This morning it was my fourth attempt to navigate my way across the Bois de Boulogne and the fourth time I lost my way. The campsite was on the other side of the urban park – an overgrown and more densely wooded version of Hyde Park in London – but with what appeared to me like a maze of roads and paths, it was inevitable that a newcomer to that corner of Paris would lose his way. It was interesting to see (almost the entire) perimeter of Longchamps, the Parisian horse racing track, and all the women parked up by the side of the roads waiting for the French AA to come and repair their curtained-windowed people carriers. I can only assume that they all had issues with the air conditioning as they appeared to be wearing very little. Some of the ladies had clearly got fed up of waiting and had taken up a perch on the park benches. They seemed a nice bunch, as, despite their motoring frustrations, they smiled in my direction as I cycled past. [OK, we’ve got the joke now Andrew; move on…]
Upon arrival at the Porte Maillot at the north-eastern corner of the park, it was gridlock. Was this just normal Parisian traffic? Perhaps, but it had been taken to the extreme by an accident involving a moped rider. He didn’t look in a good way and police had cordoned off the Avenue de la Grande Armée (the road directly opposite the Champs Élysées) leading up to the Arc de Triomphe. Pedestrians and bikes could still pass however so I made my way towards the Etoile on an almost deserted road. More road blocks? It seemed a bit excessive for just one accident? And ceremonial uniform being worn by the police? Hang on… There was no access to the Arc de Triomphe and the area was buzzing with large blacked out Citroëns driven by men wearing dark glasses and others hovering with their fingers in their ears. Somewhere beyond my view was François Hollande and the Malaysian president honouring the unknown soldier. The band played the Marseillaise… It was all very French. But it did scupper my plan to set off from the monument. I had to make do with a circular tour about a block away before heading off in an east north easterly direction along Avenue Hoche. Progress at last! Before me was Parc Monceau. Brilliant! Far nicer to cycle through that than a busy street.
This park was full of young children taking a break from the nearby school. I successfully weaved my way between them and set off down the main path. Before I could get very far however, some guy turned to me and started wagging his finger:
“Pas de vélo dans le parc!”
I immediately took a dislike to him, his mannerisms and most of all his fluorescent armband. Give someone an armband and they think they’ve made it in life. Well, no. If they stop traffic for you and drive you around Paris in a black Citroën you’re a big wig. If you wear a fluorescent armband in the Parc Monceau you aren’t. This guy thought he was. I immediately knew that I was probably in the wrong but was up for an argument so fired off a few questions about exactly where the sign was banning cycling, who he was and exactly what job he had. I made a point of cycling back to the entrance and a long point of photographing the sign that proved him right and me wrong. I wanted him to turn round and think “that bloke is going to make a well-founded complaint about the prohibition of cycling in this park”. He didn’t turn round. I huffed and puffed for a few moments before getting back on the road.
It was long and very straight. Through Pigaille, the Soho of Paris, towards the peripherique motorway, through the ethnically diverse suburb of Seine St. Denis, past Le Bourget airport on the left and finally Charles de Gaulle airport on the right. Dozens of traffic lights later, I freed myself from Paris. But not the traffic. The D road I was following had become a D road that resembled a motorway and as more lorries thundered past my left ear the more eager I was to find a quieter road. The M62 would have been a good start.
Navigating with just Google Maps – if you remember I don’t have paper maps for the Paris section of the trip – was easy but frustrating as alternative routes were not easy to see on the small screen. In a comical episode at a windy junction just north of Charles de Gaulle I wrested my paper map in the hope that it would now be of some use. After several minutes of fighting the gusts… Bingo! I had arrived in the Michelin world of ‘Nord, Pas de Calais, Picardie’! Alternative routes could now clearly be seen and I embarked upon the ones that would lead me to… Well, the plan hadn’t yet been completed but somewhere near Compiègne. The only problem with Compiègne is that it didn’t appear to have any campsites. This was clearly going to be an issue but as it was still early in the afternoon, I would keep cycling for a while before concerning myself with such trivialities.
The landscape was now a vast sea of cultivated fields with settlements dotted here and there and the odd copse of trees. Not as flat as a crêpe (as the French probably don’t say) and there were a few perspiration-inducing climbs to contend with. But where would I stay..? I stopped for a bit of research. Various campsites were dotted around but all were a fair distance from Compiègne. But why was I going to Compiègne? I had no good reason to do so. I noticed a campsite at a place called Berny Rivières. The name rang a bell. It had been a campsite used by Eurocamp when I worked for them all those years ago. I’ll aim for that instead. My route would take me through Morienval and Pierrefonds before arriving at Berny Rivières. I checked Twitter and someone told me to look out for the castle at Pierrefonds if I was passing that way. Serendipity!
Upon arrival in Pierrefonds I was a little taken aback by the view. Not just a modest chateau; this was a full blown turreted castle towering above the town. A quick reference to the guidebook told me the whole place had been rebuilt by Napolean III in the 19th century but still… Impressive! Too good to cycle straight past? I chatted to a couple of artists who were on a painting course for a few minutes. They were both British, as was their teacher. The woman trainee told me that the TV series Merlin had been filmed in the castle. That was it! I’m just as much a sucker for a celebrity film location as the next man. I wanted to have a look around. That would mean staying to the morning. No phone signal to check Booking.com. Campsite? I cycled through town in hope but there was nothing… Until! Camping de la Forêt!
The story of Pierrefonds will continue tomorrow as I am now numb with cold. I need the heat of my sleeping bag! Enjoy the pictures.