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!

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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.

TV-the opium of the masses…

                When you consider how long ago television was invented it is surprising how little about it has really changed, especially the world’s love affair with it. I imagine you could go into the most deprived, squalid hovel in the most impoverished shanty town on the planet, with ten people sharing one crowded room to sleep, cook, eat and bathe and there would be a TV rigged up somehow with scrumped electricity, the only prized item in the family. What will they be watching? Football, adverts for cars and reality TV shows; Botswana ‘X Factor’ or Delhi ‘Big Brother’.

                A month’s trip to traditional holiday destinations off season demonstrates how reliant so many are on television for their entertainment needs. No matter what nationality-Swedish, Dutch, German, British-one of the first items to be organised once they have positioned the motorhome within the emplacement is the aerial, or the satellite dish. Our own entertainment was partly addressed by watching the Austrian couple next door spending several hours attempting to place their satellite dish in a location that would offer them Austrian TV. Austrian TV? A version of ‘Masterchef’ with viener schnitzel, perhaps, or ‘Austria’s got Talent’ with lederhosen-clad dancers and an oompah band? Early next morning the Austrian couple voted with their wheels, presumably returning to their homeland in disgust and hopes of watching ‘I’m an Austrian Celebrity [?]-Get me out of Here’ in the comfort of their living room.

                I understand why this is. Much of the South of France is still closed, especially in the evenings. You can spend hours tramping the streets searching for a bar that has not yet pulled its tables off the pavement and closed its doors. We rely heavily on the PMU bars-open for gamblers; as long as the racing lasts. In the malls and the streets leading to the promenade the cafes and bistros sport faded scraps of paper scrawled with the same message: ‘Fermé. Ouvert Marche’. But none of them is. Elsewhere there are signs of opening-roofs being repaired and signs getting spruced up, though as yet no pressions getting pulled or vats of moules steaming.

                In our wondrous van there is a TV, a novelty for us and with an aerial that can access whatever local TV stations are broadcasting. In a rush of excited enthusiasm we sat down to watch French television, pretending that it would be helpful in improving our French conversation skills; but interest in the news channel’s grindingly tedious coverage of Nikolas Sarkozy’s inflammatory remarks comparing France with East Germany soon began to pall and we returned to our usual in-van activities of internet, novels, music, writing, cooking, eating and assessing the local wines-punctuated by forays into the neighbourhood to scour it for some evening life.

                Better. Better than slow death by TV. Maybe one day we will succumb…but not yet…

                 

               

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.

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-!

                

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!