Day Trip to Saint Nazaire, France

Jul 18, 2014 View Comments by

Day Trip to Saint Nazaire, FranceIt’s Monday and I have the day off, and it just so happens that I’m the bearer of a freshly issued “kitchen pass.” I have some money, a bike, and the weather is nice, the only thing left is to find a destination. I decide on Saint Nazaire, France. I like the place, and a lot of things that have happened there interest me. Also, it’s not too far from my home, and will be an excellent test ride for my “new” bike.

Day Trip to Saint Nazaire, FranceI recently rescued a used and abused Savage 650 that had been bobbed and had one foot in the junkyard. Now that you’ve stopped laughing, I’ll explain why. My first real bike was a Royal Enfield 500cc from the 30s, it had an exposed valve train and a three-speed gearbox… then came the Norton, A.J.S, Velocette. Thirty-five years and some 50 bikes later, I decided to try to relive those old days. Not having enough money for an ES2 or 18C I have to content myself with the Savage. Luckily, the previous owner had kept the original pieces and after some wrenching I ended up with a bike I like. It’s somewhere between a bobber and stock—not a chopper but a “chopped” bike.

I love preparing for a day trip, cleaning the helmet and sunglasses, then checking the oil, and doing a little inspection before firing up—it’s almost like taking off in an old airplane. The bike seems eager to go, like a dog getting in the car for a trip to the park. Until now I have only ridden within walking distance, in case of a mechanical problem, but now the bike is ready for its first long distance trip.

Day Trip to Saint Nazaire, FranceI live in the northeast part of Nantes, and the easiest way to get to Saint Naz is the N165 highway. This route will get me there in no time, but the ride is boring, and constant high speed cruising is not ideal for the Savage right now, so I opt for the long way on backroads. I pass along the south of the city on the bypass, then connect with the road that follows the river Loire, going through Vue and Paimboeuf. At Saint-Brevin-les-Pins, I take the huge bridge that leads me into Saint Nazaire. I stop at the local gas station for fuel and air, fuel is no problem, but the machine for inflating the tires is knocked out. The guy behind the counter explains that someone backed into it last night. Well, I can do that later at the station on the bypass.

The morning traffic jams have cleared and soon I’m cruising effortlessly at the posted speed of 56 miles per hour (90 km/h). It is my first time on a highway with the Savage and the bike feels good—it sounds good too (now that I removed the horrible slash cut muffler and reinstalled the stock one). The sound is very close to the old singles I used to have, especially when off the throttle.

Just as I’m starting to enjoy the ride, a traffic jam looms ahead. I putt-putt between the lines of stopped cars and trucks, (lane splitting is allowed here) and some drivers move a bit to give me some room so I can take an exit to a gas station. In France gas stations are like pit stops, you exit for the station only to get back on the highway, there’s nothing else on the exit.

Day Trip to Saint Nazaire, FranceI park next to the air machine and let my tires cool while I relax in a terrasse with an espresso. Keeping an eye on the traffic jam, I watch people come and go. They’re all busy, in a hurry, and most seem in a bad mood. I feel lucky, this time I’m outside of the bubble; the rat race does not apply to me. I have nothing to do, and nowhere to be—it’s going to be a jolly good day.

Some 20 minutes later the highway traffic is back to normal. I check for oil leaks and the tire pressure and I’m on my way. Soon after I get off the bypass I take D723, where (for a short period), the posted speed limit is 68 mph (110 km/h) and the bike is like a fish in the water. I venture to 120 km/h to see what happens, and all is well.

A few short miles and I’m on a two-lane road and back to 55 mph max speed. Things are sedentary, but I’m enjoying the scenery at the slower pace. On the other side of Vue, the road gets interesting. I’m alone going through some nice curves, the road is in great condition, and I am savoring going around these turns at a “normal” speed—it’s like the bike and I are dancing.

I stop at Paimboeuf for an oil leak check and a coffee at the Lighthouse Café. I’m at the river’s edge and before leaving I take some photos. Back on the road I continue to travel at a leisure clip, absorbing the landscape. I can see a big refinery on the other side of the river, and a huge “Eolien,” one of those wind powered generators. This one is experimental; the tallest in the world, and said to be a marvel of technology, but it ruins the scenery.

Day Trip to Saint Nazaire, FranceAs I close in on the river’s mouth, the wind blows hard, and my riding position changes to compensate for the cross wind, but the motorcycle feels solid and tracks well. Before getting on the bridge, I stop at Saint Brevin for another coffee. I take more photos and admire the surroundings. I can see the sea, and somewhere out there, not far away, is a buoy marking the spot where the RMS Lancastria lies. The Lancastria was a British liner that set sail on June 17th, 1940, loaded with more than 6,000 souls escaping the Nazi advance. The Germans saw it and bombarded it despite the efforts of some Royal Air Force Hurricane fighters that tried to intercept. The ship sunk fast. Only 2,500 people were saved. Churchill kept it a secret to protect the morale, as the loss of life was far worse than in the sinking of the Titanic with some 4,000 lives lost.

I make a mental note of the wind before embarking over the bridge, it’s 224 feet high and more than two miles long. It is a piece of cake, the bike rises to the challenge and lets me enjoy the ride—in no time I’m entering the port of Saint Nazaire.

I know this area well. I take little backroads and end up alongside the Russian helicopter carrier Sevastopol, where I park to shoot some pictures. This ship was built by the French for the Russian Navy, its delivery being on hold due to the current political problems in Ukraine. I cross the dry dock and take some more photos. This is the “Forme Joubert,” the dry dock where Operation Chariot took place, a successful British mission to block the largest European dry dock of WWII.

From there I go to the south part of the submarine base where the French diesel-electric submarine “Espadon” (swordfish) is on display inside a bunker. It’s closed, but I take a shot of the entrance, then I go down to the water’s edge on the south side of the German submarine pens for some more photos and investigating.

Next I ride around to the other side, where the city starts. There’s a restaurant inside one of the bunkers, and I get to park my bike under the enormous roof, the Savage has never been safer. I take a coffee and then ride to the waterfront. This part of the city is beautiful, showing the elegance of another era. I stop in front of the Monument to the American Soldier, and then resume the ride to a waterfront café that has lawn chairs for its customers. I eat there and relax for a good while before planning my return.

On the way back I continue to explore around the submarine base entrance. There are little drawbridges and the rests of fortified gun and ammo installations. I must get to Nantes before the afternoon rush hour to avoid the massive traffic jams on the bypass. The return trip is uneventful, as the bike runs like a clock. I make one last coffee stop at Vue, and then ride straight home. When I park I’m a new man, deeply in love with my Little Red Bike. I’ll keep working on the Savage, it deserves it, but for now I have to get ready, tomorrow I have to go to work.

Text and photography by Jorge Picabea


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