Travel StoriesFrance 2013
Sunshine After Rain
By Ren Withnell
I did not sleep too well. Twisted deranged dreams of water, rain, rivers, floods and machine gun fire haunt me while I sleep then discomfort and noisy rain wake me often. I lie there each time the rain lightens in the hope that's it, it's over, but each time a gust of wind brings a heavy rattling noise as leaves drop water onto the tent and all hope is lost yet again. Then, at 0415 the rain stops. Not for long, let me make that clear, but it stops for a few minutes. Then returns.
By 0630 I'm properly awake and not going back to sleep. I calculate the rain continued solidly for 16 hours and is now merely intermittent. But it is still raining. The forecast does suggest that today may be lighter and that in the north it may be lighter still. There is hope but I'm so tired, confused and washed out I dare not even imagine dryness. I get up and make a brew, wander around the site and visit the dark, miserable hell hole that is the toilets. I notice the gutters are no longer gushing just dripping in a polite manner. That at least is an improvement.
By 0730 when I wake the gf it has not rained for as long as 15 minutes. There's no clear sky, no ray of sunshine, no "hallelujah" moment just a lack of precipitation. It's hard to tell though, everything is so wet. The gravel road is filled with puddles, the weedy dirt ground is marshy and the entrance to the tent reminds me of the Somme. Yet here we both are, alive, physically well and dining on more granola. I sit on the tiny stove box my feet in the mud seeping through the reed mat, the gf is almost floating on her li-lo which is floating on the ground sheet.
I imagine telling my mother and my friends back home. They'll hear of the rain, the wetness and the noise. But they will not understand. They haven't been through it with us. They haven't shared this experience. I'm reminded of some Vietnam war film where a character says "You weren't there man, you don't know". Well no matter how well I might write it up, how well someone may read it, the fact remains they'll never "get it" like we have. I know and I understand that far far worse things have befallen many others but I can't help feeling like a survivor. We deserve a medal.
Mud. Soaking, squidgy, wet and soggy mud. How pleasant.
Decamping is interesting, and somewhat unpleasant. It seems every slimy icky creature in the area has taken shelter on my groundsheet. I'm a big roughty toughty biker but if there's one thing I don't like it's slugs and welks clinging to the bottom of my tent. The gf has to help by flicking them off as I make girly squeals and try not to squidge them between my fingers. Eeeeewww. The tent is covered in mud and packing it into the bag merely spreads it out. I don't mind that, mud is fine. As we leave the campsite our eccentric English guide and a few of the French camper van residents wave us off. I really do feel like a survivor now. We're promised better weather.
I have considered going south. Time would be against us and the forecast is better up north. After the last 3 days of downpour I'm in no mood whatsoever to take that chance and it is with joyous delight we start to return homeward. I miss my house that has a proper roof. My toilet only 10 paces from my bed. My PC and TV to pass time. An endless supply of dry clothes and socks. I do heartily miss them but I also know something deep and true. I know that more than anything else I'll miss being on the road when I get back home.
Opportunity and chance. Back home I have comfort, friends, familiarity and safety. Family, TV, Internet, English speaking shops with sensible opening times. I have all that but there's less opportunity and chance. When I'm on the road anything may happen. That's scary but it's exciting and new. The opportunity to meet new people, to see new places, to experience new things. The chance that I may learn something, gain more insight, grow as a person. These things do happen at home and my life is far from miserable, it's just out on the road there's much MORE opportunity and chance.
Time is very much on our side now we're heading home. At a guess we're about three quarters of the way south in France, approximately 600 miles or so from Calais. We've got 5 days before we get to the Calais area on Wednesday to cover those 600 miles, that could be an easy 120 miles per day. This still leaves us with a "spare" day on the coast which I'm keeping in reserve for any unforeseen problems. As a professional worrier keeping a day in hand seems like fair prudence doesn't it? So today on this rain free morning and with a mere few hundred miles to go I'm starting to relax again. I'm feeling good.
As our English guide at the campsite suggested we must visit Monflanquin, we do. Not properly though, we pass around the outskirts taking note of the old buildings on the hill and that's all. We've only covered 14 miles and it seems pointless to stop already, the engine's not even warmed up yet. A little further on Villereal comes into view. This time I make sure to ride around the small town. Initially the gf remembers nothing from her holiday here but then in the town centre it all comes back to her. The market square is obviously ancient, the cafés host clientèle sat outside and I notice the sun is finally out. This is just how I imagined France would be. Lovely.
Old timber framed buildings and the cobble market at Villereal. Lots of French cars too.
This area does feel historic and pleasant, much like the English Cotswalds. Gentle roads in lush green farmland take us through small villages and towns with mostly old buildings and a quiet persona. The roads are not as good as the Alps or the Millau area but there are corners to be had. I can't attack them though. The incredibly heavy rain of the last few days has caused the omnipresent gravel verges and footpaths to wash out onto the road leaving patches of grit to trap the unwary biker. The rivers we cross are swollen like arthritic joints and some fields look more like paddy rice fields. We are both surprised that there's not a lot more flooding though.
By the time we reach Montignac I'm ready for a stretch. I pull off the main road into a maze of narrow ancient side streets and finally park by another bloated river. This is just how I imagine France to be. Cafes, small shops, tall old buildings in a higgledy piggledy layout. Across the river diners eat lunch "al fresco". The gf and I think we've spotted a bike shop but it reveals itself to be a smart old house with 2 classic British bikes in what looks like the living room windows, on display for all to see. That's very odd, most unFrench.
The swollen river flows through Monitgnac. Notice the...BLUE SKY!!
We've been crossing the countryside on the side roads and with time on our side it's been fine. I'm getting a little tired of being mostly lost now so when I find a main road signposted for Limoges I'm happy to jump onto that. We ride a little, stop at a supermarket for fuel and a sandwich, ride a little more and I wonder what Limoges is going to be like. After all the ancient and pleasant villages and towns Limoges proves to be just another French city, complete with puzzling junctions and traffic lights. Trying to be fair to France I wonder if it's my lack of experience that makes city riding so difficult or whether the French just lay their roads out poorly. I come to the conclusion it's a bit of both as the gf whacks me again to warn me of the red light.
My phone app suggests there's a campsite to the north of town. We find it but it's a most surreal arrangement. I actually like the fact many French campsites are not too far from town because once we're pitched and settled in it means we can walk around, have a look and not have to take the bike with all the bike gear. This one however looks smart enough but it's right in the centre of a retail and industrial estate. It feels as though we'd be camping in Trafford Park Manchester and although I can't explain why it feels wrong. I consult the phone app, there's another one a few miles out of town.
The logical route is to get back on the dual carriageway but there's a small back road that looks more interesting, more inviting. I take that. The tarmac becomes gravel and the gravel gets potholes. I'm partial to a bit of gentle off road exploring but on a Fazer 600? 2 up? With a tonne of luggage? No ground clearance? I've reached the point of no return now, I'd struggle to turn around in this narrow lane. I just hope it doesn't get any worse. After scraping the exhaust lightly I spot tarmac to my relief.
Another couple of miles of metalled road through lush countryside takes us to a sign that declares the "Château de Leychoisier" to be a 5 star campsite. After the miserable quagmire of the 2 star weed and dirt campsite maybe 5 stars is what we need. I just hope it's not ridiculously expensive. Before I go in the gf and I agree a €25 per night limit and promise to stick to it. I enter a smart outbuilding and prepare to do battle with my blunt French tongue.
I greet the attractive and smart lady behind the counter with my most French "Bonjour". She replies with an English "Hello". I'm 2 weeks and over 2,000 miles into my journey and I find myself chatting to a woman from Chorley, 5 miles from my home town of Horwich. It's a small world, almost minuscule at times. She's lived here over 10 years now and is fully native, but she knows where I live and I know where she used to live. She also knows some "Withnells" but I can't confirm a direct relation.
It turns out after our chat that it's €21 for the night. It's within budget so I pay and return to the gf. It takes a while but we select a patch of gently sloping grass in the hope that if the rain returns it will run off rather than float the tent. And this is grass. Proper grass between huge trees with a genuine Château in the background. The grass and surroundings at least are 5 star.
As we pitch an elderly couple in the caravan next to us appear. They're English judging by the reg plates on their car and they look at us curiously, then the bike. I've not thought much about it at all today, I've been enjoying the dry weather and a relaxed mind. We look like survivors. We're mud stained, scruffy, crumpled and baggy eyed. We must look tired. The lady comes across to us and offers us a nice hot cup of tea.
The gf politely declines! What a stupid stupid thing to do. First off I'd kill for a nice cup of "grandma" style tea, red hot, sweet, strong and in a real porcelain cup. Secondly this is the best part of travelling, to mix and mingle, to talk and to share. Unless there's a risk of being kidnapped a traveller should never refuse a brew. I can't imagine this couple are the kidnapping type. I give the gf a dirty look and I graciously accept their kind generosity, the gf changes her mind and follows suit.
NEVER refuse a brew from campers with a smart outfit such as this.
The elderly couple are delightful. The tea is just as I'd hoped, hot, sweet and strong. They too are touring like us but they are travelling in comfort. They're obviously pretty experienced and like many old folks they've got everything in it's place, smartly fixed down and a handful of DIY nik-naks inside the van to make life that little easier. We talk of the rain and like everyone else they assure us "it's not normally like this at this time of year".
They set off to take their afternoon constitutional and we continue to put the tent up. The routine is slick now and everything happens in order and quite smoothly. The tent is now a mixture of the original green and khaki brown mud stains. It won't come off, it's dried and embedded into the weave. The gf wants to clean it, I think it makes us look like real hardcore travellers. All the gear is at best just damp, other kit drips as we get it out of the bags. I don't care, it's dry, pleasantly warm, the surroundings are easy on the eye and I'm still sucking strong tea off my teeth. It's good.
Our surroundings are indeed most acceptable
As I'm finalising the gubbins around the tent I'm watching another caravanning couple fight with their van to get it onto the "levelling" ramps (little plastic wedges used under a wheel to make the van level on uneven ground). I walk over and it just takes a minor extra heave from me to get it right. This couple are probably mid 50's and Welsh. I'm offered another brew for my assistance and soon enough the gf and I are drinking more tea, sitting on fold out chairs and chatting like old friends with this couple. I love to ride and I love to see the country, but this is still what travelling is about for me, the people.
The 5 star thing, well the whole star thing is a bit misleading. Stars seem to be awarded for "things" like a shop or restaurant, possibly the setting and maybe toilet to pitch ratios. It seems to have little bearing on "quality". The grass here is good, but not amazing. The setting is actually very pleasant. Everything is quite smart but not impressive and stunning. My complaint is the showers. Small cubicles, much the same as found on any campsite. They're clean but with 5 stars I was hoping for perhaps tiles and brass fittings. And the water is hot...mad hot...keep an eye out for scalded children hot hot hot. I duck into and out of the steam to avoid the pain.
There's a restaurant but it's a little pricey, we ride just 2 miles to a small supermarket for tea. We take a walk around the campsite and peruse the perimeter of the château. The sign on the gates suggests they're shut at 2100, but by 1945 they're locked tight and we sure as hell ain't going anywhere! We laugh but many a true word are spoken in jest as we realise this is a posh 5 star prison. I wave at the elderly couple who made us our first cup of tea as they sit in the van and dine with luxuries like plates and cups. I wave at the Welsh couple as she hangs out washing. We watch the deer in the field.
It's all good, but most of all it's not raining any more.
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...
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, 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!
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.
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Travel StoriesFrance 2013