Tag Archives: Les Gabariers

Infidelity

(Summer Blog Sprint: post 7 of 7)

King François 1st said that the River Charente was the ‘plus belle rivière du royaume’ (the most beautiful river in the kingdom). Even before spending five days following it and exploring its banks, I agreed with him.

I see our river every day, in its good and bad moods. I swim in its deep waters and watch it change over the seasons. Its reflections and gentle meanders mean ‘home’ to me. I love the River Charente.

But the moment I see the source of the River Touvre, a flash of intense delight overwhelms me. This river has hardly left the earth, yet its colours, the limpidity of the water and its wide expanse seduce the viewer and invite wonder. I desire nothing more than to explore its intimate depths.

To do that, I’d need diving equipment, because the Touvre is actually the second biggest source (resurgence) in France. The water flooding out of the deep holes – which are popular with professional divers – fills the wide valley with pools of intense blue.

 

Refreshed by the sparkling water, we cycle back along the Touvre to Angoulême, taking our time to turn down side streets and enjoy the sensual pleasures of this wide, shallow river.

 

We arrive at Montignac campsite at 7:30pm, having completed 63km and completely forgotten about the campsite aperitif. At least, I forgot. Now I think of it, my partner did launch into some desperate pedalling over the last few kilometres.

The party is in full swing. We join the group of 15 people, including the village mayor, and collapse into the comfort of plastic chairs. A Mojito and a Ricard are placed in our hands, and our fellow campers’ discussions gradually revive us.

One man is walking from Norway to southern Spain, pulling an adapted sack barrow; another has come from Normandy. They ask about our origins – no doubt thinking we’ve cycled from England, given my accent – and are amused to think we‘ve come on holiday to a village that’s only a 40-minute drive from home.

Many of the campers return to Montignac every year, and I’m not surprised.

 

Montignac has stolen my heart (and that of our bike trailer, I’d say). Not only is the campsite peaceful, the village has all you need for a countryside holiday – including a restaurant.

If we want to be ready for tomorrow’s 85km journey home, we must eat properly.

We excuse ourselves from the party and, after a shower, head to Le Taillefer. Imagine our pleasure as, for 14€50, we’re served a freshly cooked, delicious 4-course meal. We chat to the owners and take a card: we’ll be coming back.

When we return to the campsite after a night walk around the village, the aperitif gathering has become a digestif party. We’re invited for a glass or two of gnôle (also spelt gnole, gniole or gnaule, and meaning ‘hooch’).

But we’re exhausted – and experienced, where gnôle is concerned. We know it won’t help us cycle 85km tomorrow. We decline and say goodnight.

The next morning is our final one. It’s Day 5 and we once again plan to leave early. In reality, we only finish tending our sores, packing, saying goodbye and hitching up the trailer at eleven o’clock. It doesn’t matter: we have bike lights. We can cycle the last part in the dark.

We take the same route back, adding a couple of kilometres to see Balzac chateau. We also include a detour to discover the village of Marsac, which is worth the extra time it takes.

 

Have you ever noticed how things look different when you see them on a return journey? Here are some of the sights I missed on the way to Montignac.

It’s really hot today. We pause regularly for refreshments and to rest our backsides. At Thouérat lock, we stop for an ice-cream and test the inflatable chairs, wishing that bike saddles were as comfortable.

At Fleurac lock, where we buy a coffee, I’m chuffed because I finally meet Belle. The roaming goat comes to greet us and takes an interest in our trailer.

Could we hitch her to it? She could be part of our quest to see whether the source of the River Charente is comparable to that of the Touvre.

My partner doesn’t comment on my idea. I’m not sure he’ll be up for another cycling tour, unless he invents a bike with inflatable-cushion seats.

We’re still a fair way from Saint-Simeux, but the pub Gabariers seems to call us from afar.

Our daughters would surely love the pub as much as we do. We should thank them for looking after the house while we’ve been away. Why don’t we invite them to meet us there for a drink and a meal? It could be fun.

Fun? It’s a brainwave.

What’s more, when we arrive at Les Gabariers, we learn there’s going to be live music tonight.

We phone our daughters, and suggest they might like to bring the big car. Oh, and the bike carrier. It would silly not to benefit from the main advantage of doorstep holidays.

They seem delighted, which makes sense: they’ve been diligently house-sitting for five days. They need a break too.

All that remains is to take a dip and wash away the day’s sweat and dust. The pontoon is right on the river, so in we jump. The cool water is a balm and, as ever, I remind myself how lucky I am to be able to swim in my local river.

Getting out is another matter. Have you ever tried to climb onto a pontoon with no steps? Luckily, my partner is here to haul me out. Luckily, my partner is here to order the beers, book a table for dinner and sit with me on the luxuriously deep cushions.

And, luckily, my children are here to pick us up and take us home – which amuses me, considering the number of times we’ve picked them up.

They look tired, as if they’ve hardly slept. Was it the worry about being responsible for the house?

But they also look happy. Already, they’re urging us to do the same thing next year – though preferably with a bit more notice, please.

I can’t think why. I look at my partner to see his reaction.

To my surprise, he’s bubbling with ideas for next time. His favourite is a Craft Beer tour, which he thinks would be even more inspiring that following a river. Of course, we’d need a trailer to carry the beer. And wouldn’t it be good if we could persuade a beer-loving, cycling friend to accompany us: one who’s training for an Iron Man and could tow a trailer full of bottles?

At home, there’s a mountain of washing, including a pile of bed laundry. Although everything is tidy, the furniture isn’t in exactly the same place. It’s no doubt a sign of thorough cleaning.

It’s also the proof we can leave the kids in charge next year. Next year, we’ll definitely train beforehand. We’ll both wear cycling shorts and invest in new gel seat covers, which we’ll keep exclusively for Day 4. If we win the lottery, we may even invest in an electric bike. Or two.

It doesn’t matter that we didn’t achieve our objective. I’ve learnt that it’s fun to let yourself get sidetracked. An objective should only ever serve to get you started.

Having said that, combining the continued exploration of the River Charente with discovering craft beer may take some organisation.

I’d better start planning right now. Once I’ve finished my celebration beer.

Cheers!

***

Congratulations if you’ve read all 7 posts of my summer blog sprint. You’re probably as exhausted as me!

Towards the Source

(Summer Blog Sprint: post 2 of 7)

Strangely, neither of our children expresses any desire to accompany us on our exciting trip to discover the source of the River Charente. On the contrary, they encourage us to take a romantic break together. Their enthusiasm is accompanied by urgent tapping on their mobile phones.

We spend all morning packing. How come it takes so much longer to pack minimal kit than to pack for a normal, car-based camping holiday?

Unfortunately, my partner’s beloved tipi doesn’t fit in the trailer. We compromise with a Decathlon Quechua tent – one of those magical throw-in-the-air tents that are impossible to fold back into their bags.

“There’s plenty of room now,” says my partner, adding a couple of beer cans to the trailer. “You can take more stuff if you like.”

I’m tempted by his suggestions for extra comfort. After all, we’re following a river, which means the path will be flat. But we haven’t done any training and, given that he insists on taking the trailer, I resist the urge to take the kitchen sink.

He hasn’t got padded cycling shorts, so I give him my gel saddle-cover. I don’t remember having a sore bum when I crossed France. I’ll be fine. He, on the other hand, believes he’ll be comfortable in his normal underpants and shorts.

After lunch, we’re ready to go (I think). Our daughters are 19 and 16, and although we’ve never left them at home alone before, there are no tears at our departure: only furtive glances at phones. The elder one has even picked up the broom, so they obviously want to surprise us with a clean, tidy house on our return. It’s great to have responsible daughters.

At last, we set off from the house. It’s a cool 23°C afternoon and the late August weather forecast is perfect: it’s cloudy, but it won’t rain.

We cycle for a whole 100 metres before we have to stop because my partner’s saddle has slipped. It’s a minor hitch. I break into song and we whizz down the hill to the river (where we stop again for his saddle).

I love the dank, earthy smell of the lazy River Charente. I love its woody banks, its water lilies and dragonflies, its swans and meanders. And I love the idea of taking a holiday in the local vicinity, discovering roads and villages that aren’t part of our daily life. It feels as if we’re hundreds of miles away. Who needs a car to go on holiday? Perhaps we can launch the concept of ‘doorstep holidays’, a philosophy that’s respectful of the environment.

We bump along the towpath, heading towards Angoulême, and stop for water at the Bourg-Charente campsite. I’m amazed at how well our cute trailer copes with the bumps and occasionally erratic steering, though I’m glad we didn’t have it when our kids were young. I’d have suffered minor heart attacks, watching from behind. The kids would have loved being tossed from side to side.

At the Bourg-Charente lock, I stop and watch the cane roof of a strange, makeshift boat rise into sight. Its fishing net is full of squashed plastic bottles. The riverside is the friendliest place, where everyone says hello as they pass, and stop for a chat – so it seems natural for me to ask the couple working the sluice gates about their boat.

Karine and Tony are collecting rubbish. Over the span of a 5-day holiday, they’re travelling downstream from Angoulême to Saint-Savinien and picking up litter as they go.

What inspired them? “We like our beaches and river to be clean,” they say. Their approach is attractive in its simplicity, and I resolve to pick up any litter I see. After all, there’s plenty of room on our darling bike trailer.

The grassy approach to Jarnac is a welcome change from the stony towpath, which stops temporarily here, in the town of Mitterand’s resting place (there’s even a museum about him). Jarnac is where you can hire a boat for a cruise along the navigable part of the river, up to Angoulême.

We continue out of Jarnac along a quiet road, admiring chateaux as we glide along tarmac – what a smart invention tarmac is: I bet a cyclist was responsible for it.

We cycle through Bassac, with its 11thcentury abbey, and then Saint-Simon, which has a museum dedicated to the traditional Charente gabarre boat. I fancy stopping to look at everything, but our little trailer is ambitious. It wants to keep going, and makes stopping and starting hard work. My partner plods steadily on.

 

Despite the smooth tarmac our backsides are starting to ache – and because we I keep stopping to admire the river, take photos and chat to people, it’s getting late. At Vibrac, we hesitate. We could take a short cut, slicing Chateauneuf-sur-Charente from our itinerary. This means climbing a hill that – if my map-reading is correct – should take us to Saint-Simeux.

Either we suffer for longer on the flat path, or we take the hill and suffer harder but for a shorter time.

The trailer is attached to the back wheel of my partner’s bike, and has a spring to smooth the bumps. The problem is that when he pushes down hard on the pedals – as he’ll have to do if we take the hill – the spring stretches and contracts. This makes an uncomfortable, jerky movement. By now, he has decided that if we buy a trailer, it’ll be one that attaches to the axle and not via a spring to the back wheel. 

Ever courageous, my partner opts for the hill. As we snail up it, he stops talking about trailers altogether.

The climb is hard going, but we’re motivated. We’re motivated because Saint-Simeux means one thing to us: a glass (or two) of cool beer.

Les Gabariers is a true English pub. It sits on the riverbank, has a pontoon to swim from, a pétanque court (OK, that’s not very English), hosts live music and serves food – and it also sells craft beers as well as Guinness. We could call it Heaven.

 

We freewheel down through Saint-Simeux towards the river. The pub isn’t easy to find, but eventually we pull up in front of the terrace. Although the owners no longer take campers, the pub is perfect for a break.

We sink into a soft, thick cushion and enjoy a hard-earned beer.

We’ve travelled all of 25km. Never mind the bemused expressions of onlookers when they see our strangely loaded trailer: we qualify as true cyclo-tourists.

All we have to do now is find a campsite for the night.

 

(Do you know the River Charente? Have you got a favourite spot there? If so, leave a comment and tell me about it)

Bees or Bikes?

(Summer Blog Sprint: post 1 of 7)

It’s a calm, sunny afternoon in the Charente and I’m sick of sitting in front of a screen.

“Shall we go for a bike ride?” I ask my partner. A few years ago, I’d have targeted my kids with the suggestion, but these days they’re too busy. One’s rocking on her guitar / groove box and the other is sleeping after a nuit blanche (night without sleep) of partying.

My partner is busy watching wild bees in the garden, which is a fascinating hobby he has recently developed. He can’t see the point in cycling: he’s a former basketball player, and sport is about strategy and teamwork, not about ambling around country lanes. He declines, as usual.

It doesn’t matter. I straddle my bike and I’m off, unsure of where I’m going but ready to take any lane or track that looks inviting. Cycling is my favourite sport, and I can’t help singing when I’m in the saddle. You can see so much more when you cycle than when you walk, and the Charente lanes and tracks are ideal for my style of cycling.

As I cycle, I think about my summer holiday idea. I’ve been toying with it since the moment the kids became responsible teenagers – meaning they can work the washing machine, cook and drive. But the kids aren’t the problem. To bring my idea to fruition, I’ve got to make cycling seem as fascinating as bee-watching.

I pedal, plot and plan.

A few years ago Many years ago, when I was in my early 20s, I cycled across France. My friend Will and I started from my home in Dorset, we ‘cycled’ all the way across The Channel on a ferry to Cherbourg, and then pedalled down to Béziers for a grape harvest.

It was the best of holidays: not because it was exotic, but because we were free.

Will and I had just come back from Chile, where we’d taken part in a Raleigh expedition and then hitch-hiked 5000km from the glaciers in the south of the country to the Atacama desert in the north. Hitching was fun, but sometimes we’d have to wait hours (five hours was the record) for a car or lorry to pass. We were dependent on other people.

Travelling on a bike, with minimal gear, was much more liberating. We could go where we wanted and explore whatever took our fancy. Many things did take our fancy – but that’s another story.

Ever since that trip, I’ve hankered after an itinerant cycling holiday.

When our kids were 5 and 8 years old, I managed to inspire them with a camping expedition along the River Charente. Later, when the younger one was old enough to ride a normal-sized bike, we went on a similar trip: from Cognac to the Guinness-serving Les Gabariers pub in Saint-Simeux. The best part of that ride was the Guinness being able to stop every ten kilometres to jump off trees into the river (my daughter) and bathe in its cooling waters (me).

I think about all this as I cycle around my favourite 20km circuit. I wonder how to persuade my partner that this summer is the perfect time to leave the bees to their business and cycle into the sunset together.

And that’s when I see the couple with their bike trailer.

One of the reasons my partner isn’t interested in a cycle trip is that, when camping, he likes the comfort of his inflatable mattress. He’s in love with his canvas tipi tent, and (with reason, I suppose) can’t understand my adoration for my tiny tent and skinny mats; I’m not sure he realises the potential freedom they represent.

If we bought / borrowed / stole a trailer, we could take his tipi. I eye the trailer as it passes, and consider following to see how it copes with the bumps and hills. I’d probably be taken for a stalker. I watch the couple cycle into the sunset and then I pedal home and tell my partner my idea.

He kisses his bees goodnight.

He comes indoors and surfs on the internet. Within hours, he’s a theoretical expert on bike trailers.

I rave about cycling in Iceland, Africa, New Zealand. Is he listening?

A few weeks later, on a sunny afternoon when I’m sick of staring at my screen, he agrees to come on a short bike ride with me. The kids have been using his bike for years, and it takes an hour to mend a wheel, fix the saddle, pump up the tyres and oil the chain.

I modify my favourite route to take in a short stop at a friend’s house: our friend invites us in for a beer, and then, a little further on, we stop at another friend’s house, who also invites us in for a beer. I think my partner is enjoying this cycling lark. And, as it happens, one friend has an old child-trailer he can give us.

That evening, we realise we have a five-day window during our holidays. There’s no time for planning or training, but it doesn’t matter because we’re not going far.

Before attacking Iceland, Africa & New Zealand, we decide to explore locally. We’re going to discover the birthplace of our very own River Charente, the river that flows through our village. Our aim is to see newly born water surge out of the ground in virgin purity, ready for its journey along the Charente riverbed to the Atlantic Ocean.

Isn’t that a great objective for a cycling trip?

(Do you know the River Charente? Have you got a favourite spot there? If so, leave a comment and tell me about it)