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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Last Gasp-Germany

There is much to love about Germany; black forests, picture perfect , historic towns, grand rivers bordered by gorges and fairy-tale castles, exciting cities like Hamburg and Berlin, charming, engaging and eager-to-help citizens. But not the motorways-oh no. The motorways are strings of roadwork-riddled tedium, clogged with miles of crawling, wheezing lorries spewing fumes and large, gas-guzzling speed machines reduced to inching along with everyone else.

The drive to Wurzburg was one such journey, with roadworks every 10k and frustrating traffic queues at every junction. And once we’d arrived there was further idiocy from the Tom Tom, which led us around the city in ever decreasing circles with no sign of the camper stop, even though it was flagged on the tiny screen. At that point when we were about to give up I spotted the parking place-beneath the bridge and by the river, a smattering of vans and motorhomes in position.

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But it was perfect. And at the end of the parking lot was a restaurant serving German favourites, fat sausages, pork cutlets and servings of sauerkraut-an antidote to the annoyances of the day. Across the river the lights of Wurzburg twinkled and now and then a seemingly endless barge chugged past.

Next day we set off across the idiosyncratic footbridge into town.

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Wurzburg is home to ‘The Residenz’, [more here], a baroque folly of huge proportions which Husband visited many years ago in a previous life, BM [ie Before Me], and of which he has eulogised on a number of occasions.

Since we are not great breakfasters we strolled the picturesque town a little and settled on coffee and apple strudel at an outside table on a pleasant corner before tackling ‘The Residenz’. Our coffees came though not the strudels. We waited, expecting a slice to appear and after a few minutes two large, rectangular plates arrived laden with warm, sticky slices of strudels, pots of ice cream, pots of cream and a small heap of fruit compote. This is how you know you are in Germany-they are not into skimping where desserts are concerned.

We waddled along to The Residenz and yes-it is an impressively large edifice, matched by a suitably sumptuous interior that reminded me of Hampton Court-boudoirs within bedchambers within salons within chambers, the lot embellished with more golden curlicues than you can shake a stick at. The vast, ornate stoves in the corners of every room took my eye but of course with high ceilings and rooms of such size they’d have been essential.P1050621

The gardens were as expected, formal, dotted with statues and fountains and a labour of love.

Next morning we were off again, following the Main River to Ettelbach, a jolly town where pigs seem to be a theme. The heavens opened on to our riverside site but the expedition was drawing towards the end as we headed on to Belgium, Luxembourg and Calais.

Back again at the new camper park adjacent to Calais’ ferry port the evening sun beat down and we took ourselves to the sea front for a last supper while the ferries came in and went, disappearing over the horizon into a pink, candy floss sky.
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Waiting in the ferry lines and seeing the arrivals pouring down the ramp gave me a pang of regret, for while I was looking forward to going home and familiarising myself with our house I knew I’d miss the thrills and spills of exploring.

So it was ‘au revoir’ Europe. Can’t wait for next time…;)

 

Lower Your Expectations!

A wonderful lady I worked with years ago sometimes used to say ‘Lower your expectations’. She would use this phrase whenever we felt jaded or that events were taking a downward turn. It was intended to be droll-and it was, because it always brought a smile to our faces.

But the idea of lowering expectations is not without advantage. If I consider a worst case scenario in life then the outcome will either be a] as I expected or b] not as bad as I expected, both of which are better than a disappointment.

I can apply this approach to all aspects of life. We have just embarked on a new expedition into Europe, intending to travel in directions hitherto unexplored [by us]. The preparations for this odyssey seem endless and difficult, partly due to it’s being the first major road trip of the year and partly because my brain is losing its propensity to be sharp. I appear to spend a great deal of time writing lists and forgetting to add items, or writing lists that prompt further lists. I begin a task and become distracted by another. I forget what I do, forget how to prepare.

Eventually, however we seem to be ready. We get away on time. We arrive at the ferry port on time. The crossing is uneventful-pleasant, even. We breakfast, we slump, we snooze in the recliner seats of the quiet lounge [both of us having had a fitful and short night’s sleep]. The weather is warm and sunny. This is a bonus, since cold, wet weather was expected for a few days at least. See what I mean? Expect the worst, lower your expectations.

It is easy to see why many prefer the simple process of buying ready-made holidays. Everything is done; everything laid on. You are transported somewhere, you are ferried to sights and brought back [as on cruise ships]. You follow an itinerary someone else has prepared. You look, perhaps take snaps, perhaps buy a souvenir. You are taken home.

The road trip requires planning and preparation. We [mostly Husband] plot each day’s route, we search out possible destinations, we fuel up, shop, service the van [water, waste]. We make decisions, try to agree. We problem-solve. Sometimes we are successful. In the two days since we began we’ve had to overcome irritants like lights that will not switch off, devices that bleep in the middle of the night, van alarm going off [also in the night] and no internet access. Above all we have to adjust back into camper-van life, remembering where we store stuff, routine when we park up, routine when we leave each day.

But we know we must make our brains and bodies work for us if we want to get into healthy old age and I imagine that it’s one of the reasons there are so many ancient motor-homers out here in Europe, just like us. Oh-and there’s the freedom of course. Who wants to be told what to do and where to go? Now what on earth has happened to all my ‘Word’ documents???

 

Think Yourself Lucky!

It is generally agreed by those of us who live here in the UK that 2017’s summer has been, at best, disappointing. Other than one or two early heat waves, when you had to take to the shade or expire, the traditional July and August holiday’s weather has been unpredictable, heavy showers alternating with wind and cloud, occasional bright patches but never a sustained period of warm sunshine.

This has been good for some; UK tourism is booming [see last week’s post] with ancient monuments, museums, attractions and theme parks all doing well. Other customary, outdoor summer events such as festivals have fared less well, with many having been cancelled altogether.

As a teenager and a young adult I adored hot weather. There was never a hint that exposure to hot sun could be in any way detrimental to health. On a [somewhat abortive, though that is a different story told in an older post] trip with fellow students to southern Europe I equipped myself with some dubious tablets that purported to allow tanning without burning, thus imbuing me with the confidence to strip off and fry myself to a crisp. Later, with the advent of sunblock creams I became more circumspect but nevertheless continued to sunbathe in the interests of maintaining a glowing, tanned skin.

For many retirees a home in the sun is a longed for goal with the result that areas like the Spanish Med are crowded with ageing ex-pats, [many of whom were further encouraged by the ability to draw their pension and enjoy free healthcare whilst living in Europe-benefits that may not, now sustain].

Despite the few remaining climate change deniers, such as Trump, our weather patterns are altering. We bemoaning Brits may grumble about our ropey summers, but southern Europe has begun to experience heat waves with unprecedented frequency and to extremes. Will those who abandoned Great Britain for warmer climes be able to manage life in the dangerously high temperatures we have begun to see?

Myself, while I love the sunshine as much as anyone else I am no longer able to tolerate the punishing heat that I used to enjoy when young and this is a feature of older age. Extreme heat is dangerous for older people as it is for the very young. We travel widely in Europe, Husband and I-but outside of high summer, in late spring or early autumn, when the edge of heat is no longer there, nor are the crowds.

I am as guilty as anyone of moaning about the British weather, but perhaps we Brits should consider ourselves lucky that we are not yet too drought-ridden and baked to live our lives here. We are starting to see the impact of too much rain on our country’s crops and we are prey to floods but other, less lucky parts of the world are seeing far worse conditions. Perhaps a cloudy, breezy, showery summer is not so bad after all!

 

A Tourist in my Birthplace

So last weekend we became tourists in the city of my birth. Strictly speaking, since, like my siblings I was born at home in a house with the aid of midwife I was not born in Salisbury but nine miles away in what was then a small village but officialdom does not accept small villages as places of birth, so Salisbury it is.

We parked up in a site overlooking ancient Old Sarum [http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/old-sarum/]

Clearly, Salisbury and its environs are a magnet for overseas visitors as we were surrounded by vans and tents from Germany, The Netherlands, France and Italy. So we are not yet ostracised to the extent that ‘etrangers’ will not set foot upon our shores; rather that we are, I suppose cheap for visitors from the EU.

We followed a nifty, easy cycle path down into the city, where I dragged Husband around in a search for my old Aunty Ethel’s house, long since occupied by others. Aunty Ethel was one of that breed of spinster aunts whose vocation was to care for elderly relatives, which she did in return for occupying a small apartment upstairs in their house. She also worked on my uncle’s market stall, as did my mother, on Saturdays. My father would then bring me on the bus to ‘Miss Pinegar’s’ ballet school for my morning session, after which he’s buy me ‘99’ ice cream in the market and I’d sit at the back of the stall swinging my legs and eating it. The stall backed on to a second hand bookstall which, together with the ice cream combined to create small-girl heaven.

I’d been convinced that the house had an arched porch but memory is a fickle attendant; the arched houses occupy the opposite side of the terraced road. Aunty Ethel’s had a square porch. The road now seems quaint and fashionable, having been gentrified and tiddled up.

We cycled up the steep slope to The Wyndham Arms, once a lowly backstreet corner pub, now with a trendy, real-ale, Tripadvisor reputation and ate at ‘The Wig and Quill’ where banners announced a third birthday party [for the pub] to be hosted by ‘Beaky’ who we assume is Beaky from the 60s pop quintet ‘Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mick and Titch’. We consumed our [presentable] steaks as a trickle of blinged-up party arrivals entered for the celebrations and it was time to leave.

Next day we undertook a hilly cycle to Amesbury, narrow lanes along the Avon Valley and some steep climbs causing intermittent knee protests. The rolling English countryside is voluptuous in late summer, full blown oaks and beeches in their last Hurrah before Autumn begins to get a grip. Arriving at Amesbury we quickly decided that there is absolutely no reason whatsoever for visiting this unremarkable, small town and I imagine the population might be on their knees every day in a debt of gratitude to Wetherspoons, whose establishment dominates the main street and who are able to provide a decent cup of coffee.

On the return and after more hills we stopped at The Bridge Inn for a glass of cider in the sun, with a view of the river flanked by weeping willows and bulrushes. Beautiful!

 

Speaking the Lingo and Talking the Talk-

A language cannot be hard to learn. A child can do it.

OK, although most linguistics experts agree that children are quicker and learn new languages with ease than adults.

Of course there are some notoriously difficult languages, such as Japanese and many of the obscure African languages that utilise clicks and other sounds that are not in our sound vocabulary, but where European languages are concerned I don’t believe there is anyone who cannot become familiar enough to understand and make themselves understood in a relatively short space of time. And while heavy work is made of conjugating verbs and swatting up vocabulary lists in schools it is only necessary to spend some time living, working or travelling in a country to learn the basics of that country’s language.

For some, however even the radical step of moving to a new country does not lead to language acquisition-you have only to visit some of the areas of the Spanish Mediterranean with large concentrations of British to see this. Many ex-pats remain solely English-speakers in spite of adopting a new land. Heaven knows what the Spanish think of this…

Our latest trip covered a number of countries and languages, prompting some challenging demands on my inconsistent language skills. As a schoolgirl I learned French, German, Latin and Spanish with varying degrees of success. That I had most success with French I attribute to long summer camping holidays in France with non-French-speaking parents. Like many I gave up on Latin early, seeing no point in continuing and I was a miserable failure at German, whose grammar mystified me [and still does]. The Spanish was an add-on to A-levels, and seemed easy for being similar to French.

We travelled across Northern France into Germany, then Austria. Unlike the French, Germans are not only excellent English speakers but are also happy to speak in English-particularly, at this time on the subject of Brexit. ‘We DO NOT understand the Brexit!’ they told us on more than one occasion. What are we to say? We could only agree that, no, neither could we. On then to Italy. Italian is a most beautiful and musical-sounding language, enough to make anyone want to learn it for the sheer pleasure of speaking it, but for anyone who has learned Spanish the similarity between the two languages leads to much initial confusion. I consistently muddled my ‘grazie’ with my ‘gracias’, my ‘due’ with my ‘duo’ and my ‘per favore’ with my ‘por favor’ etc. After a week or so I fared better and, armed with the ‘Lonely Planet Phrase Book’ was able to stumble through some phrases. I felt inordinately proud when my much practised ‘lavatrice giettone, per favore’ resulted in the swift handing over of a washing machine token, more so when ‘prego’ was the response to my ‘grazie’.

Of course most people understand a nod or a shake of the head and when one set of words doesn’t work another way of saying something often does. And we are yet to meet anyone who doesn’t understand a smile-

 

Snippets from Four Countries-

I last visited Strasbourg as a teenager. But Husband had never been and one advantage of becoming ancient is that you can revisit old haunts and not remember a thing about them.

       It is a gloriously hot, blue-skied day. We are able to cycle from the site into the city, which is thronged with shouting school parties but still gorgeous with its covered bridges, medieval architecture and sparkling waterways. We stop to rest our feet [a feature of sightseeing these days] at a table outside a bar in a pretty square and remember why we like to travel this way.

        Next day we are off through Germany, taking in the edge of the Black Forest, which is all cuckoo clocks and cow bells, and catching some squally rain as we climb higher, the temperature having plummeted as we arrive at Salem, near the Bodensee, our stop for the night. Just outside the village on a hillside, the site has a small bar with the type of German beer that Husband likes. The night turns icy enough for our little heater and extra blanket to be barely adequate.

The following afternoon we cycle to the Bodensee, a magnet for German tourists though precious few foreigners. Few places are open but look set to begin the season in earnest for Easter weekend. We lose the next day’s travel due to over-excited consumption of beer, but set out for the German/Austrian border on the next morning, settling for Wertach as an overnight stop. It is a pleasant, Alpine farming town. I am startled by the cigarette machine in the washing up area.

As we are leaving an older German fellow tells me ‘We CAN NOT understand the Brexit’ and I can only reply that ‘No, neither can we’.

On to Austria, a slow crawl across the Fern Pass on an ill-chosen, holiday Saturday. But the scenery compensates for the traffic jam-snowy peaks glistening in the sun, ski runs zig-zagging down under gondolas and ski-lifts. Our chosen destination-Feriensparadies on the Natter See- is elusive, confusing Mrs Garmin, our austere SATNAV lady, who sends us off up winding mountain tracks filled with pole-wielding hikers in an unlikely quest for the site. At last we arrive to Feriensparadies, which justifies its coy location by being spectacular; a sun soaked hollow in the snow peaks with pitches facing the cherry blossom fringed lake. The staff are charming, the views are breath-taking, a free shuttle bus can take us to Innsbruck, where we can ride the funicular and gawp at the splendid medieval buildings and the services are nothing short of luxurious. All power to the Austrians!

Regrettably, after 2 nights it is time to crack on-and so on to Venice, which I don’t need to describe since a great deal has been written elsewhere about this extraordinary, watery city. It is another re-visit for me and new to Husband. As we meander the alleyways and over the bridges with our cornettos I ask him if it lives up to the hype. ‘90%’ he says, not revealing the 10% in which it fails…