Flow Vélo 8 : One Hundred?

La Flow Vélo from St. Simeux to Chez Maillet (around Angoulême)

The last few days of our holidays came all too quickly. We’d reserved them for exciting activities like painting our peeling window shutters. But after two weeks of trekking up 3000-metre peaks, it would have been a waste of our hard-earned fitness to stay at home. Far better to finish our holidays in style.

Without further ado I pulled out all the equipment I’d packed away and we set off to complete the gap in our exploration of the Flow Vélo upstream of Cognac: the urban part around Angoulême. There was no need to catch a train to get to Saint-Simeux, the last point we’d reached back in July. We were fit. We would cycle from home and not stop until we’d tasted the beer from the Rainette micro-brewery in Chazelles – which was closed last time we passed by.

I reckoned it was a 70km ride: 40km to Angoulême and about 30 from there to Chazelles. We could do it in a day and sleep at the campsite in Chazelles. Then on Day 2 we could do a day trip to discover the Scandibérique cycleway north of the Flow Vélo, and on Day 3 we’d return home. It would be a gentle finish to this year’s sporty holidays.

We started at 8:30am on a Saturday and sped along the riverside track from Cognac to Saint-Simeux, a distance of 36km.

This is the most picturesque part of the Flow Vélo for me. We passed the Jarnac castles, an idyllic bathing spot near Bassac (see the photo opposite), the pretty hamlet of Juac, the Romanesque bridge at Angeac-Champagne and then followed the railway line to the outdoor recreational park in Châteauneuf.

You’ll find the details of this section in parts 4 and 7 of my Flow Vélo posts.

The village of Saint-Simeux is 4km further along the track from Châteauneuf. Last time we were here I’d seen signs to a campsite handily close to the Pub Gabariers (which holds regular rock concerts) and wanted to check it out. So we ignored the Flow Vélo signs telling us to cross the bridge and instead followed the track towards the Mosnac lock, 1km further along the left bank of the River Charente. We had a lovely view of Saint-Simeux from here.

We found the Nomade campsite (Tel: 06 02 30 17 48) – which is basically a garden with a bar, where you can pitch your tent. There’s also a sign to say that the owner can repair your bicycle. Nobody was there when we passed. When we asked around, we heard it costs 5€ a night but that there are no facilities (toilets, shower).

A little further along the track we found a site called the Géoferme. This new establishment couples an educational farm with a food truck serving organic food. Unfortunately, we were too early for a meal.

The Flow Vélo from Saint-Simeux to Sireuil is a 7km stretch of road, which I didn’t find particularly interesting. Sireuil is a long village (with a bakery and shop) and at the far end is the Nizour campsite, where we stayed on our cycling trip back in 2019.

Just after the campsite is the Sireuil bridge and quay, where the Flow Vélo returns to the riverbank. There’s a bar (Le Cabanon), public toilets and washing machines as well as a bread dispenser. And this sculpture.

When we cycyled to Angoulême in 2019 there was a stretch of rough ground after Sireuil: a nightmare with our makeshift trailer. I’m delighted to report that this is now a beautifully smooth track.

Our next stop was one I’d eagerly anticipated: in the village of Trois Palis, the chocolate-maker Letuffe has its workshop and boutique. They sell a whole range of products, from chocolate to teapots, including artisanal ice-creams. Guess what I bought?

It’s easy to miss this place. When you arrive at the medieval church, go straight on instead of turning right into the Rue Ancienne d’Angoulême. The boutique is about 100m on your left.

After passing under the railway line, we arrived at the Fleurac lock, where there’s a little snack bar with a big garden – and a friendly goat called Belle. Having done 54km, it was time for a break so we had lunch and a siesta on the island beside the lock.

Fleurac marks the start of an older cycleway – La Coulée Verte – that takes you along the river and through Angoulême to the lake at St Yrieix. As you can see in this photo, it’s a shady path, one of our favourite parts of the Flow Vélo.

At Fléac, we crossed a road and passed a guinguette where you can hire canoes. This is definitely the stretch for taking breaks, because a little further on you’ll find another snack bar, La Coulée Douce, at the Thouérat lock. This one is notable for its inflatable furniture in the garden.

With 61km on the clock, we passed under the Angoulême ring road, and a couple of kilometres later we arrived at St Cybard, where the Flow Vélo takes a boardwalk under a bridge (I advise you to dismount here and walk for 50 metres).

Just after this we arrived at the Chais Magelis, home to the Comics Museum. There are toilets in the entrance here and food trucks on the esplanade.

By now, I was beginning to realise that my estimate of a 70km ride to Chazelles was a little optimistic. It’s only 44km from Cognac to Angoulême… by road. Following the loops in the river makes the route a lot longer. However, we felt fit and only had 3 days before returning to work, so we decided to push on.

The Flow Vélo route around Greater Angoulême was a true delight. It takes you past the Houmeau port, where you have a great view of the town (I took this photo on the return trip, hence the dark sky).

After l’Houmeau, the Flow Vélo leaves the Coulée Verte before arriving at the lake. From here, we cycled along quiet streets, little alleys and riverside parks for a distance of 20km: from Gond-Pontouvre, past the Roffit cemetery (stop here for water AND toilets); around the Isle d’Espagnace industrial estate (where we got a little lost but had a great chat with a couple on a tandem); through Ruelle-sur-Touvre and Magnac-sur-Touvre, where we joined the beautiful Touvre river (I fell in love with this waterway during our cycling trip in 2019), and finally to the famous Touvre Source.

It’s worth stopping to visit the Touvre source, which is the second biggest source in France. There are actually four sources in the same area, of which the most recent appeared in 1755 after an earthquake in Lisbon. Although it’s only 12km long, this amazing little river doubles the current in the River Charente. There’s also a great legend about how the source appeared – a mix between Rapunzel and Romeo & Juliet.

It’s worth stopping to rest at the Touvre source because there’s a nasty surprise awaiting you afterwards. Until now, the route had been flat, with a few little slopes to cross bridges. But the two-kilometre-long hill up to the Bois-Blanc forest was a shock, especially with 80km on the clock. We’d never cycled so far in one day – and our bikes were loaded with camping equipment.

Luckily, from the top of the hill, the Flow Vélo continued downhill all the way to Brouterie, where it joined the former railway, the Coulée d’Oc. This tarmacked cycleway – which includes an exciting tunnel passage where you’re completely in the dark – took us past Chez Maillet and along the final 15km of our ride to Chazelles. I’ve detailed the section from Chez Maillet to Nontron in Part 6 of my Flow Vélo posts.

It was 6:30pm when we arrived in Chazelles, with 93km on the clock. We’d achieved our objective but we were too tired to drink a beer.

That’s a joke. Of course we weren’t too tired for beer!

We headed straight for the Rainette brewery, housed in a former mill, and collapsed at a table with our blonde and blanche beers. The brewery is only open from Wednesdays to Saturdays, 4-9pm, so we had to make the most of this unique opportunity to try the beer – which was delicious. I was aghast to see that the pretty Bandiat river had completely dried up.

After refreshments and buying food for dinner from the local shops in Chazelles, we trundled the 1.5km from the village to Le Buron campsite. I’d booked a pitch for the night and was impressed by the owner’s consideration on the phone as he warned me that a group had booked and that there may be queues for the showers.

The campsite is beautiful, spacious parkland. William, the owner, is friendly and the ambiance is one of the true camping spirit, rather than a commercial venture.

There are no individual pitches, just different areas of the huge park. He provides personal tables and chairs for each camper; the shower block is small but clean and airy; and there’s an undercover area with a big table so it’s easy to meet other campers.

As a bonus, there weren’t even any moquitoes.

At 12€ per person, it’s not too expensive, given the service and the quality of the setting. I loved it.

Due to a night filled with songs emanating from the other side of the campsite, where a women’s rugby team were having an annual reunion, we were tired the next morning. But the whole reason for coming here was to discover the Scandibérique cycleway that heads north from the village of Marthon, a little further along the Flow Vélo.

I won’t bother you with details here. Suffice to say that we cycled 65km up and down the Dordogne hills, to Montbron, Eymouthiers, Chambon and the gorgeous little village of Ecuras. I didn’t much like the Scandibérique route, which took bigger roads than the lanes we prefer. We finished by choosing our own route for the return to Chazelles.

The next day, we packed up our belongings and headed home.

My husband was determined to hit the 100km mark. Was this why he suggested a detour to visit the centre of Angoulême?

In any case, we huffed and puffed up the route suggested in my Flow Vélo guide, and reached the top of the hill on which Angoulême’s historic centre is perched. It was a bank holiday and there was very little traffic. I was actually delighted to idle around the streets on my bike, especially as it meant we were able to admire the plethora of street art.

Angoulême is famous for its comics festival, and much of the street art was done by famous artists. I must do the tourist office’s guided visit of the murals one of these days.

My favourite illustration was a life-size comic strip trompe-l’oeil painted on a long wall. I’ve included it below, in the form of a slideshow, with a translation below each image. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

The detour around Angoulême, when added to a couple more small detours on our return journey, took us to 99.5km upon our arrival home. But we were too tired to cycle around the village to add the last 500 metres necessary to take us to one hundred.

And that’s not a joke!

Exhausted after our 260km trip over 3 days, we collapsed on our sofa and let our daughters feed us – and serve us a well deserved beer. We were in perfect shape to start work the next day!

Thank you for reading this long blog post. I hope it hasn’t exhausted you as much as the trip exhausted me! Perhaps we’ll reach 100 km next time.

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Flow Vélo 7 : Thank God for Cemeteries

La Flow Vélo from Bassac to St. Simeux

Our forays along the Flow Vélo cycleway during the spring made cycling seem such a natural form of transport that we decided to go further during our summer holidays.

The ideal opportunity came when a friend invited us to a weekend party at his new home near Niort.

We checked the map: Niort was only 70km away.

Given our hardened buttocks and vast experience of cycling, we decided to go there by bike.

I won’t detail the trip, since it didn’t take us along the Flow Vélo – instead, we drew a line from A to B on our map and then deviated east and west, following our compasses (which didn’t always agree with each other – but that’s another story) along lanes and tracks. We felt as if we were in a different region and it was always a shock to see signposts bearing familiar names.

So many places caught our attention that we ended up doing 120km to get to our destination. We cycled through the woods around St Bris des Bois; followed the Boutonne Valley bike route; and discovered the wonderful village of Dampierre-sur-Boutonne with its friendly campsite, the village bar and the amazing (new) boutique run by 25 local artists.

After a couple of days’ rest at home (i.e. washing clothes, treating wounds and adjusting equipment), we set off again, this time to discover the section of the Scandibérique cycleway south of the River Charente. To get there, we cycled the Flow Vélo from Cognac to Saint-Simeux, a part of which I will detail below.

We left the Flow Vélo at Châteauneuf and followed the Scandibérique signs southwards, which took us to Barbezieux and along La Galope Chopine cycleway to Baignes (where we camped) and which continues to Clérac. From Bagines, which has a fantastic Moroccan restaurant (L’Arganier), we cycled along one of the nine circuits of the South Charente to discover the woody landscapes around Oriolles, Boisbreteau, Guizengard and Chevanceaux. The guide for these circuits is available at the local tourist offices / Baignes campsite.

It was hot during our trips: 40°C one day and above 30°C all the time. But I didn’t suffer from the heat at all. Why not? For two reasons.

Firstly, because I cycled with my knickers on my head.

Don’t laugh. And don’t expect a photo. The reason I stooped to such indelicacy was because my helmet has aeration slots in it, which expose my head to sunstroke. By lining my helmet with my knickers (clean ones, I hastily assure you) – and combined with the second major discovery we made, I was able to keep cool.

The second discovery was one that all cyclists and walkers in France should be told.

We only had a limited supply of water and soon ran out. Luckily, we arrived at a village before the bottles were completely empty and stopped at the first house. Just as I was taking off my knickers (the ones on my head) in preparation to knock at the door and ask for a refill, my husband had an idea.

Opposite the house was the village cemetery. Inside cemeteries, the graves are decorated by colourful plants. The plants need water. Bingo! Yes, you’ll find that every cemetery in France has a tap. As long as the tap doesn’t have a sign saying ‘Eau non-potable’ (water unfit for drinking) you can be sure that it’s a safe supply. From this point onwards, we stopped in every cemetery, filled up our bottles and doused ourselves (and my knickers) with cold water.

Water is also available in public toilets, which are often near the village church, and sometimes there’s an outdoor tap near the mairie. At riverside ports, there are water taps in the electricity pillars designed for boats to hook up to.

Enough about our other cycling trips and back to the Flow Vélo.

Earlier in the year, we stopped our downstream Flow Vélo exploration at the Pont de Vinade near Bassac. Today, I’m going to tell you a little about the next section, from Bassac to Châteauneuf and onto Saint-Simeux.

At the Pont de Vinade, the Flow Vélo continues on the north side of the river. This isn’t marked on the guide, because it’s a new section. We followed the signs along tracks through woods and maize plantations until we reached the next bridge, the Pont de Juac.

This is a good stopping point, as it has a bicycle pump, tables and benches. You can also take a trip along the river on a gabarre, one of the traditional boats used to transport cognac barrels. A little further east from Juac is the village of Saint-Simon, where you’ll find a museum all about gabarres.

At Juac, we met slam artist Max, a Belgian traveller cycling his non-electric recumbent bicycle and caravan across Europe.

He gave us a guided tour of his home and told us how he’s preparing a nomad slam album with the musicians he meets along his trip.

The Flow Vélo changes to the southern riverbank at Juac. Contrary to the guide’s route along roads, the track now continues along the river. Again, we found this a pleasant ride.

The only time we were on roads were when we crossed the little village of Angeac-Charente, famous for its dinosaur remains. I love this bridge, the Pont d’Angeac.

Then we were back on riverside track all the way (8km) to the small town of Châteauneuf-sur-Charente.

Châteauneuf is a good place to stop. There’s a campsite in the nearby village of Chassors, which is indicated from the cycleway. And you can also bivouac at the leisure area (Le Bain des Dames) beside the river. We paused here for an ice-cream and then a local beer while we considered camping for the night.

Châteauneuf has all the amenities you could need, including a tourist office and market. There’s even a train station, so you can catch a train home if you’re tired. We met a Parisian family here, who had caught the train to Angoulême and were cycling the Flow Vélo before catching a train home from Rochefort. This kind of holiday is becoming more and more popular – to the extent that we discussed opening a campsite/bicycle repair workshop/bar somewhere along the Flow Vélo.

There’s just one warning at Châteauneuf: look carefully at the cycleway signs! The ‘Tour de la Charente‘ signs look very similar to the Flow Vélo ones.

From Châteauneuf, the Flow Vélo continues past the leisure area and onto Saint-Simeux. This village is known by British ex-pats because of its pub, called the Pub Gabariers and run by a Brit. Here, you can drink Guinness, play Pétanque and eat fish & chips. You can no longer camp on the property, but I did see a campsite sign on the far side of the bridge. I didn’t check it out, so I’m not sure what it’s like.

The last time we cycled in this area, we took a short cut via the D22 from Vibrac to St.Simeux. This avoids the Châteauneuf loop of the river but it means cycling up a long hill onto a plateau and then back down a steep hill through the village of St. Simeux. In our desperation to reach our pints of Guinness, I’m not sure we made the right choice!

The sun is still shining and our bicycles are raring to go – having been abandoned while we went trekking in the Pyrenees mountains for a couple of weeks.

I’m eager to get back on my saddle. Will we continue east or head west from St. Savinien to the sea in the next episode of our Flow Vélo exploration?

Whatever we decide, I’ll keep you updated.

Behind the Women’s Voices

Every now and again, a dynamic person makes a gift of their time and energy to the writing community.

Such is the case for Sally Palmer, the driving force behind the Women’s Voices anthology of poetry, prose and artwork.

The aim of this initiative is to give a voice to women writing in south west France, no matter where they are on their writing journey. 

As soon as I heard about this inclusive concept, I fell in love with it. This wasn’t about judging the literary merit of a writer. It didn’t require writers to sell their souls to gain a publishing deal. It was about giving all writers the chance to say what they wanted to say.

The first anthology, entitled I’ve Got Something To Say, was published on 8 March 2020, coinciding with International Women’s Day.

The second anthology – I’ve Got Something MORE To Say – was launched on 26 June 2022 and was celebrated with a live event of drama, author readings from the anthology, music and art displays.

As I have a story in this second edition (Sketches), I decided it was the ideal opportunity to meet up with the friendly community of writers in France.

I hadn’t seen most of them for over two years and was desperate to return to this source of literary inspiration.

So I bought my train ticket, hitched a lift with the lovely Kate Rose and headed down to deepest Gers, where Sally kindly accommodated us (as well as poet Amanda Speed, another contributor) for the weekend.

Before the launch took place, Sally had already received over 150 pre-orders for the anthology, which is also available to buy on Amazon.

And what a display they made in the village hall of Ponsan-Soubiran, the venue for the afternoon event.

Instead of sharing a write-up of the launch, I thought you might prefer to hear Sally’s story about the Women’s Voices initiative. She answered my questions as we sat in her Gers home overlooking the misty Pyrenees mountains.

Q1: What inspired you to publish the first Women’s Voices collection?

I retired from my academic career in Early Childhood Studies in 2016 and started to spend more time in France. This meant a change from active engagement in my profession to being a ‘lady of leisure’. I worried that I would become one of those women who have nothing to say, that I’d become a voiceless woman. 

I was discussing this with my friend Ellen Rugen in a coffee shop one day in 2018. Ellen had already written and published several books. Our discussion led to the idea of us publishing a creative writing collection as a way of continuing to make our voices heard. This was a challenge for me, because although I’ve had many articles published in professional journals, I’m a novice in creative writing.  

We decided to offer this channel of communication to other women around us who might feel the same way. We set up a steering group of four women and on 8 March 2020 we succeeded in launching I’ve Got Something To Say. It took us about a year to produce and contained 20 contributors.

Q2: How did the second edition come about?

I only really wanted to do one book. But the result was a success and we considered continuing with a second edition.

There was no theme for the first edition. It focused on people’s personal experiences, which was fine, but if we were going to do a second edition, we wanted it to be different, more imaginative. Although I was concerned that having a theme might put people off, we came up with a bank of ideas. I liked the idea of synchronicity but we eventually voted for transition.

The theme must have been inspiring because we attracted 32 authors for the second edition, as well as work from artists. The artwork is important because it breaks up the poetry and prose – and of course the artists also have something to say.

Q3: I love the inclusive element of the anthology but it must have been hard to manage. How did you organise the project and produce work of such a high standard?

It was really important that we didn’t reject anyone’s work. The collection is about giving people a chance to say something, so if we’d rejected their work it would have been invalidating their voice. Instead, we gave editorial advice to make sure their words communicated what they wanted to say in the best possible way. 

Our steering group contained three women: myself, Anne Dickens and Molly Brotherton. We split the contributions into three groups to edit, and we also asked women outside the group to help with the proofreading.

In terms of communication, we used word of mouth and our Facebook group. The last launch included a choir as well as readings and it attracted 100 people. This time, we wanted a simple picnic and readings to reduce the organisational aspect. But the event grew and in the end we had theatrical representations, art displays, bookstalls and the singers Double G&T as well as author readings.

Q4: How did you choose the order of work in the anthology?

In the interest of equality, we used alphabetic order by author name in the first edition. For the second edition we used the titles to class the work in alphabetical order. 

Q5: What part did you find the hardest?

For me, the most worrying things are the errors. Despite all the proofreading, errors inevitably creep in. It’s heart-wrenching to hear that we’ve made a mistake in an author’s name, for example.

Q6: Will there be a third edition?

We’ve had some lovely feedback from people who were glad for the opportunity to express themselves. But I feel we’ve achieved what we wanted. I’m not planning to publish a third edition.

If someone else wants to publish a collection, that would be great. But they must do their own thing, in their own way, using their own voice. 

***

Many thanks to Sally and her team for creating the publication and organising the launch.

It was fantastic to see familiar faces again, to meet new people, to be entertained by music, art and drama (and to see people buying my books!). 

A special thanks to David, Sally’s husband, for the cooking, and to Kate, Amanda and Ellen for their inspiring company.

Both the first and second anthologies are available to buy on Amazon. Happy reading!

Biography: Sally Palmer

Sally has been visiting France for the last thirty-seven years and has a house in the Gers. Since retiring from academia she has set up the Women’s Voices writing group to promote and share the writing talents of women living in south west France. Her own journey into the creative genre of writing is just beginning and she values time spent with her local writing group which has provided challenges and inspiration. She recently completed a Creative Writing Course and a Master Class on Storytelling. She avidly believes that all women have something to say and actively promotes this philosophy.

Women’s Voices Anthology Launch

Next weekend, women writers from the south west of France will be meeting to celebrate the launch of our new collection of poetry, short stories and artwork.

Written on the theme of ‘Transition’, the collection is entitled ‘I’ve got something more to say’. This is the second edition of the collection (the first, published in 2020, was called ‘I’ve got something to say’).

I’m looking forward to seeing new and familiar faces. I’m not looking forward so much to reading out ‘Sketches’, my contribution to the anthology.

If you’re in the area on Sunday 26 June, come and meet us. There will be books for sale.

After the event, the anthology will be available to buy from Amazon.

Flow Vélo 6: Close to Catastrophe

La Flow Vélo from Chez Maillet (near Pranzac) to Nontron :

At Pentecost – the Platinum Jubilee weekend – we decided to take our chances with the stormy weather and give our bikes a night away from home. As this meant 2 days of cycling instead of one, we opted to explore east of Angoulême, where the Flow Vélo cycle route deserts the River Charente and heads into the Dordogne along the minor River Bandiat.

I haven’t been itinerant cycling for years (my husband has never done it), so I spent a while making lists and digging out the equipment we’d need.

It was important for us to be comfortable at night. In past itinerant cycling trips I used a light camping mat. This time, we took our ultimate comfort self-inflating mats, which are as cushy as our bed at home. Honestly! The disadvantage is their bulkiness. Nevertheless, my husband wasn’t deterred by the huge roll on the back of his bike.

Other than the mattresses, our equipment was pretty much minimal. One of our best buys were waterproof canoe bags. Not only do they protect our sleeping bags, mattresses and tent from rain (sleet, snow, hailstones…), they also safeguard them from trailing brambles.

Before leaving, we loaded our bikes and then, for fun, weighed them. The result was a shock: me & my bike came in at 94kg while my husband and his bike weighed 100kg. Worried that they’d be too heavy to move, we took them for a spin around our home. I was relieved to find that I could still pedal up a hill. In fact, I hardly noticed the extra weight. Not during the 2km test ride.

In a past cycling trip we had pedalled as far as Touvre, so on Sunday morning we started a few kilometres east of Touvre, where the Flow Vélo crosses the D699 at Chez Maillet. There is a small car park here, hidden behind the houses in Rue des Coquelicots. A couple of other cars with bike carriers were already parked there. It seemed an ideal place for our car to spend the night.

Off we set, along a flat, tarmac section of the Flow Vélo known as the Coulée d’Oc. This is a former railway line and runs south-east along the River Bandiat valley.

The Coulée d’Oc made for pleasant cycling through a holloway. The countryside is wilder here than along the sections further downstream of the Flow Vélo. At the numerous level crossings, the hedges open to give views of green forests and golden cornfields, maize and sunflower plantations. We were also treated to the sweet (?) aroma of cattle.

After about 8km, we arrived at La Gare (the station), close to the village of Chazelles.

Here, we stopped to examine this wooden gantry. Installed in 1896, it was used until 1960 to transport stone. Opposite the gantry is the Association G’Art building: a B&B, social café and water point. There’s also a car park so it’s a good starting point for a bike ride.

The Flow Vélo continued but we left it at the level crossing to visit the village of Chazelles, less than a kilometre away. It’s a pity that we cycle on Sundays and bank holidays, because there are several interesting places to see here.

Firstly, we discovered a craft brewery called La Rainette, housed in a mill. It opens at weekends and boasts a cute bar beside the river.

We were really disappointed that we couldn’t taste their beer. But it did give us an idea for a future cycling trip… Think Cognac (Jack Beer), Foussignac (La Goule), Angoulême (La Débauche), Chazelles (La Rainette), Nontron (La Paluche). Oh, what a coincidence: those places all lie along the Flow Vélo!

Chazelles also has a craft soap-maker and a wooden toy maker, as well as a few shops and some toilets beside the Mediathèque in the main square. Camping is possible a kilometre further along the Flow Vélo at Le Buron (06 78 25 84 39).

And look! The river was in flower. It’s a shame the sun wasn’t out to make this a better photo.

Back on the Flow Vélo, we noticed signs to the Grottes du Quéroy, a series of caves that lie about 4km off the Flow Vélo. With a 1.2km circuit through 30 chambers, they make for an interesting visit, especially if the weather is hot or there’s a storm.

After Chazelles, we crossed the Demarcation Line from the Second World War, passing from the occupied to the free zone. How did we know? Because of an information panel beside the cycle path. One of the things I loved about the Coulée d’Oc – apart from the many picnic tables – are the information panels placed at regular intervals. Every panel is a good excuse for a break to add to our knowledge.

We stopped for lunch at one of the tables, at which point I realised we were under an acacia tree on one side and a hawthorn on the other. I quickly checked my tyres for punctures. We were lucky. This time.

Soon after passing the Pont Sec at St.Germain-de-Montbron, we arrived at Marthon station with its toilets and water point. Our curiosity was drawn to a big building with bicycles hung all around it. Do you know what it is? If so, please let me know. The second photo is the former train station.

Again, we left the Flow Vélo to visit the village: if we’d turned left instead of right, we could have continued along the Scandibérique cycleway, which runs from Spain to Norway. But that was slightly beyond our weekend ambitions.

Marthon has a café (closed today, unfortunately) and also some castle ruins. For the first time of the day, I used my muscles to cycle up the steep hill to visit the tower. It’s worth crossing the pretty village to see the views (my photos don’t do them justice).

After Marthon, the cycleway – older and bumpier – was less enclosed and soon touched on the village of Feuillade, which we didn’t visit, partly because we weren’t paying enough attention to the signposts and got a little lost. A couple of kilometres later, the gentle railway came to a halt and the Flow Vélo continued on small roads. The real work was about to begin. We were nearing the Dordogne, reputed for its hills and valleys.

The lane through Les Grandes Rivières hamlet was blocked to traffic by two boulders but bicycles could pass. We crossed the pretty River Bandiat – in flower again – and then, as I’d suspected, the lane started to climb.

It amused me to see we were heading for a village called Souffrignac, so-named no doubt because you suffer in attempting to reach its heady heights (to suffer is ‘souffrir’ in French).

As it was Sunday, we weren’t able to enjoy the syrups and jams from the organic shop Les Jardins du Bandiat in Souffrignac. Instead, we continued up the hill, enjoying the birdsong and quiet roads. Our stop in the village of La Chapelle-Saint-Robert, on the plateau, was welcome, not just for the toilets opposite the church. This is an isolated, ‘olde worlde’ village, with many tumbledown houses. There were even an ancient water pump and petrol distributor.

We were on top of the world, here, surrounded by hay rolls. Freshly cut grass scented the air as we freewheeled down to Javerlhac, gathering energy for the climb up the hill to St-Martin-Le-Pin.

However, just outside Javerlhac, we ran into a cycling race. Literally. The road to St.Martin-Le-Pin was closed so we couldn’t cycle along the Flow Vélo route up the long, steep hill to the village. What a shame.

Instead, the race marshals let us take the flat main road along the valley alongside the racing cyclists. We went much faster, though some of the cyclists overtook us. OK, all of the cyclists overtook us. But we did get a cheer or two from onlooking bystanders.

By now, I was starting to feel a little saddlesore and our passage through this village seemed very apt.

Luckily, a few kilometres later we arrived at our destination – the small town of Nontron. Or, rather, the village of St.Martial-de-Valette, on the outskirts of Nontron, which was marked on our Flow Vélo guide by a tent logo. My odometer read 45km: not bad for our first trip with loaded bikes.

The campsite L’Agrion Bleu was calm, spacious and filled with beautiful, mature trees. Although the environment around the site was industrial, including a sewage system not far away, the campsite itself was perfect, boasting copious hot water, a washing machine & tumble dryer and a fridge as well as petanque, a playground and pool, table football and a flipper in the bar. The town swimming pool and sports ground is right next door. It would make a good base for a holiday and is open all year round.

We set up camp beside the River Bandiat and booked our meal at the snack bar, where the owner promised us our favourite local beer: La Paluche, made by Les Deux Ours brewery, which we’d discovered on a previous trip to the Dordogne. Then we cycled our light-as-air bikes up the hill to discover Nontron, which spreads over two steep-sided hills: hence the need for viaducts.

Being a Sunday evening, pretty much everything was closed, though we did find an open bar where we drank our well deserved aperitifs. Back at the campsite we felt blessed to have found a snack bar and a friendly owner. The sun even came out while we ate our Perigourdine salad and drank our Paluche beer, making a fitting end to our Sunday.

Little did we know what the next day had in store for us.

Monday morning dawned cloudy and cool again, a pleasing 20°C. My husband had heard the sound of the sewage pump in the night, but all I’d noticed were owls and the babbling water in the river. We were refreshed and ready to pedal again.

Although we were to make the return journey along the same route, there would be new things to discover, starting with the hilly road through the village of St.Martin-de-Pin.

To reach St.Martin we had to cycle through Nontron. This gave great views and allowed us to buy lunch, but it also meant that we began the day warming up our stiff muscles (though not as stiff as I’d feared) pedalling uphill for about 10km. Or so it seemed. In fact it was probably only about 4km. The countryside, however, with its hayfields and forests, made the effort worthwhile. I was glad we hadn’t attempted this route the previous day – though we’d experienced worse (better?) in La Creuse.

St.Martin-le-Pin was a tiny village of red tiled roofs with a pretty church, though no shops. Although we were on the D94 road, there was little traffic and it was good to be in the hills after yesterday’s valley ride. All too soon we were back at Javerlhac, the point where we picked up the route we’d taken yesterday.

Given that we’d only torn ourselves away from our comfortable mattresses on the campsite at 11am, we decided to stop for lunch at Javerlhac. Something we have learned over the past weeks is that it’s important to eat a snack and have a rest before you actually feel tired. Today’s lunch stop was one of the best, beside the Bandiat river in Javerlhac. I loved the architecture in this village.

It was after lunch that our idyllic journey took a turn for the worse.

They say problems arrive in threes, so I guess the first ‘problem’ was when it started to rain. Actually, the shower was refreshing. The earthy smell of petrichor and the flowering ground ivy along the verges kept my spirits uplifted. At first. After a while I started to feel a little chilly. Working on the principle that putting on a raincoat would stop the rain, I was relieved when the shower passed. At least it allowed us to test our waterproof bags.

Arriving in Feuillade, I called for a stop. I wanted to leave the Flow Vélo and visit the village, just in case a café was open for a warming cup of coffee. As we turned our bikes, I saw that my husband’s back tyre looked flat. Yes, it was punctured. The back wheel is always more difficult because you have to faff around with the chain and gears. Especially in the rain. I was glad I wasn’t alone.

Being too lazy to unload the bags, I struggled to hold up the bike while my husband disentangled the wheel – cutting his hand in the process – and found the thorn in the tyre. We’d only got one spare inner tube and I held my breath as he unrolled it: we’d bought it years ago and the rubber seemed decidedly perished. I hadn’t checked it before we left.

Luckily, it seemed to hold the air. And luckily, my bike’s tyres looked fine. We didn’t even resort to swearing.

All seemed well and we raced (well, cycled without stopping very often) back along the Coulée d’Oc to Chez Maillet, where we found our car sitting happily where we’d left it. Thanks to my ingenious husband, who had found a way of attaching both bikes to our carrier (remember the problem last time?), we were able to load the bikes onto the car. We began the drive home, satisfied with the performance of our leg muscles, with our puncture-repairing skills and our time spent in the Dordogne. I was already looking forward to our next Flow Vélo itinerant trip.

As we whizzed along the dual carriageway, the car gave a sudden jerk. I glanced over my shoulder. The car behind was flashing its headlights. My husband swore. He put on the warning lights. We pulled over. I jumped out (forgetting my yellow vest). That’s when I saw my bike hanging off the carrier, looking a little embarrassed. It had tried to escape. Had it thought it could take flight? Or had it argued with my husband’s bike?

I’ll never know. But I do know that I was relieved we’d managed to catch it before any damage was done. Otherwise, my cycling adventures would have stopped here.

Flow Vélo 5: A Rant and a Ride

La Flow Vélo from Port-d’Envaux to Geay:

Remember I told you about that trekking tent we bought; the one that represents an itinerant cycling holiday? Well, a couple of weeks ago, with a trial weekend of cycling and camping in mind, we opened the package to check we were able to pitch the new tent.

To our frustration, we discovered that the shop had sold us a used tent, covered in grass and mud, with missing pegs and a ripped zip. Our camping weekend plans had to change at the last minute. We weren’t impressed. Next time we’ll pitch our tent in the shop before we leave.

OK, rant over. Back to today’s cycle ride.

A trip to Saintes train station on Ascension Thursday was the opportunity to return our tent to the shop and also to continue our exploration of the Flow Vélo cycleway. We loaded our bikes onto the car: actually, my bike had to go into the car because the carrier will only hold one bike now. Why? Because my husband has become so keen on the idea of itinerant cycling that he’s fitted pannier frames all over his bike.

In fact, he even bought himself a new bike (though not from the same shop as the tent) to replace the 25-year-old one he was using. He tells me it’s because the mechanic couldn’t mend the pedal crankset. However, the day he brought home the new bike, I noticed that the old one had a flat tyre. Coincidence? Faint-heartedness on his part? Or a sulking bike, upset at being replaced by a new one?

Whatever. The point is that instead of studying the ladybird larvae activity in our wilderness, he has been wielding spanners and Allen keys, pannier frames and bags of all shapes and sizes. Our recent outings have won him over to the joys of cycling! We may not have a tent yet, but my idea of an itinerant cycling holiday is certainly taking shape.

The bank holiday dawned cool, cloudy and dry; ideal cycling weather for fair-skinned riders like us, though not so good for photos.

We drove to our last stopping point downstream of Cognac – the charming village of Port d’Envaux – and unloaded our bikes. How I love this little village, as I mentioned in my blog post a few weeks ago.

I checked that Le Canotiers food and drink stand was open for post-cycling nourishment (it was) and we cycled through the village, downstream towards Crazannes.

We took a short detour to check out Panloy castle at the far end of Port d’Envaux. The exterior was disappointing because all we could see were the outbuildings behind the château, though it looks fantastic on their website. Luckily, after a few kilometres along a shady, narrow track, we arrived at Crazannes castle. This 14th century château is nick-named ‘Puss-in-Boots’ castle, as Charles Perrault was inspired to create the Marquis of Carabas (Puss-in-Boots’ master) after its owner.

Our bike ride could have ended here, with my climb up the boundary wall to get a photo of the castle facade. The challenge would have been easy in my climbing boots, but my ex-jogging trainers, which are now my cycling trainers, weren’t as practical for climbing. Still, I managed to get up, take a photo and then scramble down without breaking an ankle or spraining a knee. I don’t think my husband noticed my antics, because he’d cycled on ahead as soon as I announced my intention. He must have seen something interesting in the hedge.

Crazannes is another quintessential village of winding streets and stone houses. It has a picnic area beside the lavoir and, at the far end of the village, in the hamlet called Prévallon, lies the Camping du Petit Bonheur with its 33 pitches and a snack bar. Cycle 200 metres further and you’ll arrive at a riverside area called the Port de la Touche, which seems to be popular with fishermen.

With dog roses flowering in the hedges and wafts of wild honeysuckle filling our nostrils, it didn’t matter that the sun was too shy to make an appearance. What did make an appearance was a coypu, one of the animals that’s classed as a pest along the River Charente. It waddled out of a hedge and crossed the road at a lazy trot, like an over-fed cat. I haven’t been so close to one before. It reminded me of the beavers I saw in Chile, 30 years ago.

The tracks along the stretch of the Flow Vélo between Crazannes and St.Savinien are pleasant but the surfaces aren’t great. There is also little contact with the river. I must admit we deviated a little from the marked route in order to follow the lane along the river.

We did see some interesting features, however. They included this four à chaux (lime kiln) near Le Mung. These kilns, operational until 1945, were packed with stone from the quarries in Crazannes and St.Savinien. The stones were baked for 36 hours until they crumbled into lime dust. This lime was then used by people from the coast and the marshes to coat the outsides of their buildings.

The Flow Vélo follows the GR360 footpath from Le Boutet to St.Savinien. I visited St.Savinien a few years ago to see a fellow author, Alison Woodhouse, whose excellent Novella-In-Flash – The House on The Corner – can be bought from Ad Hoc Fiction. Unfortunately, she has moved, so we couldn’t pop in.

St.Savinien is a delightful little town, which would have looked even more idyllic in the sun. What do you think?

Nestled in a crook of the River Charente, St.Savinien has all amenities and would make an excellent base for a holiday. I like the way the island, Ile de la Grenouillette, with its outdoor leisure centre, miniature port and campsite, is separated from the historic town centre.

Following the Flow Vélo towards Geay, we discovered a canal called Le Moussard and cycled along its banks for a few kilometres. Built in 1962, it carries fresh water from the dam at St.Savinien to the marshland around Rochefort.

Our appointment at Saintes train station meant that we could go no further than the sleepy village of Geay, about 8 kilometres downstream of St.Savinien.

We ate an apple at the 12th century Saint-Vivien Church, which struck us as huge for such a small village. Then it was time to turn around and head back towards Port-d’Envaux.

Today’s fields were filled with hairy crops and huddles of cattle as opposed to the vineyards we crossed further upstream.

Perhaps the livestock explained the clouds of gnats that were determined to hitch a ride on my fluorescent jacket. It actually looked much more stylish with black dots all over it.

Our return journey was far quicker, given that we cut out the St.Savinien bend of the River Charente and headed straight back to Crazannes and then Port-d’Envaux. There was a reason for this.

By reducing our trip to just 39 km, we had time to stop for a reward at our favourite countryside port. As the French say: ‘Après l’effort, le réconfort’ (After the effort, the comfort).

This glass of rosé and a bowl of peanuts from Les Canotiers were my comfort after a grey but enjoyable day.

Creative Writing Workshop

I’m delighted to tell you that I’m leading a workshop at Le Texte Libre bookshop in Cognac on Wednesday 8 June from 4 to 6pm. It’s a Creative Writing Workshop in English, designed for French people aged 16+ and will be followed by a Q&A session in English from 6:15 to 7pm.

If you’re interested, or know someone who may be interested in attending, here are the posters with all the details. You’ll need to scroll down to see the whole poster.

Flow Vélo 4: Swimming Snakes and Castles

La Flow Vélo from Cognac to Bassac:

Tax returns? Done. Coughs, colds and flu? Done. Weather check? Sunny. Flow Vélo cycleway: here we come.

Given that we were both recovering from minor ailments, my husband suggested a gentle bike ride today. Actually, I think he wanted his lazy Sunday lie-in, because our bike rides are always gentle. So while he lazed until eleven o’clock, I pedalled to the new village bakery for fresh baguettes and prepared the picnic, sun tan lotion and hammocks. Oh, and the bikes.

A couple of weeks ago, a Flow Vélo cyclist told us that the towpath along the river Charente upstream of Cognac had been resurfaced over winter. We wanted to see the improvements for ourselves.

The Flow Vélo guide books send you along roads for the section from St Brice to Jarnac, rather than along the pretty towpath.

This is a pity but hardly surprising: we knew from our cycling trip three years ago that the rutted, pot-holed, narrow track upstream from the Gademoulin lock made for uncomfortable riding.

Crossing my fingers that my bottom wouldn’t regret our choice of route, we decided to test the towpath. A quick calculation showed that we had four sets of friends along the alternative road route. If we stopped to see them on the way, there would be little chance of us cycling any further so we agreed to do the road route on the return journey.

We joined the Flow Vélo at Châtenay bridge. On the far side of the bridge, beside the River Charente, lies Cognac’s campsite. On the Cognac side lies what was to be the first castle of the day: the Château de Châtenay.

If you’re coming by car, there’s a small car park beside the castle. Alternatively, you can park a kilometre away at the Base Plein Air, which has the advantage of toilets and a snack bar.

We were on home territory today but this didn’t stop us discovering some new spots and revisiting some much-loved, familiar places.

This, I’m sure, is why it took us an hour to cycle the first 6 km.

First up was Les Jardins Respectueux (the Respectful Gardens) at La Trache, near the St Brice bridge. It’s a beautiful hillside woodland and flood plain run by an ecological association and is open to the public (with composting toilets). Free, shady, educational and fascinating, it also holds regular events. Don’t miss it!

We parked our bikes and strolled around, admiring the exuberant spring growth. We talked to the chickens, promised ourselves to come here for the next event and examined with interest (and, I suspect, with intent on my husband’s part) the hop plants. Yes, hops, as in beer. I think my husband came away with some new ideas for our own garden.

At the St Brice bridge, which has a car park, picnic tables and water point, we ignored our Flow Vélo guide book and followed the towpath. From the path you get a great view of St Brice’s 14th-century chateau; the second of the day. The third chateau, in Gothic Revival style this time, came a few kilometres later at Gademoulin.

I was pleased to see that a new barrier at the Gademoulin lock barred entry to cars along the towpath. And even more pleased when I realised that the days of dodging brambles and nettles, of skidding in mud pools and bumping across car-tyre ruts were over. The towpath had indeed been resurfaced. What a pleasure it was to whizz along the shady riverbank, side by side, past woodland and vineyards until we reached Bourg Charente.

Bourg Charente is an idyllic village where you’ll find the Michelin-starred La Ribaudière restaurant. It’s out of my league but I did have a fleeting wish for a glass of rosé when I saw the customers enjoying the sun and river views from the patio. One day, when I’m a rich&respected author…

This isn’t a castle. It’s the Romanesque church in Bourg Charente.

Bourg Charente is also where you cross a bridge and continue along the towpath to Jarnac. Again, a new surface has replaced the former potholes, though cars can also access this part. There are three or four picnic areas, accessible for those who fancy a meal beside the water but whose bicycles are out of order.

We stopped at a log bench beside the river for lunch. It proved to be a good spot, since we were treated to the flash of a kingfisher’s bright blue wings over the water.

This was followed shortly after by the appearance of a viper. It slithered into the river from the bank under our feet and braved the current to swim in squiggly ripples to the far side. I must remember the shape it makes in the water when we take out our canoe in a few weeks’ time.

The entry to the little town of Jarnac is one of my favourite moments along the towpath. Today didn’t disappoint. Oh look, another chateau – or at least a grand house!

There were further temptations at the main square in Jarnac, beside the Courvoisier chateau – and I don’t mean the display of polished, antique cars that were parked there. More people were drinking rosé on café terraces.

We slurped a mouthful of plasticky water from our bottles and cycled valiantly on, out of the town along rue des Chabannes.

If you’re looking for chateaux, this is the road to take. I saw at least three of them, including this one – Château St Martial – and the Château les Chabannes, a little further along, which offers bed-and-breakfast.

I wonder what the Fête des Voisins (national neighbour party day) is like in this street?

We were soon back beside the river, which is much more our scene than castley get-togethers. What joy to smell elderflower from the proliferation of flowering bushes and to see yellow irises beside the water.

When we reached the Vinade bridge near the village of Bassac, we decided it was a good point to turn west and see if our friends were in check out the Flow Vélo road route.

Our friends in Gondeville weren’t in.

Our friends in Jarnac weren’t in.

Luckily, the fruit and vegetable outlet in Jarnac – La Charentaise – was open, as it is every day. We were able to console ourselves by buying some locally grown Gariguette strawberries. We would share with our friends in La Maurie. If they were at home.

No day of cycling is complete without an ice-cream. As we pedalled back to Bourg Charente, I remembered passing the village campsite on the way. We’d approved of the public air pump provided for cyclists in the car park beside it. I’d noticed a new snack bar there. And tables on a grassy terrace. And a board advertising ice-creams.

We leant our bikes against the cognac barrels and went to choose our refreshments. It’s worth noting the existence of this simple campsite with its convivial ambiance, as it’s not yet listed in the Flow Vélo guides.

With nearly 40km on the clock, we made a brief stop in La Maurie to see if our third and fourth sets of friends were at home. To our surprise, they were. Both sets. Perhaps this explains why the last 6km of the day took us four hours to complete. Such are the (very pleasant) dangers of Doorstep Cycling.

Flow Vélo 3: Easter Ices

La Flow Vélo from Rouffiac to Saintes:

Easter Sunday found us alone at home with no eggs to hunt nor lamb to roast. On the positive side, what possible reason could there be for my husband to refuse a little exercise along the banks of the River Charente?

He mumbled something about watching insects in the garden / planting tomatoes / counting the apricots that had survived the recent frosts. I replied something about starting on the tax returns.

Within seconds, he agreed that our priority was to complete the missing part of our Flow Vélo journey between Cognac and Port-d’Envaux: the section from Rouffiac to Saintes. It was only a short ride of 20km. We could do the other stuff afterwards.

I knew it was going to be a good day when a deer strolled across the road in front of us. We parked beside the river near Rouffiac, at the site of Les Clapotis guinguette.

Here, a chain-ferry carries cars/bikes/people from the Rouffiac side to Dompierre-sur-Charente. Sometimes. There was still no sign of it today.

If you read my blog post ‘First Spring Ride’, you’ll know that this is where our journey stopped a couple of weeks ago.

Off we set, along winding lanes and shady tracks, through woodland filled with birdsong, beside the railway and then along the river. At one point we met some cyclists who had stopped to ask advice from a couple of cyclists coming the other way so, naturally, we joined them. I love the way people along the Flow Vélo are happy to share like this.

There were more people along the river bank. They were mostly fishermen with tents, tables, chairs and even beds. I realised that ‘going fishing’ is actually a euphemism for ‘lazing beside the river’. However, I did meet a young artist, who’d spent an hour and a half creating this land art while she waited for her fish to bite. There’s nothing lazy about that!

We were careful when we stopped and left our bikes to relieve ourselves: the last cyclist seemed never to have returned to his/her bike.

Having been disappointed by the lack of ferry at Rouffiac, we were delighted to find another chain-ferry crossing – in service. We wheeled our bikes on board and chugged across from the Concoury side to discover the village of Chaniers.

I only knew the main road that runs through Chaniers, so it was interesting to discover the Romanesque church, narrow streets and stone houses in Chaniers. There was also an intriguing tree-house on the campsite, which I wanted to visit, and I was tempted to stop at a bar terrace for a glass of rosé. However, the ferryman’s lunch break was due and we needed to return to the far side of the river. This meant we didn’t have time to discover the Moulin de la Baine.

Back on the Flow Vélo track, we arrived in Concoury. Some friends have recently moved here and it seemed an ideal opportunity to catch up with them.

Unfortunately, there was no reply when we called, so we continued cycling through the village, past the pretty church and the L’Amaryllis restaurant.

There would be no restaurant roast lamb for us. Instead, we ate our picnic in front of the Charente Maritime branch of the Office Français de la Biodiversité (French Office for Biodiversity).

The office was closed but I could see exhibition panels through the glass doors. One of the advantages of Doorstep Cycling is that you can easily return to places that catch your eye.

After lunch we were accompanied by the hum of planes towing gliders to dizzy heights. We saw at least eight of them as we crossed woodland and meadows of buttercups dotted with little lakes, nests of baby storks and narrow bridges.

The Concoury area is also animal country and we saw fields of gambolling lambs and suckling calves, though there were no Easter bunnies. Just before Les Gonds, we discovered another riverside quay ideal for picnicking and lazing beside the river. I think it was the Prairie du Bourg. And in Les Gonds, my trusty steed found the tail that it had been missing all these years. How proud it looked when I fixed it into place.

At last, we left the countryside behind us and cycled up the sole hill of the ride, which took is into Saintes and gave us a magnificent view over the flood plains.

I know how to deal with hills these days. When I first started cycling, I hated them. Now, I put my bike into first gear and think about something completely different as I pedal. Can you guess what motivated me up this hill into Saintes?

We cycled along a little street past the St.Sorlin and Palue prairies, which form a long, grassy island between the two branches of the River Charente.

I’d never entered Saintes from this direction and it was surprising to see familiar landmarks from a different perspective. This is the true pleasure of Doorstep Cycling.

Strangely – nothing to do with my careful planning, of course – our arrival in Saintes corresponded with teatime. This meant I could legitimately eat the ice-cream that had grown bigger and bigger in my mind as I pedalled up the hill into Saintes.

No ice-cream tastes good unless it’s eaten in front of a pleasing view. Here are some we enjoyed in Saintes.

Fed and watered, we made our way back towards Rouffiac. You see different sights when you ride back along the same route, which means it’s never boring.

By now, we were quite tired, so imagine our joy when our friends in Concoury called and said they were at home and expected us for an aperitif.

What better way to finish a day than with a cool beer and a chat with friends? (Any excuse to avoid facing those tax returns).

Flow Vélo 2: Sunny Sunday Cycling

La Flow Vélo from Saintes to Port-d’Envaux:

My elder daughter came home from university for the weekend and asked us to pick her up at Saintes.

Obviously, we couldn’t bring her home on our bikes, so we decided to make the most of our car trip to the historic Roman town.

Did we visit the gallo-roman amphitheatre? The Germanicus Arch? The 11th century Abbaye-aux-Dames?

No, we stopped at Décathlon. It’s my favourite shop (along with the bookshop Le Texte Libre) because it sells potential.

When you buy a trekking tent, you’re actually buying an itinerant cycle touring holiday. So we did. More about that later this summer, if we manage to pitch the tent and survive the holiday.

Anyway, I was happy that my daughter booked her return ticket for the 11:27 train on Sunday morning because it meant we could stuff our bikes into the car, along with our daughter, and spend the day cycling another section of La Flow Vélo. (Please note how well we have adapted to being abandoned by our children, thanks to our Abandoned Parent Training in 2020).

In contrast to our last Flow Vélo trip, I’d invested in a guide book so we could see exactly where to go. More importantly, it meant I recognised the guide in the hands of the cyclists we met along the way, so I was able to stop (any excuse) and chat with them about their experiences of the cycleway. We learnt that the part from Bourg Charente to Jarnac has recently been renovated, so we’ll definitely return there and assess it for ourselves.

Parking in the train station’s free car park was a great idea. To find the Flow Vélo, which runs along the left bank of the river. you just follow signs to centre ville and turn right straight after crossing the bridge.

I’d never been to this part of Saintes and was pleasantly surprised to discover that once we passed the riverside campsite, the route took us along a quiet, shady lane.

This soon became a track and we had regular glimpses of the river.

The Flow Vélo from Cognac to Rouffiac was pleasant, but today’s section easily surpassed it in terms of the variety of tracks and the number of interesting features. I’d recommend this day trip – a total of 45km for the return ride – to everyone. And not only because we found ice-creams along the way.

Having cycled close to the river for about 5km, the route headed inland a little. The lanes took us up and down small hills and through the hamlets of Narcejac, La Pommeraie and Port à Clou. There was so much to see. From the sighting of a stork on the ground – it was almost as big as my bike – to the beautiful stone architecture, something constantly caught our attention.

We were welcomed at la Basse Pommeraie by this sign, which directed cyclists to ‘Number 15’. When I stopped to have a closer look, I saw a notice in the window offering water, a pump and a smile.

Unfortunately no one was at home, otherwise I could have wangled a longer stop there.

As the Flow Vélo remains fairly close to the river, we often passed wetlands. Just before Port à Clou, we were treated to a boardwalk to cross the protected marshes. Some surprises awaited us there, including these fellows. There were a few more to meet too, but I’ll let you discover them on your own.

We left the Flow Vélo when we spotted the river at Port à Clou and ate our picnic beside the water. Had it been a little later in the year, we would have swum, since access to the water is easy in this spot.

Here are a few pictures of the landscapes we crossed after lunch.

The square bridge allowed the cycleway to pass under a viaduct, which we presumed was a railway. When we discovered it was tarmacked, we decided to follow it – hence the photo of my husband pushing his bike up onto it. Don’t worry, this isn’t a compulsory part of the route.

When I stopped at the end of the viaduct to read the inscription on the stone, a dog-walker informed us that the viaduct was actually an old Roman road. It’s used by the locals when the normal road floods. But as it’s only wide enough for one car – and there’s a drop on each side – this must lead to conflictual situations and lots of reversing.

The viaduct led towards the charming village of Taillebourg, on the far bank of the River Charente. The Flow Vélo doesn’t pass through it, but we wanted to visit and it was only one kilometre off our route.

What a good idea that was! I loved the little village, with its stone quay and the castle parkland overlooking the countryside. I recommend you stop there and discover it yourself. Here’s a slideshow of a few pictures to give you an idea of the treat you’re in for.

It was getting late by now, and with over 20km on the clock we decided we’d cycle as far as Port-d’Envaux before returning to Saintes. The cycleway took us along a couple of rather long, straight, flat tracks. A few kilometres later, we arrived in the village.

In fact, we arrived directly at a tranquil, riverside meadow which is actually the port. Although it’s a small village today, Port-d’Envaux used to be an important stop for the boats carrying stone from the nearby Crazannes quarry as well as pottery from La Chapelle des Pots.

And guess what? I finally got to eat my ice-cream.

Port-d’Envaux must be a lovely place to laze in the summer. You can hire boats from Les Canotiers, admire the stone sculptures, eat at Le Gabarier restaurant and visit Panloy castle.

I’ll definitely have to return. In fact, we might even camp for a night at Crazannes, which is 4km away, for our next stage of the Flow Vélo, from Port-d’Envaux downstream to St.Savinien-sur-Charente – and, who knows, maybe a little further.