We shook out our sand-infested belongings and left camp this morning to explore the island we had just spent two nights on. In search of almond croissants for breakfast, we headed to the bakery with high hopes. Unfortunately they hadn't made any. We enjoyed "slippers" instead—chausson aux pommes for Tyler, and chausson au citron for me. Bellies full, we cycled off to explore.
The weather was perfect for cycling—not too hot, not too cold, not raining, not too sunny. Off we went, breezily pedaling on flat island roads or incredibly well-marked cycle routes. We rode up the skinny bit of the island, leading to where it widens out into salt marshes and farmland dotted with windmills. Along the way we stopped to watch an older man and his son working on their salt marsh. They raked water off of the flat, muddy rectangles, squeegeeing it until it was sucked up by a generator-powered water pump. We wanted to ask questions but they were clearly busy so we got back on the sandy cycle path and continued on.
Shortly afterwards we found another salt marsh, this one selling its harvest. We bought a big bag of salt flavored with Italian herbs, and a small bag of the "cream of the crop"—fleur de sel. The woman explained that the first thing they do is skim the precious fleur de sel off the top of their marshes, then they go through the squeegee process to harvest the rest. While I was chatting and buying salt, Tyler went off to take pictures in the marshes and explore an area which, unbeknownst to him, was very clearly off-limits. No harm done though! As we left we took pictures of some adorable donkeys that seemed to live on the salt farm.
Fresh salt in hand we cycled on to the market in Noirmoutier-en-Ile, the largest town on the island. We didn't buy anything, opting to simply enjoy the bright colors and fantastic smells of the fruits and vegetables of the market stalls. After chatting with a market vendor for a bit we headed further north and entered a beautiful, shady wooded region of the island. By this time the sun was out in full force and we enjoyed our brief respite from it. Around almost every turn we were treated to spectacular ocean views and quaint cottages with terracotta roofs and bright blue shutters. Frequently we would remind each other "we are biking… on a FRENCH… ISLAND!!"
We passed a few more villages around the northern part of the island when we decided to head back south towards the bridge that would take us to the mainland. We hadn't biked far when I saw a cute colorful sign for "Ali Baba's Cavern" that I wanted to take a picture of. A craggy old man smoking a cigarette (presumably Ali Baba) saw us and invited us in for a coffee. I explained to Tyler what was going on, and we agreed to follow him back into his gallery and garden through mazes of vibrantly-colored paintings and potted plants.
"Ali Baba" showed us where he paints outside in the shade, and how he sets out dishes of sea water in the sun to collect salt. From two ladles-full of water in a very shallow dish, he collects approximately two tablespoons of salt a day. He does this all summer long, and then has enough salt to last him all year! We thought that was pretty neat. If the visit had ended then, it would have been much nicer. As it was, it wore on too long, and started to feel creepy, a la Newton by the Sea.
He proceeded to dig through his greasy, tattered, smoke-imbued kitchen finding us some dubiously clean cups from which to drink an herbal concoction that had been sitting in a grimy coffee pot for who knows how many days. He gave us a souvenir of a ratty T-shirt he had painted on and then cornered us and proceeded to tell us about every single painting he had ever done. After a series of long speeches we were antsy to get going. Before he would let us leave, though, we had to down his homemade brew. One gulp later we tried to move quickly towards the door but he insisted we have more, and for the sake of being polite I acquiesced and downed another cup. Tyler flat out refused, and after several more times of the old man insisting and Tyler refusing, the guy started to look a little crazy-eyed. I smoothed things over as best I could, thanked him profusely, and we scooted out as fast as possible.
Back down the skinny island we went, and up over the bridge that connects it to the mainland. We stopped at the top for lunch, as it was already two o'clock, and munched on bread, cheese, and fresh fruit as we sat on our walkstools. Full of energy once again, we coasted down the bridge and stopped to look at a map of the cycle trails we would follow down the coast.
Just off the bridge we met a really nice father and son with whom we talked all about our trip. We had crossed paths with them on the island a few hours earlier, and they were astounded at how far up and around the island we had gone. When we told them we were planning on biking another 40 kilometers, they were shocked! For us, today was ridiculously easy cycling—totally flat, great weather, and we were full of energy. The twenty-odd miles we had done on the island didn't even feel like they "counted" because they were so easy! We said goodbye to the two men and cycled off on the very well-marked cycle trail after I made a minor seat adjustment on my bike.
The trail down the coast was a bit rocky and hilly, but we didn't mind as we biked through beautiful shady woods, over dunes of sand and rocky ditches. We seriously considered a free-camp in the woods but we both felt great and wanted to bike further. After twenty kilometers or so, the path switched to wonderfully flat pavement and spit us out in a cul-de-sac of concrete apartments overlooking the ocean. We were a bit confused, but a really nice couple, Jean-Marc and Marie-France, helped us out with directions. They invited us in for a drink but we decided to keep going. Jean-Marc biked with us for a bit, leading us through the apartment complex and out to the continuation of the bike path.
We thanked him and cycled away on the blissfully flat, paved bike route that followed the ocean for miles. We were in heaven! As we went we passed many bicyclists and it was amusing how slow everyone else seemed. Here we were, fully loaded, and we were biking at least three times as fast as most of the other cyclists and we weren't even trying. All of those hills in England must have really paid off!
As were biking along the ocean I heard a girl's voice say "Madame!" I stopped and an adorable girl and her little brother ran up to us and began asking questions. They wanted to know where we were from, and when I told them, their mom said "We knew you were from North America—we have the exact same water bottles!" The family was from Quebec and they were on holiday in France. They liked biking too, and wished us well as we continued on.
The next couple of hours we biked along the coast, marveling at the beauty around us. We felt great as we whizzed along undeterred by hills or gravel. We ended up doing our longest day yet—88 kilometers (54 miles)!! Tyler was hoping to go 100 kilometers, but we both decided to "quit while we're ahead", yet another lesson we've learned the hard way on this trip. This was a very good decision as we both started noticing how crispy we both felt, and realized we'd been sunburned. That's what happens when you forget to put on sunscreen in the morning!
Red, toasty, and ready to be done for the day, we quickly found a campsite, and I set up the tent while Tyler cooked dinner. I had been craving burgers. Meat is so expensive here that we hadn't splurged on ground beef, but today was the day. Earlier we bought potato chips, "Cheddar Cheese for Hamburgers", "American Hamburger buns", and two glass bottles of Coca-Cola. Now at camp, Tyler took out our new salt and seasoned the meat as he cooked up our burgers. Hamburgers with slices of onions, gloobs of ketchup and melty cheese and potato chips on the side—what a heavenly end to a perfect day!