Like most French, we planned to make use of the Ascension weekend, end of May, to take a Road & Bike trip. The religious holiday always falls on a Thursday. We wanted to “Faire Le Pont” or “Build the Bridge” as what a French would say. That is, to extend the holiday by taking the Friday off, and thus making it into a long weekend.
The plan was to embark on a road & bike trip: two days driving, two days cycling. One day cycling in the northeastern French province of Champagne and then another day cycling on the Wine Route / La Route des Vins in Alsace, the eastern province.
It was not just any Road & Bike Trip. It was our FIRST trip, driven by OURSELVES (technically speaking, mainly him) in our little, recently bought Volkswagen Polo. As both of us were not seasoned drivers, we considered this trip as a sort of test for us.
Orsay - Champagne
It took us less than 2.5 hours, 180km to get to Dizy, a little town in the Champagne province. We crawled through the traffic to get out of the Paris, and the ride was smoother after that. The landscape of the first part of the journey, towards the capital and then its environs, were unremarkable. However, the second part was much better. The terrain was undulating and the landscape was a bit more varied, interspersed with yellow fields of rapeseeds, and the still-green wheat fields.
We arrived at Dizy on Wednesday, the day before Ascension. As Dizy was a tiny town, we decided to walk to Épernay, 1.5km away, for dinner. Épernay, one of the two commercial centres of this region, would have a wider range of dinner choices.
The name of this northeastern French province, Champagne, is self-explanatory – well-known for the white wine with the tiny bubbles. Champagne houses literally dotted our path – a different one offering champagne degustation pops up every 50m (or less!) – as we walked from Dizy to Épernay.
We did not bother to book a restaurant for dinner as it was a weekday. As luck would have it, we were turned down by the first 3 restaurants we tried. All of them were full! The relative small size of Épernay and each of its restaurant, the upcoming long weekend, and the fact that quite a few restaurants were actually closed that day (because it’s Wednesday?) – all these factors drove us to a friendly, but substandard French bistro, which was also crowded, but they accepted us. Well, not the best way to start a holiday.
We started the second day early as we planned to do a 80km loop. It consisted of five climbs, totalling 1,131m elevation gain. I was a tad apprehensive as the last ride I did was a year ago, in Romania. At around 60km, we decided to take a short cut and skip about 5km flat terrain. We would proceed directly to the fifth and last climb. It was a wise decision. The last climb lasted 3.5km with various grades of gradient. At one point, the gradient went up to 15%. By the time I got to the peak, I was screaming murder.
The climb was so bad that my muscles ached the whole night. Generally after a hard exercise, I would experience DOMS (Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness) only the following day. And the soreness would only be felt if I have to use my legs. However, that night, waves of soreness traversed my legs even though they were motionless!
Nevertheless, it was a good cycling trip. A good workout, and a pretty landscape. There was hardly any other cyclists. We had the roads to ourselves most of the time, other than the occasional cars.
However, as it was Ascension (at least that was what we thought), all the villages that we cycled through were shut down. Not a single shop was open, except some Champagne houses. Our initial plan of replenishing our food at one of the boulangeries (we had some energy bars) along the way was ruined. Through out the whole 73km trip, we only came across one that was opened. If not for that one bakery where we bought a pastry each, I would not have enough energy to climb up the last hill.
Dizy - Mulhouse
We left the Champagne region early morning the following day as we had to traverse 400km to get to *Mulhouse, in Alsace. Since we wanted to sightsee the Wine Route / La Route des Vins, we decided to take the smaller departmental roads, which would take more time.
* Mulhouse does not lie on the Wine Route. It is about 20km away from Guebwiller, the village from which we would start our bike trip the following day. However, it was the most affordable accommodation we could find for that weekend.
As we drove from Dizy to Mulhouse through the French villages, we came to understand the true meaning of “desertification’ in France. Desertification is the phenomenon of villagers migrating permanently to cities. This rural exodus, taking place for many years, results in aging population and businesses shutting down in the villages.
For me, every French village, regardless how small it is, is made up of two keystones: A church and at least one bakery. As we drove through through the villages, we saw, not rarely, residences and shophouses that looked permanently closed, with an air of neglect all over. In addition, we seldom saw signs of bakeries (open or close). The fate of these villages are totally different from their Alsacien counterparts.
The second round of cycling was easier, with about the same distance (70km) but only 1/3 of the elevation gain. The plan was to cover the southern part of the route. We would start from Guebwiller and move upwards to Colmar, and then back.
There was a big jump in temperature. It was the type of day when everyone would be out wearing t-shirts, and shorts – the swarms of tourists were a clear sign! The clear blue sky, the green vineyards that sprinkled across the rolling hills, the pretty medieval villages with winding streets and their half-timbered houses, created a picturesque image.
Instead of Champagne houses, this time round, wine cellars dotted our path. Unfortunately, it wasn’t wines that we needed on a warm day. The weather was so hot, that we ran out of water, and had to replenish.
I have always liked the Alsacien region, even back when I was a student donkey years ago in France. Since our move to France in 2016, this was our second time in this region. The first time was in December 2016 where we stayed in Strasbourg for its Christmas markets. Two different seasons, two different facets of this region. The food, the wine, the beauty (admittedly, the pretty villages are well-kept mainly for the tourists)… I would definitely go back to Alsace.