Van Talk 4

After many satisfactory excursions in the Citroen van [see last week’s post], we determined that it may, now need a new owner. Its defective handbrake had led to some unnerving situations, especially on steep slopes. On the hefty climb from the ferry exit up the hill into Bonifaccio, Corsica my heart leapt into my mouth as I prayed that we wouldn’t need to stop!

Whilst we’d been exploring these Mediterranean islands and negotiating the terrors of Italian traffic, in idle moments, Husband had been perusing the pages of vans for sale and so it was that on our return [literally, because we returned to Dover, one of the UK’s premier ports] we went to view a new van. It felt almost treacherous to be parking our tried and tested and by now, battered, Citroen outside next to a potential successor, but ho hum, needs must.

We met the owner, Vic, a sturdy and cheerful man who did not appear to be the fittest individual. An ex taxi driver, turns out he’d been the victim of a road accident and had embarked on a van conversion as a recovery project.

On the outside, the white Fiat Ducato looked smart and unsullied by contretemps with other vehicles, Italian or otherwise. The interior had been beautifully finished and was complete with sockets with USB chargers, a posh sound system and a few clever additions like fold- down worktops. The only snag we could see was the seating/bed arrangement, which looked too complicated to contemplate, a jigsaw of red and white cushions and boards. Vic was nonplussed, assuming that all van users prefer 2 single beds.

Had he used the van? I wanted to know. But, just as the previous sellers, Vic and his wife had spent one night only in the project van, on a trip to the races, sleeping in single beds. They hadn’t cooked, showered or spent any significant amount of time in it. And it was clear to see. The cooker and oven were pristine as purchased, everything else immaculate.

We bought it, then put our beleaguered Citroen onto Ebay, having washed, polished, scrubbed and generally tarted it up. It did scrub up well, elicited a great deal of interest and sold- but to a couple who used it to live in while they renovated a house, which seems sad. The old van had plenty of life left [although it was in serious need of a handbrake!].

Husband is partial to pottering about in the van, making improvements, which he has done. We got an excellent upholsterer to sort out the sofa/bed problem, dispensing with the red and white jigsaw of cushions and opting for a smart grey, which matched the interior. Now we’ve done a lot of miles in it, showering, cooking, exploring, relaxing. It feels as much like home as home does and is the perfect holiday vehicle.

Our horizons widened further with the aquisition of the Fiat, becoming more ambitious than even Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica. Where did we go? More next week…

Grace is also known as the novelist, Jane Deans. Her new novel, The Conways at Earthsend is now out and available from Amazon, Waterstones, Goodreads, W H Smith, Pegasus Publishing and many more sites. Visit my website: janedeans.com or my author page on Facebook: (1) Jane Deans, Novellist, Short Fiction and Blog | Facebook.

Van Talk 1

We became owners of our first campervan in 2008, after years of travelling Europe with tents. The transition was not down to dislike of tent camping- far from it, so reluctant was I to give up sleeping in a tent that we continued to take a tent for a while especially for sleeping purposes. And I do still hanker after that wonderful feeling of drifting off to sleep with a cool breeze wafting through the fabric of a tent, although nowadays getting up off a squishy, inflatable mattress would be likely to cause more difficulty than it did years ago!

We were in Croatia, staying on the island of Korcula. We’d arrived late and had to pitch up in the dark then cook a meal by lantern light outside. The space we’d been allocated was only just large enough for our tent and it had been a tricky operation. That same trip, we’d survived thunderstorms without as much as a drop of rain penetrating the tent walls, but on the Korcula site, next door to us, a VW campervan with a pop-up roof was parked. We got to thinking how simple it was to park up and hook up. How much more of the year we’d be able to travel. We were sold on the idea of a van.

We got our first van from Ebay, a VW lovingly converted for a project, by someone in Sussex. At this point we’d very little idea of what to expect from a van and how things might work. As it turned out, the conversion, whilst pretty, was neither practical nor efficient. There was no means of accessing the front [cab] of the van from the rear. There was nowhere to stash a porta-potty [essential for us!] except the worktop area! Just imagine- we had to perch on the portaloo on the top of the worktop- a proper throne indeed!

Worst of all though, as we discovered on a trip to Agen, France, the home-made, blue, vinyl roof leaked. This was a shock, after our watertight experiences of the tent. I was horrified when, during a thunderous deluge when pitched up by the beautiful River Lot, we were woken by rain inside the van. We wound up having to use an umbrella over our heads inside, which is a comical image to recollect now but was no laughing matter at the time.

We took the van to a conversion expert, who made a wonderful [if expensive] job of installing a new, purpose made pop-up roof and side access cupboards, sink and cooker, enabling us to move around all of the van and, importantly, have somewhere to perch on the portaloo. Thereafter we travelled all over the place, in all kinds of weather. When we were ready for a little more comfort and some additional facilities we sold it on to a couple who wanted it for weekends away. Husband, especially, mourned its passing bitterly. But the time had come.

Grace is also known as the novelist, Jane Deans. Her new novel, The Conways at Earthsend is now out and available from Amazon, Waterstones, Goodreads, W H Smith, Pegasus Publishing and many more sites. Visit my website: janedeans.com or my author page on Facebook: (1) Jane Deans, Novellist, Short Fiction and Blog | Facebook.

Housekeeping Secrets along the Road

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           Any lengthy foray into Europe requires aspects of domestic life to be undertaken; there is no getting away from it. Laundry, cleaning, shopping and [depending on circumstances] a degree of food preparation and cooking are all part of an extended expedition.
Luckily most sites offer the necessary facilities for such mundane household tasks as washing clothes and bed linen, with washing machines and driers commonplace-for a price. In spite of this we travel with spares for bedding and towels. We also have a line, clothes drier, pegs, washing capsules and hand-wash detergent. How organised we are!
Vans are equipped with fridges [ours will function perfectly well for a couple of days without electric hook-up] although they are seldom as large as in the average kitchen, so we supplement it with a cold box and aim to shop every 3 or 4 days, which often, though not always coincides with moving from one destination to another.
We don’t leave home without a basic ‘store-cupboard’ of ingredients; mine include: mixed herbs, English mustard powder, Oxo cubes, peppercorns, gravy powder, olive oil, cornflour, tomato puree, tinned vegetables, pasta and rice. We take industrial quantities of tea bags owing to the poor quality of ‘Liptons’ from which 2 bags are necessary to make one, weak cup of tea. Anything else is widely available in the supermarche.
Wandering around a French supermarket doesn’t feel too much of a chore as long as certain aspects are understood. A trolley needs a euro coin to be released; we are fortunate to possess 2 plastic, pretend euros that for some inexplicable reason we call ‘sniglets’, given to us at ‘La Chaumiere’, a Flanders site that is unique for a number of reasons. The supermarket car park must be accessible by van [ie no height barrier] and must have enough space. We look for an area where other vans are parked. Then we ascertain whether fruit and vegetables must be weighed and labelled before the checkout, as nobody wants to arrive with half a trolley-load unprepared.

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Larger ‘hypermarkets’ will often have large vats of delicious concoctions such as paella that can be bought and re-heated. There will also be huge fish counters with mountains of mussels, melancholy crabs and lugubrious lobsters as well as acres of assorted cheeses. So there is never any need to go hungry-

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At the boulangerie a modicum of restraint is always required. Some days we allow ourselves a pastry. I attempt to confine myself to croissants but am inclined to succumb to the pleasures of ‘pain au raisins’ or ‘pain au chocolat’ [Husband’s favourite] on occasion. The French have a proud tradition of ‘artisan’ bread and the array of different types of baguettes or grands pains can be confusing.
Last [but not least] is the beer and wine supply. I confess to being a lightweight these days and may choose a single bottle of white for myself. Husband favours ‘Leffe’ beer and red wine. In these alcohol-enlightened times, even in France the supermarkets are beginning to offer ‘sans alcool’ varieties, which can be very good.
Intermarché, Leclerc, Auchan, Carrefor, Super-U and the ubiquitous Lidl. We wonder what their British equivalents might be? Leclerc would seem to be the equivalent of Sainsbury’s, Super-U more of a Tesco?
For many the demands of shopping and preparing meals while away would not constitute a holiday, but they have not sat outside on warm, light September evenings with beautiful views, sampling the produce that is on offer. And when we feel like it-and the location provides a choice of venues [as last night] we dine out.

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!

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.

En route …and more…

                Postings may well be intermittent for the next few weeks. This is due to our attempt to make an escape from the continuing winter of the UK and undertake one of our frequent journeys south. At the moment we are somewhere in mid-France, a journey we have made too many times to count, having spent more weeks holidaying in France than anywhere else-either en route to somewhere or as a destination in itself.

                I can still remember the feverish excitement of my first foray into ‘abroad’ with my parents, when I was fourteen. Back then it seemed unutterably glamorous and thrilling to be driving on to a cross channel ferry, showing my passport, going through customs and entering the other world that was a foreign country. I seem to think we were boldly striking out to Switzerland, via France; staying in dark, olde worlde hotels in out-of-the-way places, attempting to communicate [I recall it was all down to me, the ‘expert’ after 2 whole years of learning French], trying to decode the menu, tentative tastes of the strange, unrecognisable fare we’d ordered. My father made the mistake of idly pressing a button, only to summon the elderly chambermaid up the stairs-an event that rendered us helpless with mirth and my father reduced to red faced embarrassment.

                We’ve made the trip too often now to sustain that kind of novelty. We are accustomed to the long drive to Dover via the M25, the grey, choppy traversal of the channel and the less than lovely entrance to the port of Dunkirk. Well aware of the canteen food, we take lunch with us. On arrival we know there will be a slow crawl out at ‘Gravelines’-the unlovely environs. Sometimes we go straight out via the coast, by way of Calais. This time we’ve come across to Lilles then down. Either way you have to travel across part of flat, French Flanders. Flanders has a language and a charm that is all its own, although it is only to be discovered by plunging into the bucolic, agricultural  hinterland, where the views are all reminiscent of a van Eyck or a Brueghel painting. This is a safe, sturdy landscape with fields of stocky, white cattle, solid, ploughed clods of mud studded with heaps of manure. There are clusters of houses surrounding squat churches and neat, industrious farms.

                Sometimes we stop to spend a night or two at a hamlet where a couple have built a campsite –and a reputation as gregarious and extrovert hosts. The land is flat for cycling, with quiet lanes or tracks by canals. There are peaceful roads from one village to the next and an occasional, small bar-open if you’re lucky. The area is overlooked by most people but in the summer it can be a gem of a place to escape to.

                But we are not staying this time. The weather is no different. We are heading south as far as necessary to get warm sun, or at least warm. Fingers crossed…