Day 1: Solo motorbike tour of France (Calais - Charleville Mézières)
For an overview of my 8 day tour of northern France through the Alsace region and the Vosges Mountains, click here.
Route: Dover - Calais – Lille – Valenciennes – Charleville-Mezieres (70 to Dover + 184 miles)
Dover port is well-signed so I was feeling confident queuing at the head of the motorcycle lane. We were ushered on ahead of the lorries and I managed to drive beautifully over the ramp and killer speed bumps. My confidence evaporated when it came to parking the bike in the belly of the boat. All the other bikers were pulling straps and pillows all over their bikes whilst I watched utterly confused. Trying out a bit of French - ‘aidez-moi’ - resulted in the French steward securing Saki with a few rachets. I went upstairs feeling like the novice I was.
Driving out at Calais port, I was surprised at how respectfully slow everyone was driving. However, as the other vehicles began to vanish in my mirrors, I reflected on how fast I was driving. 20 the sign said and yes, 20 I was doing. By the time I had outpaced everyone, it occurred to me that on the continent it is kilometres and not miles. Rookie EU Biker Mistake 1 in the first 3 minutes.
I rode off along the coast towards Dunkerque and then inland towards Lille for lunch. Instead of lunch, I got a protest. The roads were all blocked off and the police kept yelling at me to drive a different way. I drove through a red light, on the wrong side of the road and narrowly missed smashing into a car (I forgot I had panniers). The police were too occupied to notice my Rookie EU Biker Mistakes; this would not be my old encounter with the gendarmerie.
I pootled off to Valenciennes through St Amand les Eaux, a disappointing route of tired towns with no rustic charms. I had a quick lunch of warm goats cheese and tomatoes and then made a move to Charleville Mézières along the D-roads. The scenery was better on this leg and I stopped for a quick break in Fourmies where I shared a park bench with a French vagrant.
I stayed in Hotel de la Meuse and had my first experience of the stereotypical ‘see-no-English, hear-no-English, speak-no-English’ attitude of the French. The hotelier struggled to find my reservation despite me showing him on the app that I had booked (and paid).
After eventually managing to check in, I wandered out to see the town in the evening light. I saw a pretty outdoor restaurant just across from the fountain statue called Le Rimbaud. I remembered my GCSE French and ordered some l’agneau (lamb). I then ended up in a French argument with the waiter about which type of wine I wanted: rouge or rosé to go with the lamb. I don’t like wine which I repeated a number of times. After involving two patrons clearly trying to have a romantic meal together, it transpired that he was asking how I wanted the lamb cooked: red or pink. I left a big tip.