Monday, 20 October 2008

On the road again in Northern France


I'd done my London - Paris bike ride, soaked in the vibe and dug the people of the beautiful French capital. Now it was time to make the journey back home.

It would've been a bit too predictable to jump on the Eurostar or get a flight straight back to London, so I chose a more convoluted approach.

The aim of my weekend away at the end of September was not just to get from London to Paris by bicycle, but I had also wanted to take in as many sights as possible while in Northern France.

So, at 9am I scooted from my youth hostel in Porte de Pantin, across to Gare du Nord and took a train towards the Compiegne area. I was back in the Picardy region but this was a very pleasant side to the region.

This area is a popular getaway for the bustling Parisians. I got off the train at Longueuil Sainte-Marie, just ahead of the Foret de Compiegne.

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It was a fairly sleepy town with a pleasant river running through and forested tracks. I did quite a few circuits of the village in order to find the road to La Croix St Ouen. Soon I bumped into a local who seemed very happy to help me out. It was an old "Marcel" type who was trundling along from the bakers on his bicycle. With a baguette, under his arm, riding an old sit-up-and-beg bike which he pedalled through his heels, wearing a beret and an old jacket, I wondered if I'd stepped into a timewalk of by-gone days in France. I could've sworn he had a string of onions around his neck under his jacket !

Given that the guy wouldn't have been much under 70 years of age he was incredibly spritely in the way he spoke. Again, as with other folk I had met in the provinces he was very surprised and almost flattered that an outsider was in his town touring around.

I'd been trying to get to Pierrefonds, and my initial question had been to ask him the way to the D85 towards La Croix St Ouen. "You don't want to take the road - not with all these tossers that are gonna knock you off," he said. "No, follow me - I'll show you a really beautiful ride along the side of the river, where the birds sing and there are cute rabbits. You can even get little views of the castles around here. And right at the end of the ride there's a pretty little bridge to go over."


"You see," he continued, "You're in the most important part of France, and I know everything there is to know round here. I was born and raised here, and I don't know anywhere else - I don't need to ! Follow me !" He was lively and enthusiastic, but not a psycho so I obliged and followed him.

In the 3 mile ride that I did with the old boy I was given a brief history of the local area and a quick low down of all the best places to visit around. Judging by the ecstasy he displayed when talking about the castle of Pierrefonds it was apparent that that was the number one place to visit.
"But take it easy," he said, as he bid me good bye. "It's a good 15km to Pierrefonds. It could be a long day !"
"I'll be careful", I replied. I didn't want to give him a heart attack by telling him where I was really hoping to get to. (Amiens).

The ride to Pierrefonds was beautiful. I could see why he was excited about me going there. Compiegne forest is idyllic, and provides lots of possibilities for off-road biking. All the trails are waymarked as well. The sun, shone and there were hardly any cars. It was great. The terrain was fairly easy too, apart from a mini climb up to St Jean des Bois.

"Marcel" was definitely right about Pierrefonds castle. It was a very imposing august piece of military architecture which dates back to the Middle Ages.

I stopped, along with a whole load of tourists, to marvel at its sheer size. The way it suddenly surges into view as you approach the village is so impressive that you can't help but stop and stare.

That was the high point of the day as far as scenery went.

I then pushed on back through the forest to reach the town of Compiegne itself. I could have stopped and looked at a bit more of the town, but I didn't. There's a very nice town hall and castle there too, but I didn't stop. Too much spinning around the outskirts of towns looking for the road I was after meant I wasted a bit of time and was keen to make progress Northwards. Still, I was glad to have made the circular detour around the Compiegne Forest. It was definitely worth the trip.

The road back up to Amiens took me through the Picardy region. This department of the Somme is quite undulating. As well as fields, there are a few military cemeteries reflecting its war-time past.
The road may have had a desolate feel it, but it was more interesting than say the road to Gisors, as it undulated constantly and twisted through various small quaint villages - Rollot, Montdidier, Moreeuil, Boves.

Also the wind was behind me, which made a lot of difference. I could have taken the quieter D26 through Ailly sur Noye. But really the more principal D935 was very quiet on this sunny Saturday afternoon. In fact I saw a number of club cyclists along this road. So it seemed like this was the place to be.

From Mondidier onwards - around 18 miles from Amiens I could see a tall tower and a church steeple over the hills in the distance. Could that really have been Amiens ? I hoped it was, as it was good to have something concrete to aim for. In fact, this proved to be true as I reached the main suburban road that led to Amiens city centre. My bike ride ended right in front of Amiens train station - next to this tower. Well, I had been wanting something concrete to aim for - that's exactly what I got !

In the distance the tower had been a guiding light - a star to follow, an expectation of making it through the end of a long journey.

Once past the initial celebration of achieving the goal, it then became apparent what an architectural monstrosity the Perret Tower really is ! This ugly ode to concrete makes for a stark contrast to the beauty and intricacy of the world heritage site of Amiens cathedral.

I had around 2 hours to kill before catching my train to Calais. So I used the time to stroll around, and have a well deserved quiche, cake and beer. Apart from the Tour Perret, this town was quite pleasing to the eye. There was even an affluent feel to the place. I could have fallen asleep in the park quite comfortably, but I decided to do that on my train journey.

Once in Calais, I felt a real sense of achievement that I'd it made it round Northern France. There may not be the breathtaking sights of the high mountains characteristic of the Alps or the Pyrenees while out cycling, but Northern France is definitely worth a bike trip as there are still lots of other sights to see.
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