France Day 7: Samuar to Pas-de-Jour

In the morning we crossed Pont Cessart to view the Château de Saumur lit by the morning sun. I was hungry and grumpy. Afterwards, we headed to a row of cafés on the south of the river.

On our way, in the car park, we saw the man from the canal – the religious zealot. He was buying a parking ticket. His bike was strapped to the roof rack of a car. We knew it was his because he’d stuck red slogans and pictures to the bonnet, boot and car doors. One read ‘Islam is of the Devil’. Others were anti-smoking. There were pictures of the King of Spain, the Pope and political figures I didn’t recognise.

We ordered a coffee each. I could see the car from the table. I felt angry. Angry he was able to drive around promoting extremist slogans undisturbed. We watched him unload the bike, put on his high-vis jacket and helmet and cycle off.

‘If we were in the UK he would be guilty of a hate crime, for promoting extremism,’ I complained to the others. ‘If the situation were reversed, if he were a Muslim cycling around covered in anti-Christian slogans, he would be arrested, he would be detained without prosecution.’

I felt responsible. I’ve spent more than a decade researching and campaigning against racism in its many guises and I felt obliged to report him to the authorities.

Two soldiers, I assumed from the military school we’d passed the evening before, fortuitously sat down next to us.

‘I’m going to talk to them about him,’ I said standing up.

I walked up to the soldiers.

They looked like officers.

I explained in faltering French about the car. The first officer, dashing and groomed, sleeves rolled up, seemed amused. The second listened, took me more seriously. Offered to check out the car. Insisted the other went with him. 

We watched them walk over, briefly circle the car and return to the café. 

The first officer it transpired spoke good English. He shrugged dismissively, when I asked his opinion, as if there was nothing he could do.

‘The words are not in French,’ he explained, ‘they’re English.’ His manner was accusing and he seemed relieved the man was not French.

‘He’s not English,’ I said defensively. We’d already checked out the car registration. We thought then the S stood for Slovakia, but later realised he was from Sweden.

The officers walked away.

There was no solidarity.

No sense of shared responsibility.

I was disappointed. Surely we should be working on this together, I thought. We’re all implicated. As we headed back towards the hotel, we stopped to look at the car once more. Inside, ropes and other equipment were carefully organised. The back seat had been transformed into a bed. The car made me feel uneasy but at the same time I was intrigued.

‘Best keep your distance,’ Matt 2 advised, when I said I was concerned our paths might cross again. ‘He’s clearly not well.’

We loaded up the bikes. Planned our route to Pas-de-Jeu. Exiting the city we took a wrong turn and nearly ended up on the motorway. I was in front and had to suddenly pull onto the verge of the slip road. We climbed the bank, rejoined the bike path. Tired, exhausted even, my nerves were frayed.

On the D93 we settled into a rhythm. Lorries shuttled past, but once we’d left the city behind, the road quietened. It was stifingly hot and forecast to get warmer. There was no reprieve, no shade. On the hot tarmac, a lone cyclist overtook us.

We turned off the main road at Brézé. On our way to the Chtâeau we passed a workshop. A man in blue overalls was standing in the doorway. I asked if I could take his picture. He refused. Explained he was in his work clothes, showed me his dirty hands. I asked then if I could have a quick look inside. I was surprised to see he was sharpening a sword. He indicated he had many more in the house. I assumed they were for the riders of the Cadre Noir, the elite riding school based in Saumur.

As I was leaving I asked him what he thought about Brexit. He didn’t speak English and indicated instead that it was like shooting yourself in the foot. Then I asked about the election result. This time he gestured the UK was spiralling down. At home the results were being portrayed as a victory for Corbyn despite the Conservatives’ slim victory. This man clearly thought a hung parliament signalled further catastrophe for the UK.

I took the opportunity to ask him about Europe.

He said it was both good and bad.

I assumed he meant good for the rich, bad for the poor.

I bid him farewell and joined the others, who were waiting for me in a bus stop, sheltering from the sun. There in the French countryside, on the outskirts of an historic, once grand city, was an election poster for Frexit. I took a picture. By then we’d understood the elections were current, were for members of the National Assembly.

We stopped briefly to look at the Château. We didn’t feel like touring the house. Instead we cycled around the moat, before heading inside to buy a bottle of Cremant for our hosts.

We had a coffee in the town centre, bought lunch at a supermarket. We ate under the shade of the only trees on a vast plain, with views of poppies and fields of wheat all around. I was mentally and physically exhausted, but we were also in high spirits at the prospect of reaching our destination.

After lunch, with only a few kilometres to go, progress was slow. In the soaring heat, we limped slowly towards Pas-de-Jeu up hills, through deserted villages, along empty roads. We argued over an unidentified crop. Whether it was sunflowers or potatoes.

As we neared the end of our journey we could see the village ahead of us, the church spire in the distance. Matt 2 pointed to line of trees following the river, which led to the bottom of our hosts' garden.

At Le Grand Maison we were greeted warmly. Ben took a picture of our weary faces. Billy showed us our rooms. I started to crash physically and emotionally, the effort and the heat finally catching up with me. Exhausted, I showered, dressed and lay down, in my own room, my head resting on the cool white pillow.

Hannah WhiteComment