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Grand Tour of Europe

Well, I’ve just got off the ferry in Cherbourg and I have no idea where I’m going. When I make travel plans I like to keep them simple, I get the ferry there on this date and home again on that date. See? Simple. The thinking behind this is: “I can’t be lost if there’s nowhere else I’m supposed to be”

This time I’ve got three weeks to wander about and see what’s out there, so I climb back onto my Yamaha 900 Diversion and head south, it’s the only direction to go from Cherbourg. Getting out of this port town is simple compared to some, just follow the E03 for St Lo, and believe me you’ll want to get out of this town. The only reason to be here is getting on or off a boat. As a rule getting around France is easy, everything is well sign posted and if you know the number of the road you want it’s a piece of cake, although if you’re going off the motorways you’ll want a better map than you can get at home.

The first time I came here, something annoyed me on Friday, Saturday I went to the travel agents and on Sunday I was on the boat. I arrived in Le Harve on a twenty year old 400 LTD with no idea about riding on the continent, road signs, roundabouts, traffic lights, would they be the same, different, get me wrecked? So I thought I’d follow one of the other bikers. The guy in front of me had an Italian sticker on the bike and I figured he wouldn’t be staying here, all I wanted was out of the town and into the country, so, as he went I followed him. Here is an important piece of informationNEVER FOLLOW AN ITALIAN. They’re all mental, this guy was overtaking, undertaking, charging red lights, and of course me going like a loony trying to stay with him. Eventually I get out of town and pull over at a rest stop, I get out the map I’d bought in Easons and after 20 minutes reach a conclusion. Either the captain of the ferry has pulled a fast one and landed me in Belgium, or, my map’s a piece of shit.

So, as I was saying, you’ll want a better map, pull in at the first petrol station you come to and get one there. Blay Foldex, are very good, they show roads right down to goat tracks and give you very good ideas about distance. There are fifteen to cover France so buy one to cover whichever area or areas you’re going to.

If you want to cover ground in a hurry, the French motorways are brilliant. There are rest stops every ten miles, fuel stops every 20 miles and huge stops where you can eat, drink, fill up and sleep every 60 miles. As you get to each fuel stop, signs tell you how far to the next one, so if you know how far your bike goes on a tankfull, you’ll know when to stop. The motorways can be expensive, they’re all toll roads, but not exorbitantly so, and bikes only pay a third of what a car does. If you’re in no rush though, get off the motorways. The roads are a hundred times better than the UK. No road works, no potholes, no congestion. Wide roads, sweeping curves, bike friendly cops, If they gave away the petrol it would be bike heaven. In some areas you can ride all day and not see another vehicle, so take a mobile phone. You won’t get a phone box outside a town and if you’re going to break down you can guarantee it won’t happen in a town.

When it comes to hotels, because I never know where I’m going to be, I can’t make reservations ahead of myself. This is only a problem in the first two weeks of August when the whole of France takes its annual holiday. Outside of this time getting a hotel is pretty easy. I tend to stop around 6 PM in whatever town I’m in and hunt for one. If like me you aren’t that fussy and are only looking for somewhere to rest your weary head, then try the Formula 1 chain. Clean, tidy, simple and cheap. Between £13 to £20 a night and that’s for a room, which will sleep 3, so the more of you there are, the cheaper it is. You can pick up a book at any Formula 1, or Etap, their slightly more expensive sister chain, which will give you the position of every other hotel in the country, very handy.

The big Diversion is a very under rated bike, while it won’t set your trousers on fire it won’t make them feel like they’re made of lead and full of ants either. It’s big, comfy, reliable and very easy to maintain. I have mine fitted with Nonfango luggage, three huge box’s capable of carrying everything the adventurer needs, and still leaves the top box empty for those occasions when you want to stop and throw your jacket and lid into it while you wander off around some sight or other. You won’t throw it round the twisties like a 600, but it will keep up with them and motorway cruising at 100mph is a doddle, just remember your ear plugs.

Comfy? I’ve done six hundred miles each day for three days and while being tired, I wasn’t sore and after a shower was ready to head up the town for a drink or two and a bite to eat.

Reliable? The engine is famously bullet proof, nothing ever goes wrong with it. I’ve owned mine for three years and beyond tyres and normal servicing, haven’t had to put a spanner near it.

Easy maintenance? I’m no expert but even I can handle the servicing on this. It’s shaft driven so there’s no work required there and a shaft is essential if you’re going big distances. I once had a can of chain lube explode in a set of throwovers, not a pretty sight. Everything was ruined, Important tip no. 34 If you’re carrying chain lube in plastic throwovers, don’t put it right over the exhaust, it’ll go boom, scare the crap out of you and leave you no clean underwear to change into.

Anyway, I’m heading south and decide to keep going that way. Someone told me the Loire/Dordogne region was nice and they weren’t lying. Good roads, pretty villages and some interesting sights to see. Out of St. Lo you came to Le Mans, home of the famous racetrack and well worth a look around. If there’s nothing on you can get in for free, other days there can be racing with bikes, carts, trucks, anything with wheels and an engine. These smaller events are quite cheap (£6-£11) and a lot of fun. There’s also an automobile museum here (£4) Loads of race cars from the start of racing up to the present day and a lot of technical stuff on the history and development of the racecar. Wilbur Wright apparently took off on the racetrack in his new fangled flying machine and set a new world record here in 1908. I didn’t know this before. See the kind of stuff you can learn if you just take the time.

If castles are your thing, then this is your area. Every corner you go round brings a new chateau into view. Most have a winery attached and most are open to the public (for a small fee) Take in at least one just so you can see how the other half live.

One thing you’ll notice right away on the continent, when you pull up at a castle, hotel, pub, whatever, nobody meets you with that instant look of distrust you get at home. Even when you look like me, 6 foot, 17 stone, shaven head, beard, look like I eat small children, people accept you right away. Somebody told me it was because everybody has a scooter from age 14, so everyone’s really bike friendly, they all remember what it was like.

Anyway, on down through the Dordogne through Tours, Limoges, Toulouse, until I hit the south coast at Perpignan, here I’ve got to make a decision. Turn right to Spain? No, did Spain last year, so I turn left along the coast towards Marseille. I’m into history and this is a very interesting part of the country. Toulouse has a historic center yet it’s also home to the European Space Agency, a strange mix of the ancient and the modern. Nimes further along the coast has some of the finest old Roman remains in France, it’s also home to the biggest bull fighting scene outside Spain.

At Marseille I’ve got to decide again, turn left, back up through the middle of France…or…I’ve never seen Monaco, have I?

Monaco it is then. This place has more policemen per square foot than anywhere else in Europe (‘cos of the millionaires) so it also has one of the lowest crime rates (‘cos of the number of cops) this means there’s all these police with nothing whatsoever to do, except keep out the riff-raff. And what did they see when they looked at me…Riff-raff. I took a drive round the harbor and was so busy looking at the boats (some of them have helicopters sitting on them) that I didn’t spot a no entry sign. Suddenly this huge cop steps out in front of me with his hand up. I stop and he points to a one way sign, I apologize and try a lame explanation of why I was going up a one way street the wrong way, when he interrupts me in a dead-pan voice,

“You are staying in Monte Carlo?” I say, “No, I’m just passing through” and he replies with a curt, “Good” and walks away. Talk about feeling rejected. I wasn’t even worth the paperwork in a ticket. Helpful tip No. 18. Monte Carlo, only friendly to millionaires, remember this.

I decide to leave Monaco, head on round the coast and suddenly I’m at the Italian border, right in the middle of a street in Menton, very weird. But I figure, what the hell, never been there before, why not? This takes me to one of the best biking roads I’ve ever been on. There’s a section along the coast road where for about 20 miles, between following the coast and going up and down hillsides, the road is just one sweeping bend after another.

The whole way along this road you can see the motorway above you, viaducts from one mountain to another, I intend taking that road on the way back. With the exceptions of Genoa and La Spezia, this road is one little village and town after another. Then you come to Pisa. I’d seen the Leaning Tower in books and TV before of course, but it isn’t until you’re standing under it that the simple thought comes into your head, “What the hell is keeping it up?” It’s incredible.

I’ve suddenly realized how close to Rome I am and decide to head that way. They say all roads lead to Rome, but nobody’s told the sign makers that they also lead away from Rome. In France there are signs every where, in Italy if you miss one, it’s 20 miles before you know you’re going the wrong way. My plan is to find a town outside Rome with a train station, park the bike at a hotel and take the train in and out of Rome. This plan goes tits up when I miss the last turn off the motorway and end up in the middle of the city. Dublin drivers are all mad, but they are saints compared to those in Paris, and the Parisians are the finest drivers in the world compared to the ones in Rome. Every Roman citizen spends half his time with his hand on the horn, I’ve got a Rome street map in the top box but damned if I can get pulled over to get it out. I’m diving up streets left and right and can’t get out of traffic. Eventually I turn right and end up in a quiet area with no traffic. Excellent, I get off the bike and get the map out, then I pause…there’s no traffic…none at all. I turn round and where am I? St Paul’s Square, the Vatican, where the Pope lives. There’s no traffic because there’s no traffic allowed. I think to hell with it and try to figure out where to go. Eventually a cop comes along and gives off, but it’s in Italian so I don’t care, I’ve figured out where to go, and more importantly, how to get there. I do get a photo of the bike in the square before I’m shifted, otherwise no one would believe it. I get to my hotel, right in the heart of old Rome with all the sights within walking distance and park the bike for 4 days. Hotels in Rome are expensive compared to everywhere else I’ve stayed, but not compared to UK prices, about £60 a night. For a hotel in the very center of a capital city, it’s not out of the way.

The best advice I can give about riding in Rome is…DON’T. It actually frightened me, and that’s not easy to do. Every car in Rome has dents in them, and the people seem to wear them with pride. I had 3 days wandering round the historic sites and then it’s off again. I want to head on south to Pompeii, but getting out of the city isn’t as easy as getting in. It took me 30 minutes to get to the heart of Rome, after 3 hours trying to get out I end up paying a taxi driver to lead me to the right road. Nightmare.

A fast blast down the motorway and I’m in Naples and Pompeii looking at a smoking volcano. I, of course, loved wandering round the ruins of Pompeii but I couldn’t help the feeling that Frankie Howerd was going to jump out shouting “oooo err missus”. Pompeii has one of the best preserved Roman arenas in the world, watch Gladiator and go for a visit, you can almost hear the screams.

Two days in Pompeii and it’s time to head back, via Avezzano, Terni, Siena to Florence. The pretty route (pretty oddball route) Florence is where Hannibal Lector throws the police chief out of the window, it’s also a very easy going city, and a good place to relax for a day or two.

From Florence to Nice I’m backtracking on myself but this time it’s on that motorway I could see above me on the way down. It seems they picked a way to go and drilled a hole through any mountain in the way and then put up a bridge to the next mountain. This leaves you going from bridge to tunnel to bridge to tunnel to…and so on. Some of the tunnels are quite long and have curves in them, and green slimy stuff growing in them too. I was overtaking a long line of lorries when I went into a tunnel. Suddenly the tunnel fills with flashing blue light and an ambulance comes screaming up behind me. Now the lorries are doing eighty, I’m doing ninety and the bike is getting twitchy on the green slimy stuff, the lorries are nose to tail and I’ve nowhere to go. One of the lorry drivers sees what’s happening and slows enough to let me in. The problem is, I’m now doing eighty sandwiched between two huge lorries and I can’t see if the road curves…scared the crap out of me and after that I made sure I was in the slow lane for any tunnels. The motorway makes a hell of a difference for time, one section that took eight hours going down, took four hours going back, but you’ll have to pay for the time saved.

From Nice back to Marseille and then turn north to Avignon. An ancient walled city that was having a festival when I got there. I intended just staying the night, but the entire town was partying…so I ended up staying for two days, oops. On up to Lyon, now Lyon is my blackspot. I normally have a very good sense of direction, but I’ve been through Lyon five times and five times I’ve taken the wrong turn in or out of a tunnel. I don’t know why and I still can’t figure out what makes me do it, but I do it every time. This is Burgundy and once again wine, history and rural landscapes make this a great part of France to ride through.

I eventually reach Paris and the infamous Peripherique, Paris’s ringroad. Indicators are pretty much useless on this and if you’re waiting for someone to let you in, you’ll wait a long time. Here you’ll find another strange and unknown phenomenon, in a traffic jam, French drivers will leave a gap between two lanes of traffic to let bikes filter, no one tries to block your way or gets irritated as you zoom past. Once again, don’t ride in this city if you don’t have to, use the public transport, it’s cheap, clean and efficient. Somebody should send “Two Jags” over to see what a public transport system should be like.

A couple of days in Paris and it’s back on the road to the ferry home, I’m leaving from Roscoff, a small port where I fill my bags with cigarettes and toblerone, love that stuff. All in all a hell of a holiday, I’ve gotten further than I’d imagined I could, with no disasters, lots of new sights and two entries in my service book four weeks apart.

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