A Lap of France

Day One – Fratton

I’m spending the evening at Vicky’s house, a tiny terraced pied-à-terre in Portsmouth, because not having to get up at 04:00 to catch a ferry seemed worth £21 when I flicked through AirBnB last week. Actually just meeting my host is worth the score; she’s a bright and bubbly girl of Asian origin, training to be a nurse, and readily offers her comprehensive knowledge of the local area. We chat for a few minutes before I grab the the boxes off the bike and transfer them to my digs, dumping them in the corner of a tiny room containing a bed and a desk. There’s only aural evidence of somebody living here, as sounds of children trying to be quiet in too small a space leak past the thin wooden door across the landing from me, bouncing around the pristine but sterile hallway before coming to rest at my dirty boots. Wooden door? Theirs is the only one, both the bathroom portal and gateway to my residence are full-size frosted glass, which turns out to be useful later as there’s no light switch within. And because it saves you knocking if you can see that the throne is already occupied.

Fratton didn’t strike me as the sort of place where anybody will mind if you don’t dress for dinner, so I limit preparations to removing my helmet and gloves before investigating the delights of the town. To be honest my heart wasn’t really in it, so I don’t mind too much when I discover that there’s no actual restaurants in the area. Bringing a kebab back to my BnB would have been rude, and since I lacked the courage to ask for food in any of the pubs I returned to the Wetherspoons I passed earlier, discounted at the time due to a group of smoking teenage mums kicking a Lucozade bottle to death.

Admittedly the beer was brilliant (well kept Hop Hog IPA) but I was thoroughly miserable while I waited for my burger. Half a dozen clinically obese girls in their mid to late thirties noisily crowded around a smartphone playing a clip of an opera singing cat, competing for sensory domination of the room with the group of likely lads at the table behind me. I would have chosen a quieter corner, but as soon as I spied the perfect table it was taken by a young couple, the unshaven tracksuit wearing male of the species leaving his mousey faced pregnant partner to fend for herself on Facebook while he gets the lagers in. They clearly don’t have a pot to piss in, yet he leaves a few quid in the fruity next to the bar, and I start to wonder whether noticing this makes me a snob. Maybe it’s just guilt, guilt at sloping off for a week of shameless springtime self-indulgence on a brand new bike, leaving behind a tired girlfriend to manage the imminently shedding snakes and a fresh-faced new colleague to run with my projects. By the time the food arrives I’m ready to chuck it all in and go home, but the second pint is as good as the burger is bad and now I have Figaro all through my head.

Bike parked among cars in front of terraced houses, Portsmouth
Adventure begins at Home

Day 02 – Châtellerault

Trying to leave as quietly as possible, I dress fully in my room, donning helmet and gloves so that both hands are free to carry the cases, and then bash my head loudly on the ceiling above the stairs. Sorry Vicky, shouldn’t have said you’d be impossible to wake in the morning – karma likes a challenge. I take a running jump at the bike and get to the ferry with five minutes to spare, sneakily jumping the queue to join a group of sports bike riders on uncomfortable looking machinery without luggage.

It feels as though I’ve no luggage myself this time around. For once I don’t plan on camping so I’ve forced myself to travel light, taking only the panniers and whatever I can stuff in my pockets; no tent, no cooker, no proper camera, just waterproofs, a change of clothes, and a credit card. And a great big lock. And the laptop, for maps and photos. And two spare pairs of gloves, trainers, and a large bag of GoPro bits, chargers, and a day bag. Travel light? I can barely lift the boxes onto the bike. At least once they’re on board they become weightless, the electronic suspension adjustment effortless compensating for the additional bulk at the touch of a button. Remind me how we did this before?

The ferry to Le Havre is at most a quarter full, and there are only a few other folk in the club lounge that was to be my escape from the feared hordes of sugar-laden children and fellow spring-breakers. Instead I enjoy the company of Dean, a likeminded individual of similar age who’s escaping to Normandy on his Triumph a for week. A fresh pain au chocolat and second complimentary coffee take our minds off the snoring Welshman and some nasally bickering Brits whose liberally shared conversation consists entirely of stating the obvious; this hand cream’s nice and those seats are different to ours. I’ve no idea why this should annoy me so much, so I try to remind myself that I’m supposed to be easy going and pick Dean’s brains about the new Tiger Sport.

Four hours pass quickly thanks to our mutual mockery of the weekend papers’ advertising supplements (does anyone actually need plastic cobbled lawn edging?) and before we know it we’ve been boarded by Le Havre’s harbour pilot who expertly puts us to berth. I’m mightily impressed. Imagine being able to not just drive but actually park ships, great big things weighing thousands of tonnes and costing millions of pounds, with a bewildering variety of controls and type-specific quirks, as easily as valet parking a car? Unlike me, I don’t suppose he worries at all each time he steps up to the Avis counter.

My new tactic of keeping documents in my jacket for easy access is rewarded by not being asked for my passport at all, which makes being the first one off the ferry even sweeter. Le Havre is simple to navigate and minutes later I’m into the great wide open, off our little island and spinning wheels on continental Europe. I could, if I wanted to, ride to Beijing without having to use another ferry, divert to Delhi without having another English conversation. The prospect of such possibilities pleases me enormously, even if I’m just intending to trickle around France for a few days.

Day 03 – Limoges

Yesterday was all about making distance, breaking the back of the boring bit and getting away from the traffic. I hate using the Péage on the bike – such a waste of France – but needs must and thanks to the racing at Le Mans all motards get to go round the toll booths gratis. I stayed at the Ibis in Châtellerault, eschewing the expensive in-house restaurant for an authentic French cafeteria experience at the local Auchan, involving many tickets and a pretty fine cheeseburger. The latter was cooked to perfection while I waited by a skinny guy with a perpetual smile, who I later saw cleaning the salad counter. Actually cleaning it, going over the same bits several times until he was satisfied, as opposed to giving the whole thing a perfunctory wipe with a cloth, before retreating to the grill and serving two eight year olds fish fingers and chips, still smiling. While this was going on, four Turkish guys in their late forties or early fifties were having an increasingly heated discussion on a table in one corner. Nobody else wanted to sit near them, so they effectively had their own third of a restaurant for the price of three small, long consumed coffees. As their conversation became more aggressive some people near me left, abandoning their half eaten meals to hurry past the empty tray trolley emblazoned with ‘please help us by clearing your table’. I like people-watching, especially abroad, but I don’t always like the questions I end up asking of myself.

Today started with an extra hour in bed, thanks to a short itinerary and a fabulous night’s sleep. No more autoroute for me, I’m straight into the good stuff, zigging the zag along twisty, empty roads through verdant farmland speckled with tiny villages that couldn’t have been more French had everybody worn berets and onions. In a peculiar way I miss all this; the dusty village squares beneath coppiced chestnuts where boules is played, the Tricolore in lazy, hazy midday heat outside the Mairie, the old boys on benches by the side of the road who wave at me, unprompted and smiling as though I’m the best bit of their day. I miss it even as I’m living it, all-consuming yet insatiable, and realise that I don’t feel this way about any other place on earth.

I’m in the zone now, enjoying every second, with Wetherspoons as distant a memory as the weekend papers and plastic cobbled hedging. The roads really are superb; long straight stretches of perfect tarmac permitting lingering glances at fairytale chateaux across shimmering vineyards, broken by sinuous squiggles where the route crosses a river blanketed with the white flowers of aquatic plants in full-on funk. Long dormant childhood memories come awake with the scent of freshly cut grass turning to hay on this, the first perfect day of spring, while swallows dive across the road so close to me I swear I can see their smiles.

The reason I planned a short day today is Oradour sur Glane, a typical French village at the time but forever locked in stasis. On June 10th 1944, a Nazi Waffen-SS company burned the village to the ground, slaughtering 642 unarmed inhabitants in the process. French president Charles de Gaulle ordered the village to be preserved as it was that fateful day, which means that you can now wander around burnt out cars and ruined buildings, looking through charred window frames at the rusting remains of people’s lives more than half a decade ago. Entrance is free, the only toll extracted is a request for dignity via the large ‘Silence’ sign just past the only entrance. As I walk around I don’t know what to feel. I try for poignancy and respect but get grounded at every turn by overheard snippets of people’s conversations; light-hearted, full-on plebby banter, pointing out that there are a lot of old sewing machines, and why was every other house a cafe or a hairdresser? Isn’t it a nice day today? I hate myself for mentally agreeing with all of the above, especially the latter. It’s bloody sweltering, but I daren’t take off my heavy jacket because with spectacular lack of foresight I’d put on my one and only camouflage T-shirt this morning. For some reason my leather boots are extra squeaky today, as I walk slowly back to my German motorcycle, trying not to burn my shiny shaved head. Arse.

Day 04 – Valence

It was a short ride from Orator sur Glane to Limoges, just 20 minutes, but nowhere near long enough to get some fresh air through my clothes and some fresh thoughts through my mind. The friendly owner of a small family-run hotel put my bike in his private garage and showed me to my room; a tastefully furnished, spotlessly clean space of light and air, right under the eaves on the third floor in the middle of town. What is it about being at the top of the house that instils such a sense of security and wellbeing?

A quick shower and change, and then hit the town. Except it’s closed, because it’s Sunday. Come of France, all I want is a quick beer! But non, no traffic, no tourists, no bars. I’m saved by my host, who reveals a deserted hidden courtyard and a tray full of local ale. Perfect. In lieu of other inspiration I break out TripAdvisor and learn that the town’s top rated restaurant is just 40 yards away. And that it’s closed. In the end I surrender to a kebab across the road.

I’m up early the next day, intending to get a head start on the heat and because I know it’s going to be a long one, nearly 300 miles on fairly small roads, so probably around 8 hours in the saddle. I can’t get clear of the city quickly enough, and when I do I switch the bike straight into ‘dynamic’ mode. UK traffic and poor timing meant that I’ve really only tried this setting out once or twice since picking up the new GS last October, though the ‘rain’ profile has seen regular use. Out here it’s another matter, and I’m grinning like the proverbial Cheshire cat as we eat up the miles.

Lunch is skipped and dinner turns out to be McDonald’s partly because they have free WiFi and partly because I can’t be arsed to explore another city that could well turn out to be shut. Sorry Valence, next time.

Day 05 – Chamonix

Originally planned as a short day, this turned out to be a complete nightmare thanks to several road closures that weren’t supplemented with diversions. And rain. And freezing temperatures. On the positive side I was able to ride one of my favourite French roads, the Combe Laval, but low cloud and slippery conditions prevented me from making the best of it.

Day 06 – Chamonix

Rest day. I did some washing, ate some food that wasn’t McDonald’s, and hatched a plan: some of my favourite roads on this trip are balcony roads, cut into the rock face, narrow, more often than not with a rocky overhang on one side and a whole load of nothing on the other. I would research some more of these roads and put together a little route to get me out of here one day earlier than planned, because it’s three degrees outside and the rain which hasn’t stopped since yesterday is turning to sleet. I don’t need this. Vamos!

Close-up shot of black and white BMW motorbike in front of some snow-covered mountains
BMWR1200GS TE, Alpine White, in the Alps. Which are partially white.

Day 07 – Valence

An early start today. My little route of balcony roads turned out to be quite ambitious with nine hours of riding, mostly on the kinds of routes then demand absolute attention. Unfortunately it wasn’t long before I encountered the first of many roadblocks. The trouble with these is that here in the mountains you can’t just swing a left, miss out a couple of blocks, and get back onto your route. Trying to get to the other end of the road you want can mean a hundred extra kilometres, by which point you find out that the other end is also closed and you just wasted three hours. Out of my planned six balcony roads I only visited two; the Gorges du Nan and the D292 near Presles.

On a positive note, the temperature started to increase little by little as I came down from the mountains, and I started to see more wildlife again; a buzzard carrying a snake, and a family of polecats on the school run, complete with rodent-based packed lunch. Accommodation tonight was the same Formule 1 Valence Nord that I’d used a couple of days back, only this time around I eschewed the Scottish restaurant’s plastic food in favour of a cafeteria attached to the local supermarket. The French system is an improvement on the English one whereby you load your tray with starter and dessert, then take it to the till where you order your main course and pay for the lot. The cashier gives you a receipt and a voucher, which you then take to the grill counter after eating your starter and the nice man prepares your main meal, which you get to enjoy hot. Vegetables and sundries are added at the same counter, and you can get up and refill as often as you like. It’s fast, tasty, and on paper probably no better for you than McDonalds, but at least it feels like real food.

Day 08 – Blois

It’s so nice being warm again! May is quite possibly the best time to visit France on a bike; it’s mostly good riding weather, the kids are still at school, and you can get a room pretty much anywhere without booking. Just stay away from the Alps. Today I also learnt that the D15 from Valence to Le Puy is easily the most entertaining ride I’ve had in years – I would have gladly turned back to do it again if it hadn’t been for the remaining 600km. Bend after perfect third gear bend on grippy surface with great visibility … how often in your life do you get to spend 45 minutes flicking left to right, no straight bits at all, toes-to-tarmac every time? I was enjoying myself far too much to stop and fish out the GoPro, but when I finally did I could actually smell my tyres. Too bad the roads had deteriorated past Le Puy, all trees and shadows and sudden pockets of gravel. Then 250km of motorway, then boredom alleviate by abandoning my route in favour of Garmin’s “curvy roads” routing option, straight to my destination: Formule 1, Carrefour, and something that claims to be 80% Pinot Noir and 20% Gamay. Loire valley tomorrow.

Dead straight road leading into the distance under a blue and white sky
Straight roads at last!

Day 09 – Rouen

Just 180 miles today, but in trying to squeeze the last few drops out of France I’d planned some small, scenic roads and a visit to Château de Chaumont. The chateau was great but the owners had tried to increase visitor numbers by installing various art exhibitions which didn’t really fit into or complement the general ambience of the place. Shame.

Gradually leaving the Loire valley I was back in deserted, rural France, but still managed to find another diversion and lose a couple of hours due to not wishing to use the autoroute. Stayed at the Ibis Budget in ruggedly charming Petit Quevilly and celebrated the last night with a three course meal at the adjacent Courtepaille, including two bottles of wine.

Somewhat hungover the next day, but luckily Le Havre was just 90 minutes away and the ferry is even emptier than it was on the way out; eight cars, two motorbikes, and a cyclist. All of the other passengers seem to be retired, and those that aren’t asleep yet are happily wittering on about nothing, because silence is there to be filled. Maybe it’s my hangover. A couple of thoughts to wrap up the trip while I wait for my synapses to reconnect properly:

  • Hotels are definitely easier than camping, but I don’t like leaving the bike in deserted industrial zones and can’t be doing with the expense of inner city establishments or traffic. A tatty cover would provide peace of mind but it’s bulky and I’m not sure I can be bothered.
  • Two panniers are more than adequate and the bike feels / looks nicer without the top-box on as well, but they’re also inconvenient because you have to take them off each time you want to get something out or put something in.
  • The ESA (Electronic Suspension Adjustment) is brilliant, and makes the luggage disappear at the touch of a button. Also great for smoothing out sudden bumpy roads. Clever stuff.
  • OK, so it wasn’t a lap of France as promised, but then the Alps were too cold and going north around Lake Geneva didn’t appeal as much as revisiting the Vercors region, particularly Royens. Next time I’m going to spend far longer in this neck of the woods.