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Home Travel StoriesFrance 2013

Highs And Lows

By Ren Withnell

Blimey Charlie! Another cold night last night. There's a dampness in the tent not from rain but condensation which adds to the chill. The sun is way behind the steep mountain sides and the trees on the campsite won't help when it finally does climb high. They like their trees in France. They offer shade and respite from the burning hot conditions that we SHOULD, according to everyone we meet, be experiencing right now. I'm beginning to doubt them, I'm beginning to wonder if it's all a marketing ploy.

I've not changed my brake pads yet, we didn't really have time last night and this morning I'm too cold and in a "can't be bothered" mood. The rear brake lever is a little sticky too it needs a squirt of oil to loosen it up, it's gritty from the deluge earlier this week. Maybe I'll pick something up today. I only need a tiny drop though, it seems a shame to buy a can or bottle and either throw it away or transport it all the way back home. I wonder if I can beg some from a garage somewhere. Bit cheeky that.

Opposite our tent stands a Jeep Wrangler 4x4 and a couple, probably in their late 50's, talk and interact like teenagers. Either they're newly acquainted lovers or they have a relationship that's a lot of fun. I catch their eye and introduce myself with a Bonjour. They're French speaking Belgium and touring in their 4x4 much like the gf and I. The conversation is awkward, I speak little French and the chap speaks little English. To add to the similarity neither his partner or my gf speak much of the other's language at all. Yet it does not matter, between us we get the messages across, understanding is possible.

dark blue jeep wrangler belonging to the belgium couple at the campsite in Digne-Les-Bains
Proper 4x4. Proper 4x4 owner too, "Orpist" is some kind of serious off road group apparently.

We all agree, signs, gesticulations and sometimes drawing on a piece of paper will get you what you need somehow. We also all agree that campers share a common experience and we're all like one big family. As such I ask him if he has any oil. After a moment's confusion he understands. In the back of the truck, in a huge roll-out drawer, in a box and under some tools lies a can of WD40. Perfect. I squirt my rear brake lever and pass it back to him. He insists I leave it for 10 minutes then squirt it again. These 4x4 types tend to know a thing or two about jammed up parts and how to loosen them. What a star!

tent, belgium couple and the jeep wrangler posing for the camera at the digne les bains campsite
Many thanks for the squirt of WD40 and for posing for me. They seem to be having the time of their lives!

Back on the road the rear brake is functioning just as it should. Good job really, this is another awesome twisty road and the sun is shining. What is odd is that although the sun is beaming down through just a light cloud covering it's not too hot. I don't mind, these are perfect conditions for me but I reckon the gf would prefer less wind and higher temperatures. That's what she'd like, but she's still happily snapping with her camera behind me. It is rather beautiful.

mountains rise either side of a twisting road from digne les bains to nice
Perfect weather on perfect roads. It can't get any better than this can it?

This road leads us in to Nice. Nice is right next to Monaco and the ultimate destination of this trip. In my mind Nice, pronounced "neece", will be a coastal resort city. I'm expecting it to be a little busy at this time of year but there shouldn't be much problem finding somewhere to camp and spend a day or two enjoying the Mediterranean waters and going across to Monaco to perhaps listen, maybe even see some Formula 1 action. We're still less than one third of our way through this trip but realistically this is the turning point, from here on in we can meander our way homeward at a leisurely pace. I can relax.

Expectations are a terrible thing. Nice, "neece", is not nice, "nice" at all. It's a hustling bustling city filled with high rise apartment blocks, junctions with no obvious markings. A million drivers all rush nowhere in long long queues. Because of the queues the most popular form of transport is the scooter. For each car in a queue 2 scooters fizz and whizz by. They ignore lights, squeeze up over kerbs, manically filter where there is no gap and park in an space where one man can stand. This is not a happy holiday resort, this is mayhem.

At first it's amusing. At first I delight in the number and popularity of people using two wheeled transport. I imagine there's hope that motorcycles and scooters can take over the world. But after an hour I'm hating everything about this place. With the load on the bike I'm stuck for the most part with the cars. Every time I dare to try to filter a hundred fizzy busy unprotected kids, mums, businessmen and students block my route. There's no road markings to show who has right of way. Even when there is no-one seems to obey or notice them. This is not traffic, this is motorised mayhem. 

There's no sea, well no sea I can reach. If there's a campsite here I'd rather pull my nails out than stop there. "The Cote D'Azur" is a name I've heard of. It's the place where Judith Chalmers used to invite me to on the "Holiday" programme, tempting me with sunshine, big beaches and stylish cafés. She neglected to mention the industrial estates, the traffic, the suicidal pedestrians or the towering city centre. I say to the gf while stuck at another set of lights being ignored by scooterists "It's a big country France, spread out for Christ's sake!"

I follow signs to Monaco, trying to avoid the motorway. This takes us up hill and down dale, but not hills and dales as you'd imagine them back home. Steep sharp corners and gnarly bends lead us through what must be the posh area. Endless houses, not mansions, cling to the steep hillsides with awkward driveways and gardens. Here and there I catch my first glimpses of the Med but I can't stop, there's less traffic but the roads are too narrow and twisty to find a safe stopping place. If the city hadn't been so miserable I'd argue that it's pretty here and I suppose it is, but you'd have to venture to the city close by regularly and that makes it ugly. 

large city by the sea seen from above, the city of nice
With nowhere to stop...this is one of the only images of Nice I have. Nasty horrible place.

The posh houses give way again to more misery. Monaco is a principality and tiny. It's also just another part of the larger conurbation along the coast. I find myself jammed in even tighter streets with even longer queues and ever more deranged scooters. I pass a sign that suggests I might be in Monaco now, but you wouldn't know it from the surroundings. The only hint I'm in a tax haven is when I notice flash Mercedes and Audis being driven (but not moving) by youths. Daddy's probably working elsewhere so junior's got the car. Other than that I'm trapped in narrow lanes with high rise buildings all around. One or two are architecturally interesting perhaps but I see nothing to impress.

I catch odd glimpses of the famous harbour between concrete tower blocks. I see occasional signs telling me of closures for the Formula 1. Policemen try to direct traffic here and there. Other than these things I see nothing else F1. There's nowhere to stop either. Each and every parking space is filled with cars or scooters. Every cycle space is rammed with scooters. The footpaths are filled with cars or scooters. There's not a single place. I stop under some scaffolding to at least find a shop to get a drink but the gf rightly suggests there's a reason there's space here. Signs indicate something negative and I may be blocking some kind of access to the building site. We move on.

A solid white line down the centre of the road indicates it ought not to be crossed. That applies in the UK and I assume as much in France. The cars don't cross the line, they form the queue I'm stuck in. The scooters and motorbikes however ignore this. As I wait a fat ageing businessman passes on a small scooter, probably 50cc. He's complete with shorts, shirt, 3 cigars between his fat fingers operating the throttle, another lit cigar in his face and a potty helmet. We have to laugh. We're passed by a stream of two wheelers both small and large all on the wrong side of the road over the solid white line. I give up when 2 police motorcycles pass in this method, I join them in breaking the laws they are supposed to uphold.

Finally after several hours we "pop" out the other side into Menton. It's equally as mental here but the traffic does move. I'm tired and disappointed. By miracle I find a café with a large empty parking area out front and pull in, I need to rest and the gf needs the loo. She's needed it for some time but nothing was forthcoming, bless her she must be fit to burst. A kindly matron serves us with a smile and we agree the traffic "C'est terrible!". Outside I sit with a much relieved gf and drink, at prices that are high but no higher than elsewhere in France. I thought it would be super expensive around here.

rear of my dirty fazer outside the cafe at menton with the gf sipping coffee at a table in the sun
Finally we escape! The bike looks as dirty and weary as we both feel. At least we've stopped for a while.

My hopes have been dashed. No relaxed little café by the Med. No sound of distant race engines. No beautiful people. No celebrities or race drivers in sunglasses. No atmosphere. It was the atmosphere I'd most hoped to experience. I'd hoped to find a small town buzzing with excitement, I'd hoped to feel a party coming on and I'd hoped to relax and soak it all in. I thought we'd camp maybe a couple of miles inland and walk into town. All I can think of right now is getting the hell out of here as quickly as we can. God I'm already missing the Alps, they were amazing.

We've agreed to skip the motorways on this trip and to actually see France, good and bad, rather than whizz through it. Today we agree to make an exception, the gf's not liking it here either. It takes another hour to battle our way through more confusion and mayem before the large flat expanse of tarmac that is a motorway brings relief. The first toll booths are confusing, I have to pay at this one with my card and I get a small charge to use my card for the €1.20. Damn. At the next toll, only a few miles from the last, I manage to end up at one which asks for €0.80 and I pay with a few coins.

There are symbols above the booths. I suspect one is for card payment, one is manned, another is for cash. I've pulled off west of Nice and this array of booths offers none that are manned. Damn. One shows coins pouring into some kind of hopper, that's my best bet. 60 cents, that's all. Only problem is I don't have 60 cents in change, just a ten euro note. There's no slot for notes. It's happening. My worst nightmare. Trapped in a queue of frustrated French drivers by a machine and barrier and no-one to help. I wonder if getting off the bike, throwing myself on the floor and crying will stop the gf and I being murdered by the irate drivers?

Part of my mind is in sheer panic, the other part is rebelling and cursing the confusing, unfriendly, unexplained, unmanned and downright unfairness of the whole French road system. As I shake with both fear and anger a young woman with fluorescent tabbard is nearby and spots that one booth seems inoperable. She comes over to my relief, then babbles something I don't understand. I just waive the tenner at her. She gives me a very dirty look and babbles something else. She's behind the bike now, she must have noticed the GB sticker and UK plate. 

With a key she opens the machine, looks disappointed then cross, shouts another load of something then gives me the tenner back. My assumption is that she can't be bothered or can't find change in the machine and she's letting me off. She curses another string of something then waves me off with a sinister look and a forceful flick of her hand. The barrier opens and I don't stop to try and understand.

As I ride away I notice a red light and the woman staring at me. I have another terrible thought. Perhaps she'd asked me to pull in after the barrier to sort it out? It's a one way dual carriageway, I'm not doing a U-turn to find out. Oh god. I'm going to get arrested. I'm going to get a massive fine when I get home. I'm going to be pulled over days from now and clapped in irons. My reg will be on the interpol most wanted list. I can't turn round now, otherwise I'll be done for riding the wrong way down a major carriageway. I curse myself all over again for worrying when I've not willingly or wittingly done anything wrong. In case you've not noticed, I worry too much.

Later I pull in to a supermarket and search my phone app for a campsite. I explain my fears to the gf and she rightly dismisses them but I know they'll nag me for a while. The first campsite we find looks nice but it's very firmly closed. Another French couple look like they're disappointed to find it closed too as they drive past. The next one's outside of La Colle Sur Loup and is in fact open and welcoming. Sitting upon the popular golf style electric buggies we're shown a grassless pitch on the side of a steep tree covered hillside. It's fine but getting the overladen bike up here will be fun.

plain ordinary roundabout at la colle sur loup with traffic and buildings and faded crossings
These are the dull sights on the "Cote D'Azur" that the holiday brochres neglect to show you. 

We pitch in our established and effective routine and soon we're settled in. My head is spinning, it's been a hell of a day. So it comes as a great relief to find the campsite is rather good all in all. One toilet block is acceptable, we find another that's most pleasant, complete with flowers in the ladies which the gf likes. We wander around to find a small playground, a pool and a restaurant at the entrance. There's a relaxed atmosphere with a mix of nationalities in a mix of caravans, campervans and even a couple of tents. 

the campsite at la colle sur loup with trees on a steep hill and 2 bikes on a trailer
The campsite is pleasant and we have Germanic bikers for neighbours. As you can see, they've cheated.

As the evening draws in we finish our walk around the site in the cool evening air. We promise to actually take to the pool tomorrow, stop another night and rest. As we settle in we discuss our next move. It seems our original plan to return through the east covering Italy, Switzerland, Austria, Germany and Belgium is in jeopardy. I came here to see new places yet while I'm not afraid of the rain I can't see the point of having a wet, miserable and sodden return trip if there's an alternative. We'll get online again tomorrow to view the forecast, and take it from there. In the meantime it's bedtime.

Forming a Plan The formulation of a cunning a devious plan to take on Europe is formed in the tiny mind of our intrepid explorer...
The GF Question Do I take the gf with me to France? Can she come? Will she like it? These are all very difficult questions...
France...I wanna go but can I...?? Can Sharon make it to Europe? Will the kids survive? Will the bf behave? Is there any space for makeup? All these questions and more...
The Load Getting everything we NEED and a few items we WANT onto a motorcycle can be a problem. Now I have to work out how to get 3 WEEKS worth of gear onto the poor donkey(aka bike)
Camping In Cambridge The start of our Epic Adventure...or bike holiday around France. Cambridge is surprisingly nice really.
France - Day 1 Sharon's first day from her point of view. Cushy Cambridge and dry weather...what more could a girl want?
The Chunnel The Chunnel, I'm excited but also stressing because the bike's already broken before we leave the UK. I worry too much...
France - Day 2 - Bikes, Trains and Tents Sharon leads us through sunshine, hair issues, the Channel Tunnel and into France. But France is eerily quiet...
Here Comes The Rain Bike fixed...bike broken. Rain, endless dull roads, miserable towns and more rain. Oh the joy of travel! At least Epernay welcomed us with a huge smile :-)
France Day 3 - Crying Through The Rain The rain plays tricks with Sharon's spirit but a stiff upper lip and giving herself a good talking to see her through.
Rain Into Dijon Rain, rain and more rain. Just how long can it last? Would we be better off with a Jet Ski? Can we continue to keep our Great British Stiff Upper Lips?
France Day 4 - We Are Mustard We Are Dijon is the destination and we're surviving the rain...that makes us well mustard! We're happy in spite of the rain but how long can we keep smiling?
The Joy Of Being Lost As we head south the rain lightens but will it ever stop? I get lost which is no surprise, but lost turns out to be the best part of travelling. Are things finally taking a turn for the better? I do hope so...
France Day 5 - Biker's Paradise Sharon's day 5 in France starts out rough but improves considerably. What delights can put such a joyous grin on her face?
The Stunning Alps We are both facing a very strange situation...that of sunshine, warmth, beauty and pleasure.
France Day 6 - Magnificent Mountains Sharon shares the delights of the Alps. Sometimes life is good!
Highs And Lows From the stunning Alps to our ultimate destination...MONACO! Is it all I expected? Will it be as I imagined?
France Day 7 - Scooter Mayhem Sharon describes the best and the worst France has to offer. Ride on the back with her from the beauty of the countryside to the mayhem of Monaco
Resting And Deciding Today we stop to take a breather and recuperate. It's also time to make a decision about the rest of our journey. I used to be indecisive, I'm not so sure now.
France Day 8 - Chilling In The Pool A day off from the journey sees Sharon and Ren doing something very silly, breaking things and achieving very little. What a splendid way to spend a day!
Going West Day 9 sees us heading west from the coast. It's finally dry, but it's still windy so not too hot. The gf's not well and Ren is relentlessly lost. Overall not a bad day then!
France Day 9 - Poppies, Vines and a Wet Lettuce Feeling poorly rather spoils Sharon's day today. Still on she must go on and survive what might have otherwise been a good day.
Biggest Bridge In The World In glorious sunshine and fine health we make our way from Nimes to Millau complete with it's Viaduct. Sometimes life is good, occasionally it's great!
France Day 10 - Deflated to Elated Today is a good day for Sharon. Today the sun shines, the scenery is beautiful and the people are pleasant. Join her as France puts a smile on her face.
The Wettest Bridge In The World The Millau Viaduct ought to be impressive. It is, but nowhere near as impressive as the amount of rain falling from the skies.
France Day 11 - Grim Not every day can be filled with sunshine and smiles, even on holiday. This one certainly was not for Sharon!
False Hope Part One Ren would like to invite you to a joyous report about the delightful weather in the South of France! He'd like to. Instead it just rained and rained and rained and rained...
France Day 12 - It's Gloomy Inside And Out Sharon freezes her butt off during the night then is treated to a cold and wet ride. The Ren sure knows how to spoil a girl.
False Hope Part Two Is this the end? Has Armageddon arrived? Is this the Apocalypse? It sure as hell feels like it.
France Day 13 - Quietude For A While Sharon's report on another day of mixed weather. There's peace and beauty then there's mud and cold. Adventure...no-one said it would be easy!
Sunshine After Rain A night of rain soaked delirium. Will the day be any better? Will our travellers ever dry out?
France Day 14 - A Bit of 5 Star Luxury Sharon has a much better day on the road and a luxurious 5 star campsite. It's amazing what difference a little dry weather can make.
Back Into The Flatlands A quiet, simple and easy days ride through France for Ren. Pleasant enough but the flatlands are getting a little boring now.
France Day 15 - A Bit Of 2 Star Delight Sharon has an ordinary day and a frustrating battle with the weather.
Not Far To Chinon It's a short, easy and peaceful ride this day in France. Ren gets all philosophical too.
France Day 16 - A Historical Walk Around Chinon Sharon enjoys a hint of sunshine and the history of Chinon, France.
Shopping To Mamers Ren's airbed's leaking now. No problem, find a shop and buy a new one...easy? I don't think so...
France Day 17 - The Gift Of TIme Even though the weather is cool Sharon's heart is warmed by the people she meets in France today
Don't Go To Ault Ren has a grim, long, dull and uninspiring day in France. The accommodation doesn't help.
France Day 18 - Is This Misery Or Joy? Sharon finds sunshine, ancient caravans and ponders about hapiness.
Looking For Luxury With time on their side Ren looks for the perfect campsite for the next to night. Not finding it makes him a very grumpy boy.
France Day 19 - Campsite Conundrums Although the wind blows the sun is shining while Sharon looks for the perfect pitch.
Resting In Ambleteuse Ren philosophises too much on the final day of his trip around France.
France Day 20 Sharon's in a reflective mood on the last day of our French trip.
Back Into England Ren recalls the final day of the French Adventure. It's all over far too soon.
What Did We Learn? Ren sums up his thoughts about France and the French trip.
France On Reflection Sharon sums up her her experience of the French Trip. Damn those Alps.
Home Travel StoriesFrance 2013 Random Link

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