Monday, August 28th
When you’re eating a snickers in your sleeping bag at 9am you know you might have to make some adjustments to your expectations for the day. It was a struggle to get out of my tent, let alone my sleeping bag. Rain is gently falling and is forecast on and off for most of the day. I skip a shower and a proper breakfast in favour of chocolate and leave the unfortunately dismal surroundings of the campground shortly after 10.
There’s a climb up out of Wimereux which gives me one of my few views of the sea today, some clear sky very far off in the horizon beyond a cargo ship in the bay.
A long rolling downhill takes me into Boulogne-sur-mer which is so fantastically depressing on this grey Monday morning that cycling through while listening to the theme from Diving Bell and The Butterfly (a film in which has scenes in a hospital nearby at Berck) is really quite beautiful.
There’s signs for mini golf, McDonald’s. A large dead fish has washed up on the beach and people are taking photos of it as two dogs sniff at it. Next to this beach is an ancient aquarium where I assume the fish are more alive, though in this town I wouldn’t count on it.
All seaside towns seem to have this resigned sadness when the sun isn’t out.
But after I go inside somewhere and have a coffee it brightens up and the place feels transformed, slightly. I head out of town on cycle paths by the water past artfully designed benches, well kept hedges and tidy modern tower blocks.
Through some hilly suburbs and over a train track I eventually find my way on the the D940, a country road up in the hills which had cycle path running alongside it for miles and miles. My pace increases the sun comes up and everything feels good for a while. It’s the best of both worlds – the ease and safety of a cycle track, but the more challenging and interesting terrain of the hills and countryside.
There is nothing too notable until I reach and stop at Étaples military cemetery. Here over 10,000 buried military personnel from the First World War, the vast majority British.
As with all the cemeteries I’ve seen in Normandy, the scale of the rows and rows of white tombstones is both a sombering and oddly peaceful sight which can’t help but provoke reflection. It’s here I bump into another cyclist from the UK, Simon, who is heading the other direction to me. We talk outside for a little while and he films a short kind of video interview of me for his blog, which catches me a little off guard, before I head down into Étaples and stop at a coffee on his suggestion in the cobbled central square/triangle.
Under the half-shade of an awning the coffee is served very hot in a very small cup with a nearly wrapped lump of sugar and small biscuit on the side. This is how coffee always is in France.
Next to me an old man is falling asleep in his chair. I could probably do the same so I order a second coffee. Soon his wife comes and wakes him up with a gentle cuckoo sound, they walk off, and I make my way back on my bike too.
From Etaples I stay in an almost straight line on the map through the towns of Verton, Waben, and Novellas-sur-Mer. The roads and quiet, passing only fields of cows or bails of hay, the only traffic tractors or the occasional Peugeot. On the one hand it’s kind of dull and repetitive, on the other it’s all quite attractive – old-fashioned and charming. I struggle to decide which. It’s certainly very different to America in mood.
The roadside cycle paths continue in places, I ride fast, finally stop to pause in the heat after 20 straight miles at Saint-Valery-sur-Somme, a popular tourist town at the mouth of the Somme river. It has an old steam railway which makes trips around the bay, and gothic ramparts which draw the crowds. Apparently, since 2003, it has been ranked as one of France’s most delightful destinations (Les plus beaux detours de France). I don’t see very much of it beyond a glimpse at the waterfront and admiring some of the colourful doorways and windows, but sitting on a bench as the steam train puffs by, jamming several french biscuits topped with white chocolate into my mouth, is rather delightful.
To contrast with the historical and natural beauty of the area I make my way up the road to the McDonalds to use the free wifi and sync some music to my phone. I buy a coffee as I do so, and sit next to a couple with blank looks on their faces silently consuming fries and hamburgers and doing their best at not making eye contact with each other.
I also start looking at where to camp as it’s just turned 6. Sun sets at around 8.45 still, but the sunset seems to last about 2 hours, the light gets hazy and the shadows very long from 6.30 or 7, and since most french drivers seem to enjoy going a little too fast and a little too close to me, I don’t want to be cycling for too much longer.
I pick out another municipal campground at Eu, converting the km to miles, it’s around 14 away, just over an hours ride.
Routing with Google has worked ok so far, with a few exceptions where it’s tried to send me down what are essentially dirt tracks designed for nothing smaller or less robust than a tractor. I’m able to re-route myself and stick to the D940 for most of the way.
It’s a tough last hour. A long steady uphill, cycling on a roughly surfaced road with no shoulder in that hazy, end of the day light. Cars speed by, most at a reasonable distance, I have one eye on the tall corn field next to me for an escape.
The road plateus then a steep downhill takes me to the bottom of Eu, which immediately strikes me as an attractive place very much unlike where I spent the previous night.
It’s mainly known for it’s castle, the elaborate Chateauu d’Eu, and amazingly the campground is located on the same grounds, at the end of a tall corridor of dark trees behind the castle gardens.
The camp spots are divided with short hedges, making a loose grid amongst the trees. The reception is located in an old building at the edge. In very broken French I manage to pay for the night and since not everything is numbered, a pick a place a little down the hill with some shadows from the trees.
It’s a special little spot and cost just 5 euros 20 cents. It amazes me how there doesn’t seem to be one agreed upon price in the world for how much it should cost to put a tent on some grass and sleep there for a night, especially since factors like how scenic or quiet the campsite is often seem to have a reverse bearing on the price, in my experience at least.
Camping in France has been very good so far. Municipal campgrounds like this one seem to go for between 5-10 euros. All have decent enough showers and bathrooms, and good wifi for a few extra euros. There also seem to be lots of them. I was planning to wild camp again on this last leg of my trip, but given the quality and frequency and availability of campsites, and of course the cost, it really doesn’t make that much sense to rough it in a field for the sake of saving £5 or so.
I end the day in a much more content mood than the last few nights. Perhaps because of the setting, or that i’ve began to adjust to the country and the routines and rhythms of cycling in it, or maybe i’m actually looking forward to getting back now, and i’m only two days away from that momentous and strange event.