French Public Roads

The Incredible Estérel Coastal Path, Jan 2019

My sister-in-law’s family recently moved to Saint-Raphaël, which means that we now have an excellent excuse to visit this spectacular part of the world!

On our first visit, belle-soeur introduced us to dozens of interesting places, including one of the coolest trails I’ve ever been on, the Estérel coastal path.

She explained that the path was created as a result of French laws that view the coast as public property. The law has been hanging in the balance for the last thirty years as developers and environmental activists fight to change it.

And global warming is causing the coastline to move inward towards private property lines, which could also impact public access.

Given these threats to the path, we felt incredibly lucky to be able to hike it when we did.

Early one morning, we followed belle-soeur’s car to Agay where we parked our car, and then belle-soeur drove us back to the trail head in Port de Santa Lucia, in downtown Saint-Raphaël.

It took us about six hours to hike the 7 or so miles (11 or so km).

The terrain was unreal. The City of Saint-Raphaël’s website offers a really helpful, concise overview of its coastal geology, and is in general a great resource.

We scrambled over volcanic organ pipes,

solidified volcanic ashes dating from the Mesozoic period 65 million years ago,

and beaches of esterellite pebbles,

the hardest rock in France! In Roman times, esterellite was extracted from mining sites around St Raphael, and used to pave roads and monuments.

The going was tough, and Oliver had to be carried at times.

We were occasionally assisted by stairs cut out of rock and repaired with concrete.

There were few trail markers, but finding the path was part of the fun!

It was remarkable to think that we were sharing a view with the owners of the beautiful mansions that line the coast.

Our path came to an abrupt halt at a damaged levee possibly caused by construction on an adjacent luxury hotel.

Does the abandoned construction in the background hearken back to the days of stricter coastal property laws? And why was the construction in the foreground abandoned… bankruptcy?

It seemed like a sure sign of the times.

The water was so clear and calm, and the weather so sunny and warm that we were tempted to jump in and swim the four or five feet to the other side.

But I was worried about Ollie, who was very nervous, so we backtracked until we found a way back to the Route de la Corniche.

Our makeshift path back to the Route de la Corniche.

We walked along the shoulder of the road for about a mile before connecting to the sentier littoral du Cap Dramont,

which took us to Agay, where we sipped chocolat chaud as we watched the sun slip behind the horizon.

Can you see the sailboat?

Next time we intend to kayak the route.

Resources Consulted:
L’Estellerite, AzureAlive
Esterel Coastal Path, Saint-Raphaël Tourism
“Managing the Coast in France,” Littoraux et Changements Côtiers

Bonjour Canal de Bourgogne, Aug 2017

The Canal de Bourgogne is a hop, skip and a jump away from the small, agricultural town of Soussey-sur-Brionne, where my spouse has family. The Canal was originally conceived of in 1605, but construction didn’t began until 1775, and was completed in 1832. It spans 150 miles (242 km) and connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea.

Lock near Pouilly en Auxois.

We traveled a very small section of the Canal, limiting our journeys to day-trips around Pouilly-en-Auxois. However, we saw quite a few cyclists, generally in couples, loaded down with enough gear to last several days.

I found the lock-houses (“maisons d’ecluse” in French) fascinating. Although they’re no longer inhabited by lock-keepers (“gardiens d’ecluse”), their location, abutting the trail wherever there is a lock, were vivid reminders of the days when movement through the Canal was hand- and horse-powered. The structure of each lock-house was consistent, but each bore the stamp of their owner in their color schemes and embellishments. All were beautifully maintained.

Lockhouse near Vandenesse.

Some antique agricultural equipment on display outside the Vandenesse lock-house. I used to work at Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, former residence of James Deering (1859–1925), heir to Deering Harvester Company (which became International Harvester Company), so seeing this old Deering equipment was quite a thrill. James Deering had a close relationship with the French, and was even awarded the French Legion of Honor.

Motorized vehicles are prohibited on the trail, but that doesn’t stop locals, young and old alike, from using it to zip from one village to the next on motorized scooters.

Chateauneuf-en-Auxois in the background, with the canal and canal boats in the foreground, make this an unmistakably French scene.

An old and weathered Cardinal butterfly (Argynnis Pandora) enjoying his last days.

Oliver says the grass along the Canal de Bourgogne is some of the best in the world!

Resources Consulted:
Bourgogne-Franche-Compte Tourisme: Chateauneuf-en-Auxois
Canal de Bourgogne (Wikipedia)
I Love Walking in France: Walking the Burgundy Canal
Travelling the Canals and Rivers of Europe: Pouilly en Auxois to Pouillenay
Trip Suggest: Discover Creancey in France!

Bonjour Villentrois, Aug 2017

For many generations, my spouse’s family has had a home in Villentrois (population 645) near Valençay, at the northern tip of the Indre departement. In the past, the town was famous for its mushrooms, which blanket the landscape in November. Mushrooms are also grown in deep caves cut out of the Tuffeau limestone hills. My spouse’s family home has such a cave. They keep you lovely and cool in the summer. Tuffeau limestone is also used to patch neighboring Loire Valley castles, the most famous of which is probably Chambord.

We cycled trails, wrought by tractors, that skirted the boundaries of farms and intersected major roadways, and dirt roads cut by lumber companies, patched with ceramic shards, that disappeared in the shadow of Forêt de Brouard. We avoided major roadways as the roads are small and drivers speed and are unused to cyclists. Small restaurants – none more authentic in France – quenched our hunger. Only one word of caution: check the weather forecast before you leave, as there aren’t very many places to take shelter during rainstorms.

Veuil has a cluster of restaurants that are worth risking a drenching for. We arrived late to Le P’Tit Veuil with a ferocious storm close on our heals, but they did not hesitate to welcome us in, and fed us with such alacrity that I have had to reconsider my definition of hospitality!

The dark area is the Forêt de Brouard. We got caught in a rainstorm while in the forest. The best shelter we could find was a young tree that slowed the passage of the rain, but in no way prevented it from reaching us. The storm lasted about thirty minutes! It was a fantastic ride, though.

Sunflowers, or “tournesols” in French.

A house built with blocks of Tuffeau limestone.

This trail in the Forêt de Brouard was on the delimitation between two departments. The concept of “departement” is similar to “county” in English, but the jurisdiction of departements is wider than that of counties (“comte” in French), which are usually part of departements.

The entrance to a nest of European hornets. Wikipedia says they’re docile unless engaged in contest with another wasp, or defending their nest. They were unbothered by us.

Classic Valencay cheese, made with goats’ milk, little flattened pyramids of heaven.

Route Departemental (D33), road from Lucay-le-Male to Villentrois. The glass insulators on the power lines were old in the 1960s. When my spouse was a child, these funny, old insulators imprinted themselves in his memory so that they will forever be associated with Villentrois.

Resources Consulted:
A Gardener in France: Troglodyte flower show in central France
European Hornet (Wikipedia)
Cheese.com, Valencay

Goodbye London, Aug 2017

It’s been a little over a year since we said goodbye to London and the U.K. and relocated to the San Francisco Bay Area. I was reluctant to leave. The parks, charity shops, high streets, public transit that gets you anywhere anytime, museums and galleries, countryside, pubs, and history at every turn were hard to let go of, but at least we left in style. After a bit of fuss over our lease agreement (beware of renting from KFH) and lots of back and forth with freight forwarders, we mailed three-weeks’ worth of clothing to France, hopped on our bikes, loaded Oliver in his basket, and cycled out of town. Our destination: France, for three weeks of visiting with family and cycling the countryside prior to moving back to the United States.

Departing from Battersea Park, we took one last peek at Windsor Castle, Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, the Thames and Tower Bridge, and caught a train from London Waterloo East to Folkstone Central, a cab to Calais, and a train to Paris, where we cycled between train stations. Finally we took a train to St. Cloud (a suburb between Paris and Versailles), where we spent a few days before driving to Villentrois, in the middle of France. We then headed east to Soussey-sur-Brionne, from whence we cycled the Canal de Bourgogne and the Parc Regional Natural du Morvan. We then returned to St. Cloud and cycled around the Forêt de Fausses-Reposes, which stretches from St. Cloud to Versailles, for a few days before packing up our bikes and heading back to the United States.

Unfortunately we didn’t take any photos of the exodus through London. This was taken en route between London and Folkstone.

We took a Folkstone Taxi through the Eurotunnel, avoiding the Eurostar because it has a no-pets policy. While crossing the Channel, we were interviewed by Channel 4 for a documentary about the lives of regular people using the Channel in the light of Brexit.

A Folkstone taxi cab in the Euroshuttle, transporting us across the Channel while we are interviewed by Channel 4. Two of several cameras are visible, as well as a shy Ollie. Chloe from Blast Films, who organized the interview, was riding in the car behind us.

From Calais Ville we took the SNCF to Gare du Nord, then cycled through Paris to Gare Saint-Lazare, which took us to St. Cloud, our first destination.

The trip lasted about seven hours and involved at least a dozen staircases, but was otherwise painless. And I would lug my bike up twice as many staircases to cycle the French countryside again.