Going South

While it is fair to say I’m less confident at driving the van than I was I don’t expect Husband to undertake all the driving. On a trip like this it would be tricky to do the distance. So I take a turn to give him a break.

We leave Venice and turn south on the coast road towards Rimini and Ancona. The journey is without incident and a little slow due to the 50kmh limit almost all the way. I am happy enough driving through the built up area where I cannot overtake and cannot be overtaken. At the end of the long day we arrive at a coastal site south of Ancona where a handful of motorhomes have also stopped. The site opened a few days before but is clearly not ready to receive visitors, the bathrooms strewn with electrical cables and tins of paint, the sound of sawing and the to-iing and fro-ing of the workmen as they labour.

At reception I am told to return in half an hour, even though the vast expanse of site is so sparsely occupied as to be almost empty. At last we are supplied with a shower key for a slot to provide hot water, the delivery of which lasts all of 2 minutes-enough time to work shampoo up to a lather and little else…

Of the numerous toilets, only one is able to be sat on, the remaining cubicles being the archaic, squatty type. Half of these are filled to the brim with excrement. We are not impressed!

Next day I take first turn, assured by Husband that we’ll do autostrada; that we can ‘just drive’ and it will be easy. I turn on to the motorway, settling behind a lorry until I feel confident enough to overtake. It is a large tanker. Seeing a space, I pull out into the middle and begin to pass-just at the sign for a lane closure, the tanker’s lane. Horrors! The lorry driver makes his predictable, terrifying move as I am part-way past, indicating and lurching sideways in a bid to bully us in. By now I’m hyperventilating, yelping. Husband urges me to put my foot down and go, which I do…then I am past and I can swing back in, gasping in relief. A few moments later, as we limp along behind the next lorry the tanker driver regains his advantage, displaying his superiority from his testosterone filled cab and I let him go. That’s enough near-death experiences for one day.

Later we leave the motorway to climb into the mountains of Abruzzo and stop at Opi to be greeted by the owner speaking American English in a beautiful, remote site surrounded by towering peaks and woods supposedly occupied by bears and wolves. Across the field there is a lone, Dutch motor-home but the couple are enjoying their solitude. After dinner we sit by a huge wood burner in the empty restaurant, share a local brew of beer and chat to the owner’s daughter, recently returned from Boston.

In the cold night I fancy I hear wolves baying. The friendly site dog is sitting outside in the sunshine waiting to greet us next morning and as I wander up the lane to supply the fluffy donkey with a carrot a troupe of little pigs and a gaggle of white ducks come running up.

Then we are off again, heading down off the Appenines and away to the west to skirt Naples-I am adamant this time that I will not drive on the motorway. But we are to encounter far worse driving related incidents as we progress south.

At last we are over at the opposite coast, The Mediterranean, at Paestum and we settle down for a couple of nights by a beach under the shade of some eucalyptus trees with a handful of German, Swiss and Austrian neighbours soaking up the warm sunshine.

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Baths, Bowls and Bogs

You can have too much choice in life. We are in the throes of browsing for bathroom parts. In the showroom there is a plethora of porcelain, sparkling white and clamouring to be purchased. Whereas in the seventies the choice would have been all about colour-Pampas? Whisper Peach? Avocado? These days it is the shape you must consider. Take basins. There is a trend for bowl-shaped basins perched on top of dinky cupboards-sometimes ‘his ‘n hers’. It prompts a vision of the morning ablutions, a harassed couple; he is shaving, flicking flecks of foam with abandon as she applies her lipstick-a recipe for a squabble. No. We are opting for an old favourite here-plain, rounded basin on a white pedestal. It is also the cheapest. This is no accident.

Toilets, then. As a very young child in rural Wiltshire I’d make my way out of the house and up the garden towards the run that accommodated the hen house where there was a rustic, timber shed with a rickety door. Inside was a bench in which two holes had been made, one larger and one child-sized. It allowed a child and an adult to sit in companionable contemplation whilst performing their bodily functions. A thick wad of cut newspaper hung suspended on a string from a nail in the wall. This, together with a tin bath in front of the fire in the kitchen is what constituted our bathroom facilities. At night there was an ornate chamber pot tucked discreetly under my bed to avoid hazardous, dark forays down the garden. I wonder what the constructor of the garden privy would think if they were to wander around a bathroom showroom today.

Now most of us in the developed world at least, are lucky enough not to have to walk outside to an old shed with a wooden seat to do the necessary. Not so in many countries where an outside privy would be considered and un-dreamt of luxury; the only option being an open field. Years of camping holidays taught me that there are worse things than having to nip behind a bush  to relieve oneself although most camp sites now have glorious, tiled, heated blocks-often with piped [no pun meant] music to boot. One flower-adorned, Swiss chalet style building in Germany’s Black Forest sports a dog shower that would put most people’s bathrooms to shame and the children’s bathing option is a masterpiece of tiled, underwater cavern complete with mermaids and sea creatures.

Back in the showroom we ponder wall-mounted, square-ish, close-coupled or bog [no pun] standard? We select the standard. It is the cheapest. This is no accident. On to the taps, where an array of designs awaits, including the standard. Toilet seats? It’s tricky. The seat shape must match the toilet shape. The French avoid this problem by having no seats. You can’t complain, since many of their toilets are still the ‘squatty’ kind-that is- square porcelain trays with central holes and places for your feet. I think I’ll be a man next time…

 

 

Nudity Laid Bare

                In the developed world the cult of worship of lean, youthful, beautiful bodies continues. The evidence is everywhere-on posters, adverts, TV, internet and on the street. Here in France there is a move to ban child beauty pageants, a move all our countries should be making. We should not be soaking our children in the idea that looks are the most valuable, the most important quality they can possess, neither should we be ‘hyper-sexualising’ them [to quote the French minister responsible for the action].

                Yet here in France, nudity is not only acceptable, but positively celebrated. I’d like to say that on the many naturist beaches, camp sites and resorts that exist in France the nudity is natural, innocent and innocuous, but when we’ve encountered them, traversing them during bike rides or walks [it is difficult not to in some areas], you cannot help but suspect there is an element of ‘display’ to the exposure. It is tricky, as a clothed person, not to look, when crossing a beach where everyone is unclothed. This is no discreet sunbathing amongst the sand dunes. Many [men especially] stand in the sea or at a vantage point, as much to be seen as to see.

                I was a teenager of the sixties and a young woman of the seventies, when hippie-dom, flower power and ‘free love’ were the mantra we all followed. In this era of what our elders termed the permissive society we became unleashed from the previous generation’s prudish attitudes. At music festivals kids frolicked naked in the mud, made love not war; anything went. There was an innocence to this behaviour. Then there was AIDS, conservatism, an end to free university education and ultimately the big recession.

                It is always said that in an era of boom hemlines rise, then plunge when times are tight. Nudity these days is not the innocent muddy frolicking of the early seventies, but a cynical exploitation seen in music videos or advertising. Outside of the media there has been a return, even on UK beaches, to the wearing of clothes, no ‘topless’ sunbathing, longer swimming shorts, more of what my mother, who was constantly shocked by the notion of ‘free love’ and all that accompanied it,  would have termed ‘modesty’. In the USA there has always been a more conservative approach to beach wear, ‘topless’ in my experience of US beaches, being against the law.

                Years ago I accompanied two friends on a 48 hour trip to Dieppe, the idea being to have a look round and collect some spoils from the supermarché. It was a warm day. We sat on the pebbly beach with ice creams. A large group of mixed middle aged singles and couples appeared and trudged down to the water’s edge, where they stripped off without the need for towels for concealment and donned swimwear. This was all undertaken without a scrap of self consciousness or awareness of anyone’s eyes. They then plunged into the sea as if no one else was there, simply to enjoy the swim; refreshing in more ways than one…

                

Site Behaviour

                ‘Flight Behaviour’ is a recent novel by the established American writer, Barbara Kingsolver. It is a noble attempt to use fiction to bring climate change issues into popular consciousness, although somehow it fails to grip the imagination. Barbara must have worked hard on her research, insinuating much scientific jargon and information into the story, but it is this very insertion of earnest scientific knowledge that reduces the impact of the story, rendering it clunky and uneven. The story concerns the plight of thousands of Monarch butterflies deflected from their normal migratory course from Mexico to the Appalachian Mountains, an event that is celebrated by the local community who are unaware of the catastrophe it portends.

                As I finished the book I reflected on the migration that we now make as summer comes to an end, in search of a warmer climate, along with hundreds of other Northern Europeans fleeing Autumn’s first chilly blasts. There are Germans, Netherlanders, Danish, Czechs, Belgians and more. They are here with us along the Mediterranean coasts of France, Spain or Portugal, filling up the camp sites and exhibiting what I now like to think of as ‘Site Behaviour’.

                After many years of staying on campsites, first with tent and now with a camper van, I’ve had plenty of time to study site behaviour and etiquette. Take shower blocks, for instance. It is customary to greet anyone you encounter within the shower facility, using the language of the host country. A mumbled, hasty ‘Bonjour’ is enough [since we are in France] and eye contact, if any, should be brief. You should not launch into lengthy discussions about the weather or travel plans, or which part of the UK you are from whilst your companion is applying deodorant or cleaning their teeth. This being France, shower blocks are not divided into genders so you must expect to have to sidle past a urinal or a man at a basin trimming nasal hair on your way into a cubicle.

                You may have to carry toilet tissue to the block with you, in which case no one will be in any doubt as to your intention. A way around this for those sensitive to anyone knowing their purpose is to stuff a wodge of tissue into your pocket. Years of less-than-luxurious travel have taught me never to go anywhere without a tissue in my pocket.

                Many [particularly women] make their morning/evening trip to the ablutions wearing such attire as they might habitually sport at home; in other words they wear a dressing gown, slippers and often-curlers. In Yorkshire, UK recently there was an inexplicable plethora of Onesies on show. Myself, I do not own either dressing gown or slippers, and have never mastered the art of curlers, so a version of day wear [shorts and T-shirt] suffices.

                A site is a transient village, inhabitants changing daily, their temporary homes, paraphernalia or pets a subject of interest for those already established. What might they be preparing on their elaborate barbecue? Why do we see the husband and never the wife? For some, the activity involved in setting up, building the awning, hammering in pegs, putting up a washing line, adjusting the awning, oiling the bikes, putting up a wind break, taking it down-these are the end itself, the reason for the trip. These scenes are the soap opera that is a camp site. Long may they continue!

Welsh walks-and UK camping

Walking in the woods-a sensory delight

Walking in the woods-a sensory delight

On Friday evening we arrived at the Welsh coast, at the destination we selected for a resumption of campervan activities and I am immediately reminded of all the reasons why we rarely choose to stay on sites in the UK. The weather was doing what we are rapidly coming to expect it to do as summer approaches, ie rain-and not only rain, but fall in a relentless deluge to the soundtrack of distant thunder. It could not be described as warm. The proudly boasted of internet access is non existent and the only accessible groceries are at the camp site shop, where sliced, white, processed bread is the best there is. A visit to the pub was the only option, although clearly one that everyone in the local vicinity had also chosen, as it was packed with weekend campers and their lively offspring. Next morning, however we awoke to breezy sunshine, bacon sandwiches [made with blotting paper bread] and the prospect of a day’s coast walking. The section of the newly opened Welsh coast path we walked was spectacular. There is a stunning rocky shore, a backdrop of gorse clad hills, obliging, playful seals cavorting in the sea, a stunning, sensory pathway up through the woods where a white and blue carpet of wild garlic and bluebells stretches for miles. A demanding climb up through these scented and glorious woods led to stunning views from the top before the plunge down to a small bay and a modest, unspoilt beach with only a couple of small cafes. Next door to us when we returned was another little white VW van housing a number of Welsh twenty somethings plus their dogs, all on their first outing with a campervan.  A  teething problem has robbed them of electricity for their inaugural trip, resulting in their various gadgets being plugged into our sockets and our gas kettle visiting with them for the night. In an accident of coincidence, Saturday 18th May happened to be the date of that old chestnut, the Eurovision Song Contest, a competition that began over fifty years ago and seems to have morphed into a vastly different event during the last ten years or so. This year, the UK entry was to be presented by Welshwoman rocker of old, Bonnie Tyler. She must have known she was on to a loser-the competition has become mired in politics, with countries sticking together to vote for their best friends and neighbours and has little to do with music or performance. Although the TV in the local hostelry was showing this pinnacle of entertainment there was very little interest among the revellers in the bar-even though their fellow countrywoman was competing. Today, [after a second, and hopefully final helping of cotton wool bread] we move on to another site and another glorious walk.

It’s good to know your place.

People can be sniffy about camping, sometimes recoiling at the very idea. I assume they’ve either had a cold, wet, unpleasant, childhood experience of it in the UK or have never tried it at all. Whilst I’ve done all kinds of trips and travel and enjoyed [occasionally] the pampering that a luxury hotel can provide, there have been few years in my life when I haven’t undertaken some kind of camping trip. But amongst all our friends and family members we are alone in pursuing such an eccentric activity.

Until about three years ago we used tents. We undertook some monumental excursions lasting several weeks and sometimes covering several countries. The last tent holiday was to Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia and Italy, a six week duration. The trips were a success because we took them during the summer months and to places where the weather is reliably warm and sunny; although tent technology now is such that the structures can withstand the worst deluges. We never got wet.

Then we became ‘time-rich’. Holidays could be taken whenever, and for as long as we wanted. Now the tent was less useful, because of the constraints of weather [no fun in the cold]-hence the purchase of a miniscule camper van which houses and transports us for many weeks of each year. However, while the van is a marginal step from tents in sophistication, we are at the bottom of the heap in motorhome terms. The average motorhome is a lumbering giant of a vehicle providing accommodation akin to a modest bungalow, including flat screen TV and satellite dish, shower and toilet cubicle, fully fitted kitchen with accompanying gadgets.

Our van is dwarfed by these other, giant vehicles. The space inside, once we’ve pushed up the ‘rock and roll’ bed [yes-it really is called that] is very cosy-intimate, you might say. If one were to fall out with one’s fellow traveller there would be nowhere to stomp off to and sulk, like a spare room. It is both necessary and desirable to get along-and to know one’s companion very well. There is no space to be coy on delicate matters such as ‘facilities’ [the porta-potty]. It occupies a night time position squeezed in between the bed and the front seat. The bed, though comfortable, is narrow, so that when one wakes to pee the other follows suit.

In financial terms it makes perfect sense to be using such a tiny home on wheels. Fuel goes further and we are classed as a ‘car’ on the ferry to Europe, saving us a lot. But there are other advantages to being so small. We fit into a car space in supermarket car parks and can manoeuvre along narrow streets. It takes very little time for us to set up, having not a lot in the way of gadgetry and we fit into any ‘emplacement’, which is more than you could have said for the tent. During frequent lazy spells there is nothing that cannot be accessed by stretching one’s arm a little, from the wine bottle to the corkscrew. What’s not to like?

Why do we do it? Because it is the most relaxing, flexible, enjoyable type of travel you can get. If you like somewhere-stay. If you don’t-move on. Weather nasty? Look at the forecast and move somewhere better. Cook-or eat out. No timetable, schedule, booking. No socialising unless you want it. Choose your location, your position, your view, [and some of the best views you can get anywhere]. Then there are the sites-!