Cherbourg – Cháteau de Vouilly
Max speed: 46kph
Average speed: 17kph
So after a 22 hour boat trip to France we finally started cycling. Saying goodbye to my parents before leaving wasn’t nearly as emotional as I envisaged. I think excitement overpowered the sadness of not seeing people for so long. Plus it’s hard to comprehend being gone for so long so I don’t think I fully thought I wouldn’t see them…
Landing in Cherbourg at 11am, we quickly realised that our map was vastly inaccurate with its delegation of the road importance. Cherbourg was just a maze of red roads, some were cycle friendly then suddenly it would become a motorway. This lead to the next hour been spent going round in circles. What the hell are the red roads? Nothing made sense and no one we asked knew how we could escape this web of misery.
We were just about to give up all hope when Jacque, on his gold 70’s Peugeot race bike, pulled up beside us. Clearly seeing our pathetic state, he asked if we needed help. Jacque looked to be in his mid to late sixties with a physique only achieved by many years of cycling. He was our first bicycle touring angel of the trip. Not happy with just giving us directions he escorted us 6km out of the town. Once we were back on track he scribbled down a few more directions before we were on our way.
The upside of starting in Normandy was that we would be able to ease into the heatwave that seemed to be sweeping Europe this year. Even at that, we still envisioned gloriously sunny French days. That was not the case. An ever present cold seemed to follow us over from Ireland. The dull day slowly turned to drizzle and wind. Thankfully the roads had lush overhanging ditches like at home giving us some passing shelter until the day cleared. Not long after the cloud cleared, we began to see the France I had always wanted to see. The small country roads were broken every now and again by the most beautiful small townland or village. It seemed that no matter how small or insignificant they seemed to be, there was never a drop in perfection. I loved it. I loved it all. You could be cycling down an insignificant section of roads and then, all of a sudden there would be a random little bakery. I remember passing one in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. It was still stocked to the nines with all conceivable forms of bread. I just kept thinking, how were they going to sell all that bread? More importantly how were they going to sell it all in a day?
We pulled in to the supermarket at Quenttehou. It was the first significant town we had come across so we took the opportunity to get some lunch and top up our stove with petrol. Despite having studied French for five years in school, my fluency level was diddly-squat. If it wasn’t for the woman at the petrol pump, I would probably still be there now trying to figure out how it worked. That was the least of our worries at the time though. Ruth was unable to find any gluten free food in the supermarket. It wasn’t the greatest thing to discover on the first day. If we were unable to find anything of value for Ruth to eat to keep up her calories and energy, it would eventually lead to serious problems down the line. Fret not, we thought, and we headed off.
The constant swapping and changing of roads was starting to take a toll on our progress. By the time we reached Isigny-sur-men, we had the sudden realisation that we probably weren’t going to reach our planned stop at Omaha beach by the end of the day. We had planned to cover around 100km for the first two days in order to reach Vimoutier to catch a stage of the Tour de France. This plan was becoming less and less likely every time we had to change roads due to cyclists suddenly being forbidden. So we had to make the tough decision, to either continue towards Omaha beach as planned thus risking missing the tour or skip the beach altogether and make as much ground as we could towards Vimoutier. Turned out, it wasn’t that difficult of a decision at all. We used our fantastic logic to come up with a solution to the problem.
Back home, we live just a few minutes from Ballinesker beach. Ballinesker is where they filmed the D-day landings in the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan. Ruth’s parents ran a B&B during the time they were filming and actually had a German Shepard dog and his two trainers stay with them. The dog was meant to be Tom Hanks’ sidekick throughout the film. He spent a few days running through explosions and helping Tom on the beach. Unfortunately for the poor dog, Spielberg felt that it was all a bit Hollywood so cut him out of the film. There’s a little bit of film fact I bet you didn’t know.
Our logic suggested that, considering that was filmed on Ballinesker, surely Omaha would just look the same. Sure what would be the point of going to see something that looked the same as what we see every day? Now, I do accept the fact that we completely overlooked the whole history of Omaha when making our decision. But come on, it’s the Tour de France. How often do you get the cycle to the Tour de France from your house?
Minds made up. We would skip the beach and make for Balleroy. It seemed like the most realistic place for us to reach by the end of the day. It had been a tough day of cycling and at around the 85km mark, hunger and tiredness started to get the better of us. A ‘Chambre d’Hote’ sign caught our eye. Well, it caught Ruth’s eye, because it meant nothing to me. Ruth’s French was much better than mine and, full sure that she knew what it meant, she let out a shout to stop. She stood for a bit looking at the sign.
“Right. I remember learning something about a Chambre d’hôte in school. I’m pretty sure Chambre d’hôte means youth hostel”
“Eh good enough for me. Let’s chance it”
At that point, I would have slept in a thorny bush, so “I’m pretty sure” was more than I needed to hear to convince me. The signs led us down a single lane country road to a farmyard. The soft gravel driveway did little to suggest what lay at the end of it. It wasn’t long before we copped on that Ruth’s French mightn’t be as up to scratch as we had hoped. Turns out Chambre d’hôte means guestroom. What greeted us at the end of the gravel driveway was a colossal old French chateau. Our chances of finding a cheap room for the night began to fade dramatically. Not deterred, we propped our heavy bikes against the wall and searched for someone to help us. James, the owner, popped his head around the corner.
“Hi. Bonjour. Is it possible for us to camp here tonight?”
James smiled that smile someone gives you when you know they’re actually laughing inside. “No, I’m afraid not but we do have some rooms”
Balls, I thought, this can’t be good. “And, eh, how much is it for a room?”
“For two, it’s €110”
I could feel Ruth looking at me before I even turned to her. This was half of our weekly budget. There was no way we could afford to stay here. The feeling of dread about getting back on the bike to find somewhere else began to creep in. It must have showed on our faces as James came a little closer and quietly muttered, “For you, I can do €90”.
Despite trying to smile and look polite, our faces obviously were still saying something different.
“How about you come and look at the room before you decide?”
Sure I suppose it wouldn’t hurt.
I could describe the room in detail, but at the time all I really cared about was that comfy looking bed. That en-suite. That shower. This place was beginning to get harder and harder to refuse. I could see Ruth smiling too, meaning she was thinking the same. The final nail in the coffin was when James took a careful look down the hallway before closing the door slightly. “For you I will give you a special price. You can stay for €60 but don’t tell anyone”, he whispered with a grin.
I smiled at Ruth and she smiled back.
Before boarding the ferry to France, we had been slipped a card with €50 in it by my friend Gabriel. The card said that the money was only to be used to treat ourselves. I think staying in a French chateau constitutes a treat. Thanking you Gabriel for that. It was a cracking sleep. After unloading our bags and parking the bikes in the barn, we were able to cook up a storm in the kitchen. Hawaii, the golden Labrador, accompanied us, mainly for belly rubs though, not to help with the dinner. I wasn’t complaining though. She was very cute.
ar an rothar
endurance cyclist, adventurer and usually hungry