Our bike boxes appeared out of the "oversized baggage" elevator doors a little battered but totally in one piece and we breathed a sigh of relief as the bikes made it through their final flight. We'd arrived at Montreal airport off the coach from Quebec City only to find the airport's "oversized baggage" x-ray machine was not oversized enough for our boxes. It must happen a lot because they had tape and scissors and gave us plenty of time to unpack the boxes, pass a few things through the scanner and repack.
We rolled out of the Arrivals door at Marseilles airport (which is nowhere near Marseilles), grabbed a coffee and started to yet again unpack those boxes. We'd wanted to ride out of the airport and crack on with some kilometres. It wasn't long before we discovered that somewhere along the packing, unpacking, repacking situation in Canada we'd lost/left behind the plastic bag with my pedals and our new chains. No massive disaster, except we now had to work out how to get to a bike shop. The airport had wifi though my phone had trouble connecting, Mike's phone would connect but didn't had the Uber app and we couldn't download it because we didn't have a phone number to confirm the app with. I could get a normal taxi to a shop, but the risk was being unable to get a taxi back to the airport. Either way, we were running out of time in the day and decided to just push the bikes over to the ibis budget hotel across the road and get on their wifi and have a base for the night. The Ibis budget was full so we had to pay full Ibis price next door. Screw it, we didn't have any other options. The last option of just walking to the nearest shop wasn't safe - the roads around the airport aren't built for pedestrians.
Once on the hotel's wifi we saw there was a Decathlon nearby and ordered an Uber, hoping that there may be wifi somewhere in the large shopping complex to pay for it in the app and order another back to the airport. From this point onwards our luck drastically changed and not only did we get a bargain price on a new pair of pedals and two chains, but we also found some cheap dinner and stocked up for the next few days.
We joined up with the Via Rhona, a bike route following the Rhone from the Mediterranean to the source - a glacier up in the Swiss Alps, and we did the whole thing once we joined at Avignon. It was a pleasure to be back in Europe, being surrounded by ancient buildings and bridges and following signs to take you such long distances and across country boundaries. The EuroVelo routes across Europe are something to behold, and once they're fully completed it's going to be extremely hard to beat as a comprehensive long distance network.
We followed the fully sign posted route north to Lyon where the signs seemed to disappear just outside of the city, but we were headed to a warmshowers host just east so we picked our way across the city in our own way. We weren't the only guests with Joelle and Robert so it was a full house that evening. My French is fine to get us by day to day but my conversational French is awful as I panic and all the words just disappear out of my head. But we did our best and Google translate came in handy towards the end of the evening.
The next day we continued east to follow the river to Switzerland and we started to get into the climbing. We had never been sure of our route back through Europe since it all depended on the flights back from Canada. Our hopes back in the planning stages had been to fly into Portugal/Spain and head back from as far west as possible. If we were trying to break records with our adventure, or if we were heavily invested in one specific route then you can prioritise that over the cost of the flight and spend whatever you need to spend and worry about it once you're home. But we didn't want to come home with an extortionate level of credit card debt just for the sake of route which had no definite bearing on the core reasons for the adventure. We were still cycling for the same number of days, for effectively the same distance so we did this in our own way and found the cheapest flight from French Canada to France and we made it work. We've learnt how important flexibility is and learn to accept it.
Which ever way our route was going to take us back through Europe, we were going to have to cross some mountains or undulating hills to Dunkirk in northern France. If we were to come in with Spain it would be the Pyrenees, but if it was Marseilles we had the option of heading into the Alps. If you're going to do the Alps, you may as well do an iconic pass so we chose the Furka Pass. The Furka Pass you may have seen in the James Bond movie Goldfinger.
Those first few seconds you can see the Hotel Belvedere which is now sadly closed. Why did it close? Because that glacier behind it, the source of the Rhone river, has melted so dramatically you can't see it from that view anymore. There used to be a tunnel you could enter to go inside the glacier, but it's almost totally gone now. So the tourists don't come and the hotel closed.
This view from a different angle looking up towards the Belvedere shows where the glacier used to be. The hotel is just above centre if you look closely. Oh, global warming.
We'd met an Aussie cyclist at the campsite the night before we got to the summit who we rode with the next day. Alex was good crack and a fearless descender and we camped together on the other side of the pass too.
Over the next few days we worked our way to Zurich to stay with friends and then on to Basel to get back into France. We didn't fit in too well in Switzerland, they're super into their RULES. You've got to know THE RULES but Lord knows what they are. Being rude to tourists doesn't seem to be one of THE RULES though, because that happened all the time. Sorry Switzerland, I hope we just had bad luck because you are stunningly beautiful.
Anyway, we were glad to be back in France and made our way to Luxembourg over a couple of days mostly following rivers and canals again. We spotted this little guy:
In fact, we saw a few of them, and it was really heart warming to see some flourishing wildlife after the shock of seeing the lost glacier up in the mountains.
By the time we got to northern Belgium I was starting to recognise places and names I'd been to before. I was lucky enough to grow up so close to the ferry port to the continent so I've had day trips and school trips to France and northern Belgium before. All of the trip up until this moment was all brand new to me since we left Newcastle 16 months ago, so once I started seeing places I'd been before, it definitely felt like the beginning of the end.
Of course with northern Belgium comes everything related to the Western Front from World War 1. Ypres Salient saw some of the worst of the fighting and with that comes a high density of cemeteries and memorials. We were riding into Ypres on the N8 and came across these two old ordinances just off the path. Thankfully there was a local nearby who asked what we'd found and said they'd call the police for them to be removed.
Further along the cemeteries began. The perfect long rows with pristine white head stones brought tears to our eyes. The number of young men who went away thinking they'd be home by Christmas but never came home will always shock and that really is a tragedy.
Ypres has a cute little campsite just outside of town and we shared a small field with so many other tourers we struggled to find a spot. But we were up early the next morning to get to Dunkirk as early as possible as passed through the Menin Gate without the crowds. The Menin Gate stands as a memorial to all of those British and Commonwealth soldiers whose bodies have not been found and therefore have no known grave. there are 54,896 names on the gate. More tears.
We headed north and west into the strong wind coming in off the sea. We thought we'd be able to make the 2pm ferry to Dover but were so nervous about wasting £70 that we didn't dare book anything. That headwind was strong! In the end, we DID make the ferry port in time for the 2pm crossing but it was totally sold out. We waited with two more sets of tourers for the 4pm ferry and boarded the ferry ravenous for food. The cyclists and bikers went on first so we were first in line for the food on board and used the last of our Euros before setting foot back on UK land.