Rear View Part 10: Napoleon's Revenge

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Napoleon's Revenge

Friday 13th July

Don't know if was the date, but I was ready to invent a new crime by about lunchtime: Sat Navicide! I wanted to ignore her after we'd got as far north as Agen on the autoroute and take the N-21 to Bergerac, but no, she insisted on a selection of D roads, very prettily going through fields of sunflowers, but at one village there was no pleasing her — every one of the five possible roads out of the place resulted in an 'Off route. Recalculate?' My ass cheeks were aching, my ears were ringing and I really wanted to look at a map. Exasperated, I got off the bike, accosted a wizened local and sorted out which way to go. Good job my rear end is made out of something not unlike those memory foam pillows, so it bounces back into shape readily. Down through the vineyard-clad hills into Bergerac and Hotel du Commerce. Once we'd worked out what the parking restrictions were, it being Bastille Day the next day, we left the bike right outside our hotel-room window, changed into T-shirts and shorts and set off to explore. Croque Monsieurs, ice cream and a glass of Bergerac at the café beside Eglise de Notre Dame, and then a wander through the very picturesque old town, with its little cobbled streets and timbered houses. Found a bar where, joy of joys, they had both vodka and coca light, of which Dai had been painfully deprived on the trip so far. Me, I was in my element with the limitless choice of wines. Dai's tum was starting to rebel against this diet of rich food, and so we just had a pizza before going back to the hotel, where I grabbed his Gobbler's Knob1 and he began a long night of dashing between bed and loo. As the night wore on, we were both growing concerned over how we were going to do the next day's ride — one of the longest of the trip, at over 500km on autoroutes.

Saturday, 14th July — Bastille Day

Up early — that medicine we'd gotten from the pharmacie seemed to have done the trick enough for us to get underway. Skipped breakfast in the hotel as the gendarmes were pacing up and down outside, setting up barriers for the parades later on. We stopped to refuel and I had the WBE moment of the holiday (Worst. Breakfast. Ever): tea from a coffee machine that came with a head... not pleasant. The traffic was noticeably heavier, especially round Bordeaux, but most of it seemed to be going in the opposite direction, and at about 4.00pm we had reached the Hotel Christina right on the promenade at La Baule, a rather swish seaside resort set on a 6-mile bay in the Cote d'Amour. In order to get the bike round the one-way roads that ran off the prom, we waited till the cycling gendarmes had finished arresting some poor sod before riding a few metres down the footpath and round the back. Found a little bar to sit in and watch the world go by, while I had half a dozen fat oysters and a glass of Muscadet. Strolled up and down the main shopping street, and then looked for somewhere to eat. Quelle horreur! Everywhere was full. Bastille Day, you see, all the tables had been reserved in advance ages ago. As a last ditch attempt, and because Dai was enjoying seeing the staff crack up laughing when I asked for a table, I tried a little Italian place on the seafront. Now, maybe it was my super-polite use of the conditional tense — 'Auriez-vous une table?' Or perhaps it was because, in an effort to conserve what clean underwear I had left, I was going bra-less. Whichever, the patron showed us immediately to a table where we enjoyed tagliatelle with scallops and a couple of glasses of Chardonnay. We returned to the hotel, took our drinks up to the rooftop terrasse and had a perfect view of the Bastille Day fireworks on the beach. Woken at 3.00am by a thunderstorm, complete with hailstones. Damn, should've covered the electrics on the bike!

Sunday, 15th July

Best breakfast of the holiday — there was even some hot stuff available, in the shape of omelette and bacon. Now, Dai had been keeping today's destination a secret — a surprise as the last night of our trip. In the distance I could see the distinctive rocky pyramid of Mont St Michel, and to my great delight we were booked into the Hotel de la Digue, with a view of the Mont, silhouetted against a big bright Breton sky. We were in time for lunch and I tucked into a plate of grilled sardines, while Dai had cheese and bread. On biting into a mouthful, he discovered a large metal pin. 'This is not what I meant by a staple diet!' he said. The weather was hot and sunny, so we zoomed down to the Mont in shorts and T-shirts — motos can park very close to the entrance, and with helmets tucked into the panniers we were free to wander the steep little streets unencumbered with gear. Mont St Michel is an amazing higgledy-piggledy agglomeration of cobbled walkways and miniature stairwells winding up to the abbey, with its gold statue of St Michael perched precariously on the spire. Noting the times of high tide — at which point the car park would be underwater — we made our way up to the welcome coolness of the ancient stone abbey. 8 euros entrance fee, and 6 euros for two headsets which give lots of detail about the long and fascinating history and architecture of this world heritage site. Pilgrims walk around the mont, watched by firemen/lifeguards who are familiar with the tidal bore that rushes across the sands. As we made our way back down from the abbey, a voice said 'Are youse from Belfast? I though I recognised the accent!' We compared notes on our trips, and said 'bout ye big lad' to her boyfriend, who poked his head around the door but explained he couldn't come out cos he had no shirt on. Dai was out of his cigarettes, and we could find no tabacs on the rock. Asking a few other shop-keepers, we were eventually informed by an old crone who hissed behind her hand to try the Chapeau Rouge. We gave the secret wink in return and furtively hopped on our left legs to the hallowed creperie. Mission accomplished, we sat at a bar overlooking the bay. Dai's confidence in the language was increasing, and he asked for 'Un cendrier?' of a passing waitress, but rather spoiled the effect by adding 'por favor?' We rode back to the hotel just before the rain started, and got on the outside of some of the local cider. We had booked a table at the hotel across the road, the Relais St Michel. The meal was mouth-wateringly good — I had a massive plate of seafood, including crab, oysters, prawns, winkles and whelks. It was also eye-wateringly expensive — but a drink on the panoramic terasse with its view of the Mont as dusk fell and the rock was illuminated was unforgettable.


Monday, 16th July

A sombre day — it was the end of our holiday, the sky was leaden grey and Dai wanted to see some of the famous and moving WW2 sites on the Normandy coast. We started with a brisk scoot back down to the Mont to take photos with the tide in, and to get some information on the ongoing work that is being done to restore the maritime setting of the rock. We watched a few of the salt marsh-dwelling sheep as they made their brave dash across the road in front of coaches full of Spanish and Dutch tourists. And then we set off to Arromanches, where the Allies had constructed a floating harbour for Operation Overlord before following the coast up to the massive and pristine American military cemetery, sited above Omaha Beach. From there it was but a short hop up to Cherbourg, where we put our lessons learned on the outward-bound leg into practice: I leaped off the bike and left Dai to argue with the crew about how close to the wall the bike could go, and baggsied a corner seat in Molly Malone's bar, with a mercifully not-too-good view of the stage. As we settled in for the night, we realised that we had only a handful of euros left, since the Worst Garage Ever had refused to take credit cards because of the storm. So it looked like we would be relying on plastic for everything this time and giving the casino table a wide berth. As my poor hands had been trapped inside a pair of damp leather gloves for the last week, I treated myself to a manicure from Diaga and Anna in the beauty parlour, who produced their industrial-strength cuticle remover and brought me up to speed with all the ship-board gossip. We got chatting to another biking couple who were intrigued by our Gobblers Knob, and compared notes on fuel tank sizes and spectacular roads. Very sensibly we went to bed at 10, where we were rocked to sleep by the rather lurching and heaving seas. The boat would give a loud groan every so often, which caused me to open one eye wide and hope that the bike was OK.

Tuesday, 17th July

Only a slight delay due to 'unseasonably wet waves', but in the 20 seconds that it took us to get the bike off the centre stand and away from the wall, the crew had allowed the ramp for the next deck to come down, so we were trapped there for a couple of minutes. Good job neither of us is claustrophobic. Off into rainy Rosslare, through the rather damp vale of Avoca, and onto the heavy traffic and seemingly never-ending roadworks of the M50 round Dublin, up to the border to the first garage we saw for some much needed Regal filters — Dai is the only bloke who takes fags with him when we go abroad to cheap-tobacco-land, and he'd exhausted his supply a couple of days earlier and had been surviving rather testily on Marlborough Rouges. 'Home sweet home', he smiled as he inhaled deeply.

Rear View Archive


09.08.07 Front Page

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1The Road to Gobbler's Knob is a book by Geoff Hill, a Belfast travel writer who road a Triumph Tiger along the Pan-American Highway from the Southern tip of Chile up to Alaska. I gave a copy to Dai as a thank-you for his support and encouragement while doing my bike test, and we both enjoyed reading it and extracting endless comedy from the title.

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