Back on Land and How I Hate Motorways!

Right, lets get straight to the point. Motorway driving/riding is boring, period!

It doesn’t really matter if the motorway is slicing through wonderful scenery, hugging a coastline or plunging through alpine tunnels, the basic truth is the same…it’s a motorway! Autobahn, Autoroute, Autostrada, Freeway, Interstate…all the same by another name and all boring.

OK, I know, they get you from A to B reasonably quickly, that is assuming that some idiot hasn’t rearranged the central barrier and several other vehicles at the same time on your carriageway, but in essence they are tedious…or am I being a little over the top?

Take yesterday as an example.

We rolled off the ferry in Santander and for once the Spanish Border Police were in pragmatic mood; no need to take off helmets or stop engines, just show the passport and off we go then.

Straight onto the Cantabria Motorway, which runs along the North Coast of Spain and into France. Speed restrictions and road works galore; added to which is the somewhat dubious pleasure of having to pay tolls for the privilege, oh and most of it is only two lanes in each direction!

Progress was steady, if only through gritted teeth and ever grittier eyes. Truck traffic was quite heavy and seemingly all controlled by aspiring Formula One drivers.

After two and a half hours of punishment we crossed the border into France where the motorway suddenly grew extra lanes! We turned off and headed into the hills. Bliss.

Hey, wait a minute…after that motorway punishment, here’s our reward! The most wonderful windy, undulating little road ever, plus a couple of hairpins and our first Col of the trip. My angel, or late little brother G, must have been smiling on me!

For the map watchers amongst you, the road in question is the D4 from Ascain to Saré and the pass is Col de St Ignace, which at 169metres isn’t going to set any records, but it’s the first this trip and that’s good.

We stayed in a nice family run hotel in Saré, Harls had use of the owner’s garage and I had a great night’s sleep.

Hotel Room View, nice.


This is Basque Country, which for very complicated reasons doesn’t really like to think of itself as either French of Spanish. Basques are Celts, like me, so I really am feeling quite at home; there’s a vibe that reminds me of parts of Wales, Brittany and Cornwall. I cant exactly put my finger on it, but it’s definitely there and I like it, a lot.

Many of the buildings here are painted in a traditional red and white scheme that is very smart and gives things a unified feel, without being overpowering or monotonous.

I’m making a note to come back here…

Catch you soon with more from down the road.

Dookes

It’s Engineering Baby!

It’s one of those lovely early summer mornings here at Dookes H.Q., the sun is shining, there’s a gentle breeze and all seems well in the world…until some crazy person messes it up.

Mrs Dookes is out, which means I can play a Jethro Tull album without snarky comments and grumbles; no, she really doesn’t appreciate Prog-Rock!

I’m also studying maps because trip planning time is here, actually that really came long ago, this is more like “Contingency Planning Time.”

This year’s adventure should see Harls and I heading off to the Pyrenees on the border between France and Spain in a couple of weeks, we have unfinished business in those mountains.

There is, however, a slight spanner in the works.

We are due to sail from Plymouth to Santander on Brittany Ferries lovely flagship and one of my favourite vessels, the MV Pont Aven. Unfortunately the lovely white lady is currently dry docked in the port of Brest with fairly major problems in her starboard steering gear.

The poor ship has been a bit unlucky this year, back in April she suffered a fire in one of her engine rooms which led to a spell in the shipyard for repairs. Then, only days after her return to service, this fault in her steering system appeared.

One of the problems with modern transportation companies like Brittany Ferries is they operate on very tight margins, meaning that the assets are “sweated.” In plain language, they don’t have spare ships standing around doing nothing and those that they do have are kept earning revenue with minimal downtime. One breakdown can and usually does cause chaos to schedules. It’s difficult for operators to accurately predict when things are going to be back to normal and putting pressure on the engineers to get the job fixed as soon as possible can be counterproductive; better to do it once properly than to need to return through rushing or corner cutting.

Years ago a late friend and I undertook engineering services for a cross-channel ferry company operating out of Portsmouth. One of the jobs that we did was a repair on a vessel’s steering gear which necessitated a visit to dry dock in Southampton. One day I’ll dig out and scan the photo’s of that and maybe do a retro post about it. The job was straightforward enough, but getting all the parts, labour, heavy-lift equipment and inspection agencies together in one place when the dock was available was a logistical nightmare! I share the pain that the BF engineering team are going through.

Brittany Ferries operate a number of routes across the English Channel between the UK and France, plus serving Spain and Ireland. The impact of this breakdown has reached far and wide.

I have read some affected passengers grumbling that the company has not offered them good customer service by way of alternatives or compensation. From a personal point of view I do not agree.

Yesterday, I called into the Brittany Ferries offices in Plymouth to discus options for Harls and I. Basically, in the event of the ship not being back in service by our departure date, I was offered the option of being booked onto an alternative ferry to France, with costs if I have to travel to a different departure port and then provided with onward travel costs to get me to Santander as well as a refund of the difference in fares; or I could have a complete refund if that meant that I was unable to travel.

This I thought was perfectly reasonable and I’m probably going to accept the former, after all it’s no hardship for me to have to ride Harls for an extra two days!!

I did offer my engineering services as well, I was told to pop home and get my spanners; at least the staff haven’t lost their sense of houmour!

In the meantime, I’m really hoping that the MV Pont Aven is repaired as I do love sailing on her and best of all she has a fabulous restaurant.

Catch you soon.

Dookes

Pondering through the Miles

Motorcycling is great, no really it is, even when the weather decides to test you with a bit of rain, or fog, or snow… actually forget those bits about fog and snow, it’s pants then!

One of the things I love about being on two wheels is the time I get to do a bit of thinking. Now I’m not talking real deep meditational stuff, because when I’m riding I really need to keep my mind fully on the road, but I seem to have developed a sort of “compartmentalised” mental ability to grab a thought or idea, place it in some recess in the old Dookes head and recall it later for further processing. Which is quite a handy trick really! It’s how I manage to absorb the day’s traveling, write about it later whilst and able to recapture the essence of what I was thinking when I was out on the road.

Take this morning for example.

The road across Northern Brittany from Morlaix to Rennes is a dual carriageway. It’s not exactly the most stimulating stretch of tarmac in the world, but like many such roads gets you efficiently from A to B with minimum of fuss. It’s also the road that I like to use to get me “in the groove” for Continental Europe travelling. As many people will be aware, those pesky Mainland Europeans, along with most of the rest of the world, drive on the “wrong” side of the road; that’s the Right side, only it’s not, “right” that is!

Which got me thinking….

As anyone with half a shred of historical knowledge will know, the “right” side to drive is the Left. Just like we do in the U.K. and so do Australia, New Zealand, Japan, India and about 70 other “enlightened” countries, which equates to about 35% of the world population, but why?

Well it’s all largely to do with swords, farm carts and aristocrats.

In the days when roads were ruled by the horse, just about everybody travelled on the left hand side of the road because most people are right-handed; if you needed to pull out a sword to defend yourself you had you opponent just where you wanted them, on your right hand side. It also was good manners as it prevented your sword in it’s scabbard flapping about and hitting passing riders as you had it on your left. Plus, ever noticed which side most people mount up on a horse from?

Yep, the left, to keep the sword out of the way!

By the 1700s in France the aristocracy kept driving their carriages on the left, even though the necessity of having to have ones sword free had largely passed, but seemingly they enjoyed forcing the peasants over to the right! Around this time though, farmers in France began using bigger and bigger carts as farming techniques improved and crop yields grew. These bigger waggons often used more than one horse so the driver would sit on the left hand side animal in order to use their whip in the right hand, plus they could then also keep an eye on their cart’s wheels as they passed other road users.

Come the French Revolution one of the many ways that the new French Republic made itself “different” was to make driving on the right compulsory, from 1794. As Napoleon Bonaparte then went on to conquer vast swathes of Continental Europe everyone in his path was forced to conform!

All that to explain why Dookes has been riding on the Right-Hand side of the road today. To be honest, on a motorbike it really doesn’t make much difference except to keep your wits about you and look out for traffic coming from unexpected directions; I quite like it.

It’s always interesting and a bit amusing in the first few kilometres just off the ferry as inevitably you can spot the odd Brit car driver getting it totally wrong at either a road junction or roundabout!

Which is all a long-winded way of saying that I’ve just had a brilliant day riding Harls in warm sunshine on sticky tarmac on just about my favourite country on Earth!…(apart from Wales that is!!!) We’ve covered just short of 400 miles, some of it pretty hard grind, but when I’m on on Harls I never want to be anywhere else in the world.

Highlight of the day was riding some of the famous “24 Heurs du Mans” circuit, around the city of Le Mans. Whipping down the legendary “Mulsanne Straight” hanging a right at Mulsanne then zipping under the Porsche bridge before flicking through Indianapolis and Arnage to the Porsche curves was the stuff of dreams!

Indianapolis Curve, moving a bit!

I took Baby Blue around Monza once, I’ll tell more about that another day, but today beat that hands down as I did it with Harls! Thank goodness I didn’t see any Gendarmes.

Porsche Bridge.

Like I say, you just need to keep your wits about you and give a nod of thanks to Napoleon for making life interesting!

Vive La France, vive la revolution, vive la difference!

Catch you soon

Dookes

Arrival or Departure

Frequently, in those idle moments that journeys throw at me, I ponder what is better, Arrivals or Departures?

I know, the old Dookes grey matter wanders in mysterious ways, but bear with me and I’ll explain where I’m coming from.

As I type this our ferry is making it’s final approach to Arrive in the Port of Roscoff. On-board there is a palpable air of excitement, stoked in no small part by a number of French school groups. The children are chattering in the animated carefree way that only the young can indulge in. They don’t worry if everything is packed, passport and documents ready, someone else takes care of that!

For my part, I sit in the lounge watching busy activity on the quayside as dockers secure the mooring ropes and make fast the ship against the dock. The strong Solstice morning sun glares through the windows, it’s certainly looking like its going to be a lovely day. It’s early, too early for everything except strong coffee and a moment to let the day come to me; let it Arrive if you like.

Departing Plymouth


Last night we took the short ride from Dookes H.Q. to the port of Plymouth, so often the beginning of various adventures. It was the moment of Departure and in many ways I hate it; yet at the same time I love it too… weird eh?

I hate leaving behind everything that is precious and closest to me, Mrs Dookes, our home, comfort in the familiar; yet there’s an adventure and exploration lying ahead of us.

The open road….calling.


As I get older that wrench of separation gets harder and the excitement of the unknown diminishes.

Then we hit the road and the focus switches, time to concentrate.

Arrival or Departure?

It kind of depends on which one you are doing…

Catch you later.

Dookes

Red Sky In The Morning.

Sometimes it’s worth getting up the first time the alarm sounds and not hitting the “Snooze” button. Yesterday in Brittany was a case in point.

Surprisingly the evening with Denis didn’t get out of hand and I slept “The sleep of the just,” with only the alarm disturbing me. I got out of bed and threw open the shutters, dawn was breaking in the Eastern sky with rich hues of amber, red and gold; it was too good to miss, so I sat I the window taking in the show that the sun was giving.

In the back of my mind I pondered the old adage,”Red sky in the morning, sailors warning.” Hmm, oh well, we’ve taken pretty much everything that the weather clerk has thrown at us this trip, something else won’t matter. Will it?

Denis was waiting when I wandered downstairs, his smile every bit as warm as the sun.
“Bonjour Gallois, bien dormi, ça va?”
“Oui mon ami ça va et merci, j’ai très bien dormi!”

He broke into a rare bit of stilted English,
“Bacon and eggs? Zee full English?”

He roared with laughter as I shook my head…he knew what I was going to say.

“Merci, non. J’aurai une omelette, comme d’habitude!”

More laughter, Denis knows I always have an omelette for breakfast with him; it’s because they are the best, which I frequently remind him. Anyway he gets fun out of the bacon and eggs routine!

Of course there’s the usual French breakfast fare to go with it; bread, croissants, pain au chocolat and as this is Bretagne, little Madeleine cakes…which just beg to be dipped briefly in your cup of coffee to give sublime breakfast happiness!

Soon, too soon, it was time to hit the road again and in the French way there were hugs and kisses all round. Ann stood on the steps of the Château waving me goodbye, Denis had disappeared off to feed his horses, he doesn’t do the actual departure bit very well.

I turned Harls North West and headed for our ferry port at Roscoff, just over 100 miles away through delightful Breton scenery. True, Brittany isn’t as spectacular as the mountains that we’ve been in for the last fortnight, but to me it has a homely feel. It’s the region of France where I first “got it” about the country and the people, that’s wholly down to Mrs Dookes; she worked here years ago and imparted her love of the place to me. I’ve never really looked back since!

Then there was the weather, what a lovely day it had turned into and stayed that way right to the ferry. Thank you La France, I’ll forgive you the downpours we had to endure previously!

….and so to sea. The ferry link between Brittany and Plymouth is really convenient for me as Dookes H.Q. is only about 25 miles from the port and usually a doddle to cover.

I like travelling with Brittany Ferries, that’s not an advert for them – I’m just a satisfied customer. I always get a cabin, irrespective if it’s a day or night sailing, as it makes a good base to securely dump things whilst I enjoy the facilities of the ship and also because I appreciate getting some sleep. No difference this time either!

Getting near to the U.K.the weather closed in and by the time we docked it was full-on driving rain. Oh joy in the darkness!

Then, just to add to my overflowing cup of happiness on the way home, the highways authority had decided to dig up the road and install diversions…then we ran into fog and still it rained…bear in mind that these are rural roads with no street-lighting, not fun. That blasted red sky!

Grumbling aside, it was good to roll Harls into my workshop, shut the doors, turn on the dehumidifiers, thank her for a job well done and promise in the next couple for days to wash the considerable amount of road grime off her.

2736 miles without missing a beat. “Pas mal,” as Denis says, yes not at all bad for an old lady, the true star of the show!

Incredibly big thanks to Mrs Dookes for the latitude that she gives me to go travelling, whilst she keeps H.Q. ticking over; yeah I know that I’m a lucky chap in so many ways.

There’s more to tell about this trip dear reader, so please pop back again soon when I post more pictures and stories of things we saw along the road.

“Let me be a travelling man, I’m a roadrunner baby, roadrunner.”

Catch you soon

Dookes

Denis – Le Grand Chef!

Yesterday evening Jacques suggested that the sunshine was so nice it would be a good idea to sit outside with the wine….five minutes later it started to rain! To be fair it was just a short shower, but wetness falling from the sky nonetheless.

The weather forecast said that today would be nice, lots of sunshine and warm after a cool start. So how come I woke to a thunderstorm?
Breakfast, still raining.
Pack bag, still raining.
Load Harls, still raining.
Start up and move off…..yes, still the blasted rain was falling!

I rode for fifty miles in grim wet stuff, heavy spray and general murk, then there was a line in the road and “Ping!” Dry.
About time too!

Having been spoilt by the back roads for the last couple of days, hitting the Autoroutes again was a bit of a culture shock for me, but I swear that Harls was enjoying it; cruising really is her thing.

We called at Bourgueil for fuel and to get a bottle of one of Mrs Dookes favourite wines, then it was back to mile munching the asphalt.

I don’t know what it is about the City of Angers, but every time I pass that way I seem to find one of the “Idiots of the road” out on exercise and today was no exception….”Street Fighter” mode it is then!

The D775 road between Angers and Rennes is gradually being rebuilt, where the new bits exist they are sublime, but some of the old sections are rough, hellish rough. Fortunately these days, there are more new bits than old and the dry new(ish) smooth black-top is good, very good indeed. Harls and I loved it!

I took a coffee and comfort break at Segré then pushed on and refueled just South of Rennes. The old centre of the City of Rennes is truly lovely, but take my advice and go there by train as the traffic is always a snarl up, right from La Périphérique inwards. Today though, we just sort of did a tangential ricochet from South East to South West and hunted out the N24, a good old-fashioned French dual carriageway.

Frequently the old ’24 is a pain in the backside, but today we hit it just right; not too much traffic to slow us down, but enough to have some fun overtaking and letting them hear how Harls on full-chat sounds – which is fantastic….at that point I remembered that I didn’t put my ear plugs in after our coffee break and that is why, my dear Blogonaughts, my tinnitus is screaming tonight!

The reason for this 300 mile dash was to see my old friends Ann and Denis at their lovely Château in the heart of Brittany. Ann is one of those French women who don’t really age, they just improve; Denis, he lights up a room with his smile and is never happier when he’s with his horses or cooking for friends, he plays the amiable buffoon well, but is a shrewd operator really.

The view from a Breton Château, pas mal/not bad!

Harls was ushered into a garage and for some reason Denis parks his car outside, strange as he has three other garages!

He pours me a cidre, this is Brittany after all.
“OK Gallois, j’espère que tu as faim!”
After a hard day’s riding I am truly starving, trust me. The shower washed away the road grime, but now the road hunger is kicking in.
Denis is, as I frequently pull his leg, “Un Grand Chef!” – A great chef!
He knows it, but it’s more than that, it’s more about the love he puts into his cooking.
The French, it is said, live to eat and the rest of us…well, we just eat to live!

Anyway, after more cidre, nibbles and merriment, Denis disappears into the kitchen and wonderful smells start to waft out. Ann smiles, she knows what alchemy he gets up to in there!

In due course, large duck breasts appear sizzling on stones, Denis like cooking on stones!
The frivolity continues, except that the food isn’t frivolous and the company is great.

More cidre, this might hurt in the morning.

Apple tart, Tarte aux Pommes, like only the Bretons can make, follows on.

Then it’s coffee and Lambig, a type of Breton Calvados and now I’d better go as Denis is giving me stick about loving my iPad more than him!

I tell him that he is a great chef – “Un grand Chef!”
He laughs, “Non Gallois, Denis c’est le petit Chef.”
We laugh like friends do, he knows that I know that he is talking rubbish!
Ann just winks at me.

Catch you soon. Bon soirée.

Dookes

Looking For The Loire (Back in Black)

Well, my beloved “Harls” and I are back on the Continental roads again!
Today we’ve just reeled off 360 miles, (600 kilometres sounds more impressive though!) since rolling off our overnight ferry at Roscoff in Brittany.

For those who like checking our progress on the map, we travelled via Rennes, Angers and Bourgueil to our overnight stop with my old friends Jacques and Claudine, just East of Vierzon.

I’ve got to admit, I’m pretty knackered tonight, that’s “tired out” for those of you not used to my colloquial English! I absolutely adore every second that I ride Harls, but I’d forgotten just how much effort she demands, compared to cruising on the big blue Ultra Limited. Harls is safely tucked away in Jacques’ barn for the night and here I am sitting on the terrace, sipping a glass of rather splendid local red wine, watching the sun drop in the western sky as a warm breeze rustles the Autumn tinted leaves; tinnitus is screaming in my ears, my wrist aches from holding the throttle open (oh yes, I do mean open!) my backside is. . . tender, but I’m happy, very very happy. The old team is back doing what we do best, having fun on the open road.

Now a little observation; I’ve come to the conclusion that there are three types of French Dual carriageway/autoroute:

Dull.

Dangerous.

Delightful.

Today we sampled all three, I’m not going to dwell on the bad bits, but those wonderful French road builders have been stealthily rebuilding the D775 between Rennes and Angers and it’s a beaut! Lovely sweeping curves, enough gradient to make it interesting and smooth as can be!

Somewhere along the road we slipped from Brittany into the Loire valley. It’s strange, but for however many years it is that I’ve been travelling in this part of France I’ve never been able to spot exactly when the transition takes place. It’s like…”Yes, this is nice familiar Brittany.” Then a bit later, “Oh, this must be the Loire Valley!” I really have tried to spot the dividing point, but no, not managed it yet.

I always find the River Loire a bit difficult to define. Yes, it’s France’s longest river and it’s also one of the great rivers of Europe, but it’s a lazy old thing meandering around like a big question mark from the Massif Central to the Atlantic.

The whole concept of the “Loire Valley” is a bit baffling, as for most of the time the landscape to me resembles a prairie with a river running through it and it’s not just the Loire that’s included, its tributaries such as the Cher, Indre and Vienne get lumped in as well!

I’m not complaining though. The Loire valley is a veritable treasure trove of some of the best things France has to offer. It’s largely temperate climate and fertile soils have brought great wealth for centuries, it’s a big wine growing region and as a result there are over a thousand stately châteaux of all shapes and sizes.

Today I wanted to look in on one of the most famous, Château de Chenonceau. This place has been intriguing me from a distance for years, so I had to go check it out.
Oh dear, what a disappointment.

Now I’m sure that if I could swallow my pride and elevated view that I am a traveller and not a tourist, when actually I’m really a leather clad motorcycle riding tourist, then I might get along fine with the thousands of folk swarming between the car parks and the Château…but just one glance at the sandal wearing, short-clad hoards and I did a graceful U-turn and carried on East! Jacques roared with laughter when I told him.

Thanks to Ra-Smit for the use of the photo and yes, the Château really does partly sit out on a bridge over the river!

So back to the “terroir” of the Loire valley…the soils are largely sandy and calcareous and that generally means one thing….wine! Famous appellations such as Touraine, Saumur and Bourgueil, are known the world over; indeed some say that Saumur sparkling wines are better than Champagne.

It’s not just grapes that they grow here, the area produces thousands of tonnes of arable crops. All over the place you can see grain elevators, known as “Prairie Skyscrapers” in Canada and the USA. The grain harvest is long over now, but the farmers are still busy; currently it’s maize that is being cut. Next will be the sunflowers, with the start of Autumn their bright yellow petals have withered and fallen. Where once their happy little faces looked up and followed the sun, now they hang their heads sorrowfully looking for their lost petals and contemplating the turning of the season. In French the sunflower is called “tournesol” – “turns to the sun,” I like that!

“Yes, I’m back in black.”

Catch you soon

Dookes