Van Talk 2

I’m sitting here in our current van, writing, feet up on the comfortable bench sofa- my default evening position, laptop across my legs.

This van is number three. In last week’s post I described how we came to become owners of our first van, a VW and how we modified it for our comfort and our needs.

If things had turned out differently we might still be using a VW van. I’m sure that were it not for me, Husband would certainly have stuck with VWs with their dinky, hip looks, iconic engine sound, compact size and a certain nippiness. It transpired, however that a chronic health condition I got diagnosed with in 2014 required more van comforts, such as a bathroom and toilet. For those curious enough to want to know here is a post from way back when I was terrorised by the disease: https://gracelessageing.com/2014/12/07/journey-to-the-centre-of-the-colon-a-gastric-odyssey-with-apologies-to-jules-verne/

In any case, the upshot of it all was that we branched out into unknown territory- a panel van. Again, it was an ebay purchase, a Citroen. This time Husband ventured up to Hull, in the north of England, to have a look at the vehicle. At home, I was obliged to rely on his judgement plus the ebay photos, which did portray a handsome, luxurious interior and- most importantly- a shower and toilet cubicle. Once more, this was a home-made conversion and once more, the van had barely been used since the work was done.

But there was one stunning difference. The van was perfect for us as it was; no need for expensive, corrective work or re-modelling. And besides having what was now a necessity- a shower plus loo cubicle- it had an oven below its three gas burners, two sumptuous sofas in the back and a TV! We’d never missed a TV in the VW van, but were not about to remove it. The bed, however did take a little longer than the ‘rock-n-roll’ bed in the VW, involving inserting a plank into the space between the sofas and turning the sofa cushions over. Once converted into a vast double bed it induced a supremely wonderful sleep with the added joy of waking to a view up and out of the skylight, which might reveal sky and stars, clouds or a glorious tree canopy.

The acquisition of the bigger van opened up a whole new angle on places to stay. Now we could be self-sufficient, no more reliance on campsites for showers and the rest. In Europe [although not in the UK] we’d be able to use ‘aires’. For the uninitiated, aires are places that motorhomes or campervans can park up for overnight stays for either a very modest charge or no charge at all. In France, especially, they are everywhere, towns and villages offering parking, waste disposal and water in a designated area. In most other European countries there are plenty of aires, too. We’ve stayed in the centre of beautiful Reims, where a short stroll takes you to any number of Champagne bars, beside any number of canals and rivers, overlooking rugged coastlines in Sicily- hundreds of great views and access to bars and restaurants if we want.

Of course we still use sites. We often spend long enough away to need laundry facilities and a few extra services. And we have our favourites, the ones we return to because of their position. So where did we go with our new van? Wait and see…

Grace is also known as the novelist, Jane Deans. Her new novel, The Conways at Earthsendis now out and available from Amazon, Waterstones, Goodreads, W H Smith, Pegasus Publishingand 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.

Tales from the Tow Path

I’m continuing this mini series on favourite places with a look back at experiences along the Canal du Midi, France. The canal runs for 240 km from the lovely old city of Toulouse, south to beautiful Narbonne, connecting via a shorter section, the Canal de Robine to the Mediterranean. There is a corner along this shorter section where waterways merge and it is here that a gorgeous old stone cottage stands, crumbling and neglected, so that whenever we’ve cycled past I like to imagine living there between the two canals in the green, watery space.

Taken bit by bit we’ve cycled all of the canal at some time or other, the experiences punctuated with stops at picturesque or historic sights like medieval, walled Carcasonne, [touristy but fun] or Beziers with its stunning run of locks and the canal crossing the river via aqueduct.

Cycling canal tow paths is not challenging and is unlikely to suit those who pedal purely for exercise, but for those who enjoy leisure cycling, where scenery, tranquility, beautiful wildlife, occasional stops for coffees or beers and a chance to explore iconic and historic towns and cities it offers great rewards. The hardest slópe is a short pull up and over a lock, the trickiest navigation stray tree roots.

There are long stretches of canal where nothing much changes, avenues of trees- mostly planes but with some poplars or oaks, flank the sides and the banks are riotous with wildflowers.

Parts of the waterway are popular with boat users, usually hirers who are in the process of learning the business of lock negotiation, which can provide entertainment in the height of the season. It is mostly good-natured although we’ve had occasion to witness some disputes over lock access at times.

Other stretches are occupied by houseboats, like Dutch barges, but, unlike UK canals there are few narrow boats- we did, however watch one being taken down the nine Beziers locks once!

At the southern end of the Canal du Robine lies Narbonne Plage, from which cycle paths extend either way along the coast. We stayed on the beach site with a tent many years ago, a first stay in the area which was followed by several more, latterly with vans. The town, though not picturesque has all the ingredients necessary for a beach holiday [including lovely weather]. A preferable option for staying, and one we’ve taken up a few times, is Gruissan, which certainly is picturesque from any angle and has narrow, cobbled streets with interesting shops and bars, the streets winding up to a high pinnacle topped with an old church tower.

I’m sure we’ll return to parts of the Canal du Midi- not least because we’ve deliberated following the waterway north east from Toulouse at some point- although not, of course this year.

Another trip, however is imminent, here in our own UK [but not in England!]. We’ll be setting off as you read…watch this space!

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 author page on Facebook: (1) Jane Deans, Novellist, Short Fiction and Blog | Facebook

South West France- a Default Destination

Not everyone enjoys travel. But those who do like it for a plethora of reasons, not least because there is so much pleasure to be had from exploring a new destination. I believe this is due to our innate thirst to learn, which does not [as far as I’m concerned] become less with age.

Having said this, there are favourite places for all travellers that they love and return to repeatedly. Call these places ‘default’ destinations. For some it’s the theme parks of Florida, others love the Canary Islands or the Costas, or Scotland.

For us, the default is France, and more specifically, south west France, everywhere from south of Bretagne down to below Bayonne and around the corner to the Spanish border has been visited, stopped at, tried and tested. Some places have become regular stops over the years, like the unappealingly named, ‘Le Gurp’ in the Gironde, a municipal camp site, pine woods stretching out into dunes, a few minutes walk up over a hummock to a minimal row of shops and bars and then the vast expanse of creamy white beach. The Atlantic Ocean rolls huge, frothy waves onto the sand. To the left are concrete remnants of old military bunkers, liberally graffitied. To the right the beach romps away into the distance. Walk far enough and you’ll be right in among the naturists!

In the beginning we travelled with a tent- or rather a series of tents, then later with our first, small van [A VW pop-top, much beloved by Husband], later still, newer vans with enhanced facilities, and while we’ve explored much further afield and completed vastly longer trips, we continue [when possible] to revisit SW France.

The few bars offer just enough in terms of evening entertainment, a couple of beers and a meal seated out on the decking to watch the beach world pass by. We’ve been visiting Le Gurp since our tent travels of the 90s and I’ve no doubt we’ll return.

On the coast near Bordeaux, Le Porge is another favourite, recommended by an American we met at Bordeaux’s own site [a convenient, easy cycle from the centre] it also has a handful of beach bars and a wide, wild beach.

Further south, in Les Landes, we’ve enjoyed some wonderful times at camping St Martin, which again has direct access to an outrageously gorgeous beach plus a range of restaurants, bars and shops. From here, beautiful, paved cycle routes extend along the coast both ways, even and into miles of pine forests. The site provides pristine facilities and has become a firm favourite that we’ve returned to many times over the years.

Further north there are beautiful islands: Isle de Re, Isle de Noirmoutier and Isle d’Oleron, accessed via arching bridges and each with their own character; they are marvels for those who enjoy seafood and especially oysters [a pleasure I came late to but have embraced!].

There are countless, tiny places up and down the long Atlantic coast that we’ve stayed in; Conti Plage, Moliets, Arcachon- too many for me to recall. There are many cycle routes we’ve repeated, cafes and bars we’ve revisited, stores we’ve returned to.

On occasions we’ve left if the weather hasn’t been good, perhaps to dash south or drop around the corner and across to Portugal. But we know we’ll be back again, parking the van up in old haunts that feel like coming home.

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 author page on Facebook: (1) Jane Deans, Novellist, Short Fiction and Blog | Facebook

The Travelling Sofa of 2020

We must not complain. It’s been my silent mantra this year. Be glad we are safe, well and adequately fed, live in a lovely home in a pleasant place. Nevertheless this has been the first year for almost thirty years we haven’t crossed the water to Europe and set off, meandering with no fixed plans and half an eye on the weather forecast.

We have, in fact holidayed during 2020. Way back in February, in what seems like a century ago we took the plunge and went off on our pre-booked, long-haul, winter sun trip to Thailand, to Koh Samui. We deliberated, yes, worried, yes, took advice, yes-and then went, carrying face masks, hand gel and all the paraphernalia we have subsequently become accustomed to. It was tricky; hot, suffocating queueing in Bankok airport wearing masks, but now I look back and am so glad we braved it. Our ten days was wonderful, with no virus on Koh Samui, everything relaxed and easy.

In the summer we were able to get away to UK destinations in our camper van, starting with a cautious outing locally, down the coast to Osmington near Weymouth. We became more confident and travelled to Suffolk for a couple of weeks, looking at a part of the UK we are unfamiliar with. Later on we stayed in Cornwall, the sites busy but safe so that the trip felt almost ‘normal’. All these trips are documented on Anecdotage in previous posts.

We have not planned any travel for 2021. Unlike many, I’m not expecting a miraculous transformation of our viral fortunes just because it’s a new year. We are consistently [and annoyingly] reminded that ‘the virus doesn’t recognise Christmas’ so why should it then recognise that the date has changed?

Instead I’ve daydreamed, ogled at and imagined all the places I’d still love to go, as yet unvisited or fond favourites we’ve returned to many times. Here then, in no particular order is my list.

New to us

* Canada. We went to Canada for a few hours, once, walking across the border at Niagara from the USA. Perhaps we’ve watched too many snowy landscaped serial killer thrillers [including the excellent ‘Cardinal’] during lockdown, but I feel myself drawn to those vast frozen expanses and opportunities to see bears and whales. A rail trip through the Rockies would make a wonderful addition to a visit, too!

*Likewise, Iceland. Without the polar bears and whales but with hot springs and a chance to see the Northern Lights, perhaps. Scandinavia has been another source of serial killer TV entertainment this year, with Iceland’s own, bleak contributions.

*Santorini. I’ve visited many of Greece’s gorgeous islands, but have still to set foot on Santorini, with its towering cliffs and nearby volcano. I believe it does suffer from heavy tourist footfall but this does not prevent me dreaming about standing and taking in those views with a stunning sunset.

*St Petersburg. I may be basing my desire to see St Petersburg on screenings of films like Dr Zivago, but portrayals of this iconic city look impossibly romantic.

*Rorke’s Drift. I’d like to visit this site, famous for a battle during the Zulu wars, for personal reasons. An uncle on my mother’s side of our family won the VC at the battle, for defending the place [which was a hospital and stores]. He is depicted in the film, ‘Zulu’. I’ve little interest in safari holidays, but this is a part of Africa that tempts me. I’d also be excited to go to the Victoria Falls, of course!

*In due course, the USA may become visitable again, now that a sensible choice of president has been made. I’d love to see southern states and also to explore more of the East Coast.

Old Favourites

*The Italian Lakes. In 2019 we made a late summer trip to Lakes Lugano, Como, Iseo, Garda and Maggiore. Every lake was sheer magic, each with its own character and features. Each lake was a wrench to leave-until we arrived at the next. The lakes are like a siren call, with their beguiling sunsets and abundance of art. Let me at them!

*Croatia. A stunning, unbeatable coastline and islands. And Dubrovnik is one of my favourite European cities. Then there is Plitvice-a world heritage lake site with astonishing waterfalls, an unforgettable experience.

*Romania. Strictly speaking it isn’t an old favourite, as we whisked through on our return from the Greek mainland, but the brief glimpses we got made me long to go back and explore properly. Transylvania next time!

*South West France. We’ve spent more holiday time here than anywhere else, so much that there is nowhere from Bordeaux to the Spanish border we havent been! But it is beautiful and feels like home each time we go.

There are countless more places-places I only visit on my travelling sofa. I can’t complain. Until we are set free again I’ll continue to sofa-travel-and maybe you, reader can achieve some sofa-trips of your own? Have a Happy New Year in whatever way you are able!

Tented Travels 2. Early Days.

Looking at old photos from our 90s camping expeditions, it’s easy to assume that the sun always shone, that nothing ever went wrong, that there were no problems to overcome. The trips were lengthy [as they often are nowadays, too], we needed to work out where campsites were, public transport options, timetables, routes. There was no internet to consult, no smartphone to rely on, no holiday ‘rep’ to ask, no coach tour. We relied on publications like ‘Rough Guide’, which were ground-breaking in their day, as well as atlases and local tourist information.

A photo of that first, thrilling trip to Italy in my ancient Volvo with a roof-rack [which I’d been lucky to pick up at a local auction] shows a typical scene-pitched up old frame tent on a sunny, pine dotted site, a glimpse of the bikes [useful for local shopping and for leisure rides], a towel draped over a wing mirror. I’ve no clue where we were at that point, but I’d guess at the south of France, since the scene could be any one of hundreds of sites in that area and we’ve visited or passed through more there than anywhere else.

Back then our trips were confined to the long summer holidays, when we’d have the time to go long distance and forget about the stresses of our busy teaching jobs.

I do remember wandering around Monaco [my second visit] and pursuing a mission to get Husband’s passport stamped. This was something I’d got on my first visit and was heartily proud of, a piece of bureaucracy long since abandoned. We travelled via both the French and Italian Riviera, taking a look at St Tropez, Juan les Pins, Nice and Cannes en route.

That time, we drove as far as Viareggio, on the Italian west coast, stopping at a site belonging to an eccentric collector of vintage cars. We spent some time on the beach, as well as making trips to both Florence and Pisa. In those days I’d need to sleep a great deal to get over the long summer term of teaching I’d had and had perfected the art of beach snoozing, despite it leading to unsightly dribbling and snoring.

In one of those bizarre coincidences we happened upon one of my daughter’s school friends as we walked past a row of tourist stalls on the way to the Ponte Vecchio. She enthused to us over the array of tourist tat on display whilst standing with her back to Florence’s famously beautiful bridge with its umber and pink hues, straddling the Arno river. Walking across makes you think of how London Bridge must have been when it was similarly lined with shops and dwellings, their overhanging eves almost meeting in the middle.

We managed to be photographed in front of the leaning tower at Pisa without feeling obliged to pretend to hold it up. I suppose a passer-by must have taken the shot, since this was long before the ‘selfie’ era [regular readers will Know I’m not a devotee of the selfie cult].

So with very little in the way of swanky equipment we’d embarked on what was to be a long [and continuing] series of European tours, with many adventures thrown in!

Tented Travels-1

Before we got our first van, during our first few years together Husband and I toured European countries using tents. This was in part due to the penurious nature of our lives [we’d come together in similarly, newly-single circumstances] but also knowing that travel was a shared interest. We’d also both gained plenty of experience as campers from both childhood and as adults. I’d already single-handedly hauled four children off camping in my battered Volvo, with mixed results.

One of our very first trips as a couple was to the South of France and on round to the Italian Riviera, then Tuscany; an ambitious holiday to undertake in my ancient car with my parents’ cast-off frame tent. In its heyday, the tent had already been many miles, but still had some usage in it. Nowadays of course, tent technology is much advanced and bendy hoop tents have more or less taken over the camping market.

Husband, ever the map fanatic, is a competent route planner. We travelled down the centre of France. Overnight stops are tedious when using a frame tent, so we planned our sleepovers using Formule 1 hotels. For the uninitiated, these are remarkably cheap, chain hotels dotted all over France on industrial estates. They are clean and comfortable, and usually situated next to a budget chain restaurant, too. The drawback is that the rooms do not include en-suite and employ a colour-coded system for the bathrooms, which is tricky if you need the loo during the night, since the rooms are accessed by numbered code. We used to overcome this by leaving a shoe lodged in the doorway when we dived out at night. Red-doored rooms must use the red-doored lavatories, and so on, which might mean a bit of a trek.

On our odysseys through France we still see Formule 1 hotels, flanked by Buffalo Grills or some similar restaurant, although they’ve largely been superceded by Premier Classe hotels, superior only in that they have a tiny, integrated toilet and shower cubicle in one corner.

I’ve no idea whether, in these early days of tent touring, discount camping cards existed, but if they did we had no knowledge of them, no ACSI or Camping and Caravan Club cards. We simply did a day’s travel, stopped to look for a site and pitched up.

To begin with we had lilos, inflated by foot pump, and sleeping bags which zipped together. After a couple of trips I decided I’d become too old to dive out and across fields for the loo, so Husband recycled an old toilet seat by attaching it to a bucket. This became the precursor of the porta-loo.

Our tented trips were made not only from necessity, but for preference. We’ve always enjoyed the freedom of touring this way, but there is something magical about sleeping in a tent-a magic that I still feel nostalgic about, even though we’ve swapped tents for vans. It’s something about how close you are to the air, warm and cosy with a waft of breeze and a gentle flap of canvas…magic!

Fiction Month1. Three Marriages.

November is Fiction Month at Anecdotage. This year’s Fiction Month is starting later than usual because I didn’t want to interrupt my travelogue memoir: Solo to Africa. Here then, beginning today is the first of a two-part, brand new story, ‘Three Marriages…

Three Marriages

It feels hopeless. I’m staring at my reflection, sitting here on the stool at my dressing table and I’m thinking I might just feign sickness and send Solange to the wedding on her own. I let go of the soft concealer brush. I can do nothing with the sallow shadows under my eyes, the furrows around my mouth, my sagging, fleshy cheeks, thin, pale lips and wrinkly neck. I can’t pretend I’m younger than my age, can’t compete. Instead I pull the comforting folds of my ancient, towelling bathrobe around me and consider my options for the day.

I could don gardening gear and make a start on the rose border; or I could walk the dog-a long, leisurely stroll across the meadows, returning via Mabel’s Coffee Shop. I could come back and do some baking. I could loll about in a hot, fragrant, bubbly bath with a large glass of Merlot and listen to an audio-book. I could heat up a ready meal and slob around on the sofa watching a film. Yes. It sounds a perfect Saturday. I take the towel from my head and begin dropping make-up items into the drawer, leaving a dusty pink trail across the glass top, then there’s a knock and my daughter enters before I’ve a chance to answer, bustling up behind me looking like she’s stepped from a page of Vogue magazine, wearing a cream silk jumpsuit, her honey-coloured hair swept up into a twist.

She is exclaiming before she reaches my stool. “Mother! What on earth are you doing? Do you know what the time is? The taxi will be here in twenty minutes! You haven’t even started your hair. Whatever is the matter?”

                So many questions. But she knows the answers. She knows how I feel about my wedding invitation. Emilia, the bride, is the daughter of my oldest friend, Sonya, and the same age as Solange. The two girls were born in the same month, grew up together, in and out of each other’s houses here in this sleepy corner of our Wiltshire village. It would be unthinkable not to attend the wedding, this most important event in our friends’ lives. Wouldn’t it?

Solange is opening the wardrobe and taking out the dress and jacket we spent days looking for, scouring the shopping centres of several cities, trudging around clothing departments, searching the independent boutiques until I felt that if I was to try on one more floral shift or fitted, peplum jacket I’d run screaming up the High Street in my baggy, grey underwear. I watch in the mirror as she hangs the outfit on the outside of the wardrobe, smoothing it down. It is a dress in muted tones of dove grey silk with a loose linen, duck egg blue jacket on the top. I gaze at it. On the rail it looked beautiful. On anyone else it would look wonderful. The lure of the gardening gear is stronger than ever.

Solange is thrusting a hairbrush into my hand. “Here”, she says, “Start brushing your hair while I delay the taxi and get some bits.” She rushes from the room, leaving me to drag the brush through my mangy locks.

She returns with a hair dryer and some cosmetics, dropping items on the glass. “Tilt your head up!” she instructs, and begins to sponge foundation on to my face, then “lids down!” as she dusts my eyelids with a deft sweep.

I try to protest. “Sh!” she hisses, continuing with her mission to make me presentable. “Did you get that sculpting underwear on yet?” I shake my head and she tuts. “Next job then.”

Together we squeeze my protesting body into the dress before she teases and coaxes my wayward locks into a semblance of style. I’m relieved to see that the veil on my chic, blue-grey hat conceals some of my face. Solange stands back like an artist assessing a portrait. She darts forward to adjust the hat then turns me towards the mirror. “Ok, Mum. Stand up now and take a look.”

I can barely breathe in the constricting underwear and I wonder how I’ll cope in these heels but I admit she’s done the best she could, although not enough to allay my humiliation in the face of young, beautiful competition.

She is glancing out of the window. “Come on. Taxi’s waiting.”

She thrusts a small, matching clutch bag into my hands, pops a creamy hat with a broad, sweeping brim on to her head and grabs my arm as if I’m about to escape. Moments later we’re in the taxi and she’s instructing the driver. I study her as she sits beside me, cool, sophisticated, adult and I wonder at how she’s becoming the parent here, to my diminished, fearful self.

My hands feel clammy in my lap as we pull up outside the church. Solange steps out of the cab and waits for me, then tucks her arm in mine. “You look gorgeous, Mum”, she says. “I’ve done a brilliant job!” She’s done her best, I think.

                I’m breathing fast, my heart thumping as we enter the sunlit churchyard. The guests must be inside by now and as we approach the stone archway of the porch, I can hear organ music; the last few notes of ‘The Wedding March’ dying away. The oak door is open a sliver, policed by an usher, the bride’s younger brother; he pulls it open enough to allow us to slip through and indicates a space on the last remaining back pew, on the bride’s side, of course. No one notices us slipping in to sit on the hard, wooden pew. All eyes are facing ahead, to the couple in front of the altar.

Emilia is in place, half-turned towards James, the groom, as the vicar prepares to speak. Now I’m feeling hot and cold, scanning the assembled guests for a familiar head, for another couple, an older man with a much younger woman, a couple who could be father and daughter, except they’re not.

 I think I’ve spotted them half way down the row. I nudge Solange, who is engrossed in the ceremony. “Is that them?” I hiss and she looks where I’m pointing, at a balding grey head next to a red-haired one, an auburn cloud of hair cascading, hatless in riotous ringlets over slim shoulders. My daughter shrugs. Even though the back of Giles’ head is as familiar to me as my right hand I feel a tingling jolt that he is there, only a few pews in front of Solange and me. Does she feel the same way? He is her father, after all, although she’s disowned him since he left us for a woman her own age. But Solange has eyes only for her best friend, a vision of ethereal beauty in French lace.

I drift into a trance of memory, the heady scent of wedding flowers like a drug as I recall my own wedding to Giles in the tiny Normandy village of my birth; processing along the village street followed by the guests, braving a cacophony of trumpets, shrieks and whistles, standing before the mayor, solemn in his finery, emerging into the sunlit courtyard, white damask clad trestle tables adorned with gleaming, silver cutlery and small bags of candied almonds tied with white ribbons. Canapés and champagne flowed before we sat for the meal, after which, the speeches. Giles took my hand and led me into the middle of the space as the band struck up the first dance and I thought I could never be any happier in my whole life than at that moment.

There is a sharp pain in my side. Solange is elbowing me. It is time to stand as the couple prepare to exit the church. They advance, sedate and glowing, glancing right and left to give a smile and acknowledgement, three small bridesmaids in pink satin stumbling and giggling as they follow. As they pass us all I want is to slide out now, to slink from this place and go home, home to a comfortable cardigan and a cup of tea.

Why is Claire so reluctant to attend the wedding? And what will she discover as the celebration continues? Check in next week for the conclusion to Three Marriages…

Simplon or Simpleton?

It is a wrench to tear ourselves away from beautiful Lake Maggiore, but the weather is due to deteriorate and we must begin the slow haul north and west. To do this we must cross the Alps, and the nearest pass happens to be The Simplon, a route that we have not used before.

In the beginning I am confused by large signs displaying ‘Sempione’, which I’m unable to locate in the road atlas, until I realise this is the Italian for ‘Simplon Pass’, which is an example of my ineptitude with map reading…

As you might expect, though it is sad to leave the lakes, the scenery soon becomes breath-taking in an Alpine way; the villages picturesque as we wind up and through the mountains on what is an unexpectedly quiet road.

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The engineering along the pass, the road constructed through, around and over mountains is spectacular and it is not long before snow-topped peaks appear. Before long we’ve crossed into Switzerland again.

The landscape, as we continue to ascend becomes bleaker and less green, the conditions less hospitable to vegetation.

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You know you’ve reached the top of the pass, because the road widens, there is a lay-by, a restaurant and a gift shop. We make coffee and I scoot across to the shop, which is lined from floor to ceiling with all the objects you would never need, from gaily painted miniature cowbells to carved wooden whistles adorned with jaunty birds-all very ‘Alpine’.

We are not alone in the lay-by, and two of our fellow parkers are gargantuan, lorry-style motor-homes travelling in convoy.

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The German occupants hop out for a quick cigarette then rumble on again, leaving us wondering if we’ll be stuck behind them on the hairpin bends, but when we resume our journey they are long gone.

It’s down the other side of the pass and an hour or so later we are alongside Lake Geneva, passing through the Swiss border with France.

Then it’s a quick whisk through ‘Evian-les-Bains’ [where the expensive bottled water comes from] on to our destination for the next couple of days-Lake Annecy; distinctly non-Italian, cooler and decidedly popular, much to our dismay. Every lakeside site is full-and it’s getting late. We are obliged to make a night stop in a site on a hillside, which at least has a lake view. We’ll try the lakeside sites in the morning.

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And when we do we are not disappointed. Lake Annecy may not be Italian but it does have a charm of its own. We discover that the cycle path runs from the site entrance and that the historic town of Annecy itself is not so far-nor is the Carrefour supermarket. The morning dawns clear and sunny and we are set to explore.

 

Tales from the Towpath [Part 2]-The Re-appearance…

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Last week’s episode described how, like an old Brian Rix farce, Husband beetled over the canal bridge and I, in my ever-present need to take the easier option, scooted around a narrow, lumpy path that wound underneath, resulting in each of us losing sight of the other.
I ploughed on towards Josselin, searching the verges and benches for Husband, or at least his bike. When the turrets of the chateau appeared above the trees I felt sure he’d have stopped at the fence where we’d locked the bikes on our previous visit [from the opposite direction, you understand]. But no-neither Husband nor the bike was there, neither was he installed in the nearby bar, cold beer in hand [an obvious place to look for him].
I gulped some more water-the temperature was continuing to climb at 8.00pm-and turned back. I stopped a few people and asked if they’d seen ‘un homme avec un T-shirt noir et un velo rose’ and was met with negative responses from all. I’d spot the glint of a lone helmet in the distance and think it was Husband but many lone cyclists passed by and still no sign. I cycled back-and back.

After what seemed an interminable peddle back towards Le Roc St Andre, and after seeing no-one as the sun began to dip I caught sight of a cyclist approaching-dark T, black helmet and sweat-soaked-and yes-it was Husband.

We downed what was left of the water, by way of celebration [we are still able to celebrate finding each other after all these years] and peddled slowly back, stopping at a hostelry not far from our site, on a bend in the canal, to throw back a medicinal cold beer or two.

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The following morning, following a sticky, uncomfortable night, rather than easing, the temperature at Le Roc soared higher, climbing through the 30s and tipping over into the 40s. Many resorted to the site’s tiny pool, many others [including ourselves] squidged into any bit of shade available, lounging, sprawling, sleeping. It was a disquieting insight into how things may become as summers heat up. Cycling seemed less appealing, but we gamely prepared in the late afternoon and set off in the opposite direction to Josselin, achieving, perhaps, 100 metres or so before Husband’s bike, the improbably named Charge Cooker came to a standstill, the back wheel having seized up.

Reception directed us to a repair shop up the road, which turned out to be splendid at repairing lawn mowers, ‘le patron’, a humourless, moustachioed gent, redirecting us to a cycle shop at St Congard-a small village that was easily included into our itinerary. We returned to the site, me gliding down and over the bridge, Husband half-carrying the recalcitrant Charge Cooker on its one functioning wheel. At this point an ice cream seemed a fair alternative to a cycle in 40 degrees. We spent another uncomfortable hot night and moved on next day to St Congard-first stop the bike shop.

Here, the proprietor, a jovial woman who clearly loved her job dealing with everything bike-related told us that the extreme temperatures had caused the brakes to swell and jam the wheel; that we should pour cold water on it. Simples!

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We stayed at St Congard’s small municipal site for 11E and I undertook a short, solitary cycle to Malestroit, all of which was unremarkable except for the pair of beautiful otters I spotted on the return. Tiny St Congard’s one and only bar was firmly closed.

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En route to St Martin sur Oust we paused to look at Rochefort en Terre, alleged ‘most beautiful village’, which was indeed beautiful, but also wanted 5E to stay in a car park without water, emptying or anything else. We’d have liked to have purchased items in the shops but came to the conclusion that the stores must be part of the decor, since nobody seemed inclined to serve us. The poor citizens of Rochefort en Terre must be starving, since baguette availability was nil [we were offered a half of a baguette in a restaurant and decided to scarper before we were told the price]. After a quick look we moved on to a less pretentious place, and back to the canal!