she couldn’t answer the question.

‘I’m not interested in politics. The foundation is wrong – it’s all upside down – we are walking on our heads. Before people had wisdom. We had little communes, ties between communities. Now there are a lot of people, it’s not possible to control everything.’

Then she added:

‘Everybody should think more in the world. I am a little piece, a little part in the world. I don’t buy everything I see. I don’t watch TV. I’m not a consumerist. I always buy artisan. I’m very adaptable. I’m always rich because we live in a rich country and I cannot complain. I have always had enough.’

We invited Matilda to join us. As we cycled she told me about the canal. How it had been built by Napoleon as a defence against the British. That it was British prisoners of war who had dug out many sections. She pointed out the numbers on the lock houses and the old stones marking the kilometres, which later on my own I came to rely on to gauge how fast I was travelling. 

Near Peugriffet a man walking towards us raised his hands then placed a branch on the path in front of us. As we neared, he told us there was a diversion ahead. On the road we saw two policemen and police tape cornering off the towpath. We were directed around a small lake. There we met a man driving a tractor. Matilda stopped to talk to him while I took his picture. She asked about the detour.

‘Did you understand his reply?’ she asked as we cycled away. I shook my head.

‘They’ve found an old grenade in the canal.’

The London attacks still fresh in my mind, the grenade lurking amongst the weeds reminded me of Europe’s recent history and of the terror and destruction of war. Hadn’t the French in the 1930s been in denial that war was approaching? Pessimistically I wondered if we were blind to what lay ahead.

The detour was short. To get back onto the canal we had to carry the bikes across a ditch. Working together we took it in turns to carry the heavy bikes across.  

It started to rain. The wind was picking up. We stopped again to put on our waterproofs. It was now early afternoon and still we’d not eaten lunch. We slowed down, looking for somewhere to stop.

We passed a hotel next to the towpath. When we arrived it was closing. The grounds were large and near the water we spied a boathouse. We headed towards the shelter, picked up a plastic table and chairs from outside one of the hotel rooms. The rain was steady. Underneath the wooden frame, dry and snug, we unpacked our picnic.

We had bread, cheese, ham, tomatoes, crisps and yoghurt. Matilda said there had been a market in Pontivy that morning. She brought out fresh cheese, nectarines and a kohlrabi and offered them to us. She said she liked to eat raw fish on the road as she speared a piece of herring with a penknife. We watched as she nibbled the fish dangling from the knife, our new cycling mentor. ‘I don’t like to touch it, it makes your hands smell all day,’ she explained, before offering us a piece.

In the rain we set off once again. At Josselin we stopped at a café overlooking the magnificent Château there, before continuing on our way. Matt 1 and I rode ahead, keen to cover some ground with still 50km to go before we reached the campsite.

After an hour we stopped to wait for the others under a bridge. Two teenage boys were there, waiting for friends before going swimming. Matilda arrived soon after and she offered to translate for me.

I asked the boys what they thought about Europe.

‘Very good,’ said one in English. His friend smirked.

When Matilda asked if they were European the answer was yes, of course. Then remembering how the café owner had ordered his identity, I asked them to do the same.

They said they were French first, then Breton, then European.

I asked the boys what they liked about Europe.

They paused, looked at one another, then shrugged.

Matilda looked at me.

‘It is fine,’ I said, ‘it’s an answer in itself.’

‘Yes,’ she agreed.

There didn’t seem any point in continuing.

Dark, grey clouds were gathering and the rain was getting heavier. On our way again, Matilda said she would stop soon at Malestroit where there was a campsite. As we waited for Matt 2 to catch us up before we said goodbye, I noticed a man cycling towards us. I called ‘Bonjour.’ He nodded briskly. His face was grey, his expression determined, miserable. He was wearing a high-vis tabard. On the front in red letters it said something about God I couldn’t make out. As he passed us, I turned to watch him, thinking he was doing a charity ride. On the back of his jacket, in the same red letters, it read ‘Islam is of the devil’.

I felt cold.

‘Did you see that?’

The others shrugged.

‘Did you see what he had on his jacket?’ I said in disbelief.

I told them. Repeated the hateful words. I was enraged, stunned to see him cycling along the peaceful canal path promoting his vile slogan so soon after the terror attacks.

There at the bridge we said goodbye to Matilda. Cycling into the strengthening wind I considered the prudence of her decision to stop. We still had at least 40km to cover and three hours of daylight. It should have been manageable, but I was soaking wet and cold from waiting around. I kept going. In front of me Matt 1 was breaking away. I tried to keep up with him, pumping my legs as hard as I could, but he disappeared from sight. Matt 2 was no longer visible behind me and I was momentarily alone.

The rain was now torrential. Branches and sticks torn from the trees littered the path. As the eye of the storm drew nearer I could hear the low rumble of thunder in the distance. My resolve weakened, I began to wonder if it was safe to go on.

I caught up with Matt 1 who had stopped and was sheltering under a bridge. We hid from the funnelling wind.

‘Perhaps I should ring the campsite,’ he suggested as he tried to light a cigarette, ‘see if we can get a taxi’.

Cold, drenched and unable to think clearly I let him take control. When Matt 2 arrived we laid out our options, explained our idea. We agreed to abandon the route, but Matt 1 was nervous about leaving his bike.

We cycled into Saint Conguard through streams of gushing water looking for somewhere to stay. The village was deserted.

We stopped in a car park underneath the bus shelter. Matt 2 went to investigate the nearby church. I was uncertain how we would get out of the driving rain.

He returned, had a suggestion. ‘We can lock our bikes in the toilet,’ he said. We unloaded the panniers, rang the campsite again to ask them to order a taxi, and hid the bikes. As we waited, I jumped up and down trying to warm my shivering body.

After twenty minutes the astonished driver arrived. Our relief was considerable. Drenched, but our spirits lifted, we piled into the car. As we rushed towards the campsite, I asked the driver to put the heating up.