Day 3, Jan 5th – Tin foil in tin cans


France is doing a solid job of winter. It’s going for the ‘damp, grey, never-gonna-see-the-sun-again’ look with absolute commitment. Not one hint of letting the sunshine break through the cloud. The van is sodding freezing.

M asked if I still had my emergency, foil, survival blankets.  I looked askance.

“Yes…?”

“Well get them out then, Chubs” 

“Hmmm…”

I have lovingly carried my emergency survival blankets around for the past three years or so. They have been all the way to the Himalayas, up and down mountains in the Scottish Winter and done various other intrepid trips.  I was reluctant to hand them over.

When I came back from Annapurna, relating tales of being freezing cold, M questioned me:

“Didn’t you have your foil blankets with you?” 

“Yes. Of course”

“Well, why didn’t you use them to keep you warm, if you were cold?”

“Duh! Because they were for emergencies…”

Last night, as far as M was concerned, if not an emergency, this was the time to use a heat-saving device if you’ve got one.  Considering that the daytime temperature hadn’t got much above 50C, the evening chill was not to be ignored.  

One of the benefits of buying a minibus is that the interior comes with windows and walls ready lined with whatever insulation the manufacturers deem is appropriate.  It’s like driving around in a mobile conservatory. Which is great in the summer months.

The downside of buying a minibus is that you’re buying a tin can with little or no insulation, lined with thin panes of single glazing.  We’ve done lots to improve heat retention: added insulation, double glazed the windows, put up blinds and curtains etc. But neither these measures, nor our portable gaz stove were making sufficient difference.  It was time for more drastic measures.  It was time for the emergency survival blankets.

So one of the sheets of foil was adapted to provide a heat screen around the sleeping area.  The other on our bed trapped lots of heat.  

Key tip – never breathe into your blankets/sleeping bag.  An average adult will breathe out a pint of moisture overnight, which will make your bedding very soggy.  

And it worked 😀  

In addition, the golden foil adds a romantic hue to the LED lights around the van, giving the space an atmospheric appearance that’s somewhere between the Bat Cave and scenes from Moonraker.   Also, perhaps you knew but I did not, that those survival blankets are see-through, not like hanging opaque tin-foil at all.  So, the light behind them is muted and also rather lovely.

Which didn’t help with the weather.  

It was too damp for sightseeing, so we drove.  At our fastest we were averaging 50 mph.  In a full day, including stops we managed to gain a total of 230 miles and are now just North of Lyon.  Tomorrow we WILL make Perpignan.  The weather forecast says its lovely down there.  

And then our tin can won’t need tin foil and we’ll break out he sunnies and the sunscreen…

Route today: Troyes, on the E15 (forever) down past Dijon and onto the A6. Pit stop at a TINY village called Vinzelles which is surrounded by the Burgundy Vineyards, one of which produces M’s favourite: Pouilly Fusee. Then another hour down towards VilleFranche near Lyon. We’re camped up by the River Saone. C’est tres jolie, mais tres frois….

Light and ‘Aire’y

Jan 4th– Day 2 – Bruges to Troyes

It’s my turn to do the first dog walk of the morning.

Stan and I set off along the canal.  It would appear that ALL dog owners in Bruges use dog leads, at ALL times, when exercising their moderately behaved and docile hounds.  So, the prospect of my 3-year-old Labrador bouncing across the cycle lane is apparently unwelcome.  Mostly, the bi-wheeled locals divert with restrained forbearance.  One ‘gentleman’ offers me the benefit of his wisdom as he speedily disappears into the gloom indulging me with incomprehensible Flemish insults.

We walk on. As Stan enthusiastically sniffs and relieves his internal organs, I notice the offices that sit alongside ancient monuments.  At 8am, glass-walled enclosures are lit by warm yellow lamps, densely populated with engaged-looking individuals, already focused on the tasks of the day.  Beside these loom turreted towers that have clearly been in place for centuries.   Such is Bruges’ magic that these structures appear to heave been lovingly completed just before Christmas, I mean this Christmas.  They are immaculate.  I stand with my back to one such spired tower, gazing across the undisturbed waters of the spotless canal towards the Bruges Business Centre, it’s warm light casting gentle reflections on the rain spattered pavements.  Across my line of sight, other cyclists glide seemingly effortlessly toward their industrious days – panniers and backpacks full of importances.  I am in an alien land, awed at the sense of order, so sad that we are striving to reject our European partnership.

Stan and I wander back toward ‘home’.  We find the Van and M fired up, ready to rumble, route mapped on Google and impatient for the off.  Scrambling inside, Stan retreats to the calm of his bed, grunting with pleasure as he flumps into his covers.  I tidy away the bits that would have hurtled across surfaces at any sharp corner. We’re away.

The plan is to stop for the night at Reims.  There are 32 things to see and 7 potential places to stop.  But just before we reach our destination, we halt at one of the road-side Aires and reconsider.

The Europeans do ‘Aires’ – think spotless, free, service stations, offering washing up points, some with showers, all with loos, on tap fresh water, black-water drop off. These are used by vehicles of all sizes, from juggernauts to motorbikes.  Open 24 hours a day and maintained, it appears, at the state’s expense, there is never more than 20km between Aire, whatever the motorway, A-road or town.  This means that travellers need never be overcome with tiredness; these pit stops are designed for sleep-overs.  It is one more of those long-term, thought-through solutions that make traversing Europe accessible and relatively painless.  As each 100 miles passes behind us, M and I realize that the ‘road trip’ we had built into such an obstacle has been done many times before us, with much ease.

We rumble past Reims at our glorious maximum speed of 65mpg.  One of the unfixed issues of our van is its speed limiter. The CPU on the engine has been reset set to normal but there is an additional limiter on the gearbox.  This has confounded the four mechanics we have tasked with its removal.  On the up-side our miles-per-gallon performance is (relatively) great.  On the downside, a two-day journey for a car will take us at least three overnight stops.  We often debate whether conditions are ok for us to overtake a slow vehicle in the right-hand lane – we cannot go faster, so unless we’re going downhill with the wind behind us, we learn to be patient and appreciate the subtle differences between various back ends of HGV vehicles before us.

Troyes is a medieval delight.  Sacked by the Normans in 887, its old churches, unbalanced Tudor-style buildings, separated by narrow, higgledy lanes are charming.  We wander, taking in the sights, gazing into churches, shops, before the cold pushes back toward the van.  As the sun sets, the daytime ‘high’ of 70C plummets.

We tuck into the slow-cooked chicken dish (powered by solar panels), open up the wine we’ve been saving and I pick up my laptop, ready to write.  We’ve learnt so much already.  What, I wonder will the rest of our odyssey have to teach us. We’re booked (according to our ticket) to return on 9thMarch unless we bail and come home earlier. I’m glad I checked the print, I thought we were going back on the 10th– wishful thinking maybe?

South tomorrow.  From Troyes you can go left (East to Perpignan) or right (West to Pau and Lourdes). We have toyed with a central crossing over the Pyrenees but it’s been snowing there since November and current temperatures climax at around minus 50C.

Vicky’s parting comment yesterday morning when we dropped her at her London-bound station was “Listen to your husband, don’t push against his instincts” – Solemn wisdom indeed from one’s daughter…!

Stan and The Van around Europe

Jan 3rd2019 – Day 1 – OMG we actually, really, honestly, DID IT!

 

Whoosh!

…and we were unloading from the Eurotunnel into Calais.

None of the preparations for this journey have been entirely straightforward.  Our departure was delayed from M having flu; the van has had various issues, none of which we fully resolved.  My fear was that man and machine would be making similar wheezing sounds as we coughed our way onto the drizzly, grey roads of France. But, no.  The January skies are grey and drizzly but M and the Machine zimm along quite merrily.

Whilst we’re heading South for sunshine, Calais puts us just 90 miles from Bruges which we’ve never visited.  So, we head North and East, instead of down towards warmth.

Our first stop at Dunkirque leaves us silenced.  The grey monuments of warfare litter the countryside: pillboxes and battery stations emerge as if growing out of the winter farmland, visible scars on humanity’s memories.  The long, wide beaches of Dunkirk are flat, calm in low tide, failing to reflect the mottled atmosphere above them.  It is an horrific thought to imagine the thousands that perished here,   We take deep breaths.

Stan, meanwhile, has been running up and down the beach, chasing seagulls and a tennis ball.  He’s oblivious to the memories and driven largely by his stomach.   Time to move on.

Bruges is beautiful.  It’s not just the ancient and lovingly maintained medieval buildings.  Nor is it the wide, clear and clean canals with iron and stone bridges, criss-crossing their breadths.  Towers and turrets add to the ambience of uncontrived loveliness. What is most attractive about this ancient town is the sense of order, calm, inclusion and management.  It feels safe.  It feels right.  We wander around the twinkled old town, delighting at intricate, architraved doorways.  Cobbled streets clatter with well-fed horses pulling tourist carriages.  And we relax.

The impossible has happened.  We’ve talked (I’ve dreamed) for our 20 years of camper ownership that one day, one fine day, we might make it to Europe.  Previous reasons for not being here have included: not enough savings, not enough time, the van not being strong enough, family commitments, too much work, too much of too much.  All of which have added up to: – no road trip.

Last spring, I said: “So if the van won’t make it to Europe, lets sell it and make our own”

I have a patient husband.  He’s used to my pronouncements.  He will, wherever possible, seek to enable my dreams.  But the sideways glance, raised eyebrows and deep stare at the floor suggested that I was asking a little too much.

None-the-less, he made sure that the old van went, the new minibus was procured, along with all the accouterments required to fashion a home on wheels.  He built the container for my fantasies; I sewed its soft furnishings.  And here we are.  Eight hours into Europe, the dream has begun.

We snuggled down next to one of Bruges’ canals, the night is quiet but my brain is afire; it combusts with possibilities.  The unbelievable has happened; we’re here, actually, really, honestly here.

Me, M, Stan and the Van, in Europe, with ten weeks’ leave and twelve weeks till Brexit.

 

Wish us luck…