Day Four, July 24: Forêt Domaniale de Bellême. - Forest, Beach, and River: A Solo Tour of Normandy - CycleBlaze

Day Four, July 24: Forêt Domaniale de Bellême.

The broken spoke incident was still in the middle of phase one of the trip: the forests of southern Normandy. Unlike Americans, the French do not allow camping in their forests. For me this was difficult to understand: how can you appreciate a forest if you don’t fall asleep there, listen to its sounds at night, and get to unzip your tent in the morning to a view of mists, trees, and forests? Their main method of enjoying the forests seemed to be to drive there early in the morning and go for a walk.

In the Forêt Domaniale de Bellême I came across a French forester. His helmet was on, and he was standing by a car, hatchback open with a chainsaw in it. Since we were the only two people for kilometers around, I said “Bonjour!”. He said “Bonjour!” back, with a hint of a smile, like he was fascinated that someone was biking alone, here. I stopped. We talked for a few minutes about French politics, and American politics, and then I asked him about the camping thing. Why not? It seemed like such a waste of a forest.

“Well, the thing is, if it was allowed, everyone would do it. People bring their beer and make fires, and then we have a forest fire we have to contain. We had one a few kilometers from here earlier in the year where that happened. If you want to do it, you can’t ask!”

The forests are mostly empty, but there are frequent signs of forestry and management. Such as giant piles of lumber.
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That wasn’t exactly permission, but it wasn’t a compelling case to not stay in the woods either. Start no fires, leave no trace, be gone in ten hours, where’s the harm in that? That evening I was riding through yet another forest, this time called the “Forêt de Perseigne”. The road I was on had been barricaded, with a sign that no motor vehicles were allowed. It was the ultimate bike path, open only to bikes, forestry vehicles, and hikers. I started to look for places where I could pitch a tent. One side path was lined with grass stalks with ticks at their tips, waiting with outstretched claws for a passing deer, hiker, or bike tourist. I turned around, tucking my pants into my socks. Another patch of forest had trees marked to be cut down. Perhaps that would be tomorrow? I moved on. Another patch looked good but was between two roads. Another patch was one of those very regular grids of trees: inviting, but a tent would show up easily. Then there was a field with a hare running across it. I followed it in, and found a spot that wasn’t visible from the road, didn’t have a lot of grass or any ticks I could see. The tent went up.

My rogue campsite.
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In another difference from American national forests, I had cell service. I called my wife, who I hadn’t talked to in a couple of days.

“You’re talking really quietly, can you speak up?” she said.

“I’m rogue camping in a French Forest! It’s  not the sort of thing where you speak up while you’re doing it. Maybe there’s some forestry guy nearby, or a wolf,” I replied.

“Ooooh, right, rogue camping. Ok, I’ll just listen more carefully,” she said.

While touring in France I normally always keep bread, meat, cheese, and cookies or snacks with me at all times. Although France seems like a well-developed, food-obsessed nation, it’s quite possible to go for fifty kilometers or more without a place that sells food. The Sunday closure of the majority of businesses can also leave a bike tourist hungry; what I had forgotten was how many shops also closed on Monday also, especially bakeries which are often the only place to get food in small villages.

The critical supplies I was missing.
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When my wife and I were on a honeymoon cycling around France, we bought a large multi-pack of peanut M&Ms and hid them throughout our bags, so that we could get them if we needed them, but so we wouldn’t eat them all right away. Because this was day three of the tour, I hadn’t yet gotten around to this precaution. And it was Monday night, in a less-populated area of France. My baguette budgeting on Saturday had been inadequate, and I had finished my bread earlier in the day. So now all I had was a dry sausage, called “saucisson”, and a wedge of brie cheese. It was the very best saucisson (from Provence) and the very best Brie (from Meaux), but still was radically incomplete without bread. After one bite I decided that Brie was simply inedible alone. I ate a dinner of straight saucisson. I tried not to think about what my wife would say, since she is always concerned that I don’t weigh enough: “JoJo! You’re going to waste away on a bike tour if that’s all you eat!”

The forest turned out to be surprisingly noisy. Falling asleep I heard a dog barking, which was at first annoying and then concerning. Would I wake up at 2am staring at a hunting dog out my tent mesh? I consulted the mapping application on my phone. There were what looked like farm buildings, but they had to be at least a kilometer away, and this sounded closer. It stopped. I fell asleep.

In the middle of the night there were enormous hooting sounds that had to be from Eurasian Eagle-Owls, and a harsher sound that I guessed was a juvenile. At one point they were very close, I imagined them sitting on a branch just above my tent. I had seen one at a festival once. The Eurasian Eagle-Owl is extremely large, that kind that engenders a “birds come in that size?” reaction. Their hoots were close to classic owl “hoo-hoo”, but more voluminous.


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