French pronunciation can be tricky. It’s sixty miles to Reims if you go straight, and I’ve nowhere to stay when I get there, so today is not a day for time wasting.
I thought it would sound something like Rem, as in Rembrandt. But then no-one knows where I mean. No, it’s more like Hhhrrrrrrans, like the beginning of Ransome, but with an unseemly excess of hawking first.
Anyway, the road is straight and pretty flat, the skylarks and yellowhammers are in full voice, like yesterday, and there’s no traffic. A bit of uphill to warm up and break a sweat. A bit of downhill to cool down and dry off.
All the villages are shuttered and asleep. A brief stop after an hour or two at a small industrial looking boulangerie for a pain-aux-raisins. But, again, no coffee to be had. I keep getting excited by small crowds, but they’re not at coffee shops. They’re at the Mairies, casting their votes in local elections, and being sociable about it.
So when I see a big cathedral on the top of a hill in the distance, I’m determined. Where there’s a cathedral there must be coffee – it’s a rule.
As it gets nearer, the hill gets bigger. And the road wants to skirt round the bottom, and just wave to the cathedral in passing. But then a half-hidden sign pointing to a “medieval city” up the hill decides it. I shouldn’t miss a cathedral and a medieval city – that will mean a choice of coffee shops, surely.
It’s a daunting climb up a 25% slope, which turns into a flight of nearly impassable steps. But these come out on a nice gentle switchback road – the road which I should have found from the bottom, if the two gardeners in the Rue des Jardinieres hadn’t misdirected me.
And what a medieval city it is! Laon has enough cobbled streets to shake a bicycle to death, and yes, they make coffee here. In the end too much of it.
I sat in the shade, admiring the magnificent cathedral in its little square, and sensibly opted for petit when offered the choice of petit or grand. The bike was propped up by the cathedral, and locked in case I decided to wander.
But I didn’t wander far. Libre was impatient to be played. She likes cathedrals. So I sat on a step in the shade, centre stage, and Libre filled the little square with Bach, and Faure, and Saint-Saens.
Soon I’d sold two CDs, and been given a second cup of coffee, this time grand, not petit. That might be a bit much for safe driving, I thought. Then back down the wrist-wrenching cobbled streets, and the sweeping switchback, to the route to Reims.
Disaster. A bolt attaching the front pannier sheered off. The bike can’t be ridden. It needs drilling out, a new thread cutting in the hole, and a larger bolt in the enlarged hole. That needs a workshop, and it’s lunchtime in the middle of nowhere.
But after hardly ten minutes of assessing the non-existent options, Rafael pulls up in his blue van, to see if I need help. He grasps the issue immediately. “I live 1km this way. Put the bike in the van. We’ll mend it.”
The van is thankfully empty. Libre sticks, undignified, out of the open back door, and off we go. It was fiddly, but in half an hour it was fixed, even down to cutting an old bolt down to the right length to fit. Thanks to the angel Rafael.
Seventy miles overall to Reims, pronouned Hhhrrrrans, and I’ve nowhere to stay. And a cathedral of really excessive proportions. Libre likes cathedrals, so we set up, with a little notice beside us – would you like a concert in your house tonight, and by the way I need a bed.
But of course everyone here is a tourist, and to be honest I actually want a hotel and a quiet evening. I haven’t had, I realise, a quiet evening since I left home…