November 13, 2016
The end of our first leg is almost here. We’ve been formulating a plan over the past few weeks to surprise our families in Calgary with a visit over the holidays. It also gives us a chance to wrap-up some paperwork and many of the other odds and sods that need to be managed while we’re away. We’ve picked out a great place to securely store the bikes in Nice, and planned a trip by train up to Paris before we fly home.
The morning on the bikes is wonderful. The sky is no longer ominous but rather a deep, deep blue that seems endless. Instead of riding south to the coast, our route takes us through the hill-top towns towards Grasse. The roads are beautifully gnarled through the valleys and along the ridges, turning back upon themselves over and over before finally releasing us (and our forearms) into a slightly gentler curve. It’s road-riding heaven here.
Our question of “Where is everyone” is finally answered; we’re moving from the quiet country lanes of northern and central France into the hustle and bustle that is the south. Provence is filled with people retreating from a northern winter that’s pushing its way through the country. Every crest on every road seems to provide us with a tantalizing view of the Mediterranean and its draw is so strong! We weave our way through a number of towns that contrast greatly from their northern neighbors. Here, there are fewer shuttered homes and lifeless business, instead, the rules regarding opening and closing seem to have been discarded in favor of commerce and availability.
There are people everywhere and each town seems to promise a liveliness that’s absent from the winter towns we’ve traveled through so far. It’s not better, just different and a bit of a shock to the system. Just before heading northeast into Valbonne, we take a wonderfully gnarly road through the hillside. About a third of the way along, the pavement ends and is replaced by a combination of loose rock, deep ruts and a couple of baby-head sized boulders. It’s also steep. Very steep. Forward on the pegs and smooth on the throttle we bump and skip our bikes over the terrain until the path finally spits us out onto the highway. In the mirror I see Nita pop out from the gap between the trees like an old jack in the box that’s been suddenly released after being left wound for years, her childlike laughter immediately filling my helmet upon arrival. Just awesome.
The remainder of the day is spent on some incredibly tight and very hilly roads which eventually lead us to our home for the next seven days. Nita and I both have a case of the giggles – probably brought on by the elation we feel from the days riding. It’s a short day but our arms are shot. We’re met at the entryway of the gîte by Suzanne who quickly shows us where we can park our bikes. She’s a lovely woman with a warm disposition and we immediately feel grateful to have her as a host. The home is cozy, the garden is beautiful, and we’re welcomed into the house by an olive tree that’s dropping plenty of fruit at our doorstep.
Suzanne shows us around the house; she’s left some tea, coffee, and milk for us as well as a nice bottle of wine in the fridge. They’re ordering pizza and offer to have us piggyback on the delivery which is a welcome treat since we were too distracted by the sights along the way to eat. While we talk at the door, her husband Donald arrives and we enjoy a laugh while also appreciating his solidly Scottish accent. There’s something soothing about it that reminds me of my uncle Charlie whom I visited in Fort William.
With the walk-through and introductions done, we unpack the bikes at the base of the steep gravel driveway and settle in for the night. The days travel along vicious roads have left us both happily tired and the gîte is very comfortable. A knock at the door startles us from our lazy-state and we realize that a couple of hours have quickly passed; it’s pizza time.With a large smile, Donald hands over our dinner and, try as we might, refuses payment.
He dashes off to enjoy his own dinner and we tuck into ours, quickly doing away with two pizzas. Large pizzas! We’ve hardly eaten all day and we’re apparently hungrier than we know. The two pizza boxes seem to have emptied far too quickly and we’re overcome with disbelief that we’re able to eat them both so easily. Still, pizza in France has been excellent! After a brief struggle against our closing eyes and drooping heads, we quickly fall asleep.
The next morning Nita and I decide to head into town pick up some groceries and to grab our daily coffee and pastry. The right-hand turn at the top of the driveway immediately reminds us of just how hilly the backroads are here. The unfortunate timing of a stop sign, a steep hill, and an oncoming cube-van actually leaves me balancing the bike on my toes – no small feat for someone of my size.
Soon enough we arrive at the local Supermarché and find a nice bakery next door. Inside, what appears to be a hummingbird is buzzing around resulting in the occasional gasp and dive by both staff and customers alike. As it zooms past my head I notice two antennae and the absence of any beak whatsoever and it dawns on me that this little impostor is, in fact, an insect – a Hummingbird Hawk-moth – and the first we’ve ever seen. We pick a nice spot just outside and watch the moth dart about while people pick and choose their treats, all the while keeping an eye on the speedy little critter.
Back at the cottage, we spend our day getting ready to drop our bikes off at a storage unit in Nice for the holidays. We’re giving ourselves just over a month and a half at home to celebrate the new year with our families and storing the bikes in a secure garage is going to allow us to relax while we’re at home. The living room becomes a packing and unpacking zone as we try to find items we’re willing to take back and leave in Canada. Each of us finds almost a full bag of gear that we feel we can do without, and we’ve moved our item classifications to include only necessary and extremely necessary – though I’m sure that’ll change soon too!
Part of the goodies we pick up in Valbonne are decorations for the gîte; Christmas is around the corner and we’re in the mood to celebrate! While the Mediterranean sun and its spring-like temperatures make it difficult to believe that the holiday is weeks away, we find the spirit in tinsel chains and golden stars strewn about the cabin. With carols playing on the computer we spend the remainder of the night getting into the spirit of things.
The next morning we set out for a two-up ride along the coast for what will truly be our first day by the sea. Two-up also has the added advantage of liberating Nita to photograph the scenery free of her motorcycle – not that it’s stopped her before. The traffic into Antibes is by far the busiest we’ve encountered in France and construction has drivers whipped into a frenzy. Often, people fill a single lane with two or three cars but there still somehow seems to be some order to things. We know we just need to stay on our toes and keep feeling relaxed rather than rushed.
We take a sweeping mountain road north before plunging south towards the sea – almost as if holding off the gift of the water a little longer. Quickly it descends into thicker traffic and it’s not long before a wrong turn spits us onto the busy “N” road. Damn. Looking for a quick exit we find ourselves at a massive toll station. There are about eleven gates, all of which appear slightly different from the next. In the middle, there are three that look like they’d be manned but as we pull up I can see we’re wrong in that assumption. Large stickers proudly displaying Visa and Mastercard are plastered on its side but after trying three cards we’re once again faced with credit card failure.
With a line now forming behind us, I reach for some bills but no dice; this machine only accepts credit and coins. Frantically I push the help button that simply rings unheard into space. Behind us, rather than honking, people are simply reversing and starting to abandon the line. Nita jumps off the bike to let the last straggler know that we also need to turn around and try a different tactic. Backing the bike out of the line, we pull to the side of the road – still facing the wrong way on the highway – when I hear the sirens.
Looking up, two motorcycle policemen are heading our way and I’m certain we’re about to get our first ticket of the trip. They’re serious looking gents and either don’t (or refuse) to speak English. Amazingly, Nita manages the entire conversation in French managing to tell them about the cards and the cash, while one of the officers simply looks at our credit card while flipping it over in his hands about twenty times. Finally, realizing we have paper currency he directs us to the last, smallest stall to the right. Following behind us, we pull up and stuff the machines hungry little mouth with a €5 bill and the gate swings open. Before escaping the toll booth, Nita turns and takes a photo of the two stone-faced gents – whether they want one or not – before quickly following up with a hearty Canadian wave. It’s enough to elicit a small smile back from one of them before his face returns to it’s practiced indifference. Just on the other side, we pull over and the two officers give a slight wave before heading off.
I think I’m cursed with toll booths and hotel card-locks.
I’m a little frosty after our challenges on the toll road but it quickly dissipates as we get closer to the water. The roads seem to get more and more narrow until eventually, we emerge onto what looks to be a sidewalk. A moment of panic strikes; are we on a sidewalk? People turn to see us approaching a simply move to the side and soon we’re slowly negotiating a crowded market all the while receiving curious looks from passers-by. We decide we’re definitely not on a sidewalk but rather just one of the amazingly cool streets in Antibes.
Parking during the market is at a premium but we’ve learned how to park a bike in France now; we find a sidewalk by the water, pull onto it, and park it out of the way of pedestrians. No sooner do I make the move than three other bikes follow suit. Our spot is set just above a small beach, north of the Musée Picasso along the Promenade Amiral de Grasse and has a wonderful view of the Mediterranean. We stop for a moment to take it in; couples eating lunch along the beach, the deep blue of the water, the cloudless sky, and the snow covered Alpes-Maritime standing guard in the distance. This place is amazing.
The water is calling but out stomachs are louder. We walk into Antibes and stop for crêpes at a little café. While Nita enjoys an Almond and honey crepe, an item on the menu catches my eye: citron et sucre. A treat from my childhood, mum would make crepes with sugar and lemon juice sprinkled on them. She’d call them pancakes, though when we moved to Canada I realized that they were nothing like the pancakes (flapjacks) there. At this little café in Antibes, I fall in love with these little guys all over again.
Enjoying our lunch on the patio of this café, we watch throngs of people make their way through the market. This area is filled with Americans and Australians who are working the yachts that fill the marina. A table of them next to us are recovering from what looks to be a hard night of partying but the smiles are as plentiful as the wisecracks. As we savor the tastes of our crepes we watch scooters motor by with the rider often dangling a cigarette precariously from his lips. It’s par for the course here. We walk slowly through the market, talking to people about their wares and manage not to buy anything – which is a miracle. It’s one of the facets of travelling by bike that I love: no unnecessary stuff.
We walk to the beach and somehow feel even more relaxed. Leaning against a short stone retaining wall we watch the water and let the sun warm our very cores. There are a number of stories playing out as we stand there: An old man is gathering driftwood and, with a hacksaw, cuts it into small pieces which he carts off to his waiting car. A very fashionable couple arrive with a pizza, sit along the wall (they seem unconcerned for their nice clothes) and share a quiet lunch together. A dog who’s aware he’s not allowed on the beach bounds along the water and, noticing a young girl digging in the sand, charges at her hoping for a playmate. Instead, the girl starts bawling and refuses any attempt by the pet-owner and her grandmother to unite them. The dog owners and the grandmother seem equally sorry that the union isn’t going to work. It’s a lovely place to spend time. Our own story is simply one amongst many and, reflecting on the past months, we walk into the water and watch it cover our feet. We’ve made it to this amazing place – this moment – on our bikes.
With the warmth of this place inside us, we start to walk further down the marina. The sound of a local saxophonist nearby greets us and we stop at Jaume Plensa’s “Nomade” – a sculpture of a figure constructed entirely from letters. It’s a beautiful piece that seems to capture both depth and whimsy within it at once.
In Plensa’s own words:
I always imagined that our skin is permanently tattooed with text – our life, our experiences – tattooed, but with invisible ink. And then suddenly, somebody is able to decipher these tattoos; that person becoming a lover, a friend. That is probably why I work with sculptures like this, this human form composed solely of letters, like cells. It’s almost biological.”
Back to the bikes, we make our way out of Antibes, along the peninsula towards Point Croisette and finally into Cannes – which is such a change of pace it comes as a slight shock. The roads are bustling with the Beautiful People, and the small cars of the rest of France are replaced with hordes of luxury vehicles. It’s still beautiful, just different and perhaps more of what we expected in Cannes.
Many people along the road seem lost and there’s a manic feeling to the way people are moving about here. With the light fading, we make our way through the busy streets and back up into the mountains towards home. Settling in, we watch a movie until sleep finally takes hold.
The rest of our stay at the cottage is spent getting the bikes ready for storage, removing parts that need fixing or replacing, getting prepped for leaving and visiting the local patisserie. We’re enjoying our home for the week and mentally our goals are shifting; soon we’ll be home with the family and we’re relaxing into a rhythm that’s anticipating being bike-less.
On our second-last night, the gas runs out on our stove while we cook dinner (the stoves here are often canister-based – much like a propane bbq at home). Knocking on Suzanne and Donald’s door we’re greeted with an invitation to share in a glass of champagne – some good news has come through for Donald and we’ve been invited for a little celebration. We spend much of the evening sipping champagne and talking about travel; Donald and Suzanne sailed a boat from Scotland to southern France some years ago after selling everything back home. After years of hard work, living on the boat and chartering tours, they hit their stride and built a successful business that has some pretty impressive clients. But what we truly love about them is how down to earth they remain – warm and lovely people who genuinely seem to enjoy sharing with other people.
Before our stay in Valbonne is done, we order one last pizza but in the absence of a day filled with hard work, they disappear a little less eagerly. Still, we manage to avoid “two large pizza-eaters remorse” which is probably a good thing.
The next morning the sky is blue and the sun is shining. It’s the last day we’ll spend on the bikes until we return in February and we’re feeling pretty sad about it! As we pack the bikes we chat with Suzanne, who gives us some stickers for the bikes that oppose animal cruelty – a sentiment we can easily stand behind. She has a look of concern on her face that we’ve seen before, and she asks that we stay safe, look after one another and tells us that she’s come to think of us as one of her kids. Just lovely.
We make our way up the steep gravel driveway one last time and stop while she takes some pictures before we turn right up the impossible hill, and onto our storage unit in Nice.
It’s not long before we arrive at the gate, filling out paperwork and walking to the unit. For the next couple of hours, we unpack all that we’ll need for Canada while trying to securely load the bikes for storage. The unit is small and fitting the bikes in requires the center-stands and Tetris mojo to make it work. Eventually, though everything’s packed away, covered and we each have a single bag which we have to take home for the holidays.
We spend the next ten days wandering the streets of Nice, Monaco, and Paris before surprising the families at home. Our plan is a relaxing week in Nice before catching the train to Paris for the week prior to Christmas. Our families think we’re heading home in January, but in reality, we’ve booked flights for a return on the 23rd.
Nice is a fantastic city and our time is spent walking the promenade along the Mediterranean, visiting the Christmas markets, and enjoying an occasional meal with our new friends Kouray and Stephan whomwe meet through our apartments owner, David. Also, a motorcyclist, Kouray’s last two adventures have taken him through Morocco and his home country of Turkey. Over dinner, he fills our heads with plenty of great insights on riding through those countries as well as some contacts along the way.
Nestled comfortably in Old Nice, our daily walks usually take us through the medieval streets that are just hidden behind the modern amenities of this bustling city and it’s joy to get lost amongst the tiny and colorful shops.
Catching a train from Nice, we venture into Monaco and walk from the incredibly lush train station to Monte Carlo Square where we find the opulence overwhelming. We arrive outside Hotel Paris on a mission and find the street is lined with Lamborghinis, Ferraris, Bentleys and any other icon of conspicuous consumption. Our friends Jean, Kelley, and Maya from Halifax have sent us to this place to honor the memory of Jean’s sister who, after a brave battle with illness, passed. After her wedding, Hotel Paris was where she came to honeymoon and Jean asked if we could take a photo of our feet in the bar for him. While we both think this will be an easy task, we’re initially we’re told we can’t enter the Hotel unless we’re guests.
After a few minutes of friendly banter, the doorman asks “Where are you from?” I tell him that we’ve travelled from Canada on motorcycles and he asks again, “Where are you from?” Slightly puzzled, I mention my birthplace and again he asks “Yes. But where are you from?” Ah, then it dawns on me. “My father was from Benghazi.” A smile falls across his face and suddenly I’m allowed to poke my head into the hotel lobby. The doorman is from Tunisia and the “Arab Brotherhood” has gained me a foot of leeway into the building. Now standing in the doorway of the lobby I recount the mission we’ve been sent on and his demeanor changes again. “Please, walk on through. Take your time – just remove your backpack.” We thank him and take our time admiring the hotel while completing our task for our friends. After about twenty minutes we retreat to the marina for a crepe and coffee and, soon enough, we’re on the train and heading back to the livelier streets of Nice.
Eventually, the TGV calls our name and we shoot along the coast aboard a very quick train towards Paris. After about five and a half hours we find ourselves inside Gare de Lyon and we get to call Paris home for a few brief days.
Nita and I fall in love with the city almost immediately. Thanks to Hotels.com, we have a free night to use in Paris and we settle for Hotel du Cadran not far from the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe. We haven’t used hotels often in Europe but a night here means we can settle into another incredibly affordable apartment for the next few nights in the fourteenth district. We take an evening stroll to Alec Eiffel’s amazing tower, take the elevator to the top and rest our eyes on a truly beautiful city of light.
Daily, our thoughts are now fully focused on our families. We’re excited to see them and the anticipation is almost unbearable. Still, we love our time here; our walks along the busy streets, the incredible architecture and of course the attitude. Almost nightly we find a café patio for a late night pipe and drink, and from this vantage point we happily watch people going about their business – from picking up the daily meal from greengrocers and butchers to the men roasting chestnuts over garbage cans on the street corners (with the dirtiest of hands). We have truly fallen in love with France.
Soon enough the plane calls and we fly into Calgary via Amsterdam, arriving in a -25ºC cold snap. Still, there’s something wonderful about this white world we’ve returned to. It’s home. In seven short weeks, we’ll be back in France to pick up the bikes to continue our journey.