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This is a diary that I sent my family and friends after our first trip over to France on the V-Strom, it is long (sorry) and if you enjoy it I have alot more from the next trip we went on.

if you manage to get through it, let me know what you think


Viggen


4:00am, what were we doing up at this time of the morning? (no, I didn’t wet the bed) we had to be on the 5:30 ferry for our first ever trip to France. We were booked onto a ferry the previous afternoon but they unfortunately cancelled the afternoon ferry which caused no end of grief on our side. The reason why we had to be up that early was that we had to be at the ferry terminal an hour before the ferry left…we shouldn’t have rushed, as it was delayed for over half an hour (not happy with the ferry company at all). After the initial disappointment with the ferry company, they redeemed themselves (slightly, but still a long way to go) by allowing all the motorcycles on first, and using an ingenious system to hold the bike in place. What they had was a bar mounted to the wall that dropped down over the seat of the bike and then the bar was strapped down, simple, fast and very effective, no fiddling with lots of tie downs or anything that might damage the bike, just pull up, get off the bike and an attendant comes and sets it up in less than a minute, brilliant. Being first on, we got the pick of the seats…wonderful, we watched as the car and foot passengers fought their way to the good seats, giving us motorcyclists dirty looks along the way. Being on a motorcycle has some big advantages such as, getting on the ferry first and meeting other bikers who are more than happy to give advice to us novice French tourists (one offered to show us the way to Rennes and then showed us around to the various bike shops in Rennes). The ferry ride was great (calm weather didn’t hurt at all) and before we knew it we were docking in St. Malo, we got off the ferry and the que to get out of the disembarkation was quite long, I was prepared for a long wait while every one went through customs ahead of us, thankfully it didn’t take long, the customs guy saw us and waved us past the 20 or so cars in front of us, he then waved us straight past customs with a big wave and grin (more dirty looks from the car drivers). We caught up with Shaun (who we met on the ferry and would take us down to Rennes) and headed off through St. Malo.

France, where do I start? My initial impression was that it was clean, with very little litter compared to Jersey (I’m living in Jersey, and don’t get me started on the litter in Jersey) and after the initial “oooooh all the signs are in French!” and of course every time we came to an intersection I was saying “keep right, keep right” to myself, it wouldn’t be good to go around a round-about the wrong way, now would it? We stopped and filled the bike up at the fuel station at the start of the motorway, the credit card didn’t work, I was warned that only a few French places have UK compatible credit card machines, so I was thankful that I got enough Euro’s (hopefully for the whole trip).

Cruising at 110kph or 68mph (the speed limit on the motorway) gave me a chance to actually see what my bike was like at speed (Jersey has a maximum speed limit of 40mph or 65kph) it also gave us a chance to look at some wide open spaces (none in Jersey) with beautiful green and bright yellow fields stretching off into the distant woods. Shaun led us to Rennes which is only about 45 minutes down the road, we stopped for a coffee and a look at the bike shops. The French seem to like heavily customised motorcycles, the shops will actually re-paint them and add high quality items, so the bike you buy is not like the other 500 you see every day, some of the bikes looked fantastic and the aftermarket and accessories sections were huge with reasonable prices, I was impressed.

What I wasn’t impressed with, were the toilets in France, they seem to have a “unique” view of personal space and privacy. The Men’s and Ladies room are the same one, with a cubicle for the ladies and a urinal (in full view) for the men, so any woman going to the toilet gets a free view (if they are so inclined), It wasn’t like that every where but it certainly was not uncommon, bizarre.

The bike we were on was a Suzuki V-Strom, a 1000cc V-twin, that looks like a cross between a big dirt bike a touring bike and a sport bike, which is exactly what it is. We bought the bike with hard luggage (3 piece luggage set that is locked onto the bike and can be taken off and used as normal luggage), Unfortunately Suzuki couldn’t supply them in the 3 ½ weeks between buying them and us going on the trip (that is just not good enough Suzuki) I also bought a Furygan leather jacket a month before the trip, I still have no idea where it is or when I can expect it. (side note: I got it after almost 5 weeks from when I ordered it, and it didn’t fit!)

I hope this serious lack of service is the exception and not the rule, but Bikers (the bike shop I bough the bike from here in Jersey) tried their best to make a bad situation better by giving me a (scooter) top box and some soft saddle bags for the trip, although it wasn’t ideal, I really am grateful for the help and it made the trip so much more comfortable (and safer) by not having to wear back packs.

The V-Strom’s windscreen caused some horrendous buffeting around my helmet (I’m 6 foot or 183cm) so I took it off for the trip which improved the airflow so much better but it was like riding a naked bike at speed (lot’s of work hanging on), I’m going on another (longer) trip shortly so I’ve put it back on just to take the wind pressure off my chest and to stop people asking “where’s your windshield?” We chose the V-Strom because of a number of factors, my wife is almost 6’ tall, which meant that we needed a tall bike so her legs aren’t folded in half, I wanted a big twin (the BMW was too expensive) and we both fit perfectly on the Strom (much better than my Thundercat which was great for me but not for 2 up touring). Another thing about the Strom is the vibration at 3000-3750rpm, it’s terrible and it sounds like the crank is going to fall out of the bottom of the cases, this means overdrive is useless unless you’re travelling at 80 mph or more, I’m hoping this will be rectified as it gets broken in. Over 4000rpm it’s a lot smoother and there’s more power on tap as well, it’s just that the gearing is high and I found myself riding in 3rd or 4th along the back roads. The front forks? I have no idea what’s going on with them, too stiff and too soft all at the wrong times, because I bought the 2002 model I don’t have the preload adjusters(the ’03 does), I’m looking at buying some if I can just retro fit them. The other thing that they changed was the seat material to make it less slick, I should have bought an ’03 because those 2 changes would have made a huge difference for us. On the positive side, the bike has gobs of power, very comfortable (other than the windscreen), the low speed handling is brilliant, with the high wide bars it makes it extremely easy to ride around at a walking pace and U-turns are a breeze. I particularly like the hand guards, they manage to stop a lot of the wind, keeping my hands from getting too cold (heated grips go on for next winter). The fuel economy was averaging 41 mpg (at some ridiculous speeds and loaded right down with gear and 2 up riding). We would average 200 miles before feeling the need to stop for a break, but that’s more of us wanting to check out the little towns than feeling sore or cramped, overall I give the V-Strom a 7 out of 10 for touring 2 up, I think when I get the luggage and some progressive suspension springs and preload adjusters, and a new windscreen it will rate around the 9 out of 10 rating. If you buy the V-Strom make sure you get the jewel encrusted solid platinum centre stand, it works a treat, it makes filling it up with fuel easier, loading the panniers and lubing the chain all very quick and easy, oh, hang on! I’m told it’s not a jewel encrusted solid platinum centre stand, it’s just normal black steel, I paid how much for a normal steel stand? I thought that for the price I paid for it, it would be hand made out of precious metals by the Queens personal jeweller…it’s still worth every penny though.

The bike handles exceptionally well, over my riding time I’ve spent most of it on sport bikes and dual purpose bikes, so getting on the Strom which is a combination of both, wasn’t a problem, in fact it was extremely easy. I like the upright riding position, and find that I don’t get tired riding at normal speeds, Nat finds the passenger accommodation very good, lots of leg room and really good grab rails, but preferred the Ducati ST2 saddle because she could see over my head (she can’t on the Strom). I’m not quite sure about the brakes (I had a Thundercat in Australia and the brakes were fantastic) but they’re getting better now that they’re getting broken in, the back brake is pretty much useless (I don’t use the back much, so maybe if I did it would break in a bit better). Overall, I like the bike a lot, but I’m really unhappy with the service (or lack of) that Suzuki (not the dealer, the company) has given me, I paid for the luggage, I want and need my luggage, but Suzuki couldn’t care less, it may be enough to turn me off buying another Suzuki if they don’t pick up their act, if you buy a V-Strom check the availability of the luggage first.


We said goodbye to Shaun who showed us the road we needed to take to get to Le Mans, then onto the insanity that is “The Autoroute” here you pick up a receipt at a toll booth and then go (it seems) as fast as you can until you want to get off the Autoroute where you pay for the distance you travelled. The official speed limit is 130kph or 80mph, I dutifully rode at 80mph but I had a que behind me waiting to pass, so I upped it to 85mph, still a que behind me.
90mph I’m holding my own but getting passed by everything in sight, it’s embarrassing getting passed by little old ladies in old Citroens, I won’t tell if you don’t.
95mph and I’m thinking this is nuts! Here I am doing 95mph which in Australia (where I just moved from) means jail, do not pass go, do not collect $200, give us your license so we can shred it, when you get out of jail you’ll go into rehab because you’re a dangerous criminal. 95mph and the bike is screaming down the Autoroute (or was that my wife screaming down the Autoroute?) and a minivan comes past much faster, loaded down with kids (playing on their game boy’s) the mother is asleep in the passenger seat the father is looking bored, the bicycles strapped to the back with the front wheels spinning in different directions (why is that?) and lets not forget the ubiquitous Labrador looking out the back window at us, as they speed off into the distance, I didn’t think a minivan could go that fast? Now that I think of it, the fastest things on the roads that we saw were minivans.
100mph and now I’m staying with traffic, still the only thing I passed was a tractor cutting the grass on the side of the highway, this is completely surreal, who would ever believe doing 90-100mph for an hour or two at a time could become boring? That said, it goes to show how good the Autoroutes are, 2 lanes in each direction and people who don’t panic when the speed is over 50mph. The French know how to do it and do it safely, I didn’t see one dangerous manoeuvre the entire time on the Autoroute, in fact I only saw one dumb thing all weekend and that was a guy who passed 4 cars (and us) with little room and oncoming traffic, other than that, I thought that the French were excellent and extremely courteous drivers. Having lived in Australia and Canada I can’t believe how slow they drive, I mean the highway from Brisbane to the Gold Coast is wider (more lanes), safer, with less traffic and just as smooth as the Autoroutes in France but the max they can do is 110kph, why so slow? Same with highway 401 in Ontario, it’s almost as good as the Autoroutes but there they can only do 100kph (last time I was there), why can’t they bring the speed limits up to 130kph and charge for using the highways like they do in France? And if you don’t want to go that speed or if you don’t want to pay, go down the highway through the towns like France, it’s simple. I will add that if it is raining, the speed limit drops to 110kph and I don’t think highway 401 would be very good at 130kph in the middle of winter, the Brisbane to Gold Coast highway has no excuse though.

One thing I did see a lot of on the highways were hawks, big beautiful hawks on the fence posts by the side of the roads, I think we managed to see a couple of dozen of them, very impressive.

We passed Saumur which is (according to some literature we had) the equestrian capital of France, it really was quite obvious though, as we went past there was a HUGE statue of a horse, it was made out of steel bars, it was fantastic, I can’t really describe it but I’m upset that I didn’t get a picture. From Saumur we continued on to Chappelle Sur Loire. Chappelle Sur Loire is a picturesque little town on the, you guessed it, the Loire River (we were going to the Loire valley anyway), I had to laugh because when we stopped I said to my wife that I was looking for crocodiles on the sand banks like we did in Far North Queensland, and she said she was as well! Yup, it’s going to take some time getting used to being in Europe.

We stopped at a nice little café for lunch, this would be our first challenge would my school boy French and Nat’s school girl French get us fed? It did, and I think we did ok, the husband and wife owners understood us and even tried to have a conversation with us (not so good here) “pardon?” or “plus lentement s’il vous plait” (more slowly please) I seemed to say an awful lot. The pizza was (relatively) cheap and the Coca Cola was really expensive (drink Perrier, a 330ml bottle is the same price as a 200ml Coke). I managed to dredge up some more French out of that grey matter that is my brain, but I did have some problems with my (not quite up to scratch) Swedish, I managed to mix up my languages with some errr….interesting results. One problem is that 6 in French is pronounced “seess” in Swedish it’s “sex” so when I was shopping and the pretty girl behind the counter said “combien?” (how many) and I said “Sex” she, as you could imagine gave me a funny look and then said “oui” (to my delight!) unfortunately my wife corrected the situation with the proper pronunciation and we ended up with 6 of whatever it was we were buying, the story could have been better, but nothing cramps your style like having a wife! (Only kidding…honest)

I saw what has to be the prettiest town I’ve ever seen, Chinon, it is absolutely gorgeous. It has a huge fort at the top of the hill and the town at the bottom with big leafy trees along the main street, with beautiful old buildings, do yourself a favour and go see this town it’s worth the drive and the wine! We’re definitely going back.

We finally made it to the Chambres d’hotes (bed and breakfast) called “Le Moulin de la Roche” which was the bed and breakfast we had booked through the wonderful book “Michelin Charming Places to Stay” (for under €80 per night) the book is brilliant, I can’t recommend it enough. The location we had chosen to base our sightseeing from was a small town just North East of Loches (or South East of Tours) called Genille, this allowed us to go to Chateau Chenonceau and Chateau Chambord with ease.

The Moulin de la Roche was great, The hosts were lovely (and they spoke English, which made life a little easier for us) it’s just not possible to not like a place that, upon arriving after 300 some odd miles by motorcycle, the host comes out with a couple of beers as a welcome. The original part of the house was a mill from the 15th century which was added to in the 17th and 18th centuries, but the main feature was a 1000 year old beam that came out of a 500 year old mill (from across the stream) to build the new mill back 500 years ago and the bit that amazed me was the fact it was all documented wayyyy back then. The room was very tastefully decorated, except 2 things: Throw rugs? I always wondered why they were called Throw rugs, now I know, they throw you on your ass as soon as you step on them, I hate them, especially on highly polished hard wood floors. One night I tried to sneak to the toilet (I didn’t want to wake up Nat) I managed to get to the end of the bed before stepping on the “throw rug” that was lying in wait for me, between doing the splits (one foot on the throw rug, one foot on the floor) and trying to catch my balance, I some how woke up Nat, imagine that? The other (less deadly) thing I don’t like are “bolsters” what do you need a bolster for? (you know? The big tubes that go under the pillows across the bed) Nat likes them, I don’t, in the middle of the night I’d be slowly sliding down the bed until morning comes and I’ve got freezing feet because they’ve been hanging off the end of the bed for most of the night, it’s like sleeping on a hill, not good.

The breakfasts were great, croissants, French bread, tea and coffee, cereal, yoghurt etc… I certainly didn’t get hungry until late in the day. On Saturday we went to Loches for a typical French country market, I like going to the country first to get a “real” view of the population at large, and I’ll say that the French although they aren’t the flavour of the moment due to the war, are on a whole, fantastic, warm and welcoming and happy to tell you about life in France. The French are extremely proud people, they should be, they’ve done a lot over time and they were a former world power (just like England) I don’t know why they’ve slipped a bit, but this is about travel and bikes not politics.

That afternoon we went to Chateau Chenonceau, it was built on (literally) the river Cher (I couldn’t find the Sonny river) in the 16th century, it really is a beautiful Chateau, for my first chateau viewing I was really impressed with the grandeur and the style (and how hard it must have been to build) but, take my advice, eat before you go to the chateau because I found it crowded and expensive (not good value for money). The big tip I have is, go to the toilet before you go to the chateau, don’t be naïve like me “I’m sure that they have toilets in the chateau, after all kings and queens lived there” wrong wrong wrong, I ended up doing the 100 meter cross legged waddle running race past the restaurant (I’m sure they laughed at me) only to find that you have to give a “donation” to the lady who keeps and eye on the toilets (the doors are wide open, views for everyone! And you get to pay for the privilege of being an exhibitionist).

On the way back to the B&B we stopped in Montrichard and decided to go to the museum and fort that they have there, the museum was ok, I believe that it was more for the locals than for tourists, mainly about obscure (to us non Montrichard residents) great people from the area that managed to become famous (in Montrichard). There was also an interesting “dig” of Gallo Roman sarcophagus found in the area, that was mainly all we found of interest for us (if you like old mills, this is the place for you!).

The fort at Montrichard (same spot as the museum and the same €5.00 gets you into both) was great, it’s a crumbling ruin on it’s last legs (actually it’s a bit like me in that respect) but I’m sure it’ll be around for hundreds of more years, it is about 1000 years old and still very impressive because it’s on a hill over looking the town of Montrichard, they even had a granite? Ballista ball from the siege in 1188, the ball managed to knock a big hole in the wall (still there) without damaging the ball too badly, amazing. It was the English who owned the castle/fort and the French were laying siege to the fort! The French got it back in that battle by digging under a tower and setting fire to the props, which collapsed and the army went in a burned the city down (with a lot of people too I would expect), supposedly, Richard the Lionheart was a prisoner there. It was a beautiful afternoon and when we got to the top of the fort we had incredible views of the entire area and the ancient town of Montrichard, we sat on the seats and sat in silence looking at the green fields, the river with it’s stone bridge and the black roof tops of the town, it was pure bliss. Sitting in a 1000 year old fort, you really can’t help but think of all of the thousands of people who lived and died within the very walls, it’s quite humbling knowing that we’re so incredibly temporary compared to stone.

Chambord! Wow is all I can say, incredible, Leonardo Da Vinci helped with some of the designs and it shows (for example the double staircase), Chenonceau was impressive but this was in a different league all together, Chenonceau was like a one bedroom apartment compared to this. The building was started in 1518 and took 25 years to build, it’s 156 meters in length and 117m in width and 54m high! Which is gigantic for those times, and don’t forget the 32km wall around the 5433 hectares of hunting grounds! The walls are made out of Tufa rock (not tofu like I called it) which is really soft, almost chalk like (graffiti is everywhere carved into the stone, some date back to the 1700’s), I have no idea how it can hold such great weight and not crumble? We were told that this is the most prestigious chateau, and I can well imagine that even without seeing the rest of them. Entering the grounds is impressive enough, first you pass through a gate (in the 32km wall) and drive and drive until you see a faint shape in the distance looming up past the trees, as you get closer the view gets more and more impressive until you stop at the end of the equestrian fields and gaze upon one of the most fabulous buildings I have ever seen. The tall grey spires back lit by a cold grey sky, is a sight I’ll probably never forget, I managed to get a great photo of it and it’s probably my favourite from the trip. Being Easter the car parks were full (now I know where Winnebago’s go to die, there were hundreds!) and even on a bike we had to park in car park 2, which actually was quite good because it gave me the opportunity to take lots of photos of Chambord. We went to the little “village” which is full of gift shops and restaurants (reasonable prices) and had lunch (and went to the toilet, I learnt from last time) and did the usual tourist thing by buying some fridge magnets (easy to ship to family in Australia), the gift shops were excellent! They even had proper swords and armour for sale, I didn’t buy a sword, could you imagine me trying to explain to a French cop in my limited French why I had a sword strapped to the bike? I could imagine it so I decided not to buy one (they were cheap though).

We went into the chateau, but the audio commentary were sold out…bugger, so we ended up buying a guide instead. I will say that the French do try and give the visitors a good visit by printing guides in English/Japanese/German/Italian etc… (even the free ones), when they ask what nationality you are, don’t say Australian, it confuses them completely, they start looking for guides in Australian: Strewth mate, check out the painting of the Sheila on the left with her boobs out! It’s painted by some Italian bloke, named Da something, I really can’t remember, I was on the French piss last night with some bird who couldn’t understand me…..
Indeed, when they ask “nationality” say English, it’s much easier on them and you.

We spent hours walking around the chateau, I loved the views from the upper walkway that goes all the way around the chateau (it’s a castle really, I think it has 440 rooms!) and the rooms are what Chenonceau should have been like, they had furnishings and paintings although the kings brought all the furniture with them from Paris and then took the furniture back with them when they left Chambord, so I’m sure not much is original, but they did a great job with the reconstruction. Forget all about the furniture, the workmanship and detail in the stone carvings, stairways, walls and frescos is absolutely incredible, even down spouts from the gutters are highly ornamental!

The place is amazing, if you ever get the chance, go, you won’t regret it.

The next day we headed back to St. Malo to catch the ferry back to the rock (as the locals call Jersey), after riding around Tours looking for an open fuel station (Easter Monday and things aren’t open on Mondays often in France) I filled up with just over 2 litres left in the tank, then did the same heading into St. Malo (less than 1 litre left!), if you ever drive/ride through France, remember that the autoroute has service stations about every 20km, get off the autoroute and well, good luck in finding one, I found one in a town a few km’s from the highway, I’ve learnt a lot on this trip and we had a blast, even if on the ride home it rained on us, it was cold and miserable, but you take the good with the bad when you ride a bike.

Ask anyone who rides a bike what their favourite part about riding is? And they’ll say the freedom, the smells, the fact that you feel the humidity and temperature changes as you go up hill or down hill, and the fact that you aren’t cocooned in a temperature regulated shell, watch life going by without actually experiencing it.
Ask any rider what they don’t like and they’ll say, no freedom (the police target motorcycles) the smells (not good when they fertilize the fields) the humidity and temperature changes (when you aren’t prepared for them) and of course, wishing you were cocooned in a temperature regulated shell, watch life going by without actually experiencing it (when it’s freezing cold, blowing a storm and the rain is coming down in torrents).

If you ride, you’ll understand why we didn’t buy a car to tour Europe on, the bad bits of touring on a bike are outweighed by the good bits by a huge margin, I love riding through medieval towns with roads so narrow only bikes can get through them, I love sitting up high and being able to see over the rock walls and hedges, I love the senses you get when you come around a corner from fields into a forest, all the smells change instantly, the air changes (usually more humid) and at the end of the day you feel like you’ve actually accomplished something, don’t get me wrong I love cars and have done a lot of touring in them but on a bike, it’s different.

It’s just better.
 
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