The Motorcycle Diaries: the trip to the south of the centre of France

“Hannah, we’re taking our motorbikes over to France next week. We’re heading to a little village just to the south of the centre of France. Do you want to come?” my newfound friend Julie asks me after I’ve had a few (too many) to drink at Calstock Bike Show. After some (but not much) persuasion, I say yes. And a few days later I’m booking my ferry tickets, getting kitted out with leathers and a helmet, and frantically trying to cram the essentials into a rucksack. “Oh yea, you need to bring a sleeping bag and a Hawaiian fancy dress outfit,” Julie tells me when I’m trying on various motorbike equipment. I’m not usually one for fancy dress but I’m sure I can source a grass skirt and a garland from the Internet (got to love Amazon Prime!).

The plan was for me to ride pillion on the back of Pete’s Victory. Julie, Pete, Terry and I were travelling roughly 500 miles to the sleepy town/village of Felletin, in the Limousin region, where their friend Rocky has a house. It was his birthday and we were going over to celebrate, hence the Hawaiian fancy dress outfit. I had never been on the back of a motorbike before, so Pete wanted to take me out for a spin to get me used to it. Unfortunately we were short on time and the weather was not on our side, so that part of the plan had to be scrapped.

On the Sunday night, I loaded my car up and drove to Julie and Terry’s. To say I was nervous would be an understatement. What if I didn’t like riding on a motorcycle? What if I fell off? What if a car hit us (ed.: A lorry nearly did…)? What if we broke down in the middle of nowhere? What if we got lost? “You’ll be fine, Aych. In fact, I reckon you’ll be wanting to do your bike test after this,” said Terry.

We set off and whizzed down to Plymouth ferry port, just a five-minute ride away. I can’t believe I’ve never taken the ferry to France before. It’s right on my doorstep and it’s so cheap to jump on as a foot passenger.

And with me booking as a foot passenger came the first bump in the road: “We can’t check you in here, you have to go to the pedestrian check in desk over there,” said the man in the booth. Harrumph, split up from the other three when I’m a nervous traveller at the best of times. Not a great start to the trip. And as it was a 23:30 ferry, the café/bar was closed. Also not ideal!

But I was wrong to be nervous as checking in and waiting in the waiting area really wasn’t that hard. As quick as a flash, we were herded down to the ship, where my three amigos were waiting for me. After an hour, we were allowed into our cabin, where we raided the hot drinks supply and crashed out for the night. Or at least, tried to.

Did I get a good night’s sleep? No. Sleeping on a vessel as it sloshes about in the sea is not my cup of tea, despite the sea being pretty calm. An hour before docking, the lovely people at Brittany Ferries wake you up with nice, gentle harp music. But as this was my first time on a ferry, I did not know this, and I sat wondering whose phone was going off and why on Earth they weren’t doing anything about it. I soon realised my mistake with the constant Tannoy announcements asking passengers to vacate the cabin, along with the multiple knocks at the door as the four of us scrambled to get our things together and get going.

And so off we went, down to the lower decks to find the bikes and head off. Pete plugs the address into his sat-nav. 460+ miles of riding to do. Ho boy, this is going to be interesting! My heart is pounding but I slowly settle into my new environment: moving with the bike as we go around corners, relaxing and not feeling the need to grab onto poor Pete for dear life, being more exposed to the elements and other road users than I am in the driver’s seat. It did drizzle a bit, but riding along created a hairdryer effect, and we were soon dry. Thankfully the French drivers were pretty respectful on the way down, apart from one lorry that started to sway over into our lane as we were overtaking.

A couple of observations on French service stations: there is not a McDonalds, KFC, Burger King or any other fast food chain in sight. The French seem to opt for the healthier option of sandwiches as their go-to choice of to-go meals. And petrol prices were higher than what we’re used to in the UK, and not just because of the currency conversion. This is probably down to the fact that we were on the motorway and petrol stations are a rip-off wherever you go, but I was shocked to see prices as high as €1.70 a litre for fuel. The queues for fuel on the return journey were also the longest I’ve ever seen. And it was unexpected as we had taken the toll road, which we expected to be less busy.

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At one of the service stations on the way down to Felletin. Photo © P. Mildon.

Oh and the French love to gather round motorbikes and watch as you head off. Much to Pete’s dismay, I clambered onto the bike at one service station when the engine was running and accidentally revved the bike to the max. Certainly gave the spectators a show. I always got on the bike after Pete following this incident. It was safer that way 😂

As the miles tumbled off the sat nav’s display, it’s fair to say we were all flagging and sore. Rumbling along the motorway really does take it out of you. But the end was in sight, so we soldiered on, filling up on chips at one roadside greasy spoon, batting the determined wasps away before every bite.

We eventually arrived in Felletin at 9pm, our engines making a racket through the little village. “You have reached your destination,” said the sat nav triumphantly. No, we hadn’t. There was a mix-up and we didn’t have the right address. Tired, stressed and moody, we turned the bikes around and our host herded us to the right address.

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The bikes. Photo © J. Reynolds

It was definitely time for a stiff drink and a bit of grub, and Rocky did not disappoint, filling us up with duck and sausages (yummy!) and passing out the red wine and port.

It’s safe to say we all slept like logs that night. We spent the next seven days hurtling through the French countryside, taking in the many sights and (mostly closed) attractions (ed.: It’s France in August, what do you expect?) and I loved every second of it.

 

But am I going for my bike licence?

No. I think I’ll stick to my little Hyundai for now!

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