Friday, 4 July 2008

Le tour - St Malo (Seafood and Eat It Stage)

.....not to be confused with the Tour de France St Malo Monday 7th July (Stage Three)

Le tour (note small 't') was a week early for obvious reasons.

We really didn't want to do the whole public thing. I'm quite shy really and the thought of the big massed start with multi-coloured bunting fluttering over the roads, the barriers, the definitive route and all the attention was quite off-putting.

Who, in her right mind on a pleasant toodle through St Malo wants that crazy Devil character sprinting alongside her brandishing a trident and yelling inarticulacies?

Those spectators who dash into the road to squirt water over riders in the midday heat - they're a bloody nuisance, not to mention Phil Liggett - there every year droning on in his slightly nasal, know-it-all-twang.

How tedious, if you've just stopped off at a nice seafood restaurant and the waiter's brought a bottle of chilled muscadet and you're cracking your first langoustine if Phil or Gary Imlach were to thrust a microphone under your nose and ask searching questions about your commitment to the Tour, why you appear to have gone off route and when you were last drug tested.

So we decided to avoid any unwelcome attention and walked the bikes off the 'Bretagne' ferry from Portsmouth a week before the circus was due to arrive.

The Brittany Ferries folk deem it unsafe for you to ride your bike off the ferry. The ramps are big enough and sturdy enough for juggernauts but not suitable to ride a bike over, apparently. There must be a good reason. Perhaps they have had experience of lemming-like cyclists who get half-way to dry land when they are compelled to take a sudden left and plunge into the sea.

It was good discovering a camaraderie among cyclists. Two guys were heading south with 65 miles ahead of them that day and had packed so economically they'd forgotten the map. A couple in their thirties were aiming for Avranches via Monte St Michel. We had about...well... fifteen to twenty miles, max. But ours was a pleasant relaxing kind of thing not some kind of endurance test; an opportunity to meander off course, wander along a beach or two, swim maybe, explore any interesting-looking places along the way.

A dead-easy mosey along thoughtfully-provided cycleways through St Malo continued east towards Cancale then turned north along a deserted lane to the coast and a couple of lovely deserted beaches before the Pointe de Grouin to watch cormorants fishing and listen to oystercatchers.

The views were good from our outside table at a restaurant close to the Pointe. During a couple of hours, the distant and mysterious blue cone of Mont St Michel way across the bay faded in and out of view in the deep blue haze over the Cote d'Emeraud.

You know how it is when you're not expecting anything special and suddenly everything conspires to produce a special moment?

So it was when, in search of the first destination, we freewheeled down a short, steep hill on the outskirts of Cancale, took a left and found ourselves by the sea at Port Mer, a perfect, pocket-sized French seaside village.

There was one hotel and a couple of bars on the front across a narrow road from the sea wall and then a clean, soft sandy beach, gently shelving beneath the clear waters of a sheltered bay where yachts and fishing boats bobbed at anchor.

I loved the hotel sign. I loved the hotel room even more with a tiny balcony complete with a table and a couple of chairs overlooking the bay. It was hot. We grabbed towels and books and joined the few families dotted about the beach. That first swim in Channel water which was impossibly clear, was just fabulous.

Sunday in Cancale, the oyster capital of Brittany, was a revelation. It was across a couple of headlands from Port Mer. Vast degustation platters of shellfish and seaweed were being served in dozens of restaurants strung out all along the seafront but the real afficionados weren't in restaurants at all. They were perched akimbo on the sea wall next to the oyster market where they'd bought lunch and were busy levering oysters open and slurping them as people have done for centuries.

Much, much later, there was the small matter of picking up the bags from Port Mer, discovering how steeper the hill had got in a couple of hours and returning to St Malo via the coast road, busier as it was a sunny Sunday and the French had come out to play.

Cycling was a breeze in France. The drivers were polite and gave cyclists a wide berth so it felt very safe. There were no real hills to worry about and where there's a bit of undulation at least you have the satisfaction of the swooping downhill, which, if enthusiastic enough, gets you at least a third of the way up the other side.

There were plenty of other cyclists too. One couple could not possibly have been less than seventy years old but there they were, pottering along on sit-up-and-beg bikes on Sunday nodding amiably as we passed.

The next stop was La Grande Plage, St Malo where an electic selection of French seaside architecture lines the promenade - a sought-after location for the summer residence - overlooking the wide beach and sea with the old fortifications of St Malo to the west a ten minute stroll away. A curious forest of thick tree trunks had been planted on the beach to protect the sea wall. Not a bad idea. They'd probably last hundreds of years.

We rode along roads which will be closed for Monday's Tour stage.

But in spite of our own tour of St Malo, I have to confess I'm still in denial about the whole cycle tour thing. I've never wanted to be a classic touring cyclist and still don't.

I'm a terrible apology of a cyclist; a real lightweight. I don't want to carry more than a rucksack and a pack on a rack. I loathe panniers and I feel sorry for those couples you occasionally see in faded waterproofs where the guy is grinding away the tarmac out front and the woman is a quarter of a mile back looking worn and miserable.

I really don't want to just bike from place to place in a determined fashion where achieving miles is more important than carefree exploration and exhilarating downhills generously peppered with stops to enquire, to observe and to loaf about a bit.

A French loaf is appealing on so many levels. Crumbs, you should try it.

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