Cycling Day 9:
Tuesday 27th July: Metz to Dabo
6 hours 8 minutes in the saddle, 120 kilometres
We’ve had quite a few history & geography lessons so far, so let’s broaden the curriculum and have a maths lesson.
Think of a right-angle triangle with the right angle (the one that is 90 degrees or square for those of you who struggled in your GCSE maths class) at the bottom left hand corner. The triangle is longer than it is tall (like a widescreen TV – this is differentiated!). Hopefully you have in mind the same image as me. If your shape has more than three sides then please stop reading this book immediately and go and watch something unchallenging on TV. At the top left-hand corner of the triangle is Metz & bottom left is Nancy. Bottom right is Strasbourg. If at this point you are expecting me to tell you what is top right, please refer to the end of the previous sentence. The distance from Metz to Nancy is about half the distance from Nancy to Strasbourg so the easy thing to do would have been to break down the rest of the week into three journeys, the first from Metz to Nancy, the second to half way between Nancy and Strasbourg and the final one to Strasbourg itself. However, there was of course the alternative of cycling along the hypotenuse (nothing? – reconsider the TV option) for three shorter journeys but with bugger all on the map which resembled a decent-sized town at which to stop overnight. I lay in the tent pondering the situation, but I couldn’t decide what to do so instead, I got up and did the next best thing; ignored the fact that I had to make a decision pretty soon.
The sky was blue. On a long cycling trip, that was one of the best ways to start the day, especially coming the morning after a very wet day in the saddle. I took down the tent, carefully packed my panniers and lowered them onto a patient Reggie who was waiting by my side. I was now getting into the swing of the morning camping routine so it wasn’t too long before I was back at the campsite reception changing the dressing on my injured foot.
Just outside the entrance to the site was a large car park filled mainly with white camper vans (why are they always white?) from different corners of Europe. It is often the case at camp-sites that people travelling in these comfortable metal boxes arrive after dark, spend the night in such a holding area and then check-in to the camp-site itself first thing in the morning. This is what Jean-Jacques had done and the reason why he happened to be standing in a slow moving queue just next to where I was administering first aid to myself. He was the first to speak and it was to compliment me on how meticulously I had packed everything up and loaded it all onto Reggie a few minutes earlier. He had been watching my every move from a distance and from the detail he was able to recount he either had a photographic memory or was dictating notes to his wife as he watched like a policeman on a stake-out (“08.15: The suspect has now shaken the tent three times and is beginning to roll it up while gently brushing of bits of wet grass…”). I thanked him for his comments and genuine interest explaining that it was quite important to try and get a balance on the bike. He contrasted my efforts with his own which could be summed up as ‘throw everything in the back and drive off’. I was in no rush – I was continuing with the long, fiddly job of patching up my heel – and the queue wasn’t moving so we continued to chat and a remarkably wide-ranging conversation ensued. We discussed languages (his wife was an English teacher and he himself spoke Breton – he even gave me a short demonstration), comparative political centralisation in France and the UK, the up-coming cycling event in Verdun (involving a remarkable 12,000 cyclists of which he was going to be one), his career as an insurance salesman and how it had taken him to the six corners of France (remember this is l’Hexagone), his travels around the UK (especially in Scotland), his daughter’s time spent working in Bournemouth & Edinburgh and, of course, my own trip to the south of Italy. Just before we finally went our separate ways, he asked how old I was. He told me that it was the perfect time in life to do what I was doing.
It was such a nice way to start the day. Remember that one of my main concerns in the initial days of planning the journey had been that I would be lonely on a solo cycling quest. Here was a man who I had never seen before and who I will never see again but we were chatting like two old friends in a café. It was brilliant. Just brilliant.
It also put me in a very carefree frame of mind so when I was once again studying the maps over coffee in a deserted square in the centre of Metz, I wasn’t in the least bit concerned that I hadn’t yet made up my mind where to stay that evening. I did, however, need a direction of travel and I went for the hypotenuse option. I didn’t really want to replicate the previous day’s cycling along busy roads towards Nancy so I would head out into the wilderness of Lorraine and towards the Vosges mountains. If I got as far as Sarrebourg good, if I didn’t so be it. Jean-Jacques had been a walking Prozac tablet and I had swallowed him in one big gulp. No stress.
One of the perks of being a languages teacher (we don’t get many so the ones that do present themselves at our interactive whiteboards are worth milking for all you can), is the opportunity for a bit of foreign travel in your job. OK, in the great scheme of things, it’s not the kind of foreign travel that some employees get to do jetting off for conferences in California or bonding weekends in Bali but it is nevertheless foreign travel. I’ve already mentioned that I had been to Boulogne-sur-mer for the day, not once but twice in the week prior to setting off along the Eurovelo 5 (I have been there so many times over the past ten years that my heart no longer considers it as ‘abroad’ and I have no sense of excitement whatsoever about returning each year), but I also get to spend a fun weekend in Paris with a group of thirty or so 15 year olds every May. It’s a residential trip of course which means that most evenings are spent trying to prevent the students smuggling alcohol & cigarettes from the local corner shop into their rooms and then later trying to smuggle themselves into rooms containing members of the opposite sex, but it does give us a quality amount of time to explore the city and one of the cultural gems of the French capital is the Pompidou Centre.
What’s all that got to do with cycling to Brindisi? I hear you cry. Well, they have just built a second Pompidou Centre in Metz. The Pompidou Centre in Paris is famed as much for its architecture as the works of art it contains. It was one of Richard Rogers’ ‘inside-out’ creations with as much as possible of what you would normally find inside a building (pipes, escalators, air-conditioning etc…) on the outside in the hope that the interior space would be maximised. Viewed from the hill of Montmartre, it is still a striking addition to the Paris skyline. The same certainly goes for the Pompidou-Metz which, although closed on the Tuesday I was in town (perhaps it was where everyone had gone on Monday) was still worth a visit just to look at from the outside.
Following the signs from the city centre, I was lead to an area behind the Gare SNCF. You didn’t need to read the board which said ‘Bienvenue au Centre Pompidou-Metz’ to figure out that you had arrived. I parked Reggie in the vast but deserted car park and sat on one of the many flat benches to examine what I could see. Supported on a lattice of wooden stilts, the roof resembled the fresh dough of a pizza in mid-air having just being flung there by the chef, curving up and down around its edge. A drunken stingray comes to mind as well. Puncturing the roof was a tall flagpole sporting the French tricolour. Very impressive and well worth the minor detour. But it was time to get cycling along the hypotenuse so Reggie and I set off in a south-easterly direction towards the as yet unnamed town of ???.
The morning’s ride was very pleasant; rolling countryside, the odd little climb to keep me awake, a mixture of sun and cloud to heat me up but then cool me down once I got too hot and some increasingly attractive towns and villages through which to cycle. I stopped for lunch at Morhange, some fifty kilometres from Metz. By this time it was looking more than likely that I would be in Sarrebourg that evening. Morhange wasn’t a bad little place and I bought a sandwich jambon-fromage from a small take-away place in the main street. The town had everything your average Frenchman would want; a bank, a bar, a baker, a greengrocer, a post office, a hardware shop (called strangely the Crack Bazar – was it a cover for something more nefarious?). But it had something missing. What was it? Ah yes… people! Apart from me and the woman who had served me in sandwich bar, the lengthy main street had not a soul on it. Was there going to be a high-noon gun battle and everyone had taken cover? We weren’t in siesta territory, not yet surely. How do places like this in France survive? In Britain, everything would have been shut down years ago. I know that I had arrived between the hours of twelve and two but even so… The café down the road was just as quiet. The French economic miracle at work (i.e. they never appear to do any but still live very comfortable lives).
I reached an important milestone soon after Morhange. Well, milestone doesn’t seem an appropriate term as I was celebrating the completion of one thousand kilometres along the Eurovelo 5. Only another two thousand nine hundred to go and they started with the afternoon’s cycle to Sarrebourg which was very much in the same positive vein as the morning’s cycle to Morhange and there were tantalising pieces of evidence that I was making progress south; a lavender field, the noise of cicadas, white-washed houses & a more mountainous landscape. However, it was all still very ephemeral and some places were still securely fixed in a more granity northern France. As I made progress towards Sarrebourg, I could see the Vosges Mountains looming in the distance. That would be tomorrow’s challenge I thought and pedalled on.
I had no preconceptions about Sarrebourg but was hoping for the kind of quiet, picturesque place you find nestling in the Dordogne with a campsite (with no hedges) and a couple of bars in which to while away the evening. I was in for a bit of a disappointment. It was an inconsequential town with a penchant for drabness. It was only remarkable for being unremarkable. I asked at the tourist office about campsites and the helpful woman gave me a list of five, none of which were close to the town itself. Keeping positive, news of the non-existence of a campsite in Sarrebourg came as a blessed relief; it meant I would not be staying in the town overnight and the ones that were listed were all east of the town which was good as that was the direction in which I was travelling towards Strasbourg. On closer inspection, one of them appeared to be more ideal than the others as it was on a direct route to Strasbourg; the site in Dabo.
There was only one problem; Dabo was another 20 kilometres away and up a big hill. Not just any hill but one the hills I had seen earlier; the Vosges Mountains. I looked at my watch; it was only 4pm. Plenty of time to ride 20 kilometres albeit in an upwards direction. Jean-Jacque’s Prozac vibe from earlier in the day must have still been working so I set off east towards the first real cycling challenge of the trip. It was certainly that as the route wound its way backward and forward up the slope towards the village. But I didn’t stop once; I just plodded along, one rotation of the pedals after another, up and up. After a couple of hours of gentle effort I arrived in the village of Dabo and paused to get my bearings. There was a cluster of shops and a sign for a tourist office which, once I had located, tucked behind the town hall up a couple of flights of steps was, much to my surprise, still open. The elderly gentleman who was on duty explained that the campsite was just a couple of kilometres further along the road but that it didn’t have a shop or bar so I would need to buy something to eat and drink in the village.
I felt almost French as I reappeared out of the little Casino supermarket clutching a large triangle of Camembert cheese, a fat baguette and a bottle of Bordeaux Supérieur red wine. The price of the latter did not reflect the lofty pretentions of the label but I was sure it would do just fine. With my Gallic feast packed into the panniers, bread protruding from the top, I continued my journey and, just as the old man had said, the campsite was on my right after a couple of kilometres. I was welcomed by the charming lady who ran the whole place. She explained that there would be no staff on site after about 9 o’clock but I looked around and although far from packed there were plenty other happy campers preparing their evening meals. This included a group of children from one of the big cities who were on a colonie de vacances organised by their local council. They had one large marquee and a series of smaller tents in which they slept. The sky was still bright, but it did have something about it that suggested we may have rain at some point, so I chose a patch of ground not too far from the large marquee to pitch my own tent. It may come in useful, I thought if there was going to be a downpour.
It was a beautiful wooded setting. I had found my little corner of the Dordogne in Lorraine after all and I tucked into the bread, cheese and wine as the sun set in the far distance. By coming so far I had managed to get myself within only half a day’s cycling of Strasbourg itself. I would cycle down the other side of the mountains in the morning and have a leisurely ride across the valley and towards the banks of the Rhine. At that point, in that camp-site on that evening, eating that food and with that view I was the happiest I had yet been. And just as the day had started with a lengthy chat to a stranger, so it was to end when Michael & Jeanette pulled up in their Crazy White Elephant. It was the name they had given to their camper van. A bit less smart & flashy than Jean-Jacque’s earlier in the day but just as white. They were heading back to Heidelberg in Germany where they lived after a few days of touring around France. We shared good conversation & average wine. Michael was infectiously enthusiastic about life; I told him he should abandon his life as an accountant & become a teacher. He said he would consider my suggestion carefully. I wonder if he ever did.
(c) Andrew Sykes 2011