Orleans to Cherbourg – staying with Trappist Monks and reaching the beaches of Normandy

After our string of 100km days we felt we deserved a restful morning so we didn’t leave the campsite until the afternoon and we used the time to sort out a few things for when we move to Cornwall in late August. Thanks to a good tailwind we manage 60km despite the late start and followed more cycle routes before camping in a lovely spot on the banks of the Loir again. We’ve been passing lots of French chateaus. They litter the countryside around here with their quintisensial round towers and many windows.

Chateaux!

Comical penny farthing photo along another cycle route!

The next afternoon we reached Orleans giving ourselves enough time to visit a dentist because Paddy’s filling, which he had done in China (along with the root canal), fell out. We’ve had good weather in France but the next day was spent dodging the thunderstorms as we skirted round the bottom of Paris towards Normandy. We managed to find shelter for the majority of the downpours and just got the tent up under the shade of a great oak tree before the evening rain started -we were forced to cook our pesto and ravioli in the vestibule followed by delicious French eclaires in the tent.

This part of France has been pretty flat and we’re both starting to tire of looking at the miles and miles of golden wheat fields. They were fun to start with and we enjoyed making this video about Theresa May. 

Thankfully the golden fields soon turned into forests of oak trees as we reached the Normandy border at La Luppe and cycled through the north section of Parc naturel regional du Perche. The thunderstorms made a come back that afternoon and we stop at Abbaye de la Trappe to fill our water bottles at the healing spring there dedicated to St Bernard. We have to wait in line – clearly it’s the done thing for local worshippers to fill large 5l containers with the water to take home with them! While we refill we get chatting to a nice Frenchman from Paris who invites us into the Abbey’s art gallery where his Japanese wife has an exhibition of her paintings. 


Needing no excuse to stop and hide from the rain we gladly follow him in and really enjoy chatting with them and looking at her work. By the time we were ready to get back on the bike an extreme downpour had started. Resigning ourselves to another damp camping spot we prepare to mount the bike. 

We end up not having to camp though. Within the hour we’re settled in the private sleeping quarters of the Abbey’s monastery instead. It’s a long story which involves some very nice French ‘Trappist’ monks who essentially took pity on us and offered us a place to stay for the night! 
We’re offered the use of the kitchen and a hot shower and shown to our own room by the head monk – a cheery man of 80 years who looks a bit like Albus Dumbledore in his long white robes and matching beard. 

The view of the ancient Abbey buildings from our bedroom

While we’re preparing dinner we notice the cathedral service times on the wall and decide to head along to the last service of the evening. The monastery complex is very beautiful and the Cathedral itself is an amazing building. After the short service we head down to the lake and walk around the forest grounds. The skies clear and we laugh at the fact we probably could have camped after all… We will definitely miss finding ourselves in these random situations once we are back! 

There are a few other people staying in the same building as us – mostly worshippers who have come for a few nights. We get chatting to a nice guy called Sebastien who is here with his son and godson for a few nights -in the morning we find a little handwritten note from him tucked into our frame bag inviting us to stay on their Christmas tree farm. We leave the abbey feeling very humbled and glad that we have found people in Western Europe just as kind, friendly and open minded as they are everywhere else we’ve been.

They wear the same outfits today
The Abbey’s Cathedral


The next day was another rainy one but we managed to hide from the worst of it by sheltering in various farm buildings. Sometimes the farmers catch us munching our lunch next to their tractors but they don’t seem to mind, in fact they are normally very amused. We reach a town called Falaise and I decide to check the warmshowers ap to see if there might be any hosts in the area who might be able to welcome us on such short notice. Jean-Marc answered our plea almost instantly and so we end up having a lovely evening with him discussing everything from cycling to politics. We are well looked after considering we gave him just 30 minutes notice!! 

The next two days we have some long days in the saddle as we head west and into the Contentin peninsular. The World War Two landings and military action which took place here are heavy in our minds as we head towards the coast where we decide to stop at one of the landing beaches – Utah beach. 

It’s a stunning day and it’s hard to believe that this peaceful, sandy long beach was once a place of such atrocity and suffering. While we walked around the various monuments we also come to terms with the fact that we have finally reached the English Channel. 

With only 35km left to Cherbourg and our ferry not leaving until the evening the next day we felt it was fitting to check-in to a nearby campsite and celebrate properly – we had done it! We had reached the other end of the Euro-Asian landmass!

Ireland here we come! 

Utah beach

Stunning view from the waterside restaurant
Celebrating with fresh oysters and prawns
Boarding our ferry ‘The Oscar Wilde’ to Roslare
Paddy finishing the last of the brioche to make room for the brack, black pudding and soda bread which we will soon be storing away in the panniers.

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France! number 23 and our last foreign country!

We reached the summit at Montgenevre by lunch the next day and we were soon crossing into France. It had been quite a stiff climb to get here with a few very long tunnels to climb through – especially the very last – we were glad to have got up here. France here we come! This would be our last foreign country and we both felt it was a bit surreal crossing the border. The views were fabulous and I got quite emotional!

Celebrating with still a bit to climb!

We needed to get to Lyon by the evening of the next day so I could catch my flight back to the UK for another interview. Although we had reached the border we hadn’t finished climbing yet – we still needed to cross Col du Lauteret which would be our last pass over 2000m. 

We celebrated reaching France in typical style by feasting on fresh baguettes, three types of French cheese and a bottle of French wine for lunch. Then we started tackling the climb and managed to brake the back of it by 7pm. 8km from the top we found a great camping spot off the road on top of a disused tunnel and we finished the wine while lapping up the view of the glacier dominating the mountain range across the valley.

The next morning we set off early as we had to reach Grenoble by mid-afternoon so we could catch a train to Lyon. It was a beautiful day and we stopped for a quick picture at the top. It was still early but the hotel and cafe was packed with bikers and cycle teams and there was a celebratory good atmosphere.

Cheese and wine!
At the top! Glorious morning


We enjoyed the downhill after that before reaching a reservoir where we had to endure another short climb before zooming down to Grenoble. The temperature climbs as we drop down and by the time we hit Grenoble it’s well over 30 degrees. The whole of France is experiencing an intense heatwave right now. 

Amandine and Jean were our kind warm showers hosts in Lyon and despite them having just moved into their new flat they were super welcoming. We enjoyed a dinner with them when we arrived and loved hearing about their cycle trip in Africa which they had completed a few years ago. 

The next day I flew home to London and started my epic journey down to Plymouth for my interview. Paddy enjoyed his few days in Lyon despite the weather which reached into the high 30s. It was the summer solstice the evening I returned and Paddy and Amandine had been out partying -enjoying the street music festival which takes place all over France every year on the longest day.

The next morning we had a late start as I was super tired from all the travelling. Paddy literally had to kick me out of bed in the end. It was incredibly hot and our departure was delayed because we left the battery pack in the flat… Paddy managed to retrieve the house keys from where we had just deposited them in the letter box by using the magnet on our tent lamprey. We managed 44km before pulling the bike up a wood lined verge where thankfully there was a running stream nearby for us to cool off before climbing in the tent. 

We managed an early start on the bike the next morning and we were cycling by 7.45am. I doubt we’ve been cycling this early since our dash across Turkmenistan… After an 8km climb we were soon crossing into the Loir region and making our way to Roanne. It promised to be very flat from now on so the 80km day average we have to keep to ensure we reach Cherbourg in time shouldn’t be too challenging. 

Day 3 saw us complete a 103km the first of what would turn out to be a string of 100km plus days! We’ve been following the canal routes and are enjoying teaming up with the great Loir river every so often. We see lots of birds of prey hunting in the fields many many herons and the canals are home to many ducklings who we spook out of their reed nests as we cycle past. 

There’s quite a few people holidaying on canal boats and we pass some impressive barges and boat houses. Soon we reach our first locks and enjoy watching the boats come through as we stop for lunch. We’re both tiring of the soft cheese and are dreaming about Irish cheddar already.

The good weather continues and we have been doing well at getting up early so we can escape the Suns high point for a long lunch. Even if the morning is cloudy the sun has been burning away the clouds by noon every day. There are lots and lots of camping grounds along our route but we’ve just been camping on the side of the canal mostly. Locks tend to make a good spot as there is always a patch of grass to pitch the tent and even sometimes toilets. 

By day 4 we were making really good headway and decided it was time for a shower and charging session. We keep getting caught out by Sunday’s in France. Everything closes on a Sunday and we were low on food and diesel. Annoyingly France has been the first country to impose a minimum fuel allowance at petrol stations – 5l – which means we have to wait for a diesel car to turn up and ask if we can pay them to fill our 75ml fuel bottle when they re-fuel. Luckily Paddy has enough French to explain why we need it!

We met up with the Loir again and found a beautiful campsite right on the banks of the river. Because we hadn’t been able to find any open food stores we had to just cook what we had in the bottom of the bag and the meal wasn’t the most appetising but we did wash it down with a lovely crisp bottle of white wine which we procured from the friendly campsite owner. 

Stunning evening on the Loir

Spinach pasta mess – not one of our best meals!

From here we head to Orleans and into Normandy!

Up the Susa valley to the Alps

We had a lovely time in Ireland visiting Paddy’s mum and dad. We both had to catch a flight down to Falmouth for a job interview and so quite a bit of time was spent preparing and practicing interview questions… It was all worth it though as we were both successful! This means that we will definitely be finishing the trip in Cornwall, now soon to be our new home. It wasn’t long into the start of the trip that we agreed we weren’t going to go back to London after finishing. One of the best things about the trip has been living outside for so long so the idea of going back to the concrete jungle, however wonderful it is, seems so alien now.

I will really miss climbing out of the tent every morning to somewhere different. Falling asleep to the sound of the wind in the trees and waking up to the dawn chorus. Setting up the chairs and cooking breakfast in a wooded clearing, a desert, a beach or on the edge of a mountain lake… So being close to the sea and the wide open countryside is an important life choice for us now.

We had always had Falmouth in the back of our minds as somewhere we would like to live – suitably rural but with a lot going on and beautiful countryside all near the sea. But practically it would all depend on securing jobs down there after 19 months away so it feels great to have most of it all sorted. Now we can really relax and enjoy the final 2 months of cycling. 

Robbie and Margherita had looked after tandem well and had even organised for our bags to be dropped off at the bike shop so we could pack up and get going soon after our early morning flight from Dublin. It would have been nice to spend an extra day in Bergamo but the clock was ticking away to our ferry – already booked – from Cherbourg in France! It was time for us to complete the final leg in what has been an epic ride across the Eur-Asian landmass… 


We kept on a route north of Milan – it felt like the city sprawled out for miles and miles and that we were cycling through its suburbs for most of the day. We kept to a canal route to make things easy which was good as it was super hot, the air heavy and the wind like a hot hairdryer blowing in our faces the whole time. 

They have recently cancelled all roaming charges in Europe now which means using our UK SIM cards here is the same as at home. In one way this is good as it has meant it has been easier to keep in touch with people at home – useful for negotiating job contracts, searching for rental properties and looking up car insurance. It has also means that we have both fallen back into the bad habit of being glued to our phones in the evenings however – something we were going to try and stop! 

On the second day out I received an another job interview invitation (another part-time role to potentially go with the one I’ve already secured) which slightly put a spanner in the works for our schedule. It would probably mean taking a train for some of the distance and after looking at all the flight options we chose Lyon as a good place for me to fly out and back from. We were still keen to cycle over the Alps so we headed to the nearest local station to see if we could catch a train to Turin – covering around 150km.

We weren’t sure how easy travelling with the tandem in Europe would be… We have found getting the bike on various modes of transport in Asia relatively straightforward as there is a much more relaxed approach to transport. Now we were in the ‘regulated west’ we weren’t sure how a tandem was going to go down… As it turns out – it was a piece of cake – and the Italian tickets were very cheap. €17 euros for us both and the bike. Paddy was delighted at the prospect of sitting in the air conditioned carriage for two hours away from the mid-day sun – he struggles with the humid weather! 

We reached Turin by 3:30pm and although it took us an hour to cycle out of the city, with the summer solstice only a week away we still had plenty of daylight remaining. 

From here we headed up towards the Alps starting the gentle climb up the longest valley in Italy – Susa valley. This would eventually lead to our last major mountain range and final 2000m+ pass! We slept in a disused quarry that evening and reverted back to our Cambodian practice of having a ‘litre bottle shower’ to wash away the sweat and sunscreen followed by a diorolyte because we had lost so much salt in the heat. 

Hot!!

Mountain top monastery

The next morning we were delayed because Paddy’s helmet was missing. We realised he had left it on the side of the track leading up to the quarry overnight and it seemed an early morning walker had picked it up… He would have to do without for a few days… we started to climb proper and although the road was quite busy with cars and many campervans the trucks mainly kept to the motorway tunnels and there was a decent hard shoulder. Quite some time has passed since our last big climb in Slovenia so our legs were feeling it a little bit. The scenery was very nice and we passed up through the Susa valley with spectacular views of the Fort of Exilles which sits on a spur dominating the narrowest section of the gorge. The site has played an important part in the original string of fortifications between the House of Savoy and France and the castle passed from one side to the other throughout the 16th century. Napoleon demolished the fort after he captured it in 1829 and it was then rebuilt in its current form and used by the Italian army until 1943 after which it was completely abandoned. 

Exilles


That evening we pulled the bike off the road down into the riverbed which is almost completely dry now thanks to most of the snow having melted away. Our grey tent camouflages very well on this white stoney ground so we didn’t worry too much about being completely out of sight. It was another spectacular camping spot with plenty of opportunities to sit and watch the wildlife including an adult Chamois (we think!) who made his way slowly from the river up a sheer cliff face into the safety of the alpine woods above. The night sky was incredible that night. 

Well hidden


Tomorrow we cross over the Montgenevre pass into France. Italy has been great and we definitely hope to come back here in years to come. 

Lake Garda to Bergamo

Knowing that the campsites along the banks of lake Garda would cost an arm and a leg we needed to come up trumps with a good wild camping spot if we were going to stay and go sailing for a day. The lake is a top tourist destination for water sport enthusiasts because the wind patterns are so predictable here – a thermal southerly breeze begins to build just before noon and blows continuously getting stronger and stronger until the evening. 

We cycle into the top of the town and before winding our way down the steep road to Riva del Garda town we consult the map to see if we can see anything suitable. Paddy spots a green park like area not too far away – it sits on a producing cliff and looks as if it might give amazing views out across Garda town and the lake. It looked more than perfect but would we be moved on quickly if we were spotted setting up camp there? 

It’s a lovely spot – lush green picnic areas with tables and water taps and plenty of tree cover. We cycle up to the cliff edge and can’t quite believe the view… This is going to be one of our best camping views of the whole trip! We peer down into the town and seeing all the tents and caravans squeezed into the various campsites below makes our chosen spot all the more sweeter. We will certainly miss moments like this once we are back…

There’s no one around so we wash at the tap and while I set up camp Paddy decides we need to celebrate in style so goes off with tandem to seek out some wine. A few people pop up every so often to look at the view but we mostly have the place to ourselves and we enjoy our evening before climbing into our tent for the night.

Paddy came back with this beer looking very pleased with himself!
Incredible views!
Good night!

Neither of us had any inclination to leave our spot the next morning and with enough food and access to water we decide we’re very happy to avoid the crowds for one more day and enjoy the views from here. So we have a rest day up here, whiling away the morning by playing an epic game of scrabble which saw Paddy lose by just one point! He thrashed me in the second game however! It’s Saturday and by lunchtime there are lots of people already out on the water so we spend some time setting up an awning to avoid the pounding sun and settle down to our private regatta! I can’t help but hummm snippets of the song cycle La regata veneziana by Rossini – it made up a good chunk of my final year recital at University – it’s sung by a girl called Anzoletta as she watches an Italian regatta in Venice. 

Lazy morning


The next morning we decide it’s our time to get out onto the water so we pack up and say goodbye to the view. There were plenty of boat hire places to choose from but Paddy had his eye on a 18ft catemeran so we chose a club which had a few of these for hire. This would be my first time trapezing in a harness and Paddy was practically hopping with excitement. 

A lovely Italian lady called Nora signed us in and showed us where we could get our wet suits, boots and harnesses. Once kitted out we were helped into the water by two attendants and by 2.45pm were sailing out onto the lake. The wind had reached a good 25knots and we were absolutely flying, Paddy at the helm and me looking after the jib sheet (under close instruction). It was brilliant fun twin trapezing off the side of the boat – it feels like you are flying over the water – and the only slightly irritating thing was when the metal harness clips would bash me over the head before we could clip in after every tack.

Only once did we nearly capsize but we both lurched our weight quickly enough to the tipping side and P steered us upright again. It was great fun trying to race the windsurfers zooming along beside us and with the sun shining and the spectacular surroundings it was a great two hours. 


Windswept and with our legs and and bodies aching from using a completely different set of muscles we de-rigged and came ashore. Nora had kindly sorted us a great discount for one of the campsites on the lake but it was still the most expensive night in our tent of the whole trip – 28 (down from 40 thanks to Nora’s help!) 

We sat out in our helinox chairs in one of the lake side parks that evening with a few beers. We had tactically sat close to a bar where there was a group of musicians playing Irish jigs and trad songs so we had a good time singing along to the ‘Auld Triangle’ and ‘The Wild Rover’!

Because we had stayed an extra day on lake Garda we decided it was a good idea to try and quickly cover some distance the next day. Fortunately this is easy with the regular ferry service which operates on the lake. You have to choose your ferry carefully because not all boats go to every destination and not all agree to carrying bicycles. We managed to catch one at 9.30am to a town called Salo which sits on the west side of the lake. Another very warm day and it was enjoyable docking briefly at all the picturesque lake towns along the way. We ate lunch in Salo’s town square where we got chatting to a British family for a time before tackling the steep climb up away from the lake. 

Lake side towns

We had a few days to reach Bergamo and again we followed a great cycle route for the majority of it often along a canal which meant we covered a lot of miles.

That night we camped in a field just off a horse race track and had fun watching some jockeys putting their racing horses through their paces in the cooler evening air. The next we continued on our road north-west of Brescia and reached another lake where we stopped for creamy gilatis in Sarnico.

We reached Bergamo by 5:45pm and headed straight to our warm showers hosts Robbie and Margherita. Robbie owns a bike shop cooperative in Bergamo and has been big into cycling all his life. Him and his girlfriend Margherita who is just about to complete her PHD had kindly agreed to store the tandem and most of our bags while we flew back to Ireland for a week to see family. 

We met Robbie at his bike shop ‘Bike Fellas’ and then rode over to their lovely apartment where we could take a shower and get things sorted for the next day. Margherita and Robbie then took us to a great traditional Bergamese restaurant that night owned by their friend Gianni. The man himself explained everything on the menu himself and you could really tell that he had a passion for his local culinary traditions – these naturally included cured meats and delicious cheeses but also polenta cooked in various forms and delicious red wine served up in the traditional Bergamese way – in a bowl! It was a lovely place, filled with original photographs of Jianni’s ancestors and to our surprise and gratitude Robbie and Margherita insisted on paying the whole bill which was so generous of them.


We walked off the rich food with a lovely long evening stroll around Bergamo’s old town centre which sits on a hill surrounded by impressive Venetian fortified walls. There are four gates to the old city each with a stone lion (traditional Venetian symbol) perched on top guarding the entrance. The town is filled with cobbled streets, beautiful old churches and an old fort – not to mention the old house of Italian composer Donizetti!

The next day we have the whole afternoon to explore the city again this time by day light. Bergamo is really beautiful – I can thoroughly recommend visiting for a long weekend! We spend a lot of the day eating and then – because it’s so hot – lying in the park which surrounds the old fort.

The old town
Pastries!
The view of Bergamo from the fort

We now fly back to Dublin for a time to see family and as it turns out we will also fly to Cornwall for job interviews while we’re there! Glad those log nights in the tent writing personal statements paid off! We really are starting to get back to real life now! Gulp!