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Day 8, L'Arrivee La Rochelle

One of the things that has become very evident is that the season is over and most tourism businesses have shut up. As I ride through villages and towns on the coast, there’s hardly a place open and some locations, whose sole reason of being is the massively popular summer schools holidays period, have just shut up en masse. Massive camp sites, rows of apartment blocks, restaurants, hotels, they are all just shuttered up. It’s a bit depressing and worrying as I’m struggling to find places open as I pass through.


Last night was a case in point. I’m in Les Sables, which is a large established town and go out for dinner in the evening. I’m staying in a hotel right in the centre and I can only find two places open. They’re both what some might describe as heading towards fine dining, while I would call them pretentious. Food comes on silly plates. There’s some attempt to make it look like a work of art, rather than a meal. Some sort of coloured sauce is penned across the plate - what are you meant to do with that. Where’s the gravy? If some chef wants to be an artist, why can’t he just splash some paint on a wall? Fortunately it was quite tasty, although I think you can’t beat an M&S steak pie.


Great expectations for today. The weather should be stunning, the route great and I’ll get to La Rochelle, which is a real milestone for me. Not only is it a beautiful and interesting place, especially for a sailor, it marked the end of the first season sailing the yacht towards Portugal. We left the boat here over the winter of 2016 and then returned in the spring of 2017 to continue the voyage.


The hotel description and reviews mentioned fantastic breakfast, including reference to English, so I was salivating at the prospect of a full English, but sadly something went wrong in the translation. The hotel owner lady was making a big thing about the honey to go with some stale bread. I remember now there were words like rustic and characterful in the description of the hotel. I think that’s estate agent speak for crap.


Breakfast didn’t take long to get over, but it’s then announced that the owner needs to go out so she’ll just leave me to pull the door closed behind me. It’s got one of those door code thingy's which she had explained is problematic. Unfortunately I needed to get my bicycle out of her storage before she left which then relied on me entering this locked door to get to my room to continue getting ready to go. I try to get in and the door’s not moving. She’s now gone and there’s no-one inside. I could be standing here outside all day. I must have tried the thing, entering the code, giving it a special pull and push as she recommended a hundred times. No success. I’m seriously stressed. Shall I smash a window and break in? Then for no reason, on the millionth attempt, it opens. Perhaps this isn’t going to be such a good day….


In response to sunshine and heat I’m stripped down to summer SHORTS. The legs are wondering what’s going on. Fortunately the UV will generate some vitamin D, as up to now the only parts exposed are finger tips and face, so I’ve been fearing of dying from rickets by the end of the week. The only downside of the shorts is that the foam to cushion your rear end from the saddle is a fraction of the thickness compared to the leggings I’ve been wearing, so just when that area was thinking all was on the up after a slathering of Vaseline, that might have been short lived.


I do a quick circuit of Les Sables to check out the harbour and assorted craft. There’s a couple of Vendee Imoca 60 yachts on a pontoon, but it’s in a restricted area and I can’t get near to look at them. I ride out of town on the coast road south. It’s blue sky from horizon to horizon. Waves are breaking on the rocks just metres away and the sound is intense. As the land is very flat, the sky is really big. It’s a great feeling cycling along.


I’m following the Vendee Velo route as it’s just so easy. Quite a few cyclists out, all my age - you know - old, retired. There’s so few vehicles on the road it’s actually more dangerous on the track. Crossing junctions and going round corners there’s continual signs saying STOP. I can only assume in the summer it gets really busy. But now I’m on a mission and pulling 3 tons of luggage with limited juice on tap, so the last thing I want to do is slow down and lose momentum. I think about fashioning a day signal for vessel restricted in ability to manoeuvre - you sailors will know what I’m talking about. In the end, sometimes it’s just easier to be on the road.


Almost had another inflight catering crisis, due to all the cafes and restaurants being shut, but fortunately I was saved by a boulangerie that appeared like the last chance saloon. I told the elderly lady serving she had saved my life. She just smiled. I was so desperate I bought far too much, including a family sized fruit flan - they didn’t have an individual size one and I couldn’t waste it. Just have to be sick again. I certainly wasn’t going to suffer bonking, probably just vomiting.


The day is pressing on and Vendee Velo is doing its usual trick of showing me all the amazing countryside, which is beautiful, but adding kilometres in the process. So I decided a bit of google and tarmac roads was in order and made a beeline for it. Arrival in La Rochelle was amazing. It’s a seriously happening place and it felt like the middle of summer. The central area around the harbour was absolutely full of people, sitting at cafe and restaurant tables in the sunshine, walking and cycling. It was like Piccadilly Circus it was so busy. Nothing shut down here.


I now understood why I nearly didn’t find a hotel room available. I’ve ended up staying in the Auberge de Jeunesse. That’s a YMCA for you lot. Initially I was worried that I’m not young, will they let me in? I kept my cycling hat on at check-in and with my glasses reactalite and darkened, I got away with it. You don’t even get a towel in the room, so was imagining walking around La Rochelle after showering stark naked until I can get dry. Fortunately I did bring a flannel, that’s all, which was used for the first time and did the job. It’s so sunny and dry here.


The last time I was in a YMCA I was 17, in Northampton and at school. I met my to be wife, Christine, who was the cook there. So who knows what’s going to result from tonight.


After a walk around I choose one of the many restaurants with a 3 course menu of the day - Dave I think it might have been one we ate at when we were here. In celebration I had a small bier pression, 33cl after which I’m struggling to sit upright, so had to follow it with a large jug of water to regain composure. Another great meal and evening, so back to sneak in.


Distance today was 110 km. I got confused yesterday about how far I’ve come to date, but it’s now 720km. Honest.

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