By Jasper Pryor – https://jasperpryor3.wixsite.com/my-site-4
The Ardennes is one of the best places to go bikepacking in northern France. The unspoiled nature, picturesque villages and rich gastronomy makes it a perfect destination for cyclists and foodies alike. Jasper Pryor takes us on board his bicycle and shows us the abundance of Ardennes in the autumn: from an oversupply of ceps, just waiting to be turned into a homemade cep carbonara, to the freshly baked croissants from the local boulangerie, and all without us having to break a sweat.
We wake in the tent on a chilly Sunday morning in a forest near the Ardennes, under a set of mighty beech trees to the sight of families and friends pouring into the forest. It is barely 8 in the morning, and still relatively dark, but wicker baskets are everywhere. It’s cep season in France.
For those with baskets, sticks and the ever-present orange high vis it’s a free-for-all. Because we have all our belongings strapped to our bicycles, there isn’t much room to take onboard more than we can eat in a day. But we have the advantage of two wheels and cycle further into the forest, grab enough for lunch and head to the patisserie.
Ups and downs of autumnal biking
Thawing out after a cold autumnal night in the tent with a croissant (and the obligatory return for another one because they are just so tasty) has become our routine.
Autumn is a great time to be outside and camping because of this bounty of natural food, and the fact that beautiful places are free of the summer crowds. The only downside is that sometimes it pours, and when you’re living in a tent it can be pretty hard to get everything to dry. The great thing is, though, that it provides you with an excuse to sit in a warm café at midday on a Tuesday and drink thick hot chocolate and eat pastries. It helps us feel even more smug with the freedom of our lives and the beautiful things which we get to see.
This year happens to be a brilliant year for ceps, so they quickly become a staple in our diet. A cep carbonara being our particular highlight.
This landscape of forests and quaint towns holds a lot for us. We dip over into Belgium to visit the town of Chimay, sampling some of the famous beer of the region. As we get closer to the River Meuse the landscape grows increasingly hilly, and the forests grow thicker.
Our next stop is the remarkable town of Rocroi with its star-shaped fortifications. This is a remarkably well preserved town, and the many walls and banks can be explored by anyone. The care to which this town has been fortified, highlights how much this land has been desired over the centuries. For us, these walls provide some shelter from the wind, and a nice view to eat some crisps and plan where to camp.
The spot we choose is down hill from the town and into the dense forest below. We find a venerable oak tree, which has created a clearing with relatively flat ground. The fallen leaves of this wonderful tree have already prepared a soft bed for us. This forest is stuffed with fungi, including the remarkable yellow stagshorn fungus. The density of colour that this small mushroom has is spectacular. We are surrounded by enormous ceps, but this time we are alone with just the sounds of a healthy forest to keep us company. We eat some of these delicious mushrooms on top of an equally delicious pan rustique and consider how lucky we are to be surrounded by free food of such exceptional quality.
Cycling along the river Meuse
The following morning we enter the steep, wooded valley of the Meuse river at the town of Revin.
Our first port of call is, of course, the patisserie. This is quickly followed by a bench in the sun where we sate our appetite and bring some life back into our cold fingers. Revin is but one of a string of medieval towns along the banks of the Meuse, and today we have the chance to explore many of them whilst enjoying a day of cycling along the river.
It snakes around sharply, and each bend reveals more stunning scenery. The banks are dotted with walnut, apple and pear trees, which hold our snacks for the day. A particular highlight is a perfectly reflected bridge on the river that creates the illusion of circular arches.
A dart of blue flashes in front of us, as a kingfisher appears from the opposite bank. A stunning creature, and one that I have seen much more of this year. They appear to be benefiting from the growing wareness about protecting the river banks. At the other end of the feathered spectrum, the loping heron seems to be thriving on this river too. It is decidedly slow, but still beautiful in its movements.
We decide to leave our bikes in Bogny-sur-Meuse, another very pretty little town, and walk up to the top of the steep valley sides to see the neighbouring Semois valley. It is a heavily wooded walk, which takes us up past mushroom-studded paths. At the top we are ready for an expansive view but there is instead… fog. We wait for a while, and slowly it clears, displaying a beautiful valley below with a small village and a few couples kayaking up the Semois river. It is refreshing to see a landscape as wild as this in Western Europe. Just a short drive in all directions are the open, arable plains of Belgium and France. Here, the intriguing natural character remains. It is really very quiet up here too.
We descend and hop on our bikes again. We have one more night in the Ardennes before we head to the regional capital of Charlivilles-Mézières and we decide to loop back around towards Renwez and camp in the dense forest near Lac des Vieilles Forges. It is a lovely cycle as it takes us through pretty villages and past the medieval ruins in Montcornet and through the pretty town of Renwez.
Bicycle-friendly Gastronomy in the Ardennes
After another chilly day on the bikes, and we consider sampling some of the ‘produit de terroir’ at a snack bar. A good friend, who knows the area, recommends that we try mitraillette. This is not the food of athletes, but when you are not really one, there is no need to have any guilt in eating chips and meat in a sandwich.
As we cycle through Renwez, we enjoy a delicious croissant from the ‘Boulangerie Crepin’. I always think it is a great sign when you walk in and they only make croissants and pain au chocolat. The simplicity is the key. No extra toppings, just classy pastry. We eat it in the bus shelter, as we hide from the rain.
Surrounded by ceps and boars
We set up campsite in a clearing in this thick woodland. It is hunting season, and we don’t want to be mistaken for anything worth shooting at, so we make sure we are visible. We are surrounded by a surplus of ceps, and manage to add a few in our evening meal too. In the night we hear the distant noises of wild boar, which serve as gentle reminder that we are just guests in this woodland.
As we pack up to leave in the morning, it is with a heavy heart, as we know it is our last night in these enchanting forests. We have had the chance to see some beautiful medieval towns and gorge on the gourmet offerings of the forest.
Biking in the Ardennes has been very enjoyable and we know we will be back!
About Jasper Pryor
Jasper has always loved being outside. Swimming in rivers, climbing trees and peering at wildlife is how he wants to spend his time. Travelling around Europe he finds it hard not to be drawn to the wilder corners. From the Picos de Europa to the Northern Apennines there is still wilderness on this continent, if you know where to look. Jasper hopes to inspire people to look further than an airport and a taxi to a hotel. There is so much out there and it can be so cheap.
Check out his website https://jasperpryor3.wixsite.com/my-site-4 for more outdoor explorations.