After 5 magnificent days in the City of Light it was time to get our ride underway. After all, that’s the main reason we came to this wonderful country. In order to get to Orleans, which was the place the ride is to begin, we first had to survive a trip through the Paris Metro and then a “Grande Ligne” train ride to Orleans.
We made a quite a sight, all lined up like a travelling caravan of elderly luggage draggers. Although the trains were very quiet at 10.30 am in the morning, it seems that the Metro designers had done all in their power to include as many flights of stairs as possible. We had no alternative other than to drag our bulging bags up and down, until we were all red and puffing. I remembered that when we were in Helsinki, one of the luggage cases suffered a catastrophic castor failure on the walk to the train station. I was hoping that a similar breakdown would not occur this time.
Fortunately we all made it safely to the large Gare d’Austerlitz station without mishap and settled in for a lengthy wait till our train was due for departure. The women spent most of this time looking for toilets and drinking coffee (probably in the other order). The men spent most of the time looking for the women.
Every time I ride on a train in Europe I am reminded just how primitive our train system is by comparison. The ride to Orleans was even more comfortable because it looked almost like we were the only passengers on the train. Even in second class, the seats were generous and very comfortable. The smooth and silent passage of the train (over 140 kph according to my GPS) soon sent me into a sleepy stupor and I cannot remember much of the trip itself.
By early afternoon we had arrived at Orleans and unloaded our pile of bags from the train, ready to walk the 1.5 km to our hotel. Maggie and Carol (and most of the other women) decided to walk 1.5 km in the opposite direction looking for the closest toilet. The men waited, and waited……and waited.
Eventually the ladies returned with smiles on their faces and someone reminded them that there was a toilet on the train. In fact they could have just made a walk of about 5 m to the end of their train carriage.
The walk to the hotel took about 30 minutes, giving some of the ladies a good chance to lament that their bags were a little heavy. The men were again called upon to assist in carrying some of the excess luggage. I thought I read somewhere about equality of the sexes, but apparently it does not apply when navigating, repairing punctures or moving luggage.
The Escale Oceania is a very comfortable hotel, situated right on the banks of the Loire River. After the diminutive hotel rooms of Paris, it is always something of a relief to enjoy the extra space in the rural hotels.
In the late afternoon we received the bikes that were to be our transport for ride to Le Croisic. They were typical European touring bikes – upright stance, heavy and comfortable (just like me). After we all did a few laps around the car park, most agreed that they were quite easy to ride. Each bike was equipped with two large rear panniers, a toolkit, pump, lock, spare tube and a kitchen sink. I also was elected to carry the additional large and heavy floor pump. We were also issued with a huge wad of notes, maps, directions and brochures. I gave these a cursory glance and announced that we were set to go. By now we were getting hungry and were ready for dinner.
Our allocated restaurant for the first night was the Au Bon Marche, a mere 2 hour walk from the hotel. That would have been pleasant if it had not been raining, however we were all in good spirits and eagerly looking forward to actually getting started on the ride the next morning. Lionel Rex and John Hill had also arrived in Orleans a day early and had decided to join us for dinner, even though the rest of their group would not be arriving until the following day.
We eventually found the restaurant and proceeded to tramp muddy footprints across the pristine floor as the Maitre d directed us to their finest table. I looked down at the brilliant white starched table cloth and thought that it was an accident looking for a place to happen. A short time later, it did.
We were each handed a menu about as large as the playing area of the MCG, entirely printed in French. We struggled with the huge sheets and we struggled with the unfamiliar words. “What’s a canard ?”, “What is a millefeuille when it’s home ?”, “Are these snails ?” Lots of giggling from everyone.
“Don’t order anything that says tartare”, advised Ross, who had learnt from a most unpleasant experience on our Scandinavian ride.
After about 30 minutes of collective confusion we all managed to select something at random from each of the three sections and then waited expectantly for the surprises to come. I can’t remember exactly what I ate, but I do recall that it was delicious and it was extremely filling. And that was only the entree. We still had another two courses to go. This was our first serious challenge. Belts and girdles were loosened as we battled valiantly to empty our plates. Some rose wonderfully to the challenge while others were unable to make much impression on the piles of food in front of them.
My contribution to the evening was to somehow manage to spread some of the contents of my plate immediately on to the, previously white, table cloth. I tried to cover up my sins with a carefully placed napkin, but I suspect that the waiter noted what I had done and marked me down as the group’s imbecile.
It took us until well after 10 pm to get anywhere near finishing the meal and no one wanted to be the last out of the place and be left with the drinks bill. Previous experience has showed me that people have notoriously bad memories when it comes to remembering what they drank and even worse arithmetical skills when it comes to adding up their contributions.
Somehow we managed to leave Lionel and John as the last two in the restaurant and I suspect that they were washing and drying dishes until the wee small hours of the morning. The rest of us had a long and wet walk back to the hotel, hoping that the weather would improve before the following morning. Of course it didn’t.