Looking across to the snow capped alpine mountains seen from the back seat of a motorcycle

Home Travel StoriesNormandy, France 2011 - By Ren Withnell

Normandy, France 2011 - The Ferry, French Roads and Honfleur

Being a professional worry expert, I've set the alarm on my phone for 0630 and I've borrowed an alarm clock off my Dad too.  I need not have bothered.  After dreams of broken motorbikes, missed ferries, incorrect paperwork and any other potential disaster I wake at 0400.  I know if I wake the gf at this ungodly hour then I'm sure to be murdered, which would at least stop me worrying.  So I lie there forcing my eyes shut and trying to get some more sleep.  I manage another brief sleep but it's full of turgid dreams so when I wake I'm glad.  I slip out of bed at 0530 to visit the loo and when I return the gf opens one evil eye and asks "what time is it?".  When I inform her I expect to be bludgeoned with a nearby chair but she just smiles.  I can only assume she's as excited or possibly as nervous as I am.  We lie there for a short while whilst she comes round then I get up and start fretting whilst checking everything.  My Dad gets up too and makes us a brew and breakfast.  As we leave and wave goodbye I can see my Dad's focused on getting back to bed, sensible man.

It's not far from Worthing to Newhaven and the road is mostly dual carriageway.  At this time on a Sunday morning it's a pleasure to ride along empty streets.  I'm worried I'll struggle to find the ferry terminal but the main road into Newhaven drops us right into the queue for the ferry.  It's a short queue so I flap around in the tank bag making sure I've got the barcode that came with the booking email, the booking confirmation and my passport.  The lady in the kiosk only asks for my passport, she doesn't even want the rest of the paperwork when I offer it.  Something happens with a computer inside the kiosk then I'm handed my passport, a small piece of paper and waved through the barrier.  

A  guy in a fluorescent jacket directs me into a longer queue and I stop the bike and get off.  There's another set of kiosks ahead and a couple of police officers nearby, I assume this must be border patrol.  In the queue there's cars, trucks and a couple of other bikes.  Apart from idiots getting into the wrong queue lanes we all wait patiently and eventually the queues move forwards one vehicle at a time.  One guy on a Gold-Wing rides down to the front of my queue, gets off and wanders around a little.  I figure he works here or is visiting the ferry office or something.  After going into the office he returns and talks briefly to the policemen.  Then he jumps the queue!  He just walks up to the kiosk, passes his passport over, waits, then gets back on the bike and skips through the barrier.  I'm not happy but the gf is livid!  She is the queen of "fair" and stands for equality for everyone and anyone.  She's ready to march up there and have a word with someone, to complain and see that justice is done.  Unfortunately she's just like me, a big wimp.  Instead we remain truly British and remain in the queue and complain bitterly whilst never doing a thing about it.

Eventually we roll onto the ferry.  A hardy looking docker speaks to me in broken English and asks me to put the bike on the centre stand "here".  I duly follow the instructions after which the bike is strapped down and I retrieve the tank bag which contains all the valuables.  Whilst all this happens the Gold-Wing prat is milling about and I am sooooooo tempted to go and have a word.  I nearly do, but then the gf points out that we don't want to get thrown off the ferry for starting a fight before we even set out.  I couldn't fight my way out of a paper bag but I know what she means so I swallow my frustration and wait patiently for the lift.

The prat and queue jumper on the gold wing
If you see this man and he jumps another queue, please have a quiet word with him on behalf of two frustrated travellers.

It's not a big ferry, but big enough.  There's a café, shop, bar, a range of tables and chairs and rooms full of recliners over 2 decks.  We are amongst the first allowed onto the ferry so I grab a table next to a window at the back of the lower passenger deck.  Both the gf and myself have experienced seasickness in the past so I want a view outside and onto the horizon as this is supposed to help.  We pile jackets, helmets, bags and jumpers onto the table and the windowsill then I notice the sick bags.  The weather outside is misty, blustery and trying hard to rain.  I wonder what the crossing is going to be like.  Will the gf and I spend the next 4 hours taking turns to hold each other's hair out the way whilst we hurl down the side of the boat?

The seating area on the transmanche ferry between newhaven and dieppe
One of several seating areas around the boat.  Nothing fancy but clean and well presented.  My Dad had heard the subsidised ship may be something of a wreck.

Eventually the boat fills up.  Several people try to take chairs from our table whilst I'm taking a look around the ship, but the gf sees them off.  I think she's being particularly militant and defensive after being upset by Gold-Wing prat.  Her sense of fairness and justice is in hyper-mode, we got these chairs and this table first and she's damn well keeping them.  As I walk back to our table I notice something's amiss.  The boat seems to be moving!  It takes a while for the boat to back out of the port and the harbour and into the deep blue sea.  In the deep blue sea the boat starts to move quite a bit more.  I'm feeling a little queezy and the gf has turned a pale white colour.  

An hour later the gf is thankful she's defended the chairs, as she's now stretched out across two chairs, trying to get to sleep.  It doesn't make any sense, but sleeping helps her to overcome the seasickness.  Surprisingly 20 minutes just chilling out with my eyes closed makes me feel a whole lot better too.  As the gf cat-naps I walk around the ship and brave the elements outside.  It's blowing a gale on deck and having a smoke is an adventure in itself.  I find a niche where the wind can't reach and join a cluster of other smokers all sheltering for the same reason.  

With an hour left on the crossing and France just coming into view over the horizon, the weather clears.  It's still very windy but the mist has gone and there's blue skies above.  Inside the gf has regained her colour and looks much more perky.  At great risk of seeing the food again down the side of the ship she buys us both a meal from the café.  She thinks it's chips and beans but it turns out to be cassoulet, sort of a baked bean stew with sausage, bacon chunks and a lump of lamb or pork on the bone in there for good measure.  I turn my nose up initially, but I give it a shot and after I've adjusted my taste buds to the new, strange combination I find it's quite acceptable.  What's even more pleasant is the fact it stays down and has no detrimental effect on our stomachs.

the cote d'albatre ferry in the sun as we approach france
Our Ferry, The Cote D'Albatre finally basking in the sun as we approach the French coast.

When the ferry docks there's a mad rush to get to the vehicle decks which just results in the gf and I standing in a tight pack of passengers.  We are all geared up and sweating like hell as a result.  After what seems an age we make our way down to the vehicle decks and back to the bike, which is still upright and no worse the wear for the crossing.  We wait another age whilst the cars and lorries disembark.  All the time I'm saying to myself "drive on the right...drive on the right...drive on the wrong side of the road...".  Another queue back on land then a quick passport check by the French "Douane", presumably the border police.  My first culture shock is that they have guns!  It's silly I know, but in the UK guns are just not on view and as casual as these officers look with their sidearm.   

I head out onto the first roundabout...keep on the right...keep on the right...yet every muscle and fibre of my body instinctively tries to go to the left.  "Aaaarrrggh!"  I negotiate the first roundabout.  "Arrrgh!"  I'm on the wrong side of the road...well the right side here but the wrong side for my brain.  Another roundabout.  "Aaaarrrgh!"  I've looked right when I should look left.  From now on I'll just look both ways and stay still till there's nothing anywhere.  It feels so odd tipping the bike in left on a roundabout.  It feels so wrong having the ditch and the road edge where there should be cars.  What's that strange red light on a little stick by the side of the road?  "Aaaarrrgh!"  Oh pooh it's a traffic light...stop!  No road markings, no sign of a junction, just a little stick with 3 dimly lit lights on it, that's a French traffic light.  OH gawd if I make it for another 5 miles without breaking every law it'll be a miracle.

We finally make our way onto what I hope is the right road, a big dual carriageway heading south.  I ride along and I know I'm on the correct side of the road and everything's OK but it all still feels so alien.  The road is quiet, not empty but there's very little traffic.  The scenery is rural arable farmland with broad fields full of green crops interspersed with trees and the odd farmhouse.  I take a few deep breaths and try to settle down.  I'm feeling better in the knowledge that we've negotiated the ferry and border patrols without incident, all I need to do now is carefully negotiate these roads for another 50 or 60 miles.  I also suspect finding the gite will be interesting too.

This road is free, but soon we'll be getting onto a French motorway and they have tolls, lord only knows how that will all work.  I spot the signs for Le Havre which means this must be the Motorway we're looking for and follow the signs at a cautious pace, taking junctions nervously as traffic approaches from the wrong side and the road marking are all different.  With great trepidation I approach a set of barriers and wonder what I'm supposed to do.  I'm looking for a manned barrier but they all seem to be automatic...do I need a card...am I supposed to have the right change...what do I do?  I approach the barrier and a ticket pops out.  Aha!  I grab the ticket and stuff it into the tank bag as quick as I can, fearing the barrier will close before I have time to put my gloves back on.  Thankfully it doesn't.

The motorway runs through more arable countryside with light traffic and another new thing, a dual-speed limit.  That's 130kph in the dry, 110 in the wet.  As I ride I wonder what defines wet, is it damp, raining, light drizzle?  Today it's dry so that means we can fly along at 80mph without too much fear.  The fuel gauge is a little low and I spot a sign with a petrol pump on it and follow that.  It takes us through a complex of single lane bridges and confusing junctions which I take at almost walking pace, being careful to look both ways as well as backwards and forwards.  With some relief I spot the fuel station and fill up.

Now for my first attempt at French in a long long time.  Pump 3...erm...trois.  19 Euros 70 cents...I can't even start to think what that is in French.  A lady in the shiny shop says "Monsieur?"  I approach and nervously say "Trois...si'l vous plait".  She blurts something back I don't understand so I smartly say "Parlez plus lentement, je suis Englais" (speak slower please, I'm English).  She smiles back at me and slowly says something and I recognise "neuf", nine, that must be the nine in nineteen.  I pass the money over and say "merci" repeatedly, relieved I've managed to cross this small language barrier.

I carefully re-negotiate the complex of bridges and lanes back onto the motorway and carry on.  Le Havre comes into view, in the form of large industrial estates and massive cranes along the docks.  Before we get there another set of barriers come into view, I figure this must be where we pay for the motorway.  I look at various signs and symbols, panicking, looking for the manned booths.  One matrix seems to show a person's outline so I head for that.  At the kiosk a smart lady babbles something, she's seen my puzzled expression so she points to the digital display beneath her window, 2 Euros 50 cents.  I rummage around in my jacket and retrieve a handful of strange coins.  The queue behind me seems to weigh a thousand tons as I fumble trying to recognise what are cents, Euros and possibly English money too.  Eventually I pay and ride through into freedom.

I'd heard the Pont-du-Normandy was an impressive bridge, but I hadn't realised how impressive.   The famous River Seine that runs through Paris reaches the sea between the industrious Le Havre and our destination, Honfleur.  By this time it's a broad river which requires a large long bridge.  Unusually the bridge is in 2 sections.  The first section has several spans on a regular arched bridge made presumably from steel in a clean smart style.  It's very steep, the lorry I've attached myself to slows right down as it climbs the incline.  After the first section the next is a suspension bridge with large and shapely supports.  This is a longer bridge, still quite steep but not as radical as the first section.

The Pont-Du-Normandie crossing the river seine between le havre and honfleur
The impressive and beautifully sculptured Pont-Du-Normandie bridge over the River Seine.  This picture was taken from the graveyard in Honfleur.

At the end if the bridge is yet another set of barriers, these French sure know how to make you pay!  I head for another kiosk that seems to be manned and join yet another queue.  As I get a little closer the man in the kiosk leans out and waves me toward the right.  I assume he's closing the kiosk so I join another queue...only to be waved off to the right again!  Puzzled I notice some car drivers directing me to the right, then it all becomes clear.  There's a narrow lane with a picture of a motorbike above it, it seems the bikers at least get to cross the bridge for free.  I follow the road now signposted Honfleur and soon again I come across more barriers, though these are deserted.  Being a wise old hand at this now...I head right and cut through another narrow passage with a bike above it.

The directions given to us by email from our host are perfectly clear.  It still feels very alien to stop at the side of the now empty roads on the right hand side though, I feel exposed on my left side rather than my right.  We turn off the main road down a side road lined with trees and large fields full of golden crops.  Another mile or so our home for the next five days comes into view.  Like most of the houses here this one is rustic too.  By rustic I mean used, lived in, aged and in slight need of repair.  Quite unlike English houses which in the wealthy parts of the countryside tend to be sharply maintained, freshly painted, have new UPVC windows and manicured lawns, the French houses seem to be in good order and perfectly habitable, yet the paint has flaked off here and there, the gutters sag a little and the gardens are full of flowers but uncut and more wild looking.

Outside our gite the garden is in full bloom with haphazard flowers
Ouside our Gite the garden is in full bloom with that distinct French chaotic style

Our guest is a very skinny woman who speaks perfect English with a slight accent, not necessarily French.  Her dress sense and her mannerisms confirm she's an artist with an alternative view of the world.  She seems confident and amiable, yet her laugh sounds nervous.  Our gite, or studio, comprises of a building built onto the side of her house complete with a shower room and basic small kitchen.  It's actually slightly larger than I'd expected and although not luxurious it will be perfectly acceptable.  There's a settee that drops into a bed using the French "Click-Clack" system, apparently.  I unload the bags whilst the gf sorts out the finances with our host.  We ask her were we could buy supplies from nearby, she thinks everywhere will be shut this being Sunday evening but there may be a store open in town.  She gives me directions which are totally useless, she's already lost me after the first street.   She also give me a hand drawn map which is even more useless.  No worries, I'll wing it.

It turns out that winging it in a French town is very confusing, but not that scary.  The problem is that everyone is driving on the wrong side of the road, using odd street signs and there are a lot of junctions with no clear right of way.  What stops this from being a terrifying experience is that in the town centre everyone drives very slowly and seems more than happy to sit there while you fluster and try to work out who's supposed to go first.  The town is picturesque, busy and full of bikers.  Although my heart is racing and my mind wired to every new sound, sight and smell I also feel a little adventurous and excited by all this newness.  After bumbling through what must be the main road I spot a shop and fluster onto a footpath where several other bikes are parked.

motorbikes parked on the footpath in the sunshine of honfleur
There's a lot of bikes parked up in Honfleur this Sunday evening

We collect bread, ham, butter and a few other basics to see us through the night.  Feeling a little more confident I even speak a little French to ask "Ou est la sucre?", where is the sugar?  I assume my French is perfect as the till operator replies like I am a local, so I don't understand a word.  More "Je suis Englais" and more hand signals finally see me right.  Getting back to the bike is easy enough, getting back to the gite on the one way system is impossible.   After more unmarked roundabouts and more bewildering junctions we end up on a road back out into the countryside.  My gut tells me we're in the right area but I cannot find any familiar landmarks or even signs to anything useful.  It's only after 5 or 6 miles I decide to turn around.  Now I'm lost.  Not only am I lost but I'm tired, confused, stressed and rapidly running out of patience.  This is bloody marvelous, I'm going to spend the first night of the bloody holiday sleeping in a bloody field.  

As I scream inside my tired and weary helmet the bloody gf taps me on the shoulder.  What does the stupid cow want now?  If she wants to bloody tell me how nice that effing house over there looks I'm going to bloody well kill her.  There's nowhere to stop so I ride on until I see a layby.  I force myself to calmly ask
"Canet?  Isn't that where we're going?"
"There was a sign back there...?"
"When I tapped your shoulder"
I wheel the bike around onto the wrong side of these stupid froggy roads and head back half a mile...there it is, the sign.  As I ride down the comfortably familiar road I calm down and make a mental note to forgive her.

That evening we settle in.  We eat our meal, upload pictures using my netbook and our host's wireless connection and have a good warm shower.  We discuss the day's adventure and agree that Honfleur looks nice, we'll walk into town tomorrow.  This is a relief, I can probably handle walking on the wrong side of the road better than I can ride it.  The "Click-Clack" bed is very comfortable as we lie down to do what's natural for any middle aged couple to do at night.  We do at one point fall out of our bed though, comfortable, but not very stable.

Normandy, France 2011 - Prologue
Normandy, France 2011 - The Ride South
Normandy, France 2011 - The Ferry, French Roads and Honfleur
Normandy, France 2011 - A Good Walk Around Honfleur Ren and Sharon spend the day in and around Honfleur. It's a pretty and characterful town. The day has it's downs, and ups.
Normandy, France 2011 - A Bit of D-Day and Normandy Coast The Normandy beaches and the busy roads of France are on the menu today. There's a little time to relax too.
Normandy, France 2011 - Another Good Walk Around Honfleur
Normandy, France 2011 - The Beauty Of Beuvron-En-Auge
Normandy, France 2011 - Back To The Ferry and England
Normandy, France 2011 - The Trip North and More Images

Reader's Comments

The Girlfriend said :-
Stupid Cow indeed. You sir should be kissing my bike boots and thanking me for being the keen eyed route finder that I am. Forgive me! the question is should I forgive you? ;-D
01/01/2000 00:00:00 UTC
Sharon said :-
The thing I love about France is the feeling of SPACE. After travelling nose to tail everywhere with other traffic in the UK you get onto the French roads and behold there is like huge big gaps between traffic. In between towns there is rolling fields and little houses dotted far apart. Even the cows and sheep have space. No herds of cattle all shoved up against each other in a muddy field. No the french flocks have enough fields to have a few cows and sheep in each lush green field. I Love France it gives me time to breathe.
01/01/2000 00:00:00 UTC
Ren - The Editor said :-
Oh NOOOO! I'm in trouble with the gf now. The problem with being honest is that someone might read your honesty. For those of you who are concerned, she says she will forgive me if I'm nice to her, so there's little chance of ever being forgiven then.
01/01/2000 00:00:00 UTC
Peter Hawker said :-
Super article!
I've cyclecamped in France many times and explored most of those beautiful regions. Always impressed with the courtesy of drivers who often wave us on, even when they have the right of way.
But I have yet to venture in to La Belle . .
on my scooter, I'm sure that I'll feel as nervous as Ren was, as if it's my first time.
01/01/2000 00:00:00 UTC

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