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The club run in May had unexpectedly presented me with an
untimely problem. One of the two locating and retaining studs
which fixes the bevel drive box to the frame, preventing it from
rotating had sheared. I had intended a minor rebuild before the
holiday anyway to satisfy myself that all would be in order but
this meant a little bit of major surgery.
The stud was removed at a good price by a local firm "Piston Broke" but I knew that the problem had been caused by a minor misplacement of the frame tags into which the stud located. A "simple" solution would be to weld the conical shaft end cover to the frame! This together with a need to replace the front tyre and the fork oil convinced me that a complete strip down was necessary and that I would have to repaint the frame. Repainting of the engine was also desirable so away I went stripping, cleaning and welding and painting everything that didn't move and a lot that did. Its amazing how long paint takes to dry and how quickly time seemed to pass on this occasion watching it.
At last after many short cuts and with only about a week or so to spare the pile of parts in the kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and living room had transformed themselves back into a bike in the front garden. The only casualty despite my frayed nerves was the front doorstep which was as impressed as was I with the weight of an XS1100 engine!
A few trial trips to and from work and I was satisfied that the bike was as ready as I could make it.
THURSDAY 19/07/90 + FRIDAY 20/07/90 . . . . .
The big day dawned. Beautiful as it must have been, I missed the dawn arising about mid morning with the intention of lazing around until the off. It was yet another gloriously sunny day and after a few hours sat roasting in the back garden I began to think that what I had joked of with the local newsagent was not that far from the truth. I was going away to find somewhere cold and wet and then I was going to stay there.
By about five o'clock I decided it was about time to start packing something beside the tools and spare inner tubes and control cables which somehow seemed the most important items. Within minutes all the bags and panniers were as full as I dared to make them. Inexplicably I included my seldom-used toothbrush as well. I haven't seen it since but must still have it somewhere!
A quick farewell to my bathroom with a shower and time to start loading the bike up. Ooops! Time to put those oil line retaining bolts back on. Now I was ready. A good job I was going really because I had run out of cutlery and crockery in the kitchen and would soon have to think about doing some washing up. A quick addition to the pile was the last bottle of milk in the fridge which it occurred to me would be past it's best in two weeks. My stomach felt a little past it's best after having drunk it. Dave popped in to say goodluck, have a good time and that sort of thing. After having a quick run around the house turning everything off I sat on the bike feeling somehow strange. I wanted Dave to come too and it didn't feel right that he wasn't. But there again maybe it did. I'd drunk too much milk!
To the insistent strains of a Steppenwolf record buzzing in my head I took to the road. I got about a mile and decided I needed petrol. Aha. The mileometer read 20080. Time to do it!
The ride to Portsmouth was by anyone's standards, 'sedate' and safe. Despite the fact that my normal mental attitude for long distance travelling had been invoked (i.e. I actually died this morning and ANYTHING that happens from now on, be it disaster or even death, is a bonus.) I thought that should disaster befall me, this side of the channel would not be the most satisfying of places for it to happen. People would laugh! The beautiful weather made such a slow and careful ride quite bearable although the fact that the weather had been so good for so long did present me with a minor problem. It appeared that all the farmers had had a good hay harvest and that they had chosen this day to transport their crop to wherever such crops are transported. Having obviously had such a good harvest meant that they were not concerned about losing half of their load in transit and it became quite the norm to have to plough through a storm of dust and bits whilst passing the many lumbering stacks. The pace quickened somewhat as I reached the M27 link to Southampton and Portsmouth but the call of nature demanded a stop at a service station. A quick cigarette and off again since not knowing exactly where I was I didn't know how long I had.
Within a quarter of an hour I had left the motorway and decided to get some petrol at the first available station. It was remarkably busy but of course being on the bike enabled me to slip through the waiting cars and use a free pump that no one else could get to. Going in to pay I was confronted by a queue of a least fifteen people! I duly took my place at the back glancing at my watch but was then delighted to find that the attendant had pressed the wrong button on his consul and would have to take my money first. I 'bounced' to the front of the queue wondering if the attendant could tell by looking at me that I was embarking on an adventure and if he had done it deliberately. I thanked him in earnest and assured him I would buy my petrol there again. I carefully picked my way past the fuming queue and got back on the bike.
It suddenly dawned on me I had been to Portsmouth before, when I had gone on the back of someone's bike to Paris for a weekend. I had a photograph of that restaurant and if I remembered rightly just over there . . . .
Checking in completed I drove to the head of the boarding queue as directed and parked up. There were perhaps half a dozen or so bikes already there but not a single one even slightly customised. Most were of the new, unidentifiable, plastic type accompanied by couples who obviously possessed a Fowlers charge card. Matching coloured full-face helmets and one piece leather suits. Very 'smart'! I carefully chose a nearby piece of gutter, sat down, rolled a cigarette and waited. In what seemed like no time at all we were directed to start up and move to the end of the boarding ramp where we were to wait while the ferry disgorged its enormous load. Waiting here it became clear that there was one other biker on his own and with whom I had at least something in common. A bit of small talk revealed he was Suisse and was on his way home after having had a few weeks holiday staying with friends.
The organised chaos of the ferry unloading continued. I have always considered this part of journeys most difficult trying to drive nose to tail amongst traffic up and down ramps while handing over boarding passes and displaying passports but I am now convinced it is just me who is no good at it. The man driving a car down the ramp, handing over his pass and making a phone call at the same time made it look easy.
It wasn't long before we were ushered on and the bike was parked up against a bulkhead, put in gear and roped down. Quicker than most I made my way upstairs to find a seat. Having found one it dawned on me that I would soon need to go to the toilet and would lose it any way. One of the joys of travelling on your own! The cabin soon filled up and I was happily joined at the table by the Suisse guy and then unfortunately, as always seems to happen to me on journeys, by a drunk. He seemed intent on talking to me about Kent bike festivals, Hells Angel funerals and Hells Angels in general. Thankfully his need for more alcohol outweighed his desire to be sociable and he soon stumbled off with an intoxicated grin on his face in the direction of the duty free shop.
The Suisse guy borrowed a map from someone at a nearby table and I took the opportunity to try and decide exactly where I was going to go when we arrived in France. Nothing in particular attracted my attention so I decided to head as far south as I could in the first day by the most direct and easy route. My road map, an enormous RAC book of Europe was obviously no good for easy reference so I jotted down my intended route on the packet of my cigarette papers. A13-A6. Simply this would see me more than half way across France!
Time dragged on as I whiled away the hours walking the decks, eating the meal of chicken nuggets paid for by Mum and Dad, buying a supply of tobacco in the duty free shop and changing all my English money into francs at the Bureau de Change.
It occurred to me here to make a mental note for future reference of where people were relatively comfortable sleeping. Beneath the luggage racks looked ok but the best place appeared to be beneath the stairs on the Bureau de Change deck. Sleep for me I had decided was out of the question since the only available places left were left because of the impossibility of sleep in them. It seemed inconceivable that a ferry on a six-hour night crossing made no concession to the vast number s of people wanting to sleep save for a few over priced cabins.
At last, at long, long last the intercom announced our approach to the French coast. Out onto the observation deck and the most beautiful sight of the sun rising over the French coast beckoning us into dock.
A crowded descent to the car deck and I was soon ready to go, affected as I'm sure was everybody, by the atmosphere of excitement and perhaps just a little nervousness. By 6 o'clock or 7 o'clock French time as it was announced, we were docked and off onto French soil. A quick flash of a boarding pass and a passport and all of a sudden I was driving the 'wrong way' around a roundabout and down the 'wrong side' of a road in Le Havre! I pulled over almost immediately to catch my breath, have a cigarette and adjust my mind. I concluded I had actually driven the right way round the roundabout and on the correct side of the road since I was now a foreigner in someone else's country. BLIMEY!
Back on the bike I was amazed to find my memory which is usually quite useless provided me with the instruction to turn right at the traffic lights and drive out past a cafe and follow the signs for Paris. It worked. My stock comment of "it's a funny old world innit" suddenly seemed to actually mean what it said.
Passing a petrol station I spotted Mr Suisse filling his tank and nodded an acknowledgement to his wave. At the next petrol station on my side of the road I pulled in to fill up not so much from needing the petrol but rather to overcome as soon as possible the mental obstacle involved in doing so. I dusted off my school French and found to my amazement that despite the attendant claiming not to speak English I was in, paid and out within a minute.
The music returned to my head. Nothing would hold me back now. Well nothing that was until I arrived at my first Peage. I'd been warned about these but hadn't really listened. I should have! Most of the motorways or 'AutoRoute's 'have tollbooths at seemingly frequent intervals which, never mind the cost, are quite an inconvenience especially when riding a motorcycle. The bike must be put in neutral, gloves have to be removed, pockets unzipped and deeply buried monies found and handed over. The whole laborious process must then be reversed with an ever-growing queue of impatient cars and lorries behind you. Hurrying was a mistake since it was all too easy to forget to zip up a pocket, the contents of which would have been immediately stolen by the wind as soon as I moved. To add to the difficulty the entire operation was always conducted on areas of tarmac, which bore an unhappy resemblance to a skidpan. There were always so many signs to read and translate at the Peages that perhaps I missed the one which dictated a mandatory oil spillage! On several occasions when stopping the bike I produced a worthy imitation of Torville and Dean in combat boots. It wasn't long before "bon jour, au revoir" and a wheel spin were second nature to me.
At on Peage I was cheerfully presented with a free map which I thought was really useful until I realised at the next cigarette stop that I had already left the are covered by the map far behind. So had Mr Suisse who I seemed to keep on passing or get passed by.
I decided it was time for a coffee so after having filled up with petrol at a set of services I drove over to the restaurant. The bike that was already parked there looked suspiciously like . . . . . Mr Suisse. We decided to breakfast together.
I ordered a coffee, some orange juice and a small bowl of fruit salad, not having much of an appetite and sat at an outside table chatting and feeling pretty damn good. His name was Krupski Valdemar, a computer operator from Zurich. We chatted there for some time and exchanged addresses with Krupski suggesting that if I found myself in Zurich during the coming week I should contact him by phone. He gave me his work phone number and his home number, which he warned me, would be connected to an ansaphone. A quick look at our maps revealed that we were both going South by the same route for a considerable distance before he would turn left and go to Switzerland. It therefore seemed a good idea to travel together especially from my point of view when I realised that we would reach the notorious Paris circular road just after the peak of the morning rush hour. Krupski new his way around this nightmarish maze so following him seemed an opportunity not to be missed. I had already experienced Paris in the past and had no great wish to get lost there again, for the sake of seeing some more spectacular architecture. It was decided. A couple of photographs later and off we went.
It was at this stage that I was really broken in as far as touring on a hardtail chop goes. Krupski on his standard Z1000 or whatever it was, with a nice low riding position thought nothing of a constant cruising speed of 85 mph with frequent bursts of up to 100 mph. The apehanger handlebars on my bike certainly lived up to their name. Being forced into the back of my seat b y the battering of the wind I was hanging on for grim death by my fingertips! Luckily the petrol capacity of his bike was similar to that of mine, or less, and the siting of the service stations meant a compulsory respite every 50 miles or so.
Obviously nearing Paris the roads began to get busy and I mean busy, nevertheless the average speed of the traffic only seemed to drop by about 10 mph. Things began to get frightening and a little unpleasant. All of a sudden there off to the right in the heat haze was the Eiffel Tower. I recalled my disappointment of a closer inspection in the past, of how rusty it was and how annoying the constant stream of hawkers had been, and felt happy enough to be bypassing it. Happier still when it occurred to me that from now on I was covering new ground.
Some more hair raising feats of daring jousting with the lane changing Kamikaze French drivers on the Paris ring road and then the startling sight of a Jumbo jet seemingly stationary, feet above the traffic, glowing in the sun. Orly airport of to the left.
Leaving Paris behind it was soon back to the relative ease of the high-speed pursuit south on the "AutoRoute Du Soleil". Electronic signs above the road counted up the temperature as the miles now almost effortlessly rolled by. The average temperature was 32C! Hot! I forget how many cold cans of Coke I had at the innumerable petrol stops but it was a lot. Eating was an effort and having forced down a couple of dry sandwiches at one stop decided not to bother again until some semblance of an appetite returned.
After a total riding distance of about 300 miles, in the blistering heat just north of Beaune, Krupski and I said our good-byes and bon chances and he set off for the nearby AutoRoute intersection, a left turn and Switzerland! It seemed strange to me that it could be that easy to go to another country. But there again I supposed going from England to Wales was the same sort of thing. Weird.
It felt a little strange being on my own again but perhaps it was a good feeling. Fully broken in now and feeling comfortable with the bike at consistently high speeds the miles again just drifted by. My only complaint was the extreme oppressive heat only alleviated despite the removal of my jacket and shirtsleeves by keeping my speed up.
Enjoying the attention I was attracting sat in a rest area having a smoke it suddenly occurred to me I had simply been enjoying things too much and had driven further in one go than ever before without having given any thought to the bike! Having no choice other than to buy it, despite the hole the litre of oil would leave in my pocket, spurred my memory into action. IDIOT! I had a VISA card in my pocket. I'd already come half way across France and had been paying for everything in cash. I'd budgeted for paying for the petrol, probably the most expensive part of the trip, on the plastic. Idiot, idiot, idiot.
Dave's idea of leaving my panniers half empty when I left was a good one. With a quick relocation of my waterproofs for balance the part used litre of oil was stowed away and I was "back on the chain gang". The song by the Pretenders drifted around inside my head for the next few miles.
Stopping at yet another set of services it occurred to me that since it was about six o'clock I wasn't liable to reach the coast until fairly late and perhaps even after dark! It seemed like a good idea to take stock of where I was and figure out how much use the AA Camping and Caravanning In 1990 guidebook would be. I drove to a nearby rest area, pulled out all my maps and books and sat under a tree with a cold can of Coke.
My concentration drifted. Despite simply being a very crowded overgrown petrol station, the place seemed to highlight how civilised France and its' people are. The area had been laid out like a small park and hardly a piece of litter lay anywhere despite the hoards of people passing through. A nearby piece of public art was more than met the eye. Buttons had been included in the stone uprights of the three-legged arch like structure which when pressed produced a fine mist of water. The slight breath of wind there was, carried this mist over quite a wide area as could be seen from the green of the grass all around. That something like that could continue to exist in a public place without being vandalised was a revelation. In the extreme heat it seemed to be the product of a master artist. Never before had I seen a piece of 'art' as publicly appreciated. Children were happily soaked as were many older hot and tired travelers, one of home would have made a worthy winner of any wet T shirt contest. She seemed totally unabashed so I assumed, although I had my doubts, that she was wearing more than just a T-shirt and shoes!
Returning to my tree just a little damp I determined from my maps and VISA receipt that I was at St. Rambert D'Albion, and from my book that there was a campsite at Valence which was close enough to be the one to try for. Back on the AutoRoute, the A7 now, and the exit for Valence Sud. No problem. I was just completely lost!
I gave up almost immediately and stopped at the first bar I saw. There were a dozen or so people in it all sat at the bar and all obviously characters straight out of a French murder thriller without English subtitles. OOPS! I felt a little more at ease when the mirror behind the bar convinced me I was probably a more worrying sight to them. I was definitely looking a bit the worse for wear and was quite a funny colour. The layers of grime covering my face did little to enhance the sunburnt rouge of my nose and my bulging eyes. It was strangely satisfying to look as though I had traveled the distance I had traveled. I felt like the lead roll in a spaghetti western entering the saloon with all eyes turning toward me.
It didn't take long to discover that none of them spoke English and that ordering a beer wasn't as easy as my Readers Digest French course had suggested. I eventually succeeded and sat at a table feeling very much an outsider as the barman went back about his business refilling the short glasses of his customers as soon as they became empty. He must have had a very good memory or really wasn't too concerned about the bills because money didn't enter into the proceedings until someone decided to leave. I was entertained for some time sipping my lager like half-pint of beer watching the expert at work. The glass-domed optic with its unfathomable measuring ability fixed to the top of the bottle he was wielding was hypnotic.
Eventually I felt that the dark stranger in the corner had been accepted as of no immediate threat so I felt confident enough to attempt to ask directions to the campsite. One of the dark skinned regulars at the bar began to remember a few English words from his schooldays, when he had apparently failed English, and I got my point across with the help of my guide book which I had to go and get from the bike parked over the road.
Everybody started discussing the best of many different ways to get there but despite all their directions and attempts at drawing maps on beer maps I still didn't have a clue. Eventually the dark skinned man and his friend made it clear that I should follow their car and they would show me where it was. I felt obliged to explain that I couldn't drive too fast through lack of sleep and because of all the luggage on the bike although truthfully because they looked the French equivalent of 'boy racer' types. They were too! A relatively short hectic ride through the centre of Valence, which looked quite nice in passing, and I was soon pulling up behind their car at the very entrance to the site. I tried to express my thanks for their kindness, which was unexpected and seemed considerable and off they drove.
The entrance to the campsite as huge and busy and I began to suspect that I would soon be looking for another, either because they were full or because they didn't cater for my type. I parked the bike and walked up to the reception counter upon which was a small display of flags of the world on cocktail sticks. Picking up and hopefully waving the Union Jack I asked the receptionist if she spoke English. She did and in no time at all without any problems, I had filled out the appropriate forms, paid the 25F for one night and was armed with the English version of the site information sheet and directions for where to go to pitch my tent.
Leaving my GB emblazoned helmet clipped to my sissy bar atop my luggage I picked my way slowly through the enormous site, beneath the trees to the area I had been directed to pitch in. It seemed wise to drive slowly because there were plenty of people and children running around but I soon discovered I couldn't drive slowly enough. I was enjoying this. It is not an exaggeration to say that absolutely everybody just stopped and stared. I was feeling good and looking BAAAAD! What a poser!
I picked a likely looking spot and stopped saying hello to a couple sat eating at a nearby table. They turned out to be Dutch and spoke near perfect English. I finally managed to put my tent up despite having bent half my tent pegs on the rock beneath the sandy topsoil and was then invited over to eat the remainder of their supper. Such easy friendliness and kindness remains a thing of wonder to me being used to the English way of being snubbed by almost everyone at almost every opportunity. I didn't feel hungry but couldn't refuse so I sat there chatting, forcing down the plate of what seemed to consist of basically dried rice! God I was thirsty. I eventually excused myself and went for a walk to the camp shop near the entrance and bought myself yet another can of Coke or two.
Sat on the bike beneath the trees in the cool of the approaching darkness I felt good. Very good. It seemed wise to get some sleep but incredibly I wasn't very tired. A good job really since I was woken by some rowdiness in the night. The Dutch couple had warned me the nearest tent was occupied by four English men! Hmmmm . . . . . . . . .!
SATURDAY 21/07/90 . . . . .
Ok . . the campsite was great being a wooded area next to the river Rhone supported by the facilities of a nearby hotel type complex but it did have its' drawback. French crows! Flocks of them were roosting in the trees above the tents and they were better, or perhaps worse depending on your point of view, than any alarm clock. I actually got up at about 8 o'clock French time after having lain in my tent for some time thinking of an Alfred Hitchcock film. First things first I needed a shower so I went to see how mosquito infested was the shower block. I was pleasantly surprised and shut myself into one of the cubicles. There was one thing missing which would have been most useful. A clothes hook. It was possible to hang your clothes over the door but being the pessimist I am, visions of a naked me chasing some clothes thief around a foreign campsite, persuaded me not to. Somehow I managed to enjoy the free, warm shower while succeeding in making sure I was between my pile of clothes and the water.
Optimistically draping my soaking towel over the sissy bar of the bike to dry I mad my way to the hotel restaurant just outside the entrance to the site.
A set French breakfast for 20F of croissant, bread, butter, jam, orange juice and coffee on a veranda beneath a parasol in the morning sun seemed to be very French. It did occur to me that corn flakes and a pint of milk may have been nicer but you can't have everything and as a similar saying goes, when in France make like the French. It was a little disconcerting to see plenty of French people on my walk back to my tent, sat outside their caravans heartily tucking into bowls of cereals. There is a lot to be said for traveling in a caravan after all.
I spent a little time sat at the table beneath the trees attempting to recall all the things I had seen and experienced over the last . . . . how long was it? Only two days! The concentration of my mind was then unfortunately interrupted by the needs of my body. I suppose everyone has had to endure tales of what the French would have you believe is a toilet. Myself not being an exception it was with some trepidation that I set off across the campsite heading for the toilet block with some good old English fluffy pink toilet paper in my pocket. I was quite convinced that placing your feet on either side and squatting over a porcelain trough without losing your balance and ending up sitting in it was something which required a dry rehearsal and practice both of which I'd not had. A quick search of the toilet block in an attempt to find the friendliest looking trough to fall in revealed to my joy that a single civilised W.C. in all its glory was innocently sat in the corner cubicle. Could I be that lucky? Yes. There was a seat, a lock on the door, even a soft toilet roll. What a relief to have found such a good campsite. What a relief!
Feeling almost guilty I made my way back to my tent and began to pack. I had almost finished when a young girl came over and started to 'chat'. Her school standard English was good and having some distant relatives informed me she could also speak Moroccan. Despite her tender years, she was only thirteen, she was already quite pretty and it was clear that she would soon be quite beautiful. All the more reason therefore to perhaps be surprised at her intended career. She wanted to be a policewoman gun and all. It occurred to me that if this was England for one such as me to be having a conversation with such a young girl on her own would have been regarded as suspicious and I began to feel a little uneasy and vulnerable. Thankfully several of her friends joined her and the pure enjoyment of trying to communicate returned. Eventually the conversation came to an end through a mutual lack of understood vocabulary and we bade each other farewell.
Unfortunately the English men were now awake and with some reluctance I was forced to make some polite conversation, which absolutely bored me to tears. The excuse of saying goodbye to the passing Dutch couple enabled me to get away and after a slow, slow ride to the gate I once more took to the road.
Which road I took to I have absolutely no idea as I got immediately lost although not for too long and I was soon back on the A7 heading South for the A9 with the vague idea of heading for Cap D'Agde of which I had read.
Once again the weather was fantastic. Too hot! Incredibly hot! This together with an unbelievable volume of traffic made the going very difficult. I had heard somewhere that there were certain dates when most of France took its summer holidays and I was soon convinced this was one of them. All three lanes of the AutoRoute were packed with people running to the sun with caravans, mobile homes with bikes strapped to the back, cars with surfboards on the roof and in every vehicle someone sat in the front with their feet up on the dashboard and arms waving out of open windows not as the English would to indicate but simply to try and catch some cooling breeze.
The traffic got worse and worse making things a little worrying. One minute I was doing 85mph with the flow and the next minute down to 5mph filtering through the traffic. Although difficult, this was made easier than it could have been by the general absence of chops on French roads. If I could squeeze through and simply sit in the mirror of the car in front and blipp the throttle, nine times out of ten it was satisfying to see the surprised face of the driver as he swerved to the left or right to give me room to pass. This was occasionally done with such readiness that I shouted merci in the open window as I passed and as the passenger became visible in my mirror imitating to the driver the position of my arms and handlebars.
I think it was on this day that I understood the importance of bottled water to the French people. Eau de Source or mineral water could be seen everywhere on sale at every service station and with very good reason. The heat of the day was almost unbearable and consumption of some liquid other than cans of Coke was vital. My half empty panniers were. Beginning to look rather full.
The traffic got worse! I became aware at this stage whilst doing about 80mph that there was something with flashing lights behind me reflected as a blur in my mirror. I accelerated into a small gap ahead in the middle lane and was passed by an ambulance (I think). This struck me as a perfect opportunity to leave the traffic behind by tailgating the ambulance as it was given right of way. So I pulled straight back out behind it. Wrong! Perhaps it was because the road was just so full and there was nowhere to go but no one seemed prepared to pull over and allow it through so there I sat being bowled around its slipstream for what seemed like hours. Eventually I gave up and pulled into a parking area which promised some shade. Shad while stopped was vital in that heat although my gearbox seemed to benefit little from it.
A drink of water and cigarette later I took a photograph of the AutoRoute snaking off into the South with three lanes of nose to tail traffic as far as the eye could see with yes there in the distance was the ambulance. I wondered who would die that day.
Back on the bike and following the lead of a couple of bikes I had observed from the rest area the next few miles were completed on the hard shoulder. Petrol stops were a pain since it meant queuing for some time although it did mean I could have a drink, cigarette, maybe something to eat and use of the 'normal' services toilets.
Eventually at long, long last I left the AutoRoute after paying the toll and headed into Cap D'Agde. Although I couldn't see it I knew I was nearing the sea because the air hitting my face and arms was at times positively cool. Lovely.
Having reached Cap D'Agde I pulled into a car park with the intention of studying my campsite book. The car park proved to be that of the local information center so I decided to see of what use it could be. Sticking out like a sore thumb I sauntered in and was pleasantly surprised at how helpful the English speaking woman was, providing me with a list of camp sites and a free map together with directions and a stern warning that one site in particular was a naturist site. "Is no clothes!"
Returning to the bike I decided that because of the price and that parts of me would inevitably be an embarrassment I would not go to the naturist site. I would instead head for the one the woman had suggested just around the coast at Grau D'Agde.
First a little sight seeing. I stopped at a marina type place where there were a few market stalls selling new age type woodwork, brooches and earrings etc. Seemed very much like the same sort of thing to be found on a Sunday at the Watershed in Bristol.
Back on the bike and out of town looking for Grau D'Agde. I eventually found the campsite on a road running parallel with a large tidal river, L'Herault. At the time it seemed a good idea to ride through the town before booking in so I continued on, succeeded in getting stuck in a one way system and got lost eventually stopping at an out of the way cafe where everybody seemed to be playing boules.I parked up and went to order a pizza at an adjacent food wagon but was told it wouldn't be ready for two hours. It eventually occurred to me that it was only one hour because my watch was still on British Summer Time so I decided to have a beer, watch the boules and wait at one of the parasoled tables.
It soon occurred to me that boules really is quite an exciting game. It is a game of real skill since it can be played anywhere, and the art is in reading the piece of ground it is being played upon. The children often outmatched the other players. At some point I re-parked the bike since one of the games was getting a little close to where I had left it and I was amazed at the bouncing capacity of the steel balls.
I was eventually made ready for the arrival of the pizza but couldn't figure out what I should do with the ominous looking bottle that had been placed in front of me. I attempted to ask the non English speaking woman who managed to explain it was a sauce. I had my doubts! A quick dab on the finger to taste confirmed that the oily liquid containing a leaf, bit back! Non merci! In the absence of any additions whatsoever the French cheese pizza was large and good.
It soon dawned on me that perhaps as a result of the minimal amount of food I had managed to force down over the past couple of days, the pint of beer was having quite a sever effect on me. I decided it was time to leave when I realised the slouching position I had sunk into and realised the table was beginning to look quite comfortable.
I soon managed to find the campsite and after a short wait booked in for two nights once the English speaking owner returned from wherever he had been. I was feeling terribly tired by now and couldn't be sure whether or not I had been charged more than I should have been so I took the cowards way out and didn't argue the point. Perhaps because of this the owner was quite helpful and even walked me to where I should pitch my tent apologising for not having any shaded areas left. The pedestrian bridge over which we went would obviously have collapsed under the weight of my loaded bike so I returned to the bike and drove around the site until arriving back at my pitch. I parked, put the tent up and fell asleep almost immediately, my fatigue assisted by the pint of beer overcoming the stifling heat in the tent.
I was awoken about midnight by a very, very annoying yapping dog, which seemed to continue yapping for ages. After what seemed like hours I perceived some distant movement in the dark and then some, for me, untranslatable French shouting. The dog obviously spoke better French than I for it immediately seemed to get the point.
SUNDAY 22/07/90 . . . . .
I awoke in the ever-increasing heat at about 8 o'clock French time feeling just a little peckish. Not much but enough to encourage me to breakfast on bottled water and three "Knacki". I had discovered these buried in one of my panniers, left over from a petrol stop the day before, leaking slightly and looking a little past their best. Basically boil in the bag type sausages they were quite nice but definitely not for breakfast!
A token but in the main unsuccessful wash, to remove some of the ingrained petrol and diesel fumes, dust and dead flies adorning me and I discovered that my arms and nose had taken on the appearance of something best left in a butchers shop. God I was SUUUNBURRRNT! My towel, which was beginning to look less than it's once blue and fluffy, was now slightly marked with blood after having been used to rub my face dry.
Like it or not and not was definitely the case after the Knacki, I had decided that eating something was going to be the days priority. With that in mind, for a welcome change I happily left the bike behind and went for a walk into Grau D'Agde.
The campsite was thankfully quite close to the town and having left via the rear entrance gate I was within minutes walking amongst the hundreds of bustling market shoppers. Everything was open including from the peal of the bells the local church although the busy shops and streets seemed to confirm the hedonists had conquered.
From amidst the confused smell of fruit, cut flowers and roast chicken, rose the smell of fish and there it was! A fishmongers attracting a crowd with the remains of the lead role in a Jaws film or at least that's what it looked like from the enormous dorsal fin and tail that remained although obviously not for long as slices were cut off and wrapped up. Yuuukkk!
I was now most definitely sure I wasn't hungry! I continued walking through the market stalls, past the cafes and gift shops and ended up on a long stone pier reaching out into the sea parallel with its twin, with the wide river mouth between and a short lighthouse type structure squatting at the end.
Being still quite early and relatively cool in the shade the large sandy beach was really quite empty. The same could not be said for the pier, which was a hive of fishing activity. No chauvinism here as men and women alike perched precariously on rocks studying some far off bobbing point. They were catching some too although mostly of a size to simply wet the appetite for the next bite. In my combat boots, leather cut off and dark glasses, I felt rather conspicuous but mainly because I didn't have a fishing rod in one hand.
I spent some time watching the beach fill with what seemed like a never ending procession of the most perfectly shaped, perfectly bronzed, sparsely clad people I had ever seen. Perhaps because of the sun things got too hot and I made my way towards a nearby, parasoled ice cream parlor. On the way it was my misfortune to pass a small fairground type stall where people were eagerly fishing for strangely shaped objects in an attempt to win a prize. The prize which all these people so obviously desperately wanted was one of the hundreds of baby terrapins that were climbing over each other in a large tank being pointed at by excited children. I may have got a bit of sand in my throat and eyes at this point as I questioned my belief that this was a most civilised country. I hastily walked on to the ice cream parlor wondering if small children in a far off country were carrying home gold fish in plastic bags in a similar state of excitement.
Despite the massive array of flavours on offer and my desire to try a new one I soon sat down beneath a parasol to devour the double coffee scoop, my school French having failed again. There had been a definite lack of ice cream flavours in the syllabus.
The ice cream finished I thought a small beer might quench my unconquered thirst so I moved on and stopped at a likely looking bar that seemed to offer a good view of the passers by combined with a little shade. Parasoled tables were lined up along the pedestrianised road overlooking the river. The small beer I had ordered arrived by waiter although by the time it reached my table it had mysteriously matured into a full pint or whatever the French equivalent was. Oh dear . . . . . . never mind. I paid and settled in wondering if I should ask the man at the next table what the bright green liquid was he was drinking since no matter what it was it appeared to only come in one size!
Having a pint to plough through meant I was quite happy to stay at the table for quite some time watching the world go by and on several occasions the waitress walk by who seemed to have an aversion to wearing clothes. Her dress often almost made a nice belt!
Not far from the bar was a collection of what can only be described as miniature powerboats, which were for hire at quite cheap rates for the hour. Despite my intense dislike of water I would have liked to have tried one of these although the disadvantages of being on my own dispensed with the desire.
(Undoubtedly I worry excessively but I could not relax unless certain items were about my person at all times for without them it seemed to me all would be lost. A'short' list. My bike keys, house keys, camera, passport, driving license etc., money, credit card, sunglasses, boots, clothes! Without someone else to share the responsibility and perhaps guard all of this in my absence meant I was greatly restricted in what I could do with a beach, the sun, the sea, etc. Having a shower in combat boots and a leather jacket was where I drew the otherwise all encompassing line.)
Almost at the end of my beer looking behind me back into the bar I noticed a large screened television up on the wall showing what appeared to be the next round in the world Grand Prix so I moved to another table inside the bar. Once again a single beer had a quick effect on me and somehow I ended up watching a French game show that was certainly every bit as 'good' as the ones on English television.
The inevitable soon happened and after having to explain very fully and laboriously to the waiter what I wanted I found the W.C. Fairly conventional was this one except that it seemed to be placed strategically against a wall past which any woman going to use the female toilet would have to go. It was difficult resisting the urge to say a cheerful hellooo to a passer by.
Back into the market place I decided, belatedly to enter a shop and see if I could succeed in buying some barrier cream for my sunburn. I managed in French to explain with the overwhelming supporting evidence that I'd had too much sun, and was shown a selection of what there was. How much! Moving quickly along I concluded I must have worked out the English equivalent wrongly but decided not to buy any nonetheless.
Sauntering past the windows of the shops bordering the market square I was transfixed by the most delicious looking sight of a large tray covered in pastry slices, the size of small books, with a thick layer of strawberries in strawberry jelly. I went in, bought one and set off past the sports shop, which only seemed to sell different sets of steel balls, in the direction of a small bridge to sit and eat. Unfortunately there was no shade and in the heat, despite how appetising it looked, I ended up having to force it down. Nevertheless my 'plucky' resolve to make sure I ate a reasonable amount of food that day spurred me on to greater things.
Around almost every corner I was confronted by vast arrays of revolving, golden, roasting chickens. The smell was delicious and the thought of some simple, plain white meat perhaps eaten cold later in the day was enough to see me marching through town, back to the campsite clutching a large waxed paper bag containing one, genuine French, roasted chicken.
Roast French chicken washed down with spring water, even if you have no appetite is absolutely delicious, but the grease! Not having packed my cutlery was immediately revealed as an unexpected mistake. My pocket knife coped quite well with the dissection but the predominantly hands on operation soon meant that I was literally up to my elbows in thick, running grease. I didn't envy the owners of the next tent to be put on that piece of grass.
I spent the next few hours just lazing around in the EXTREME heat watching the occasional scantily clad camper making to and fro from the beach. I soon realised that without any shade it was so hot just lying around that walking about would be cooler so off I headed back towards the beach. I was surprised to find that despite the great numbers of people there, it was definitely not overcrowded. Nice.
Walking back out along the pier a short distance to get a better view of the beach it was somehow reassuring to see, amongst all the beautiful people a woman so grossly overweight it was surprising the sand could support her. Quelle bravure!
Unexpectedly it suddenly became quite cool with the arrival of what I assume was sea mist, a white cloud rolling gently over the waves, over the beach and disappearing inland. The squatting tower at the end of the pier suddenly coughed into life and made a very sad attempt at being a foghorn or perhaps that was just its French accent.
It was wonderful to feel cool for an all too brief moment. The crowds on the beach thinned a little and clothes started to go back on so, not having quite so much to look at, I decided to have another go at eating since it was by now late afternoon. Walking once more through the town, nothing much took my fancy until I passed a large street stall selling fruit. With a small bag of apples and oranges I made my way back to the campsite.
The smell of chips greeted me just inside the gate at the camp shop, which was still open although only just. The discovery in the shop of refrigerated bottled water for sale encouraged me into deciding to buy a small bag of chips and have 'sun burnt' chicken and chips for dinner. This comfortably, manageable plan backfired a little in that the fryer who spoke no English was just closing down. He didn't have that many chips left and I think out of pity for my ridiculous appearance, ended up giving me a large portion, more than three times as many as I had paid for.
I thanked him as best I could and then thanked him again to myself by making sure I ate them all despite also finishing off the chicken. More grease on the grass and at last a comfortably-ish full stomach.
It gradually became a little cooler as the sun began to sink and I decided to get cooler still and maybe pose just a little by going for a ride. I went back to the marina at Cap D'Agde and spent some time admiring the boats, which unlike my house of lesser value, could sink. The light began to fade, as I bemoaned my not having brought my map with me. The city of Agde, which was definitely somewhere else, was very picturesque in parts with its cafes and bars but I was in no mood to stop and wander. I was too busy stopping in front of unfamiliarly named signposts wondering where I was. Eventually a signpost for the Cap, a familiar looking junction on the river and at last the campsite without being locked out. A satisfactorily theatrical entrance for the transfixed onlookers and I sank to the grass (grease) feeling pleased with things. Things got better. I was approached by a man and one of the bronzed women who hadn't gone unnoticed by me, who were camped not far from me across the site. I must confess it seemed as though I had spent half the day watching them out of the corner of my sunglasses. She spoke extremely good English and explained they had noticed me being on my own and wondered if I would care to join them for something to eat. Not being the slightest bit hungry I eagerly accepted their generous hospitality. Her name was Flo and within minutes I was besotted. The company of a beautiful woman speaking some excellent English in a French accent in the cool of a French dusk is what some sun burnt bikers dreams are made of.
The girls were students on summer vacation. One was studying psychology and understood English very well but lacked the confidence to speak it. The other developed a headache and retired to her tent to the apparent concern of their companion. He was a baker joining them for a week or so soon to be returning home, who could unfortunately speak very little English. Well one sentence really and he complimented me by using it. "You are very sympathetic". I'm not too sure he really meant that but I understood the sentiment. I regretted not being able to speak fluent French, which stopped me from really chatting to him although we did have a go. A nice guy. Then of course there was Flo. Flo was studying to become an English teacher and explained, showing me the appointment letter, that she was soon to take up a position in an English school. I was most impressed by her self-assuredness and confidence in not seeming the slightest bit nervous about the great adventure upon which she was to embark. Thermosed coffee appeared from the nearby campsite of the psychology student's parents and we continued chatting.
The sun had now gone and crickets or their like were noisily active in the otherwise peaceful dark of the night. Moths and mosquitoes spared us their presence by dancing to the lights of a nearby tent, which seemed to have the proportions and comforts of a small house. It was late and everyone had gone to bed. Having exchanged addresses, despite my reluctance to do so it seemed good manners to say goodnight, and end what had been a wonderful few hours.
Saying thank you seemed totally inadequate. Saying goodnight and goodbye was awkward and unpleasant.
Feeling rather strange I stumbled or floated in the darkness to the lavatories and then to my tent to sleep.
MONDAY 23/07/90 . . . . .
I was up at about 0730 and to my delight once again discovered a single familiarly shaped toilet albeit without a seat. The showers yielded a nasty surprise in that they required feeding with something to make them warm. Fully awake after a cold shower it was time to pack and leave.
I wanted to say goodbye to Flo and Co. or perhaps didn't want to need to but knew they were probably still asleep. I wondered what they were thinking as I pulled out of the campsite for I had surely awakened them starting the bike up. I paused to tighten the strap on my helmet and wondered what the rest of the awakened people on site were thinking. Back on the road - quickly.
Settling into heading for somewhere specific was difficult this day. I felt unsettled. Despite this, some of the pure riding and roads were the best. Something like a five-mile straight stretch of road next to a particularly empty beach. I was sorely tempted to try a swim here but resisted by reminding myself that seawater is cold and wet at the best of times.
On and into a traffic jam. I carefully forced my way through the queue until I suddenly ran out of road! I soon found it again but pointing vertically into the sky in front of me. A large drawbridge affair, raised to allow passage of an antique, three masted sailing ship. It seemed strange that no one was very concerned about the boy on a pushbike who rode to the very edge of the lowering bridge when it was still at a forty-degree angle!
Attempting to keep off the Autoroutes meant that the going was slow with many stops to read my maps and to have some warm water. My all too cumbersome road map of Europe book had long since died and had been reduced to loose-leaf format so I could put the appropriate page in a convenient combat trouser pocket. Unfortunately this was of little assistance when I discovered the road I had been on for an hour was not on the map. Pulling into a signposted rest area it became apparent the whole area was new and still under construction. Incredibly across the acres of featureless tarmac and grassless scorched earth loomed the remains of a Roman theatre! The presence of Autoroute construction company vehicles convinced me this had recently been placed there to break the desert like monotony of the landscape. Closer inspection to confirm my theory was precluded by the unbearable heat and walking distances involved. Clever these French road builders.
The new road continued on in what seemed like a good direction eventually melting into another road, which seemed to traverse an immense arid plain. It was flat, hot and absolutely straight for mile after mile. Such boredom, of interest in itself, was worthy of record so slowing to about 60 mph I managed to pull my camera from my pocket, slip the strap around my neck and take a couple of photos.
Time seemed to stand still as mile after mile effortlessly rolled by. I stopped for a cigarette and took more photos of a seemingly endless road in each direction. Luckily sleep was impossible prevented by natural and man-made rude awakenings. Cruising comfortably along at 80mph with my arms bared to the burning sun I became aware of a tickling sensation to my face and the sensation soon matured into bloody agony as I passed an open topped lorry the gravel load of which was being blown off and into me. Similar amounts of pain were regularly caused this day by intense swarms of flying French things. The everyday battering and death of flies was nothing compared to this. They were juicy little fellows too. I stopped on more than one occasion to unceremoniously remove the layer of bodies covering my hands, arms, face and sunglasses. My headlight I left to bear these as trophies of my hard fought battle.
Marseille was unenjoyable with lots of traffic and extreme heat, the latter making the bike difficult. I hardly stopped but for petrol which wasn't enough to go on the VISA and had to be paid for in cash. This subsequently happened on several occasions for no apparent reason other than different petrol companies seemed to have different rules.
Toulon was about as enjoyable so I carried on. Perhaps if I'd had company I would have stopped and looked around but being on my own it seemed easier just continuously moving on and seeking things rather than experiencing them. The need for food is the normal excuse to stop but even this was pushed aside since perhaps because of the heat every mouthful was an effort.
Eventually I reached the coast road and began leap frogging from beach to beach stopping for smokes and admiring the views. So many women with so little clothing. Ooo la la. In fact so many people all over the place in general. I found it difficult to understand why such a small piece of coastline so inferior to many others should be so desirable to so many people. I wanted to find somewhere less crowded.
Just outside St. Tropez I gave up fighting the traffic and stopped for no other reason than I had given up fighting the traffic. Lo and behold right next to where I had parked was a bank with a cash dispenser displaying a VISA sign. Due to my earlier forgetfulness about my VISA card I was running perhaps a little low on cash so I decided to have a go and took my place at the back of the small queue. Sat on the floor nearby was a disheveled tramp like woman with blood in her hair. I suddenly felt all foreign and vulnerable wondering if she had once been an 'upright' member of the community making a cash withdrawal from a cash point when she was mugged!
I was soon impressed at the ease with which I was soon walking away with my 1000 Francs. Walking back to the bike I then noticed almost immediately opposite a Post Office so I made my way to a nearby shop and bought a few postcards. All this exercise had made me begin to wilt in the heat so I sought out some shade to write the cards. Opposite where I had parked the bike next to the Post Office was a small park in which I spotted a monkey riding a camel! Wondering if I had been in too much sun for too long I crossed the road and went to sit in a stone shelter, which formed part of the wall surrounding the park. With only a couple of words on one card it suddenly occurred to me to check the time. It was 5 o'clock local time and I had a sneaking suspicion that might present a problem. I rushed off to the Post Office getting there just in time to witness the locking of the doors by a miserable faced clerk. Knowing how he probably felt I smiled at him through the glass and turned to leave feeling annoyed with myself. As I turned I was nearly knocked down by a small man who had also misjudged the time. After confirming he could speak a little English I asked him if there was anywhere else I could buy some stamps. He attempted to tell me but soon gave up giving the thick Englishman directions, and accompanied me to a nearby tobacconist. It was very busy and quite rushed so I felt more than satisfied when I succeeded without too much difficulty in explaining what I wanted, asking how much, and paying for the stamps all without a word of English. Well perhaps I did say bloody hell under my breath once but that was when I was stood in the queue nervously waiting my turn.
I quickly returned to within sight of the bike and all my worldly possessions, and found a nearby bar where having succeeded in ordering a small beer I sat under a parasol on the pavement and wrote the cards. They were soon finished and posted and it was time to rejoin the mayhem that was the road.
There were cars jammed up absolutely everywhere in this part of the country and perhaps because of this and the marvelous weather there were a lot of bikes too. To my extreme satisfaction there were no chops. Harley Davidsons seemed common as did the big Japanese copies but the most common by far were the mopeds, none of which had conventional footrests and many of which didn't seem to have pedals either! This necessitated a strange, perched riding position with the feet placed on the frame in front of the seat. Most of the riders I saw were not wearing helmets despite their being compulsory. This as it had been explained to me by Flo was because it was too hot to wear one. No one seemed concerned. Nevertheless I continued wearing mine being only too aware of the one of two types of luck I normally attract.
Leaving the bar, the traffic was so bad, against my previous better judgment I decided to try a bit of traffic filtering and began squeezing through in between the stationary cars like all the other bikes. All the other bikes of course were not like mine. Almost immediately my enormous handlebars made contact on my left with someone's nearside caravan towing mirror. In what seemed like excruciatingly slow motion the mirror became completely detached, bounced on my petrol tank and ended up sat in my lap! I stopped, with some difficulty laboriously reversed, and handed the mirror back through the open window to the terrified looking drivers wife. I attempted to apologise first in French then in English and then gave up, just smiling a lot as I realised they spoke neither. I got the impression from the drivers expression as he leapt out and simply clipped it back on that they were more worried than I. Mutual Oks released me to make my embarrassed escape from right outside the crowded bar!
Back in the traffic I decided it was time to look for a campsite and soon found one a little way from the coast and therefore not so crowded. Forty-three francs for one night was paid and I had begun putting the tent up when I was disturbed by someone. "Allright mate". The only thing this man was missing were the corks hanging from his hat. We chatted for a little while as I continued putting my tent up, a task that had already become a chore of considerable tedium. Apparently he, his wife and their three children who were aged between perhaps eight and fifteen were occupying a luxury camper and were 'doing Europe' for a year for the sake of the kids! It occurred to me some sort of schooling may have been more beneficial but couldn't decide. He eventually left in search of another beer.
Having finished putting up the tent I realised that I was uncomfortably close to a water tap and pipe, which seemed to be in frequent use by at least one man from a nearby caravan. Closer inspection revealed I wasn't going to get wet and it appeared the pipe was being used as a bypass away from my tent by a local colony of creepy crawly things. Reassured I made my way down to the on site cafe and was ignored in passing by the man returning for more water.
The rabbits roasting on the spit were not yet ready and having never eaten rabbit before I decided to play it safe and instead sat down to a meal of the now very familiar chicken and chips washed down this time with a small jug of red wine. Hic!
I've always been a little skeptical of the claims of the purity of Eau De Source bottled water. By the time I retired to my tent I was quite convinced that the man in the nearby caravan, who only now it was dark had stopped running back and forth, was the source.
TUESDAY 24/07/90 . . . . .
I got up, showered and felt reasonably hungry so I made my way to the cafe and breakfasted on coffee, bread and butter and what was to me a very strange glass of orange juice. Strange because it wasn't orange. More of a bright red really but if I said I'd had a glass of red no one would understand.
I felt a bit of an idiot but couldn't resist asking the waitress to take a photo of me explaining to her that being on my own I didn't have any. She seemed quite happy to do so, and did but then proceeded to make me feel even more stupid by making fun of my nose! Charming, I thought, but there again couldn't blame her. Checking in the bike mirror later it did look a little like a ripe tomato. God I was sun burnt!
Back on the road again avoiding the Autoroutes and following the coastal roads to Cannes, Antibes and Nice. There were some picturesque coasts here with palm trees and expensive boats but once again I found myself wondering why so many people were prepared to pay money and to occupy such a small piece of private beach, packed in like oiled sardines. I've seen it, drive on was again the order of the day.
Leaving Nice and back on the Autoroute I suddenly unexpectedly felt cooler and began to get a little damp. Not so much rain but more like driving through a cloud and not for very long although the sky did look a little threatening.
I continued on stopping briefly at a tollbooth and a rest area and then through the mountains and down long winding roads with superb views partially obscured by the cloud, towards Monte Carlo.
Half way down the mountain I was halted, at first quite thankfully, by a line of stationary traffic, which enabled me to admire the scenery. The only really startling thing about the view was the winding road I was on disappearing out of sight. For as far as the eye could see laboring down the mountain was the traffic jam. I restarted the bike turned it around and headed freely back up the road.
Wondering what to do next I simply kept riding and ended up getting a little bit lost and concerned about petrol. Then out of the blue, or more accurately grey, I rounded a corner to be confronted with a fantastic view of Monte Carlo nestling under the mountain.
I stopped for a while to admire the view or perhaps more so to have a cigarette. From the vantage point afforded by the small unofficial lay-by I could make out a road which appeared to snake off in a direction, which suggested it would perhaps meet up with the one I was on. The fact that it was almost completely devoid of traffic raised my spirits and I set off down the mountain to have another go at seeing one of the typical tourist spots. The road was clear for quite some distance and I eventually entered Monte Carlo from the East with considerable ease. Once into the city though things soon got quite different. It became immediately clear there was much more traffic trying to use the roads than the place could handle with almost all of it reduced to a standstill as a result. Cars were parked perched on every available shelf of rock, nook and cranny and of course along both sides of every road. I drove in, drove slowly around, saw part of the circuit used for racing I had seen on TV and drove straight back out after having briefly stopped for petrol. The whole place struck me as being totally claustrophobic and generally unpleasant but there again I didn't really give it much of a chance.
Driving out was quite an experience in itself which if I'd known what was coming may have induced me to stay there a little longer. Happily driving up the road I was suddenly swallowed up by the mountain! The road had been carved straight through it. The tunnel was dark, the light was poor, dust and fumes hung thickly in the air and no one slowed down! Not even a little bit! Wearing dark glasses and obviously being unable to take them off and stow them safely away without stopping which was out of the question, made things VERY difficult. I was most surprised at the way the rock walls seemed to have a habit of leaping out at me from time to time and then at the way they suddenly disappeared altogether. I luckily soon realised that the disappearance was caused by a junction deep in the mountain, of two tunnels. I freely admit to being a little frightened in that black hole and was truly overjoyed when I finally emerged all in one piece.
Deciding not to go into Italy despite how close it was I headed back to Nice with the intention of then heading North into the French Alps. In Nice I succeeded in getting well and truly lost and ended up doing about fifteen miles in a big circle before I managed to find the Autoroute and headed North through Grosse and into the French Alps.
Stopping at one petrol station, I was served, paid the attendant and was happily presented with a mint to suck along with my change. I guess he liked motorbikes. I liked his mint.
The going got a bit rougher from here on. The roads wound laboriously up and down and seemed to have deep trenches on every corner. Nevertheless the views were tremendous.
Food again began to be a priority and I determined to stop and eat at the first available opportunity. All of a sudden in the mountains in the middle of nowhere was an enormous restaurant with large signs next to the road announcing a very reasonably priced chicken and chips. Again?! I was lucky to get in since the next passers by that turned up were turned away. The food was good but the company I was forced to keep wasn't. A seemingly ravenous hoard of wasps and flies, and not another soul in the place to pick on.
Progress remained slow after my meal with the poor roads and innumerable stops to have cigarettes, take pictures and generally admire the amazing views. At various points along the route were places with long coloured glass containers, which seemed to be tempting people to stop and buy perfumes. By the time I decided to stop at the next one and find out exactly what they were I saw no more. I did however stop at an exhibition of fossils and crystals, which had been set up next to the road, again as seemed the habit, in the middle of nowhere.
It cost nothing to look but everything was for sale including expensive rarities all discovered by the archeologists on site who had determined my nationality before I reached them and greeted me accordingly. The prices for the crystal formations were generally cheaper than in Britain and I was a little tempted but thought better of it. A pannier bag of expensive broken crystal or the remains of a massive long dead creepy crawly thing would have been of no great interest by the time I got home, except perhaps to customs.
I pushed on eventually passing through a great stone archway over the road, which seemed to mark the point at which the road builders had finally perfected their art.
My speed increased and I began looking for a campsite, which I soon found at Chateau Arnoux. Twenty-five francs fifty for one night with all the facilities you could want including a swimming pool and bar. The only thing that put me off, and quite a bit, was having to hand over my precious passport until departure.
I put the tent up, washed and went to the bar for a coffee and, aiming to get a little wobbly, a pitcher of vin rouge. I chatted for some time to a French man, an electrician who was waiting to see his girlfriend who worked there with the children. His English was as poor as my French so the conversation was full of mime and great fun. Despite the difficulty we discussed mortgages, poll tax, wages and a whole lot of rubbish before he went to play bingo in the nearby hall his girlfriend was working in. Feeling quite happy I wobbled back toward my tent spotting on the way a happily barbequeuing bunch of people speaking English. I couldn't resist saying hello and soon found out they were a family of Canadians traveling around in a couple of cars on holiday following the retirement from the services in Germany of one of the group. I drank most of the can of genuine Canadian beer I was given before retiring to a piece of grass next to my bike where I lay for a little while because moving seemed like a lot of unnecessary hassle. Actually remaining semi-conscious was a considerable effort as well.
A strange atmosphere was created by a group of young people in a nearby van from perhaps Sweden, who seemed to spend all their time singing accompanied by a guitar in the manner of a church choir. Strange. I eventually managed to crawl into my tent and had a fitful nights sleep.
WEDNESDAY 25/07/90 . . . . .
I got up at about nine o'clock French time feeling a little bit hung over. I took a shower and managed a light breakfast of an orange left over from my shopping trip in Grau D'Agde.
Some bad news. I suspected I might experience a problem like this with so many hours on the bike. Not to put too fine a point on it, and sat on it all day there was no chance of that, I had developed a spot on my bot! Bad news indeed!
Back on the road I did quite a few miles before feeling well enough to eat. I eventually spotted a fairly permanent looking mobile cafe in a lay by not far from nowhere and pulled in for an early lunch of a steaklette and chips and a cold can of coke. I was certain I was mischarged here to the extent I think I was paid for the privilege of eating there. It seemed pointless attempting to sort it out with my bad French so to the disgust of my conscience I simply said my very best merci beaucoup and ate. It was good too with an unfamiliar herb seasoning. Made a change from chicken anyway.
The rest of the morning and most of the afternoon was spent not getting far at all. The scenery was just so breathtaking that is was almost impossible to travel more than perhaps ten miles without stopping to have a cigarette and just stand there next to the road looking, and absorbing the beauty. A lot of my film was spent this day.
Back on the Autoroute and heading for Geneva, Switzerland. Every few miles different types of amusing cartoons on signposts announced where I was and what of interest lay nearby. I determined to photograph one but always found myself going too fast to stop, in such a dangerous position to do so.
Eventually I could resist no longer and took the next off ramp, which would apparently lead to a lake. It did. Boy did it! An enormous lake that seemed to compete for the most vivid blue with the sky, only kept apart from its opponent by the stark grey of the mountain on the far shore. The luscious green plain of the near shore punctuated by clumps of trees thankfully offered a little shade to the hoards of bronzed bodies that lay there roasting in the sun. It was BEEEEAUTIFUL! The entrance fee wasn't so good but was perhaps for this, worth it. One of the lesser known of the many jewels in the French Alps crown. I asked the man collecting the gate money to indicate on my map where we were. He had difficulty because the lake was not marked but eventually told me it was near Novalaise perhaps some fifteen kilometers from Chambery.
Back on the Autoroute a couple of hours hard riding at 80mph and the signpost announced five kilometers to Geneva. I was beginning to wonder if I was heading for the right one when there it was. My first border crossing. I was a little apprehensive of what this might entail but as it turned out all I had to do was slow down a bit and smile sweetly at the heavy looking armed border guards. I pulled up at the bureau de change and changed half of my French money into Swiss francs. I reorganised my pockets and was soon making my first petrol stop in another country. Immediately I got the impression I had been overcharged but again wasn't sure because I had to re learn how my money worked. A quick blast on down the Autoroute and hey presto, Geneva and another amazing lake with the city and all surrounding roads seemingly feet from the water. I stopped briefly to look at my campsite book and some topless bathers that just happened to be near to where I had arbitrarily parked. Minutes later I had located a massive site just up the road and perched right on the lake run by the Touring Club of Switzerland and obviously internationally renowned. It was immediately apparent that representatives from every country were there.
I booked in for the night reluctantly surrendering my passport again and struggled to find a place to put my tent, eventually settling next to one of the tarmaced service roads beneath a weeping willow tree less than a hundred meters from the water.
The tent areas were well defined and a little cramped because a clear, grassed border was maintained between the lake and the tents for sunbathers of which there were many and SO good to look at. I had a wash and went for a coffee or two at the bar where the barman would while away his free moments playing jazz on a Spanish guitar. Nearby a group of French children were playing boules with a group from England. I bought some cans of beer and settled down on the grass with my back to a tree facing the lake. As a spectacular dusk fell people were still swimming and fishing. One man from a local fishing, drinking group off to one side approached me and introduced himself. Being that they were loud, drinking too much and smashing their beer bottles as loudly as they were playing their ghetto blaster, should have told me they were British bikers. The one who introduced himself and invited me to join them, proved to be a stereotype Scot. A hard man who knew everybody who was a biking psychopath and who had to cut short his holiday to return home for a court appearance and inevitable incarceration as a result of having knocked out one of several arresting police officers. I declined their beers, watched as one of them caught a two to three pound fish, which really wasn't very well afterwards, then declined their company. I tried to look like a German or a Frenchman or a Swede or, or . . . . .
Some distance away I sat for an hour or so dangling my feet over the water listening to a young man learning how to play jazz guitar although it seemed to me he'd already learned enough to have made me a happy man had I been he. Eventually in the relative quiet of the dark night I retired to my tent and slept.
THURSDAY 26/07/90 . . . . .
Arising relatively early I decided to make a move almost straight away. I packed up, took several photos, retrieved my passport had a coffee and was gone.
It was quite cool this morning and the bike appreciated it. As I followed the scenic route towards Montreux it actually felt quite cold and I took to wearing both leather jackets. The scenic route was just that with more amazing scenery but then there was the lake at Montreux! By now I was becoming a seasoned traveler taking every breathtaking view in my stride. Well almost. A few cigarettes and a couple of photos later after having a brief try at window shopping I decided to head straight for Zurich and possibly meet up with Krupski.
By now it had heated up and I was back to bare arms although it was cooler than of late and quite a relief. Perhaps because of this I regained some of my appetite and happily stopped at one set of services for a coffee, a hot dog and another hot dog.
A lot more hard riding along the Autoroutes and I finally reached Zurich. I wasn't impressed and although I didn't know the city, was quite sure from the human flotsam and jetsam I passed, that I had skirted that part nicknamed Needle Park after it's drugs problems. After going around and around in appalling traffic dodging tramlines I pulled into a wooded square and took stock. I sat here for some time before battling with the traffic once again and then spotting a pavement cafe with a nearby bike park next to a fountain. That would do. I parked up and had a coffee. A very helpful couple at the next pavement table that spoke quite reasonable English gave me instructions on how to use the phone and I boldly entered the cafe where I had never entered before.
I found the phone but didn't have any idea of how to use it despite the instructions I had just been given. I soon had to admit defeat and sought out some assistance from the bar staff who were more than helpful and actually accompanied me back in the cellar to where it was and did it all for me. This may have been my downfall. I showed the man helping me Krupski's work number and he announced after trying it there was no answer. I then showed him Krupski's home phone number, which I had been told would have an answer phone on it. There was a long pause and then the phone was thrust into my hand accompanied by the command speak NOW.
I panicked not being good with ansaphones at the best of times, and completely messed up the message muttering only the street name. It was after I had put the receiver down I realised that particular road was probably about five miles long. What a fool. I have to admit to not trying another message since I would have had to have gone through the whole palaver all over again. I knew at this stage I was probably not going to meet up with Krupski and for some reason didn't really want. Driving back to Grau D'Agde seemed a much more pleasing proposition. Nevertheless I thought it only right to make a token attempt so I stayed at that bar which was fairly prominent for at least a couple of hours. It was all very interesting watching the articulated trams go by but there is a limit to how interesting a passing articulated tram can be. Eventually I decided, despite my fear of leaving the loaded bike, that since I had time to kill I would go and get some stamps and send some postcards. I asked the unfortunate couple at the nearby table where I could buy some stamps and again they were quite obliging suggesting the tobacconist opposite. Off I went successfully dodging the trams and asked for three stamps only to be told that they didn't sell them and I would have to try the enormous department store over the road. Off I went again over the road and into the store only to find myself feeling terribly self-conscious and totally out of place. The store was definitely not used to serving people dressed strangely in black combat gear and covered in grime as was the tramp like figure which looked back at me from an exquisitely polished, brass and mirror covered wall. After having to ask directions on each floor I finally found my way to the Post Office type section on the third floor. Stamps in hand I returned to the tobacconist and bought my postcards. It was then they explained that if they had known I was buying the cards they could have let me have the stamps as well. Oh well!
Back home to the cafe on the corner, another cool drink this time, and the cards were soon written. The next question for my long-suffering table neighbors was where the nearest post box was. Heaping kindness upon kindness they offered to post them for me since they would pass one on the way home. I think I finally drove them away for they soon left clutching my paper bag of postcards. I got real bored and discovered that Zurich if said in the right way fitted in with the Sting song, "An Englishman in Zur-rich".
It was no good. I longed to move on and soon did, but oh god what a ride. Traffic everywhere, tram rails, a maze of streets, it was hell and of course to cap it all I got lost! Thankfully directions from a young English speaking couple were eventually found to be accurate despite my not being able to follow them.
One enormous expanse of roadways all converging was a particular nightmare although, two happily waving policewomen wearing white gloves, and their uniforms of course, perched upon little platforms cheered me up. I wanted to wave back but was too busy hanging on to the bike as I wound the throttle open and accelerated through. The only thing to do under the circumstances since any meaning in those wildly flailing limbs was lost to me!
Contrary to what I had seen earlier Zurich did appear to have its pleasant side with a river dissecting the town and flowing into the lake or perhaps vice versa. Hard to tell when your front wheel is skipping about between tramlines.
My trusty campsite guide triumphed yet again and soon saw me booking in for a night at a camp site again right on the shores of the lake. The only readily apparent drawback was that the bike could not be parked next to the tent and instead had to remain in a little way off parking area. I had little choice and had to unload everything and carry it to where I had pitched which was as near to the water as was allowed.
It soon became apparent that this site was not as popular as it could have been for some reason and that there was a slightly less friendly attitude amongst the campers. All the same it was quite nice and certainly did have an excellent restaurant. Some sort of beef meal went down a treat sat on the balcony of the first floor overlooking the lake.
Evening was fast approaching as I settled down on the grass with my back to a useful wooden post and supped the warmish tin of beer I had left from the night before.
At this point I was dumbfounded. Two women came walking along and chose to sit on the grass in front of me. One then carefully put on a swimming costume using her dress for cover until she had to cover her top when it was quite unashamedly removed and the costume slowly and carefully put in its place. Nothing particularly unusual in this part of the world no doubt, and off she went for a swim as did her companion. It was when they returned from the water that things definitely got a little bizarre. One dried herself and changed in a relatively normal manner duly preserving her modesty, but the other!! For the sake of decency I must leave some of the description out but . . . first of all she rolled down her top drying herself with a very large towel very deliberately. Putting the towel down she then proceeded to remove her costume entirely with her back(side) towards me, a boggle eyed lecherous Englishman only some ten feet away. She then turned round and very deliberately dried herself. Once done she searched in her handbag for an apparently brand new pair of pants, unpacked them and slowly pulled them up, and up, and up! She commented to her friend laughing - her friend obviously said no in embarrassment and turned away laughing as she then proceeded to take them back off, examine them and put them on the same way again. A bit of adjustment and she finally finished dressing complete with make up. Don't get me wrong. I'm not complaining. I've paid good money for a show like that but I don't care where you come from that is not normal behavior and ever since school I've known her name. Funny lot the Germans. I might go there one day.
After all this I was exhausted and just lay about watching the sun fad and darkness fall obscuring the view of the far side of the lake and of my map which had already proved to me, Germany was really quite close. Next week, I thought, and fell asleep.
FRIDAY 27/07/90 . . . . .
I was awakened quite early by a screeching blackbird but didn't arise for a couple of hours, preferring to lie back and watch the occasional boat pass between my feet. What a nice view to wake up to.
Eventually I forced myself to rise and face the daily chore of packing and after having to walk all the baggage to where the bike was, strap everything back on. By now I must admit I had worked out some sort of routine which would ensure a reasonable load spread and would almost guarantee nothing could readily fall off in transit. The only main problem I had was the ridiculous amount of tools I had brought. Far too many and far too heavy. If they weren't packed just right, centrally above the rear seat they would begin to drag everything off. Considering I had paid dearly for full RAC Recovery in the event of a breakdown it at times seemed pointless I had brought any. The one item I forgot, I could have done with. A spare set of spark plugs although cleaning those in the bike on a couple of occasions saw me ok. Just!
Eventually I was back on the road and heading North towards Belgium although unfortunately for a variety of petty little reasons I did not enjoy the trip. Most of the silly little things slipped from my memory as soon as they occurred although the highlights were probably getting lost a bit. Loads of steaming, fume belching traffic all seemingly trying to knock me off. Taking the wrong lane in a contra flow and ending up sitting in a stationary queue watching the other lane go sailing by. Mile after mile of featureless landscape often dedicated to disgusting industries. A petrol stop where the attendant quite openly and deliberately shortchanged me because he didn't have the change. It really wasn't worth my making the effort to get it since it was only between five and ten pence and he couldn't speak English but it was his smug smirking face that I found so galling. The only good thing I recall was stopping for food and having a Suisse burger and chips complete with flag. Delicious. My spirits raised a little by this were immediately dashed again at the next petrol stop when having duly paid for my petrol the attendant suddenly got the idea I had used a different pump and had not paid enough. He came running out demanding more money and even tried breaking into my petrol tank to see how much I had had. My protestations together with the odd good old English colorful metaphor soon saw me back on the road. By this stage I wasn't a great lover of Switzerland and headed for the French border as fast as my wheels would carry me - well maybe a bit slower.
Crossing back over the border to France was probably easier than getting into your average car park. A hesitation and through. Being able to just change countries like that still seemed very strange.
It seemed to be harder and harder carrying on so in an attempt to liven things up I took the next right hand turn and ended up climbing into the Ardennes hills. Things immediately seemed better with trees, hills and valleys and I decided to stop and have a cigarette. There on top of the hillside amongst many other wooded hillsides were memorials to two or more soldiers that had died there defending their country during the second and first world wars. It seemed very strange sat there amongst the trees knowing that some few years before such struggles for life itself had taken place around me. It is difficult to explain what that meant to me but it was moving. I pressed on and on and on and eventually crossed the border as easily as before into Luxembourg.
Stopping at a services I was appalled to see the longest six-lane queue I had ever seen, especially for petrol. I drove straight through and on to the next, which to my utter dismay were in an even worse shape. I stopped briefly, had a cigarette and concluded that petrol in Luxembourg must be really cheap and that I had enough to reach Belgium and the next services so off I set. What these people obviously knew and I didn't for a little while is that Belgium Autoroutes in the South do not have any service stations and as far as I recall no border either!
I had traveled about eighty miles since the last refill when I decided it was time to leave the featureless Autoroute and look for a Belgium town and petrol station. Off at the next exit and I was in luck within about five miles. They also took French money which it seemed a good idea to get rid of as I would probably leave Belgium after the weekend club run and go to Germany prior to the Holland run the next weekend. It was also easier than paying in Belgium money because Belgium had rather sneaked up on me not giving me ample opportunity to get my pockets in order.
Back to the Autoroute and on, it occurred to me that the roads were very long. Very long and bleak. It got cold, hinted at rain and for the first time since setting off I felt really lonely. I decided to push on all the way and reach the Belgium clubhouse, so for what seemed like hours I battled with the wind at eighty miles an hour, eighty five miles an hour, ninety miles an hour getting faster and more fed up the longer I sat there.
Eventually at long, long last I reached Liege and began in earnest to try to read the map Dave had lent me. Well when you're on an Autoroute on a bike map reading is not easy and all you need is one wrong junction and you're well and truly lost. Well I soon was. To make things worse the number of police that there were about meant I had to watch my speed. I presumed the Porsche I had seen, sporting a blue light on a mast fixed to one side, was a police car anyway.
Eventually I had to leave the Autoroute and ask directions. At first the directions confused me along the lines of turn left here and you will go back to Belgium. I'd somehow strayed into Holland! Idiot.
It got cooler and was nearing the point where it was too dark for dark glasses. With the number of assorted flying things in the air the wearing of the glasses was almost compulsory. I was getting real fed up. All of a sudden there it was thank god. The club house as I remembered it from the previous year although how I got there I had no idea.
I got a beer and put the tent up. Already quite a few were there. Unfortunately for me and I had counted on it, there was no food. I was starving and had to drive to a nearby cafe to have yet another chicken and chips but this time with mayo. Typically Belgium and of course, very inexpensive.
Finishing my meal outside the cafe there were a few spots of rain so fearing the worst I returned to the site. Thankfully nothing came of it and it remained dry.
Back on the run site I have to admit to feeling very much the odd one out basically not knowing a single person there as far as I could tell. Not being a sociable person, I forced myself to get a beer in the beer tent and picked a nice piece of floor and collapsed feeling utterly and completely exhausted and waited to be entertained by the band. It wasn't long before a Belgium guy nicknamed 'Bootsy number two' spotted me on my own and came over to make me feel welcome and continued throughout the evening to make sure I was well supplied with beer. Although somehow a bit embarrassed I appreciated that a great deal. The same for the pleasant conversation I had with Jasper from either Norfolk or Suffolk I forget which and then the wobbly Dutchman who I had difficulty understanding, again a nice guy who seemed to have a problem standing up. From my point of view the only mistake he made was trying to stand up. Being sort of the right mental level by this stage I also made friends with a Belgium dog but it couldn't speak any English at all. A definite language barrier in the stick throwing game, it never came back.
Eventually although sleeping where I was seemed an attractive proposition I wobbled to my tent and fell asleep. Asleep that is until someone foreign fell against my tent and then got on a bike with what sounded like straight through exhausts at about four in the morning.
SATURDAY 28/07/90 . . . . .
Awake again in the scorching heat of the tent at about eight o'clock BST. A quick look around not to see any food. A wash in the mobile WC which incredibly had a working sink and following the directions of the Belgians on the gate, set off in search of a bank having decided I did not have enough Belgian money.
I found a bank almost immediately just up the road and changed all of my Suisse money into Belgian. More than enough. A quick stop at a bar for a drink and I began to think of food having regained my appetite. I rode on some miles to a nearby town and discovered another bar where I was able to order a ham omelet. It doesn't sound much but with several slices of brown bread and butter it was delicious. Getting bored and feeling a bit alone again knowing that there were loads of my club members running around doing things I soon returned to the club house where joy of joys I found a comfy chair and some shade. My sunburn had now developed into an overall blistering of my nose and arms and I had taken on the appearance of the incredible melting man! The luxury of some shade and above all a comfy chair was almost too much for me. I determined to spend the rest of the day there not risking any more movement than was absolutely necessary lest an important piece of me should drop off.
Cold beer after beer began to find its way into me and despite a bit of pain from my arms I was feeling quite happy. Few people dared or bothered to talk to the weird peeling one slumped in the corner but for those who did such as Toby and co. from Wiltshire, the Welsh and Devon I was thankful. To cut a long story short I sat in that corner all night, apart from a quick forage for some food from the food wagon that seemed to open all too briefly, reliving the experiences of the previous week and feeling quite good.
SUNDAY 29/07/90 . . . . .
Unfortunately by morning most people had gone to bed apart from a few propping up the bar and it was then that I became aware of a conversation between someone English and someone foreign in which they were discussing what was wrong with me and what the answer to the problem was! Paranoia set in and I began to feel most uncomfortable that my having sat quietly in a corner enjoying myself in my own way should cause such concern to someone who had been enjoying themselves in their own way. My mind distorted by alcohol and fatigue began to run riot asking of itself if this club, of all clubs, only wanted members that conformed to the majority. These thoughts getting out of hand in my mind I decided it was time to lay it to rest and get some sleep since it was now breakfast time.
I dozed fitfully until the rising crescendo of hundreds of engines announced the imminent departure of the Sunday run. I was in no way fit to go and contented myself with taking photographs of the departing spectacle. Once gone the run site appeared all but empty with very few people left and even fewer that could speak English. Feeling rather bored I got a drink, Coke now that it was too late, and sought escape from the sun in the beer tent. To my relief there were two English members sat on the stage. In an attempt to be sociable and start a conversation I asked if it was any cooler in there. With no response I sat on the stage and went on to say that now it was too late I was drinking coke. To this one of them offered me some of his drink, which definitely wasn't only coke. Not liking it I asked what it was and there ended the conversation. An awkward period of silence later I overheard one suggest to the other that they should have a conversation occasionally dropping the level of their voices so that I would not be able to join in thereby making me so fed up I would go away! I couldn't believe that two grown men, members of the same club as me, could be playing such a childish game. I thought I MUST have misheard and that my earlier paranoia was returning so I stayed where I was. If I had misheard it was a strange coincidence that was exactly what they proceeded to do. I was absolutely amazed but concluded playing games was better than absolute boredom so I settled back onto the stage to await their next move and oh dear I dared to smile! The one furthest from me noticed this disgusting insult and relayed the fact to the one nearest me who was literally giving me the cold shoulder. Paranoia or reality, right or wrong in the cold light of day I'm now not sure but at the time I believed I then overheard them discussing the possibility of hitting me. I found this so hard to believe I doubted my own powers of reason. Whatever was the reality I'd had enough and could stay no longer. I got another coke, packed up and left! Irrespective of what had REALLY happened that morning I was convinced beyond any shadow of a doubt that I was not the sort of person to belong in such a club.
A couple of miles down the road I stopped to fill up with petrol. All of a sudden the attendant came running out gesticulating. Thank God! The nozzle I had placed in my tank and was about to pull the trigger on would have filled my tank with diesel. I really was in a bit of a mess. I thanked the lifesaving attendant as best I could and filled up with petrol. I decided to return to France since there, things would be relatively familiar and definitely friendly.
In what seemed like no time at all I was nearing the French border but became aware of a car that seemed top be 'jousting' with me. I though the worst and that it would be some egotist looking for a new notch but instead it turned out to be a French couple, all smiles, who liked the bike and obviously just wanted to play. It was fun for quite a few miles, accelerating, decelerating, overtaking and generally messing about at anything up to a hundred miles an hour with the car in hot pursuit as best it could.
The border soon appeared and after having waved goodbye to the couple in the car I pulled in at the Bureau De Change to change all the Belgian currency I had into French francs. A quick look at my campsite book to make a mental note of roughly where to head for and I pushed on.
I stopped at a service station to try to work out where I was but my maps were confusing so I attempted to ask directions from the pump attendant. A somewhat typical pump attendant by English standards he seemed to have difficulty thinking and was of no help whatsoever! In desperation I pounced on a couple of customers who were just about to leave. They were extremely helpful showing me on my map precisely where I was, where the nearest campsite was and even writing down for me detailed instructions of how to get there. Armed with these in no time at all I found the town of Le Quesnoy but had difficulty in finding the actual campsite. The number of people in the town seemed to me remarkable for a Sunday evening. Simply driving down the road in one area was difficult because of the numbers of people crossing the road. Eventually having been forced to stop and ask directions I headed off towards the campsite. It was then fully I realised how busy the place really was. A large beautiful lake bordered by restaurants and some sort of leisure complex with nightclubs and dancing was apparently the attraction to the thousands of people many of whom were stood munching fish and chips purchased from the busy shop opposite the lake.
I picked my way carefully through the crowds enjoying the looks I was receiving and eventually found the campsite. I felt very tired and decide to book in for two nights 'convalescence'. The sit itself was enormous being a combination of residential mobile homes and touring caravans and tents. I followed the long winding track which seemed to go one for ages past people turned to stone with their mouths agape until I found the almost empty field off to one side that I had been told to pitch in. Perfect! In the middle of the field there was a strange clump of trees which seemed to offer some protection from the sun so I made my way over the bumpy grass just missing a volleyball pitch marked out with stakes and pitched my tent facing a tree. Once settled in I went for a much needed shower and change of clothes in the nearby shower block. The 'hot' shower was free but I got the impression some children in the adjacent room had discovered that by turning a water tap on and off they could upset the temperature balance of my shower! Hopping in and out of the intermittently hot and cold water I eventually felt clean enough to give up.
Feeling quite a bit better after this I got on the bike and headed for the fish and chip shop I had seen earlier. I parked up in an available gap, of which there were not many, attracting a lot of attention and crossed the road to the chip shop. I sat next to the bike eating a hamburger and chips and drinking a can of coke and feeling generally much happier. A couple of bikes appeared, pottered about and then left. The rider of one of them, a battered Honda 750 did his best to make a show of his departure for the benefit of the assembled masses. I couldn't resist such a challenge so once I had finished eating I calmly mounted the bike and tore off down the road spinning the back wheel for about the first six feet or so. That was without doubt one of the most satisfying 'shows' I have ever done.
To actually enter the town from this area required going across a narrow cobbled bridge, which appeared to cross an old moat, and then through an even narrower opening in the old town wall and ramparts. The town itself struck me as being typically French with a large Mayors office or Town Hall and a nearby large market square although untypically this square contained an enormous elephant the size of a house or larger! Enquiries of some local youths confirmed the opening times of the post office the next day and that the elephant was part of an exhibition commemorating the French revolution. I attempted to explain I couldn't see what an elephant had to do with it but after lots of blank looks it was made clear the elephant was simply the adopted symbol not to forget, similar perhaps to a British bulldog. Returning nice and slowly to the campsite I purchased a bottle of red wine from the gate shop for only ten francs. With the bottle safely stowed in my cut off I made the long slow trip back to my tent. Safely parked up with a cigarette in my mouth I made my way to the nearby toilette block with the intention of finding some cool water to slightly cool the wine. I found a suitable sink, ran the tap and sat down outside to wait for a few minutes. I was soon in the company of a group of holidaying teenagers and one twenty year old man who was training to become a police officer in Paris. None of them wanted a drink so I ended up slouched on the steps 'chatting' to them all for some hours gradually finding it more and more difficult to speak and understand their language. I enjoyed myself immensely. Eventually sleep beckoned us all away.
MONDAY 30/07/90 . . . . .
Upon waking it seemed desirable to remove the club insignia from my jacket. It was a strange feeling sitting in a foreign field carefully cutting them off with my knife but satisfying once done. I was now just me again.
I started off the day quite well by going into town and buying some postcards at a cafe and then leisurely writing them at a curbside table whilst sipping coffee. A bit of concern was caused when a Frenchman came to get his bike, which was parked behind the table I was using. I couldn't understand what he wanted for what seemed like ages and it got a little embarrassing. Eventually he cycled off looking at me a little strangely.
Having written the cards I moved to the Post Office, which unhappily had not yet discovered the virtues of the single queue system. Inevitably I stood at the back of the wrong queue and ended up waiting for what seemed like ages to buy my stamps and post the cards. Returning to the bike I decided to move it only a few yards to a parking lot and have a walk around the town. I walked for only a short distance before getting extremely hot and tired. The lure of a large grassy area with pools of water was too much and I walked down to what must have been part of the moat area of the old town. It was HOT! It wasn't long before I discovered I had basically walked right back to almost where I had started. The fish and chip shop and the entrance to the campsite only a stones throw away. I bought a couple of bread sausage rolls and a can of coke and made my way in the extreme heat all the way back to the bike so that I could drive all the way back again!
For the rest of the day until early evening I just lazed around in my tent, and out of it when it became too hot, snoozing a bit. By early evening I felt better and got on the bike and went back into what by comparison with the day before was a ghost town! I parked the bike up, got a bag of chips and a coke not feeling too hungry, and sat there eating in the relative cool of the shade beneath one of the large fir trees. A couple of bikes appeared one ridden by a man with a recogniseable 'Live to ride, Ride to live' slogan on his back in English. This seemed very out of place but he explained to me in English, one of the many languages he spoke, that most people knew what it meant.
I eventually returned to the campsite and my tent. This simple task was made somewhat difficult by the small child that had been running around the field all day. There was something wrong with this child. If anything moved he would run in front of it. Cars, bikes, people, anything that moved. He appeared to have a death wish although this was perhaps understandable since his parents seemed to me to be quite horrible. At seemingly every opportunity they would scream at him across the campsite telling him to do this, that, or the other. He never did or at least not for long!
By this time there were only two other groups of campers in the field. One a group of English, the only other English people in the place, and the other a strange trio of French people. There was one normal looking woman accompanied by two men. One of these was built like a house and the other like a midget. I soon became convinced that they were a circus act on holiday, for the midget type seemed to exist purely to throw himself around, doing parachute roll type landings at every opportunity. All three seemed quite close and boisterous. Strange!
Having stopped the bike and watched a short amount of acrobatics I was hailed by the English group and invited to join them for a glass of wine. They turned out to be a family group of a man and wife who wee very down to earth and easy to get along with, together with their son and daughter, their partners and a baby. They were all very pleasant and easy to talk to. They explained they were at that site because they considered that area to be the real France with predominantly French people as opposed to foreign visitors. They also explained that this meant they always got a friendly response from the locals because they were somewhat of a novelty. It was easy to agree. Unfortunately the baby soon got on my nerves so I made some excuse about having to work out the next day's route and returned to my tent.
As night fell I sat contentedly beneath one of the circle of old twisted trees drinking a little wine and watching the resident bats appear from their daytime slumbers amongst the branches and circle beneath the trees. With darkness almost fully upon me my attention was drawn to a strange flock of birds passing purposefully high overhead. They had very squeaky wings! The remains of the previous nights bottle soon gone I fell into a slumber in my tent. I was woken with a start by nearby voices. On an earlier trip to the WC I had been asked for a cigarette by one of a crowd of kids. Smoking still seemed popular and acceptable in France but it did seem prudent to ensure that children don't so I refused. I assumed, as would probably have been the case in England that the group of kids were going to wreak their revenge for my refusal. I leapt out of my tent as quickly as anyone could leap out of a zipped up tent, and discovered in the dark the group I had been chatting with the night before. We had another brief chat most of which I didn't understand followed by handshakes and goodbyes. I crawled back into my tent and slept.
TUESDAY 31/07/90 . . . . .
I got up at about eight o'clock local time, showered and packed. I took the opportunity of shaking the tent out here for it seemed to be full of peeled skin. YUUK!
I was soon back on the Autoroute caring little for what direction I was travelling and not feeling quite right. I felt famished and a little 'heady'. I stopped at some services, had a coffee, made use of a proper toilet and continued on feeling very empty generally and not taking much notice of where I was going. I was getting fed up and overcome by an overwhelming feeling of I've had enough! There appeared to be no tolls on this Autoroute, which was a blessing but the road surface made the going slow. I was cruising along at about eighty miles an hour when there appeared strange road signs with a picture of a motorbike and words which I very roughly translated into 'axle breaker'! What?!! I slowed right down and soon realised what a good idea that was. The road suddenly deteriorated into a series of bumps and I mean BUMPS! For mile after mile. It was agony. I was convinced that every next bump would see my frame snap. Or my back at least.
At last a set of services appeared and I gladly pulled in for a rest. A steaklette, chips, eggs and coffee went down very nicely. A map on the wall enabled me to figure out where I was and I made the decision I would slowly make my way down the coast back to Le Havre and get an earlier ferry back home. I felt tired.
Leaving the Autoroute and getting bogged down in the traffic of Dunkerqe I pulled over to stop and have a cigarette and spotted a travel agent. I went in and with little difficulty got a ticket change booked for an earlier ferry and from Le Havre.
Back on the bike I followed the coast roads South taking a detour here and there to see the beaches but unfortunately I ended up seeing very little. A strange sort of fog was settled on the sea and was encroaching on the land. So thick was that fog I could only see a few hundred metres. Across a sandy beach I could not even see the water!
Pushing on I pulled in to get petrol and noticed liquid dripping from the bike! Fearing disaster I inspected where the leak could be coming from and discovered with some relief that it was from one of my panniers. Throwing the broken bottle of water away I replaced it with a container of oil after having topped the bike up.
Back on the road again having passed a large construction area which appeared to be the French side of the Channel Tunnel I decided to get a little adventurous and took whatever was the next right hand turn and disappeared into the depths of the French countryside in the general direction of the coast. The small villages, isolated farmhouses and rolling fields all conjured up images of wartime film footage I had seen on television. All somehow very familiar.
A couple of miles inland travelling along a small country road and reaching the brow of a hill without a house in sight I was surprised to find some sort of religious memorial with the crucified figure of Christ surveying the rolling fields. Examining his view I could see contrasted against the blue sky and golden fields, the sea fog rolling off into the distance.
A couple more miles of travelling and the road seemed to disappear down into a cloud! In the middle of a small out of the way village a signpost indicated a small track, which apparently lead to a beach. Off I went picking my way around the speed ramps. Within a mile I arrived at a cliff top parking area occupied by a few cars and French locals readying themselves for a day on the beach. Tentatively walking to the edge of the cliff I peered over the edge but could only just make out the sandy beach below shrouded in mist. The noise of the far off seas drifted up through the gloom as pillboxes and unnatural concrete structures intermittently and briefly became visible in the swirling mist at the base of the cliff. Back to the road and moving on around the coast I got used to alternating between hot and dry and cold and wet as I dipped in and out of the mist. This was a new and interesting experience to me.
It began to seem, as the miles rolled by, that this part of the coast had not changed hardly at all for the last fifty years. Around every corner in every field were concrete block houses, pill boxes, bunkers and then one that was bigger than most commanding a view of rolling fields disappearing down to the sea into the mist was a museum at Cap Griz Nez half way between Calais and Boulogne Sur Mer. An old German blockhouse which once contained a massive gun capable of firing across the channel had been turned into a museum and was packed with every conceivable type of military artefact. It was quite fascinating and delightfully cool but really a monstrous reminder of what the area had endured.
On I went occasionally leaving the main road and delving off through the countryside to discover holiday resorts with crowded beaches and everywhere the squatting concrete bunkers. A golf course I saw was strewn with them. This was obviously the birthplace of the term 'in the bunker'.
At one point along the road upon leaving a small town I succeeded in making the one big driving mistake of the entire journey. Not understanding a set of road markings I mistakenly thought I had right of way and drove straight in front of someone innocently driving down their side of the road. I felt a fool and more so when looking behind I realised the car I had almost hit was English. Looking back it is this fact that probably saved a collision.
On and on I drove feeling gradually more and more fed up despite the consistently interesting scenery. It began to get late and despite my longing to be home sat in front of the TV I began to look for a campsite. For once my book let me down and I ended up having to keep on riding looking for something suitable along the way. I was very tired and very hungry and NOT happy.
At last I spotted a likely looking site and pulled into the entrance. At first I could find no one about and then when someone did arrive they didn't speak English and seemed to have great difficulty in understanding me. Eventually I got my point across and was told to camp at the very far end of the site and to pay upon leaving. I got off the bike and found that I really did need some food as a matter of urgency so before even unpacking I walked back to the entrance gate and the campsite shop. I decided to have a coffee first in the adjoining cafe. The place had a very strange atmosphere and it seemed to take a very long time for me to actually get served by the old woman behind the counter. I soon finished the coffee and went into the shop next door to find it totally unattended and with no noticeable means of attracting the attention of whoever served its customers. I coughed a lot and made as much noise as I could but still ended up waiting for what seemed like ages. I should have guessed that the old woman serving in the cafe also served in the shop. Eventually she appeared and it was with great difficulty that I managed to explain I wanted something to eat which did not require cooking. So much for that! I bought a bottle of water, returned to the bike and left in search of food and maybe another campsite.
Just up the road was another campsite looking very much more up market with an adjoining restaurant. I entered and asked the woman there if I could camp there that night. The woman was obviously not keen on the idea and insisted on consulting her husband before she could give me an answer. Eventually it was yes. I then asked how much and got the immediate impression I was quoted a 'special' rate. You had to pay extra for the shower too, an amount I calculated to be near fifty pence. I said no, thank you and goodbye and left. That was it! I had definitely had enough by this stage. I decided to head for Dieppe, Le Havre and the first ferry home.
Just before reaching Dieppe I stopped for petrol having just passed a campsite. I filled up with petrol and having paid noticed opposite a nice looking bar and restaurant. My stomach persuaded me to have one last try. I turned round and drove back to the campsite. To my delight I was greeted quite civilly by a courteous and pleasant receptionist. Despite the price being not that different from the previous site with the exception of free hot showers, I soon booked in for the night and found a suitable piece of very soft grass. The only disconcerting thing about where I was, was a nearby caravan that had chained to it a very, VERY large dog which didn't seem very friendly at all and not only to foreigners. If anyone dared to venture past the caravan the dog went wild and the barking combined with the rasping of the chain against the metal chassis of the van was very worrying. I put the tent up and chatted briefly with a young Dutch couple that were touring around and were stopped there for the night. Once again their command of English was excellent attributable so they said to the English TV programs they watched because of the poor standard of the Dutch ones. With the tent up and having had a quick wash I drove the short distance to the restaurant.
With the exception of one table the place was completely empty. I walked into the bar and had a bit of difficulty in making the English-speaking owner understand that I was in great need of FOOOOD! Lots of it! I was offered a sandwich! I laboured the point that I actually wanted a BIG meal. At last I was understood. Despite the way I looked they soon showed me to a table and proceeded to wait on me hand and foot. Another Dutch couple just leaving happily told me how good the food was there and they were not wrong. I was instructed to help myself to a selection from the hors douvres table so I did and ended up regretting it slightly. There were loads of things to try and I tried loads of different things. Within no time I was quite full. Uh oh! Then the steak and chips arrived. It was all really great and all for the equivalent of only about six pounds fifty. By the time I was sat outside sipping coffee at one of the pavement tables I was quite content and happy with the world again. Eventually I managed to muster the strength to raise my increased bulk from the chair and return to the campsite where I sat around in the increasing dark smoking cigarettes and relaxing until sleep overcame me.
WEDNESDAY 1/08/90 . . . . .
Awake at about eight o'clock local time and the heat was intense in tents. I felt bored again. I studied my maps for a time and eventually worked out where I was. I decided that I was so close I would head straight for Le Havre and get the first ferry home. I packed and much to the dog's annoyance, left.
Back on the road I felt better but was soon wondering if the previous nights meal would have tasted quite so good if I had known there was a nuclear power station just a mile down the road.
In no time at all I had reached Le Havre and without any difficulty found my way to the departure area. It was absolutely deserted which was a little disappointing. Leaving the bike near the locked gates I went into the reception building and with considerable ease changed my ticket for the next sailing. The only drawback was the extra ten francs I had to pay and the fact that the next sailing was not for another three hours! I returned to the bike and somewhat aimlessly drove into the town wondering what to do. I pulled up onto the pavement at a nearby square to sit for a while in the shade of a rank of trees and smoke some cigarettes. A public toilet nearby was also quite a pleasant much needed experience. It was whilst sat on the bike beneath the trees that I was picked upon by an old woman begging a cigarette. I obliged, rolling her one and was rewarded by her attempting to explain that she liked the Beatles. I moved on!
Immediately opposite the P and O ferries terminal was a small pleasant enough cafe and it was here that I ended up sitting for some time. I whiled away the time by eating some sandwiches, drinking some beer and trying to read a local French newspaper whilst sat at a pavement table beneath a parasol. I couldn't understand a word and ended up looking at the pictures but I think the barman was impressed.
The heat soon became too much and I left to find somewhere cooler. Parking the bike in the port authority car park I stumbled across a small pebbly beach, which turned out to be quite popular and offered up some wonderful sights. I settled myself in some shade on a set of stone steps leading to the beach. I found it quite comfortable and coincidentally within sight of several topless bathers and decided to wait out the hours there. I felt a little awkward at first lest the three bronzed women only feet from me should think I was just letching. From their reaction to my presence I could tell it crossed their minds but lying across the steps, taking my leathers off and eventually having an ice cream from a van that appeared seemed to reassure them and make my presence acceptable. That was more than could be said for a man who appeared later who proceeded to quite literally stand drooling over them. They were not pleased and even I found his manner offensive.
At last there in the distance slipping through the harbour entrance was my ferry. I made myself respectable and checked in, again being directed to the head of the queue. Here I waited as the ferry unloaded its cargo and a seemingly endless procession of cars, bikes and people flooded through the gates. At last it was time to board. Through the gates and immediately pulled over by the French police who wanted to examine my passport! A cursory glance was all it was given and I was allowed to go, after one of them called me crazy! I couldn't imagine why.
Once on the ferry I somehow felt relieved to be going. In the main I'd had a really enjoyable time but towards the end the strain of being on my own with no one to share the load of my experiences had tired me out and made any more too much like hard work. With a little regret I stood on the aft deck amongst a group of nauseating flatulent beer swilling lorry drivers and watched Le Havre quickly recede and disappear into the distance.
The ferry trip seemed to drag on forever. I changed my money into English and then went to have an expensive steak and chips, which despite the price was most welcome. Time dragged on. I wandered around on the deck for a time and discovered right up near the bow someone calling home on a portable phone. He was obviously on holiday wearing sandals, colourful shorts and a T-shirt and carrying a rucksack but why had he packed his phone?!! It occurred to me there were none so strange as the English.
Wasting some more time I had a quick look around the duty free shop and ended up not being able to resist buying some expensive liqueurs, which I immediately set about eating. It wasn't long before I began to feel a little strange which for liqueurs I thought was most impressive, so I sought out a bit of floor to try sleeping on. Remembering the outward trip I found the deck on which the Bureau De Change was and lead down beneath the stairs for a time. Sleep would have been possible there if it had not bee for the irritating children that came and went insisting on using the fruit machine which was acting as my pillow. Such stupid electronic noises! Eventually I gave up and went back up to the restaurant and had another expensive steak and chips. My appetite seemed to have returned in a rush.
After what seemed like a very long passage, although we were in fact ahead of schedule, Portsmouth became visible in the evening mist. I felt inexplicably strange approaching the port, as did no doubt everyone else gathered hushed on the observation deck. Portsmouth appeared surprisingly beautiful in the dusk and it felt good to be 'home'.
Home it seemed wasn't too keen on having me! At least that was the impression I got from the customs officers. I could almost see the light in their eyes as they spotted me in the nothing to declare channel. I was 'pulled'. They then proceeded to go through absolutely everything. My pockets were emptied. All my luggage had to be unloaded and unpacked. My sleeping bag was searched. My dirty laundry was searched. My tent was unpacked and searched. My tent poles were dismantled and looked through. My camera and films were examined. My tool kit was spread out and examined. My tobacco was examined. Another officer turned up and examined my bike. I was ordered to remove the airbox and side panel. The senior officer arrived and had a hushed conversation with his subordinates. I was questioned closely about who I was, what I did, where I'd been and who with. This story was verified by them examining my passport, driving licence and every single other scrap of paper, of which there were many, which could be found.
After more than an hour I had a reasonable working relationship with one of the officers and was even discussing the average street price of various different drugs and agreeing how the soft drug, drink laws were an ass. Eventually I was allowed to laboriously repack the bike. Once repacked and ready to leave there was a worrying pause. I enquired if they had any other delights in store for me wondering how long a double steak and chips would take to appear and be searched. To my relief I was told I could go. As a parting gesture of goodwill I was told to be careful on the first roundabout where police were known to sit in wait. Bidding the officer an amused farewell I left the by then empty customs shed and was soon back on the road, on the right, left side and on the final leg.
Having reached the motorway I stopped at the first services at about eleven o'clock to fill up with petrol and then to satisfy a strange need in me I phoned Mum and Dad to hear a familiar voice and to announce my continued existence or return home.
Back on the road and eventually off the motorway it was cold and I stopped on a deserted, dark piece of dual carriageway to put both leather jackets on. The bike appreciated the temperature and ran beautifully. Despite the dark the run home was fast. Eager to be home it was very fast. That was until within a mile of home I spotted a police car which looking in my mirror I saw pull in behind me and follow me. I slowed right down and chugged along eventually pulling into a local twenty-four hour petrol station in which I intended to buy some milk to enable me to have a 'normal' cup of coffee when I got home. The policemen approached and cautioned me about my speed and then one of them with a suspicious look on his face asked if he had stopped me the night before. With some amusement I explained that he hadn't. I was soon allowed to continue on my way.
Within minutes I was home and looking forward to a good night's sleep in a bed with a soft mattress and equally soft pillow. With mixed feelings I found all my housework had been kindly done by Mum and Dad in my absence. To find all the washing up done in the kitchen was a delight. The problem was that I was absolutely filthy and far too tired to put the water heater on and wait for the water to heat up, to have a shower. The clean sheets on the bed forbade me sleeping in it until I was as clean.
I watched a little television, had a cup of coffee, some cigarettes and slept on the settee!!!
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