A Long Trek South

It’s that time of year. Once upon a time I’d have been looking in the shop windows and scowling at the ‘Return to School’ posters- or ‘Rentre d’ecole’ in France. I’d have been making reluctant moves towards dragging myself into my classroom and making attempts to sort it out, to install displays, to cluster tables, to assemble materials, to familiarise myself with what I’ve planned [seemingly eons ago at the end of last term], to prepare for the new school year. There was always a tiny frisson of anticipation mixed up with the heavy-heartedness of end of holiday feelings but overall there was always a regret; end of summer, like the finish of a riotous party where the empty bottles and glasses roll about, leaves beginning to drop and heavy morning dews.

Nowadays, though, it’s just the grandchildren welling up into excited anticipation at the prospect of new teachers and challenges. For we dropouts from employment it’s escape. Hopefully the most extreme heatwaves will have subsided, although there have been hefty storms crashing about the Med. Today, as we make preparations of a different kind, a soft, mizzly rain is enveloping the parched garden as if to say: ‘Go on- off with you!’ and so we’ll be obliging, heading southwards for a solid block of travel that will take us right into October.

So it’s an early start on this Wednesday morning, a roll on to the ferry [and we’re lucky to live so close to port], a coffee and down to the couchettes to relax the hours of the crossing away. It’s the busiest ferry this year, with many families of young children, toddlers galluping around the ship trailed by their weary parents. The salon is not as tranquil as it should be.

We make a brief detour to collect a SIM card from the Orange shop at Cherbourg then we’re off, making use of the easy motorways and packing in a half a day’s motoring before we search out our first stop- an aire in the countryside, the back of beyond. It’s quiet, an ex campsite, the dilapidated shower block half hidden in the trees. But there’s water and emptying and we’re sharing with just one other van, French.

The night is hot, sticky and restless but it’s a cloudy start as we prepare to move, although by the time we’re filling up with water the sun is out again. We’re in for a long haul of driving today- south and east, on route nationale for the first part then motorway. Husband has planned the route but has been ambitious, since the morning;s motoring is not swift. We press on in spite of the heat, stopping for combined coffee and lunch.

A long drive across a country is endlessly fascinating: the crops, the homes, the tiny villages and grand towns, chateaux, rivers, canals, vineyards. Often it’s tempting to stay instead of passing through. One village is advertising a ‘Feste de Boites de Lettres’. Who wouldn’t want to stay and attend a letterbox festival? But we need to press on for onward travel commitments.

There are a few irritants, like diversions and road works so that we’re obliged to revise the plan and find a nearer site for a rest day. I plump for Chatel de Neuvre, on the Allier river, but as we near Chatel we encounter a major road overhaul which throws us off course. I search frantically for an alternative crossing of the river, managing to spot a tiny back road just in the nick of time.

We find the site. It’s a little old campsite by the river, low on modernisation but strong on charm, the gravelly voiced receptionist showing us to a pitch overlooking the water. It’s warm and we eat outside watching the river roll by. Tomorrow we’ll take it easy, explore the town and stretch our legs…

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