November 13, 2016
We know the day’s going to be challenging. When the weather doesn’t cooperate it’s just another thing to factor into what is, by its nature, an unpredictable way to see the world. It’s a long day on the road to Villecroze – one of the longest so far in France – but it’s well within what we’ve done in other countries. There’s snow in the forecast for today and we’re up early in the hopes of missing its arrival in the Midi-Pyrénées.
We plan to stay on more direct roads and perhaps it’s this mindset of “getting the day out of the way” that sets the tone. As we venture out of Criessels, the road reminds us of the joy found in the back and forth of gracefully sweeping turns. It’s hard to describe the feeling but it feels almost fundamental – as if anyone, from anywhere, would experience the same joy if they were doing the same thing.
For an hour the sky has threatened but not delivered it’s rain or snow. The cold in the air is very real but our layers are keeping us warm. Fortunately, when the sky does open up we’re greeted with rain, which we prefer to it’s slicker sibling. Remembering the blizzards we hit riding the Loneliest Road in America brings a chill to my body and a sharp pain to my fingers.
While a more direct route may remove the slick mud and leaf mixture we experienced on the ‘D’ roads, we do have to deal with heavier traffic, large trucks and tolls – which seem to enjoy rejecting whatever it is I try to put into them. I think it’s the prospect of holding people up that gets me flustered at them, to be honest. Indeed, I do hold people up while I curse and jab money at the machines to no effect, but people here just wait patiently or reverse and move to a different stall – for which I’m grateful.
The rain is with us for four hours today. It moves effortlessly between heavy and driving, and once again I’m feeling so, so, SO happy to have replaced my rotting and mouldy Tech-3 boots in Southampton for a pair of waterproof Sidi Adventures. My feet are dry, my body is warm. It makes days like these easier.
We feel very comfortable riding in the rain. We’ve seen so much of it during our riding careers and on all kinds of bikes. For us, the danger of riding in the rain is less about traction and more about mindset – and admittedly, today’s mindset is not the greatest. With a “Let’s just get there” attitude everything about the day is a little off. We’re rushing. Pushing. “Fun” almost never follows “Urgency” and today’s no exception.
The only brief highlight is catching a glimpse of the Mediterranean for the first time. As we round a corner onto a sandbar, the rain eases for a moment to reveal the water in the distance. We’re so close! Then a wall of palm trees obscures it before the road dips behind a dune to hide the sea for the rest of our day’s journey. The rain returns and quickly we’re back into the day’s menace.
Eventually, Murphy’s law catches up with us. Bad energy definitely breeds bad energy – something Nita likes to call “Bad ju-ju.” The challenge is to bring yourself out of it; to emerge from it aware that how we are is helping to dictate the outcome of the day. But today, that challenge is going unanswered and, in our experience, that’s when life throws you a little reminder.
The first reminder is a lucky miss for both of us. Belting along, we overtake a slow-moving car when I suddenly realize our lane is ending. I hit the gas and easily pass the car with Nita following along. What I don’t notice is that we’re entering a huge roundabout! I hit the brakes hard and enter the intersection with my heart racing. Behind me, Nita’s still hard on the gas when she blows past the obscured yield sign. Her weaker front brake doesn’t slow her as quickly and she enters the circle very hot. Fortunately, there’s a break in the traffic. The experience leaves us shaken and me feeling responsible for pulling her into the intersection. It’s turning into a rough day.
We’re feeling off. Nita’s disconnected from her bike and beating herself up for blowing the previous corner and the bear in me is out, getting stroppy as I ride my huffy bike. It’s never going to be a great day when all we can see is what isn’t working. We’re always learning and the off-days are as much a part of this trip as the on- ones.
We’ve left the interesting roads behind and now we’re rollicking along the ‘N’ roads – Frances high-speed toll-road system. At 130 kph, it’s a system developed for commerce, not for discovery but on a day like today we’re happy to use it. Get the day out of the way. Rush. Push. I move to the far left to pass a semi and, with a shudder, my bike loses power. I’m out of gas. The bike lurches and I quickly shoulder check to see if I can drift to the shoulder in front of the semi. As I move right the bike dies completely and I glide, powerless, in front of the truck who’s quickly gaining on me now. Onto the narrow shoulder that’s disappearing into a bridge, I come to a stop and immediately look for Nita. She passes and stops about twenty meters in front of me.
We dash madly back and forth, emptying our fuel canisters into the bikes with trucks passing by so closely we have to watch our Kriega packs while fueling. It sucks. And it’s scary. In my mind I think of every gas station we’ve passed; the high-speed road has emptied the tanks thirty kilometres earlier than normal. I watch the mileage like a hawk to avoid this very thing but my headspace to push on – to just get through the day – has yielded what is a truly predictable result. It’s yet another good lesson but one I’m really not interested in at the moment.
The rain continues to belt down and, with a brief gap in traffic, we rejoin the trucks and cars. The GPS leads us to a gas station that’s inaccessible from this side of the road and so I plot another. We pull into a station off of the main highway and follow the instructions in French. Even with “Visa” printed all over the pumps, the cards – all three of them – are rejected. It’s a common occurrence here. With it being mid-afternoon the attendants are long gone which makes the cash I’m carrying completely useless. Only one other car is fueling and, in a combination of broken French and looks of pleading we negotiate a deal with the woman – she’ll fill our bikes on her card and I’ll pay her cash.
At first, she’s reluctant, but she quickly warms up to us. She sees the Canadian flag on the bikes and begins asking us questions in French. We do our best to talk to her, to smile; to pretend the day’s been going well. Her generosity has really helped and when the bikes have slurped up as much fuel as they can, I pay her €50 for the €45 fill, she smiles in appreciation for the small gesture, and we’re on our way.
It’s a turning point for the day. Emotionally, Nita and I are running on empty and it’s time to slow it down. We need to eat. We need to relax for a moment. Off of the highway, we follow the traffic down a ‘D’ road and to our right we see the golden arches of MacDonalds. We never eat at MacDonalds, but today its comfort. With water pooling at our feet, we order everything. We eat like we’ve never eaten before. And when we’re done, we order hot chocolate. When the waitress delivers our drinks, Nita and I feel a little shame at a number of boxes that are covering the table, but this stop is exactly what we need.
We re-route onto the backroads for the rest of the day’s journey and the pace is once again reasonable. The tension eases but doesn’t disappear, and even the smallest annoyance seems magnified. We make it to our gîte in Villecroze after missing its gravel driveway about four times which, somehow, seems like the end of the world. There are days like these – not often, but they happen.
Once through a gate and down the gravel road, we’re met by Stephanie, the owner of our gîte. Unfazed by the puddles forming around our boots, she shows us around “Domaine des Chevaliers” and we’re duly impressed by it. Again, the cost is far less than a motel at home and yet it feels quite luxurious here. After making sure we’re settled, Stephanie returns to the gîte with some milk for tea and coffee. With the haul of food at MacDonalds, dinner isn’t required. Some quiet time, a bath, and a bourbon set the mood for the evening.
It goes without saying that the next day is spent quietly at the house. The rain is incredibly heavy and this Mediterranean isn’t quite the one we’d imagined! Still, our spirits are much better than the previous days and a relaxing time is a welcome change. Since we didn’t stop to pick up groceries, we use the day to test some of the camping food we’ve brought along which makes for some fun times in the kitchen. I’m half tempted to bring the stove in from the bike but the prospect of a gasoline-powered burner indoors quickly fades.
We spend the next two days setting out between downpours for supplies and to check out some of the local roads around Villecroze which are definitely more like the alpine routes we’ve seen on our other trips. The gently twisting valley roads yield willingly to the gnarly, tight roads with crumbling asphalt that climb to the hilltop villages along the length of the divide. The sun also makes some brief appearances which have us looking forward to some proper exploring in the next few days. Soon enough though it disappears behind the clouds, and it’s a race home against the weather.
We’re happy to end our short days ride with writing, photo-editing and a warm meal at home and while we’re working away we’re visited by our host, Stephanie. A British ex-pat, she’s excited to see the latest Bond film, Skyfall and asks if we’d like to join her at an English showing in Cotignac. We’ve already seen it in Portsmouth with Kath and Ian, but the idea of a night out at the movies is very appealing. We make a plan for the last night of our stay and feel quite fortunate to have been invited – and for the kindness of a stranger.
The next morning we take a quick ride into Salernes, a lovely little town that’s famous for its tile and ceramics. Coincidentally, we receive a text from our friends Kath and Ian letting us know that the tiles in their house are from Salernes! Quite a small world indeed. We’re also on the hunt for a bank – preferably a post-office since their machines seem quite happy to dispense funds to us without much of a hassle. There’s a market in the centre of town that’s adding some hustle and bustle to what is normally a peaceful place and the energy here is great.
That night, with Stephanie’s help, we plan a route that will take us through the surrounding villages, markets and hilltop towns. Eventually, after some bourbon and a pipe under the stars, we devise a route that will take us through Villecroze, Aups, Cotignac, Carcès, Thoronet Abbey, Lorgues, Flayosc and finally Tourtour. The plan is promising.
With a great sleep under our belts, GPS’s loaded with the day’s route and a light breakfast in our bellies, we head out. The morning light is low and the cloudless sky gives us a glimpse of what a summers day might be like. The GPS seems intent on looping us around Villecroze trying desperately to get us back to a waypoint that we’ve missed. This need to hit every mark is part of the failure built into these devices. After a quick deletion of the waypoint in question, we’re back on the road and winding our way up the mountainside towards Aups.
The road to Aups, and later Tourtour are some of the twistiest, narrowest and gnarliest roads we’ve seen in France. Indeed, the south-west of France has offered up some exceptionally technical roads – the best we’ve seen since northern California. The sheer frequency of these roads is improving our riding each day, which can only help when the road simply disappears later on.
Aups itself is full of life. It’s tiny streets lead us into a central square that’s filled with vendors plying their wares at the market. Some of the streets are closed and it’s impossible to find parking but we’re greeted with curious looks and plenty of smiles. After unsuccessfully finding a place to leave the bikes we round the square one more time before heading out of town and down the long, winding roads that lead us towards Cotignac.
On our way, we stop by Sillans-la-Cascade to try and see a waterfall we’ve heard about on our travels. Up a hiking trail and well out of view from where we are, we look but never find it. Incidentally, the town itself seems to have no signage to help with finding the falls so we decide to carry on towards our next destination.
The approach to Cotignac is quite magnificent. Descending from a range along a sheer cliff with little – and often no – retaining wall, it’s a testament to overcoming any fear of heights! As the road winds back on itself the view down into the townsite below is wonderful. We make our way to a central square and just find a nice place to park when an ageing headbanger starts waving us up the street with a smile. There’s motorcycle parking in the square itself and we quickly head further along at his direction. Nestled tightly between concrete planters, this “bike spot” is a great place to leave the bikes!
Two other riders have just parked their bikes in the same area and we chat for a bit about our journeys. We’re becoming more aware of bike parking in France and the difference compared to Canada. Whereas in Calgary parking is strictly limited to “proper” spots and any deviation is punished quickly by law enforcement or the locals (I once had a beer bottle thrown at me for parking legally on a sidewalk with about fifty other bikes during a rally), in France it seems that people would rather we didn’t take up car spots with our bikes. Generally, we can park anywhere that isn’t a hazard or blocking access and it makes a lot of sense.
As we walk the square in hope of finding a place to enjoy a nice café creme, we’re reminded that one of the hazards we hear about on the road are wild dogs. Australia has Dingos, Africa has Hyenas and North America has its Wolves. France has its own particular breeds of ferocious wild dogs and a rare but deadly white Malti-Poo chases us through the streets of Cotignac until we find safe haven in a small café. Flush with the excitement of the chase, we find a corner in the back of a pizza joint and enjoy our coffee while noticing how great the pizzas look. We make a mental note to return for dinner on our movie night with Stephanie.
After picking up some postcards we make our way to Carcès which is absolutely packed! Famous for its trompe l’oeil wall murals and whimsical fish-scale tiles that adorn some of its buildings, the town’s weekly market is in full swing and finding a place to park is next to impossible. We circle the town twice along it’s steep, traffic-filled roads before finding a lovely lookout from which we can see all the action unfold below. We press on and discover the ruins of the beautiful Thoronet Abbey that are nestled secretly in the woodlands just a short hike off of the main road.
As we sit at the quiet intersection trying to figure out where the entrance to the parking lot is, a GSX-R blasts past the intersection missing the turn while his friend on a Ducati Hypermotard, circles us much like a villain from the original Mad Max movie. Once around us, Mr. Mad Max blasts down the road to catch his friend, who has now turned around and is heading back this way. It’s an impatient dance of u-turns, hand-signals and head-shaking, but eventually, they decide on a direction and disappear into the distance.
Built in 1230 and home to Cistercian monks, Thoronet Abbey is a wonderfully tranquil place to visit. For some reason, our admission is waived and we get to spend the afternoon’s fading light amongst the cool rooms and crumbling walls of its structure. We’re allowed to roam the abbey freely and we find beautifully sparse rooms set almost as a counterpoint to its massive hall and it’s ornate stained-glass window. Time seems to move more slowly here, even now.
We say our farewell to the abbey and make our way along some beautifully sweeping roads towards Lorgues, one of the larger towns in the area. We turn well off of the ‘D’ road and down a small lane where the asphalt disappears into a mix of surfaces with varying quality. Barely wide enough for a single car, the road twists behind sparsely plotted homes before descending into a forest. It runs along the river flanked by trees exploding in autumn colours and eventually leads us to a shallow river crossing. With the pavement left behind long ago, we cross the river and up a steep embankment on the other side – our helmets filled with laughter, hoots and hollers the entire time. This is fun!
Over the embankment, we enter the town of Flayosc before heading back towards Villecroze and the hill-top town of Tourtour. One of the highest towns in the region and considered one of the most beautiful towns in France, Tourtour doesn’t disappoint. Neither does the road that takes us there. The sun is low and golden, and the trees that surround us are all shades of red and yellow. Our route seems to take us up for and eternity and the road are completely devoid of straight lines. Weaving it’s way up the mountainside, the narrow road provides some of the most beautiful riding we’ve seen.
As we enter Tourtour we’re taken aback by its incredibly narrow streets. They seem barely wide enough for two bikes let alone a car and they’re ferociously steep in places. We stop to take in the views of Provence which, from this vantage point, are breathtaking. A photo-op on one of the steep roads holds up a man in a car who waits patiently, but places like these need to be captured on camera. On the way out of town, we stop again (in a no-parking zone) to simply take in the view one last time. Everything is so beautiful it’s hard to think. We feel so full, so content. The beauty of this moment isn’t lost on us.
On the descent, the sun is completely blinding. Every turn seems to be negotiated by feel but the glow of the day holds on and our spirits are high. We feel fortunate to have seen all that we have today and that sense of peace follows us home to the gîte.
We spend our last day in Villecroze packing the bikes and getting ready for our movie night with Stephanie in Cotignac. Since a taxi would cost over €100, Stephanie gladly offers to drive and we arrive in town early for dinner. Stephanie leaves us to join some friends and we return to the pizza joint we’d scoped out for dinner a couple of days earlier. We quickly discover that, at 7:30 pm, they’re done serving pizza. It’s just another peculiarity of trying to buy anything in France! We walk down the square, into another restaurant and ask if they’re serving yet. “Mais oui!” is the answer and, with rumbling stomachs, we find a table.
Dinner at Chez Loli is so delicious! It’s more expensive than we’re planning but we have rarely had dinner out since arriving in Europe and just chalk it up to a treat. The food is exquisite and the service is extremely friendly – a place we would visit again given the opportunity.
We make our way down the dimly lit streets towards where we think the movie theatre is. A sign at the entrance of the lane lets us know we’re on the right track until a sign at the other end of the lane points in the opposite direction! Did we somehow miss the theatre? We turn back and miss it again. Finally, we ask a group of three young men where the theatre is and one offers to take us to it. Walking down the same street, we arrive at a nondescript door, which he opens. Part of me feels like we’re about to get mugged and when I look inside there’s still nothing to indicate it’s actually a cinema. “Upstairs,” he says with a smile and when I look, I see the posters lining the wall.
The theatre itself seats about fifty people and, on this night, it’s showing Skyfall in English – or “version originale” which usually means it also has subtitles in French. Entry is €6 and the small space is quickly filling up with British ex-pats. Stephanie arrives with about eight friends and they all seem very happy! I have to say it’s one of the best movie-watching experiences we’ve ever had. The crowd is here for a good time and the banter between the screen and the audience is remarkably funny. The ladies in the crowd seem intent on letting Daniel Craig know that he’s welcome in their, ahem, “homes,” and the action is often met with laughs or loud gasps. Our pillowy red seats are the perfect place to watch it all unfold.
The drive home is filled with talk about Bond, night-time views of Cotignac in the valley below and the wonderful lights that illuminate its ancient tower. The next morning, we finish loading the bikes and Stephanie visits us to say goodbye. She’s printed our tickets for a train to Paris – part of a plan to surprise our families at home over the holiday. For now, Paris will have to wait, our next stop is Valbonne and then Nice. We’ve skirted the Mediterranean over the past week but soon we’ll be there; on the sea with our feet in the water.
And we’ll have gotten there on motorcycles ridden from home.