Packing Light for France (and with bikes!)

Packing Light for France (and with bikes!)

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Packing for an extended stay in France, or to anywhere else for that matter, can be a daunting task. It becomes more so when you are about embark on a 1,000 mile, six-week, self-guided bicycle tour.

This is exactly what my wife and I did a number of years ago. We found that packing for the trip was almost as challenging as the trip itself. With no support vehicle, we would have to carry everything needed for the next six weeks in four pannier – bags that attached to the back of our bikes. In addition, we could carry several smaller bags including handle bar bags and a rear rack pack bag, to my wife’s bike, which would carry our lunches and extra energy food.

Our first task was to draw up a list of items that we considered essential for the trip – a trip that started in Brussels and ended 1,000 miles later in Strasbourg. Topping the list was riding gear consisting of spandex shorts and tights, light weight socks, long and short sleeved T-shirts, light weight sweaters, bike helmets, bike shoes, rain pants and waterproof shoe covers, and all weather, water proof jackets. Other essential items included a half dozen extra tubes, a bicycle repair kit and tire pumps that attached to the bike’s cross bar.

Not every day would be spent on our bikes. There would be days when we would not ride at all but spend the time seeing the sites in some of the major cities included in our itinerary: Brussels, Reims, Fontainebleau, Paris, Versailles, Dijon, and Strasbourg. For this we would need conventional clothing. My wife decided on a wrinkle-free, broomstick skirt, one turtleneck, a pair of walking shoes, and a wool sweater. I settled on a pair of khaki slacks, several polo shirts, a heavy wool sweater, and a pair of lightweight walking shoes. Many of these items we wore on the flight from our home in Portland Oregon to Brussels.

We also took along two cameras and See the REAL Europe with Rail Europetwenty rolls of film to record our epic journey. One of the cameras was small enough to fit in my handle bar bag, and the 35-mm Nikon with a wide angle and zoom lenses, would be carried in one of the pannier bags. Other items included in my handle bar bag were several energy bars, a small folder containing a detailed description of our route, and a Michelin map of France. We would purchase more detailed maps along the way.

It is unthinkable to pack for a trip and not include items later found to be unnecessary or of little use at all. Even with our limited space, we managed to accomplish this with two sack sheets, one in each pannier bag. We learned that sheets would be required should we decide to bed down in a hostel, something we never did. It was more convenient to stay in hotels as close as possible to the center of the city or town, thus enabling us to park our bikes and branch out on walking tours.

Finally tired of unpacking and repacking the sheets at every stop, my wife, without telling me, abandoned her sheet in some obscure hotel halfway through our trek. She does not recall where. I did likewise in the Dole, a charming little city in France-Comte. By then we were nearing the end of our journey. Having done this, our greatest fear was that one or both hotel maids would, on our journey home, meet us at the airport with packages in hand and inform us that we forgot our sheets. Even today, we still laugh about this possibility.

One facility we found extremely useful was the Office of Tourism. Nearly every French city, from the largest to the smallest, has one. Many of the clerks speak English. They were invaluable in helping book hotel rooms and directing us to the nearest laundromat(laverie) or food store.

Packing for such an unconventional trip is not to be taken lightly; consequently, we started our packing preparation two weeks before our departure. Everything we had planned to take was laid out on the bed in the extra bedroom. Over the fortnight we narrowed the items down to what we considered to be absolutely essential. On the Saturday afternoon prior to our departure, we had a practice packing session. To our amazement we managed to fit the remaining items into the four pannier bags with even room to spare. Needless to say, we were rather pleased with ourselves.

The practice session made one thing abundantly clear: with our limited wardrobe French laveries would become as much are part of our trip as art galleries, cathedrals, and chateaux. We knew that a visit to the local laverie would be required every second or third day. That is, if wanted clean clothes.

One of the questionable benefits of our frequent visits was that we experienced every make of washer and dryer imaginable, all of them unfamiliar. Making the task even more challenging was the fact that the operating instructions were in French. Fortunately, my wife could read some French, so our losses were held to a minimum. At the conclusion of our trip, we seriously considered creating a web site offering to conduct tours of some of France’s most unique laundromats. Why not? Trips are offered for nearly every other aspect of French culture.

It was a dingy little laverie in Epernay, France‘s Champagne capital, that provided us with one of the more humorous incidents of the entire trip. About the size of a single-car garage, the building contained a half dozen, barely operational washers and dryers that seemed to take forever to complete the cycles. It was the owner, a small oriental man, who provided the entertainment during our 90-minute stay. I noted him sweeping when we came in and he continued to sweep all the time we were there. During that time, we were the only customers. After about 30 minutes I mentioned his efforts to my wife. The more he swept the more entertaining it became. Upon leaving we could barely contain our laughter. As we loaded our pannier bags I told my wife, “Hey, on our tight budget you can’t beat 90 minutes of free entertainment.” Mounting our bikes, we looked back and there he was still sweeping. The irony was that the place looked no cleaner upon our departure than when we arrived.

The decision to take our own bikes presented a most unique packing challenge. The solution was found at our local Amtrak station, where for $20 each, we purchased two sturdy, heavy-duty cardboard bike boxes. The boxes would be no match for the airline’s baggage handlers. Upon arrival at Brussels airport the boxes where crushed as though they had been trampled on by a herd of elephants. Fortunately, after a close inspection, our bikes came through the trans-Atlantic trip unscathed, albeit my helmet was impaled on several spokes of my rear wheel.

No journey would be complete if the airline did not somehow figure a way to mess with one’s luggage. We were not immune. Arriving in Amsterdam in the early dawn, we had but an hour to catch our flight to Brussels. Rushing through the airport, one of Europe’s largest, I began to doubt whether the luggage handlers would have enough time to make the transfer of the bike boxes, which also contained our pannier bags. Everything but the clothes on our backs was inside those boxes.

I mentioned this concern to the flight attendant upon boarding our Brussels flight. She assured me the transfer would be made. Yeah, right! At the luggage carrousel in Brussels, we waited for more than 30 minutes, long after all the other passengers had departed, and no bike boxes appeared. On the verge of panicking, we found an airline employee, who fortunately understood English. He agreed to help. After a phone call to Amsterdam, he confirmed my initial fear. The transfer was not made, but the boxes would be on the next flight that would arrive in three hours.

With three hours to kill, we then made the mistake of leaving the international area of the airport. Attempting to return to claim our luggage, we were stopped by an airport guard. He would not allow us back into the baggage claim area. After hearing our dilemma he summoned a plain-clothes guard who escorted us through what appeared to be the entire airport and on to the luggage area. There we told our story to yet another employee who left to search and ultimately returned 20 minutes later pushing a flat bed cart containing the boxes. Even though the boxes appeared beat up, we where overjoyed to see them. A quick change into our riding clothes and our great adventure was underway.