Eventually, all days in the future arrive, right on time. The day I left England started at 5:00am. I had an early ferry out of Poole to catch, bound for Cherbourg. I wish the day had started off better but I must admit I was anxious for what was to come. I’d slept poorly with the bike inside the van, my face against the brake calliper, the doors and vents open to let the petrol fumes out. Figuring that if the bike was loaded the night before, it was one less thing to worry about at 5am in the morning.
I could feel anxiety building, what if customs control refuse entry for my bike as the media were so often reporting. What if all the millions of new Brexit rules the media keep digging up meant that I would be fined, arrested and then surely deported for smuggling a pint of milk and a pack of Lurpak’s finest into France. In reality, in the real world of my experience, I found the media to be completely wrong. Sensationalising isolated cases, technicalities and theoretical events into a story designed to promote engagement. So often I see that engagement comes in the form of division. People wasting their time arguing over a baseless story promoted on social media where once you’ve read one article the algorithms fire more and more at you and millions of others all in the name of increasing engagement.
Anyway, I boarded my ferry without any customs checks, no-one even looked at my van, and sailed into Cherbourg some four hours later.
Once In France I passed passport control, another sensationalism, as I received my passport entry stamp in the whole of five seconds. From there I drove straight through customs control, it was lunch time (well, it was the afternoon at least. I think they are the same thing in France) and there was no-one manning it. My dairy goods were safe. Driving through Cherbourg was a fairly gentle introduction to driving abroad and I settled into it quite quickly. I remember encountering one strange traffic light that had multiple orange lights. Not a clue what it was telling me. In these situations I default back to “Proceed with caution”. Soon after I was on the motorway and headed south. I love European driving, the traffic level is far below that of the UK’s. Although the French have some funny ideas on how indicators work.
Did you know that France has the most amount of roundabouts in the world? Bizarrely, few know how they work! You can never ever trust people on roundabouts abroad, they use any lane they wish. This fact is somewhat useful when you find yourself in the wrong lane, you can simply go in the other lane, it is normal. Where you would receive a toot of the horn and inappropriate hand signals in the UK, you will instead receive nothing at all! I am quite the neutral driver, I could not care less about others actions on the road, I just mind my own business.
MONT SAINT MICHEL
I chose to walk the mile and a bit from the carpark to the island. Doing so gave me plenty of time to admire the view of the imposing abbey atop of the hill. It really is quite the sight and on my walk back to the carpark, I could not help looking back for one final look (and then a few more final looks). Once at the gates, I began climbing up to the Abbey, I really didn’t do much research before I arrived but I decided that I would join the queue to go inside the abbey, paying some 10 euro to enter. It was indeed worth it as the abbey makes up most of the island. Although, inside the abbey is a little sparse of artefacts and information. The large open rooms mostly empty. Atmospheric with great views to the coast, but indeed, a little lacking of substance.
I walked the streets below, much busier now, crowded in-fact. I sat outside the walls having lunch, a home-made (campervan made should I say) packed lunch. For I had not yet found the confidence to order myself some lunch in French.
Finally, I had a stroll around the outer walls, taking in the views once more. Here I did speak a little French, even if it was just to say I did not understand what an elderly man was asking me. Still, he understood my broken French and carried on his way.
I had just under one month allocated for France and Spain in this initial leg of the trip. Therefore, I had to get motoring if I was to arrive in Morocco on time. An easy-going six and a half hour drive took me into the Dordogne region, somewhere under Limoges. I checked into a British run campsite, still sleepy at this time of year. I do prefer quiet campsites. On a few occasions on my trip I had entire campsites to myself. Europe is large and saturated in campsites, it’s easy to find yourself in the peace and quiet.
During my stay in the Dordogne I undertook a hike, taking in the gentle sloping pastures and wooded valleys whose ground was disturbed by wild boar. There’s a lot of countryside in France. Another day I took a ride out on the bike, doing some shopping before just meandering around with a satisfactory lack of purpose. I have a strong appreciation for rural France and it is one of my favourite places to spend time other than Morocco.
I was most looking forward to the Pyrenees. In-fact, I’d allocated just short of a week here, staying in a campsite in the small town of Lestelle-Betharram, just west of Lourdes. Things didn’t get off to a great start, reversing into a rock at the campsite car-park. Fortunately no-one saw this blunder as the campsite was closed. Fortunately, the owner did appear and opened the campsite up. It was their first day of the season and I was a little early. One of the owners exclaimed that the first customer of the season stays for free. However, this never materialised (I don’t think it applied to Brits).
Historically, Britain and France have always had a strong love hate relationship. Yet If you spend too much time engaged in politics and the media at present you’d think we were hateful rivals, spiteful over Brexit and enraged over the fishing quotas of a few boats in the channel. But I found none of this applies to the every-day folk of France. In-fact, the French were seriously the most appreciative, outgoing and receptive campsite hosts compared to the other countries I visited. Apart from one man in Chamonix but maybe he was Swiss 😉
This particular campsite had not seen any Brits in the two years of Covid and were genuinely cheering for our return. Often times I had a banterous relationship with the French including when me and Dave couldn’t figure out how to open an automatic gate, where the owner proceeded to marvel at the magic of French technology outwitting two Brits on holiday.
As you can see from the photos above, the weather was not good in the Pyrenees during my allocated week. There was thick mist from a couple of hundred meters up and above. I tried a number of passes into the mountains, seeing if I could perhaps rise above the clouds and mist but it was not to be. With the poor weather, I had to make do with some low level rides, blasting through winding gorges and narrow lanes aside of the rivers below. One day, looking for something to do, I noticed there was a zoo not so far away, so took a trip out to see the animals there which was alright. However, I felt my time was better off spent elsewhere, so I made a break for the coast near Bayonne, where the sun was shining.
SAINT JEAN DE LUZ
I arrived at Saint Jean De Luz early in the afternoon, it was much busier here and I was fighting through traffic, a world away from the rural scene I’d so far traversed. The campsite was busy too, almost full in fact. This is often the case on coastal sites, more expensive and busier. You will find hot-spots for your fellow countrymen, coastal sites being popular. I did get a pitch and shortly after I was joined by a young British couple on their holidays who I’d later have a drink with along with another couple in a mini round-up of the Brits abroad. The sun was indeed shining as I paddled in the sea and did some reading, lounging the rest of the afternoon away.
The next day I walked into the city. Some three mile walk along the coastal footpath before I arrived. A smelly city, busy with hustle and bustle and nothing particularly note-worthy. Cities are not really my thing. Give me empty country side, an open road and no-one in sight any day.
That concludes the first two weeks and part 1 of my trip heading south through France. Saint Jean De Luz is only a few miles from the Spanish border where I would be heading next. I think at the time I was possibly feeling a little underwhelmed on the adventure front and still finding my feet, working out what was giving me pleasure and what was not. I’d been loosely imagining this trip for years and now I was on it, there was certainly some give and take between reality and imagination. However, we take the good with the bad as life finds a balance and the reality equalises with my search for adventure.
In the next article, I eat up serious miles across Spain, become the guest of a friend, get stopped by the police, ride through a lightning storm where I thought I would surely perish and begin to feel the heat of Africa as I make my way towards the end of Europe.
The stairs to the abbey at Mont Saint Michel.
Looking up to the spire atop of the abbey.
My first look at the abbey a few miles away.
A short hike in Normandy.
A stray cow on a hike in the Dordogne area.
Reversed into a rock. I just painted this over once home lol.
Nice view of the river though.
The Pyrenees, famed for extensive views.
Very misty and quite cold.
France has lots of villages, all devoid of residents it appears.
Found the sunshine!
Looking at Saint Jean De Luz over the bay.