A motorcycle parked in front of a tent on a pleasant green campsite

Home Travel StoriesCochem And The Blue People 2019

The Trouble With France Is

Ride Date 9 September 2019

By Ren Withnell

Our Chunnel train is at 1050. Our digital paperwork insists we arrive 45 minutes early to clear booking in and passport control. We need to be there by 1000 I reckon. We are 45 miles away, mostly via motorway. In theory we ought to be able to depart by 0900 and still get there in good time. 

But I don't work "in theory". I work in "panic mode". What if there's traffic jams, what if there's a problem, what if the bikes don't start? I am - with age and experience - improving. 5 years ago we would have left at 0700, today we depart around 0830. I still have a margin, just not a massive one.

Fortunately the motorways are clear. Unfortunately the weather is not. We start our ride with a light drizzle that gathers into rain then returns to a light drizzle as we approach the barriers. 

When you book the Chunnel you get a number. This number is typed into a computer screen which then opens the barrier. I have in my tank bag's clear map section both our numbers. Yes, both our numbers. How is Sharon to enter her number if it's in my posession? No, didn't think that through did you Ren? No, you're an idiot aren't you Ren? Yes Ren you are an idiot.

As we approach an official looking person comes to assist, I am not expecting this. This lady is unbelievably helpful, I just tell her both the numbers, she writes them down and enters them for us. The boring old car drivers have to enter their own details - lowlife!! We also book onto an earlier train as we are early and the computer says "yes". 

I leave Sharon for a moment to powder my nose and fix my very wet make-up. Upon my return she's hanging out with a younger man with a flashier motorcycle than my own. She's not to be trusted. It seems her new man-friend has never been through the tunnel before and is looking for assistance. I've been through this Chunnel twice before, I'm a veritable veteran, follow me squire!

A rider on his Suzuki give a big thumbs up in the pouring rain while queuing for the Erutunnel
Sharon's new fella is a lot more cheery than her current fella, despite the rain.

This is the blind leading the blind. 

As we ride through the maze of lanes the rain is in full force, bouncing down. We wait in a queue, we move through painted lanes, we're diverted from a queue, we wait, we move then we wait as other motorcyclists come to wait with us. We finally start to board.

Just like a ferry there are metal ramps, albeit a lot smaller but they are just as slippery. I slither across them then watch in fear as Sharon slides over the bumps, lumps and joins before we make our way along the train. We crunch and slip on the joints betwixt the carriages. I sense this was designed for cars not motorcycles.

Sharon in the channel tunnel train with her motorcycle and several others as well
Sharon is pleased to be here, look at her smile!

Sharon's new biker-bloke has travelled all the way down from Aberdeen yesterday, that is a fair old ride and he's obviously much more of a manly man than I am. In the carriage are a handful of other riders. For one couple it's the lady's first time abroad on her own bike so they're keeping it short and simple. Another group are heading for the hills and the bends wherever they may be. 

We clatter off the train at the other end into dry yet overcast conditions, better than expected. Our fellow travellers peel off here and there as I follow the motorway. Just after Dunkirk I hang a right heading inland. 

I have a cunning and devious plan. I have fitted scat-naff once more, sorry I mean poor man's sat-nav also know as a compass. Cochem is south east of here and as long as we're heading south east we'll be fine. Oh, yes of course I'll have to check the digital maps from time to time to re-establish my bearings but otherwise just keep heading south east. It really will be that easy. 

And I am heading south east. We are travelling through farmland and middling sized towns, too many middling sized towns. Oh for goodness sake!

Back home in good old Blighty 20 zones are reserved for side streets and town centres. They do things a little differently here. 50kph in the towns is fine. They then randomly drop the limit to 30kph (18mph) for a crossing with a speed bump on the main road. Sometimes they tell you the 30 zone is over. Sometimes they don't.

If there is no sign to inform Sharon and I the 30 zone is over then we will continue at 30kph. The rest of the French drivers however seem to know something we don't. They'll be extra tight and close behind Sharon and whenever possible whizz by us both in a disconcerting manner. We must have a look online to see what the rules are.

I pull into a Lidl to give Sharon a reprieve from yet another tailgater and to furnish ourselves with nutrition. My maps suggest we are indeed heading in the correct direction, which is good. My ass informs me that our progress is slow. Annoyingly slow. 

I don't want to hit the motorways because I want to see this place. But... At this rate to cover the 120 miles per day required each day is going to take ALL DAY. I can see Ian Soady's words from the blog in my mind - telling me how good the roads are in France, how empty they are and so on. Admittedly the roads are less crowded but there a town or village every other mile complete with speed bumps on the main roads and 30kph limits, it is SLOW.

I get into the countryside once more. Even here I'm not finding that open, long, flowing stretch of road that leads us ever south-east. No. I'm finding junction after junction after village with speed bumps and 30kph zones and junction after village. I tire of this and pull over to calm myself.

Sharon seems quite relaxed. I'm not sure if she's oblivious to the challenges of navigation in a foreign country. Maybe she thinks I've got this all under control and planned out? I dare not ask her for the truth may be uncomfortable. 

Sharon looks on her phone and discovers we are in Belgium! We have just crossed a small stream that forms the border betwixt the 2 countries. The little bridge we have just crossed was, according the the information board next to it, the first point of liberation in Belgium, albeit accidentally. Well I never. We have stumbled upon a small nugget of history, purely by accident I can assure you. 

A sign in English telling the tale of an American WW2 motorcyclist accidentally came in to liberate belgium
All is peaceful now, but this was not always the case. 

The evening is drawing in already and it is time to find accommodation. One of the sites I've "starred" on my Google maps is 15 kilometers away, that's what, erm, err, about 10 miles. I could navigate there old school - look at map, follow route, stop to look at map, correct route, stop to look at map, realise I've missed the turn, stop to look at map, try to remember where I'm going. 

I put the phone into the holder on the bars. Even using the nav feature of Google maps I manage to go around in circles. At least we find a statue remembering the motorcycle rider who was, in error, the first allied soldier into Belgium during World War 2. We find the statue, twice.

A statue featuring a world war 2 motorcyclist surrounded by flowers and the small village
I guess we're not the first bikers here then? 

Eventually after u-turns and more loops I see the sign to the campsite. The road heads into deep woodland on a gravel track. Oh poop. Ever since Sharon's gravel surfing experience she's terrified of anything less than freshly laid and rolled tarmac. I check if she'll be OK - "I'll have to be" comes the cursed reply.

A gravel track running between hedges in Northern France
Sharon was just so pleased to be off-roading.

It takes some time to find the entrance, then the reception, then the owner and then a pitch. Luckily for me my French is passable otherwise I'm not sure we'd have been allowed to stay. The site has, as do many other French sites, a residential feel. Caravans of various vintage play only a small part squeezed between wooden and canvas extensions upon addons with extensions. At €12 though we ain't complaining.

A static caravan on a plot with extensions and fences and flags and a chiminea
Holiday home or permanent home? 

By the time the tent is up, dinner is served and we've taken a stroll among the haphazard temporary buildings it is bedtime. It's a good job too as the bar on site is firmly closed. 

Tomorrow. Hmmm. This idea of not using the motorways is all very well and good and noble. And yet unless I can miraculously find a primary trunk road without towns along the way then tomorrow is going to take all day. 

But Ren! You're Ren, 20,000 miles per annum Ren. Half a million miles Ren. Shut up you stupid boy. You have known for a long time now you prefer an easy day's ride. You prefer to have time to stop and look around. You prefer a casual ride then chill time in a cafe. Do we just hit the motorways and get this done? I, well, yeah but then, no, oh I don't know. 

I really want to travel across country. I haven't seen much of Belgium. No, no we'll be fine. Probably. Bedtime, it's been a long day. 


If you'd like to advertise here contact ren@bikesandtravels.com

Prologue And Excuses It's the whys and the wherefores and the excuses for making this trip. You don't need a reason to travel, but it makes it easier to justify the expense and effort.
The Trouble With France Is It's Chunnel Time and Sharon's made a new friend. Finally in France Ren is finding the going frustratingly slow.
Kicking The Saddlebags Ren is having one of THOSE days. He's a very naughty boy and he needs to take a chill pill. It's them bloody foreigners fault.
Calmly Into Cochem After the previous day's temper tantrum and failure it would be fair to say this day is a better day.

Reader's Comments

Ian Soady said :-
You didn't take my other piece of advice - have a small scale map in the map pocket on the tank bag and follow the N and D roads in the approximate direction... However, north eastern France is not my favourite place (being beaten into that position only by south eastern England) hence I always go for the western channel crossings.

Of course you've chosen to go across the most densely populated areas as well. I would have dropped south and gone via St Omer, Douai, Cambrai and Charleville-Mézières then heading eastwards. Longer but avoids all that industrial squalor. As it happens, my first foray across the Channel on a bike was to visit a friend in Frankfurt. That was in the days of the old Sally Line ferries and oddly enough we did overnight in Cochem but in a grubby little guest house.

When you arrive at a French town of any size you will see signs saying either "Toute directions) or "Autre directions". These indicate a ring road which means that you rarely have to go through the middle (although if you're in need of a coffee or whatever then take the sign saying "Centre Ville".
30/9/2019 10:42:03 AM UTC
Ren - The Ed¹ said :-
Local knowledge is all very well and good... if you have it. I could take you on a tour of my locality and show you the nice bits and you'd leave thinking it's quite lovely. Equally I could show you rough bits and you'd never ever return. I only have limited knowledge of France so I'm stuck with what I find.

Map you say? I was attempting to navigate by compass. There's more to come on how this pans out in the next exciting episode.

Western Channel Crossing are a) in the wrong direction and b) more expensive. Only the landed gentry such as yourself squire can afford such luxuries.
30/9/2019 12:17:37 PM UTC
Upt'North said :-
Firstly, I too would have done the tunnel, way easier and cheaper on a bike.
Secondly, been there got the t shirt.
Let's ride that lovely D road on the map dear, no horrible motorways today my love. Stop for morning coffee after a couple of hours to find I have travelled a grand total of 50 miles. 50 f'in miles?!?
In two f'in hours?!?
Maybe time to hit the autoroute dear, sorry my love.
Don't you also think, don't get me wrong I like it, but Northern France and Southern Belgium all looks the bleeding same; the first village is lovely, the second is OK, the third is, another f'in village?!?
And don't forget to wave to the speed cameras and Police Municipale.
Speed limits are easy to understand though, sorry Ed.
Upt'North.
30/9/2019 12:33:21 PM UTC
Upt'North said :-
Ian, you forgot the most important rule of French terminology.
Never, ever, ever try to book into the Hotel de Ville for the night. Who'd be stupid enough to try that hey..........
Upt'North.
30/9/2019 1:41:49 PM UTC
Ian Soady said :-
Actually, we did on the return trip from Frankfurt! We finally ended up in a really expensive (for us at the time) hotel and my first experience of boeuf en croûte which (almost) made the cost worthwhile......

As for Ren's point - if the area on the map (which I accept you may not have, but how on earth can you navigate without?) looks like a solid block of built up areas and motorways then it's unlikely to be pretty or interesting. A quick shufti at Google maps shows that the route you seem to have chosen may not be optimum.
30/9/2019 2:19:00 PM UTC
Ren - The Ed¹ said :-
So...

Here in Blighty if you pass a sign saying 30, it's 30 FOREVER until you pass another sign stating otherwise.

In France (and Belgium and Spain and The Netherlands) this rule is the same if the internet is to be believed. And I'm talking reliable sources (AA, Government sites etc not forums). We pass a sign stating 30, as in kph. We slow to 30kph. We traverse the speed bump and/or crossing. We continue through the town and the outskirts at 30kph. All the time Sharon, who is behind me, is being seriously tailgated, being peeped at and overtaken dangerously. This all leads me to question either - a) the drivers are aggressive or b) there's an unwritten rule that once the major hazard is passed then return to 50kph.

Some 30 zones are cancelled immediately after the speed bump and/or crossing, while others are not. Does this mean a) because the cancelling signs do exist I must assume if there is no cancelling sign that indeed the ongoing speed limit is 30 or b) some places are signed, some are not but because some are signed it can be assumed that once the hazard is passed, return to 50kph.

If you look at Google Maps between Calais and Cochem lies Parc Naturel Régional Scarpe-Escaut, Parc Naturel Régional de l'Avesnois and Parc Naturel Régional des Ardennes. It seems that following the France Belgium border ought to be quite pretty...
30/9/2019 3:29:01 PM UTC
Upt'North said :-
First apogies to any French Nationals tuning in.
Ed, you forgot the first rule, the French make thousands of stupid laws and no one obeys, least of all the French. Although I cannot recall many angry French drivers in thousands of miles of travelling through Francais Land. They can be a little aggressive at times, I think they expect bikes to go faster than them.
Ian, posh food........I've had a Greggs sausage roll, is it a bit like that. And talking of Greggs, they are the best food on the motorway aren't they? And you don't need a mortgage to buy it, good stodgy biking naughtiness. Sounds a bit like Ed.
Enjoying your write up Ed.
Upt'North.
30/9/2019 4:39:46 PM UTC
Ren - The Ed¹ said :-
I only use motorway services with a Greggs. Cuppa tea, £1.25 which is on par with many cafes. Cuppa tea from Costa/Starbuck etc right next door - £2 and ever upwards. I can't help but wonder how the other concessions are still in business.
30/9/2019 5:07:19 PM UTC
Jim said :-
We drove a fair bit in France in the summer - we just assumed the 30kph applied to the humped crossing only, and speeded up as soon as we were over the hump. One thing I did notice was that on 3 occasions we saw a roadside speed trap operated by a gendarme they had left their flashing blue light on, giving plenty of warning! Very sporting of them, I thought.
30/9/2019 8:38:32 PM UTC
Ren - The Ed¹ said :-
Assumption is the mother of all, erm, screwups. But yes, I suspect the French populous also does speed up after the humps whether there is an "end of 30" sign or not.
1/10/2019 11:25:45 AM UTC
Ian Soady said :-
Nowt wrong with Greggs, especially compared with the competition in this country.
1/10/2019 11:41:10 AM UTC
Ren - The Ed¹ said :-
Ian? I'm stunned. I expected you to be a "haute cuisine" kind of gentlemen with a refined pallet. I can't imagine you chomping down on a Greggs pasty while finely engineering parts for a vintage velocipede.
1/10/2019 12:32:56 PM UTC
Ian Soady said :-
My pallets are all refined. My palate on the other hand....

I did spend my formative years in County Durham which is even less posh than your neck of the woods. I never eat whilst making parts as either I'll poison myself or bits of flaky pastry will clog up the lathe tool.

Greggs is fine here but in France there are so many better options. And as I've said many times they can be had for very reasonable prices.
1/10/2019 1:21:41 PM UTC
Upt'North said :-
Ian, I was in Peterlee on Sunday. The bit I was in was actually quite "posh". But then again he was a ST1100 owner so what do you expect. I went down to collect a new to me seat I want for a gel conversion. No matter how many Greggs I eat I can't seem to get a fat arse. So I'll have to have a fat seat instead.
Yes, French motorway food is way better than ours, you can eat better at lunch than you can in a restaurant in the evening.
Upt'North.
1/10/2019 1:31:36 PM UTC
Ren - The Ed¹ said :-
Sorry... I am working on software that involves pallets.
1/10/2019 3:14:11 PM UTC
Borsuk said :-
Personally I think Greggs have gone down hill since they expanded and have a standard menu. Last time I was in Shields I went for a Cheese and Onion Stottie, Geordie lands only contribution to the culinary arts, and was informed they don`t do them any more as they aren`t on the standard menu. I lived on them when I was at the marine college as an apprentice.
Also Greggs food never seems to be hot when I buy stuff, best I seem to get is lukewarm. I much prefer the Pound Bakery, their stuff is usually scalding hot, also 1/2 the price at least. Now if I could just get them to do deep fried pies I would never eat out any where else.

1/10/2019 8:01:34 PM UTC
Ren - The Ed¹ said :-
Thumbs up for Pound Bakery. The one in Farnworth is a cracker and 2 tatty pies for a pound is such value. However Pound Bakery don't have concessions on motorway services as Greggs do.

And who dares to say the UK doesn't have a thriving and tasty food scene!!
1/10/2019 8:39:07 PM UTC
Bob said :-
The most success I've had is the Cherbourg ferry then A and D roads.
I stayed near Bayeux and went down to Mt St Michelle and had a very nice ride of it. The advice on "Toutes Directions" is key, stay out of the towns and use the provincial roads.
The French motorways are too fast for my tastes on anything under 100HP. On a Fazer they were fine, on a Vigor they were not.
2/10/2019 11:59:58 AM UTC
Ian Soady said :-
Yes, I used to get the overnight to Cherbourg then ride down the centre of the Cotentin peninsula via Valognes stopping for breakfast at Coutances. Wonderful in the early morning with the mist rising off the fields and the cows looking up as the Norton thundered past.
2/10/2019 1:54:28 PM UTC
creed87 said :-
I can't fault the Greggs breakfast for value: bacon and sausage bap and a hot drink for £2.35 at the Catterick branch. Reminds me about being an apprentice again on the Horwich Loco works estate; the daily 10 o'clock butty run.

Chris
2/10/2019 5:20:11 PM UTC
Upt'North said :-
Chris,
You've taken me right back to ERF Middlewich, late seventies. Never minded doing the run, normally got mine for nothing.
Upt'North.

Ed, get us back on track, we were in Belgium.......
2/10/2019 6:54:06 PM UTC
Ren - The Ed¹ said :-
We're not quite in Belgium, we're on the French side of the border. Fear not, the next exciting, intrepid and skillfully crafted post is due out in the next... few minutes.
3/10/2019 9:06:57 AM UTC

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