Friday, 31 July 2015

Religieuse, Ribot, Rayon, Relax

At the conclusion of today, four things stick out in my mind, and it all began at the end of the street where we stayed last night in Loudéac.

Rolling into town, trying to balance Google maps with not leaving Katie behind to keeping Thomas Ivor on the anti-clockwise-and-narrow at roundabouts, I didn't take in much of Loudéac, but upon turning onto the street the hotel was on (for 'hotel', read 'promised land' by this point!) I would have had a job missing the boulangerie/patisserie at the head of the building line. 

In the first glance I formed the instant opinion that upon checking out from the promised land, manna was likely to be found therein. 

I was right. And some!

With the novel advantage of having neither bedding nor tent to pack away, and our bikes still half loaded having spent the night slumbering in the back of the hotel kitchens, we were rolling sooner than usual this morning, and Thomas Ivor grabbed a quick picture outside the hotel before the shortest leg of the day, back to the bakery.

Ruth has so far not spoken much French, it is fair to say, but my word, can she work the 'international language of the gesture'! It was one of those moments when your heart melts, as she entered the shop and just gazed for a moment in wonder, trying to take in the bewildering array of sugar, cream, chocolate, fruit and pastry before her. She couldn't quite believe her eyes.

Soon, she very much could believe her eyes, and had not only decided what she wanted to order, but that she was going to conduct the necessary procurement exercise herself. Not only did she manage to say 'please' and 'thank you' in French, but she managed to pay for the cakes herself, with but a sotto voce reminder from Mummy to take her change.

Oddly enough, the Religieuse which Ruth had so carefully chosen and delicately carried out of the shop was subsequently demolished with great gusto...

All we had to do before we left town was to pick up some milk for the girls. 

That sounds simple enough, but we've been surprised to find how difficult it is to get milk round here. Yesterday in Gouarec our lunch stop told us they only had cream, for cooking with. I am neither a milk nor a tea drinker, but it would seem that the absence of the latter from the local diet makes it harder to obtain the former! Where we have bought milk, it has generally been semi-skimmed or lump it. All we needed was a supermarket and we could be on our way, and the sat-nav was telling us that we would go right through the middle of town to rejoin the voie verse. There had to be somewhere selling milk, somewhere along that route - surely?

We were almost back on the railway path and fearing that we would have to backtrack right the way through town, our early advantage wiped out, until, half way round a roundabout, I spotted out of the corner of my eye a branch of Netto. Sorted!

The day's heat was sneaking up on us as I waited in a car park with Katie's bike, the trailer, and all three children, as the former dashed into the supermarket, returning a while later with water for our bidons and 'milk'.

'Lait ribot' turns out to be quite unlike ordinary milk - it would seem to be partially fermented buttermilk, with salt added. Katie described it as 'like drinking sour yoghurt' and frankly her facial expression upon tasting it told me all I needed to know about its suitability for the girls' morning lactose fix. Seriously frustrated, Katie trudged back across the street and further along, found an organic supermarket (beware genetically-modified supermarkets) with something a little more palatable. Finally, having found a storm drain for the other stuff (lest it become cheesy as well as salty, in the back of the trailer), we got back on our way out of town. 

The remains of the Réseau Breton
The relaxed French way of doing things, which gives rise to the sacrosanct lunch period, actually becomes a source of stress for us, because it gives us a deadline in the middle of the day and reduces flexibility. As it became apparent that we weren't going to make it to Merdrignac for lunch, we took the decision to take a signed link off the path to a fair-sized village where we reckoned we should find somewhere to eat.

A short but very sharp climb later (ideally accompanied by the 'Hovis' music, played on an accordion) past a number of encouragingly-named but distinctly 'ferméed' buildings, we arrived at what turned out to be the only outlet in the village these days, a sports bar with an en suite village shop.

Thomas Ivor and I walked into the bar and practically everyone turned to look. It was like I'd burst into a wild west saloon with a gun in each hand. I'm not sure they see many English families there, in fairness. I had a quick scout of the place, looking for signs of food, but was aware of the eyes following me.

"Who are they?" asked maillot jaune-clad Thomas Ivor, pointing to a frame on the wall filled with pictures of cycling legends. Channelling my inner 'Fraülein Maria', I put my 'confidence in confidence alone' and spoke loudly enough for my audience to hear, too. "That's Jacques Anquetil, son. Big Grandad remembers going to watch him in the tour. There's Eddie Merckx - they used to call him 'the Cannibal'! That man there is Laurent Fignon, I can just about remember seeing him when I was first watching bike racing on the telly, and Bernard Hinault, there, 'the Badger' - these are all very famous, very talented riders, Thomas..."

I glanced over my shoulder; it had worked. The faces were smiling. Suddenly, it seemed, we were accepted. Come to a rural sports bar in Brittany and talk cycling, and it's like a French family arriving in a working men's club in West Yorkshire and talking about Rugby League. I imagine.

Katie, having decided that it was here or bust for lunch, spoke to the genial proprietor of the establishment. No, they didn't serve food, but if we bought our drinks from the bar, we could get something from the en suite shop and sit at a table to eat it. It was the next best thing in the circumstances.

We cobbled together a lunch of stale sliced bread, ham and cheese, a big bag of crisps, and since we didn't have a handkerchief to eat it off, like the local men around us, we fetched out food boxes and sporks from Thomas Ivor's panniers to use as crockery.

We rolled back down the hill to rejoin the voie verte and pressed on, sheltered from the heat by the trees for most of the way. The surface was more sandy in places, but it had generally been tamped down well; the gradient profile was also far more gentle than we'd experienced on the run to and out of Carhaix.

We were in good time for our arrival with our Warmshowers hosts for the night, so much so that we took the time to get the girls out for a nappy change, clean clothes and a leg stretch towards the end of the run, where Ruth learned about the workings of a combine harvester, of which we've seen a few in Brittany. All was going brilliantly until I picked my bike up. The load on the wheel as I raised it up managed to pop another spoke. Just when we were gaining confidence!

The last couple of miles passed in a more circumspect fashion, as I tried to keep my wheel as straight as I could. Thomas Ivor and I stopped briefly to talk to a couple who were evidently impressed with the little guy's progress. Their English, unusually, was no better than my French, at which as I ran out of vocabulary I had to explain that my wife would be along shortly!

As we homed in on our destination, we turned off an already bucolic, rural railway path, further into the backwater. Following field boundaries we came upon a sign for a road serving only two houses, and as we approached the end, out came Morgane, our host, to meet us. After ferries, campsites and a hotel, it was like arriving home. Soon we were joined by little Brewen, and with Thomas Ivor playing photographer, despite sharing not a single common word between them, the children hit the slide together.

We've been welcomed like old friends into Morgane and Marin's home, as have the bikes and the trailer, who are tucked up with our hosts' Chariot in the workshop. We've enjoyed our first galettes of the trip (more of which tomorrow), and been introduced to some of the more vernacular aspects of contemporary Breton culture - like 'Breizh Cola'! It's clear to us that there is a tremendous sense of civic pride here - both at a local level and in Brittany as a whole. Although many of the closest cultural similarities are to Cornwall, the identity reminds me a lot of Wales.

We're reliably informed that there's a decent bike shop in St Méen le Grand, just up the road, so today's spoke can be attended to tomorrow. After a couple of days of logistical difficulties, the Family ByCycle are tucked up in their little outhouse in rural Brittany, and we're feeling quite at home!

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