The second exclusive extract from the upcoming book, The 35 Degrees: Tarifa to Nordkapp on a Bike Called Reggie which will hit the shelves later this year. As with the previous extract – the fifth degree – what you read below is, of course, subject to change but it hopefully gives you a flavour of things to come. As the title suggests, I have split the journey up into the 35 degrees of latitude from Tarifa at 36° to Nordkapp at 71°. The chapter below recounts the journey from 45° to 46° an area that straddles the Gironde estuary in France. There’s lots of history in this one. You probably won’t remember the chap at the youth hostel in Jerez but go with it…
(Over there on the left by the way is the draft cover artwork that was sent through this week from the excellent Andy Mitchell.)
The Tenth Degree
Sunday 3rd – Wednesday 6th May 2015
Remember the chap at the youth hostel in Jerez? The one who clicked his fingers to communicate? I had the pleasure of meeting his French cousin at Camping Airotel l’Océan where he happened to be running the shop. I needed to visit his establishment not to stock up on food… but on toilet paper. The toilet blocks at the four-star campsite didn’t provide such essentials. If it had been in my power to withdraw one of the stars for such pettiness, I would have done so on the spot.
“C’est combien?” I asked politely.
The man in the shop clicked his fingers and pointed at the electronic display above the till. In turn, I clicked my own fingers and pointed at my pocket containing cash.
Alas that’s not true. It’s what I should have done. The French call it l’esprit d’escalier; the annoying realisation that you have come up with the perfect retort when it’s just too late to say or in this case do it, hence the ‘spirit of the staircase’… I wandered back to the tent mulling over whether it was worth going back into to the shop to buy another roll.
The following morning I set about trying to remove all the gunk from Reggie’s chainset with the help of several buckets of hot water and a rag donated by a cleaner who was in the process of cleaning the wash block. After having managed successfully to transfer much of the oil from the bike onto the grass next to the paperless sanitary facilities – the cleaner didn’t look at all impressed – I set off in high hopes that the annoying clicking noise would be left at the campsite. Not the annoying clicking of the guy who ran the shop but the annoying clicking emanating from somewhere on Reggie. Alas this wasn’t to be the case and I was beginning to suspect that it was, perhaps, something a little more serious than simply excess dirt.
I continued to click my way north, but rather than follow the Vélodyssée through the sandy pine forests, I opted for the road which was located slightly further inland. This brought me into contact with a level of civilisation that I hadn’t experienced since leaving Arcachon. Small towns and villages with boulangeries, cafés, supermarchés… and, in pristine Maubuisson, a bike shop owned and run by two of France’s friendliest bike mechanics. Whereas the bakeries, cafés and supermarkets were all closed – this was, after all, Monday in France – Fun Bikes was most definitely open for business. Outside the shop were long lines of bicycles waiting to be hired out by tourists. Had I found the place that would stop me clicking?
“You’re going where?” asked Christophe, one of the owners, half in admiration, half in horror.
“Nordkapp. It’s the most northern point of Europe” I explained in French.
From that moment of realisation that I wasn’t just another passing tourist (although in fairness, I was), Christophe and his colleague François seemed to elevate me to cycling royalty.
Actually I think that’s probably not the case. They were, on reflection, the kind of guys who elevated all their customers to cycling royalty but I was happy to bask in my self-imposed delusion.
I explained my predicament with Reggie’s clicking and François set about trying to sort out the problem. He first of all cleaned the chainset, not with a toilet cleaner’s rag, but with a high pressure jet of air from a compressed gas cylinder. Having been on the road for nearly a month I was tempted to asked him if he wouldn’t mind pointing in my direction too as some of my own grime was probably just as ingrained as the bike’s.
Then came the Berner Super 6+ Universal Spray.
“It’s what the professionals use…” explained François “…and it’s from Germany.”
I was already sold on the stuff before any mention of its provenance but the knowledge that not only was it used by the pros but that it had been concocted by the Germans had me reaching for my cash quicker than a campsite supermarket manager can click his fingers. It was clearly, as I’m pretty sure the French don’t say, les couilles du chien.
With a can of Berner Super 6+ Universal Spray safely stored in my panniers, Christophe and François waved me off down the road. I listened carefully to the mechanism of the bike; for the first time since leaving southern Spain it was making that wonderful clean bicycle sound that only cyclists can appreciate.
Alas, after only a few kilometres, the clicking returned. In the same way that a vibrating dashboard doesn’t affect the quality of the drive, the clicking was in no discernible way affecting the quality of the ride. It was just bloody annoying. In a car I would have been thumping the dashboard; on a bike thumping anything whilst cycling wasn’t the best of ideas so on it went; click, click, click…
Despite the technical issue, Christophe and François had exuded enthusiasm for life and positivity towards cycling, the two most essential elements of life on the road. There was nothing spectacular about the scenery as I cycled towards the northernmost point of the of the rive gauche (that’s the left bank…) of the Gironde estuary. It was just a flat road through countryside (pine forest to my left and, err… pine forest to my right) for much of the time, occasionally punctuated by a small town. But I felt good.
That said, the pine forest was beginning to appear rather middle-aged in the sense that it was most certainly thinning out. I was reacquainted with the sea at Soulac-sur-Mer, a small town filled with what I assumed to be second homes of those Claret-quaffing Bordelais. The only thing to stop me in my tracks was a miniature version of the Statue of Liberty that had been positioned on a plinth in the middle of a traffic island just to the north of the town centre. The diminutive Liberty was looking out to sea and a helpful information plaque explained why she had been put there in the first place.
It was all to do with Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette. You know you must be important if subsequent generations have named places after you. It’s a pity that most people honored in such a fashion aren’t around to appreciate the gesture. Perhaps in the future there will be Sykestown, Sykes-on-Sea, Sykes-sur-Mer? Or even Syke? (Hold that thought. We will come back to it later in this story…) I will probably never know. Back to La Fayette, the Marquis de… The American states of (take a deep breath…) Alabama, California, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Minnesota, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin all have cities, towns or villages named after the man. Not to be outdone, New Hampshire has a mountain; Mount Lafayette. And Soulac-sur-Mer has its small replica of the Statue of Liberty ‘made from the original mould’. But why?
With a name like Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette’s, he was perhaps destined for great things. He didn’t like the British, but in fairness he had good reason not to do so as his father had been killed by one of their cannonballs a month before little Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert could celebrate his second birthday. The upside of the tragedy was that he received a nice present in the form of becoming the new Marquis.
From there on in his life seems to have been fast-tracked; an officer in the army at 13, married at 17, a major-general (and a father) at 19. It’s enough to make the average man (well, me) feel inadequate. During the course of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, if it involved France or the nascent United States of America, La Fayette was on the scene. His first voyage to The Americas was in 1777 on board the schooner La Victoire and although he appears to have had second thoughts, returning to Bordeaux to mull things over and read a letter sent to him by his mother who would rather he stay at home, he did eventually make it to the New World.
“We can only imagine that the Médoc coast, and in particular the beach at Soulac were probably the last views of France that La Fayette took with him before his journey to the American continent.”
So was written on the plinth beneath the replica Statue of Liberty. I have to say that if every town started to erect monuments to celebrate such ‘last views’, there wouldn’t be much room to move. It’s a reflection of the esteem in which La Fayette is held in France that his last views of the country have been marked in such a way. He did come back to France by the way and we’ll pick up his story again in Rochefort.
Just north of Le Verdon-sur-Mer at the point where the ferry leaves to cross the Gironde estuary for the shores of Poitou-Charentes at Royan, there’s a statue of a man on a bicycle to mark the ‘the last views of Aquitaine that Sykes took with him before his journey to Nordkapp’.
It was nice once again to move momentarily under the steam (well, diesel fumes) of a boat. The last one had been back in Cádiz and I suspected there would be a few more once I arrived in Scandinavia. It had taken La Fayette two months to reach South Carolina on La Victoire; it took me 20 minutes to reach Royan on La Gironde. On reflection, perhaps that didn’t qualify for a statue, especially as my gaze was predominantly to the north, the long sandy beach and the distinctly modern town sitting upon it. It was difficult to imagine that anything that I could see in my eyeline (apart from the beach) had been viewed by La Fayette back in 1777. (Although his gaze was obviously distracted by the Médoc coast in the hope of a statue one day being erected there…).
Royan was as modern as towns come and stood in stark contrast to the dozens of villages, towns and cities through which I had travelled to this point on my journey. I cycled off the ferry and along the esplanade to sit and admire its right-angled, 20th century beauty. A couple of hundred metres inland, poking up above three and four-storey buildings was an edifice that resembled a space shuttle on its launchpad. A church? It didn’t require the assistance of a historian to realise that Royan had clearly been flattened during World War II and subsequently rebuilt in line with the tastes of the 1950s and 60s.
For a few minutes I chatted with a fifty-something retired lorry driver who, having benefited from France’s generous pension arrangements had now taken up cycling as a full-time hobby. We swapped stories before I made my excuses and went off to find the Hôtel Arc en Ciel (The Rainbow Hotel) where I had reserved a room. It appeared to be, rather appropriately, the only building in central Royan that was painted anything other than white standing out on the beachfront in resplendent bright yellow. An equally appropriate Norwegian pizza was my evening meal in a nearby restaurant from where I could see the lorry driver still sitting on the bench where we had earlier chatted. He was eating a burger and waiting, perhaps, for the next passing cyclist.
The following morning before setting off in the direction of Rochefort, I paused to investigate the space shuttle church. A large black and white photograph had been erected next to what was described as the “Cathédrale de béton” – the concrete cathedral – showing the devastation of the town as a result of the events of January 5th 1945. “Have a thought for the 442 victims of the useless and tragic bombardments” it said, in French. Tragic, certainly. Useless? It seemed a strange choice of word, laden with subjectivity.
From the viewpoint on the 21st century it is easy to consider such deaths as the price worth paying for freedom. Digging a little deeper, in the case of Royan that’s probably not so. By early 1945, the Third Reich had been pushed out of most of south-western France. In just two places did they remain, on either side of the mouth of the Gironde, to hinder the Allies in refuelling their ships using French ports. According to research carried out by French historian Guy Binot to mark the 50th anniversary of the destruction of Royan, the citizens of the city were living in “medieval conditions”, cut off by the remaining German troops with no communication with the outside world.
When the decision was taken to bomb Royan, it was assumed that the remaining civilian population was small as they had been informed more than once to evacuate. Those that did remain were clearly collaborators. But with “no radio, no mail, no newspapers” Binot argues that it’s difficult to see how any such order could have been received by the inhabitants. Messages from the Forces Françaises Libres – the Free French Forces – on the ground that the city hadn’t been evacuated didn’t get through in time. In the early morning of January 5th, two waves of Lancaster bombers, 217 in the first and 124 in the second dropped their bombs on the city, destroyed 85% of the buildings and killed the 442 civilians. ‘Only’ 47 German soldiers perished. American bombers came to finish the job in April with napalm. The surrender came on April 17th.
Ironically, most of the concrete fortifications of the Germans remained in tact. Whereas it’s clearly a great material for military buildings, concrete isn’t too good for religious ones. The rebuilt cathedral in Royan is simply ugly and, alas, getting uglier by the day. It opened its doors in 1958 but within four years it was leaking and the concrete decaying. In the 1980s it was classed as a monument historique but, I can only imagine, as a symbol of what it represents – the rebirth of a city – rather than its intrinsic aesthetic appeal.
20 km into my coastal cycle towards Rochefort I paused and posted four pictures to my website, CyclingEurope.org, under the title “La Cote Sauvage: The Most Beautiful Point Of The Trip So Far?”. I was, for the first time in France, cycling alongside the beach. Pine trees were growing on the low dunes surrounding me and beyond the narrow strip of beach were brown mud flats reaching out across the Baie de Bonne Anse towards a distant horizon. A couple with their two young children were playing in the sand below a sky of blue and wispy clouds of white. There was a light breeze and the only sound was that of tweeting birds. The contrast with what I had been looking at standing in front of the Église Notre-Dame de Royan was as stark as it was welcome. Quite how the birds had managed to get online remained a mystery.
Even the towns along the coast were delightful. They consisted of, predominantly, Belle Époque residences many of which had been carefully renovated and painted in pastel shades of yellow, blue and green. The estuary of the Seudre river was small in comparison to that of the Gironde but it still required a long, low bridge to transport me to the flat, reclaimed land to the north.
Sometimes it’s better to stumble upon things rather than to spend time contemplating them in advance. Before arriving in Rochefort I was about to do that not once but twice. First on the unseen agenda was the isolated fortified town of Brouage. It had once been on the coast but land reclamation had now repositioned it a few kilometres inland. It was as charming as it was cobbled (not great for clicking Reggie), built to a small grid pattern and encased within fractalesque outer walls, now all but redundant apart from giving tourists something upon which to stroll. There was a story about a discarded pining girlfriend of Louis XIV, a stall selling the books of a woman who had travelled in a motorhome filled with her kids to all four corners of the World (what is it with these people who can’t stop banging on about their own adventures?)… and a bicycle museum.
I tried the door but it was locked. “Fermé le mardi” the sign stated. The Musée du Vélo promised “a collection of 80 bicycles alongside models dressed from the time retracing history from 1817 to the present”. I peered through the window and could see the bikes and models on their day off. It resembled a neat jumble sale. Perhaps my arrival on a Tuesday have saved me €5.
Rochefort was located within a wide curve of the meandering Charente river which needed to be crossed. There was a high modern bridge that I could see from a distance. Soon I would be at the municipal campsite in the centre of town. But… What was the other structure spanning the river a few hundred metres further upstream? Its shape was that of an excessively wide (and large) set of rugby posts with no obvious way of accessing the metal span of the ‘bridge’. I had just found my second stumbled-upon destination of the afternoon; the Pont Transbordeur de Martrou or, as they call them in Middlesbrough and Newport, a transporter bridge. How exciting.
Only 26 such transporter bridges have ever been built and of those, half have now been demolished. They tend to be constructed in places where tall ships need to navigate the river but where space (or lack of money) prevents access roads to a high bridge from being built on either bank. A gondola (think large section of road in a cage rather than anything from Venice) is suspended from the high span of metal and moved from one side of the river to the other.
In the modern era of mass transit they are useless. But if you are a tourist on a bike they are perfect and, along with a dozen or so other holidaymakers I paid my €4 fare and was off. Great fun, albeit at a very sedate pace.
Surrounded on three of its sides by the protective loop in the Charente, Rochefort was another military town. I don’t suppose that a campsite was ever on the masterplan for the town but the authorities had managed to squeeze one in anyway next to an industrial estate just to the south of the regimented centre. Irrespective of its unglamorous location, it ticked all of my boxes for the cut down price of €6,30, my cheapest night yet of paid accommodation.
I was discovering an unexpectedly rich vein of French history on my journey across Europe; La Fayette, WWII, 17th century military towns, Belle Époque houses and bridges… and took time that evening to catch up via my guidebook. My research, however, only served the purpose of creating more gaps to fill rather than filling the ones I had already created. An explorer/writer called Pierre Loti? The Royal Ropeworks? The Hermione?
Perhaps I was aided in avoiding tourism overload by La maison de Pierre Loti being closed for renovation but next to the doorbell there was a plaque, translated helpfully(?) into English;
Mysterious, fascinating, bewildering, the magician’s house shows us the changing nature of its roving creator. The writer-traveller, whose thoughts were always elsewhere, created in the house of his birth, a treasure chest of memories and souvenirs, where today we can follow his idle dreams.”
The original French version sounded better. Curiously there was no mention of a ‘magician’ and the final eight words of English were much more eloquently put in French:
“…une mosaїque magique des civilisations où l’on peut poursuivre mélancoliquement ses chimères.”
Expressions like that make me feel good about having done my French homework when at school. For the record, should the semi-detached house where I grew up in Elland, West Yorkshire ever be turned into museum dedicated to my travels, can you please get in the professionals to sort the out the foreign language signage? Thanks.
I had arranged accommodation in La Rochelle with a Warmshowers host and I knew it was only going to be a relatively short cycle along the coast meaning that I did have time to amble around Rochefort (and probably around La Rochelle at the other end of the day). I located the curiously (but not unsurprisingly) long Royal Ropeworks by the river. This being a naval city it was useful to have a handy 374 metre long shed in which to twist the hemp. But this being 17th century France, it was a very beautiful shed indeed, more in the style of an elongated château.
Next door to to the former rigging factory was The Hermione. Or rather, it’s where she would have been had I turned up two months earlier. We are back to our friend and all-round French hero Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette. If you remember, we left Marie-Joseph on a ship gazing at the lovely beach at Soulac-sur-Mer. His trip to North America was successful and, to cut a long story very short, he became a hero of the American War of Independance from Britain. Bravo!
True to his desire to get on with things – don’t forget that he was an officer at 13 – he arrived back in France in February 1779 and spent the year trying to organise an invasion of Britain while at the same time ensuring that his wife was kept busy by getting her pregnant. She gave birth to George Washington in December. Yes, it’s true. Not the George Washington you are thinking of but one George Washington La Fayette, named after the 1st U.S. President.
Leaving childcare duties in the hands of his wife (and no doubt a legion of servants), in 1780 La Fayette set off once more for America, this time on board the good ship Hermione, to continue the fight. In 1782 he returned to France, got his wife pregnant again, survived the French Revolution, spent 5 years in jail courtesy of the Austrians, became a politician and then, as all great men and women have been doing ever since, went on a speaking tour of America. Apparently they pay well…
The Hermione had been constructed in Rochefort and after many years serving the cause of American independence, she ran aground and was wrecked just north of Saint-Nazaire. But the story doesn’t quite end there for in 1997 construction started in Rochefort on a replica boat that would be called, well, Hermione. It took nearly two decades to build and test the new Hermione but in April 2015 she set off for a tour of the east coast of the USA. She’s now back in Rochefort but, alas, all I was able to see when I was in town was the empty dry dock in which she had been constructed. Some you win, some you lose and some are either closed on a Tuesday, shut for restoration or have buggered off on a jolly to the USA…
© 2016 Andrew P. Sykes