Addressing you are two worldly travelers--after our recent and first trip abroad with our tandem!! We feel experienced after transporting the bike through airports and a myriad of regional train connections--all without the luxury of speaking the French language! Each task from purchasing food to finding lodging was a small challenge that exposed us to the culture and to the wonderful French people who aided us when we were unable to cope on our own.
We made our trip during the first three weeks of September, 1995, flying into Charles DeGaulle Airport near Paris. After spending our first day in Paris acclimating to the time change, we took the RER (regional train) to the end of the line (Saint Rémy-les-Chevreuses) with our loaded tandem. From there we rode toward Chartres, then along the Loire River to the Loire River Valley. After a hurricane and daily rain (always during dinner), we hopped the train to the Dordogne River Valley and spent seven days in a cottage in Sarlat, although we originally planned to camp the entire three weeks. It continued to rain every day, but we managed to ride a loop of 40 plus miles almost each day between the raindrops. We boarded a train back to Paris and spent our last day there before flying home to Cleveland, Ohio. We did not have a planned itinerary--and are we ever glad we didn't. It could have been miserable without being able to adjust our plans for the unexpected weather conditions.
With thanks to several Tandem@Hobbes tips and to "Seat of Our Pants" tour operators Kurt Bradner and his wife, we secured a room in the Ibis Hotel. The hotel was only a short shuttle bus ride from Charles DeGaulle Airport and had room to store our Pedal Pack bike box while we traveled. We were warned that the Ibis would not want to store the box, but that our persistence would prevail. We quickly learned that the French respected our wishes when we were firm. They also responded with help when presented with a problem.
Moving about France and trying to take the bike with us on trains was not simple. Only certain trains allow bikes to board with the passenger. Thanks to a ticket clerk who took on the challege to aid us, an itinery was created. In order to go from the Loire Valley to the Dordogne Valley, we needed to make four transfers, with an overnight stop between one of the connections. The transfers alone provided a jolt of anxiety, and the overnight made us particularly nervous because there was a convention in town, few rooms available, and fewer hotels that could house the bike. A French gentleman, also looking for lodging, translated our plight to a delightful hotel manager, who not only had a room, but, also, provided locked storage for the bike. The manager kindly awoke at 6:30 a.m. to let us to redeem the bike in order to catch the early morning train. Trains are relatively inexpensive. We traveled from the Loire Valley to the Dordogne and back to Paris for less than $100. each. We did not purchase Eurorail passes before we left, because we did not think we would be traveling enough to make them worth while. We felt we made the right decision.
The long bike does provide special problems that regular bikes don't experience. We had to physically lift the loaded bike off and on the baggage cars (approximately 3' to 4' up) with each transfer. Sometimes we had to take it up or down stairways to reach the proper track to catch our train. Often, the bike would rise effortlessly from my hands, as helpful passengers or baggage handlers lifted my end of the bike. In Paris we found to our delight and surprise that escalators are a terrific way to move a tandem up and down. The tandem blocked RER access aisles to other passengers when loaded in the entrance door.
Most people were amused and many curious about our travels. For the most part, the tandem was not unusual to the French, although we did not see another tandem on our trip. It was rare that we got second looks, waves, or questions about the bike. In America, we find that we rarely ride without saluations from people we meet along the road.
We loaded our 1992 Santana Sovereign with front and rear panniers, a handlebar bag, with a tent, 2 therma-rests and one down bag bungeed on the back rack. We took only one change of bike clothing, tights, silk long-johns, and a skirt and top for Judee, slacks and shirt for Art, as well as a bath kit, wash cloths and chamois towels. We carried Tevas for extra shoes and only one jacket, used both for rain and layered with other articles of clothing for warmth. Don't take cotton socks--they don't dry!! We took enough tools and parts to practically rebuild the bike, none of which we needed this trip. And we carried a cook kit and a new model Gaz one-burner stove that utilizes the French manufactured Gaz cannisters. It was difficult to find a screw-type 70-series cannister in France. Gaz was available in EVERY store, but only the pierce-able variety. Perhaps the screw-on 70-series will become more available in the furture. It is imperative that you take equipment that uses local fuel supplies, as you cannot transport fuel on airplanes.
We were pleasantly surprised by the number of campgounds and by the facilities and services at the campgrounds. The Michelin Campguide does not list all the campgrounds, but each of the Office de Tourisme (tourist offices found near the main Cathedral, Chateau or town center) had lists of the accomodations in their region, including complete camp guides. One word of warning: campgrounds close after the normal tourist season and we were greeted with several closed campgrounds! The Loire Valley closed between 9/2 and 9/9, the Dordogne closed by 9/15-9/30. The farther south, the longer the tourist season.
The cost of things was high, but we had been warned and expected high prices. Best deals were table wine (Excellent, often varietals) for $1.50-$3.00 per liter, fine wines $7-$10 per liter, baguettes (.75), pasteries (Yummy!), chocolate (deep, rich, and dark), cheese, and the best fresh fruit (particularly the white peaches). We most often cooked our own dinners, partially because we like leafy green salads, not popular in France. A head of butter lettuce was so fresh it would keep in the panniers for 2-3 days. The markets had many prepared foods, plus bags of assorted lettuce, as do Americn markets. To save money when we ate out, we looked for Plate de Jour ($7-$10 for entree of the day, only) or menu prix fixe ($20+ for pre-chosen courses, including soup and/or appetizer, entrée, cheese plate, dessert or fruit). The coffee was strong and served with hot milk. Petit dejeuner (breakfast) was often served at B & B's or hotels. This consisted of coffee served in pots, with croissants, a bagette, butter and jam for about $5-$7. Expensive! So we tried to do our own coffee in camp, going into the nearby village or town for pasteries and bread ($3 worth would last through lunch). Picnicing with cheese, fabulous fresh fruit, terrines and patés was always a treat! Yogurt is another treat. Non- pasterized dairy products were ultra smooth and rich. Water was safe. We drank tap water EVERYWHERE. It is served at every meal and the French drank prodigious amounts, often ignoring the wine. No wonder they stay so thin despite their meat, cheese, and rich sauce diet.
Finding our way around was not a problem, as we were armed with Michelin maps that are extremely detailed (especially contour maps and those that are 1:200,000). We also found maps of the some cities at the Office de Tourisme, plus many towns had maps posted at the entrance of their village. Every intersection that I can recall was posted with destinations in each direction. Often it was hard to make quick decisions, because it took so long to read all of the signs. Roads were in excellent condition, although they were often narrow, unmarked, with little or no berm. This did not present a problem, as there was little traffic and the drivers were extremely courteous as they passed, swerving around us.
Many tandem@hobbes-ters have talked about point-to-point adventures. We have chosen to do loop trips because transporting our tandem in the Pedal pak has been worth the additional planning. For us, knowing that the bike will arrive whole and unharmed removes one of the most upsetting variables in bicycle travel. We have found it fairly easy to use the same hotel as our first night and last night accomodation, and have them store the box between those dates. So far, we have not been charged a fee for this service.
We thoroughly enjoyed France and would return, given the opportunity. However, there are other countries to explore, and this trip whetted our appetite to try new places. We need to save up! Maybe Portugal would be nice in September of 1997. Anyone out there interested? Has anyone who has traveled there have tips to share?
This article is based on a posting to the Tandem@Hobbes e-mail list.