Travel StoriesFrance, Germany And Belgium 2012 - By Ren Withnell
France, Germany And Belgium 2012 - Cochem to Bastogne
Tomato soup and a roll for breakfast, now that's what I call civilised. The sun is up but it's not quite cleared the trees on the hillside just yet as I sit on the plastic chair quietly eating. Last night's washing's still a bit wet too but I have a solution for that. When the bike's packed and loaded I simply squeeze the damp clothes under the bungees that hold the tent in place and the sun and passing air soon get rid of most of the damp. Before I leave I wander over to the Dutch ladies tent with a mind to say goodbye, but everything's all closed up and peaceful so I leave them to their slumber.
If the weather is good, this is a sure fire way to dry your washing whilst you ride.
With the sun shining and everything looking a bit more rosy I find someone in the hotel to pay, €11 for the night. Bit more costly than the last places but as this is a tourist area I suppose they can afford to charge more. My plan today is to go to Bastogne. Yesterday was a revelation. Rather than trying to do big mileage and fear getting lost, lets try to do small mileages and relish getting lost. In which case as I am half way through my trip I figure I'd best start to head back. I plan to go to Bastogne in Belgium, then into France, then back to the coast and maybe have a full day "sans moto" (without motorcycle) at the coast before I return home.
Why Bastogne? It's a name I'm familiar with, made famous due to the siege of Bastogne as part of the Battle of the Bulge in 1944, World War 2. I am very interested in such matters, but I'm not "into" visiting these places. Having briefly visited a few of the Normandy sites last year I realise that although the history is important, the places have quite rightly moved on, just as they should. Some people get so much from being there, right there where history was being made and where grandparents fought and died. There's nothing wrong with that and I would support these people but I, personally, get much more from a quality documentary that can bring the history to life.
So I'm not going to Bastogne to just look at where history was being written, I'm going for no other reason than that I've heard of it and it's in the right direction. As a bonus it's another country to add to my list of places I've been to and it will allow me to pass through Luxemburg again, which means cheap petrol and cheap tobacco. I reckon it's about 120 miles, which is an acceptable distance given that I'm trying NOT to do lots of miles every day.
I set off. Off into sunshine, steep hills, forest and farmland and of course, being lost. When there's no real deadline or pressure I like being lost. You can keep your sat nav, your detailed maps and local knowledge. The most interesting places are found by pure chance. Places like the layby I've pulled into where the cows in the field look at me curiously through the wire fence. There's a small workshop with a man in a van smoking and looking at me in much the same way as the cows. I strip off a layer as it's getting very warm and check to see how my damp clothes are drying. They're doing great, just a few patches left where the bungee cords squash the material close together. I adjust my washing to compensate.
Is that cow sticking it's tongue out at me?
As I come through another town I spot an Aldi so I pull in to seek out more supplies. I find a tin of beans, that will do, in the bakery I grab a bread roll. As I pay I notice a slim middle aged biker type bloke looking at me and as I exit he says "Hi". Outside I spot his bike, an aging and quite rare CX 650 custom resplendent in airbrush eagle motif on the tank and some very trick eagle themed leatherwork to the seat, saddlebags and tool roll. We start to talk, in English that he speaks well.
We talk of the leatherwork, this is what he does to make ends meet, just. The bike is obviously his pride and joy and being definitely from the old school of motorcycling he displays a dislike of power-ranger type sports bikers, computerised motorcycles that normal people can't fix and of the law. I kind of hope my long hair may put me on his side but my lack of leathers and my comparatively modern machine weigh against me. I wonder if I might get a brew out of him and to see his workshop, but as a police car pulls in he mutters something about "clockwise" and makes to depart. I don't understand his comment but we bid each other well on our journeys and he sets off into the sunshine with a V-Twin roar.
Quite a rare thing a CX 650 Custom. The leatherwork is all made by the owner and close up it's very detailed.
Damn these speed limits! On one particularly twisty road I notice that lorries are restricted to 30kph, that's about 18mph. It is a steep road with many tight turns but there's a long line of trucks, vans, cars and myself on the bike winding our way down at 20. What is probably a mile or so of road feels like a small eternity at this crawl, and the transmission on the bike complains bitterly each time I touch the throttle to adjust speed a tad. Oh come on! While we crawl down the hill I wonder if "clockwise" means "normals" as in people who follow the mainstream. I wonder if my old school biker friend is "counterclockwise", as in alternative. I could be wrong.
I know I'm in Luxemburg as I approach a petrol station and see the cheaper prices listed. I pull in and fill right up. I buy some tobacco too, might as well while the going's good. Luxemburg is smart and tidy much like the corner of Germany I've passed through. I've been on the road for a few hours now, save for stops to drink water and to wee. The familiar sit up, slump down, feet out, feet back, roll my neck, rotate my shoulders and shuffle routine means I'm getting stiff again. I think of stopping when I see a sign for Bastogne so I'm not too far away.
I notice a big black mass in the sky as I crest a ridge in the road. It's been so hot yet this looks so ominous. I try desperately to figure out if it's on my path, to be honest it does not look good. No worries, I'm wearing waterproof gear. All I'll need to do is stow away the drying clothes. I'm on a road in some woods, following a car that's making very reasonable progress. The road gets twisty. We turn through bend after bend as the wind pick up and the sky blackens. I cherish the bike as it cuts the curves and sweeps the bends, but I notice too that small twigs and leaves are falling on the road. I don't want to push too hard and come upon something larger so I'm happy to follow the car. It feels so very good to be flicking the bike from left to right but that dark mass is getting ever closer.
As we leave the joyful road through the forest we arrive in Wiltz. And at that same moment I notice a few drops of rain on the visor. I pull in and pack the washing away into a saddle bag and ensure everything is battened down, just in case. I cover the tank bag with it's waterproof cover and ensure I'm all zipped up too. By the time I've done this it's already raining properly. I set off. A few yards later all hell breaks loose. Raindrops the size of gumballs hammer down on my helmet and visor. Visibility through the torrent is limited and I drop my speed right down to maybe 25mph.
I'm concerned I may be holding up the traffic, but stuff them, I can't see and that is that. I climb a broad road uphill, expecting to be overtaken but as a river seems to be flowing towards us no-one dares the maneuver. This isn't rain, this is the sky falling down just as the Vikings would worry about. Now I can see why. It must stop soon. As I approach a junction I can neither see the directions, road markings or warning signs, I slow again and open my visor. I'm doing 15 by now but the pain is unbearable so I close the visor and squint even harder. I can feel the water running down my sleeves into my gloves and my jacket is cold against my skin. I finally approach the junction at 5mph before I can see the Bastogne sign.
Another slow and wet mile down the road the rain eases to normal UK rain levels. I've not experienced a downpour like that, that was quite scary. I can manage this kind of rain though, this is just like I'd expect back home and I know all the tricks when it comes to dealing with it. It has however taken the shine off the day a little. My pants and my boots feel like they've held out, my jacket is cold but I don't feel wet as such, but my gloves now have more water within than without. I pray the sun comes out and dries me before I reach Bastogne, or before I grow gills.
It does not. As I ride into Bastogne I pull off onto the wide footpath beside the wide main road. I need to collect myself, check everything's OK and just to rest a moment and get my mind in order. As I stand there, wringing out my gloves and wiping the water from my face, the garage of the house I'm parked in front of opens. Out steps an elderly man with his wife shuffling behind him. It takes a while but he manages to back an MPV out of the garage onto the driveway and as he helps his wife into the car I ask, in French, "Is there a campsite nearby?"
Bastogne in the Rain. Eeeee...it's just like home, except all the cars are on the wrong side of the road.
Of course I don't really know what language this Belgium speaks. The Dutch Ladies had told me some speak a variant of Dutch, some a variant of French. I just hope this one speaks French. With the expected struggle he appears to finally understand what I'm after and gives me directions about a roundabout and a turn that I don't understand. From his motions I think it's the other side of town somewhere and I depart. At a roundabout I turn into a dead end, only to find the old couple following me and gesturing for me to follow them. I try to do this but it's hard in this damp, cold corner of nothingness. On a main road he gestures out of the window to go ahead as he turns right so I do, and end up on a commercial road heading back out of town, this can't be right.
Between the raindrops and spray of lorries I spot something familiar. A large red "Ducati" logo. It's a Ducati shop, there should be at least a sympathetic face there if nothing else, so I pull in. I find there's 2 shops together, Ducati on one side and motorcycle clothing on the other. Knowing Ducati types are usually posh and would not welcome some scruffy oik dripping on their shiny polished floor I enter the clothing side. I drip on their polished wooden floor instead, this is a posh shop too.
Shiny shops with shiny floors for me to drip upon. I'm sure my "counterclockwise" friend would disapprove.
A pretty young lady emerges from an office and...presumably...asks if she can help. Between us we establish I'm looking for a campsite and in broken English she tells me there's one not 200 yards away, it seems the old couple were spot on! 200 Yards down the road behind a youth hostel of some kind there is indeed a site, of sorts. Inside a worn out wooden office an man with an abrupt attitude takes the princely sum of €14 off me and grunts me, via a map, to some grass strip. I try to lighten the mood by asking about the rain, he simply replies "You're in the Ardenne".
This campsite is another odd place. Rows upon rows of bland static caravans stand empty in the rain. A long fat strip of grass lies between the statics and a pond surrounded by wire fence. This is the camping area judging by the single lonely tent in this large grass field. Outside the lonely tent is a pushbike, kitted out for touring, but no other signs of life. I pitch my lonely tent a respectable 20 yards or so away and leave my bike parked close by on a strip of concrete that could be considered a footpath.
Deserted caravans to the left and a pond behind the trees, this is the campsite in Bastogne. My tent is the blue thing, the other tent is behind. Not exactly "bustling" you might say.
Putting the tent up in the rain is miserable. Inflating the airbed is worse, it has to be close to the bike for the electric pump so it gets wet in the rain. It gets wetter as I squeeze it into the ridiculously small tent and wetter still as the wet saddle bags, tank bag and other gear goes in too. I do my best to try and keep the sleeping bag dry. It's a good bag mine, not waterproof but it can handle a large degree of damp on the outside without getting wet on the inside. I try to roll a smoke, I manage but it’s a soggy slug. I suck hard on my soggy slug but only get frustration not nicotine. I keep my spirits up, but it's a struggle right now.
I'm on a soggy campsite with no signs of life. I'm pretty soaked myself. My gear's soggy and so is my tent. I've paid the most for a campsite that has the least to offer. Even the toilets are dark and gloomy, the showers look bleak and you have to pay for them. The man in the office is abrupt and devoid of interest and yet, still, somehow, someway, it doesn't all feel quite hopeless. How the hell I've managed to stay positive I do not know.
I stand in a bin shelter, next to the smelly bins, just to get out of the rain and to try and roll a smoke. After rubbing my hands together for an age they finally dry and I roll an only slightly soggy ciggie this time. This one lights and I get my smoke, thankfully. I may as well walk into town, at least there might be somewhere dry there where I can get a brew and a bite to eat. I grab my camera and my valuables and as the rain is easing a little I just take a light jacket, I wonder if I'll regret that. As I walk the half-mile into town past the Ducati shop and lots of other out-of-town shops the rain keeps on coming, but not hard.
The wet road into Bastogne. Nowhere ever looks as good in the rain does it.
Bastogne town centre has a square with a tourist information building, a tank and a jeep. All around are regular shops and cafes and for the most part it's like any other town I've passed through this week. Towards the old town, presumably the scene of the siege, stands a large monument to the fallen and there's signs for a museum all about. On the town square I find a café and using French with English I manage to order a ham baguette and a cup of weak (again) tea. Tea is available abroad, but it's just not the same here.
An important battle was fought here, the tank amongst other things commemorates this and those that fought.
I wander around town again, snapping images as I have been doing all week. Then my camera reports it's full! Wow, I didn't realise just how many pictures I've been taking. I look for a shop where I might purchase an SD card and finally settle on a Kodak shop, it won't be the cheapest but they're most likely to have what I want. Inside the small shop a bearded smiling gentleman greets me and in French I point to my SD card. Of course in English he informs me my model may possibly not take bigger than a 2gig card and sells me a 2 gig card for 20 euros, which seems fair. I'm impressed by his knowledge, his friendly demeanor and his willingness to remove the card from it's packaging to try in my camera, to be sure. I think I made the right choice this time, happiness.
The Kodak shop with it's very knowledgeable and friendly shopkeeper.
As I walk back to the campsite I snap away, safe in the knowledge I have 2gig more space to fill. There's supermarkets, only small ones, clothes shops, very smart, a car dealers and the Ducati / motorcycle clothing shop. All the shops are very smart, but the road and the footpaths are unkempt. It has however stopped raining. I look up to the sky, there's a chance, just a tiny small chance, that the sun may make an all too welcome appearance.
Back at the camp site the occupant of the nearby tent is present. He's an elderly chap who moves slightly stiffly and with a limp. After busying himself with packaging and equipment he notices me and walks to me. There's the predictable moment of confusion until he realises I'm English and yet again my mother tongue is the language of choice. He's Dutch, but living on the small Dutch island of Curacao, in the sea just North of Venezuala. He's 67 and has ridden a pilgrim route through South America last year after a stroke and this year he's riding a pilgrim route from Canterbury, UK to Rome. Damn, that makes my foray to far off lands on a 95bhp motorcycle at the age of 40 seem less than child's play.
He invites me to join him in Bastogne for something to eat. I decline having already eaten but we agree to maybe go for an evening drink upon his return. He sets off to cover the short cycle into town and as he does he wobbles and weaves down the footpath. I wonder what he's like when the bicycle's fully loaded. In that same moment the sun breaks through from behind thinning clouds. As it does angels sing, birds twitter and the world is bathed in joy. Well, in my head it does. I spread out damp jackets across the bike. I open the tent to let the warmth get to my damp airbed. I hang soggy socks from my brake and clutch levers and scan the sky for signs of further rain.
Grabbing the sun as much as I can, I try to dry everything on the narrow concrete footpath as the grass is still wet.
It's still quite early. It's only 1800 and I've a few hours to fill before bedtime, what am I to do. I'm missing my chair, that would be perfect. Instead I make do with a jacket spread across the concrete footpath and prop my back against a fencepost. I settle down to read for a while. As I read I occasionally get up to see how things are drying and to move them better into the sun. My map is wet too and the page is wrinkled and slightly ripped, but even that looks better as it dries. Apart from the odd "whzzzzzz---plop" of the fishermen casting their lines into the pond nearby it's very quiet, there's no sign of life from any of the static caravans. Quite creepy.
France, Germany And Belgium 2012 - Prologue
My Dutch friend returns an hour or so later. He's had kebab for tea, not what I expect an aging chap who's had a stroke to be eating, but hey ho, what do I know. We both pack our valuables away, secure what needs to be secured and he tells me there's a café just across the road from the campsite. As we walk I get ahead, he walks slowly, he's had both knee joints replaced to. Blimey. The café's odd, as is the way when you're in foreign climes. It's a fast food joint, with tables and chairs, that sells chips, burgers and pizzas, as well as coke by the glass, wine and beer. Sort of half way between a greasy spoon, an American diner and a bar or pub.
I have a coke and my new friend has a small white wine. I speak French better than he does, but he can speak German, Dutch and of course English fluently. I learn about Curacao, of how the Dutch got there, of the current political situations and the indigenous people. We talk of Europe, he's a fan of the Euro and believes it must be saved. We talk of his stroke and his family, I tell him this is my first real foray abroad. He was once a businessman, now retired and although he's travelled for work and holidays, it's only since he's had the stroke he's taken up cycling. 2 glasses of coke and 2 small white wines later we walk, slowly, back to the campsite. I bid my friend goodnight.
Although the sun has been out, everything in the tent is slightly damp. Not to the point of saturation, it could be a whole lot worse, but there's that certain excess of moisture in everything. It's no help this damn tent is so small, I have to lie on, crawl across and wriggle around every damp item to get in and out, to dress and undress and to get into the sleeping bag. I wouldn't go as far to say it's horrible, but it's far from perfect. I miss my bed a little tonight. After tonight, there's only three more nights...
France, Germany And Belgium 2012 - The Chunnel and Wimeraux, France.
France, Germany And Belgium 2012 - Wimeraux to Epernay, The Long Way
France, Germany And Belgium 2012 - Epernay to Lebach
France, Germany And Belgium 2012 - Lebach To Cochem
The scenery is improving as well as the weather. Ren is moving upmarket and into the beautiful town of Cochem.
France, Germany And Belgium 2012 - Cochem to Bastogne
France, Germany And Belgium 2012 - Bastogne to Le Nouvion-en-Thiérache
France, Germany And Belgium 2012 - Le Nouvion-en-Thiérache to Ambleteuse
France, Germany And Belgium 2012 - A Day In Ambleteuse
France, Germany And Belgium 2012 - Going Home Through The Channel Tunnel
France, Germany And Belgium 2012 - Epilogue and More Pictures
France, Germany And Belgium 2012 - Even More Pictures
More images or Ren's European trip that will hopefully bring the story to life.
France, Germany And Belgium 2012 - Even More Pictures Again
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Travel StoriesFrance, Germany And Belgium 2012 - By Ren Withnell