I had originally mapped this meandering waffly mess out as a 10 part saga. The kind of thing that’d keep on giving all the way to the end. As this is supposed to be a photoblog and not a repository of short stories, I’m going to squash all the final detail in this post. Parts 9 and 10 would just have been text anyway. I didn’t exactly take many photos once leaving mainland Europe. If you take any fantastical revelation away from this first paragraph, let it be that I actually planned these posts, even though at the best of times it may only appear as if I’m winging it, completely feckless and without a single rational thought running through my head.
Having packed up at the hotel and paid my bill, the first order of the day was breakfast. I’d spied many, many Boulangers in the area and on visiting the first one, I found it was closed. Same with the second and third. Right then, no breakfast in Ribeauville. There was one major thing I needed to bring home, supermarket wine. In France, that means something else. It means buying a bottle of wine for €10/15 that would probably cost upwards of €40 in Ireland, if you could even get your hands on it. So the wine shopping isn’t unlike sniping, buying a select few bottles that’ll fit on the bike but is good enough so you’re not wasting the space for the journey home. In this case, Sauternes. A tiny region south of Bordeaux, famous for sweeter than sweet wine. I picked up a few top shelf samples and made my way to the checkout. I have adopted a certain style at French supermarket checkouts, mostly by way of coping with understanding about 5% of the repeat by rote speech that checkout people give to customers. Turns out this was a little different. I thought she was asking me if I wanted a bag, but I said they’d fit into the tank bag I was carrying around with me. Again, pointing at the tank bag. This went on for a minute, with the people in the early morning queue behind me becoming noticeably more Parisian with every passing second. Finally, the penny dropped, mostly when she slowed down what she was saying. In essence “open your bag so I can check if you’ve robbed anything, you dodgy looking foreigner”.
That little bit of excitement made me completely forget about breakfast. Which was unfortunate, because I hear supermarkets are in the top three most ideal places to buy food. I returned to the bike and played a little game of Tetris, figuring out where I could stash the wine so it’d be in one piece when I got home. For anyone that needs to know, the answer is “in layers of dirty socks”.
Onto the motorway and pointed north, toward Luxembourg. I was being a cheap bastard today, deciding to completely avoid France and it’s notorious tolled motorways in favor of an ‘as the crow flies’ style of navigation toward my next destination, Brugge. With the benefit of hindsight, I should have taken the empty, wide French motorways. More on that in the next few laboriously detailed paragraphs. I did eventually stop for breakfast, although it was lunch by the time I got it. Just because I know you were worried about my wellbeing.
Luxembourg, yeah that’s fine. You get through Luxembourg in about the same time it takes to toast a slice of bread. For some unimaginable reason, I’d chosen to ‘see a bit of Belgium’ and take the route directly up the middle of the country. Oh man was that a bad idea. I think I made it about as far as Namur before the traffic started. Then it was solid traffic all the way through Brussels and almost as far as Ghent. Normal traffic would be fine, you’d deal with it. But Belgian driving standards make Ireland look like I don’t know, Germany maybe? Well, that was a confusing sentence. Most of the time I was too horrified and terrified to attempt to filter through the somewhat stationary traffic, for fear of ending up as fodder to someone’s lapse of judgement.
It goes a little something like this; A low percentage of Irish car drivers will purposefully block filtering motorcyclists, in a kind of typically Irish begrudging “nobody gets in front of me. If I’m stuck in traffic, so are you”. In France, quite a high percentage of car drivers make it their mission to move over in their lane so filtering motorcyclists can pass them. I gather this is because at some stage in their driving career, the majority of French people were motorcyclists. France is awesome. In Belgium, it seems to be the case that a decent percentage of car drivers are too busy trying to figure out what shapes the clouds remind them of, or what is happening in an adjacent field to be in the slightest bit worried about what’s happening on the road directly in front, beside or behind them. The basic awareness of other road users seems to be somewhat lacking. Or maybe I’ve got it wrong. Maybe they just don’t give a shit about anyone else on the road and their primary goal is to get where they’re going, dead or alive. That was my journey to Brugge via central Belgium.
But it was OK, there was a golden light at the end of this tunnel. A malty, hoppy golden light that was calling to me like a siren song since I left the Alsace region that morning. I arrived in Hotel Maraboe in the early afternoon, left my bike in the indoor parking and had the quickest shower & change of clothes known to man. Hit the street and with great purpose and furious thirst, headed straight to De Garre for the house beer. A Belgian (of course) tripel with a striking resemblance to one of my favorite beers, Gulden Draak. No coincidences here, they also make that beer. It’s like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, if Willy Wonka was a slightly bemused, grumpy character standing at a small bar, polishing elaborate glassware. The beer was delivered with the customary small bowl of cheese and I only then realised that this was dinner. This was going to end poorly.
Undeterred, I forged ahead into the beer menu. Actually, no I didn’t. Because I knew exactly what I wanted from this place. Their own beers. This is why I came to Brugge, for a precious hour or so spent quietly at a table in De Garre, watching the locals and tourists do their thing. Next up was my favorite, Gulden Draak quadrupel but this time on tap. As if flowing from the secret stash of the Gods directly into my face hole. With the tripels and quadrupels on the menu, I thought I better get something a little more substantial, food wise. Not being able to make sense of the menu, I asked Willy Wonka for some help, only to be informed that “this is a bar, not a restaurant” in a tone that very much said “drink your beer and fuck off, tourist”. Except it wasn’t like that. The tone and delivery you get when you ask direct questions in Europe sometimes bewilders an Irish sensibility. You ask a direct question, you get a very direct answer. Getting into a brief ‘who can be most direct’ rap battle style competition with the staff ended up with him winning the bout, but me getting a plate of charcuterie and mustard to go with my beer. This would surely save me from going face down on the street and giggling like a schoolgirl as soon as the fresh air hit me when I left the bar.
I quaffed my Gulden Draak with accompanying sausage and mustard with a smugness and sense of accomplishment that I’m not usually known to possess. The reward for long journey almost completed successfully. For not slipping on the wet, wood chip strewn roads of the Black Forest and not sliding to my doom on the freezing cold mountain passes of Austria. There’s a theme developing here, but I’m not going to explore it too deeply right now.
The moment of truth. The ultimate test of mettle was upon me. Two strong beers in and very little food, could I now stand up on my first attempt and if I made it all the way up to a standing position, can I remember how to walk? Left, right, left, right, left, right. Yes, the body remembers. In a way I can only seem to manage once I’ve had a few beers, I quick-marched back to the hotel, set my alarm and made boozy snow angels in the bed. A much needed disco snooze before round two.
Ding ding, seconds out, round two. Next up was another staple. A place you go to more for people watching and the inevitable tourist doing something uncharacteristically wacky. Like last years Asian salaryman entirely out of his gourd, walking around the bar trying to speak Flemish to strangers. Except he didn’t know any Flemish. Nobody knows any Flemish. It’s a made up language, like Danish. Anyway, the destination was a mid-point between the hotel and some proper food. It was ‘t Brugs Beertje, with a seat at the bar and a copy of their comprehensive beer menu in hand. I went with what’s on tap this time, first up a Rodenbach sour (yes, I’m getting more into the sours in the last couple of years. Never thought I’d say that) followed by a ‘when in Rome’ Brugse Zot. In between those two, about another hour of people watching and conversation earwigging. Highly enjoyable stuff, even if it probably made me look like a nutcase. Or at least more nutcasey than usual.
The call of food was once again upon me and I floated down to the main square to peruse the selection. All a bit ‘pizza’ or ‘seafood’ related really. So I ended up in a fast food place with frikandel and chips, drowned in fritessaus. All prepared and delivered by a very happy but monumentally sarcastic staff member. A tourist in the queue ahead of me was frantically searching around in her bag, before looking up and proudly asking “can I pay with dollars?”. Knowing what was coming, I had to put my hand up to my mouth to hold back the shit eating grin. The man practiced the best comic timing I’ve ever seen before delivering a short, sharp blow that was among the most witty and cutting responses to a stupid question I’ve ever heard. Either that or my beer-addled brain filled in the blanks and made it that way. I wish I could remember what he said. The customer paid with a card, then retreated to the upstairs seating.
I sat outside under a canopy adjacent to another gentleman, a fellow traveler in the world of fine beers, who looked as if at any moment, he might pass out face down into his carton of sauce covered chips. I’m with you my brother. Or at least I will be a couple of hours from now. I sat eating my delicious but somewhat poorly thought out dinner and watching the sheets of rain that had rolled in across the square, sending under prepared people scattering for the nearest cover.
Around the corner and back to De Garre. Two more beers, probably two of the same that I’d already had earlier in the day. That’s how good the stuff is. I’d gladly substitute those beers into my diet in place of water. It’d be a short life, but it’d be a good life.
The same ‘can I stand, can I walk’ mental evaluation was performed when it came time to leave, which was chucking out time apparently. Seems this happens earlier in Belgium. Or maybe the staff had just had their fill for that particular evening. Seems like that kind of place. I did the dance of a thousand hiccups back toward the hotel, passing on the way a couple who were in full-on photo shoot mode in the pitch black alleyways. Him directing and critiquing the whole affair and her striking poses not seen since the heady days of early 2000’s glossy magazines. It was as surreal as it was preposterous as it was hilarious. I was in a new, post-beers state. At least 50% more witty and 500% more unable to give a single shit than usual. For some reason, after I’d passed them I let out a loud guffaw that echoed around the empty streets in my very best faux-French accent. It went something like “huaw huaw huaw, Les Americans, huaw huaw huaw”. I don’t know why it came out in a ridiculously overplayed French accent, I just went with it. Seemed right at the time I guess. Yes, I am an asshole.
Passing ‘t Brugs Beertje, I pondered going in for a moment. I quickly realised that was a poor plan. For one, I was already far thinker than I drunk you am and two, on closer inspection the place was closed. The decision was made. Either way, I had to get up relatively early in the morning to be in Calais for a train back to the UK. If I missed that I’d have to stay in Brugge forever. Drinking, writing, taking photos and being smug about things I have no right to be smug about. I’m still unsure why I got up the next morning to get the train.
Surprisingly fresh the following morning (yay for great beer with no shitty additives), I wandered downstairs for some breakfast. Lots of breakfast. Like, breakfast for four people. I was going to have to store it in my cheek pouches because I was unlikely to be eating until much later in the afternoon. I tend to do that when I know there is road to be covered. Get it done, or at least the majority of it, then worry about why I suddenly feel lightheaded. It’s one of my many character flaws. The ride to Calais was relaxed, even detouring through Dunkirk on the way, because war stuff. Except I again realised that there’s no war stuff in Dunkirk. I’d done the exact same thing the previous year. “Ooh, lets go through Dunkirk, because war stuff”. Idiot. Even with that diversion, I still made it to Calais in time to catch an earlier train. That’s one of the huge strengths of the Eurotunnel. There are so many trains departing, you can get an earlier one if there is space and you turn up well ahead of your booked time. Simply marvelous.
The rest is motorway. Miles and miles of UK motorways, although mercifully quite a bit less congested than I’d experienced some days ago when this journey was beginning. I did also find the right services. By right I mean one with a pasty shop directly adjacent to motorbike parking. Reading services. Need to commit that to long term memory. Now back to about 70% mental capacity following my pasty and coffee, I checked my itinerary and came upon the idea that I’d be able to get home tonight instead of tomorrow. I’d have to ride like a possessed bastard all the way to Fishguard, but I could possibly get there with minutes to spare before the 6:30pm ferry departed. I’d be able to get home by about midnight and surprise Julie. Surprise, I dragged my disheveled, thousand yard stare corpse home a few hours early. Yeah, maybe not such a good plan after all. I’d also lose money on the B&B and on the ferry, neither of which allowed cancellations or changes.
So I rode on through the now beautifully sunny late morning, not realising that the sun beating down on me was going to give me a thumping headache later that evening. It was either the sun, the lack of earplugs or the last of the beer leaving my system. Take your pick.
More monotonous motorway, miles and miles of it. Across the Severn bridge and through the toll (free for motorbikes). Into South Wales. Some time later, including some time spent shouting at the GPS, I arrived in my B&B in the middle of nowhere. Just as I had planned it. A couple of pints in the almost empty bar over a pleasant conversation with a hill walker and his very chatty miniature schnauzer. No politics, no religion. Good food, peace and quiet. Early to bed to catch up on some Netflix and to be ready for the final leg.
The next morning I enjoyed another huge breakfast, although somewhat different fare than the last week or so. Fried everything and not a slice of cheese or bread roll in sight. It was possibly a little much, given that I’d been eating continental breakfasts. I should have given up half way through and not left the table with a slightly overfilled feeling. Same old story.
I was still the best part of three hours ride on back roads from Fishguard port and my ferry was departing at about 1pm, so I needed to get a move on. The morning was sunny and fresh, great weather for making progress. Except then not so much. I was less than an hour into the ride when it all turned to shit quite rapidly. That slowed me down somewhat and I arrived soaking at the ferry check-in. Ready to peel layers off to get at the required documentation, I was beyond grateful when none of that was required because the cheery man at the check-in desk already knew my name and allowed me to go right through. Service you can only dream about. Got straight onto the ship, another thing to be grateful for when it’s pissing rain. I’d like to think that was on purpose, a kind of ‘get the bikers out of the rain as quickly as possible’ sentiment from the port crew. It is very much appreciated.
The crossing was as crossings are, long and boring. I peeled off the layers of soaking plastic and laid them on a chair in the area I’d now entirely taken over. Tried to get some sleep, a difficult proposition when there is a disaster movie playing in the background. I can’t understand why mass transport companies choose to play movies about mass transport disasters on their services. Maybe I’m attributing too much thought into the selection process.
Something that always cracks me up for some reason is the border crossing when you get back to Ireland. You wait in line for a member of the Gardai to lazily inquire on your country of residence or your nationality. You see me in the line, you see the Irish registration on my bike and the Irish flag sticker on the windscreen. You can see the huge, dopey, sun and wind burnt Irish head on me as I roll to a stop next to you. Sometimes, I’m tempted to say “Rwandan” or “Micronesian” just to see what’ll happen. I suppose what’d happen is me being directed to a customs search area for being a smart ass, then spending hours with some revenue official quizzing me about every sock, t-shirt in my luggage and then anally probing me to ensure I’m not a drug mule. So instead, I just say “Irish” and pass by without event.
As always, the traffic coming out of Rosslare port is a nightmare. Little bit less so when you’re on a bike and can pass much of it with very little effort. Although in this case, the overtaking was spiced up a bit by the relentless heavy rain that showed no sign of letting up. Again, miles and miles of road. Although much more familiar roads this time. Maybe it’s worse knowing every inch of the road and knowing that even if the best scenario happens, it’s still going to take you precisely X amount of time to get home. The monotony was broken up a bit by chatting to the nice lady at the Waterford bypass toll booth for a few minutes. “Coming back from holidays?”, “Oooh, Austria”, followed by the usual Irish small talk about the weather and how shit everything here is in comparison to where I’d been. Good times.
The weather did finally clear up, a nice finale to the 2785 mile journey. It allowed me to be a little braver with my speeds and offered up a few more passing opportunities for the remaining miles. I got home as if I’d never left. Put my bike back in the garage and gave it the now customary thanks for being absolutely faultless throughout. Slippers on and a large quantity Julie’s home made soup in the microwave, served with enormous and poorly sliced hunks of bread. As much as I love motorcycle travel and seeing new (and some familiar) places, there is nothing quite like coming home.