With only a few days until the publication of all 35 degrees of ‘Spain to Norway on a Bike Called Reggie‘ on May 11th (pre-order at Amazon or Waterstone’s), exactly two years ago today, I was cycling from Rochefort to La Rochelle, enjoying the great cycling facilities of the west of France and absorbing French history in abundance. You can read what I wrote at the time by following this link. Below, however, is an extract from ‘Spain to Norway on a Bike Called Reggie‘ covering the four days of the cycle though that tenth degree of the journey.
The Tenth Degree: 45° – 46° North
3rd – 6th May
The cubicles in the wash block at the four-star Camping Airotel l’Océan didn’t provide luxuries such as toilet paper so, surprised it could ever be considered optional, I trotted down to the small campsite supermarket to buy a roll.
‘C’est combien?’ I asked politely.
In a manner reminiscent of the receptionist at the youth hotel in Jerez, the man serving me 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. The French call it l’esprit d’escalier: the annoying realisation that you have come up with the perfect bon mot when you are wandering off to bed and it’s just too late to say or in this case do it, hence the ‘spirit of the staircase’.
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 busy smoking a cigarette outside the wash block. I successfully transferred much of the oil-infused sand from the bike onto the grass next to the toilets – the cleaner glared at me through her smoke – and I set off in high hopes that Reggie’s annoying clicking would also be left at the campsite. Unfortunately, this wasn’t to be the case and I began to suspect that it might be something more serious than a build-up of gunk.
I continued to click my way north, but rather than follow the Vélodyssée through the sandy pine forests, I opted for the road slightly further inland. This brought me into contact with boulangeries, cafés, supermarchés… and, in smart Maubuisson, a bike shop owned and run by two of France’s friendliest bike mechanics.
‘You’re going where?’ asked Christophe, one of the owners, half in admiration, half in horror.
With that, Christophe and his colleague François seemed to elevate me to cycling royalty. They were, on reflection, the kind of guys who elevated all their customers to cycling royalty but I was happy to bask in my delusion of grandeur.
I explained my predicament – Reggie’s clicking – and François set about trying to sort out the problem. He cleaned the chainset, not with a toilet cleaner’s rag, but with a high-pressure jet of air. Having been on the road for nearly a month I was tempted to ask him if he wouldn’t mind pointing it in my direction too.
Then came the Berner Super 6+ Universal Spray.
‘It’s what the professionals use,’ explained François. I was already sold on the stuff. ‘And it’s from Germany.’ That had me reaching for my cash quicker than a campsite supermarket manager could click his fingers. It was clearly, as I’m pretty sure the French don’t say, les couilles du chien.
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…
The pine forest was beginning to appear rather middle-aged in that it was most certainly thinning out. I was reacquainted with the sea at Soulac-sur-Mer, where I was stopped in my tracks by a miniature version of the Statue of Liberty on a plinth in the middle of a traffic island. The diminutive Liberty was looking out to sea and a plaque explained why she was there.
It was all to do with aristocrat and Franco-American hero Gilbert du Motier, marquis de La Fayette. With a name like that, he was perhaps destined for great things when he was born in 1757. 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.
His elevation to a marquis had been inadvertently fast-tracked and so, it seemed, was much of his life. An officer in the army at 13, married at 17 and a major-general (and a father) at 19. It’s enough to make the average man feel inadequate. During the late eighteenth and early nineteenth 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:
‘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 read the text below Liberty’s toga. He did return to France and we’ll pick up his story again in Rochefort.
It was nice to travel under the steam (well, diesel fumes) of a boat again. 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. Perhaps that didn’t qualify me for a statue of my own, especially as my gaze was to the north, where I could see a long sandy beach and a distinctly twentieth-century town sitting upon it.
Royan stood in stark contrast to the dozens of villages, towns and cities through which I had so far travelled. I cycled off the ferry and along the esplanade where I stopped to take in its right angles and white concrete. A couple of hundred metres inland, poking up above the other buildings, was an edifice that resembled a space shuttle on its launch pad. A church? I didn’t require the assistance of a historian to realise that Royan had been flattened during World War Two and subsequently rebuilt in line with the tastes of the 1950s and 1960s.
I had reserved a room at the Hôtel Arc en Ciel, the rainbow hotel. Appropriately, it appeared to be the only building in central Royan painted anything other than white. The hotel’s cheerful owners were just as warm and welcoming as the yellow facade of their building, and they set about making sure that I was fully informed about the city and its attractions.
However, no mention was made of the space shuttle church so the following morning I went to investigate. 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 5 January 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 of the twenty-first century, it is easy to consider such deaths as the price worth paying for freedom but, digging a little deeper, that probably wasn’t the case in Royan. By early 1945, the Third Reich had been pushed out of most of south-western France. They remained in just two places, on either side of the mouth of the Gironde, to hinder the Allies in refuelling their ships. According to the French historian Guy Binot, the citizens of the city were living in ‘medieval conditions’, cut off by the remaining German troops and lacking any communication with the outside world.
A decision was taken to bomb Royan and orders were given to evacuate the city. It was assumed that the remaining civilian population was small and that those who did choose to stay were collaborators. But with ‘no radio, no mail, no newspapers’, Binot argues that it’s difficult to see how any order to evacuate could have been received. Messages from the Free French Forces on the ground that the city hadn’t been evacuated didn’t get through to high command and in the early morning of 5 January, two waves of Lancaster bombers dropped their payload on the city, destroyed 85 per cent of the buildings and killed the 442 civilians. ‘Only’ 47 German soldiers perished. American bombers came to finish the job in April 1945 with napalm. The surrender came later that month.
Ironically, most of the German concrete fortifications remained intact. It may have been a suitable material for military buildings, but concrete didn’t make for a great religious one. The rebuilt cathedral in Royan was simply ugly and, alas, getting uglier by the day. It opened in 1958 but within four years it was leaking and the concrete decaying. In the 1980s it was listed as a monument historique but, one can only imagine, as a symbol of what it represented – the rebirth of a city – rather than its intrinsic aesthetic appeal.
Twenty kilometres into my coastal cycle towards Rochefort 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, brown mud flats reached 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 sounds were those of the birds. The small towns along the coast were delightful, consisting mainly of belle époque residences, many of which had been carefully renovated and painted in pastel shades of yellow, blue and green. The contrast with Royan and its Église Notre-Dame was welcome.
It is often better to stumble upon things rather than to contemplate them in advance and before arriving in Rochefort, I was about to do that not once but twice. First was the isolated fortified town of Brouage. It had once been on the coast but land reclamation had repositioned it a few kilometres inland. It had been built to a small grid pattern and encased within thick fractalesque outer walls, now all but redundant apart from giving tourists something upon which to stroll. There was a story about a pining discarded girlfriend of Louis XIV, a few small shops selling art… 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 had saved me €5.
The second unanticipated attraction was to be found over a wide curve of the meandering Charente river, which I needed to cross. There was a high modern bridge that I had seen from some distance away, but what was the other structure spanning the river a few hundred metres further upstream? Its shape was that of an excessively wide and overly tall set of rugby posts, with no obvious way of accessing the metal cross beam. I had found 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 tended to be constructed in places where tall ships needed to navigate the river but lack of space or money prevented access roads to a high bridge being built on either bank. A gondola (think large section of road in a cage rather than anything from Venice) was 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’re useless. But if you’re a tourist on a bike they’re 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.
I was discovering an unexpectedly rich vein of history in this part of France: La Fayette, World War Two, seventeenth-century military towns, belle époque houses and old bridges… and, once settled at the campsite in Rochefort that evening, I took time to catch up via my guidebook. My research, however, only served the purpose of creating more gaps to fill. Pierre Loti? The Royal Ropeworks? The Hermione?
The following morning I went off to explore. Pierre Loti – naval officer, adventurer and writer of exotic novels – had lived in Rochefort but his house was, disappointingly, closed, as it was undergoing substantial refurbishment. So, moving on, 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 being built in seventeenth-century France, it was a very beautiful shed indeed, more in the style of an elongated château.
Next door to the former rigging factory was the Hermione. Or rather, she would have been there had I turned up two months earlier. We were back to our friend and all-round French hero Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, marquis de La Fayette. We left Marie-Joseph on a ship, gazing at the beach at Soulac-sur-Mer. His trip to North America was successful and, to cut a long story very short, he went on to become a hero of the American War of Independence from Britain.
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 first US President.
In 1780, leaving childcare duties in the hands of his wife (and, no doubt, a legion of servants), La Fayette set off again for America, this time on board the good ship Hermione. In 1782 he returned to France, got his wife pregnant again, survived the French Revolution, spent five 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.
The Hermione had been constructed in Rochefort but after many years serving the cause of American independence, she ran aground and was wrecked just north of Saint-Nazaire. However, in 1997 construction started in Rochefort on a replica. It took nearly two decades to build and test the new Hermione but in April 2015 she set off on a tour of the east coast of the USA. All I was able to see was the empty dry dock. 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 America. It was time, perhaps, for me to move on too.
 Pardon my French but… ‘the dog’s bollocks’.