Saturday, 31 March 2018

Travel Tales: French Fun

We hadn't left the docks at Boulogne before we were lost. None of us had ridden or driven abroad before and we were all confused but not as perplexed as the French drivers who could not believe our route through junctions and roundabouts.

The trip had started the way most do - a few drinks. a bright idea and, before you know it, I'm arranging two weeks in the South of France for the five of us. The arrangements were very simple, Keycamp supplied the tent ready erected at Frejus near St. Tropez and Sealink provided the ferry crossings.

Total cost worked out at £98 each plus petrol and food for a fortnight. Once we realised that the French don’t put the same emphasis on road numbers and use name signs for towns en route to your destination, we started to make progress. Bob on his FZ600 and myself on an R100RS soon realised that the other three in a Rover 216 had different ideas about the journey. Their idea of fun was to jump on the autoroute and zoom down to Auxerre for the overnight stop. So we waved them goodbye and headed across country, avoiding all the major towns.

We finally arrived at Auxerre at 7.30pm having been on the road since midnight. We were absolutely knackered and hadn't enjoyed the journey at all. The following day didn't start that well, either. Bob fell off his FZ on some gravel in the campsite, snapping off a mirror and damaging the fairing. It had to be the good side, Bob making a habit of falling off... friends in work were making bets as to where in France he would come off.

FZs don't seem to like laying down as, within a mile, the oil warning light was on and we had to put in a litre to bring it up to the mark. That done, we pressed on, heading for the Autoroute Del Sol and the Med. We still had 600 miles to go and thought we had better get some miles under the wheels. The 55 mile ride to the autoroute was so good we were tempted to turn around and do it again.

We were really starting to enjoy ourselves. The tolls on the autoroute were a novelty but only cost about £2 for 200 plus miles. The autoroute did have a speed limit but no one seemed to be bothered and 200 miles passed in less than two hours. On motorway work the bikes were very alike in performance with the BM more stable, comfortable and with a 200 mile plus range. The FZ was slightly quicker, the seat was a killer and Bob was having to fill up every 100 miles.

It was on the autoroute that we realised just how badly treated we were over here. We stopped at an autoroute services and went into the self service cafe for lunch. We were met at the door, shown to an immaculately clean table, treated like honoured guests, even offered showers and it still only cost us £2.50 each.

The last 200 miles to the Med we decided to ride through the Alps, a decision we did not regret. The roads were built for biking, bends, long sweeping curves. mountain passes, light traffic and beautiful sunny weather. If anything it was too hot, high eighties - the fairings on both bikes kept us at near boiling point

Many stops were made for photos and stripping off although working as ambulancemen meant that there was no way we were going to ride without leathers... we’d seen the consequences. and mashed flesh. too often.

The FZ's seat was causing Bob some problems, his short legs combined with his riding style had rubbed the insides of his thighs raw. This had him standing at the side of the road in his underpants wrapping his thighs in what looked like a giant nappy, much to the amusement of passing motorists.

We finally arrived at the campsite at about 5.30pm having had the best biking day of our lives and were delighted to find that we had beaten the car by over an hour (the highlight of their trip had been the atlas blowing out of the sunroof at 100mph).

The campsite was brilliant and bikers were made very welcome. The tent was equipped with everything including the kitchen sink and even had three bedrooms with real beds. The price of wine was an unbelievable 10 pence a bottle in the local supermarket, so six crates were slung in the car. The evening was spent taking our medicine and relating the wonders of the journey to the extent that the car passengers all wanted to ride pillion.

The next day was spent lounging around the pool (palm trees and pretty girls in bikini bottoms) and yet another trip to the hypermarket for more medicine. A late evening ride up the nearest mountain to take photos of the town at night left a lasting impression on Derek, one of the car passengers, who was riding pillion on the BM.

The road got worse and worse, narrower and narrower, until we eventually arrived at the summit to find a helicopter landing pad... we later found out that nobody, but nobody, ever used the road up the mountain, even in daylight. The descent was even hairier, all that seemed to show up in the headlamps were guardless sheer drops and once safely back at the tent more medicine was prescribed.

The following days were a biker's dream. Bikes are king in the South of France. Drivers pull over to let you pass, in traffic they leave gaps for you to filter through. Bikes can and do park anywhere and unless you have an accident you will be very unlucky to even see a police car. We visited all the in places - St. Tropez (very commercialised), Nice and Cannes (just the usual large cities) and Monte Carlo (very expensive and posey) - in fact, Monte Carlo was the only place we met the local constabulary.

Bikes are not allowed to ride past the casino and, of course, we did. He was very polite and considering that we spoke no French and he no English, each understood the other, something that we found throughout the holiday, language was not a barrier. Bob and I had a reasonable conversation with a French rider on a VFR at the campsite and knew that he was enjoying his holiday as much as we were ours even though we didn’t understand a word.

The French biking scene is weird. Masses of customised mopeds that everyone from 14 to 90 rides like lunatics, usually on the pavement. Large enduro type bikes and very ratty old Jap bikes on bald tyres. But the majority of bikes we saw were Swiss and German registered, usually at weekends when everyone seemed to be out for a blast around the Alps.

We only had one wet day. Naturally, it was the only day we didn't carry waterproofs. We were in the mountains looking at a grand canyon about 50 miles from the campsite when it suddenly started to bucket it down. Well, we sheltered in a tunnel and waited and waited and waited, but it had set in for the day so we had no choice but to ride back in the rain, getting soaked in the process. And, yes, the others had sat around the pool all day and hadn't seen any clouds let alone rain.

Eventually, the time came to go home. Bob and I decided to detour through Italy and Switzerland. This final trip through the Alps wasn't taken with our new accustomed elan as by now Bob's rear tyre was threadbare, after only 3500 miles, but the French roads seemed very grippy and abrasive. Switzerland was reached by about 9pm and this was the only time throughout the holiday we were asked to produce our documents.

I think the Swiss officer was bored as we were the only vehicles in the St. Bernard tunnel at the time. At other times we had zig zagged across the French, Italian and Swiss borders with never more than a wave through. A word of warning to anyone contemplating using one of the tunnels. If you don't have to, don't. They are expensive (£7 each way), dirty, slippery, cold, damp and fume filled. Well worth missing.

Switzerland was a disappointment. Dirtier than I expected in the cities and very, very expensive. Even B & B is not cheap, so we slept the night in a forest and got cold and damp for our troubles. However. a yacht clubhouse on the edge of Lake Lucerne provided hot showers - we were just looking for the toilet and the opportunity was too good to miss. Anyway. time was getting on and it was back to Auxerre for another stopover.

It was here that we suffered the only breakdown of the trip. The FZ refused to start in the morning and 20 minutes of head scratching later uncovered a sticky cut-out switch on the sidestand. Up until then, maintenance had been limited to spraying the chain on the FZ and the occasional top up of oil on the BM, about 1000 miles per pint. Apart from topping up after the fall, the FZ didn't seem to need oil.

Our last full day in France took us through Paris and the Peripherique (ring road). It's something to be seen to be believed. A basic four lanes each way which can increase to 12 lanes each way when other motorways join it. Everything on it is travelling at 70mph. It often drops into open top tunnels and the noise is incredible. It's like Deathrace 2000. Hesitate at your peril. l paused at the top of an exit lane and a French rider passed me on the inside doing about 40mph more than me and cleared the pannier by a whisker.

The ride between Paris and the campsite near Boulogne was very restrained with a heavy police presence. With most of our money gone we could not have afforded an on the spot fine. The nearer we got to the port the more police traps we saw. We were travelling at legal speeds but that didn't stop a couple of bike cops watch us pass them, overtake us and then hide behind a wall 5 miles further on. It didn't do them any good; we were paranoid about speeding and we crept past well below the limit. Our mpg figures were very impressive on this section, about 65mpg against our usual 45-50mpg.

The ferry trip and ride back to Northampton were uneventful, except that we got split up on the M2 in a 10 mile tail back, the only traffic jam we had seen in two weeks and 2900 miles of great riding.

If you want a cheap holiday in the sun you can't beat jumping on the bike and heading for the South of France. September is off peak, the campsites are empty of screaming kids, the Germans have abandoned the sun beds and we lived and were treated like kings for less than £400 for the fortnight.

Ivan Retalic

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