If the freedom of speech is taken away then dumb and silent we may be led, like sheep to the slaughter.

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Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Mid-Range Touring, Part 6 - end of the journey

We come to the last part of Endemoniada_88's Europe trip. Please see previous posts for parts One, Two, Three, Four and Five posted previously. Go back and look if you haven't already.

12. Day 10, Pau to Bilbao

This is our last real day, with a 22-hour ferry trip scheduled to start at 8pm. We debate the wisdom of celebrating with a decent-length ride, but decide – given that there are only two sailings a week – it would be best not to risk missing the boat. We aim to get into Spain quickly, get on to the coast road to Bilbao and arrive at the port by late afternoon.

The sky is looking a little ominous as we get on the A64, and chooses to unload just as we're filling up with petrol. It's hard rain that shows no sign of stopping, at least until I've struggled into my waterproof suit, whereupon it immediately eases. I keep the one-piece on for the moment, though, given the amount of standing water about. Things quite quickly improve, though, and it's back to plain leathers within the hour.

We sail through the péage marking the Spanish border at about 12.30. There are no guards or officials to be seen, but the other side of the motorway is a vast traffic jam as the French are stopping absolutely everyone heading out of Spain.

It's been nearly ten years since I've driven this way, and last time around I wasn't at all impressed with northern Spain. It gets quite pleasant further south, from about Zaragoza onwards, but this Atlantic seaboard seemed to be nothing but a half-finished building site filled with convoys of lorries. This time...well, it seems exactly the same. I didn't warm to it then, and I don't now: the overly noisy, chaotic bustle when we stop in Zarautz for a break simply doesn't appeal. It reminds me too much of the impersonal aggressiveness of central London, without the small bonus of at least understanding the language.

It doesn't get much better when we get down on the coast. It's a beautiful and quite wild view, with a meandering road that should be fun to ride but is actually the complete opposite. Every bend has a speed limit sign, there's a town about every ten feet and every driver we come across is moving at a painful crawl. Again, just as I remember it: not so much of a problem in a 60mph maximum camper van but horrible on a sportsbike under an ever-hotter sun. Knowing it'll be like this all the way to Bilbao, I suggest we get off the coast and go in search of a half-decent route.

We do and, happily, find one in the shape of the BI-635. That strikes out southwards, into hills and forests: a properly tight, twisty jaunt to the A-8. Mike B is back on form and comfortable pressing on, although we're none of us really pushing too hard. We all feel we've had the highlights of the trip already, and this is just a winding down period. One more coffee break, then the road deposits us on to motorway and we're suddenly in the noisy madness of the Bilbao interchanges.

The ferry port is beyond all that, easy enough to find and we're there at just after five. "There" being a vast expanse of tarmac, mostly filled with trucks. There's a single building - fully equipped with a single, not very comprehensive vending machine and a few seats – and very little else. We wait, not awfully patiently, look at the other bikes making the crossing – mostly BMWs, it seems – and chat to a Scottish couple on a Hayabusa.

The ferry arrives late and seems to have a lot of difficult organising the offloading: it's getting on for 10pm before we roll down the astonishingly grip-free ramps into the bowels of number 2 deck. Some people lash their own bikes down: we leave ours to the ferry crew. If mine's going to spend the next day or so sliding about inflicting damage on fifty-odd other bikes, I really want it to be somebody else's fault.

We explore the ferry while waiting for our cabins to be available. It's not terribly interesting: a duty-free, some small restaurants and a selection of quite nasty onboard entertainment. We're just not karaoke people, it seems. Eventually, the ship starts moving and we celebrate by eating in the cheapest of the food halls, which is actually a pretty decent meal.

Getting to sleep afterwards is a bit odd, adjusting to the motion of the boat and the constant hum of the engines. Luckily, I've never suffered from seasickness and it doesn't take too long to get used to the fairly mild sway and roll.

13. Day 11, Bilbao to Home

We had been considering Portugal, and the Portimao race, as a possibility for a future trip. Today largely scuppers that thought. It's calm and not unpleasant, even crossing the notorious Bay of Biscay. It's also dull beyond words to not be getting up and going anywhere under our own steam. The sudden, enforced lack of activity wouldn't be so bad if we were at home: here, there simply isn't enough to do. Steve, Mike D and myself have it fairly easy with a mere 40-mile haul to get home: Paul's looking at about 150 and Mike B has nearer 250. We'd all like to get on with it, but the estimated arrival time has already slipped to 10pm UK time. The thought of making a similar crossing in both directions, or of the monotony of riding down the entire west coast of France and back makes Portugal a very much less appealing prospect. Northern Europe very rapidly takes over as the favoured option.

We eat, drink, do some shopping – at least I get to stock up on very cheap tobacco – and have a chuckle at Brittany Ferries' tour packages. They offer some motorcycle package deals, one of which is a 7-night guided trip around Bilbao. Total riding distance is listed 122 miles (!), and to our amusement it's almost exactly the same route we covered yesterday afternoon. We're a little bemused as to how that could be spun out to a whole day, never mind a week. All of which uses up half the morning...

What seems like a very long time later, largely because it is, the English coastline finally becomes visible as a black line against the setting sun. It's probably the most exciting thing that's happened all day, although we have met some interesting people while waiting. The last leg seems to take forever, but finally we're ordered back to our vehicles. It's a pleasant surprise to discover they're all still upright: I hadn't been altogether convinced that a single ratchet strap over the saddle would be sturdy enough. It's not a roll-on/roll-off, so the hold is a chaotic melee of heavily-laden bikes turning around on a less than ideal surface. Everyone gets off safely, though, and heads for the customs point.

Almost inevitably, the young chap in the passport booth decides I look suspicious and sends me off for further inspection. Ironically, for once I wasn't actively being surly with authority – I just couldn't hear what he was asking. Fortunately, it's quieter where I pull up to talk to the next official. I admit (absolutely honestly) to my three for-personal- use-only half-kilo boxes of tobacco and he sends me on my way without making me unpack my panniers.

From there, it's easy. Paul and Mike B wave farewell and split off to the A3/M3; we get on the A27 eastbound for the last dash to Worthing. It seems a little unnatural to be back on the left and going the wrong way around roundabouts, but we manage. English bends are a little peculiar too. They seem to be far less predictable or regular than those we've been used to on the continent – in getting used to them again, we're probably riding more slowly and cautiously than any point in the rest of the trip. "More slowly" doesn't necessarily mean "slow", of course, and it isn't long before the signs for Worthing are showing single digits of miles.

We stop briefly to say our goodbyes on the outskirts, then part company. A few minutes later and the VFR's safely tucked away in the garage, leaving me with a small pile of luggage to carry up to the house where – I hope – one wife and four cats will be hugely pleased to see me back. I take a deep, satisfied breath, looking up at the stars. Everything's cool. It's the journey which matters.

I've enjoyed reading Endo's trip report, and I hope readers have too. It has certainly tickled my touring glands and given me itchy wheels, if that's not a metaphor too far. He has included some general observations on riding etiquette and kit, and I will leave these for another, final, post. My thanks to Endo for taking the trouble to put his experiences into words, and it has been a pleasure to play host.

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