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!

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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!

Smaller is more beautiful…

                In a somewhat treacherous and hypocritical move, we have executed a kind of ‘upgrade’ of our travel vehicle and are now using a slightly larger camper van. I say this because I’m aware that I posted on the pecking order and the relative sizes of travel vehicles at around this time last year. We were always the smallest unit in the village, the runt of the litter, dwarfed by the gargantuan motor-homes that surrounded us. The ironic outcome of this change is that we are still the smallest camper van wherever we go, owing I presume to the fact that everyone else has acquired a larger one also.

                Husband mourns the tiny van and was reluctant to exchange it for the current home-on-wheels. I accept it is trickier to manoeuvre and cannot be used as an extra car at home, but the advantages are undeniable. It has a large, comfortable bed constructed from the two plush sofas lining the walls, a walk-in shower and toilet cubicle, a cooker complete with oven, swish windows complete with blinds and pull up insect screens, skylights and a wondrous amount of storage. All this luxury is quite enough two people. It makes me a little curious to know why other couples would need such enormous wheeled dwellings. And how much must it cost in fuel? And where on Earth do they keep it, assuming they have a bricks-and-mortar house elsewhere?

                How bizarre it is that in the present day, when technological advances seem concentrated on producing ever smaller devices- tiny ‘watch’ style internet consoles, Google’s strange glasses with internet screen [won’t everyone be bumping into each other?] etc, other items become larger and larger. TV screens, lattes, beds, cruise ships, aeroplanes, McDonalds’ meals and people are growing bigger by the day.

                Wouldn’t make more sense for the collected, obvious genius behind such marvellous and desirable, tiny objects such as slimmer tablets and phones to direct their talents into technology that reduces our need for so much power to use them?

                The French have constructed a cunning new law for owners of motor-homes so massive that little cars needed to be towed behind them. A HGV licence is necessary for the additional vehicle to be hauled along behind the mother ship. The lack of these small cars rolling along behind is starkly noticeable, although how the inmates are coping with their daily needs is not altogether clear. For us, little in this respect has changed. We shop in between one destination and another, we park up, we free our bikes from the back and use them to collect what we need. We also get to cycle around the lanes in the Provencal sunshine looking at the rural landscape and stopping at an occasional hostelry for a glass of vin [me] or a beer or two [Husband].

                We have learned not to dash around ticking off sights in an ‘if it’s Wednesday it must be Rome’ way, getting to know a small area; the beautiful, medieval villages, the vineyards and the orchards-currently clouded with pink blossom. Small [even if a modicum bigger] really is better.

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.

In the fast lane there’s a shredded, nervous wreck trying to get out.

                A situation at home prompted us to cut short our meanderings on the Med and make a dash back to the ferry and from there onwards. This involved two days’ of nine hour drives. We are accustomed to driving long distances for trips nevertheless it was, to say the least, tiring. The method we employ for driving many kilometres is to take turns of two hours and then swap over.

                At the beginning of my stint at the wheel of the van I always consider myself to be strong, competent, emancipated woman, boldly handling the vehicle upon the highways of Europe amongst the macho, truck-driving fraternity and international travellers of all kinds. By the end of the two hours, however I am usually a freaked-out, whimpering, cowering wreck who finds it necessary to stop, climb out and beg for the alternative driver [Husband] to reverse into a space that could accommodate a double-decker bus.

                Certain conditions inspire terror in my driver persona. For one thing, whilst motorways and dual carriageways are relatively calm, safe conveyors of traffic they become angst provoking nightmares when swept by crosswinds that buffet the van and threaten to tear the wheel from my hands. I’m happy to overtake trucks and lorries, but find it nerve wracking to be sandwiched between giant lorries overtaking each other. Often, during overtaking moves, fellow drivers approach aggressively from behind, headlights blazing in bullying reproach as the van fails to get by fast enough for them, despite the feeble driver’s foot being flat down as far as it can go. Nowhere is this behaviour more prevalent than in Germany, where a glance in the rear view mirror reveals nothing until you are half way round a lorry-then a vehicle appears from out of nowhere virtually stuck to your rear bumper.

                But the situations that induce the most panic by far are large, busy, unfamiliar cities in which the route must be located as well as negotiating the [largely unsympathetic] teeming traffic.

                I happened to be on my ‘shift’ as we neared our selected, overnight stop South of Paris, coinciding with late afternoon rush hour. Lovely.

“Please!” I begged Husband, “Tell me which lane”.

                He ruminated, switching from atlas to satnav and back again-“Um…left…no…right…no…”

I felt myself grow hot and an urge to empty the bladder as we lurched to a stop at a red light, in front of a long, impatient column of cars. From somewhere there was the ominous whine of a siren, and growing louder. I stared around to try and locate the source, finally, and with foreboding seeing the flashing blue light approaching behind us, the lines of cars parting to allow its passage. I was at the light, with nowhere to go, a stalemate as the police car blazed and blared in an insistent decree behind us. The driver in the adjoining lane waved his arms and shouted for us to move. At last a car stopped in its path across us and allowed me to drive through the light. Another five minutes saw us safe into the hotel car park, where I felt like weeping with relief.

I stopped in front of a space and climbed out, wobbly legged. Husband, of course did the reversing into a space thing.

In terms of late life career options, I suppose lorry driver would be somewhere down near the bottom of the list?