Day 0 – Friday 20th August 2004
Home from work at lunchtime, we set about packing for a fortnight in western France and the Pyrenees. Our Thunderace can take a tank bag, two panniers and a top box so there was plenty of room. We caught the five thirty ferry from Newcastle to Amsterdam. It’s not cheap but it meant we could start our holiday first thing Saturday morning rather than spend a day crossing England.
The standard of food and accomodation on the ferries was good, out and back. We found the best VFM food-wise was the buffet. E25 for as many helpings as you liked. We managed about 6 courses before giving up.
Day 1 – Saturday
Nine oclock – we disembarked at IJmuiden, and headed straight off to Brugges where we planned to wander around and have some lunch. We were booked that night in the Groenedijk Motorcycle Loft Hotel (website has music). This place is quite an experience, and well worth a visit.
The EXUP valve on the bike was stuck in the closed position, reducing top-end power. Not a problem on motorways but I didn’t fancy spending the whole fortnight like that. Luckily it freed itself the following day, eventually packing up just before we caught the ferry home a fortnight later.
Day 2 – Sunday
A quiet day bimbling down to Caudebec en Caux – not, on this occasion, to the Hotel Marine, host to a couple of UKRM weekends including our honeymoon, but to the Hotel Normandie next door for a couple of nights. Just as nice as the Marine (corner room overlooking the Seine) but, given we lacked a TogTours discount, somewhat cheaper – although we decided we couldn’t afford the dinner prices in either establishment (both closed on Sundays anyway) and headed instead for our favourite cafe.
Day 3 – Monday
Morning found us touring a Calvados distillery. We’ve both developed a real liking for this stuff, and we came away with a bottle and a half of VSOP stuffed in the tankbag – plus directions to the nearest open petrol station.
Aside – we’ve pretty much learnt how to find petrol in France. You’re ok Tuesday to Saturday except over lunch away from main roads. Mondays are treated like Sundays in many areas, so you need to be careful. And even the bigger outlets like Intermarche can revert to card-only over lunchtime. You just need to think ahead.
On to Honfleur for lunch and to chill out the rest of the day. We like Honfleur.
Day 4 – Tuesday
Off to the Loire via Chartres. This part of France is flat, windy and dull. Make that bloody windy. And bloody flat – you can see Chartres cathedral from bloody miles away. And when you get inside the cathedral it’s bloody gloomy. So we’ll pass on the Centre region.
Next stop was our first look at a chateau – Chambord. What an amazing building this is. It looks like the builder has shuffled the architect’s plans before starting – odd towers everywhere and no attempt at symmetry. I rather liked it, but Pat’s conclusion was that whoever commissioned it deserved to be guillotined.
Time is getting on so we head for tonight’s stop in Chisseux.
Day 5 – Wednesday
First stop is another classic chateau – Chenonceu.
This is small but nice, but we’re starting to get the feeling that the English did the stately home bit rather better than the French. Back on the road and into our only real downpour of the trip. Long enough to get soaked but dry enough thereafter to get dry again.
Early afternoon saw us at Oradour-sur-Glane. I’d been wanting to visit the village since I first read about it. There is a very good website here, but in brief it is the scene of a massacre by the Germans in World War II and has been left untouched as a memorial. The photo here is one we took inside the church. You stand there and imagine the grenades being thrown in at the women and children and the machine guns appearing. You wonder at the mentality that could murder so many civilians in the hope of picking off the odd member of the Resistance. Then you reflect on the Americans bombing villages in present day Iraq (another one even as I write) and you despair.
Somewhat somberly we pressed on southwards watching the countryside change as we entered the Dordogne region, heading for Bergerac where we were due to spend three nights.
Day 6 – Thursday
A lazy day spent wandering the streets of old Bergerac, knawing a baguette by the river at lunchtime and experiencing a French Indian (meal) in the evening. It’s a nice place to chill out.
Day 7 – Friday
We rescued the bike from the hotel garage and set off up the Dordogne valley. This is France at its prettiest and you can see why so many Brits settle here – a fact we confirmed for ourselves when we stopped at the market in le Buisson-de-Cadouin and heard almost as many English voices as French, having already noticed that the estate agents in Bergerac advertised in GBP as well as euros.
We stopped to climb up to the castle in Beynac-et-Cazenac
from which we had a nice view of the river and the castle at Castelnaud opposite
and then went on to the hill-top town of Domme. All highly recommended if you’re in the vicinity. Another time we’ll get further up the valley.
In the evening we splashed out on a decent meal on the terrace in old Bergerac, and I got a kiss from the waitress.
Day 8 – Saturday
A cross-country ride to Sare, in Basque country in the foothills of the Pyrenees, where we were to spend two nights. We stopped off in Biarritz, and had a pleasant amble along the beach admiring the views. It appears a charming town, and we’d like to go back for a closer look sometime. As we leave I ask myself if I’ll ever get tired of looking at naked breasts. Answer – I doubt it.
Day 9 – Sunday
First up was a trip up la Rhune on the funicular railway. Great fun, and a superb view from the top. We’re at at 3,000 feet and that’s the sea you can see.
The afternoon saw us chilling out on the beach at San Sebastian. More lovely ladies to admire – including my wife! On the way out of town we had our only encounter with a Spanish motorcycle cop, who shot past us at well over the speed limit cheerfully waving his right leg in greeting. As an aside I’ve had waves acknowledged by French and Dutch bike cops as well – which is nice.
I’d foregone my leathers for the day, although Pat still had hers. What to wear on a bike when it’s hot presents quite a dilemma in hot climes. Our solution is to aim to keep each ride to one of two types – one is medium to fast, covering distance, in cordura or leathers, on the move most of the time, speed keeping you cool, and the other is slow, shortish bimbles where we potter about in cool clothes and ride very carefully. We also keep a long chain in the tank-bag so we can quickly chain leathers and helmets to the bike if we want.
Day 10 – Monday
The day, as forecast, was cloudy, misty and threatening – not what you want for your first trip into the Pyrenees proper. We decided to shorten our planned ride and take the motorway part of the way, leaving it just before Pau to tackle the Col d’Aubisque and then the Col du Soulor. Visibility was 50 yards at most the entire time. However, it cleared by the time we headed up the valley towards Gavarnie. So, at that point the score was Pyrenees 1 Irvines 1.
Gavarnie is spectacular. The village nestles below the cirque, round the foot of which you can walk – or ride (horse or donkey).
Day 11 – Tuesday
The day dawned really misty, so we were a bit pessimistic about the views we’d be getting, but we set off on our planned route anyway. This took us past the skiing resort of Bareges and up to the Col du Tourmalet. Our luck was in. A few hundred feet below the Col we broke through the cloud into glorious sunshine and a splendid view of peaks poking through the clouds. We lingered for a while just enjoying the view.
Descending into cloud again we pressed on over the Col d’Aspin (cloudy) and through Bagneres-de-Luchon to the Spanish border. Immediately the weather improved and, although some of our views were still hindered by low cloud, it stayed dry. We could certainly see what the views WOULD have been like had it been clear. On balance – Pyrenees 2 Irvines 2.
The roads were as twisty as ever. The smoothest riding should have been over the freshly surfaced road past the skiing resort of Baqueira over the Port de la Bonaigua, but the large quantity of cows and horses in the vicinity meant it was like riding through a farmyard – and that’s no exaggeration.
Our original plan had been to press on and spend the night in Andorra, but that would have been a tad too far for these roads. Besides, Domenec, occasional poster to ukrm, had recommended the Hotel La Morera in Valencia d’Aneu, so we had booked in there instead. What a good move. Nice hotel in a lovely setting, the evening consisting of a swim for Pat, a good dinner and finishing with us trying to overcome the effects of too much Catalan Vino Tinto (included in the demi pension rate!) on our private balcony, watching a bat hunt down its dinner to the background of fireflies and the moon rising over the mountain. Perfick. Thanks Domenec!
Day 12 – Wednesday
Great start to the day, with a long sweeping bendy road down to Sort, followed by the twisty road across to Seo de Urgel and Andorra. I was pleased to feel Pat quite relaxed behind me as I worked at reducing the chicken-strips. As I’d found the day before, some of the really tight, steep right-hand uphill hairpins were quite a challenge – full-lock being your only option if there was on-coming traffic. Not easy with pillion and top-box.
Andorra was horrible – at least the Spanish end was. Endless town and traffic, an object lesson in how to turn nature’s glorious mountains into a monument to Mammon. We didn’t stop until we were right up in the mountains near France, where our principles allowed us to fill up with tax-free petrol.
Once in France we opened up the bike and enjoyed the blast through seemingly endless hills, which lasted most of the way to Carcassone (or, if you’ve seen Prince of Thieves, Nottingham).
Carcassone wasn’t quite what we expected. The buildings were as we’d imagined them, but housed virtually nothing but souvenir shops, bars and restaurants – a real tourist trap. Still, it was pretty enough, and after a good wander around we parked ourselves in a Spanish bar under some trees and ordered a jug of Sangria. Demolishing a litre of this left us in no state to go looking for dinner so we just ordered up tapas, sundaes and digestivs. Luckily our hotel was only 200m away.
Day 13 – Thursday
Hit the road in good time to get to my cousin’s house (Lasalle, foothills of the Cevennes) by lunchtime. She and hubby and daughter have a huge ex-farmhouse, in the shade of which we vegged for the rest of the day.
Day 14 – Friday
A fairly restful drive along the Corniche des Cevennes (more fantastic scenery) and then north to the Auvergne – to volcano country, to be precise. One or two people have posted here about the Puy de Dome, and reports have not been exaggerated. Vehicular access to the top is restricted (see website), but on the day we were there for E3 you could ride your bike up to the top (too much traffic to enjoy the twisties) and sit nursing the inevitable beer, enjoying the magnificent view and watching the hang-gliders and para-whatsits taking off.
Day 15 – Saturday
This was a long haul for us, from near Clermont Ferrand to Givet on the Belgian border. I’d not been looking forward to finding our way round Paris, but in fact it was easy – the N104 being signposted clearly all the way round from the A10 from Orleans to the A4 to Reims.
Our hotel (Le Val St Hilaire, Logis de France – thoroughly recommended) was on the banks of the Meuse. Pat couldn’t open the gate to the car-park at the rear of the hotel, causing the landlord to remark to me that she was clearly Belgian! He and his wife made us feel really welcome. We had dinner on their terrace within a few feet of the river. Very romantic on the last proper night of our holiday, which merited a bottle of champagne to go with my moules frites. We shared the terrace with about two dozen French soldiers. Seemed like nice lads!
Day16 – Sunday 5th September 2004
The final drive through Belgium and Holland to IJmuiden and the ferry home.
While waiting to board the ferry I had a look at the rear tyre (BT020). Only 14 miles old when we started our trip it was looking good after 3,000 miles. Best of all, the chicken strip was down to less than 1/2 inch.
We got chatting to a number of Dutch bikers off for a week in Scotland. I thought of them as we disembarked into pouring rain the next morning, but we’ve subsequently heard from two we befriended, Gilbert and Dili, that the rest of the week proved fine for them.
It’s always raining when we come home.