19 Sept 2022

The Pyrenees by Motorcycle, or There and Back Again

For an introduction to the trip - who, why, how - see this link.

The day before we were due to leave was one of excitement and nerves. I had bought and packed tools, a puncture repair kit, duct tape, zip ties, chain cleaner and most things required to get a poorly bike going again, should it be needed. We had all bought breakdown cover. Everything was booked and set and sorted. 

We were all experienced motorcyclists. And yet we were all as nervous as you would be heading into an important job interview. Whatsapp messages flew back and forth. Have you packed this? I'm planning to wear this, how about you? The weather looks iffy, what if it rains all the time? Are French toilets still a hole in the ground?

I've driven in France multiple times, including earlier in the year for Le Mans. Colin is well travelled but had only driven in France once before. Nik has been to a few places but had never been to France. None of us had ever ridden a motorcycle in a foreign country.

Even at fifty years old the anticipation of new experiences can make you feel a little lost.

However by the evening of the day before I knew I had prepared as well as I possibly could. I slept like a log.

Nik is a truck driver by trade and as such wakes at 5am. Despite us agreeing to leave my house at 9.30am he arrived at 7.30am. He'd been up for hours and wanted to get going. I had only just stepped out of the shower.

Colin arrived at 8.30am. If you remember from part one my back had gone ping and was causing me a huge amount of pain. Colin helped me pull my bike out of the garage and onto the road. We lined up the bikes for a photo. We all had satnav of some kind - Nik and I were using Google Maps on our phones, and Colin had a posh Garmin satnav (that proved to be pretty useless).

And at 9.03am exactly we were off.

I hadn't ridden my bike with panniers before. They stick out massively and I thought they would be like sails. But after a few miles on the motorway I didn't notice them at all. My back was causing me some gyp but I realised if I twisted and stretched a little, and shifted my weight about it would be just fine.

Our Eurotunnel train was booked for 4.50pm and at 3.30pm we arrived at Folkestone. For some daft reason the M20 had been reduced to 50mph for about ten miles, and lorries were guided into a separate lane and were limited to 30mph. However the weather had been fine and there had been no queues on the motorways and we had all enjoyed a good blast down south.

We were waved through check in and customs quickly and given a place on an earlier train, so at 4.10pm were were wobbling our way onto the last carriage of the train that would take us under the sea and into France.

It was hot in Folkestone and we'd all suffered in the sun whilst loading. The train carriage was empty save for our three motorcycles. It was also boiling hot but thankfully beautifully cooled air was pumped into our carriage.

The crossing was over in just a few minutes. We even had mobile coverage for most of the subterranean trip.

We departed Tunnel sous La Manche and were in France. Where they drive on the wrong side of the road. We had been telling each other repeatedly. WRONG side. Right side, wrong, wrong side.

We left the Eurotunnel complex and immediately filled up with fuel. It cost fifty pence per litre less than in the UK. We were ecstatic. I was even more ecstatic when I bought a bottle of Orangina, my favourite drink.

Our hotel was in Bolougne, a half hour ride from Calais. It was a lovely hotel but the French chap serving drinks was quite surly, and took great delight in underfilling our glasses, and became even more surly when Colin asked for his to be topped up. Well, what did you expect for eight euros for 500ml.

Dinner was a short walk away in the medieval centre of town. Which was a good job because my back was almost totally seized and causing me much discomfort. After some faffing about we decided on a typical French restaurant (they were all typical French restaurants) and enjoyed enormous steaks (pas de cheval s'il vous plait) and frites. I did all the ordering as my smattering of French was more than Colin and Nik were able. 

I had asked for a peppercorn sauce and enjoyed dipping bits of my pas de cheval in it. Colin and I both have a pathological hatred of mushrooms and he was convinced the sauce contained champignons. As we finished and the waitress was clearing our table Colin asked if there were any mushrooms in the sauce. Of course not, I said. Un peu, she said, which none of us understood. But we did understand when she held her forefinger and thumb slightly apart. A little...

Colin was victorious. I had eaten the dreaded trumpets of death - even if it was 'un peu'.

We slept well and I awoke at 5am in pain with my back again. I breakfasted early and found Nik outside, on his second Marlboro of the day. We both decided we should wake Colin and get going.

With clear skies overhead we hit the road. Our destination was a small town called Niort, 410 miles south and about two thirds of the way down the west coast of France.

It was a day of autoroutes. These roads are fantastic but expensive. The limit is 130kph, which is 81mph. Every now and again you stop at a toll booth, take a ticket and carry on. Then later on you stop again and put your ticket in the machine and it charges you for the distance and the class of vehicle. Bikes are the cheapest but if you go in the wrong lane (there can be twenty to choose from) it can charge you the highest rate - as Nik once found to his cost.

The sun beat down all morning and by lunchtime it was 30ÂșC. Even at 80mph you feel hot. It's like sitting in the blast of a hair dryer. You open vents and undo buttons and it's still hot. The heat makes you weary.

By 5pm we were all exhausted. But we had miles to go. We were all getting a little irritable. Nik had bought a new helmet just before the trip and the buckle was digging into his chin, leaving a bruise. 

We found a place to stop in the shade. He'd had enough of the buckle. I dug into my panniers and found the toolkit. In it was a pair of pliers with a cutting edge. We used this clumsy tool to snip away at the plastic that was causing him the most discomfort. Hurrah! It worked.

At 7pm we finally arrived at our hotel. Weary and still hot we piled into the bar for a beer like we'd hadn't drunk anything for an eternity. Damn it tasted good, even if it cost eight euros for 500ml.

That night we ate at an American style diner which was next to the hotel. Not very French but gloriously welcome after our long day on the road. The three amigos clinked glasses and exchanged stories of our adventures so far.

The next morning Nik and I awoke at 5am and were ready to go for 7am. Colin was still asleep so we bombarded him with Whatsapp messages until he arose, and as the sun rose over a new day we were loaded and ready.

Our destination was Pamplona. Viva Espana!

Day three was half autoroute and half mountain. By lunchtime we were off the autoroute and on to rural French roads.  The sun was really beating down and we stopped at a roadside diner for jambon and fromage baguettes with a cold Coke and a dose of welcome air conditioning. 

We headed towards a place called Saint Palais, purely because the roads looked interesting, and they didn't disappoint. The D933 takes you into the French Pyrenees and at some point it becomes the N135 and the Spanish Pyrenees, only you don't notice until you see road signs and numberplate and realise you've crossed into another country.

That afternoon I rode the best roads I've ever experienced. I was totally in my element. Hairpins and sharp bends on mountain sides. Despite riding an adventure bike loaded with luggage I was braking as late and hard and leaning as much as I dared in corners. And the corners just came at me, one after another. Sharp turn, tyres squirming, short straight, red line the engine and overtake a car or two, brake hard, shift weight a little to aid stopping and then turning. 

On and on they went until the most spectacular vista and an area to stop and take stock. We all stripped off coats and helmets, had a drink and larked around awhile, full of vim from the exhilaration.

The rest of the day continued in the same vein until we came down out of the mountains and into Pamplona's suburbs. All our satnavs said different things and we were all a little grumpy after a hard day's ride. We turned this way and that until we found the hotel. As with all of them I'd chosen it for secure parking and a decent bar nearby.

The area around the hotel felt a little rough but we headed to a restaurant the hotel receptionist had suggested and tucked into simple but delicious food, and cheap, cold beer. The Spanish people were welcoming and friendly but none of us could understand a word they said, though Google translate helped us out.

We sat in an outdoor bar in a town square and drank a few beers and by 10pm were all headed to the hotel and to sleep the sleep of the exhausted once again.

Up early and we spent twenty minutes trying to order breakfast. In the end we pointed at things and this seemed to work. I eneded up with a small egg and chorizo baguette and it was delicious. 

The day's roads were entirely amazing. We headed east out of Pamplona along an autoroute surrounded on both sides by mountains topped with thousands of motionless wind turbines. Within half an hour we had turned off onto a smaller road and stopped to take photos, including the one below.

Then we rode along a valley floor. Mountains miles away on either side. Hot in the sun and cold in the shade. I spotted a few red kites, and a golden eagle. Huge, spectacular birds. I felt honoured to have seen them.

The road climbed and climbed. We were heading for Lourdes, simply to take us south to north across the mountains. Small roads that in the UK would be B roads but with perfect surfaces took us higher and higher, with hairpins to enjoy. I was so focussed and at times had to tell myself to enjoy the view as much as the next corner apex.

By this point I felt invincible. Completely at one with the bike. My inputs were entirely unconscious. The bike and I were mentally entwined, elemental. I was in the zone and nothing, not even the relentless heat, could shake me out of it. 

We'd stop every so often to take photos and chat. The natural order of the ride was me first (partially because I was in charge of the route and partially because I like to ride fast), then Colin, and then Nik. We all understood that we'd stretch out along a stage, but that we'd catch up when a junction or turn off was approaching. 

We arrived in Lourdes hot and pretty worn out from the mental intensity of the morning's ride. We stopped immediately opposite the famous Notre-Dame de Lourdes and as we were on a hill none of us could put our side stands down - and a lady had shouted at me as I reversed to the pavement. 

Nik wanted to stop somewhere in Lourdes but I was really feeling the heat and the place felt like a religious Blackpool. And as it was so hilly there wasn't anywhere obvious to stop, so I rode straight through and on. This didn't go down so well. I should have stopped really, but..ah well.

From Lourdes we headed south and into the mountains again towards our evening's destination.

Vielha is a skiing village during the winter, and a popular tourist venue during the summer. There were no ugly buildings, only rather lovely chalet style houses and hotels. By this point my back was rather less painful so we walked a way to find a dinner venue, had a drink in one place that looked promising but the food was an unappetising looking tapas. 

Finally we stopped at a modern pizzeria and ate and drank well. And once again it was cheap. The differences between French and Spanish prices couldn't be more stark. In France a beer costs eight euros, in Spain it is three. 

We were now halfway through the trip and the next morning headed east and passed through more mountain roads that at times were covered in some kind of animal dung. We soon saw why. Pyrenees horses roamed free. Gorgeous creatures with distinctive sounding bells tied around their necks. We also saw huge flocks of sheep - often round blind corners. You'd see them and slam the anchors on, sit up and slow to a crawl whilst they passed, unphased.

By late morning we hit a border post. We had no idea why. I obviously hadn't researched this part of the trip very well because we were entering a sovereign micro state called Andorra. We didn't have to show our passports but several vehicles were pulled over for inspection and we were waved through.

At lunch we arrived at Lake Engolasters - the reason for our trip. A huge body of water and much busier than I'd imagined. Seeing it from an aeroplane it looked isolated, alone in the mountains. From the ground it is reached via a steep, twisting road lined with houses. We had hoped to lunch at the hotel just off the car park which overlooks the lake but it was closed.

We carried on through Andorra. It felt very strange. A busy city laid out along a winding road high up in the mountains. We needed food and stopped at a couple of places only to find them closed. We were also running late and had a long motorway run ahead of us. We stopped for fuel and bought yet more jambon and fromage sandwiches. 

The rest of the day was motorway. We passed back into Spain and then France and at 6.30pm arrived at Chateau de Lacan in Brive la Gallard. It was a lovely hotel in a suburban area of town. The only place to eat was a pizzeria, but the pizza was lovely. And the beer was eight euros.

The rest of the trip took two days. We covered 780 miles during those two days. Long and tough. The twelve kilometre tunnel under Paris was hot and humid. The channel crossing was a welcome break. Once in England the driving standards were noticeably worse than on the continent. In France people want to get along as fast as possible, and if you are not overtaking you stay in the outside lane.

It also rained on us for the first time in a week. On the content we encountered no rain, no traffic (aside from in Paris), no middle lane hoggers. On our journey back to Cheshire we encountered all three.

Indeed at points the rain was so intense it was difficult to see.

We arrived home late afternoon, seven days after we had left. The bikes filthy and our clothing wet. We were exhausted, but elated.

It had been a fantastically enjoyable trip.

By Matt Hubbard