Sunday 18th September, 2022

Distance ridden 703 kilometres

When we woke up, on a Sunday morning, it was so quiet you could have heard a pin drop, in Nantes !

My friend appeared and reported that it was 11°C outside and a “nice” 17°C inside. I do not really notice the cold, but it did almost feel warmer outside !

Until my friend can sort it out, the house has only patchy mobile telephone and internet reception. He actually likes it the way it is, because nobody can plague him with calls and emails. In a rare moment, before breakfast, when we could get an internet signal, we had already booked our evening’s accommodation. We had a long way to go and not very long to do it in because we needed to be at home on Tuesday afternoon. For this reason, we had chosen a place to stay adjacent to the airport in Liège, because it was right next to the highway and would be easy to find in, what we expected to be, the dark. It also offered the certainty of an early breakfast, some dinner when we arrived and, as Lucie whispered in my ear, a warm shower and, even better, heating.

Sadly, that meant we had to leave very early. We had a really long journey ahead of us (we also wanted to see the beach at Arromanches) and we had no idea what the traffic or weather would be like. We had a typical French breakfast, said goodbye to my friends and headed out. It was a chilly morning to be out so early on a motorcycle.

But, as always, the second the sun came out it felt warmer (I do not think it actually was warmer at first) and everything immediately looked better.

We first headed north towards Caen, Bayeux and then the beaches where the Normandy landings took place in June 1944. We passed right through the town of Bayeaux with its truly resplendent cathedral. There were signs everywhere directing people to where the famous Bayeux Tapestry can be viewed. In as much as I have a “bucket list”, that tapestry is on it and sadly, because of our schedule, that particular box would have to remain without a tick. Still, it is another thing that will not go away.

Lucie has never been very interested in war history, but she indulged my whim to, at least, show her where some of it happened. Close to Bayeaux, this was another invasion, but this time, in the opposite direction. Lucie says that I am like a walking encyclopedia of war history. With such a tight time schedule, we could only take a limited look, so I took her to Arromanches, which was part of what was designated “GOLD BEACH” in 1944. A few large chunks of the “Mulberry”, a prefabricated harbour, constructed in England and towed across the channel to provide port facilities, are still visible in the bay.

Lucie was totally amazed by this and said it was really the first time she had ever realised just how huge an operation the landings must have been – and how meticulously everything must have been planned and coordinated. She was aware it had happened, of course, it was the biggest assault action in history. However, growing up in a Soviet dominated, cold-war environment had meant it was not emphasised during her schooling.

As I stood their on the harbour wall, looking out to sea, I could only ponder on the bravery of those guys that had run up that long beach under murderous defensive fire.

With all the little “goals” of our trip now fulfilled, we had no choice but to admit to ourselves that we now needed to go straight home. The weather we could not control, but not wanting to endure the same roadworks we had encountered on our trip west, we had chosen a different route home. The most interesting possibility seemed the northern route. We would head for Liège, in Belgium, where we were to spend the night and, from there, we would head to Cologne and then due east towards Chemnitz, which is close to Chomutov on the Czech border.

The first leg of that return, to Liège, lay ahead of us and it was clear that we could not linger too long if we were to cover the six hundred or so kilometres between us and the hotel.

The road north and east took us through some quite beautiful countryside but, when we came to the Autoroute A29, which was the péage, we had no real option but to use it. Again, it ran through some pleasant scenery but it also scooped us up and over the Seine Estuary and its attached nature reserves on two beautiful and swooping bridges. Riding over those was almost worth the cost of the toll.  However, we were not sure about the artistic merit of some strange, sculptured columns that we saw beside the road ….

We then turned away from the coast but still rode through some very pleasant, increasingly autumnal, scenery. The sun was shining very brightly, at least initially. The route lay almost directly across the battlefield of the Somme, the scene of such terrible fighting in the Great War, particularly the second half of 1916. Signs to various memorials appeared at intervals as we progressed, but what struck me personally was that there are now mature trees in the area. The first time I rode across the same ground was (and I almost hesitate to say it), half a century ago. At that time – only half a century or so itself after the dreadful shelling that had denuded the area of all of its mature trees, there were bare fields on all sides with the few trees that were visible being little more than saplings. Now there were woods and mature trees visible on all sides. It was beautiful, rolling countryside once again. Not a lot of significance to see – but pleasant enough riding (if you have to be on a motorway) none the less.

The further east we travelled, the less sunshine there was and the sky far in front of us took on a slightly ominous hue.

The turn northwards towards Belgium slowed our approach to that possible trouble and, by the time we stopped, only about sixty kilometres from our destination, I still thought we might make it in the dry.

Well, we ALL know what thought did ! We payed for our last péage and passed across the border which, as usual, was fairly hard to spot. The Belgian autoroute, blessedly free, was fairly busy on a Sunday evening and Liège soon appeared on the signs. Then, with about twenty kilometres to go, to say that the heavens opened would be quite an understatement. It was almost as if we had ridden straight into a waterfall. I have seen rain like it before, but not for a long, long time. Visibility dropped from two kilometres to less than two metres in about half a second. I knew there was nothing very close in front of me or behind me and I was already in the “slow” lane, so I rolled off the throttle hoping that if anyone did come up from behind, he would see us before he hit us. Most of the cars had, in all truth, also drastically reduced their speed, but of course, some crazies were still charging past just to my left and the wash of spray was highly unpleasant. There was no point in trying to stop and put on our waterproofs because we were already, in just a few seconds, as soaked through as it is possible to be. Trying to keep up just enough speed to get some wind deflection from the screen of the Softail, we droned slowly ahead. The twenty or so kilometres took what seemed like an eternity and, to add insult to injury, there was a set of roadworks with some very confusing diversions right at the exit to the motorway. In the end though, we spotted the welcoming illuminated sign of our hotel (by that stage, I would have treated a sign for a gulag as “welcoming”) and were soon parked outside. Almost comically, the hotel was undergoing repairs and it was necessary to enter via a side entrance. The rainy gale had slammed this shut so convincingly that some other, simultaneous, arrivals had wandered right past it ! A quick shout from me brought them scampering gratefully back. We stood in the lobby and water poured off of us. Hotel staff are well trained and the receptionist scarcely seemed to notice that we were standing in a growing puddle.

We staggered to what was a spacious and comfortable room, well provided with hangers for our still dripping clothes. Lucie exclaimed that we would be able to dry off and we even had heating.

I noticed we had a hairdryer in our bathroom and we used it to dry our socks, gloves and, eventually, our boots.

In between sessions of (hair) drying, we went to the hotel restaurant for dinner. It was not exactly cheap, but it was delicious and well cooked. I had a really good steak as I watched the rain still hammering mercilessly against the windows. I was so relieved at being in the dry.

Of course, I fell asleep at once, but Lucie assured me that it rained persistently until the early hours of the morning.