Friday, December 21, 2012

The Last Hurrah

With the Swiss Alps dwindling in our rear-view mirrors - well, in Ed's anyway; I could only see my shoulders in mine due to both the excessive amount of clothing I was wearing and the poor positioning of the mirrors themselves - we headed north to Nancy. This would have us spending the night close to Verdun, which we could visit the next day on our way to Arras, and from their it would be a short run to Calais on the Saturday morning.

Lake Genva is under the low cloud. Honestly.

JB escorted us to the petrol station, ostensibly to put us on the right road, but possibly he was just keen to make sure we got clear of his area of responsibility without a speeding incident or slip on the frosty road. We parted company with promises of meeting up for a road trip in the summer, and with JB's cautions about the road conditions ringing in our ears, we got under way. Once again, we opted for the smaller, scenic roads, and Ed was soon several cars ahead of me, overtaking confidently on his hi-tech beast, using the sat-nav to alert him to safe passing areas approaching round the corners, clearly champing at the bit to cover some distance. Not having the same advance warning of the road layout and having very inferior brakes, I was happy to just mosey along. We stopped for a photo at small town, and once again Ed suggested
I should try and overtake when he did, otherwise we would be limited to normal traffic speed rather than the faster bike speeds which was, after all, largely the point of using motorbikes. I explained again about my restrictions and, as we were in a quiet part of the country and had a big car park handy to practice in before hitting the road, I suggested that maybe this was the time to switch bikes for a bit so he would have a better understanding of what I was up against.

After a 10 minute tutorial on what all the buttons on his bike did (heated this-and-that switches with multiple settings, sat-nav, several indicator switches, lights, and whatnot), I jumped on Ed's bike, barely able to reach the ground with both feet, and nervous about leaning the bike too far and dropping it. I wobbled off round the car park for a couple of laps, realising quickly how rider-friendly the bike was. It was very well balanced and, once I got the hang of where the buttons were, not too confusing after all.

Ed was all geared up for a similarly complex tutorial on my bike, and seemed both disappointed and surprised when I quickly showed him the the on/off buttons for engine, lights and grip heaters, and the indicator switch. "What about everything else?" he asked. "That's it," I replied. He took a turn round the car park as well, and then we ventured out in to the traffic. Ed now had nothing more to do than follow me for a change (and concentrate on keeping the bike running - it had developed a tendency to stall on stopping - and slowing down safely), while I now had to watch both the road and  sat-nav, and remember where all the buttons were. It was actually a very easy bike to ride, and I appreciated the comfortable seat and riding position, not to mention the vast windscreen sheltering me from the cold wind. I wondered how Ed was faring.

After half an hour or so I figured Ed would probably have had enough, so I pulled over and we switched back. He seemed far more impressed at my coming to meet him now, as in only a short time he noticed the uncomfortable riding position, the extra exposure to wind and, yes, the dodgy brakes. With new found appreciation for what his big brother was going through just to join him at the end of his trip, we pushed on towards Nancy via the autoroute.

About 20 miles outside the city, we stopped to refuel both the bikes and ourselves at a motorway services. Just as we were finishing our hot chocolates, a guy pulled in on a big fancy touring BMW. He parked along side us and seemed keen to talk but, as we were tired, we tried to dress fast and get going. My good manners got the better of me though, and I struggled to reply to his questions in my school boy French while trying to discourage further conversation by giving the impression that we were ready to go. As we mounted the bikes and fired up the engines, he flicked away his cigarette and rushed to join us. Not really what we wanted, but the choice wasn't ours. As we pushed on up the motorway to Nancy in the deepening gloom, he pulled along side Ed and seemed to be trying to communicate with him. Ed wasn't too impressed and, as the bloke cut across the lanes to take the slip road to a parking area, we just kept going, thinking we'd shaken him. Not so fast though, and he was soon back along side Ed, making the 'pull over' gestures again. This time, we followed him off the motorway, and when we'd all stopped, he asked where we were heading and whether we'd like to come and stay at his house in Toul, a city nearby, instead.

Its a funny thing, but we were both suspicious of his motives. We were both tired and not sure if we could be bothered with a night of being sociable, but also it seemed a slightly odd offer. In other parts of the world, in countries far poorer than France, we had both previously accepted offers of hospitality from total strangers and had excellent experiences because of this. But here, in France, we thought there must be some ulterior motive at play. After a brief chat among ourselves, and despite not being entirely up for it, we figured that there were 2 of us and only 1 of him, and it would be the last chance on his trip for Ed to have a little side adventure. We took the guy (we still hadn't introduced ourselves to each other) up on his offer and followed him to his home in Toul.

He pulled up outside a very unprepossessing, slightly tatty mid-terrace house, opened a garage door and we all drove in. As he pulled down the door behind us, we climbed off the bikes, removed our helmets and made formal introductions. Fabrice, for t'was he, ducked in to the house to return moments later with indoor flip-flops for us both. He didn't speak English, so it was going to be a night of dodgy French, and as we followed him into the house, I muttered to Ed that I hoped we weren't about to embark on a Pulp Fiction-esque cellar kidnapping experience.

On the inside, the house was remarkably large, and very smart. Out the back door was an enclosed patio, with the far wall being a barn/workshop where Fabrice made furniture as a hobby, and through this was a long narrow garden. Very flash. He assured us his wife would be back soon, and in the meantime he left us to get cleaned up. We met him again downstairs where he furnished us with beers and set about explaining that he was ex-military, ex-French police, and currently worked for the family business which seemed to involve using his bike as company vehicle to act as a sales rep for internal and external furnishings. Being a keen biker, his offer of hospitality was merely part of the biker's code that seems to exist out there, and in much the same way that either Ed or myself might have made a similar offer to a wandering traveler, on this occasion it was Fabrice who was in the position to improve his karma.

Far from being a hassle, the evening turned into a very enjoyable time, as we should have known it would. Fabrice's wife, Severine, came home and joined the fun, seemingly unfazed that her husband had picked up a couple of strangers, and I got a tour of Fabrice's other hobbies: large guns and knives. Being ex-miltary and -police, he had a number of both hand guns and working, replica WW2 rifles, an ammunition making table, and a large number of hunting knives. This display made me a little nervous, and it may have been either boyish enthusiasm or a veiled warning to leave his pretty wife alone that prompted him to share it. It wasn't dwelt on though, and we were soon back downstairs enjoying some wine and local moonshine - a bottle of which he gifted us!  

On hearing our plans to visit cemeteries the next day, he kindly offered to guide us via small roads to Verdun and to some of  the memorials there. It made for very fast riding the next day, and no doubt saved us some time looking for places to visit. I think that day deserves an entry of its own so I'll stop here for now, and get you up to date soon. In the meantime, all that is left to be said about Fabrice and Severine's hospitality is that I was glad to be shown that this kind of generosity exists all over place (yes, even France!), you just have to be open enough to notice it when it is in front of you, and take the opportunities as they arise. We may never meet those two again, although we have a standing invite to stay next time either of us are passing through France, and have extended the same to them, should they come to the UK. It was a great reminder to us both that you don't necessarily have to travel to the farthest corners of the world to find good-hearted people.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Go West, Young Man

Sunday was to be spent mostly at the Milan Motorbike Show, with perhaps a side helping of Milan city centre if time permitted.

We retraced our tracks of the evening before, and this time arrived at the exhibition centre when it was actually open. Being on our bikes meant we could use the designated bikers parking area that not only allowed us to by-pass the long traffic queues, but also drive pretty much up to the doors. The car park proved to be almost more interesting than the exhibition, as the variety of bikes there was astounding, and the crowds were smaller, but we went in anyway, patiently joining a long ticket queue for about 20 minutes, only to reach the front to be told it was a membership line for something or other we weren't interested in, and the ticket office was over yonder. I have to say, I was finding it very frustrating not being sufficiently au fait with the Italian lingo. In Florence I'd been defaulting into Spanish again, which only helped a little, but I was frustrated at my ignorance. If I ever go back, I will have to call on the services of Michel Thomas once again...

Inside the arena, the flash and sparkle of machinery was distracting. The venue was ridiculously huge, the map of the stall printed on several pages of a handbook. Ed's sat-nav would have been useful in here too. we wandered around looking for bike brands that interested us, paying homage to the BMW stand, before taking a look at the latest Yamaha Tenere (my bike of choice - just the normal, 660cc one, the 1200cc Super Tenere was bigger even than Ed's behemoth!) and the KTM 450, which was what was tempting Ed as an option for buzzing round London village when he has to get back to the real world once more.

To be fair, my knowledge of bikes is so limited I had had my fill pretty soon, and when Ed realised the clothing brand he was looking for didn't have a stall, he lost interest too. We had a bite to eat and then jumped on the metro and headed into Milan proper to have a wee look see.

Pigeon chasing: More popular than medieval architecture
The Metro tipped us out in the main piazza, and once again the scene was dominated by a massive cathedral. Once again it was a truly impressive building with some stunning carvings and bronze moulded doors, but built at whose expense and under what threats all those years ago?

We went for a bit of a wander up some streets, realising that once again we didn't have enough time to do justice to the places we were visiting. I'm not sure Milan is actually that special in itself (being a city, it kind of has that "just another city" vibe about it), but I know I would dearly love to go back to Italy some time and take more time looking about.

Little Brother is watching you...
Wandering back to the Metro and our bikes, we talked a bit about how Ed was feeling with regards the impending end of his trip. He pointed out that this stage of his trip, from Turkey to the end, was the first time he had needed to go in a westwards direction. Up until now, it had always been eastwards, and it was little things like this that brought home to him that things were drawing to a close. Between Milan and Kent, there was really only a stop in Switzerland, at the house of one of his friends from the first part of his trip along the Silk Road (a fitting reunion for the final leg), and a pausing at one of the cemeteries in France that commemorate the World Wars. Having had a (comparatively) small trip of my own a few years ago, I had some idea of how overwhelming it was to be coming to the end of an epic, life-changing trip like this. The end of my own trip, in 2009, had left me very contemplative, prone to navel-gazing, trying to take stock of all that I'd seen and done, and would have to do on my return, and my trip had been only half the time of Ed's. I could only guess at the maelstrom going on in Ed's head as he drew ever closer to the UK and the real world. All I could do was be a wall to bounce thoughts off if he needed it, and I was happy with that.

On the Monday morning, we were up early and excited to be aiming for the Alps and the Monte Blanc tunnel. We had a choice of roads to the tunnel: the autoroute and the back roads. You can guess which we chose, and we were treated to some more picturesque mountain villages on the way. The tunnel itself was like the Frejus tunnel I'd gone through a few days before, although this time I didn't need to hold on to the mirror on the way through. Out on the French side (the customs was tough - the bloke just glanced at our number plates and let us straight through when he saw they were British. As it should be.) we dropped down in to Chamonix, before striking out to Lake Geneva and Switzerland. We had a short stop for a  cup of tea with one of Ed's  lawyer friends from his early days in the biz, before making the last dash to a town whose name escapes me for the moment, and the house of JB and Arlette. JB had been with Ed on the London - Beijing stage of his trip, and he was so keen to catch up that he'd been tracking Ed on his Spotify locator all day, and had sent a text message when he noticed us go off route for our cup of tea! He was infectiously enthusiastic about bike trips in general, Ed's trip in particular, and motorbikes full stop.

JB and Ed
For the next 3 days he and Arlette opened their homes and their hearts to us, making us feel extremely welcome, showing us about Lausanne, and taking us on a 4 hour hike up his favourite local mountain - of which there were no shortages in the area! We were treated to a genuine Swiss fondue, luxury Swiss booze-filled chocolates and a real sense of 'being home'. Yet another "must come back to", not least because of JB's suggestion that the Dolomites in Summer were fantastic riding. I think I'd need a newer bike for that one...

Eventually, it was time to say goodbye to JB and Arlette, and begin the last push. Appropriate choice of words, as this last part of the ride would take us past some of the most famous (should that be 'infamous'?) battlefields of WW1 and 2. I know that Ed had been planning on visiting some of these sites and I very much wanted to as well. To this end, we set off for Nancy with a view to visiting Verdun the next day.  Little did we know that even this close to the end, our road still held one or two surprises up its sleeve...

Retrobike Retrospective

Ah. Ummmmm....oops. Bit of an epic fail there I'm afraid. I had fully intended to put in at least 3 or 4 entries for this trip, but it turns out there are fewer internet access points for the traveler travelling without their own personal computer than there are in South America. This being the case, and Ed being a bit tight with the offers to use his own machine (well who can blame him? He was a slave to it every night, trying to keep his own fancy blog + movies up to date. Did you know that each movie worked out to about an hours worth of editing for every minute of movie? I'm amazed he found time to see anything on his trip at all...), I was unable to find a means to up-date on the road and, once I got back, have been kind of distracted with stuff and things, making this the first chance I've had to try and tell my side of the story (some of you may have already read Ed's version at Riding in the Tracks of Giants. Click the link on this page if not...). Also, having read his version, I've had to give myself time to forget what he wrote so I don't end up being unduly influenced by his content!

So, back to Florence! Ed arrived and shepherded his bike into the 'free' (ahem. More about that later) garage parking, where I went to meet him and introduce him to the Bavarian Grandmother I was riding (oh please. Stop with the Benny Hill humour). He was a little startled - I think he had imagined that I'd bought a second hand XT or somesuch - but I think he appreciated the style. I was looking forward to starting it up in a day or two and letting him hear the power...

We quickly dumped his gear in the room and went for a wander in the town. We would be staying for a couple of nights, giving us a full day to explore the historic nooks and crannies, so this first evening gave us a chance to stroll through the narrow streets and see the main plaza with its impressively huge cathedral lit up and displayed in a totally different way than it can be seen by day. It is a truly huge building, and seemed even bigger the next day when we went back in daylight to climb the stairs to the viewing platform on the roof of its large dome. I can appreciate the architectural achievement of such an intricate edifice, but once again struggle to equate the church's message of 'blessed are the meek' and what not, with the vast expense and extravagance of such a temple. It seems to me that 'the people' are told to live on a shoestring while the church collects their dosh and spends it on gold candlesticks and elaborately painted ceilings. A case in point was the inside of the dome, which was extraordinary in its complexity, and slightly shocking in what it depicted. The centre of the dome was a wonderous vision of angels and all things super, smashing and great, graduating down the dome to the scene around the lowest section which was real, old-school fire and brimstone Hell, with Satan and all his little minions shoving (and I kid you not!) red hot pokers up the backsides of the naughty people cast down, and tearing them in half. Again, my understanding is lacking here....I am puzzled that an organisation should need to use such threats and fear as a means of encouraging people to toe the line. Being 'good' out of fear of damnation is surely coercion, versus people who are just nice to each other because its the right thing to do. Perhaps I'm just a little naive, or should educate myself more...
Well, you can't say you weren't warned...

Regardless of who paid what to whom in order to build the cathedral, the view from the top of the dome was  fantastic, made more so by the crystal clear day. Terracotta tiled roofs spread out in all directions from the square below, the river sparkled in the distance, and the maze of streets left both Ed and I keen to descend the long, long flights of stairs back to ground level so we could explore a little more.                                            

The Duomo casts its shadow over the city of Florence

We followed the directions kindly scribbled on our tourist map by the hotel receptionist this morning, which took us to some of the top spots in town. Piazzas (town squares, not the food) containing both replica and genuine statues from roman times, a replica of David in all his large-handed glory (the hands are deliberately too large so the perspectives look right when viewed from the ground. True story.), long queues in the street waiting to pay through the nose to see the real thing (didn't seem worth it to us. We'd not have been able to tell them apart anyway), street markets selling leather goods for which Florence is renowned, the bridge over the river...all beautiful and worth the look. Ed had already confessed in his own blog that he was becoming a bit jaded and worn out from all the remarkable things he'd seen on his trip, but we were taking things at a relaxed pace and perhaps having some company made it more tolerable.

The next morning we were continuing on our way, beginning the return leg of my journey and the final push of Ed's. It was Saturday, and we were planning on taking a partially scenic route to Milan, where we would take a day on Sunday to visit the huge and famous Milan Motorbike Show - a big sales exhibition of all the latest and greatest bikes and riding gear from the major manufacturers. I think all either of us really wanted to see was what they had in the way of adventure bikes, but I think Ed had hopes of picking up a last-day-of-the-show clothing bargain of some kind.

After an interesting episode in which Ed and the hotel manager/owner disagreed about the "free parking" which Ed had carefully confirmed was available in his booking emails (apparently it wasn't free at all, despite the email, but Ed was more immovable on the matter than the hotel rep, and a lawyer, and was standing in the reception area near the breakfast room full of other guests and, apparently, more than happy to make a bit of a scene - which he didn't do, he remained very calm!), he then appeared slightly anxious when my trusty steed seemed reluctant to struggle back to life but, after the couple of days it took to get down to Florence, I wasn't too phased. A bit of gentle coaxing soon had her fired up, and I left her clearing her pipes while I got dressed in my riding gear, and by the time we set off she was quite literally firing on all cylinders. After my arrival into town a couple of days earlier, when I had been forced to precariously wedge my new and expensive smart phone between the top of the speedometer and the windscreen so I could use the sat-nav to guide me to the hotel, dreading every bump in the road in case the device was dislodged at speed only to be dashed to pieces as I crashed while desperately grabbing for it as it fell to the ground while I rode along (and the cobbles really didn't help, let me tell you!), it was very relaxing to be able to rely on following Ed, who was being guided by his proper on-board flight system. Unfortunately, he hadn't fully realised the restrictions I faced as I battled with my bike through the busy Florencian traffic. My ancient bike had some good pick up, so keeping up with him as he shot off from traffic lights etc was no problem at all. Its newly acquired desire to stall while idling didn't help though, and the slowing down suddenly to change lanes/stop began to cause me problems. I kept up though, and figured all would be well, and if not, I'd make sure Ed got a go on my bike so that he'd better understand the situation, It was a few days before that would happen though, so in the meantime, he rode on oblivious to the effort it took me to keep up!

We spent the morning following smaller b-roads that took us up and over some hills and valleys, feeling spoiled again by the cracking good weather. I was cautious in the hairpin turns - more so than even I would normally be - as the braking on the aged BMW was proving to be a bit more dodgy than I'd been led to believe from the dead straight autoroute dash of the first 3 days. This had not revealed the full extent of the short-comings in the old brake discs and pads, and it was with some alarm that I came to learn that there was a definite tendency for the brakes to behave as though fitted with a very slow reacting ABS system, i.e. in a repetitive, snatching action that pogo-ed me to a halt. Coupled with the narrow tyres furnished with what looked like an old-fashioned tread pattern and the threat of damp leaves or frost in the corners, I was understandably reluctant to try and keep up with Ed, on his finely tuned, computerised invalid car. I mean motorbike.

The scenery was beautifully autumnal though, the skiing villages quiet and patient, waiting just a few more weeks for the annual influx of snow-bunnies, and eventually we had to admit that time had beaten us and we'd have to hit the autoroute to make up some time and get to Milan before dark. We were temporarily held up as we encountered a weekend bikers rendez-vous parked up in a local country pub. A large number of fancy sports bikes were parked up and, even though we'd only just begun our high-tailing, it would have been rude not to stop and say hi, or at least for Ed to allow his bike to be admired. It certainly stood out from the others, as it was the only road-weary adventure bike there, and it got its share of appropriately admiring glances for sure. Somewhat surprisingly, though, so did my bike, as it was the oldest by far of the gathering. Once we'd taken our bows, we tried again and, once again, Ed's on-board computer guided us without fail. The failure had been in letting Ed program the destination, and it was a surprise to both of us when we arrived exactly at where we wanted to be the next day - at the Motorbike show! I still marvel at the fact he made it round the world pretty much by himself. A brief adjustment later and we were weaving through the heavy traffic to go the short distance to the campsite we'd be using. They had cabins with electric heating, and even en suite showers, so we took one of them and bunked down. Which is what I will do now, before attempting another installment much sooner than this one appeared!