Last weekend – the first nice weekend of the year – I took a little excursion to the French town of Gravelines – a pretty coastal town about 15 miles south west of Dunkirk – by car, bus, boat and bike.
To catch the 9.25 sailing, and wanting a bit of a lie-in, I drove (rather than take the hourly train) to Dover Docks and parked up as a foot passenger. Walking up to the check-in desk with my bike (a Brompton) they appeared bewildered – “cyclists must cycle into the port, not drive”. I managed to convince them to let mine onto the foot passenger bus. Full size bikes can’t go on the shuttle buses.
However, on the other side of the Channel, exiting Calais, the state of the roads was a revelation: goods traffic is quickly whisked onto the motorway straight from the port (compared to the lorry park that is Dover, whether or not Operation Stack is in effect), and you can be on a quiet French D road in minutes from getting on to dry land.
It took me a few minutes to realise the other main difference – it was smooth. Even the minor back roads were in good nick, in stark contrast to the wretched roads local to me, which do expensive damage to cars and put cyclists and bikers at serious risk. Straight and smooth as the roads were, motorists saw us in good time and overtook using all of the generously proportioned surface: the fact that French roads are, in general, half as busy as those in the UK does no harm either.
After a stop in Gravelines – lunch at L’Arlequin, steak et frites – the return leg was just as pleasant (and just as flat!).
Sadly, the port insisted we board via what looked like the Coach lane, putting us in amongst vehicles with some of the largest blind-spots and away from the terminal, where I had hoped to find some French pastries and a couple of bottles of red with my name on them to stuff the saddlebag with.