France 2020 – where we went and what we loved
2020 is a strange year.
It started with a fabulous trip cycling around Sri Lanka and is fizzling out with COVID-19. As I look out on the autumnal colours surrounding me it is hard to conjure up such a year packed with ups and downs; exhilaration and dejection; hope and disappointment. But we, the human race, have survived all that nature has thrown at us but of course with sadness for those not surviving. And that is tragic, whoever and wherever they were. So I write this blog about our trip to France with that background and context.
Our trip to France 2020 was to start in late June and go through the end of August and be the first substantial trip in Silva, our new camper van. We were due to start in the Netherlands after which gradually work our way around France and end up in the Alps seeing the final stages of the Tour de France. But COVID-19 had other ideas and the UK went into lockdown for several weeks in late March. At that stage we were still hopeful of making our tour but the introduction of foreign travel restrictions made it clear that 2020 would be different.
In late July the UK Government relaxed travel to France and the starting gun was fired! We left home heading for Dover and landed in France on 6 August. We were feeling very lucky. We were there – no plan, no bookings, no return ticket: freeing but slightly scary (for Mike anyway).
And now for something completely different…
Instead of a day by day narrative of our trip we decided to let the photos and images do the talking – under 4 headings: people we met, places we loved, food and drink and cycling (of course).
At the end we will both tell our story of what we loved about the trip.
Places we loved…
People (we only saw 3 Brits, and one of those was planned)
Food (and drink) – where would we be without in in France?
Cycling – what we came for…
What we loved about our trip – Fiona and Mike
What’s not to love about France?
So we’re released from UK Lockdown, we’ve had our fill of all things local, so where do we head? France of course. What’s not to love about France? They love bikes, we love bikes, they give cyclists space and the roads are empty. We love super safe cycling. They also love campers and motorhomes, so do we. Most towns have an “Aire de Camping Cars” – a place that vans can park up for next to nothing and explore from. They know the “van folk” will spend in the towns. Good for the economy innit. Sure the French can’t make a proper cup of tea, but their coffee more than makes up for that. I love that the government still intervene to set a minimum price for bread and it’s not like a boring white sliced one but a long thin crusty tasty baguette, which of course goes SO WELL with the copious a amounts of fromage – aka cheese – they have there too. All washed down with their locally grown wine, for just a few euros a bottle. What’s not to like about that?
Easy to get to – take the ferry!
Wait though – there’s far more as to why France is such a draw for us. Yes it’s handy, no flights to take, it’s just over the water, you can train it through the Tunnel or go on a ship. I LOVE the ferry it’s so exciting, seeing White Cliffs and all that on board shopping. OK back to the reasons…it’s got a great climate. And it’s so BIG. Two and a half times bigger than Britain yet the same population. And while there’s a lot of France that’s frankly quite flat and dull – but usefully being productive and feeding people – at least half isn’t and full of mountains, rivers, gorges and other simply jaw dropping scenery. They don’t seem ever advertise it. You’ll be going along a perfectly innocent road then get round a corner then WTF – an amazing gorge! Who knew?
It’s a bonus if you talk French
And finally the French themselves. Yes you are never going to get American style customer service. There’s no ‘have a nice day’ – phew. But they are ultra polite with a cheery “Bonjour” when you come in and “Bonne journee” as you leave. If you go into a restaurant or a bar, they may pretty much ignore you, till you are about to leave then reluctantly offer to take your order. BUT if you attempt any French at all, however bad you are – and let’s face it the British don’t speak French – they will warm towards you. Of course they will answer in English but they like that you tried. And you might actually get what you came in for.
The French and Covid
And on the subject of health the French are very Covid aware. Aware of being RED in some areas. We were made very aware when a week after we came to France the UK Government changed the rules on 15th August. If you don’t get out now you will have to quarantine…really? After that we only met two other people from the UK, everyone did leave. We had France to ourselves, ok as well as the Dutch and of course the Germans and Belgians. We noticed a lot of changes. The usual casual and frequent kissing of friends, family, indeed anyone, has long gone. Many of the remotely touristy or busy places , like Honfleur and Rocadamour, masks are compulsory outside. And while the French love bureaucracy with all those town halls and “Marie” in every village and town, they are known as rule breakers. But not on Covid. We saw far more masks in France than in the UK. Shopping felt organised too. Bars don’t take your contact details though. To be fair though we were never inside. Always outside. Because it’s warm.
- This year we went across the north and down the west coasts before arriving at the Alps, but when we arrived in the alps we both felt and said “Its like coming home”. And that is what the Alps feel like to me – maybe its familiarity, maybe its because of the many happy hours already spent cycling in the Alps or maybe it has something to do with the amazing scenery and the sheer majesty of the mountains? Whatever it is it has us coming back for more.
- Its the first time I’ve been to the west coast – the Vendee. And maybe the last. Why? Its maybe part of the reason why we saw so many cycle tourers ambling on the Vendee cycle paths – its flat and, apart from nice little towns, boring scenery. OK, that’s a bit harsh, but it is! We cycled over to the Isle d’Oleron and the best part was leaving – I don’t mean that too unkindly but coming back over the bridge we worked up a half decent speed cruising at 50kmh. So, west coast – not for me.
- What about the food? Well, to be really honest rather than conjure up some words praising the French gastronomic expertise I have to say that we mostly ate in the camper. The food there was of course second to none even when I cooked. What do I remember about the food we did have out: a) melon and ham – notable because I don’t like melon; but the melon and ham in combination as a starter has me hooked; b) pizza – yes, I know its Italian, but in Cahors we had the best pizza ever. ; c) posh night – we had one posh meal out (worth getting dressed up for) but if I’m honest (again) it was the irreverent host that made the evening. Wicked sense of humour – Me “Puis je avoir l’addition, s’il vous plait”; Host – “Non”. People transcend all.
- The roads – there are loads of them and very little traffic. Two cars and a sheep is a traffic jam. There are of course urban areas and packed motorways but given that France is 2.5 times bigger than the UK with the same population you can understand why most roads feel deserted. An exception is when you get close to either urban areas or the coast – we went down to the Camargue and hated it; the traffic, the dust, the crowds. We spent one night and got the hell out of there.
- Favourite place – no problem. Trieves. Most people have not heard of it and neither had we. Its a limestone area between Vercors (which we discovered 6 years ago) and the Alps. It’s tranquil, great roads, unbelievable scenery and small cute towns. Words cannot do justice to the region and you have to go there to understand. Just look at our photos. But its hilly – one ride was 48km with 1750m of climbing.