All French villages, regardless of size, have extremely imposing cemeteries with ornate iron gates. I find the tranquillity and stillness so comforting, if a little eerie. The experience is like nothing else. The one in Mansle is located on the outskirts of the town and does not stray from the stereotype.
The dead are laid to rest in families, some with extremely ostentatious/ornate tombs and others with simple stone crosses. The whole experience intrigued me. The age and names of the dead, even the photographs that adorn some of the marble memorials. I spent at least 30 minutes happily wandering from tomb to tomb immersing myself in the surroundings.
I left the cemetery and pedalled west towards St Groux. The village has a wonderful Church. The door was open and my inquisitive nature drew me in. The interior was so silent, it’s a simple Church, with a simple altar. To the left of the altar was a statue of Our Lady and for a small fee you were allowed to light a candle and offer a prayer for your loved ones.
I am not normally that religious, I do have a faith, however small. Church is only a draw at certain times of year, Christmas, Easter etc, but my father was going through a period of ill health and this had been at the forefront of my mind for sometime. It seemed like fate to be here, now and under these circumstances. I am conscious that I am usually the first to criticise people for asking for some heavenly intervention only when its convenient, but hey, I felt there was nothing to lose. I deposited my one Euro and lit a candle and took a seat at the front on an uncomfortable, simple wooden bench. The silence was only broken by a small procession of what appeared to be ramblers strolling and chatting vigorously passed the entrance to the Church. As I was leaving, another throng of walkers passed by and several ‘Bonjours’ later, I jumped on the bike and pedalled back towards Mansle.
The route from Mansle to home took me through the small village of Mouton and past its lovely church which happily dominated the whole area. The ride was predominately on flat roads which as normal were completing deserted, typical of France and especially the rural areas. The only noise was the clunking of my badly oiled chain crying out for some overdue lubrication. The weather was warm but slightly overcast. I rode past a constant array of farm machinery and stopped just outside Mouton by the river.
The water was raging but the sound and smell were so relaxing. I sat for a while before moving on. As I gathered speed, my progress was halted by a extraordinary sight, well extraordinary for me. On the road in front of me, was a snake which was thankfully dead. I am no accident investigator, but I would assume it had been in collision with some form of motor vehicle. It was about 5 to 6 ft long and I thought how differently I would have reacted if it was still alive. The image of myself sprinting up the Champs Elysees, Cavendish-esque with a snake on my tail, is now firmly imbedded in my head
I should explain, home in France is the Poitou Charente, in the village of St Front, which is situated in the west and is close to many airports offering flights with low budget airlines. The house has been in the family for 10 years and is a great base to explore and relax. It has a big garden and big pool. The area is mainly farmland with the occasional hamlet or small village. The roads in the area are seriously quiet, well maintained and a joy to amble along. If your idea of fun is to push yourself up mountainous peaks, like the Col de Tourmalet then this part of France will not be for you.
Recent investment in specific signage for cyclist and route maps has greatly improved the experience and hard copies are available from most tourist offices and can also be accessed online.
My French bike is a Pouridor Tourer. Its weight is substantial but ultimately that’s irrelevant, as most importantly it gives me the freedom to explore the beautiful countryside and tranquil villages of the Charente. I keep track of my kilometres using a cheap supermarket computer which is more than adequate for my meagre requirements. The bike squeaks, clunks and rattles but that is all part of its loveable personality. Our relationship is still relatively new and the Pouridor still doesn’t really feel part of me, not like its English counterparts. It is extremely difficult to explain this ideology to non cyclists.
Cycling is reputedly the national sport of France and every July the whole country is taken over with the buzz of the LE TOUR. Millions watch the race from the side of the road; it is without doubt the largest spectator sport in the World, so I assumed there would be cyclists everywhere exuding national pride. In reality I saw one. A rather large chap, fully clad in Lycra, pedalling sedately through the rural landscape, there wasn’t even a peloton in sight.
In general there are so many positives of cycling in the early morning. The peacefulness and quiet roads, especially in France. No matter what time of day or day of the week, rural France always appears deserted, like a ghost town from a 1940’s movie. My route this morning took me out towards Chasseneuil-sur-Bonnieure. My destination was the Memorial to the Resistance on the outskirts of the town. I left in complete darkness with just my lights guiding me efficiently along the narrow lanes out of the village. The sun was just rising and the sky was boiling with anger, a storm was definitely approaching. I navigated myself through La Tache, my childish nature allows my imagination to run wild and I picture a French man in a stripey top, beret and garlic around his neck with an extermely large moustache, or Freddie Mercury when the village is mentioned. My route took me directly through the Foret de Chasseneuill, the smell of pine and rustle of the trees kept me focused, even at this early hour.
As I approached the Memorial de la Resistance, the clouds cleared and the sun awoke, bright and refreshing. The memorial is a really imposing structure and is beautifully located on the hillside looking over the lovely town. Apart from a committed gardener, the place was empty. I pedalled down to the entrance and spent half an hour wandering through the expertly manicured graves, most adorned with crosses but some dedicated to Israelis and Muslim fighters. The Memorial was erected in the memory of soldiers killed in action and for the1465 martyrs of the Resistance.
The calming surroundings were so compelling but time was getting on so I jumped back on le Velo and headed north west towards the small village of Cellfrouin en-route back to base. The locals appeared to have woken up and there was a deluge of motor vehicles on the road. Ok, maybe the occasional Renault van or 2CV which in noway detracted from the enjoyment of the riding… Cellfrouin is located on the D739, north of La Tache (immature giggle). The village is comfortably conventional, apart from a derelict building located in woodland on the outskirts. I investigated further and discovered it was a derelict Church, its grounds were overgrown and the whole plot exuded a ghoulish atmosphere. My impromptu stop was brief for obvious reasons, the whole experienced reminded me of the Blair Witch Project, minus the video camera and shaky hand.
The French are utterly obsessed with food and on my way back through Valence, a small village located on a mildly busy crossroads approx 4 miles from Mansle and 1 mile from home, I stopped at the only shop, which happened to be a Boulangerie, to stock up on bread and pastries. I can speak basic French and I have found that the service is always brilliant, if the outcome at times, is slightly confusing, and today is case in point. I thought I had asked for ‘un baguette et deux pain aux raisains’ but I somehow managed to leave with two baguettes and one pain aux raisain. Oh well, C’est la Vie!. I convinced myself I actuallly needed 2 baguettes as I pedalled home. And this is when a logistical problem arose. How to carry a baguette effectively on a bike without panniers?. Answers on a postcard please because I failed miserably. The drooping mush was not that appealing, a dose of Viagra would definitely be required.
The next day I opted to head north towards the beautiful village of Verteuil-sur-Charente. The route took me through Artenac. I had made a mental note the previous evening to watch the ‘Meteo’, or weather forecast in English, and the news was good, 20+ was expected . A hot one was definately on the cards. The cycling was different than yesterday; the roads were more sweeping with sporadic hilly sections.
Verteuil-sur-Charents is a lovely village situated on the banks of the Charente River. It is on the pilgrimage route that leads from Tours to Santiago de Compostella. The landscape is completely dominated by the stunning castle and watermill. After securing my bike to a tree outside one of the many cafes, I aimlessly wandered through the narrow, empty streets. The place has an extremely relaxing and serene atmosphere. At the time of writing, the castle does not admit visitors, which is a great shame, as visually the exterior is amazing and it is considered to be one of the finest castles in the Charente region. Its standing as a truly stunning tourist attraction can only be enhanced by a decision to allow the public entry to the house.
My next destination was Ruffec, a short distance north on the D26. I decided to visit the Domaine de Rejallant, which is located just short of the town. The Rejallant is a pretty picnic area with a restaurant and watermill. This is a very popular area especially in the summer and on public holidays so you are advised to come early to reserve a picnic table. There are plenty of open spaces to play ball games and paddling is a must. I stopped for a coffee at the restaurant before heading into the town.
Ruffec is a medium sized town with a good supply of supermarkets, restaurants and cars; actually lots of cars compared to what I had been used to. The French drivers are constantly in a hurry, whether its grocery shopping, buying stamps or going to work. I’m sure the French word for impatience is actually ‘FRENCH’. The French motorists treat the pedestrian crossings with complete disregard, (not dissimilar to the contempt they possess for their neighbours across the channel, affectionately referred to as ‘Le Roast Boeuf.) They have no real purpose; the green man definitely walks on the wild side. I would like to state that on no occasion have I felt unsafe on French roads. I wish I could say the same about Britain but hey that’s another issue to discuss at a later date. Something I recently read, but found difficult to comprehend was that according to research approx 40% of fatalities on French roads can be attributed to alcohol, but where are these cars and their supposed inebriated drivers, because in my experience the roads are always deserted.
The market was in full flow. The smell of fruit and vegetables lingered refreshingly in the air. The sound of animated conversation echoed from every corner of the main square. The covered market was bustling. It was still early but the locals appeared to be out en-masse.
I stopped for a coffee at a cafe located in one of the many side streets; I sat and listened to a genuine French busker expertly playing the accordion, far better than my normal experience of a British imposter called Dave, camped outside Specsavers on the High Street
After two coffees and a full repitoire from the busker, I cycled out of town towards Mansle. I comfortably negotiated the rather busy roads of Mansle and pedalled east towards Saint Sulpice-de-Ruffec, a tiny hamlet with a stunning but simple Church, the entrance was set back off the main road on a small incline. I arrived in the car park outside the Church. There was no sign of life, there never is. The Church was closed, so I decided to rest and check out the delights of the Parish notice board. Hilariously, there was a large notice promoting locally bred Alpaca’s. To explain my immature giggles, my mother-in-law is infamously know as Alpacamamma due to her bizarre choice of attire, a gaudy cardigan she acquired from a trip to Latin America, many years ago. It is now normal protocol for me on my travels to post any interactions I have with Alpaca’s, tagging Alpacamama in the process. Childish but fun!
After taking a few pictures of hilarious advertisement, I retraced my way back to Mansle and the Carrefour supermarket. French supermarkets are fairly uncomplicated affairs. The produce is fresh and local and the choice is decent enough. There are several chains in Mansle, and in my opinion Carrefour is definitely the best. My usual cycling diet was happily satisfied inside, bags of sweets, boxes of cereal bars. I opted for liquorice and chocolate nut bars and relaxed on a bench outside replenishing my energy levels.
The weather was lovely, the sun was shining and the sky was a vibrant clear blue. My clothing consisted of a T-Shirt, shorts and a pair of flashy Iron Man sunglasses; however Mister Muscle shades would be more appropriate. I felt good. The weather helped but just the prospect of getting out and exploring was so relaxing, so therapeutic. I jumped back on the Pouridor and pushed on towards home. I retraced my way back through Mouton, eventually passing the welcoming sign to St Front. I decided to ignore my normal route back and coasted directly into the main part of the village which is situated at the bottom of a very steep hill. The river was flowing rapidly and the sound was so soothing. I sat and watched horses in the nearby equestrian school carry out intricate dressage moves. The small distance home was rather uneventful and with the voice of Phil Liggott in my head, I accomplished the hill rather easily, if slightly slowly. For the first time in several days my heart rate had finally been raised. A welcoming cup of coffee was waiting for me, that’s what mums are for, aren’t they.