One of the greatest pleasures of motorcycle touring can be the food you find on the way. Whether it's a 'repas' in France, a curry in southern India, a bit of venison in an English pub, mezedes in Greece, sushi in southern California, or tapas in Spain, it always tastes better after a good ride.
The same goes for a drink: fresh lime soda in India, beer in Belgium or Britain, a kir in France, a tiny glass of bagaceira in Portugal, coffee almost anywhere except Britain and the United States (they're both getting better, but the British use instant coffee too much and the Americans make it too weak).
Admittedly, there are exceptions, especially when it comes to food. Gehackte Schweinfleisch in rural Germany was even worse than it sounded. Not only was it hacked (minced) swineflesh (pork): it was also greasy and over-salted but otherwise under- seasoned. The only accompaniment was plain, but once again over- salted, boiled potatoes. Yum! Then there was the bar in California that was so dark after the brilliant Californian sun that I was falling over the furniture on the way in, before I'd ever had a drink. If you can call most American maltade a drink. Being used to German-style 'Reinheitsgebot' beer, made with water, malt, hops, yeast and nothing else, I find that I can get a hangover from American beer (which also incorporates rice and maize) before I get drunk.
This is as good a place to bring up this subject as any. When I wrote the original Motorcycle Touring in Europe in the early 1980s, the 'born-again' biker was far less common than he is today. A depressing number of 'born-agains' can wipe themselves out fast enough when stone-cold sober, trying to handle a bike that's too powerful for them.
In those days, though, there were far more riders of the old 'rocker' or 'greaser' school, the ones who were (let's be frank) totally and cheerfully irresponsible about drinking and riding. I've seen people ride (and get home, without hurting themselves or anyone else) when they were too drunk to stand up -- though I also know one guy who spent three days off work as a result of trying to start his motorcycle, and falling off with the bike on top of him, in the car park, without ever getting it started. Going back to those days, twenty and thirty years ago, I don't ever recall falling off because I was drunk, and I don't think that's because I was too drunk to remember. It's just that I rode pretty damn' carefully when I was drunk. Then again, there were times that I pushed the bike three miles home because I'd had too much to drink to risk riding it, and one of my dearest friends (a Hell's Angel at the time) tells a wonderful story of doing the same thing and being asked by a policeman who knew him of old, "What's the matter, John, bike broken down?" He replied, "No, officer, I'm too drunk to ride it, so I thought I'd be safer pushing it." Theoretically, they can nick you for 'being in charge' of a vehicle when intoxicated, but unless you're really offensive, most coppers aren't that stupid, especially when dealing with the local Hell's Angels. Or at least, they weren't in those days.
Obviously, we live in a different world nowadays. Equally obviously, it is much safer never to mix booze and riding. But I've got enough greasy old friends, and the habits of an ancient rocker are too ingrained in me, to say that you should never touch a single drop if you are going to ride. You will not necessarily die immediately and horribly if you drink and ride, though the more you drink, the better your chances are of falling off and hurting (or perhaps killing) yourself and other people -- possibly immediately and horribly.
Thus, my decision to list country-by-country blood alcohol limits in the original book -- which one American reviewer thought amounted to an 'obsession' -- was actually a safety measure. I took it for granted that most of my readers were at least likely to mix drink and riding, and I reckoned that giving actual numbers might bring things home a bit more.
It's all too easy to forget that the laws in another country may well be taken every bit as seriously as they are at home, though that's not necessarily terribly seriously. In my native Cornwall, if two old farmers have a slight coming-together as they drive home from the pub, the traditional line is to survey the damage and say, "Well, we'm both insured with the Farmers' Union, so let's forget about it, eh?"
If you disapprove of my attitude, I can't say I blame you. But there's no point in pretending. I am what I am, and I have been for a long time, and a lot of my friends are the same way. It has killed very few of us, so it can't be as dangerous as they say. Even so, we all drink a lot less than we used to, at least before we set out on the bike.
These are properly a subject for the country-by-country sections, but there are a few points worth making here.
The first is that it can be hard to find snacks in foreign countries. This isn't because they don't exist: it's because you don't know where to look. English riders may be amused that I have been asked by more than one American, "Is it safe to go into pubs?" They have been doubly nonplussed when I have pointed out that if you don't, you may have some difficulty in getting a light meal, unless you go to a really cheap and nasty 'greasy spoon' and drink sweet tea or instant coffee with it.
But equally, a Briton shouldn't expect to find food in American bars, which are mostly dark, gloomy places where you go to get drunk. Americans do fast food very well, if you like lots of grease and salt and don't want a drink with your meal. Finding a light meal with a glass of beer can be a lot more difficult, and a cheap(ish) restaurant is likely to be a far better bet.
Second, it is quite common for European restaurants -- even good ones -- to post their menus outside. If they don't, it generally means that they are either very cheap, or very expensive. It is rarely hard to guess which. In India, on the other hand, menus are almost never posted outside.
Third, look out for the price of wine. You can pay anything from two and a half euros or so to nine euros or even more for a litre carafe of house wine (call it three bucks to ten, or thirty bob to six quid) -- and you won't necessarily get better wine for nine euros than you will for three. After the carafe, jug or pichet (the French for 'pitcher'), the next cheapest is usually a bottled house wine (again, with the same price range, or maybe a euro or two more at both ends of the scale) and after that you're into the wine list proper.
In India, the wine in restaurants is generally dreadful, although it is improving. Drink beer instead: there are some really amazing beers in India, all lager style, but still very good. If you can get it, Indian sparkling wine can be surprisingly good too. Or stay off the booze and go for fresh lime soda: fizzy water with fresh lime juice. You can order it plain (as we always do), or with sugar (many people find it too sharp without) or with salt (surprisingly popular, though we have never acquired the taste).
Fourth, the hours at which people eat are different. The Spanish are perhaps the most extreme case in Europe. You go into a Spanish restaurant at maybe nine thirty in the evening, hoping you are not too late, and it is all but deserted. This not because they are about to close: far from it. Their other customers will start to drift in later, and by eleven, they are in full swing. The opposite extreme that we have encountered is in rural Pennsylvania in the United States, where breakfast may be served as early as 5 am, lunch starts at 11:00 or even earlier, and dinner may be over by 7 o'clock in the evening.
Fifth, the meals they eat are different. If you define 'dinner' as the main meal of the day, it may be eaten around noon (as it often is in French cafe-restaurants catering to the working man) or at eleven at night (Spain again). The Frenchman may well eat a fairly light supper, while the Spaniard will have a rather lighter lunch -- unless he goes for a big dinner at noon instead.
Sixth, remember that in any country in the world, restaurant prices can vary very widely indeed, and the quality of the food you get bears no very close relationship to what you pay. You may be able to find substantially identical food in two restaurants a few hundred yards apart, at prices that differ by a factor of two. The cheaper place may well be better. Likewise, you will normally (but far from invariably) find better value out in the country than you will in the city. This does not necessarily mean that the food is better in the country -- the finest Parisian restaurants are second to none, for example -- but it does mean that you stand a better chance of getting a good or even memorable meal at a modest price in the country.
Whether a restaurant is crowded or not is far from an infallible guide to its quality -- we have eaten in some very indifferent, but very crowded 'relais routiers' (transport caffs, truck stops) in France -- but it's a lot better than nothing. If there are four restaurants in a village, and one is crowded, there's probably a good reason why. Remember to take the popular hours for eating into account, though.
The first thing to realize about picnics is that they are not necessarily all that much cheaper than a cheap meal in a restaurant, unless they are very simple indeed. We commonly spend 15 euros or more on bread, wine, mineral water, cheese, cold meat, etc., especially if we buy in small local shops instead of in a supermarket. In most of rural France you can get a good fixed-price meal for two people, with anything from three to five courses, and quite possibly with wine included, for 19 to 21 euros (US $20-23, GBP 15 or so). Remember too that a picnic won't warm you up in the way that a hot meal will: irrelevant in the summer (unless it's a really bad summer) but quite possibly important in spring and autumn and possibly decisive in winter.
On the other hand, there is a very great deal to be said for riding the bike up a bumpy track; spreading your waterproofs out as a ground-sheet; and enjoying a picnic that consists of a loaf of the local bread, a chunk of the local cheese, a bottle of the local wine, and a bottle of mineral water. Then you laze for a little while to soak up the sun, let the food sink in and the wine evaporate, and trundle on.
A picnic can also be quicker, if you don't want to stop too long for a lunch, and lighter. I tend to go to sleep on a full stomach, which can be inconvenient if you are planning on riding another 200 miles after lunch. Then, a handful of nuts, a piece of fruit (or a few cherries, or whatever) and some mineral water need only occupy a few minutes, and you'll feel better both for the break and the sustenance.
We tend to buy our picnics at a mixture of specialist shops and supermarkets: the specialist shops for the bread, cold meat and treats, and the supermarkets for the nuts, wine, water, butter (if needed) and other stuff. The price differences can be impressive: less than a euro and a half for a bottle of cheap but perfectly drinkable wine in a supermarket, versus three euros or more for the cheapest bottle you can buy in a specialty shop.
The supermarkets need not be big ones -- 'mini-supermarkets' and self-service stores are only a fraction more expensive than most supermarkets -- but the savings will be there.
As noted elsewhere on the site, we carry a light mesh back-pack -- it's actually designed for American students to carry their books -- to carry our picnics. It folds away to almost nothing and is also useful for picking up maps at tourist offices or even carrying cameras. Carrying food for a picnic is the only time we use a back-pack on the bike, and I go very slowly indeed until we find somewhere to eat.
When you are buying for a picnic, it's all too easy to buy too much food, especially cheese, or at least I find it so: "eyes bigger than tummy" as my grandmother used to say. It's hard to throw away good food (to say nothing of pouring away the last quarter-bottle of wine because you either don't want it or know you shouldn't drink it) but if you can, it's as well to steel yourself to do so. The problem is that a cheese that is delicious at lunch-time is likely to be a lot less attractive when it has been on the back of a hot motorcycle all day, and the same is even more true of wine.
We now stop a lot more often at bars and cafes (and cafe-bars) than we used to. Partly this is because we are (very slightly) richer; partly because we are (quite a bit) older; partly because it's a convenient way to stop for a pee (maybe that's part of getting older too); but mainly it's because it is nothing like as expensive as we had always feared, and it makes for a great pick- me-up. It's not just the refreshment: it's a little break as well, so we can ride further without getting as tired.
Again, rural cafe-bars tend to be a lot cheaper, especially in less touristed areas. In Portugal in 2003, the least we were charged for a coffee and a glass of bagaceira (the Portuguese equivalent of the French marc or the Italian grappa) was 90 centimes: about a dollar, or 65p. That was for both the coffee and the bagaceira, in Vinais in the north of the country. The most we were charged, for exactly the same thing, but in the more touristy south, was 2.50 euros -- nearly three times as much.
Motorcycle touring in hot weather can dehydrate you very quickly indeed, and it's as well to carry water on the bike. We have found that Perrier is less disgusting than any other bottled water when you drink it hot -- and sooner or later, it is going to get hot.
Remember too to buy water for the night, unless you habitually go through the night without a sip of water. Sure, you can drink tap water in most of Europe -- where you can't, it's noted in the country-by-country guide -- but mineral water (especially Perrier again) is often a lot more pleasant.
This information has been verified as far as possible but should not be taken as definitive. You alone are responsible for your safety on a motorcycle (or elsewhere) and should always ride and behave accordingly. Click here for the Official Health Warning.
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last updated: 04/11/03
© 2003 Roger W. Hicks