|Anniversary adventures in Angoulême|
In my post to mark the passing of January, I wrote about my hopes that February would bring us crisp, blue sky and sunshine days and so far, it has delivered. The frosty mornings have looked beautiful, illuminated by the deep orange glow of sunrise, and witnessed from the warmth of the duvet. By lunchtime there has been enough heat in the sun to dine outdoors and as Ed has slipped into the habit of a weekly visit, the washing he’s brought with him has dried nicely outside.
This year to help us mark our upcoming silver wedding anniversary, (two months today) we have decided that a cycle tour every month, of a minimum of one night away and one hundred kilometres cycling, is a fitting way for us to combine a challenge with a celebration. You might ask “where is the challenge in heading off for a night away once a month?” Well, when the weather is against you and it is just you and your legs to propel yourself along, a romantic getaway soon becomes a challenge for the mind, as well as the body. It also involves working together to keep each other motivated to carry on, well, February’s challenge certainly involved Adrian doing a lot of stopping, waiting and offering of cake, to keep me motivated to carry on, but it was still teamwork and togetherness, and that’s what counts.
Destination Angoulême, Saturday
At around sixty kilometres from home, Angoulême was the perfect destination for our February overnight cycling mini break and having completed previous cycling adventures there we knew where to stay, where to eat out and where to find breakfast.
Our route took us into the Charente department and through our first cognac vineyards before we’d managed twenty kilometres, and it was here I had to stop to take my first layer of clothing off. Our planned lunch stop was in Luxé, just after we crossed the river Charente for the first of many times, where the snack bar by the lake promised a delicious croque monsieur but it wasn’t to be. The thing with cycle touring, even if it’s only two 60km days, is that it’s important to be prepared and pack for all eventualities. As we sat on a bench between lake and closed snack bar, eating a hard-boiled egg from our bag, the tables tantalizingly laid for service, were just visible in the gloomy interior. We had patiently given them their Charentais quart d’heure, the obligatory Charentais fifteen-minute delay, but still nothing. I guess their Google listing stating winter opening times of 12h till 14h Thursday to Sunday, didn’t include the first Saturday in February.
The village of Xambes wasn’t much further on and here we hoped to find a picnic bench to enjoy the emergency avocado salad I’d packed in case the cafe was closed. The signs to the Well of Miracles were too intriguing not to follow and tucked into the flaking wall at the side of the church, we found a small statue of the Virgin Mary and a rather disappointing well. Lourdes it was not. The sign told us to thank the Virgin Mary, which we did, and low and behold, her path led us to a picnic bench nestled in a secluded copse of trees. Maybe had I been more grateful to her, she could have seen to it that every snack bar and boulangerie we were to pass today wouldn’t be closed.
At Saint-Amant-de-Boixe we swept past the impressive abbey, and closed boulangerie, before continuing onto Montignac-Charente, where we chose the challenge of a sharp climb up to the donjon, only to find it closed. We carefully carried the bikes down a set of ancient stone steps, to arrive at the door of another closed boulangerie. We were now following the pilgrimage route of St Jacques, that has tucked in beside the river Charente from Charroux in the Vienne and will continue with us to Angoulême. In Vars, as well as a closed boulangerie, we had the excitement of discovering a slow puncture on Adrian’s rear wheel and lots of knitted tree warmers in bright colours decorating the village centre. A bit of air pumped into the tyre, for the first of many times, and we were good to continue.
|Time for a hug on the banks of the Charente|
Our final route into Angoulême followed the couloir verte (green corridor) that is sandwiched between the tranquillity of the Charente River on one side and the continual engine roar from the ring road flyover on the other. We first cycled into town this way in autumn 2019 where I clocked up my first 3000km on Katie, my Brompton. We are now well on our way to twenty thousand happy kilometres together and a cake on a bench would have been a fitting way to celebrate, had we managed to find an open boulangerie. At a bend in the river, my eye caught a beautiful old plane tree, spotted and majestic, towering above me like a gigantic, knobbly giraffe. I had to pause for a moment and give it a hug, which is when we noticed an abandoned avenue lined with similar plane trees leading from the river up a long-overgrown track towards a gated property. I bet at some point in time the wealthy owners would have had their own water access, maybe even a small port for exporting their cognac.
Home for the night was the Aparthotel situated at river level, giving our legs a different form of exercise as we set off on foot to climb the steep steps cut into the Jardin Vert to reach the ramparts, eighty metres above us. We had a mission to accomplish, namely sourcing provisions for a packed lunch for our return tomorrow and as it’s never a good idea to shop on an empty stomach, we added a few sweet and savoury treats to keep us going before dinner too. This was maybe a touch greedy as despite cycling just over sixty kilometres, it was a mostly flat, easy day on the bike that probably hadn’t burned as many calories as we were about to consume before unfolding the bikes in the morning.
|The ramparts of Angoulême and Général Resnier|
The top of the ramparts offered spectacular views over the river and back in the direction we had come from. A small plaque set into the walls told of the brave attempt at non-motorised flight by Général Resnier, hailed as the man who gave rise to the idea of France’s first air army. Determined to find a way for Napoleon’s troops to invade England, he trialled his winged invention from this point in 1801, aged a spritely seventy-three-years young. His third attempt saw him ‘fly’ three hundred metres, before landing on the far bank of the river, breaking a leg, ouch.
Our discoveries didn’t end here as we found the remains of a lantern des morts in the garden behind St Andre’s church. These tall stone columns, whose lights were said to guide the soul to heaven, are unique to ancient cemeteries in our area, and always top of my list to visit. I had no idea Angoulême had one, so even though the main body of it had been repurposed as a chimney, seeing the decorative top section close-up was a treat.
|Dinner at Le Bruleau Charentais|
Dinner was at our favourite Angoulême restaurant Le Bruleau Charentais, who offer a feast of local delicacies. A shared slate of charcuterie, followed by entrecote steak and chips, cooked in the traditional, local method over an open fire, on full view in the restaurant, lived up to our expectations. All washed down with a Pineau de Charentes as an aperatif and a red Bordeaux wine with the steak. A delicious and well-deserved meal, but I really should have let Adrian tuck into my leftover chips, as I normally would, but somehow there weren’t any left over.
Sunday, the return
Our morning began with a walk back up to town for breakfast in the covered market. Here we enjoyed coffee at the Italian deli for only 1€, with chocolatines, Angoulême is officially too far south to call them pains au chocolats, from the boulangerie stall, meaning breakfast was easily achievable for under 5€. Just to add to the atmosphere the local vintage car club had their monthly Sunday morning meet, so we returned with the loaded bikes, for a pre-depart coffee and to admire a collection of Truimphs, Minis, Fiats and more, gleaming in the morning sunshine with that smell you only get from the interior of an old car. When we spied the cannoli at the deli, we couldn’t resist trying one each. These delicious, sweet pastry tubes, one filled with a chocolate cream, the other caramel, worked well with the coffee but would have been a bit too sweet on their own. At least this morning’s pastry fest made up for not getting an open boulangerie en route yesterday and the sugar rush should have been enough to power me home.
On day one, I had felt strong, powerful, and able to match every one of Adrian’s pedal strokes. As I glided along, I was convinced 60km wasn’t far enough for these weekends away and we should be upping our game to push further afield. It was a breeze, mainly, I later discovered, thanks to the wind on our backs, an unseen force gently helping us on our way. On Sunday, everything felt very different, and cycling into the wind almost relentlessly, meant even the downhill stretches needed effort to keep moving. Cycling is the perfect activity for us as it enables us to enjoy a shared passion, spending our days together, but our different paces mean we have space for our own thoughts as the kilometres roll by. As I watched Adrian pull further and further ahead of me, I realised there were quite a few similarities between cycle touring and marriage, and no, I don’t mean they can both be a pain in the bum.
Not every day will be effortless, sailing along with the wind behind you and not a care in the world. There will be some days that require more will power and more focus, that take more out of you to reach the same end point. But that is OK, without the tough days, the easy days wouldn’t feel so much fun. For more insightful thoughts on relationships, join me back here following our March anniversary getaway.
Our slow progress home continued, with plenty of opportunity to enjoy the scenery around us. I heard not one but two early season lawnmowers in action and at one point we cruised past some delicious prawns sizzling away, being cooked on a windowsill. Out of the villages, we enjoyed fields full of hunched white cattle egrets, a skylark calling above a vineyard and we surprised a woodpecker by our arrival in the woods. By mid-afternoon our February adventure was over, Ed and Pearl welcomed us home with big smiles, and it was time to start thinking about what to cook for dinner and where to go in March.
I know some couples would prefer to celebrate their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary with a destination more exotic, maybe a weekend in New York for example, but Angoulême worked perfectly for us and our goal of burning fewer fossil fuels. When I discovered a link between Angoulême, New York and our wedding anniversary, that was all the proof I needed that we’d made the correct decision.
On 17th April 1524, exactly four hundred and seventy-four years before we got married, Italian explorer Giovanni da Varrazano, (also known as Jean de Varrazane) discovered the bay of New York and named it “New Angoulême”, in honnor of the king of France, François 1er, who’d sent him on his voyage. The king had been the count of Angoulême and this newly discovered world, was for a short time, known as the Terre d’Angoulême. If you don’t believe me, you can read more in Jacques Habert’s book, “When New York was called Angoulême”, published in 1949.
I have no doubt we will visit Angoulême again, by bike, and I know there are more treasures waiting for us to discover.