Amiens – Rochefort.
Really Amiens didn’t do it for me. Perhaps I could have allowed more time to discover its hidden charms but the largely pedestrianised centre with the usual high street fashion and department stores was unappealing. It was raining, no bike shop could sort out my frustratingly faulty bike computer (that would be three so far I’d tried) and the noisette in a cafe was served with too much cold milk which made it lukewarm. I was forming my opinion on little things like that.
But it is the cathedral the city is renowned for. After a visit to one of the most impressive I can remember seeing – the massive interior apparently a model for Notre Dame in Paris – it was a lovely cycle out of town along the Somme river canal bank, houses backed onto the waterways. For the first hour it was a bit like bayou country, little wooden houses occasionally visible through the trees in the swamps. The back roads following the Somme river valley and the favourable winds made the cycling enjoyable. Monuments and cemeteries constantly remind you of the significance of this area in the 1st World War. Breakfast was very tasty supermarket terrine de lapin on baguette. Followed by a petit cafe au lait, a noisette, for €1.10.
In Bray I didn’t think to take a picture. That’s Bray-sur-Somme not sur-Dargle. Sitting on a churchyard bench eating lunch – the remainder of the terrine – my eye was idly caught by the rear of a statue which I presumed to be of Our Lady. It had a very alluring backside covered by a sheer, flimsy gown sculpted out of the stone. I was aware the French have the reputation of sensuality in the arts, but really I thought, surely this suggestiveness would raise objections? At the front of the sculpture however an inscription confirmed it to be ‘Marie Foure, Heroine de Peronne,
Two tables of women – there was one man in the presence, quiet – were laughing loudly and bavarding over lunchtime cocktails in the town square as I was enjoying my by now customary postprandial tartlette de citron. A large pony-tailed woman with tattoos on her upper arms appeared to be the Alpha female, lustily supported by her lieutenants. Inevitably I became a distraction and hoots and cackles were directed my way. I responded to a question about my bike but they weren’t really interested in engaging with me, I was a target for entertainment.
Montbrehain, about thirty kilometres north of St Quentin was my destination that night where I had a warmshower invitation. I arrived as Francois the baker was rushing out to leave his student daughter off to the train for Lyon before making his bread deliveries. His wife Catherine, a doctor, was with patients in her consulting rooms in the house until later. “Make yourself at home!” Francois urged cheerfully, sweeping his arm around at their solid, three story stone home, the living quarters, the kitchen, his baking area all set around a courtyard piled high with pieces of lumber and faggots of twigs tied in bundles, the same name in French apparently. The yard was a dump of wood, bits and pieces and a graveyard for about 15 bicycles. In the middle of the courtyard gently puffing smoke a chimney sticking out of a ramshackle open-sided roof betrayed his oven. So all I had to do was to hang out.
I strolled across the yard to the kitchen. A loaf of fresh bread lay on the board and I cut a piece, helping myself to butter in the fridge. And couldn’t stop myself until halfway into the loaf – it was the most delicious bread I can remember tasting! The texture was chewy, the crust crusty, and the bread a brown colour – walnut. I recognised the consistency of bread baked with good flour in a wood fired oven. The oven is fired up with the wood to a high heat, the coals are scraped out and the oven floor swept out before the dough is put in. The temperature hardly drops and thirty minutes later, voila! The constant temperature – as opposed to an electric or gas oven coming on and off – gives a thicker crust, where the flavour is. And the flavour…
Catherine finished consultations about 7.30 pm and came to greet me. She was so sweet. An old hippie couple I guessed. And I mean that in the nicest possible way. He’s also a tree man, planting them wherever he can find a bit of space, fighting constant battles against the ignorant “paysans” in the council who value them only as decorative objects for the park.
The next morning after tea and more great bread Francois accompanied me out of town on one of his runaround bikes before swinging back up a side road home. He reminded me of a Geppetto character, with his expressive, cartoonish manner. I was touched to discover when I stopped for brunch after a few hours, along with the half loaf of his bread he’d tucked an (ethically sourced!) bar of dark chocolate with caramelised citron pieces. They were such a lovely couple, it does you good to meet people like that.
The only indication of crossing a border into Belgium was the sign announcing the Heraut region. I had nominated the town of Chimay as my destination, having vaguely heard of it and associating it with a beer. My less than overwhelming first impression of the supposed tourist attraction town wasn’t helped by the initial lack of interest from the young woman in the tourist information office. It wasn’t the romantic place I imagined, but I was wrong about the tourist information woman. After dealing with another query she came back to me and became very cooperative, suggesting I consider visiting the Trappist monastery at Abbeye de Scourmont. And it happened to be where Chimay beer is made. They would probably take pilgrims gratuit. When she phoned them understandably the response was not to encourage freeloading tourists turning up expecting a bed. My aunt is a Cistercian (Trappist) nun and I could be considered to be a pilgrim on my journey to Burma and I didn’t think they’d turn me away so struck out the twenty kilometres for the monastery. It was uphill and against the wind after a longish day. I was working for it.
Of course I was welcomed and served a good dinner shared by thirty visitors, part of a group retreat, with two bottles of the Chimay beer. The next morning I was awakened by a cleaner in the corridor. My cheap Lidl watch indicated 7.20 am. Oh well, breakfast at 8 better make a move. After my morning routines, getting ready and a calculated delay of five minutes to avoid the sonorous, self important tones of the group leader reading I’m sure an illuminating passage, I walked into the refectory to find it empty. And into the kitchen, where the clock on the wall read 6.20am! But my watch… Back through the corridor to the entrance hall, same time on that clock. So what is it about the watch?? It remains perfectly accurate during the day but most inconveniently and irregularly drops or gains an hour or two the odd night.
I grabbed a welcome extra hour of snooze then breakfasted, once again in a manufactured not relaxed silence. There was no eye contact, these visitors being very diligent and self-consciously obeying the rule of silence. My experience of this practice in other Cistercian monasteries was that the request was a guide to discourage chatter and it isn’t a sin to communicate something verbally at the table if needed. “Le lait, s’il vous plait” I asked the woman next to me who jumped to pass it immediately.
Rochefort, another Trappist monastery, was about a hundred kilometres away in an easterly direction. Not too much deliberation needed on that night’s destination. It was a beautiful early summer’s morning cycle through the surrounding forest. As Francois had said, the seasons were one month behind this year. The benefit of cycling on a Sunday was the main roads were fairly ‘tranquil’ and I made good progress to the town of Couvin. Trusting my Michelin road map I found the ‘RAVel 2’ cycle path exactly according to Monsieur Michelin at Mariembourg. And what an enjoyable change from the roads. About twenty five kilometres of cycle path along a raised causeway – maybe an old railway track? – with waterlogged forests on each side. It was cycling as it can be – good surface, no wind, no traffic and no incline. Such a pleasure.
After a while I realised my speed should be easily over 20 kph rather than the 16 kph I was pushing, and investigated. The rear wheel wasn’t turning freely and it wasn’t the brakes rubbing. Maybe the high quality Ultegra hubs couldn’t handle a touring load? I had the panniers off when a concerned cyclist stopped to offer help. Then another older cyclist joined us, his brusque “Let me have a look at it” attitude suggesting he was experienced about these matters. I gathered petty quickly he was not.. “Rochefort?!” He snorted at my intended destination, suggesting forget it, I was f*cked. Now was not the time to mention Burma. “Turn it up on its saddle”, he instructed which was my next step before he arrived on the scene. It was when he proceeded to rough handle the wheel and try and force it back into its seating I’d had enough of his bluff and took over saying it was ok, no problem, it would be fine. In other words, take your hands off the black Cadillac. You’ve no respect. He got the message and got back on his bike. The other guy smilingly asked where I was from and said he liked my attitude. “Bon route”. “Vous aussi”. I loosened the spindle to where it barely kept the wheel on, relying on gravity for the rest. The wheel turned freely. I learned from a bike mechanic the next day the American Surly frame was 5mm wider than the Japanese Shimano hub – probably the imperial vs metric measurements. The bearings hadn’t been adjusted to account for the slight squeezing needed.
The port town of Givet on the river Meuse is in France – this time the motorist/ cyclist is informed with a blue ‘France’ sign circled in EU stars. It seems to be a popular stop for Sunday bikers, as in motorbike, about forty of them were parked outside a few riverside brasseries serving lunch. A little later I picked up the second part of the RAVel 2 easily enough. Following the Lesse river with lush meadows carpeted with yellow daisies on one side and forest on the other it was even more pleasurable than the morning’s cycle path. It was about 20 degrees, and I was in my shorts for the first time. This was the way to spend a Sunday.
Mid afternoon and I was thinking of taking a break. And it would have been nice to get some refreshment but the cycleway was through the countryside not passing through any towns. What would you like right now – a charming cafe in the woods serving wholefoods, homemade Belgian deserts and interesting local beers? In the dappled sunlight? In the sunshine with Doug Sahm’s laid back rendition of “Blues Stay Away From Me” on the headphones, Cafe Bambou appeared as if in a fantasy. I leaned the Cadillac gingerly against a signpost amongst the scattering of bicycles, the cafe’s clientele. What an idyllic stop.
Rochefort monastery was on the outskirts of town and clusters of day trippers were wandering around. As I waited by the door for the guestmaster three middle aged visitors asked me where they could buy a crate of the monastery’s beer, before one of them just entered. The emerging guestmaster gently steered her out. From the upper step he vaguely asked me about my journey. My answer was followed by a pause, then where I was from, where I stayed last night, what time did I leave… etc. After answering I’d let a silence lie before he’d ask the next question. I was confident of my credentials and eventually, without directly acceding to my request for a bed, he asked where I would to store my bike. I was in.
My room was a basic cell with a firm bed and view out to the surrounding woods bathed in evening sunlight, birdsong coming through the thick walled window. The guestmaster, from Ruanda, got friendlier and at dinner – I was the only guest – he couldn’t do enough for me. I understood of course the need to be a little circumspect about who takes advantage of their hospitality. He served me three courses and a bottle of Rochefort beer.
This tradition going back centuries of beer production by the monasteries in France and Belgium was an interesting one. When I posted a picture of a bottle of the monastery’s beer on the BicycletoBurma Facebook page a comment followed from a Burmese person objecting, pointing out their monks don’t drink alcohol. I resisted a riposte of different cultural attitudes to alcohol and later reflected on how institutions of prayer and meditation justified not only the production and use of mood altering drugs such as their strong beer, but also its distribution in the wider community. With genuine curiosity, and without judgement.
Finishing my meal I chanced my arm and asked for another beer. The guestmaster smiled disarmingly and suggested a “vert”. The first was 7.5% which itself is nearly twice as strong as regular beer in Ireland. The green label is 9%! It was with a pleasant glow I participated chanting in Compline in the characteristically simple, almost Romanesque style, church and afterwards strolled around the beautiful gardens in the evening light soaking in the peaceful atmosphere. Before heading up to my room I met the guestmaster and discussed arrangements for the morning. As I made to climb the carved, heavy timbered stairs he offered “une boteille de la vert”, the 9%. “Pour le soir”. Ah merci, don’t mind if I do.
The day was the highlight of my cycling so far. And that wasn’t through the lens of three bottles of Rochefort monastery’s finest.