Packing Light for France (and with bikes!)

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 twenty 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…
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