Saturday, August 26th
The pub beneath the hostel was loud until around 3 or 4 in the morning. I was half-awake for at least half the time I was in bed. The sunlight then woke me up sometime around 7. But I felt oddly refreshed for what felt like four hours decent sleep, and headed downstairs for breakfast – three pieces of toast and a bowl of cocopops – before most of the other occupants had emerged from their beds and hangovers.
I checked out, and as I put the pannier i’d taken to my room back on my bike I notice my rack has snapped at the point it joins the frame near the hub. This is hardly surprising, but a little worrying. If the other one suffers a similar fate, which isn’t unlikely, then I could be very stuck.
With this in mind, plus my general lethargy and fatigue, I decide to scale back my ambitions for the French part of this bike ride. Essentially I’m just delaying the inventible – coming home.
Whilst the cycling so far has in fact been lovely, i’m viewing it as a formality and a means to an end – England.
Since I don’t have a huge interest in seeing an extra couple of hundred miles of coast to meet the ferry at St Malo, and my bike is falling apart (again), I decide to aim for either Calle or Le Harve.
Calais is closest but from what I can gather the area is best avoided right now.
This leaves me with around 250 miles to cover.
Today the aim is Dunkirk – a 45 mile ride to the French coast. Kind of a half day since I covered 100 yesterday, and I spent a few hours of the morning after breakfast wandering around Bruges completely lost as my phone died and the cobble streets all started to look the same.
I ate a waffle, bought a pin badge, admired the canals and the cathedral and asked for directions at a hotel to get me back to the hostel.
It’s a pretty place to linger in, but, as usual, I decided to keep moving, so charged my phone at the hostel, and left.
Soon after setting off on my bike the lack of sleep, and the miles from yesterday, hit me all at once and it’s a struggle. Most of the afternoon melts into this one long hot slog as I cycle a succession of canal side paths. The starts and ends, and places these go through seem a little inconsequential now I try and recall them.
But it’s all very pleasant, well sign posted, easy cycling. Just like the last few days. The heat makes things tough however, and twice I lay down on benches and drift off for a few seconds or minutes. I lose track of how many people pass me, not just the guys in lycra, but old couples returning from buying groceries, all on bikes, of course.
When you start cycling in a new country it takes a while to adjust and find a rhythm that suits it. In America it was gas stations which marked the passing of time and distance, in Japan it was 7/11 doughnuts. Here, conveniences are harder to find apparently, and I’m definitely lacking caffeine and water.
Things start to become grimmer when I reach the Belgium/French border which seems to be marked by a series of tobacco and alcohol shops, presumably offering some better tax rate. Some have Union Jacks on which confuses the offering. I stop in the very last one to buy a can of drink. A strange transaction takes place in which the money and the product pass through the kind of theft proof drawer thing a bank or post office would have. This seems overkills for a can of Dr Pepper.
The whole area has a no mans land feel, which continues as I cross the canal again and enter France. The only sign marking the occasion is attached to a lamppost partly obscured by a wire fence. It’s about the size of a record sleeve and just says ‘FRANCE’ no ‘Welcome to’, but perhaps i’ve come to expect too much from American State line signs which are as much adverts as they are wayfinding.
What follows is a series of box shaped grey and beige concrete buildings, crumbling shop facades, and shuttered windows. It’s more than a little depressing, even just to cycle through, which I do as quickly as I can.
Five marginally more pleasant miles later I reach the edge of Dunkirk and the campsite – Camping de la Licorne. Reception is closing up but I secure a spot and pay, 8 euros or so, just before it shuts. I manage a hello and thank you in French.
For those 8 euros I get a large area of grass to camp in with hedges either side. Not bad really. It’s a big campsite. I put up my tent as some guys nearby play French bowls then head down to the beach for sunset which I enjoy eating leftover bread, tomato, and cheese which seems to have taken on a new form – somewhere between liquid and solid – after several hours in the heat.
The cobble stone streets of Bruges seem like a distant memory now, and I fear tomorrow could have it’s fair share of ugly coastal suburbs, but sitting here, by the sea, is a peaceful way to end this day and welcome in France.