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The "C" in France -- 26 days from Paris to Avignon
Lessons learned in France

This is not my first bike tour, the first time I've been to France, nor my first bike tour of this length. In addition, I planned this trip for several months and kept a thread of my plans, the decisions I made and why.

Given all this, there were several surprises. Also, I tried some new things, some good, some bad, and wanted to report on them, as well. These aren't in any particular order.

The French people are very friendly and extremely polite.
On my first trip to France, I was shocked by the rudeness and lack of concern, even among people in the Tourist Information bureaus, that I encountered. I had read numerous posts on various fora about the French indifference to things. So, I prepared myself for a little harsh treatment.

This wasn't even close to my actual experience. The French I met all throughout the country were courteous, ready to help with directions, patient with my poor command of French, and one of the best parts of the trip.

Everyone would respond with "Bonjour" if I said it to them while walking past them on the street. Most of the time, they said it first. This was even true of bicyclists passing me in the other direction. Everyone responded with "Au Revior" when I left a shop or said it myself first.

One experience stands out. I was sitting in a medical waiting room where people seeing any one of a suite of doctors were all sitting together. As far as I could tell, no one know anybody else and no one was talking. In walks a man who mumbles "Bonjour" and all 10 people in the room, myself included, echo back "Bonjour." I don't believe I've ever seen that happen in the US.

I tried this one the first day back in San Francisco (not the friendliest of towns). I walked down my local neighborhood street saying Hi to everyone. I got one response. Maybe this is why the French experience stood out for me.

France is mostly farmland

Everyday that I rode, I rode past farmland. It didn't matter if it was near Paris, on the Brittany coast, or in the mountains. Mostly, I saw wheat and rapeseed (Canola Oil). I also saw corn stalks starting out, peas, grapes, and many other plants. Much of the land was used for grazing. In fact, France could be described as one huge farm populated by a few villages and towns.

Most small towns lack a fruit and vegetable store

The first time I was in France, I really enjoyed shopping at the small fruit and vegetable stores that I saw along the way. It seems like every town and village had one or more.

Sadly (in my view), this is no longer true. These small grocery stores have been replaced by large markets on the outskirts of towns or by small mini-markets in towns. I suspect the prices are better in these markets and the convenience is undeniable, however, they have to be driven to and lack the personal touch of a greengrocer. Once I adjusted my food buying to this fact, it wasn't a problem.

France eats lunch from 12 to 2pm

The only thing reliably open in France from noon to 2pm is restaurants. While you might find the odd store open between those times, it is not something to depend on.

Stores stay open until 7pm

The good news that follows the two-hour lunch break is that stores generally stay open until 7pm, if not later. This allows you extra time to arrive at a destination, clean-up and still get out to the store to buy dinner.

Since I was often arriving late in the day (the sun didn't go down until 9:30pm), I began to build this fact into my travel planning. It turned out to be a great convenience to me.

Holidays weren't as bad as I thought

My first week in France coincided with a major holiday that turned the week-end into a 4- or 5-day long weekend. I was concerned that I would be able to find food during this time. But, this turned out to not to be the case.

While many stores were closed for various times during the holiday and the following week-end, not all of them were. In the more touristy areas, it was business as usual. There is always one Boulangerie open in the morning, even on Sunday, in every town. The same appears to be true of a local mini-market.

Communicating with the French wasn't a problem

The first time I went to France, I didn't know much French and I had a very hard time communicating with the people I met. This time, I spent a good deal of effort learning some French.

However, on both trips, I always started by asking if the person I was talking to spoke English. On this trip, most of them spoke better English than I did French so we used English. For those that didn't speak English (a significant number), I used the French I had learned and picked up along the way to get the point across.

When I had to use French, as long as I started and guided the conversation, I had little problem understanding and continuing it. Mostly, these interactions involved directions, locating food stores or restaurants, getting a baguette made of something other than just white flour, or briefly describing my route.

I was clueless, if someone walked up to me and started talking. This was true even if what was said was a phrase I knew in French. This was frustrating but to be expected by a novice French speaker.

The time and effort I spent to learn French greatly enhanced my experience. I would highly recommend that anyone planning a bike tour in France learn as much French as he or she can.

French car drivers are very courteous

I never felt threatened on the road in France. Virtually all drivers gave me a wide berth when passing. If there was on-coming traffic or the curvature of the road prevented a safe look ahead distance, the cars would patiently go slow behind me until they could see it was safe to pass. I would often waive them on when I could see it was safe but they couldn't. This usually earned me a wave from the driver.

I got honked at about once a week. Occasionally, a driver wouldn't bother to pull around me. Instead, they would zoom past me. It was always a shock given the treatment I had come to expect. I noticed that most of these drivers were young men.

The D-Day Beaches were a letdown

The main reason I rode to Normandy, a three-day ride in the wrong direction, was to see the D-Day beaches. My host in Caen, Antoine, was kind enough to drive me to and around them, saving me two long bike rides.

While no one in my immediate family landed or fought in Normandy, I am fairly well versed in D-Day history and lore. We visited many sites and even stopped at signed locations. Pointe du Hoc appeared untouched from D-Day complete with bomb craters and cement bunkers. However, it looked out on placid seas and pretty coastline.

Omaha Beach, the site of some very bloody fighting looked like most any other beach. There were a few broken bunkers but mostly it looked like a tourist beach. We drove all the way up to Arromanches, where the artificial "mulberry" port was still floating in the harbor.

While there are lots of museums with military hardware out front, I wasn't attracted to them. We would drive for a good long while to the next beach or stopping place. The entire site is so spread out that it was not possible to comprehend the entire scope of the landing. As such, it became a series of unconnected coastal areas. Arromanches, a major D-Day site was more of a vacation site than part of history.

The French roadsides are covered with many wildflowers

With the exception of cities and towns, the side of every road I rode on was covered with wildflowers of all colors. They were different from region to region but it seemed there were always white, blue, purple, and red flowers beaconing to me. They became an ever-present companion for the entire trip. They made me smile as they passed by and even made me exclaim on occasion when a particularly pretty patch would go by.

I took so many pictures of roadside flowers that I promised myself that I wouldn't take any more. On the day the red poppies showed up, I took 16 pictures in a row trying to get the perfect poppy picture.

Not all French boulangerie's are the same

Even the tiniest village has a place to buy bread. Most of them have, at least, one boulangerie making fresh bread daily. What surprised me about these bakeries was the number of different kinds of bagettes they sold. Virtually all of them were made from white bread. Some had thicker crusts, some were longer, covered with seeds, or had olives in them. On occasion, I could get whole wheat bagettes, which were very good. There are many other larger loaves on sale, as well. There was almost always whole wheat or rye loaves available. I didn't have the French skills to determine the different kinds of loaves a particular boulangerie had on offer. Whatever I ended up buying, the bread was always fresh and good to eat!

French roads were very well marked

I was concerned with being able to find my way at intersections given my shaky grasp of the French language. But, virtually every intersection that was important was marked with road numbers, it such were assigned to the roads, and the names of towns/cities in that direction.

On a very few occasions, I took the wrong turn. The was more often due to misreading the map than non-existent signage. I not only came to depend on the signs, but early on learned the French word for sign (I pronounced it Pan-o) so that I could ask what the said on the road that I was looking for.

Internet cafes have become a thing of the past

In every previous trip to Europe, I found abundant places offering internet access. On this trip, they were non-existent. I only used the internet once from a "cafe" in Angouleme. It was mainly used by computer gamers. The only other "internet cafe" I saw was in Avignon, also used by gamers.

The main internet access I had came from the people I was staying with. I appeared that every hotel had internet access and would sometimes let you use their computers to read email and such, but I never did that.

It looked to me that many regular cafes had Wi-Fi services. I didn't have a computer with me so that didn't help but by taking a wireless enabled device, you should be able to have internet access most everywhere.

Medical Care in France is readily available and affordable

For the first time on a bike tour, I had to see a doctor. I had a bad spill and my left elbow was gashed, bleeding, and needed stitches. After visiting a Pharmacy who stopped the bleeding, I went to a nearby doctor. I was the last patient of the day. He spoke rudimentary English, about as good as my French. He checked me over, stitched my elbow, evaluated a huge hematoma that ballooned on my hip, and gave me some advice. After laying on his examination table, I got up and paid him 22 Euros.

A week later, I asked at the local (Figeac) TI for an appointment with an English speaking doctor to get the stitches out. I wasn't asked how I intended to pay or for insurance information. I spent even more time with doctor #2 who asked more questions (he spoke much better English) and insisted that I have an X-ray taken. He called the nearby hospital, made the arrangements, took my 22 Euros, and sent me over there. It took about 15 minutes for the hospital to process me into their system (I didn't have the "green" health card they were looking for). I then waited about 15 minutes for the X-ray, which took about 10 minutes. After the X-ray, I went back to the registration office and, after about 10 minutes of confusion, was charged 56 Euros for the (negative) X-ray.

In one case, I saw a doctor immediately. In the other case, I got an appointment the next morning. The service at the hospital was very fast, given what I've come to expect from US hospitals.

French Pharmacies are much more than drug stores

The first stop after a bad spill was to the nearest Pharmacy. This wasn't my idea, but a local directed me to one. He even drove ahead and alerted them that I was coming, which was very nice of him. When I arrived, the pharmacist deal with her customers and then asked me into the backroom where she tried to communicate with me to no avail. She took me to a sink, applied some oxygenated water to my elbow, which stopped the bleeding immediately. She them bandaged it up and called a nearby doctor for me to see. She did this without concern about her legal liability and without charge. I did come back to her place to buy the supplies prescribed by the doctor to find that she had stayed there after closing time (calling her husband to say she had to stay late) to make sure I was OK and to get me anything I needed. She even gave me a roll of expensive tape that I tried to pay for but wasn't allowed to.

I visited several other pharmacies after that and always found them a great place to get knowledgeable advice. This experience was so different than the one I am socialized to that it was shocking.

Food costs in France, even with a highly valued Euro, are about the same as the US.

While on tour, I got most of my food from stores and boulangeries. There are two reasons for this. First, as a vegetarian (no meat, fish or fowl), there is very little food choices on most French restaurant menus. The main choice is usually pizza and I can't eat that all that often. Second, restaurants are quite expensive.

I shopped in small vegetable stores, roadside stands, mini-markets, and superstores. I found that prices for the food I was buying seemed comparable to the prices on the same foods in the US. I mostly bought bananas, apples, red bell peppers, avocados, tomatoes, red onions, cheese, bagettes, cucumbers, olives, and broccoli. What's more, I found the quality and taste of the fresh foods to be top notch.

The main problem with this strategy is that finding a place that sells fruits and vegetables often requires finding the supermarket that is on the outskirts of town.

There aren't very many songbirds in France

While every morning I could hear lots of birds sounds, I was surprised that I saw very few birds while I was riding around the countryside. I often could hear them singing in the trees, but rarely saw them.

I mentioned this to someone who told me that the French shoot songbirds for sport. I never verified this in any way or saw anyone doing it. It is just a random observation.

You won't find anything open on Sunday afternoon

There is always, at least, one boulangerie open in towns on Sunday morning. They are usually open until 1pm. In towns with heavy tourism, there will several open.

However, after 1pm, there won't be any stores open. Plan accordingly.

A good, cheap meal is soup in a box.

One of the people who hosted me served me pumpkin soup out of a box. It was very tasty. After that, I started looking for them in stores and found that there were several brands and lots of selections. I bought and ate several of them. My favorite was leek and potato soup. I often added vegetables, like canned beans or fresh broccoli to the soup.

Tap water and public spigots in France are completely safe.

Before I left, I was told to be careful about drinking tap water in France and stories of intestinal problems from doing so. Other advice said the water was OK.

When I arrived in France, I couldn't believe that clean water would be a problem there. It wasn't. It was all I drank. I even filled some of my bottles from the free flowing spigots provided in many towns. I never had any problems.

Many of the public fountains and spigots say that the water is "not controlled" or "non potable." I left those alone.

It is easy to find a campground in France.

Everywhere I rode, I passed signs for campgrounds. Like hotels, campgrounds are rated with stars. The signs always showed the name of the camping site and its number of stars. Many towns have municipals campgrounds that are cheap, near towns, and usually in nice places.

Unfortunately, it rained virtually every day I had planned to camp so I was only able to pitch a tent once while on tour. I slept in a municipal camping area about 1 mile outside the center of Vire in Normandy. The camp site was right next to the Vire river on a very low traffic residential road. The area was a large plot of grass and trees with a paved road down the middle. There were about 20 sites, stand-up toilets, free showers, and sinks. The cost for the night was 3.50 Euros.

In addition to private campgrounds, I saw many signs for municipal sites. The best way to find local camping areas is to ask the nearest TI for a list or map.

Camp stove fuel is easy to find.

I own both a cartridge gas and an alcohol stove. I didn't know which one to take but, in the end, decided to take the Trangia alcohol stove. In the very first store that I shopped in, I found a liter of ethanol for less than 2 Euros. They also had gas cartridges. As I biked through France, I found that most mini-markets (in towns) and all super markets sold both gas cartridges and alcohol.

What's more, the alcohol had a scent that was pungent but not unpleasant.

One way or the other, the weather in France will affect your tour.

I like to travel in the late Spring, so I decided to do my tour in May. I started in Paris and rode toward Normandy. I checked the normal wind patters and saw that it usually blows west to east, a headwind. I even changed my plans to take more time to get to Caen as a result. I was also told that Normandy is France's Washington and that I should expect lots of rain.

I simply assumed that the further south I rode, the better the weather would get and that my main concern would be the first part of the trip. This turned out to be completely wrong.

The weather in Paris and Normandy was mostly sunny with puffy white clouds and no wind. The further south I went, the more it rained. I later found out that May and June are the rainy months in the wine growing regions.

I had planned to be hosted by locals for the first half of the trip and to mostly camp the second half. I didn't camp a single day on the second half of my trip because every day either it was raining when I stopped cycling, looked like it would rain during the night, or had rained and the ground was very wet.

There were a few nights when it didn't rain and I could have camped out without sleeping through a storm. But, I don't like to put away or carry a soggy tent so if the weather looked iffy, I got a hotel.

The 10 pounds or so of camping gear I carried was, essentially, dead weight.

France is covered with rivers, streams, and creeks

Every day that I rode a bike, I passed many rivers, streams, and/or creeks. I was shocked at how well-watered France is. I guess I shouldn't be all that surprised given that it rained pretty much every day.

The selection of cheese is huge in France

Every country seems to have its specialties, foods that take up whole aisles in the supermarket. In America, it is breakfast cerials. In Britian, it is tea. In France, it is Cheese. The number and range of cheeses sold in markets is unbelievable. Typically, they took up an entire cooler section, with even more choices in a bulk section deli case. I was bewildered as to what kind to choose and once I found a few that I liked, I stuck with them. For me, the choices were mostly swiss cheeses.

It would be an interesting challenge to taste all the different types and styles of cheese in France!

The selection of olives is huge in France

Like cheese, there are lots of different types of olives on display in most French food stores. At open-air markets, you could taste them to insure that you were buying something you liked. But, at stores, you had to go by smell or color. Some olives are hard and sweet, while others are pungent and way too strong. I didn't even consider buying a random batch of olives just to "try something new." Instead, when I couldn't taste them, I often bought olives I liked in a plastic container that I recognized from store to store.

Instead of hotels and camping, consider finding homes to stay in using hospitality sites

For the first half of my trip, I stayed with very kind French people in their homes for free. In four of these homes, I stayed for two days. Staying in and experiencing French homes was a wonderful experience, both for human and cultural interactions. I found these people through two hospitality sites and Both sites require a free registration, which means being part of these huge networks, but you don't have to accept people into your own home, though after staying with people might make you want to host, as well. One problem I experienced was that I wasn't spending enough time with most of my hosts.

I would arrive late in the day and leave the next morning. While I would spend lots of time talking with my hosts, I was usually tired when I arrived and found the effort to talk, while interesting, was often more than I wanted to do. A better option would be to only stay with people when you were going to be in the same town for two days. Either way, spending so much time with locals was a wonderful part of this trip.

A banana is good for about 8 miles of pedaling

I found that eating a single banana not only gave me quick energy but was good for about 8 miles of riding before I felt the need to eat. I ate several bananas every day I rode. I discovered that putting them in the back pocket of my reflector vest kept them relatively bruise-free.

A salad is an easy way to make a filling meal

Since I don't eat meat, fish, or fowl, I found it easier to make my own meals instead of relying on finding vegetarian options on French menus. A common meal was a salad made from tomatoes, carrots, celery, red onions, olives, feta cheese, cucumber, red pepper, and any other vegetables/fruits that looked good.

I always had a bagette with these salads, as well. With the exception of the cucumber, all the ingredients were completely consumed in a single salad. Thus, I could buy them and eat them without having to put any partially consumed food into my panniers. I carried olive oil and basalmic vinegar for dressing the salad.

A small square of cutting board came in handy

I carried a small (3 inch) square cut from a plastic cutting board. It weighs almost nothing and provides a clean place to cut on. A great addition to my touring kit for someone who cooks alot of their own meals.

I found a new storage spot on my bike

In the second half of the trip, it rained almost every day. As a result, I was constantly putting my raincoat on and taking it off. I didn't like having to open my panniers every time I wanted to access my raincoat and couldn't find any other good spot to put it. Then, I noticed this unused triangle behind my seat post. This triangle was created by the seat post, front end of the rear rack and the metal brackets that hold the rack to the cutouts on the downtube. It was the perfect space from my rolled up raincoat, which stayed put without any cinching cords.

Non-stick pads are worth carrying in my first-aid kit

I fell off my bike trying to go up a curb on this trip. I gashed my elbow badly, which needed stitches and oozed for many days afterward. The first day, the wound stuck to the dressing the doctor put on. I carry Johnson and Johnson Adaptec non-stick pads. These pads go between the wound and the cotton pad and prevent the wound from sticking to the cotton. It saved me pain from ripping the wound open when replacing the dressing and, I believe, allowed the wound to heal more quickly. I was even able to find more at a French pharmacy by showing them the packaging from the last pad I had with me. In the US, they cost about $1/pad and come in packs of 10. I won't ride on tour without them ever again!

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