The best country for motorcyclists? That question could generate a vigorous debate. But if you’ve not ridden in France, and should you have the chance, you should. While we U.S. riders can boast of our expansive spaces, and the broad varieties of geography herein, and cheap gas, we’re well behind the curve in terms of status on the international transportation scale. When bikes were all but eclipsed by cars in the States, about 100 years ago, motorcyclists were assigned the Second Class label. Been there ever since.
Riders in most of the rest of the world, notably those places with large populations sharing the least space, never had to navigate under car rules. The concept of traffic control consisted largely of allowing all vehicles access to the space into which they would fit, preferably without nudging anyone else. Traffic flow was maintained mostly with roundabout intersections, clearly marked with signs, and three or four in/out points. Which has worked quite well ever since. (Except for the average American motorist, who can often be seen trapped in a European roundabout, eyes wide in fear, wondering how to get out.)
The rural roads in southern France are well maintained, lightly traveled and only slightly patrolled. (Police use a mix of white Renault, Peugeot and Citroen sedans with blue graphics and a large bar of blue lights on top.) The macadam’s single white center lines are broken or solid, for passing and not; impending curves are noted by both signs and painted arrows on the road. Speed limits are clearly marked in kilometers per hour by round white signs with black numbers in a red circle: 110 (68 mph), 90 (56 mph) and 50 (31 mph).
The French are known as intimate people; in a queue or on the road, they like to cozy up. What we would call tailgating they consider just driving. And the proximity equation doesn’t vary with speed; Europeans don’t tend to linger in the fast lane. We noted one lad on an SV650 come humming by on a motorway (130 kph/81 mph) holding the left lane at 90-plus. He was tucked in, his mirrors out of view, unaware that the grille of an Audi A6 was sitting about 18 inches from his rear tire. Which warrants a word about braking. The French are good at it.
In the big cities, Paris especially, stoplight drag racing is virtually mandatory. The mix of scooters, bicycles, taxis, trucks, motorcycles and buses compete between every intersection, pin it on the green and grab the brakes on the yellow, since pedestrians will get an early start crossing the street. Riders accustomed to gassing it on the yellow to make the light are asking for trouble. Parked delivery vans taking up half a narrow street make the challenges even more engaging. But the point is that most French motorists, regardless of the vehicle, are so used to the cut and thrust of daily traffic that they’re more like practiced dancers in a troupe than participants in a demolition derby.
It’s the countryside, however, that makes France a motorcycling heaven. Largely free of traffic, the broad valleys are filled with vineyards and almond farms, fields of lavender, punctuated by hyacinth, iris and poppies, oak trees and chaparral trail into the picturesque distance. The landscape that’s drawn the world’s major artists for centuries remains largely unspoiled and pretty as a painting. But of course there is a caveat. Veteran travelers from the pre-digital age will remember when a traffic or parking ticket abroad was no big deal. They were safely back home before it caught up, and even then could be safely ignored. Things have changed.
Automated radar cameras in the slow-down zones approaching villages record and transmit the license number to gendarme central. Which, with the complicity of rental car companies, can tack the fine on your credit card. Welcome Home, Sucker! The good news is that motorcycles are less readily identified, and the evidence is used routinely only in cases involving injury, property damage or exceptional stupidity. Nonetheless, the old revenue-generating speed trap has kept pace with technology. Fortunately we are partially subsidized by the car drivers, merci very much, which may simply be regarded as their tax for taking up so much of the road.
WARNING: If the only French you bothered to learn is, “Je ne parle pas Francais,” and you say it to the police in France, in nicely accented French, you’re toast. They will automatically think that you do speak the language, and then berate you in it with vigorous gestures and what are probably some quite colorful terms. Only when they run out of energy will the interrogation slow down. Trying to match their apoplexy, leaping up and screaming ” I DO NOT SPEAK FREAKIN’ FRENCH!” and grabbing the nearest one by the throat, is not recommended.
But for the motocycliste, the icing on the French pastry, the bonus bon bon on the cake, is preferred parking. Arriving anywhere on a motorcycle means parking is never a problem. In the popular tourist sites, riders can dismount at the castle, church, whatever, while drivers, if they can find a space, face a long hike up the mountain. A trip to the shoe store, the grocery, your favorite sidewalk cafe – the motorcycle is parked right in front, or in the middle of the square. An old world, but a civilized world.
Dining, of course, remains the foremost social occasion in France. And given the abundance of fresh vegetables, cheese, bread, fish, pasta, fowl, their varied accoutrements, and people who know how to prepare them, ’tis a moveable feast indeed. Activity in the ubiquitous outdoor cafes picks up after sundown, the local wines are inexpensive, and multiple languages are overheard at dinner. As it is in neighboring Italy and Spain, the evening meal is a celebration of life’s flavors and fancies, with good wine to add color and conversation.
The only drawback within this aromatic idyll of flavorful pleasures, is the relative absence of good beer. There are a few passable French brews and Belgian ales, but the craft brew revolution has yet to reach the provinces. Heineken is the big dog here, with their standard lager and an English-style ale called Pelforth. Also from Amsterdam is a tequila-flavored beer, Desperados, which seems accurately named. Micro brewery offerings from elsewhere in the world are notably absent. On the plus side, in Paris a delivery van was spotted with Ninkasi graphics, an Oregon brewery, which may herald signs of change. Bon.
Most beer snobs do recognize that fruit-based beverages are well served, literally, in the accompaniment of food. But the French, always known to keep their own counsel, seem to remain unaware that grain-based liquids are food; that the choice of an hors d’ouvre at the end of a day’s ride should include a crisp IPA, a robust lager or a sturdy stout. That, followed by an earthy cotes du Rhone, red or white, with dinner, is the virtual guarantee of a happy traveler. And return customer.
That said, a skimpy brew menu certainly won’t be keeping us out of France. (There are a few Brit/Scot/Irish pubs scattered about the country, after all, and Germany is only a few hours away.) So rapprochement is no problem. No, the French have all the other colors of the motorcycling spectrum permanently affixed to their palette. Riding in Provence puts the radiant hues of old Vinnie Van Gogh’s paintings on display at every turn, presented in real time and three dimensions. Breathtaking views, as the realtors say. Not to mention the parking. Magnifique!
This article was written prior to the savage attack on Paris last November, which showed no large city can be made completely safe from the evils of terrorism. While practical solutions remain evasive, there’s little doubt that Paris will remain the centerpiece of European culture, art, style and gracious living. No pocket of delusional jihadists will change that.