The crisp Loire Valley morning brings with it a morning light that’s very low in the sky. In fact it already feels like evening. We pack our bikes and say our farewells to Ken who’s been our wonderful paint-covered host at Les Frippières. As we’re about to leave, a mail truck pulls up and, with a smile, the driver hands me a parcel that’s meant for Ken. Playing delivery guy, I hand Ken his package before once again hopping on the bike. Meanwhile, Nita’s been trying to start her bike and I hear the battery struggling – after last nights 0°c, Nita’s bike takes 5 cranks to turn over. Her GS has been having a hard time turning over on cold mornings and it seems to be a common issue with these new, lightweight lithium-iron batteries by Shorai. While they don’t turn over the first time, they do seem to get stronger with subsequent cranks but I have to admit it’s concerning. She stops just a few minutes down the road to take a picture and turns the engine off which, on a normal battery, would be worrying. With her picture taken, the bike starts just fine which seems to validate Shorai’s belief that their batteries need to “get warm” to crank in cold temperatures. We’ll just have to keep an eye on it.
Nita’s beyond weak this morning and everything she does seems labored; in fact she even needs a break after loading her bags. Having left on an empty stomach we decide to grab breakfast in La Grand Pressigny where we’d pulled some stellar u-turns on the steep boat-ramp a couple of days prior. In comparison to Nita’s ape impressions while ordering eggs in Le Blanc a few days ago, today’s order goes smoothly and soon we’re presented with a plate of crepes, ham and eggs. We love the balance with food in France and almost every meal comes with a salad, every coffee with a sweet. It’s in stark contrast to some of the other places we’ve traveled where asking for a salad results in a side-plate of macaroni and cheese! We enjoy the food and take our time to make sure Nita’s fully ready for traveling. It’ll be a decent day as we head to Saint Pardoux Corbier, a town just south of Limoges, and I’ll be spending a fair bit of it looking in the side-mirrors making sure she’s alright.
Like most of France so far, the riding is wonderfully fun with sweeping roads that twist and turn. We roll along the narrow lieu-dit and watch rural life unfold as we pass by, slowing only for the tractors we meet along the road as they pull off to let us pass. The same tractors leave a trail of mud and debris that makes the road slippery, but some caution and common sense keeps the journey light. The roads often drop us into the middle of a centuries-old town filled with quiet streets, ruins and and least one or two active boulangeries that serve as a constant temptation. The pastries in France are delicious!
The only major city we pass through is Limoges and it’s substantially bigger than we expect. Weaving our way toward a massive central roundabout, we negotiate a detour and get a huge wave from a couple of guys standing on the corner. An old woman at the opposite corner who’s been watching us intently gives us a scornful look as if the yelling youngsters are our fault. I respond with a smile which impresses her even less. Way to bridge international relations, Breibish.
A tight right-hander and into a long line of traffic I see something moving on my left. Turning my head I see it’s a pizza delivery man on a moped who’s weaved his way through the line of cars for a quick chat! There’s a lot of hand-waving and smiles with very little comprehension. “C’est bon moto!” I nod appreciatively and, in broken English he lets me know that it’s way better than driving. It seems that even in a country where riding is so common, our journey doesn’t go entirely unnoticed. With a big wave, he jets off in good spirits and our traffic jam is starting to move once more.
We stop in a small village to pick up groceries for our stay in Saint Pardoux Corbier which is a bit of a change for us. Normally we head to our spot for the night and empty out the panniers for a shop but with the sun going down we’ve started filling the camping food bag and strapping it on top of my Kriega. I usually don’t like the extra bag because, well, I’m inflexible. The added height of the food-bag means throwing the ol’ leg over the bike takes a couple of tries and makes me feel like a bit of an old man! Still, I think it’s actually helping me become more flexible – call it MotoYoga™. Groceries in hand and everything packed I realize I’ve forgotten to find a spot for the bananas. No worries – I strap them to the side of the bike and hope they’ll still be there when we get to the gite.
With all of the organizing I fail to realize that we’re getting a good staring from some of the older locals – it’s one of the aspects of France that we’ve grown to love. There are wavers, smilers, nodders and starers and while the first three are often folks of all age groups, the starers are almost exclusively, well, old. Whether we’re riding, standing, walking, talking or laughing this group tends to stop and stare – usually with a look of curiosity on their face that can easily be mistaken for suspicion or disdain. But I love getting this look – it makes me want to give them hug and carry their groceries for them.
Again, as we get closer to our destination the GPS’s don’t really help us get to the gîte. The previous nights time spent in front of the maps helps us figure out exactly where we are and, after only one wrong turn and a lovely, tiny road, we arrive at the home of Jacqui and Dave. They’ve spent the last seven years getting their home and the surrounding buildings ready for guest and they’ve done a remarkable job. Like many of our hosts, the couple are British ex-pats who’ve started a new life in this wonderful country.
Jacqui meets us in the driveway and the laughing starts about thirty seconds from us stopping. While we’re chatting a white sprinter van backs into the driveway narrowly missing a number of walls, bushes and fences. It’s Davids workmate dropping him off after a day of roofing. “He’s a terrible driver.” David emerges from the passenger side door and seems to actually breathe a sigh of relief! We chat around the bikes for a while and feel an immediate affinity with them.
They’re wonderfully warm and Jacqui quickly shows us to the building we’ll be staying in. The gîte has been prepared with a bottle of wine, coffee and tea, butter and milk, pate, fresh local bread and a jar of jam that Jacqui makes on-site; all the necessities we need for a night in. Along with our groceries we’re set! Starving, we tuck into some bread, butter and the homemade jam – which is ridiculously good. Before we know it, half the loaf is gone and the smiles on our faces accurately reflects the joy in our bellies.
Just as we start to plan a proper meal there’s a knock at the door – David want’s to know if we’d like to join them for dinner! He suggests that we try some of the local cuisine and, after happily accepting the invite, he runs into town for supplies. After about an hour, we head over to their home and are welcomed in. Still under renovation the house feels very homey and the stove in the kitchen is amazing! They’ve converted the attached barn into a livable space and, for the first time since they bought the place, they have heat in their own home courtesy of the most beautiful wood-burning stove we’ve ever seen.
Dave and Jacqui are avid travellers, having spent a year backpacking around the world. They’re wonderful people filled with fantastic stories of travel and a palpable love of adventure. The conversation weaves around our lives and what brought all of us to where we currently are. Dave is ex-military, having spent time in the UK and in northern Africa with the French Foreign Legion – a fact that elicits images in my head from old films. He assures me it bears little resemblance those films and that the reality is, while at times hard, the source for some of the wonderful contacts in his life.
Dinner is amazing. While we’re talking in the kitchen Jacqui pulls some scotch eggs from the oven – a treat I’d grown up with in the UK. A favourite in my childhood home, it’s simply a boiled egg baked in sausage meat and breadcrumbs. When Jacqui finds out that Nita’s never had one they’re quickly added to he menu, and while it seems to be predominantly considered a kids food, we empty the plate leaving a few traces on the floor beneath us. Dave calls us to the table for dinner and we eagerly take our seats. This area is known for duck and Dave is happy to prepare a couple of excellent local recipes. I have to admit I don’t usually love duck, but this is fantastic. We start with gizzard which neither of us has ever had, then onto breast for the main course. Whereas the duck we eat in Canada is typically very fatty, this isn’t at all and yet it’s still full of flavor. Next up is a selection of local cheeses followed by a pudding with fruits from the local farmers. All in all, it’s an incredible dinner punctuated with some lovely regional wines. Being uninitiated in the art of choosing a French wine, Dave lets us know about the three essential markings to look for: (1) the label it needs to show that it’s been controlled by the region, (2) bottled on-site and (3) the top of the bottle should have an ‘N’ or other letter designation. With all three of those the bottle of wine should be pretty decent regardless of cost. Welcome advice indeed. Dave and Jacqui make us feel quite spoiled.
It turns into a late night that leaves us feeling quite inspired and, unfortunately, Nita a little worse for wear. Eventually we return to our lovely little gîte and nestle in for the night. Dave and Jacqui have friends coming in for the next two nights which means we don’t actually see them again until the day we leave which is a real shame. We enjoy our night with them a great deal indeed.
For the next two days Nita struggles with her cold. It’s heavy in her chest and the cough is keeping us both up. Rather than spend too much time moving about, we decide to lay low in the hopes that she’ll start to feel better before we move on to our next spot. Dave and Jacqui have a movie cave filled with DVD’s and an explorers den full of maps and brochures for adventuring in the area. Loaded up with movies we hunker down in our little home with an ever-present entourage of Limosin cows right outside our window. While most of the movies are normal retail DVD’s, some are purchased copies shot by someone filming in a theatre. It’s something we’ve found to be fairly common in France with stores and street vendors selling movies transferred to DVD. It makes for some funny moments as the camera is quickly zipped into a bag while an usher walks by or the silhouette of someone passing in front of the screen! It’s like watching an episode of Mystery Science Theatre 3000 at home.
All too soon it’s time to say goodbye to our little gîte, our hosts and our wonderful Limosin cows. After packing the bikes we meet up with Jacqui to say our goodbyes. Unfortunately Dave is working and we don’t get a chance to see him before we leave but we make a plan to let them know when we’re in India for the chance to meet up. With a smile and a wave we wind our way down their driveway and start heading south towards our night in Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne.
Nita seems to be on the mend but she’s definitely weak which is a shame since the days roads are truly wonderful. While the sun remains behind the clouds and patches of fog obscure the landscape, the rain has left us alone to enjoy some of the finest tarmac we’ve hit in France. Different from the narrow, sweeping roads of central and northwestern France, these roads are narrow, tight roads which wind through the valley-filled landscape of the Midi-Pyrénées. Slightly wider than a car, the road twists and turns, rising for what seems like an hour before dropping us into the neighbouring valley. The moments of easy turns are quickly replaced by tight switchbacks that weave us cliffside until eventually we’re rewarded with a wondrous view of the world around us. It’s epic riding country.
As the day progresses, the light seems to fade early. I turn the PIAA’s on to make myself more visible to oncoming traffic and, with a loud pop, I see that one’s just gone kaput. I’ll admit that I’ve had a bit of a tense relationship with everything tech-related on the trip so far – from the SPOT Connect, to the GPS’s (especially Nita’s Garmin Montana), and now the lights. These issues are really just fodder for upcoming reviews, but suffice to say it sometimes makes me want to go fully analog.
Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne is a beautiful town and a truly satisfying end to the days demanding roads. The Hotel Manoir de Beaulieu is our first hotel in some time and we find ourselves in the town square, close to everything this place has to offer. The hotel has secure parking in the rear and things are looking up. We had originally booked two nights here but then, upon closer inspection of our route, realized that two nights here meant a very long riding day the following day. So instead we’ve chosen to ride every day for the next three days. No biggie.
The hotel has lost our original booking and, after correcting it and assuring us the same room at the same price, pulls the ol’ bait-n-switch. We did get the same price but instead of a nice room, we’re tucked in a linen closet on the second floor. Still, it’s a room and we’re happy to be warm and dry.
After unloading the bikes we take a walk around the town and notice a constant hum of small-displacement bikes. As we approach a park by the river we see a group of teens, each with their own super-moto. A couple see us smiling and stop for a wave and a picture, before peeling out of the park at full-speed – which for these machines is about 50km/h. The high pitched buzz of the engine fades, then returns as they enter onto our street. The lead rider pops a wheelie while his friend who’s carrying a passenger is tucked as low as possible – possibly for aerodynamics but more likely the cool factor. They pass us with huge smiles and I’m convinced we could almost run as fast as them! They’re having a great time and their joy is infectious.
In fact, in Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne, teens on bikes are so present throughout the town we begin to feel like we’re visiting the French version of The Lost Boys. They seem to run the place!
At the first “coffee shop” we’ve seen since the UK (at least, as we know them), we discover the wonderful pastry that is the Cannelé, and man, they’re good. With a cup of coffee, Nita and I sit, bite and completely lose ourselves in these little treats. Ridiculous. Satisfied with our walk through town, we detour down a small alley and discover yet another medieval city that’s almost completely hidden from the main road. Everything is closed, so after taking some pictures of the amazing architecture, we walk back to the hotel to clean up for the evening.
While the hotel is in some disrepair, the town of Beaulieu-sur-Dordogne is not; a walk around at night reveals a healthy amount of action – from a busy karaoke bar to a great little kebab restaurant which offers the perfect meal for what has been a great day.
The next morning we awake to sound of heavy rain on the window and a nearby gutter that would lead us to believe an ark should be floating by at any minute. Getting packed to leave, Nita and I find it hard to get motivated; the awesome but physically demanding roads from the previous day have left her feeling completely knackered. We try to buy some time by heading for breakfast in the hotel – which is a strange affair. Signs everywhere advertise the small offering of luke-warm coffee, yogurt, fruit and cured meats for a hefty €12 per person which immediately has us looking for something else. The staff all seem eager to avoid eye-contact which is par for the course during our stay here but we decide to ask what the deal is with breakfast. With a certain unwillingness, the concierge lets us know that everything is free. Ahhhh, now it makes sense. Why we’re surrounded by €12 signs for petit déjeuner we never find out. We’ll just chalk it up to hotel quirkiness.
On the road it’s just above freezing and a dense fog is making our route along the hillside roads treacherous. The early morning rain, mixed with the mud from the tractors and the layer of freshly-fallen leaves makes every corner dangerously slick and we feel like we’re moving at a snails pace. We’re still on tight, narrow roads that are weaving their way through steep valleys and while they would be stellar on a dry day, slick roads, sheer cliffs and fog just make it a tense affair for both of us.
Realizing that the current pace has us arriving in Millau in the dark of night, we pull to the side of the road and adjust the route to get us to there on a more direct route. About twenty minutes later I get the strange feeling we’ve been down these roads before and a quick map-check confirms my suspicion; we’re repeating roads to get to the highway. It’s a bit of an emotional blow and, because we’re tired, the day is feeling like a bit of hard work. It’s not always roses!
Even so, we’re especially excited for one thing – todays destination is Millau and the amazing bridge that is the Millau Viaduct. At 1,125ft it’s the tallest bridge in the world which, while impressive, it’s an achievement that’s destined to be topped by an eager architect and engineer. What will endure is it’s stunning beauty. With many bridges, riding them usually means missing the wonderful design – all we typically get to see is asphalt and barriers – whereas the Millau Viaduct is actually stunning to ride on.
Though, we’re going to have to close our eyes and imagine it.
That’s because the weather that’s been wrapped around us for the day has also enveloped the bridge entirely. In fact, after rejoining the motorway and rounding an innocuous corner it takes us a moment to realize that we’re actually on the Millau Viaduct. It’s only when we’re about two-hundred feet from the first central spire that we see it begin to rise in front of us. And it’s hard to believe as you watch it extend into the sky. Not even the fog, rain and wind can diminish it. It’s simply unreal. We’re fortunate to have the GoPro‘s running as we cross the bridge as Nita’s usual penchant for taking pics while riding is an impossible task in these conditions (unless we want to write-off another Canon G12!). The video from the GoPro’s is all we have to remind of both the bridge and the weather; pulling stills off of the camera has become a great way to share the journey when the weather isn’t cooperating.
Across the bridge the landscape changes from what we’ve become familiar with. The farmland and lush valleys that have covered the rolling hills of western France have now been replaced by an almost barren landscape that reminds us of the area just north of Port aux Basques in Newfoundland. Off of the main highway we find ourselves on an increasingly tight series of roads and switchbacks that eventually lead up to the small hill-top town of Creissels and our stop for the night.
When we pull into the incredible Chateau de Creissels we’re almost euphoric! A last steep, muddy road and we turn into an extraordinary hotel. While the exterior of the chateau has been faithfully maintained the interior has been completely redesigned with very contemporary rooms. Indeed the rooms feel almost seperate from the more rustic portions of the building but somehow it all works. And to top it off, the nightly rate for a room with a balcony is again on par with a motel back home. It’s astonishing.
After the long day in the wet we quickly settle in to enjoy the surroundings. The shower is the best I’ve ever seen and we each take turns using it to warm up. Before we head to dinner, we go through the ritual of plugging everything in that needs charging, and then head to the cellar for some wine and a bite. The dining rooms arched brickwork is a wonderful backdrop to what is a fantastic meal – again local fare that’s cooked to perfection. Just as we finish up a large group arrives and we make our way back to the main lobby for a nightcap.
Returning to the room, we notice that none of our electronics are charged which is a bit strange. Suddenly it dawns on me: the room requires your keycard to be inserted into a switch on the wall for the lights to work. It didn’t occur to me that it also turned off all of the outlets! We keep it as a mental note before returning to the lobby with our computers in hand.
A couple of guys from the large group emerge from the cellar and, seeing the stickers on our laptops, ask about our trip en Français. Both are riders and we spend some time talking about how epic the local roads are and we realize we’re having an almost fully french conversation! We’re getting by better and better each time, or so we think. Both men agree that this part of France is a riders paradise before slipping outside for a cigarette. People here and throughout our journey in France have been so friendly. It makes our hearts lighter and we appreciate it so, so much.
With another day of rain in the forecast, Nita and I toss around the idea of staying another night and forfeiting a night at the gîte waiting for us in Villecroze. It’s a place we’d love spend some more time in and the idea of having our riding gear completely dry is appealing; there’s a sour smell that’s returning to our layers that hasn’t been around since our week of wet weather in Newfoundland! We decide to sleep on it and make a decision the following morning.
With a long day ahead, Nita and I settle down for a fairly early night and hope for a good nights sleep.
Suddenly, after about fifteen minutes the sound of running water wakes us. The toilet is running and wont stop. Really?!? I try a number of things I’d do at home but the fancy loo has no visible water shut-off and no water tank to jimmy the float. Damn. Adding to the issue is the absence of a front desk as they go home at 10pm. While I’m pushing buttons and searching for a shut-off, Nita calls a number and, surprisingly, gets a sleepy fellow on the other end who also speaks great English. We explain the situation and he lets us know he’s on his way.
On his way from home in Millau!
The poor guy arrives – apologetic and obviously freshly wakened. He quickly begins pulling the flushing mechanism out of the wall, and with every piece he removes he turns to look at us, smiles, and then shrugs his shoulders. I can’t help but think we’re in a Peter Sellers movie. Eventually, the flushing stops and the floors in the room are still dry.
“All you have to do is reach into the hole, feel around for the valve and turn it after you use the toilet.”
Apologizing once again, with a smile and a shrug, he leaves us to sleep soundly.
The next morning we’re up fairly early to get on the road and stroll the grounds. The hilltop views of Millau are beautiful and the bridge is fully visible for the first time, reaching across the valley as if stretching in the morning fog.
All thoughts of staying an extra night have evaporated after an updated forecast is now predicting snow in Creissels. We retreat to the warmth of the breakfast room and a woman with a lovely smile emerges from a back room and asks us what we’d like to drink. She returns with a pot of piping hot coffee, a basket of croissants and some pains au chocolat.
It’s a perfect start to the day and just what we need to stay warm on the road to Villecroze.