The sunflowers of France lie sad and flat: Breville to Aulnay - North to the Loire, monsieur... and home again - CycleBlaze

July 30, 2013

The sunflowers of France lie sad and flat: Breville to Aulnay

The sign of a developed nation is that it provides ample bus shelters for passing cyclists
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IT RAINED again this morning. I wriggled out of the tent to make coffee as it drizzled. And then it had the good grace to stop.

I love waking up when we're camping wild. Don't you? There's a sensation of having passed through the night, through the world, without leaving a trace. Not beyond a patch of temporarily flattened grass, anyway. If I had my way, I'd pass through the world for ever without touching it except in passing.

And so it was this morning, the grass damp from the rain and glistening in the hint of morning sun. Birds sang, saw me, hesitated, then sang again, claiming their part of the world. The broken cobbled path through the wood from the road was as dark and abandoned as ever. And the maize beyond our clearing had dozed through the night without rearranging itself.

To heck with the buses: bus shelters are for making sandwiches. Pass the word.
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The only sad touch was a reminder of the fields of flattened sunflowers we've been passing these last days. We're cut off from the news, out here on the road, but we gather from a call to friends that much of the rest of the west has been battered by high wind. We have been blessed in missing it.

At the tourist office in the first town of account, we found out more. A sweet woman, in the nicest sense, fussed over us and pulled up a chair and handed us a list of campgrounds with an apology that the region hadn't the money to update it this year, then asked if we'd heard about the storms.

She had large, smiling eyes that now looked concerned. Her hair was brown and cropped and her manner suggested that nothing was too much for her. She was the sort of woman to whom others come and unload their day's problems.

"We had a storm," she said, "all the way from Bordeaux to the centre. It ripped the rook off a 16th-century building and dumped it in the road." She paused, as it waiting for us to register sympathy. But she was thinking how lucky this area had been. And finally she said: "But at least it didn't damage the vines."

Not many people work in vineyards these days but here, so close to the cognac distilleries, grapes are the dominant industry. And so easily destroyed.

In time the vineyards disappeared. I never regret it when that happens. Vineyards strike me as the ultimate in industrial farming, unnaturally straight lines of what like crippled, lunar trees in winter and park-keeper privet hedges in summer. Vines grow best in dry, sandy soil, too, which hardly makes the countryside any more appealing.

Not that it ever got to very beautiful today. The country became flatter and more open, just fields of cropped wheat, of sunflowers or of other crops. Nothing of interest. Just countryside that is there and sees no reason to apologise for it.

We weren't unhappy but there was no song on our lips either. The wind rose and we plodded into it, finally reaching Aulnay and deciding to stay in its only hotel and not give a hoot about the cost.

I think they needed our money, anyway.

"It's been a difficult summer," we heard. The hotel was run by a husband and wife who'd taken it over at the start of the season only to find that winter had dragged on and on. He was tall and lean, with a French nose, the sort that exactly fills a wine glass. "But we're glad we avoided the coast. It's too risky there. You're too dependent on the weather. We were in Royan this morning and it's very quiet."

Three other cyclists turned up as we ate in the courtyard. They were Germans in their 30s, riding mountain bikes, bags hanging from their shoulder. They looked tired, spent a long time fussing over where to leave their bikes, then went to their room without acknowledging us. I've had days like that as well. You, too, no doubt.

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