Days 5 & 6 – 7thand 8thJan – Montpelier to Carcassonne to Barcelona

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If you’ll forgive me, I’ll gloss over Day 5.  It started in glorious sunshine, that turned grey, got colder and then really cold. 

We parked up near the Citadel and Ramparts at Carcassonne: amazing medieval walled city with a number of restaurant/bars but only one that let us bring Stan in with us out of the chill.  The bartender was possibly the least cheery barman I’ve encountered, outside Paris.  

I’m not anti-Parisienne, not at all.  But my experience of waiting staff in France’s capital have never been tremendously positive.  When we visited the French Alps last summer, our lovely Gite owner, Vivienne, explained that her last guests had been difficult – they were ‘Parisienne”.  The French have a thing about inhabitants of Paris too, it’s not just me…

That said, the three of us were warm and safe inside the bar, peering out into the low-slung cloud instead of being shrouded in dampening mist.  Then, vin-chaud and pomme-frittes all done, we wandered back down and along the river to the camper.  

Last night I had promised V and M that I would send off ‘The Dragon’ to the first set of literary agents as a start to my creative writing career.  Which saw us in MacDonald’s: the price of Wi-Fi being the world’s nastiest Caesar salad, three diet cokes and an immensely dull burger.

Day 6 – M has me in Sitges…

This morning, I was determined that we wouldn’t stagger onto another Auto-Toll route and watch interesting things pass us by in the distance.  We had a choice of routes, the first, definitely mountainous, would levitate us, over the summit of the Catalonian Pyrenees and then… well, then we would decide.

A stream has taken thousands of years to slice a riverbed through the dense granite of the Pyrenees.  If you take the D118 from Carcassonne, and travel further upstream, via Axat, you enter a mystical valley.  The road has been chiseled, foot-by-foot through the cliff sides.  The carved overhanging arches were just tall enough to allow the van to pass underneath.  This prehistoric track wends and winds, reducing our speed to a little over walking pace as it rises over semi frozen streams, Where ice clings to the meager grass verges.  

Mile after mile, as frozen in time as in winter, we twist around on ourselves, climbing to the open plains of Formiuares and Les Angles.  

Bereft of snow, these artifices of skiing and retail activity took on the hue of great grey-straw plateaus.  I sat, enveloped in the warmth of the camper looking out at the semi-frigid landscape. Two determined, skiers wobbled down the one compacted slope on the Andora slopes.  but then the visage passed us by and we were heading back down towards Spain, through pine forests and icy streams.

Gironella, on the C16 was where we stopped for supper.  We used our safe-spot-finder app “Park4Night”, which sourced a potential stop for the night, down by the river, probably secure, possibly quiet, but a bit exposed.  Having spent 28 minutes exploring the small town, Gironella was about ‘done’.  

We’ve spent six solid days driving.  Each day we’ll reach a safe haven, stop, have a break, conscious that tomorrow we must push on.  We’ve seen a lot, but it’s not been restful.  Gironelle put us 3 hours from Girona, 2 hours from Barcelona.  Reaching either tomorrow would, effectively mean another day of watching the world go by, passively in through the camper windows.  I love our van, but the last 6 days have equated to over 48 hours of sitting.  Enough.

“Or…” I ventured  “We could just drive down to Barcelona tonight and wake up somewhere warmer tomorrow morning…?”

M is tired, he doesn’t want to spend another 2 hours driving tonight.  Also, he doesn’t want to spend a seventh day in the cab either.  He passes me his empty supper bowl, we discuss the best route and within 5 minutes we’re on our way.

Fast forward 3 hours, we’ve finished our Diablo pizza at the local Italian Restaurant, in Sitges, near Barcelona and are back in the heated van.  Stan has been running up and down the seafront enough for him to wait for the van door to open so he can climb inside.  M is listening to the radio and I’m proof-reading my blog for errors.  Feel free to message me if I miss a couple.  The weather forecast for lunchtime on the 9thJan is 150C – our warmest yet.

Tomorrow, we agree – we won’t drive anywhere.

Day 4 – Jan 6th– Not Perpignan

Sleeping under a foil blanket is akin to lying beneath an enormous crisp packet.  Each time one of us stirred, I vaguely expected the aroma of salt and vinegar to assault my nostrils.  Sadly, the noise was more disruptive than the heat benefit of it’s being in place.  Neither of us got much rest.

In the early hours, whilst the sun still slept, we were both aware of car engines and muffled French voices nearby.  Instantly awake, always conscious of our potential vulnerability we listened, waiting.  Nothing happened… 

When I later stuck my head outside, I found us surrounded by boat trailers, our pit stop clearly a popular fishing venue.  

Walking Stan along the riverbanks, not even the birds were willing to sit up and sing against the dense, early-day fog.  All was still and eerily quiet.  Peering between skeletal tree branches, I saw one of the craft on the water, slowly working its way along the shores of the River Saone.  Despite the mist, I just caught the action of fishing poles casting for recalcitrant prey.  Stan meanwhile, snuffled his way through the undergrowth, found no less than three plastic bottles and carried each, as a trophy, back to the van.

Eventually we came to, got going and wound our way back toward the A6, destined for Lyon and beyond that, the A7 further South.  Determined were we, determined to find solace from the enveloping grey and gloom. An hour and a half, 75 miles and the outside temperature gauge started to drift upwards from its 1.40C overnight low.  It nudged to five degrees, then up to seven.  The dial stuck at 9.8 for what seemed an age and then just as the sun triumphantly blasted a hole through the canopy of cloud, we hurrahed, as the thermometer reached double figures!  

Hunched, cold-anxious shoulders dropped and relaxed.  We fumbled for sun glasses as the light bounced through the mud spattered windscreen, onto tired retinas.  

And we smiled.  

Now the conversation was “Why Perpignan today?”  If the weather is clear we don’t need to hurtle our way across the country, we could stop awhile and explore the names writ so black and large on the roadside as we trundle by.  

Tonight we’re in a seaside spot just east of Montpelier.  It’s the sleepy off-season, so our beach-side residence for the evening is quiet and calm. Tomorrow we head for Carcasson and hopefully more sunshine. Temperature at 9pm: 1.40C – urgh – break out the crisp packets once again…

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…