Friday, 26 August 2011

France Diary: Friday. Chalon-sur-Saône.

Only one free day here, so we headed into the city of Chalon-sur-Saône. Easy parking in an underground multi-storey (I love these. Wish we had more of them in England). This looks to be a splendid city for a day of shopping and sightseeing, with the stately Saone river running through it offering plenty of opportunity for walking and picnics.
Unfortunately we only managed half an hour before it a) started to rain and b) closed for lunch. I still can’t get over the way that, in France, huge cities like this can become ghost towns in an instant once it gets to lunch time. I just don’t understand the economics. How does anyone ever make any money? Even the markets are packed up and gone by 12:30.
     So, with the city closed down and the rain putting paid to our riverside picnic plans, we adjourned to McDonalds. The rain got heavier. We hung around McDonalds for an hour then squelched over to the Musée Denon. A free museum and art gallery, staffed by friendly and helpful people but in need of a bit of a cash injection. Still, they made the best of what they had, and it kept us amused and dry for another hour.
     On leaving the museum it became apparent that the rain (and the thunder and lightning) was not about to stop, nor was the city going to reopen. We left.
     It was a sad way to leave Chalon-sur-Saône. There were a lot of things we hadn’t seen (the botanic gardens, the islands in the river, the Parc de loisirs Saint-Nicolas) and who knows when, if ever, we might be back. But the weather (temperature down to 14°C and rain becoming biblical) had defeated us.

France Diary: Cote d’Azur to Chalon-sur-Saône

Thursday. We left early. 7.30 am. Sad to leave the Med, but anxious about traffic. Traffic was heavy, especially through Lyon, as expected, but only about 30 mins delay. Nothing like the nightmare we witnessed from the other side of the road, coming down. Other than Lyon, today’s move has been a doddle. It’s interesting to see that the weather stayed hot – Mediterranean climate – until Lyon. Then it turned into a warm but English climate within a few miles. No obvious gradient. You can almost draw a line on the map.
     We stopped at an Aire de something for a sandwich lunch, then decided to have something cooked when, delighted, we saw a notice in the buffet lunch section advertising Assiette Vegeterianne. Vegetarian plate? I am now pretty cocky about my French – almost a native speaker. This was a thoroughly safe bet. Whatever this veggie dish might turn out to be, we could not go wrong. Could we? 12 Euros later we found ourselves holding a bowl of chips each. Crappy chips. And they were, as near as damn-it, cold chips. I should have taken them back. I should have argued but I don’t know enough French words to argue. More wasted Euros.
     So we stuffed down some of our cold chips then hit the road again.
We arrived at our two-night stopover site (Chateau de L’Eperviere) before four. Pretty good going, I’d say.
     First impressions of the site: looked good. Nice duck pond. Good shop. Two small, but clean, pools. Free Internet/WiFi in the bar. In fact, this site seems to tick every box with a little gold star next to every tick.

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

France Diary Days Eight, Nine, Ten… ah hell, whose counting anymore.

Okay, so I guess I’ve fallen for the Cote d’Azur. I love being warm all the time – never having to go out packing a cagoul, umbrella, wellies and all the usual paraphernalia of UK outings. I love the patisseries. I love going in the pool on the site and swimming under a forever-blue sky.

We’ve been to St Raphael; Cannes on the train; the Gorge du Verdon; Grasse…  I can’t decide which place I’ve enjoyed the most, although the gorge was way more impressive than I expected (and I expected a lot). But then Grasse, clinging to the side of an Alp, with its narrow streets and the Fragonard Gallery, which was free and utterly brilliant. And the opulence of Cannes. It was great to see the hand-prints of the stars, just like Hollywood, and the expensive yachts tied up in the marina.

I’ll keep this short, for once. The holiday is, at last, going well, and I am conscious of the sad fact that good holidays make rotten tales.

Sunday, 21 August 2011

France Diary Day 7. Chatelas en Bois to Roquebrune-sur-Argens

The last leg. A hot one. Temperatures were soon pushing 35C. We passed a Crocodile Farm right next door to a Nuclear Power Station, Complex Nucleaie du Tricastin – OMG is that a setting for a story, or what?
Soon we were heading east. Our southerly journey was over. The miles wound down. We arrived at camping Lei Suives at about three. We were nervous. We haven’t had too many positive experiences thus far. But the site entrance was good; well maintained, lots of flowers, good security, even a girl in the car park to make sure there were no issues with congestion for arrivals. Check-in was efficient and we were given a nice, roomy pitch. Job done. We pitched, did a lap of the site, and headed for the pool.

France Diary Day 6. Langres to Chatelas en Bois Mk2

This time the caravan lights worked. Woohoo! And we needed them. An early start and we had thunder and crackling fork-lightening and skies that were black black black. We hit the rain as soon as we joined the autoroute and it stayed with us for 100 miles. Temperature stayed down in the mid teens. There was no scenery. Everything obscured by a curtain of water. To my eyes the sky was grey all the way to Provence.

But then there was a gap; a patch of white cloud on black. The rain eased, then stopped. We went through/under Lyon and at last I had my temperature gradient. We were driving into a new climate. Soon we were pushing 30 degrees.

This was a short leg, only 260 miles, but it seemed long, somehow. Long and hot. Just south of Valence we left the autoroute and began heading cross country, into the Alps. Fabulous scenery! Through the painfully beautiful villages of Saou and Bourdeaux, and at last to our site, Chatelas en Bois, an idyllic setting half way up a mountain.

But there were bad things. I don’t want to think about them. Things like having to park on a blind hairpin bend on the road because someone felt okay about abandoning his/her car across the site entrance. Things like being charged three nights’ fees for our single night because we hadn’t phoned in time for the jobsworth campsite owners to be humane enough to wave their stinging rules. (We had phoned, but the restauranteur who answered played on his lack of English and my lack of French to their advantage.) I should had told them to stick it and stayed, instead, at the municipal in Bourdeaux, but I was tired and willing to shrug it off and throw money at my problems. And I don’t have the words to argue properly in French. It’s a pity, because it was a nice site and I now feel duty-bound never to return. And I was upset because this was such a stunning location, worthy of serious exploration, and we had only a few hours instead of three days. Ah well.

We walked over the hill to the village, walked back before it went dark, had macaroni cheese out of cans, for tea, instead of eating in the restaurant, because of, you know, the resauranteur (and because we glimpsed the state of the chef smoking behind the kitchen). We went to bed, got up, and left.

Friday, 19 August 2011

France Diary Day 5. Still in Langres

Not a good day for stress levels. The therapeutic effects of a holiday need to kick in soon or there may soon be demented, axe-wielding Englishman on the loose in the French countryside.

The car is repaired. The lovely Lauren arranged for another F1 taxi this morning. And the Directeur de rip-off at the Opel garage reunited us with our car in exchange for 200 euros. 200 euros!! They had fixed a fuse and billed us three hours. I am in the wrong job. I want a job where I can spend three hours fixing a fuse and then charge at sixty quid an hour.

Anyway, we got back, driving at my pedestrian speeds, at lunchtime it was too late to move on. So we paid for another night in Langres with the intention of moving on tomorrow.

As a side issue I started getting warnings from my car about unequal tyre pressures, so thinking a blow-out on the autoroute, tomorrow, with caravan in tow might somehow compound our disillusionment, I went to a garage to buy diesel and inflate the tyres. We came upon a fancy piece of kit that allows you to input the desired pressure and the machine does the rest. Unfortunately it was calibrated in bars and I only know the correct figure in pounds per square inch. Had I thought this through I should have realised that pounds per square inch would be somewhat rare in Europe, but I didn’t, so instead I ranted for a bit, and then looked at my mechanical pressure gauge, calibrated in both, and so once more I managed a rough translation.
By 3pm all our mechanical duties were done, so we spent a couple of hours sitting by the lake, reading and pretending we were having a relaxing holiday.

In the evening we sat on the terrace and I attempted to use the WIFI key I had bought earlier in the day. But the WIFI was down. They’re waiting for the engineer (I wonder what he charges an hour), so more euros go flushing down the pan, which is why this blog will not go online for at least another day.
And then, in the bar, the karaoke started, which is why I have just chugged down my drink in one, and legged it, and why this blog post isn’t even finished...

France Diary Day 4. Langres to Chatelas-en-bois (Mk1)

Blue sky. Sun shining. Up early ready for the next 250 miles. But then we connected the caravan to the car and the lights didn’t work. This has never been a problem before. Today it is a problem. Our old caravan has let us down. So I crawled around in the early morning dew, tracing the wires from the front to the back. Everything seemed okay but clearly wasn’t. Out came the toolbox and the WD40. An hour later and I’m no further along.
     I did the thing I have dreaded most of all, I called Europ Assist. I spoke to Lauren. Very helpful. Very friendly. A mechanic is on the way.
A young French family who were camping opposite came over and also offered help. He spoke little English, I spoke little French. But we each managed to communicate just enough to share the problem.
     Then the mechanic phoned. He too spoke no English, but on the phone, where my lexicon of auto-electric French is less than zero, I was in big trouble. My French camper friend came to the rescue taking my mobile phone from me and explaining everything. The guy was brilliant. He even then went to the site entrance, unknown to me, to meet the mechanic and bring him to our pitch. Then he explained the problem to M. Blanchard, the mechanic, who was as baffled as I.
     Then my French camper-friend had an idea. He backed his Frontera up to my caravan and attached the lighting cable to his car. Genius! The caravan lights worked. Voila! The problem was not the 30-year-old caravan but the 30-week-old car.
     But I had detained my new friend and his family long enough. He had to go home. It was the last day of his holidays. I wish I had asked him for his name. He was a hero. I could/should have hugged him.
     Now it was just M. Blanchard and I. Communication continued to be a problem, so I called Europ Assist and my new friend Lauren did the translation. M. Blanchard would be back in two hours to take my car to an Opel dealer.
     Today we would be staying in Langres.
     After lunch I climbed into the cab of M. Blanchard’s truck and we took my car to Chaumont, 30kms away, to an Opel garage. Here there were lots of jovial mechanics and the friendly proprietor and not one word of English. Why should there be? How many English mechanics ever spoke French? The problem, and the fault, was all of my own making. What kind of a nutcase did I think I was coming to this land with only the barest smattering of the language? Assuming I ever get home, would I ever come back? At this moment I’m, thinking, not on your bloody Nelly.
     So again my friend, Lauren, at Europ Assist stepped up and did the translation thing. The car would be kept overnight. She ordered me a taxi. Half an hour later I was in an old Mercedes, blasting through the French countryside at 120kph, overtaking into the maws of oncoming trucks. Had I been of a religious nature I would have been clutching my rosary beads and giving it loads to the almighty.
     At last, back at the caravan. Sarah is relieved, she knows nothing of what has happened since I left in the breakdown truck. And now here we are, 680 miles from home, in a caravan, in France, without transport. Our car is in a garage somewhere else in France, somewhere far away.
At this point things look pretty bleak. But I have met some lovely people: My camper friend, alas I don’t know his name; M. Blanchard the breakdown truck driver; the owner of the Opel garage in Chaumont, alas I know neither his name nor that of the garage; the friendly but lunatic taxi driver from the Alain Prost school of taxi-driving; and of course, the lovely, life-saving Lauren, somewhere on the other end of a phone in England.
It has been interesting.
So what now? Beer sur la terrace, je pense.

France Diary Day 3: Langres

Rained all night. Drizzling this morning.
Langres is a medieval fortified town up on a hilltop. You can see it from the camp site on days when the cloud cover is higher than 15 metres.
We drove into Langres with our raincoats and brollies ready and the rain stopped and, although the sun stayed well hidden it turned out to be quite a good day.
First thing, the car park was free. Good car park, right in the town and there was no charge. We searched for hidden, secret ticket machines or camouflaged wheel clampers but no. Free! Gratuit!
It was very quiet in Langres. All the shops were closed, except for the small supermarket. We thought they’d open later, but the only status change came at lunchtime when the supermarket closed. It didn’t reopen. Nor did anything else.
     Still, there was plenty to see. A circuit of the town walls was entertaining enough. There’s a tower where they used to keep pigeons for delivering messages before the internet, and pretty much the whole town can be encircled on foot by staying on the walls.
Then we found the Art Gallery (which is 2 for one entry if you pick up the discount leaflet from the tourist office, which, for once , we did – so 2 Euros each.) And the Art gallery in Langres is a gem. I’d never heard of any of the artists represented here, but there were some really wonderful paintings, many of them in the narrative style that Sarah and I like so much. It was quiet, just like the rest of the city, we were the only visitors, but it was open and for this we were grateful.
Then we found a patisserie, also open, with a salon de thé in the back where we had a fine pot of tea for two, made properly, with a jug of milk and everything.
Things are looking up.

France Diary Day 2: Calais to Langres

Part of the excitement for this holiday, our first caravan run down to the south of France, was of being able to actually see the climate changing. The idea of driving from wet, cold Britain down to a simmering Mediterranean sun seemed quite tantalising. So I’ve been keeping a temperature chart so I can record the change.
We left home in 17C and sure enough saw the temperature climb to 24C by the time we reached our overnight stop in Kent.
Driving off the ferry in Calais the next morning it was 18C, grey and damp, but hey, early morning, yes? As we piled on the miles the sky became greyer and the thermometer fell further. By Arras, at lunchtime it was raining and 16C, colder than home. No worries, a long way to go, yet.
     We stopped at a services some time after Troyes but couldn’t leave the car, the rain was too heavy.
     So to Langres, and out site at Lac de la Liez. It’s a lovely spot, just like the lake district... without the mountains... and the scenery. But with the rain. Perhaps I’m being harsh, but it’s kind of disappointing after 660 miles driving south. I’ve planned the route using the street view from Google (to be sure the roads I picked were okay for caravans) and every frame showed roads baking under a cloudless azure sky. So it looked kind different. I’ll try to be more positive. It can’t get worse.

Saturday, 13 August 2011


Heading for the sun. Up at 3am tomorrow for a ferry to Calais. Then we'll be taking a few days to drag our trusty tin box down towards Frejus on the Riviera.
Today we tackled the UK motorway network to reposition in Kent, and only had a 45 minute delay on the M25. Must be some kind of record, that. Enough. Need an early night, I think.