Meeting the posh neighbours - Mid-winter across Europe - CycleBlaze

January 8, 2007

Meeting the posh neighbours

Nangis, Fontainebleau, Montigny, Villiers, La Chapelle, Puiseaux

There used to be a wonderful woman in Britain called Barbara Cartland. She was very large, very grand and appeared to dress in nothing but sickly pink. She wrote appalling romantic novels and she was related in some way to Diana, Princess of Wales. She also wore face make-up and mascara so equally thick that the Australian writer Clive James said of her face that it looked like two crows that had flown into a chalk cliff.

She was, though, a woman of the people, our Babs. When a journalist went to interview her on the weary topic of class distinction, Cartland sighed and said: "But my dear, of course there's no class distinction these days, otherwise I wouldn't be talking to someone like you."

That was doubtless the view they used to take at Fontainebleau. It's a big, formal château just south of Paris, less famous than Versailles but well worth a visit. When outbreaks of dysentry, pox or tubucular fever threatened to carry away the poor people of Paris, the king and his hundreds of attendants never stopped to help them; they just packed their bags and went to live in the fresh air of the countryside until enough Parisians had died for the infection to die with them.

Fontainebleau: a humble place in the country just dandy for the weekend
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Whether Marie-Antoinette actually ever said "Qu'ils mangent du gâteau!", I don't know, but certainly she was one of the many who lived at Fontainebleau at some time. And when such heartless arrogance became too much and France got rid of its royal family and Napoléon took over, he too lived at Fontainebleau and (like Churchill) used to dictate memos in his bath, which is still there.

From Nangis that morning I rode through the forest that leads to Fontainebleau, sheltered from the wind. The road surface was good and the traffic light and the sun twinkled through the trees as I passed.

I spent a couple of hours at Fontainebleau. It is glorious and better than I expected. I arrived at the same time as a bunch of Italians with a guide but, once they had moved ahead of me, I could enjoy walking around at my own pace with only the light company you'd expect in midwinter.

The audio-guide was worth the money and the place was a pleasure to visit, right down to the security guard who declined to let me take my bike into the courtyard but offered to lock it in a compound used for bikes belonging to the staff.

There was more pleasant riding after that to Montigny, which I reached by the narrowest road leading off the giant roundabout at the edge of town. But then the day changed and the rain started and the wind blew and the countryside became once more open and without shelter. I could have got as far as the village in which I had booked a hotel but instead, concerned that I was riding in thick drizzle which must have made me near-invisible in the dark even in yellow and with a reflective band, I stopped in Puiseaux.

I didn't want to give up that original hotel booking, 30km further on, but equally I begrudged having to go there. Until now, everywhere I have found in the Logis de France guide has been at least welcoming and some have all but made me members of the family.

"Yes?", the woman on the phone had said.

"Would you have a room tonight?"

"Yes. What time will you be here?"

"Hard to say because I'm on a bike and I'm riding against the wind and, well, you know..."

She didn't know.

"Phone me if you're not here by seven."

And that was about it.

Well, sod you, then. I'd go there only if there was nowhere in Puiseaux. I was sent to a bar on the edge of town but that was no longer a hotel. I was just resigning myself to carrying on in the rain when two men in a tyre-fitting depot told me there was a chambre d'hôtes in the centre of town. And that's where I stayed, with a charming woman called Véronique.

It was the first time I had stayed at a chambre d'hôte but it won't be the last.

Oh, yes...

I went back out in the rain to call the original hotel.

"Hi," I said, "it's your poor wet cyclist again."


"I'm afraid I'm too tired, the rain is sweeping down, the wind is against me and it's too dark to be out on the road."

"So you're cancelling the room?" she said in a tone that indicated "Look, I've got a hotel to run here and I can do without people messing me about by wanting rooms here."

I said that, regretfully, I was.

"Goodbye, then."

I'm tempted to name the place so that you can avoid it another time.

Today's ride: 77 km (48 miles)
Total: 839 km (521 miles)

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