Travelling chimps

Cycling Brighton to Paris – 4 days of bum-numbing fun

This time last we were cycling to Paris on the Avenue Verte. The skies were blue the trees were green and the air was full of honeysuckle, climbing roses and, for a brief moment, a series of profanities after realising we had miscalculated the endpoint by 30 miles. Oops.

Day one:

Cycling Hove to Newhaven, 10 miles

The start of bike ride in Brighton by West Pier
Leaving the West Pier for an epic ride to Paris

I should probably start at day minus one as it sets the scene – we got rid of the kids and instead of packing and having an early night, went to the beach and drank too much wine. So predictable!

You can imagine how we felt when the alarm went off at 5.15am. Uggh. We left the house at 6am and I was tired by the time we got to the seafront… about 10 minutes away. Double ugggghhh.

We made it the 10 miles to Newhaven ferry terminal, an embarrassment of a entrance / exit point to the UK. There is nothing but rubbish, exhaust fumes and a view of the tip to keep you entertained and If you want a coffee, you have to get it before you go through customs; the disgruntled customs officer told us the only machine available to the captive travellers had been ‘broken for months‘. The cafe in the terminal arrivals / ticket office is like a throwback from the seventies – a truckers haven with pictures of lorries and postcards from drivers stuck to the wall with blue tack. It’s almost cool until you realise they haven’t moved anything on from the seventies – is that an instant coffee or (luke-warm) filter? Do you want sauce on your Bacon sarnie?

The Newhaven ferry itself is alright – we’ve caught it so many times we know the routine. Dock your bikes, leg it up to the top deck of the bar and get out on the sundeck asap. There are limited chairs and they are in hot demand.

Cycling Dieppe to Forges-Les-Eaux, 30 miles

We messed up our ferry food. It was the mini-hangover again – we ate our packed lunch at 9.30am and planned to stock up on proper calories (frites) a bit later in the 4 hour journey so that we would be ready for our first 30 mile ride. Somehow we failed. The restaurant was closed when we went to find it and France, being France on a Monday, was closed at 2.30pm when we landed in Dieppe. No restaurants or shops to snaffle any tasty treats. We had to head off for the first real leg with empty tummies.

After about 10 cyclists got muddled on the first roundabout following Avenue Verte signs, we decided to use our phones to find our cycling route through Dieppe to Arques-la-Bataille, where you come off the road and join an old railroad path past beautiful big lakes and greenery that takes you all the way through to Forges-Les-Eaux. It is well-signed, once you get to the turning, and the concrete paths are off-road, which means no traffic pollution and lovely stretches of silence. We were cycling in late May and everything was lush and fresh – new growth everywhere. Occasionally, small villages would rush by – their old platforms still visible on the railroad path. We waved at old men playing boule, spotted an albino peacock and stuck our noses into elder flowers growing along the track.

The novelty of the flat path wore off a bit by the time we reached Neufchatel-en-Bray. We had planned to stop and eat a copious amount of cheese with a cold beer, but we were running (or cycling late) for our airbnb check in and had to press on. Although flat cycling is good, there is little variation and no downhills to give your legs a brief respite. The  signs told us it was another 17km to go and literally every time we passed a new km marker I was counting the seconds to the next. It was a bit worrying – today was meant to be our easy day and we found it a real challenge.

Forges-Les-Eaux  is a small spa town, where people used to come and take the waters. It was pretty but, like DIeppe, it was asleep. All the restaurants were closed apart from one hotel restaurant – La Paix –  that served ‘typical French food’ in a fairly sterile room that was heavy on the white tablecloths and was decorated with peach wallpaper covered in calligraphic painted quotes. Typical French seems to be to avoid vegetables unless they are drowning in butter, so we ordered the prix fixe and ate something very creamy (there was a cherry tomato sized ball of crushed peas on my plate – so I got some vegetables) and had to cancel our cheeseboard for fear of heart failure.  Our French is not great but our attention was caught by quotes that seemed to be about going for a wee against the wall. Good old google translate told us that lo and behold, they were – a celebration of some relevant historical figure spraying the wall with golden piss. What an oddity!

We stayed at an Airbnb close to La Paix and the square. It had a courtyard and separate room to store our bikes and was perfectly clean and tidy. Annie, the owner, greeted us and was very accommodating. It was over 3 floors and the bedroom is right at the top, so that used up the last of my leg energy for the day.

Cycling Forges-Les-Eaux to Beavais 42 miles

We woke up refreshed and ready to go. We were using the Sustrans Avenue Verte book to plan our cycling route and had set approximately 45 miles per day.  Our route took us out of Forges and along small country roads to the hills outside of the town. This was apparently one of the harder sections of the ride but it wasn’t overly difficult. There was absolutely no food shops though, so visit the supermarket in Forges before you set off. After yesterdays hunger we went to the supermarket twice!

Our route wound its way up and down hills covered in poppies, the red stain of the flowers spreading through the green grass. The route was really well signposted and took us along roads that avoided anywhere busy. There was an abundance of creeping roses and not a supermarket in sight. Heaven.  We arrived at our designated lunch spot – Gournay en Bray – just in time for the last of the Tuesday morning market stalls to close up. We really must sort out our timing! At least we had bought bread and cheese in Forges so wouldn’t have to miss lunch again.

The afternoon ride took us back out to the hills – cycling an ascent of Auchy’s hill – and meandered to Saint-Germer-de-Fly, a pretty village with a big gothic cathedral just within the region of Picardy. At this point you have to decide whether to take the east or west route to Paris. The west, through the Vexin areas,  is slightly shorter so we took the east – we liked the sound of the beautiful villages, farms and forests of the Oise.

The route continues along the Pays de Bray until you reach the outskirts of Beavais. This was a much bigger town than anything else we had travelled to but it had a great square with a jumping water feature that our kids would have loved, perfect for cold beers after a days ride.

We stayed in another Airbnb near the centre, hosted by Delphine who kindly stored our bikes in her garage. The house was sprawling with high ceilings and full of interesting bits and bobs. We had to share a bathroom but that wasn’t a problem as it was all immaculately clean. Around the corner from her place was a cobbled street with a few bars and restaurants, all spilling out into the street. We had dinner there and drank wine, there was a great atmosphere. Full to the brim (French food is so rich!) we took a nighttime stroll around Beavais. It was  Instagram paradise with old, crooked houses, quaint shops and the most incredible Gothic cathedral – Cathedrale St Pierre. The dark arches and carved faces were so intricate and the height meant it dominated the whole area.

Cycling Beavais to Senlis, 45 miles

The first thing we realised when we got up was that we had drunk too much beer the night before. Uggghh. The second thing we realised, after we had closed the door and posted the key to the Airbnb through the letterbox, was that we had left our guidebook in the bedroom. The third thing we realised, when we logged on to check the route, was that we had grossly underestimated the distance to Paris and had an additional 30 miles ish to do. We couldn’t spread our cycling over two days because we had already booked and paid for our accommodation in Senlis, which sounded lovely, and the closer you get to Paris the harder it is to find rooms where you can keep bikes.  Ah well – we’ll worry about that tomorrow!

The route out of Beauvais took us through several small villages – it felt as if the roads were getting a bit busier now were were getting closer to Paris. There was a long section where we were just travelling alongside a fairly busy road, albeit on a bike path, and it wasn’t very interesting. We then hit another railroad path which took us away from the traffic.

We were still doing well with the Avenue Verte signs but because we had no cycling maps, we downloaded the route as a gpx file and used an app on our phone for less than £5 to track the route. It wasn’t foolproof – quite often we’d spot a sign going one way and the gpx would tell us to go another, but they more or less went the same way. It became invaluable for helping us to get back on track when the signs seemed to dry out somewhere around Clermont. There was a definite sense that the route was signed from Paris to London and not the other way round – you’d get to a junction and the only sign would be pointing back the way you had come.

Clermont was a busy town and we stopped to eat our baguette and cheese. After so many cheese failures we had picked up some in Beauvais and struck gold – after stewing in our pannier bags for the morning, this cheese was ripe enough to pour over our bread. Delish!

As we cycled on, it wasn’t just an increase in traffic. The buildings were closer together and getting grander, with less farmhouses and more Gothic cathedrals, monasteries and abbeys. The best of the route comes right at the end as you cross Halatte Forest on a series of tracks that join at centre junctions with old signs pointing off from a centre pole. It links the majestic Abbaye du Moncel to the historic city of Senlis and as you descend at full pelt on forest tracks , you get a gorgeous ‘wind in the hair’ moment.

Senlis is beautiful. Full of cobbled streets, roadside bars, quaint little shops and the standard Gothic cathedral. We stayed at a lovely, modern Airbnb, hosted by Didier. It was within easy walking distance of the main town and had a courtyard garden to safely store the bikes.  I’d have liked to wander around and enjoy the atmosphere – maybe go for breakfast or have a lazy start with a walk around town, but tomorrow was a biggy and so we indulged in just one Aperol Spritz, ate a quick Italian meal and went to bed early.


Cycling Senlis to Paris, 80 miles

Yes, you read correctly. We had planned 48 miles for the final day cycling but got it spectacularly wrong. I think we just hadn’t noted down a major chunk between Paris St Germain and Paris centre. Hubby wanted to blame me as I am a terror for getting my numbers wrong (I am a words person!) but he had also checked the book and totted up the count. Whatever it was, we had a long ride to get through and so we started early and headed to Chantilly, 20km away, for breakfast.

The ride out of Senlis took us back into the forest, which was lovely and cool. We passed the incredible Chateau de Chantilly and picked up some pastries and then headed on to have breakfast overlooking the Abbey of Royaumont. Again, the greenery was  vibrant and plants were bursting into life. It was a glorious morning and we covered a big chunk of miles with relative ease.

The route is broken into sections and it felt like an achievement reaching Asnieres sur Oise as we were another stage closer to the finish line. The route is busier, but still lovely, as you join the Oise River and cross from bank to bank via L’isle-Adam, Auvers-sur-Oise and Pointoise. We stopped at Port Cergy to eat a slightly squidged baguette and some leftover blue cheese. Port Cergy is a marina with restaurants overlooking the water. It was sunny and busy and proper torture to sit on a bench with such a sorry lunch as the glamorous of Paris drank cold beer and relaxed.

There was no time for us to drink beer. A cold can of pop and we were back in the saddle, powering on to the point in which the east and west routes of the ride join up and the next section begins – when the Oise joins the Seine. This section is famous for all the impressionist painters, including Van Gogh, who were inspired by the river scenes. It was indeed beautiful and the grand buildings on each side were impressive. I played a good mental game of which one do I want as my legs worked like pistons and we hammered through the checkpoints.

As the route closed in on Paris (and my interest in choosing houses massively diminished) it got more industrial and the poverty became apparent. There were more people, including children, begging and we cycled past a couple of shanty towns and areas full of tents.  My legs no longer felt like machines and my knees hurt. It felt like it was taking forever to get close to the centre and despite the descriptions telling us how wonderful the entry into Paris is, to us it felt crazy busy and a tad dodgy. Motorbikes roared up the bike paths, dogs wandered aimlessly and people were cooking pieces of meat on old trolleys that had been converted into barbecues.

When times get tough on a French bike ride there is one thing that will restore you – pastries. I have never deserved sugar so much in my life and patisserie power is the way forward.  Fuelled with chocolate eclairs and custard tarts we made it down to the canals and found the beautiful people once again as they swanned about on their way home from work. Oh how we longed to stop for a beer there! We felt as if we should officially finish the ride somewhere recognisable though, so headed on to the Seine. That was pretty galling as our hotel was in the other direction so we had to add on extra miles.

The panniers made it tough to cycle through the traffic but I definitely felt as if the French were more accommodating with cyclists. Even though Parisiens can’t be trusted to follow road rules – if they see a space they’ll make a dash to it – they give you a wide berth while they are careering across the road! When you get to the river though there is a good bike path and plenty of spots to stop. To STOP!!! Yes, I have never enjoyed a beer so much.

We reached our hotel about 8pm, 12 hours after starting, and after a quick dinner at the closest restaurant we could find, we went back to our room and fell asleep. We had to leave for our train to Rouen at 10am the next morning but there was no way I was going exploring with my lead-like legs! Next time.