Final Blog – Coming home

The last two days of our trip passed in a blur of fields and trees.  Steep-rooved houses, criss-crossed Tudor beams are either clustered into towns, or spaced out like candles on the flat landscape of a birthday cake.  The van brakes ground, or they didn’t grind, we developed an oil leak but kept topping up. The sole aim was to get home now, distance to cover in case our train pulled into the Euro Tunnel, sliding into the darkness without us.

And yet, like a child on Christmas day fighting tired eyes for fear of missing grown-up events, we clung to the last hours of our amazing odyssey, torn by the requirement to get back and our desire to turn around, shoot off in any other direction but home.  

From Nantes we made it to Mont Sainte-Michele, it’s tall gothic spire puncturing the sky, launching upwards from grey mud-sand of Normandy beaches.  We allowed ourselves a stop from incessant forward movement, to tread its causeway and jostle with multi-cultured faces and voices, squeezing round corners, along ramparts and up to the Abbey itself. Despite it’s apparent medieval nature (think Hogwarts- meets Lindesfarne-meets Bamburgh Castle), it’s mostly a 20thcentury fabrication.  Tiny turrets jut out at odd angles, wonky chimneys offer ledges from which pairs of seagulls squawk in protest at disturbed repose.

Then back in the van, into gear: onwards.  

Our final evening, Boulonge-sur-Mer, was an opportunity partly for reminiscences, glowing memories over a bottle of wine on a last supper out, and the transactional stuff that I’d fixed on achieving.  M, ever patient sighed as we sheltered from icy rain dashing out to the launderette machines cleaning and drying clothes and dog bedding.  In my head, it was essential to re-enter the UK without a mound of smelly washing.  

I was discombobulated, hormones not helping, but in mourning what was over I was snipey and focused on little stuff rather than seeing a bigger picture.  

Next morning, air cleared, mug of tea shared and approaching Calais, we clicked back into the sync I’d shoved us out of.  Notes were compared as miles passed:  favourite days, favourite nights out, the best of ‘this’, worst of ‘that’, things to change/avoid, do differently in future.  Would we stick with this van or make a different one? Where would we go next time?

What was clear as the road signs counted down the kilometres to our exit, was that we’ve done many journeys in the past 96 days, the least of which was the 5000+ miles. We’ve learnt what we can achieve if we decide on a course of action.  M’s confidence has grown: he had lost faith in his ability to make things, the intimidation putting him off the idea of building the camper to start with. Now he describes how he can reshape the kitchen area, estimating half a day for the work.  He’s started to write, and gets lost in his own thoughts and words, creating a narrative so different to mine, M fluid at expressing things that I find it harder to say.  

My beliefs have shifted too.  I’ve started consultancy work that I’m loving in its own right, proud also to be contributing independently and more significantly to family finances, outside of the guesthouse.  I know now that we can make a new life, lots of new lives.  I have more confidence that ‘blue sky dreams’ are not in fact only suitable for the ether, they have more value and less risk attached to them than was assumed.  My determination to have us both reach for them offers real benefit, rather than folly. Just look at what we’ve done so far.

Which doesn’t at all cover my gratitude.  I am shortly in danger of being one of those gushy actresses who, hands clutching a shiny award, overstays their stage time.  But, if you’ll allow me to monopolize your attention for just a short while longer:

Thank you Mr Wilson.  You are my best friend, my enabler, trustee of the dreams, tears, heights reached, lows plumbed.  I am afforded influence, and though I’m judicial in what I push for, there are times when the adjective is simply ‘pushy’.  I’ve nudged and then oomphed you.  Thankfully, you see our adventures as good things, have loved the journey and appreciate the necessity of changes coming our way.  A lesser man might have descended into resentful irritation.  You have not.  You wake each day determined to be both cheerful and the best human that you can be.  I stand in awe of such resolution on a daily basis.

Vicks has been a stalwart supporter of this and other departures from the norm.  Her visit in the middle of the trip was precious time.  It provided opportunities to chat about subjects inconsequential and more serious. I hope she and I keep running/cycling together.  I love the space it provides, time for the two of us and our endless striving towards her ever-more-ambitious sporting goals.

Family have been wonderful.  Curators of our journey, lines of contact to speak with, eternally supportive and encouraging. We got back to the UK and stopped first with the “London Lot”.  Out came the trolley jack, copper slip, clamps.  Off came the wheels, problems identified, rectified, rolling stock restored.  M up again early on Sunday morning, hands around the brakes and their innards, supervised by Uncle Ron. Then we go North on Monday for M’s Mum’s birthday (she’ll be 82), to see my Mum, Dad and Joy, to spend time sharing the highlights, good and bad.

We’ve been blessed with friends who’ve assumed our abandoned responsibilities, sorting the cottage and caring for it’s guests, ensuring plumbing keeps flowing in the freezing weather, collecting the post and sending weekly reports that the guesthouse is still standing.  Our garage was broken into, we have pictures for the insurance company, accounts from neighbours and colleagues in the police force.  There’s a raft of kindness that we’re profoundly appreciative of, buoyed by the sense that although we sometimes feel like a separate double act, clearly we’re not and have many people to be glad for.

And, I’m grateful for all the people who’ve responded to this blog, sent messages of support, noticed our tribulations, even just affirmed their presence with a “Like’.  Each bolsters, endorses, encourages, make me fight a desire to hide or keep this exploration of the possible quiet and private.  You’ve come with me; your company has been invaluable and reassuring.

It’s going to be a roller-coaster ten months.  We’re stopping the guesthouse, which necessitates leaving it.  That’s four floors of downsizing and we’ve no idea of into what.  The guesthouse bookings are very busy, lots of guests who are valued friends and new friends to make.  Lots of decisions, weighing up, taking down, simplifying and stripping away.  

Optimism is my natural bent, I assume success and strenuously resist losing that outcome.  I have huge buckets of optimism for the future, our blue skies are liberally littered with fluffy clouds of opportunity.  All we need to do is decide where we’re looking first: North, South, East or West, and surely, that can’t be too difficult.  Can it?

And off we go… c’mon Wilson, catch up…!

Wednesday 6th March – Bordeaux to Nantes

“Ok… easy does it.”

We’re off again, avoiding motorways and tolls so that we can keep the speed down and with that, we hope, the temperature of the wheels.  

It is SLOW going.  

Taking turns to drive, we strategize that if we use deceleration (taking your foot off the gas to slow down) or the gears to reduce speed, we can minimize the amount of breaking.  

The upside of this, is that we see lots of French countryside.  Plus, it’s really flat here, so you can see for miles in all directions.  The view extends straight over the very smooth, endless fields of stunted, dormant grapevines all neatly tied back waiting for spring, to some really pretty chateaus.  The world is waking up slowly after winter; gorse bushes offer gaudy yellow splotches of yellow brightness against the green-brown landscape. They distract from the grey tree spines that are wind pushed, waving distractedly into the dark clouded skies.

The rain started overnight in Bordeaux, it sticks with us up the D137, up to Saintes, past Rochefort, still drizzling as we limp past La Rochelle.  

We take regular breaks to let the system cool and keep an eye on Stan.  He visited a lovely vet in Bordeaux this morning. It took half a pack of dog treats to get two tapeworm tablets down him.  Sometimes, I’m really embarrassed to be the owner of a Labrador whose nose needs surgically extracting from the bottom’s of better socially adjusted canines. Other times, like this morning, he does us proud.  Today, Stan was super compliant, licky-loving and generally charming and obedient in a way that suggested, he would always be that good.  Together, we got lots of approving French nods and glances.  

I’m still beaming with pride when I’m presented with the bill for our 13 minute visit to the vets.  I just want to know – is €52.40 the normal price?  Whether it is, or isn’t, we need the stamps and squiggles in the pet passport and gratefully receive our certificate (for general, good doggy-ness?) to take with us to Calais.  But friends have spoken of the devastating effect these two benign looking tablets can have on puppy-insides.  So Stan get’s lots of additional outside opportunities over the course of the day, to be on the safe side.  Plus, we keep regular checks on the van’s four corners, just in case.

One advantage of bland-ish landscapes, is that they allow the mind to wander.  Mine drifts across the weeks that we’ve had on this trip.  The challenges (mostly vehicle related), and the few tensions that have arisen between us. 

What’s come up and eventually been dealt with is our different perspectives on the need for privacy.  When M has asked for the van to himself, for using the loo/ablutions.  I’ve cleared off with Stan, often for 30 minutes, so that he’s got plenty of time to get sorted.  When I’ve asked for the same, M has either responded by saying: “It’s fine, I don’t mind” or he’s decided to employ the time usefully, by, say, cleaning all the van’s windows, from the outside, looking in.  

One day, I got decidedly tetchy and explained that it wasn’t about M’s level of discomfort, but mine.  He was genuinely surprised.  But, credit where credit is due, he took the point on board.  

In Bordeaux, he was relaxing in the warmth of the van, whilst the wind whipped up a storm outside.  I asked if I could have some space and without a word, M picked up his coat, called the dog and stepped into the maelstrom.  Some time later, I wondered where he’d got to, opened the side door and found him shivering outside.  He looked up at me with concern.  “I didn’t want to intrude…” he offered.  Ok, maybe this still needs a bit of refinement!

That’s about it though.  It’s not been a holiday.  It’s been a learning curve, an adventure, a risk, a lifestyle.  We’ve both worked whilst we’ve been away.  M has constantly been taking enquiries, bookings, sorting out the cottage, doing business admin.  I’ve had various pieces of work to do, much of it time-limited.  So, this hasn’t been a cessation from economic activity; the ability to work whilst away hasn’t impeded or spoiled the journey. If anything, it’s added a level of security.  This is what we can do whilst we’re travelling.

I pushed for this trip; I’m profoundly grateful that M let me ‘gently encourage’ him into it. We’ve learnt so much.

But today is a long, slightly anxious day.  We pull into a Park4Night site at Nantes in the dark, we’ve been driving for eight hours and have covered just 200 miles.  Urgh…

It’s still raining so we leave the brakes to sizzle in the drizzle.  There’s more of  ‘fait accomplis’ approach now.  The brakes will be fine, or they will not be fine.  Today’s drive has, thankfully, been uneventful. Tomorrow we need to make quicker progress or we’ll never reach Calais in time.  Supper is a one-pot wonder and then we watch ‘Fleabag’ that M has managed to download using patchy wifi and mobile data.  

Time’s slipping past, the hours left are rapidly disappearing…

Tuesday 5th March – Breaking News – Lourdes to Bordeaux

First – I want to say that the Britannia Roadside Assistance European Team are brilliant – I mean, fantastic, great, unfaultable.  Which is just as well.

Perhaps it’s because we’re British…

Waking up in Lourdes, we leap into action.  Well, it’s more more like a groggy: “Urgh, What time is it? Tea, I need tea before I do anything…” but we get up and sorted.  We’ve had our instructions form the Assistance Team, and need to be in Tarbes by 8am, just as the garage opens in the hope that they’ll be able to squeeze us in. 

25 miles later and the garage manager is bemused, the assistance team were great, happily explaining what we needed.  Nope.  Too busy… 

Meanwhile, the breaks on this short route from Lourdes to Tarbes are verily zinging with heat 

“You could fry an egg on that.”

“You couldn’t eat it though.”

“No, smartarse, that’s not what I meant”

Smirking feels wrong, so I turn back to the map and we ponder what to do.  The assistance people can’t tow us to Bordeaux, but have found us another garage nearby that can help; we all hope.

So, deep breath, off we go.

To Latrense, a small town outside Bordeaux, 200km away.  David (again in a french Accent, so Daveeede), our latest help from L’Assistance tells us that the garage has lunch from 12:30 – 1:30, he warns that we won’t be seen till after their midday break.  That’s fine, hope’s on the horizon, we’ll need lunch too.  

It’s super-swanky, the garage.  We’re assuming that if Old Pierre was ludicrously expensive in his dump, then this one with the colour-co-ordinated furniture, seating and floor tiles in its expansive foyer might well end up being financially crippling.  We need to be safe though.  So, we stand around and wait till the only person in this huge area gets bored of ignoring us.

Gerome, finally deigns to approach us.  This mechanic is shorter than me, both in stature and charm.  To say he doesn’t want to help, would be to falsely suggest that ‘help’ had ever been on his agenda.  He looks at us and accepts M’s handshake, rebuts my introduction and simply states:

“Come again at 2”

“Pardon?” 

“Come again at 2”

“Oh. Okay.”  

We need his help, we’re not about to argue, so scuttle off to the van, sitting for another 35 minutes to ensure we’re well over the 2pm mark before we return.  

Stephanie, the receptionist almost manages not to curl her nose in my direction (maybe I should have put more eyeliner on – these things matter in France).  When I hand her our paperwork, she quickly drops it on the desk, hopefully thereby avoiding infection.  Behind her stands the mechanic who dispatched us so efficiently half an hour ago.  It’s like your worst reception team at the GPs surgery.  The receptionist doesn’t believe you’re ill enough to deserve an appointment; the doctor doesn’t care.

I manage to explain about the brake discs (Les plaquettes de ferin), the heat, the concern.  

“Yes, yes, leave your key.”

I ask what will happen.

“There will be a diagnostic”

Okay again. 

Not feeling over-burdened with information, we take Stan for a walk, away from the industrial estate where the garage is situated and into the very lovely village.   It’s quaint, with a number of small boutiques and individual shops, restaurants and cafes.  The warm sunshine directly conflicts with the cold dread we’re both harbouring.  We’ve walked around, sat and had a drink, but after an hour know we’re just putting off the inevitable.  We’ve got to go back and find out what the results of the tests are.  Like a pair condemned we trudge back to the chrome, black and grey waiting area, so that the staff can not talk to us for another 20 minutes. 

Finally, Gerome appears and imagine our surprise…

The van is given the all clear.  The great assistance people have a technical team who speak with Gerome and they say that it is all “fine.”

We look at the van.  No hubcaps have been removed, no wheels have been taken off for inspection.  Gerome took our van for a drive, apparently… we suspect this included reversing it into the inspection area and back out again.  He still hasn’t actually made eye contact with either of us and now refuses to enter into conversation.  The phone, with the assistance-technical-person on the other end, is thrust towards M as Gerome makes a quick departure through a door marked ‘privee’.

Our hands are tied now.  The assistance people have nothing more they can do – the van’s been given the all clear. Our mechanic at home (who M rang) is as unconvinced as we are.  The fact is though, that we’ve got several hundred miles to go to get to Calais at an average speed of 50mph.   We’ll have to push on until either it is all ok, or it isn’t.

Enroute to Bordeaux, David rings again.  He is concerned about the diagnosis too and wants to make sure that we’re ok and still moving (see what I mean, these guys are lovely).  We tell him our experience and plans for the next few days.  At the end of the conversation, David gives a huge sigh.  

“I am sorreee”  he starts his sentence “I think this is just normal for France, Oui?  The garages, they are all rude.  It is not so elsewhere, mais en France…” 

David finishes with another heartfelt wordless expression.  We don’t want him to feel bad and reiterate our relief for his help.  He insists that they will call again on Saturday.  The file will remain open until we reach British shores.  One of the team (we know them all by now) will ring on Saturday afternoon to make sure we managed to cross the Channel without further mishap.  I wish I could hug these guys.  Their feedback is going to be glowing and extensive.

All of which takes us into Bordeaux, parked up on the riverbank, looking across River Gavonne as it sleepily sludges it’s way to the sea.  Our view is similar to staring at Westminster from The Thame’s South Bank, except infinitely more French.  Actually, it’s lovely.  

As the sun sets, the lights from the other side sparkle-twinkle on the viscous water, like one of those pictures from an in-flight magazine of places you’ll never have time to visit.  Stan has another run around, finds a couple of dogs to abuse by sticking his nose up their rear ends, M and I get supper at a local bar, looking on to all that prettiness.

By 9pm, the wheels are still mad hot, but they haven’t fallen off… yet.

Monday 4th March – Breaks – Break-in? – Broken

By 8am I’d got myself sorted in the corner of a local cafe whose WiFi I could surf to do my dissertation supervision sessions.  M took Stan and the Van around to Msr Pierre.  The brake pads had arrived, not in specialist Peugeot boxes as promised but more like something we could have ordered from Amazon.  Never mind…

“Come back at 12 or at 2pm, it will be done”

M called back whilst I was working and then we called back together a couple of times. Each time we passed Pierre was working on a different wheel, with just ‘the other one’ to go.  

At twelve, we’d clocked his progress and even a rudimentary knowledge of maths would tell you that 4/4 is done.  So we pulled into the forecourt to call time.  Pierre was a bit put out:

“Je dit 2pm…”

“Oui Monseigneur, mais tu es finis…”

He grumbled, flashed the card payment machine in front of M and then grabbed his keys and dashed out of his office, locking it behind him.

Oh well. It wasn’t much of a farewell, but at least our brakes were done and we could resume travelling north now.

“Right” says M, “I’ll drive the car” (he being the one who hired it) and you take the van.  Here’s the keys…”

He fumbled for a bit.  Checked all his pockets, checked the surfaces in the van, checked the ignition of the van where he’d agreed the keys would be left with Pierre…

Yup – you guessed it.  No keys. 

Pierre had by this time zoomed off in his little black Citroen C3, up the hill and away into the distance.  We examined the details we’d taken on Friday evening.  The business number could clearly be heard on the other side of the office windows.  No Pierre. No mobile number.  No keys.

We rang the lovely assistance people.  Perhaps they had another form of communication?  No.  But we agreed that surely he was just on his lunch break, he’d be back soon.  

At 1:45 we saw him.  

Hurrah! 

Ah… No… wait… 

Come back…! 

Pierre shot back down the valley.  He turned to look at his premises and clearly clocked us, but didn’t stop.

By two-fifteen, it was looking unlikely that he would EVER return.  I wandered down to the other garage in the town. They rolled their eyes at the mention of his name, exchanged meaningful glances, tired ringing his office number and emphatically (perhaps in the way that only the French can do) said they didn’t know. I wandered back.

The lovely assistance people rang us back.  They’d rung all over town: the other garage, the gendarmerie, the tourism office… no-one had a mobile number for Pierre.  It was a mystery.  

We stood outside his large office window, staring at our keys on his desk.  Would one little stone really be wrong?  Only a small break-in.  Just enough to get our keys and go, not for anything else…

Finally, finally, at three pm, he zooms onto his own forecourt in a desperate hurry. This has nothing to do with us. He asks in a “I don’t really give a shit, but you’re still here, so I’ll enquire” kind of way why we’re still hanging around.

“Tu a nos clef”  (you have our key)

“Ah. Merde” (note the lack of any apology.)

“Oui Monseigneur, Merde”  I replied, affecting a calm that I didn’t at all feel.

He looked at me sharply and I returned the stare.  No matter.  Keys in hand it was off to Pau, to drop off the hire car, see a bit of that city and head North.

The van was a bit sluggish by the time we’d done the 60km to Pau, but I didn’t mention it to M in case I was being unnecessarily alarmist.  By the time we reached Pau and decided it was no place to park for the night, and had then decamped 25 miles south to Lourdes once more, it was clear:  all was not well.

“Feel the heat coming off those brakes”

I didn’t need to.  As my hand drifted within a foot of the wheel itself, I could sense the temperature radiating from the corner of the van.  Not good.  The disc could warp or the brake fluid could burn off.  Either way, we couldn’t ask the van to do another 1000 miles to home in this condition.

We rang the lovely assistance people (again) explained the issue, that we didn’t want anything more from them, other than a recommendation of a nearby mechanic with a safe reputation.  They gave us a recommendation but also were incensed on our behalf.

“Did he apologise to you?” said the lovely Alan (pronounced with a French accent). “He did not apologise to me. he was very rude.”

Tarbes is where we’ll find the nearest reliable garage on their lists.  By now it was 18:45, the garages would all be closed.  Tomorrow they’ll use their infinitely better skills to explain our problem to the mechanics of choice.  Hopefully they’ll fit us in.  We’re on a countdown now to Saturday.  Got to be at Calais first thing.  Got to have Stan’s tapeworm done at least 24 hours beforehand.  I’ve booked a vet’s appointment at Bordeaux for Wednesday, but there’s nothing to say that we’ll be road worthy by then…

But there’s nothing we can do tonight and so little point dwelling on what-ifs.  The answer… clearly… is to go for a wander around lamp-lit Lourdes, and the grotto, light some candles and then find a bistro selling a lovely, grapefruity Sauvignon Blanc with cheese platter and bread, and imported plum pickle.  Then to wander back to the van to wait for tomorrow.   

Brakes are still broken but hey…

Supper in the Old Town at Lourdes

From a four-paw perspective – Gavarnie, France

I’m conscious that it’s been mostly me, or occasionally M doing the talking over the last nine weeks. But Stan’s been with us too.

He was a bit bored on Saturday round Lourdes, lots of slow walking on the lead, not enough running around and chasing things. Sunday, however, was a much better day spent leaping all over Gavarnie. Here it is in his own words:

“We got in the car. I get to sit in the back now, it’s better than the boot.

The drive went on forever – taking, like, TWO hours, but then we got out. 

And there was snow, and water, and hillsides, and paths, and other dogs. Then there was a long walk off the lead. I found a stick whilst they had food, and then I had two apple cores.  The apples were great.

Then we were off and there was snow and paths and other dogs and water in the river and from my bowl. It was great.

I had another stick whilst they sat and had coffee. I chewed bits off it and then ripped off the bark.  And they threw the stick all over the place and I had to go and get it for them (they’re very forgetful).  And it was great.

Just as I was getting really hot and tired, we were back at the car and I fell asleep on the back seat.  Apparently there were loads of sheep in the market square that doubles up as a roundabout in Laruns, but I didn’t’ see them, coz I was still asleep.

Then we got home and I got fed.  And that was great.  

Then, because it was so warm, they left the door open till it got dark and I stared out at everything till I fell asleep again.

It was all great.”

Friday March 1st, Close Calls over the Pyrenees

We left Zaragoza and headed even further North.  

Down at G&L’s, spring had sprung and perhaps gone over, blossom had turned to almond sets and each day was bathed in warm Mediterranean breezes.  Zaragoza’s trees are bare, the grass is just starting to waken and blossom is a rare flowering entity on the most optimistic of trees.  The air is cold.  We delve into our lockers and pull out the jumpers again.

By the time we’re at the Spanish base of the Pyrenees, 600 miles north and 2000m up in altitude, the world looks like it’s been trapped forever in November.  There’s no snow on the ground, and although distant mountain caps are striped with white, they’re not blanketed as February might expect them to be.

We do a few ups and downs, the van seems happy enough.  It chugs on the ups and when M keeps it in second gear he manages to minimize the amount of braking required.  So far, so good.

There’s a decision point, part-way into the mountain passes.  Carry on straight up, directly heading for the central pass, or divert through the less picturesque tunnel that saves the mountainous undulations but takes all the fun out of the drive.  I show M on the map.  We give it a moment’s consideration.  

“Nah… we’re here now”

“In it for a biscuit”

“Righto…”

We’re set for the adventure and stunning majestic sights; the route doesn’t disappoint. It would if you’d gone up to the highest valleys where the skiing is thin, there were maybe three ice-packed routes to choose from.  You’d be really glum if you in were lower ski resorts.  Then you’d have wanted to bring a stout pair of walking boots and waterproofs because your skis weren’t going to be of much use to you.  But in the cab of our camper, it is glorious.  

Deep blue, semi-frozen reservoirs are fed by icy-cloudy rivers that jumble their way to join the whole.  The sun in it’s hazy sky throws random shots of light across tree-pocked hillsides. Those same rays refract off the snow where it persists, shooting back brilliant gleams of gold, right onto the back of your retina.  It is, not to put to finer point on it, bloody lovely.

Up, up, up we chug.  Over the top, across the French border as we start the 10 miles or so of constant descent. The van is in second gear, or third (when it flattens out a little).  The brakes do squeak a bit, but not alarmingly so.  Just enough to remind us that they’re unhappy.  But they still work.

Or so we think.

The lowest point in the foothills, on the road to Pau is a small but bustling town called Laruns.  As we’re approaching the central square, which doubles as the roundabout we have another decision to make.  The shortest way to reach Lourdes, where M really wants to spend a couple of days, is by turning right here and doing another undulous, tiny, twisty road that will lead us into the heart of that city.  The alternative, flatter but triple-length route is to up to Pau, across to Tarbes and then down the third side of the rectangle to get to our destination. M pulls over.  He’s not happy about the van.  The brakes have started making some alarming noises.

As we move off the main road it creates the most awful sound. Is the entire chassis about to pull away from the van itself?  

“So what routes did you want to show me?”

I pick up the map but say:

“They must have a garage here, what do you think?”

“Yup”

M gets out and shines a torch through the wheel trims.  As he moves from corner to corner, his expression gets darker.  

We’re not going anywhere, we also can’t stay where we are, partially blocking the main access route through the town.  As M puts the engine back into gear, that awful deep grating sound, starts up again. It’s like the wheels are filing down the axles.

A road sign says there’s a camper car park just 200 yards away, it takes us several horrible minutes to grind into it’s entrance.  

Only now do M and I’s joint imaginations relive the past 10 miles of hairpin bends at super-steep slopes.  We realize how incredibly lucky we’ve been.  My head’s full of tales of drivers who’ve careered into pebble beds to save themselves and their passengers, or failed to make a tight curve.  That could so easily have been us; but it wasn’t.

We passed a garage on the way into Laruns.  It’s clear we need assistance, it’s also 4:45 on a Friday evening.  Monseigneur Pierre Casajus, proprietor of the second garage in town agrees, reluctantly at first, to look at our poorly camper.  He and M drive off so that our French ‘Mecanicien’ can listen to the sound of discs slicing through wheels, and by the time they return, he’s on board.

There’s a cynical part of me that says “Well, yes, he would wouldn’t he, given what he’s charging?”  M balks at being fleeced €342 for parts that would cost £40 at home.  But it’s Monseigneur Casajus or the Renault Garage that Google rates as 2½ out of 5.  Pierre seems like the better choice.

The parts can be here by Monday, at the earliest.  He’ll do the van that day, at some point, charging €48 an hour for as long as it takes.  We’re in no position to argue.  The breakdown assistance are much more helpful than last time.  ‘Alan’ (pronounced in a French accent) assures me they will pay for a hire car (but not fuel) and €85 towards a taxi to take us 60km to Pau to pick it up.  So, it’ll all be fine in the end.  

We nudge the van back from the garage to the camper stop, where €21.60 for 3 nights seems a wonderfully fair price to pay.  

Collapsed in a local café, over food that someone else prepared, we count our blessings. We’re not in a crumpled heap on the side of a Pyrenean lane, with no wheels/steering column/brakes left to mend; we’re not in hospital, nor is the dog at the vets/in a dog pound, because of injuries; we’re not sitting in a juddering mess, trying not to cry whilst we cook our supper.

We’re in a warm, busy restaurant, the van and dog are safe. It’s a beautiful place to break down and my French vocabulary is now expanding to include several car parts and vehicular maladies.  All good, by the skin of our brake pads, but good nonetheless.

Thursday 28th March, Zaragoza – Gilted and glorious

“Let’s try and get away early” suggests M, horizontal in his pit, unaware that it’s already 8:43, “Let’s be on the road by 10”

“Okaaaay…”

I respond, glancing at the clock.  I forbear from sharing the truth – he looks really comfy and has taken to writing things – its not time wasted.  I love his words.  Another hour won’t hurt…

By a tremendous feat of effort and will, I’m behind the steering wheel at 11:06 as we pull out of the car park and back onto the road.  It’s about 170 miles (3½ hours driving in this van) to the Park4Night place near the centre of Zaragoza, from where we can explore the city.

Our journey flashed past in plains of vast, eye-leading flatness.  They are a patchwork of greens, greys, rust browns and sand-pale, rectangles, tessellating perfectly, unpredictable in colour from mile to mile.  All flat. In the distance we see ridges and mountains, but up close… unruffled horizontalness.

We passed the Airport of Teruel, where you will never catch a plane.  It is an air-park, not a junk-yard of disused machines of flight, but storage for excess capacity, planes that have legal issues, and others awaiting delivery.  Huge jumbo jets dwarf a nearby village, standing out from the smooth agricultural earth like sculptures from outer space.

There’s a lot of un-lovely urbanization on either side of the A23 as it ploughs its way north. Huge factory buildings of corrugated metal surrounded by homogenous, efficient housing for workers, stacked high to minimize their footprint.  We sail past these seemingly lifeless metropolises, hoping that our destination holds more promise.

Which it doesn’t to start with.  

I used to live in Sheffield, North Yorkshire.  I was miffed on hearing that the queen went past ‘my town’ on the train or in the car and commented about what an awful place Sheffield was.  It wasn’t.  But from the motorway/rail line, you only saw the industrialized, metallic and harshest view of the town’s digestive workings revealed in all their ugly glory.  You didn’t see the parklands, the river running through the city, it’s sandstone library and town buildings or all the places to stop, ponder and think.

Likewise, Zaragoza has an unprepossessing set of outskirts.  Row upon row of high-rise terracotta coloured apartment buildings.  Built in the same pink-brown hue is Zaragoza’s penitentiary, plonked just outside the city’s perimeter and by architecture, largely undistinguishable from surrounding residential accommodation.

Then we find the river, gracious banks along the Rio Elba, and the pace slows, water glistens and a parking space accommodates us for a late lunch, a walk for Stan and the opportunity to stop.  In the distance, along the river bank, an amazing collection of spires are calling to us: “Come and discover”.  

Walking is one way of sightseeing; by car is another; also bikes.  But we find two abandoned scooters at the roadside and after app-loading and payment, whoosh, we’re off!  Level 23 takes us up to meteoric rates of around 14 miles per hour – enough to get your hair wafting out behind you and to fix a grin across your chops. Yahoo!

The search to reach those spires take us to a huge plaza, with water cascading down and across a sculpture of the world as a map, a stone-carved globe, and the Basilica. Where in Sot de Ferrer, the place of worship was ornate in structure but in simple white, the Basilica de Zaragoza is the polar opposite.  The vast structure houses thirteen domes, on the outside capped in enameled tiles of blue, white, green and yellow.  Inside each is decorated in fresco, cherubs gazing, holy wars waged, saints blessing, dying, saving others, and these works of art are as nothing compared to the marble.

Vast structures depict angels winged and floating on gusts of folding turbulence, arms reaching down to the gilt laden altars and chalices that send tumbling golden light to caress the bowed heads of kneeling sinners.  It is wondrous.  It is overwhelming.  How could a simple soul enter this palace of worship, see a vision of such wealth and power and not feel awed into deferential gratitude, just to be allowed inside?

I cannot connect with this opulence, but I see those who do, for whom the visit is of benefit, amongst the mostly reverently-quiet tourists.  Wheelchairs and walking stick bearers queue for their chance to hear the padre’s words of comfort and feel his gentle hand upon their hair.  Others sit silent beside the confessionals, one penitent returning to his confessor and pressing something that glints into his hand.  There are twelve smaller dome-topped chapels around the central, largest, most magnificent structure, and in each one, two or more heads are bowed in communication with their saints, their god. 

I cannot enter into their acts of worship, any more than I could crawl on broken knees up thirteen, pebbled Stations of the Cross.  But that reflects where I am, my spiritual journey.  I see compassion here, amongst the fabulous physicality of what is around us, and I’m glad of it.  There can never be too much compassion in this world.  

And we send a prayer for dear friends of ours, who have recently revealed their struggles with illness.  Their faith is strong and shared and Christian, so in this temple of Catholic holiness, surely here, God or one of his saints must have an ear. For them we both send up an application for support:

“Protect them and care for them, they’re going to need you.”

For Debbie and Rick