How We Roll Back…

We’ve spent a lot of time visiting south west France now, which means familiarity with the route, as well as the entire area. Nevertheless we still search for new ways to get there and back [avoiding motorways and their tolls]. A few weeks ago I wrote how we set off, where we like to embark, the entire routine.

So then, after a few weeks ‘bimbling’ [Husband’s word], we have to turn the van northwards and consider how we might return. We select a day. On this occasion, Husband came up with a plan to return overnight in a cabin, which appealed until we discovered that the ferry sets off late, leaving little or no opportunity to schmooze in the restaurant and bar. Who wants to drive on, locate the cabin, clean teeth and get straight into a berth?

These days it is neither necessary nor desirable to scramble up the length of France in one, long day and we prefer a gentle, staged journey – still attempting to find hitherto unexplored places.

We opted to return from Ouistreham [Caen] knowing there is a very convenient aire next to the ferry terminal for our last night. We decided to spend a couple of nights at Dinard, which is only a couple of hours away and left us time to explore as well as execute the all-important pre-return shopping spree that is obligatory at the finale of all trips.

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Dinard is situated across the bay from St Malo and probably suffers for it’s glamorous, historic neighbour but we’ve stayed at St Malo enough times. A look at one or two lacklustre ACSI [off season discount card ] sites confirmed that the municipal site at Port Blanc would be a good choice and so it was-with an uninterrupted view of the beach and bay from our van.

The weather by this time had become blustery and drizzly-a reminder that we were on our way home.

The site offered  a bar and pizzas-surprising at this end of season period but not an option for us [I am unable to eat pizzas]. A five minute walk up the road led us to a lively area with bakeries, bars and brasseries. On Sunday afternoon a small stage was hosting a display of line dancing-

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The restaurant we chose was old fashioned but proved popular, as after we’d been seated every table was occupied.

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Dinard is a hilly seaside town reminiscent of Scarborough, with an air of faded elegance-enormous old hotels, a smattering of art deco, luxuriant gardens and promenades as well as ice cream parlours and bars. There is evidence of an interest in the arts, with a film festival running and some impressive sculptures dotted along the prom.

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We walked back to site via a path around the sea wall which wound around the town cliffs, narrow in places and in a bracing wind, but thrilling and with dramatic views.

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We left Dinard to scoop up items on our wish-list from a Carrefour complex the size of five football pitches then drove up our well-trodden route to Caen and to our customary spot next to the ferry. We dodged the motorhome-bore [‘I’ve Been Everywhere, Man’], showered and went to get a meal. next day the ferry’s engines woke us at 6.30am, just right for packing up and trundling the 500yards into the check-in queue. Drive on, climb up to the coffee bar, grab coffee and croissant, settle into a couchette. That’s how we roll back…

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Aires-and Grace’s Guide…

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Nowhere in Europe has motor-homing taken off more than in France and while just about every nation has its devotees, the French have thrown themselves with gusto into holiday-homes-on-wheels, the bigger the better.

You can generally guess the nationality of motorhome owners without glancing at the coded number plate. A German will drive a camper-van fabricated from a vehicle that had a former life as a fire engine/horse box/burger van/security van/army lorry and will have been furnished with a wood-burning stove and decorated with artistic graffiti. The French will drive white, shiny, gargantuan gas-guzzlers furnished with their beloved net curtains crocheted with images of kittens, roses or boats.

In response to the explosion in French motor-homes businesses and councils of almost every community have capitalised on these tourist convoys by providing overnight parking with or without services, sometimes for a few euros-sometimes with no charge at all. The idea is that by attracting camper-vans [‘camping cars’ as the French call them] to their town the owners will spend money in shops, bars and restaurants.

Aires vary. Some are landscaped with trees and verges. Most are basic car parks with marked spaces and the addition of a machine selling water [typically 2 euros to fill the vehicle’s fresh water tank] and providing an emptying slot, a ‘vidange’ for the toilet cartridge. You have to hope that your fellow motor-homers are conscientious about keeping loo and water hose outlets separate [hence my regular disinfection of our hosepipe!].

Many aires are part of a larger, town car park. For a large proportion entry is gained by way of a ticket machine-and there are various types with vastly different operating systems for entry and exit. Heaven help those who mislay their exit ticket or number!

The French are cunning about their use of aires and over-night their motor-homes just about anywhere, on pieces of scrub land, beside canals, in lay-bys or in town car parks. They’ll choose any spot with a view or that is convenient then come into an aire to use the services [especially if free of charge]. The powers-that-be are as laisser-faire about parking as the owners are gung-ho but we, the timorous foreigners tend towards towing the line and we park up carefully in a marked bay, whereupon subsequent travellers enter and take up any available spot as long as it isn’t next to us. We’ve grown used to this now-nobody wishing to have the Anglais for neighbours. Perhaps post-2019 we’ll be banned altogether?

In the morning there will often be a queue to empty and refill the vans-an opportunity to observe and to indulge in ‘compare and contrast’. You have to beware of ‘services rage’ or those who take a studied, unhurried approach to the task.

Of course other European countries provide stopover sites [although not the UK] but they are never so widespread as in France. Once we got the hang of using aires we never looked back. You wouldn’t want to use them all the time-although I suspect many French do; we use them for night stops and sometimes 2 nights if we want to visit a city. They are not to be confused with motorway ‘aires’-those landscaped picnic areas along the roadsides which are useful lunch stops but must never, never be used for overnight sleeping!

The Freedom of Finistere-[except for supermarket car parks]

We are in Brittany, France; ‘bimbling’ as Husband calls it-meaning a slow-paced meander with no real plan.

This is in marked contrast to our April/May jaunt of Italian island hopping , which depended on ferry timetables and during which we spent very little time in any one place [insert link]. There are benefits and drawbacks to both types of tour, but travel this way-with no particular expectation or goal can have unexpected results.

So we look at a map. On this occasion, since ‘high summer’ and the holiday season is getting underway [and we are in motorhome heaven-France] we are attempting to do as much as possible without the need of campsites, rather using ‘aires’, which are either very inexpensive or free-hooray! The ‘aires’ Bible we use may dictate where we go to a certain extent, although they are mostly around the coast and are bound to be in popular spots. So far so good.

Since there is a heatwave both here and in the UK, the first aire, situated on a hilltop above the tiny, picturesque fishing port of Cancale is most welcome. It has shady, grass spaces and a pretty footpath down to the town.

We plant a pin in the map and head West to Tregastel. At first sight it appears very Cornish, except that the gigantic boulders strewn around the bay are smooth, organic, granite shapes like fabricated, concrete rocks on a theme park ride. Tregastel is postcard pretty, but the aire looks unpromising in a car park opposite Super-U supermarket. In the end we opt for it, meaning to move next day-except that next day we discover it is by the beach and a knockout coast path-perfect! The supermarket turns out to be an added bonus.

The aire becomes busy, a well-known and well-trodden route. We get into difficulties with renewing our ticket in the machine, which refuses to accept any of our bank cards. In desperation we take the van out and attempt re-entry, only to be refused. When I call the emergency number a weary woman tells me a van is on its way. Their computer system is down. Phew! Our bank cards have lived to finance another day.

Before leaving Tregastel we take the van into Super-U, where there are plenty of empty spaces in the car park, in a corner where a number of other campervans are parked. Having shopped, I am busy transferring meat from polystyrene trays into freezer bags when an elderly man stops by the door and I realise he’s saying something along the lines of ‘Do you have the right to be here?’

I’m nonplussed. Does he mean ‘in France’? Perhaps he is issuing a protest in the wake of the Brexit vote. I manage my best gallic shrug, bag of steak in hand, ‘Je ne sais pas’. He gestures at the parking spaces [empty around us, for the most part]. ‘Oh!’ I say, understanding, ‘Ici dans le parking? Mais il y a beaucoup des autres comme nous!’ It’s my turn to gesture. I point the steak bag at the massed ranks of gargantuan motorhomes lined up in the car park, at which he, in turn shrugs and shuffles away leaving us to wonder ‘why us?’. Perhaps it is the Brexit effect after all and we are no longer welcome. Tragic!

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!

Herwig the Hoaxer

                This post is dedicated to Bosswachter, who we met recently in an Antwerp bar and who provided us with a dash of entertainment before the long drive home.

                Following our mini sojourn in Amsterdam, having been spectators [of sorts] at the marathon and witnessed a satisfactory outcome, we’d planned to break the return journey by taking a quick look at Antwerp.

                There was an ‘aire’ at Antwerp, Husband reassured me. The ‘aire’ was furnished with water, electricity and [best of all] a shower block. It was near the centre of the city-no more than a short cycle into the town via dedicated cycle tracks. Antwerp, with its cobbled streets and tall, gabled buildings is another historic gem of a city to rival Bruges or Ghent.

                We arrived to the ‘aire’, were greeted, as promised, by a manned reception and handed a bag for rubbish. So far so good. ‘Did we have a toilet?’ enquired the receptionist, causing my heart to plummet into my boots. Of course we do have a miniscule, basic porta-loo, for night purposes; not the gleaming, walk-in, capsule type of facility offered by larger motorhomes [of which there were a few, parked up on the hard standing area of the site].

                I might have known there’d be no washing facilities. The fabled shower block was there, yes, but had fallen out of use, the doors locked, the water extinguished. Having, by now, however achieved a sixth sense about these situations I’d taken the precaution of showering and hair washing at the beautiful Amstelveen site before we left that morning [see previous post]. Phew!

                We cycled into Antwerp. It was easy-a level, off-road path-until nearer the centre, when the path disappeared and it was necessary to share the street with cars, trucks, buses and trams.

                The old city is wonderful and boasts a plethora of souvenir shops to rival Bruges-lace, chocolate and beer. There is a grand square with an ornate town hall and an enormous, verdigris encrusted statue spouting plumes of water, the square bordered by a fringe of bars, cafes and restaurants. As evening descended we sat at a table and ordered Flemish stew accompanied by wine and beer. Heaven!

                Returning later by night we opted for a last drink at an out-of-town bar nearer to the site, where an almost lone landlady stood polishing glasses behind the counter. As we sat, resting elbows on the bar top, we were accosted by a solid, whiskered gentleman who assailed us with a stream of Flemish, seeming to be in the nature of an enquiry. We did not speak Flemish? OK, how about Francais? ‘Un peu’ I replied-my stock answer. We conducted a halting conversation about our travels and where I’d learned French, culminating in his excusing himself to visit the toilettes. He reappeared, smiling. ‘Now’, he said, ‘we can speak English!’

                He was, of course, delighted with his prank-delighted enough to have infected us with the merriment of it, despite the joke being on us…well, if I’m honest…me.

                Anyway, cheers, Herwig! See you next time!

Soup or Poisson?

                So, then- the French. Vive la difference!-as they say. It is traditional, and commonplace for us Brits to display animosity, dislike and general displeasure to them…as it is for them to be contemptuous, dismissive and generally out of sorts with us. This is how it has been since time immemorial; since tiny, posturing Bonaparte and noble, one-eyed Nelson, since Agincourt, since the German Nazis were allowed in to run riot all over the place.

                We think them arrogant, uncouth and sexually immoral. They think us cold, frigid and unappealing. They think their cuisine superior. We think they are up themselves. Does all this hold true? Or are these attitudes as outdated as a beret and a string of onions? Myself I think they are mostly far of the mark but that there are vestiges of truth in some of them.

                Take the arrogance thing. Those who visit France regularly are familiar with the fact that one should try to speak the language when communicating verbally, rather than shouting ever more loudly in one’s own lingo. This is perfectly reasonable, however there has been an odd occasion when my own [imperfect but adequate] French has been rejected. A couple of years ago we entered a bar for the purposes of a post-meal glass of wine. If there is one phrase I have become accomplished at it is ‘verre de vin rouge’. The young man taking the order made a clear point of refusing to understand, whilst sporting a practised sneer. On the other hand we are almost always welcomed, greeted, helped and smiled at.

                France is vast. The country is littered with plots of land for sale and crumbling, vacant dwellings calling out for some TLC. ‘Homes Under the Hammer’ could have a bonanza in France, but no one here cares, because there is no shortage of land. Being such a big country has also caused it to become very travel-friendly. The French, amongst all Europeans, are the greatest lovers of ‘camping cars’. They are everywhere. Towns and villages are happy to provide free ‘aires’ where you can park up for the night-all provided by local businesses, often with toilets, water and waste facilities-sometimes with electricity. There are hundreds of small, cheap, clean, comfortable, ‘chain’ type hotels-not luxurious, but fine for overnight stops.

                And they are rightly proud of their villages, too. They are neat and tidy, litter-free, and planted with wonderful floral displays. Despite this the streets and pavements are often encrusted with dog excrement, somewhat tarnishing the overall effect. They are completely besotted by their dogs, and nowhere else have I seen so many pooches being variously carried-in bags, bike baskets, cycle trailers or baby prams, as if they’ve somehow lost the use of their paws.

                Women’s sensibilities are not expected to be offended by the sight of men’s backs as they urinate, so lavatorial facilities tend to be shared.

                The boulangerie is heaven in a shop-and best avoided for anyone wishing to retain a waistline.

                Wine is cheap as water.

                There is much more…but the sun is shining, it actually feels warm, and I sense a bike ride coming on. A bientot!