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!

 

Tales from the Towpath [part 1]

From Cherbourg, the French ferry port, it is a moderately easy drive to our first camp site on the Nantes-Brest Canal, at Grouerac.

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The site is sandwiched between the canal and the river and consists of 3 flat fields dotted with pyramid tents, tiny caravans and shepherds’ huts for hire. It is beautiful and has nearly everything; fully equipped kitchens, a large gazebo with picnic tables for diners to use, a bar, a small nook with armchairs and well-stocked bookshelves as well as the usual showers and so on. What it does lack is internet, which is not necessarily a bad thing.

After starting dinner off I wander across the field to stand by the river bank and am startled to see a kingfisher on an overhanging branch, near enough for me to reach out and touch. It is a bright, iridescent turquoise, like a bejewelled toy bird. It spots me and plops down into the water and I wait in vain for it to reappear.

Next morning we set off on our first cycle up the canal almost to Glomel. The canal is astonishingly gorgeous, a riot of green reflections, herons, water fowl, butterflies and wild flowers. The towpath ride is not entirely flat as locks and bridges must be ridden over, but is not too arduous.

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The following day’s section takes us away from the towpath and up an old railway track that rises-and rises as it goes towards Mur de Bretagne, a much harder ride. When at last we arrive to the town, which is itself situated on a steep hill, very little appears to be open except for one hotel bar, for which we are thankful.

Then we move on to Rohan, an unpretentious but pleasant enough town and the municipal camp site is again right by the towpath. We are invited for ‘aperitifs’ outside Reception and drink a convivial glass of cider with the other campers. There are two fairly straightforward, though long stretches to cycle over the next two days. The first day we cycle over 114 locks and cover 31 miles.

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The next stop is to be a rest day, at Josselin, a small medieval city with a fairy-tale chateau on the canal-side. We stay in the aire, at the top of town, with all services provided and saunter down to lunch in the centre before returning for a snooze in the van and to prepare for dinner-also in the centre of town [and if this seems self-indulgent the day is my birthday]. Tourists jostle in Josselin, a poster-town for the region.

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By the time we’ve enjoyed a delicious meal, slept soundly and risen next day the weather has begun to heat up, so that when we get to Le Roc St Andre ready for our next cycle it is clear that some effort will be involved and clearer still that waiting until late afternoon will be a sensible option. When we set off, to ride back to Josselin at 5.00pm the temperature is still fierce.

Along the way we come across a bridge with a fairly steep ascent, which Husband decides to ride up. I, however have spotted a tiny cycle short-cut underneath the bridge, which, being up for the easier option, I take. When I emerge on the other side I expect to see Husband pulling away in the distance but he is nowhere to be seen. I wait. Perhaps he is still on the other side? I return to the top. He isn’t there. I wait, have a drink of water.

A couple come past. I ask if they’ve seen Husband. They have not. I deliberate then decide to plough on to Josselin and perhaps he will be waiting further along the path…

How We Roll Back…

We’ve spent a lot of time visiting south west France now, which means familiarity with the route, as well as the entire area. Nevertheless we still search for new ways to get there and back [avoiding motorways and their tolls]. A few weeks ago I wrote how we set off, where we like to embark, the entire routine.

So then, after a few weeks ‘bimbling’ [Husband’s word], we have to turn the van northwards and consider how we might return. We select a day. On this occasion, Husband came up with a plan to return overnight in a cabin, which appealed until we discovered that the ferry sets off late, leaving little or no opportunity to schmooze in the restaurant and bar. Who wants to drive on, locate the cabin, clean teeth and get straight into a berth?

These days it is neither necessary nor desirable to scramble up the length of France in one, long day and we prefer a gentle, staged journey – still attempting to find hitherto unexplored places.

We opted to return from Ouistreham [Caen] knowing there is a very convenient aire next to the ferry terminal for our last night. We decided to spend a couple of nights at Dinard, which is only a couple of hours away and left us time to explore as well as execute the all-important pre-return shopping spree that is obligatory at the finale of all trips.

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Dinard is situated across the bay from St Malo and probably suffers for it’s glamorous, historic neighbour but we’ve stayed at St Malo enough times. A look at one or two lacklustre ACSI [off season discount card ] sites confirmed that the municipal site at Port Blanc would be a good choice and so it was-with an uninterrupted view of the beach and bay from our van.

The weather by this time had become blustery and drizzly-a reminder that we were on our way home.

The site offered  a bar and pizzas-surprising at this end of season period but not an option for us [I am unable to eat pizzas]. A five minute walk up the road led us to a lively area with bakeries, bars and brasseries. On Sunday afternoon a small stage was hosting a display of line dancing-

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The restaurant we chose was old fashioned but proved popular, as after we’d been seated every table was occupied.

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Dinard is a hilly seaside town reminiscent of Scarborough, with an air of faded elegance-enormous old hotels, a smattering of art deco, luxuriant gardens and promenades as well as ice cream parlours and bars. There is evidence of an interest in the arts, with a film festival running and some impressive sculptures dotted along the prom.

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We walked back to site via a path around the sea wall which wound around the town cliffs, narrow in places and in a bracing wind, but thrilling and with dramatic views.

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We left Dinard to scoop up items on our wish-list from a Carrefour complex the size of five football pitches then drove up our well-trodden route to Caen and to our customary spot next to the ferry. We dodged the motorhome-bore [‘I’ve Been Everywhere, Man’], showered and went to get a meal. next day the ferry’s engines woke us at 6.30am, just right for packing up and trundling the 500yards into the check-in queue. Drive on, climb up to the coffee bar, grab coffee and croissant, settle into a couchette. That’s how we roll back…

Mangez comme les Francais!

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One aspect of life the French have perfected is the art of dining out. And anyone who wishes to observe the French at this only needs to visit a restaurant on a Sunday afternoon to understand how seriously mealtimes are treated. Every bistro, brasserie and café is packed.

But restaurants are not the sole venues for the French penchant for large, family gatherings to share food and company. Any park, aire, picnic area, seaside bench, canal side or car park will be packed with groups of friends or family sharing a meal.

And this Sunday meal will not be some hastily wrapped cheese and pickle sandwich, a packet of Golden Wonder crisps and bottle of coke. Oh no. This will be a proper full-on, sit-at-a-table, cloth, knife and fork, wine and glasses, side salad, napkins, several courses kind of meal. During a cycle ride from Jard sur Mer to La Tranche sur Mer we passed a large family party seated at two tables [one for adults, one for children] made up of all manner of picnic tables. Everyone had a seat and a laid-up place-and all under the trees in the woods by the beach.

So how, then did the French acquire their reputation for sylph-like, uber-cool, modelly bodies? It is my theory that they [the women, especially] chain-smoked their way to skeletal skinny-ness. In any case the same cannot be said these days, for the French are no longer slender wraiths like Coco Chanel and Francoise Hardy but have become as chubby as every other nation.

Their haughty, sniffy attitudes to cuisine have taken a slight tumble, too since they embraced MacDonalds and took to fast food. Yes-you’d still be hard-pushed to find a better cooked steak than in France, but along every street there is a pizza joint, a burger bar, a kebab shop, ice creams galore and the inevitable chi-chis, galettes, crepes and doughnuts.
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And what is more-the French are not averse to strolling along with a bag of chi-chis [for the uninitiated these are strips of fried dough rolled in sugar-sometimes dipped in melted chocolate] munching as they go.

Pockets of resistance do exist, though. A mayor on Isle d’Oleron, Gregory Gendre is fighting to keep MacDonalds off the island [https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/aug/24/choose-a-side-fight-keep-france-ile-doleron-mcdonalds-free ]

Most days we endeavour to choose and buy fresh produce and prepare meals in the van, [see last week’s post for the shopping experience]. We like to make the most of such delicious items as the huge, luscious tomatoes, sweet, juicy melons, smooth, creamy cheeses and salty Toulouse sausages, sometimes using the deli counter to buy slices of thick quiche or pork cutlets.

But when in France it would be sacrilege not to dine out on occasion so every few days we do. I indulge in my very favourite French menu: oysters/steak/crème brulee, and very delicious it almost always is.

 

 

 

The Lure of Simple Pleasures

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            We’ve been spending a few days at a favourite site here in South West France. Situated on the Atlantic coast on the peninsula created by The Gironde, Le Gurp nestles in pine woods by a beach that stretches on almost as far as the eye can see, stroked by azure Atlantic rollers crashing on to the sand in frothy crescents.
This camp site is almost entirely visited by German holiday makers, who flock here for the waves, which are perfect for surfing and for its proximity to the beach, which is surveyed by lifesaving personnel and has soft, white sand, a couple of showers and a car park. The proliferation of Germans [and surfers at that] makes for a Boho, hippy atmosphere where strings of bunting, flags, drapes and all manner of camper vehicles abound-like a Mad Max movie.

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           Sites vary as much as hotels do. If your preference is for infinity pools, spas, cocktail bars, beauty salons and karaoke you could have it. If, like us you prefer a beautiful location, a clean, warm, efficient shower, security, space and the basics Le Gurp is the place.
We happened upon it the first summer we travelled to the Gironde with a tent, twenty or so years ago. The site we were on, near to Soulac [having supposedly booked to no avail] was tightly packed with chalets and boasted raucous entertainment each night. During a cycle trip we found Le Gurp beach and site. Could we book? No-it is a municipal site but is vast. There was plenty of space so we moved.
From the site a network of tarmac cycle tracks radiate through the pine forests to tiny, pretty villages like Grayan et l’Hopital and Talais or bustling seaside towns like Montalivets [which has an extensive and boisterous Sunday market] or Soulac-which is touristy but pleasant. On our first visits here we were runners, jogging every morning along the forest tracks in hot sunshine as many continue to do. Later [and older] we took to cycling. On the way to Montalivets by bike you’ll go past the tight brush-work fencing of ‘Euronat’-supposedly Europe’s largest naturist holiday park, although anyone hoping to catch a glimpse of naked tennis or boules-in-the-buff will be disappointed. If you’re bent on spotting unclothed bodies a stroll along the beach in either direction will reveal plenty of devotees-but it’s not a pretty sight!
A short walk [or shorter cycle] over the hillock from the camp site towards the beach takes you past a surf shop, a small supermarket, a newsagents/beach shop, a boulangerie, a launderette and several bars and restaurants-not a massive development but everything, in fact that the average German camper needs or wants.
During the day tiny children play among the pine trees, peddling madly around the tracks on bikes and ganging together to play with sticks and pine cones before being taken to the beach. Here there are no organised activities, there is no pool, nothing but a couple of swings and a climbing frame to amuse them-and so they amuse themselves. Camping is surely the best holiday a child can have?
In these late summer evenings, the sun sets like flames through the pine trees and as twilight descends the site comes alive with twinkly lights from tents and vans. There will be an occasional gentle strum of guitar and groups of al fresco diners will sit up chatting into the night over bottles of wine. You could sit outside with a glass or two or stroll over to one of the beach bars for a late drink. Wonderful.

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