Robert Seeney Photography Touring Motorbike » Photography Biking Nottingham East Midlands

Europe Part 13 – J’entend ton coeur

‘Wealth consists not in having great possessions but in having few wants’ Epictetus

St Tropez, as you do, Canon 5d2, 16-35L

So the plan was to ride the Catalan Pyrenees and head for Marseille but since lodging anywhere near Marseille was pricey I found an ‘Apartement’ near Aix-en-provence. No idea what an Apartement was but it was on a ridiculously cheap offer so why not? Seemed like a reasonable place to head for – not too far form the Gorge du Verdun and the Cote d’Azur and half way to Italy. The Gorge looked interesting but I wasn’t overly fussed about seeing the Cote d’Azur but since I was there…

It was a pleasant ride over the Catalan Pyrenees and through the National park – not as impressive as the Northern Pyrenees but good none the less. The wind was beginning to build though and that slightly vague feeling in the front end was a bit demoralising. After the winds from Belchite I didn’t want to go through it again. I crossed the border into France which was little more than a sign on the side of the road advising me of new speed limits. By the time I dropped out of the Pyrenees and hit the outskirts of Perpignan, the wind was at full force. My old friends the wind turbines were in abundance, spinning so fast that I did wonder if these things ever came loose and flew off into orbit. Probably not I reasoned inside the confines of the sweaty helmet. Another gust of wind hit the side of the bike and I snapped back into concentrating on the asphalt.

Having joined the main autoroute to munch some miles I took advantage of one of their service stations. Pretty much like our service stations but with baguettes instead of cobs. Overpriced of course as ever so I made do with a raisin bar and a swig of Andorran tap water as I watched the various pieces of detritus get flung around outside in the wind. Joy, its a full blown gale and my eyes focussed on the dozen or so turbines off the coast – I could almost ‘feel’ the rotation of those things even from a mile away.

The autoroute was a constant flow of lorries – hundreds and hundreds of them which made riding even more hairy with the cross winds. My shoulders would ache that night from having too tight a grip but at least it wasn’t as bad as Belchite. It’s a motorway, it’s fast, it’s dull so not much to report other than pulling off and parking by an F1 teams transporter. The winds died off  as I approached Montpellier and the remaining ride to Aix-en-Provence was far more relaxed.

Apartement – like Apartments but with added e, Aix en Provence, iPhone

It took me an age to find the Apartement – it was on the back of an industrial estate in the middle of nowhere. One of those roads where you think ‘ this can’t possibly be right’. My issue was that I had ridden down that particular road three times and turned back because it went nowhere. The fourth time I carried on after contacting the place and being told to take a sharp left behind an abandoned building. I did have visions of a sign saying ‘Bates motel 200 yards’…

However, the Apartement was one of the most unique places I have stayed. I spent a good half an hour wandering around it after checking in – never seen anything like it! It’s structure is open to the air with three tiers of rooms. The rooms have full shutters operated electronically to give privacy but then of course you are restricted to artificial light in the room. Most of the rooms were owned/rented by residents whilst some of them (mine included) were rented out on a day rate to business travellers. Decent enough and despite some initial trepidation, I managed to get the shower on full blast (although I was standing at arms length as I switched it on – my memory had’t faded that quickly)

I was in the middle of nowhere and had neglected to pick up food so made use of their on site restaurant. Expensive considering how I had been living but I was hungry, tired and figured ‘when in France…’ Amazing meal even though I ordered off the cheap part of the menu! I felt like I was in France – aided by the old lady with the little dog who sat there with her wine, spraying perfume occasionally on to her neck and making incessant demands of the waiter. Quintessentially French – I half expected Renee from ‘Allo ‘Allo to pop out from behind the bar.

Bed was comfy – deep mattress and pillows which enveloped me and sent me to the land of Nod.

Moi dans le moto, Lac de Sainte-Croix, Drift Cam grab

I was up early, loaded the bike and stretched out in the car park, rolling my shoulders, leaning on the seat and stretching my hamstrings and rotating my neck. All sorted, looked around and there is a woman sat in a car giggling. I can only presume it was a nervous giggle having seen this hunky guy working out in from of her so I nodded at her, grinned and strode into the reception away from her amorous gaze. Made her day no doubt.

Off I pootled on slow secondary roads until I reached the shimmering waters of Lac de Sainte Croix. what a stunning place – it takes your breath away. There are very few places to stop and admire it from the high road so if you ever go then be on the sharp lookout for the two pull in’s – you can easily pass them by. I would love to give the route I took but I got (wilfully) lost and wandered around much of the National Park, exploring the various roads that lead through the region. The roads are stunning and deadly. In all the 3 months of touring, this was the most dangerous road I travelled on. Parts were a joy, parts were lethal.

The ride over the ‘top’ of the lake is twisty, narrow and with many blind bends. On one bend, I had slowed right down because there was no visibility at all – just a huge chunk of sheer cliff face on my left. Turning into the corner I had to hit the brakes on full – ABS kicked in, bike juddered and my eyes went wide. I managed to stop about 10 feet short of a camper van that had decided to park on the narrow road on the wrong side. The occupants were outside the van at the rear taking photos of the lake. 10mph faster and I would have been inspecting their engine. On the plus side, the ABS worked. I’m not familiar with much sign language so I resorted to a few basic signs as I manoeuvred past them – they seemed to get the message.

Lac de Sainte-Croix, Canon 5d2, 16-35L

There were a lot of bikes on that road but they thinned out after you pass the Northern tip and head down the minor road towards the Gorge du Verdun (D952). My memory gets a bit hazy here as to the exact route since I took various turns to explore. I rode both the left and right banks of the gorge and they were very narrow roads with 90-120 degree blind twist backs. Traffic was very light – presumably because it is a very difficult ride/drive. I doubt that I got much out of third gear and with some steep descents and multiple bends it was tricky to overtake several logging HGV’s that were thundering along the road. I remember at one point realising how hard I was having to concentrate. If I am honest, it wasn’t enjoyable in the least. At one point I had pulled off into a lay by and a car had pulled in behind with two tourists from Eastern Europe. I couldn’t understand what they were saying but it was obvious there was some joke at my expense. I got back on the bike and moved on and within a few miles, they came screaming up behind me. I let them pass, which they did with little room to spare and hit their brakes as they dived back in. I backed right off and they headed off into the distance.

I rode over some low mountains, some gorgeous valleys and then arrived at the Gorge (below) which was a beautiful part of the ride with the road being slightly safer to be on. Time had got away from me again with the various bits of exploring I had done and I was 2 hours behind schedule.

Gorge du Verdun, Canon 5d2, 16-35L

The right bank of the Gorge is where things get tricky – rapid descents, no visibility, logging lorries and constant low gear changes. I was on the edge of my seat all the way back down the gorge. Rounding one bend, there was a car crashed into a barrier with the occupants outside and walking around. I slowed down, they were OK and obviously on their phone. The woman was shouting at the man, the man had his hand on his head and the phone on speaker. The car ‘wing’ at the front was crumpled and hanging. As I rode past slowly, I gave cheeky nod number two of the day as I recognised the people as being the muppets who had been laughing earlier and had buzzed me. Karma.

Somewhere near Palad du Verdun, Canon 5d2, 16-35L

I let out a huge sign of relief as I finished the descent and got on to a ‘boring’ straight road with good visibility. It took about an hour and a half to reach St Tropez from there. I had booked accommodation at a beach front place (which had a ridiculous deal on it which I later found out was an error on the website but they graciously honoured the deal…) and had to ride past it but I figured I would make the most of the day and do a quick stop in St Tropez. I hadn’t factored the insane traffic leading into ST though – backed up for miles but I eventually got through it and parked up in the main harbour. Quickly stripped down in the car park to shorts and t-shirt and with a bit of force got my gear rammed in the top box.

Moi avec le boat, Canon 5d2, iPhone

As you enter the ‘posh’ bit of the harbour you are accosted by tour boat guides. They must think people are stupid – putting stunningly attractive women on the gates to lure you into a harbour tour. Anyway, 10 minutes later I was on the boat. In my defence, I had little time and I like boats so a short hour cruise after a long days ride seemed perfect. It was. We sailed around the harbour and coast line looking at the various houses of some celebrities. I wasn’t paying much attention to who lived where – I was just glad to kick my feet out, sit back and enjoy the ride. It’s well worth doing if you go – you see pretty much all of St Tropez. I wandered into the famous small harbour after the ride and seeing that a coffee was £12 I made a swift exit from the cafe and headed back on to the main harbour front in search of a cheaper beverage

St Tropez, Canon 5D2, 16-35L

Now, many people will go to ST and remember the stunning houses, the amazing super boats, the celebrities. Not me – that was cruelly taken from me as I sat guzzling a diet cola at a small cafe. As I sat there, peering through my glasses and watching the tourists and the obvious wealthy walk up and down, there was a gap in the flow and two people, dressed in flannel and the thin white sarong material appeared. He was without a shirt and relied only on a gold chain dangling from his neck which looked similar to the one I lock my bike up with. His belly seemed to have a will of it’s own as it shunted from one side to the other, keeping time to the plodding of his feet like some weight watchers metronome. Then my eyes turned slightly to the left and there she was. Just a sarong on, a very thin sarong with various bits poking out all over the place. They weren’t poking out in the direction they should be and I had to do a double take to work out just exactly what the hell was going on. Racy and daring to do that on the harbour front at ST but when your skin is wrinkled from the sun to the point that it’s not a tan it’s more of a three month exposure from Fukushima then we are heading in to Tales of the Unexpected Territory. Like a car crash unfolding in from of you, time slows and you can’t stop looking. As they passed, the guy opposite me looked over, grinned and raised his coffee. I shook my head and grinned, he laughed.

I spent the evening at Les Issambres in a stunning place right on the beach. I didn’t spend much time there as I headed straight for the beach, ate, had a beer and watched the sun go down. A bit of planning over the beer on google and I figured I would ride the Cote d’Azur through Cannes, Monaco and then cross into Italy. I’d found a really cheap mountain house on Air BNB just across the border so it was easily doable in a day. Sleep came easily that night, mainly because of the concentration needed on the roads that day.

Sunrise over Cannes, taken from Les Issambres, Canon 5d2, 16-35L

Watching the sun rise over Cannes the following morning was special – I’d woken early and wandered to the beach. i love that feeling as the sun rises and you can feel the first rays of light begin to warm your face as they drive away the chill of the night air. Such a peaceful moment with just the lapping of the waves and the occasional shadowy procession of sea birds flying across the sun

I took a swim that morning before leaving – the water was still cold from winter but it did my aches and pains no end of good. A bit of bike chat with one of the owners (he had a VFR and had done lots of touring), light breakfast and I was off. Riding the South of France is a slow affair – heavy traffic and numerous small towns on the coast make progress slow. It’s not an issue though as I was ready for it having been warned the previous evening. I took it slow and steady, took in the views and enjoyed the chance to have the visor up to let the air on my face. The coast road is very pleasant and at places is framed by red rocks which jut out into the ocean. I stopped in Cannes for a short period – the film festival was about to get underway and traffic was crazy. I noticed bikes parking all over the place and so I followed suit. Unfortunately, I parked in an area I shouldn’t and came back to find my bike with a ticket on and being guarded by two large security men. A bit of fast talking and profuse apologies and they let me go – I had managed to park in the drop off area for VIP’s…

Coast Road on the Cote d’Azur, Canon 5D2, 16-35L

Cannes was a larger version of St Tropez. If you like that sort of thing then its pleasant. Not my bag though so having wandered the harbour, had a drink and explored a few streets I moved on and got back on the coast road to Monaco.It dawned on me that the F1 HGV I had seen a couple of days previously would have been on its way to Monaco for the Grand Prix. In the end, I missed Monaco – pretty sure I had experienced the South of France through ST and Cannes and Monaco would have been more of the same. Time to get to the border and enter Italy and back into the Mountains.

Harbour at Cannes, Canon 5d2, 16-35L

So my views on the South of France? Great weather, beautiful sunrises and great food. Not really a place for biking though but worth seeing on a short trip unless you like the city break type holiday and want to have a relaxing break with a loved one.

As I crossed the border into Italy I let out a huge grin. This was one of the key places I had wanted to get to – pasta, wine and the rolling fields of Tuscany beckoned. It didn’t disappoint.

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