As before, apologies for the weather-related excessive railway focus and low quality of the photos. (But check the Train Blogging index page for a (hopefully) complete list of ET diaries and stories related to railways and trains.)
In Part 1, I told about my way from Budapest to Le Mans, about French trains (good) and schedules (bad), about a first cold day without proper clothing, about my hilarious first attempts at using French, and other things. In a parallel light rail diary, I told about development in Strasbourg, Le Mans and other places.
After a conveniently early but rather sparse breakfast in my hotel in Rennes, I set off for a ride along the length of beautiful Bretagne in pre-dawn darkness. Morning broke under a steely grey sky towards St. Brieuc, in time when the more scenic parts came. And then, on the last 50 km towards Brest, as if we crossed into another universe: the Wwstern tip of Brittany was under a cloudless sky, in summer sunshine!
Brest: high above the port and the bay, two TGV Atlantique sets are parked on a side of the railway terminal
This was the weather in all of the Bretagne when I holidayed there four years ago, so it also felt a bit like time travel. And back under the rain on the return journey, its memory was like that of a dream.
For some reason, the bike race checkpoint in Brest was out in the north-eastern suburbs, I wasn't in the downtown or the harbour. But on the return journey to Rennes, I stopped in Morlaix. It's a fantastic old town, highly recommended: it's in a deep U-valley (and its branches) around where the river opens into an estuary, with old city buildings below and Breton farmhouses with fruit trees in terraced gardens on the valley sides, and one giant old viaduct.
The mighty railway viaduct over Morlaix. 14 spans, 292 m long between the sides of the valley, 62 m above the shore of the Dossen
A TGV from Brest leaves the viaduct of Morlaix on its way to Paris, high above the old city's cathedral
I don't have much more photos from the city, protecting the lens from the rain.
Another TGV for Paris runs through the station of Morlaix. Notice the work train on the left: it is headed by two ex-German-Railways diesels. A breach of the formerly impenetrable Franco-German rail technology firewall that amazed me even more than the parallel running of high-speed trains east of Paris
I took the next fast train, and on every station, cyclists abandoning the race boarded, many of them with the distinct "bike racer perfume" ( = a mix of the smell of sweat and... ahem... urine). The conductor organised a TGV ticket to Paris with frantic telephone calls over a duration of 20 minutes for a middle-aged American and an Australian.
Night view of the modernised railway station of Rennes from my hotel window. Sadly, this was all I saw of the city
Eating in France
In all the running-around, I ended up not setting foot in any 'proper' French restaurant.
I told about Le Mans's döner kebab restaurants in my language use story last time. Here I should mention a third such restaurant, in the old town: it was named "LA REPUBLIQUE", sending an unmistakable political message. But later on, too, I had no time or opportunity for a proper multi-course meal. So I spent money for a hot (in both senses) soup in a Chinese restaurant, a pizza in an Italian one, and got a taste of French pro-Americanism in a Buffalo Grill (more on that later).
In the latter, I sat in a chock-full side room for non-smokers, while the main part was mostly empty. Heh. Elsewhere too, I could observe what amounts to a near-total failure of an earlier smoking ban: virtually all brasseries I encountered in Le Mans, Rennes or Brest were smoker-only, even though the ratio of smokers was noticeably lower than at home.
But what I found very convenient as traveller with no time were the all-prevalent sandwich bars. Always one at or near a railway station, selling tasty, crisp baguette-sandwiches with regional variation. Except for the brasserie at the railway terminal in Brest: I bought the world's worst sandwich jambon there, threw out half of it, avoid at all costs!!!
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Next morning, I again set off very early, to a village on the mainline west of Rennes.
My pre-drawn arrival in Quédillac
I spent another two hours waiting in light rain here. But, this time the growing light in the dawn and early morning made it a different experience, while some trains and few cars disturbed village tranquillity, and groups of bikers passed with silent swoosh. (Neither bikers nor spectators – me and a few smiling old peasants – had much energy for cheering.)
Cyclists nearing (above) and entering (below) the Breton village of Quédillac, on their way back from Brest to Paris. The stream of bikers was much more thinned out by now, but constant: by the time one group of 5–15 reached the railway crossing, another appeared in the curve across the valley
The Paris–Brest–Paris bike race
This is a very special race: first organised in 1891 (older than the Tour), but this year's was only the 16th: presently, it is staged once every four years. The goal is less to have a better time than your co-racers, but just to make it, and get your name into the Big Book of the race.
This is an amateur race, so anyone can participate with any type of bike, if they passed a qualification: test rides over 200, 300 and 600 km, and medical check. (The Paris–Brest air distance is roughly 600 km, this year's route was 1,225 km.)
| ||The most special bike I saw: a bi-directional tandem sitting bike. I first saw it in Brest, here it is metres before arrival at the finish line in Guyancourt, near Paris|
This year, a record 5312 participants waged the adventure, launched in several large groups. Participants came from all over the developed Western world, plus Japan. One fifteenth were female. But the one thing that surprised me, as well as my friend, was the average age of participants: 50 years! Back before the start on the outskirts of Paris, indeed I saw a lot of people with grey beards but in-form super-thin biker bodies.
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As before, French state railways' schedule forced me to go to another station to catch a return train. But this time, I was less lucky with hitch-hiking: drivers sped by, even accelerating.
While no car stops for me on the country road from Quédillac to Caulnes, two diesels pull a local freight towards the east.
I walked four kilometres in light drizzle with suitcase in the tow, but somehow I still enjoyed the Breton countryside atmosphere. It was a spiritual experience, I suspect others would say. And then, when I long gave up trying to signal, a car just stopped to pick me up on its own.
It was a very nice old rural couple, with whom I could exchange a few friendly words in French over the short trip. Along the way, a crazy Opel combi overtook us and two cars ahead of us on the curving country road. The old couple shouted in unison: Parisien!
Drivers & pedestrians
In Budapest, drivers are aggressive and speeding, yet pedestrians still risk running across the red light. American visitors say we ignore the rules. So imagine my surprise when in Western France, I repeatedly found myself being passed en masse by local pedestrians at red lights.
That behaviour seems encouraged by an exceedingly pedestrian-friendly driver behaviour: cars did stop for me even when I just stood on the roadside without intention to cross, and they had green light!
However, my Paris area experience was markedly different: there, cars sped and honked, and where there were no lights, crossing the road took quite a while. More like Budapest. It seems the old Breton couple was into something.
(But regarding drivers and pedestrians, I would get my biggest surprise in Frankfurt.)
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Yet another electric AGC stops in the curve at Caulnes
Speaking of the Paris area, let's jump straight to the end of another long day, to my arrival in the station St. Cyr. My hotel (the only cheap one that had rooms at an acceptable distance form the race finish line and a railway station) was another 2 km walk, and along the way, the rain got continually stronger. Then when I arrived on the spot the internet map indicated, and found residential homes instead, it turned into a downpour so strong it fell straight through my umbrella. A local pointed out that I'm 200 metres off.
I found myself in a little America, motel with outside staircase besides a supermarket and a fast food restaurant. That rooms in the hotel of the super-affordable Premiere Classe chain are spartan and of cheap materials doesn't bother me (apart from hearing the neighbours through the thin walls), the less as mine was clean, and long live the hot shower! ...then by the time I finished, the supermarket just closed. So with my empty stomach demanding its due, I had to go into that French imitation of American fast food, Buffalo Grill. By this time I was seriously worried about my spending. (Food cost about 2–3 times what it costs at home.)
This was the most exhausting day. So I thought until the next.
After various errands, including running around in a big supermarket for cough drops, but not recognising any, until I got sight of a familiar Swiss brand, I went to the cycle race finish line.
The last roundabout in front of the Guyancourt sports centre, arrival after 1225 km for 3,602 of the 5,312 participants. This photo was again made in a brief rain-less period
The actual finish line was accessible only to the bikers, so the crowd of of a few hundred gathered here. Everyone got a big cheer, those who were special in some way bigger cheers: tandems, sitting bikes, female bikers, truly old bikers, and (biggest cheer) the sole black I saw, in a French national team shirt.
My friend who participated was in the big group that had 90 hours as limit time, and made it in 85. The rain had its effect, as did sleep withdrawal: 85 hours was a full day more than what he planned with, and 12 hours more than what I planned with – hence came my two-hour rush through Paris to catch the train to Germany, from where I'll continue in a last diary.