Onwards and Southwards

We opt to spend some of our rest day at Chatel de Neuvre looking at the small town [or perhaps it’s a village?]- either way it’s a one street place, some commerce along the road and houses off the side roads. We have a stiff climb up to the top of the town, which takes considerably longer than seeing the sights. There’s a small shop, a bar and a salon, though nowhere to get a meal. We wander down a side street and happen upon a 13th century mill down a farm track. It’s a magnificent, half timbered building but we can get nowhere near it as appointments must be made to view it. It’s a luscious irony that there’s nothing to see in Chatel except this…and we can’t see it.

We move on and our next night is an unremarkable one in a site in the Rhone Valley at Anneyron, although too far from either the town or the river for any exploration. Next morning’s drive starts with a beautiful journey following the mighty Rhone, a magnificent, wide river, decaying ruins of towers and castles dotting the hillsides on either side. there are swathes of vineyards like a sea of vines stretching away and terracing the hills. It’s Cote du Rhone country. I’m thrilled to see a sign to ‘Crozes Hermitage’ which used to be my favourite red wine when I could drink it.

The RN is scenic but progress is slow and we opt for the motorway to get us down to Avignon, not having clearly decided whether to stay or not. Once we’re approaching the city though, we decide to stop over, at a site we’ve stayed in before, La Bagatelle. It’s on an island in the Rhone and we only need to cross a bridge [not the bridge] to get into city. The site hasn’t changed a bit and is just as antiquated and confusing as it ever was. Once we’ve managed to locate our pitch we wait a bit to go sightseeing. The heat is fierce.

This visit I’m much more impressed with beautiful, elegant Avignon; its marble pavements, grand, creamy architecture, vast squares and stunning views. The Rhone provides a wonderful setting. We manage a creditable wander around before settling under a cafe sunshade in front of the huge papal palace, where we can people watch and sip a cold drink. Sunday is an excellent day to walk around. The gardens above the palace are shady and provide great views of the river and surrounding countryside.

In the morning it’s time to move on again- to a seaside site at Sanary-sur-Mer, typically Riviera and with a sweeping quayside of restaurants and bars- a poser’s delight. We walk down the steep hill to explore the town, where stallholders are setting up for a night market. There seem to be large numbers of slender, elegant, smartly dressed single ladies here, Husband’s suggestion being that they’ve ditched their rich husbands, mine that perhaps they were never married to begin with. Husband thinks perhaps he’ll become a gigolo and I tell him that then I can ditch him, too…

We have one day left before we must leave mainland France, the ferry departing from Toulon. We’re in close range and get there in an hour or so, locating an aire where we can park to look at the town. But it’s hot and hard work and Toulon is not such a tourist draw as we’d imagined, so much of this stifling day is spent in chairs in the shade of the van until we go across the road to a fast food cafe and get burgers- greasy but essential. We won’t be embarking until 11.00pm.

The port of departure is close but seems impossible to get to. We follow another motorhome and they seem as confused as ourselves, there being a dearth of signage. At last I spot a ferry sign which appears to point the way through a sunken car park and though unlikely this is actually the way to port check-in. I flash my downloaded boarding pass and somehow we’re in the ferry queue and in for a loooooong wait for them to load. Eventually we’re driving up the ramp and into the mouth of the ferry…PHEW!!

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

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…