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To Santander

The following morning the weather looked marginally better, although I suspect that it was because we were looking at it with the benefit of a good nights sleep.

We checked the weather forecast which said that the bad weather would continue into the afternoon but would then clear up that evening, leaving fine weather the following day. A quick check of the map revealed that we were an easy 250 km ride from Santander, and with the ferry booking two days away, that meant that we didn’t have to ride through the storm. Easy choice, we could do it the following day in the dry (S: the fact that the bed was the most comfortable one we had slept in since leaving home may also have influenced our decision somewhat!). A quick word with our hosts via the wonders of Google Translate and we were booked in for an extra day.

We had a relaxing day, reading and, thanks to our hosts letting us use their internet connection, checking emails and blog writing.

By late afternoon it had stopped raining and the weather was beginning to brighten up, so we went for a walk to stretch our legs and explore the immediate area. The hostal was situated an a flat plain with the mountains in the background, giving us a great opportunity to see plenty of sky and cheer on the departing clouds.

Upon our return we were provided with a lovely meal and spent the evening with our hosts. I found it very frustrating not being able to speak more than a couple of words of Spanish and we resolved to ensure that we could at least speak enough to get by before we reach Mexico.

The following morning dawned dry and fairly sunny as promised, so we bade our farewells and set off towards Santander.

It was fine in the sun, but out of it the temperature dropped markedly and it was early afternoon before it warmed up appreciably.

The motorways were boring but quick, and the only difficulties that we had were with strong crosswinds on many of the bridges once we had reached the coast. That and Sarah’s iPod joining Mip in committing Hari-Kari, so no more music on the move for her.

Getting into Santander was easy and we quickly found a hotel to stop in close to the sea front. It was their last available room, but Sarah was still able to negotiate us a deal along with secure parking for the bikes.

Once we were unpacked and sorted we set off on foot to explore Santander, and what a pleasant surprise it was.

A lot of ferry ports can be industrial or run down but this was neither, with a beautiful beach, sea front and impressive houses and gardens.

One house was having work done on it, as evident by the scaffolding around it. There was a sheet on the outside of the scaffolding, obviously in an effort to keep the dust and mess in, but it had been printed with an image of a house just to make it look prettier. To me examples of extra effort like that show that people have a pride in their town or surroundings, which is good to see.

Along the promenade we saw lots of obviously fairly well off Spaniards taking the air and several very well executed sculptures. One that caught my attention was a stone bench looking out to sea, with a permanent stone resident at one end and plenty of space for people to sit an keep him company.

After a paddle in the sea, we walked the one and a half miles to the old town and it was worth every step. There is a large square surrounded by shops, bars and cafes which was pleasantly full of people walking in the sunshine or relaxing with a drink. We had been recommended a restaurant by the hotel, but it was closed, and remained resolutely so as the evening progressed.

We sat at a cafe/bar on the edge of the square and Sarah tapped into their Wifi with her phone, finding an unusual wine museum restaurant nearby, Bodega Cigalena, which had great reviews on TripAdvisor. It was only a couple of minutes walk, and what an interesting place!

The walls and ceilings were covered with racks and shelves, filled with full bottles of wine and other vintner paraphernalia. The barman was of the good old fashioned kind, jolly, knowledgeable and happy to recommend suitable wines to taste whilst we were waiting for the restaurant proper to open.

Needless to say we had a fantastic night with brilliant food and wine, helped in no small degree by our waiter who was superb.

Going back to the hotel we were in good spirits, but this was tinged with an element of sadness at the thought of us having to leave tomorrow and return to England. We both would have much rather been riding south to catch the ferry to Morocco!

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We awoke to a dry day with the sun gamely trying to burn off the mist that was rolling down off the mountains. A quick check of the weather forecast revealed that we were due some rain today, no, having read the forecast properly, lets make that lots of rain, and strong winds moving across the country later on in the day…

When we set off my father hadn’t been very well. He had insisted that we still make this trip as, in his words, “It’s bad enough that I’m not well, but I don’t want it on my conscience that I prevented you from making a trip of a lifetime”. Something for which I am very grateful. Thanks Dad.

Because of this, we knew that at some point we would have to come back home to see him, hence our decision to have a shakedown trip through Europe first before going to the Americas. That way we could be close to home in case we were needed. I’d had a telephone call from the consultant, and it was apparent that that time needed to be soon.

We had booked a ferry from Santander to Portsmouth in three days time so, with the bad weather looming, we decided that we were going to make a push and try to get as far as possible before it set in. This gave us the added benefit of being able to ride the last of the twisty N260 in the dry, particularly as much of the road sported ‘Slippery When Wet’ signs, and the regular cliff faces and drops didn’t give us much room for error on some of the bends!

Well I’m glad to say that the N260 lived up to it’s reputation, and we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves yet again.

At one small town the road was temporarily blocked by a procession of Morris Men dancing with their sticks, followed by a band.

We parked up to enjoy the spectacle and have a quick look around before setting off again, finding an artisan baker who had an interesting sign, and an ancient AMC two stroke motorcycle fitted with the biggest crash bars in the world!

Further on, we couldn’t resist stopping for refreshment at a beautiful bar restaurant in the curiously named town of Gavin.

Next stop was for petrol, and whilst filling up, we noticed some interesting cars across the road in a restaurant car park. We went to take a look and discovered it was a French sports car club, obviously out for a Sunday drive in the last of the sunshine. After a nosy at the cars, we  thought to have a bite to eat at the restaurant, but the owner was a miserable sod who refused to serve us. I think that he just didn’t like bikers as he was happy to serve a family that had arrived after us in a car. This was the only time that anything like this had happened since we had left the UK and I was pretty angry, however we left quietly and denied him our business.

A few kilometers further on we came across the La Trobada restaurant which was very friendly and cheaper to boot, bonus!

As we rode on westwards the scenery changed quite dramatically, with the ground being very barren and appearing to be made up of large pale grey rocks and scree.

Imagining it without the patchy vegetation, it looked as though it could have been a moonscape, or even a stage set from a Science Fiction movie.

Nearby was a lake with very low water levels, and I think that there must have been some hot springs somewhere as we occasionally got wafts of a strong sulphurous smell, and neither of us had been eating eggs (S: the odd sign for thermal spas was a bit of a clue, as well!).

It was late afternoon when we joined a motorway, and as we rode along, the skies were getting darker and darker. We were doing the old “Shall we, shan’t we, stop and put our waterproofs on” thing, when the first few large, heavy rain drops hit us, so it was straight onto the hard shoulder. Unfortunately not quite quickly enough – by the time that we had waterproofed up, it was lashing it down and we were both rather damp. We should have stopped earlier, but then hindsight is always 20/20.

The winds were picking up but that wasn’t too bad, it was the sudden gusts that actually pushed the bikes across the road which made riding a bit fraught and tiring.

It was getting late and we decided that the best thing was to find somewhere to stop for the night. It was a good call as I’d had enough wind induced moments for the day, having had a particularly close call on a bridge when the wind nearly gusted me into the armco barrier. I don’t mind admitting that it scared me, which caused me to tense up, which of course just made things worse.

Without Mip to help us with the finer detail we took a wrong turn in the confusion of a multi-motorway junction just outside Pamplona, and ended up on a scenic tour of an industrial estate whilst trying to work out how to go back on ourselves. Eventually we made it back en route, and started looking for a promising place to pull off and find somewhere to stay for the night. Pamplona is the city famed for it’s annual spectacle of the Running of the Bulls, which meant there should be a lot of hotels around the town and it’s surrounds, but deciding on the best exit from the motorway to find them wasn’t proving to be the easiest of things, what with the rain, traffic and our general tiredness. Eventually we just picked an exit, left the motorway, and started looking for somewhere to stay, but with no luck, everywhere seemed to be closed.

In Iza on the outskirts of Pamplona, we saw a small sign for a hostal pointing up a side road. After a bit of a trek and a few wrong turns, we eventually came across a converted barn and farmhouse which looked lovely. The owner heard the bikes and came out. They had no guests, so we were welcome to stay and park our bikes in their garage. Excellent.

The Hostal Rural Huartearena was built into the hillside and their garage was basically most of the ground floor. It was massive and just the sort of thing that I dream of having one day, being immaculate, painted, heated and lit. I was feeling bad about us and the bikes dripping water all over the floor, but they weren’t bothered and let us hang up our gear to dry.

Our hosts were very friendly, the accomodation superb, and the home cooked evening meal wonderful, so when we retired to bed, we were both very happy, warm, dry bikers 🙂

We slept like logs at the Borda El Vilar Casa Rural and awoke refreshed to be greeted by another fantastic sunny day. Throwing open the windows revealed a wonderful view of the Pyrenees with the sun burning off the morning mist from the wooded slopes. Beautiful.

Suddenly there was movement outside the window and a cute kitten jumped onto our windowsill, purring and investigating everything, as cats are wont to do.

The previous night we had done our usual washing of socks, etc and, as they were still slightly damp, Sarah decided to lay them out on the window sill to dry in the morning sunshine.

In a flash the kitten forgot it’s search for Rich in Rabbit and snatched a sock off the window sill. It was only Sarah’s quick reactions in grabbing the other end of the rapidly disappearing sock that foiled it’s plan. There then ensued a right royal tug of war with neither contestant willing to give in easily. Luckily Sarah’s persistance won the day and I had to stop laughing long enough to remove the other sock before the kitten grabbed that one instead.

Our friend’s cat treacle used to have a penchant for catching and killing socks. She recently passed away at the ripe old age of 21 if my memory serves correctly, and it was great to see that her spirit was living on in this Spanish kitten.

After a delicious but simple breakfast of local produced ham and cheese, we re-loaded the bikes, were waved off by our friendly host and rejoined the N260 towards Sort.

Its fair to say that after the fun that I had had the previous day I was eagerly looking forward to riding my little V7 along the next section of the N260.

After a few kilometers we saw a beautiful valley with a stunning bright blue lake, that gave us a wonderful excuse to stop and stretch our legs.

A short distance further on there was a wild mushroom market with stalls selling all sorts of wierd and wonderful fungi. I love the taste of wild mushrooms and so we just had to stop and investigate. We had a coffee at a nearby cafe and learnt that the whole area was in the throes of a gastronimic festival to celebrate their local produce, these very mushrooms.

We set off again and, after refuelling with cheap petrol at only 1.13 Euros a litre :-), we threw ourselves into enjoying the ride.

The N260 is a fantastic biking road with everything from motorway quality wide tarmac to twisty mountain hairpins, with some truely amazing scenery.

I think that the pictures speak volumes.

After another tiring but exhilerating day, we stopped in the town of Fiscal and found a room at the Hostel Rio Ara, where the staff were very friendly and let us put our bikes into their secure garage free of charge.

Not the best or cleanest place that we have stayed at, but it was certainly the cheapest so far and totally adequate for us to get our heads down and have an early start in the morning. Well, early for us, anyway!

Andorra

We left Limoux without the assistance of the SatNav. MIP had not come back to life, despite Sarah searching the manual and Garmin website to find a solution to the problem, along with leaving it on charge overnight. Not particularly impressive for an expensive bit of kit that was less than two months old. Fortunately it was more of an inconvenience than a disaster as we had a map of France that included bits of the adjoining countries, and the laptop still had the Garmin mapping software working on it. It highlighted that we always need to have a map and a compass as a backup, particularly for when we are going to be in the more remote areas.

We set off heading for Andorra and found the wonderful twisty D613 heading into the Pyrenees.

After many enjoyable miles with hardly another vehicle in sight, we stopped for a break at Col de Chioula (altitude 1431 metres), and grabbed something to eat at the nearby refuge.

Sitting there in the sunshine I was struck by how different the place would be in a few months time, when the green slopes would be covered in snow and skiers, and how much our experience of the places that we pass through are just snapshots of those few moments in time and could be very different on another day.

Suitably refreshed we set off, joining the more major N20 at Ax les Thermes, and continuing on into Andorra.

I didn’t know much about the Principality of Andorra other than that, as it is not part of the European Union, it has gained fame as a giant duty free shop and as the alleged source of smuggled goods into Europe. The font of knowledge that is Wikipedia informed me that it is the sixth smallest nation in Europe, that it’s capital, Andorra la Vella, is the highest capital city in Europe, being at an elevation of 1023 metres, and that it’s citizens have the 2nd highest human life expectancy in the world — 82 years. Of course I had to look up who had pipped Andorra to number one, it’s Macau at 84 years.

One thing that Wikipedia did not say was how wonderful the Andorran roads are. Mile upon twisty mile of perfect tarmac, marred only by having to dodge the occasional herd of horses and stray cows standing in the carriageway halfway around a hairpin bend, and avoiding the steaming momentos so kindly left by those beasties.

We stopped for the cheapest fuel so far, 0.94 Euro per litre, but the experience was marred by the pump attendant short changing me by giving me change for 15 Euros when I had given him a 20 Euro note. As soon as he saw me looking at my change he hurridly gave me another 5 Euros and made himself scarce. His whole manner made me suspect that it was deliberate, particularly as the Euro is not our home currency (S: and who’s ever heard of a 15 Euro note?!).

The capital was incredibly busy, with mile after mile of roadworks and heavy traffic. Even though the time was getting on we didn’t see anywhere that we fancied stopping for the night and so kept on going.

Before we knew it we were at the border with Spain. There was a massive queue of cars being searched by lots of customs officials, obviously after the smugglers as there are quite strict limits on what can be brought into an EU country from outside. I can only presume that, as we were on bikes, our restricted carrying capacity meant that we were of no interest – we were waved straight through without a second glance.

We rode into Spain, and after an inadverdant circuit of the first town we encountered and a minor meltdown from a tired Sarah, we headed off Westwards. We hadn’t decided whether to stay in Spain or to go back across to France, so took a road that would allow us to choose several miles further along at the aptly named Sort. Thus we stumbled upon one of the best roads of our trip, the fabulous N260.

Sarah had got her second wind and was riding brilliantly, it was great to see her obviously having a great time. She just seemed to flow the V7 effortlessly from one bend to the next, which was beautiful to watch but hard work to keep up with. (S: of course this had to be the one time that the camera wouldn’t film as it was full, darn it!). Despite the ride being so enjoyable, eventually we were both starting to feel tired and wanting to stop for the night – it had been a long day.

After several more kilometers of uninhabited and gorgeous twisties, we had just about resigned ourselves to have to push on to Sort to find a hotel for the night when we spotted a ‘Casa Rural’  sign as we flew past. We had no idea what a Casa Rural was, but the picture of a bed on the sign looked promising!

One U-turn and a small backtrack later, we turned into a very steep track and rode up up to find a beautiful house which overlooked the valley. It turned out to be a wonderful little B&B – the owner came out, was happy for us to stay the night, and even rustled up an evening meal for us as we had next to no food.

The place was lovely and had a peaceful and relaxed atmosphere, just what we wanted after a long, exhilarating, but tiring ride.

It was a fine sunny morning that started innocently enough with us managing to get all packed up and the bikes loaded quite quickly. Things started to go wrong when I decided to finish off a pork chop left over from the BBQ the previous night. As I bit into it there was a load crack! I very soon realised that it wasn’t a bit of pork bone that I had crunched but that I had damaged my tooth. It felt a bit strange but I wasn’t in any real pain, so I kept my fingers crossed and just ignored it.

We said our goodbyes to Rob and Martina, who set off heading north, as they were intending to overnight in Sarlat in the Dordogne.

Sarah had been having problems with her bike to bike communications so before we set off I fitted a new Push To Talk (PTT) button to her bike which cured the problems. Unfortunately, by the time that we were ready to leave my tooth was hurting a fair bit so I had to resort to some pain killers before we got going.

Within half an hour it was so painful that my riding was being affected. I tried to tell Sarah over the Comms system that I needed to stop but got no reply. When I got a chance I rode alongside her and, after some good old fashioned sign language, she pulled over in the beautiful little village of Saint-Hilaire. It turned out that we had stopped outside the abbey where, in 1531, Benedictine monks had created a sparkling white wine called Blanquette de Limoux, long before the Champagne region became world renowned for their sparkling wine.

After a bit of digging I traced the Comms problem to a broken wire in the power lead  on Sarah’s bike, which I was fortunately able to repair.

Unfortunately by now though I was in agony with my tooth and asked at a nearby bar cafe where the local dentist was. They were very helpful and gave us directions, but when we eventually found the surgery it was shut. As we were not too far from the town of Limoux, we decided to look there for another dentist and found Sandrine RIBES surgery on the road into town. Luckily she was able to fit me in as an emergency at 4pm that day.

We went off and found a little hotel nearby called Les Arcades which was situated at one corner of the town square, La Place de la République. They had secure garage parking nearby where we were happy to leave the bikes and gear.

Sarah spoke with our travel insurers who confirmed that I was covered for emergency dental treatment and at the alloted time I presented myself for treatment. The dentist was very pleasant and told me that I had broken my tooth. She treated it and advised me that as there was some bruising beneath the tooth I would need to take some pain killers for three or four days. All for only 20 Euros.

After a walk around the town we went to a bar in La Place de la République and had an Irish Coffee for purely medicinal reasons.

The bar was full of pictures and framed photographs obviously taken in the town square outside the bar of lots of people in white clown make up and outfits. We found out that The Carnival of Limoux is an Audois festival which takes place in the Place de la République every weekend from mid-January to late March, and is characterized by bands in Pierrot costumes that are known as ‘les fécos’.

Fountain in La Place de La Republique

Art or Graffiti?

We went back to the hotel to discover that MIP the SatNav was dead and would not charge up. Ever hopeful, we left her plugged in and went to sleep hoping that she would be okay in the morning.

We had been looking forward to visiting Carcassonne for quite some time. The fascination with the place started a few years ago when Sarah had a regular Games night with her friends Pam and Ari. As three is an awkward number, she went to a local specialist games shop looking for a game that would be fun to play with only that number of players. They recommended the award winning (yes, they have awards for games!) tile building game ‘Carcassonne’, which fast became their favourite.

Next we both read an excellent historical fiction called ‘Labyrinth’ by Kate Mosse, which is set in Carcassonne and the surrounding area.

Because of all this, Carcassonne had featured as a definite destination in our travel plans from the start. We were over the moon that our first view of it was magical, with it looking as splendid in reality as we could have hoped for.

Sarah found a campsite called Camping La Cite within sight of the old city walls, which had plenty of space and was quiet as it was approaching the end of their season. We booked in, and it was good to be able to hand in my RAC Camping Carnet at the reception instead of having to surrender one of our passports. We picked a spot amongst a stand of walnut trees near to a stream, set up the tent, and settled in.

That evening we received a telephone call from our friend Rob, who was in Bordeaux with his girlfriend Martina. We had previously talked about the possibility of meeting up, and they now decided that they would travel south and meet us at Carcassonne. I was blown away as they only had a few days of their holiday left and we were quite a distance further south than they had been planning on travelling, particularly given that their ferry back to the UK was sailing from Calais.

They were tired of camping, so we decided to ditch the tents and share one of the mobile home type units that were available on site. The fact that the mobile home had heating was a big decider as the nights were definitely turning cool! They arrived early the next evening and we all chatted and caught up over a meal.

We had heard mixed reviews of Carcassonne, with some saying it was wonderful, and others saying is beautiful but over commercialised, being full of bars, cafes and souvenir shops. We decided to walk there along the riverbank and find out for ourselves.

As we approached the old city of Carcassonne my first impression was one of awe, as the fortified city is huge, very imposing and in excellent condition. It is obvious that various parts have been renovated, but I found it to be impressive and beautiful. Yes there were a lot of businesses inside that were aimed at the tourists, but there were also normal shops, and to my surprise some private houses. I had no idea that people actually still lived inside the walled city. We had the benefit of seeing the place out of season on a weekday, but I can imagine that our impressions would have been quite different had we been there on a busy Sunday in August.

After we had looked around a little, we headed for a bar. How unusual I hear you cry, but for once it was not just our desire for a drink, but a rather more sad occasion. Wayne, a friend of ours who had celebrated with us at the Wed-n-Fled rally (amongst others) had been killed by an allegedly drunk driver who failed to even stop at the scene. Whilst I would like to rant on about the sort of despicable person who would do that, I had better not as this is really not the time nor the place and the matter has yet to go to court. We coincided our drink with his funeral so that we could be there in spirit to celebrate his life. Ride free Wayne!

Of course one drink led to another, and after we had polished off a couple of bottles of wine I had my first taste of Grog, a drink made with rum, hot water and sugar. I think that interesting is the best way for me to describe it, needless to say that I won’t be rushing to order it again. Martina had moved on to Irish Coffee, which was like none I have seen before. It came in a large glass and was multi layered, with hot whiskey and brown sugar at the bottom, espresso coffee in the middle and cream on the top. It came with a straw so that she could sup from any of the layers at will! A better choice than the grog, methinks.

After we left the old city we decided to finish off the day with a BBQ and made use of the one of the communal BBQs that were scattered around the campsite. It took some time but was delicious!

On our way to Carcassonne a couple of days previously, we had passed a very picturesque marina on the canal du Midi, and as the next day was beautifully sunny, we decided that this would be a good place to visit. We parked up near to the marina and walked, as the road that ran down the side of the canal was closed by an armed Police officer whilst workmen were tarring and stone chipping patches of the road surface. Hot tarred and chipped feet anyone?!

As we approached we saw a number of the boats which had “Le Boat” written on the side, which I thought was particularly helpful for the landlubbers amongst us.

We made enquiries and discovered that Le Boat was the name of the local boat hire company, which prompted us to go for a pleasant and relaxing boat trip along the canal midi.

Our final full day in Carcassonne was rounded off with another very pleasant evening at the campsite.

Whilst we were at La Cerisaie, Sarah read an information leaflet and discovered that there was a wine fête on in one of the little villages nearby. Over breakfast we spoke to the owner of La Cerisaie and he confirmed that the fête was in fact on that day, so we decided to go.

The village was in the hills. We got a clue that we were close when we saw lots of cars parked along the side of the narrow road, and groups of people walking down one hill and up another towards a number of stalls on a hilltop. Luckily, as we were on bikes, we were able to ride up to the fête itself and find somewhere to park inside the entrance but before the stalls started. We ended up alongside an area obviously set aside for a sheep shearing demonstration or contest.

The fête was a fantastic glimpse of French rural life, with stalls selling fresh produce, wine and food. There was a choice of cassoulet, confit de canard or fresh fish or langoustines to eat. We shared some cassoulet and some confit and they were delicious. After that we bought the last fresh wholemeal baguette from an artisan baker as he had just run out of his delicious walnut bread. We know that it was delicious because he had given us a taste of some samples that he had got left over, just so that we would know what we had missed out on!

We also bought some Muscat wine from a local producer, which was excellent. I discovered that if I zipped up the front air vents on my jacket but left the top part open then I could easily carry a bottle of wine in each vent. Result.

After wandering around and buying some stickers from a stall selling stickers, cd’s and books all relating to the local Occitan region and language, we decided to continue on our journey. For obvious reasons we didn’t want to ride with wine bottles in the front air vents of our jackets, and managed to strap them on top of the camping gear on the back of the bikes. At this point the chap who had sold us the Muscat wine walked by and was horrified that see that his wine was going to be transported in the sunshine. We told him not to worry as it wouldn’t be there for long!

We rode on and started coming across parked 4×4’s and lone Frenchmen with shotguns sat on chairs at the side of the road. I don’t know what they were intending to shoot at, but we just hoped that it wasn’t Les Motards Anglais.

(Maybe I should have stopped and suggested a hornet shoot)

The views were superb and seemed to go on and on and on, with row after row of hills receding into the distance.

 


Our first view of Carcassonne

 

 


The medieval town of Minerve

 

We came to the medieval town of Minerve that was billed as being one of the most beautiful in France.

Draw your own conclusions, but I have to say that our first sight of the ancient city of Carcassonne, with it’s walls and turrets beyond acres of grape vines, was far more magical.

The following morning dawned bright and sunny and above all dry, the forecast had been right 🙂

While we were loading the bikes I fussed a young cat who was hanging around probably hoping to score some ‘Rich in Rabbit’. She then continuously either demanded our attention or insisted on investigating each item as we packed it. She finally settled down on Sarah’s tank bag tucked down behind the screen looking as though she was going to travel with us when we left. However she hadn’t counted on the noise of the bikes and legged it as soon as we started up.

We used the motorway as the easiest way of getting away from the conurbation that is Montpellier and then happily switched to normal roads followed by the far more enjoyable small roads through the hills towards Carcassonne.

In the middle of the countryside on the road to Moureze we came across a small French war memorial to The Maquis Bir Hakeim who were a group of French resistance fighters in the Second World War. The monument was erected in 1984 in memory of 105 martyrs of the underground. The monument was surrounded by immaculately kept war graves. We stopped and spent a few minutes paying our respects to people who had died whilst fighting for their country. It was an amazingly peaceful place particularly when you consider how those people had died.

We continued through Moureze, which was a beautiful old village with interesting rock formations, and stopped for a coffee in another picturesque village further on.

We then rode on into the hills and didn’t see another vehicle for ages. Imagine our surprise when, having stopped to admire and photograph a stunning view, a French Peugeot pulled up behind us and the elderly couple began asking us for directions. They had got lost, but having Mip and a map we were able to show them exactly where they were.

I haven’t asked for it, but I cannot ignore the fact that there is a bit of a theme regarding my interactions with various forms of insect life on this trip and today was not going to be an exception.

We were doing about 50 mph and were miles from any habitation when I decided to have a bit of a stretch to loosen up as we rode along. As I extended my left arm, Thwack, something hit my left hand with some force. My first thought was that a stone had been thrown up by Sarah’s rear tyre but I couldn’t have been more wrong. I turned my head to look at my left hand and was greeted by the sight of a bloody great big two inch long hornet holding tight onto my left thumb.

So that you can fully appreciate how much I enjoyed this sight I think that it’s important for me to explain that I do not like wasps and they do not like me. When we had been at Le Moto Camping Dordogne I had been quietly sitting reading when one had just flown up and stung me on my arm. I react quite badly to their stings and it was over two weeks before it had settled down. So it’s fair to say that I was not best pleased and had no intention of finding out just how much worse I react to hornet stings. The hornet had other ideas though, and far from being stunned or even squashed by it’s 50 mph impact with my hand, it was doing it’s damnedest to sting me through my my thin summer glove. Thankfully it was on the top of my thumb where there is kevlar and plastic armour so it wasn’t having much luck.

I immediately began frantically shaking my left hand about to dislodge it but to no avail, it just seemed to make it angrier. This was obviously having an interesting effect on my riding as Sarah had noticed my erratic riding and was wondering what was wrong. In the end I managed to knock the bugger off my thumb by hitting it against my hand protector. I have to say that hornets are definitely wasps with attitude. Bearing that in mind, I did stop and get Sarah to check my clothing to make sure that it hadn’t grabbed on elsewhere for round two.

We rode on along the D908 into a more populated region and saw a biker bar with a lifesize model of the Blues Brothers car on the balcony. We would have loved to have stopped and partied there but it was too early and there was no-one about so we decided to press on.

We did see a sign for a Municipal Camping site that made us smile.

We eventually stopped at a small Chambre d’hote (Bed and Breakfast) called La Cerisaie in the village of Riols. It was a beautiful old house owned and run by a Dutch couple who were very friendly and opened up their kids games room so that we would have somewhere secure to put the bikes for the night without having to unload everything from them.

Having settled in we wandered off for something to eat. After the days experiences I declined the delights of the premises with the painting of a giant insect on the outside wall and we had a delicious meal at a tiny restaurant on the road through the village.

After returning to Le Cerisaie we chatted with the owner’s brother, who was looking after the place and the children whilst the owner and his wife went out for a meal together, and who had laid on a surprise welcome for them. We left them to it, went to bed, and slept like logs!

Our budget definitely could not stretch to a night in a hotel in Monaco so we decided to head west and find somewhere cheaper to stay. Unfortunately we timed our exit of Monaco to coincide with rush hour. Entertaining to say the least. We had thought that the traffic was bad enough when we had arrived but this raised it to a whole new level. We had to negotiate the underground roundabout again, but second time lucky we took the correct exit, our tunnel climbed up, and we emerged into bright sunlight heading in the right direction.

We kept heading westwards until it was starting to get dusk, which coincided with us being on the outskirts of Cannes. I saw a hotel up on the hillside overlooking the town which looked easy to get to, and we decided to give it a try. The place was your typical business overnight accomodation type establishment, but was cheap and clean and offered everything that we needed. The guy on reception was very helpful and in no time we were booked in. He also said that we could park the bikes next to his Saab convertible in the secure staff area where he could keep an eye on them overnight. Bonus 🙂

The next morning it was very hot and we were soaked with sweat before we had even finished loading the bikes. Nice! We decided that we wanted to get some miles under our wheels and elected to jump onto the motorway rather than fight our way through the urban traffic and bake. It was a good choice, as travelling at motorway speeds made the 38 degree C temperature feel much cooler.

We had food that needed to be eaten as it was not going to keep in our tank bags in the heat, and so we stopped for a very late lunch at a motorway service area that had picnic tables in a wooded area at the far end. Very nice. It’s a shame that we do not have similar facilities at motorway services in the UK, but then I suppose that our weather would preclude their use for most of the year.

The downside of such a warm sunny climate though is the number and size of the insect life. Not usually a problem unless, as I discovered, you decide to picnic with your feet on an ant trail (well more like an ant motorway actually given the number of the things!), and they are about an inch long and take exception to my size 10’s causing a traffic jam. Thankfully my bike boots are motocross style and my bike jeans were tucked into them so, in spite of their best efforts, they couldn’t get inside my trousers to bite me. Sarah had gone off to find a loo, and the locals must have wondered what on earth the strange English biker was doing dancing around amongst the trees slapping his legs. It must have looked like Oompah meets Morris Dancing!

Once I was ant free and we were back at the bikes we started chatting to a Harley rider from Denmark and a Greek guy who was riding a German registered chopped Kawasaki EN500 to Spain for a couple of weeks of Spanish language school. Luckily he spoke good English as our Greek is marginally less fluent than our Italian.

We  had covered a good distance and were quite tired, so started working out where we were going to stop for the night. Sarah found a suitably priced hotel in a booklet that we had picked up when we had stayed at Le Boischaut in Chateauroux. The Greek guy, Pasquali, was also looking for somewhere to stay and so we agreed to join forces and ride together to the hotel.

We easily found the hotel Prime, which was situated amidst a forest of hotels on the outskirts of Montpellier. They had secure parking for the bikes at the rear of the hotel and a lockable store for our camping gear so that we did not have to cart it up to our rooms.

Their restaurant and bar was closed and so we all went a wandering to find somewhere to eat and chat over a drink. There was very limited choice and we settled on ‘The Buffalo Grill’. This was an American style diner which served, yes you’ve guessed it, Buffalo, in various guises. It was very tasty, but the French waiter looked horrified when we ordered more wine instead of coffee at the end of the meal. We had a good time chatting with Pasquali who was getting used to riding his first chop. He loved the laid back comfortable riding position but had found that the forward controls had taken some getting used to, particularly in traffic when he had kept on trying to put his feet onto footrests that were not there!

We had decided to stay for an extra night as the weather forecast for the next day was rain and high winds. It wouldn’t have been too bad, but the storm was scheduled to follow our route westwards for a couple of days so we thought that it was best to let it go on ahead without us.

The next day was spent sorting things out, buying provisions, washing clothes, etcetera. Not very exciting but necessary considering that in order to cut down on luggage we only had three pairs of socks and pants each (S: don’t tell Tony but I have a few more than that!). If we don’t wash them every day or so then we have to resort to the old inside out and back to front trick (S: refer to previous comment ‘cos that’s a man thing!). Not something I’d recommend as a lifestyle choice in a hot climate. The visit to the supermarket was entertaining. The guy ahead of us at the check-out insisted on very neatly and very slowly packing each of his purchased items into his bag, rearranging them until he was totally satisfied. Having generated a substantial queue he then decided that he was going to pay by cheque which he took absolutely ages to write out. Aaargh!

I relieve the boredom of foreign food shopping by looking for products with interesting names, such as ‘Bum’ biscuits and ‘Plopsies’, a Coco-pops style cereal. This visit revealed a cat food that is apparently Rich in Rabbit… Rich in illicit cat drugs more like from the picture on the tin!

That evening we didn’t need to eat out as in order to keep costs down we had already eaten some of the food that we had bought at the supermarket earlier (we resisted purchasing any cat food). As Pasquali had also decided to wait out the storm, we decided to all go out for a drink. We found an interesting bar restaurant and had an enjoyable time talking and learning about each others lives and cultures.

We said our goodbyes to Pasquali as he had decided on a very early start the following morning so that he could make up the kilometres that he hadn’t ridden that day because of the storm.

We retired for the night hoping that the forecast for sunshine the following day would prove to be accurate.

We set off from St. Dalmas de Tende feeling refreshed, if a little bitten and drained of blood in my case. You will be pleased to know that I am certain that it was the Mozzies who were responsible and not an attack by Vampires. Mind you I’m basing this on the fact that my evening meal had been steeped in garlic so I don’t think that I am a member of the undead. I promise to let you know if I develop an aversion to sunlight!

As we headed towards Monaco we rode yet another interesting but well surfaced road, that was rarely either straight or level, through some dramatic countryside in great weather. Is it any wonder that we were both grinning and having a wonderful time?

Neither of us has ever been to Monaco, the tiny little principality made famous in films and car races as being the playground of the rich and famous. I have never quite understood the difference between Monte Carlo and Monaco, so when we next had internet access we Googled it – answer here for those of you that are interested.

We were looking forward to the experience (Sarah had been banging on about it for a while!), but didn’t quite know what to expect. So it came as a surprise as we rode around a bend to be presented with an amazing view of Monaco spread out below us.

We pulled off quickly into a layby on the side of the road, placed there for exactly that purpose judging by the number of folk that came after us and did exactly the same thing! I suspect this could be one of Monaco’s most photographed spots.

I don’t think that I have ever seen so much money floating on the sea before. Yachts, power boats, ocean cruisers, a three masted tall ship, all bobbing around on a calm, stunningly bright blue sea.

We headed for the sea front which was not very far away horizontally but was an awfully long way below us. This entailed quite a ride down the heavily conurbated and very steep hillside that Monaco is built on, including another first, an exit off a roundabout into a sharp downhill hairpin bend in heavy traffic! Thank heavens for all the mountain riding experience we’d had up till then!

We negotiated our way past the Monte Carlo Casino and down to the harbour side, whilst dodging kamikaze well dressed folk on scooters and in chauffeur driven limos, ending up shoe-horned into a sort of space by the side of a church, which was the closest we could find to a parking space. There were cars, bikes and scooters jammed into just about everywhere they could be, this small car park also had a number of the afore-mentioned limos triple parked with their chauffeurs standing around, chatting and smoking whilst presumably waiting for the calls to pick up their respective obviously well-heeled clients.

What a place!

Hot, sunny, manic, oozing style and money from every well dressed pore… We had a very small mooch about and a wide-eyed look at what we could see from where we were before deciding to forget the expensive coffee and head out of town – we’d seen enough to get an inkling of what the place was like, and were absolutely melting in our bike gear. I now understand why almost every other rider was wearing normal and therefore cool clothes.

We set off only to encounter yet another first, negotiating an underground roundabout with several tunnel exits to choose from. In the heavy traffic we were not quite sure which exit to take… Mip doesn’t work well underground and it was really not clear. Picking one almost at random, we ended up going through a series of tunnels which then spat us out right by the opposite side of the port.

Slightly bemused, we spotted a car park by the marina and pulled in for a breather and to gather our wits. It turned out we were in the car park of Stars’n’Bars, with a covered outside terrace right by the marina. Ah-ha – somewhere we could actually get that expensive coffee whilst being able to keep an eye on the bikes and all our gear – perfect!

Outside the bar they were displaying, and presumably taking orders for, a Greman electrically assisted pedal cycle that was almost a motorcycle. Interesting and very green but rather expensive, costing as much as a medium sized real motorcycle.

After perusing the surprisingly reasonably priced menu we decided to go all out and have lunch rather than just coffee, and massively enjoyed the people watching, not to mention overhearing bits of the many and varied conversations that were going on at the tables around us. It turned out that we were there on the first day of the Monaco Boat Show, and one was a chap discussing the customs requirements for his armed bodyguards and specifically for their guns and ammunition to get into the Seychelles.

It was a great taste of how the other half live!