Getting Lost - Charleville-Mézières
The best way to avoid the heavy traffic is to be up and riding before it gets out on the road. Where I live, this is easier to do on a weekend. I could but hope the French enjoyed their sleep-ins as much as we Aussies, especially on chilly Saturday mornings when the warmth and security of a doona is a more pleasurable experience. An hour into my ride I had my answer: they certainly do.
So far I still had the road to myself. Not far from Verdun was the picturesque little village of Charny-sur-Meuse. It’s nestled in a beautiful river valley, and judging by the number of tents along the banks of the river, it’s a popular camping spot. It was cold and damp, being so early in the morning, and the wet mist was still hovering just above the trees. But it was a gorgeous sight. Fishermen already had their lines out along the river and even the war cemetery had an eerie beauty about it in the rolling mist.
From here, today’s route would carry me further along the River Meuse valley to the northern city of Charleville-Mézières. Even when planning the trip, good old C-M was never a priority. It was just a convenient place to ride to before we spent a few days in Belgium chasing silly hillocks.
But Charleville-Mézières will be best remembered not for what I saw, but for how I got there. With some distance still to travel, I somehow found myself in the impossible position of having to choose the highway or an indirect byway, which involved considerable climbing along meandering roads. The highway, or Autoroute, was illegal and far too dangerous, so I really only had one option.
A kind-hearted man who was mowing his lawn provided me with the directions I needed—but I didn’t necessarily enjoy hearing them. Sometimes when a kindly Samaritan is giving directions to “Turn left and then right”, they’re really saying, “If you’re heading there, what the hell are you doing here?” or “Sorry, but you have got to head up there”, pointing towards a formidably soaring mountain, not the gentle descent you were hoping to take.
Finding my way into Charleville-Mézières was one such experience: longer than it should have been and sometimes frustrating, especially when I wasn’t quite sure if I was heading along the right road or in the right direction. When I eventually reached the city, a lot later than anticipated, I still had absolutely no idea where to go. Discouraged, I sat on the side of the road and messaged Roz for help. She had no idea where she was either, only that she was about to follow a lovely woman who would take her to our designated meeting place. “Well, that’s great news for you,” I said, “but what about me?”
An hour later, after bouncing like a pinball machine from one person’s directions to another’s, I caught sight of Roz behind the wheel of our hired Peugeot. She had been waiting outside the Prèmier Classe Hôtel for quite a while. But she at least had a smile on her face. I heaved my bike into the back of the car, got in, and we both started singing that old Bonnie Tyler classic, Lost in France. Unfortunately, this song would receive a lot more airplay before we were done.
Coming into Rouen was like travelling along a four-lane expressway before it suddenly becomes one. Then you reach a road works sign that demands “Stop”. Not “Slow down, roadworks in progress” or “Caution, proceed slowly”, just “Stop”. You sit in your car, half expecting the traffic to start moving, albeit slowly, but it doesn’t. Like Jim Carrie’s trapped character in The Truman Show, you simply don’t have any road left to travel along.
Peak hour traffic on a midweek afternoon is an ugly thing. One minute I’m gliding along a beautiful little road and the next minute I’m going absolutely nowhere, too terrified to move, for fear of being thrown on top of a fast-moving car bonnet. Perhaps I was in the middle of the late afternoon run home or I’d just picked the wrong bloody road, but it was the most frightening concentration of heavy traffic I’d yet experienced. All those roaring engines, large chassis and moving wheels were scaring the living daylights out of me. And there was no way of going back: there was the River Seine on my extreme left, a high concrete wall on my right and a car-swallowing tunnel 30 metres straight ahead. I thought to myself, Tony Curtis and Kirk Douglas had better choices than this at the end of Spartacus. And they had none. Unless you think crucifixion or being stabbed to death by your best mate is some sort of choice.
All of a sudden, some guy on a bike pulled up behind me. There was no room on my left, just a car lane, and on my right was the concrete wall. He was a fit-looking young bloke, and he wasn’t even wearing a helmet. I’m not sure why he stopped, unless he caught sight of the look of dread on my face, but he didn’t stop for long. He might have just been summing up the situation. Only trouble was, he had a digital calculator while my Mesopotamian abacus was short of a few beads.
Suddenly, he just took off, straight towards the tunnel, all the time following the white line in the extreme right-hand lane. Perhaps he had the benefit of local knowledge or perhaps he was just a whole lot braver than me. In any case, I wasn’t game to follow him. That tunnel looked out of bounds to anything but cars and trucks. I don’t know what became of him. Perhaps he was sucked up in the vacuum of traffic? Perhaps he made it? There was no bank up of cars on my side of the tunnel so I can only guess that it was the latter.
Having exhausted my full array of expletives, I decided that at least temporarily, the road and I would part company. My only safe means of escape was to try to cross the road and jump the guardrail which ran parallel to the river. Once over the rail, I could at least walk my bike along the thin patch of grass until something else turned up.
Nailed to the one spot for what seemed like an eternity, I eventually realised there was a short break in traffic every six or seven minutes. Being on a bend didn’t help the situation, but it was doable.
Finally, the break came. With a loud “Fuuuuuuucccckkkk!!!” I picked up my bike and ran like Usain Bolt in the 100 metres, finishing with a perfect stride over the hurdle on the other side of the road. But like the decathlon athlete, I felt I had another nine events yet to complete. I needed to find a road I could ride on. Not just any road: one that had a bridge which crossed the river. Then I needed to backtrack for probably 10 kilometres until I stumbled upon our accommodation in Avenue des Canadiens at Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray. Not easy to say, and getting there proved just as difficult.
So round and round and round in circles I travelled for the next three hours, despite the exuberant help of many French people along the way. Finding Avenue des Canadiens was a veritable needle in a haystack. At a quarter to ten, in fading light, I eventually eased my weary legs along the final stretch of bitumen for the day. For the last three and a half hours, how I had wished for the sizeable buttocks of my travelling companion from Amiens.