An ending

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So, I find myself in Dieppe, sipping some of the real stuff to celebrate the completion of a Grand Tour of Europe. I feel as if I’ve cheated the Grim Reaper, packing ten years of living into 12 months. Doubtless he’ll take it into account when I eventually come under his jurisdiction.
It has been an incredible experience. The best of times, the worst of times, and just about every shade in between. The thousands of kilometers, the hundreds of places, the sights the sounds, the smells. Most memorable of all, the people. The brief encounters, the travelling companions and my friends made in Malta. The everyday folk who served me, working long hours for little money, and those who extended hospitality and kindness to a passing traveller. This is indeed their story. We humans, though fatally flawed can exhibit all the things that truly matter, and it has without doubt restored my faith.
I mustn’t forget the bike. A finely crafted assembly of steel tubing, wheels and sundry parts, little changed in essence since it was first invented. It has borne me the length of Europe and halfway back again. No mean feat considering my body mass and luggage. Any animal would have baulked at the treatment. I raise a glass to it.
Behind me over the water lies another land, perhaps the strangest of all: perfidious Albion. It draws me back and another story begins, most likely positive. If events prove to the contrary, the chain needs some oil, the tyres some air, and Spain is calling. Perhaps once started, this is a habit difficult to break.
Thank you for riding with me, you have been wonderful companions and your kind words have humbled me.

Reuben

Dieppe, May 2015.

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Coast

From Chartres the Eure valley runs north, it’s river a tributary of the Seine.
It is a gem, and I managed to ride virtually the whole length of it, and even camp beside it at Anet. This looks like second home country for Parisians given how close it is to the capital, and so quiet.

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Eventually the bike met it’s last great French river of the trip, downstream from Rouen. Huge ships come past here which always seems an oddity with green fields and grazing cattle on either side.

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Normandy thatch is evident again, and in this part it is traditional to plant the ridges with purple Iris, something I had never seen before. Apparently it helps to anchor the thatch; they must be self-sustaining, otherwise watering would be an onerous task!

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The road to the coast is quite straight and the legs were going well this morning, tapping out a tempo on the pedals, the bike rolling effortlessly. For a short time I had a team car; a French family pulled alongside as I rode. They were all clapping! When I told them my story, they cheered, and for the briefest of moments I sensed victory: the stage was mine, the yellow jersey secure. I can understand the addiction-it is the sweetest of tastes.
Seemingly from nowhere, it appeared before me. Rounding a bend the English Channel came into view, bathed in sunshine.

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To the French it is La Manche, and Monet came here to paint it. I know that because it said so on the sign, but whatever name you give it, there was something very inviting about it today.

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Chartres and the Beauce

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Between the Seine to the north and the Loire to the south lie the big flatlands known as the Beauce Plain, much talked about in Emil Zola’s novel ‘The Earth’ It is farmed intensively with modern machinery now, but in Zola’s time you can imagine the farming communities out there in the winter working manually on the land with nothing to stop a biting east wind. Hardy souls. I rode the 60 odd kilometers from Orleans to Chartres across the plain with little traffic to bother me, and three memories stay with me.
A beautiful Mantagues Harrier was off to my right at one point, hunting across the young corn and giving a wonderful aerial display.
Another solo traveller came down the road towards me. I can only imagine he was a pilgrim( many come via Chartes). He was leading a donkey piled with boxes and bags, with an umbrella on the very top like a flag pole. We exchanged greetings and then parted. My donkey spent a night in an hotel room last night, though I doubt if the management would have condoned his faithful companion.
From many miles out you can see the spires of the cathedral, built as it is on one of the few hills in the area. Something to aim for, an objective.

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Built in 1134, it is a fine example of gothic architecture, and regardless of your religious beliefs, demands admiration. Think what a peasant coming in from humble dwellings on the plain would have thought of it.

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There is currently a large scale clean-up of the interior in progress and you can see the difference in this picture. Somehow I preferred it as it was but it does make the place much lighter.

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Chartres has a fine example of a church labyrinth walked by Middle Age pilgrims in prayer. I wasn’t feeling sufficiently devout to move all the chairs.

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Back on the road north today I was caught up in a local parade. It’s quite easy to get involved, and as I followed them down the road I started making trombone noises to myself. I think I’ve been alone too long.

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Lively Loire

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A big river in full spate is an impressive sight. Boiling brown water whips past you at incredible speeds carrying all manner of debris, including complete trees down to the sea. The Loire must have a huge catchment area, so the recent rains have swollen it to way beyond its normal capacity. They warn of swimming this river in its usual state, so to attempt it now would be slightly foolhardy.
I stayed one night in Briare which is a canal town with an aqueduct over the river. A picturesque place.

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Walking back to the campsite after a fine dinner of sausage and lentils, I saw a coypu sat on this bank munching bread left by fishermen, totally unconcerned by my presence. They look like a guinea pig on steroids.
Many towns and villages straddle both banks, some with very grand bridges, such as the one at Gien.

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Even the viaducts have a grandeur about them, built in times of greater prosperity.

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I stopped the other night in a place called Jargeau, which has quite a history.
During Joan of Arc’s time the English took a shine to it and occupied the place, but Joan led a force to liberate the town. The locals obviously were very greatful and her statue commemorates the event. Subsequently Jargeau was twinned with Corsham in the UK who gave them a red phone box, which doesn’t quite compensate for burning the poor woman at the stake in my mind, but that’s history.

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I met this very accommodating character building a traditional Loire sailing boat. He was finished for the day, but seeing my interest kindly gave me a guided tour and explained the construction techniques.A lovely chap and a lovely town. No wonder the English wanted it.

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Orleans is most definitely worth a look. It has a very ancient quarter which I walked this morning, full of old shops and bohemian restaurants. A clean and ordered city, it has a state of the art tram network. A civilised way to travel the urban environment.

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Next I’m tracking north to Chartres, another cathedral city which has an ecclesiastical puzzle.

Guédelon

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I had every intention of visiting the caves at Arcy-sur-Cure, where the prehistoric paintings are second only to those in the Ardeche. Unfortunately the water levels had risen so much due to the recent rains, that it was dangerous to enter apparently, according to the man who told me in no uncertain terms. 1 out of 10 for customer relations.
So, here is a wall in Avallon instead. I rather like it.

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The Burgundy countryside in these parts is rolling and intensively farmed. Barley and rape mostly, interspersed with endless herds of fine looking Charolais cattle. As you ride through, the heavy aroma of the rape flower is overpowering. A strange smell. Villages come and go, some with enormous houses on their fringes, just glimpsed through the trees, closely shuttered and past their prime with moss-covered drives; protected by high wrought- ironwork and imposing gates. What stories there.

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If you have never visited a medieval construction site, and that time capsule isn’t readily at hand, then a visit to the Guédelon project is as close as you’ll get. If you have the remotest interest in history and you are in this vicinity, I highly recommend you spend some time here. It’s fascinating.

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Originally the idea was conceived by a Frenchman who was mad on castles. He had already bought a dilapidated one for next to nothing and returned it to its former glory, but that wasn’t enough. He wanted to build one from scratch, and assembled a team to undertake a preparatory study. Financial backing was secured and the site purchased, an old quarry with good access and most of the materials that would be required. It was even surrounded by oak woodland. A timescale was drawn up, but this will always be a work in progress-a living history lesson.

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300,000 visitors a year come to Guédelon, and the project is now self financing, enough to pay a team of highly skilled craftsmen and women. There are masons, carpenters, tilers, blacksmiths, weavers, spinners, millers and decorators and other allied trades. You can even offer to help in some small way, although I chose the sit and watch option.
My main concern was that this would be some glorified theme park, but the work and education go hand in hand. The school kids really seem to enjoy it because things are happening all around them.
I’ll let the photos do the talking, with the odd comment.

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Four-legged volunteer!

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Main hall and it’s roof structure.

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Beautifully decorated chamber.

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My favourite room, the smallest.

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The miller making the flour with a water-fed mill.

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This gives you a flavour of the place, but there’s no substitute for being there and part of the process.
Talking of flour, this baguette has won the competition, unless something extraordinary manifests itself between now and the channel. Crunchy exterior, soft nutty flavoured interior, and very good with cheese. Parfait.

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La France

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France is an ancient land. The wayside inn of my recuperation had a history going back many centuries, and this just one of many. Opposite,Hotel de la Poste, a vast block of a building, lay empty. Home for pigeons. I have been looking at the architecture as I travel through, and many top floors lie unused, windows hanging or gone completely. There must be acres of vacant space throughout this huge country. Accommodation for the asking.
Some roadside dwellings have even greater appeal, fortified against unwelcome visitors.

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Riding the length of France is a challenge. Not only are the distances great, but often the dead straight roads, undulating to the horizon,can play on your imagination(surely I’ve ridden this stretch already?) The arrival of a town, village or hamlet is a welcome distraction, although at many times they are often deserted. Perhaps daytime TV is popular here.
One aspect of this place which has always attracted me is the acknowledgement of strangers. Many times I have been sat in some establishment when arriving customers will not only give me a “bonjour” but a handshake as well. It makes you feel included. One of the clan. This brings me to another observation. We humans are intensely tribal, and all over Europe people have managed to retain their cultural integrity despite technology, media and transportation. I find this fact very comforting, because under a very thin layer of modernity, we are actually still sat around a fire in small groups, bonded together against the darkness and unknown.

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The French in particular have a great sense of community and tradition, which may partly come from the distances between towns and villages. Each is autonomous; they have their own fetes, markets, music events, butchers, bakers, bars and restaurants. Self sustaining in fact.
Enough meditation, I am currently sitting out persistent rain in the town of Avallon, northern Burgundy. Tomorrow I hope to head off and visit another community not far from here. A medieval one, the castle reconstruction at Guedelon, which was featured on UK television last year.