The city of Nice seen from the surrounding hillside bathed in sunshine

Home Travel StoriesFrance, Germany And Belgium 2012 - By Ren Withnell

France, Germany And Belgium 2012 - Le Nouvion-en-Thiérache to Ambleteuse

It's a good idea to go to bed early, there's not a lot going on at most campsites after dark so you may as well sleep.  Without curtains the morning sun is sure to wake you so you need to be in bed early to get enough sleep.  There is a downside though.  I'm always blooming wide awake by 0530.  No-one else is, mind you there's only myself in a tent on the campsite this morning, everyone else is in caravans or motor homes.  There's much to do this morning, the first thing I'm going to do is decide what to do.

You see, it's like this.  I'm 120 miles, an easy ride, from the coast.  It's Friday today and my Chunnel train is on Sunday morning.  I certainly want to be on the coast Saturday night so I'm certain of getting to the Chunnel, but I don't need to be on the coast tonight.  I think the campsite here is delightful, the host is most accommodating and I could spend the day riding around the area.  On the other hand, I suspect there may be a little more going on at the coast and I could spend the day chilling on the beach.  Not that I've ever spent a day chilling on the beach, I'd be bored out of my brains.

In the glorious morning sun I make myself a brew, take another shower just because they're so nice, spread out my gear to be sure there's no damp left anywhere and walk around, being nosey, looking at people's caravans and awnings.  Franz, the Dutch guy in the campervan, stirs around 0745.  I'm hungry now and itching to get my hands on my croissants.  I watch impatiently for something to happen and at 0805 a white van rolls up, this must be my breakfast.  I walk to the reception and my host has spotted me coming.  I'm given a big smile as I'm handed a white paper bag containing my croissants.

Croissants and sweet tea, in the sunshine, lovely!  This is much more like it, much better than tomato soup in the rain.  All the more reason to stay here.  After I've eaten I busy myself a little more then sit on a bench near to the tent.  Just sit.  That's the problem with me.  I can't just sit.  Just sit and watch the world go by, sit and relax and enjoy the sunshine and sit quietly with my thoughts.  I'm bored and annoyed with my stupid silly thoughts after 3 minutes.  It's no good, this campsite is lovely but there's just nothing going on and it does not look likely that anything will be going on soon.  I start to pack.

fazer 600 with camping gear all around in the sunshine at Le Nouvion-en-Thiérache
Starting to load the bike up at the delightful campsite in the morning sun.

Before I leave I make sure to thank the lady campsite owner.  I tell her the campsite is "Beau", I hope that means beautiful.  I also say goodbye to Franz.  He watches in amazement as I load the bike up with gear.  He seems genuinely impressed at how everything fits and congratulates me on a job well done.  I feel quite proud to receive such a comment from a well travelled man.  I set off again, not far to go this day and I should be a little more familiar with the area.  I'll have no trouble finding a site and the forecast looks good too.   

As ever the roads are quiet.  I pass through more sleepy villages with their faded crossings, faded road markings, gravel footpaths and tired houses.  I should be bored of this by now but it's a relief to feel a little more confident on the road.  I'm starting, just starting, to get the hang of European driving and I'm almost confident enough to approach a roundabout without terror.  There's still a healthy dose of concern, I need to be sure to look to the left, not right.  

a french street with supermarket, crossing and billboards
Just another French street with shops and the obligatory crossing.  The paint on this one is still visible.  Notice no beacons and no zig-zags on the approach.  They're hard to spot sometimes.

I  pass through Cambrai...get lost...find myself in Douai...get lost...and roll into Arras.  It doesn't matter.  They day is young, the sun is shining, I've got fuel in the tank and the bike feels fine.  I'm on my way home too.  I don't want to go home as in back to work, back to the mundane and back to living in just one place.  I am however looking forward to understanding people in the shops and to the comfort of my own bed.  It's going to all feel a little "small" after this trip, and this trip is a tiny trip.  I'm still in love with the dream of travelling and my mood today makes that seem like a good idea.

As I ride into Arras I'm scanning the road signs looking for that recognisable town name, something to guide me in the right direction for once other than the sun.  As I scan the traffic, yes, there Is traffic in this not-so-sleepy town, stops as we approach a roundabout.  It looks like there's a fire up ahead, I see smoke.  I guess someone's car is on fire or some other incident is taking place.  I stop within the traffic, a couple of French bikers squeeze down the lines but I'm in no rush.  I'm actually thankful to stretch my legs a little.

As I sit and wait a moment a group of people emerge into view at the roundabout.  They are, without doubt, protestors!  Wow I so did not expect this!  20, 30, maybe 40 people, mostly young to middle aged, with banners, start to jeer and shout.  They start blaring air horns, parp, parp, parp, parp in repetition whilst others light flares and jiggle their banners.   I'm intrigued and just slightly concerned.  They look serious enough but so far it looks more disruptive than aggressive.  I just hope it does not become aggressive, I don't wish to be caught in a riot.  I wait a while to see if they pass.  They don't.

lines of traffic in the distance protestors with smoking flares and banners in arras
The protestors close the road ahead.  I've no idea why.  

They look set to be here a while, so I turn off the bike and dismount.  It feels pleasingly surreal to be stood in the middle of a main road, smoking a ciggie, watching the protesters and hearing the relentless parp, parp, parp of their horns.   A guy in a nearby car winds his window down and shouts something at me.  I explain in French I don't understand so he smiles, rolls his eyes and returns to watching the events.  I'm expecting the police any time soon, I can hear sirens but they don't seem to be getting any closer.  Parp, parp, parp, those horns are wearing just a little thin right now.

One solo police motorcycle rides down the grass verge to get by the traffic.  I feel sorry for the poor bloke, what can he do against many?  One of the protestors appears to be in charge, I don’t know why I know this but somehow he just fits the bill.  The police rider senses this too and approaches him.  I'm worried, but the exchange seems firm yet professional on both sides.  I can't hear anything except the air horns but whatever is said makes a small difference.

A  few cars and a truck are allowed to pass.  I kit up sharp and move forwards, not wishing to miss my chance.  A minute passes then another couple of cars pass the protestors, slowly and carefully and I get closer to the front.  For reasons unexplained the leader, if that's what he is, waves me through.  Not wishing to upset anyone, especially the protestors, I crawl forwards and he waves me on again.  I carefully and slowly pass the protest, making sure to give them a supportive and thankful nod.  I have no desire to be ripped from the bike for breaking ranks.  As soon as I'm safely away I push on.  When the going gets tough, I prefer to be elsewhere.  

I  reflect on my experience.  This is actually the sort of experience that makes travelling interesting.  I've never experienced that before and luckily it was an interesting not dangerous experience.  I spot a sign for Boulonge-Sur-Mer and I'm thankful I'm OK and I'm heading in the right direction.  Not far now.

When I first entered Boulogne-Sur-Mer, it was jammed full of traffic.  Today, 6 days later, it's still a stupidly busy place.  I head for the town centre but I'm lost as ever and already sick of the traffic.  It's hot, very hot, and I'm clammy in my bike gear.  As I drudge along I spot a MacDonalds and head for that.  A Maccy D's isn't big or clever, or adventurous, but I just want a bite to eat, a clean toilet, somewhere cool to sit and to get out of this blooming traffic.  It takes an age to work out how to get to the MacD's, the French just love to send their traffic around the houses on retail parks, I recall that from last years trip.

I  get my phone out from under the seat where it's been on charge and take my valuables with me.  I make use of the toilet, much to my relief then order a meal.  It's more expensive here than at home, so much for rip-off-Britain.   As I eat the rather tasty burger I check out my phone.  It's been playing silly buggers for a few days so I guess a re-boot is in order.  It doesn't reboot.  All I get is a battery symbol and a thermometer with a warning triangle.  Damn.  Of all the things that could break my phone was not on my list and I wasn't prepared for this at all.  Damn.  

When you work for yourself, when there's people back home that want to know you're OK and when you're on a bike the phone is important.  Damn.  Oh dear.  Well, there's nothing I can do, I've removed and replaced the battery, checked what little I can and all to no avail.  Damn.  Oh come on Ren, it's a blooming phone, you managed until the age of 25 without one, you can manage another couple of days.  Damn.  I'll have a look at it later.  Damn.

Now I know where I'm heading, north up the coast, should be an easy ask.  But I've set a tradition for this trip and not by choice I'm not breaking with tradition, I'm lost.  Lost on some out of town business estate.  Lost in the hinterlands.  Lost in the small little hamlets and twisty lanes.  Lost but quite happily so.  It's only mid afternoon, I've got ages and there's plenty of campsites on the coast so I'm sure to find one.  I do get a tad frustrated after almost an hour, then I spot some sea in the distance so I head for that.  I emerge between Boulogne and Wimeraux, I know exactly where I am now.  Thanks goodness for that.  I  pass through Wimeraux and head north along the coast road.  I stop at a layby that overlooks a bay and have a drink and a smoke. 

inf the foreground cars on a gravel carpark overlooking a long curving sandy shoreline with dunes
I never expected this part of the coast, so close to home, to be so impressive.  Of course it looks a lot better in the scorching sun.

I ride further on and into Ambleteuse where I spot a campsite sign.  I'm ready to stop now to be honest, it's far too hot.  I follow the signs and find the campsite.   The site looks fine so I park the bike next to reception and enter.  I book myself in for 2 nights, which feels odd after the last 6 nights.  It's just over €10 per night but much to my annoyance the showers are tokens which need to be paid for.  I don't know why, I've just got this "thing" about paid for showers.  I know I'm tight but the tokens don't break the holiday budget by any means, it's just that some sites, no more expensive, don't charge for showers.  I mutter something under my breath and buy two tokens.

The site itself is actually perfectly acceptable, but after the manicured lawns and pristine condition of last night's campsite this place seems something of an anticlimax.  I ride along gravel and tarmac tracks until I find a patch of grass not too far from a toilet block.  I pitch my tent as the sun beats down and as soon as I can I scramble into the tent and change into my shorts!  Shorts!  Me!  These pale legs have not seen the light of day for probably a year and I fear I may blind people with the reflection from my white shins. 

tents, caravans and campervans at the campsite in ambleteuse
Compared to last night's campsite it's a little...ordinary...but in reality it's just fine.

The day is still young and I'm still concerned about my phone.  In reality it's not that much of a problem, I'll have to make a call to let the UK know I'm OK but other than that I've no urgent need.  What I will miss is being able to play solitaire or watch a film if I've any dead time, but those things are not important.  Yet, even logically knowing there's no real problem, I'm flapping.  I guess I'm just one of those people who like to have everything working or I like my toys or I just need something to worry about.  I tell myself this is stupid and pointless and not to flap.

As I'm telling myself all this I'm checking the charger, checking the wiring, rechecking the phone, thinking of what it may or may not be and turning myself inside out.  Stupid Boy!  I curse myself for worrying about the unimportant.  I've covered over 1,000 miles on foreign roads with strange signs and unfamiliar driving habits without serious incident.  The bike is in good order and perfectly serviceable save for a slightly loose left footpeg that's not getting any worse and will be easily fixed.  The tent is annoyingly small but has served me well.  I've not spent a fortune and managed to eat well.  I've survived rain, heat, the Chunnel and odd campsites.  I've met some interesting people and overall the trip has been a success.  Yet I'm worried about a blooming phone that's insured and under warranty.  Silly me.

I wonder if it's my charger.  I wonder if anyone else has a charger I can try.  I've never been very good at asking for help, especially from strangers, but one thing this trip has taught me is that the vast majority of people are decent people.  I've also been quite brave in approaching strangers and I'm feeling confident.  I did notice as I rode around the campsite that there was one other bike parked near a VW campervan.  Stuff it, I grab my defunct phone and walk over to the campervan.

Outside the van, in the shade of an awning, sits a tall man with shoulder length white hair and 2 ladies, one in bike gear the other looking relaxed in summer clothes.  I am still a little nervous as I approach and almost back out, but it would look silly now if I turned around, I'm too close.  I open in French but this only leads to confusion, it takes another of those embarrassing moments before I establish they're German, but of course they all speak English, the bloke speaks very good English.  

I  sheepishly explain what I'm after.  The bloke rummages around in the door pockets of the van and produces a charger and lead, it fits my phone so that's perfect.  He plugs it all into the van and as it charges we talk.  They're from Cologne, they've travelled down today, some 270 miles.  This is the lead group, they are expecting another 20-30 bikers sometime in the evening!. Cool, by sheer luck I've picked a campsite where a group of bikers come every year, for 30 years, on this national German holiday weekend.  What are the chances of that?  Travelling throws up some interesting twists and turns.

Feeling like something of an interloper I leave my phone on charge with the Germans and take a walk around the campsite to kill a little time.  Like most of the sites I've been on most people are in campervans or caravans, there's only 2 or 3 other tents on site.  I would not say it's a "nice" site, but everything is in order and all quite acceptable.  There is a bar on site but like the other sites I've been to there's no sign of it opening or that it ever opens.  I hope there's some place in town where I can get a drink and relax.  I stick my nose into the showers, they're clean and have a "dry" corner, but those token boxes annoy me.  

caravans and campervans behind hedgerows at ambleteuse campsite
This site is mostly campervans and caravans with hedgerows to separate the pitches.

I return to the German's campervan and with a friendly smile I get my phone back.  It starts!  I'm not convinced that this is the full problem though so I make sure I write down a few numbers from my contacts just in case.  I also send a text to my Mother, warning her of my phone issues.  She's the one most likely to worry if she can't get in touch.  They do that, Mothers, even when you're 40.

It is so hot.  Too hot for me now.  Drinking water doesn't cool me.  Throwing cold water over me only brings momentary relief.  I crawl into the tent looking for respite, inside the tent is like an oven.  Even though it's hot it brings some comfort to know I'll not get burnt, and I can lie down.  I get my book and read for a while as the sweat pours out of me.  I'm not just sticky with sweat, it's literally dripping down my face, my body, my arms and my legs.  I remember being this hot when I went to Spain, 7 years ago, and back then it was unbearable.  I'm 7 years older and 7 years wiser now, I set my mind to accept this rather than fight it.  To my surprise it works, kind of.  I'm still hot and dripping, but because my mind is in the right place I'm comfortable.  So comfortable I fall asleep.

yamaha fazer 600 and tent at the campsite in ambleteuse
My bike and the tent...aka the the scorching sun.

I don't know how long I sleep.  When I awake I crawl out of the tent and it's still hot, not quite as hot so I figure that it may be late afternoon.  I sort out the tent as best I can and grab my valuables and take a walk into Ambleteuse.   They are very quiet these French villages. I find a Tabac, a bar, a couple of shops and plenty of houses, yet there's little sign of life.  The streets are empty, there's only a barman in the bar and a waitress in the restaurant.  As I walk towards the shore I spot a café, bustling with 2 young gentlemen outside drinking beer quietly.  I go inside into an aging café with wooden tables and chairs, tiled floors and wood paneled walls.  A lady behind a faded wooden bar looks at me in a surly manner.  I feel unwanted.

a quiet street in ambleteuse with shops and a bar
The cars and the bar indicate this is a living place, but there's no people, no traffic, quite surreal.

I order, in my best and most polite French, a cup of tea.  She looks at me in surprise, "Te?"  I don't know why this would be such a shock, I've managed to get "te" everywhere else in France.  I confirm my request.  She mumbles something else, I suspect it means "nothing else".  No, just tea, if you please.  She gives me a dirty look then turns to prepare my beverage, I pull a face at her as she twiddles knobs and pours milk, then I notice the mirror on the wall behind the counter.  Eeeek!  I watch carefully to ensure she doesn't spit in my brew.  I'm relieved of 2 more Euros for my small, weak and begrudging tea.

She watches me from the counter, pretending to clean a little here and there or put something away.  I drink slowly.  I've nothing to play with, nothing to distract me, no book to read of phone to entertain me.  It feels like a stand off.  This would have really bothered me a few years back, now I just find it interesting and funny.  As these thoughts pass through my head I laugh a small chuckle to myself.  With that she disappears out  back and I'm left to drink my brew alone.  The French, like any other group of people, has it's odd characters.

As I walk to the coast I'm relieved to feel the cool air from the sea.  It's evening already and I might be getting ready for a jumper soon.  Here there is life, not much though.  There's a castle at one end of the beach, next to this is a hut that sells ice cream and soft drinks.  Outside are tables and chairs with two people consuming their purchases.  Along the promenade a few couples walk hand in hand and a family walks by, their kids climb on the coastal defense walls.  A handful of tall old hotels line the promenade with cars outside but no activity visible within.  

blue ice cream hut with tables and chair outside in the sunshine with 2 customers at ambleteuse
Notice 2 customers...this is heaving and bustling in Ambleteuse.

I spot a line of bikes and a group of biker types.  I guess this may be the main body of the German group. In the group is the tall grey haired chap so I say hello.  He welcomes me with a smile and states what I'd already worked out.  I'm looked at by a few nearby people, some look curious, some look like "who the hell is this" and some smile in a friendly manner.  I nod a few "hello's", talk briefly then leave.  Like Franz the Dutch campervan man said it's hard to approach a group, groups are intimidating.  The Germans are perfectly polite and not threatening yet I can't help but feel overwhelmed and outnumbered.

As the evening sun sets over the sea I walk back to the site.  As I do some of the German bikers pass by on a variety of machines.  Back at the tent I'm hungry so I rustle up another tin of Ravioli on my trusty stove and check the phone.  The charge is going down so risking it I plug it back in. 

orange sunset over the sea at ambleteuse
Sometimes...just sometimes there is a perfect picture opportunity

As it gets a little darker I walk over to where the Germans are camped.  They're still finishing off pitching and talking between themselves.  I made welcome and talk a while to the grey haired bloke.  He introduces me to a few other faces.  One lady only passed her test 2 weeks ago and has made the 270 mile trip, I admire her bravery.  Another gentleman has a Africa Twin that has suffered the common fuel pump problem, he's overcome this by removing the fuel pump which shortens his range but has allowed him to complete the journey.

I feel as though I could stay, I feel welcome.  I do feel like a stranger too.  It's awkward as they talk and laugh, I understand nothing unless some poor soul has to translate for me.  Nearly all of them speak at least some English, I demonstrate my ignorance as I muddle poor German with English words.   I excuse myself as they settle into their beers and depart for my tent.  After wriggling and crawling into my sleeping bag I wonder if I will ever truly master another language.  I put in my earplugs and pull the sleeping bag tight over my shoulders, it may be hot in the day but the nights are chilly. 

France, Germany And Belgium 2012 - Prologue
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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