The longest ride ever

Day 8 – Tuesday 1st of September – Brussels to Barcelona (1,352km)

I had done this journey before, when I lived in Belgium, but by car. It took about twelve hours, and other then being tremendously boring, there was no difficulty to it. On the motorway things are very different on a motorbike, however – no music, you can’t move much, you need to take breaks more often, wind and buffeting are an issue at high speeds (the legal limit is 130km/h on French motorways), etc. On the way up to Normandy I had divided the trip in two days, stopped past Bordeaux to spend the night, and that was the plan on the way back home as well.

I did not even set off particularly early, we got up, had a good breakfast and I left when my friend went to work, at around 9am. I had to deal with heavy commuter traffic riding out of Brussels, and even come congestion caused by a motorbike accident – I forgot to mention it was raining hard.

Once out of Brussels things went smoothly – no more rain, practically no traffic, no wind… So I started covering good distance without problems. The wind deflector I had fitted a few weeks before was doing its job, and for the first time ever I was using earplugs. This is something I have heard from a lot of bikers, but I had never felt the need for it. However, travelling for extended periods of time at high speeds, they make a world of a difference. Wind noise is greatly reduced and so is fatigue.

On the big Stroming The World trip I met a Czech guy in Volgograd with a GSA, Martin, he told me he had been doing 800km a day to get there, trying to get Europe out of the way quickly and save days for the interesting bits. At that time I was doing about 500km a day on my V-Strom, and was shocked at the distances he was covering. Fast forward to 2015 and sitting on the Yamaha I could see that it was very relaxed cruising at 130km/h (real, not indicated), and I was not getting tired. By lunchtime I was approaching Clermont-Ferrand, and I was still feeling fresh. It was at this point that I started considering pushing on to Barcelona on the same day. If I stopped for the night later on, I would already be near the border, and in that case I did not really fancy spending the cost of a hotel night so near home. In addition, the route from there became quite interesting for a motorway. My experience of previous trips through France so far had been mostly on the eastern route – Montpellier, Lyon, Dijon, Nancy, Metz… or the western one – Toulouse, Bordeaux, Nantes… both of which I had found tremendously boring. This time I had taken the middle route, going from Brussels to Paris on the A2 and A1 and then the A6 and A77 to Clermont-Ferrand. There is a bit between Magny-Cours and Nevers that is not motorway, and after Clermont-Ferrand the A75 travels through mountainous terrain, passing near the Auvergne volcanos and crossing the Cévennes national park. It is a mountain motorway, with corners, steep gradients and great landscape, and best of all, the Millau viaduct, an amazing feat of engineering and a sight to behold. All in all, it was a much more entertaining journey than I anticipated, and cheap too, there are long sections that are toll-free. Oh, and one more sign that the French are super nice towards bikers, motorbikes pay a reduced fare on tolls, almost 50% less in some cases. No wonder this is the favourite route for holidaymakers heading from the capital to Spain.

I got to the border at 8pm, and crossed it in reserve – fuel is cheaper in Spain. The sun set as I was filling up, and by 9:30pm I was already in Barcelona. It had taken 12 hours and 31 minutes, stops included. This made me realise that what Martin had been doing was perfectly feasible on my new bike, and that when the day comes to go back to Russia, Kazakhstan, etc. I can cut through western Europe faster.

Well, it had been a very interesting week, and given the time and the money, I would have spend at least another week exploring the coast of Normandy, there is so much to see there. If anybody is thinking about taking a trip there, do not think twice, do it. Obviously, my advice is to do it by motorbike, as it is the best way to enjoy the roads, and you will save a lot of money on tolls and parking fees, but if you are not a rider, a very good alternative (I cannot believe I am going to say this) is a motorhome. There are lots of specially prepared places where you can park and spend the night for free, saving lots of money in accommodation, which is not cheap up there, you have your own means of transport to get around and visit things, and if you do not have one or do not want to drive one all the way to Normandy, there are lots of campsites that rent them at very reasonable rates. I would definitely not recommend a car, as it has zero advantages over the motorbike – you have to pay to park it everywhere, and while it is just as boring to drive as a motorhome, at least this last one gives you a cheap place to sleep in. Go visit Normandy.

See you on the road.

Lunch at the Council and a visit to Leuven

Day 7 – Monday 31st of August – Brussels to Leuven to Brussels (44km)

We stayed up until late after the mitraillette, drinking some beer and discussing politics, so I did not get up really early the following morning. I spent some time writing and then went for a walk to the Parc du Cinquantenaire, near my friend’s apartment, to make some time until lunch, when I was to meet him at work, at the Council of the European Union.

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I had the afternoon to myself but having lived here between 2003 and 2004, I had already visited most of what there is to see in Brussels and around, the only place I had not time to see at that time was Leuven, which was only a 20-minute drive from the capital.

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I left the bike near the cathedral and went for a walk around the old town. It is a beautiful city, with a vibrant student community. The skies were getting very dark and there was thunder, so I hurried back to Brussels in time for a shower and to meet my friend for dinner. We went to the neighbourhood of Schaerbeek, where we had what must be the best Turkish pizza in the city. After that, it was off to bed early, the long way back to Barcelona started the following day.

More pictures here.

Monet, the battle of the Somme and a mitraillette

Day 6 – Sunday 30th of August – Caen to Brussels (560km)

Aside from my main objective of visiting the sites of the D-day landings, there are other places to visit in Normandy, among them a route that follows the path of the famous impressionist painter and many WWI sites. In addition to all of this, one of my best friends works in Brussels, and I thought it would be a shame to be so close and not pay him a visit.

So, with only a few days left of holidays (two of which had to be used for the ride back to Barcelona), I set out to plan the perfect route to visit the best of Monet landscapes, WWI battle sites and reach Brussels in the evening.

I got up at 6am, and set off before 7. It was still quite dark, and a thick fog covered Caen. The sun did not break through until almost 8, just before I reached Honfleur, and what a beautiful sight it was. I was riding on small country roads, and out of a corner the sun beams suddenly pierced the fog almost horizontally and shone through the trees to light up the road ahead. Breathtaking.

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They say that if you want to take good pictures the best times are at sunset and at sunrise, and visiting Honfleur early in the morning I can say this is totally true.

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From there I headed to the famous cliffs in Étretat. This is the landscape highlight of the Normandy coast, and as such attracts large amounts of tourists, but two things played in my favour – one, it was still early when I got there and two, I was on a motorbike, not a car. The village of Étretat is quite small, so there are lots of car parks in the surroundings to prevent tourists from clogging the narrow streets with their cars and motorhomes, but the French being generally very nice towards motorbikes, there were special spots for us right next to the beach. Cool.

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There was fog rolling in from the sea when I walked onto the promenade and I was just in time to see the impressive cliff arches at the end of the beach and snap a quick picture before they disappeared. To the other end of the beach there was a smaller arch which was not covered in fog, and the pebble beach was wide enough to walk near it at high tide. I took a long walk to stretch my legs a bit, today was going to be a long day on the bike, and I thought that a hike along the beach and back would be good exercise.

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I could not get to the arch itself because of the tide, but when I was about to turn back I saw a short metal ladder leading to a tunnel that had been cut on the cliff wall. I had seen another tunnel on the way here and peeked into it, it seemed to gently slope down into the cliff. Not having my flashlight with me, and not wanting to risk getting into a tunnel that might flood with the flowing tide, I did not explore it any further. However, a family was coming out of this one, so I thought I would take a look. I climbed the ladder and saw light at the other end of the tunnel, not far. It was a relatively big tunnel, I could almost stand (I am 6 feet tall) and it led to the other side of the arch, where I found stairs climbing up the cliff face.

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Nice, I did not need to walk back to the town along the beach, time to do some exploring. They led up to the top of the promontory called Le Chaudron, from where a path that is part of the GR-21 led back down to the town. The fog was closing in here as well, and with no protections other than a few handrails on the stairs to get a hold while climbing or descending and the number of tourists that visit the place, I was surprised that it did not appear in the news more often because a tourist had fallen off the cliff.

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Before coming down I visited a small church overlooking the town and a monument called ‘L’Oiseau Blanc’, a memorial to WWI pilots Charles Nungesser and François Coli, who disappeared while attempting to cross the Atlantic on a white Levasseur PL.8 biplane. Two weeks later Charles Lindberg managed the feat on his Spirit of St. Louis.

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When I came back to the motorbike the tourist hordes had already begun to invade the town, and most of them seemed to have not understood what the car parks at the entrance were for. There was an enormous traffic jam in the narrow streets leading to and from the beach, clogged with cars full of tourists sheepishly looking for place to park their car right next to the beach that just did not exist. I got the hell out of there and hit the road for a long stint to the next stop – the Thiepval Memorial.

This is the largest British war memorial in the world. It consists of two intersecting arcs du triomphe which are 43 metres tall, built on high ground that was controlled by the German army and that took a lot of lives to conquer. It is a memorial to all the British and South African soldiers who died in the Battle of the Somme and have no known grave, a total of 72.195 missing men.

Visible from a long distance in all directions, I thought it looked a bit strange as I approached it. When I arrived I found out why… it was being restored. A big scaffolding covered the memorial, and the grounds around it were closed to the public. The positive side was that to compensate for that, the museum at the interpretation centre did not charge visitors, so at least I got an interesting lesson on WWI and the Battle of the Somme for free.

From there I rode along the lanes that gently roll up and down the countryside to the nearby site of the Lochnagar Crater, a 67-metre diameter whole created by the detonation of an underground mine by the British. They had been digging tunnels from their trenches to place mines under the German lines in preparation for an attack, and placed 27,000 kg of ammonal in the Lochnagar mine. At 7:28 of the 1st of July 1916, the first day of the Battle of the Somme, they detonated the charges, eliminating between 90 and 120 metres of German trenches.

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It was already mid-afternoon, but there was one more place I wanted to visit before heading for Brussels – the Somme American Cemetery. Unfortunately, it closed at 5pm, just 15 minutes before I got there.

Well, never mind, the countryside was dotted with smaller Commonwealth cemeteries, and I had visited some of them, including a memorial with a Welsh dragon in the woods near the village of Memetz. I did my Erasmus in Swansea, where one of the battalions who fought here came from. They were the 14th Service Battalion, which lost 400 of their 676 men trying to take these woods.

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I got on the road for the ride to Brussels and it was not long before I reached the border, all traces of which have now disappeared, only a small sign by the side of the motorway indicating that I was in a different country. In fact, it was not the sign, but the driving of the other motorway users that warned me that I had changed countries.

In this respect, the Belgians are very much like the Spanish. That is, they seem to have great difficulty in understanding the use of fast and slow lanes on the motorway. Unlike them, the French master this dark art – they always drive on the right until they encounter a slower vehicle, at which point they indicate, change to the fast lane, overtake, and go back to the slow lane. If there is another slow vehicle ahead, they wait until they are at a reasonable distance from it, and then repeat the manoeuvre. The Belgians behave just like the Spaniards – they come up to a slower-moving vehicle, change lanes, and then happily stay on the fast lane because there is a lorry or something other on the slow lane a few kilometres down the road. They do not care that there is faster moving traffic behind. It does not matter that the right lane is unoccupied. They are happy sitting smack in the middle of the fast lane, blocking everyone behind them. They are, like the Spaniards, very skilled at creating traffic jams.

In spite of this, I managed to get Brussels, make my way through one of the most congested cities in Europe and find my friend’s apartment in time for dinner, which of course consisted of a good old mitraillette.

Now, for those of you who do not know what a mitraillette is, think of your regular two-course meal – some salad, fries, some kind of meat, some bread. Now put all of that together into one single thing and you get one of the most wonderful dishes in the world, the Belgian contribution to Europe’s multicultural diet. The mitraillette consists of half a baguette (or more) cut open lengthways, filled with meat (you can choose different kinds), crudités, fries, and on top of that, spoonfuls of a sauce of your choice. Here’s a picture:

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More pictures here.