Monthly Archives: December 2012
Hard though it is to believe, it is New Year’s Eve again. Another year has spun past at alarming pace, and now we find ourselves on the threshold of 2013. Where is the millennium going? I was talking to my kids the other day and recalling some memories of Christmasses when I was a kid, and marvelling aloud that those memories were forty years old – and then realising, with a jolt, even as I said it, that my math was a bit faulty and that those memories, from the early 1960s, were nearer fifty years old than forty.
This past year has been kind of a mixed bag for me – lots of assignments (a good thing) but lots of time way (less good) and on the cycling front an unusually low mileage year, mainly because of all the weeks I have been travelling for work, but partly too because of the amount of time and effort I put into my photography on my daily rides, the pausing and setting up gear and composing scenes.
While I would like to have topped 10,000 miles this year – and my waistline could certainly have used it – I have to say I have very much enjoyed the photography aspect of my rides, just as I enjoy the writing of this blog. Together they have added a new dimension to my cycling, one that has no quantitative measure. It has made me see and appreciate more of the things around me, and given me an outlet for the creative aspect of riding my bicycle that has always been there in the background – the working of my imagination as well as my legs. When I look back over the year the most memorable rides tend to have been the ones where I found something, saw familiar things and places in a new light, and took photographs that pleased me later. On that note, I am going to append a selection of a few retrospective images, the year 2012 in Black and White. I hope you enjoy them.
And I hope too that you will all have a happy, healthy and prosperous 2013.
“Twas another dark and stormy morning, with the raw winds gusting along the seafront and the marsh road swamped with rainwater – not a time to be out and about on a bicycle, although I went out anyway, at least for a shortish ride. It is getting rather tiresome, this relentless line of squalls and wet weather that keeps blowing in off the Atlantic, day after day, although it is far worse for those in the flooded areas in the West Country than it is for us here in Sussex.
And it might turn out worse still for English bookmakers who earlier this year, after an unusually dry winter, offered odds of 100-1 against 2012 turning out to be the wettest since records began. It probably seemed a safe bet at the time. But now? Well, as of this morning we are only a matter of millimetres shy of breaking the records and with another two days left in the year and plenty of rain forecast around the country.
As Roald Amundsen once said, there is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing. Happily enough I have decent waterproofs and ride an elegant tourer well-suited to wet weather – kitted out with fully sealed cables, a rain covering for my Brooks leather saddle, and stainless steel mudguards with heavy leather mud flaps. All the same I am getting a little weary of wind and rain, especially the wind. I am very much looking forward to a break in the weather. For now it is a matter of hunkering down, taking a firmer grip on the handlebars and thinking of all those Christmas calories I am burning.
It was the classic dark and stormy night, straight from the pen of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, with moaning winds, thunderclaps and lightning casting outré shadows on the walls. At one point, somewhere past midnight, I was treated to that old Victorian Gothic stand-by of the violent gust blowing open the paired windows in my room; I awoke to the whoosh and a bang of the unfastened windows, the curtains all aflutter, and me springing out of bed to wrestle them closed in the face of the storm. All I needed was one of those Ebenezer Scrooge Victorian nightcaps, a snuffed-out candle in my hand, and a mystery to solve and I could have posed for an engraving.
I had to laugh. It was great, worth the startled awakening and the dash of cold rain in the face for the sheer pleasure afterwards of snuggling back down under the covers, listening to the wind and lashing rain and thunder, smug and at the same time shuddering at the thought of how close I came to being out in all that, huddled beside that barn or churning along the dark and windy road to Bouillon. Robert Louis Stevenson could keep his midnight rider; some things are just better in verse.
When I woke again it was dawn. The hills around the town were shrouded in mist. A gentle rain was falling. I opened my windows and tasted the air. It was rich with the fragrance of damp earth and leaves, and the grass looked as though it had grown an inch overnight. The café’s backyard had a homey countrified feel: a wooden shed with the crabgrass sprouting around the bottom, well-weeded flower beds, a child’s swing set, the shaggy edge of the forest looming close.
In setting and tone it called to mind long ago summer mornings waking up as a child at my grandparents’ old farmhouse in New Hampshire, and summoned a lot of pleasant recollections – maple sugar candy, the scent of balsam pines, my father’s old waders and his fishy-smelling wicker creel, and the agreeable prospect of riding around on my bike, free, clear and beholden to no one, over to the lake, down to the village, wherever whim might take me.
I dressed and trotted downstairs. Nobody else was up. It was still too early. The windows were shuttered, the barstools were upside down on the tables, the front doors were locked. I’d forgotten to ask what time breakfast was served, but whenever that was, I wasn’t going anywhere without it. I took a seat on the bottom steps of the staircase, broke out Mickey Spillane and waited.
A clock in the other room ticked off the minutes. They passed slowly. After a long while vague murmurings from somewhere in the building told me folks were up and moving. Shortly afterwards there were promising creaks and footfalls from the breakfast room. I poked my head around the corner and saw the landlord, the same amiable chap who’d been tending bar last night, working a mop while his two toddlers played amongst a forest of table legs.
“You’re awake early,” he said, when he saw me. “Are you wanting breakfast?”
“Oh I’m in no rush,” I said, dissembling politely.
“It’s no problem,” he said, dissembling right back, with equal grace. He set aside his mop and disappeared into the kitchen, returning a moment later with cutlery and napkins which he laid out on one of the tables. I took a seat. A pot of coffee soon appeared. Then a plate of cold cuts and Swiss cheese, fresh hot morning rolls, butter and jam, and a basket of croissants and pains-au-chocolate. To my famished eyes it was like a horn of plenty.
I settled in for a long leisurely graze, the cosiness of the room, the gentle patter of rain against the windows, doing little to instil a sense of urgency. The wall clock ticked away another hour. A second pot of coffee appeared. I savoured every drop.
By and by though came the creaks and murmurs of other guests who were now awake and thinking about coming down to greet the day. Out on the street, in front of the café, a waddle of school kids, nine years old or so and bright in their yellow slickers and with knapsacks on their backs, were being marshalled into line by grown-ups, who wore bigger packs and carried hiking staffs. Off for a damp hike in the woods, by the look of things. The world, or at least the Ardennais portion of it, was getting itself in gear. It was time I did the same. A few minutes later I was pedalling up Vresse’s quiet main street and into the cool dimness of the forest, with soft rain sprinkling down around me.
I had an idea I might ride to Luxembourg that day. They told me at the café that it was about a hundred and thirty kilometres and said I’d find it mighty slow going through the hills, but I was feeling like a world beater that morning, refreshed and revived, with a heart for any fate, and even with all the damp and chill in the air and my own leisurely start, I fancied my chances of raising the Grand Duchy by nightfall.
And so I might have done, but one of the many nice things about travelling by bicycle is how big and interesting and diverse the world becomes, rich in detail and ripe for discovery, and how susceptible you become to its charms. A two-hour ride through an almost theatrically gloomy wood brought me to Bouillon, a town about which I’d known nothing, other than it’s being a name on my map, and a place where I hoped to find a cash machine and buy some grub before moving on. Instead I emerged from the long tunnel of leaves into silvery sunshine and an unexpectedly pretty scene of an old-style Flemish town arranged along a double loop in the Semois.
I sat up and eased off the handlebars, taking in this painterly vision as I spun along the esplanade: church spires, arched bridges, gabled facades reflecting in the water, and those great, dark, heavily shouldered ridges all around, closing it in, cloistering it all away from the outside world. I felt like a discoverer.
Even as I was absorbing all this, and noticing how the weather seemed to have lifted while I’d been toiling beneath the forest canopy, I had a vague sense that something important had just been revealed above and behind me.
I glanced up and over my left shoulder, my eyes catching on a patch of ancient stonework, all crumbly and crusted with moss and lichen. As I followed it upwards, it grew and spread, as if by magic, into the craggy walls and battlements and towers of a massive, brooding Dark Ages castle. It was so unexpected, I almost felt like it had been crouching there, waiting, about to spring. I gawped, fumbling for the brake levers and wobbling to a stop along the curb so I could marvel at it properly.
Now here was a castle worth looking it. This thing wasn’t at all like the ones at Montreuil or Rocroi. Those had merely been architecture; this was something wilder, darker, almost organic the way it seemed to have erupted out of the earth with ferns and saplings and clumps of soil still clinging to it’s lower flanks. I felt bold and adventurous just being there, looking at it. Here was one of those grand discoveries I had imagined myself making one day back when I was a kid tooling around the backblocks of Carroll County New Hampshire on my old Schwinn. And I knew in a flash of recognition, even as I planted my feet, that I would be going no further that day.
My first fond hope, when I went off to hunt up the youth hostel, was that it would prove to be in the castle itself, like the one in Montreuil. It wasn’t; it was better than that. Instead of its being inside the citadel, looking out, it was perched on the hillside opposite, in a quiet neighbourhood of old-style villas in the heights above Bouillon. My room had a stunning view of the castle set against the wild backdrop of the Ardennes. Framed by the dense summery leaves of the trees outside my window, it was like a glimpse back in time; the castle as it would have looked, must have looked, a thousand years ago. It was so captivating a view that I felt reluctant to tear myself away, and after a few moments’ wavering, came to the happy conclusion that I didn’t really need to.
A good couple of hours had passed since I’d first breezed into town, the time it had taken me to track down a cash machine, locate the youth hostel, buy a couple days’ worth of groceries, then trudge all the way up here, pushing the bike up the steep switch-backed side street with the grocery bags balanced in the handlebars. It was well into the afternoon by then, and since I had booked myself in for two nights, and didn’t relish the prospect of turning around and walking back down to town straight away, I decided to dedicate the remains of the day to attending various neglected housekeeping chores: doing a laundry for one thing, catching up on my journal for another.
I bought some powder from the front desk, got a load going in the machine downstairs, and with that bit of domesticity now taking care of itself, trotted back up to my room, wrestling with guidebook-inspired guilt at not striding forth, getting out there, seeing the sights and making the rounds. But I got over it.
I built myself a sandwich out of the fixings I’d bought in town, opened a bag of peanuts and a bottle of beer, dragged a chair over to the window with its fascinating view over the castle, then settled in to do my sightseeing the vicarious way, following in the footsteps, so to speak, of Mark Twain and his ascent of Mont Blanc, by telescope, in A Tramp Abroad. Now there was a man with some good ideas.
The rest of the afternoon passed agreeably, my armchair musings interrupted only by the necessity of going down to the laundry room every now and then to check the progress of the washing and, eventually, to retrieve it, and later on, finding my way to the hostel’s kitchen to boil up some pasta for dinner. My legs welcomed the break from pedalling, I caught up on my journal and after dinner took the chance to look over the new map I’d bought in town. In doing so, I found myself reconsidering my proposed idyll of cycling to Luxembourg.
As hilly and gloomy as the ride through the Ardennes had been thus far, it at least had had the virtue of simplicity to recommend it; all I’d had to do was follow the rivers. But there were no rivers that flowed from here to the Grand Duchy. If I wanted to press on from here, I’d either have to get onto a major national highway or cobble together a route through the uplands on a complicated tangle of backroads that, if the contours on the map were anything to go by, must be as steep as goat tracks.
What’s more, while those crooked little goat-track roads might be slow and unfrequented, the braid of red and gold motorways that swept around Luxembourg like a moat, were not; the Grand Duchy, for all the Olde World imagery its name might inspire, in real life straddles the main trucking arteries between the giant containerised seaport at Rotterdam and Germany’s industrial heartland along the Rhine.
On the other hand, I could take a minor road south out of town, through the hills, back into France, and re-join my old friend the Meuse near Sedan. It would be a simple matter from there to follow it upstream to St Mihiel – a quiet, gentle and easy to follow course that would put me a hundred miles to the good on the road to Istanbul.
A clap of what I at first took to be thunder jarred me awake sometime around eleven. The room was dim, the sky through the window a deep twilight grey. I propped myself up on an elbow, gazing dumbly around, wondering for a brief second where I was, and as I wondered the map I’d been studying when I drifted off slid floppily onto the floor.
A moment later another loud bang echoed up the valley and I heard muffled ooh and ahs coming from what sounded like a crowd on the hostel’s patio, three floors down. I peeked through the window in time to see a huge pink chrysanthemum of starburst fade over the castle, now lit by floodlights. It seemed that by happy chance I’d lobbed into Bouillon on the closing night of some summer fete. Intrigued, I rolled out of bed and trundled downstairs to the patio.
The hostel appeared to have filled up considerably since I checked in. They had quite a crowd out there, families mainly, everybody gazing skyward. Sounds of tooting horns and garish carnival music floated up from the town below. What all this was in aid of, I never learned, but the fireworks were first rate.
The show lasted a good forty-five minutes, the grand finale a wholly satisfying paroxysm of explosions and crackling starbursts that filled the valley with echoes and left the flood-lit castle wreathed in pastel-coloured smoke. Afterwards the crowd on the patio shuffled off to bed, me among them, although synthesized hilarity continued to float up from town for hours yet, most especially endless raucous bursts of The Yellow Rose of Texas from an air horn whenever anybody won something.
I never heard the party break up; they were still going strong when I drifted off to sleep. Sometime during the night a deep low pressure system crept in over the Ardennes and it was raining hard when I woke up. I lay in bed listening to it, glad not to have to be pedalling anywhere that day. It was lousy weather for a bike ride, but perfect for poking around inside an atmospheric old castle. And from my window that morning it was sure projecting atmosphere, all shrouded in mist and looking darkly Merovingian.
I marvelled at it while I dressed, determined to fulfil my neglected obligations as a tourist and pay it a visit. I set off after breakfast. It felt good to be walking for a change. I took the stairs down to town, the flights of cracked and weedy stone steps that went straight down the hill from the hostel, cutting across the switchbacks in the street. The rain by then had tapered to a soft sprinkle, but it was still damp and chilly and those evocative mists were still swirling about the castle.
Bouillon was cheerful and full bustle. A carillon in one of the churches chimed out a snatch of Beethoven’s Ninth, a welcome change from The Yellow Rose of Texas. I crossed the river on a low bridge and trudged up the steep, winding rain-slickened street on the other side all the way up to the castle gate. Three busloads of school girls were already there, bright in their plastic raincoats, bouncing around the parking area like so many spilled ball bearings. I paid my admission, squeezed past their beleaguered teachers who were negotiating the group’s entry, and ventured inside.
For the next two hours, and to the echoes of adolescent shrieks and squeals, I clambered over that castle from dungeon to dome. From the souvenir guidebook and floor plan I bought at the entrance, I learned that the place had been here, more or less, since the 9th century; that its most celebrated owner had been Godfrey, Duke of Bouillon, who borrowed heavily on it in order to finance his adventures in the Holy Land with the First Crusade.
His Grace bought himself quite a gaudy time by the sound of things, defeating the Turks at Dorylaeum, conquering Jerusalem in a bloodbath in 1099 and massacring its inhabitants and then, apparently without irony, installing himself as the city’s ‘Defender and Advocate’, modestly declining the title ‘King of Jerusalem’ in favour of Christ. Alas poor Godfrey, he didn’t get to enjoy his Vice Regal status for long, dying of plague the following year and leaving the stately pile back in Bouillon to be squabbled over by his bickering relatives and the Bishopric of Liege, which held the mortgage.
A sweet little story, not without interest, but one mouldering passage in a castle tends to look much like another, and later on, as I strolled the battlements, admiring the view over Bouillon and the looping Semois below, I couldn’t help thinking that I’d had the better part of the deal from my window at the hostel, where I could look across and see the castle in its hoary old entirety, swathed in mist and with the dark, wild unbroken mass of the Ardennes behind it. Now that was a sight to be seeing, something on which you could feast your imagination.
The more I thought about it the more I decided Mark Twain had a point to make with his telescopic ascent of Mont Blanc, besides irony, that is, and a gentle poke at the alpinists of the age. By climbing a thing, or poking around inside it, you put the very object you’ve travelled to see beneath your boot soles and out of sight. Where was the sense in that? I decided to get the castle out from underfoot, and back into my line of sight. I left its ramparts in the hands of the barbarian hordes from that Belgian middle school and started back to town.
A few changes had taken place back at the hostel by the time I returned, mid-afternoon, after a leisurely browse through Bouillon’s rainy streets, calling in at some of its more promising chocolatiers, bookshops and cafés along the way. New faces had checked in; I no longer had the room to myself. Far from it. When I stepped through the door I found myself face to face with the most dangerous man in the world.
He didn’t look all that dangerous, not at first glance anyway, just sinewy and fit. About six-foot-two, early twenties, sandy haired, angular features, lean and hard as a rake handle. He was wearing cycling shorts, a racing jersey, and a pair of sleek Shimano road cycling shoes with cleats for clipless pedals. A dripping rain-jacket, race-cut, hung from his bedpost. His face had a youthful intelligence and he looked amiable. It would never have occurred to me he might be dangerous at all if he hadn’t told me so himself.
He said: “I am the most dangerous man in the world.”
And this out of the blue, after the usual brief exchange of pleasantries between strangers who find themselves rooming together in a hostel. I raised a chary eyebrow.
“It’s true,” he said. “Anyone who gets into my hands is dead. Kaput!” He karate chopped his right hand into his left palm by way of emphasis.
“I’ll try to remember not to snore,” I replied, not quite sure how one responded to statements like these and hoping there was a punch-line coming. If there wasn’t, this was shaping up to be a tedious evening.
“Know what makes me so dangerous?”
“No, but I sense you’re going to tell me.”
His face brightened. “I’m a gravedigger! Get it? Anyone who gets into my hands is dead! At least they’d better be,” he chuckled at his joke, “if I’m going to bury them!”
His name was Frank. He hailed from Antwerp and when he wasn’t busy laying people to rest – a job which helped keep him in racing trim – he was dabbling at the fringes of the pro-cycling circuit. At the moment he was deep in training for the Paris-Brussels classic, a famous century old race which pre-dates the Tour de France.
“And you are cycling too?” he asked. “They told me at the desk there was an English cyclist here.”
“That would be me,” I said, not troubling to correct him on my nationality. “But I’m not training for any races, just touring the countryside.”
“Where do you go to?”
“Istanbul,” I replied, a little surprised at myself. This was the first time in my journey I’d felt at ease enough with my ambition to claim it, blurt it out loud to strangers. “And you? Where are you heading?”
He sighed. “Ah me, well, that’s another story. I have to turn right around tomorrow morning and ride all the way back to Antwerp.”
“You came all the way from Antwerp today?” I asked. Everything I knew about Benelux geography you could just about chisel on an aspirin tablet, but Antwerp to Bouillon sounded like an impressively long ride in torrential rain and wind.
“One hundred and ninety-four kilometres,” he said with a note of pride, having plucked an odometer from his jersey pocket, clicked it twice and consulted its figures.
“That’s a hell of a ride in weather like this.”
“Was it raining here, too?”
“It was very bad coming down. The roads were all greasy, there were bad crosswinds and lots of spray coming off the trucks. I’m hoping it will be better tomorrow, but it doesn’t look like it will be. And I must get back.”
“Work piling up at the office?”
“No, but it will be if I’m not home by dinner time tomorrow. One night away – that’s my wife’s limit. A minute longer and it’s going to be me that’s kaput!”
This peek into Frank’s world of happy domesticity was interrupted by the arrival of more dripping cyclists, two at first, then another three on their heels, enough to claim all the remaining bunks in the room. Apparently the girl at the front desk had decided to lump all of us wheelmen together for the night. No bad thing. A natural sort of fellowship exists among cyclists and soon we were all standing around, nattering away about one thing and another, bicycles and bad roads, rain and careless drivers, like neighbours over a back fence. My expectations of a solitary evening with my nose in a book dissolved, agreeably, in a welter of bonhomie and shared experience.
“I see they’re giving rain and mists all week for the Ardennes,” a Dutch cyclist named Bob remarked over breakfast the next morning, as he passed me the copy of the local newspaper, folded open to the weather page. A consensus was evolving along the table where we cyclists we sitting that this was no day to be out on the road.
“I have no choice,” sighed the Most Dangerous Man in the World, who sat across from me, buttering a morning roll with little enthusiasm. “If I am not home by dinner time tonight my wife will kill me and then there will be no one to dig my grave.”
It occurred to me that his grave had already been dug and that he’d done the digging himself, but I didn’t like to say; I hoped she was pretty. What I did say by way of token solidarity was that I too needed to get a move on. Even at youth hostel rates I couldn’t afford to dangle here in Bouillon for the next five days on anything as slender as a weatherman’s promise of better weather by the weekend.
Misery loving company, we left together. A quarter of an hour later we were coasting downhill in the cold, slanting rain, red taillights blinking feebly in the greyness. Our paths forked in town, Frank veering away on a road that would take him up to the four-lane highway and its frenetic northbound rush to Antwerp, while I circled through the old quarter, ran along the bottom of the castle and began a long slow winding climb into the hills, back towards France, on what was marked on my new map as the Old Road to Sedan.
It was a reprise of the ride from Vresse two days earlier, except this time it was raining much harder and the air was several degrees cooler. But the woods were just as gloomy, with the dripping leaves and liquid treble of rainwater trickling down the rock faces in the road cuts. The bitumen was strewn with dead leaves and blown-down branches and crawling with those same fat, repulsive slugs that had made the road so creepy the other day. My fingers grew red and cold on the handlebars, my gloves soaked up the rainwater and became shapeless soggy masses of leather wrapped around my hands.
But then a pleasant and wholly unexpected thing happened on the descent to Sedan: the rain eased, the sun sifted through the clouds. The bitumen shimmered. The air felt soft and balmy. The landscape opened into farmland. Patches of pale blue sky could be seen in the distance. It was like a new day had dawned. Darkest Belgium was behind me – ahead lay France’s Champagne country, all aglow in the pale yellow mid-morning light.
I am always a little wistful on Boxing Day, with all the presents unwrapped and a sense of anti-climax settling around the tree. Although I am well into my Fifties now, I still look forward to Christmas the jaunty expectancy of a child opening an advent calendar and counting down the days. I love it when we put up the tree, that first weekend in December, seeing the old-familiar decorations come out of the box, and watching for the first appearance of Christmas lights around and about the town. This year the run-up to Christmas just seemed to go so fast – the time seeming to pass all the quicker for me thanks to the unexpected and last-minute assignment in Mauritius, which robbed me of better than a week of Christmas build-up time.
No sooner did we get the tree up this year than I was gone. I didn’t come back until the middle of the month and therefore missed out on about ten mornings of what I think of as my Christmas-tree time – that perfect half an hour after I get back from my ride when nobody else in the house is up yet. I make myself a cup of tea, flick on the Christmas tree lights and sit in the darkened living room, enjoying the solitude and the twinkling lights and decorations, the intrigue of gift-wrapped presents and the recollections of Christmasses past.
It is perfect. I will even cut my morning rides short just to be sure of getting this perfect time. It was still nice this morning, to come back in from a lovely ride by moon and starlight, and have this time sitting alone by the lights of the tree but something of the mood has passed – and I kind of miss it already.
A quick post to wish all of my readers a very Merry Christmas – or Season’s Greetings, if you happen not to celebrate Christmas – and a hope that your holiday is filled with happiness and much good cooking! As for me I shall be back in the saddle tomorrow, but for now I am enjoying the Yuletide festivities and pleasure of watching the kids open presents beneath the tree.
It was late in the afternoon, on a quiet, lonely woodsy stretch of road, with the Semois gurgling somewhere down amongst the trees, that I came at last to the Belgian border. I’d been looking forward to crossing it all day – for the past couple of days, really. This would be the first time I would have ridden my bicycle from one country into another. (Now that I was on The Continent proper, and travelling overland, I was snobbishly not counting the other day’s cross-Channel ferry.)
I’d known better than to hope for anything really gaudy at the border: jackbooted guards in competing shades of khaki eyeballing each other over strands of barbed wire and snarling Alsatians straining at their leashes. After all this was the post-modern Europe, all enlightenment, friendship and comity. I did think though, that they might at least have had one of those picturesque little pillboxes with the red-and-white striped barriers, and a bored functionary on hand to cast a droopy eye over any wayfarers that happened along; something to give a border its proper gravitas, and while they were about it, award me a smudgy souvenir stamp in my passport.
But alas, all they had was this prim blue sign with “Belgie” on it, and a circle of gold European Union stars, standing there amongst the weeds and wildflowers along the roadside. It might as well have been a Tidy Town award for all the impact it made. But if this passing between countries no longer meant much to the Belgians and French, it meant something to me: here was a landmark on my journey. This marked the first time I had ever ridden my bicycle from one country to another. (Now that I was on the Continent proper I no longer felt like counting the ferry-assisted border crossing Between England and France.)
I drew up beside the sign and dismounted, leaning my bike against the signpost, handlebars in Belgium, taillight in France, to observe the moment. I’d done it: cycled from my own front doorstep clear to Belgium, and southern Belgium at that; what a captivating thought.
Captivated by it, I spent a few reflective moments on the roadside, casting about for some lovely old-style travel poster imagery with which to paint this accomplishment a glamorous light, invest it with the romance of distance. It wasn’t easy. Belgium just isn’t one of those names that resonates romance and distance and foreign adventure the way, say, Zanzibar does, or Samarqand, or Istanbul, for that matter. Think of Belgium and what do you come up with? Dark beer and fiddly chocolates that look like seashells and all those red-tape-loving bureaucrats in Brussels who run things in Europe – faceless bureaucrats, according to London’s Euro-sceptic tabloids, and how right they were now that I came to think of it.
The only Belgian whose name or face came to me with any clarity was Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s plump, fussy, little detective, but he was fictional and the face that kept floating up was Sir Peter Ustinov’s, the actor who played him in Death on the Nile. As far as I knew he was not Belgian. Nevertheless, the character he played was emphatically and proudly Belgian, not French, as he was quick to point out to anyone who confused the issue, and so by the same token the soil upon which my front tyre now rested was, with equal emphasis, also Belgian and not French. There was something in that; I had reached somewhere new.
And so I raised my water bottle in silent toast to that certain something, whatever it was, took a long drink, and stood for an appreciative while listening to the Belgian birds chirping in the Belgian trees, and the soft gurgling of the now-Belgian waters of the Semois riffling over the Belgian rocks in the riverbed.
And then I mounted up again and pushed off once more down that hilly, narrow, leafy road, deeper into darkest Belgium. As those old-fashioned Baedeker guides used to put it so eloquently: there was nothing further to detain us here.
If I hadn’t noticed any grand changes at the Belgian border, the same couldn’t be said for Bohan, a lively little village a mile or so further along the road and tucked in a loop of the Semois. Unlike the other Sunday-hushed towns I’d passed through all that slow hot afternoon along the French stretches of the Meuse and Semois, everything on this side of the prim blue sign was open, bright and bustling – ice cream parlours, fudge shops, patisseries, sidewalk cafes; barefoot kids, fresh out of the river, with wet hair and towels draped over their shoulders picked their way across the pavement to touch base with parents who sat sipping aperitifs beneath striped awnings. Dogs barked. Laughter carried in the air. Cars purled slowly down the street, their hawkish drivers looking for places to park, while down on the river itself an armada of bright-red rental kayaks bumped and splashed.
So Belgium was where the party was.
Who’d have thought it?
Slowing for the crowds, I came to a halt in front of a particularly prosperous-looking patisserie where a large display window was crammed with all sorts of sugar-dusted dainties. This was more like it. Looking at a spread like that made me think that maybe arriving in Belgium deserved more of a celebration than a few sips of lukewarm water and three lonely cheers along the roadside. I slid out of the saddle, plucked my wallet out of my handlebar bag and nosed my eager way inside.
As the bell at the door tinkled sweetly behind me, and I breathed in that lovely, yeasty fresh-baked aroma, the unsettling thought came to me that I had indeed passed from one country to another; I was no longer in France, but in Belgium, yet French francs were all that I had in my wallet, no Belgian ones. I was still contemplating this when the people in front of me slid away from the counter with their purchases, and then it was my turn.
I pinned on my salesman’s smile and plunged in, explaining my circumstances in my newly dusted-off French to the pleasant-faced lady who was serving. Yet even as I spoke, I could see her bonhomie fading before my eyes. She folded her arms across her chest in a truculent manner, left eyebrow arched in a way I thought only Eva Gardner could do, her mouth set in a firm line. I fumbled on, although I could see I was bringing my cares to a most unpromising market. Before I had finished she had begun shaking her head with the finality of a bank manager turning down a request for an unsecured loan.
I paused, perplexed. It wasn’t the refusal so much as the depth of this frostiness that puzzled me. I could understand her not wanting to accept French francs in payment, after all this was Belgium, naturally they preferred their own, but still, this seemed an awfully chilly response to what couldn’t have been all that unusual of a query, not here, not this close to the border. What ever happened to all that enlightened internationalism, friendship and comity?
And then, in a flash, it occurred to me that maybe my French, although improved, wasn’t yet up to such nuanced conversation. Perhaps she was labouring under the impression that I had no money at all, rather than that I had no Belgian money; perhaps she thought I was panhandling.
“Ah!” I cried, with my customary eloquence, holding up an inspired forefinger á la Hercule Poirot when he’s uncovered a clue. With my other hand, I hastily dug a few crumpled French-franc notes out of my pocket, as a visual aid.
“Ah!” she replied, equally expressive, clearly delighted to see the currency and grasping straight away the idea I had been struggling to put across. We were back on track. I was a good fellow once more, deserving of that warm welcoming smile. She explained, in English, there would be no trouble whatever about my spending that lovely French currency here; I could spend as much as I liked, in fact.
And I did, splashing out like a sailor fresh off the ship, picking out a grab bag of the fanciest and daintiest pastries she had in her window display, a couple of each, stinting on nothing. I could afford a splurge. By camping in the woods I was saving a tidy sum, and what is a penny saved but a penny to squander? I’d make this pastry-fest my welcome-to-Belgium dinner, then afterwards pedal a short ways up into the hills above town, find myself a comfortable nook in the forest and settle in for the evening.
I paid in my old French francs and received my change in new, and I must say rather prettier, Belgian ones. If the woman behind the counter hadn’t exactly come across as a soft touch, I was to find out later she had been scrupulously fair in calculating the exchange rate.
I carried my purchases down to the riverfront and nibbled them in the soft humid sunshine, watching the kayakers splashing about in the river. It was half past six by then and although the sun still stood fairly high above the ridges, you could feel a subtle shift in mood passing up the street, like a flutter of air through the treetops, that told you that in some vague but unmistakable way that the day had lost its bloom and the long slow glide into evening had begun.
I finished my pastries, crumpled the wrappings into a ball and lobbed it into a nearby bin – swish shot – then slung myself lazily into the saddle and began pedalling up the grade out of town, into the hush of the forest, with the cheery murmur of Bohan’s weekend crowd receding pleasantly in my ears.
I pedalled hopefully, earnest and expectant, looking this way and that, for a welcoming break in the foliage, noticing for the first time now, an aspect to the Ardennes whose implications for sleeping out hadn’t registered earlier in the day when all was fresh and new and inviting: it was like a jungle in here, thick, muddy, wet and brutally steep.
On one side of the road, the ground tumbled down to the river in a precipitous rush, while on the other it loomed up, landslide steep, choked with vines and bracken and thick undergrowth. And all around the great silent darkening forest, both above and below, projected aloof impenetrability. I’d have needed a machete, ropes and climbing tackle to hack out a camp in that and funnily enough I hadn’t thought to bring any of that Hiram Bingham stuff with me on what was meant to be a cycling idyll through Europe.
I pressed on into the evening, a hopeless optimist, pausing here and there to assay possibilities, scraping knuckles and skinning knees in futile attempts to scramble up steep jungly road cuts, with my bicycle slung over my shoulder, before saying the hell with it and moving on, hoping for better prospects around the next bend. And certain there would be. I was growing wearier by the yard, but remained as philosophical as ever. Like Mr Micawber, I expected something would turn up. It always had.
Nothing turned up. Two hours later I wobbled into a little hamlet called Vresse, worn and weary, on legs as heavy as clay, my Micawberish philosophy and sense of fun unravelling at the seams. The light was fading by then, the air was growing stickier by the minute and low growls of thunder could be heard rolling up the valley. So much for camping out in the Ardennes. The Semois? This was more like the River of Doubt.
And now here I was in Vresse, or Vresse-sur-Semois if you want to be posh about it, and as I looked up the main street at the adorably quaint hotels and prosperous cafes, and the shiny late-model Peugeots and BMWs and Mercedes parked about like so many cast-aside toys, I had a niggling sense they were going to be posh about it. And if they were, that was going to present some problems. Since I’d planned on sleeping out in the woods that night, I’d taken a fairly cavalier attitude towards my cash situation, spending freely on coffee and cakes and nibblies all day with an idea that when I reached Bouillon, sometime the next day, I’d stop off at a hole-in-the-wall cash machine and replenish my road stake. I didn’t expect to need any more hard currency until then. But with the Belgian woods being so dense and forbidding, the light fading, a storm brewing, and me feeling like The Fall of the House of Usher after eighty miles of hills and humid heat, clean sheets, a hot shower and a soft bed were looking mighty appealing.
As for plastic, that old standby, well, a few weeks before I left I had rashly flung my one and only card into the unblinking corporate face of American Express in a fit of pique over yet another billing snafu. Being an improvident sort I’d never quite got around to ringing up the competition and seeing about a replacement before I left home.
As a result, unless there was an ATM machine in Vresse – which didn’t seem likely – my entire net worth in the eyes of the world that night was the modest sum in French and Belgian francs I had tucked away in my handlebar bag, and not a single centime more. I didn’t know offhand precisely how much that amounted to, or what rooms here cost, but as I looked over the facades of the village’s faux hunting lodge-style hotels, and noted the presence of Ardennais trout and wild boar on the menus posted outside, I had a nasty feeling that I was going to fall well short.
I located the tourist office at the far end of town, and although it had gone past eight by this time the place, I was surprised to find it still open, or at least that there was movement and signs of life inside.
I pulled over, slung my sweaty helmet over the brake hoods and tested the door and was pleased to find it unlocked. I opened it and tottered inside hoping against hope that I might be able to get a line on some budget accommodation in town, a youth hostel or public campsite – something affordable.
The demure woman behind the counter gave me a swift appraising glance of a sort I was to see much more of later on in my journey when I got to Austria – the kind of look that can estimate to with a few pence how much your clothes cost and how likely you are to make a meaningful contribution to the local economy. Having reached her conclusion about me, she pressed her lips together in a taut smile that never reached her eyes.
“Can I help you?” she enquired, archly, and in English.
I flashed what I hoped was a winning smile, all charm and urbanity, although perhaps it looked like gas. Certainly the woman behind the counter thought so, judging by the expression on her face.
I plunged ahead anyway, my hearty tone that of the salesman who never lost a sale: “Hi there! I’m hoping you can point me in the direction of a reasonably priced place to stay here in town, a hostel or campground perhaps. You see, I’ve come almost two hundred kilometres today, all the way from Cambrai… ” This of course was a bit of an exaggeration, a ‘stretcher’ as Huck Finn would have put it, but sometimes it pays to make yourself seem a little more worthy and deserving, give your redolence of sweat and grime an odour of sanctity and noble endeavour instead of simple gymnasium stink.
This wasn’t one of those times; I’d come to an unpromising market.
She cut me off with a shake of her head. “No, I’m afraid there’s nothing here in Vresse that would suit someone like you.” She craned her neck to take a better look through the window, at my bicycle and its pack-mule burden of saddlebags and bedroll, then gave a slight nod to herself, as though to say ‘thought so’ and then settled back with a weary sigh. “And I must warn you,” she continued, putting an edge now in her cool, modulated voice, “that it is quite illegal to camp by the roadside anywhere in Belgium.”
“Is that so?” I replied thinking to myself how very like the Belgians of my imagination to have passed laws against doing something it was impossible to do anyway.
She nodded. “Yes it is so. The penalties are severe. The best thing for you, I think, would be to go to Bohan. They have a campground there.”
“But I have just come from Bohan.”
“Then you must go back.”
“But I do not wish to go back. It is late in the day and it wasn’t very much fun coming over those hills.” The thought struck me that but for the fact we were speaking English, this could have been one of those dialogues from my old high school French textbook. I had half a mind to tell her the swimming pool was closed, and that was final.
“Ah, well, then you must ride on to Bouillon,” she said. “I believe they have a youth hostel in Bouillon.”
“They do, do they? In Bouillon?”
“I believe so, yes.”
“But you have nothing here in Vresse?”
“Nothing that is …ah…budget. Anyway, it is Sunday night and we are very busy this time of year. I doubt that there would be any rooms available in town at all.”
I’d been wondering about that myself. There were plenty of cars parked beside those boutique hotels, and the two cafes I saw on the main street looked to be doing brisk trade as well. Whatever the occupancy rates that night, though, it seemed high time for the worm to turn as far as the vulgar topic of money went.
“It doesn’t have to be … ah … budget, you know,” I replied, waspishly.
Her left eyebrow arched. It was neatly done, communicating a deep and supercilious scepticism in a way that would take me paragraphs to write.
“But… uh… I …uh … will need to find a cash machine,” I added.
This time she favoured me with her sad, sweet smile, the one with ‘alas’ in it, as she shook her head. “I am afraid we have no cash machines here in Vresse. You’ll have to go on to Bouillon for that. They have them there.”
“Next to the youth hostel, I suppose?”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“No, I guess not.” I drummed my fingers on the countertop. Outside a long low menacing peal of thunder rumbled over the hills. I glanced out the window behind me and saw that even in the past few minutes the light had dimmed considerably. I turned back around. The woman behind the counter stood demurely, hands clasped on the countertop, waiting with the perfect poise of a croupier at a blackjack table who has just busted you wide open.
“Okay,” I said, resigned, “so how much further to Bouillon?”
“It’s not far – maybe thirty kilometres.”
“Thirty?” I’d tried to keep the despair out of my voice, but it came out as sort of a wail anyway.
“Well…maybe a little further. You can see it there on the map.”
I glanced at the wall map she’d pointed to, and followed with my eyes the squiggly stretch of river road that meandered along the Semois through nearly unbroken forest to Bouillon. “I don’t suppose there’s anything between here and Bouillon?”
I stared some more at the map, and the few, lonely unpromising dots of villages along the road ahead, and as I did, picturing myself riding it in the dark, and in the rain, with thunder crashing overhead and the lightning casting outré shadows in the branches, my inner ironist recalled an old favourite poem from childhood: Windy Nights, from A Child’s Garden of Verses, by Robert Louis Stevenson. In the poem, a little boy, snug in his bed, listening to a midnight storm rage outside, marvels to hear a horseman galloping down the road, in the dark and wet, on who-could-tell what sort of desperate, secret errand.
Whenever the moon and stars are set, whenever the wind is high
All night long in the dark and wet, a man goes riding by…
I loved the imagery, the urgency in the poem and in my wilder fancies used to imagine myself as the mysterious rider, alone and aloof, abroad on a wild night. Now here I was, all these many years later, deep in the Forest of the Ardennes, with darkness falling, a storm brewing, Bouillon twenty miles away and my steed awaiting at the door. How did that old saying go, about being careful what you wish for?
A discrete cough broke the stillness. “Was there anything else?” the woman enquired, glancing significantly at the clock.
There wasn’t. I thanked her for her time, assured her I’d be all right and told her not to worry too much about me and took my garlic-and-onions problems outside.
Another kettledrum roll of thunder sounded overhead as I stepped through the door. The air was perceptibly cooler now and tasted of rain A skittish gust ruffled the leaves and tossed the treetops, a counterpoint to the stillness. The birds had grown quiet in the eerie twilight and lights were now glowing in some of the windows.
I unhooked my helmet from where I’d draped it over the brake hood and looked up and down the quiet, empty street. It must have been getting on for nine o’clock by then, but it felt a lot later than that.
Twenty miles to Bouillon; it would be dark soon. I had a headlamp on the bike, a beautifully engineered German one, powered by a bottle dynamo, but there was no way that thing was going to be churning out many amps that night, not crawling up and over those hills, in the lashing wind and pouring rain, not the way my jellied legs were feeling.
I humoured myself briefly with the thought that perhaps there would be enough lightning to see by, then slung my not-so-young-anymore self into the saddle and pushed off down the street in the thundery gloom. Maybe some little Belgian child would wake in the night, see the feeble glow of my headlamp wobbling by, and someday write a romantic poem about me.
Then again, maybe not. Halfway up that first wearying grade out of town I had a change of heart – or rather, a cleverer idea suggested itself to me, my heart never having been much into the ride-on-to-Bouillon notion in the first place. That storm was going to break soon, and hard, and I truly didn’t want to be out here on this dark and lonely road when it did. While I hadn’t much cash on me, not enough for a hotel room, I certainly had enough to buy a few drinks at that cheery little café I’d noticed back in town, and so justify a table and a dry place to loiter until closing time, whenever that might be.
At which point, under cover of darkness, I could slink off down the street and find myself a place to hunker down somewhere out of sight and deep in shadow, maybe even under the eaves behind the tourist office, just for a laugh, and then sit out the remainder of the night. As long as I got away at first light, nobody need ever know. It wouldn’t be the pleasantest night of my life, but it would be a darn sight better than straggling into Bouillon in the small hours of the morning, dead on my feet, cold and soaking wet.
I brought the bike around and glided back down the hill into Vresse, deciding as I did so that I would use these last few moments before the storm broke to take a quick turn around the village and see if I could spot any promising bivouac places for later.
As I glided by the café I became aware that curious eyes were upon me. An older man called out, in a jocular sort of way, pointing at the ominous purplish-black mass of clouds, full to bursting, that were swirling just above the treetops. He must have said something terribly clever and amusing judging by the ripple of laughter than broke out amongst the tables.
I waved back with an insouciance that I was far from feeling, trying to communicate the idea I was a light-hearted fellow sharing the joke. I turned off on a side street and crossed the river on a hunched little bridge, to check out possibilities in that part of the village. My roving eye lit on a thicket near the edge of somebody’s backyard, by the lee side of a barn, where a woodpile, set close beside it, suggested shelter from wind, rain and prying eyes. I logged that barn as my best bet so far, then carved a lazy U-turn and headed back up the street towards the café.
I was fast running out of time. The air was charged with electricity, pregnant with rain, and the thunder was cracking and booming almost constantly.
As I rolled over the humpy little bridge and back up the main street the patrons at that café called to me yet again, pointing urgently skyward. Someone made another witty remark, to another round of laughter. I waved and smiled. For all I knew that was the local magistrate sitting there, before whom I might be appearing the next morning on a vagrancy charge; best to have him remember the defendant as a hail-fellow-well-met.
Just then the proprietress of the café, a woman in her mid-thirties, stepped to the edge of the awning. “Excuse me,” she called out in English – clearly the language of fools on steel-framed bicycles who do not have enough sense to come in out of what is obviously going to be a violent electrical storm. “Are you looking for a place to stay?”
“Well… it’s crossed my mind.”
“We have rooms here at the café, you know.”
No, I hadn’t known, although if I had looked a little more closely I might have seen the little placard in the window. But then again Her Highness at the tourist office might have mentioned it too. That would have been nice. I glided over to the awning, braked and stood there in the street, straddling my bike. “How much?”
She quoted a price. My spirits sank. I was a drowning man who’d been thrown both ends of a weighted rope by a well-intentioned bystander. Then I remembered I was in Belgium and that these were almost certainly Belgian francs she was quoting and those, as I recalled from my transaction at the cake shop in Bohan, were not worth anywhere near as much as the French ones.
I did a few quick calculations based on the exchange rate I’d been given back in Bohan, blinking in astonishment when I realised that my paltry stash, if converted to Belgian francs at that same rate, worked out to be the price of a room at this café, with even a few francs to spare.
“Breakfast is included,” she added, mistaking my few seconds of silent, hesitant bean counting as a quibble about the price. As if.
On tenterhooks now, I explained my currency situation and that most of my money was French but once again that proved to be no barrier in the happy family that was 21st century Europe. We closed the deal, to the approving nods and smiles of the café’s patrons who’d taken an interest in the affair and seemed relieved that the foolish Anglais had at last shown the good sense to stop riding lazy circles in the main street of Vresse and come in from what was promising to be a whopper of a storm.
So Mr Micawber had been right all along – something turned up. And in the nick of time, too. I’d just finished stabling my bike in the shed around back where the beer was stored and was ambling around the side of the building, saddlebags in hand, when the first fat raindrops started to fall. It gathered tempo with astonishing swiftness and in the few seconds it took me to scamper for the shelter of the awning, the clouds burst with a mighty crack of thunder.
The rain roared down, sizzling on the pavement in such a dense watery mist that it was hard to make out shapes across the street. Lightning hissed and thunder cracked and gusts of wind blew the rain in sheets and swept it under the awning. Patrons who’d been sitting out there, enjoying the thundery evening, hastily grabbed their drinks and scuttled inside. One of the refugees, a stout middle-aged matron in pearls, heels and a magenta dress, paused in the doorway in a theatrical pose, cast her outraged eyes skyward and exclaimed: “Formidable!”
As for me, I felt like poking my tongue out at it. A quarter of an hour earlier I’d been gone for all money, doomed to spend a night like banished Cain huddled beneath the dripping eaves of some barn. Now here I was cocooned from the storm in a daintily appointed room above a warm and friendly café, with clean sheets, fresh towels and a hot shower just down the corridor.
I flopped on the bed and lay there, gazing up at the ceiling, listening to the rain rattle the windows and laughing to myself over and over at the wonderful fickleness of Fate. It’s true: God really does look after children, drunks and tramp cyclists. Not only did I have a room, and breakfast coming to me in the morning, but unless I missed my guess, I even had enough francs left over for a celebratory beer downstairs, a toast to fortune and the open road.
But of course that wouldn’t have been a very sensible thing to do. That would leave me utterly broke until Bouillon and who could tell what pitfalls and challenges might await me on the morrow, along the lonely road through the forest. No, the sensible thing to do was give thanks for my reprieve, take a lesson from this and husband my resources against an uncertain future. That being the sensible thing, I scooped up my meagre pile of coins and trotted downstairs to the bar.
The place was packed, the plein-air diners having been driven indoors by the storm, but they would have come crowding in anyway: the football was on, the finals of the European Championship, France versus Italy, the match being played in Rotterdam.
I managed to score the last remaining table, a wobbly two-seater in an obscure corner from which the other chair had already been taken. After careful consideration I ordered myself a pint of Chimay, and settled back casting my eyes upward at the wall-mounted television like everybody else. Not being a follower of football I couldn’t say if it was a good match or not, but the partisan crowd in the café was a pleasure to watch, and never more so than when France miraculously triumphed, at long, long last, after a golden goal in overtime.
A boisterous crew two tables away from me jumped up began belting out the Marseillaise, in strong lusty baritones. They were swiftly joined by virtually everyone else in the joint, Italian fans apparently being thin on the ground in these parts, or else very, very discrete. More rousing cheers followed and then, on this same tide of joie de vivre, everybody broke for the bar.
Well, make that almost everybody. There was in the corner one solitary traveller who stayed his hand, counting and re-counting counted his coppers hopefully but in vain. Like the hapless Italians that evening, no matter how many ways I tried, I still came up short. Just the one goal for the Italians, and just the one beer for yours truly. I left the French to their celebrations and tip-toed upstairs to bed.
There is something jaunty about tooling along an old-style seaside promenade on creamy white tyres that to my mind recalls an era of gaudy hotel labels and co-respondent shoes, spats and panama hats, a time when life was ‘swell’ and the going was good. Being the travel nostalgic that I am it was just this sort of look I was after when I was creating my dream retro-classic tourer and when I discovered I could get Panaracer Paselas – one of my favourite touring tyres – in cream, I ordered a pair straight away.
To be sure, I was a little self conscious at first in putting them on the rims. Cream tyres project a certain flamboyance that isn’t, well, isn’t the ‘me’ I usually express. Such raffish tyres, along with the polished lugs and my choice of an unusual colour scheme of sable and Parisian pink, an almost confectionery-like combination, made for a highly distinctive bicycle.
There was also the matter of wear to consider. While the creamy tyres might – and indeed did – look as sharp as spats at an Iowa picnic when new, the very thing to accessorize and accent the frame’s mauve-and-pink paint job and livery, I wondered what was going to happen when I actually started riding this beautiful thing, putting on serious miles.
Well, I have had the bicycle with its cream tyres some 15 months now and find myself liking these jaunty treads more than ever. I like the look and I very much like the way they photograph, accenting the wheels and boosting contrast in darker low-light scenes and giving the bicycle a cavalier seaside holiday flair on brighter summer days. What’s more, despite my concerns about their possibly becoming irredeemably grubby after the first few outings, they have remained pleasingly jaunty and cream coloured even after hundreds of miles. Indeed my recent rides in the rain have washed away the light (but still unobjectionable) band of reddish trail dust that had formed on the contact surface over the summer (pictured above) and made the tyres look clean and bright again.
In short I have really grown fond of cream tyres, and will certainly replace like for like when these finally wear out, and being Panaracer Pasellas, an excellent touring tyre with great durability, rolling qualities and puncture resistance, that is not likely to be for some time yet. I would also say that while cream tyres wouldn’t necessarily go with every bicycle style and livery and paint scheme, they are well worth considering if you are contemplating a makeover or dreaming up your own Platonic ideal of a bicycle.
Hirson was still a-snooze when I coasted up the main street at daybreak the next morning. It was Sunday and nothing much was open but an early-bird café on the square where a waiter was busying himself wiping dew off the tables with a cloth and setting out chairs. I made myself his first customer of the day and over a demitasse shot of espresso and a rather larger croissant, broke out my latest map acquisition – another of the Institute Geographique National series, the third I’d bought since leaving home – and began plotting my way through the Ardennes.
From the moment I’d opened my new map I’d loved the look of this great green swathe of storybook forest. It blanketed the entire upper half of the map, nothing but deep dark woods with hardly any villages or towns or roads to break the spell and the crooked old River Meuse running smack through the heart of it. It looked perfect for my purposes, which was, as always, to find as quiet and scenic a corridor as I could to carry me further east and here we had the River Meuse carving a valley through the forest in precisely that direction I wanted to go, and with a crooked little backroad along side it.
I couldn’t miss. By the look of things all I needed to do was find my way to a place called Revin, about twenty-five miles away, and from there it was a matter of simply shadowing the Meuse eastward and upstream along a quiet, leafy road.
Once I reached Monthermé, a small town a few miles upstream from Revin, I had a choice: I could either stick with the Meuse and follow it south again back out of the Ardennes to a small city called Charleville-Méziéres, or I could remain in the forest and shadow the Meuse’s smaller, wilder tributary, the Semois, upstream on its tortuous course deeper into the forest and on into Belgium, all the way to Bouillon, in fact, near the edge of my map, about ninety miles from where I sat.
As I traced the line of the Semois with my finger I could feel my mind making itself up. I could have woodsy backroads the whole the ninety miles; no traffic, just enough villages en route to keep me in groceries and plenty of concealing greenery in which to sleep out at night, to say nothing of the companionship of the river itself. What was there not to like? Satisfied now that I had my next day and a half’s riding pleasantly sorted, and with free accommodation to be had in the forest, I ordered a celebratory second cup of coffee. Half an hour later, and in fine fettle, I set off for Revin.
Up until that morning, the Ardennes had been just another one of those vaguely evocative Old World place names, a great brooding forest where tragic things happened in the First and Second World Wars. I had had only the vaguest idea of where it lay on the map and no concept at all of just how wild and rugged the place was. Although it was their fringes I had slept in on the outskirts of Hirson, I had my first proper glimpse of the Ardennes from the ramparts of a mediaeval castle at Rocroi, a fortified town on a ridgetop a few miles shy of Revin. I rolled in there late in the morning, hot and sweaty, and looking for a place to refill my water bottles before beginning what I could already tell was going to be a winding descent through the woods down to Revin and the River Meuse.
The day by then was evolving into the classic July stinker: ninety degrees and breathlessly humid, with the sky taking on that ominous waxy-violet colour that has a way of curdling into a crashing afternoon thunderstorm. I refilled my bottles courtesy of a friendly shopkeeper, from whom I bought a couple of tins of rice pudding as a snack, and went up onto the parapets to puff my cheeks and marvel at the view. It was a view worth marvelling at: layer upon layer of ridges in retreating shades of blue and grey. I found myself thinking of the wild fastness of the Smoky Mountains. This was more like North Carolina moonshine country than anything I’d have expected from prim little rule-making Belgium – for hard as it was to credit, that was actually Belgium out there in that hazy wilderness.
I felt like a discoverer.
The old boyhood urge to explore came over me. I finished my tins of rice pudding, screwed the cap back on my water bottle, and mounted up, eager to go. Revin, the town I was seeking, was hidden away somewhere down there, deep in one of those valleys. I’d noticed on my map that I didn’t have to follow the main road all the way down to the river, but could cut-off a couple of its more circuitous loops by taking a direct shortcut down a narrow and presumably steep backroad that followed the suggestively named Vallee de la Misere.
I went off to find it. There were no signposts for the little back road I was looking for, nothing marked, but I found a likely candidate just outside the town’s old walls: a precarious little lane that plunged into the forest and disappeared around a bend, deep in shade. It was pretty and inviting, and looked about right on the map, but I hesitated, not relishing the prospect of having to pedal back up that grade if this turned out to be a dead end. But nothing else presented itself and so after a few moments thoughtful hesitation I wheeled my bicycle around, pointed it downhill, let go the brakes and put Sir Isaac Newton in charge.
It was like plunging through some magic green tunnel. Rocroi’s drowsy murmur faded out behind me. A canopy of leaves closed overhead throwing the road deep in shade. The temperature dropped about ten degrees. The cool moist air was rich with the aroma of damp earth. A couple of secluded farmhouses, with shady yards and banks of hydrangeas out front, flickered past the corners of my eyes, but mainly my attention was focussed on the ribbon of weathered bitumen that was hurtling beneath my wheels, gauging its bumps and potholes, dodging muddy patches, twigs, clumps of damp and slippery leaves, taking the curves as they came: high and wide and hoping to God there’d be nothing coming up the other way.
There wasn’t. A mile or so later this shortcut debouched onto the main road to Revin which, although wider, was similarly quiet, sleepy and empty of traffic. It was very pretty down here, with all that big silent forest looming close on both sides of the road, and high above the treetops glimpses of the ridges and craggy cliff faces that now towered overhead. I hadn’t expected the valley to be so deep and claustrophobic.
And I wasn’t even at the bottom yet. The main road continued its serpentine downhill plunge, dropping nearly as steeply as the little lane. On and on it went, curve after curve, with me gripping the handlebars with whitened knuckles and hoping I was going to like whatever I found at the bottom of this long slippery descent because there was no way on God’s green earth I was ever going to want to try pedalling back up it.
At last I felt the gradient easing, as though I were a plane coming in for a landing. As I swept around a curve, I noticed the rooftops of Revin were by now not that far below me. Before I knew it, a few curves later, I was whizzing along through the upper parts of the town itself, past row houses set along steep streets, still dropping, still losing elevation, until finally I reached the river itself and felt at ease enough to sit up and take a look around. Quite an old-fashioned sort of place was Revin. Something about all the dark brick and heavy stonework, and the dog-day somnolence in the air that reminded me of some of those old railroading towns you find in places like West Virginia.
Windows were open, snatches of radio music drifted out. Locals sat in their shirtsleeves on the doorsteps of serried row houses on the upper slopes of the town, talking, smoking, sipping beer from the bottle and soaking up the hazy sunshine.
I pedalled across a bridge, marvelling at the sense of remove I felt. It was like another world down here, with those dark claustrophobic ridges rising all around, cooler, quieter, brooding, so different in mood from the rolling uplands that I’d been riding through that morning that even now when I think back on it, breaking camp in Hirson and descending into Revin with the darkly forested valley walls looming on both sides seem to belong to two different days.
A blue-and-white sightseeing boat puttered beneath the bridge, heading upstream and around a bend, where the river slipped between the hills. I followed it along a gently curving sweep of bitumen that kept to the riverbank, and was as flat and smooth and quiet as the river itself. It was like riding along a canal path, this, or through a pleasant country park, with the river as a water feature and the cliffs and towering ridges that loomed over the opposite bank acting as a kind of dramatic backdrop, a touch of what the 18th century romantics liked to call the ‘sublime’.
I could feel a smile breaking out on my face. This was more like it. Ninety miles of this would be bliss, like rolling through one rustic oil painting after another, your classic Olde European idyll. I pedalled tranquilly, visions forming in my head of following these placid rivers, the Meuse and then the Semois, through the wild splendour of the Ardennes on smooth quiet roads, barely raising a sweat. What I didn’t realise – yet – was that I owed these few hundred yards of delightful passage purely to a whim of nature, eons ago, when the river that carved this landscape decided to take a shortcut around a bend, and began cutting into the bedrock and widening the valley just upstream from where the town of Revin would one day stand. What I was riding over right then was the remnant of the flat smooth ancient sandbank that was formed at that time.
The rest of the Meuse Valley wasn’t all going to be like this. Not by a long chalk. Let alone the valley of the Semois. Reality, and the bitumen, reared up around the very next bend, where the river and the road both tried to elbow their way through the same narrow gorge. The river got their first and hogged all the best real estate for itself, leaving wheel traffic to try to squeeze through as best it could on the steep and rocky margins.
As things turned out this brief idyll on the road out of Revin was the last bit of level ground I was to see for many a weary mile. From here on in the road through the Ardennes was a winding, narrow pitiless scramble of tortured climbs and corkscrew descents. And as I churned and ground my way along it that long hot afternoon I had plenty of opportunity to reflect on the fact that the word for ‘travel’ comes from the French ‘travail’, meaning hard sweaty toil. On that basis I can truthfully say that I have travelled much in the Ardennes.
At long last it happened – my dream tourer, which hitherto I had ridden only in the fairest of weathers, has been well and truly rained upon, soaked in fact, in a cold, hard December rain. The belated christening took place last Sunday and, believe me, it was wholly unintentional. When I poked my nose out of the door at a few minutes past four, and cast a bleary eye skyward, there were just a few ragged clouds about obscuring an otherwise upbeat display of stars.
Like the optimist who always sees a glass half full, it was the stars that caught my eye when the pessimistic truth is that I should have been thinking more about those puffy clouds I noticed scudding across the sky. I do recall thinking that the night air felt softer and warmer than it had been lately, and looking back there was definitely a dampness there that ought to have told me something. Alas, the only thoughts they inspired were ones of jaunty expectancy and the fact that I wouldn’t have to war my fleece beanie under my helmet and could dispense with the heavier weight mid-winter gloves in favour of my lighter, more supple autumn-early winter ones. Which I did.
I set out full of plans to ride over to Eastbourne and do a little photography along its picturesque seafront. I had gone about five miles and was riding along the old familiar promenade along the Bexhill seafront when the first squall struck. It came out of nowhere – first a light, brief overture of scattered raindrops splashing me in the face, and rousing me out of reverie, and then the full orchestral, with sheets of cold hard driving rain and buffeting winds. I put on some pace and made for one of the kiosks on the seafront, where I found some shelter – more for my pristine bicycle’s sake than anything else.
For twenty minutes or so I stood there, chilly and damp, watching the slanting fall of rain in the glow of the streetlamps, listening to the wind and the hollow, booming sounds of the surf nearby, and pondering the miles between me and the twinkling of the lights of Eastbourne, still visible in the distance across the bay, despite the low cloud and rain. Eventually it slackened off and, ever the optimist, I set out again, lured on by the sight of a few scattered stars, only to be caught once more by another squall as I pedalled across the dark and lonely (and shelter-less) marshes.
A third squall greeted me as I rode into Eastbourne. Here I took shelter in the ornamental entry way to the elaborate old Victorian fun pier. This time I was seeking shelter mostly for my own sake, as I hadn’t brought any rain gear, just a water resistant softshell jacket and by then I was getting a little damp and chilly.
As for the bicycle, the December rain had worked its own subtle alchemy, transforming it from the pristine ideal of a bicycle that existed in my mind and turning instead into a practical-yet-elegant means of transportation, designed for purposes and use. Getting it wet, riding in the rain like this, was like a transferral of ownership. It became my bicycle – not the frame-builder’s or an abstract ideal – but my bicycle, the one I ride and will be riding for many years and many thousands of miles to come, in all winds and weathers. As the rain eased I mounted up again and in that luminous almost eerie blue light that you get just before dawn when the skies are damp and overcast I set out once more, homeward bound on my now (gently) used dream bicycle, at last feeling at ease to enjoy it for what it is.
It rained hard all night and I woke the next morning to the dreary sound of water dripping off the eaves and a feeble light filtering between the curtains. I crawled out of bed and looked out the window, taking in a view of wet slate roofs, guttering, dark sooty brick, chimney pots and, in the middle distance, the spire of the Abbeye de St Vaast fading into a watery-grey wash of mist. I undid the catch, spread open the rickety window frames and poked my head out to take a measure of the day. The air was cool and moist. A row of pigeons cooed and nestled together along a ledge that ran beneath some guttering across the way. A horn tooted somewhere aways off unseen amongst the narrow streets.
A soft rain was falling and the sky had a sullen, set look to it that suggested nothing much was going to change. I told the rain I’d be with it shortly, drew the windows and climbed into my cycling clothes.
Downstairs, the night porter was still on duty, bored and unshaven and hunched over a Stephen King shocker. I handed in my key, then eased my laden tourer out the front door and down the steps to the street. The air felt even chillier out here than it had from upstairs, but then again that might just have been my own sense of dispossession, having just taken leave of a warm dry room, and now being outside and at loose ends.
I found an open newsagent’s shop where I bought a map, then idled away an hour or two in the steamy warmth of a café, gloating over my new purchase, pencil in hand, trying to work out where all I’d been the previous afternoon, and where I might go today. Belgium caught my fancy. I could see its border on my map. I liked the idea of crossing into another country so soon in my journey. From what I could gather it would be a bit of ride for such a rainy day, seventy miles by the look of things, maybe even eighty (it was hard to judge distances on those circuitous roads) but in the warm congenial atmosphere of this café, with the wind-driven rain streaming harmlessly down the windowpanes, and a hot milky latte at my elbow, such things seemed eminently do-able.
Twenty minutes later I was churning across open muddy farmland, eight miles an hour into a cold, stiff quartering breeze, with a near-freezing rain pelting me in the face. My shoes were soaked, my calves streaked with grit and mud, and my cycling mitts were just so much sodden mush wrapped around my hands.
How the miles dragged. Colour my world in sepia browns and greys, just like those sad old rainy-day photographs from the Western Front, whose lines I’d more or less been following since the previous afternoon: Vimy Ridge, Arras, the now the banks of the River Scarpe, with Cambrai somewhere up ahead, scene of history’s first tank battle in 1917.
The passage of four score and some-odd years hadn’t cheered things up very much, at least not on that rainy June morning. There were no horse-drawn caissons stuck in the mire, of course, and thankfully no rotted corpses, but the soggy landscape looked much the same, with those elongated puddles in the ditches and the spectres of lonely trees in ploughed fields. Here and there the tall grass along the roadside was brightened by a blood-red poppy, like a bit of hand-tinting in an old photo.
I shadowed the Scarpe for eight, maybe ten, miles to a place called Biache-St-Vaast, where a road sign at a crossroads gave me to understand that if I kept going I’d find myself in a largish town called Douai.
I turned south instead, crossed the river, and headed into the marshy lowlands down that-away – and straight into a fresh rain squall that was just blowing up from that direction. This time there was hail in the mix as well, nasty little birdshot-sized pieces that stung your cheeks and added to the overall pleasure of being out and about on a bicycle that morning.
Hamblain-les-Pres, Sailly-en-Ostrevent, Tortequesne: the villages clicked with the dreary monotony of beads on a rosary. Occasionally a car would swish past, tyres hissing on the wet bitumen and throwing up a fine spray. I’d look up and watch its taillights shrink in the distance until finally, as a tiny red glow, it would make the long curving rise into whatever church-steepled village it was that lay ahead, and disappear amongst the huddle of rooftops and trees.
By then the soft rainy hush would have settled around me and I’d be alone once more with the rhythmic whirr of my bicycle chain, reeling in the scenery. After a while, the details of the village scene up ahead would start to emerge – the lichens on the slates, the weathered surfaces of tile and stone, the variegated greens of the summer leaves, all slowly sharpening and resolving.
Resistance would build on the pedals as the road began its gradual climb into the village. I’d drop down into an easier gear to maintain cadence, and a few minutes later I’d be wending my way through narrow grey village streets and then, almost before I knew it, I’d be coasting down and out the other side, back into the wide open farmland with the old village slipping astern and another smudgy brown church-steepled silhouette rising above a clump of treetops a couple miles up ahead.
Hamel, Arleux, Palluel, Oisy-le-Verger: on and on it went. Occasionally I’d duck under church porticos for the worst excesses of the hail, and then push on again when it slackened. It was still raining hard by the time I was entered Cambrai, mid afternoon, with much thunder and lightning and sudden violent gusts. I’d had more than enough. Belgium could wait.
An hour later I was sprawled on saggy mattress of another cigar box of a room, practically the twin of the dump I’d checked out of that morning at Arras. My wet things were draped over the radiators, adding their own rank dampness to the atmosphere. I had a sandwich in hand, an open bottle of beer and was off once more into the sweetly simple world of Mike Hammer, where life’s little problems could be ironed out with a Betsy – unlike those presented by the cold, implacable rains over northern France.
* * * * * *
A Betsy would have been mighty handy the next morning, though. For that matter I very nearly had need of a good detective, too. A situation arose, springing to life in a run-down neighbourhood on the east side of town where I’d called in at a little Mom-and-Pop épicerie to pick up a few things for breakfast. The rains had cleared during the night, and after my meagre mileage of the previous day I was keen to cover ground. In my eagerness and haste I neglected to lock my bicycle when I nipped into the shop. It was a careless thing to do. I’d certainly have been more cautious at home – but then again at home I was well acquainted with the idea of villainy being around every corner, whereas this was La Belle France, still bright and new and invested with holiday romance and glamour. Bicycle thieves hadn’t yet figured in my imagery of the place. That was about to change.
I was standing at the counter, fiddling with the unfamiliar currency, when I heard the shopkeeper yell at somebody over my shoulder. I turned to see what was up and saw that a pack of scruffy kids, three or four visible, more out of frame, had descended on my bicycle like a flock of seagulls and were picking at the straps on the saddlebags with very definite intent. I sprang for the door. So did the shopkeeper’s wife, a formidable matronly sort who had been working a mop over by the candy display.
She get there first, charging onto the sidewalk and wielding that mop of hers as though it were a halberd. I was right behind her. The little bastards fled like rats up a drainpipe, leaving the two of us in command of the field and me still in possession of my bicycle and all its accoutrements.
The husband joined us a few seconds later, having been inconvenienced by the need to waddle around the counter, for he was not of an age nor build to vault over countertops. Together the three of us glared, proud, triumphant, disdainful down the empty sidewalk.
While the wife stood guard over my bicycle, I ventured back inside and concluded my transaction with her husband at the till. Both of these nice old-fashioned people were profuse in their head-shaking apologies and dismay. Although I couldn’t follow their idiomatic French terribly well, the thrust and tone was familiar: This used to be a decent neighbourhood; you never even had to lock your doors; everyone knew everyone, kids respected their elders and if they didn’t they got a clout on the ear quick-smart; soon we’ll all be murdered in our sleep and the law doesn’t give a damn.
I commiserated, assured them things were no better at home, and probably worse, thanked them for their old-time neighbourliness and went on my way, relieved, jittery, heart still a-pitter-pattering over the closeness of that call. That scene could so easily have played out differently: me without a bicycle and a deeply depressing morning spent filling out police reports and making arrangements to get myself home on busses and trains.
I spotted one of those little toe-rags again too, not long afterwards, when I was sitting in the doorway of a vacant shop a few blocks further along the street, gathering my thoughts and munching on a breakfast apple.
Sensing eyes upon me, I glanced up and there he was, across the street, a ropey-armed kid about twelve years old, cigarette dangling absurdly from the corner of his mouth. He leaned against a shop front, putting on his best James Dean, and gave me a leer of recognition. I leered back. His leer was better than mine. He’d had had more practice. We took turns leering at each other for a while but in the end we both had better things to do. He took a last drag on his cigarette, flicked the butt into the gutter and faded away. I pushed off a moment later myself, in a different direction, and a quarter of an hour later put Cambrai comfortably astern, never happier to shed a city and be out once again in the wide open countryside, free and clear and in basking in warm sultry sunshine; we were back to summer again.
By this time I’d been three full days on the road. And in all that while the countryside through which I’d ridden had remained pretty much the same: pleasant undulating farmland with snatches of woodland here and there and gently folded ridges forming the horizon. But that morning, the fourth of my journey, I began seeing some changes: the fields and pastures were smaller here, and scruffier, with the fringes of the forest crowding close, and the ridges were more thickly wooded. All around me the landscape seemed to be knotting up and drawing closer with each passing mile. The hills and curves I encountered through here made for slower going, but at the same time it was all very gratifying, for here at last was tangible proof that I was getting somewhere: the geography was changing
That somewhere I was getting was the Ardennes, the fabled forest that blurs this stretch of the border between France and southern Belgium. I could see it dead ahead on my map, a great green mass full of swirling contour lines, squiggly rivers and very few roads or villages.
I didn’t quite make it fully into the forest that day, or even into Belgium, for although I pedalled enough miles to have reached the border, about eighty, give or take. My choice of roads had kept me quartering along the frontier rather than crossing over it, so I was obliged to remain in France another night. I wound up my travelling day in a woodsy town called Hirson, which was nestled attractively in the hills along the Oise River.
I rolled in around seven o’clock. It had been a classic July afternoon, breathlessly hot and muggy, with the sky the colour of bleached denim and more of those grand histrionic cumulous clouds boiling up in the haze like some kind of painted-on stage scenery. I’d half been expecting another summer storm like the one that broke over Arras but this time the gods hung fire; it never happened. Instead, a surprise fan of sunshine broke through the massing clouds as I rolled into town, and its rooftops were basking in a soft evening glow. The air had a freshness to it that hadn’t been present a couple of hours earlier and so I decided that in the interests of saving a few francs this would be a fine night for sleeping sleep out. I called in at a corner grocer’s to re-provision my saddlebags – making certain to hobble the bike this time – and then set off again, up one of the leafy little backroads into the hills to look for a place to bed down and enjoy the freedom of the countryside.
Technically speaking, of course, camping free and easy along the roadside is against the law – actually, there’s no technically about it, it is against the law, authorities everywhere taking a dim view of this sort of thing. That said, if you can clear this moral hurdle, it’s a pretty easy misdemeanour to get away with. Just be discrete, develop a taste for sombre coloured camping gear and a canny eye for cover and you can vanish like a deer among the shadows.
The best thing is to get yourself onto a quiet country road, long about the shank of the evening, when the light is fading; when there is still enough glow in the sky for you to see by, but motorists are starting to flick on their headlights. What you want now is to be pedalling along in a leisurely manner, easy and nonchalant, full of innocent purpose, as though you had a destination in mind and worthy people expecting you, and not at all looking like a man scheming against the public order.
Which, of course, you are.
Your shifty eyes are looking for concealment, a break in the roadside greenery into which you can push your bicycle and disappear. Once you’ve spotted such a place, you give a swift, searching but oh-so-casual glance up and down the road to be sure nobody is coming and that you’re out of the line of sight of any farmhouse windows. Then, if the coast is clear, you dismount at a glide and head briskly into the tall timber, going deep and well out of sight.
That’s the ideal, anyway. It doesn’t always work out so easily, particularly in high summer in northern France where daylight seems to drag on forever, and your legs want to call it a day long before the sun does. There was still plenty of bright evening sunshine drenching the backroad above Hirson that Saturday night where I was prowling for a place to camp, but happily there was also plenty of beautifully thick concealing forest crowding close on both sides of the road, and hardly any traffic.
It was a doddle. A quarter of an hour after I’d ridden out of town I was sneaking my bicycle through the ferns and brambles along an anonymous stretch of roadside, then ducking beneath the overhanging boughs, and into the welcoming dimness of the forest. I love this part of camping rough: the sneaky bit, the delicious thrill you get when the thickets swish closed you like a curtain, leaving no trace of your presence.
I picked my way between the trees and found a nice soft spot hidden away near the base of a stout old hardwood about fifty yards in. I lay my bike on its side, undid my bedroll and pegged out my tarp, staking my claim to a few square feet of French soil for the night. Back on the road, a car purled harmlessly by, barely visible through the fringe of leaves. I settled in with my dinner fixings and unfinished Spillane, feeling snug – and smug.
The woods may indeed be full of wardens, as Jack Kerouac laments at the end of Lonesome Traveler, but that doesn’t mean you have to meet them.