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…!

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