The Trek back to Ireland

That would unfortunately make this part three of a European motorcycling trilogy. We were back on the road, heading west toward our next Italian stop not too far from French border; Susa. From what I remember, or rather don’t remember, the road over was pretty uneventful. We had more than our share of motorway miles where the group became disconnected and following anyone was a completely pointless exercise. We had some back roads then some more motorways and well, you get the idea. It was another transit day really. The relaxation of Lake Garda was over and done with and it was time to start thinking about heading north again. Not to worry though, the holiday isn’t quite done yet.

Susa is what I can only describe as a typical small central European town. Pick up the people and swap them for French people and it could have been any town in France. Or Spain.  Or in this case, Italy. Having dropped the bikes in the hotel (which, although cheap, cheerful and perfectly comfortable, looked like it might have been a juvenile detention center at some stage). The underground car park was deliciously cool and shaded though.

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Workshop

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Having discovered the extent of the excitement available in Susa, we opted to take a walk around the small town to discover the various Roman ruins dotted about the place. There was an aqueduct, a  couple of towers and an amphitheater. And if there’s one thing I know, it’s how to perform a one man Monty Python show while seated in a completely deserted amphitheater.   Bloody Peoples Front of Judea! I had my fun and that’s all that matters.

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A couple of cups of coffee were had before meeting up with an undecided bunch for dinner and eventually ending up somewhere really nice. Unexpected.

Being a typically Irish sort of mob, there’s nothing like a couple of pints after dinner to settle everything down a bit. Or, to put it another way, exactly the opposite of how mainland Europe seems to do it. Finding a drink is a tough proposition but we did eventually prevail.

I had the genius plan of tackling Col de Sommeiller (one of the highest roads in Europe, a good deal of which is unpaved) while we were in Susa but it never really materialised. I guess I’d need the day off the next day to recover from manhandling the bike around the rocky roads. Next time. To give you some idea of what I’m talking about, consider the below.

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From the town of Bardonecchia, the road (marked in red) snakes its way around the mountains until it reaches the location at the inset picture. Two roads diverged. Left, to the car park and the end of the line. Right, further up the mountain. I’m no expert on Italian road signs (like much of the Italian  motorist population) but the sign on the right seems to indicate some kind of no vehicle entry. However, the barrier is up. I’m conflicted. Like most off-road motorcycling, the thing to do is feign ignorance until advised otherwise. “Well your honour, the barrier was up and there was nobody in the hut to tell me not to ride up there”.

Back up and somewhat bright eyed the next morning, a few of us headed off north into the hills. Then, after I realised the bike was running on fumes, I had to turn back and get petrol. No, still not really very awake. I made a curious decision, one that confounds me even now. Instead of just heading back down into Susa and finding a petrol station, I asked the GPS where the nearest one is. A fairly safe proposition one would imagine. Although I suspect the only people that would imagine that are people that have never actually owned or used a GPS before. It routed us onto a motorway via a batshit crazy series of on ramps and off ramps and then, typically enough, there was no way off that motorway for 28km. To add insult to injury, that stretch of motorway took us through one very long tunnel (which resulted in a fairly hefty toll on the other end) and then around something else of great importance (which resulted in another toll). Then, as the bike was almost coasting to a stop for lack of fuel, an Esso station appeared. I didn’t really care at this stage that the petrol was €1.93 a liter. Well, I did. I wasn’t about to ride past and look for somewhere cheaper though.

Col De L’Iseran on Vimeo.

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We did eventually get back on plan and into France to ride Col de l’Iseran, one of the loneliest mountain roads I’ve ever been on. Miles and miles of lunar landscape only broken by the occasional car or cyclist passing. It was bloody cold too. The summer riding gear was great while at sea level but your worst enemy above 1000ft. Brr.

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Back down to Italian sea level at La Thuile then north to the Swiss border. Switzerland, although a beautiful country, is a profoundly odd place. Swiss German is weird and wonderful language. I think the biggest pain in the arse of this day was knowing that once we crossed into Switzerland, we wouldn’t be just casually stopping to buy a can of coke or a sandwich. The reason; Swiss Francs. Lunch and/or dinner was going to have to be an orchestrated effort in aid to use credit and debit cards less (therefore avoiding being gouged with the exchange rate). It’s too easy to take the Euro for granted while on holidays. Just buying a bottle of water would mean visiting an ATM, getting out the smallest denomination possible, grimacing at the exchange rate then buying the water and grimacing further about how much everything costs in Switzerland. Yes, overly dramatic.

Switzerland also made me realise how important it is to be a good traveler. By that I mean having a basic grasp of the local language, enough to order food, pay your bill and say thanks to the staff (assuming they deserve it of course). I’d put not being fussy in with being a good traveler. Eating what the locals eat. Just because you have steak pie & colcannon at home, doesn’t mean you’re going to get it in a small town in Europe. That kind of thing.

The experience of attempting to communicate with the locals in Germany, Austria, Italy and Switzerland made me realise that in many ways, I am not a good traveler. By the end of our couple of days in Germany I was reciting “ein Weißbier bitte” like a local and while that seemed to carry over into Austria quite well I was lost for just about everything in Switzerland. To restore my confidence somewhat, even our German group member that joined us while we were passing through the Black Forest had massive trouble in Switzerland.

It did make me start learning German at the start of this year though. Basic German anyway. I’ll always be a staunch supporter of hand signals while attempting to speak foreign languages.

But I digress; Back to Switzerland. We were on our way north east-ish to stay in a small, cheap (for Switzerland) hotel in the middle of nowhere. Nearest city is Lucerne I think. There was a chunk of motorway in the way and I fancied neither getting on a motorway again nor being further gouged for a Swiss vignette. For those not accustomed to the ways of European motorways; In Ireland we have tolls. In France they have whopping great tolls. In a few other European countries they have vignettes. Basically, its a sticker you affix to your vehicle that permits you to use the motorway. If you don’t have one and you get stopped by the cops on the motorway, you’re screwed. The varying levels to which you’re screwed depend very much on the country. From what I heard before traveling, in Switzerland, you’re the most screwed. In Switzerland, you have to buy a vignette for a year. That’s €33. In other countries, you can buy one for a few days for a few quid. In summary, I’ll be damned if I’m going to pay €33 to spend maybe an hour on a motorway. Unsurprisingly, some other people were of the same opinion. Equally unsurprisingly, it was the members of the ‘Bold Children MC’. The decision allowed us to take in some local sights and have a relaxed lunch in a nice quiet spot.

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So instead of the motorway, we took a few scenic back roads, took our time and then when we’d covered a suitable amount of ground, we began to look for options. Option 1, get on the motorway for the rest of the journey. That was almost certainly a non runner for reasons above. Option 2, get the ferry. Option 3, use th… wait a minute, get the ferry? Now unless I’m very much mistaken, we’re landlocked. Also, we’re in the middle of the mountains. Ferry? Curiosity, cat. The GPS was set for the ferry terminal and the five of us set off into the mountains again.

We rode through some amazing scenery in the now somewhat cooler late afternoon, the thought struck me on more than one occasion that I’d have paid to see this kind of stuff rather than paying a premium to use a long, flat, boring motorway. After several miles and some nervous exchanges between us, we reached this ‘ferry’. Ferry my arse.

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After paying a few quid and waiting a few minutes, we were loaded onto a vehicle carrying train that appeared as if it last saw service during World War 2. It was like the Eurotunnel’s great grandfather. After riding around in the mountains all day and expecting to roll up on a ferry across a lake, it was a very surreal experience to be loaded into a train and stick your head out the window as it pulled off. The journey was only about 20/30 minutes or so but it brought us significantly closer to our destination for the evening and it was great to have a break from riding but still be moving. Getting off the train was a bit of an off-road style riding experience but we all managed it without any spills.

We were rewarded for our perseverance in finding the ferry train with a beautiful sunset against the mountains as we rode the final few miles to the guest house. Ironically, I’d have liked a longer ride in those conditions. The sun was just going down as we pulled in and the light was amazing. If I didn’t want my dinner so badly, I’d have been out with the camera. Oh and point of interest, this was the only day that we arrived last at the hotel. Just thought I should point that out.

Dinner was unremarkable. Apparently the idea with stopping in Switzerland was to have fondue. The majority of the table opted for a very less heartburn inducing meal of various meats and vegetables.

The next day we were up, out and on the way to France. Ever the intrepid explorers, we didn’t cross the border in the usual ‘now you see it, now you don’t’ motorway fashion. Roughly, it went as follows. We followed a back road, then another back road then turned onto a smaller back road. Realising we didn’t have a bloody notion where we were going, we consulted the most up to date GPS we had between the three bikes. A route decided and a leader elected, we were rolling again. Another back road, a dirt road, trees. Wait, were on a dirt road in a forest!?! Are we still in Switzerland? 200 yards later, the answer to that was no. We were still on the same dirt road in the same forest but the GPS was now telling me we were in France. We passed an elderly gentleman walking in the woods. He looked suitably confused that three Irish registered motorbikes, laden down with the trappings of holiday making were on his dirt road, in his French and/or Swiss forest. I’m sure as we passed he was thinking ‘bloody foreigners’ to himself in French and/or Swiss German.

But wait, we’re in France now. We can understand a larger proportion of what people are trying to say to us. We can read road signs. We know what we’re eating. Wonderful! The Route des Crêtes was waiting patiently in our path from our current position to our overnight stop in Verdun. But alas, the weather had other ideas. We were spoiled with beautiful sunshine on our tour around the Vosges the previous year. We wouldn’t get the same treatment this year.

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It was still a great ride. Cool, dull, moody. Like myself. Well, apart from the cool bit. It was wonderful to be back in the Vosges, our first European mountain motorcycling experience. On the other hand, after riding all the other mountain passes in other countries, it made me realise how poorly surfaced French mountain roads are compared to those in other countries. Ah well, no real problem for the GS.

Through all the mist and attempts at rain while climbing the various peaks, we passed quite a number of cyclists. Not entirely unusual, although worthy of mention given that most of them were being followed by Dutch registered vehicles. When taking photos at the above (usually scenic) stop, we got talking to one of the drivers. He told us that there was a big event on in the mountains that saw a couple of thousand (if I remember correctly) Dutch cyclists coming all the way over to cycle the mountain pass.

Sure enough, by the time we reached the top of Grand Ballon, we could hardly get parking for the bike with the number of Dutch cars, vans, buses and motor homes. For a few minutes, it was like being in Holland. Well, a very hilly version of Holland anyway.

With so little scenery visible and the threat of rain, there was little to compel us to spend extra time in the Vosges so we took off in the direction of Saint-Dié-des-Vosges and continued our route to our overnight stop in Verdun. We were keeping mostly to back roads. There wasn’t much point hitting the motorways given the relatively short distance and the abundance of time we had to do it. We didn’t really have any plans in Verdun. It was more or less a transit town for us. Others had plans to visit several military graveyards and other sights in the area but that wasn’t really our thing. Having said that…

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In the pretty much ‘made up on the spot’ route I was following, I spotted a sign for an American military graveyard and in a moment of not knocking it until I’d tried it, I diverted off course. As expected, the graveyard is immense, in a very peaceful area away from everything else and kept in impeccable condition. There was a lone caretaker working the grounds when we arrived and the now light rain or remote location must have kept some people away because we were pretty much the only people there.

It’s as you may have seen TV, row after row of perfectly symmetric headstones, each inscribed with the details of a fallen soldier. It puts the scale of the wars into context when you are standing with fields of crosses laid out in front of you and remember that this is only one of many such graveyards.

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We weren’t on the road again for too long before we reached Verdun. On reaching the hotel (Cloche D’or), one of the owners hurried out to us to instruct me where to park the bike. They turned out to be a friendly couple, which may only have been discernible if any potential visitors speak French. Neither of them appear to have any English whatsoever. After checking in, getting a demo on how to use the front door and being questioned on when the rest of the group would arrive, we retreated to the room to peel off the bike gear and change into civvies to explore the town.

Exploring was short lived. The sun had reappeared and we ended up making it as far as a river front bar for some wine and a Leffe. After some limited exploring, we found possibly the best newsagent in the world. In the front window, they advertised the usual magazines, newspapers, cigarettes and tourist trinkets. For the more than casual observer, they also had an extensive display case around the corner. This one was full of replica guns, swords, knives, machetes and various other ‘collectibles’ that were created with the intention of causing serious harm. I thought for a second how I might explain a machete strapped to the side of the bike to customs officials in the UK, then we moved on when I couldn’t come up with a suitable story. Neither “It’s for traffic” nor “Just in case” sounded very plausible when I said them out loud.

After sheltering from a short lived deluge of rain in the French equivalent of Michael Guineys, we returned to the hotel where we met up with the rest of the group, who were furiously drawing pictures of beds on scrap paper and making wild hand gestures in an attempt to check in.

A couple of beers were had and then a stroll down back into the town for the most poorly orchestrated meal I’ve ever had in my life. It wasn’t just us thankfully, other people that chose to eat at the seemingly popular ‘restaurant’ were also having trouble being served the correct food at a reasonably decent temperature. Sadly I can’t recall the name of the place but if you’re in Verdun, avoid the red fronted restaurant on Quai de Londres.

Thankfully it wasn’t too hard to forget awful service and questionable food considering we’d be in Belgium the next night. I think if we were going back to that area overnight in a kind of ‘transit day’ way, I’d be more inclined to return to Reims or give Epernay a try rather than staying in Verdun again. After all, there are lots more Champagne caves to visit!

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I had Belgium (or at least Ypres) pretty adequately researched before we left Dublin. I was only too keen to return to Belgium after the couple of hours we spend in Brugge at the start of the holiday. This time we’d be staying in Ypres which was tantalisingly close to the home of Westvleteren, Abdij Sint-Sixtus. A hold was soon put on my excitement when I saw that the cafe across the road from the abbey was closed on the day we were in the area. So no samples of Westvleteren 12 for me. Bugger. It gives me something to do when we’re in Belgium next anyway.

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We stayed at the superb Ariane Hotel, an ideal spot to shed the bike gear and take the short walk to Grote Markt, a place we were informed was the most lively part of the town. After some strolling, some photo taking and some beer purchasing (and generally lamenting about the price difference compared to Dublin), we had a superb dinner at one of the restaurants on Grote Markt. Faultless, apart from when a few of the noisiest Londoners on the planet turned up and sat opposite us. A swift table move before our meal had even begun sorted that problem. The move was aided greatly by a very accommodating waitress, although she did appear to see exactly what was going on and the reasons for the move.

And well, that really is the only issue with Ypres, like most cities I suppose. A small percentage of the  tourists do their best to ruin it for both other tourists and locals. If you can’t go somewhere and remain the least bit dignified and respectful, just stay at home and watch TV. Ok?

This would pretty much be the end of the holiday. I’m not writing about the trip back across the UK because it was a hell of a lot of motorway with a Premier Inn at the end of it. There could have been nicer ways to end the trip. Wales was nice. But then Wales is always nice. Until the next foreign jaunt…

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