Thursday, 12 September 2019

Across Europe to Brienz...and back

The wife said she fancied a few days touring in Europe, a relaxing few days in Normandy and maybe down into Brittany.  7 days became 9 that became 11, France became Switzerland and eventually it ended up being 15 days and 5 mainland European countries.  Nice...
Audrey was not keen on getting into something this big without having every thing booked up, so we spent many weeks over wine and beer booking hotels, Eurotunnel and planning routes.  By the end of March the route was completed and we had everything booked up for the first two weeks in August.
The plan was down to the Eurotunnel and then 2 overnight stops in France, 3 nights in Brienz, 2 days up through the Black Forest, a night in Luxembourg, 2 nights in Ypres then back through the Tunnel to see some friends in Wales and then back home.

The Plan
A week before we were due to leave I found out the M20 was going to be closed and the reports of the diversion through Dover were of 3 hour delays and horrific tail backs.  This did not bode well for our first night in Oxford and getting to the Tunnel the next day for an 11 o'clock train.  A quick search found alternative digs in Folkestone, the right side of the M20 closure and only 5 minutes from the tunnel.  The only problem was Audrey was now looking at a 485 mile first day, the biggest day she had ever done was 280 miles.
Packing for 15 days was going to be a laugh as well, Audrey needs the full 25kg every time we fly.  A pannier and half a top box was going to be a real challenge.  She proved me wrong though and managed to pack light for the first time in her life!

The packing went well, the girl did good!
Day 1:  Home to Folkestone.
Now we were heading for Folkestone instead of Oxford the A1 and it's motorway broher would be the best bet heading south.  As it was going to be a long slog I suggested to Audrey that we stop every 100 miles or one and a half hours to get off the bike and stretch our legs.  This worked out well with every second stop being longer for food, coffee and to fuel the bike.  I wasn't holding out much for the day, but bits of the A66 are actually pretty scenic.  The whole road was mercifully free from traffic and we made good time all the way south.  London even looked cool with the sun setting behind the city as we crossed the Thames over the QEII Bridge.  We made it to the digs in Folkestone an hour before the M20 closed and in time for dinner and a couple of drinks.  If I am going by the Tunnel again this is the way I will do it.  Far easier and quicker than the west side of the M25, plus only being 5 minutes from the Tunnel is a huge bonus.

...and so it begins
Day 2:  Folkestone to Arras
This was going to be a short day as we were supposed to be coming from Oxford to the tunnel, but we were only 5 minutes away.  After a leisurely breakfast we packed the bike an rode round to the tunnel and checked in.  We were in no rush so went for our booked train and relaxed in the terminal over coffee for an hour.  When our train was called we passed through passport control and rode down to the train and were on our way to France.

On the Eurotunnel, Audrey approves.
As France is more or less shuts on a Sunday we decided to just get to Arras and hopefully find more open in the city.  As we rode off the train we had to stop a soon as possible.  It was stiflingly hot, so some thermal layers had to go!  Hopefully this would be a sign of things to come.  We got onto the A26 and headed for Arras.  We found the B&B Hotel easily enough and there was a self service petrol station nearby as well so we filled up before checking in.  The self service check in at the Hotel was brilliant and within half an hour we were unpacking in the clean, small, but adequate room.  We had a wander around the town and found a burger joint on the way back to the hotel.  Cooked to order the burgers were amazing!  After washing them down with a couple of beers we strolled back to the hotel.

Day 3:  Arras to Nancy
After a self service continental breakfast in the B&B Hotel we packed the bike and set out for Nancy, via Verdun and the Douaumont Ossuary.  From now on we were determined to stay off the motorways and stick to the 'D' roads.  The temperature picked up as we rode west skirting the south of the Ardennes.  The roads were fast and smooth and amazingly there was next to no traffic.  Even though the most of the countryside was flat, the road twisting through the green and gold fields under a big blue sky make for a pleasant and relaxing ride.  Spying a wee cafe at the side of the road we pulled over for a coffee.

Brilliant coffee at a roadside cafe.
The flat countryside of northern France, still braw!
After coffee we turned south heading for Verdun.  The scenery was still fairly flat, but you could see for miles in the clear warm air.  Approaching Verdun there roads become more tree lined and as we turned off for Douaumont we were riding through thick forests.
I wanted to visit Verdun last year when I went to The Somme but I simply ran out of time and this was only a minor detour on our route to Nancy.

The Ossuary at Douaumont containing the remains of at least 130,000 unidentified combatants
The graves of over 16,000 French soldiers in the French cemetery at Douaumont
After grabbing another coffee at Douaumont we turned south for Nancy through the Lorraine National Park.  Once again the road meanders through flat fields interspersed with the occasional small forests.  Roadworks caused about an hours delay just outside Pont A Mousson so by the time we rolled into Novotel in Nancy we were both a knackered sweaty mess.  A shower, dinner and a couple of drinks fixed that though.

Day 4:  Nancy to Brienz
By the time we had breakfast and got ready to leave it was already 20 deg C in Nancy, it was going to be a scorcher!  After getting out of the town we headed south for Mulhouse through the Vosges.  The flat scenery from yesterday was slowly being replaced with mountains and lush forests.  The further south you ride through the Ballons des Vosges the more Alpine the roads become as they rise, fall and twist through the trees.

Ballons des Vosges, hinting at the Alpine roads ahead
Stopping just outside Mulhouse for lunch the weather looked like it was going to take a turn for the worse.  Darkening skies to the south were threatening rain and potentially some nasty thunder.  Over lunch we decided to head for Basel and get on the motorway to Bern to try and get ahead of the weather.  Crossing the border into Switzerland the border guards gave the bike a quick once over and asked a few questions an we were on our way.

Getting ready for the rain before heading for Bern
After the border we stopped to batten down the hatches for the run through the rain and Christ did it rain!  I have never ridden in rain like it.  The motorway was down to 40 KPH, it was dark as night and lightening was striking all around us.  The next 50 kilometres was hellish.  The rain stopped as we skirted around Bern and we began to dry out in the warm air, but it wouldn't be the last.  Stopping for fuel at Thun we decided to ride down the more scenic north side of Thunersee and Brienersee.  No sooner had we headed off and the rain came on again, followed 5 minutes later by the thunder and lightening.  Worse was to come though, after about 10 kilometres the road was shut due to a landslide.  Looking for other options we asked at a tourist information and the recommended going back to Thun and down the other side of the two lakes.  Back at Thun the lightening was now lighting up the hills around us so we didn't bother with the scenic route and just jumped onto the A6 for the motorway run all the way to Brienz.  It had been a long, wet day.

Day 5:  Brienz and the passes - well maybe not
After a meal and a good nights sleep we were supposed to be off round the four passes loop - Susten Pass, Gotthard Pass, Nufenen Pass and Grimsel Pass.  Once again the weather had other ideas, it was absolutely lashing down.  It was so bad that the street in front of the hotel was more like a stream, it was just a wee bit to risky today.  Well I suppose there are worse places to stuck for a day...

The view from our balcony in Brienz
Rain stops play

The CO-OP is your friend in Switzerland, especially when you have covered balcony!
The rain did ease off late in the afternoon, but never really went off, so we  just had a wander around town.

Brienz High Street

More Brienz
Hotel Steinbock, our digs in Brienz

Day 6: Brienz Rothorn Bahn - Munro bagging by train
One thing we always planned on doing when in Brienz was to take the mountain railway up to the hotel at Rothorn, high above Brienz and the Breinzersee.  Small rack and pinion steam locomotives push 2 or 3 carriages of passengers up from Brienz at 566 metres above sea level to Rothorn at 2244 metres above sea level.  The climb of 1678 metres takes about 50 minutes.  It is absolutely spectacular, I'll just let the pictures do the talking but they just can't do it justice...

This took up most of he day and was just amazing, well worth a day off the bike to do it.  By the time we got back down, it was dinner time so we just milled around enjoying our last few hours in Brienz and Switzerland.

Day 7:  Brienz to Frieburg im Breisgau
As we had missed out on the passes a couple of days back we decided to loop around past Zurich and Winterthur and cross into Germany at Konstanz.  From times I had been in Winterthur with Sulzer, I knew the roads and scenery around here were good, as long as you avoided the bigger towns and cities.
As soon as you leave Brienze Road 4 starts to climb and twist over small passes and through mountain forests and small Alpine villages.  The road flattens out as it starts to follow the sides of Lungernersee and the mountains to your right become more reminiscent of lowland mountains with their softer profile.  Even over the noise of the bike you could hear the bells of the cows grazing on the lush green grass on the lower slopes.

The scenery continued to soften but remained spectacular all the way to Lucerne, where we stopped for coffee.
As we were leaving the best of the scenery behind we decided to jump on the motorway so we could get round Zurich and Winterthur as painlessly as possible.  After getting past Winterthur we took some small back roads to Eschenz, where the Rhine joins Untersee.  From there we rode along the south side of Untersee to Konstanz.  The crossing into Germany was slow, not down to bureaucracy, but purely down to the amount of traffic crossing the border.  After getting lunch just outside Konstanz the weather started to take a turn for the worse again and we decided to head for our hotel in Frieburg im Breisgau.  I just plugged it into the sat nav and told it to get us there ASAP.  The rain started just as we pulled into the car park with the threat of thunder hanging in the air.

We just made it to Frieburg im Breisgau before the storm broke, nice town though!
Day 8:  Frieburg im Breisgau to Karlsruhe - through the Schwarzwald
I have been down and up the the B500 a couple of times and I wanted to try out a different way north.  The route we decided on was the B294 to Freudenstadt  and then the B462 to Rastatt then whatever the sat nav came up with to the hotel in Karlsruhe.
Thankfully the storm during the night had cleared the air and as we headed out of the hotel car par, the skies to the north were an inviting blue.  As soon as we got clear of the town and onto the B294 you knew you were in the Black Forest.  The road twists and climbs over small mountains then diving back down into lush valleys all the time passing through dense forests and along the side of small lakes.

We had 100 miles of stunning Black Forest roads like this, the iPhone pano mode does weird things to cars though!
Soon we were in Cuckoo clock territory and every village claimed to be the best and have the biggest.  So we had to stop and have a look at one at some.

Clocks everywhere!
Back on the bike the roads continued to twist their way north, but now following small rivers running along the valley base.  These roads were every bit as good as the B500, but a lot quieter.  We hardly had to pass a thing until we got to Freudenstadt.  After getting lost in Freudenstadt due to roadworks without a marked diversion we finally go onto the B462 and after a couple of kilometres stopped at a cafe for a drink, as the temperature was now in the high 20s and kicking into the early 30 at some points.  Sitting in the shade with a cola, we concluded this was the best riding so far.  20 minutes later we got lost in another lovely village...

Lost again, but when it is this braw who cares!
Once we worked out we were only a few kilometres from Restatt and as time was getting on we just got the sat nav to take us to the hotel in Karlsruhe.  An hour later we were sitting in the hotel bar with a drink, reliving some stunning roads and scenery.
The B500 is good, but I think we did the right thing by looking for other ways north.  These roads, in my opinion, are just as good as the B500 with a lot less traffic.

Day 9:  Karlsruhe to Kanech, Luxembourg
Normal service had been resumed with the weather and as we packed the bike to leave Karlsruhe it was lashing done once again.  Over breakfast we decided just to get on with today and get to the hotel in Luxembourg as quick as possible.  I put us in the hands of the sat nav and told it to get us there as quickly as possible and so it did.  Nothing much to report on a couple of hundred miles of soggy motorways apart from riding along the side of the Mosel river as we crossed into Luxembourg.  We were booked into the Mercure Luxembourg Kikuoka Golf and Spa at Kanech, so an afternoon and evening drying out in a nice hotel sounded just grand.
However, don't let the Mercure Luxembourg Kikuoka Golf and Spa fool you with it's grand name, yes the building, entrance,  check in lobby and rooms are very grand.  However once past that the threadbare carpets and food in the bar (no restaurant!) are not really Mercure standards, you will find a lot better for a lot less money.  The only disappointment as far a digs were concerned during the whole trip.

Day 10:  Kanech, Luxembourg to Ypres, Begium
More rain, so more motorway.  The only detour was to French side of the Ardennes.  We didn't fancy making a long day any longer in the rain.  We crossed into France at Sedan and picked up the A34, the A304 and then the N43.  Not the most inspiring roads, but it was nice to be on some roads with nice scenery after yesterdays motorway blast.  After making the most of a soggy run through the Ardennes, we stopped for coffee and lunch in Hirson.  After lunch we decided to jump onto the bigger roads again and get to our hotel in Ypres.  The st nav was sending us down some farm tracks and some seriously single track roads.  It was taking the shortest route instruction way to literally and the thought of 3 more hours in the rain wasn't filling either of us with the joys of spring so I overruled it and hit the motorway.  At least the rain was just about off when we pulled into the hotel in Ypres.

Day 11:  Day off in Ypres
Thankfully the rain stopped completely during the night, it would have been a long day in Ypres in the rain.  After breakfast we took the 20 minute stroll to the centre of Ypres.  On the the walk from the Best Western Flanders Lodge to Ypres you past the Menin gate, another memorial to the lost of the First World War.  To be precise the names 54605 soldiers who lost their lives in Belgium and have no known grave.

The Menin Gate Memorial
Names on the Menin Gate Memorial
The Menin Gate Menorial
We walked down to the centre of Ypres after spending some time at the Menin Gate.  Despite the modern shop fronts the centre of the town still has a medieval feel about it, it is a really nice place to be.  After wandering around the main square taking in the beauty of the old buildings we had a look at the In Flanders Fields Museum.  The museum is well worth a visit and tells the story of the development of the war in Belgium.

The Cloth hall Ypres
The Cloth Hall Ypres
After the Museum it was time for coffee and then the Ypres museum.  Not as good as the In Flanders Fields, but if you are a history buff it is a good history of Ypres itself.
After a burger at the ridiculously good Ypres Burger and a beer in the bar next door we had a wander around the shops and bought some souvenirs before heading back to the hotel for our final drink on the continent.  We missed the last post at the Menin Gate this time, but it is on my list of things to do the next time I am in the area.

...and some standard wine for Audrey

Some craft beer for me..



Day 12:  Ypres - Chipping Norton
So just like that it was over, we were heading back to UK today.  After breakfast we had a few hours to kill as the plan was to get a late train to try and miss the worst of the M25 traffic.  Boredom, however won out and we decided to head for the tunnel early and try and get a train and get round the M25 before lunch time.  We got an earlier train no problem and we rode directly to passport control and through to boarding.  For a change they held us to the end and we rode down and onto the train without stopping.  Audrey made the mistake of checking the forecast, is was pissing down in Folkestone.  Sure enough as we rode of the train the rain was lashing down once again.  After fuelling up at Ashford the M20 crawled along for about 20 miles through the Brexit car park preparations.  The M25 was no better and it took us about 3 hours to get to Beaconsfield.  Thoroughly drenched we sat drip drying over a coffee and a sandwich in the services.
After another 30 miles of the M40 it was nice to get off the motorway and ride past Blenheim Palace and ride along the edge of the Cotswold to Chipping Norton.

Yours truly on the Eurotunnel coming home
Day 13:  Chipping Norton to Preston - Via Llanymynec to see the Laings
It is dry!  We had no real route today, just to be at LLanymynec for about 5 to meet friends who had move there earlier in the year.  Debbie used to work beside Audrey and is from Oswestry and wanted to be nearer her family again.
Leaving Chipping Norton we headed over the north of the Cotswolds.  It was great to get on some winding roads in the dry.  The tree lined roads twisting through the Cotswolds countryside are brilliant, the only downside being a lot of gravel that has been washed onto the roads by the seemingly non-stop rain.  After passing through Stow on the Wold we headed for Worcester and lunch.  Over lunch we decided to head for Shrewsbury via the Shropshire Hills.  We picked up the A49 and headed north.  The A49 was a surprising good road cutting through the fields and low lying hills of Shropshire.
Shrewsbury ring road was a nightmare as we hit it at 4 o'clock, but once we got onto the A5 we made it to Llanymynec by 5.  After a huge home cooked dinner, thanks Debbie!, we headed north on the motorway to Preston for the night.

Audrey and Debbie on the bike
Day 14:  Preston to Haltwhistle - The Centre of Britain
More rain!  We had planned to ride up through the Dales and the Pennines, but the rain was absolutely torrential.  Audrey didn't fancy the slow run through the Dales in the rain.  To be honest neither did I, I've been there before and it is not nice.  Over a coffee in Penrith the rain stopped and the sky started to clear, so we decided to head over the A686, Hartside pass.  The views from the road as it climbs up to Hartside top are stunning and we could see for miles over into the Lake District.  The only fly in the ointment was the mist at the top and it being very windy going down the other side into Alston.  At Alston we headed north up the A689 twisting along the stream that runs along the valley bottom.  Pulling up at the Centre of Britain hotel something wasn't right with the bike.  I put it down to being tired, but once we had checked in and I went to move the bike the back tyre was completely flat!  I spent the next 20 minutes rolling around the hotel car park plugging the rear tyre.  At least the rain was off...

Day 15:  Haltwhistle to Home
Packing to leave on the last day was a real drag and I could sense we were dragging this one out!  I walked down and checked the tyre on the bike, it was holding.  Result!  We checked out and wandered to the bike and packed up ready to leave.  Was it to be motorway and just get home or the scenic route?  We decided to go up past Kielder water and through the Kielder forest then onto Peebles and then home.
I was still a wee bit nervous about the plugged tyre with the bike fully loaded and two-up, but by the time we got to Kielder sailing club cafe I was sure it would be fine.  We stopped for coffee and cake overlooking the lake before heading on.  The road up the west side of Kielder Water is so fast, with a great surface and long easy corners.  We were making great progress and in not time we were at village of Kielder and fuelling up the bike at the community self service petrol station.  I don't think there is a bad road in the borders!  The roads were all fast and easy to ride as we passed through Selkirk and Peebles before turning north at Carnwath for Forth and then onwards home.

So that was it our first big two up tour and the first time Audrey has been abroad on the bike.  I learned some lessons about long distance touring two up and Audrey worked out what she wants from touring and we have found common ground.  It was a great two weeks, so much so that Audrey was talking about doing it all again next year before we even got home.  The Dolomites and Lake Como seem to be the destinations of choice, I'm happy wherever we go!

If you made it this far, thank you so much for taking the time and keep checking back for more travels and adventures...

This is what we ended up doing, 2438 miles and 8 countries if you include the UK