Four years ago, shortly after seeing an unfortunate woman pushing her bike up a very steep Spanish hill behind her pneumatically peddling (male) partner, I remember telling Lucy that “If I ever express an interest in cycling, shoot me.”. Well, get the guns out, because Paul and I have just completed 250 bike kms and are enthusiastically planning our route for tomorrow, regardless of my newly acquired knowledge that the cartoon image of an exhausted athlete with his or her tongue lolling out like a scarf, is actually based on fact. Mine has hit the tarmac on at least two occasions and in extremis I could challenge Vasco to a lick your own rear contest.
More positively, the landscape seems to be dropping into cycle-friendly contours, and just in time - one more hill and I would have launched into spontaneous self-combustion, leaving only my feet behind to prove that I had ever existed. All that aside, verdant and intermittently dry countryside has taken over from the depressing ex-mining townships of the day before. We spend a large amount of time in losing the route, which, though intensely frustrating, also helps to remind us that we are actually fulfilling our primary purpose for being here – to personally travel and map every last centimetre of the via Francigena.
Cycling invariably involves bursts of excruciating effort (at least on my part), interspersed with large amounts of musing time when the mind wanders to the more peripheral questions of life – for example: why would anyone (in their right mind) go to a Buffalo Grill. I have never been in one before, let alone eaten in one, but left with no alternative last night, Paul and I did - a dire education in either culinary deceit or wizardry, I have yet to decide which. Since when has the flesh of the Coquilles St Jacques come in perfect spheres with a uniform taste of floor sweepings? What kind of cow produces square steaks? And which pernicious chemical in this stuff compels one to go on and eat the lurid Mexican Sundae. These are the kinds of questions I mull over until a frantic ratcheting of gears ahead tells me that we are about to hit another hill … five, four, three, two, one, one, one … that’s it … time to get off and push again.
Arras comes as a complete, but not unpleasant surprise. Paul and I have noticed that the town and village names are more Flemish than French and now here is the Flemish architecture. Two huge squares in the centre of the town, both surrounded by the typically tall, narrow houses and each finished off with a Flemish flourish at the top. At the bottom there is one bar after another, interspersed with restaurants and hotels - our spirits are up, until we try to check into the hostel with Vasco – no dogs – but just next door there is an hotelier who can’t understand the problem. He charges a lot more, but our bikes are put in the back and our room has all the right equipment for drying washing - a fundamental feature when you are travelling on bikes and it has rained everyday so far.
“Would you like to see the room first, Madam?”
“No, just tell me how many hooks and hangars you’ve got in there.”
Arras is an interesting place and well worth giving a day or two, though we don’t have them to spare. It has some connection with rats, though as a ratophobe, this particular feature has no interest for me, but in addition it is famous for a vast network of catacombs running under the town, which includes a recently discovered hospital built for service in the War.
Here we try for the youth hostel, but are refused, not on the grounds of incapacity, incontinence or age, but because of the dog. It seems that Youth Hostels International who run most of these places believe that the young and impoverished are more likely to suffer from dog phobia than the elderly that frequent les deux etoiles. This time the 3 Luppars is our resting place in the standard price range with the customary welcome and ability to keep the bikes safe. In passing, don’t get sucked into signing up for breakfast or dinner unless you are in the most remote areas. These are the places where the hotels make their margins. A pain au raisin and coffee on the hoof will cost 3 euros, while in the hotel the emerging euro standard is 8.