Inmates and freezing France

As I write we are now three full days into our ‘voyage’ stunning forests and mountains whizz into a blur through the passenger window and, just like all other long journeys, eventually even the most stunning scenery bores the eyes…so with the outlines of the trees perching on mountains etched into my brain I turn my attention to writing up our journey before I forget it all…

So far our journey has consisted of incredibly friendly people, breathtaking views and freezing night time temperatures. We knew calamities would arise on this journey, and we started off well by arriving in France without a French road map… With us we had every book on France you can imagine (and any other country you care to mention within Europe)… A fantastic spiral bound 200 page road atlas of Italy but nothing for France…!  Upon realising our dilemma we also realised our European travel card could not be actioned for a further two hours, leaving us in a Roscoff service station at 7.30am with only a ten euro note to buy water and a map and get on our way, typically our style we are still yet to buy a more detailed map than the one we could afford at that moment, so we are making our way merrily around France with one of the a cheap fold out variety which accurately identifies all of the motorways in France (to save toll money we decided before leaving that we were not using any of the motorways…) we are navigating our way around France with a map which tells us exactly which roads not to take… We have had a child with temperatures in the top 30’s and I’ve damaged my thumb somehow which now means I cannot pick things up in my left hand…the car charger for the only phone which works here has broken, the ‘universal’ one we purchased from a service station here seems to actually be universal in another universe and, as we have no way of hooking up to the mains, any charge we have has to be used wisely and eeked out for as long as possible…other than that we are making good progress, the client in Monaco doesn’t want the tipi until Monday, and lucky too as our progress has been slow and steady hence we are still over 450k away from her today (Sunday)…

We scraped though the check-in at port in Plymouth as a standard vehicle, trying to merrily hush the comments from a terribly jolly fellow in his Chrysler who (standing right next to the check in booth) loudly joked that ‘the check in guys were just looking for their extra long tape measure to check the length of us…!’ Doing our best to be direct without looking hurried we scanned the dogs microchips, went through the standard tipi jokes and Native American ‘wah-wah!’ war cry, smiled and thanked our stars that our check in agent had taken a liking to us and chose to ignore his colleague who muttered ‘that way over 7 metres!’ on several occasions… Off we went at 10pm, loading our 7.8metre steed into the hull of the boat… Watered the dogs quickly (they had to stay in the van throughout the journey) and after several excited trips running around the boat, looking at every shop and waving England goodbye from the deck, Thomas dragged us off to our cabin where we would get our heads down for the night, in the morning we would wake up in France ready for a marathon journey!….

Of course dropping an hour from our limited sleep quota sleep didn’t help the fact that we dragged ourselves out of our slumber the next morning late and with gritty eyes, neither did the fact that the crossing was rougher than rough. I woke up sliding down the bed at some ungodly hour and continued to doze on and off all night with bizarre dreams which flitted somewhere between Titanic-esque and a living picture of The Great Wave off Kanagawa… Little did we know when we all blearily sat at the table in the self serve cafe the next morning we were only third from the front for the people to first exit the boat, the groans were louder than the revving engines as we tumbled down the steps to our parking level, fumbling for keys and dropping items of clothing in the rush to try to get started and moving before facing the shame of being overtaken while still inside the ferry…

Our first journey took us just under 500k from Roscoff as far as Saumur on the bank of the River Loire and within Troglodyte Valley where mushrooms are the local produce thanks to the 10tonnes of horse poo dumped daily by the 400 horses kept at the local stables, currently used by the Olympic team and home to Cadre Noir ‘dancing’ horses. Here we stayed on a deserted campsite on an island in the middle of the river, which was due to close the following day… Us knackered and Tom wide awake after an unbroken sleep the night before, he finally gave into sleep around 10pm and we woke the next morning raring to go and enjoying some much needed sunshine…

Another 400k driven taking in scenery as it flashed by. The Limousin region is stunning, the countryside so pretty, we passed stunning aires all with just enough people sleeping over to feel safe, but not so many to feel crowded, a cafe nearby, toilets, electric and water, onwards we pressed, each aire more idyllic  than the last, each with more incredible views… ‘This is what it’s all about’ we thought, freedom of the open road, driving your home around, stopping whenever the urge took you… Onwards we pressed to Aubusson, roughly 90k on from Limoges and 90k before Cleremont-Ferrand where we would join the motorway to Montpellier and hopefully make up some time on our current 40mph average speed… Our guide book said “a wonderful aire, one of the nicest in the area, free water, electric, wc and showers and just a short walk from idyllic historic town with creperies and cafes which are open all year” as we pulled into the carpark dusk was upon us, the ‘camping cars’ sign definitely directed us to the carpark and the signs upon entry told us this was indeed our aire, the cafes and creperies ‘open all year’ were closed…’all year’ meant not in November, in just the same way ‘water, electric and WC’ meant an old clapped out, un-lit portaloo in the darkest corner of the Tarmac slab…. Still, parked next to a couple of smart looking motorhomes  we set up the table and cooked dinner, feigning enthusiasm that this would be fine for the night…now…I’m not sure if it was the number of men walking around with chainsaws slung over their shoulders (this was just hard grafting men straight in from a days tree felling among the thousands of trees which lined the roads on the way down- of course) or the endless testosterone fuelled screeching and wheel spinning up and down the road next to the carpark bringing flashbacks to the time I parked up for the night near the beach in Lawn – Australia, only to be rudely awoken by the local ‘youf’ doing handbrake turns only feet from my van in the pitch black, daring each other to get closer with each go, while the others circled around blocking us in and screaming ‘WE’RE OUT OF CONTROL’ through a megaphone until the local blue heelers arrived flashing lights and all to tell them to ‘rack off’ … But by the time Tom’s bed was made up, dinner was eaten and the washing up done the town and carpark had a bad atmosphere and upon seeing someone vanish into the shadows to take a piss no more than 10ft away from my boy who was merrily sat on our bed playing with his toys, it was decided the flickering orange glow from the lights overhead was not enough to let me rest easy for the night…The trouble is, driving around with a camping loo, a tipi and 4 sets of tipi poles at 24ft long you draw attention to yourself, and sleeping in carparks on a Saturday night in the wrong place was going to draw the wrong attention…  up we packed and off we drove well into the night, following the upwards winding roads, following nothing more than gut instinct which told me to take a turning up a most unlikely looking lane… finally after two hours of driving, here was home for the night, we stumbled upon an aire in the middle of nowhere, perfectly secluded away from town crowds but secure in front of a large old farmhouse and shared with just one other motor home who’s inside lights were glowing and booming male voices were so welcoming… Finally settled down for the night we dozed on and off to the sound of a huge rave in the field no more than half a mile away, quiet enough for a child to sleep but too loud for an adult to totally switch off too…the noise being a wonderful comfort however that we were in a safe and happy spot for another freezing night of no sleep…Incidentally Thomas is warm as toast with a double thickness sleeping back, thermals, pyjamas and two thick blankets…which he seems to enjoy gloating about each and every morning…

Today we have travelled 450k (completely unwashed) 1400 metres in altitude over mountains, crossing bridges and going through tunnels all giving the most picture perfect views teamed with the smell of hot break-pads and burning clutch as we made our steep 5 mile descent…we made Montpellier for dinner time, leaving us a four hour drive tomorrow to put up the tipi and then be free of time restraints as we make our way down to Tuscany…maybe sticking to a rigid schedule is the cure to not getting ourself into such trouble?…I speak too soon of course…our sleeping place tonight is a Formula 1 hostel style hotel just outside Montpellier, the fence around the parking area is topped with razor wire, there are CCTV cameras on every corner and the view from our window is a very, very large and gloomy looking prison… 8pm must be lock in time as I can hear the inmates shouting to one another through the barred windows… So having driven around the corner, away from beady eyes to take the tipi canvasses off the roof to be locked in the van overnight, we retreat to bed, the dogs are thrilled not to be shut up in the van for the night, we are thrilled to know we have warmth and a hot shower in the morning in the shared facilities, we are safe, the hotel is very basic (costing 24euros for a 3bed room what can we expect) but it is clean and our beloved black steed is sitting outside at the mercy of anyone who happens upon her… Let’s hope she’s ok in the morning!!!

For now we will bid you adieu and I will try to add photos as soon as I work out how! Xxx

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