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Home Travel StoriesFrance 2013

What Did We Learn?

By Ren Withnell

In 21 days away from home we covered just over 3,000 miles. Mathematically that is only 140 miles per day on average, not a long way at all. Some days were rest days, some days we did less than 100 miles and other days we racked up over 250 miles. Some people reading this would call us short distance lightweights and when I started out I might have agreed with them. Not any more.

When we travel we actually want to see a place. Any fool can cover, 200, 300, 400 and 500 miles in a day by sitting on a motorway from dawn till dusk doing 80 mph. For us this is not travelling this is transporting yourself from one place to another, like cargo. Of the 3,000 miles, we rode perhaps 20 miles of motorway. The rest was mostly done on "D" roads, the French equivalent of the UK's "A" roads. This meant our pace was much slower yet it also meant we saw a great deal more.

the alpine snow capped mountains behind a bus station bourg en bresse
You won't see this from the motorways now will you?

We also learned the hard way that big miles make us unhappy. It's easy to leave the warmth and comfort of your own home to cover 200 or 300 miles, safe in the knowledge that upon your return there's food in the freezer, milk in the fridge, a fire to warm your bones and a big comfy bed. For us each morning after making breakfast in a tiny space we had to tear down and squash our home into bags and fit all this onto the bike. At the end of each day we had to rebuild our home, find food that can be easily cooked on a single stove then sleep in cramped conditions. On those days when we'd been on the road for 8 hours the extra effort at the start and the finish made us grumpy.

bike gear, cooking gear and other stuff inside the tent whilst travelling through france
All this needs to be packed and unpacked every day on the road.

Those days where the miles were shorter we were much more relaxed. We had time to stop and admire our surroundings. We had time to find the food we wanted not make do with what we could find. I was more chilled riding the bike which made the gf more chilled on the back. Packing and unpacking was easier when there was no rush. Time is the most precious thing we have, to be able to take time is priceless.

We learned we are a lot tougher than we thought. There were days when the relentless rain could easily have crushed our resolve. There were times when I wanted it all to be over and just to be back home and dry. The endless noise of the rain against the tent when we were in St Sylvestre - Sur - Lot, the mud and puddles, the wet boots and socks, damp sleeping bags and trousers, miserable dark skies and wind. I could have easily been persuaded into a hotel. I could have easily left the bike and gear in France and just caught a train or plane home. I know the gf felt the same many times. But we did not give in, we persevered.

mud running into the tent in the deluge of st sylvestre sur lot
We survived, somehow, some way, we survived.

Not only did we persevere, we survived well. We kept our tempers, we wore our best smiles and even managed to enjoy ourselves. There's no doubt whatsoever that it would have been so much easier, joyful and pleasant all round with warm dry sun yet still we managed. I know it changed the gf. She realised that she is far tougher than she expected and having fun does not require 32 degrees and sun cream.

We did the whole trip for just over £700. That's around £32 per day. That includes fuel, camping, food and anything else you care to mention. We set out to figure out how cheaply we could do the trip. I'm not a big earner, I make enough to force ends to meet, the gf is perpetually broke so we don't have a lot of spare cash either way. That £32 typically broke down to about £12 - £13 for petrol, £12 - £13 for camping and the remaining £6 - £8 for food at a guess.

a dull off white slab of a building, carrefour supermarket in france
It's not all pretty villages, boulangeries and mountains, it's dull, drab, plain old supermarkets too.

Petrol in France is readily available and while I've heard tales of environmental additives being an issue it had no effect on my 2001 Fazer 600. You will need a credit/debit card though, many stations are unmanned and require a card for payment much like the UK's "Fast Lane" or "Pay At The Pump" stations.

If you subscribe to the tabloid "Rip Off Britain!" mentality then you're going to be in for a shock in France. Fuel prices are similar to those in the UK, except diesel is a little cheaper. If only there was a diesel motorcycle... Food is a little better quality from the supermarkets yet the price is at best comparable and at times considerably more expensive. Campsites just like the UK are very variable in both quality and price, varying from just €8 to €25 per night, similar to the UK. Overall I'd estimate things are perhaps 5 to 15 percent more expensive.

For the most part French campsites are configured for a warm, dry summer. Often toilet and shower blocks are open to the elements with a simple roof sheltering the area rather than a typical enclosed building. This stops nasty smells accumulating from the toilets and I imagine provides a pleasant, cool environment on hot days. However in the cold, windy deluges we endured they were at times a tortuous shivering hell hole. Speaking of holes, many toilets are of the "hole in the ground" variety but don't panic most places did have a few of the sit down toilets. We also learned that the drainage on some of the campsites is poor, again fine if it's hot hot hot but not if it's wet wet wet.

the french turc toilet, just the hole and somewhere to squat
Cold, wet, draughty hole in the ground sir? Perfect for those soggy miserable morning ablutions.

And finally to my opinions. I found the North Eastern quarter of France repetitive. It is rural. It is spacious. There are quiet quaint villages. And yet after mile upon mile of tree lined roads deep in broad farmland and countless small villages it all got somewhat like groundhog day. The French Riviera around Nice and Monaco would be interesting if it were deserted of all the traffic. This area is chaos. What all the fuss is about we never did find out.

Much better was Milau and the surrounding area. Milau provided us with rain, lots of it. However we did see canoe trips, paragliding, mountain biking and several other pursuits if you're that way inclined. The roads around there are great too, twisty and challenging. If it were not for the precipitation there are some beautiful places in the Bergerac region. Less in the way of action, much more of the historic and ancient.

a piece of milau town centre in the sun
Milau was great, especially when the sun came out.

Then there's the Alps. Oh dear. The Alps. We barely touched a corner of the Alps, just a nip into the little bit that pokes into France. And yet it both made and ruined the holiday, and perhaps every holiday to come. You see the rain stopped, the sun shone and we saw splendour, magnificence, beauty and grandeur. Such sweet views mixed with roads both thrilling and frightening. Suffice to say we have developed a new phrase, "It's lovely, but it's not the Alps"

2 snow capped mountain peaks in the french alpine region
Wow. I mean WOW! It's lovely, and it IS the Alps.

These are my opinions. You may see things quite differently and that is good. Don't follow my opinions, go and have a look around for yourself and make your own. I hope to explore the Alps into Italy, Switzerland, Austria and Germany one day. I hope to see the Pyranees too. I hope to re-evaluate my opinions on North Eastern France in the sunshine. I hope to see much more of the world.

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.
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