Terii’s Cycling Babble


Hit Between The Eyes
September 28, 2013, 8:26 am
Filed under: Misc

Written Friday – September 20th

The past two days were a bit hectic. One in a bad way that had me doubting the whole wisdom of this trip. The other in a much better way.

Wednesday morning, we woke somewhat early giving us a chance to clean up for the day and pack. About 7:30 am we left the room with our luggage. Our plan was to have everything loaded up so we could pay the bill, start breakfast right at 8 am and be on our way.

Little did I  know what awaited me at a later rest-stop

Little did I know what awaited me at a later rest-stop

Clearly the staff isn’t used to early risers at this place. The day before I’d asked about the earliest check-out time. The woman had given me a confused look. “Breakfast is at 8 am,” she answered.

“So, we can’t check-out earlier?” I clarified.

“Someone will be here to start preparing for breakfast at 7 am. You can leave then.” She seemed truly baffled that someone might leave before breakfast. No, definitely not accustomed to early risers departing before 8 am. At least it helped explain the confusion of the woman on the morning shift when we came quietly down to take the first load to the car. We took a short stroll to kill more time until 8 am ticked round and we returned to the hotel for our last breakfast there.

After a roll with strawberry jam for me and ham, cheese, a roll and coffee for Jens, we paid and left.

Since Bruges was just starting to wake up, it was fairly easy to escape and we were headed to Reims in short order.

The morning weather foreboded the coming day

The morning weather foreboded the coming day

To set up part of how the day went sour, other than the weather, I need to mention that for some reason Fanta Orange soda, which in Sweden I’m fine with, apparently tears my stomach up in the rest of Europe. Jens thinks it’s probably a difference in the coloring they use since it’s not as vivid an orange shade as back home. Since I’d always had it with meals and the (ahem) episodes had been mild and brief, it was hard to connect it to Fanta directly.

I won’t quibble, the weather was miserable and remained so as we passed into France. The plan was for Jens to drop me off in Reims where I would cycle by the sites out of the city and on to Epernay where he’d be exploring champagne cellars. The chill pour of rain dampened (haha) those plans from the beginning.

Somewhere during that first stretch to Reims, I had a Fanta and the truth of what had been upsetting my belly came clear. Suddenly, I was in desperate need of a bathroom. We pulled into a rest-stop and… culture shock.

Hard to imagine that something like a rest-stop can slam the force of cultural differences between one’s eyes and leave them reeling. That’s what happened though. Just the sight of urinals in open air made me hesitate. They were somewhat sheltered on 3 sides and roofed over, but no doors and in open view of passing traffic if not for the distance.

Only two doors were in the cinderblock building. One was for handicapped which I try to leave available in case someone needs it. So, I pulled open the other one and jumped out of my skin with a yelp at a violent flush of water.

The room was unoccupied. The flushing had been triggered by the door opening. That unexpected sound had added to the shock of what I was faced with. A tiled floor in a brick-walled room. At the back, a pipe ran down to near floor level from which the water had gushed. There, the floor turned into a funnel shape. That was it. It was not clean and no place for toilet paper to be mounted. Not that it had been torn away by some destructive person, but had never been a paper holder.

Horrified, I pushed the door shut and almost ran back to the car. Only desperation made me peek timidly into the handicapped room. Thankfully there was a toilet, without a seat. I managed.

I was surprised at how shaken I was. Revolted. If I use the bathroom in that way, it’s going to be in the woods where I’m not putting my shoes in other people’s mess. Give me a hole in a wooden board over a smelly pit before that any day!

I recognized the culture shock for what it was when I went back to Jens. “If ever I needed culture shock, I just got it,” I muttered as I settled back into my seat.

“One of those kinds of bathrooms?” he asked.

A little warning might have been nice.

I think that’s the first culture shock I’ve ever suffered. There have been times when the little differences have caught me by surprise, but I shrugged them off and adapted. I guess it’s because those other things never hit on something so basic or primal or what I was raised to regard as ‘ultimately foul’.

Porte Mars in Reims, France

Porte Mars in Reims, France

Garden near the Porte Mars

Garden near the Porte Mars

Already shaken and off-balance, Reims only hit me all the harder. No how. No way. I was not going to unload the trike and pedal through it. The city, at least the way we came in, and the area around the Porte Mars (Gate of Mars) was a nightmare. I’d looked on maps and Google Streetview, but it really gave me no clue of how rundown and the amount of traffic choking that area or how BIG the city was. I’m sure there must be pretty areas, but that first unappealing impression sent Jens and I running. We did to stop long enough to photo the gate which is all that remains of a 3rd century roman wall around the city of Durocortorum.

The rain and that part of town I was not going to ride in. I rushed around the old gate (beautiful and impressive btw) and we were gone from Reims and heading toward Epernay.

Something tells me this is champagne country

Something tells me this is champagne country

Grapes & Vines

Grapes & Vines

It was just as well as the bad starting point and rain put the end to the idea of a ride. I doubt I’d have made the 25 mile journey in the 6 hours or so we had before sundown.

Around home, if I’m loafing, it might take 3 hours to do 25 miles. If I have no wind and a good number of flats, just over 2. The elevation graph on MapMyRide didn’t look so bad. Climbs, yes, but looked manageable. I’d thought we’d arrive around 11 am, not 1 pm and allotted myself 5 hours accounting for hills and photo-stops.

The climbs were much steeper than I’d guessed from the elevation graph. I most likely could have done them, but it would have taken me forever to push up those grades and some were over half a mile or even a mile long before tilting the other way. Those would have been exciting though!

It made for pretty scenery while I tried to shake off doubts and upset. Jens had relaxed and enjoyed Bruges, but on the drive, he began to stress again. He was worried about arriving too late for any of the cellar tours. I guess he felt the pressure to enjoy the region since I’d planned it just for him.

Beautiful Church, but can't find a name for it!

Beautiful Church, but can’t find a name for it!

The rains were still with us as we arrived in Epernay. Jens was shocked it was so big. Less than half the size of Reims, but he was apparently expecting a large village at best. Not a full blown city of narrow, confusing streets.

It was such a relief for me to find it pretty and charming even if busy. It was clean. The buildings well kept and tidy. There were plots of flowers tucked in many of the spaces not occupied by street, building or sidewalks. Even big old trees in the area around our hotel. It makes sense to keep the place attractive. Epernay being the ‘Champagne Capital of the World’, they wouldn’t want visitors to have their first impression of it to be eyesores of rail-yards, dilapidated buildings with peeling paint and graffiti, homeless people. Not something you want people to associate with champagne which is supposed to be the “ultimate symbol” of pleasure, luxury and celebration.

By the time we’d managed to find parking, I had hit a new low. The entire trip seemed like a profound and huge mistake. I should have just gone along with Jens’ plan fly to a villa in Italy for 2 weeks. It would have given me plenty of time to work on my novels or the like. That Jens felt lost what with the language barrier here in France only added to those feelings. I remember barely more than a handful of words in French and few of them useful.

At least we did manage to get into a cellar tour at Möet and Chandon. We wandered around the cellars behind a guide as she described the steps in making the champagne. There were something like 15 miles of tunnels in their cellars. We passed by what I thought were shallow little alcoves filled with a head-high wall of champagne bottles laid flat on their sides. Then the woman, stood on her tip-toes to shine her flashlight back. Suddenly you could see that the space behind those front bottles went back for yards and it was full of bottles. I think there were over 8,000 in that one alcove.

Beautiful piece of old building

Beautiful piece of old building

Then she pointed to the slate and explained that this set of numbers meant something about when it was set to ferment, what village the grapes came from, what year and such. The bottom number was how many bottles in that alcove. I kept an eye on those as we continued on. The smallest amount for an alcove I saw was 4,000. The largest was over 60,000. It wouldn’t surprise me if we passed more than a million bottles of fermenting champagne just on that short tour. Likely not even a half mile of the 15 in cellar. Leaves the mind reeling to imagine.

Sorry. None of the photos of the cellar came out.

We didn’t go out for dinner, but instead stayed in with comfort food. Then it was a bad night on a bed even worse than the ferry bunk. The shower was a breadbox a supermodel wouldn’t have had room to get clean in. Disappointing hotel all around.

We headed out sharply at 7am, not even staying for breakfast.

As we walked by the beautiful gothic church to the parking lot, I chanted to myself,  “Today in France will be better. Today in France will be better.”

Epernay wasn’t quite waking up as we moved out. We did find the older and less well-kept areas on the way south, but they gave me the impression of old rather than whatever it was that sent me running from Reims.

High On Its Hill

High On Its Hill

I relaxed into the car seat with a sigh as vineyards, high rolling hills and trees surrounded us. Not far out of the town, we stopped for the first serious photo session of the day when what I think was a church caught my attention. With the day so gray and it being still so early, Jens encouraged me to use the tripod. I think he wanted to see it in action since I’d made such a deal about getting it.

He was impressed I think when the size of it expanded so quickly to a comfortably useable height and I was snapping pictures of the building high on its hill in about 2 minutes. Part of that was changing to the long lens.

The top of a chateau

The top of a chateau

Ppft. Who needs guard dogs? This field had a guard pony!

Ppft. Who needs guard dogs? This field had a guard pony!

About 20 minutes later, we stopped again for me to photograph a distant misty view of a chateau on a hill. A curious pony watched as I stepped out of the car. Jens even got out to go take a closer look at the little guy. When Jens turned back to the car, the pony followed along the fence line.

After getting the image of the chateau, I went to greet the pony who turned out to be a feisty little thing. A little funny looking too. He had a horse-sized head on a body barely taller than a Shetland pony. I said farewell and on we went, pausing in the village to take a closer shot of the chateau with Jens’ camera. It looked much more impressive from a distance.

See! Much more impressive from distance

See! Much more impressive from distance

Strangest feeling there's a village nearby

Strangest feeling there’s a village nearby

The landscape went unpredictably from hilly to somewhat flat and back hilly several times. It gave amazingly shifting views of landmarks. Looking at just the upper parts of churches or chateaus and a few minutes later looking up at them on their little hills in towns/villages.

Closer up and unhindered view of a chateau

Closer up and unhindered view of a chateau

The weather somewhat improved though it seemed unsure of what it wanted to do. The flat lead-gray sheet of rain clouds would break up with hints of blue and peeks of sun. A few minutes later, it would close back over and the windshield wipers would come on again. Gradually, the time between the return of the drizzle extended and we had a little more sun for longer.

A Hint of Mountains!

A Hint of Mountains!

I had to grin when the rolling shadow of mountains appeared on the horizon. Low smoothed shapes to the east and higher, steeper to the south-west in the direction of Salers on the edge of an old volcanic landscape. By then the clouds had really begun to roll back and things dried out.

View beyond the tops of ever-present corn

View beyond the tops of ever-present corn

I spotted a lovely view which just happened to have road-side parking spot close to hand. I shook out the tripod for a few panoramic shots only hindered partially by the ever-present fields of corn.

More Scenery

More Scenery

All of Europe seems covered in the stuff. Our guess is it’s all for the production of ethanol. The only place which seemed to have some other kind of crop was the Champagne region with all the grapes, but even there corn lurked in surprising amounts. Except for the rolling landscape, gorgeous medieval churches and castles/manors, I could be in Iowa. There’s hardly a view here that doesn’t have corn.

Impressive!

Impressive!

We came closer to the peaks at the edge of the volcanic area and I became almost giddy at the sight of a castle high on a saddle. I couldn’t tell if it was ruined or not, but still an amazing sight with the tower and crenelated walls. I had to take a photo of it through a wire fence.

Beautiful and to the left is an obvious caldera

Beautiful and to the left is an obvious caldera

Not much further on we stopped again to get a photo of a view that clearly displayed the nature of the weathered mountains around us where one peak had a distinct caldera.

This landscape makes me giddy!

This landscape makes me giddy!

Poor Jens, he’d just hit his driving stride when I was saying, “Oooh! Try to find a place to stop, quick! Picture!” Never a word of complaint. I think he minded the photo-stops much less than, “Quick! Look for a McDonalds!” every time my tummy let me know it was STILL unhappy with me for drinking the Fanta. The McDonalds were the only places I felt comfortable running into at the drop of a hat.

So focused on the cliff, I never noticed the little chateau!

So focused on the cliff, I never noticed the little chateau!

And the sun vanishes!

And the sun vanishes!

In spite of the long drive, Jens seemed to be enjoying himself. Certainly more relaxed than the day before. We arrived in Salers around 6:30. It is an amazing, old French mountain village. Buildings of dark and weathered stone with slate roofs along narrow twisting streets often going up or down.

We found our hotel and were surprised on entering. It was bright with a combination of art deco (I think) and modern touches in decor. Clearly Salers thrives on tourism, but most of it French and very few internationals. I think Jens and I were perhaps one of only 2 couples there who didn’t speak French. Only one of the staff knew any English and probably not more than 100 words. The place was quite busy, but in spite of the rush and lack of common language, the staff was polite if hurried.

Lovely Room View

Lovely Room View

The restaurant was excellent too. Our hotel room comfortable and, oddly, the best internet of the trip so far was at this tiny, remote (if tourist laden) village. In spite of the language problems, Jens and I both were thrilled with where we’d landed our feet.

So, between the visually impressive drive and in such a great hotel, my second day in France was much better!

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