France Day 4: La Gacilly to Héric

I awoke early. The storm had passed. The sun was warm and the earth damp and steaming. Our raincoats, shorts and shoes were drying all around the cabin. After dressing and packing, I headed over to reception. There I was offered a cafetière of fresh coffee and hot milk, which I gleefully carried back to the others.

Tensions were beginning to surface between us. I was concerned we set off too late, stopped too often, and the delays would prevent me from reaching Italy later.  The previous evening we’d discussed what time to depart. I’d wanted to set off before nine, but in the end I’d agreed to a 9.15 pick up.

En route, the taxi driver took us to a boulangerie in his village: the best in the area. Here we bought three delicious, freshly baked almond croissants. In the church toilets the bikes were undiscovered and safe. Good fortune also seemed upon us, when as we cycled towards the towpath we passed a bike shop.

‘Perhaps I should get a new tyre here,' Matt 1 suggested, then paused, adding generously ‘though it can probably wait 'til Redon if you’re eager to get back on the road.’

‘No, no. It makes sense to stop.’ I said, having previously learnt the importance of grabbing opportunities on the road rather than waiting for another to materialise.

In the shop a muscular woman with a long, dark ponytail greeted us. She expertly prised off the split tyre, her breath concentrated and hard. There I selected and paid for a touring bag. I’d seen how Matilda used hers to stow her valuables and realised it would be useful later when I was on my own. The woman attached the bag to my handlebars, pumped up each of our wheels and wished us well as we bid her au revoir.

It is roughly 20km from Saint Conguard to Redon. From Redon it was 100km to Nantes. Later that day we agreed to make up lost time by avoiding the city and cutting across by road to the Loire, where we would pick up the Eurovelo 6.

The towpath was littered with branches and twigs from the storm, which slowed our progress. Soon we caught up with two cyclists, a couple heading in the same direction. They were from Val D’Isère. They’d started near Mount Saint-Michel and were following the Atlantic coast to the border town of Irun.

I asked if I could interview them. We talked as we cycled. I couldn’t take notes. Had to remember what they said. At Bains-sur-Oust where the river widens, just before it rained, we stopped at a café so I could write down all I remembered.

The woman was younger than I. I guessed in her late twenties. This is what she said:

‘The young people in France in their early twenties who grew up with Europe are European. They live in one big country. They are able to move around, to study wherever they want and are connected through social media. For me it is different, I’m older, but it is still good. I can travel and work anywhere.’

She asked me then what was happening in the UK. We talked for a while about Ireland and Scotland and the difficulties Brexit had created. Afterwards she said I should speak to Xavier, she said his English was better than hers.

I thanked her and cycled on, caught up with Xavier and rode alongside him. He turned down the music playing on the sound system he was towing on a trailer behind him.

‘Europe is a really good thing,’ he said. ‘You can travel. Work anywhere. The countries, which make up Europe, are all very different. The problem with the European Union is that it is too inflexible. It is trying to make everyone the same. It needs to operate more like a country. A country has different regions, like Brittany, they are all different, but they can be different and still operate as one. The EU needs reforming, we need a federal system[1], something which gives us more freedom, something like they have in the US.’

I thought about what he said then asked him about border controls.

‘Europe’s external borders should be open but controlled. People move for work. It is the same all over the world and this is something we need to accept. It has always been like this and it is not going to change. But I wouldn’t let anyone who knocked on my door into my house. We need greater control. It’s normal, I would check someone out before I invited them in.’

Xavier went on to tell me that he’d lived in Scotland for two years and then Ireland. He’d also stayed in London a few months, but hadn’t enjoyed it much. When I asked him about Brexit, he said he felt Ireland and Scotland were European but he didn’t have the same impression of England. ‘England is already separate.’

As he talked, although he was polite, I got the strong sense that metaphorically speaking he’d already closed the door on England. That he didn’t view Brexit as a great loss for Europe.

We talked a while more about the UK election, about the terror attacks in London. How they were similar to what had happened in France and I asked if they had influenced the election results there.

‘They made Le Penn stronger,’ was his reply. But then with a proud smile added, ‘But we kept her out.’

He went on to blame the attacks on the Americans and the Iraq war. Said they’d gone into Iraq for the oil, to make money. ‘They destabilised the region and the attacks are the result of this.’

By then, the others had cycled on ahead. I thanked Xavier for his time and rode off to catch them up. We reached Redon just before midday. We bought food at a local supermarket in the centre of the town and continued on. Cycled as fast and as hard as we could for a couple of hours. Every half an hour or so we stopped to wait for Matt 2 to catch us up.

We ate our picnic. It began to rain again. Matt 2 said he wouldn’t cycle any faster. Matt 1 and I pushed on following the twists and turns of the meandering river. The path was flat but the wind and thick, wet gravel slowed us down. My thighs burned.

In Blain we stopped at a bar by the river. The sun was out. I was ravenous and ordered as best I could some nuts.

‘Cachet,’ the owner informed me.

‘Cacawhet, si’l vous plaît,’ I repeated.

‘Non, non,’ he said, ‘Caca-whet’. He repeated the word emphasising the ‘a’ and shortening the ‘whet’.

I tried again.

The barman shook his head and laughed. 

After twenty minutes Matt 2 appeared.

‘Hey how long have you been waiting?’ he asked.

‘Not long,’ I said.

‘As long as it’s taken to drink this beer,’ Matt 1 said pointing to his glass.

‘Hey, that’s not bad, I’ve been following my GPS along the road.’

Matt 2 seemed pleased.

While he ordered a beer I looked up somewhere to stay.

Chose a picturesque hotel with a restaurant 15 km away.

We cycled the last part together. Every five minutes it seemed, Matt 2 stopped to check his phone, to ensure we were taking the most direct route. Our progress was slow. Just outside Héric, I lost patience.

‘Can we just keep fucking moving?’ I asked impatiently. ‘I’m tired and hungry and want to get to the hotel.’

My outburst took everyone by surprise. All day it had been brewing but now feeling spent, my filter had gone and I was no longer able to hold back, to contain my thoughts.

We arrived at the hotel half an hour later. It wasn’t the tranquil and idyllic rural getaway I had imagined. Positioned directly on the N137 (the main road from Rennes to Nantes) the roar of traffic was thunderous. While the others stopped in the garden to sit in the sun, I headed to the room alone, hoping that some solitude would ease my mood.


[1] Federalism – refers to the distribution of political power, usually in the form of a division between a ‘federal’ central government and regional governments.