The phrase “a dream come true” sounds cliche and trite when used to describe a vacation, but it’s completely on target in this case.
I’ve always wanted to go riding in Europe and the opportunity unexpectedly fell right into my lap recently.
The Genesis of the Plan
A few months ago a couple of friends of mine from Norway won a week-long vacation in Saint Raphael, France! St Raphael is a beautiful small city situated on the Mediterranean coast, about 45 minutes southwest of Nice.
The villa they would be staying at could easily accommodate more than just the two of them and they were generous enough to invite my wife and me to join them.
Free lodging on the Cote D’Azur? A European paradise with perfect weather every day? How could I say no?
Riders Gotta Ride
I think you can guess what the next thought was that crossed my mind: How can I somehow fit in some motorcycle riding… without utterly monopolizing the vacation with bike stuff?
I reached out via email to a motorcycle rental company in Nice called Motorbike Trip Rental. Vincent promptly answered my inquiry (in English) and responded to all my questions and concerns. Here are a few significant ones I asked along with his answer:
What kind of bikes could I pick from and where I could go with it?
Cruisers, Adventure, Naked sport bikes and full-on Touring models. They provide panniers and a tour pack if you want them too.
Did I need an international driver license or would my Canadian one suffice?
My Canadian driver’s license was good enough on its own.
Where could I pick up and drop off the bike?
They have locations in Nice, Cannes, Paris and all over Europe! Pickup at one, drop off at another.
Did they offer suggestions on where to ride, or guided and unguided tours?
They offer both guided and unguided tours tailor-made to your schedule and were happy to suggest routes/attractions.
I told Vincent that I’d never been to Europe before, let alone ridden there, but that I would LOVE to be on a European bike if possible. It only seemed right. That definitely wasn’t an issue since they have a good selection of BMW and Ducati rides to choose from.
I was leaning towards an R1200GS or RS since I wanted to do most of the trip with my wife on the back, but Vincent hooked me right away when he mentioned they had just gotten a brand new 2019 Ducati Multistrada 1260 S.
It was mine if I wanted it! I’ve tried many different motorcycles over my 30 years of riding, but never a Ducati to this point.
I told him to hold the ‘strada for me. Booyah!
Quid Pro Quo
Vincent agreed to provide me use of the Multistrada for a few days in exchange for writing a piece on the experience here. I’m happy to share that the experience was excellent and I can’t thank him and his staff enough.
If you’re planning to do some riding just about anywhere in Europe I would strongly suggest you check to see if Motorbike Trip Rental has a location to use there first.
All The Gear All The Time
I wasn’t keen on packing two helmets and riding gear along on the 11-hour flight from Calgary to Nice (with a stop in Amsterdam) looming large ahead of us.
No problem, since Vincent made two good quality Scott jackets and two new HJC C90 helmets available to me. That only left packing pants, boots, and gloves for us.
These HJC lids wouldn’t be the luxurious Shoei or AGV helmets I’ve grown accustomed to wearing but should do the trick.
No Sleep For You
The flight across the Atlantic was supposed to be my time to make sure I got some sleep. I wanted to be fresh when we landed in Nice so that I could feel lively and attentive when I hopped onto the Ducati.
Two or three babies and a plane full of people with smokers’ coughs limited me to about 3 hours total. Luckily The anticipation had me running on full adrenaline and I felt completely ready to ride when I walked through the doors at Motorbike Trip in Nice.
Siesta Time In France?
Vincent warned me beforehand that the shop would be closed from 12:30 until 2:30, but didn’t say why. It wasn’t until I got to Nice at 12:40 thanks to a delayed flight in Amsterdam that I realized this was something similar to the two-hour siesta that I’d heard about goes on in Spain.
Most of the shops and businesses were closed during this period in the area. So I had to explore a bit to kill time while waiting for them to open up again before I could retrieve the Multistrada.
Nice is So… Uhh… Nice!
Nice’s earth-toned, stylistic architecture, brilliant sunshine, azure blue sky, and calm Mediterranean shoreline immediately woke my senses.
The people were all friendly, soft-spoken and accommodating whether you spoke English, poor French or anything else. It reminded me a lot of southern California but more laid back and elegantly poised as opposed to that cool, SoCal swagger.
I was immediately smitten even without sampling any of the world-class cuisines and pastries found here.
Once 14:30 finally rolled around I was able at last to go pick up the bike.
Thierry, the gentleman I encountered at the Nice location spoke English very well but still gave me the opportunity to break out my Canadian French and try it out on him.
It had been many years since I had spoken more than a few sentences in my second language and I was quite rusty. There would be plenty of time to work on it over the next 5 days.
The steel grey colored Multistrada 1260S was sitting in the showroom in all its bold, Italian glory. The styling of the body lines is smooth while the “face” on the front is tough and hawkish looking thanks to an aggressively pointed beak. Read my detailed review of the 2019 Multistrada 1260 S for all the details.
I’m beyond excited to hit the road already, and that feeling only intensifies during Thierry’s explanation of the bike’s features and controls.
France’s Motorcycle Rules
Thierry opened the trunk behind the passenger seat to show me the insurance and registration papers that must be carried with the bike along with some other things.
One of them was a fluorescent yellow vest with reflective striping. I looked at him and grinned. He knew I was thinking about the “gilets jaunes” or yellow vest protester movement without saying it and he quickly explained I need to wear it if the bike were to break down on the side of the road rather than in an attempt to start another French revolution.
He further explained each vehicle is also supposed to have a few road triangle pylons with them to use for breakdowns as well, but that he hadn’t included them because there was so little chance of the Ducati quitting on me.
It was brand new! This sounded like he was tempting fate and I cringed. That’s a lot more confidence than I had at the moment seeing as I’d never spent any time with these Italian bikes. I’ll trust him I guess.
There was also a strong Oxford locking “chain” in the trunk and Thierry urged me to always lock it up because motorcycle theft is very common in France, unfortunately.
Thierry then showed me a map of the outlying area on the wall with several self-guided tours highlighted in different colors.
The common theme I noticed amongst the choices was none of the roads looked straight. Every one of them appeared to have been built by a knee-dragging enthusiast. If it looked good on the map, I reasoned they would be even better in person.
I Need Navigation
Anyone who has ridden with me knows I don’t like to pay attention to where I’m going. I often miss turns, off-ramps and generally lose myself in the technique of piloting the motorcycle instead of sticking to travel plans.
This is more pronounced when there’s beautiful scenery in a foreign land involved, so I desperately needed GPS to guide me in France. Even when I have navigation I don’t always get along with it.
The Multistrada’s display was easy to link to my iPhone, but since I didn’t have Sena with me to whisper soothing directions in my ear, Thierry risked angering the motorcycle Gods by installing a BMW GPS system on the Ducati.
I appreciated this because my cell phone plan only included 100 Mb of data daily while roaming and I haven’t yet found an offline map system I like. Yeah, yeah, I know there are good options out there – including Google Maps – but I’m a bit old school yet.
Time To Hit The Road
During the walkthrough of the Ducati with Thierry, I noticed the hazard lights were on and asked him about it. When I tried turning them off nothing happened and we found a wire had fallen out of the left handlebar control housing.
Not to worry though as he and Laurent had it repaired and put back together again in 20 minutes. I’m happy to say it never bothered me again over the 740 km (460 miles) I chalked up the rest of the trip.
My wife and two friends jumped in a car for the drive to St Raphael where we would be staying while I decided to get to know my Italian mistress one on one.
I punched in the address after switching the language settings on the GPS to English and fought hard the desire to pop a wheelie taking off from the rental shop.
Welcome to Riding in France
My senses are overwhelmed at this point.
All the new sights, smells, types of vehicles, street signs and architecture assault me, but I’m drinking it all it. I’m instantly loving riding in France!
It’s everything I hoped it would be and all I’ve done is cruise about 3 miles while missing the first three turns I should have taken according to my GPS. I’m wandering aimlessly but enjoying it immensely!
Hey, I’m on vacation! I’m in no hurry here.
Lane Filtering & Splitting
I admit my research into the driving laws here wasn’t… how do I put this? Thorough. Truthfully all I did was look up whether or not lane splitting was legal(it’s not officially legal per se, but everyone does it regardless) and I decided the rest I would just emulate by observing the local behavior.
I may not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but one thing I do well is adapt to a changing environment, so here we go! Let’s hope I survive this.
Man do they ever lane split and filter here! California is where I learned how to do it just two months before, but the roads here are literally half the width of those in North America with some oddly shaped meridians and dividers tossed in randomly to dodge.
At every intersection, the gaps between lanes are instantly filled with bikes in an efficient and organized manner, but the cars and trucks aren’t moving over slightly to make more room the way many did in California.
They can’t even if they want to, the roads are too narrow. Space is at a premium in general whether it comes to roads or real estate here. At the same time, they aren’t actively looking to cut off bikes thankfully. It’s organized chaos incarnate.
A Different Level of Skill
When traffic piles up and there’s no option to filter I even notice bikes cut out into oncoming traffic to get around the jams! It’s not just a few brash individuals doing this either, it’s EVERYBODY!
It’s not unusual to see 4 bikes/scooters in a row straddling the centerline of the road, even cheating out to claim the tire groove closest to the dividing borderline as their own. I actually laugh out loud in my helmet seeing this.
Motorcycling here is for the brave and skilled. There’s no room for error driving this way or you end up a road pizza. The Nice riders are making these moves like its elementary level stuff without fear.
It became clear to me later when I got out on the mountain roads these riders are terrific at cornering and anticipating traffic movement and road obstacles.
I daresay they’re better than we are on the other side of the Atlantic partly because they ride every day of the year. It’s a sink or swim environment to develop in that produces elite level riding talent.
Well, when in Rome… (or Nice) make like the Nissant do, right? I join in and ride as they do successfully. It’s really fun, but I can’t help feeling like I’m seconds away from being pulled over by a police officer.
Hordes of scooters and motorcycles are flying around with many of the riders being women dressed in skirts to my surprise. They’re dressed to the nines but not necessarily for the slide, unfortunately.
Helmets are worn by everyone here, but I’m not seeing a lot of ATGATT.
Larger scooters with double front wheels are abundant and they’ve got Akrapovic exhaust systems equipped to yield a more aggressive voice. I looked for the equivalent of a French “loud pipes save lives” sticker on the scooters but never did spot any.
I’ve Got This
Whilst digesting all this I passed by a playground and an errant soccer ball flew out onto the road in front of me complete with a young French soccer player chasing it!
The Ducati was more than up to that challenge and I swerved around this first road obstacle with ease. France had made her point already though. It was time to focus and get going to St Raphael to meet up with my wife and friends.
The Autoroute 8 Mistake
The good thing about GPS is that it gets you where you’re going with as little pain on the rider’s part as possible. The bad part is that unless you filter out undesirable circumstances you might get them.
This area is primarily covered by narrow and curvy roads full of traffic, which makes traveling even just 100 miles extremely time-consuming if you’re in a hurry. My GPS decided to send me to Saint Raphael the fastest way via the Autoroute 8 toll road.
This is a typical highway built like you’d find anywhere in North America. Generally straight, wide and flat… very boring and you have to stop and pay every so often.
I enjoyed stretching the Ducati’s legs out on the highway, especially after someone flew by me on what I think was a GSXR1000. I caught up and experienced how the Ducati had no real problem keeping up with sportbikes at that time.
About halfway along I came to the actual toll station which was unmanned and I had about a dozen different lanes with different symbols above them.
Looking back I really should have just picked the one with a motorcycle on the sign. I did that the rest of the trip whenever I used the A8, but not this first time because I was still following the Gixxer and he went over to a lane with a funny letter/symbol over it that resembled what I think the offspring of an exclamation point and the letter “i” would look like.
He went through almost without stopping and I wondered whether motorcycles didn’t have to pay as cars do. Some sort of environmental or green incentive perhaps?
I tried following the bike through but the gate wouldn’t open for me. At that point, I realized it must be a prepaid lane of some sort and I knew I had a problem. Getting out of here would require me to backpedal about 60 feet on a bike I wasn’t familiar with and REALLY didn’t want to drop.
I Like This Bike
Luckily there wasn’t a lineup of cars behind me and the Ducati showed me at that moment one of the reasons people love them so much. It felt stable and much lighter than it was during that awkward waddle backward and out of the prepaid toll lane.
As a vertically challenged rider, this moment will forever stand out in my mind because that maneuver on many other bikes would have required me to dismount and look like a total tool instead of just a clueless tourist.
Live and learn I guess. The payment machines accepted my Canadian Mastercard for the 3 or 4 Euros required and I scampered “home” to Saint Raphael to meet up with my wife and friends. Ego a bit bruised, but no harm done.
Tomorrow will be the start of great fun as we explore some of the suggested roads and attractions Thierry and Laurent had touted as can’t miss motorcycling destinations in the area.
Our Three Main Rides
There were so many places we could have gone; Italy, Spain, Monaco… it was tempting to try going everywhere to see everything! We had to reign ourselves in and decide what destinations were the most appealing. In the end, we decided not to leave France to better savor its charms and save the rest of Europe for another time.
With Thierry’s help, we managed to choose three days’ worth of travel but didn’t manage to complete any of the routes he suggested. That’s not to say we didn’t want to, but the failure reflects our instant love affair with the scenery, food, and people encountered along the way.
In my mind, travel is more about stopping to smell the roses along the journey than anything else.
The First Day: Saint Raphael to Castellane and Moustiers Sainte Marie
The Route: Ride from St. Raphael to Castellane for a look, then finish at Moustiers Sainte Anne with a visit to the Gorges Verdon (France’s Grand Canyon) and Lac de Sainte-Croix (a large lake). The return trip would loop back around the north side of the lake before heading southeast and back home.
This mountain and canyon themed ride through the French Alps surpass any I’ve been down to date when it comes to narrow, twisty sections framed by natural beauty.
Yes that is a notch carved out of the cliff wall just big enough for bikes and cars to get by.
I purposely programmed my GPS to avoid highways like the A8 this time so the ride from St Raphael to Castellane was rife with switchbacks, hairpin turns, tight loops and even some long straightaways thrown in just for a break from the twisties!
This looks like a one-way street due to the lack of width, but it’s a two-way road!
I passed through agricultural neighborhoods, ancient villages and abandoned towns in ruins along the way.
Castellane has this prominent peak right at the entrance to it.
The photo opportunities were so plentiful I wanted to stop every 15 minutes, but couldn’t safely due to the lack of a shoulder on any of the roads.
I basically had to wait until a pull-out or town appeared in order to snap some pics to preserve the memories.
Because of that, the best views are only saved in my mind’s eye as instead of my FaceBook page. All the same check out these beauties!
Castellane, the Gorges of Verdon and Moustiers de Sainte Marie were like something from a fairy tale or Disney production. Totally surreal. Staring at the photos now that I’m home I’m still awed.
The French Grand Canyon aka Gorges de Verdon
This can’t be real!
We supped that evening in Moustiers at an Italian restaurant overlooking a lush valley full of vineyards and other picturesque farms.
These two photos of Moustiers aren’t filtered or tampered with one bit! This is real not a movie set!!
We were WAY behind schedule because it had been irresistible not to stop and explore an hour or two in several locations before getting to Moustiers.
No one cared about that. Time well wasted with just the right mix of saddle time with my Italian steed mixed in to satiate my motorcycle addiction.
The ride home was in the dark down similarly narrow, twisty roads except this time there were deer, raccoons and other critters running across them in front of me along the way.
I also nearly ran out of gas too and learned out of necessity that French gas station pumps work even when the shop itself is closed if you pay by credit card! Lucky for me.
The Second Day: Saint Raphael to Îles d’Hyères
The Route: Looking to mix things up after a day in the mountains our next route was mainly coastal winding southwest from St Raphael through the famous town of St Tropez then a ferry ride out to the island of Hyères.
We had such a great time the day before that lasted into the wee hours of the next day we slept in and got a late start afternoon.
The coastal views on this day were lovely and like something out of a painting come to life! It’s easy to see why this is called the Cote D’Azur (The Blue Coast).
The waves and crashing surf were soothing to gaze at despite some fairly heavy traffic in St Tropez we encountered.
We skipped stopping there for a visit because of the congestion and late start.
The roads after Tropez were like a rider’s dream! Elevation changes and directional loop de loops were non stop.
The road left the coast for some time and we found ourselves on the king of twisty mountain roads. The Ducati was up to the challenge and we attacked it together with great enthusiasm.
After a time we came up behind large trucks and buses running along the same road!
Many times the rear wheels on these trucks and buses left the asphalt partially since there wasn’t any shoulder to travel on beyond the edge of the tarmac.
Watching those tires suspended dangerously in the air above a steep drop was terrifying and exhilarating all at once. Full credit to the driver’s skill from me as I can’t imagine piloting a huge vehicle on that road.
We arrived in Hyères late that afternoon at the port where the ferries board. At this point we reluctantly decided to skip the island in favor of exploring the Hyères beachfront instead then to dine on delicious fresh seafood before returning to St. Raphael by an equally winding road.
The Tour Fondue is a tough-looking fort built originally in 1634 on a rocky outcrop at the end of Hyères.
It was destroyed by British forces hundreds of years ago, but then rebuilt afterward presumably in a better way.
Our time here also presented an opportunity to interact with the Mediterranean Sea.
None of us had the urge to go for an actual swim, but there’s little more calming than watching wave after wave roll in and crash down on the sandy shoreline.
Now these boots were here and again proved their waterproof claims true in another “ocean” if you will.
We’ll have to return someday to see the beauty of the island, but it will have to wait on this trip. We have other places to see instead.
The Last Ride In France: St Raphael to Grasse to Cannes
Our last day with the lovely Ducati was very memorable.
My plan was to ride the coast again but this time heading northeast to Grasse for a day visit.
Cannes would be the end of the line where sadly the Ducati would have to be returned at the Motorbike Trip Rental location there because the one in Nice was closed on Saturdays.
This ride northeast along the coast was elevated about 100 feet in contrast to the southwest route from the day before.
Large, rusty-reddish-brown rock cliffs came into view not long after leaving St Raphael and we had to stop to enjoy the panoramic view and explore a bit.
I really loved being on the bike for this route as several towns passed us by with their pristine architecture and old-world charm.
Not long after the cliffs, we reached the famous city, Grasse. It has a special ambiance to it I hadn’t noticed in Nice, St Raphael or the other towns we’d visited up to that point.
Grasse is a treat for the eyes and especially the olfactory receptors!
This region is known prominently for the high-end perfume industry it’s home to and I was a man on a perfume-related mission here.
Back in the early 1970s, my father lived here for a short time while he was still courting his future spouse and my Mother.
While in Grasse he bought some “solid perfume” to bring back to her as a souvenir. It comes in small tin containers that resemble certain chapstick ones as you can see in the photo below.
Its mild scent was a big hit with mom back then, but she could never seem to find more of it back here in Canada after eventually running out.
It didn’t take me too long to locate and buy it after inquiring with a couple of Fragonard staff members. If felt good knowing I’d be bringing something back for my Mom she’d missed having over 40 years.
Gelato and charcuterie were next up on the agenda.
I’m sure you can tell by the faces in this photo just how delicious the gelato was. I’m a big fan of ice cream, but this was so creamy and light to eat I forgot all about Dairy Queen blizzards that day.
I’ll take this gelato instead, anytime.
What began with us innocently wanting to have a small sample of the charcuterie specialty foods like olives, cured meats and various cheeses transformed into a full-blown meal for 4!
The only thing I didn’t love eating on this platter was the Pâté de Foie Gras (ground up liver mixed with various other ingredients). I’m not a fan of liver in general though.
In the photo above you see me using a traditional French knife made by a company called Opinel to pit an olive. Yes I know there’s a better way to do this, but I’m posing for the photo with the knife more than I’m actually pitting the olive. You got me.
These knives are still carried by many people and used to carve up meat, cheese, and bread for their lunches. My Dad told me about this interesting cultural behavior and I bought one of these knives for myself, my Dad and my son to bring home to them. The best kind of souvenir to me is a practical one.
History rich and incredibly photogenic, Grasse didn’t disappoint one bit, but as they day wore on it was high time to head for Cannes.
The Motorbike Trip Rental location in Cannes sits directly across from a major train station.
This is really convenient if you fly into Nice Airport. You can easily go from there directly to the train station and ride to Cannes where you can pick up a rental motorcycle to enjoy the area on two wheels. Vice versa for when you’re done and heading back home.
Cannes was the only place I didn’t enjoy riding the Ducati because of the heavy traffic and confusing streets.
I was getting tired from all the exploring we had done that day and on others when we weren’t on the bike.
The city was still enjoyable on foot and there’s no denying the beauty and culture displayed there is rich.
This is the same city where they host the world-famous Film Festival.
I pulled up to the shop and parked the Multistrada for the last time before handing over the keyfob to Philippe, the MotorBike Trip store manager in Cannes.
He was equally skilled in speaking English as they were at the Nice location. As planned we there bid farewell to the Multistrada which had carried us without any problems over hundreds of kilometers of France’s roads.
I’m very smitten with it and put it on my list of top ten motorcycles I’ve ridden to this point. That combination of performance, comfort, and attitude don’t play second fiddle to many machines on the road today.
My only regret this whole trip was that it had to end.
Some Firsts Were Had
I enjoyed so many different first times and checked off a few bucket list items while there and I wasn’t the only one. Just look at the grin on my friend Claudia’s face in the photo below.
She’d never been on a motorcycle before in her life before trusting me with the honor of initiating her to our wonderful sport and hobby.
The Motorcycle Effect
I don’t have to tell any of you reading this how much better motorcycles make a trip, but in Europe, it’s the only way to go.
If we had been driving a car instead I think we might still be sitting there waiting to see the sights, meet the people and eat the food. The bike made getting around child’s play and I wouldn’t dream of substituting it for four wheels next time.
Yes, the bike made this trip at least twice as fun as it would have been otherwise. I’ll always remember this one as a stand out vacation because of it and the near-perfect weather we had ranging from a comfortable low of 12 Celsius (53F) up to a high of 28 Celsius (83 F).
If you would also like to experience some of what we did in the Riviera or elsewhere in Europe, I encourage you to contact MotorBike Trip Rental by phone or email. Visit their website contact page for the details needed to do that.
I want to do this again! Perhaps in Italy, Spain or on one of their Corsica tours. Next time I’ll ride a BMW R1250GS to see how it compares to the Ducati.
Thank you again, Vincent! This was an unforgettable experience made so much better by you and your staff.