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Old 07-18-2010, 09:40 AM   #1
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July 2010: Nice, Pyrenees and Route des Grande Alpes Loop 2up on rented F800GS

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Leaving for France on Monday




The original inspiration for a trip to France was for my whole family to rent the house my sister in law had lived in while growing up in Provence. While English is her first language, she’s been told that based on her French accent, a Provencal local could practically tell her what street she lived on in the town of Vence, 20k or so up into the hills from Nice. After finding the house, an old olive oil mill (moulin), available for rent on the internet, she put out the word to the family and we all jumped on board.

My fiance, Ann, and I have some friends planning on touring Spain around the end of June/ beginning of July, so we started looking for flights around the 28th of June in the hopes we could meet up with them before joining the family. Then we heard from Ann’s dad that his family might be in Paris in the third week of July. Well, great, we’ll go meet them and fly home around the 28th of July! Of course, after all that, the Spanish connection isn’t going to work out and Paris turned out to be a lot more expensive than Reykjavik, so we found ourselves with about a week on either side of the family trip to entertain ourselves.

Not a bad problem to have and before long I’d booked us a BMW F800GS (like the one we’ve taken to Mendocino and Colorado - see RR links in sig line) for the first 10 days. I’d rented a bike in Germany in 2006 (RR link in sig line) and found it to be such a great way to explore Europe that I wanted to do it again with Ann. The plan is to head west from Nice, spend the first night in Aix-en-Provence, and continue on to the Pyrenees. We’ll have time to explore the Cote d’Azur later with the family. From the Pyrenees, we’ll angle back northeast and make our way towards Chamonix and Mont Blanc before following the Route des Grandes Alpes south back to Nice.



On the tail end, we’ll see how we feel. We fly out of Munich so one good option would be to drive north through the Dolomites, possibly with a detour through Locarno to attend a lakeside festival where I’d met some people and sat in with the band in 2006. No matter what, I’d like to get to Munich a couple days early to show Ann the Englischer Gardens (open space, people watching and beers the size of your head).

In any case, we'll be on the bike for 10 days and that's the section of the trip I plan to post to ADV. If you're interested in more, check out the blog at http://advodna.com.
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Old 07-18-2010, 09:57 AM   #2
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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Nice was Nice, the Gorge was Gorgeous, and Aix marks the spot

There, now that I got all the cliches out of the way, I’ll also mention that today we saw someone dressed in lavender taking a picture of lavender. A bit of a meta-Provence moment, but I’ll start at the beginning.

The flight from SFO to Munich is eleven hours, plenty of time to watch movie (“Invictus” in our case), a couple TV shows (on-demand from the in seat monitors), and still catch the better part of a good night’s sleep (thank you, Ambien). By the time we landed, I was ready for some coffee, a ham and cheese croissant and the Japan/Paraguay World Cup game, all of which were easy to come by in the Lufthansa terminal.



We were glued to the window on the short hop south to Nice as views of the snow-capped Austrian, French and Italian Alps slid beneath the plane, only to be replaced by terracotta palaces and half moon beaches dotting the Mediterranean coast. After opting out of the local custom of taking a helicopter from the airport to Canne or Monaco or St. Tropez, we decided to slum it in the black Mercedes at the front of the taxi line. Ann was so embarrassed she could have DIED!

[NOTE: Non-Motorcycle content has been removed here. For full post, click the title link above.]

I was on like a light switch at about 5 am that night. I tried to listen to a CarTalk podcast (they always joke that they’ll put you to sleep in the car) but an hour later decided to get up and walk around. I left Ann a note in my best French: “Took a douche. Looking for cafe olay and cwahsont.”



The streets were devoid of pedestrians but bustling with a steady stream of delivery trucks and scooters and cafe owners hosing down the sidewalks before setting out tables, chairs and umbrellas. I walked along the waterfront and watched the old men set out line after line of chaises and blue and white umbrellas within penned-in areas on the beach for which they would demand a premium from sunbathers in a few hours.

After a proper petit dejuener (a light breakfast of coffee and a some bread that’s come to be known to us as “dijionaise”), we took a municipal train about 10 blocks to Holiday Bikes, the rental location for the motorcycle coordinated by AdMo tours. The guys at the shop spoke a little English and were very accommodating as we completely unpacked our bags and repacked into the two sidecases and top box inside the door of their tiny storefront. The bike was a dead ringer for my magnesium (read: gray) 2009 F800GS at home, down to the scraped plastic on both sides. All the better should we have one of the unexpected gravitational shifts at which we had become quite practiced on the Colorado trip.

Around the time we finished packing up (and they closed up for a long lunch), Ann realized she’d left her shampoo at the hotel. No problem, we’ll swing by and pick it up. Well, despite my flawless navigational skills, by the time we routed through one way streets and closed pedestrian alleys and arrived at the hotel, we were drenched in sweat. While Ann got us some bottles of water, I broke out the four specific tools I’d packed to install the straps for the tank bag and the mount and battery connection for the GPS. With the sun blazing overhead, plans of following the steamy coast and checking out Cannes quickly gave way to routing into the cooler mountains ASAP.



The only town we knew of in the hills was Vence, where we’d be staying for a couple weeks with the family, so we plugged it into the GPS. We found our way to a little square (no idea where it is in relation to our “moulin”) with some shade and a fountain. We’d read that people would come to the central fountains to fill up containers and that it was good water, so we tried to blend in with the locals. We stocked up on some bread and cheese and climbed higher into the hills tracking towards the Gorge du Verdon.


Classic, tightly packed hill towns around every turn.






Is this cannibalism?




Motorcycle Journeys through the Alps to the rescue


The skies were darkening as we approached the Gorge and before long, we started feeling rain drops. After the heat of the day, the rain was refreshing… until the lighting started. We pulled over to put away some electronics and cover the tank bag and agreed to backtrack to a town we’d seen a couple minutes before and hunker down. We that restaurant didn’t appear to have been in business any time recently and there was not much else besides houses to be found so when we spotted the covered bus bench, we went for it. Then it really opened up!







Before long, another rider came along with the same idea and the three of us squeezed into the bus shelter and snacked on fresh bread and packaged triangles of soft cheese while trying to make small talk despite the fact that his English was only marginally better than our French. He kept popping his head out of the shelter, looking the way we’d come and saying “Ah bon,” then looking the way we were heading and saying “O-la la” and making a clicking sound with his tongue.

Once the lightning subsided and the rain lightened, we decided to get back on the road. By the time we got into the Gorge, the rain had stopped and left a mysterious mist hanging over the Verdon River and climbing up the striated cliffs.











At the western end of the Gorge, it was starting to get late in the day and we were feeling weary from the extremes. Routing towards our reserved hotel room in Aix-en-Provence, Monsieur Garmin took us through some desolate one lane back roads winding through endless fields of lavender. I have to guess these are some of the roads on the well-advertised bus tours seen on pamphlets throughout Provence. Oh, and here’s where we saw the aforementioned appropriately dressed photographer.



The last 30 minutes on the autobahn were a blur, both because we were doing 85 (to stay out of the way of traffic) and because we were exhausted. GPS brought us right to our hotel room door where we took well-deserved showers and walked around a little before passing out.

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Old 07-18-2010, 10:57 AM   #3
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Great ride, report and pics! Lucky couple to be able to do this... and thanks for sharing it How was the 800 2 up?
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Old 07-18-2010, 12:19 PM   #4
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I am hoping to be in the Pyrenees later this year - thanks for the taster
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Old 07-18-2010, 09:21 PM   #5
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Old 07-19-2010, 05:44 AM   #6
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Originally Posted by Gadget Boy
Great ride, report and pics! Lucky couple to be able to do this... and thanks for sharing it How was the 800 2 up?
GB, we're very lucky to be able to do it and know it.

We love the F800GS 2up and the one we rented is the spitting image of ours back home that we've ridden up the CA coast and on sections of the TAT including Cinnamon Pass and Engineer Pass. We're 180/5'10" and 120/5'4" and fully loaded (side bags and top case) it's about the biggest bike I'd want to have to handle but has plenty of power making quick passes of caravans on these tight mountain roads. Throttle can definitely be a little twitchy but just requires some careful slipping of the clutch. It's a compromise between the smoothness of a 1200 and the size of 650 but one that hits the right balance for us.

K, here comes another installment. Bryn, Pyrenees are coming soon!
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Old 07-19-2010, 08:44 AM   #7
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Saturday, July 3, 2010

Avignon, Parc National des Cévennes, and Millau to the Pyrenees

We stumbled out of the Hotel Les Quatre Dauphins and onto the streets of Aix around 10am, worn out from the previous day’s extremes of heat and rain and likely still a little jet lagged. The sidewalks of the Cours Mirbeau were filled with street vendors offering racks of clothes, shoes and jewelry. Fortunately, we sat at a cafe for petit dejuener long enough for the high noon Provence heat to prevent too much shopping.




And when we got on the bike around 1, the heat was still building. Yeah, we’re slow learners. Two days of midday departures and it finally sunk in that we needed to cover our miles (sorry, kilomiles or whatever) in the mornings. By the time we followed backroads through farmland west of Aix, we were about to wilt. Not even a blast on the autobahn could cool us down enough to continue and we dripped our way into Avignon only an hour or two after leaving.



A hotel room and a stroll (in shorts and flip flops) inside the medieval walls of the city started to sound pretty good and before too long, we were booked into the last available room in the Hotel Splendid. It was splendid that they kept the reception chilled to an arctic 60 degrees; Not so much that half way up the first staircase to our third floor room we hit a wall of heat that was only mildly inconvenienced by our floor fan.

Of course, we had to unplug the fan if we wanted to charge anything like the computer, iPhones, bluetooth headsets, digital camera, video camera or GPS and getting all those on one socket would be tricky… for a lesser man, anyway.



In these old French villages, you can walk three blocks in any direction and find a square filled with tables and chairs and a waitress to take your order though she will typically think you want two of everything. What are we doing wrong?! No problem, on more than one occasion, I’ve been quite willing to drink the extraneous cafe noir or biere.



I wanted to go to the movies but Ann said no.



We returned to the room to cheer the fan on in it’s struggle against the heat and ended up taking an extended nap that would later come back to haunt us.

I spent two hours waiting for our 6am alarm to go off. The nap, the heat and a not-so-Splendid bed all conspired to get me up early to pour over the Lonely Planet book, Motorcycling in the Alps, and the GPS to plan a route that would get us out of the Rhone Valley and into the mountains before the day warmed up. I had it all worked out when the iPhone vibrated to life, and we were on the bike and heading out the gates of the walled city minutes before 7.



We followed rural roads angling northeast towards the hills and passing through countless small towns. We’d see the town name on a white sign with a red outline and a 50km/hr sign, ride through one main street sometimes with a raised crosswalk that acted as a speed bump, then see the sign on the other side of town showing the name with a red line through it and the speed limit surging back up to 90.




Once again, Monsieur Garmin chose the best roads for us including this one marked as a bicycle route sneaking up the back way into a town where we stopped for a morning croissant.



Doesn’t make a lot of sense to me that the patisseries are strictly bread. Not a coffeemaker to be found. To get a cup of coffee, you have to look for the tables out on the sidewalk and sit down to place your order. 30 seconds later, the espresso comes out. 20 seconds later it’s down the hatch. 3 minutes later you get the waitresses’ attention to request the bill (l’addition) and feel like an unappreciative heel who can’t sit for an hour and enjoy a coffee like everyone else seems to.

FIRETRUCK!

The plan was to head via Ales to Florac just inside the Parc National des Cevennes and see how we felt. After a 10am coffee and some salami and brie on a baguette (yes, I had to walk down to the separate patisserie to get it), we decided to continue on to Millau (pronounced “me-yo,” like a gangster cat would say) for the night.



The switchbacks leading out of Florac and up the cliff behind me (above) top out on a high plateau leading down through the Parc National des Cevennes, a lesser known destination in the Haut-Languedoc region. I’ve seen Languedoc referred to as the underappreciated sibling of Provence to the east but the jagged limestone spires and deep canyons cut by the Tarn, La Jonte and Dourbie Rivers rivaled the Gorges du Verdon. Yeah, I said it.



In St. Enimie, we got lured by the brochures we saw in Florac for the grottes (caves) of Aven Armand and Darligan which claim to have the largest number of stalagmites in the world. Anyone can do stalactites, the hard part is getting them to grow UP. But after admitting that a 30 minute railcar ride down into the depths of the earth wasn’t going to be just the ticket for Ann’s preference for controlled environments, we continued on towards Millau via the Gorges de la Jonte.



Millau sits at the confluence of the Tarn and Dourbie Rivers and at the base of the Causse Noir and Causse du Larzac. Having seen countless campgrounds with amazing looking swimming holes on the ride in, we walked down to the river and found a place to cool off just under the bridge entering the city. The water was nice but the shopping cart just downstream of us seemed to indicate that more care was taken to keep things clean higher up in the gorges.



The next morning, we got another early start for a blast across the lowlands surrounding Toulouse on our way to the Pyrenees. Just outside of Millau, the Millau Viaduct holds the record for the tallest bridge tower and pylons in the world as it carries the autobahn between Paris and Montpelier.







While we did actually drive through the town of Roquefort, the day was
mostly a high speed effort to make some time south. The miles on the autobahn are much harder than the backroads mentally and physically.




Because someone at some time said they saw the Virgin Mary in Lourdes at the foot of the Pyrenees, 6 million visitors a year come to this holy site, many with ailments they hope will be cured by stripping naked, being wrapped in a white sheet and walking through a pool to kiss the foot of a statue. Weird, nowhere, NOWHERE could I find their miracle-cure vs. HOAX statistics published, but I guess people need something to believe in. Just a little hard to see literally lines of the old and disabled being wheeled in and relieved of their money at the sanctuary or any number of chachki shops.



But from Lourdes, we climbed into the Pyrenees proper to reach the hiking/skiing village of Cauterets. Quite touristy compared to the other towns we’ve been in but it has a mountainy feel a little like a Telluride. With the bike safely tucked away, we caught one World Cup game in the room and the exciting Spain/Paraguay game at a local bar before getting some sleep. The next day, we would ride some of the highest passes in the Pyrenees, many of which are mainstays of the Tour de France route.

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Old 07-19-2010, 09:33 AM   #8
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In. My "French Connection" is my lovely wife. She is from Mazamet in the Tarn. When we stay in France, it is mostly Saint- Chamas near Marseille with a cousin. Happily we all get along and always have a good time.
Wife and I have caged it over the Cevennes. Absolutely amazing!
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Old 07-20-2010, 09:26 AM   #9
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Wife and I have caged it over the Cevennes. Absolutely amazing!
The Cevennes were a totally unexpected treat recommended by GiorgioXT on the thread at http://www.advrider.com/forums/showthread.php?t=593019. We really enjoyed the climb out of Florac and the high plateau above.
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Old 07-20-2010, 09:38 AM   #10
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Sunday, July 4, 2010

Pyrenees Passes: Col du Tourmalet and Col du Aspin



There’s just too much to ride in the Pyrenees and we only had one day to do it. Add to that the fact that we were a little saddle-sore from the long haul yesterday, and we had to be picky. The 399km loop from France into Spain and back through Andorra (which was only ever doable in my dreams) gave way to ticking off two of the more well known passes used by the Tour de France and known by motorcyclists around the world, the Col du Tourmalet and the Col du Aspin.




On this day, the Fourth of July actually, the only parade we saw consisted of a bike race (and the traffic behind the packs of riders) grinding up the hill. The racers in this event (no, not the Tour which was still way north outside of Rotterdam) were spread out over the entire length of the Col du Tourmalet requiring that we make use of our narrow profile to slip past the diesel belching trucks (and cars) at every opportunity.

BTW, what’s the state of air pollution in Europe? Maybe we’re more sensitive on the bike but it seems like every tailpipe from Toyota to BMW to Renault is spewing black smoke! I know some are “clean diesel” it sure still smells like a burning dinosaur and we didn’t envy these guys huffing and puffing up the hill behind them.




The road, of course, was spectacular. Tight hairpins hanging over the edges with jagged, mist-shrouded peaks looming above us and wide valley vistas opening up behind.



Legs were shaking and breath was short as the summit of the Col du Tourmalet drew near. But think about how the bikers must have felt!



We stopped to take a few pictures on the far side of the Col and then looked uphill to wait for our opening in the now downhill bound cyclists. These guys were FLYING. We got behind one and tried (in vain) to keep up…



The Col du Aspin was much less dramatic but very pretty. And still very impressive to have ridden to the top.

Some locals…







We came back down the Col du Aspin for some lunch and watched people learning to paraglide on the obstacle-free but windswept hill adjacent to our cafe.





Ann ordered a small soup.



I was happy with just my plain old water to entertain myself. Nothing exciting to see here. Nope.



Then we headed back up the Tourmalet, reading all the signs of encouragement written on the road, and coasted down the other side against a dwindling flow of riders who needed those words more than ever. By now, anyone still at it was walking their bikes or sitting by the side of the road waiting to be picked up.




Backwards helmet cam down the Col du Tourmalet. Otherwise known as “What does she do back there?”





Back in Cauterets, we were getting a little tired of staring at each other over a small, metal cafe table as we had for pretty much every meal for the past week so we got a pizza from a little shop that bakes it while you wait. It wasn’t until we got it back to the room that we realized that they don’t cut it for you. No problem, about 49 scrapes with then end of some nail clippers (new, unused!) and it tore apart pretty good. Add some toilet paper napkins and you got yourself a meal.
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Old 07-20-2010, 01:29 PM   #11
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Very nice ride report ! It's always interesting to read foreigners impressions from your own home country


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Old 07-21-2010, 01:58 AM   #12
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Very nice ride report ! It's always interesting to read foreigners impressions from your own home country


I bet. I try not to pull any punches but also to be fair when I'm writing this stuff. Rest assured, we're keenly aware of negative American stereotypes and do our best not to fit them and, with only a few exceptions which I'll talk about in an upcoming post, we've found the French to be very nice and willing to help us stumble through a menu or booking. The weird thing is, if we've ever been blown off, it's because they thought we were Italian or British. The smiles come out when we say American. Of course, we coulda just ran into a jerk. All countries have those...

Glad you're enjoying it and feel free to correct me if I get anything completely wrong or misrepresent something.
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Old 07-21-2010, 02:01 AM   #13
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Oh, and I'd like to apologize in advance for the Condom jokes in the next post...
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Old 07-21-2010, 02:06 AM   #14
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Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Moissac to Massaic, across the Midi

Leaving Cauterets and the Pyrenees, we got out the Lonely Planet and started looking for someplace interesting a few hours to the north that would get us moving back towards the mountains.

Of course, we talked about stopping in Condom but decided to pull out at the last minute. I had been taking care of the rhythm of the trip so far and everything had been working out fine, but I felt like it was Ann’s responsibility to choose what we’d do next. In the end, we both agreed it was better to put the rubber down towards the Montabaun. Once we got going, we couldn’t stop and just didn’t feel good about Condom. Besides, this time of the month, that area’s not very busy and using Condom as a stop only turned out to be about 98% effective in getting us as far north as we needed to be. (Phew, that was fun. Thanks, everybody.)

We ended up stopping in Auch (“Osh”) and walking around the old city. Believe it or not, we’ve yet to set foot in a church or cathedral on this trip and we weren’t about to break our streak but the old stone buildings did cut an impressive profile on the hill above the Ger River.





According to the Lonely Planet, one of the things to see in Auch is a statue of Dartagnan from The Three Musketeers. After some Googling, I found what seems to be a pretty confident response as to why they were called the “musketeers” when they used swords instead of muskets. I also found some very interesting facts about nougat. Unfortunately, while we were there, the grand staircase guarded by the statue was under construction. Even more unfortunately, Ann got a hold of the camera while I wasn’t looking and snapped some photos of her idea of a chiseled masterpiece.



Even the guy at the cafe had to go down the street to the patisserie when we ordered “sandwiches” (baguette with ham, cheese, butter and butter).



From Auch, we continued to route North towards Montabaun, the first town on a more northerly route back across France that had been recommended by some locals on ADV. As usual, Mon. Garmin routed us in the most bizarre way possible. I have little doubt that it was true to the “shortest route” (rather than fastest time) setting I had programmed, but without fail, if we saw a sign towards our destination, Mon. Garmin would insist we turn the opposite direction and lead us onto a farm road even smaller than the one we’d been on. Lucky for us, these were great roads to ride on that wound through endless fields of sunflowers. Seriously, I mean, what could they possibly use all these sunflowers for? The fields went on and on and on over every hillside for hours.







Moissac caught our eye in the L.P. book and as we rolled over the Tarn River, we were convinced. Pretty riverside location and a view of one of the canals built to facilitate trade between the Atlantic and Mediterranean. At this point, they are used by leisurely private and rental barges (houseboats) that tie off alongside a town to explore or resupply. The canal routes also provide a very gradual bike route across the southern part of the country.



The Moulin de Moissac and the view from the room. A splurge at 90 euros but well worth it.



Then again, the guy at the front counter looked at us as if we were insane when after plunking down the entry fee, we asked about a self-service laundry in town. He gave us an “I can assure you I don’t know anything about that” kinda look thought the Office du Tourisme in town was glad to point us to one where we could wait for our load to finish in an air conditioned bar while using the wireless and watching Tour de France updates. As much as we tend to think of “tourist” as a bad word, we’re seeing these offices everywhere and realizing they’re a great source for hotels, maps and 20 minutes of air conditioning.



The abbey in Moissac has markings dating parts of it back to 650 AD. To show our respect, we sat at a cafe right outside and drank beer brewed in a local abbey (or at least one that that took the name of a local abbey).



Well buzzed (but coming from a certain sanctimonious high ground), we returned to the luxurious room we’d chilled to perfection with the “climatization” and proceeded to Skype everyone we know. Possibly not what the monks had in mind…



The next morning, we got our standard 7 am start.





Once again, we let Mon. Garmin once again defy French road signs and lead us on a quest for the most remote backroads flanked by the most ridiculously large sunflower farms possible with completely abandoned French towns in between. It was pretty awesome.



Well, it was awesome until we realized that none of the hotels in these little country towns with all the shutters closed and no one on the streets were open. We later talked to a couple from Florida who have stored two BMW F650GS’s in Germany for the past 6 years, coming to ride the Alps and French countryside for 3 months every year, that the major autoroutes have eliminated the need for people to pass through these little towns and thus brought about their decline. If only Mon. Garmin was the Minister of Transportation!



We pressed on, entering the southern portion of the Parc Naturel Régional des Volcans d'Auvergne which it’s believed used to be the one of the most active volcanic regions in Europe, the results of which we saw in the Monts du Cantal, the remnants of a large volcano collapsing inwards on itself.



They love the high view points. If there’s a promontory of any kind, it’s got a church or a castle on it.



The first town we saw with any signs of life, particularly in the form of a hotel (with a pool with a topless sunbather no less!), was Massaic, likely spared from obsolescence by its proximity to the A75. Never mind that we had come from Moissac, we were too tired to ask questions. A dip in the pool (wearing my mirror sunglasses), a quick walk around town, a pizza and a world cup game and we were done.



Typical French village but…



Rue de Croissant? Really? Are you guys just phoning it in at this point?



Street hasn’t changed much in 50 years.



Moto shop was closed… or there may not have even really been one.



Dogger’s got a nice system for hiding in plain sight to watch the passers-by.
Tomorrow, we keep making progress towards the Alps…
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Old 07-21-2010, 10:35 AM   #15
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"we talked about stopping in Condom but decided to pull out at the last minute".
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