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AROUND FRANCE

Took a second hand 2008 BMW F800ST off a local forecourt with 14400 miles on the clock and after only a short test ride the minimum of preparation decided to ride it on an 1800-mile tour around France.

Over the past 25 years I have been a regular traveller to La Belle France. Inevitably I have become blasé with the things, which were initially a ‘crack’ about our closest neighbour. Their marvellous bread that showers the table with crust when you break open a new loaf; the buttery croissant; the smell of fresh coffee that wafts from open cafés doors; the iconic pastis label, oh! I forgot the Can Can! Every region has specialities in food and wine, in the nicest of ways France to my mind is a huge theme park. The country possesses mountains, deserts, lakes, rivers, forests, uncluttered brilliant roads and what is more they actually love bikers.

It was with this enthusiasm that I entered into the Around France tour; joined by 35 MSL readers we entered the ten-day tour with the same spirit.

The plan was to zig zag through the countryside on ‘D’ roads to maximise on French country scenes and experience provincial life stopping at village cafes with one riding group and then riding off with another - the way I remember things were before autoroutes.

Having said that we had to jump on the net work of major roads to get to our starting point in chateau country of the Loire 320 miles down from Calais. Here steeped in history is Frances great selection of Renaissance and medieval chateaux, Chambord, Chenonceaux, Villandry and of course where our hotel overlooked, Amboise. With the group complete the road the next morning lead off past Loches and its wonderful castle that once saw an encounter with Joan D’Arc.

Not long into the trip I soon found that the bike needed some customising, rear view mirrors were as good as useless – mirror extensions needed.

Here we found France at its best the route cut through working farms where white Limousine cows grazed lazily in the pastures undisturbed by the succession of bikes breaking their calm existence. Local architecture changes to white houses with grey slate roofs typify the region. Try the D675 road it will have you crying
for more of the same. But don’t get carried away by the occasion, farmers are always harvesting something and the slow moving tractor, lights blazing, can turn unexpected tractor without warning.

The major mod needed when we got back was to change the front discs Which were badly warped – a common fault with BMWs I’m told.

The day’s 140 mile ride ended through the valley of the Vezere and our arrival at the hotel poised on the banks of the River Vezere (a tributary of the Dordogne) was friendly and genuine.

Nothing much has changed in this region since the Middle Ages bastide towns almost out number holiday homes. Our ancesters came here for almost the same reasons as us, good climate, food in abundance and places to stay. They left behind outstanding galleries of prehistoric art, a hot spot for caves, Lascaux being one of the oldest and most graphic.

A larger after market screen was an added extra and improved the overall comfort and I am sure it benefited the fuel consumption which hovered around the 57-60mpg. I liked the computer read outs and general
instrumentation which never seemed to be affected by reflections.

It seemed a while before we made progress from Le Bugue. The D61 and D25 proved great roads but slow. White chalky soil gives way to reddish ochre, houses are of Champagne coloured stone with square
tiled turrets. Now on the D660 joining the D911 at Cahors.

Here we picked up the River Lot whose fertile valley produces that deep red wine (almost black) from the Malbec grape. The D911 from Cahors to Villefranche de Rouergue is one of my favourite sections of roads. It follows the Lot twisting and turning on the road built on a rock shelf overlooking the river. It passes St Cirq-Lapopie that claims to be the prettiest mediaeval village in France. Certainly its narrow streets and steeply perched old houses are dramatic. Nearby are the caves of Grotte du Pech Merle one of Europes most important pre-historic sites where you can see hundreds of perfectly preserved wall paintings from 20-40000 years ago.

No doubt tyre wear will increase because of the smooth no snatch belt drive and the bikes rear end stays clean, I liked the idea.

Can it get any better I asked? Try the D922 down to Laguepie a sleepy little town straddling the River Aveyron. We stopped here for a comfort break and coffee, a few photographs of the bastide with an atmospheric red and yellow Occitane flag draped from the chateau then we were off again. This is a piece of road that you could never tire of it has every type of bend in the book including two vicious hairpins just outside of Laguepie.

Considering the bike had done 14440miles the suspension and steering were spot on, the rear needed just a turn or two on the preload to cope with two up riding with luggage. They said that the walnut styled panniers would never be enough but they were – just!

The entrance to the walled city of Albi across the River Tarn is spectacular. The old part of the city is built of deeply blushing red brick. The great gothic Cathedrale is built of this same mellow material. Toulouse-Lautrec was born there and the museum displays many of his posters and the roundel sofa where the prostitutes would sit waiting to be selected by the clients.

Our hotel was further south at Castres still in the Tarn region. However if you come to this region you do have to be fond of duck. Le Canard comes in every guise from cassoulet to confit and our hotel where we were eating for two nights specialises in duck.

No meal here would begin without foie gras, (duck liver) not everyone likes the ‘fat liver’ it’s a delicacy and a compliment for it to be served. Next the high point of the chefs own recipe of the famous cassoulet. Strips of belly pork, Toulouse sausages, white haricot beans in a delicious liquor. It came served from brown earthenware terrines. Ice cream cake finished the meal. Between servings our hosts served an un ending quantity on Gaillac red wine finishing with a sweet dessert wine.

Considering that the bike had covered 14400 miles and had not been particularly cossetted, here and there it showed signs of hard use. Despite major criticism of the brakes I thought I’d done quite well with my purchase. As for France, well she came up with the goods the weather matched all expectations, hotels did as asked dix sur dix.

MSL Tours will be running similar tours in 2012 for more information contact peter@msltours.co.uk www.msltours.co.uk.