An Evolving Love Affair: Tropical North Queensland Campervan Trip

17 Jul

I have a great affection for Tropical North Queensland that grows with each experience of this unique part of Australia.

Three more visits over the past year have moved it into my top ten places on the planet. Having a sister and niece living here gave me a taste of the insider’s TNQ, but even without the family connection it would have wormed its way into my heart.

This time I organised a two-week winter campervan trip out of Cairns with my two young Melbourne nieces.  This was our three metre high four-berth apartment on wheels.

For the second week my sister, their mum, joined us.

What happens on the road stays on the road, but I think they’ll agree it was pretty special. We sampled life with four kids (five years and under) with my niece and husband on their sugar cane farm, took a day trip with them on their speed boat to Fitzroy Island, hiked and swam at beautiful Behana Gorge, lounged on deserted white sands at Ella Bay, surfed Four Mile Beach, Port Douglas, and spotted salt water crocodiles on The Inlet and The Daintree River. 

We didn’t see an actual cassowary in the wild, but the girls had a great day on Agincourt Reef with their mum and spotted nemo, marlin and a moray eel.



Fitzroy Island

Spotted from the speedboat at The Inlet, Cairns.

Behana Gorge


Four-Mile Beach, Port Douglas

There’s a 3.5 metre croc in the centre of this photo taken on Daintree River.

A day on the southern Atherton Tableland reconnected me to mountain wilderness, ancient trees and the pristine waters of the  crater lakes.

The 500-year-old curtain fig tree called Cathedral Fig. A apt spot to reflect on our puny human lifespan.

Bottom breathing saw backed turtle.


After the Melburnians returned home to work and school I spent a lazy weekend walking and swimming at The Esplanade, eating delicious vegan food, and learning about the diversity of Indigenous art at the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair.

With my sister Jo walking The Esplanade.

Mozaic sculpture by Dominic John.

Seu Reef Garden by Torres Strait artists from Erub Arts. An abandoned, deadly fishing net, twine, felt and other materials evoke their beautiful reef teeming with marine life and remind us how precious this natural capital is. If you love it you have to look after it.

Historic Art School above and Flying Monkey Cafe below.

More than ever I’m committed to putting my political weight behind efforts to preserve the natural environment here in the north. We can’t stop cyclones but there’s a heck of a lot we can do, sometimes by ensuring we do nothing.

 

Whether it’s stopping the Adani mine:

 

http://www.stopadani.com 

preventing quarrying at Behana Gorge, http://www.cairnspost.com.au/news/cairns/behana-gorge-struck-off-councils-cairns-plan/news-story/b1d43302d2feb146ab56358151477bc8  

 

beating back the planned mega resort and casino ‘Aquis’ at Yorkey’s Knob:

 

https://www.communityrun.org/petitions/stop-development-approval-for-the-aquis-great-barrier-reef-mega-casino-at-yorkey-s-knob-cairns-1  

 

or minimising manmade damage to The Great Barrier Reef:

 

https://www.fightforourreef.org.au

 

community lobbying can work.

 

One thing I know for sure, politicians are shackled to a short-term view shaped by their own re-election interests, while the natural world operates on its own cycle understood best by the traditional custodians of this country.

Kew, London

21 May

May 20-21, 2017

London is best explored on foot, slowly, along the Thames. We stayed near Kew Bridge and walked in Barnes, Mortlake and Kew.

Plenty of riverside pubs to slake your thirst and fill your stomach.
It was grand to catch up with very old friends.And family too!

The very last half pint of real ale before a long drought.

Tomorrow it’s London-Dubai-Brisbane for us.
Our next project is a refresh of son Tristan’s house in Brisbane which he’ll put on the market in June. 
We’ll still be living out of suitcases but we’ll have paint brushes in our hands. Stuart is also hoping to progress house planning before we take off again in August.
Bye for now!

This Green and Pleasant Land: South Downs, Sussex, England

21 May

16-19 May, 2017
Eurostar Paris to Ashford International Station in Kent was over in a flash. A local train to Eastbourne, where sister-in-law Catharine met us, was followed by a quick stop for lunch and to collect groceries ordered online at Tesco. By 2:30pm we were in situ at Beachy Barn cottage, East Deen.

Sussex Heritage Coast on the south coast of England is a new area to us but a favourite for Catharine, so we were happy to have her plan our three-day stay.

East Deen has to be one of the sweetest English villages, a bit Midsomer Murderish, but lovely nonetheless. The Tiger Pub, Walker’s Rest and Beehive Cafe & Deli sit on three sides of The Green, while the fourth is notable for a rose-covered stone house with a blue plaque. It reads, ‘Consulting Detective and Bee Keeper Sherlock Holmes retired here’. It seems Sir AC Doyle based Sherlock’s final home in the country on this house, now a rental property management office. Art imitating life.

The long evening allowed plenty of time for me to walk from the village to Belle Tout lighthouse and on to Birling Gap. The public footpaths are not as easy to spot in this part of the world but as much of the Downs is treeless there is good line of sight.It’s eerie that I serendipitously read Fay Weldon’s ‘Life and Loves of a She Devil’ when in Britanny only to find that the lighthouse she modelled her ‘tower house’ on, Belle Tout, is a few kilometres down the road. It was moved inland from the crumbling chalk cliff in 1999 but is again uncomfortably close to the cliff edge. It is in private hands with unfriendly ‘KEEP OUT’ signs so I made do with a quick peak.

At 5pm the surf was up at Birling Gap. Wetsuited surfers dashed from the National Trust car park out to the aerial staircase and down the long flight of stairs to the shingle beach. In the distance sheer white cliffs rose and fell as far as the eye could see.

Alfriston was our focus next day starting with coffee at Badger’s. The photos don’t lie, this is a destination tea shop and garden. And Vegan Molly Cake!

Alfriston has a magical bookshop too. New and second hand treasures on two floors with reading nooks.We walked from Alfriston Green via the church and the National Trust’s 14th century Clergy House (the Trust’s very first property) through river meadows to Litlington pub, The Plough and Harrow, where Catherine and I left Stuart to his ale and continued the circular walk back to Alfriston.




Siblings at the Clergy House


On our return we found Stu dozing on the beer garden lawn. It’s a good life!

With changeable weather forecast we visited Michelham Priory at Upper Dicker (stop tittering), before venturing up to a ridge of the South Downs for Catherine and I to walk down to Charleston House to meet Stuart who had the car. As you’ve no doubt guessed Stuart’s knee is still not cooperating. He’s limiting his walking until he gets back to Australia to investigate what’s going on.
Whilst Henry VIII’s reformation emptied its coffers and destroyed many of its 13-16th century buildings, what remains of the Priory, including its water mill, moat and gardens, have been sensitively restored by the Sussex Archaeological Society and opened to the public. It was pure pleasure to explore the house and grounds and meet the staff (in character).



A Witching Jug

From the misting rain of the Downs with only sheep and cattle for company we descended into green farmland near Lewes to take refuge in the tea tent of Charleston House before the heavens opened. A literature festival (Barry Humphries is the star talent on the final evening) was about to kick off, marquees were being erected and extensive building works are in progress to expand the estate. Stuart heard a figure of ten million pounds being spoken of.

With Catharine at The Beacon.

As the home of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, both post-Impressionist painters, Charleston became a country get away for London’s influential Bloomsbury Set, a friendship with benefits group of artists, writers, critics, economists and philosophers, which the sisters, Vanessa Bell and Virginia Wolf, had been integral to establishing.Charleston is open March to October with entry to the house only by pre-booked guided tour. Entry to the garden, cafe and shop is free, as is the parking. The Charitable Trust operating Charleston has a busy annual program of festivals, workshops and other activities. We’ll return to do it justice some time in the future.

 

Squeezing out the last of the lovely coastal England experience we walked along the esplanade at Eastbourne past the Grand Hotel, the bandstand and down to the recently restored pier.

The Grand Hotel





Then it was goodbye to the seaside as we drove to The Griffin pub restaurant in Fletching for lunch en route to London. The Griffin’s beer garden has to be one of the most picturesque and the food was outstanding.Thank you Catharine for a wonderful introduction to this very special part of Great Britain.

 

Final stop London!

Paris on the Cusp: Rugby, Cycling and a New President

21 May

12-16 May, 2017
Packs of Pirates, including several Cap’n Jacks, Where’s Wallies in their red striped jerseys and caps, bowler hatted Charlie Chaplins, strutting Napoleans, a full brass band, Smurfs, many Mariannes with their lamps, (national icon for liberty), dancing giraffes, you name it, the dress up party people were out in force. My personal favourites were the twelve or so burly men wearing inflatable pink and white unicorn costumes. Their commitment was total, sitting en bloc and dancing and cheering en masse. 

Where were we? The Rugby Sevens World Series in Paris of course. Nothing brings out the extroverts like a major sporting event. For two days spectators guzzle beer, eat frites and smoke to their hearts’ content (no apparent control of smoking in the stands). Sometimes they watch the rugby too. Usually when France is playing. Then they furiously wave their flags (kindly supplied by the event organisers) and sing the Marsellaise. Even when they’re beaten, which happened every game this past weekend, they’ll cheer their team, as well as the Scots (continued historic closeness) along with any underdogs (Kenya this year) and boo the English and Australians. Not sure why they dislike the Aussies so much but I made sure to barack as loudly as I could for the Poms and Aussies which made Stuart rather nervous.

Try!!!!!!!!!




The irony of such unhealthy consumption by spectators compared to the gods on the pitch was not lost on me. Happily organisers allow you to take picnics and fill your water bottle so this teetotal vegan was fine, thank you.

Rugby Sevens is much more interesting to watch than fifteen a side. We discovered that in Hong Kong when we first went to a championship there a million years ago.  

 

With only seven minutes per half and seven players on the field, and with a maximum of four substitutes, there is plenty of scope for inventive play and long sprints to score tries. This tournament comprised 16 teams who played both days. It made for a long day for dedicated spectators like us and a bruising experience for the players, but at 20 euro per day per person (second best seats) it’s a great value sporting event (if you can get to Paris).We arrived at the stadium as the French team were getting off the bus. Very low key.The Paris leg was the 10th of this globe trotting championship. Next weekend they’ll be in London at Twickenham for the final round.

 

We were treated to some brilliant play, especially by the US, Fijians, Kiwis and Scots. It was our first time watching North American Terry Baker play. He has the stature of a long jumper, but man can he dodge, accelerate and sprint one end of the field to the other.​

​However, it was the hardest of hard men, the South Africans, who battled through to the final against the canny Scots and put the tournament away with some devastating tries. The Samoans, who eat, sleep and breathe rugby from their cradles, came third.Scotland in a group hug after coming second. 

We stayed in an apartment on Rue George Sand (what a woman she was), in the 17th arrondisement, chosen so we could walk to the stadium. Monday we kept free for a cycle ride in the nearby Bois de Boulogne. It was the weekend of the inauguration of Emmanuel Macron as French President, an exciting, optimistic time.


The Bois de Boulogne was cool and green, Moor hens were teaching their chicks independence. Dog walkers, riders and runners were out in force. Two sex workers sat by their separate pickup spots next to a pedestrian crossing. One looked like a bored secretary. apart from her serious cleavage, while the other resembled Julia Roberts in ‘Pretty Woman’. They both responded to my ‘Bonjour!’ with a smile. It’s a dangerous job.


The rose garden at Cascades was in full bloom and the Louis Vuitton exhibition of African art looked interesting, but we pressed on as Stuart wanted a last lunch with a glass of rose at a street brasserie in the sun.The public bicycle rental system is working well, all up about 3 euros each for our 3 hours.

The sunny day became a sunny evening, perfect for a picnic by Pont Neuf. A good decision as we could watch the world promenade or cycle by in the golden glow of the sun on the Seine. A fitting finale to another memorable Paris experience.


Paris on the Cusp: Rugby, Cycling and a new President

21 May

Packs of Pirates, including several Cap’n Jacks, Where’s Wallies in their red striped jerseys and caps, bowler hatted Charlie Chaplins, strutting Napoleans, a full brass band, Smurfs, many Mariannes with their lamps, (national icon for liberty), dancing giraffes, you name it, the dress up party people were out in force. My personal favourites were the twelve or so burly men wearing inflatable pink and white unicorn costumes. Their commitment was total, sitting en bloc and dancing and cheering en masse. 

Where were we? The Rugby Sevens World Series in Paris of course. Nothing brings out the extroverts like a major sporting event. For two days spectators guzzle beer, eat frites and smoke to their hearts’ content (no apparent control of smoking in the stands). Sometimes they watch the rugby too. Usually when France is playing. Then they furiously wave their flags (kindly supplied by the event organisers) and sing the Marsellaise. Even when they’re beaten, which happened every game this past weekend, they’ll cheer their team, as well as the Scots (continued historic closeness) along with any underdogs (Kenya this year) and boo the English and Australians. Not sure why they dislike the Aussies so much but I made sure to barack as loudly as I could for the Poms and Aussies which made Stuart rather nervous.

Try!!!!!!!!!




The irony of such unhealthy consumption by spectators compared to the gods on the pitch was not lost on me. Happily organisers allow you to take picnics and fill your water bottle so this teetotal vegan was fine, thank you.

Rugby Sevens is much more interesting to watch than fifteen a side. We discovered that in Hong Kong when we first went to a championship there a million years ago.  

 

With only seven minutes per half and seven players on the field, with a maximum of four substitutes, there is plenty of scope for inventive play and long sprints to score tries. This tournament comprised 16 teams who played both days. It made for a long day for dedicated spectators like us and a bruising experience for the players, but at 20 euro per day per person (second best seats) it’s a great value sporting event (if you can get to Paris).We arrived at the stadium as the French team were getting off the bus. Very low key.The Paris leg was the 10th of this globe trotting championship. Next weekend they’ll be in London at Twickenham for the final round.

 

We were treated to some brilliant play, especially by the US, Fijians, Kiwis and Scots. It was our first time watching North American Terry Baker play. He has the stature of a long jumper, but man can he dodge, accelerate and sprint one end of the field to the other.​

​However, it was the hardest of hard men, the South Africans, who battled through to the final against the canny Scots and put the tournament away with some devastating tries. The Samoans, who eat, sleep and breathe rugby from their cradles, came third.Scotland in a group hug after coming second. 

We stayed in an apartment on Rue George Sand (what a woman she was), in the 17th arrondisement, chosen so we could walk to the stadium. Monday we kept free for a cycle ride in the nearby Bois de Boulogne. It was the weekend of the inauguration of Emmanuel Macron as French President, an exciting, optimistic time.


The Bois de Boulogne was cool and green, Moor hens were teaching their chicks independence. Dog walkers, riders and runners were out in force. Two sex workers sat by their separate pickup spots next to a pedestrian crossing. One looked like a bored secretary. apart from her serious cleavage, while the other resembled Julia Roberts in ‘Pretty Woman’. They both responded to my ‘Bonjour!’ with a smile. It’s a dangerous job.


The rose garden at Cascades was in full bloom and the Louis Vuitton exhibition of African art looked interesting, but we pressed on as Stuart wanted a last lunch with a glass of rose at a street brasserie in the sun.The public bicycle rental system is working well, all up about 3 euros each for our 3 hours.
The sunny day became a sunny evening, perfect for a picnic by Pont Neuf. A good decision as we could watch the world promenade or cycle by in the golden glow of the sun on the Seine. A fitting finale to another memorable Paris experience.


Cycle Touring in Alsace, France: No Lycra, No Tears

10 May

5-11 May, 2017

‘Maps? We don’t have any maps.’
Oh, ohhh… Not the response we’d expected from the bicycle rental dude. Deep intake of air and breathe out…. But back to where we left off in Brittany in the last chapter.

My cross country drive Gouarec to Strasbourg, across the breast of France, was more intense than anticipated. We hit a rain storm coming into Paris and visibility dropped to a few metres, but that didn’t stop people driving far faster than conditions safely allowed. Happily we broke the journey in Dizy near Epernay.

No champagne for us in Champagne country but I did break my temperance with a glass of red and vegan pizza to celebrate our safe arrival.

In Strasbourg we stayed in the shadow of the Cathedral and climbed two of its soaring towers. 330 steps into the sky above this over 1,000-year-old building was an act of faith, in the tower engineers.


Stuart had called ahead and arranged our bicycle and pannier rental through Strasbourg’s Esprit Cycles, but when we asked for the promised maps and guides they’d agreed over the phone to provide we got the response, ‘Maps, we don’t have maps. You need to go to the tourist office.’ Backtrack to downtown and well, actually no, the tourist office doesn’t stock detailed cycle route guides and nor did the first book shop we went to. The second bookstore did but it was in German. We bought an OS map supplemented with a brochure on the wine route from the tourist office.
STRASBOURG – OBERNAI

After all that faffing around plus 45 minutes at the train station ticket office to buy tickets Strasbourg to Paris for the rugby weekend and then Eurostar to the UK (lots of deep yoga breathing as I waited for my number to come up – don’t ask about why I didn’t use the ticket machine!) we finally left central Strasbourg at 1pm.

Within ten minutes we were cycling in sunshine alongside Bruche Canal and its paddling swans and cygnets and wide open fertile farmland. 

The only hazards we faced were the pelatons and solo cyclists who seemed to be training for the Tour de France given their high speeds and the intense looks on their faces. 
Without bells (too much weight and uncool) you only know they’re passing you when you feel the breeze, inhale the pheramones and suddenly see their arse in your face. I amuse myself shouting, ‘Bonjour to you too!’, at their rapidly disappearing rear ends.

All up it was 40k to our first overnight stop, Obernai. We’d tried to get lunch in pretty Molsheim but as it was after 2pm all the cafes and restaurants had closed so we had to push on. Note to selves: last lunch orders at 1:45pm sharp in Alsace.

Obernai is on the wine tour cycling trail, but as with eating, wine tasting isn’t simple either, not in May.

OBERNAI-OTTROT-ST LEONARD
As we had two nights in an Obernai apartment (see accommodation notes for tips) we headed out next day for Stu to taste some local vintages. 
After five attempts in Obernai, Ottrot, and St Leonard (four were closed and the fifth was expecting 45 Germans so could we come back later?) we gave up. I asked a young farmer about to spray chemicals on his vines why the wine caves were closed on a Saturday. He said May was a quiet month, they would be open in June.

We settled for coffee in Ottrot since wine proved elusive.

After five attempts in Obernai, Ottrot, and St Leonard (four were closed and the fifth was expecting 45 Germans so could we come back later?) we gave up. I asked a young farmer about to spray chemicals on his vines why the wine caves were closed on a Saturday. He said May was a quiet month, they would be open in June.

The war memorial above Obernai remembers those local men conscripted into the German army who didn’t come home, more than 40,000 of them.
OBERNAI TO SELESTAT

The wine trail continued (video) to our next overnight stop at Selestat with pleasant breaks for coffee in Barr and lunch in Mittelbergheim. 

Here our luck changed. Hirz winery’s tasting room was open and Monsieur Edy Hirz himself served us. Lovely man. He seemed to have all the time in the world to chat. We learnt more about Alsatian wines in thirty minutes with him than we could have from any book. Of the Pinot Noir and Gewurstraminer wines Stuart sampled he preferred the latter. He now has a bottle weighing down one pannier.

In Australia most winery mascots are dogs (they even have a photo book dedicated to them). At Hirz it’s a rooster. And a beautiful cockrel he was too.

Lunch at Le Raisin D’Or was a revelation. We both chose the 22 euro vegetarian/vegan set menu (which in Stuart’s case included a main course of fish and prawns – go figure). Both meals were delicious.

Considerably heavier but very happy we pushed on in a light misty rain through beautiful wine country via Andlou and Dambach-Le Ville to Selestat. 45k and we barely broke a sweat.

SELESTAT TO RIBEAUVILLE

More Irish weather for our 20k ride from Selestat to Ribeauville with a side trip to St Hippolyte for breakfast and wine tasting at Huber & Bleger. Another bottle of wine, this time a 2013 pinot noir went into a saddle bag.


Part of the ride, which skirted fields of flowering rape seed and green shoots of wheat, followed an ancient Roman road connecting Strasbourg with Besancon. Just as we crossed a minor road a farmer trotted by on his dray pulled by two powerful white horses. Times like that I wished I had a head cam.

Picturesque Ribeauville with its cobbled streets and half timbered houses sits at the foot of a hill topped by three castle ruins. Like Obernai it’s busy with tourists, mostly domestic and German.

We climbed to the best preserved castle, Chateau Ulrich. The first record of a building on the site is in the 11th century. Behind it are green forested hills as far as the eye can see and in front the town surrounded by vineyards.

RIBEAUVILLE TO COLMAR

20k Ribeauville to Colmar via Riquewhir was the hillliest leg of the trip to date. I took my own advice and pushed up one especially steep section. No tears, no tantrums.


This was our the first day of full sun, perfect for playing silly buggers (movie) and a picnic by the vines.

Riding into Colmar felt like returning to the big smoke, huge squares with fountains, supermarkets, even a MacDonalds. Happily our hotel was in Little Venice, in the central medieval section.


COLMAR TO TURKHEIM AND LES TROIS EPIS

Colmar is an attractive, historic town dating from the ninth century. I was glad of two nights there to leave the panniers in the room, explore on foot and take a circular day ride to Les Trois Epis.Turkheim

This was our first attempt at a col (mountain pass) together. It was a good one to start with as it’s a steady, gradual ascent, albeit with lots of bends in the southern arm. We both managed it without having to stop. I even had an extra gear up my sleeve! Two weeks on a bicycle has strengthened us both.


We celebrated with lunch on the sun terrace of Le Croix D’Or and toasted (beer and mineral water) to Stuart entering his sixth year post-stroke in excellent health (dodgy knee aside).

Tomorrow we’ll take the bikes on the train from Colmar back to Strasbourg and return them to Esprit Cycles. Though we looked like we’d hijacked someone’s city shopping bikes they’d proved surprisingly suitable for the trip. The upright position cause me less pain in the backside, hands and neck than I get with a mountain bike or racer.

WOULD WE DO IT AGAIN?

For our first cycle tour, especially given that it was completely self guided, we managed brilliantly. No accidents, breakages, losses, and not once did we get lost. I recommend Stuart as a guide, his French language skills proved useful many times. Merci ma cherie! We’ll be looking seriously at self-guided cycle tour options for our next trip later this year.

NOTES:

……………….
CYCLE HIRE

Esprit Cycles charged us 250 euros for the 2 bicycles, good helmets, 4 dry bag-style panniers, a pump, two inner tubes and two strong bike locks. 

http://www.espritcycles.com/nos-magasins/

They require a deposit on a credit card (this is a bond, it doesn’t go through unless you abscond or destroy them) of 600 euros per bike. 
ROUTES

Most of the time we were on agricultural roads for tractors and workers through fields and vineyards, on a dedicated cycle path or on a quiet country road. The Route Des Vins was well marked. Almost all drivers we encountered kept a safe distance.
ACCOMMODATION

When trying to get lunch in Molsheim we asked at the Hotel Diana. The receptionist apologised that the kitchen was closed and asked the manager if he had any idea where we could eat. Thomas, the manager, offered us a drink and described some options and gave us directions. When he found out we were staying in a sister hotel in Obernai he offered to put the bikes in a van and drive us there! We thanked him but preferred to cycle on. The drinks were free and Thomas got us an upgrade at the Pavillion Apartment and also on our hotel room at Le Colombier in Colmar. Tres cool!

In Ribeauville we stayed at Les 3 Chateaux run by the Muller Family. When I say family I mean mum, dad, mother-in-law, daughters and sons! The sight of all the staff sitting at one big table sharing lunch at 11:30am was heartwarming.

RESTAURANTS

This is a top spot in Colmar and vegan friendly.

For Italian in Colmar we recommend La Pignata for great Calabrian and Sicilian dishes.
And in Obernai Biogourmand has vegan waffles/gauffres.

Brittany: Bicycles and Baguettes

6 May

It’s funny how things work out. This final month of our five-month trip was unplanned, except for the notion of going to the International Rugby Sevens tournament in Paris (which we still hope to do).
We monitored long range weather forecasts and assessed Stuart’s dodgy knee regularly. It became clear his sore ligament wasn’t going to allow distance walking, but that he could cycle painfree. The cause for concern was that cold, wet weather was heading towards England and looked to be sticking around.

 

After a couple of happy days with Stuart’s sister, Catharine, in London, which included a day trip to St Alban’s, we flew (Gatwick to Rennes with Vueling) into what was supposed to be the sunnier clime of central Brittany. We collected a rental car (my turn to drive – a Nissan Juke) and drove 180k to our destination.
I’d located a British business, Breton Bikes, based in Gouarec, a tidy village beside the Brest-Nantes canal tow path and connected to dedicated cycle trails. Deep in verdant farmland we also had miles of easy cycling on quiet back roads to choose from. At short notice Geoff and Kate, the owners who live nearby, fixed us up with a self-catering gite, Quarry Cottage, 500m from the centre of the village, good maps and directions plus two hybrid touring bicycles with paniers and clip on handle bar boxes.

 

The best feature of the cottage is its fireplace with a generous supply of wood. One metre thick stone walls take a while to warm up. With no TV, mobile signal or wifi our evenings have been filled with French radio (mostly talking heads discussing the looming final round of the French Presidential election), reading, writing, yoga and crosswords (Stu starts them and I finish them, well most of them).

First day out we started with a gentle 22k ride on the well signed V6 cycle route to Rostrenen and looped back to pick up the tranquil tow path home. So far so good!

 

Bravo to the vegan cafe-restaurant in Rostrenen – I wish them success!Rostrenen street art.

Day two looked like the best weather of the week so we jumped back on the bikes for a rather hillier 24k to Perret, St Brigitte and Bon Repos Abbey, again returning along the tow path. A highlight of the morning was stopping in at Maddison’s Bar in St Brigitte to chat with Richard the owner, who relocated from Newcastle to run the bar (named after his British bulldog). He seems to have life nicely sorted.

With a sunny evening ahead we drove the thirty minutes to stately Pontivy, formerly Napoleanville, to stroll around medieval Rohan Castle and browse the half timbered shophouses in the town’s main shopping street.

On day three wet weather set in. We made do with a rather damp 12k cycle to Bon Repos for the Sunday market.

We concocted a plan to get fit enough to tackle a week of bicycle touring in Alsace, starting and finishing in Strasbourg. But being fair weather cyclists, on the rainiest day we opted to drive to the coast and take the ferry to Ile de Brehat. I was especially keen for Stuart to see Ile de Brehat as the island stopover was one of my fondest memories from my first Provident cross channel trip. Even on a blustery, squally day it was lovely, especially when we tucked in behind a pink granite dry stone wall at a beach cove for our picnic lunch closely watched by two sea gulls.With no cars on the island bicycles, trailers and tractors are the way to go!

On the way back to Gouarec we stopped in at Paimpol, Port Quay (nostalgic as we both went there during the second Provident trip) and Binic. All three have interesting, immaculate harbours crammed with boats, but on our cursory look Binic seems the most interesting with its seaside boulevarde busy with petanque pitches and a broad golden beach. We watched a rider with her sheep dog trot down to the beach, have a gallop then walk the horse back up. Look hard at the photo and you’ll just make them out.

In reading books about Brittany from Quarry Cottage library I came to realise how connected Brittany is to Cornwall. I knew from watching the marvellous ‘Coast’ series that Brittany was once part of the same land mass in the millenia before the English Channel formed, but I hadn’t known about the forced mass migration of Celtic Britons from SW England (and Ireland) across to what became Bretagne. The Germanic tribes of Angles, Jutes and Saxons pushed into the British Isles and moved westward thereby displacing many Celts.

 

Language, the colours of the flag, customs, there are enduring parallels between Cornwall and Brittany. Interestingly the Celtic Brits were entering long held Gallo-Roman territory yet it was the Breton language, social structure and customs that endured, not the Roman. Is it any wonder Bretons still have a strong sense of identity and regional pride? A Breton fisherman probably feels he has more in common with a Cornish fisherman than a Parisian politician.

On our last day in Gouarec we cycled to Rostrenon on market day, reversing the route we took earlier in the week. Stuart had a much needed haircut and I observed the locals, some interesting eccentrics amongst them.

The route back cycling side by side on the V6 was idyllic. We took lunch outside the cottage for the first (and last time) and spend a lazy afternoon reading in the sunshine. Our strategy has worked, our legs and lungs are coping better with the hills. We’re ready to tackle Alsace!

Notes:

Breton Bikes: http://www.bretonbikes.com/

Ile de Brehat is reached by foot ferry from Point d’Arcouest with Vedettes de Brehat. 10.50 euros return for an adult and boats leave every half to one hour depending upon the season and tides.