November 13, 2016
Arriving in the rain with torrents of water running off of our suits has become our signature move. Our arrival at Relais des Caillères in Saint-Pavace not only converts Pierres kitchen into a muddy swimming-pool, it also heralds the end of the rain. Nita and I look at one another with a look that says “Our timing is awesome.”
We spend five nights in Saint-Pavace, and while our host Pierre speaks very decent english, it’s the place we begin to really live in France; it’s where we discover a few things about the country that we’re previously unknown to us. For instance, 12:30 pm is an important time here because things either open or close at this hour. Street markets are closed by this time, but restaurants may stay open as late as 2 pm for lunch. Then they’re either closed or only serving desert and coffee until 7 pm. After 7 pm, we’re more than welcome to eat dinner. Also, asking for a coffee before food is a completely foreign notion and asking for a drink other than wine with dinner will solicit further questioning.
In fact, as far as we can tell, if you’re hungry during the day after 12 pm, you’d better love baked goods, since boulangeries are plentiful and frequently open. And that’s fine with me. Admittedly, it’s taking some adjusting from the “everything-available-all-the-time” mentality of North America, to the pace here. We do like it though.
Rather than walking around Le Mans in our wet gear, we cab into Vieux Mans (or Old Le Mans), and it’s truly a treat. In stark contrast to the wide curves of the Circuit de la Sarthe, this part of the city is filled with ancient buildings and narrow streets – some of which seem to drop off a cliff to the modern city below. Flanked by the magnificent Cathédrale Saint-Julien, the old city is wonderful to experience and the Cathedral itself is well worth walking through. At over four-hundred years to complete, it puts into sharp perspective how things have changed in the world over the past thousand years.
A short walk downhill takes us to a modern shopping district filled to the brim with the hippest of kids. Talking on phones, smoking and flirting; it’s the most people we’ve seen in one place since arriving in France. In fact, Nita and I both suffer sensory overload and scurry into a café for some food and a coffee. Having ridden straight through the heavy weather we’re starving and hoping for a meal, but since it’s only 5:30pm we’re far too early for dinner. We order some crepes and discover, by happy accident, what “chantilly” is; hidden somewhere beneath a pile of whipped cream and chocolate sauce is a delicious crepe!
Composing ourselves we venture out again into the throngs of people and make our way to a phone store; it’s time to try our hand at buying SIM cards for our phones. In French. It actually turns out to be easier than we’d expected. A lovely young man from Algeria, Hamsa, helps us and is eager to practice his English while we practice our French! Moments like this are wonderful and in about an hour, after plenty of laughs and wild gesturing, we walk out of the store with new cards. Phew.
After taking in much of the area we return to Vieux Mans for dinner at Aux Cocettes Sarthoise, a lovely little bistro in that serves traditional cocottes in a cozy dining room. Just lovely. When we finish, our waiter Vincent happily calls us a cab and we’re on our way back to the chambre d’hôte. In the darkness along the unlit road, our cab driver drops us off at the wrong driveway accidentally. It’s not a problem and to our surprise, as we walk back to the proper entry, he follows behind us to light the way. Wonderful!
The weather the following day is much the same with rain making a long lay-in feel like a guiltless treat. After spending much of our time working on the next post for the website, we decide to walk into town for dinner and to shake off the growing feeling of cabin fever. The walk is brisk, and the temperatures are still hovering slightly over freezing. It’s at this moment we realize just how closed everything is here off-hours. There are no coffee shops or convenience stores to grab a snack at. It’s a pretty interesting shift in the way we think about things and it will require more planning and discipline to get things done – a healthy shift for two people from a land of abundance.
We walk for about two hours before finding a great little kebab shop. Outside, there’s a group of men meeting by the doors and as we first walk by the looks they shoot us seem less than welcoming, but after rounding the block my need for warmth, coffee and food surpasses any imaginary dialogue I’ve created for the group. Rather than being met with looks of suspicious curiosity, we’re met with a warm “Bonjour” and whisked inside by the owner. The group outside disperses and, after a very nice coffee and a shared snack, Nita and I are ready for a bit more walking.
Eventually, we’ve held out long enough for dinner to finally arrive! We stop into a pizza joint we’d seen the night before and order up a proper meal. All around us the restaurant is filled with motorcycle racing memorabilia; posters of Rossi, Ducati and Italian circuits line the walls. It’s in this restaurant that Nita and I learn how to ask if we can buy a bottle of wine to take home (Pouvons-nous prendre une bouteille de vin à la maison, s’il vous plaît?) It’s a phrase we’ll use often, surely!
While our chambre d’hôte offers a breakfast, we only choose to eat there once. With a small kitchen available for everyone at the Relais to share, we’re diligent about cooking breakfasts and most of our dinners while we’re here. In fact the only reason we eat there this morning is to see the building it’s housed in. Separate from our room, the breakfast building is across a field and looks lovely. Inside, it’s wall is dominated by a mural that, secretly, features our hosts Pierre and Martine. The room also features some creepy little china dolls hidden in odd corners that appear hungry to eat, though what we’re not quite sure!
Later, we try our hand at a grocery store, which goes very well. At home, these things are all trivial yet here they connect us to a life that feels normal. Grocery shopping and laundry days are two of my favorites and I’m okay with that! I’m sure that Nita is also happy with my love of laundry day. But grocery shopping and markets are great places to see people just doing what they do – something for themselves and their families. It’s a great place to see an honesty about places we’re visiting.
So, we’re feeling good about our ability to function normally in a foreign country and a foreign language until we get to laundry soap. It takes us an hour to buy laundry soap. You may ask, “why?” Well, I have psoriasis, so it as to be hypoallergenic. It also has to be compact enough to fit inside the panniers. Powder is better since we can bag it and leaks aren’t as messy as liquids. But nothing meets all those criteria as far as we can tell from the labels, which include many words we’ve yet to add to our repertoire and pictures that suggest every bottle is stuffed with a living teddy bear that lives in some sunny field. And detergent, color-lock, and softener all come in similar bottles. By the time we pick something, we’re delusional; laughing our way through the aisles. But we did it! It’s the little battles…
Another piece of house-keeping that we look after in Le Mans, is setting up a storage unit for our bikes while we head home in January for a holiday season visit. When we broke the news to our families about leaving on this adventure we promised we’d return in January to spend some holiday cheer with them and it’s a promise we intend to keep. In fact getting the storage squared away was remarkably easy which makes the rest of our time in this fabulous city quite relaxing.
We awake the next day to some sun – the first sun in a while it seems. Standing in the morning light and it’s golden glow, we’re reminded of it’s beautiful warmth. It’s a moment that seems easy to recall in perfect detail. Excited for a day with promise, we take the bikes out to Alençon and explore some of Normandy. Alençon is, even this late in the season, a vibrant city. Filled with university students, the average age here seems closer to us than almost anywhere else in France so far.
The city boasts plenty of galleries and museums, and we park next to le Musée des Beaux Arts et de la Dentelle – a fine art museum that also acknowledges one of Alençons most recognized exports: lace. After wrangling a parking meter into submission, we grab a coffee and pastry at a local café before walking the city’s wonderful streets. It may be the sun (which is starting to plan it’s exit), but there’s a warmth in Alençon that’s quite palpable but with the fading light it’s time to head home. Also, a tickle in Nita’s throat has taken hold and she’s starting into a full-blown cold which could make our plans for the next stop in Loire Valley tenuous.
Back at the chambre d’hôte, our evenings are often spent looking up at the stars, with a glass of wine and a pipe going. France is truly a beautiful country, and it’s people have been lovely to us. Again, the next place always seems to prove the nay-sayers of the previous place wrong, and we love that.
Our last day in Le Mans is spent wandering parts of the city missed the first day. In the daylight, Cathédrale Saint-Julien is even more glorious. Inside, the stonework is something to behold and the color from the stained-glass windows splashes against the walls. There’s an abbreviated history of the cathedral’s 400 year construction in both French and English which, filled with fires, battles and politics makes for an interesting read.
Walking through new Le Mans, we arrive at a square that features a new tram-line that runs through the center of it. Nita and I are both surprised at the lack of safety provisions around it; at any point it would be easy to simply step in front of the train since there are no barricades or platforms to hint that we could be on a track. It’s markedly different from the overly-zealous health and safety notices we’ve seen in other countries and seems to allude to a faith officials have in their constituents to think for themselves. It’s strangely warming.
We finish our last night in Le Mans by returning to Aux Cocettes Sarthoise in Vieux Mans for dinner. As good as it was the first night, we leave the restaurant content and head back to the chambre d’hôte. Nita’s cold has moved heavily into her chest and an early night is most definitely in order.
On the last morning at the Relais des Caillères, we say goodbye to our hosts, Pierre and Martine, then make our way to the iconic Circuit de la Sarthe in Le Mans. A group of enthusiasts lined up in Audis watch us pull up and take pictures; staring but not talking. It’s an interesting moment broken by a “bonjour” from Nita. As we walk around the entrance, a man lets them onto the Bugatti Circuit; they’re here for an event and get to drive the permanent course. While we’re not going inside, we are here and I’m happy, and as we leave I realize that Nita and I are riding along the Mulsanne Straight, home of some of the most dramatic moments in history of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
We have no such drama down the Mulsanne Straight, in fact we’re warm and snug as we continue our journey south, towards the Loire Valley.