Ride in the Ardennes and much more

A few months ago I decided I would visit my cousin and her family in the spring. I live in Reading in the UK and she is in the south of Paris. So I started planning a route to avoid most of the motorways to make it a nice ride. But as often happens my route grew in length as I was adding another detour to an interesting place and then another. There was an easy solution to this "problem": I would take a few days to explore the Ardennes in France and Belgium, then I'd go to Luxembourg. Maybe I'd ride to Germany and make it a four-country trip.

I did a bit more planning and looked for campsites open in early April. The bike didn't need much preparation. I installed Acerbis handguards and fitted a 12V socket under the seat to keep a 20000mAh battery charged to keep my phone and cameras alive during the trip.

I was itching to go and eventually it was time...

Day 0: Thursday 2nd April
I rode the fully loaded Versys to work in the morning. The day dragged on and on as my mind was already on the road. I left early anyway. My trip started with heavy traffic on the M25, M26 and M20. I expected this as it was the start of the Easter weekend. I had heard stories of long delays on the Channel Tunnel last year as too many people arriving too early paralysed the entire site for hours. So I was a little worried. First I had to get there on time. The traffic was getting worse all the time and I spent more and more time filtering. I arrived in Folkestone with only 10 minutes to spare. But there was no problem boarding and the shuttle left on time. Maybe the crowds travelled later...

On the train I met a young couple on their first long trip on a small sports bike. They were on their way to Switzerland and then would stop in Paris on the way back. Their only luggage was a backpack. Next to their bike was my Versys 1000 with two panniers, a huge topbox and a bag strapped to the pillion seat! The problem with travelling so light was that they didn't have any food or water. I fed them muffins and gave them water. I hope they had a nice trip.

Just a few kilometres from the tunnel is a very convenient campsite (Camping des Epinettes). I made my way there and set up for the night. I had used this camp before so I knew where to pitch and I could pay in the morning. I had a bite to eat in the dying light and opened my flask of whisky. It was quiet and relaxing. I felt good.

Day 1: Friday 3rd April
I slept longer that I thought I would. I wasn't tied to any schedule so it didn't matter. It was grey in the morning. It has been raining during the night but it stopped long enough for me to pack without getting wet. I went to pay my €12 for the night and got on the road.

The time spent looking at maps and Street View paid off as most of the roads I used were very nice and varied. Some were twisty country lanes, others were straight undulating roads following the hill tops. I didn't ride more than 30 km of dual carriageway all day. My destination was Charleville-Mézières, just over 300 km away.
The rain had restarted almost as soon as I left the campsite and the temperature was around 2, 3 degrees C. The roads looked a bit greasy and there wasn't much chance of getting heat in the tyres so I set the power to low and the traction control to 3 and took it relatively easy. The weather wasn't encouraging me to stop so I just enjoyed the ride through the French countryside and the pretty villages. The new handguards kept my hands mostly dry. My feet were soaked and very cold. Yes, I still use the same boots as on my Scotland trip.

Even in reduced power mode the Versys is a fast machine and I arrived in Charleville at 1:30pm. It is the largest town in the Ardennes and it has a campsite almost in the town centre. The reception was closed until 2:30 so I left the bike under the footbridge and went exploring. I was at the foot of a hill with the rather grandiose name of Mont-Olympe (sorry, the one in Greece is bigger and nicer). I could never resist a footpath going up. From the top I could catch glimpses of the town below through the trees. So I went down crossed the river Meuse and quickly found the famous Place Ducale.

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I spent some time in the pedestrian streets of the historical centre then went back to the campsite to check in. The site is large and mostly empty. There are a few camper vans and a couple of tents. But the main attraction of this place is its location by the river, just a few minutes walk from the town centre.

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Then I asked for recommendations for restaurants and went back to town.

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The Mézières part of town is not as pretty but it has some examples of weird architecture and a huge gothic basilica, Basilique Notre-Dame-d'Espérance (not a single nice picture of it).

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I looked for the two restaurants that were recommended by the young lad at the campsite. As soon as I found the second one I knew I would eat there. It was in a renovated cellar and just reading the menu almost got me drooling. It didn't hurt that they had a selection of local beers. It was half past seven and restaurants tend to close early in small(ish) towns so I went in.

The food was delicious and the place was nice and friendly. This is one of the reasons I am camping: I keep my money for a good meal in the evening. The beers were great, clearly influenced by the Belgian beers but with their own character. I recommend La Cuvée d'Arthur to anyone travelling to the area.

The Place Ducale on my way back:

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Day 2: Saturday 4th April

I didn't get much sleep that night. There was loud music playing from somewhere not too distant. And the campsite lights stayed on all night. I put my earplugs on and tried covering my eyes. But it didn't help. The music stopped at 5am and I finally slept for a short couple of hours.

I got up tired but excited about the day's ride. On a tourist information site about the Ardennes I had found a couple of motorbike tours complete with maps and helpful notes. The most interesting one was a bit long at over 400km. So I shortened it slightly. This was going to be good.

After a quick cup of tea I jumped on the bike. A few minutes later it started to rain. This was getting a bit too similar to my wet Scottish holidays last summer. But I didn't let it dampen my enthusiasm. A short time later I was out of town. I found myself on an almost deserted forest road with a very low cloud cover. I would have preferred to see the area with sunshine but it was beautiful in a dream-like kind of way. I gradually became familiar with the road conditions and picked up the pace somewhat. The display on the dash was showing a temperature of 1 degree Celsius and I was feeling the cold. But I was enjoying the ride too much to worry about it. Riding through the twisties in the forest was great. Then the view opened up a bit when I started following the river. I stopped for a while in Rocroi, an amazing old fortified town in the shape of a star. I went to see the fortifications. Then I spotted a patisserie and bought a croissant and a pain au chocolat. Delicious late breakfast; not very healthy.

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Back on the road I rode through nice villages and towns, past fairy-tale castles. The Ardennes are a fantastic place and I had already decided to visit again, at a time when better weather is more likely. But as the day went on I stopped less and less. Dealing with wet gloves with cold wet hands was too much of a hassle. Dinant was well worth a break though. The rain even eased off a bit.

I first went to see the Abbey of Leffe, where the famous beer was originally brewed. It is not a particularly nice building. But this trip was already looking like a beer pilgrimage so it was a required visit.

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Dinant was the home town of Adolphe Sax, the inventor of the saxophone. And the bridge across the river is decorated with giant colourful saxophone sculptures. The small streets are very pleasant too. If the weather had been better I would taken the cable-car to the citadel for the view.

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Later on I saw a beautiful castle which I believe was the Chateau de Vêves.

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Then there were more interesting roads. I think they were built with motorbikes in mind! A few of those roads were super smooth but the vast majority are made almost exclusively of potholes. In many cases the top layer of tarmac has degraded in something resembling broken honeycomb. Better think carefully about breaking points. But the Versys had no problem with any of this. The day had turned into a great long challenging bike ride. I loved it.

I crossed the border between France and Belgium several times. I didn't always know which country I was in.

This is near Bouillon:

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I made one last stop in Sedan before heading back to Charleville-Mézières. I wanted to see the castle. It was very impressive but I was too close to really appreciate it. I didn't find a good vantage point.

Once I was back at the campsite I went to reception to ask if I should again expect loud music all night long. At first the guy was puzzled and then remembered that there was an event all weekend. He also didn't know that the lights were on all night but couldn't do anything about it because the groundskeeper was away until Monday. I asked for another recommendation for a restaurant and walked to town.

The Place Ducale with blue skies in the late afternoon:

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I ate in a simple brasserie that felt comfortable and strangely familiar. I had an andouillette with Maroilles sauce. Great but probably not to everyone's taste. And I sampled a few more of the local beers of course.

I had thought of checking out where the music was coming from. If it was going to keep me awake I might as well go and enjoy it. But on my way back there was no music. So I slept.

Day 3: Sunday 5th April

I woke up to bright blue skies. At last! Packing was a bit slow because everything was covered in frost and my hands went numb from the cold. Eventually everything was back in place on the bike and it was time to leave Charleville-Mézières. I will definitely come back; it is a nice town and makes a great base to explore the area.

Unfortunately my small camera got very wet the previous day. I had not realised that the water did actually get inside. I used the camera most of the day without noticing that most of the pictures were a horrible mess. Some have a purple spot in the middle and a few came out almost fine. Later in the day I used my other camera. It is disappointing to have so few good photos of that great day.

I made my way east. Some roads I rode the previous day but under the sun it seemed like a different country. The temperature dropped to -3 Celsius but there was no ice on the road. I felt like riding without stopping for a while. The succession of corners and the nice landscape made for a very enjoyable ride. But when I arrived in the small town of Bouillon, in Belgium, I made my first stop. It is a pretty town on the bank of the Semois with an old fortress watching over it from the top of the hill on the other side of the river. The castle is astonishing. It seems that when space ran out it just jumped to the next hill.

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After Bouillon I continued to go East on more amazing roads. Little by little the hills became more gentle and the corners more flowing.

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The villages looked a bit different too:

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I didn't see a sign announcing that I was now in Luxembourg but as I arrived in the next village it was suddenly obvious that I was in a different country. The houses were large and painted in bright colours. I kept riding until I reached Vianden and its famous castle. It looked like a place to spend quite a bit of time so I changed out of my biking gear. I spotted the chairlift going to the top of a hill above the castle and decided to take it.

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The View from the top was well worth it.

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I walked down to the castle and then back up to take the chairlift back to the valley to wander around the little town.

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Then I was back on the superb roads of Luxembourg. When the road I wanted to take was closed I improvised as the SatNav was not helpful. After a few minutes I found myself on a little farm lane with a fantastic view of the valley below. The view of the road ahead was always clear for several corners in advance: I had fun pushing the bike in those bends. Once I rejoined my original route I crossed the river into Germany. That made it a ride in four different countries in the same day: France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany.

I hit another closed road as I was just 400 meters away from the campsite in Echternacherbrück. Garmin wanted me to make a 23 kilometre loop to get there! Really? I found the campsite anyway and put my tent up just by the river. I was hoping there would not be a flash flood but it was too good a spot.

I just had to cross the bridge to be back in Luxembourg in the larger town of Echternach. There was a medieval fair on the Market Place (Place du Marché). Musicians were playing and fooling around. I bought a Belgian beer from a little stand and a Flammkuchen from another and sat down to soak in the atmosphere.

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After the Flammkuchen I was just hungry enough to try the Luxembourgish food. And it was great. I just don't know how this day could have been any better.

Day 4: Monday 6th April

It was the coldest night yet. It took me quite a while to pack as the cold made everything so difficult.

I had thought of riding across Luxembourg again and going back to Belgium. But the weather wasn't looking very promising at all. I was cold and grey. If I went back to the regions that were so nice with the sun the previous day I knew I would be disappointed in the damp and the dim grey light. So I continued to head east and went to Koblenz.

I followed the Mosel valley with a few long detours in the hills. I couldn't help but think it was too early to visit the area: the vineyards looked a bit sad.

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The main road along the Mosel is nice but it is the first during this trip that I felt the road didn't belong to me. There were actually other people there. In cars and camper vans. It seems Germans love their camper vans. There are dozens of camper van parks and they are all busy.

On the roads into the mountains there is practically no-one. It was absolutely fantastic. To the north of the Mosel are the Eifel mountains but I don't know the name for the south.

I stopped briefly in Traben and as I left I realised there was a lot more to it.

I spent some time in Cochem, a nice but touristy town. It was really busy. I can't imagine how it is later in the season. I had a Bratwurst for lunch.

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I took a walk to Burg Eltz. It is a spectacular castle at the top of a hill, in the middle of nothing. I was too lazy to change out of my bike trousers. But they felt heavy on the half-hour walk to the castle and even more so on the way back. The sun finally came out. I was glad to see it but it was bad timing. Half an hour earlier and I could have taken nice pictures of the castle.

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I then made my way to Koblenz. The rather expensive campsite is on the north bank of the Mosel. I didn't have the patience to wait for the ferryman for a boat crossing so I started walking to the bridge. Of course during that time the boat did at least 3 trips. Had a wander around town and a Gargantuan meal in the Altes Brauhaus and as usual sampled the local brew.

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Day 5: Tuesday 7th April

The passing barges on the Rhine didn't keep me awake. But one of the early trains on the other bank woke me up to a nice morning. I packed up and soon made my way to Marksburg castle.

On the way, I could see the castle just appear through the morning mist. It was quite a sight. By the time I got to the top it had all cleared up. The castle can only be visited with a guided tour. It would have taken most of the morning and I didn't want to take a tour with the five bus-loads of British tourists.

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I made my way to the other side of the river for a better photo opportunity.

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Then I went back to the hills for some twisty roads.

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Eventually my SatNav got really confused and I came back to the Rhein valley. With the sun it was very pretty, but it was busier than I'd seen for a few days. The Easter weekend was over so that might be one of the reason. But more likely because the Rhein valley links large cities and it is also a tourist destination.

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I rode past Lorelei and reached Bacharach, a little town that is not to be missed.

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I was getting hungry but I didn't want to spend over an hour in a restaurant. And I couldn't find anything in town. I went back to the bike a bit annoyed because I found the Bäckerei 10 minutes after its closing time. I rode 50 meters and spotted the little food stand selling all sorts of sausages. Just what I was looking for! I had a nice Rindswurst with chips while chatting about traveling with a retired couple.

After that I got a mix of great roads and busy boring roads. I don't like motorways but I did want to try the Autobahn on a section with no speed limit. I took the Versys to 212 km/h, or 200 according to the GPS. Not bad with full luggage and that huge Givi barndoor of a screen.

Later I found myself on a incredible stretch of road, the B48 I believe. A long section of endless corners, it is obviously popular with the local bikers. I followed a sports bike all the way down. He was clearly taking it easy but I had to work at it to keep up on my big V. Partly because of the bike and partly because of the rider.

It didn't take long then to arrive to Niederbronn-les-Bains and set up for the night in the small campsite. The town is nice and pleasant. The restaurant I went to was truly excellent and they had local beers. I made it my duty to sample them all.

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Day 6: Wednesday 8th April

It was time to remember that the original purpose of this trip was to visit my cousin. It would be a long ride but I wanted to make it in one day. Then I decided to make a detour to see my grandfather's village.

I left Niederbronn with a bit of regret. The Vosges du Nord are a nice region that I would have liked to explore a bit more. And the small campsite was very welcoming and much more pleasant than the large ones in Germany. The first part of the ride was not particularly exciting. I used the motorway to get past Strasbourg and then eventually past Colmar. I stopped in Niederhergheim and Oberhergheim trying to revive very distant memories.

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Now I had to head west which meant crossing the Vosges mountains. This was definitely going to be the highlight of the day. At the foot of the hills lies the beautiful village of Gueberschwihr. I went for a ride through the village and had to backtrack because the road was closed. The diversion was quite interesting: the traffic had to go on a little concrete path used for access to the vineyards.

The crossing of the Vosges did not disappoint. It was about 50 km of thrilling roads. And again there was little traffic. As I was approaching the Col de la Schlucht I started to see a bit of snow in the forest and on the road side.

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But as soon as I reached the pass and found myself on the other versant there was a lot more snow. There was a small ski slope with still enough snow for a bit of skying. I don't think the ski lift was operating though.

After the mountains, little by little, the roads became straighter. It was still a nice ride though, going through the gentle hills, endless fields and little woods.

To make sure I would arrive at a decent time I rode a bit of motorway at the end. That made it feel like the destination had become more important than the journey, which was quite annoying. But a bit of boring roads at the beginning and end of the day made it possible to cover over 600 km in a reasonable time. I arrived at my cousin's in the late afternoon.

Day 7: Thursday 8th

For the next three days the bike had a well deserved rest in my cousin's garage.

On Thursday I borrowed my cousin's old car to go to the nearest train station and went to Paris. It had been a very long time since I visited my favourite City. I first went to Rue des Thermopyles, a small paved street in the 14th arrondissement with old and new houses covered in wisteria. As you step into the street it feels like you step in a different time and place.

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I spotted on a street map a green oval marked Place de Seoul. For no other reason than I have been to Seoul in Korea (and I am learning Korean) I decided to check it out. I found an impressive modern building but no access. Puzzled I went all around the building. I put my hand on the intimidating black gate and it opened! Inside there is a nice public garden but it is the architecture of the surrounding building that makes the place special.

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I crossed the river Seine in search of another public garden called the Jardin de la Vallée Suisse. I did find a nice garden but it was a few weeks too early to really appreciate it. Later I learned that it was the garden I was looking for but it had been renamed.

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I took the Métro to Montmartre. I walked in the Avenue Junot to have a look at the interesting architecture, art nouveau buildings, and this beautiful little street, Villa Léandre.

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I wandered in the small streets of Montmartre but inevitably I ended up at the Place du Tertre. It is too busy and touristy for my taste but I enjoyed watching the artists at work.

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A nice little café:

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The famous Montmartre Vineyard:

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I always end up walking huge distances in Paris. I could have taken the Métro again but why go underground when it is sunny and well over 20 degrees? Especially as I remembered how cold it was just a couple of days ago. I walked, got lost, walked...

I entered the Gallerie Lafayette store in the hope of using their toilets and discovered the beautiful glass roof.

My tired legs took me to the Louvre and its Pyramid.

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I continued along the river until Notre-Dame. The "bouquinistes", book sellers on little stalls, are still there but these days most of them sell crappy souvenirs to tourists.

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After this I had a quick look at the busy street around Saint-Michel. The area has not changed that much since I was a student and went there to buy my books and have a kebab. Then I took the train back.

There was no riding involved but it was a great day.

Days 8 to 10: Friday 9th to Sunday 11th

I spent the following three days with my cousin and her family. So I will just give a couple of recommendations to anyone visiting the area.

Fontainebleau is famous for its spectacular castle. But the town itself is quite nice.

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The forest of Fontainebleau is fantastic for walking and rock climbing. The forest is incredibly varied. There are wooded hills, large sandy areas and of course the huge rocks scattered all over the place.

The village of Barbizon is very pretty. There are many art galleries and in the streets famous painting are recreated as mosaics. This is because from the 1850s painters came here from all over the world to paint the unspoilt natural environment. They were later called the Barbizon school of painters. Writers and poets also came to reside in Barbizon.

Day 11: Monday 12th

Unfortunately it was time to go back as I had to be at work the next day. I gave the bike a very quick clean, said goodbye and started the long way back.

The check-in for my tunnel crossing was closing at 5:20pm. So I had just over 7 hours to cover 400 km. With the motorways it doesn't take long to go to Calais. But I get horribly bored on motorways. I didn't want to spend my last day of holidays being bored. Luckily I had planned a route on smaller roads that I hoped would be nice.

I went around Paris on the east side, far enough to not catch the traffic of the capital. Then I went north for quite a while. I was quite a nice ride. Not very fast because of all the villages and small towns I had to cross but I had still had plenty of time.

As often happens I saw interesting restaurant along the way all morning. But when it was time to have lunch I couldn't find anything. I really wanted to have a nice meal in France. The small towns I went through seemed to have only Chinese restaurants. Not what I was looking for. When I found a restaurant there was no-one in the car park so I thought it was too late. I went inside anyway and was shown to a table. I was the only customer. I had a simple but very nice meal: just what I needed, a perfectly cooked steak with chips.

I had spent well over an hour in the restaurant and I still had a long way to go. There were some nice roads in the afternoon. Some of those I had taken on my way to Charleville-Mézières at the beginning of the trip. But under the sun they were very different.

I arrived at the shuttle terminal just early enough to think I might get on the previous train. But I was not offered the choice. Wait! Passport please! Wait some more for no obvious reason! Queue to board the train. The doors close and the shuttle departs half an hour early. Result! There is no other bike with me this time. An employee from Eurotunnel comes to have a chat. This doesn't happen when you travel in a car.

Once in the UK I am riding in dense fog. The visibility is close to zero. I expected the rest of the way to be a slow dangerous ride but after a few miles the fog clears. The motorways are the only sensible way to get back to Reading but the traffic is not too bad. I arrive home tired but very happy about my little trip.

I weather wasn't always ideal. But I am convinced that if I had travelled later in season there would have been a lot more traffic. Instead I rode hundreds of miles on empty roads.

Now I need to start planning the next trip.

Stats:
7 days of riding.
1892 miles. 3045 kilometres.
47 mpg fuel economy indicated. 44 mpg estimated as the onboard computer is always optimistic by about 3mpg. I didn't calculate it myself this time.

Maps for the 2015 Ardennes trip