Tales from the Towpath [Part 2]-The Re-appearance…

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Last week’s episode described how, like an old Brian Rix farce, Husband beetled over the canal bridge and I, in my ever-present need to take the easier option, scooted around a narrow, lumpy path that wound underneath, resulting in each of us losing sight of the other.
I ploughed on towards Josselin, searching the verges and benches for Husband, or at least his bike. When the turrets of the chateau appeared above the trees I felt sure he’d have stopped at the fence where we’d locked the bikes on our previous visit [from the opposite direction, you understand]. But no-neither Husband nor the bike was there, neither was he installed in the nearby bar, cold beer in hand [an obvious place to look for him].
I gulped some more water-the temperature was continuing to climb at 8.00pm-and turned back. I stopped a few people and asked if they’d seen ‘un homme avec un T-shirt noir et un velo rose’ and was met with negative responses from all. I’d spot the glint of a lone helmet in the distance and think it was Husband but many lone cyclists passed by and still no sign. I cycled back-and back.

After what seemed an interminable peddle back towards Le Roc St Andre, and after seeing no-one as the sun began to dip I caught sight of a cyclist approaching-dark T, black helmet and sweat-soaked-and yes-it was Husband.

We downed what was left of the water, by way of celebration [we are still able to celebrate finding each other after all these years] and peddled slowly back, stopping at a hostelry not far from our site, on a bend in the canal, to throw back a medicinal cold beer or two.

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The following morning, following a sticky, uncomfortable night, rather than easing, the temperature at Le Roc soared higher, climbing through the 30s and tipping over into the 40s. Many resorted to the site’s tiny pool, many others [including ourselves] squidged into any bit of shade available, lounging, sprawling, sleeping. It was a disquieting insight into how things may become as summers heat up. Cycling seemed less appealing, but we gamely prepared in the late afternoon and set off in the opposite direction to Josselin, achieving, perhaps, 100 metres or so before Husband’s bike, the improbably named Charge Cooker came to a standstill, the back wheel having seized up.

Reception directed us to a repair shop up the road, which turned out to be splendid at repairing lawn mowers, ‘le patron’, a humourless, moustachioed gent, redirecting us to a cycle shop at St Congard-a small village that was easily included into our itinerary. We returned to the site, me gliding down and over the bridge, Husband half-carrying the recalcitrant Charge Cooker on its one functioning wheel. At this point an ice cream seemed a fair alternative to a cycle in 40 degrees. We spent another uncomfortable hot night and moved on next day to St Congard-first stop the bike shop.

Here, the proprietor, a jovial woman who clearly loved her job dealing with everything bike-related told us that the extreme temperatures had caused the brakes to swell and jam the wheel; that we should pour cold water on it. Simples!

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We stayed at St Congard’s small municipal site for 11E and I undertook a short, solitary cycle to Malestroit, all of which was unremarkable except for the pair of beautiful otters I spotted on the return. Tiny St Congard’s one and only bar was firmly closed.

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En route to St Martin sur Oust we paused to look at Rochefort en Terre, alleged ‘most beautiful village’, which was indeed beautiful, but also wanted 5E to stay in a car park without water, emptying or anything else. We’d have liked to have purchased items in the shops but came to the conclusion that the stores must be part of the decor, since nobody seemed inclined to serve us. The poor citizens of Rochefort en Terre must be starving, since baguette availability was nil [we were offered a half of a baguette in a restaurant and decided to scarper before we were told the price]. After a quick look we moved on to a less pretentious place, and back to the canal!

 

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The Rain Across the Spanish Plain

Sometimes exploring an area in depth can make you realise how woefully ignorant you are, that there are so many world heritage status places you’ve never heard of-or at least-that I’ve never heard of.

Portugal’s Evora is one of these.

We took a couple of days’ beach break, just down the coast from Lisbon, at Caparica, where Lisbon-dwellers come at weekends for sea and sand but precious little else, Caparica being Lisbon’s equivalent of Southend on Sea. On the camp site you could have been fooled into thinking it was snowing, if the temperature hadn’t been 28 degrees, so much fluffy seed was blowing, blizzard-like across the site and settling, ankle deep on the ground or in heaps of white fluff inside the van.

Next, Evora.

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This walled medieval town is a pristine vision in white and ochre, packed full of whitewashed churches, monasteries, ancient university buildings and a wonderful, 15th century aqueduct which begins low, at the top of the town and lengthens as it descends. Homes have been made between the arches:

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The town is quiet, the gift shops awash with knick-knacks, but few buyers. I take pity and buy a small, red, cockerel embellished wine cork for a gift. There are a few other tourists. Did they, like us, stumble upon Evora? Or did they research it at home and make a special pilgrimage here?

For reasons that can best be described here

we need to turn towards the north and make our journey home. As yet it isn’t urgent but I’m aware that it may become so. We set off towards the Spanish border and Badajoz, which we’ve passed by on occasions but have been told is worth a visit.

The weather, never reliably sunny this trip turns overcast once more, but the journey is beautiful-rolling hills and vast cattle ranches, the road quiet and peaceful and we arrive at lunchtime.

The aire at Badajoz is brilliant; easy to locate, a convenient situation just across the River Douro from the town and services all provided free. Little wonder it fills with vans by the evening. We wander across the attractive footbridge, through the gate of the city wall and across towards the ‘Alcabaz’, the citadel which dominates the town from a high vantage point above the town. By this time it is raining and with an afternoon to spend we fritter some of it in a cavernous bodega.

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A return to Spain means a return to tapas, a variety of tasty snacks offered with every drink. Though we’ve lunched it seems rude not to stay and enjoy the fare-and it is raining outside the bar. Badajoz’s cloistered square is beautiful.

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Zipped into raincoats we brave the rain to stroll around the domineering Alcabaz, then it’s back to the aire, where some local residents whose house adjoins it have decided to share their music with us. Freddie Mercury’s vocals are blasted for an hour or two, but since I’m not averse to a bit of Queen myself I think it could be a lot worse…

Next day it’s on to Valladolid, where we make several circuits of the one way system before locating the motorhome parking bays. It’s a quick stopover and our sincere apologies to the parking authority for our inability to pay the 9.50 euros fee, but having managed to retrieve my bank card from the machine when it was stuck I didn’t feel up to giving it a second go!

Onwards and upwards…

 

 

 

 

Normal for Now

I was sitting in the bar area of the Barfleur on its way into Cherbourg, reading Sally Rooney’s ‘Normal People’ when I glanced up as we were gliding past the Irish ferry, ‘W B Yeats’.

I’d just reached the part in the novel where Trinity student Connell gets totally wasted during his summer break and is lured back to the flat of his former secondary school teacher where she has the intention of ravishing him [until the excess of alcohol precludes the act].

I got to thinking, then that I’m pushed to recall the names of any of my secondary school teachers. I can remember my very first teacher, Miss Hunter, who I loved. I can almost   remember the name of my next teacher, in the juniors, Mrs  Someone. We moved. I know who my next teacher in the juniors was because it was my dad.

I passed the ’11 plus’ and had the dubious reward of going to Wisbech High School, where our newbie form was ruled over by an austere and frightening Scottish woman whose name escapes me, but might have been ‘Miss MacFarlane’. I was anxious the entire time, for two terms. Then we moved again and there was a plethora of remote characters who entered classrooms, delivered their notes and left.

In the sixth form, studying English literature, among other things W B Yeats was on the syllabus. I developed a lifelong dislike of W B Yeats’ work and to this day I shudder when I hear mention of ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’. We were never given a chance to explore and enjoy the work; never had the background explained or saw how it related to Irish history and politics-let alone to my own, teenage self.

‘Normal People’ explores a teenage love story from more contemporary times. In the story Connell connects much more to the texts he is studying. As students, he and Marianne drink, do drugs, party in much the same way that I did during my 70s student-dom in London. How long ago it all seems now-and it is!

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Now here we are in Avranches in the warm sunshine of an April evening, having driven off the ferry to travel hopefully and with the relief of the Brexit delay wrapped around us like a snug blanket-for now. It is pleasant enough to sit outside in the square with a beer and survey the elegant decadence that is commonplace in French architecture.

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When we pulled into the ‘aire’ there were already French motorhomes in place. We reversed back just as a couple were leaving to walk the few hundred metres into town. They turned, smiled and waved in greeting and I realised I was almost holding my breath until this moment. Maybe, just maybe we are still as welcome as ever in the places we love and will always love to go…

How we Roll-

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These days we cross the English Channel [our most trodden travel path] by taking the line of least resistance-and since we live a few miles from Poole that line is Brittany Ferries to Cherbourg, a four-hour crossing leaving at 8.30am.
Despite the proximity we know better than to hang about and we are sure to leave home by 7.00am. Once, inspired by Husband’s ‘It’s only half an hour away-we’ve got oodles of time-we don’t need to be there until five minutes before’, we arrived at the barrier just as the ferry was about to leave and winged it up the ramp with minutes to spare.
The ferry, the ‘Barfleur’ [named after a Normandy coastal town] is comfortable and familiar by now. We know that once on board there will be good coffee and fresh, buttery croissants as well as comfortable reclining couchettes in a quiet salon in the bowels of the ship. We know that we can mooch around the small boutique and peruse the eclectic array of merchandise both useful and otherwise. There will be WiFi and television news.
Mostly, these days the ship is peopled with retirees or young couples with pre-school children because since retirement we have the choice of avoiding school holidays. This time, however by setting off a little earlier we are beset by knots of excited, shrieking children who still have time for a quick taste of France before knuckling down to learning their tables. They gallop about the ship, throng around the games room, chase each other from the bar to the restaurant, use loud devices and shout to each other. I surprise myself by enjoying their excitement, which reminds me how I felt on early trips abroad when every experience was new.
A sulky boy wearing a onesie in a bear design makes several circuits past our table with his lecturing mother, prompting me to wonder what he has done and if his excitement got the better of him. A tiny, table-height toddler staggers about, chased by his doting father and shielded from protruding table corners by the various diners he is entertaining.
In the quiet zone I open my Kindle and continue reading Alan Bennett’s ‘Keep On Keeping On’, which is part diary/part memoir/part lecture in itself and a treasury of informative and amusing anecdotes. A couple of rows behind us two men slumber whilst between them a young boy plays on and with a mobile phone, the sound of which is just a little distracting-loud enough to hear but not enough to decipher. Husband, whose own hearing has been compromised during the last few years is immune to such irritations and dozes off easily.
We arrive to Cherbourg, disembark and set off-not tearing southwards as usual but this time meandering across the Cherbourg peninsula to the coastal town of Barfleur itself, where we have lunch and a wander around the curving harbour followed by drinking coffee. Then we continue a few miles on to St Vaast, another harbour town with a convenient aire for us to park up in.

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St Vaast is a delectable place; full of seafood cafes, narrow alleys lined with pretty seaside homes and beautiful gardens, boulangeries packed with luscious pastries, breads and tarts, a crowded marina and a working fishing harbour where sturdy mussel boats are tied up.

There are many, many West coast ports like this, with harbourside brasseries serving the freshest shellfish you can get. We take advantage and I am able to enjoy my favourite treat-a plate of fat oysters nestling on a bed of ice and tasting of the sea.

We stay 2 days despite the drizzly intervals and walk the coastal sea wall to see ‘La Hougue’, part of some anti-British defences of 1664. Then it’s time to move on.

 

 

Starting Out

I am standing in our kitchen, one hand holding the pull-out pantry door open. I am frowning at the shelves, thinking, ‘what the Hell do I pack into the van to go on an extended trip?’

We are preparing for our first trip of the year and have worked through the administration tasks; channel crossing booked, euros loaded on to travel card, banks informed, van serviced and cleaned, insurance [personal and vehicle] updated, guide books and atlases collected, neighbours and family told, lists compiled.

Laundry is ready, clothing and bedding and towels [two sets to ease laundry while away]. Much to non-motorhome owners’ surprise we don’t sleep in sleeping bags but use a duvet and fitted sheet, just like home, but with the addition of a blanket in case of cooler nights.

Then I am flummoxed by the culinary provision. We are in the habit of starting off with a basic set of tins, jars, herbs and sauces but for the life of me I cannot recall what. I DO know that industrial quantities of Yorkshire tea bags will be required, since proper tea is not something that can be found in a European supermarket. We are constrained by the space, which consists of two very small drawers and a tiny shelf with an area like the bottom of a single wardrobe underneath [used mainly to house Husband’s beer supplies]. I wait. I know this will all come back to me and sure enough, as I begin to select tins it does: 2 tins of tomatoes, 2 mini tins of peas, some baked beans and any other vegetables that might be handy. I add rice, pasta, miniscule pots of mixed herbs, cornflour and ‘Bisto’, mustard, tomato sauce and puree and a bottle of olive oil. I’ve just about done it. Then there’s the fridge…

We stumble up at what is an indecent time for late-rising retireds and I take whatever is left in the fridge out to the van’s little fridge. While it looks a modest quantity in the house fridge it takes more ingenuity than is readily available at an early hour to squeeze into the van’s cold storage. But it is done.

At last we are en route and wending our way up to Folkestone for Le Shuttle, a journey we have not made for some time, but is without mishap. Before long we have rolled into our place along the austere interior of the shuttle train and it is underway; little more than a half hour later and we’ve arrived in France for the first leg of this year’s odyssey.

We head towards northern France, equipped with a new ‘Aires’ book to inform our overnight stops. I realise we’ve left the new loaf in the bread bin at home. It will be colourfully hairy by the time we return but nobody is perfect and France, above all is not short of the odd Boulangerie. Alsace is luscious in the spring sunshine.

The first aire looks dubious; nothing more than a roadside parking lot and no other vans installed. We move on to another, next to a park off a quiet road, with ‘vidange’ provided. Almost simultaneously a French motorhome pulls in beside us and we are fine for the night.

Next morning is bright and sunny as we make tea and swing into van routines. It’s all coming back to me. I stroll up to the Boulangerie for a loaf, dithering over what to choose. There isn’t much left so I settle on two 60 cent baguettes. ‘Deux euros!’ The stern Madame, folds her arms in resolute emphasis as she sees me glance at the price label on the shelf. I am not willing to argue. I pay up in meek submission. Is this the Brexit effect? It remains to be seen.

 

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Eating Lessons

We are approaching the end of another extended trip, meandering around the South of France but this time, with somewhat more sophisticated facilities we have taken advantage of what the French call ‘aires’. The French have taken to motor-homes more than any other nation. The vehicles are becoming larger, more equipped and more elaborate. One result is that an industry has sprung up to address the needs of ‘camping car’ owners with numerous, vast areas set aside for, and only for campervans. Tent campers and caravanners can eat their hearts out. They are not invited.
An ‘aire’ will typically have a services point consisting of clean water, electricity, waste water disposal and a ‘vidange’ [for emptying toilet cassettes]. These facilities are more than enough to satisfy the needs of your average motor-homer. Increasingly aires are unmanned, with entry via a machine like a parking meter. Some are little more than vast car parks with electric points and waste disposal. Others are beautiful, landscaped spaces with attractive planting.
Getting sandwiched in our modest van between two gargantuan motor-homes allows plenty of opportunity to study the dining habits of others. In fact, anyone who is thinking of swapping their regime of TV dinners for something a little more formal, sociologically developed and a more gratifying gastronomic experience should look no further than the French model of dining, which can, it seems take up almost all of each day.
Take the three elderly folk sharing an equally elderly motor-home in an aire at Hourtan Port [for 10€ per night-a lovely, spacious, shady, tree-lined area]. They ambled out together mid morning-two mature monsieurs and a madame-returning at midday laden with bulging plastic bags plus several, substantial ‘artisan’ loaves. The bags turned out to contain dozens of fat, glistening oysters. Lunch was sorted! Later in the afternoon they wandered off again and reappeared with more bags, this time containing kilos of mussels. The next day’s catch was a batch of enormous fish, one of which filled an entire plate. Each meal, of course was accompanied by a bottomless bottle of wine.
At an unashamedly seaside aire in Gruissan a couple nearby would take their breakfast [plucked from the nearest ‘artisan’ boulangerie] of croissants, orange juice and coffee, then cycle off together purposefully. By lunch time their bike baskets would be laden with all the goodies they’d acquired. Lunch was prepared together-a serious and painstaking task of cleaning, chopping, table laying and cooking [no quick sandwich job for them!] There would be three courses and of course, wine. Later they would disappear again to seek out the components of the evening meal, when the procedures would be repeated.
In the small town of Gruissan, market day clogs the streets as everyone turns out to fill their basket with cheeses, charcuterie, fruit and vegetables, olives and preserves. Everything can be sampled before purchase, making the shopping excursion a gastronomic pleasure in itself. We joined the crowds, queuing for tasty lunch items and bearing home the spoils in anticipatory glee.
In contrast, the weekly supermarket drudge seems an impoverished experience, as does the regular ‘what can we have tonight?’ conundrum. Ho hum!