London to Paris by bike in three days: Gournay-en-Bray to Paris

It’s the last serious day of cycling, and the longest too. We therefore need to make an early start out of Gournay-en-Bray. We are unclear what the situation is regarding breakfast but failed to get up at 7:00, ignoring the instructions of our horse-loving receptionist last night.

However, a strong smell of coffee penetrates the corridors and leads us to a cosy lounge, where a buffet of cereals, croissants, baguettes, homemade jams, meat and cheese really wakes us up. The waiter, who may also be the hotel owner, is very friendly and even offers us breakfast on the house.

After check-out (which we still cannot remember the French word for), I spend a few minutes “tweaking” Mark’s gears (unusually, this involves a hammer) and, following yesterday’s experiences, we immediately stop at the local shop to stock up on some emergency supplies. We’re on our way by 11:00, the earliest start we have achieved this trip.

The morning is reassuringly uneventful, aside from a couple of hunters disconcertingly loading their rifles at the exact moment we pass them. We stop for lunch at 14:30, in the quiet town of Marines.

We find a small café on the town square and have our first proper lunch of the trip. The café is run by a young couple, who are accompanied by their 28-day old daughter. Three other Brits who are also headed for Paris on their bikes turn up as we finish our meal. They tuck in to burgers and chips, washed down with beer.

We cross the river Seine at Meulan shortly before 16:30 and at last we can follow a picturesque riverside path towards Paris. At least that was the plan. As soon as we’ve cross the bridge, we somehow lose the path and subsequently the river, and we end up in an industrial estate tucked between a busy high speed railway and a dual carriageway.

It’s a relief to get back on track at Médan. But our luck is short-lived as our route plan then directs us down a forest trail, now closed due to widening works on the adjacent motorway. We improvise a deviation through Chambourcy and soon we’re once again on the mapped route, cycling through the delightful Marly-le-Roi forest.

To our astonishment, we now, once again, see the three beer-swigging Brits that stopped for lunch earlier, as they pass us heading in the opposite direction. We start to doubt our map-reading abilities. But we push on, as the sun gets uncomfortably low in the sky.

As we emerge from the Marly-le-Roi forest, we’re on a designated cycle lane attached to a dual carriageway. It’s not very pleasant but at least we’re in a densely built-up area. And, conveniently, we get to take a break at a service station before the final stretch to Paris. Until now, service stations have been rare on our cycle-friendly route.

Our approach to Paris takes us just north of Versailles and through the Parc de Saint-Cloud. Just as the last light of day fades in to insignificance, we are rewarded with a spectacular view of Paris stretched out ahead of us, visible between the trees.

The view motivates us as we head down the hill towards the Seine, once again. As we cross the river, we at last see the Eiffel Tower ahead of us. It is a useful beacon as we navigate through the southern edge of the Bois de Boulogne.

Oddly, we are suddenly cheered by a host of prostitutes emerging from the trees. Not quite the crowd we were expecting but it’s nice to have some supporters as we glide towards the finishing straight.

We cross the Boulevard Périphérique in to the heart of Paris and, surprisingly, it only takes us a further ten minutes to reach the Eiffel Tower. We arrive at our destination just after 21:00, and spend a little while enjoying the atmosphere, and sampling the crêpes.

Under the magic of the Eiffel Tower, we turn our attention to tonight’s accommodation, a youth hostel in Clichy. We have no idea where that is and no one seems to be selling maps at this time of night. We eventually ask a Parisian for directions. But she looks astonished when we tell her our destination. Not promising.

It turns out that Clichy is in the northern suburbs, and was at the heart of the Paris riots in 2005. We’re tempted to take our bikes on the Metro but our temptation comes to an abrupt end at the station. Despite information to the contrary from the tourist office kiosk, bikes are not permitted on the Metro, but the attendant does point us in the right direction.

We set off along the Seine, navigating with the help of maps displayed at bus shelters. We cross north of the river on the Pont de la Concorde, then cross the Place de la Concorde, a huge junction at the eastern end of the Champs-Elysées.

From the Place de la Concorde, we head directly north towards the Place de Clichy, then up the Boulevard de Clichy, where we once again cross the Périphérique and find the youth hostel a short distance further. We’ve covered 20km since the Eiffel Tower and it’s been a really pleasant ride through the quiet Sunday night streets of Paris.

We check-in to our youth hostel and it quickly becomes apparent that this place was not worth cycling 20km across Paris for. The floor tiles are broken, the paint is peeling off the walls and a thick layer of mould surrounds the communal showers and toilets. Indeed, it’s hard to judge where the toilet ends and the shower area starts. Horrible.

The surprises continue as we enter our cell – sorry, room – and find a strange man fast asleep in one of the bunks. He’s not fast asleep for long though and my cheery greeting is met with a grunt followed by what could very well be some Russian swearing.

We decide to spend as little time as conceivably possible in this hell hole and head straight out to a neighbouring Chinese restaurant. Unfortunately they close at 2:00 (that’s early, under the circumstances) and we reluctantly head back to base. I’ve never in my life wished for the next morning to arrive quite so quickly.

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