Week 4: Poiters to Toulouse
The week following Poitiers felt like it went by in a strange sort of blur, to the extent that when new people we met asked us about the route we’d travelled, Chillo and I would struggle to say where we’d been and when. This is especially odd when we spend the majority of our days studying maps and pinpointing exactly where we are in order to get to our next destination without getting horrifically lost – a constant risk when it comes to our lack of combined map skills.
But in a nutshell, we bombed it pretty hard through France, and our hazy memories are no reflection on how much we loved it. From Poitiers, we headed south into the Perigord region via astounding medieval towns and caves inexplicably built into over hanging rocks, before following the Vienne and then the Dordogne, visiting Perigueux in between, and pelting along the Canal du midi on to Toulouse. There were some big distance days thrown in, often because we had to make up kms lost to wanting to stay somewhere nice for longer, or in once case, when Chillo’s orthodontic wire snapped on a Carambar and we decided to call it a day and check in to a rather eccentric B&B in the brilliantly-named town of Chazelles (I’m sorry but try not saying that in an Essex accent).
Perhaps part of the difficulty in remembering where we’ve been and when is to do with the fact that we change our route and next town on an almost daily basis, sometimes due to changing logistics, like when we weren’t able to see our friend Dom in Bergerac and rerouted to Perigueux, or when on local advice we decided a different route to one we’d planned would be more exciting/prettier/more challenging/less challenging etc.
But even though we may forget the names of towns we passed through on any given day, we can recount with absolute fluency and enthusiasm all the people we’ve met, particularly through using Warmshowers, a brilliant website where cyclists host other cyclists, in their homes, for free. It’s amazing. There was Vincent and Julie, a young couple in Poitiers who lived together with their gorgeous dog Houston (even Chillo had a cuddle with him on the sofa – another win in my quest for us to get a dog when we get home). They spent four months last year cycling round New Zealand, and Vincent had previously cycled from Ushuaia to Lima, so we mined them for advice, tips, routes and exchanged the few stories we already had from our little pootle through their country. That’s us with them in the header picture at the Poitiers university gardens, where Julie works as a horticulturalist, working in a team to re-landscape the area for a new generation of students. She gave us a tour of the gardens as we were cycling out of the city with Vincent – he showed us a quiet way out so we wouldn’t have to deal with the madness of trying to cycle out of the city.
In Perigueux we stayed with Gabrielle, Xavier and their two little girls Eleonore and Adel. They had cycled around Europe as a family two years ago on recumbent bikes when Eleonore and Adel were just four and two. Both are teachers – Gabrielle teaches English and Xavier History – and we were fascinated with their tales of travelling and how they were received as a family in different countries. As well as regularly hosting cyclists they got up to so much in their chosen hometown of Perigueux, like Xavier’s quest to bring the little-known regional language of Occitane back to the region (he doesn’t have any students yet, but that’s not stopping him), and his determination to reignite his love for Germany and German culture, after finding cycling through there to be disappointing, by joining the town’s twinning scheme with Amburg (“I’m yet to go there or attend a meeting, but it’s a step in the right direction!”).
People always say it, but even just the chit chat you have with people and the little acts of kindness have a huge impact on a trip. From the lady at the bakery who thought we were so mad that she felt compelled to give us the biggest pork pie we’d ever seen to help us over that day’s hills, to the people who let us sleep on their driveway and even the drivers passing by giving us encouraging thumbs up as we’re sweating our way up hefty climbs – all of them have contributed something.
We’ve been lucky enough to have enough French between us to have some great conversations, but even without that we’ve found even the smallest connections can make all the difference in our easily changeable moods every day. There’s something about travelling, especially by bicycle, that just heightens your emotions. It means we may sometimes be quick to sink into a sulk, but within an hour we stumble across an incredible view or someone takes time out of their day to give us words of encouragement, and we’re back on top again. It’s tiring, but brilliant.
For the final leg of our Europe trip, we had been slightly tearing our hair out about how to cross over into Spain – the original plan had been to get some mountain practice, because, y’know, we plan to cross the Andes and everything, but throughout our month’s cycle the determination (and maybe some ego) to cycle an “unbroken line” to Barcelona took hold and we couldn’t shake it. Before we left the UK we had actually struggled to get information on cycling through the Pyrenees, but once we had gathered enough info and advice (including from the all-amazing Adventure Queens), we realised we’d need to skip ahead on a train to give us the slightest chance of making it up and over some mountains. Not appealing with our newfound cycling egos.
But once again the cycling community came through for us, this time from our hosts in Toulouse, the wonderful Ginette and Max, an avid cyclist with a particular passion for the Pyrenees. Max understood our dilemma instantly and came up with the ideal route for us – it wasn’t exactly the dramatic mountain passes we had initially envisioned, but he threw in plenty of climbs for us while still making sure we had just enough time to make it to Barcelona. We can’t thank them enough for all their help, including with sorting out an appointment at the orthodontist for the aforementioned snapped wire. We honestly don’t think we’d have got this far without all the support we’ve received.
I’ll leave it to Chillo to write up the last stage of our journey on to Spain, but it was an intense week. Slight spoiler alert, but we did make it(!!) and I’m currently finishing off this blog post 40,000 feet high, flying above the Amazon on our way to Lima. It’s come quickly, but we wouldn’t be feeling half as excited or confident if it wasn’t for everyone that’s already helped us on our way.