Day 10 & 11: To the Coast! (Nantes –> Bourgneuf-en-Retz, 56km)

Kilometers covered: 548
Départements traveled: 5
Wines sampled: 16
Fromage consumed: 9

I woke up to a beautiful blue sky in Nantes, which seemed to imply that if I got my ass on the road that I might get to bike in the sun! That was certainly motivating, but I had one critical mission to attend to first. In my… enthusiasm for navigation (and Facebook updates), I had drained my phone of all data– so I needed a recharge. That accomplished, I downed a simple lunch of roasted chicken and potatoes and was on my way.

The cycling was easy: long stretches of clean asphalt, lots of sunshine, and flat as the road wound out to the sea. I had wondered earlier why I ever thought I could do upwards of 80 kilometers a day (after some days feeling exhausted after 60) but now I realized I could totally do it on flat territory. It was really the hills that killed you.

I also saw my first winery of the trip, and stopped for a full degustación, hobbling along in my poor French. At the mouth of the Loire river is Muscadet country (Côtes de Grandlieu), and I tried a dry, sweet, aged, and super-sweet dessert wine version of the grape. None of them particularly impressed me, but I was happy just to stop and learn about the wine. On another trip, I could do the whole Loire Valley, which extends from Nantes all the way up to Paris– but I was heading south rather than east.

I was ready to do more, but instead I stopped around 5pm at the first small town on the Atlantic: Bourgneuf-en-Retz. I got lucky with a last-minute Couchsurfing request, and not only were my hosts delightful (from South Africa and France, near Angers) but I had an excuse to let myself off the hook. Earlier in the day, I passed the unofficial halfway mark for my trip: 500 out of 1000 kilometers. So it was worth celebrating. At my host’s suggestion, we did “raclette” for dinner, which involves pouring melted cheese over potatoes, meat, and anything else on your plate. Really a Alpine skiiing meal! Obviously it was excellent, and we paired it with a Cabernet Franc from the Anjou/Saumur region in the upper Loire and a Négrette (one of my favorites) from Fronton, an AOC in the south.

I had intended to press ahead the next day, but my host offered to take me fishing for clams and oysters in the morning– which sounded like too good an experience to turn down. So I happily parked my bike for a day and went out the next morning with the low tide, equipped with buckets and gardening tools. The water was cold, but we successfully pried a bucket of oysters off their perch and filled the other bucket with an assortment of 20-30 clams, four small crabs and maybe 50 small prawns, netted from beneath the rocks. Not a bad morning’s work!

While cleaning off and eating lunch (a pasta with bull-sausage bolognese that I was quite proud of), we cleaned the oysters, boiled the crabs, and fried up the prawns with butter and herbs provençal. The little prawns were delicious; you could eat them like popcorn. The oysters we ate raw with red vinegar, Sauvignon Blanc and bread, followed by the small crabs with a bit of spicy mayonaise. The final dish was a spaghetti alla vongole that I made with the clams, a simple dish with pasta, garlic, parsley and white wine that is nevertheless hard to get right. We were all happy with it, though, and I felt especially lucky when I found an unbroken shell that contained nothing but sand and muck. If it had opened in the pasta, it would have ruined the whole thing!

THE MEAL: Local beer, wine, and fresh oysters, clams, crabs, and prawns: a seafood paradise.

THE WINE: five different kinds of Muscadet; a Cab Franc/Cab Sauv blend from Anjou (2013 Le P’tit Clou), a Negrette from Fronton, outside of Toulouse (“Excellence du Comte de Negret), a Sauvignon (“Vignoble du Beau Soleil”), and for dessert a 2009 Marquis de Chamterac “Monbazillac” AOC.

THE BED: Courchsurfing in Bourgneuf-en-Retz.

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Day 9: The Wasteland (Redon –> Nantes, 73 km)

Kilometers covered: 492
Départements traveled: 5
Wines sampled: 12
Fromage consumed: 8

At 7AM in October in France, it is totally dark. I knew this; Europe is far north. What I didn’t know is that it’s dark at 8AM too– and by 8:30, its only starting to look like the sun might come out. You’re seeing the sunrise at 9 frickin’ AM. No wonder I was setting out late!

But it wasn’t cold, just dark, so it was kind of nice to ride in the early dawn. I passed a few cafes but decided that I would wait until I got out of Redon for my second coffee: whenever the next cafe presented itself. Usually, this comes every 5-7 km, underneath or around the church in the next little town. Even when there’s no town, you see little cafes by the side of the road.

But the damn cafe never came. Kilometer after kilometer, no Bar-Tabac, no patisserie. So because I stubbornly refused to deviate from my route, and because I insisted in holding to the rules I set for myself, I proceeded to grind out my single longest stretch by bike (without stopping), possibly ever: 38 kilometers. I felt proud, I guess, but pride or no I wouldn’t have lasted much longer past the cafe at Fay-de-Bretagne. (The Fairy of Brittany!). So, that happened. It allowed me to take the rest of the day comparatively easy, and by 1:30 I was in Nantes.

It might seem like all I think about along the way are things like food, wine, and directions. But I think about political topics, books I might write, article ideas, speeches. I have a list of four separate books to write now– ten years work, at least. One of the articles I’ve been thinking through is called Governments Need Privacy, Too (or Why Glenn Greenwald is Wrong). Greenwald, you probably know, is the UK journalist who worked most closely with Edward Snowden to expose and publish information on the NSA’s (alleged) surveillance programs and the U.S. government’s (alleged) worldwide intelligence apparatus. Even before Snowden, Mr. Greenwald had a reputation as a controversial (if popular) writer on privacy issues, but with Snowden he became a minor celebrity in his own right. Apropos, he recently gave a compelling TED talk entitled “Why Privacy Matters“, which watched in a hotel at Mont St. Michel.

Both the message and the delivery were impressive; the audience ate it up, and I found myself agreeing with a lot of it. He even brought in everyone’s favorite Orwellian (actually Benthamist) construct– the panopticon– and argued why even ordinary citizens with nothing to hide should advocate for privacy. As a committed privacy advocate myself, I was on board with the overall message. But a few things bothered me.

First, people have a right to privacy– but do governments? Greenwald believes not. He notes that every time he meets someone who tells him that they don’t care about privacy, he gives them his email address and asks the to email him all their passwords. No one has taken him up on his offer, Glenn notes– ha ha ha:

“I get out a pen, I write down my email address. I say, “Here’s my email address. What I want you to do when you get home is email me the passwords to all of your email accounts, not just the nice, respectable work one in your name, but all of them, because I want to be able to just troll through what it is you’re doing online, read what I want to read and publish whatever I find interesting. After all, if you’re not a bad person, if you’re doing nothing wrong, you should have nothing to hide.”

Yes, well, all fine and good. Now, Glenn, would you mind sending me all the Guardian’s internal files, management disputes, editorial decisions, and financial data, all the stuff that you have access to and I don’t? Wait, why not? You’re not doing anything shady there at the Guardian, are you? Oh… right, protect your sources. Confidential communications. Internal matters. So you’re saying the Guardian– not only an organization, but a *for-profit* organization– has a right to privacy as well? Of course. But the government doesn’t?

So this is where Greenwald’s argument falls apart for me. He seems to be saying that Snowden’s extraction and distribution of thousands of classified documents was justified because of the individual right to privacy– but that the US government has no similar right, even for secrets unrelated to technical surveillance programs. Yet the Guardian, the organization where he works, has a right to keep its sources, communications, and operations confidential– because, well, apparently newspapers are good and governments are bad.

To me, Greenwald revealed his true philosophy in response to a question after the talk, in which he said: “Well, I mean, the endgame for me as a journalist is very simple, which is to make sure that every single document that’s newsworthy and that ought to be disclosed ends up being disclosed, and that secrets that should never have been kept in the first place end up uncovered.” (italics mine) Greenwald, like Assange, believes in the absolute superiority of exposure when it comes to government secrets. He believes that as a journalist, he has the right to obtain, review, and publish anything he can get his hands on– or at least anything that he deems newsworthy– and that the public has a right to know. Yet he doesn’t care about or see any responsibility in any damage that follows that exposure. That’s someone else’s problem.

Anyway– point is, I get to do some thinking. Nantes is nice! Jules Verne machinery park and giant mechanical elephants, castles with moats, and the Siene. Off to the coast!

THE MEAL: Spanish tapas; truthfully, not very good. Not close enough to Spain yet!

THE WINE: a Spanish Rioja

THE BED: cheapish two-star hotel in Nantes

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Day 8: Land of Confusion (Rennes –> Redon, 76km)

Kilometers covered: 419
Départements traveled: 4
Wines sampled: 11
Fromage consumed: 7

Monday morning, and summer is over. I woke up to a grey sky that had moved in during the night, sweeping away the weekend memories of sun and laughter. No more lying on the grass, no more white wine and daydreams. Back to the road.

But I actually felt pretty good, ready to get back on the bike. My knee felt better (see Day 6), all my clothes were clean, and my body had recovered to the point where I didn’t creak quite as much when I got up. I had a place to stay for the night, but they weren’t going to be home until 7:30pm– so rather than rush out, I spent the cloudy morning with Etaine drinking coffee, writing emails, and plotting out later sections of my trip. I waffled on whether to route through the city of Nantes– it would add an extra day and about 75km– but in the end decided it might be worth it.

After a reinvented round of Thai green curry soup with fresh tofu (yum), I set out about 2pm toward Redon, a smallish town sandwiched between Rennes and Nantes. Rennes is the “big city” in the north of Bretagne, while Nantes is the regional center for the south, but this is controversial: Nantes is several sizes bigger but they decided to put the regional administration in Rennes and cut Nantes (administratively) out of “Bretagne”. Hence there’s a kind of competition between the two cities.

The afternoon did not bring better weather. It wasn’t raining hard, but it was wet enough that I couldn’t leave my iPhone out on the bike to navigate. This led to several frustrating wrong turns, each time ending in me huddling under a tree or a bus stop to figure out what went wrong. Finally I got on the right track (or at least the track Google told me to pursue), but was dismayed to find that I kept getting routed back to a major highway. Highways are sometimes necessary, but usually there’s another route that is almost as direct and which takes you through better scenery with fewer cars. And Google is pretty good about offering you alternative routes (dirt tracks through forests, paths through fields, etc)– but in this case, every time it kept bringing me back to the damn highway.

Adding to the confusion, there wasn’t very much variety to the landscape (hill, field, cross highway, repeat)– so it started to feel like I wasn’t actually making any progress, just going in circles. My cyclometer seemed to reinforce this: three hours in, and I had only made it about 35km toward my goal. I set out worrying that I would get to Redon too early, now I had to worry about keeping my hosts waiting!

Finally I made an executive decision: I turned off the phone, set my wheels ninety degrees from the prescribed path, and rode in a different direction. Normally I hate to add distance or effort– I’m fundamentally lazy that way– but I was sick of the highway and of Google’s version of country biking. Once I rode about 5km west, a new network of roads opened up and I turned south toward Redon. I picked up some time and made it to the doorstep of my hosts at 7:36.

Showers, wine, and homemade pumpkin soup soon followed. My hosts (Alex and Lise) worked as a primary school teacher and a EU administrator, respectively, jobs that took them in the opposite direction every morning. Originally Redon was a geographic compromise between the two locations, but Alex took a new job and now they were getting a house nearer to Nantes– signing Wednesday. Exciting! We also talked about education policy and Sarkozy, Obama and the Nobel prize controversy (totally not warranted), the Syria conflict, Berlusconi, Hollande, and mistresses, travel, following your dreams (vs putting money in the bank) and the pros and cons of routing through Nantes (only pros, according to Lise!). Alex also gave me a quick list of must-see beer spots in Nantes, which I took on religiously. Knowing that we all had to set off early the next morning, we finished with a small contribution of cheese and hit the pillow.

THE MEAL: Pumpkin soup; rustic bread; pasta with butter and cheese; bleu cheese and truffle brie

THE WINE: 2011 “” and an unidentified (by me) Pays d’Oc

THE BED: Just a bed! But it felt good!

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Day 7: A Day in the Sun (Rennes)

Kilometers covered: 343
Départements traveled: 4
Wines sampled: 9
Fromage consumed: 7

The sun came out for my first full rest-day. I did no cycling– instead, I nursed my wounds, ate a bunch of cheese, and fell asleep in the sun. The cheese came from this fabulous cheese shop in the center of town; I chose a truffle-infused brie and a local bleu, to the noted approval of the cheese administrator. We then joined a picnic of a few dozen international PhD students on the banks of the river through the city, and I got to speak English again– as well as hear German, Turkish, Arabic, Spanish, and Greek. Good food, good wine, good company.

In the evening I really thought I wouldn’t be able to eat anything ever again, but we rallied and I made a homemade curry paste of green chilis, ginger, lemongrass, coriander, onion, pepper, cumin and garlic. It took a while to get to the right consistency but then it was excellent. Also made a more Indian-like curry with fish and lots of tumeric. Then we drank wine and talked philosophy and relationships until 2AM, as God intended.

Best of all, I did laundry. I’m all clean again!

THE MEAL: Thai green curry with homemade green curry paste; Indian fish curry, and lots of cheese

THE WINE: 2012 Moulin de Gassac “Albaran” (Cabernet/Syrah), Vielles Vignes.

THE BED: Previously mentioned fold-out futon.

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Day 6: A Slightly Harder Day (Mont St. Michel –> Rennes, 75 km)

Kilometers covered: 343
Départements traveled: 4
Wines sampled: 8
Fromage consumed: 5

I started out right at 10AM– still a bit late, but a half hour better than the previous day. I was helped out the door by the fact that the hotel, while comfortable, was nothing special, and I had done everything there was to do in Mont Saint Michel. So I set off, knowing that I had about 70 kilometers to cover but sort of looking forward to the challenge. About midday, I stopped for water and my cyclometer happened to show exactly 300 kilometers since I started in Le Havre; I took a snapshot. You don’t feel like you’re going very fast on a bike, but when you see 300 kms that sounds impressive somehow.

I realized I haven’t written very much about what it actually feels like to be on this trip. When I’m writing my head is usually focused on where I’ve gone or how to get where I’m going next, so that gets reflected in what I write. But I have a lot of interesting thoughts and experiences during the day… I just can’t easily break out my iPad to record them. So here’s one:

When it’s quiet, the experience is really one of being surrounded by life and greenness. You get a sense that everything around you is breathing and growing, soaking in the sun and doing whatever living creatures do. And there’s this funny zen-like quality to the herd animals, the cows especially; a pastoral samadi. They look like they aren’t really doing anything. They’re not chewing, talking, walking, looking– they’re just being, looking straight ahead, totally free of ambition or intention. I know it sounds romanticized– I don’t mean I know they are happy or anything. But if you live in a city where you are surrounded by people working or planning something or getting somewhere, you’ll understand the difference.

The cows are funny. Maybe half will look up in mild interest when you ride by, then shrug and go back to whatever it was they were doing. About a quarter will drop everything and just stare at you– from the time you emerge to the time you disappear. And a small minority– maybe 5%?– will spook, running off in the other direction. (It turns out cows can actually move when they need to.) Now here’s the funny thing: it’s entirely by herd. If you pass a herd of starers, not one will just glance and then ignore you. If you pass a herd of shruggers, no one will bolt or stare; they’ll all glance and then ignore you. And while not all will bolt when you pass the bolters, the ones you pass closely pretty reliably will. Or at least they’ll think about it.

And yes, you pass a lot of cows in Normandy– enough to be statistically significant. Normandy is known for three things: cows, rain, and massive multinational military landings.

There was one down-side to this otherwise bucolic day: I fell. Not a real fall– in fact, it’s so stupid that it’s embarrassing. You’ll remember I’m trying out clip-in pedals. I was adjusting something at the side of the road, not a car in sight, and I wanted to push forward just about ten feet. So I stepped down with my right foot– click– and right at that minute the wind picked up and pushed me a bit toward my right. My balance shifted and I started tipping, slowly. Ordinarily, no big deal: you just step down with your other foot. But of course my right foot was locked in– and it was just counterintuitive to try and twist my foot toward where I was falling– so instead I helplessly tipped over at a total standstill like a midwestern college-town cow. I landed on grass, and because I wasn’t going anywhere I didn’t really suffer any injury, but I did bang up my knee a bit. OW.

Clip-in pedals: unconvinced!

THE MEAL: Brittany crépe with egg and cheese and apples; Soupe de poissons; Croque Madame (toasted bread, béchamel, cheese, egg)

THE WINE: I lit up when the bar we went to in the evening had a Fer Servadou, an unusual variety from the south of France. I forgot to note the producer.

THE BED: Fold-out futon in the lovely dark living room of a perfect stranger.

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Day 5: An Easy Day (Avranches –> Mont St. Michel, 24 km)

Kilometers covered: 268
Départements traveled: 3
Wines sampled: 7
Fromage consumed: 4

After a cappucino, two blog updates, and a quick walk around town, I paid my tab and set off into the countryside again. 11AM– getting better! My destination was Mont St. Michel, the postcard-worthy abbey perched on a rocky island in the middle of an estuary on the sea. After that, well… I didn’t really know.

Mont St. Michel was only about 23 kilometers out, so it seemed like a good destination for lunch. Then, see the abbey… out by 5pm? But then things get a little tricky. The next big city is Rennes, but that’s 70km– not going to make it. There’s a town called Pontorson, but its main claim to fame seemed to be proximity to Mont St. Michel. It would get me 10 kms closer to Rennes, but might not be worth stopping in otherwise.

The biking was the best since I started. It was sunny all day (a first) and the path took me on a well-paved straightaway with no hills that ran straight to Mont Saint Michel. I crossed the causeway and bartered a place to store my bike in return for some overpriced (but actually, pretty good) mussels and frites. The waiter got the order wrong– even though I said it (mostly) correctly– because he was so used to waiting on Japanese tourists who say “ku-ri-mu” for “cream” (rather than ku-ri for curry).

After I saw the abbey (yes, impressive, yes, worth it) I saw it was just about 5pm. Coasting back over the causeway, I pondered: continue on without a reservation, see what pops up? I felt pretty good, but darkness would hit in about two hours and I couldn’t see anywhere on the map worth heading. Then fate decided it: a last-minute offer from a local hotel for $47, right where I was. Done. An easy day today, 70kms tomorrow to arrive in Rennes.

The mussels and bread were so filling that even by 8pm, I really didn’t have an appetite. (The key with moules/frites to work your way through the mussels and then sop up all the sauce with the bread– pretty much impossible to go away hungry.) Instead I bought a baguette and an unmarked (seriously) roll of what I guessed was goat cheese, along with some paté and a large bottle of cidre brut (with Mont St. Michel right on the label!). After checking into my unexceptional but pleasant hotel, and indulging in after a hot bath and the cidre– a nighttime walk to see the abbey lit up from across the water.

THE MEAL: Moules (mussels) with curry cream sauce; bread; frites with mayonnaise.

THE WINE: Wow, none again? What’s wrong with me? But I wanted to take advantage of the local products (cider and Calvados) before I leave Normandy tomorrow.

THE BED: Nice double with a deep soaking bath, across from the abbey, sharing the building with a Japanese tour group. $47, hotels.com, last minute deal.
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Day 4: La Voie de Libertè (Saint-Lô –> Avranches, 65 km)

Kilometers covered: 244
Départements traveled: 3
Wines sampled: 7
Fromage consumed: 3

So today took me, by chance, along part of what is called the “Voie de Liberté”– the Path of Victory– the route Patton and the American armies took from the landing through Normandy through to Holland. The route is marked by signs every few kilometers and features a flaming torch. I admit, it’s nice to see a memory of the U.S. as liberators.

Today I set out stronger (and also, a bit earlier) but I quickly discovered that it was, in fact, the hills that were wearing me down. You don’t think about it that much on any individual one, but you notice it going downhill when you don’t even have the energy to maximize the momentum. That’s OK, though. I know I’m getting stronger and I did OK all day, I just had to adjust my expectations for average kilometers pulled each day. On flat terrain (like down south), I could pull 70-80 kms and be tired, yes, but not spent. Here I’m going to shoot for averaging 60.

Lunch was a homemade France-burger with grilled beef, Pyrenees cheese, rough mustard, lettuce, and onions on a french roll. I even managed to pack a salad. No wine, but I allowed myself a Leffe blonde since it bought me a seat at the cafe in Percy. (OK, and also because it’s the best beer in the world, and it’s on tap, and it’s €3.) That gave me a little extra energy and I wondered if I shouldn’t try to push past Avranches, which was the next sorta-big town in my direction. But in the end I decided to call it a day and get out of the rain.

Good thing I did. After I checked into my awesome grungy-but-charming B&B the rain started REALLY coming down and I was happy I was inside and eating French pub food rather than swimming in the mud somewhere. The hotel I found through (gasp) the tourist office– for once I struck out with the websites and had to ask for help. They totally hooked me up, though. This was the kind of place you had to go up to the bar and wait between orders to ask about a room– then be escorted up the creaky staircase by the barkeep’s wife. And the room! Such luxury! No ensuite bath, but I get a GIANT 6×9 foot Lord of the Rings poster! Who doesn’t want Legolas and Arwen waking you up in the morning?

Finally, I did something that I really should have done before I left… before I landed… before I left Paris… etc. I charted out my more-or-less route to Bordeaux and found manageable chunks that would reliably get me there around a certain date. This makes it easier to plan, find hotels, etc… and it also makes it look more doable!

THE MEAL: Salade de surumi (fish cake); Paupiettes de pore (meat rolled over other meat– very French); really good frites maison.

THE WINE: none today! I ate lunch out in the open, dinner at a French dive-bar. Three beers (one each, Kronenberg, 1664, Chimay) and a shot of Calvados.

THE BED: Wonderful weird bottom-dollar chambres-de-hôtes room with sink, old wooden floorboards, and a 6×9 foot Lord of the RIngs poster of Legolas. Could I make this up? €35, from the tourist office.

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