Extracting ourselves from Calais was good practice for the marker system, with many roundabouts to be indicated for those following. Then on to the fast, flat roads of northern France, with their excellent visibility, bike-friendly drivers, and, this time of year, a profusion of wild flowers. By the coffee stop in a market town ("Don't all go to the same place!" John instructed) we had enough shared experiences to ensure conversation.
The second part of the morning was spent on the motorway. John had said it was 60 miles until the next petrol stop, which my bike would manage easily. However, 60 came and went and we were still going. The last bar of my petrol gauge had started flashing soon after we joined the motorway, and although I'd been going at a reasonable cruising speed to conserve fuel I was concerned enough to be very relieved when we exited the toll booths, since at least if I ran out now it would be easier to sort out.
Jen promised me it was only another two miles, and I made it, of course. There is nowhere on Earth hotter than a French petrol station at lunchtime, but another mile or so down the road we stopped in the pretty town of Saint-Quentin, with its brutalist municipal hall and many eating opportunities. Several of us selected the Golden Pub, where Howard and I shared a Bruce Lee pizza (chicken, peppers, peanuts and a raw egg).
We continued through France, past a sign advertising a cider festival and car boot sale (two of my favourite things, together at last) and into Belgium, whereupon the road surface deteriorated instantly to a cracked nightmare and the wide curves you could see round gave way to tight, closed bends. The landscape went from flat farmland to wooded hills, and we climbed into welcome cooler air. Early evening found us in the town of Bouillon, which I wanted to be famous for its soup but I don't think was. Up a narrow, winding road and down into the gravel car park of the aptly named Hotel Panorama.
"Have we ever stayed in a four-star hotel before?" Howard asked me, awed by the views from our window and the constellation of LED lights over the bed. (Yes, when they're cheap on hotels.com, is the answer.) There was just time to enjoy the view over a drink before retiring to two enormous tables in the dining-room for a set menu and a dissection of the day's adventures. Then, more panorama, now dark and glittering, before turning in.
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