Burns Day Tour with Classic Bike Provence
by John Evans
Having started out in the early Sixties as what one may loosely term part policeman, part 'mod' I was the very proud owner of a Lambretta 150 which served me well until such time as I progressed to my 500cc red Matchless which faithfully conveyed me through the suburbs of Bristol into the city.
Looking back over forty years plus of motorcycling, I have to say there was really something very special about riding a classic bike. I had the pleasure of owning several of the best, including a 1967 BSA 650 Lightning, and my pride and joy a HRD Vincent 500 Comet. If only I had it now!
Actually the start of my two wheeled pleasure came about in a rather unusual way. I was serving Queen and Country at the time, around 1959, with the Royal Marines provost at Eastney Barracks when I received a message to collect a weekend pass and ensure I use it to go home, then being in Bristol. In short my mother had just been notified that she was the outright winner of a national newspaper fashion contest and was presented with a cheque for £1,000. A thousand pounds was a lot of money in those days. As a result this only son was presented with a gift of cash which bought my first transport yes! The 150cc Lambretta.
Anyway the love of the old machines has never really left me, although as the years have passed it is true to say I have progressed to the more modern machines and currently ride a Pan European 1100Y, as I spend a lot of my leave days en Bretagne, France where we have a maison secondaire.
A couple of years ago I read an article in one of the more popular magazines about a journalist who had visited the south of France and ridden classic bikes. Now this sounded right up my street. Warm weather, fantastic scenery, good food and accommodation plus riding really well maintained classic machines from a gone-by age. I duly contacted the owner of these wonderful bikes at a place called Ventabren, twenty minutes' ride/drive from Marseille airport. Neil Thomas and his wife Sarah run the http://www.classicbikeprovence.com/Classic Bike Provence business and it was from our home in Brittany I drove down to Ventabren and enjoyed my first visit to Neil and Sarah's lovely home, where I was accommodated in a studio with en suite and every facility including a small fridge with drinks and a bowl of fruit, for use whether sick or not!
Neil's garage is roughly as large as the average English bungalow's entire floor area and it houses his collection of classic machines, and workshops where he does all his own maintenance. Sarah looks after the admin side and the Web site. As the business has grown, clients come from all over the world to fulfil their own special dream of riding anything from a selection of BSAs to a Royal Enfield Bullet, or maybe if extremely lucky the chance, as I did, to ride an original 1951 green Sunbeam S7 Deluxe. More of that later. All Neil's bikes were originally owned, most from new, by his father, who lovingly rode and kept them in mint condition, prior to handing them over to Neil when he started his life's ambition to live in the warm sunshine of Provence and do what he enjoyed most.
On Thursday 27th January 2005 I took my third trip down to Provence. It turned out to be a rather damp morning as I left the house in Northbourne, but the bitter cold snap in the Bournemouth area had departed for my early morning ride to Gatwick. I left home at 0600 hrs having managed to secure my four days' clothing and wash kit into a very roomy rucksack. I wore my leather trousers and used my Buffalo jacket rather than the heavier leather jacket for ease of wear once off the bike. Neil had warned me via email that although Provence had been enjoying quite warm weather the week previous, it had suddenly turned very cold for their region, and in fact there had been an unheard-of snowfall in Spain, not so very far away. Wear your thermals, he warned. How true, a couple of hours in the saddle up the motorway to Gatwick can cause a lot of problems to the unmentionables if not properly protected!
The traffic on reaching the M27/M3 turn-off was extremely heavy and really surprised me as I had planned originally to leave home later. I think had I done so I would have missed my flight.
A very steady ride saw my arrival at Gatwick South Terminal short-term car park at 0810 hrs. From previous experience I made straight for the barrier, obtained my entrance ticket, and rode the Pan through the car park and over the slight raised curb on to the hard standing concrete under the roof of the walkway up to the second level. I secured the Pan with steering lock plus alarm, changed into my travelling attire rather rapidly, and managed to secure my leathers across the top of my Bergen, by extending the strap. As for the Buffalo and helmet I was forced to wear the jacket and stuffed my Norwegian crew neck sweater into the helmet, inside its carry-bag.
The Bergen was very heavy and it's a tidy walk up the path to the terminal for the departure lounge and check-in. No baggage trolleys had been abandoned overnight in the car park.
EasyJet, the no-frills (that's very true) airline was not due to open for an hour or so, therefore it was straight to the next floor up to The Village for a bit of a warm-up and a well-deserved breakfast. A bit of toast and coffee at 0530 hrs had long passed. After my walk across from the car park and up several floor levels I was really beginning to feel the heat, and just could not wait to disrobe from the Buffalo and other warm gear I had been wearing for the morning's ride. I had a read of my book The Da Vinci Code until check-in, and as I had made a point of being early I was very prompt in presenting myself at the check-in desk immediately it opened. EasyJet do not allocate seats, it's a first-come, first-served basis. First time ever I was No 1 on my boarding pass. I duly made my way through the security check and had to all but strip off as I set off their alarm as I was carrying some metal objects which I had missed placing in the tray they provide. But they missed the SA80!
The Airbus took off dead on time and after a very long taxi roll along the runway we were soon airborne and reached an altitude of some 37,000 feet, above the clouds. On arrival at Marseille airport, being so close to the exit door I was up and ready, armed with all my kit, or so I thought. Made my way down to Arrivals in Hall 1 where I had arranged to meet Neil Thomas. As I entered the arrivals hall I couldn't believe my own eyes, there was a large crowd of Middle Eastern men and women all in traditional costume, all clapping and cheering, and the women were doing that incredible wailing sound using their tongues, very blood-curdling, used by them and some African natives as a battle cry. Cameras were flashing and as I was first to arrive I was mistaken for the leading bodyguard of some famous Middle Eastern dignitary or film star! The Police Municipale and Gendarmerie immediately stepped forward and cleared a pathway through the throng of the crowd for me, and for the first time in my life I felt what it was like to be mistaken for an ageing pop star or politician.
I saw no sign of Neil although I was very punctual on my arrival and didn't have to go through baggage reclaim, having only the Bergen and carrier bag with helmet. Then as I placed the Bergen down to await Neil's arrival it hit me like a ton of bricks. I had left my hornless Buffalo plus mobile on the plane, in the overhead locker. I dare not leave Hall 1 in fear of missing Neil, and so I decided to wait instead of rushing off to the Found Property office.
Neil arrived a few minutes later wearing a thick Irish knit roll neck jumper plus scarf. I then knew Provence was, or had been, hit by a cold snap, as only ex-pats actually owned a scarf. I told him of my misdemeanour and we rushed off to the Found Property office, to be greeted by a very efficient staff who merely enquired as to the Buffalo's colour and make of mobile. Within ten minutes my property was restored to me with a smile and the usual look of the French of ³Anglais bizarre². All was intact and no transatlantic calls had been charged to my mobile, so Neil and I made our way to his people-carrier in the car park for our twenty-minute run to his home in Ventabren. As we walked out of the terminal building we were greeted by brilliant sunshine but there was a severe nip in the air.
When I was last in Provence, during October 2004, it was really warm and I rode in a lightweight jacket and with trainers on my feet. Not recommended by the IAM I'm certain, however the climate afforded the dress code.
We arrived back at the house and I unpacked my Bergen in my self-contained room under the main house. It had been freshly decorated since my last visit and was now known as the Vert or Green Room due to the décor and very nice pictures hanging on the walls. The mini fridge was full, drinks, milk for the tea and coffee provided, plus fruit and a very relaxing shower with hot water ready to freshen up prior to the evening meal with the family.
Having stowed my kit I went up to the main house and joined Neil and his two sons and the dog Ranni, and was initially served a piping hot bowl of vegetable soup with fresh baguette. Sarah had been at the boys' school meeting and returned later, and we all sat down for the main evening meal. Having had theirs earlier the boys left Sarah, Neil and I to enjoy a very nice meal of spaghetti with beef, wine sauce with added portion of cubed blue cheese, followed by cheese, biscuits, chocolate torte and crème fraîche. Red or white vin de plonk was at hand, but being a non-alcoholic I made do with a glass of Coke.
We had our coffee sat by their open log fire, and chatted about our plans for Friday's ride out, and for the Burns Night dinner-party on Saturday.
I turned in around 11pm as I was feeling a bit bushed after the day's travelling, and knew we would be doing well over 100 miles the next day, up in the mountain area of the Hautes Alpes.
Friday 28th January
Friday dawned bright, cold and dry. The brilliant sunshine disguised the chill in the air when one looked out of the patio double doors from the warmth of my room.
After breakfast of fresh rolls and baguette, coffee, cereal, we prepared ourselves and the bikes for the day's ride. I chose to ride a 1973 Honda 750-4 K2 . We headed off along the D10 out of Ventabren travelling West towards the Etang de Berre where we met up with Joel, a French friend of Neil's, who joined us for the ride on his 1979 Triumph Bonneville with pea-shooter exhaust, T140 model with 83,000K on the clock, sounded really nice. He took the lead and we rode to Cornillon-Confoux for coffee at the Le Beffroy (Belfry) Café. This was an old wine vault with 12th century stonework to the walls and ceiling. After warming up with a hot chocolate rather than a coffee (the French coffee tends to be in a small cup with no milk and is very strong, unless one asks for a café grand au lait). Hot chocolate is the better purchase.
Following our pit-stop we headed off along the D19 towards Eyguieres on the D25 tourist route over the Alpilles (small Alps), through beautiful scenery, and stopped for lunch at Maussane. I had ham and mushroom omelette and two more hot chocolates, and all for ¤12.
We rode on despite the bitter cold to the old Citadel Les Baux de Provence, a fortress in a fantastic position overlooking the whole area round it. It dates from the time of the Crusades and is well worth a visit for its sheer magnificence.
Then on to Port Istres and the Etang de l'Olivier which is a huge pond, which we would call a lake, but as it does not run out to the sea it is a large pond. It has very bright blue water and is truly a lovely sight to ride along its perimeter. Riding past the Etang we passed the BMW Car Test Centre, locally known as the site of the Berlin wall as it is like Fort Knox, one can see nothing over its high walls and gates. Sometimes it's possible to see a prototype up in the 2,000 metre mountains in the north. Cars only.
We rode back along the Etang some 112 miles and nearly ran out of fuel, had to quickly turn on the reserve. Made our way back across lovely countryside via the Etang into the suburbs of Marseille to Joel's Spanish style red tiled house with electronic opening gate where we actually did have French coffee as he was out of hot chocolate. We had our drinks in his conservatory overlooking the swimming pool, nearly all the houses have pools in Provence. Joel then took us down to his shed workshop to allow us to gloat over his very rare twin seated BMW 1967 R69S, colour black, in absolute showroom condition. I had only ever seen one of these in a book on classic bikes, and I loved the self sprung suspension of the rider's and passenger's seats. Joel says he only rides it on special outings and it was his investment machine.
We left Joel and returned via the nearest garage to fill up with fuel. We got back around 5:30pm feeling very cold once again. After a hot shower and a rest I joined the family in the main house for dinner of chicken in lemon sauce with cous-cous followed by cheese and biscuits, and a croissant bread and fresh butter pudding. Again the vin de plonk was flowing if one desired it.
Saturday 29th January
On Saturday I rode the BSA 1967 model A65 Lightning ³Red Rocket² along the D543 to Rognes, crossed the river Durance to Cadenet, Cucuron up to the Grand Luberon mountain through hairpin bends and an extremely rough tarmacadam road (if one could call it that), down the other side and finally reached the beautiful home of Maggie and Nick set in some 16 acres of land. This property boasts an East and West Wing, beautiful open wood burning fireplace, and a very large swimming pool adjoining a small cottage which Maggie and Nick use when they rent the main house out, mostly to very well-to-do Americans or Germans, for around £1,000 a week, when Maggie does all the cooking and housework. Their place is known as La Mais de Boissiere, route de Cabrierlo, 84160 Cucuron.
After coffee (Anglaise style) we skirted the southern slopes of the Grand Luberon, 1,100m like Scafell Pike, in the Vaucluse department. Then on to Haute-Alpes, and we had covered three out of the five departments of Provence. The village of Reillanne on our route found Neil and I at the garage workshop of Pierre whom I had met on my last visit. Pierre was working on rebuilding his Triumph Trident T160, grinding-in valves and replacing the cylinder head gasket. He also owned a BMW Boxer R60 1980 model in excellent condition. He later rode this with his eight-year-old daughter as pillion when they joined us for lunch. Spaghetti was the plat du jour, and the restaurant was very busy as it was in the centre of the village and of course a Saturday. When we left to ride off we found a large crowd had gathered outside opposite the church and it turned out that one of the most well respected local members of the commune had died, and everyone was there in the bitter cold paying their last respects. We didn't know if he had been a biker, so we decided not to roar off into the sunset as a final tribute but instead as a mark of respect pushed our bikes around to the back of the church and did a quick kick-start exit.
We rode back over the Grand Luberon D956, turned off at Granbois, turned left and skirted several small villages, stopping at Ansouis where we visited the church on the hill, very old with a Nativity scene still in place, not uncommon to see Christmas decorations up until mid February. The church was beautiful and had fantastic views from its entrance down across the valley below. We covered around 120 miles and got back to Ventobren around 5pm, still in brilliant sunshine but still very cold.
Saturday night was to be the Burns Night supper in remembrance of that very famous Scottish poet and little-known Freemason. I was to give the opening prayer in my very best Scottish accent (which was more like Jethro than Rabbie!). Then the wee haggis was duly piped in to the awaiting nine dinner guests, some being French, Irish and Welsh, English, but not one drop of Scottish blood amongst the lot of us. However we didn't allow that to spoil a very tasty meal. Once again the wine, both rouge et blanc, was flowing like water, and the food was second to none thanks to Sarah's expert cooking.
After a really excellent dinner and social gathering to which I was made to feel one of the family, I retired to my bed just before 3am knowing we had yet another ride-out later that Sunday morning to the Côte Bleue and the town of Aix en Provence.
Sunday 30th January
Sunday morning was another gloriously sunny dry cold day and after a late breakfast I had the pleasure and privilege of riding the Mist Green 1951 Sunbeam S7 Deluxe. She is a real beauty to behold and on the front just above the headlight sits a brass plaque which reads ³Jesus wants me for a Sunbeam². Neil took the lead to Aix, and having ridden the ten miles from his home into this beautiful city, which is very much like the city of Bath, we parked outside one of the rather smart cafés with the local jet-set types. Having left the Royal Enfield Bullet which Neil had ridden alongside the Sunbeam we soon had a small interested crowd gathered admiring our machines. This prompted Neil to start handing out his business cards, not wishing to miss the chance of some future business.
The cafés along the Cour Mirabeau are really very chic and attract people from all over the world. We walked through one of the nearby alleyways which led us to an open square where we witnessed a large open troc aux puces, like a car boot sale of everything from toys, clothes and furniture to paintings and objets d'art. It was a lovely morning and we met many interesting people and several bikers. We did not bother with lunch, having had such a large meal the previous night, so rode back to Neil's home where we picked up Sarah who has only been riding for six months. She joined us on her Kawasaki 125cc on a ride down to the Côte Bleue. I rode the Sunbeam and Neil the Royal Enfield. We were joined by another English ex-pat named Oliver on his modern Ducati machine.
The ride took us through the Marseille outskirts, south-west to the beautiful coastal area and a truly lovely blue sea. The route down was very steep with several hairpin bends, and the Sunbeam's brakes were less than I was used to, especially in comparison to my own Pan European. I had to virtually stand on the back brake coming down the steepest bits as the French car drivers tend to use your side of the road when coming up the hills! Not a pretty sight if one happens to meet head-on. We stopped for coffee at La Redonne, which was very welcome. We had one interesting experience never known previously. As we came around one very steep section of road a water pipe had burst, and the road was icy, to add to our other descent problems. It meant an even further advanced look for any French drivers coming up out of the bend.
It was a glorious day but I have to say I was pleased to get back to a hot shower as it had been very cold again despite the beautiful sunshine. Returned and again had a lovely evening meal with the family and sat by the open log fire with our coffees after chatting about the day's events. I had to admit to feeling somewhat nervous riding down those very steep bends, but the view and scenery in general was well worth it.
Monday 31st January
On Monday morning, as I was leaving that afternoon, Neil and I decided we would not ride but strip down the clutch on the old blue/white Triumph 500 1972 model. Neil had invested in a mobile hand pump-up bike stand which proved an excellent purchase for raising the bikes up to work on. We removed the 12 clutch plates to find that they had worn badly, and Neil got Sarah to send an email to his UK supplier for a replacement which he said usually arrives within a couple of days.
The sun shone again, and working outside on the Triumph proved to be very pleasant in the morning's sunshine.
We ate a very nice light lunch of cauliflower cheese before we left Neil to finish off the Triumph whilst Sarah kindly drove me to Marseille Airport. Once again EasyJet booking check-in was open and I boarded with the first 30 in line. Had an uneventful flight home and got into Gatwick well on time. By the time I got back to the Pan and put all my kit back on it was nearly 6pm. Rode to the barrier and had my ticket validated, no charge for bikers. Rode home via the M23 via Brighton and Portsmouth as the M3 was chock-a-block and nose to tail with traffic at that hour. Arrived home at 8pm having had yet again a tremendous few days' riding real motorbikes, a truly fantastic experience which I would thoroughly recommend. But try and go when the weather is not quite so cold.
Any further information can be obtained either from me direct or Neil's Web site on http://www.classicbikeprovence.com/. Ride safe.