Sunday, 19 November 2017

Travel Tales: Heading South

Me on an XJ750 with a tank bag, giant throw-overs and a huge orange bag strapped to the pillion seat. Simon on an XS550 (stop laughing) with his fiancee (my sister) on the pillion seat. At least the luggage didn’t keep on yelling at me to slow down. The trip was only vaguely planned.

Get over to France and head south: "Biarritz sounds nice." A late night ferry, Portsmouth to Cherbourg, boring and uneventful (thank god). We arrived in Cherbourg at 7.00am, follow the rest of the traffic out onto the RN13, keeping an eye out for the D2. 30 minutes later we are hopelessly lost, wandering around unmarked country lanes; cold, wet and miserable. The sky overcast and drizzling, no trace of the sunshine we expected to magically appear on this side of the Channel.

However, God takes care of fools and idiots (we had one of each and a spare for emergencies) suddenly we were on the right road, headed in the right direction. The roads in France are, mostly, a dream. Smooth and well made, little traffic and almost no cops. We cruised at 90mph most of the time, flowing into the rhythm of the smooth curves, open countryside and sudden crossroads. You tend to forget that these roads aren’t motorways until a sign says 'Give Way' in French and you’re doing 90mph or more as you shoot past. Keeps you alert, anyway.

Despite the high cruising speed we didn’t seem to be covering much of the map. France is a big place, neither bike would do much more than 110 miles on a tankful of petrol at high speeds and ’Her Majesty’ was in frequent need of a toilet - the vibes, y’know.

We hammered on, following the signs from one city to the next, as the sun began to shine and the temperature soared. Rennes, Nantes, Roche, La Rochelle, Saintes, Bordeaux. And all the towns and villages in between, all a vague blur now. But the roads, ah! I remember the roads. Long and smooth, straight and twisting, warm and dry. Perfect.

There is a space warp in the southern suburbs of Bordeaux that catches unwary motorcyclists. We stopped in those innocent looking streets at 6.30pm for a cigarette and to figure out where we might stay the night. At 7.30, after three attempts at leaving them, we’re back where we started. Having a very limited amount of schoolboy French I was appointed the party's linguistics expert.

"Parlez vous Francais," I said to a kindly biker who was just mounting his Tenere. "Non," he replied. Then I pointed to the map and he pointed down the road. Perfect communication. At 9.00pm, 450 miles south of Cherbourg, we stopped at a small hotel in the village of Le Barps. £15 for the night for all three of us. We slept the sleep of the totally knackered.

The following day dawned bright and warm as we set off early. Biarritz was not far, so we meandered down a coast road in the French version of the New Forest. The temperature rose faster than the sun forcing layers of clothing to be torn off, a winding tree lined road, glorious sunshine and no particular place to go. Seems like a dream now.

Bidart is a small village just past Biarritz. We stopped at a campsite there and managed to hire a tent. £10 a night for a huge, four berth tent with its own fridge, cooker, camp beds and cooking utensils. The campsite was beautiful, clean, not crowded, good amenities and right on the beach. We spent an afternoon in the sea and sun, and in the evening we went into Biarritz to explore. Dinner at a sidewalk restaurant, a street rock show and a balmy evening. It was just an interlude until the next day’s hard riding.

Ever ridden a 150 miles in a strange country, on the wrong side of the road, in the pouring rain? Don’t bother, it’s not much fun. The rain stopped when we arrived in Lourdes, so we parked up the bikes and stowed away the wet weather gear. Naturally, it started raining again. We wandered around Lourdes for a couple of hours, trying to find somewhere with a little dignity, some sense of what happened there. The dignity of Lourdes has been sacrificed on the altar of tourism, in the church of the Holy Gift Shop. But then, we were tourists as well. 
We left Lourdes feeling depressed, because of the town and because we were soaking wet, inside and out. 50 miles later we found another little village hotel and shuffled dejectively inside.

The fourth day was going to be a mad dash for the Mediterranean coast. At the lovely Biarritz campsite we had been given the address of another campsite where we would be able to hire a tent, at Port Crimaud, near St. Tropez. We set off under another downcast sky, hoping to find better weather. We found some sunshine and beautiful roads, as we howled along the N117, avoided Toulouse more by luck than judgement, then avoided the Autoroute by using the N113. By midday it was so hot that even our excessive speed couldn’t keep us cool.

Carcassonne, Narbonne, Beziers and Montpelier all passed into a blurred montage of images. The only places we could be sure of seeing were petrol stations every 100 miles or so. Once again our cruising speed was high but we weren’t getting anywhere very fast.

When we filled up with gas in Salon we decided to use Autoroute A7 and turn up the wick a little more. Motorways, are boring, but at least the French ones are less so than ours. They wind crazily through the mountains and twist back and forth through the hills in a series of sweeping left and right hand curves that mega-bike owners dream of. Neither of us had a mega-bike but we had a lot of fun. With the speedo stuck on 110mph we had the outside lane to ourselves. At that speed my bike weaved slightly, and my sister was severely battered by the wind blown up by the XS. My weave never got any worse and Simon’s ribs were already a mass of bruises so we pushed on.

Despite having to stop twice for tolls, and despite leaving the motorway at the wrong exit and having to get back on it, we covered more than a 100 miles in an hour. More importantly, the winding road, the bike and the speed combined into a curiously calming, yet exhilarating experience that I would not have missed.

Eventually, we arrived at Port Grimaud, a not so charming little place that seemed to consist entirely of huge campsites. At the campsite we had been told of, we asked the local rep if we could rent a tent and he informed us that he didn’t have any. We mentioned that his supervisor had sent us to him and he then remembered that there were a few vacant tents...

Filthy, dingy, mosquito infested shit hole is the kindest description I can give of that tent and the campsite reverberated all night to the cries of the worst type of tourist - the drunken British yob. We stayed the night for lack of anywhere else to go, but got no sleep with the noise and the insects eating us alive. In the morning we left without paying and felt no guilt.

Motoring gently along the coast road we stopped at a small campsite at La Gaillarde and asked if we could rent something - a tent, caravan, anything. God was looking after the fools again, because all that was left to rent was a room. Actually a converted garage with three beds, clean sheets and blankets, a fridge, a cooker and even its own little terrace, all for £10 per night. We stayed there for eight days.

Using the campsite as a base we made forays up and down the coast every day. St Tropez (dirty and smelly), Cannes (over-rated and over-crowded), Nice (too big to enjoy a short visit), Monte Carlo (£5 for three Cokes) and many other places. Most days we swam in the Med before or after our journeys and spent a relaxing hour or two on the beach.

Our base was halfway between St Maxirne and St Raphael and we’d normally eat in one of those two towns or take something back to our garage. Every day was clear, sunny and hot. One day, riding through the hills a few miles inland, the heat was so intense that we honestly wondered if we could bear to come back to the UK.

We reluctantly decided to head for home 'via the centre of France and the Central Massif, giving - ourselves two and a half days to reach Cherbourg. Onto the N7 and blast along to Aix-en-Provence, Avignon, Orange, Montelimar. Then left towards Aubenas on the N102, one of the world’s great motorcycle roads. The tarmac was as smooth as a baby’s bum, the road twists and winds through every conceivable type and. combination of bend whilst rising, higher and higher into the mountains. The drop to one side became daunting, the scenery became even more breathtaking. At one point you can see a mountain in the distance whose entire top is a chateau, the mountain’s sides becoming the walls of a castle. But even that wasn’t all that important in the scheme of things. Only the road, the bike and the sunshine mattered.

And when it was over we wanted to start again. On we went, to Le Puy, Clermont and Montlucon. At La Chapelaude, 10km past Montlucon, we decided to stop for the night. ‘ Some local people helped us find Mme Simone Petit, who had a Gite, basically a farm that took in a few paying guests. She was incredibly helpful and friendly, cooked us a glorious meal, served us with wine and coffee, and showed us into a clean, bright room with soft, welcoming beds.

We left the next day, refreshed and relaxed, in less of a hurry now but anxious to get home. Through Chatearoux, Tours, Le Mans, Alencon and Caen. We stopped for our last night about an hour away from Cherbourg at another , farm, nearly but not quite as good as the previous one. The last day of our holiday dawned cold and foggy but soon brightened up. Instead of a fast ride. along the N13 we chose a leisurely three hour ride down the country lanes and back roads, even stopping for a while at Omaha beach, of D-day landing fame. Then it was Cherbourg and the ferry home. A last blast along the dual carriageway and motorways to Bournemouth and it’s all over.

Over 2500 miles in two weeks. At times we were tired, depressed, cold, miserable, wet and wondering where we would be staying the next night. But the things we saw, the people we met and the experiences we had more than made up for those minor inconveniences. Try it for yourself.

Martin Hull

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