The Bay of Biscay was once a notorious hunting ground for all kinds of Pirates and privateers. Those murdering raping and pillaging at the behest of governments or simply to satisfy there own greed. Cycling along the clifftops looking out across the calm Atlantic Ocean, I can imagine that many of the little coves we pass might hide some hidden pirates treasure, however, nowadays the real treasure lays in real estate and retail.
We camp in La Rochelle, an ancient sea port who’s local Gallic inhabitants were once conquered by the Vikings, then by the Romans, who used the port to export salt and slaves for the empire. In the 17 century pirates regularly raided the city or were captured and held there awaiting execution. You can still see the defiant graffiti they left on the walls of the prison which guards the entrance to the harbour.
Walking the bikes through the salty vinegar smelling cobblestoned streets, I half expected to see a Captain Jack Sparrow type pirate hurrying off on some dastardly business with a band of swashbuckling ruffians instead the town seemed full of men with navy jumpers draped across their shoulders, designer sunglasses, mustard coloured pants and boat shoes with out socks; software pirates perhaps.
Sprawling hill top chateaus, casinos, boutiques and exclusive hotels cater to the well healed, while sleek yachts in the safe harbours testify to the pastimes of the wealthy. Looking in a real estate office window, I see an old round fort for sale only €50.000 which further fires my imagination. I do like a good fort.
In the cafes along the promenades everybody seems to smoke and wear a scarf as they sip coffee while eying the passing parade as if in search of something more interesting than themselves. We are greeted with curious looks that seem to say perhaps you are lost? I do see a a wealthy looking guy give money and cigarettes to a beggar though, things are not always as they seem.
The summer’s over. Those towns not big enough to support a local economy simply board up their shops until next year. However, we can usually find a bar, cafe or bakery open to purchase our daily supplies. We cycled through closed up, tired looking Sunday afternoon towns, along ancient streets of faded beauty. Crumbling clotted cream coloured mansion are tarted up with a splash of sky blue paint around the eaves and shutters.
We make slow time heading south, sometimes moving away from the coast. Cycling through open farmland, freshly ploughed or with fields of corn left to dry on the cob for feed or seed, which has taken on that reddish purple translucent autumn colour. In the hinterland behind the cliffs, cycling through nature reserves, along forestry paths, we come across municipal workers hunting for wild pigs. In places the path disappears completely or becomes so unrideable we need to double back and find a different way through.
In the Rochefort municipal campground, we are treated as honoured guests. A wide screen television is found and set up in the camp kitchen for “Les Australie” to enjoy the Rugby World Cup match against Angliterre (England). It seemed rude to say we weren’t that interested. So we sat with a happy group of increasingly pissed Frenchmen and a lone Dutchmen to watch Australia defeat England. The French are decidedly anti-English, while the Dutchman Hank wanted to talk about his days as a peacekeeper with the UN in Israel; we had a great night. We were farewelled in the morning with shouts of “Bon Route” and “Viva Australie” by our hungover hosts.
For 3€ each we crossed the Charente River on the Transporter Bridge which was quite an unique experience. It was built in 1898 and is some 70 meters high. It uses a series of pulleys and cables to take passengers across the river much, like a ferry might, but above the water not on it. It was an engineering marvel of its day and now is used mainly as a novelty by tourists and cyclists. It reminded me of a giant Mecanno set that I had as a child, all that exposed metal. It must have been fun to build.
Pushing on to Rohan, the weather turned nasty. As the wind picked up we were pelted with cutting hail. We made our way carefully along paths that suddenly disappeared and had to double back again . Often campsites that were supposed to be open were closed (we check the status online).
Arriving cold and wet on the outskirts of Rohan, we camped under cover in a children’s play area, where we were able to dry out with hot soup and a warm baguette, the forecast for the coming days is mixed but the cycling, villages and the French people are wonderful .