As I already said, it was a cold start for both me and the bike. The sun beating down on me made it bearable, and gave me some shred of hope for things to come later in the day. I worked my way through what seemed more affluent suburbs of Folkestone, beyond the shuffling hordes of school children, and back onto the motorway heading in the opposite direction.
In only a few minutes, I was at the eurotunnel check-in, waving documentation around, scan this, stool sample that, and finally got through all the barriers and border controls. Possibly only because I was familiar with how the French do it, the UK side of the tunnel is less ferry port and more airport. You situate yourself in a large car park, go into the fairly hideous terminal building and wait for your departure gate to be called. Except with the sun beating down outside and the fresh temperature, what I actually did was grab a coffee (from someone that called me ‘dahlin’ way too much) and go back outside to sit on a kerb and wait for a lady in a high-viz jacket to come and tell me I should be on the train already. When that time did come, I fed the grass with the remainder of my coffee, pulled on my helmet, and navigated the maze of one-way roads to the first staging area. Suddenly, all the ‘hurry up and wait’ I’ve previously experienced on the eurotunnel was quite familiar. Point of interest. When the UK is no longer in the EU, are they going to have to rename their end of the eurotunnel? The freedomtunnel?
After about 20 minutes of being herded, then being pushed aside so countless old men in vintage sports cars could board the train before the group of bikers, we did finally get into the metal tube. Half an hour later, we were in France. Which was about twenty minutes too long. A just passed mid-life crisis poster boy who had recently (like, in the last week) bought a large, expensive BMW tourer had joined the group of bikes in the now sealed train carriage before departure. Unfortunately for the rest of us, he had not figured out how to use the security system on his shiny new motorcycle. Every movement of the train caused his alarm to fire up, along with much flapping and “I can’t turn it off”. Once we were released into the wild of the French motorway, I did a good deed of telling the biker in front of me that his top case was open. Or at least I tried. It’s difficult to gesture “top case open” when the guy won’t slow down and cant hear you over the blaring Creedence Clearwater Revival coming out of his Harley Davidson sound system. Whatever, I tried. I think he got that something was wrong from my alarmed pointing and highway code approved “slow down” hand signal.
But wait, I’m in France! The sun is shining. It’s still a little chilly, but that’s how I like it! Best of all, the motorway was empty. Beautifully, wonderfully empty. Cruise control on, music on. I floated down the motorway for about an hour, maybe ninety minutes before I chanced upon the most holiest of holy. The awesome sight that is the French motorway service station. This could mean only one (well, two) thing(s). Crappy French motorway coffee and almost fresh pastry. There’s something special about the coffee you get out of the vending machines in French service stations. Maybe it’s all the sugar? Maybe they’re dosing it with antifreeze? I don’t care. This was breakfast and I made sure to record the moment for posterity.
The first of many meals eaten from the back seat of the bike. Al fresco. It’s just not the same unless you’re being stared at by a dozen central Europeans, like you’re something that’s just landed on earth from another dimenson. I’m not a alien, I’m just Irish. It’s rare but welcome that someone will actually approach, share some stories about how they toured Europe back in the 60’s or 70’s on their -can’t buy for love nor money any more because all the hipsters are hoarding them- motorbike and wish they’d had one like I do. Topped off with a cheery ‘bon route’ and we’re both back on our way. It’s the little things.
It was early in the afternoon when I was cruising on yet more almost empty motorways past endless fields of fruit trees and now dead sunflowers when it finally hit me. I’m not comfortable with doing this on my own anymore. It was great to be on an adventure and it was awesome to actually see the big round ball of fire in the sky (no matter how cold it got down here on earth), but it’s not the same without Julie on the back seat, taking in all the sights, sounds and smells only to give me a distilled version of events when we reach the end of our day’s journey. Given that this was the second of ten days, I assumed I’d overcome the feeling of isolation by, oh I don’t know, at most day nine?
The day was very much rinse and repeat. Do a few hundred kilometers, stop for food and a stretch/scream. I’m sure the same is true for being in a car, but when you’ve been in one position on a bike for a few hours, a tiny scream usually escapes mid-stretch. Just me maybe? I tried to pick deserted truck stops for this activity, in case my tortured wailing distressed any of the locals. There was going to be plenty of stretching and screaming on this 650km day from Calais to Seebach in Germany.
The day didn’t really begin to drag until I reached the Metz area of France. I had somewhat amused myself by reading and taking mental note of the “heres what you’re missing in this area” brown signs along the motorway. The signs that alert drivers to whatever historic or culturally significant sites you’re whizzing by at 130km/h. I usually think to myself “I’ll get back to that some day”, although I’ve usually forgotten what they were 5km further down the road when I see the next one. So I was somewhere near Metz, already having covered a great distance and feeling that the German border was a silly distance ahead of me. So that pushed Baden-Baden even further ahead and any hope of getting into the start of the Black Forest well into sunset. All the rest stops in the world couldn’t ease my aching cheeks at this point, even cycling the heated seat on every 30 mins or so wasn’t making the journey any easier. Had to press on though , if I wanted to reach my destination in time to get some food and beer before bedtime.
What seemed like hours later I passed signs for Strasbourg, the last outpost on the French/German border. I knew I was getting closer as I pointed myself north-east to cross the Rhine near Roppenheim. Of the ‘count on the fingers of one hand’ times I’ve been in Germany on the bike, it’s where I always seem to cross the border. The hydro-electric power station on the Rhine at Roppenheim is a now familiar sight. A relatively short and congested cruise later, I was in the center of Baden-Baden and was instantly amazed at the seriousness at which the speed limit is taken. It’s a hard limit, unlike in Ireland where it’s merely a friendly suggestion wrapped in cotton wool. After covering much of the last several hundred kilometers at 120km/h and over, I was glad to be doing 30-50km/h for a change. The border crossing and entry into Baden-Baden also marks a significant waypoint for my trip; The beginning of the magical B500. One of the ‘must ride’ biker roads in Europe. Although at this stage, it’s probably as much hype as it is legend.
Back into the somewhat fading daylight on the other end of Michaelstunnel, I passed several petrol stations before it dawned on me that I was about to head into the forest and remain there until the next evening. Time to get some juice for the bike and for the rider. I bought a bottle of something sugary before realising that it was some mixture of orange and cola, and presumably cocaine. Never in all my 36 years have I tasted anything so amazing. Nectar of the Gods. I should have bought 6 bottles more. It also made me forget I was in a different country, as I approached the cashier and attempted to carry out the transaction in French. Luckily, he was a forgiving chap and allowed me to fall back on my comprehensive knowledge of the German language; The universal word ‘bitte’ and wild hand gestures. As I pulled out of the petrol station and continued my journey, I began to ponder on how exactly I was going to survive in German speaking countries for the next week or so with only two words, ‘bitte’ and ‘cerveza’. Wait, that sounds wrong. Ah, it’ll be fine.
As the road climbed up into the forest, my excitement grew with every twist and turn. With every sweep of the perfectly surfaced and cambered road. Until it started raining. In fairness, it was the Black Forest, a place notorious for rain. Also, it was mid-September. I’ll deal with it, just a little annoying having spent the last 6 hours on a perfectly dry, straight, boring motorway. But another surprise was in store, logging. The middle of the road and often the entire road was strewn with wood chips, shavings, branches and more pine needles than a hundred so called ‘non-shed’ Christmas trees. That was the downer. That slowed me right down in the corners. After taking five minutes to be furiously disappointed, I stopped for a sip of my magic cola/orange juice and got on with the business of cruising around like an old man and enjoying the scenery.
There was a mist hanging over the tops of the trees that was just perfect for photos and I was stopped more than I was moving for the first 15km or so. Aside from the crap on the wet roads, and the rain, and the locals in Porsches driving like assholes, it was perfect. The sun had disappeared over the horizon at this stage and my mind turned to thoughts of schnitzel and bier. I pushed on to Seebach, a little town I’d been meaning to get to for a few years. I knew very little about the town, other than it’s where Pension Williams is located. A B&B that was universally raved about within biking circles and was the regular haunt of many I’ve come across on the forums. Having stayed there for only one night, I can see why. Modest but comfortable and spacious rooms, a well stocked and well priced beer fridge, and very friendly hosts.
Shortly after arrival, it was suggested that I join up with two other solo travelers for dinner at a local restaurant and was provided with some (at that time at least) very hard to follow instructions. Not usually being the type to socialise and make merry with strangers (anti-social and grumpy as I am) I thought I’d get settled in and cleaned up, head back downstairs to discover the beer fridge and let fate decide my evening for me. Long story short, I ended up in Hotel Hirsch with the two guys (names completely forgotten at this stage of course) and had a thoroughly enjoyable evening of talking shit, drinking beer and eating schnitzel. It’s times like this I wish I had a small group of biker friends to go on trips with. But then most of the time, that goes against my grumpy face and largely anti-social outlook. People are fine in small doses. I think my main issue is that I’ve never gone on holiday with a group of people whose company I can handle for more than 24 hours.