The world is flat: Aulnay - La Ronde - North to the Loire, monsieur... and home again - CycleBlaze

July 31, 2013

The world is flat: Aulnay - La Ronde

The Marais, where tourists now hire small boats and the locals go by car
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"LET ME give you some cakes," the white-haired woman said. I think I may have mentioned that she was sitting outside her house yesterday, opposite the hotel. Last night she'd been on a wooden chair outside her door; this morning she was looking through her kitchen window.

It was hard to guess her age. Some people, when they get older, acquire a peace and calm that defies mere years. She probably wouldn't have been offended had we guessed at mid-80s.

The fussing Germans were up and away earlier than us this morning. She'd probably watched them go off into the world as well. The hotel man with the Gallic nose said they hadn't been all ordnung and efficiency this morning, getting him up for an early breakfast and then running up and down stairs to fill water bottles, retrieve things they'd forgotten and sometimes, it seemed, for no reason at all.

We wheeled our bikes across the same courtyard and through the same gate an hour after them. The woman had the air of half looking for us, half making out she wasn't.

"Bonjour," she as much smiled as spoke. She was wearing a blue, flowered housecoat. She ignored me but gestured at Steph to come closer.

"I like to meet the people staying at the hotel," she confided. "All the travellers." But she didn't, Steph noticed, ask where we were from or where we were going. Such questions seem the very least you'd ask travellers, but then perhaps people of her generation thought that too forward. Or perhaps she assumed that, like so many others, we were heading for Santiago on the Chemin de St-Jacques. That's what the Germans had been doing.

She approved of our staying at the hotel, though. "They keep it very clean over there, don't they?" she whispered with vicarious pride. Perhaps she'd made sure the new owners had introduced themselves.

We headed west this morning, immediately meeting a lost bike pilgrim, also heading for Santiago, who had been let down both by heaven and his scrap of photocopied map. Attached to the bag on his bars was a list of towns, some underlined to show, I suppose, where he intended to stay. We never found out, though, because he was much more interested in heavenly guidance with his map than in conversation. Unfortunately for him, he got us instead, although we did have a better map to offer.

There wasn't so much to say about today after that, except that we rode on narrow, unused roads that are any cycle-tourist's dream. they took inexplicable zig-zags, the obstacle that caused them long vanished. They passed through fields of cropped corn and oblong bales of straw. Some places have giant cylindrical bales; others are more modest and go for cubes. Picasso would have approved.

In time the shallow hills gave way to an open plain, the Marais, or fen. It's described as a marsh, the second largest in the country after the Carmargue. It used to be a regional national park, but the title was taken away when surrounding farms became too intensive. This was the less attractive stretch; the best is to come. Nevertheless, like fenland everywhere, it's worth giving it time. What seems first like a wilderness slowly becomes romantic, a sort of outdoor cathedral under an arching sky.

Ah, there's my bike!
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I used to live in the Fens of eastern England. They, too, are scoffed at. But live with them and the peace and an innocent grandeur sink in. There are none of the white-topped peaks and deep valleys of the mountains, naturally. But to cross fenland under a faultless sky or when the sky darkens and rain clouds start to tower is to realise how very large the world is and just how small each of us in it.

This is a land where men once walked on stilts through water-topped fields of wriggling eels. Flooding always was and still is a risk and the poorest lived with the reality of water rising in their houses twice a day. They contracted the diseases of the damp and grew poppies and made cocaine to counter them.

None of that happens now, of course. Instead the long, linear villages - because they originally followed the more dominant waterways which provided the highways of the period, are as calm, healthy and contented as everywhere else.

Which is just as well, because we plan to have a day off here tomorrow. We are nicely on time to get to Nantes and we can afford to rest our legs.

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