Ten Days in France
Saturday, 7th July
Departed Lisburn 9.00am. Weather pleasant — odd light shower, but good enough riding conditions. Onto the boat at Rosslare at 2.30 and immediately bumped into a former work colleague. Queued to book dinner and breakfast in the restaurant and enjoyed some drinks at the bar accompanied by the 'entertainment' — boy, that Riverdance has a lot to answer for Evening enlivened by a school of dolphins leaping alongside us for a good 20 mins. Since it was 7/7/07 and we were staying in lucky cabin 777, we decided to risk 77 euro on the casino pontoon table. And of course lost the lot. Oh well, it was fun living out our James Bond fantasies for a while. And intrigued by the Romanians beside us playing three hands simultaneously. Cabins on the boat are tiny — the walls are made of tissue paper or a derivative, the cover seems to have formerly been a handkerchief and the pillow had more in common with a breadboard than any feathers. Do people never fall out of the top bunk in a rough swell?
Sunday, 8th July
Great breakfast in the restaurant — saves queuing at the café, and at 14 euro is good value compared to the same meal elsewhere on board. Recommended! Captain announces half-hour delay with an excuse that sounded akin to 'the wrong kind of sea'. We gave each other a despairing look, knowing that we had a long journey ahead of us, and that we'd told the hotel we'd be there about 8. Tricky getting into gear in the crowded stairwells, and standing around fully geared up in the bowels of the ship I could empathise with oven-ready turkeys. We zoomed off the boat into a sunny Cherbourg and were instantly struck by the good roads with little traffic. France is very bike-friendly — every passing biker gives a cheery wave, a thumbs-up or a rather comical shake of the foot. We stopped at a Buffalo Grill just outside Le Mans and were treated to our first experience of French 'customer service'. Despite there being people seated in the fumeur section, we were shown to a non-smoking table, and when I asked where we could smoke was told 'outside'. Had to press the waiter again and ask in my rather rusty, bizarrely-accented and grammatically all-over-the-shop French if there was no way we could move to the smoking section, at which he sighed and reluctantly moved us. We continued on the autoroutes — I had my handy credit card in my handy right forearm pocket, which made passing through the peages a breeze. Then the rain started. Heavily. The ETA on the GPS jumped to 9.00pm and I phoned the hotel to advise them, only to be met with more French hospitality, as I was warned that 9 pm was the maximum! Zoomed as fast as poss through the driving rain and got to the Hotel de la Poste in Culan on the dot of 9. Had the first of many, many delicious meals — I had the sandre, a fish I'd enjoyed many times in Luxembourg, but which seems unknown in the UK, while Dai had a steak and what he pronounced as the best mashed potato in the world.
Now, Dai's French vocabulary was limited to what he'd gleaned from war movies, so, anxious that an inopportune 'Ventrez les canons!' might spark a diplomatic incident, I decided to put new Foreign Secretary Milliband on speed dial....
J'y suis, et j'y reste
Monday 9th July
Dai's previous visits to France had been limited to theme parks, so on this his first morning in a typical French village, the little switch on his back seemed to flick from 'Tigger' to 'Japanese Tourist' setting, as he wandered off photographing every church, side street and crumbling auberge. It was all I could do to stop him photographing the space-invader-shaped electricity pylons. The weather was much nicer, so we changed to dark visors and continued down the A75, the meridian autoroute that takes Parisians to the Mediterranean across the Massif Central. We exited at sortie 40 and headed for the Gorges du Tarn. Our first view of it, approached from the top of a tableland, was nothing short of jaw-dropping and we hunted out the camcorder to do justice to the vast expanse of steep rocky cliffs sweeping as far as the eye could see down either side of a tiny pea-green river meandering at the foot of a 300m-high valley. Wow. Just, wow. We snaked down the mountainside to find the jolly little town of St Enimie, where the GPS had told us that the Hotel du Gorges du Tarn was. Drove up and down the main street — nope, no sign. Asked at the Restaurant du Gorges du Tarn, who said that yes they used to be a hotel, but no more. Since we'd booked into an establishment of that name for two nights, I was becoming concerned. I asked for help at the tourist office — as I read out the phone number that I had, they stopped and said — but that's in Florac, about half an hour's drive from here! Dai was determined that we were staying put, so we phoned a few local hotels until we got a room for the night at the Chante Perdrix, about half a mile out of town through a rather spooky tunnel, with openings onto the river Tarn below. I phoned the other place in Florac to explain why we weren't coming; hopefully they won't stick us for a deposit. We strolled through the delightfully tacky tourist shops and invested in a fleece for Dai, whose view of the prevailing weather conditions was proving rather optimistic. We dined at the Hotel de 2 Sources and booked a room there for the following evening. Oh look, more sandre on the menu! Hurrah! We had a few drinks at the rather deserted Bar de la Digue (weir), before making our precarious journey home through that footpath-less tunnel, admiring the illuminated rock faces and the glittering array of stars in the sky.
Tuesday, 10th July
Set off on the 907bis, which hugs the foot of the gorge for about 20 miles. I wondered how this place compares to the Grand Canyon, and why it isn't better known. I’d seen the term causse on the signposts and hadn't recognised it as meaning 'cliff' or 'hill', but some research told me that it was a specific geological term coined to describe these limestone tablelands, the word being derived from calyx, Latin for lime. We oohed and aahed our way over to the town of Millau, and the information point under its famous viaduct, designed by Norman Foster and opened in 2002 to knock an hour off the journey of all those Parisians en route to the Med. It is certainly a masterpiece of engineering and is the highest bridge in the world. We bought a T-shirt and a sticker, attached the camcorder to the front of the bike and then headed off to cross the beautiful, slender mile-long bridge. I cried with joy as we did so. We then took another twisty road up the side of the Causse Noire and lunched on rather fine omelettes with Roquefort at an auberge, narrowly avoiding a Dutch International Incident. Montpelier Le Vieux is a collection of amazing rock formations, but it's a 3km walk around it, so we gave it a reluctant wave goodbye and headed back to St Enimie. On our road back, we stuck the camcorder on again to capture some of the grandeur and terror of the winding roads, and as luck would have it, as we rounded one corner two large eagles swooped out of the forest right in front of us. We arrived at the Hotel des 2 Sources just as the rain started. The nice man at the hotel made us each a welcome espresso. He's not French, I opined. (Italian, as it transpired.) Wandered the cobbled back streets and found the most wonderful jewellers, with pieces inspired by Picasso and Kandinsky. Honestly, I could've bought the entire shop, but restricted myself to a necklace and earrings in amber, gold and black obsidian. Souvenir shopping is kinda restricted on a bike, but luckily enough, jewellery doesn't take up a lot of room. Also bought a green pashmina to wrap around my neck against the wind. The rain got very heavy and was bouncing off the road, so we chose an indoor restaurant for that night's meal. I spotted Eau de Vie de Gratte-Cul on the menu, and asked the waiter if that was really what I thought it was (my translation being 'scratch-arse'), but no, he smiled wanly and explained that it was the name of a local fruit that eked its way through the sparse soil on the cliffsides.
Wednesday, 11th July
Up at 8; Dai got an extra croissant off the nice Italian bloke and we debated various routes out of the gorge. Since it was raining, we let the GPS decide and she took us to the Viaduc again, where we stopped and compared notes with a couple of Triumphs. French autoroutes are extremely efficient at getting you from A to B quickly, but can be boring. Not so the A75! After Millau, it swoops and sweeps down off the Massif Central offering tantalising glimpses of little towns on either side. As we approached the coast there was a definite change in temperature, and the smell was that of warm sand and peaches. We stopped at one point and Dai noticed that the exhaust had come loose. As I took out my earplugs on removing my helmet, I was almost deafened by the troupe of cicadas in the olive grove beside us, vying with the trucks thundering past. That little tool kit Dai had packed proved a god-send, and in 20 minutes he had made the necessary repairs and we continued through Limoux, famous for its Blanquette, a sparkling white wine. Checked into the Hotel Cartier in Quillan, parked the bike beside a Harley in the locked garage at the rear and found a bar on the market square just as the stalls were packing up. I bought myself a new belt to hold up my trousers which were, like the old joke about the Frenchman's trousers, Tou Long and Tou Loose. Dai spotted an English transvestite playing a guitar and we enjoyed the ambiance in some sunshine at last! As I tipped out my sunglasses from their case I discovered my Bluetooth phone earpiece, which had gone missing a fortnight ago. Shows how long it had been since we'd seen that big shiny yellow ball up in the sky. We were tempted by the promise of a rooftop terrasse, with views of the foothills of the Pyrenees, and settled down for another fabulous meal of monkfish wrapped in chorizo. Dai decided we should have a bikers meet here next year and started phoning all his friends to tell them of this brilliant plan. I could hear the phone company's shares go up as he worked his way through his contacts list. Quillan didn't seem to have much in the way of evening bars, but Dai did try and strike up a conversation with an old French woman, asking her 'combien est le chien?' when trying to ask how old her dog was. He was just starting to explain the significance of the 12th July to Ulstermen, with the aid of a TV guide, when I thought I'd better drag him to bed before I had to call Milliband again.
Thursday, 12th July
Some of us were a little hungover! Nice local preserves with the breakfast — green tomato chutney which went down a treat with the cheese, and watermelon/lemon and pumpkin/orange. I think the GPS may have been a bit hungover too — surely the D115 would have taken us straight there? But no, she decided that we need a wee wander now and then through the gently winding roads around the foothills of the rather pointy Pyrenees. Through a 2km tunnel at Foix so that Dai could really enjoy the repaired exhaust, and on to the charming little town of St Grions, where three rivers meet. We checked into the Hotel Eychenne, a fabulously beautiful old post house complete with a swimming pool. As the sun was shining we decided that a quick stroll around the town, followed by a dip in the pool, sounded rather perfect. The restaurant at the hotel is very, very good and we dined on St Jacques, grilled turbot and nougat glace and some wonderful local cheeses — Brebis we'd tried the night before and adored, and here we were introduced to what sounded like Bo-Ma-Lo (and of course I didn't get it written down and now can't trace it anywhere). Our neighbouring table was taken up by a group of shaven-headed and wiry-legged cyclists, avidly discussing that day's stage of the Tour de France.
... to be continued in the next edition of The Post!