Not Milan

One of the most incredible buildings in Milan is its Cathedral, the Duomo di Milano. Here’s a photo of its mind-blowing façade:

I got that photo off of Wikipedia (photo credit: Jiuguang Wang) because we didn’t go there.

In fact, we really didn’t go to Milan at all. Instead, we spent three days mostly sleeping heavily in a suburb of Milan. (Our hotel had amazing blackout curtains.) But: we needed the sleep – I guess we were tired out from Toronto, and the three-legged flight back to Italy, and the time difference – and we did have a good time in Gallarate, the suburb. I’ll share the few things we did/ate while there, but to be clear, none of it was worth a special trip.

  • Tasty meat/cheese platter and crisp northern Italian wines at Norcinarte
  • A pretty strong early entrant into the gelato competition, at Gelateria Pure 100%
  • Stopping by the historic wing of the Sant’Antonio Abate Hospital
  • The Basilica of Santa Maria Assunta, in the heart of the town, by day and by night (I forgot to take a photo of the nearby, older Chiesa di San Pietro)
  • A really terrific meal of fresh pasta at the recently opened Terminal restaurant, convenient to the train station
  • The pedestrianized center of town, with various textile-inspired street lighting and wall hangings

Mostly what we did in Gallarate was rest and recuperate, debate whether we should go into Milan each day, not go into Milan, and plan the coming weeks’ travels. Then we recovered our bikes from our previous Airbnb host and set out on our next adventure!

A Canadian Interlude

At this point in our travels, things take a surprising twist, because having just arrived in Italy, it was time for us to fly to Canada!! You see, we’d been invited to our friends Yasir and Sonali’s wedding in Toronto, and though it was a challenge to make the journey, we really didn’t want to miss this important milestone in their lives. So off we went!

We cleverly stashed our bikes and our camping gear at an Airbnb near Milan airport, then headed out bright and early for the world’s most absurd itinerary: Milan to Vienna, Vienna to Montreal, and Montreal to Toronto. (Careful readers will note that Vienna is almost completely the wrong way.) This obviously reflected a tradeoff wherein we were spending time to save money, relative to a more direct itinerary.

Not only was our itinerary lengthy and somewhat complex, it was also moderately stressful due to a super-tight transfer at Vienna airport. We had only 25 minutes from the landing of Plane 1 to the takeoff of Plane 2. This felt pretty unreliable on its face, but we figured if Austrian Airlines was willing to sell us the ticket, it must be theoretically possible. And indeed, upon our arrival in Vienna, we entered a world of Austrian efficiency and hospitality that was frankly brilliant: an employee met us at the tarmac with a dedicated vehicle, whisked us over to passport control, ushered us past the entire queue (suckers! I kid; we felt kind of like jerks for doing this), and let us directly onto the jetway through a secret door. Easy peasy. Then we boarded the plane only to find that our seats had been double-booked, so they’d upgraded us to Premium Economy. Very tight. We settled into our oversize seats, sipped a glass or three of Grüner Veltliner, and actually quite enjoyed this long middle leg.

Though we were getting pretty tired by the time we landed in Montreal, we knew the last leg – Montreal to Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport – would be an easy one. We’d taken this same flight some three and a half years earlier, during a frigid yet dreamy midwinter trip to those same two Canadian cities. (Another upside of attending our friends’ wedding was that it gave us a chance to scope out Toronto in a more hospitable season.) The flight is a sub-hour puddle jump in a turboprop plane, during which they still somehow find time to offer you free dark chocolate, and at the end of which you enjoy one of the great urban landings, flying parallel to the city skyline:

The first time we flew into Billy Bishop, we were actually able to walk directly from the airport to our home base. This time it was a short Lyft ride, but still: very good. (It was only later that I discovered I must have misplaced my fleece jacket somewhere during all these movements; a bummer, but that’s life. We haven’t lost all that many things, considering how long we’ve been traveling.)

We stayed in two different Airbnbs in Toronto. Yes, it’s possible that by staying in Airbnbs we are marginally supporting the use of limited housing stock for tourists rather than for locals, but the effect is marginal enough, and the value gained over staying in hotels is large enough, that we manage to look the other way. The first place we stayed was pretty close to downtown, in a convenient yet impersonal high-rise that bore a little resemblance to the glassy postage stamp we’d stayed in in January 2016, which we’d affectionately referred to as “the Urban Living Hypothesis.” Just planner things.

Sara’s parents were gracious enough to fly to Toronto to stay with us for a few days before the wedding! It was great to see them. Here we are together in Nathan Phillips Square, which is flanked by both the stately and attractive Toronto Old City Hall and the curvy and (in my opinion) less attractive Toronto City Hall, built in the 1960s. To its credit, Toronto has really leaned in to the imagery of the newer, derpier city hall, even using its signature curves as an icon on municipal trash bins.

We had great days together walking to and through many remarkable neighborhoods (Cabbagetown, Greektown, Kensington Market) and excellent parks (Allan Gardens, Riverdale Farm). The latter is a working farm with animals and everything, owned and run by the Toronto Department of Parks, Forestry & Recreation (motto: “A City Within a Park”).

Another day we took the ferry out to the Toronto Islands. Much fun was had enjoying the spectacular city views, deciding not to swim in the probably frigid waters of Lake Ontario, and people-watching along the promenades and pathways of the islands.

Sara’s parents took their leave and we moved into a space-efficient Airbnb in Harbord Village, the kind of residential neighborhood that real estate agents are legally obligated to describe as “leafy.” In fact, there are a great number of very green neighborhoods in Toronto, and we rather liked this one, flanked as it is by Kensington Market, the University of Toronto, and the stylish Bloor Annex. We dropped off our stuff, got as fancy-looking as we can manage, these days, and then it was time for the main event: Yasir and Sonali’s wedding!

I don’t have any photos, so I’ll just note that it was a really wonderful, joyous occasion, and Sara and I were so glad to be able to be there. Yasir and Sonali asked us to write a song (or rather, to adapt the lyrics of an existing song) to sing as part of their gathering, and I’m pleased to report that that went off very well too.

Several of our common friends from graduate school were also in town for the wedding, and it was great to see them all again. It’s been a while since we’ve had access to anything resembling a group of friends. We met up for delicious ramen, and later for fantastic neo-Korean delights at the idiosyncratic Her Chef, which I can’t begin to recommend highly enough. (Get the chicken bowl.)

Indeed, it was great overall to be back in Toronto, a city we both love, and while it was a mixed bag being back in North America, it was an unalloyed joy to be able to converse freely in our native language. We felt like we were being extra-kind, extra-effusive, extra-demonstrative, just because we had the linguistic facility to do so. It helps that Torontonians are themselves kind, if not unreasonably effusive given the size and intensity of the city they inhabit. And Toronto offers the kind of racial, ethnic, and economic diversity that has been largely absent from the European capitals we’ve been hanging out in lately.

One of the last things we did in Toronto was visit the former home of Jane Jacobs, that legendary housewife from Scranton, PA, who saved New York City and changed the very face of planning itself. (None of this is an overstatement, if you look into the facts.) Fed up with city politics and fearing her children would be drafted into the Vietnam War, she left NYC for Toronto in 1968 and set up in a handsome Edwardian in the Annex neighborhood. We went out there with a fellow planner friend, making a sort of pilgrimage. It’s owned by another private citizen now, but there’s a plaque, and an aura. And we feel more entitled to pick a single-family home now – if it was good enough for Jane, it’s surely good enough for us!

Marooned in Beaune

One of the passions that Sara and I share is for wine. For more than a decade now, I in particular have been enchanted by the wines of Burgundy. In the wine world, this isn’t exactly a niche interest – Burgundy is one of the most famous and prestigious wine regions worldwide – but it is something of a generational one: our parents might have been more likely to prefer the velvety and heavy wines of Bordeaux, while younger folks seem to prefer the esoteric, funky, and individualistic wines that emerge from the varied terroirs of Burgundy.

(Sadly, too, Burgundy wine isn’t a particularly affordable passion, as Burgundy prices now rival Bordeaux and any other wine region in the world. This has particularly occurred over the past decade or so, as international speculators, particularly from East Asia, have driven up prices in what amounts to a search for investment properties. Will anyone actually drink those bottles? It seems a shame. For that matter, will anyone actually live in all those glassy high-rises in midtown Manhattan…?)

Anyway. When we were planning our France trip, a visit to Burgundy was a must. We chose Beaune, the small but mighty heart of the region, as our home base from which to explore the wines and wineries of the Côte d’Or – the evocatively-named “golden slope,” home to many of the greatest wines in the world.

A mediocre photo of the Côte d’Or, as seen from our train into Beaune.

The idea was to mix in exploration of Beaune itself with bike rides to various vineyards, where we might taste young and old wines and form a more complete understanding of the region. I’d called ahead to several winemakers and arranged visits (a must, in this prestigious region). Unfortunately, we hadn’t counted on a major heat wave (during which temperatures routinely exceeded 100 Freedom Degrees). Given that we were traveling by bike, riding to vineyards would be at best unpleasant and at worst hazardous, so I had to cancel our appointments. We were marooned in Beaune.

Fortunately for us, Beaune is a splendid place (if something of a playground for the rich), and we had plenty to do and plenty of opportunities to connect with wine even within the town. Highlights included:

  • a great food market in the city center on Saturday
  • an afternoon class at a wine tasting school, including a history of Burgundy, fundamentals of tasting and identifying wines, and a tasting of seven Burgundies including several premier cru and grand cru wines
  • viewing – from the exterior only – the flamboyant Hôtel-Dieu, which was founded as an almshouse in the 15th century, evolved into something of a hospital complex, and now hosts a major wine auction every November
  • cooking a few meals in our Airbnb and pairing them with some very nice wines bought at any of the million wine shops in town

One of the last things we did in Beaune was take a tour of the Edmond Fallot mustard factory! For this former co-editor of MustardAddict magazine, this trip to the last mustard-maker in Beaune was sheer joy. We got to see their old production equipment, learned all about the history of moutarde de Dijon and moutarde de Beaune, tried our hand at making our own mustard (simpler than you’d think, but I prefer their quality over our own), and sampled a thousand and one flavors of mustard (standouts included walnut, tarragon, and curry).

So, even though we had had to hole up in town more than we’d have liked, we still had a great time in Beaune.

As the day of our departure approached, we had a decision to make. We knew we needed to get to Milan by July 29th, because we had a plane to catch. (More on that later.) I had in mind to bike across the Alps from France to Italy, following Hannibal’s possible route through the Maurienne valley, while Sara was opting for the rather saner option of not crossing the Alps by loaded bicycle, instead taking the train to Milan. However, train logistics proved extremely complicated and the weather still wasn’t cooperating, to the point where even I questioned the wisdom of riding 60-mile days in a humidity-adjusted heat index pushing 110 degrees. So we bit the bullet and rented a car, which turned out to be a great move for a whole variety of reasons, but the reason that’s relevant to this post is that it allowed us to drive south through the Côte de Beaune (the southern part of the Côte d‘Or) and visit a few wineries on our way out of Burgundy.

This part was just great. It was magical being in the midst of the Golden Slope, toodling our way from tiny famous towns like Pommard to tiny famous towns like Meursault. I dare say that, regarding the greatest appellations, even more ink than grape juice is spilled each year. For a small taste of this, consider just this one blog post, some two thousand words long, about a single premier cru vineyard in Meursault. To be fair, we got to taste a wine made by Château de Cîteaux (in Meursault) of grapes from Les Perrières vineyard, and it was really exceptional.

Then, before we knew it, we had left the Côte de Beaune and crossed over into the Côte Chalonnaise to the south. Despite all our foiled plans, we had a grand time in Burgundy, and we are both eager to return, preferably at a moment in our lives when we have a better-defined income stream.

We Loved La Loire à Vélo

We spent a week in the Loire Valley, the “garden of France,” for hundreds of years the playground of powerful Frenchmen and -women. Over four rolling days, we traveled along La Loire à Vélo from Saumur through Tours to Orléans. And we loved it!

For three reasons:

1. The bike infrastructure. La Loire à Vélo is a massive collection of bike paths, low-trafficked roads, and bike-friendly amenities like parks and water fountains, stretching out for more than five hundred miles, from Nevers in the center of France all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. We were expecting a lot of paved paths between the Loire River and the adjacent roadways, and while there was some of that, there were also plenty of high-quality hardpack trails, cobbled streets, country lanes running through the vineyards, and a few excursions straight through caves!

Really, I’ve never seen anything like it. I think about folks who get into transportation planning because they love to bike or walk, and because they want to build large-scale networks that are great for biking and walking. So often they get mired in the minutiae of collision countermeasures and highway design manuals. Meanwhile, some lucky souls got to lay out hundreds and hundreds of miles of fantastic paths and clearly-marked signage in a river valley in central France. And it’s not just one path, as you might expect – there are auxiliary facilities on the other side of the river (which the main route frequently crosses, for variety and convenience) and spur routes to compelling destinations near the main route. It’s either a reminder of how much better France is for cycling than the US, or perhaps a call to think bigger and do greater things. Or both.

Also, there are tons of riders, of all ages, genders, and fitness levels, including some adorable groups of youngsters at summer camp (probably about age six), all on their own humble bikes. If you build it, they really will come.

2. The wine. There’s tons of wine production (“tons” is usually hyperbole, but in this case it’s probably an enormous underestimate) throughout the Loire valley, particularly in the Touraine area, the greater region centered on Tours. Compared with Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Champagne, Loire wines are (much) cheaper, more accessible, and less well known, although certain appellations, like Chinon, Saumur-Champigny, and Vouvray, have an avid following. (The most famous Loire wine, Sancerre, comes from much farther inland.)

In fact, we had the chance to visit all these famous appellations, and more! Setting out eastward from the ridiculously charming city of Saumur, we first took in sparkling white wines at Langlois-Château, then stopped in at a random winery in Saumur-Champigny (rich, satisfying wine for 8 euros). Later on we passed through Chinon (over, really, as the city sits hard against a vertiginous hillside), and I had perhaps one too many delightful glasses of crisp, mineral white wine in Vouvray. I would particularly recommend Bernard Fouquet’s work at Domaine des Aubuisières.

It was such a delight to transform these regions from names we’ve heard to places we’ve been. And it was equally great to receive the warm welcome of winemakers rather farther off the beaten path than folks in those more famous wine areas. Tasting and drinking wine in the Loire felt unequivocally fun, in ways that it might not have in more august regions.

3. The castles! There are hundreds of castles throughout the Loire Valley, some dating back to the Middle Ages and others exemplifying the elegant sensibilities of the Renaissance. Because good things come in threes, we spaced three castle visits throughout our week in the valley. (In truth, we hadn’t begun with any target number of castles, nor had we planned how satisfyingly the castles in question increased in complexity and grandeur. Sometimes these things just work out.)

We started off with the Château de Saumur, which was built as a fortress and later converted into a palace. It’s most strongly associated with King Philip II of France, but it has a long and complicated history that, to give you a brief taste, involves King Henry II of England. This was yet another opportunity to reflect on how much we just don’t know about European history.

Our second visit was to Villandry, a Renaissance château built in the 16th century for the finance minister of King François I. This estate is particularly famous for its intricate and geometric gardens. It’s also in private hands, so while you can visit it in the summer, actual people actually live in it in the winter. #goals

We rounded out our collection with a visit to the biggest of them all: the Château de Chambord, the enormous (yet never finished) hunting lodge of King François I himself. This castle has about 400 rooms and more than 200 fireplaces, and its rooftop is a riot of asymmetrical Italianate towers and cupolas. Totally unreal. The whole thing is held together by an exquisite double-helix spiral staircase in the dead center of the building. Leonardo da Vinci is said to have been involved, at least conceptually, in the design of the château. (François was the patron of the composer I studied for my undergraduate thesis, so that association was a nice perk.)

Extra bonus castle: the one from “Sleeping Beauty,” which we merely biked past en route to our campground one afternoon:

So, a week well spent. Inspiring, invigorating, and delightful! We were sorry to have to continue on.

Some of the Prettiest Towns and Fields in Normandy

We left Caen rejuvenated from our two days’ rest, and eager to reach the Seine bike path which would take us into Paris. We were also alert to an impending heatwave, which shaped our planning of the days to come. Specifically, we read that it was going to heat up substantially by Thursday the 27th, and it was supposed to be hottest on Friday the 28th, so we planned to cover most of the distance from Caen to Rouen on Tuesday and Wednesday, have a shorter, flatter day on Thursday, and shelter in an Airbnb in Rouen for a rest day on Friday.

Back when we were in Honfleur, I’d become vaguely aware of a list of Most Beautiful Villages in Normandy. Yes, because categorizing and rating things is practically the French national pastime, there is an official designation of “Les Plus Beaux Villages de France,” and six such villages are located in Normandy. We realized that two of these villages would be easy for us to visit en route from Caen to Rouen, so we structured our routes accordingly.

On Tuesday, June 25, we rode from Caen out to the edge of the department of Calvados.

We were excited to see Paris start appearing on road signs, an indication we were going the right way:

The ride east out of Caen was fairly uneventful, except for the part where we accidentally turned onto a freeway onramp. We realized our mistake before we got onto the mainline, and it was easy enough to ride back up the shoulder to the roundabout. None of the passing drivers seemed to notice or care, except for three men in a large delivery truck who honked and wagged their fingers at us in amusingly simultaneous chastisement.

Ah yes, my app also took us on some super muddy dirt roads on the way out of town. Sure, we asked it to send us on a low-traffic route, but this stuff would begrime our bikes for months to come:

Before long we were rolling through gorgeous French countryside, our navigation app having redeemed itself for the mud debacle by routing us onto some great rural roads. We took a short detour to the north to reach Beuvron-en-Auge, the first of the two Most Beautiful Villages we’d be visiting. Beuvron is simply an exceptionally charming Norman village, full of colorful timber-framed houses nestling around a fork in a stream. It was a great place for a light lunch: sandwiches with Norman cheeses and cured meats, and a pear tart from the town bakery.

Leaving Beuvron-en-Auge, we resumed our eastward course. We rode on through green fields of spring wheat, along cypress-lined lanes, and past the old church of Moyaux, arriving finally at the beautiful campground “Le Colombier” literally straddling the dividing line between the departments of Calvados and Eure. This campground was fairly remote, so we ate snacks and drank rosé for dinner, bidding our bovine neighbors a good evening:

The next day, with the weather already warming up, we set out eastward again, toward the next Most Beautiful Village of Le Bec-Hellouin, a town built around a great abbey just off the Risle river valley.

This was both the 26th of June and our 26th day of bike touring:

On the way to Le Bec-Hellouin, we took in that typical Norman mix of flowering fields, leafy country lanes, and wide-open skies. We also pondered buying this ancient farmhouse being offered for sale:

Then we dropped down into the Risle valley and rolled up to the abbey of Notre-Dame du Bec, a gorgeous monastery with origins in the 11th century, still boasting its 15th-century bell tower and as of the 1960s, once again actively home to an order of monks. Here are a few photos of the abbey, including the channelized Bec stream that runs through it:

In the gracious courtyard of the abbey, we settled down for lunch, only to be approached by an eccentric old man. Although we quickly established that we understood only a little French, he persisted in telling us local historical anecdotes in rapid-fire French. We followed along as well as we could but sometimes fell short of full comprehension, and when this happened, he would say (in English), “Not understand? Grrrr!”, with feigned anger. This was hilarious. Anyway, it was easier to understand his stories (about the links between Bec and Canterbury, about the Mulberry harbor at Arromanches, and so forth) on the second and third retellings! Eventually the gentleman evidently felt satisfied with the information transfer and wandered back out of the abbey.

What I remember most from the abbey were the sounds: we poked our heads into the humble church and found the brothers (fewer than ten in number, and mostly middle-aged or elderly) actually singing plainchaint together in prayer; the leaves rustled in the warm wind; the stream splashed through the courtyard; and the enormous and ornate belltower absolutely went off with insistent pealing of bells. I captured the end of the multi-minute chiming in a video:

It’s hard to hear in this video, but standing in that courtyard, I could hear that final bell reverberating for a good thirty seconds. (“Listen to that sustain!”)

After a steep climb out of the valley, we turned north, pushing through a persistent headwind toward a municipal campground in the town of Bourg-Achard. This campground had a pool, which was very welcome in the hot afternoon. In general, after the last night’s rural camping, it was nice to be camping in a larger town with actual amenities, like a main street filled with my favorite things:

So, the next morning, still keeping ahead of the heat wave, we readied ourselves for our ride into Rouen!

Seeing Sights and Encountering Friends

As we were planning our ferry trip to France, we’d learned that our friends Fiona and Spencer would soon be arriving in Le Havre for the beginning of their own honeymoon. Given our current Airbnb reservation, we would miss them by a day, so we tried to extend, only to find that not only was our place booked on the following nights, but so was everywhere else in town. Chalk it up to a massive influx of Americans coming to watch Thursday’s USA-Sweden match! Fortunately for us, we’re equipped with bicycles and a tent, so we were able to secure accommodation at a campground in scenic Honfleur, just across the wide Seine River.

Honfleur isn’t more than a few miles south of Le Havre as the seagull flies, but the wolf-runs route takes some 15 miles, as you travel east to the Pont de Normandie, then back west through an odd mix of apple orchards and industrial parks. As its name would suggest, Le Havre is the second-largest commercial port in France (after Marseille), and we had the chance to ride straight through this massive working port on the way to Honfleur.

Beyond the port and before the Pont de Normandie

As we made our way toward the port, Sara took a nasty spill on a poorly-marked lip in the sidewalk, and gashed open her elbow. Fortunately, a gentleman across the street came to help. He turned out to be not only a fluent English speaker, but also a physician, a cyclist himself, and a Jew! Talk about the complete package. He inspected Sara and found that she was fine other than the cut, so we gratefully continued on our way.

Just after we arrived at our campground in Honfleur, a sudden thunderstorm opened up on us. No freaking way, we thought to ourselves; we left England to avoid exactly this! Happily, the rain soon died down and we were able to explore the town in the long midsummer light.

In addition to being a really really ridiculously good-looking coastal town, Honfleur is a center of the cider and apple brandy industries of the surrounding department of Calvados. As we found at dinner, buckwheat crepes and Emmental cheese go great with a dry cider.

We watched that night’s WWC games at a jazzy cafe (drama galore in the Scotland-Argentina game) and headed to sleep in our mercifully dry campground, by the historic lighthouse:

Here, by the by, are some key ways that camping in France is different from camping in the US:

  • Hot showers are standard issue and free to use.
  • Toilet paper and hand soap, however, are not. We found ourselves raiding restaurants’ supply and packing our pockets with paper napkins!
  • There’s always room for bike tourists, even if the campground is theoretically full.
  • And, best of all, almost all campgrounds have a bakery delivery service!! You order bread and pastries the night before, and the baker delivers them straight to the campground. This is France at its finest.

Anyway, the point of our extending our stay near Le Havre was so that we could connect with Spencer and Fiona, so the next day we took the bus (which was packed with Swedes and Americans, all sporting their respective colors) back into Le Havre and joined up with them near the waterfront. It was so great to see them as they begin their own lengthy trip! Fiona is a highly proficient French speaker, which doesn’t hurt, and a fanatical devotee (and practitioner) of women’s soccer. Spencer and Fiona are also both city planners by training, so it was an important opportunity for Sara and me to nerd out with people who are not ourselves.

Over Lebanese sandwiches for lunch, Fiona suddenly spotted Julie Foudy, a star from the legendary 1999 US women’s national team, standing next to the Yogurt Cup. It turns out that she was providing commentary for ESPN, and her producers had wrangled together a sizeable mass of enthusiastic and potentially inebriated American soccer fans to stand behind her. I reckon there hadn’t been so many Americans in Normandy since, oh, around the middle of 1944.

Our further sight-seeing in Le Havre (“au Havre,” I guess) included the city hall, a snazzy public art piece composed of brightly painted shipping containers, and St. Joseph’s Church, built by Auguste Perret, that caliph of concrete, that monarch of modularity. From the outside it looks fairly nondescript. From the inside it’s a riot of color and light, and it looked to me like nothing if not some sort of futuristic missile silo. I wonder what it looks like when they’re charging the laser?*

Although Sweden has occasionally gotten the better of the US women’s team, the Americans handily won that evening’s game, as we watched from our now-familiar cafe in Honfleur. Perhaps in celebration of this win, or more likely moved by the powerfully present memories of Americans’ last big win in France, we made a fairly abrupt decision to travel west to visit the beaches on which, 75 years to the month earlier, Allied troops reopened the western front on D-Day. We’d been planning to bike straight up the Seine to Paris, but figured the city would still be there a few days later than we’d planned, and we knew that this month represented a uniquely potent moment in which to visit these sites.

So westward it was! We set out the next day, at the crack of noon.

* I have been asked by the Seine-Maritime government to clarify that St. Joseph’s Church is not, in fact, a giant laser.

Le Havre: The City You Have to Conjugate

It’s true! While “Le Havre” may be the city’s name, things from the city are things “du Havre,” and journeys to the place are trips “au Havre.” Not the easiest place to start our French travels, linguistically speaking.

I would call Le Havre “the newest old city in Europe,” because its center was almost completely destroyed, by retreating Nazis, in 1944 and rebuilt, primarily by Auguste Perret, a so-called “pioneer of reinforced concrete,” after the end of the war. But to do so would be to ignore the 20th century history of my beloved Berlin, which was not only decimated and recreated during and after the war, but was also torn apart and welded back together in 1961 and 1989. So I’ll instead say that Le Havre was utterly transformed, to a degree I’d never before seen, by deliberate wartime destruction. Fascinatingly, the city center of Le Havre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, precisely because of the unified Modernist concrete texture of the reconstruction. Here’s a display and map of “Operation Tabula Rasa,” the intentional destruction of the city:

Because of all the concrete, and, no doubt, because of the opportunity to Build New Things, Le Havre became quite the destination for midcentury architects. Here’s a striking theater space designed by Oscar Niemeyer (of Brasília and UN Headquarters fame) which is known affectionately as the Volcano, though we preferred to call it the Yogurt Cup:

We settled into our Airbnb, venturing forth for some Turkish food, which has become an international comfort food for us in ways other folks might tap mac and cheese, or hamburgers. And why not? It’s cheap, it’s tasty, it’s prepared right in front of you, and it’s totally ubiquitous in all but the tiniest European cities. From there we progressed to our afternoon activity: attending a group-stage game in the 2019 Women’s World Cup!

Yes, France is playing host this year to the FIFA Women’s World Cup, in which the home French team has high hopes of dethroning the defending American champions to equal the success of the men’s team last year. Sara formerly played a good deal of soccer, and I’ve always been partial to the beautiful game, and women’s soccer is much less prone to flopping and unsportspersonlike theatrics, so it was great fortune that our arrival in France followed fast on the start of the tournament.

In return for playing an altogether more principled game, women soccer players are paid woefully less than their male counterparts. Although we’re arguably well within a golden age of women’s soccer, even many highly competitive women’s national soccer teams are composed of unpaid volunteers. (The Norwegian goalkeeper has a day job as a software engineer.) Ticket sales are concomitantly lower, and while all the games involving France or the USA sold out far in advance of the tournament, we were able to buy tickets to the China-Spain group-stage game, just a few days beforehand, for 9 euros apiece.

Like most folks who are paying attention to this sort of thing, I regard FIFA as an organization of more or less unalloyed criminal malfeasance and misanthropy. Nevertheless, I must concede I was impressed with the experience of getting to the game, which began with a friendly welcome from an English-language staffer and continued with a frequent, free bus shuttle to the Stade Océane a couple miles east of town.

And continuing the theme of being treated right by tentacular corporations, no sooner had Sara and I entered the stadium than we were approached by some polylingual Visa employees, offering us a backstage tour of the stadium. Our curiosity got the better of our skepticism and we were amply rewarded: the tour turned out to include walking onto the pitch itself via the players’ tunnel (quite the frisson – a French word!), then spectating the teams’ warm-ups from right beside the field. Very cool.

We also got to meet Ettie, the official mascot of the 2019 Women’s World Cup; she is apparently the daughter of the mascot of the French-hosted 1998 Men’s World Cup. I didn’t realize that mascots had lineages, but I guess everything is about ancestry and tradition in old France.

In the end the game was a scoreless tie, but it was quite exciting nonetheless: Spain, though favored to win and though able to easily and repeatedly penetrate China’s porous defensive line, couldn’t conjure up any attacks nasty enough to get past Peng Shimeng, the heroic Chinese keeper. China, meanwhile, clearly had no strategy in place to actually win the game, short of gross Spanish incompetence, and was doubtless grateful for the tie.

I spent much of the next day at La Roue Libre, a great community bike workshop felicitously located just two blocks from our Airbnb. This was a chance to install our new chains and cassettes, replace all my cables, tighten up various bolts and screws around my crankset, and finally straighten out Sara’s woeful front fender line. In the evening we enjoyed a lovely home-cooked meal and fell asleep thinking about graceful goal kicks and the adventures ahead.

Floating Into France

In the evening we arrived at the deliciously redundantly-named Portsmouth International Port, ready for our long-deferred crossing of the English Channel. (Our original plan had been to ferry from Dover to Calais around June 1st, but then we got all excited about South West England.)

Because the kind of people who tend to edit Wikipedia also tend to be excited by trains, planes, and boats, you can read all about the specific ferry we rode, here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MV_Etretat

If you’ve never ridden a bike directly onto a huge ferry, I definitely recommend the experience. In what would prove to be a harbinger of the French enthusiasm for bicycles, it was very easy to stash our bikes in a dedicated space, tied up alongside the hundreds of cars that crowded the lower decks of the ferry.

I’ve never boarded a cruise ship, but Sara, who has, tells me this was not a totally dissimilar experience. The ship was large to the point that you could hardly feel the rocking of the ocean, and because it was an overnight trip, we spent almost the whole time inside our tiny interior cabin, sleeping fitfully amid the gentle thrumming of the engines.

Sara set an alarm and took advantage of the opportunity to watch the sun rise over the English Channel. I joined her shortly before we docked in Le Havre, and together, from the upper deck, we took in the city’s striking and characteristic massing and design, a midcentury concrete paradise that felt like the whole city had been built from scratch sometime around 1950 – as, in fact, it had. (Rebuilt, actually, after its wholesale destruction by the retreating Nazis.)

In the morning, we were the first to be let off the ferry, and we rode our bikes through passport control and into the free air of France! Of course, the very first thing we did was visit a terrific bakery where the clerk didn’t speak English, affording me my first opportunity to practice speaking the French I don’t really speak.

Then it was off to our home base near the train station. The ceilings were all slanted and it was on the very top of a building without elevators, but the bed was comfy and the WiFi worked well. We had a lot to do in and around Le Havre! But first, a nap.

Exton to Weymouth, or: Chris and Mary, our Heroes

By this point in our tour we were very much in the heart of the dramatic South West English coast. Unfortunately, yet predictably, we were also very much in the middle of dreary South West English weather. I think from this point on we got rained on at least a little bit during every bike ride.

Rain poses several challenges for people touring from campground to campground by bike. First of all, of course, you get wet and you can get cold and that’s no fun. Second, it’s generally dreary; it’s amazing what a difference a sunny vs. rainy sky makes for your mood. Third and most challenging, though, is that if it’s raining when you’re setting up or taking down your tent, your lodging and bedding gets wet, and sleeping in a wet tent in a wet sleeping bag is NO fun. So the mercurial and malicious weather forecasts posed most of all a planning problem for us, as we needed to dodge rainfall that always seemed to be threatening to arrive in the late afternoon, prime tent-pitching time.

In the end we covered the distance from Exton to Weymouth with two sub-20 mile days on which we hightailed it to campgrounds before or after the afternoon storms and then a nearly 40-mile day where we faced down the rain, fortified with the knowledge that, thanks to the great generosity of our new friends Chris and Mary, a warm bed and the world’s best washing machine awaited us on the other side.

After leaving Elizabeth, Diana, Xander, and Teddy in Exmouth, we headed east along National Cycle Route 2, an ambitious bit of bicycle planning that aims ultimately to provide a low-stress cycling connection all the way along the southern coast of Great Britain, from Cornwall to Dover. It turns out that “low-stress” has more than one meaning; planners obviously sought to minimize riders’ exposure to large volumes of high-speed car traffic, but apparently did not make any attempt to avoid any number of super-steep climbs that would be strenuous for an unloaded road cyclist and are plainly infeasible for folks on loaded touring bikes.

In fact, riding along the coast of southern England is kind of like automatic, unavoidable interval training: climbs never last more than a mile or so, but they occur very frequently and they’re really steep (regularly over 10 percent grade, and occasionally sustaining pitches above 15 percent). Of course, you don’t get to enjoy a coastline specifically known for rugged, vertiginous cliff faces and sharp river valleys without necessitating a few brutal climbs. This was the downside of Cycle Route 2. The plus side is twofold: first, it was nice to follow posted signs rather than having to constantly be straining to hear and decipher spoken instructions from my phone app; and second, it’s remarkably beautiful.

From Exton we were making good progress eastward, including some lovely riding along the river Otter and a mid-afternoon tea stop at an old water mill in Otterton.

Then, partway up a gradual and exceptionally scenic climb, the skies opened up and we spent about half an hour standing under a tree, sharing an umbrella, wagering that surely this downpour would come to an end soon. Eventually, though, there was nothing for it but to continue riding and to shelter in the nearby fishing/vacation town of Sidmouth. All we had to do was walk our bikes down the nearly 20-percent, rain-slick slope down into town.

Fortunately the views in and around Sidmouth were exceptional (the rain had abated by the time we arrived):

and a charming park/overlook held a remarkably poetic interpretive sign:

Then we huffed and puffed and walked our bikes up blisteringly-steep Salcombe Hill and were rewarded with a beautiful rural campsite overlooking the English Channel:

The next day began with a descent into picture-postcard-perfect Branscombe (which we were too busy riding through to capture), then another eye-watering climb up out of town. Then we enjoyed a stellar breakfast at the Hideaway, nestled among the chalk cliffs of Seaton. I waded into the bracing, crystalline waters of the Channel:

This was another day cut short by the threat of rain. We found a cute campsite run by a control freak named Joy (she was perfectly kind, but there were explanatory labels on absolutely everything in the bathroom and kitchen) that was right by a pub where we could get a warm dinner as the rain fell. The campground also had super fast WiFi, which struck us as a funny amenity, but became incredibly valuable when we wanted to watch a Women’s World Cup game in our tent!

The next morning we knew we had to cover the rest of the distance to Weymouth, but first we had to find breakfast. Unfortunately, the pub was closed until lunchtime, so on we rode – to another pub that turned out to be closed. Finally, thirteen miles into our ride, we reached a pub in Symondsbury where we gorged ourselves on essentially an early lunch. What a relief! On we rode, across incredible landscapes and under threatening skies that finally opened up onto us with about five miles left. But we had an actual roof to sleep under that night, so we knew we just needed to get there.

A little background here. As I mentioned in an earlier post, we met Chris and Mary in west London while buying Sara’s bike from them in May. As we talked with them then, they enthused about cycling in Dorset and noted that they had a second home in Weymouth, on the Dorset coast, and encouraged us to let them know if we found ourselves headed that way.

Chris is a huge bike nerd, and I say that with affection and admiration. When we were examining Sara’s bike, he was able to rattle off details from the sprocket tooth counts (geeky, but not extraordinarily so) all the way down to the brand and make of spokes in the wheels (I could maaaaybe tell you what kind of spokes I have on my bikes, and I built those wheels myself! This was for a wheelset he hadn’t even built).

Mary and Chris are both retired now. Chris was a pilot in the Royal Navy, flying both helicopters and light aircraft; after he left the Navy, he worked for about 20 years as a commercial pilot for British Airways. Mary had been a high school teacher, with a background in psychology. They moved around a lot when Chris was in the Navy – I believe Chris was involved in the Falklands War (or Malvinas War, I suppose, from the Argentinians’ perspective) of 1982 – but settled in Uxbridge, near BA’s home airport of Heathrow, when Chris moved to the private sector. They bought their home in Weymouth about six years ago, finally realizing a longstanding dream of returning to Dorset, where they had both lived many years prior.

Chris and Mary are about our parents’ age, and we’re about their children’s age. So the kinship we felt with them had the intriguing dual nature that we felt like both their friends/peers and a little bit like their kids.

Anyway, their home in Weymouth was a sight for sore eyes, as it had begun to rain and we were tired and wet, and I don’t know whether we, or our bikes, were a bigger mess. We all embraced, and Mary put on a pot of tea. We hosed down our bikes and dumped literally all of our clothes into their washing machine. Then we took a fantastic shower and put on robes – fuzzy robes! This was indeed a far cry from tent camping in the damp English heath. Mary welcomed us warmly to a home-cooked dinner, which was accompanied by some Australian wine from their atypically large wine stash: they’re celebrating their 40th wedding anniversary in just two weeks, so their beautiful home was fairly brimming with wine, which they claimed was for the expected guests. (And I’m sure it was!)

We stayed with Mary and Chris for two nights, which meant we had a chance to go out sightseeing together the next day. They were so kind to drive us around and show off the best of Weymouth and the surrounding area! We headed in to the center of town and walked around an 18th-century fort, then out on a pier to catch a great view of the characteristically Georgian row houses along the beach, which was a favorite of George III himself. (He had a royal bathing carriage that would roll straight into the water, allowing him to swim like a king.) It being the month of the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings, we were moved to note that Weymouth was one of the major ports of embarkation for Allied troop transports headed to Normandy.

Then we drove south onto the Isle of Portland, where Portland stone comes from, past Chris’s old naval base, and down to the Portland Bill, a windy bluff jutting into the English Channel. After that, we climbed up the limestone ridge above the city to an old crossroads where the Roman road between Weymouth and Dorchester crosses a line of ancient burial mounds and earthen forts.

At dinner that evening, we had a chance to talk politics. Chris and Mary both voted Leave in the Brexit referendum of June 2016, but not, I think, without some reservations and certainly not without careful consideration. They felt that the European Parliament system essentially creates a faceless bureaucracy where it’s not clear who is representing you, or whether your interests are in fact being represented. They also felt that the EU had not been receptive enough to earlier British dissatisfaction, so for them (and, I suspect, for many others) the referendum was the opportunity to register frustration with the system, albeit a blunter instrument than they would have wanted. Interestingly, they noted that the referendum format itself is uncommon in the UK and was probably poorly implemented: in most countries where referenda are frequent, they have force only if high voter-participation and super-majority thresholds are met, but the Brexit vote was a simple majority vote with no turnout requirement.

Of course Sara and I didn’t get to vote on Brexit, but if we had done so, we would have voted Remain. And being members of the American “coastal elite,” we’ve mostly been surrounded by Remainers, who have presented a range of arguments (that I mostly find compelling) and scorn for Leavers (that I hadn’t thought too much about prior to our conversation this evening). But the crux of the conversation was Chris’s impassioned defense of his intelligence and integrity: by all means, he said, debate the merits of his points of view – “but don’t call me stupid!”

Frankly, I myself have often thought and said profoundly unkind things about Americans – in the abstract – with whom I disagree politically, so Chris’s exhortation was a valuable reminder to me not to denigrate people who see things differently. (I don’t want to be naive about this. It seems pretty clear in 2019 that not all American political actors are engaging in good-faith debate, and it is dangerous and foolish to “play fair” when others have no intention of doing the same. But that’s a separate problem. In general, “don’t be an asshole” feels like a pretty good operating principle, in politics and elsewhere.)

At any rate, we were stuffed from Mary’s delicious roast pork and risotto, and so much clotted cream, so we soon headed to bed. And so it was that, with deep gratitude, full stomachs, and a valuable lesson learned, we bade Chris and Mary farewell for now and pedaled off east into the heart of the Jurassic Coast. I can only hope our paths will cross again someday soon, so we might return their generous hospitality and continue the friendship!

Mary and Chris sending us off with tour day count #17!

A Warm Welcome in Salisbury

We arrived in Salisbury to be met by the remarkable hospitality of one Mr. Ian Lovett, who had agreed to host us via Warmshowers, which is like Couchsurfing but specifically for people on bike tours. This was our first time using Warmshowers and I was amazed at the rapidity and positive tone of the responses we received, not just from Ian and his partner Penelope (whom we didn’t get to meet as she was out of town) but also from several other potential hosts we reached out to.

Ian’s whole existence is a case study in life goals, which is to say, he’s living the good life. He’s lived just west of Salisbury for more than twenty years now, handily mending and expanding his ancient farmhouse over the decades. (The building has an old half and a new half; the new half dates to around 1910.) He was recently made redundant at an IT firm and gladly embraced a slightly early retirement. Now he bikes a lot, tends a massive and inspiring garden, reads stimulating books, and produces home-made delicacies ranging from sourdough bread to sauerkraut to sloe gin. I’d only ever had a tenuous concept of what sloe gin is, but by the end of our time with Ian we were totally enamored of the stuff. (Sloes are a sort of tiny, bitter plum, and you put a bunch of sloes and sugar into some gin and let it sit for a while. Conceptually, very similar to limoncello.)

Ian was even so gracious as to welcome us to stay for two nights, so we got to take in some of the town, too. Night 1 we spent cooking with Ian, me turning some chickens on the grill while we all took turns stripping huge spinach leaves straight off the feet-long stalks.

In the morning we ate fresh bread and then biked over to the famous Salisbury Cathedral, about which I can provide some factoids:

  • Built in the 13th century! Constructed in “only” 38 years!
  • Has been since 1549 the tallest cathedral in England! (Not because it built up higher in 1549, but because the spire of Lincoln Cathedral collapsed that year.)
  • Sits atop a huge aquifer and therefore requires careful management of the water table to remain structurally stable! There is a dip stick in the middle of the nave and if water levels fall too much, engineers can open sluicegates on nearby rivers to refill the aquifer.
  • Houses what is possibly the oldest working clock in the world, a gnarly lump of gears dating back to the late 14th century! The clock has no face – it just triggers the chiming of bells – but that only adds to the mystique!!
  • Is the home of another of the four extant copies of the Magna Carta, issued, of course, in 1215! (Astute readers will recall we already saw one, at the British Library, but the Salisbury copy is remarkably, even gorgeously, legible.)
You’re just going to have to trust us on the beauty and legibility.
  • Has a famous pipe organ that was regrettably out of service but happily this was due to a major renovation effort in 2019 that includes a great mini-exhibition on organ technology and repair!
  • Was currently hosting an art installation called “GAIA” that consists of an enormous globe Earth hanging in the cathedral nave! We calculated that given the scale of the map, we typically traveled just over an inch’s worth on our cycling days.

Night 2 we finally managed to counter Ian’s hospitality with a little bit of our own by taking him out for dinner to the local pub. I tried faggots (pork offal meatballs; better than you’d think and the name doesn’t raise an eyebrow in England) and we shared some real ales and pondered what it means to be a local in a place, to set down roots. On the two-minute walk back to Ian’s home we encountered a neighbor who enthused about Devon and Dorset, further cementing our newfound resolve to extend our bike tour in England and visit those places.

And so, with deep gratitude to and admiration for Ian, and after the hasty purchase of some more bib shorts and rain gear, we were off, westward!

Bikes loaded outside the Wellington (Ian’s house) and Ian helping us with our tour day count photo log; Day 9!