Getting to France
16 to 21 September 2007
Our initial plan was to tour the southern counties and then get a ferry out of Portsmouth to the south of France. This plan was dashed when our UK insurance company failed to send out some needed papers causing us to return to London to pick them up. Bureaucratic incompetence knows no geographic boundaries it seems.
This photo shows the bike setup with the custom built tank box and removable side bags
Another shot of the bike rig. Amazingly, it all works ok
Our run back across the country included a short detour through the Welsh valleys. These original coal mining areas look much as I remember from old movies of DH Lawrence novels: bare arse hills with bare arsed towns. These villages are a million miles from the swank coastal villages full of cashed up English refugees.
We stopped at one pub for a piss stop and I am sure we were the most interesting thing to happen that week. If only we could have understood what they were saying, I’m sure we would have had in interesting time with the locals!
We over-nighted at Thornbury (near Bristol) and visited Steve Smith’s uncle and aunt and his 8 Rolls Royces. We stopped at a smelly B&B out off Shaftsbury next to a dairy (bad mistake) and enjoyed the 17th century house and 18th century plumbing. We then headed for Kent and a couple of days make and mend to pick up the paperwork. The country lanes were crowded, the countryside cluttered but the ride overall was interesting and enjoyable.
Ashford gave us a chance to get some haircuts and find some internet access; both essential after the wilderness of the Wild West.
All of this faffing about left us short of time to get down to Montpellier for game three. The Channel Tunnel was the quickest option; or so we thought. Hours of waiting, then sitting on the bike in a line for more hours was only made bearable by the fact that it didn’t rain.
Waiting for the train to France
To top off the experience, an emergency was sounded half way through the tunnel when a fuel spill was found in the deck above ours and we were evacuated to the end of the train for the remainder of the trip. Great!!!!!
On the train before the emergency warning alarm sounded!
Two hours on the excellent French motorways south to Rouen cleared the cobwebs and a hearty French dinner put all right with our world again. Finding the Statue of Liberty was a bonus!
Just like our love of "big" things, the French have a collection of little things, in this case, the Statue of Liberty at Barentin north of Rouen
Just to get the size in perspective
Friday 21 Sep was our toughest day so far on this adventure. A “little” miscalculation in the navigation saw our 620 km (thank the heavens we are free of those dreadful miles) day extended over 12 hours.
An interesting house at Nonancourt. Dieter would love finding a straight side in this building!
After winding though villages and back roads all day we gave up and headed for the motorway and tested the stability of the big rig at high speed over the last 250 km. 250 divided by 140 equals……..a quick trip to town.
Places to stop by the highway are hard to find
Brive was an unexpectedly pleasant reward after a hell of a day.
The Beemer standing guard outside a Brive hotel
More Brive markets. The fresh produce is excellent at these local markets
The run down to Sete on the Med coast with a lazy, long lunch, and a wander through interesting back lanes, highways and mountain villages was just the kind of day we like on a bike.
This big arsed bridge may be called a viaduct, but it is still impressive. 130 kph all the way
We found Nick at a cheap hotel (where else), a cold beer and some food and our miserable run to Brive was forgotten. To top it off, Sete is another great town.
At last we get to Sete and meet Nick
21 to 24 Sep 07
We could set up in Sete without any difficulty at all. It is a great little town.
Settling in to Sete like a local. It is a tough life on the road.
Nick was there a day before us and had found a cheap hotel right in the centre of town with a garage for the bike and his little hire car. Nick had explained in his fractured French that we needed parking for a small car and a moto. Madame assumed “moto” meant the type of little scooter they ride around these parts and not the monster we arrived on. Ah, it is these little miscommunications that make travel fun!
A view of Sete from a lookout above town
Unfortunately, getting to the lookout required a gentle afternoon stroll
We settled in, bought some train tickets to Montpellier for the next day and found some food and cold beer. Life was looking good.
The only downside to the place seemed to be that with the three of us stuffed in a small room, Jo and I had to wear some bed clothes for the first time in recent memory!
The town of Sete is a working fishing port, container port and tourist centre. The old town is built on the mainland and two islands formed by a couple of nice straight grand canals.
A canal at Sete by night. The weather is warm, but not warm enough for a Queenslander to swim
On game day (22 Sep) the train to Montpellier took about 40 minutes. The town was spacious, easy to get around and full of uni students returning from the summer break. The old hands were smoking and drinking coffee in the cafes; the freshmen standing on corners with large suitcases and a map, looking bewildered.
French trains generally run on time!!!!!
I am not sure who decided to make the tramway the main transport to the stadium but he was certainly in the sardine packing industry. I am sure that the trip would be pleasant if you could breathe, but it was a very long trip on a hot Autumn day in a crush of smelly bodies. When we saw the crush pouring towards the stadium, we realised that crowd control is not a French long-suit and made a resolution to get to the game in Bordeaux much earlier.
Crowd control the French way
Australia won comfortably over a lack-lustre Fiji outfit, we braved the tram crowd back to town, found more food and beer and coffee and pastries (all the necessities), and scurried back to Sete as quick as we could.
We were delighted to find a small Arc de Triumph in MP. After the tackiness of the mini-Statue of Liberty in Rouen, we thought we had found the French out twice in a week. Image our disappointment when we discovered that the MP Arc is hundreds of years older than the Napoleonic era version in Paris and not just a provincial replica!
The Montpellier Arc de Triumph. Not as big as some!
A layover day to do the regular tourist stuff in Sete and find an internet connection and the Med coast was done and dusted, it was back onto the bike and into the mountain roads.
Greg McBride would love the wiring on some of these old buildings
The Atlantic Coast
25 Sep to 1 Nov 07
Rolling towards the hinterland on the crisp cool morning of 25 Sep we felt refreshed after our short break in Sète. We had under dressed for the morning believing that the sun would burn off the cloud cover and warm the day as it had each morning over the last few weeks, but as we climbed into the mountains the temperature plummeted. By the late morning coffee stop at Mazemet we were ready for more clothing and a neck warmer to keep out the chill. The Indian summer was over (or, at least, gone back to India for the weekend).
Restricting ourselves to a 320 km ride through the back roads, the journey to Argen through the mountains was a delight; endless sweeping corners, with an excellent hard dry surface. Even the car drivers seemed determined to make it enjoyable for the tourists, moving over to allow us to slide past. I had the feeling that we were moving smoothly and gracefully through the turns until I looked across to see our shadow against the cutting and realised that in profile the Beemer looked like a praying mantis, all legs and bulbous bits.
A nice overnight stop with an interesting old city and an elevated canal that is worth seeing.
The canal bridge at Agen. How to take a river over a river
The river in the bridge. Impressive 19th century engineeering. Unfortunately, it was completed at the same time as the railway from Bordeaux to Sete and was never used for much commerce. These days it is a tourist holiday trip.
We met Nick late morning on 26 Sep at Arcachon, a coastal tourist town located an hour west of Bordeaux on the Atlantic coast. It has plenty of accommodation in late September and we had no problem finding an apartment for a week at a fair, if not reasonable, price. This allowed Nick to stay until the 30th after the Wallabies game, while we would stay on into the next week.
Jo and Nick on the water front at Arcachon
Like many seaside tourist towns, Arcachon has a genteel seediness about it. The Casino viewed from our apartment typifies the look. The boardwalks, jetties and sidewalk cafes are almost empty. You don’t have to wait for a table anywhere, but many places are starting to close for the winter.
The Arcachon casino from our apartment. Tacky? The French? Never!
Street scene from our apartment window. Holiday places start to look down at heal after the season, but the accommodation is cheap.
Taking advantage of Nick’s rental car we had a quick tour of the vineyards north of Bordeaux. This is the home of the famous Margaux and Médoc wines. It is very pretty in that ordered vineyard way that is now very familiar to our Australian friends. It also very touristy in a way that is also familiar. There are over 5000 châteaux and 57 “appellations” in this area. This is all you need to have a good time provided you don’t get run over by a tourist bus. Wines with the good housekeeping seal of approval have “AOC” on the label indicating the tick of the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée.
The closed up beach front at Carcans. This place would have been buzzing with tourists a month ago. This time of the year we have it all to ourselves.
Late season surf school at Carcans. 7mm wet suits for the Atlantic!
Mike and Nick dressed for the beach!
These Bordeaux wines include some excellent full bodied reds that appeal to Australian palates. Despite the temptation, however, we settle for €5.00 cheapies at the equivalent of a liquor barn and find them quite drinkable with our cheap meals. The budget thanks us for the effort.
The train up to Bordeaux arrived and departed on time on game day, with typical French railway efficiency, and got us up to the village in time for a good walk around the old city and a light lunch before the game. By kick-off it was raining and cold and many of the 33K crowd were not equipped for wet running. The Canadians were gallant but were outclassed by an Australian 2nd XV. The rain was heavy throughout the game and we were lucky to have our rain jackets with us. Jo and I had not brought our cold weather jackets, however, so while we were comfortable enough, we walked briskly back to town after the game just to warm up a little.
Bordeaux has a very old stadium of crumbling 1960s concrete. Not much shelter for those of us with the cheap seats.
The Bordeaux crowd gets wet!
The locals love their Rugby. This band was sitting just behind us in the stand and added a little atmosphere to a damp experience.
We have loved Middle Eastern sweets since our time in Damascus years ago. Finding a shop like this was a treat.
On Sunday Nick packed up the little rental car and headed north to Paris to return it before lunch on Monday. He will have a few days in Paris, including a French cooking course, before heading to the UK. We will see him again in late October in Oxford.
"I ended up with too much stuff......" Nick tries to pack for Paris and the end of his rental car. Of course it is under 20kg!!
It has been wonderful to have this time with Nick in Sète and Arcachon. We will miss his company and good advice over the next weeks.
After Nick made a break for the hills, Jo and I settled in for a few more days. Amazingly, after we fitted cold weather liners to our riding jackets, Sunday was brilliantly warm and we caught up on some exercise with a 10 km walk along the shoreline. Monday was back to rain while we did some repairs to our equipment and we knew without doubt that the weather would just get more cantankerous from here forward.
Getting onto the beach can be less than straight forward.
We left the liners in our jackets and spent some time working out how we could pack more warm clothing on the bike. From here we go north again into colder weather in the Loire, Champagne, Belgium, Paris and then England. This seems like the wrong time of year to be going in this direction but we reckon we will get used to the conditions and work out how to carry more cold weather gear as we go; good theory!!
Arcachon has been a great place for a week off. All the better for the lack of tourists.
Wed 3 to Sat 6 Oct
Our holiday by the sea ran out as quickly as the weather. One last walk around the village to check on the locals found these two Labs that obviously didn’t feel the need to share the road. France is a pretty good place for dogs.
Next stop was the Loire Valley. Located about 200 km south of Paris, this is the location of the picture book chateaux that look so romantic on postcards. The run up was about 480 km, the weather overcast and wet. It rained most of the day but we made better time than expected and hauled into Blois by mid afternoon.
Blois (pronounced Blwah) is roughly in the centre of the chateau area and is a nice small town of about 20K. The city has its own chateau (not wanting to be outdone) and has a well preserved historical centre. These steps in the middle of town really caught my imagination.
In the days when I was very serious about training, the group I trained with would have loved these steps. We would look all over for “good” steps then run up and down them until the first person threw-up. It is amazing what you do when you are young and bullet-proof.
Note also the nice little garden in the centre of the stairs. This is typical of gardens in public areas everywhere we have been. Many are quite wonderful but you never see a gardener working. Jo reckons this is because they work late at night with miners’ lights. I reckon it’s because all of the flowers are artificial.
These trees have been trained into the shape of an arched walkway. This is serious gardening!
A wonderful find in Blois was the house or Robert Houdin. Houdin was a man of many talents, but was importantly a magician of note. So impressive was his reputation, that the great American magician, Harry Houdini, took his name from this amazing Frenchman.
The statue of Robert Houdin in Blois. In summer, the windows of the house open each hour and the heads of a Hydra pop out.
We chose to visit only two of the dozen or so open chateaux. Since they were all built on the exploitation of the proletariat we felt entitled to a little disdain when considering the whole business of visiting these places. I suppose we could take the view that tourism is just another form of terrorism and let it go at that…...
The first was Chateau de Cheverny. This photo of Mike standing in front of the chateau gives the general idea.
The building was occupied as a family home until 1985 and has, therefore, very complete furnishings. This very rare clock was typical. I am sure that a previous Prime Minister would have been impressed by this one. The time was correct!
Dad (John) would be very impressed with the gardens here and the second chateau we visited at Chenonceau. These 16th and 17th century French gardeners certainly flogged nature into line. Thousands of folk must have got a payday out of the competition between these “nobles” to have the most impressive display.
These photos show some of the garden scenes from both chateaux. They give real meaning to the expression, not a blade out of place!
The cottage gardens were also superb. They mixed vegetables, herbs and flowers in a garden that any cook would love.
Enough for gardens!!
One reason that Cheverny was on the agenda is that the estate maintains a pack of about 100 hunting dogs and Jo was very keen to see the dogs and see them being fed.
This photo shows a couple of the dogs, a cross between English fox terriers and French poitevins, and Jo. Considering that it was close to feeding time we are reasonably sure that they are sizing her up for entrée.
The dogs are herded onto the roof of the kennel while the feeding area is cleaned down.
The dogs wait patiently on the roof for the appointed time.
The dogs wait less patiently in front of the pile of stinking offal that constitutes dinner until the trainers are happy that the tourists have got their money’s worth, and
The dogs go at it and clean up the lot in seconds.
While waiting for the dogs to get fed, we ran into Ian and Corinne who were mounted on a new Triumph ST purchased in Spain. In this photo they are pointing to the discrete NZ sticker on the back of the Spanish registered bike.
Ian had taken that legendary Kiwi cunning to new lengths in having a partner in Corinne who is fluent in both French and Spanish. Her English is also excellent, but I don’t think she understands Kiwi that well. The words “cold beer at the end of a long ride” didn’t seem to register according to Ian.
Visiting the gardens brought dad to mind, but visiting the Chateau de Chenonceau brought our friend Peter Pursey to mind.
The kitchen had some wonderful period items including this great cutting board and cleaver collection.
This is a mortar and pestle that any aspiring chef would be proud of.
The stove dated from WWI when the place was used as a hospital but is still a fantastic unit.
The best item, however, was this rotisserie which was powered by a weight running outside the window. The weight drives the gears and turns the spit. A clever regulator is on top of the mechanism keeps the rate of rotation constant and slow. Very cunning these French.
For the few days in the Loire, we cruised around the back roads having a great time on the country lanes. We have worked out that the best time to be on the roads is in the early afternoon when every self respecting rural Frenchman is at home eating something cooked in duck fat or in his local restaurant scoffing the plat du jour.
This shot is the road along the Loire River south-west of Blois.
Another great country lane. The roads here are excellent and the French drivers are generally conservative and considerate.
For our part we are settling into French life very well.
The hard lockable tank bag built for this trip isn’t perfect, but is working very well overall. It means we are able to chain our helmets to the bike and leave it fully locked. This is a great advantage over the standard tank bag we have used in the past.
Jo has worked out that, unlike Australian cheese, French fromage is low in cholesterol. Here she shows how to finish a meal so you won’t be hungry again for days!
The baguette! Fantastic, and available fresh from the oven anytime.
At the end of our Loire Valley stopover we are traveling well and we have most of the technical stuff on the bike sorted. We still need a little more stowage on the bike to take care of some bulky cold weather gear for the weeks ahead. Otherwise the first 5000 km has been trouble free.
Another day, another chateau.
6 to 14 Oct 07
Troyes and Champagne
We came up the motorway from Blois about as fast as we want to go on this rig. We had been slower getting away than planned and needed to be at the next stop in Troyes (it’s pronounced something like Troi with a definite rolling of the r) by 1230. Needing to make about even time for the trip we paid our money on the motorway and opened up the throttle.
It wasn’t long before Jo was explaining exponential equations as we watched the fuel gauge expire before our eyes. 15% more speed was costing us a 60% penalty in fuel. At 140 kph (the limit is 130, in fine weather, and most French stay “close” to this) you could almost see the fuel gauge move as you glanced at it.
Clearly, we have the aerodynamics of a barn door.
At home, a day of mixed riding would get an easy 500 km from the 30 L tank. With this load on board, we can get about 350 to a tank on the motorway if we keep the cruise at 120. At 140, the little “feed me now” light comes on at about 280 km.
The problem with this is that 95 proof costs €1.40 / L, that’s about $2.50 in proper money, or better than $50 every time you fill the tank! The only saving grace is that you run out of country after a couple of days. We have a tight budget for this trip, however, and we don’t want to miss out on a decent bistro meal for the sake of a quicker tip up the motorway.
So our rules from now on are clear: stay off the motorway, take a little longer on the back lanes, if you have to get onto the motorway (or the better A roads) stay under 120 kph no matter how good the road and how light the traffic.
Interestingly, you don’t see many fast sports bikes on the motorways but you do see a few big fast super-tourers. The ST1300s, BMW GTs and RT1200s generally have a couple on board in matching leathers and helmets with full luggage fit. They slide by at about 150 tucked in behind the big fairings. We watch them go with a wave and tell ourselves that the decision to bring the BMW GS will pay off later when the roads get bad and the distances get longer.
This photo shows our luggage ready to pack on the bike. The two tank bags double as day packs when needed and contain mainly wet weather gear and stuff needed during the day. We have one side bag each and the back box bag is filled with cold weather gear, computer gear and the medical kit. The plastic box is our “lunch box” and we use it to carry cheese, cold meats, bread, fruit, and the other stuff we buy and eat as we go.
Stopping by the road for a feed is easy and quick when traveling. The things worth noting in this photo are, firstly, the sartorially elegant way Mike uses his neck warmer when the temperature is just 10 deg C, and the small petrol stove carried in the tank bag and used to make a hot brew on a cold day.
So, after turning $50 worth of dead dinosaurs into noise and violence, we got into Troyes in good order to have a light lunch and get out on our feet to explore. What we found was a great town for a visit, and a good base to explore the Champagne region.
The city was mostly burnt down in about 1524 and was rebuilt quickly in the same style.
The buildings are all in the medieval and renaissance (Elizabethan) style. The buildings have a timber frame with the space between the frames filled with bricking.
Rouelle des Chats (Cats’ Alley) shows how close these houses were. At street level there is room for a lane, but at the top the eaves overlap.
A good percentage of the old city is intact and in regular use and they have made a very good attempt to put the buildings back to their original look. After WWII many buildings were plastered over to give them a modern look. Most of the plaster has now been removed and the place has a wonderful feel.
The French locals make the best of their beautiful town centre.
Thankfully, the few buildings we got into had the plumbing upgraded to 20th century if not 21st.
Troyes is the capital of the Aube département of the Champagne region and has been an important town since Medieval times. Since1505, it has been the capital of the French hosiery industry. It is home to Lacoste knitwear. Perhaps because of this, it is now Europe’s biggest factory outlet centre. Noting our distinct lack of luggage space we didn’t check the validity of the claim.
Troyes also produces 25% of France’s sauerkraut! This apparently random piece of information came to me just before we sat down to one of those long French lunches with the result that I ordered the local delicacy as part of the usual four course midday meal. This was undoubtedly our greatest culinary blunder yet!
Mike goes for the “pichett de vin rouge” having been stopped dead by French cabbage.
After a little investigation of the town, we decided it was well located to explore the wineries of the Champagne region which are located to the north east and south east. Considering that such important work needed time, we found a small farm house that we could rent for a week at a village located about 16 km east of town in a village called Bouy-Luxembourg. Notwithstanding that our landlady and her husband, nor probably anyone else in the village, didn’t speak any English, we managed to find the place, do the deal and move in without much difficulty.
“Our village”, for a week anyway.
Bouy-Luxemborge sits on the vast rolling plains of Champagne. The soil is clay-chalk and wasn’t much use for agriculture until the use of artificial fertilizers became widespread.
These days, the locals grow huge tracts of sugar beets, subsidized by the EU. No one here would even consider why they are growing sugar in such an inefficient way when it could come out of South America or Australia at 1/10th of the price, but France is like that.
Not much to look at!!!!
Growing sugar beets is not the glamorous part of farming in Champagne!
Sugar beet loading.
The coal fired sugar mill located 4km from our village.
The village looks much like hundreds of others in this area. The locals have a good quality of life, thanks to the EU Common Agricultural Policy. It looks like a reasonable place to live……if you like small towns.
Barns along the village street.
Geese in a neighbour’s yard.
Another neighbour has some pheasants under netting
Fallow fields are full of wild flowers. Also note the down jacket. It is getting bloody cold here!
Like every French village, B-L has an old church and old graves that are always fascinating to look over.
One of our neighbours is in the pest business. The business was called “Hygiene 5D”. The five “Ds” are listed on the door of the car. Even without any knowledge of French it is a great list.
Using the village as a base, our plan was to strike out to the wineries and to other places of interest. Being static for a week was a great chance to be domestic for a while.
Our farm house was very comfortable, with excellent heating and all the basics in place.
Making a choice between all of the different types of goat’s cheese is still confusing, but through persistence we are narrowing down the one we really like to a dozen or so.
With space on the bike limited, we don’t buy too much.
Over the next week we were able to explore far and wide over the Champagne region. We went to wineries in both the northern Marne and southern Aube départements, and spent some time in Troyes exploring some of its less well-know attractions. We also visited the lakes situated about 15 km further east and walked the man-made path through the forest. These lakes supply Paris water, or so we were told.
Jo steps out through the French wilderness.
The French are very tolerant of where bikes are able to park. In Troyes, we could park almost right in the central square and saunter over to a café for a café.
Less glamorous but essential, a few days static allows us to carry out some running repairs (in this case some stitching on Jo’s suit). Everything on bikes wears out and when you are using it all day every day it wears out v/quickly.
For our week in Bouy-Luxembourg, we have kept away from the usual tourist France (the wineries excepted) and have thoroughly enjoyed watching the world go by from our little village. If you have to be a beet farmer, then this is the place to do it!
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