The Weekend at Auxi-le-Château

Quite a few members and families of Levallois Sporting Club's cycletouring division spent the weekend of October 4-5, 1997 at Auxi-le-Château in Picardy, the northeastern part of France along the English Channel. The terrain is flat to rolling. From the harvest stacked beside the road and in the fields, one concludes that the principal crops of the region are corn, beets, potatoes, and rocks. There is no château at Auxi.

Richard, who organized the whole weekend, had planned a longer ride for Saturday -- Auxi to Cayeux-sur-Mer with lunch in St. Valery-sur-Somme, and a shorter ride for Sunday with a tour of the grottos at Naours.

I should explain that in Northern California, my home state, one cannot swim at the beaches because the water is very cold and there is a strong, dangerous undertow. The Japanese current off the Pacific coast is the source of the cold wind and fog that make life miserable there, in my opinion, though some strange people like it and refer to it as "natural air conditioning." I learned long ago to avoid large bodies of salt water, so imagine my surprise when we reached Cayeux-sur-Mer and everyone rode all the way to the edge of the water. Dominique and Christine stripped to their underwear and actually went in! And lived to come out!! And said it was warm and refreshing!!! We are not in Kansas any more, Toto, nor are we in Northern California.

Only in France can you stop in the middle of a bike ride to have a two-hour, four-course lunch at a restaurant overlooking a scenic waterway. We had kir, white wine, red wine, appetizer, main dish, cheese, dessert, and coffee -- all delicious. Nap afterward? No -- we continued the ride.

Jean (who was 80 and one-half years old at the time of this ride) had the best idea: leave the restaurant the same way we came in and continue down the same road. But everyone else decided to exit via the opposite side and ride along the waterfront, which was indeed more scenic. We also saw a quaint horse-drawn cart. Very soon the sidewalk ended in gravel at the foot of a hill. There was a long, steep gravel path up the hill. We did a little cyclocross -- little cycle, mostly 'cross, with Jean as the lanterne rouge at only about two minutes.

At the top of this hill we saw some scenic old stone walls, a scenic arch with a plaque saying that the nasty English had taken Joan of Arc through there on her way to prison in 1430, and the quaint horse-drawn cart, which arrived at the same time we did, having taken the road rather than the gravel path. After we patted the horse, we again set off uphill and did some more cyclocross to see a scenic old church. Some people went to find a source of fidelity reputed to be nearby. I tried to catch 40 winks. Shortly thereafter, we descended, then played at doing a criterium as we rode a couple of laps around the town trying to figure out how to leave. Gérard, the walking Michelin map, put us on the correct road. Jean had been right, after all.

Though much of the ride was of the noodling, sight-seeing variety, some of it was not. We had fun pushing Jean along at 40 kph for kilometers on end returning to Auxi.

In the United States we think of the French as wine drinkers, but they also drink beer -- lots of it. I first observed it at the end of Saturday's ride. We, the cyclists, arrived at the hotel before the non-cyclists, who had the key to the building. Since we couldn't get in to take showers, we went to a café-bar and sat outside in the warm sun that had finally appeared. Everyone except me ordered beer. In fact, Jean-Pierre said I could join them only on the condition that I order beer, but I don't like beer. Years ago I reasoned that drinking beer might improve my social life, so I sampled many beers over a period of time, but never found any that tasted good. I still don't like beer and my social life still suffers. I ordered hot chocolate.

I next observed the French beer-drinking phenomenon later that evening. After dinner, everyone went to another café-bar, but I wanted to walk first, to stretch my legs. Dominique and I went to the church, which is on a little hill. The church was lit from the exterior and the door was unlocked, so we went in. Dominique said the organ in this church was built by someone named Carpentier and it is the only organ of its type existing in France. He also pointed out the sculpted arches on the church ceiling. To an American, this is interesting. Old architecture is interesting. There is a lot of old architecture in France, especially where there are buildings.

When we returned to the café-bar, the beer party was in full swing. Gérard was lining up the empty bottles, and they already covered two tables. It seemed as though everyone had drunk at least one beer. I got a hot chocolate. Then the people at the farthest table, who were already acting as though they were three sheets to the wind, ordered a strange drink. The bartender brought out a humongous stemmed glass that contained flaming liquid -- cognac, as it turned out -- into which he poured lots of beer. Each person at this table drank from the glass and passed it to the next person while the others sang and made droll noises. Then the people at my table decided to order the same thing. I figured the sociable thing would be to taste it, so when it came my turn, I took a swig. Everyone at all the tables applauded and cheered. Dominique wanted a photo, so I obligingly drank some more while she took photos. This stuff was good! It must have been the cognac -- it certainly wasn't the beer. I could have continued drinking, but now the sociable thing was to pass it to my neighbor. Too bad! I left early, around midnight. By that time, the empties reached nearly the length of all the tables.

Sunday's ride took place under a clouded sky, so it was no wonder the first stop was at a café for coffee and hot chocolate. A few hundred meters later we were at the grottos of Naours. The scenic tour of the underground city was very interesting, historically. It had its exciting moments, too, which you will understand if you've ever walked on slippery, sloping stone surfaces while wearing cleat shoes. It's amazing what previous civilizations did for survival.

After a wonderful last few kilometers into Auxi-le-Château at a reasonable speed, the ride was finished. Showers, lunch, then back to the real world. Thank you Richard and LSC for a wonderful weekend.

Return to Bicycling à la Française

Barbara Leonard