July 19, 2018
With the slightly bitter taste of la Pelonié leaving our mouths, the first stretch of the day leads us along wonderful country roads. These flowing lanes of narrow tarmac flanked by dense trees and a vibrant green are what had us fall in love with France months ago. If time were to permit, I’m certain we’d spend many more years exploring these roads alone. But time doesn’t always permit and, for now, the push east to Niedereschach continues.
There’s a reason we travel slowly. Endless hours on a motorway, chucking money at toll-booths and navigating the wheels of heavy-trucks isn’t really experiencing a place. It’s surviving. The goals become “Getting there” rather than “Being there” and it can all seem a little too much like hard work. Still, it’s hard to complain once we feel the cool air passing over us and the blue of the skies above our heads. Even on these roads, this a decent day.
The upside of French highways is that they’re in great shape and relatively quiet. Sure, there are the occasionally manic stretches of traffic but, generally, it’s incredibly still. Our only attempt to find an interesting road leads us to a long queue of dump trucks and a forty-minute wait while a crew tries to stop a partially collapsed embankment from blocking the entire road. In fact the only moments of terror that remain are the toll stations – or gare de péage. Long gone are the consistent, easy-to-use baskets for change. Now we’re onto ten- to twenty-deep megaplexes that leave travellers guessing as to which booth accepts what kind of payment. The best gates have people in them – though as we approach it’s hard to tell which ones are inhabited. That’s because the electronic booths have been designed to look similar to manned-booths and they all have solid aluminum backs, so our hope of seeing a figured outline is an empty dream.
Some gates accept coins, but no bills or credit. Others accept coins and bills but no credit. Some accept credit and bills. Some only work with France’s electronic “Pay-as-you-go” system that’s closed to travellers and the illuminated signs above the booths truly provide no insight into what you’re going to get. It’s exciting!
The first gate is the only real problem of the day. After slowing to nearly a stop, I head to what looks like a manned booth but it turns out to be credit cards only. With another line building behind us, a woman in a hi-viz vest finally emerges to save us! Taking exact change she gets us through after a brief conversation with HQ over the walkies. With the first gate out of the way, we make it through the rest of the tolls fairly easily.
There’s still plenty of heat in the air but today there’s a possibility we’ll see some thundershowers – our first rain for as long as we can remember. The sparse highways allow us to make up plenty of miles without a drop of the wet stuff and, as distant clouds begin to rumble, we pull into a Campanile just north of Clermont-Ferrand in Riom.
The one (and only) other time we were at a Campanile, it was our first hotel in France and the moustached woman at reception gleefully let us know just how annoying we were for trying to speak French and failing to meet her standard. Hoping that was a one-off experience and hoping we’ll finally end our current run of, well, feeling like an inconvenience, I walk into the lobby with the biggest smile I can muster while Nita watches the bikes.
Letting the man behind the desk know we have a reservation, he shoots me a look of utter exasperation before throwing his hands in the air and telling me he doesn’t know what the hell I’m saying.
“Take off the helmet – I can’t understand your mumbling English. Speak en Français, non?”
Okay, so we’ve established that this isn’t the end of us being an inconvenient blight on this part of our journey through France.
He impatiently drums his fingers on the counter while he’s forced to wait for me. Surprisingly, the removal of my helmet – and the disappearance of my smile – seems to help things run a little smoother. Perhaps it’s the smiling that’s offensive?
With the room sorted, we unpack and settle in. I think we’re both feeling a bit deflated with our experiences on this run. We have to believe that the way we’re travelling to Touratech HQ has something to do with it. We’re travelling fast, always working to get somewhere else, along roads that are less about discovery and more about commerce. In essence it attracts a different kind of traveller and a different kind of host. The soul of our journey is missing on this leg but the miles are impressive.
Thankfully, our run of rudeness is abruptly ended with dinner that night. Our waiter at the hotel is incredibly warm and soon we’re feeling a little more normal. With a lovely glass of wine we end the night watching movies in our room before easily falling asleep.
The next morning the sun is bright but the damp on our seats hints at an overnight rainfall. It’s been four countries a couple of months since we’ve seen the wet stuff but the temperature today is absolutely wonderful as we load the bikes; the mid-twenties feel beautifully chilly these days. My moment of peace is shattered as, out of the corner of my eye, I see the man who checked us in emerge from the foyer of the hotel and make his way toward us.
We brace ourselves.
Through some peculiar shift in the trade winds this man is now, inexplicably, interested in us. In perfect English he begins to tell us that the nearby Dune of Pilat in France is much better than the dunes in Morocco; he assures us that he’s ridden both and is quite an expert in such matters. I’m less gobsmacked by that notion than I am by the fact that he’s speaking to me in excellent English – a feat that seemed impossible only twelve hours ago.
Far from the barking I experienced the day before, the man is now a wealth of helpful information – offering routes and, upon seeing the condition of Nita’s front tire, directions to the nearest shop that can change it. His phone emerges from his pocket and he begins flipping through photos of his various motorcycles much like a proud father would with his children. Still, words escape me – yesterday my “Mumbling English” was as foreign as trust to a liar.
After getting a phone number for the bike shop from our suddenly bilingual host, we make our way back to the highway. It’ll be another day of wide and fast roads heading east towards Lyon and a rendezvous with our good friend Stephen who’s travelling through Europe in fulfillment of a promise to himself, made prior to having a brain tumor removed. Fate has it that we’ll all arrive in Lyon on the same day. Now that’s timing.
Our route into Lyon is as nondescript as the previous days. Fast toll-roads lead us quickly into this, the second largest city in France. Just west of the city a long network of tunnels filter us to the northeast until we emerge just in time for one last toll, before looping back toward our hotel. As we pull alongside our home for the next few nights it’s hard to tell where to park. Stopping to figure out our next move, a waving hand suddenly leads our eyes to a smiling and familiar face; Stephen’s already here.
We’re so excited to see our dear friend it’s hard to contain our joy. We still haven’t figured out where to park the bikes but, after a quick roundabout, we hop onto the sidewalk and ride a little ways to a pull-in that keeps us out of the way while we check-in. I think the hugs start before we’re even fully off of the bikes – there’s something about seeing someone from home that brings the whole trip together for us.
Having endured his own real trauma, seeing Stephen is even more special for us. After passing out in his home and hitting his head, a subsequent scan at the hospital revealed a golfball-sized tumour in his brain. His journey around Europe is a reward for undergoing an invasive surgery to have it removed, and a way of keeping a promise he made to himself to no longer wait for “Later” when it comes to lifelong dreams. His story is truly an inspiration.
The Appart’City Lyon Cité in Lyon is perfect for us. We can easily walk to the interesting parts of town or, if we prefer, there’s a tram that stops across the street which, for €2, gives us an hours access to the entire transit system. It still feels a little new at the hotel and we’re met by a young and friendly staff who initially give us the wrong room; for a remarkably good rate, we secure a room with a kitchenette to help us save some money.
After checking in, the three of us head to our suite and we introduce Stephen to one of the unwritten side-effects of adventure – the smell! With many pre-emptive apologies, the boots come off and it’s not long before even he acknowledges that the gear (and now the room) stinks. With the windows open wide, we spend some time catching up on everything that’s happened over the past year – and by the sounds of it there’s been plenty of changes on both ends of the world.
Stephens picked up a room in a flat through AirBnB and, with a plan to meet up later, he leaves to meet his host while we settle into our home that’s now smelling marginally better.
Our walk from Saint-Clair into Villeurbanne takes us on a long bridge spanning the tunnels of the Boulevard Périphérique Nord, over le Rhône, past a fantastic art-installation on the underbelly of an overpass and the Parc de la Tête d’Or – outside of which we meet Stephen. Armed with a giant map of Lyon, we all quickly decide to leave the exploring until tomorrow and grab a bite at a nearby brasserie instead.
Heading into the sixth arrondissement, we notice that Neil Young and Crazyhorse are playing here a few days after we leave – a huge drag for us but, with tickets still available, a possibility for Stephen. We also notice posters for the Tour de France which is making a rare stop in Lyon on the day we’re meant to leave. The Tour is something I’ve always wanted to see and suddenly our two-night stop here is feeling far too short.
Sitting on the patio of this busy brasserie in Brotteaux, catching up on a year of stories and people-watching is all that occupies our time until long after the sun disappears. With a hug goodbye and plan for Stephen to stop by for a home-cooked breakfast, Nita and I make our way back to our hotel and a good nights sleep.
The next morning, the call of the Tour de France is simply too strong and we add third night to our stay to watch the supermen in colourful lycra (Lycrans in myth) race by. Besides, Lyon is far too interesting to pass up and a single day to enjoy it’s offerings is ludicrous. At ten o’clock sharp, Stephen arrives for breakfast with a bag of pain au chocolat in hand! Ahhh, France… We cook up some eggs, bacon, a side of greens and we’re ready for the day; well we would be if we didn’t get sucked into Le Zap while checking flights and trains for Stephens next leg to Cinque Terre!
With what should be an audible snap, we break away from the television and find ourselves in the sunlight of a beautiful day. The temperature is perfect for walking around town and, to save our feet, we catch a tram (well, really it’s an articulating bus with covered wheels made to look like a tram) back into Lyon. We spend some time wandering Brotteaux which is a beautiful district though obviously on the high-end of the scale. We manage to find a great camping and army surplus store which beautifully wastes a bit of our time before catching the metro to Hôtel de Ville in the first arrondissement.
A subject that’s been coming up again and again over the course of our walk is Stephen’s pining for a Slurpee. In fact, all his talk about them has Nita and I wanting one fairly badly too, but to be honest we don’t remember the last time we even saw one. On the metro, we all notice a young woman standing about twenty feet away sipping on a slushy which brings instant hope to our tastebuds. After more than a year of not seeing, thinking or hearing about these little sugar-bombs, the bright light of the metro exit leads us straight to slushy machine outside of a small café! Sometimes it’s the little things that make home feel so close.
We race to the café and watch impatiently as the young woman pours our drinks for us; the price is shocking but no-one cares. After the first heavenly sip, we find a shady side-street and enjoy our treats while sitting on the sidewalk in the cool morning air.
This part of Lyon is beautiful and somehow it reminds us of the best of other cities; it feels like New York, Paris, Nice and Barcelona in one. We spend the better part of the day stretching our legs along it’s streets, taking in it’s stores, parks and cafés at an easy pace. Every corner seems to contrast gothic cathedrals and Roman ruins against a backdrop of modern graffiti and a bustling street-life.
After a long day spent on our feet with Stephen we enjoy an ice cream of immense proportions at the famous Grand Café des Négociants before saying our goodbyes and making our way back to the hotel for the evening. Tomorrow, the Tour de France is making it’s way down the Rhône and we’re going to be there to see it!
At ten in the morning, we hear the familiar knock of Stephen at the door. This time he’s carrying his backpack instead of a bag of pain au chocolat; since we’d all only planned to stay in Lyon two nights, his stint with the AirBnB host is over and, as we have a pull-out bed in our front room, he’s going to spend the night with us – something we should have done from the start!
We’re all excited to see the Tour pass by but we’re also unreasonably excited to see if Le Zap is back on the telly. Apparently the success of cute, fail, wtf? and lol on the web translates quite well to television. Thankfully, the show isn’t on and we make a clean break from the room with most of our brain-cells intact.
Our meandering route eventually finds us an excellent spot at a café along the Tour de France route. With only hours to go before the first cyclists are expected to arrive the streets are unexpectedly quiet but, as we sip our coffees, the excitement builds slowly. Inside the café, a large television plays a live feed of the Tour, allowing us to catch the action in two places at once. As the sidewalks fill, the mayhem begins to peak and we finally feel as though we’ve arrived at the show. Cars, trucks and floats roll up and down the street; some blaring messages in French while others toss keepsakes and tchotchkes (yes, that’s how it’s spelled) at the gathered masses. The energy is incredible!
Finally, after hours of waiting and enjoying the atmosphere there’s an audible whisssshhhhh as the breakaway passes by. Their arrival is met with a riot of pumping fists, cheers and running-fools who try desperately to keep up with the bikes on foot. Then, a bottled calm. When the peleton arrives it’s more of the same. But for longer. Though, somehow, not long enough – though we’re sure it’s been long enough for the riders who’ve been riding hard for hours. Matteo Trentin, an Italian, eventually wins the stage after defending an attack that’s lasted 150 km.
The only thing faster than the riders is the rate at which the fans disperse after the cyclists go by. Soon, still holding our beers, the street is back to business as usual as if nothing special had happened here. But it had, and it was fantastic.
With the excitement still coursing through us, we wander the now empty streets of Lyon as if to hold on to it’s warmth just a little bit longer. We find a small chocolaterie and buy gelati to enjoy while the sun sets in the sky. There’s no-one around and the playfully green table outside is calling our names but, as we begin to sit, the owner of the shop informs us it will be another €3 to sit there. We look around at the empty streets and her empty shop and wonder aloud why any business would be so ridiculous. Shaking our heads, we notice a bench ten feet from the table and sit there instead. While she enjoys her perfectly empty space, we enjoy the fullness of friendship and a rather delicious gelato.
The next morning is a bittersweet affair. We’re excited to get moving again though the roads today are what they have been for the past few weeks on this run to Germany; wide, fast slab. More importantly though, it’s our last breakfast with Stephen before he makes his way into Italy. It’ll be a while before we see him again – or anyone from home – and his departure makes us feel a bit homesick. We say our goodbyes, then load our bikes for the days journey to Switzerland. By the time we make it back onto the highway, we already miss our friend.
What the road lacks in inspiration is easily made up for by the blue of the sky and the gently rolling landscape of the remaining French countryside. To be honest, the tame nature of the roads is a blessing since both of our tires are in pretty terrible shape. A hairy run through tight mountain switchbacks isn’t what’s needed right now.
Crossing into Switzerland offers a unique experience for our travels in this part of the world; rather than using toll booths like many countries, Switzerland has opted for vignettes – a sticker that’s purchased at the border and applied to the windscreen. The upside is that we wont have to deal with fussy toll-booths as we did in France. The downside is that the only option is a one-year motorcycle vignette which costs a whopping €33 per bike – a hefty cost considering we’re only using it for two days. Still, it gives us the option to return this way on our journey into Asia.
Also, since Switzerland isn’t part of the EU, there’s a small border checkpoint to negotiate as we approach Geneva. Here, we’re directed to an area where we purchase our vignettes from a lovely woman who sells them from a roll draped around her neck before applying them to our windscreens. Another country, another sticker.
The road through Geneva is busy and, while we’re making good time, the riding is hectic. Traffic is heavy, manic and the road surface feels like concrete which sends a fatiguing vibration shooting through our bodies. On a map there’s a hope for views of Lake Geneva, but along this road there’s only farmland in either direction. By the time we make it to Bavois, we’re both famished and, as we begin to imagine where we’d stop, an Autogrill appears to our left.
Much like Dr. Who’s Tardis, this seemingly average-sized truck-stop is gigantic inside and opening the door reveals a scene that’s more shopping mall than diner. Two floors house a cafeteria-style restaurant complete with coffee shop, gourmet food, quick eats, book shops and gift store. Best of all, the seating area is flanked by a two-story window that looks onto a beautiful green pasture allowing us a choice between serenity to our left or sensory-overload to our right.
We order a coffee, a couple of schnitzels, two waters and a juice – and it’s in this moment that we realize just how expensive Switzerland is. The total for lunch is €70 – an awesome sum compared to anywhere else we’ve travelled. It takes a moment for the vision to return to our newborn eyes.
Feeling quite sated, we ride the remainder of our journey to Berne along quieter roads and a sense of ease begins to set in. Not far from our destination for the day, our helmets are briefly filled with the smell of rich chocolate; the nearby Toblerone factory is pumping pure heaven out of it’s smoke-stacks, much as we imagine Willy Wonka might. It’s such a surprise that our senses are immediately awakened and the lull of the road is washed away instantly. Still smiling, we arrive at the Holiday Inn Bern – Westside, our home for the night.
The hotel is modern, the reception-staff are lovely and the view from our window provides a interesting collage of angular metal and grass-covered roof-tops set against a patchwork of quilted fields. Strangely, we’re attached to a mall which fails on the lets-see-a-movie-in-English front but does give us a choice of comparatively cheap places to eat. After a bite we grab a pint on the patio and lap up the remainder of the sun before calling it a night.
In the morning, we’re given a map to find our way out of the parking lot. It’s that big. Our destination for tonight will be Niedereschach. Finally. We’ve been motoring hard for a month to make a meeting with the good folks at Touratech HQ who’ve offered to install their purpose-built suspension on our bikes – an unexpected perk from our friends at Touratech USA! We’re stoked to try it. We’re also a full month late from the original date and are arriving at the shops busiest time. Luckily, they still manage to find time to fit us in.
We’re back on the slab for an hour before a missed breakfast catches up with us. We stop for lunch at a truck stop and are once again shocked by the sticker price of a schnitzel. It is delicious but man, so expensive. After hopping back onto the bikes we add insult to injury; our lunch stop is literally 500 m from the German border, where our €40 snack could easily be purchased for around €10. Look up Breibish, look up.
Again, there’s technically a border here but the guard waves us through with little interest and, suddenly, we’re in Germany. The first thing we notice is the disappearance of a speed limit on our GPS’s. Right. The autobahn! We totally forgot. While it means little for us since we’re slow, for our road-sharing speedsters it means insanity unleashed. Our tires are rated for a 160 kph max – a speed we fall well short of – even when there’s opportunity. On these roads even a leisurely 120 kph seems dawdling to those who prefer the far left lane. Checking the mirrors is crucial and closing speeds need to be monitored.
The second thing we notice is the German word for a highway exit, Ausfahrt. The child in me can’t stop laughing. Yes, it’s childish but there’s nothing in me that want’s to stop yelling it out at every passing – much to Nita’s amusement. AUSFAHRT!
I’m an idiot.
Eventually the compulsion eases and we enjoy the roads in relative silence before taking an Ausfahrt of our own into Obereschach and the lovely Gasthaus Sonne. Our hosts welcome us to their home with broad smiles and offer up their garage for our bikes – a beautiful gesture that never goes unnoticed. With our bikes unloaded, we make our way to the room and settle in. We’ll be here for a few days while the bikes get set up at Touratech HQ, then we’ll move into Villingen-Schwenningen while a local shop treats our bikes to a much needed service.
As the evening sun douses the Gausthaus in a beautiful golden blanket, we enjoy dinner and a pint on a warm patio behind the kitchen. It seems to be a popular meeting place for the locals and while we enjoy our first homemade plates of excellent Bavarian fare, a group of Alphorn players arrive and begin to practice in the nearby parking lot. Nita and I look at each other in complete astonishment; it’s a fantastic treat!
As we listen to the mellow horns play, we wonder aloud if there’s a more perfect way to end our first day in Germany. If there is, we can’t imagine it.