Author Josie Dew recalls her first cycling trip to France when she discovered the joys of boulangeries and patisseries.
Your first time cycling in France was en route to Africa – it was your first big trip outside of England. Can you tell us a bit about the French leg of that trip?
I remember plunging out of Luxembourg and into France for a short leg into Alsace before crossing over into Switzerland. The ride back from Africa took me from Marseille up through the centre of France to Le Havre.
What’s your most vivid memory of France from that trip?
Discovering boulangeries and patisseries (heaven-sent eateries for cyclists!); trying out schoolgirl French and amazed that at least two people understood (or pretended to understand) what I was trying to say; finding it a pleasant surprise that French drivers didn't run cyclists off the road like English ones did and that French people really do say bon voyage and bon courage and allez! allez! a lot to cyclists; cycling up the Ardeche Gorge and then kayaking down it (including unexpected rapids and being overtaken by capsized unpeopled canoes); nearly cutting off my finger when sandwich-making in the dark while camping in Fontainebleau forest (I still have the scar and no nerves in that bit of finger!) and then having to cycle one-handed through Paris and round the Arc de Triumph; finding myself in a campsite that turned out to be a nudist camp.
How did you choose your route?
Looking at my map each morning in my tent and thinking: I'll try going this way and see what happens.
You’ve returned sporadically to France ever since – what keeps drawing you back?
It's easy to get to by boat from England; it's a fine country for cycling, with quiet silky smooth roads, a huge variation in scenery, tasty food, and people who like cyclists – even ones with panniers!
How have your impressions of France changed over the years?
Little – it's still lovely!
If you could come back and ride anywhere in France, where would you go?
And where would you avoid?
The outskirts of Marseille.
You’ve cycled all over the world – how does France rate when you compare it to all the other exotic destinations you’ve written about?
It's very close to the top of the list.
In your early days, you managed to convince lots of non-cycling friends to undertake some pretty long rides with you. Do you have any advice for cyclists who have reluctant partners or friends they’re trying to cajole along for a ride?
Plunge forth into the unknown – it's much more fun and much more memorable than doing something safe and tedious.
France has some great routes for families – the Loire, the vineyard routes of Gironde, the greenways of Brittany. You've got two mini-cyclists of your own who are clocking up the miles – what’s so great about introducing kids to cycling?
Freedom; adventure; seeing and noticing things that they never would when strapped into a vehicle; enjoying life without being reliant on some computerized gadget; being outdoors in all weathers. It also makes them sleep exceptionally well!
What three items can’t you cycle without?
Tent, toe-clips and a mini Leatherman.
Any final words of advice for people thinking about cycling in France?
Treat with extreme caution the ubiquitous signpost that points 'TOUTES DIRECTIONS'. How can you go in all directions at once, especially when it's pointing in the opposite direction from the one you want to go?
You can read more about Josie's adventures – including her severed finger in the Fontainebleau forest – in The Wind in My Wheels: Tales From the Saddle. He other books include Long Cloud Ride: A 6,000 Mile Journey Around New Zealand, Slow Coast Home: 5,000 Miles Around the Shores of England and Wales, Travels in A Strange State: Cycling Across the USA and A Ride in the Neon Sun: A Gaijin in Japan. You can find more about Josie by visiting her website.