Our Two New Tours
This year we ran two new bike tours, Normandy, which we should have done years ago, and Paris, which raised a few eyebrows, to say the least.
With the benefit of a few months of hindsight I’d like to look back at both tours and share a few thoughts. Not a description of the tours, we’ve got a brochure and a website for that. Just reflections on a few of my favourite memories. (Click on any of the photos to enlarge them).
Let’s start with the easy one, Normandy. Rural, with a distinctive cuisine, and lots of sites of interest. That’s classic Chain Gang terrain, so it’s no great surprise that we now have a tour of Normandy.
Our Normandy trip is different to most bike tours in Normandy. I took the decision that we would explore the ‘Pays d’Auge’ to the East of Falaise and Caen, which means we don’t cycle across the bottom of the Cotentin peninsula to the Mont St Michel.
On our first day we cycle past a war memorial close to Camembert and Vimoutier. It’s a major memorial, but it’s in the middle of nowhere, and unless you know your history you could be forgiven for wondering why. This is where the ‘Falaise Gap’ was closed, leaving 10,000 Germans dead and more than 50,000 captured.
It took the Allies 12 weeks to get the 50 Km from the landing beaches to Falaise, and just 6 more days to take Paris, 120 Km away. Eisenhower said “The battlefield at Falaise was unquestionably one of the greatest ‘killing fields’ of any of the war areas. Forty-eight hours after the closing of the gap I was conducted through it on foot, to encounter scenes that could be described only by Dante. It was literally possible to walk for hundreds of yards at a time, stepping on nothing but dead and decaying flesh.”
Another favourite place in the Pays d’Auge is the Basilica of St Thérèse in Lisieux. It’s a huge Basilica devoted to St Thérèse who died of tuberculosis in 1897 aged just 24. I love this building. St Thérèse is known for her autobiography, ‘Story Of a Soul’, in which she sets out her view of how to live a life devoted to God.
Recognising parallels between her own diminutive stature and passages in the bible, Thérèse focussed on the virtue of ‘smallness’ in relation to God. She took to signing ‘toute petite’ (very little) in front of her name, and her philosophy set out in ‘Story Of A Soul’ became known as her ‘little way’.
Because she died so recently there are photographs, and even recordings of Thérèse. Whatever ones view of religion, a visit to the Basilica in Lisieux is a memorable and moving experience, and I’m proud that we visit on The Chain Gang Normandy tour.
We only ran one tour of Paris last year, we just didn’t get enough interest to run the first tour. Perhaps people were waiting to see whether it was a good idea, and I must say I was full of trepidation as the time for the tour in August approached.
I won’t waste time trepidating again, we had a wonderful week. Things weren’t completely smooth. I hadn’t expected them to be completely smooth, but it wasn’t the things I was expecting that went wrong.
The Louvre closes every Tuesday, the Musée D’Orsay every Monday. They’re opposite each other across the Seine, so on Monday the Louvre is rammed with visitors, and on Tuesday so is the Musée D’Orsay. Obviously those are the days we chose to visit! We had our Paris Museum Passes which allow you to queue jump a little, but what caught us out were the security queues – and you’re not allowed to jump them!
Then we cycled all the way to Versailles on the August bank holiday. The cycle out to Versailles was one of the highlights of the week for me. We followed a fantastic route through the Bois de Boulogne and the Parc St Cloud that brought us to Versailles with hardly any traffic at all. Which is where we met the other 50,000 people who had chosen to spend their bank holiday at Versailles.
So we have a bit of work to do on scheduling, but that’s easy work. The rest of the week was great.
We enjoyed a fantastic variety of food throughout the week, including Café Procope, the oldest restaurant in Paris, and Le Chien Qui Fume, so good we went back for our final night dinner.
I was very pleased with the mix of our own bikes for the longer rides, and the Paris Vélibs for biking around town. There were some questions when I got back to the UK – Visa were a bit puzzled with 15 identical Vélib deposits of 150€ on the same credit card. But the Vélibs were a wonderful way to get around.
Lots of them are broken in some way – maybe even most – but it didn’t really matter, we were only cycling 2 or 3 miles at a time. And Parisienne drivers were great. We Vélibed across the Place de la Concorde, around the Arc de Triomphe, across the Place de la Bastille, with no problems at all. You should have been there! So thanks to Brian, Aiden, Steve, Ben, Calum, Oda and Norbert, our Paris Pionneers, and to Gerard and Pete for helping me.
The highlight for me, if I had to pick one, was our ride to the Basilica of St Denis. We used Chain Gang bikes rather than Vélibs and set off across the Île de la Cité and the Île St Louis. We followed a bike path as far as the canal basin at Villette, then followed the Canal de l’Ourcq until we met the Canal St Denis. We followed a new bike path along the canal all the way to St Denis beyond the Péripherique to the north of Paris.
St Denis is a poor suburb, home to the Stade de France but a name synonymous with poverty and immigration. But at its heart is the magnificent Basilica where almost all the Kings and Queens of France are buried. This includes Philip II Augustus, contemporary of Richard the Lionhearted, as well as Henry II and his wife Catherine de Medici. But more astonishingly the graves include Charlemagne The Great’s father, Pippin The Younger, who died in 768 AD, and the first King of the Franks, Clovis I (King from 465 to 511). Just amazing. And we barely met a car the whole way.
Norbert found the Basilica his highlight too, so I know I’m right! Just imagine how good it must be if it trumps the Hotel des Invalides, the Sacre Couer, the Eiffel Tower, the Musée D’Orsay. Most visitors to Paris don’t even know it exists, fewer still visit it. The next time you’re in Paris, whether you’re cycling with The Chain Gang or not, make a little detour to St Denis. You can write and thank me afterwards.