So we’re writing for the first time in three days; back to the diaries, back in the tent and back on the road. We woke up in Desvres to find that overnight it had bucketed down, overpowering our makeshift porch and pouring over our (now properly tested) waterproof panniers. We treated ourselves to some porridge, pumped up the bikes’ tyres, and grimaced as we pulled on our soaked-through helmets.
The bikes packed up, we pointed ourselves towards the dirt track and our route south. Easier said than done, since the night’s rain had turned it into a muddy gorge. I gunned the bike and, with a lot of kicking out and praying, managed to slip and slide my way across onto dry ground. Maria is a good deal shorter than me though, and doesn’t have the advantage of being able to wrestle the bike around, so when she hit the deep mud she went down. Between us we pushed her bike upright and, with me holding her up by the panniers and her gunning the throttle and covering me in mud, we managed to lead the bike kicking and screaming on to dry ground.
The rest of the route was a breeze. I’d had a day’s worth of practice in navigating with the compass and printed maps so we were motoring along nicely, and even hit a really cool spot called L’isle Adam – the road ran through a golf course, then a little village and beside a huge stone wall holding back terraced fields, before a wrought iron gate spit us back out into civilization. Good stuff.
Once we hit the outskirts of Paris it was a different story. The maps weren’t quite enough to tell us where we were, and my newly acquired navigational skills were limited to open roads and sleepy villages so we were soon lost. I was fairly sure we were in a north-Parisian industrial estate, but figured I’d pull over and check the online map on my phone – something I don’t do often, since it puts a big grin on the face of O2’s CEO. As we were checking out the map and planning our next attack on the crazy Parisian streets, a young guy, helmetless and wearing just a t-shirt and shorts screamed past us on the back wheel of a scrambler. We’d seen him occasionally as we tried to find our way – circling the blocks and popping wheelies. A few minutes passed before an ambulance sauntered past, following him at a distance and waiting for him to crash and give them something to do.
Having consulted the map I had a rough idea of where we were – if not where we were going, and we ambled off again. Once we hit the peripherique (the Parisian equivalent of the London Orbital, but less logical and more life threatening), we threw ourselves into a 6 lane roundabout with no road markings (and seemingly populated by suicidal van drivers) and emerged 2 or 3 revolutions later, eyes closed and screaming, but more or less in the right direction. From here we ended up passing the Parc de la Villette – something I had seen often in books and pictures over the course of my architectural career, but had not realised was so close to the centre of Paris. I almost killed myself a few times, having far more interest in Tschumi’s park than in the traffic I was weaving around. Luckily I realised that I had missed our turn, so I got to head past it again in the opposite direction and risk my life a few more times. Having somehow found my way back on to the right road I started looking out for the street that my friend Elena lived on. Of course I had completely forgotten what it was called, but I at least remembered that it was something obvious. Rue Paris? Rue France? After about half an hour of riding down the main street at 20mph, squinting at each road sign and pissing off every motorist in Paris, I spotted Rue des Pyrenees, and figured that must be it. I did at least remember the house number and, wouldn’t you know it, there was a half empty bike bay right outside the doors to a beautiful art deco entrance with Elena’s number on it.
We climbed off the bikes, I lit up a smoke and texted Elena – in the very likely event that we were in completely the wrong area I didn’t want to go banging on some poor french woman’s door – and sat back exhausted. Within minutes Elena was at her window waving, and then was downstairs hugging us (and I’m sure trying to close off her nasal passages). We got everything unpacked and carried up the two flights of ornamental stairs to the flat, and were welcomed with our first cold beer in days.
After Elena and Michalis had shown us around – which can be done standing still, since it’s a central Parisian flat, so at 50sq.m it’s positively lavish – we scrubbed the dirt off ourselves and settled in to a few more beers, an amazing baked fish courtesy of Michalis, and a catch up. Elena is Greek, with an upper-middle class English education, a bottomless pit of knowledge about art and literature on the tip of her tongue and a unique view of the world that makes her a great host. We carried on late into the night, working our way through the wine, weed, raki, cigars and mastika, until the miles caught up with us and we started slumping in our seats. Eventually we passed out on the sofa bed and slept well into the next day.
At some point during our drinking session we had decided to stay an extra day in Paris and hang out with Elena while Michalis was at work. So when we did eventually get ourselves out of bed, showered and caffeinated, we headed out onto the metro and into the trendy east quarter. I like this part of Paris. There is no sign of the clichés you remember from tourist propaganda; that’s all in west-central. Instead its just loads of cool cafes and bars running the length of a canal that leads you right up to Parc de la Villette. The sun was shining and we wandered slowly. Along the way we discussed Elena’s PhD, her strange new obsession with balconies, and the Parisian quirks she had noticed (like their tendency to park by nudging the cars around them, rather than bothering with spacial awareness). A few stops for bubble tea, and beers from an ample chested waitress (as Elena was quick to point out) and we found ourselves in Bernard Tschumi’s park with a few tinnies and our cameras out, snapping away.
Hanging out with Elena was proving to be a nice relaxing break from traveling and as evening drew in and Michalis finished work, we figured we’d go out for dinner to cap it off. We parked the car in the red light district and settled in for steaks and a few bottles of Bordeaux in a little outdoor carvery-slash-tapas-bar that seemed to be populated by students and general beautiful people. Then back to the flat for another of Elena’s attempts at destroying our livers. Over more beers, raki, mastika and cigars, we got to discussing high brow literature, art and music, finding that we shared a love of Warren Ellis. The evening quickly degenerated though, and soon enough we were competing to play the cheesiest British Metal; Iron Maiden, Ozzy, Judas Priest and worse. Just before bed I played them a few Mr. Bungle videos, just to fuck with their heads and inspire some surreal dreams. I woke up to find a few notes outlining a route out of Paris drunkenly scrawled on the back of a piece of paper, next to the words ‘Rotting Christ’. (I later discovered this was the name of a goth band we had found particularly amusing the night before).
The morning started as usual with bleary eyes and coffee. Then a round of re-organising the panniers, collecting freshly washed clothes and having one last long, languorous shower. As we were lugging our stuff back down the three flights of narrow stairs and out into the street, we decided on an impromptu photo-shoot in the hallway, to make use of the swanky art deco background and get some last shots with Elena.
Apart from the aforementioned piece of paper, I had no directions, and no plan for getting out of Paris, so I figured I’d stick the compass in my tank bag, ride around the peripherique for a while (complete with mandatory screaming and wincing) and eventually head south/southwest. It was a nice enough way to travel, though it was getting us nowhere fast, since I was being a bit too careful about following the compass needle, and we often found ourselves in tiny little villages populated exclusively by speed humps and caravans. A stop at Bretigne-Sur-Orge for a coffee, pee, and glance at the map gave us time to come up with a bit of a plan. We eventually worked out a system comprising equal parts compass, road sign, and intuition to lead us relatively quickly through Orleans and Blois and in the direction of Loches along some nice ‘D’ roads that didn’t force us to work too hard. Might not sound too exiting, but it’s exactly what you need to wean you back on to the saddle, and shake off the remains of the hangover.
Around about seven in the evening, and we started keeping an eye on the roadside for inviting looking lanes. For the second time on the trip, our first investigation up a little side track led to a really promising camping spot. The trick, it seems is to spot a bit of land in the distance where farmed fields meet a grove of trees. Then you wait to find a small dirt track that leads off the main road and runs between the two. That way you can choose either to find a nice comfy spot in the corner of a field, or a good hidden piece of woodland. It gives you options is the point, and a bit of common sense will usually find you comfortably settled in for the night, and unworried about being moved on by angry locals.
In this case a bit of investigating led us to the farmed side of the road where a small hedge gave us a nice bit of cover while we laid our tent on freshly mown hay. We weren’t exactly miles away from civilisation but we figured we had ridden far enough from the main road, and we weren’t taking up much space, so it was as good a spot as any. After all the little dirt track didn’t look like it got much use. We unloaded the bikes and pitched the tent as a hot air balloon sailed over the yellow fields, giving us a long-lasting, if slightly clichéd memory of rural France. We settled in to the dusk with a couple of bottles of wine, some pasta with sardines, and a bit of cautious optimism that wild camping may not be as difficult as we had been led to believe. . .