European Road Trip 2015 Part One …

ROAD TRIP 2015

 In September 2015 I set off on the annual European road trip with friends. On this this trip there were four of us but it was to be a trip of two halves.

Part One would see the four of us (Rich, Colin, Dave and I) arrive in Bilbao and head across northern Spain, the Pyrenees and onto Digne Les Bains in France.

Part Two would see us go our own separate ways with Colin and Dave heading home via Baveno (in the Italian Lakes), then on towards Germany and Luxembourg via the Gothard Pass in Switzerland – a great Pass that myself and friends have done a good few times over the years.

Rich had loose plans to head across to northern Italy, Austria and maybe Slovenia with nothing more specific than to do as many passes as he could.

My own plan was to spend the next couple of weeks working my way down into Southern Italy (broadly down the Mediterranean side) and then to come back up (broadly via the Adriatic Side) and then to make my way into Slovenia before heading for northern Italy, Germany, Luxembourg and home. I had no particularly fixed plan in mind other than I did want to do the Sorrento/Amalfi road and also the Stelvio Pass other than that I was open to what ever panned out.

PART ONE

I left home on the Tuesday morning to travel down to Wrecclesham, a small village on the outskirts of Farnham in Surrey. My brother Mike and his wife Alison live there and in addition to always making me welcome, their place is a great stop over for the onward journey to Portsmouth as it’s only around 35 miles or so to the ferry ports.

The journey to Wrecclesham from where I live in Manchester is about 240 miles and always seems like something of a chore, but as I said it’s a decent stop over and with its proximity to Portsmouth (which was where we were set to take the Brittany Ferries service to Bilbao) its just an ideal place to stay en route.

I suppose I could have taken a more scenic route rather than dragging out the majority of the trip on the motorways from Manchester, but the prospect of plenty of good roads to ride in the coming weeks made the journey tolerable. In practice it was a largely uneventful journey, boring yes but in practice uneventful.

One slight bonus that I managed to afford myself was to avoid the mind numbing experience of the M25 by taking a route that took me via Marlow. That also allowed me to find a roadside snack bar where I had a decent sausage sandwich and coffee for what I thought was the quite reasonable price of £3.50

I arrived at my brothers for around 15:45 and my friend Rich who hadn’t been able to leave at the time I did due to work commitments, joined us around 20:30 that evening.

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Mike and Ali provided the food, alcohol, bed and Wi-Fi as well as secure parking for the bikes. So at a stroke our needs were met – old Abraham Maslow would have been pleased, although I suppose the self actualization at the top of his pyramid would have to wait for the roads of Spain at the earliest.

Mike was up and away early to work and after Alison had left for her work Rich and I had had some breakfast,  packed up and were on our way for around 09:20.

Meet up

We didn’t go directly to Portsmouth but headed for the services at Petersfield where we were scheduled to meet with Colin and Dave who were traveling up from Sittingbourne.

Petersfield was probably less than a 20-mile ride and by 09:50 we had met up and after a quick chat and top up of petrol we were on our way for the short journey to the Britanny ferry terminal in Portsmouth.

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Check in was routine and we were straight onto the boat, the Brittany Ferries Cap Finistere for the 24 hour journey to Bilbao (we had opted for the direct route rather than the longer 33 hours on the route that goes via Roscoff)

It was the first time I had done this route and it’s fair to say it was pretty decent. Check in and boarding were quick and easy. In stark contrast to my experience on P&O ferries there were plenty of helpful crew members on hand to strap the bikes down almost the minute we got off them. Going back a few years, P&O used to do that, but in recent times its left to yourself and they are clear about not taking any responsibility which I think is a pretty disappointing stance to take.

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The Brittany Ferries experience was good. We had a bright and spacious cabin and a decent sized shower. I’m not big or overweight but the showers in most P&O cabins (in my experience) really are small and I reckon anyone who is only modestly overweight (or big) will be in contact with the shower walls!

Without exception the staff were pleasant and polite and it seemed to me that what ever they do in terns of customer handling training works.

Food was good value and whilst I don’t really mean this to be a P&O bashing it really was in stark contrast to what I tend to find is pretty poor value offerings on P&O ferries.

The only thing that I would say is that the pictures and videos of the swimming pool that are offered on the Brittany Ferries web site are somewhat flattering in respect of the actual size … but as we were not making use of that facility I cant say I was bothered one way or the other.

I slept well and was up early and enjoyed watching a glorious sunrise as we approached our destination in Spain.

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Breakfast was good and great value at £7.95, and it wasn’t long after taking breakfast that the boat was in the port of Bilbao. In fact I think we had docked a little ahead of schedule but it was also probably the longest I have ever waited to get off a ferry, partly I suppose as we were down in what seemed like the bowels of the boat.

We had agreed in advance that Rich and I would share the route planning for the first four days (after that we were set to head our separate ways). It was my turn first and so I had planed a route to take us out of Bilbao and on to our first overnight stop at the Hotel Ekai which is on the edge of the Pyrenees Mountains a mile or so from Aoiz and about 18 miles from Pamplona in the Navarra region of northern Spain.

The delay getting of the boat meant we were probably not on the road until getting on for 2pm or so. Our route took us to Durango, Ibarra, Zubieta and a few places in between.

I have to say that the last hour or so of riding probably matched or came close to anything that I have done previously – not so much in terms of scenery (although of course the Pyrenees is hardly unattractive) but more so in terms of non stop bend after bend after bend on very decent well surfaced roads that were all but empty. It really was constant for the last hour or so and for the most part was around the 80 to 100mph mark.

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The hotel had great reviews on booking.com and it was easy to see why. On arrival we had a very warm welcome and the standard of accommodation was very decent.

We ate in the restaurant and from the set menu which was priced at €20 for a three course meal (which included half a bottle of decent wine), so at only about £14.50 or so each who could grumble?

I ate well and had the zucchini, stuffed with ham, and cheese in a spinach sauce, followed by lasagne bolognese and then an almond tart of some description that was served warm and was lovely. The fact that the hotel turned out to be so good rounded off what had been a more than decent afternoons riding.

Sheep sh*t and ice

On Friday morning we met for breakfast around 8am and it was nice and plentiful.  We were packed and on the road for a little after 09.00am and after filling up with fuel we headed for Sort via a route up into the Pyrenees and onto what was to become another excellent days biking.

We could have taken a much more direct route than we did but we were in no rush and so went with the route that Rich had planned in advance.

As with the previous day we spent time on some fabulous roads and saw some beautiful and amazing scenery mountains, gorges, rivers etc.

At the highest point on our route that day we were at about the 1,800 metre marl and were exposed to some odd weather conditions. Much of Europe had been beset by untypical weather and we had a real mix of weather as we climbed up into the Pyrenees.

At one point whilst still pretty high up, the weather was cloudy and with a feel of rain in the air when we came across a piece of road that had the most dense covering of sheep sh*t that I have ever seen! It was almost as though hordes of sheep had actively been encouraged to empty their bowels on a very specific patch of road.

I’m not kidding it was so bad that as well as it being potentially hazardous from a rider perspective it actually left us all with sheep sh*t all over the bikes – I had it even as high up as the Kriega pack that I had strapped onto my back seat – and it smelt just as bad as you would expect it to have.

As we continued to make our way, the weather turned and even though I had opted to wear textiles rather than leather it was obvious that unless we stopped to put waterproofs on we were in for a right soaking.

I don’t think I have ever seen weather change so dramatically and so quickly. Within the shortest of times the sky had darkened, and what had started as rain almost instantly became hail, big enough and coming down hard enough for us to be able to feel it crashing against our clothing. The nature of the road we were on meant that we couldn’t pull up immediately but I was sure that Rich who was in front would pull up just as soon as it was safe to do so. I was right and after a couple of minutes riding in what was becoming increasingly difficult weather we stopped at a sort of lay by just 150 metres or so before a tunnel through the mountains – it was to be a particularly fortuitous stop.

No sooner had we stopped then the heavens absolutely opened and we covered by the most amazing dumping of hard hailstones that I have ever seen. There was barely anywhere to shelter and we didn’t hang about unpacking and getting our wet gear on, as well as changing from dark visors to clear visors. It was so bad that it was actually quite difficult to walk without slipping and sliding on the covering of freezing hail.

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Just as we had got our gear on I said to Colin “I’m not riding in this, it’s un-rideable” – and at the same moment as I had said that a couple approached on a bike and it was obvious that the rider was struggling to maintain control in the dreadful conditions that had almost come out of nowhere.

It was a KTM 990 SMT and as valiantly as the rider tried he couldn’t keep it up. He had done a great job of getting the speed down but he was riding on what was almost sheet ice and the inevitable happened and he went down.

Thankfully he was at a low speed and no doubt the covering of hail and ice on the road ended up helping to minimize damage and injury as the bike slid along with the rider and passenger underneath it.

Between us we signaled to traffic there was an incident and helped lift the machine off the bikers and into a safe place. I think the couple were Swiss, the rider spoke English but his partner didn’t. He seemed OK but I suspect she had picked up some bruising and in any case she seemed, understandably, to be in a mild state of shock. Fortunately the bike seemed to have only superficial and cosmetic damage and nothing that would stop them continuing their ride once they felt able to.

We ended up waiting for around 45 minutes or so until the storm had eased and more importantly the ice covering the road had started to be washed away. After checking with the Swiss couple that they were OK we set off, it was still raining but the road surface whilst not ideal was rideable with a degree of care. Had we not stopped when we did and continued another 150 meters or so into the tunnel we would have come out the other side onto sheet ice and I wouldn’t have fancied the chances of any of us staying upright – I think we had a lucky escape.

The weather changed again and we stopped to take off our waterproofs and continued to make our way on some wonderful roads towards Sort. I recognized some places and roads as I had been down that way a few years ago on my own after I had been down through Spain as far as into Portugal before heading that way and eventually onto the Italian Lakes.

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Sorted in Sort

The run into Sort was superb, fast paced riding on wide well surfaced roads surrounded for the most part by some very decent scenery.

Our overnight stay at the Hotel Les Brases was easy enough to find. The hotel was more than acceptable for our stopover and with secure parking for the bikes in the hotels garage it ticked all the boxes.

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We drank in the hotel bar and ate in the hotel restaurant and all at excellent prices, helped of course by the favorable exchange rate against the euro.

As ever I was up early on the Saturday morning and took a walk around, it was the sort of place that maybe would have been OK to base ourselves had we wanted to stay in one place and had we not of course had other plans.

The rooms as the hotel could probably be best described as more functional than luxury but they were more than adequate for our needs.

Sort itself is in Catalonia and isn’t a particularly big place with a population of only around 2,000 or so but seemed to be well set up for camping, walking, kayaking and the like. There is also a museum there that I would have liked to have visited (but didn’t) – it was opened in 2007 and provides a memory of the almost 3,000 refuges who were fleeing from the Nazis across the Pyrenees and who were detained there for the duration of the war.

Although the hotel was good value, in some respects it was also relatively expensive (and yes I know that’s something of a contradiction) but its slightly higher room rates are probably down to the basis of its location and perhaps the simple logic of supply and demand as something of an all year round destination.

The weather on Saturday was superb and it was good to be out in the warm sunshine. Rich had set out an excellent route and we really did have some stunning riding as we headed towards the south of France and the small village of Portal des Corbieres in the Narbonne district.

Probably for about 90% of the day we were on empty roads and roads that I reckon most any biker would rate as better than 8 out of 10

French hospitality

We arrived in Portal des Corbierrs around 16.30 and the timing was perfect for our hosts as they were dashing off to a wedding that we had passed in the village as we had arrived.

We had made an effort to get there early as I had been in contact with the owners (Jean-Luc and Brigette) a few times and was aware of their plans and their need to get off to the wedding service and reception.

On arrival we were shown around what turned out to be super accommodation at the Relais De Tamaroque and were invited to help ourselves to a bottle of wine at the owners expense and also invited to help ourselves to drinks in the fridge (beer, soft drinks etc) all priced at €1 with the money for any drinks taken to be left in a ‘trust box,’

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The accommodation here was different and exceptional and I would be more than happy to recommend it as a great place to stay if you are ever traveling down that way. It’s actually an old coaching house located right at the mouth of the River Berre, and would probably be a pretty ideal place to stay if you wanted to spend time exploring the Languedoc coast – but I reckon you wouldn’t want to stay there if you didn’t have your own transport to get about.

The place is different and has plenty of charm and even has a games room in what used to be the old stables, so with pool table and table football to go at we were not short of something to do, the table football provided some controversy as I was soundly beaten by Rich … but I have never seen three blokes want one other person to get beaten so much … something to do with being competitive I think.

Before we used the games facilities we had a walk through the village and had a cold beer before wandering back and booking a table at a restaurant just two doors away from our accommodation Les Terrasses de la Berre where we enjoyed a very pleasant meal.

It was a Saturday evening and the place was busy and I think we got the last remaining table. and if you ever do get down to that area I don’t think you would be disappointed with the accommodation we stayed in or the restaurant we dined in – I gather there are another two restaurants in the small village as well, one of which is only a few hundred yards from the restaurant we ate in.

On Sunday morning I took a short stroll through the village in the early morning sunshine before returning for breakfast in a room that was large light and airy and oozed French charm and character.

The walls were decorated with quite an intriguing range of art work. The one that caught my eye was quite a large piece that seemed to be made of a series of glazed tiles with a woman reclining on a chaise long and looking at an odd Picasso like face but as attractive as she was the picture seemed to depict her with rather large toes, which made for an intriguing composition.

Breakfast was more than good, with plenty of coffee, delicious freshly squeezed orange, fresh bread, cheese, meat etc.

Had I been traveling by car then I would definitely have bought a few bits and pieces of the local products that were on display and for sale and that I think were produced by Jean-Luc and Brigitte. They included, wines, jams and other comfits, but of course traveling across Europe for three weeks on a bike presents some limitations about just how much can be carried and packing bottles of wine and jars of jam no matter how tempting was out of the question.

After the excellent breakfast and when we were packed and ready we headed on towards the general direction of the Mediterranean coast and the towns of Sete, Narbone and Nimes.

It wasn’t the best of riding but there again we knew this would likely be the case – being on the coast it was always going to be busy and there wasn’t really a great route to get to where we wanted to go.

The weather was glorious and the temperatures were set to rise to around the 27 degree mark, and although the riding for most of the day could only really be described as average the decent weather and wonderfully blue Mediterranean sky’ were some sort of trade off.

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Not all the riding was average and we did find some reasonable stretches of road as we moved away from the coast and into the national park area and towards the Camargue.

We stopped around 3pm for lunch in a pretty looking walled town, called Apt and I recall that the lasagne that I ate there was nice enough and I also made a mental note to try and call back there sometime as it looked a pretty interesting place to spend a few hours in.

After our late lunch we set off towards the French town of Digne les Bains set in the Provence region, Digne is the town that earned some notoriety in March 2015 when the Germanwings flight 9525 came down just a few miles from there, killing all on board.

This final leg of Part One of the Road Trip was reasonable as we rode from Apt to Digne, stopping only to stretch our legs and take some respite from the heat.

As we approached our destination Dave took the lead as he was familiar with the area and in fact it was his friends Jean and Isabelle who were to be our hosts for the night and who would provide us with a warm welcome in their most intriguing of homes.

The final road up to Jean and Isabelle’s was interesting to say the least – we climbed to around 1,200m ending our climb on loose gravel and the turn into their property was so tight that we had to ride past, make a u turn in the church grounds and then head directly up the final incline.

Jean (who Dave had met many years ago when biking in France) came out to welcome us and in truth we could not have asked for a warmer welcome.

After being shown to our rooms, getting showered and then getting a decent cup of coffee Jean showed us round one of the most impressive and remarkable private garages I have ever been in. I don’t know all of his background but I do know that he has been around bikes all his life and has probably had more bikes than I have had hot dinners. He currently does some business with Dave buying and selling old classic bikes and I think he does OK at it as well. I know of a period when he was co-owner of a motorcycle shop and I get the impression that he is a more than capable and competent mechanic.

The garage was truly remarkable and I cant find words to do it justice, but among the bikes he still has there was the first bike he had and it was the one that he traveled to Russia on … like you do.

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Jean and Isabelle were warm and welcoming hosts who were happy to have us share their table, their food and wine which including a varied selection of quite interesting cheeses. Along with a drink that was in a small bottle, had a small wooden wolf in and that tasted a little like Grappa (and around 45% proof) but with more miles to cover the next day we each had only the smallest of shots of this fine drink.

To be honest for some reason I didn’t sleep very well and was awake early and so was up and showered for 06.00am, I took a walk outside and enjoyed the wonderful panoramic views in the early morning sunshine, before having a chat with Jean who was out with his dog (Toby).

Breakfast was simple and adequate – coffee, bread and preserves.

As Jean and Isabelle had other commitments we were loaded and ready to go for about 08:15 and set off to ride the first couple of hours together before we went our separate ways. More to follow in Part Two

Clicking on the first picture will open a gallery that you can scroll through

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