3 Nights Accommodation - £118
4 Days & 900 Miles Petrol - £75
1 Persons Food & drink - £65
10 Duracell AA Batteries for P&S Camera - £11 (shocking I Know!!)
After fitting ‘Stella’ with an auxiliary power socket to charge my mobile phone and recently purchased, cheap, European sat-nav, I was almost ready to set off for my first European adventure on two wheels. The checklist was almost completed except for spare camera batteries, Luggage was fully packed and secured and Stella’s coolant and oil topped up. The last thing to do was to plan my route to my pre-booked Formule 1 Hotel in Zeebrugge; I programmed the sat-nav to avoid busy roads and motorways and once in France and Belgium to head across the North coast to my initial destination.
I set off from Warwickshire at 9:30 in the morning and my first problem hit me, sat-nav was suggesting that the maps didn’t match its internal software but to resolve the problem it could recalculate the route... To save time I went along with this and began the journey. Before I knew it I was in a beautiful place called Stokenchurch near High Wycombe, I think it was the A40 that took me through these brilliant winding tree lined roads.
The recalculated route took me pretty much through central London, I think I managed to avoid the congestion charge, well I haven’t had a fine yet, and although the traffic was a pain, I actually enjoy travelling along the Embankment alongside the River Thames. Getting out the other side of London again was a pain and the constant stop-starting was making my wrists ache, I guess this is due to my lack of biking in recent years. A quick stop off for petrol and coffee and I headed off down the A20 towards Ashford and then jumped on the M20 for the last few miles before arriving at the Channel Tunnel in Folkestone. The weather couldn’t have been better and my hour wait for the next available shuttle service raced by whilst chatting to a couple on a BMW GS1150 with no destination set and a lad on a GSXR750 heading to Reims that evening then onto the Alps. Although we all had different plans when reaching France, we all shared a common interest and were all heading back home on Monday for a long nights sleep in preparation for work on Tuesday.
Arriving in Calais I made a bee-line for the Total garage to top up with petrol and I had been informed that they stocked a great selection of European maps. Unsure of my sat-nav’s capability I decided it would be best to have a backup plan and purchased a Michelin map of Belgium and another of North East France. Whilst in the garage shop, an impatient truck driver almost knocked my bike of its stand in an attempt to quickly fuel up and shave 40 seconds off his journey… instead of this, he got his truck stuck in a position where I couldn’t get to my bike and he couldn’t move his truck so in fact added an additional 5 minutes to his journey… what a plonker !
I left the Channel Tunnel in Calais and headed towards Belgium along the north coast. After about 10 minutes of travelling I saw a big water tower which looked familiar, as I made my way clockwise around the tower, the letters S I A L A C unveiled themselves… yes that’s right… I was back in Calais! Consulting the map and reprogramming the sat-nav, I eventually set off again and headed into Belgium. I passed a long driveway which on either side of the end had a French and Belgian flag, I was expecting a ‘welcome to Belgium’ sign but looking back, I can only assume this was the border. Both in England and France the weather had been glorious, the sun blaring down without a cloud in the sky, however, the further I got into Belgium it became extremely overcast and increasingly cold, maybe this is something to do with it being on the coast of the North Sea? Either way, it was bloody cold and having put breakfast and lunch on hold, I was bloody hungry too. Eventually after what seemed like hours (oh hang on, it was), I arrived in Brugge, from what I briefly saw, it was a nice town although with time pressing on and my fingers turning blue, I decided to head on past to my hotel… I now know why it was 41Euro’s for a room and breakfast. Having been on the road for 10 hours or so, I decided to sack off plans for a nice meal and instead made use of the hotels vending machines. That night, dinner consisted of 1 packet of Praprika flavoured ‘Croky’ crisps, a Lion Bar and a Twix all washed down with 2 cups of vending machines finest coffee. My plan for Day 2 was to go East to Eindhoven then head down to the Ardennes However with a combination of my newly aquired maps, a chat with the locals and a beer, Day 2’s plan was changing.
The route that I took through North Belgium was fairly industrialised and pretty non-descript and after my discussions the night before, I was now heading first to Knokke Heist, then into Brugge and finally heading south to the Ardennes Region. Knokke Heist is a neat and tidy coastal town
And the back roads from there to Brugge started to show off some really nice scenery… a pleasant change from the industrial Belgium I had already experienced. This is the Leopold Canal south of Knokke Heist.
Brugge is a beautiful town in the north of Belgium riddled with canals, I assume the horses and carriages were for the benefit of tourists although being up and about early like I was, meant that I missed most of the tourist action (thank god).
As I left Brugge, I turned a corner only to be faced with a huge sea-going freight barge fully loaded with containers making its way through the town, in contrast with the old town it had the makings of a fantastic photo however my first set of camera batteries died and I hadn’t packed any spares. I could see a ‘GB’ supermarket that was bound to sell them but couldn’t get to it as all the bridges were now lifted to let the barge through.. AGHHHH !!!
Now fully loaded with AA batteries, I started my journey down south to the towns of Namur and Dinant in the heart of the Ardennes. Again only taking the ‘N’ roads as FJR-UK recommended, I rode with various different groups of bikers along the way. European bikers on the continent, make you feel extremely welcome and part of a big community with the gestures made whilst riding and when off the bike it seems that most people are doing or have done some travelling around and love to share their preferred routes and experiences, more so than in the UK in my opinion.
The roads and scenery got better and better the further south I went
Sat-nav and I were now working better as a team, I had the zoom a lot further out and by looking at the ‘purple line’ route and the ‘black arrow’ which was my location and direction, I could use it as an expensive glorified compass and choose my own routes. If I saw a road that I liked the look of then I just turn off and sat-nav recalculates and draws a different purple line… still a problem when I head into towns with intricate road layouts though and more often than not I would end up at a dead end.
Namur was my first stop in the Ardennes, at around 2:00 I arrived, purchased a chips and mayonnaise lunch and ate them by the River Meuse on the south side of town, sharing them with the pigeons of course.
From Namur I was heading south still towards the town of Dinant which I was told is the heart of the Ardennes, The N92 and N96 followed the River Meuse on either side all the way to Dinant which is where I was planning on finding accommodation for the night. On the way there was also this amazing village that seemed to look almost fake and model-like, I would have photographed it but was caught up in a small race with a Belgian biker and didn’t want to lose face.
I stopped at ‘Le Caprice’ café which seemed a good place to have a coffee and gather my thoughts, whether it was a known stopping point for similarly minded bikers or just the presence of my bike outside I’m not sure but soon there was quite a gathering. 2 Dutch bikers, travelling through Belgium to head into France, left their bikes under my supervision whilst they gathered essential groceries from the nearby supermarket but also left their steering locks on so when the café’s delivery lorry turned up, it couldn’t get down the side to load at the loading bay… In my broken French and with the aid of my phrasebook I attempted to explain to the lorry driver that they had gone to the supermarket and would be back in a minute… he obviously didn’t understand me and instead tried to manoeuvre around the bikes, Luckily the Dutch chaps arrived back at the point where he would have crushed the bikes and removed them from his path… what is it with drivers!
As the ride from Namur to Dinant had been so enjoyable, I decided to carry on riding for the day and planned a route to head west through Philippeville to Beaumont and find accommodation there. On leaving Dinant a chap on a Fireblade with a sidecar attached raced past me, intrigued as I was, I quickly set off in pursuit, he was an absolute nutter and I struggled to keep up, god knows what the poor chap in the sidecar must have been feeling. He eventually got caught up in traffic and whilst still moving, I retrieved the camera from my tank bag and managed to get a picture, not a very good one admittedly.
The route to Beaumont was as picturesque as it was to Dinant
On arriving in Beaumont I asked in a bar where the nearest hotel was, the bartender couldn’t help me as wasn’t a local himself and I couldn’t communicate with the other locals so I set off north-west towards Mons. Mons is a larger town so I assumed a hotel would be easier to find… and it was. After hitting some badly laid cobbling that nearly threw me off my bike, I came across some signposts directing me to all kinds of different hotels, the first of which I found was the St James’s Hotel. “Bonjour Monsoir, Un Chambre pour une personne ce soir, sil vous plait” I said, a little unconfidently.. “Oui” was the reply… excellent I thought, now feeling slightly proud of my efforts “Combien?“ – The hotel staff looked at me and shrugged so I repeated myself “Combien?” At this point they shrugged again then turned and quietly said “Shall we just speak in English sir”. I’ve checked what I had said and am sure it’s near enough to what I needed to say… Maybe it was the accent or pronunciation??? Anyway, I booked in, and it was a real result, the room was clean, modern & bright and there was secure parking around the back of the hotel where my room looked out onto. I was booked into room 101… not sure if this was an inside joke to send all poorly bilingual Brits to room 101 or just coincidence.
After a relaxing shower and change of clothes I set off into town for a nice meal, I wandered for a bit then decided upon ‘La Vie Est Belle’ which later I found out translates as ‘Life Is Beautiful’. After being served my aperitif, I chose to order a glass of rose to accompany my Salmon Bercy and yet again my French let me down, instead of a glass, I received a demi-litre (pint) of rose.
Both meal and wine were spot-on and encouraged me to see what else Mons had to offer, I settled for a few drinks in the St Nicholas Tavern – An extremely friendly place and it wasn’t long until the barman was buying me drinks.. it tasted similar to Baileys Irish Cream but had a different after-taste… very nice all the same and eventually I staggered back to the hotel for the evening.
After a good nights sleep, I took a lazy start to day 3 and had breakfast in the hotel at around 9:30am.. I’ve actually got quite attached to having a portion of French stick with butter, cheese, salami & marmalade options for breakfast now.
I left the hotel with my aim for the day to get to Stella-Plage in France, which is about 30KM south of Calais and spend the afternoon and evening there in preparation for an early start and an early Channel Tunnel crossing (7:20am) the following morning. I set off through Mons town centre over the rough cobbling (the cobbling contractors must have had a really bad day when laying this stuff) and out the other side with my sat-nav’s first waypoint being the town of Arras.
I must have circled Mons 2-3 times and couldn’t find a way out so eventually decided the only way was to mount a couple of rather high kerbs, through an un-bloomed flowerbed and down the equally high kerbs on the other side. I waited for an absence of traffic both ways then performed the manoeuvre… predictably I stalled the bike half way across and then got stuck there for several minutes whilst the road seemed to become increasingly busy.
The route I took over to Arras was particularly bad and with more knowledge and concentration over breakfast could possibly have been much better. To start with I was intrigued as between each town there were massive straight tree-lined roads with small hills and at either end of the road, directly in the centre on the horizon you could make out the next towns church and steeple. This must have happened for 3-4 towns that I went through however soon the interim roads no longer existed and my journey became one long small town that just stretched for mile after mile after mile. A combination of continuously stop-starting at traffic lights, poor road quality and my mild hangover was making my ar5e and wrists ache like you wouldn’t believe and I haven’t been happier than when I reached and passed through Arras where I was greeted with open countryside and twisty roads on the other side that passed through quaint French villages every 4-5KM.
I stopped at a patisserie in one of these villages and purchased lunch which consisted of 2 croissants a Twix and orange juice and set about finding a good spot to eat it… the Gods were now shining on me as about 2-3KM on, I came across this perfect hill-top spot that had a bench and table set out for me.
Another twist to my sat-nav tale, in the cobbled town of Montreuil just outside Stella Beach, sat-nav took me on a winding cobbled tour to the top of the town then tried to send me up a dirt track that got so narrow a person would struggle to walk up it… I declined sat-nav’s route and made my own way to Merlimont Beach.
I checked for hotels in the Merlimont Beach area but all were fully booked so I headed 1KM north to my original destination of Stella Beach to book a room there. All hotels in and around Stella Beach were also fully booked but I wasn’t too concerned as it was still early enough to ride around and find somewhere.. I went North again to La Touquet and checked a few hotels here… all were fully booked. On two occasions I was told that I would not find anywhere except possibly in Abbeville which was 70KM to the south. Being the typically stubborn Taurean, I took little regard for local knowledge and carried on North. By this point there were other bikers everywhere, at one point I was in the middle of a procession of around 50-60 bikes heading North, it was absolutely amazing and I was going to stay with them however FJR-UK had mentioned Boulogne-Sur-Mer as a good stop-off and it was here that I took the last room in Hotel Ibis... Hotel Ibis has secure parking and a good in-house restaurant so it probably couldn’t have worked out better. I checked in, stripped my bike of luggage and went off in search of a bike meet which must surely have been happening somewhere close by as not a second went by that a bike wasn’t racing past the hotel. I set off north towards Wimereux, bikes still buzzing around everywhere but parked there were only a few smaller groups so headed back to Bologne-Sur-Mer.
Wimereux town on right:
Viaduct in Wimereux:
back at the hotel, I cleaned up and went for dinner then went for a walk up past the port to get some pics of the sunset.
And then headed back to the hotel for an early night.
Day 4 was all about getting back to the UK and heading to north London to have breakfast with a good friend. I left the Hotel Ibis at 6:00am (French time) to catch the 7:20 Channel Tunnel Shuttle service. However with the early morning French scenes being so beautiful, my continuous stopping to take photos delayed me somewhat and I ended up missing the 7:20 & 7:50 services.
After a couple of cups of coffee, I eventually caught the 8:20 Shuttle back to the UK
I good blast up the M20, through the Dartford Tunnel & round the M25 I arrived in North London at 9:30 in time for a good breakfast, more coffee a chat and then a quick trip back up North to Warwickshire… It was just before I was about to leave and head up the M1 that I realised just how much the 900 miles covered this weekend had taken its toll on my rear tyre.