The lush vegetation, steep sided valley with rocky outcrops gives the Velodyssey an enchanted feeling, especially as the early morning mist rises off the waters of the canal. Riding through the forests we occasionally catch sight of a chateau or castle, rising majestically above the tree line. We had spent the night free camping along the canal on the edge of Rohen. Its coming to the end of the season and the municipal park had closed earlier than expected. We walked through the town where they still had bunting and celebratory shop windows decorated celebrating Le Tour passing through earlier this year.
A few sprinkles of cloud juice in the early morning wasn’t enough to dampen our spirits or prevent our clothes drying out. Sometimes the bikes resemble a multi coloured mobile laundry with bras, knickers, bike shorts and towels fluttering along in our wake. Cycling up from the canal into the small village of Roc St Andre where we had good coffee and bought a couple of beautiful Pain au Raisin, the closest thing the French have to raisin toast.
Pushing on to Redon, The canal lost its predictability and we found ourselves cycling along the edge of the Oust (West) River, the gravel path was washed away in parts and strewn with broken branches. Escarpment gives way to low lying wide grassy banks that are subject to flooding. It was after 6pm when we eventually climbed up into Guenrouet arriving relieved at Camping St Clair only to find the camp has closed three days early!
The biblioteque (library) was still open. The friendly Librarians gave us vague directions to a possible camp a further 10 Kilometres away. “Bonjour, my name is Claude I speak a little English if you would like to follow me I can show you” said an old man in the library.
We followed Claude out of town along a country road for several kilometres until he stopped at a crossroad. “You can follow that road or you can follow me and camp in my house.” We followed Claude a little further to his exquisitely furnished 17th Century former hunting lodge. Tapestries and fine art hung from the walls.Huge oak doors led us through to cavernous rooms all richly decorated. “You can stay in the American house, we use as a shed.” it was named the American house because it was supplied in kit form by the American army at the end of the WW2 after nearby St Nazaire was completely destroyed by carpet bombing. As General Westmoreland said in Vietnam “We had to destroy the city to save it.”
Claude and his wife Elaine laid out a fine table. A square soft local cheese from Guenrouet wrapped in cloth, fresh Brittany salted butter, warm bread baked less than a hour ago from the local boulangerie, accompanied by home pickled olives. We were offered whiskey from a crystal carafe as we sat around a heavily wood lined kitchen surrounded by books, sculpture and artworks.
In conversation sometimes a pause exits where a comma might be. Claude came back from the pantry gently unwrapping a fat aromatic sausage from its sheath of greasy brown paper. Slicing off a generous portion he said “I made this with my brother in law.” After savouring the spicy delicacy, I said “Monsieur, you brother in law is quite delicious!” and we all laughed.
Claude translated our responses to Elaine and his companion Andre, while we fumbled along as best we could. I noticed a French copy of Jack London short stories and I commented on how I had enjoyed his stories one in particular, A piece of Meat, about a boxer. The next moment I was up and shadow boxing around the kitchen with Andre.
We ate, laughed and talked into the night. Claude who was 82 years old had been a professor of history, who’s earliest memories were playing hide and seek with the occupying Germans in Paris during the war. As Jews, his family had many narrow escapes and many stories followed. The early days of the Kibbutz, the Paris uprising of 1968, traveling with gypsies and the consequence of French Colonialism.
Elaine, who had been out gathering mushrooms that afternoon was keen to show me those I can eat and how to prepare them, while avoiding those that kill. A skill worth learning.
I slept well in The American House and the next morning, there was more great food and fresh coffee served in little bowls, before a photo session followed by prolonged hugging and cheek kissing- so wonderfully French.
I was attempting to thank Claude for his hospitality only to have him say, “It is good for us to meet you as strangers and share a moment of your life. Thank you.”
We cycled away into a sunny morning for Nantes and its giant mechanical elephant.