A Cludgie with a View

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We’re still here in Roslin. We booked in for nine nights. Under normal circumstances we wouldn’t consider staying anywhere for nine nights, except perhaps a fabulous Spanish resort with a pool, but things have changed round here. We’ve got six months to do as we like so we can stand still and consider the world from a different angle. Very slowly. We’re enjoying a few days of peace after all the high speed preparations for leaving the house. It’s good being somewhere that is so near home yet so very unlike it. It’s surprising how different a place looks from another viewpoint.

Speaking of views, we are parked on the pitch closest to the cludgie. This is a Certificated Location (CL) so there is only one cludgie and it’s a bit like the old fashioned outside one we had when I was a child. Bare, chilly and with a flush that sounds like the opening of the Thames Barrier. Of course we have our own loo on board but using it constantly means making more trips to the chemical toilet disposal point, which is right outside the cludgie. It makes more sense, when it’s not raining or the middle of the night, to just use the aforesaid provided one and cut out the middle man – I speak figuratively here of course.

The best bit of being pitched right next to the facilities is the possibility of people watching. As the weekend approached we were joined by four large caravans and the potential for observing the behaviour of tuggers (aka caravanners) in their natural habitat presented itself to us.

The first bit of excitement came when a caravan pulled in after dark, pitched up, rolled out his electric cable and plunged us into total darkness. I went outside to find out what had happened only to discover that he was clearly a novice to the ways of electric hook ups and stood wringing his hands in anxious disbelief. So we did what you should always do when something technical doesn’t work. We switched it off and on again and our van lit up like Blackpool illuminations. Ok I’m exaggerating but you’d be disappointed if I didn’t, no?

Watching the gentle comings and goings of other campers is a pleasant occupation… usually.

The second bit of excitement came when another caravan rolled in and got all set up just across from our pitch. I was sitting nursing a mug of coffee and quietly hoping that they were going to put an awning up – that being the absolute best of entertainment a camp site has to offer – when Shirley slammed her coffee down and muttered “That’s it! I hate him already!” I was surprised, nay even shocked. Shirley is generally an easy-going person and I couldn’t see what had upset her. Just out of my line of vision it seems that the wife of the newly arrived couple had been reversing the car around the side of the neatly pitched caravan and her partner had started waving his arms and remonstrating with her because it wasn’t perfectly in line. When she finally got out of the car she just meekly accepted his criticism and came pottering over to fill up their water container. Happy holidays folks!

So, we’ve been here five days and we’ve filled it as follows:

Numerous dog walks, in which Poppy has been driven completely loopy by the sight of young rabbits darting through the woods. She has tried so hard to catch one, even pushing her head and shoulders right into a rabbit hole, but fortunately for all concerned she has failed.

Trips to Peebles and Moffat in search of sunshine when we discovered that we were in the only bit of the UK under heavy cloud. Just to be clear, we’ve still got the car with us – we didn’t take 7.4 metres of motorhome out each time.

In Peebles we had a fabulous walk along the river side followed by ice cream on the high street.

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In Moffat we had a fabulous walk along the river side followed by lunch in The Star Inn and then … you guessed it, ice cream on the high street.

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Never let it be said that we don’t know how to have a good time.

On Saturday morning Adrian and Cara came to visit and Adrian and I set about unpacking the trailer and repacking it with the bikes inside. I had had a wonderful idea to brace them in using a shower curtain pole. Pity it wasn’t as wonderful as I’d hoped but all was not lost. The amount of stuff we’re carrying in there proved enough to brace them to within an inch of their lives. Nothing is moving in there. The only real challenge will be getting the bikes out again.

Later on Saturday we were joined by our good friends Derek and Mary for a tour of Rosslyn Chapel, a gentle walk along the old railway line and dinner in the local pub The Original. The food there is really excellent and the service friendly and relaxed. The only small issue, and it was small, was the sound of a Ceilidh band tuning up and practising ready for an evening of fund raising. I found it a little difficult to concentrate on our comfortable pals’ chat because the bass player appeared to be in a different key to the rest of the band. The others tried to convince me that I was hearing the bass player from the piped music that was simultaneously coming through the sound system above our head but I was not convinced. Me picky about music? Not at all.

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This balloon was floating directly above the motorhome on Saturday

Tomorrow this blog is being transported to a different server. I am leaving it in the very capable hands of Adrian. The plan is to eventually work on the layout of the blog so you don’t have to scroll up and down to read anything other than the latest post. Watch this space.

 

 

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Off we go again

It’s March 15th 2016 and we’ve just driven away from our house to start another adventure. This time we have six months to wander at will. Our house has been let to a lovely family who will take good care of it allowing us to relax, knowing it’s in good hands.
The decision to do this happened quickly and we’ve spent the last 10 days decluttering, visiting the local charity shops and the dump, putting most of our personal possessions into a big walk-in cupboard and preparing the house for its new family and the van for a long trip.
We decided straight away that we would need a trailer – after all we can’t go for six months without our golf clubs & trolleys, bikes, utility tent, badminton racquets, BBQ … you get the idea. We needed more room. The first trailer we bought was too small and we had to go back to Martin the trailer man and ask to swap it for a bigger one. He laughed and said nearly everyone does that. The trailer we finally settled on will hold all our gear, including the bikes, once we work out how to pack it properly.
So, you’ll be wondering what exotic destination we’ve chosen for our first stop. We’re in Roslin, of the Dan Brown and Rosslyn Chapel fame. It’s only 25 miles from home but it has much to commend it:
It has a really good CL site with plenty of room for two girls who need to work out how to pack a trailer properly;
It is right next door to Rosslyn Chapel where you can take a fascinating tour of the Mediaeval Church with its connections to the Knights Templar;
It’s on the bus route into Edinburgh City;
It’s near Ikea (I know … but who can resist it?);
The local pub does excellent food;
And last but far from least we’re only a couple of miles from granddaughter Cara and her Mum & Dad.
We have the car with us at the moment but we’ll be leaving that with family when we strike out to more distant places. There’s no rush though. We have stacks of time to explore Scotland, some of England and eventually we’ll end up over the water in France.

Bring it on … but not too fast. We’re knackered from all that packing.

So long and thanks for all the haircuts

 

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The Church in Neufchatel en Bray

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So here we are. It’s our last night in France and we’re back at the place we started from. We’re in Neufchatel en Bray in Normandy, this time on the paid Aire de Camping Car next to the campsite where we spent the first three nights of our trip. The campsite owner has made a beautiful job of this Aire and it’s well worth the 12€ a night with very smart, completely flat pitches, each with a private grass area, unlimited electric, water and waste plus good fast wifi. There’s even a little coin operated laundry; not that we’ll be using that, anything that is dirty now is going home with us.

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We seem to have our own little cloud

It’s very, very cold in the mornings and evenings but bizarrely warm for about two hours in the afternoon. How the locals work out what to wear at the start of the day I have no idea.

The main purpose of our stay here was to visit the vet so that Poppy and Boo could get their worming tablets and have their passports stamped as fit to travel back to the UK. We’d visited the same vet on our way south to get advice about protection against lungworm and found them to be brilliant.

The dogs were looking pretty scruffy by the time we were ready to make our appointment. Poppy couldn’t see because her fringe was so long and the hair on Boo’s legs was beginning to fall into ringlets. Something had to be done so we asked at the vets if they could fit them into the grooming room. Pas de probleme! We were told to deliver the dogs at 9.00 a.m., wait while the passport business was done and then leave them for three hours to be groomed and clipped. The lovely young French groomer didn’t flinch when she saw them. She even managed a little smile before she suggested that short all over was probably the best answer to our hairy challenge.

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Pre grooming scruffiness
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Little Miss Hairy

Feeling like parents leaving their child in school for the first time we left two confused little dogs and set off into town to find somewhere to eat breakfast.

In France there is no such thing as a greasy spoon café where you can order a massive artery challenging fry up. I don’t really know what the French eat for breakfast but whatever it is they keep it a closely guarded secret. We wandered up the high street, realising with sinking hearts that it was Monday morning again and three quarters of business owners and indeed the majority of living beings were hiding behind closed shutters refusing to accept that Sunday was over. Eventually we saw that a café/brasserie was open, although it was trying very hard not to show it. The glass was frosted and it looked closed but we saw a woman coming out of the door, glancing rapidly over her shoulder and scuttling down the road before disappearing into a darkened doorway. Desperation for coffee and something to eat gave us the courage we needed to walk in. What followed was exactly like a scene from a Western when the saloon doors swing open and the handful of clientele at the bar swivel round and stare. Absolute silence fell as they looked at us and then back to the woman behind the bar. It takes French people absolutely no time at all to recognise a foreigner. I don’t know if it’s the lack of style that we Brits are famous for or the look of confusion that passes over our faces when we realise that we’ve forgotten to rehearse what we will ask for in advance of walking in – whatever it was they knew. They knew and we knew and for the life of me in that moment I could not think how to ask what was available to order. No menus were on the tables, nothing written behind the bar and not an item of any kind of food in evidence anywhere. I tried to remember the word for food but whatever came out of my mouth obviously made no sense to the woman behind the bar and it was still deadly silent. Then Shirley spoke, “Café et quelque chose a manger si’l vous plait” I could have kissed her but we’d made enough of a scene so it was probably wise not to. Woman behind bar shrugged and said “Croque monsieur?” and we gratefully sank into seats at a table in the corner and the normal noise of chat and laughter resumed.

From that moment onwards everything improved, we were served warmly and kindly, people drinking coffee smiled at us encouragingly and we had a good coffee and enjoyed the croque monsieur immensely. The truth slowly seeped in with the warmth of the coffee. They were obviously worried about not being able to communicate with us and once some kind of understanding was established everyone could relax again. We left cheered as well as warmed and fed and the voices calling “Au revoir” and “Bonne journée” were genuine and friendly as we went on our way.

Looking at the time, we realised that we still had over an hour before the not so hairy pups were ready to be picked up from the vet so we did what any sensible person does in such a situation – we went shopping. It’s pointless denying it – this wasn’t just any shopping, we went shopping for cakes. This leads me to another mystery that the French keep hidden from the rest of civilised society. How do they manage to produce and sell so many truly outrageous cream cakes and yet stay so slim? If I didn’t like them so much I could really despise the French for this enviable skill that no other nationality has managed to attain. It reminds me of a word of wisdom someone once shared with me. Men think that what women really want is to find the perfect partner when in fact what they want more than anything in the world is the ability to eat whatever they like and stay thin. It was our last day in France and we were past caring. The only thing for us was an enormous Mille Feuilles. If you’ve never had one please put it on your bucket list. No-one should leave this world without eating one… oh and have a Religieuse too. Orgasm on a plate … truly…. actually you don’t even need a plate.

Time to get the dogs and we crept into the vets wondering what they would come out looking like. We once sent Boo to a groomer who sent him home with a ribbon in his hair – honestly – he was so embarrassed. I’m happy to report that our little travel companions came out looking extremely neat and clean and very short. Poppy is much blonder than we realised and Boo … well put it this way his personal bits were well hidden before and now Poppy keeps going up and staring and sniffing.

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Please don’t mention it …

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It’s evening now and we’re sitting all cosy trying to imagine what life will be like when we are back in a house again. We’ve been in Europe for nine weeks but it feels a lot longer. We’ve met a lot of lovely people, received much kindness and hospitality and experienced differences in culture and attitudes that have opened our eyes to some of the things we take for granted in Britain that we could do well to challenge. We’ve grown to love France and Spain even more than before and enjoyed sharing their riches of good food and wine everywhere we’ve been. I’ve been trying to think which parts have been the best but for the life of me I can’t do it … everywhere has been special in its own way. We’ll be back in Scotland in a couple of days and no doubt as we unpack and put everything away the gems will emerge from all the memories we are carrying home.

Thanks folks for travelling with us as you’ve read our blog and looked at our pictures. Au revoir until the next trip and it’s accompanying blog.

P.S. A break down of expenses and costs for anyone that’s interested will appear on the side bar very soon.

A crumby tale

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We’re in the last few days of our time in France and we’re full of mixed feelings. It’s getting colder and the days are getting shorter so we’re spending much more time indoors. As motorhomes go, ours is quite a big one but it’s still a confined space for two women and two little dogs, all four being a little bigger than we were when we left. Everything you do in a motorhome takes a little more effort than in a house. Having a shower requires us to remove the laundry bin from the shower cubicle and put it somewhere else, we have to remember to get clean underwear out of the nifty little drawers in the wardrobe before we close the concertina doors that make the back of the van into a wee en-suite and then do a little shimmy past the loo to get into the shower. At the start this was all part of the fun, now we’re thinking with longing of our big bathroom and stacks of storage space at home.

We still haven’t fixed the problem of the table that’s a bit too big and a little too low so we’re still doing the half limbo when we sit down or get up. In the sunshine we were sitting outside a lot and it didn’t matter but it’s starting to get us down a bit now.

We’ve both had horrific colds in the last ten days so we’re running a bit short on sleep with coughs and snorts and, in my case, world class snoring. And, saddest of all, the sunshine has mostly left us and it’s dull and a bit rainy. I shouldn’t complain as compared to Scotland it’s positively pleasant. In the afternoons it’s about 16°c and the sun did come out for about an hour earlier, when we managed a 10-mile bike ride into Tours and back.

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A cycle by the Loire

Here’s the problem – it’s called Wanting it All. We are ready to go home and enjoy our house, spend time with our friends and family, play our musical instruments, catch up on Strictly (I hope the Sky Plus thingy worked or the howls will be heard for miles around) and just spread out a bit. But we’ve got the travel bug. We love motoring around Europe just landing in places and seeing what’s there. We love the lifestyle, the people, the food, the wine and the weather. Sitting here near Tours we know that we would only have to drive south for a day and it would probably be still warm enough to sit outside with a cold beer. The temptation to turn round is powerful. Yet we’re looking forward to going to the pictures, playing badminton and chatting to people in shops without having to think really hard first. Most of all, we’re missing the people we love.

So we’re in a bit of a pickle. One minute we’re saying No! We don’t want it to end! And the next we’re wondering how quickly we can get back up to Scotland so that we can see all the people and enjoy all the things we’ve missed. Ambivalence is alive and well in Holly the motorhome today.

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November 17th and this window box is still in bloom

So… back to the journey. We left the banks of the Cher after tussling with a recalcitrant motorhome service point. These things come in about three or four different types. Most of them are manufactured and put in professionally. These are the ones you pay for, usually by buying a token at the local Tabac or Tourist Office. The other, and by far our preferred types, are what is known as Custom. These have probably been made by a local plumber or builder and they can be very quirky but they usually work well and give us a bit of entertainment working out how. The one that caused the great tussle that morning was a Euro Relais – one of the smart, professionally manufactured types. I won’t bore you with the details but my feet got wet, the air got blue and we only managed to get half a tank of water.

Off we went in the direction of Tours to stay in Les Acacias a little campsite at a place called La Ville aux Dames – yes it’s the women’s town! Just to be clear – men are allowed and are alive and well here but the town’s streets are named after famous women in history and there is a massive mural honouring them. Good eh? That doesn’t happen often in this world.

Speaking of the great women in history, we stopped for a break the other day and parked beside a statue of Joan of Arc. She was standing there, proud as punch, holding up her sword but unfortunately, through the motorhome window, she looked to Boo like a threat to his people and he barked at her right through our coffee stop.

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That was the same day that we left the dogs in the van for half an hour while we went into the supermarket. Poppy managed to find a baguette we had bought in the boulangerie that morning and eat it. The crime was made worse by the fact that she ate it ON OUR BED! You think toast crumbs are bad in a bed. The crumbs from a baguette are pure evil. At least thirteen attempts to clear the area later and we’re still finding the odd one… usually just under a soft bit of skin as we drift off to sleep. That was one of the few days we wondered about the wisdom of bringing the dogs with us. Every other day we’ve been really pleased we did.

Our last stop before arriving at the campsite was at a massive Carrefour to start the serious business of buying wine to bring home. We decided this year not to bring our usual 80 litre haul back. The main reason being that, believe it or not, we didn’t manage to drink all that we took home last year. So the plan this year is to take back about 20 bottles of the wine we really like for Christmas and New Year. We’re big fans of Vouvray Brut and here we are in the very region they make it, so, nestled under the passenger seats we now have a lovely selection of bubbly, replacing the winter coats that were in that space on the way here and are now out and ready for service.

At the camp site we met two couples on their way south for the winter. We felt a little jealous, just like Rachel and Colin felt about us when we met them in Zarautz all those weeks ago. Life’s a circle as they say and we’ll be round again.

 

The Merry Widow

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Sunrise over Burgundy

After our visit to Taizé we made a list of possible stopovers for our journey west and then north towards home. Looking at the satnav we realised it was going to take about four hours to get to our destination on the banks of the Cher river. We love the Cher region and particularly their white wine. It’s often overlooked for the more famous Loire wine, which is excellent but slightly different. The first year we had a motorhome, we stopped off in the Cher region after spending a week in Taizé. A week in the community is a bit like a detox or a low budget health farm. The food is so basic and simple that by the end of the week you find yourself craving all the things you’ve gone without like a big chunk of meat and a good cup of coffee. That year we stopped the van in St Aignan and headed for a little restaurant on the riverbank. I swear it was the best meal of the year and the one that introduced us to the local wine.

Anyway I digress. We haven’t been exactly detoxing on this trip so we weren’t looking for a square meal but some of the wine and a walk by the river sounded just the thing.

We were driving merrily along in the sunshine when it occurred to us that we hadn’t had breakfast. We’d just passed a signpost to Digoin, a place with a good Aire de Camping Car right on the banks of the Loire as it flows into Burgundy. “Let’s go and stop there for breakfast!” we said in unison and off we went up the slip road and towards the town. We’d stayed here a couple of years ago so I was confident I could find my way to the Aire without putting the co-ordinates into the Satnav. With hindsight I can say with a good deal of certainty that there was no chance, in fact the only place I found my way to was the centre of town where roads are incredibly narrow, no entry signs glare at you from every angle and the one road that is available to drive down on a quiet Sunday morning is lined with parked cars. It gets worse. I had two more goes at finding the Aire and every time I ended up manoeuvring down that tiny lane. By the third time a small crowd had gathered, so, determined not to do that again, I went down another tiny lane and found that the only way out was via a tight right angled turn that the van had no chance of getting round. The only option available to me was to put the nose of the van up a no entry and then reverse into another no entry so that we were pointing down the right road. We found the Aire but not before Shirley had emitted a number of small pitiful squeaks similar to Beaker in the Muppet Show.

Pulling into a parking space that overlooked the Loire we looked at one another and said, “Let’s just stay here” – so we put the kettle on, got out the table, took the dogs for another walk and had a breakfast of kings looking out over the water. And stay there we did, for twenty-four hours. Sometimes you just have to give up and start again the next day.

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November 15th and the sun is still shining

Later, sitting relaxing over a coffee our attention was drawn to the van next door. It was quite a sizable van with a garage at the back. If you’re not into motorhomes the ‘garage’ isn’t for carrying a car but people often have their bikes in there, sometimes even a motorbike. It’s a large, tall storage area at the back of the van and there is usually a bed high up over the garage, a bit like an adult double bunk.

We are fascinated by garages and the different ways that people manage them. There are the neat and tidy garage types who have all kinds of fitted storage in there and everything arranged neatly, not quite OCD but getting that way; there are the types who have made a place for everything before they left home and then every few weeks have to give it a big tidy up and finally there are the types whose garage contents look like someone just threw everything in and then stirred it. Our neighbour had both the doors to the garage open and we could see very clearly that its owner fell into the third category. It seemed to contain an incredible selection of objects, some of which were mysterious bundles of cloth and plastic and there were a number of empty coat hangers dangling at crazy angles from a string. After a few minutes a little lady appeared out of the van and came round to the garage and stirred it then went back in. Five minutes later she did it again. By the fifth time we were hooked. We haven’t watched TV for eight weeks so maybe we’re just easily entertained. Maybe she saw us looking but suddenly she walked over and waved through the window for someone to come out. I blame it on my Catholic education but if someone tells me to do something I do it first and then think later. I was out of my seat and through the door before my brain was engaged.

She asked me if I spoke French.

“Un peu.” I replied and then with a belated desire to protect myself from what she might want from me I added, “trés, trés peu.”

She laughed. “English? Deutsch? Nederlander?”

“English” I admitted and waited for her to ask me to help stir her belongings in the garage … but I was wrong. She wanted me to lift her electric bike from the rack on the back of her van, because she had a weak chest and couldn’t do it herself. The rack was high and the bike was heavy and all wrapped up with a tarpaulin so it wasn’t an easy task but with her holding the front wheel and giving instructions in a strange mixture of English and German we managed somehow.

She was a very sweet lady and we had a lovely chat, me in my version of French and her in that strange mixture of English and German. Suddenly it occurred to me that she in fact might be German but no, she was French but she’d been an army wife and had been stationed there so she spoke it better than English. I really wanted her to understand that we would communicate better if she spoke in a mixture of French and English but she seemed stuck in the German bit even when I suggested it. She told me that her husband was … and here she paused while I tried to guess where he was … then she pointed up to the sky and said ‘dead’ in a very sombre voice. Right enough I had wondered why he couldn’t lift the pesky bike off the rack so that was one mystery solved. I really thought she was going to hug me, she was so grateful for getting her bike down, not that we actually saw her riding it. She was one of the several single lady motorhomers we have seen on our travels. I guess it’s a safe and pleasant way to travel alone because the Aires usually having other motorhomers around to help if you’re stuck and can’t get your bike off the rack. It’s comforting having your own things around you – even if they’re only in the garage getting regularly stirred.

The next morning it was obvious that Shirley needed some heavy-duty cough medicine. A previous visit to a pharmacy had gained her some homeopathic syrup that wasn’t cutting the mustard, or the catarrh either. Sorry if that’s too much information. We set about asking Mr Google what you can buy over the counter in France and discovered that with the right pharmacist on your side you can pretty much get anything. I was sceptical and for good reason. Several years ago I was sent off on my bike to a local pharmacy when Shirley had a cold on one of our French trips. (Yes, you’ve noticed – we seem to make a habit of catching French viruses). The pharmacist was exceptionally unwilling to hand over anything stronger than a packet of honey pastilles. She almost made me sign in blood to say that we didn’t have any Paracetamol with us before she would give me a packet of cold remedy pills that can be bought in the UK in Tesco. Mr Google assured us that a French pharmacy will have the strong stuff available over the counter so armed with the French for “I have a chesty cough” (J’ai mal au bronches – you might find that useful some day) and the active ingredient in cough medicine she set off to the local pharmacy. It was closed. Many French shops close on Mondays as well as Sundays. I don’t blame them really, Mondays are such miserable days, why not just extend Sunday for another twenty four hours – but when you’ve got mal au bronches it’s not so helpful and poor Shirl was proper fed up.

We set off on our way west and a few miles later found an open pharmacy and Shirl was rewarded with a bottle of something super powerful. It was only when she got back in the van clutching her prize that she noticed it was banana flavour. Oh yuk.

A moment’s silence

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I feel the need to pause from this account of our travels and stand beside the people of France, and indeed all the places of the world, where acts of violence have taken lives and broken hearts in the last few days.

This is a sorrowful place to be at the moment. People are going about their daily lives but there is sadness in the air, broken only by the sounds of children playing, too young yet to understand.

In the middle of a huge supermarket yesterday morning, a call came over the system to stop for two minutes silence. All around us people stopped, holding whatever had been in their hands when the call came, cabbages, cheese, milk … and we stood together in an eerie silence where time seemed to stand still.

Later last night we paid a visit to our favourite place of pilgrimage. Taizé, the community on a hill in Burgundy, that is home to around 100 brothers of different denominations. I have been visiting Taizé for nearly 30 years, Shirley for 10. It remains my place of inspiration and comfort despite the fact that I have more or less given up on organised religion. Last night, sitting in the Church there for an hour before the prayers began, I tried to work out what it is about the place that continues to draw us back. Taizé is a place of welcome, a Christian community that crosses all denominational barriers. It is a place where there are no demands to adhere to any particular doctrine or belief system. You are simply invited to receive … and not to try too hard. It is a magnet for young people from all over the world as well as many older ones like us. In the summer they get around 5000 visitors each week who stay for the whole week, live in the most simple way, eat basic meals that are provided by the community and go to the church three times a day for prayers that consist mostly of singing chants and silence. There is something almost Buddhist about it, as more often than not you are singing in a language that is not your own and so your natural tendency to think about the words is disabled. You just go with the flow.

If you believe in coincidence, then for us to be in the region last night, of all nights, is quite a big one. I’m not sure I do believe in coincidence … sometimes we are just in the right place at the right time for us.

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Even before the brothers came into the church, all in their white robes, I knew that the Taizé response to the attacks in Paris would be a simple act of solidarity with all who suffer. I knew that because that’s what they always do there. Even when their Prior, Brother Roger, was murdered there during a service ten years ago their response was typical of them. The first prayer at his funeral was for the disturbed young woman who had stabbed him. Then they acknowledged their own pain and asked that the many thousands of pilgrims who had come to the funeral stand with them as they mourned the loss of a brother.

Very few words are spoken in Taizé during the prayers. The emphasis is more on contemplation and singing but Brother Alois, the Prior, always speaks briefly about the concerns of the community. Last night he prayed for the people of Paris and France but went on to all the other places in the world where violence has devastated lives this week. There was no emphasis on Paris; he did not for one moment suggest that the pain of France was any worse than anywhere else. He spoke of the pain of the world. The invitation to pray to people of all beliefs was simple – to stand with those who suffer and to seek for peace. Nothing more. Anything else would have been too much. That is what Taizé does so well and it is why I love it so much.

We stayed overnight in their carpark and left early this morning when peace and silence hung over the little hill.

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“Within our darkest night, you kindle a fire that never dies away” (Taizé chant)

It’s all about Energy

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‘Our’ bridge in Cahors, early evening.

We fully intended to stay three nights in Cahors. In fact I was a little bit in love with the place and would have liked to stay a lot longer. We definitely wanted to see more of the city and the unusually generous three nights on a free aire seemed too good an opportunity to miss. Late in the afternoon on the second day there was a knock on the door and a tall dark stranger was standing there.

“Bonsoir!” he declared with that uniquely French flourish, then jumped about a foot in the air as Boo shot out the door and barked ferociously at him. He laughed a little self consciously when he realised that Boo was all mouth and no action. It turned out he was a local farmer selling his eggs so we bought a dozen and had a wee chat with him. He spoke a little English and we can manage a little French so it wasn’t very rich in vocabulary but it was great fun. He was excited that we were from Scotland, telling us that Scotland is making a fresh start and he wishes the country well. He was a delight. Humorous, intelligent and obviously politically aware yet happy to be knocking on motorhome doors selling eggs to foreigners with defensive poodles. Another reason to like the place – the people.

But our plans were scuppered. First of all we realised that three nights without recharging our leisure batteries was causing the levels on them to fall and we didn’t want a repeat of the dead battery problem of earlier in the trip. They are expensive bits of kit and I’ve been watching over ours and clucking like a mother hen. Solar panels are great but in November, even in sunny weather, the input is limited compared to the output of long evenings with the lights on.

Next came the chain saw. Late in the evening of our second night some numptie started up a chain saw nearby. It was loud enough to waken the dead drunk and made worse by the fact that they were creating an echo from over the river so we were getting a double helping of teeth gritting racket. Sitting in semi darkness with only one light on and flinching every thirty seconds wasn’t much fun but it got worse. We got all tucked up in bed thinking that a good night’s sleep would fix everything. We needn’t have bothered. The chainsaw sleep massacre went on until the early hours of the morning. When we woke up bleary eyed the next morning we decided that Cahors would have to be on the list for a second visit. Driving Miss Holly was the order of the day to charge up her batteries and move us closer to our next destination.

Before we left I got out our Wonder Bag.

A Wonder Bag is a fantastic piece of kit that works like a slow cooker but requires no energy of any kind once you’ve prepared your food. You take a large pot with a close fitting lid, prepare a casserole or soup in the usual way, boil it for about 10 minutes then put the whole pot into the bag.

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The bag is made of fabric and filled with polystyrene beads. It has a lid and a tie that holds everything in tight. After everything is in place you leave it somewhere safe for several hours then as if by magic you get your hotpot or soup out and munch it up. You might need to give it a quick blast of heat to get it up to full temperature but that’s a matter of choice. So on the morning of the big drive we prepared a chicken and fresh vegetable casserole and left it sitting on the bed as we went on our way.

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Sorry if I sound like a sales person at the Ideal Homes Exhibition but I love ours so much. It was a gift from the family and it ranks up there with one of the best… and even better, when you buy one, the company gives another one free of charge to a family in a third world country.

We drove a long way that day, all the way from Cahors in the South of France to Ebreuil just north of Clermont Ferrand. We don’t usually do this but the batteries and our itinerary both needed a boost. We chose Ebreuil for no better a reason than we’ve been there before when on holiday with our friends Derek and Mary and we liked the quaint little town with its cobbled streets, riverside setting and a strange little café called Isabel’s. It was only when we pulled up beside the river for yet another free night’s stay that we remembered that we had our chicken casserole, so Isabel wouldn’t be getting our custom that night. Not to worry, it too is on the ‘we’ll be back’ list.

Here is our river at Ebrueil. We’ve just realised that we’re attracted to water.

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Poor Shirl has got the most horrific cold, complete with hacking cough and gasping for breath. We were tired after the chain saw sleep massacre and the long drive but Shirl’s cold wasn’t going to lie down quietly. We ended up drinking hot drinks at 3.30 in the morning after she woke up feeling ill. There’s something companionable about sitting up together in the deep silence of the night in the motorhome knowing that there’s no need to rush off anywhere in the morning. Sleep? Who needs it?

So we’d been on Aires for the last 11 nights with electricity only available at the first one and for just four hours at one other one. Charging the laptop, the electric toothbrush and ipads has been a challenge and we really wanted to watch a movie. It was time to find a place with an electric hook up. I had already identified an aire in Melay, Burgundy that is advertised as being on a canal basin with electric hook ups provided. It looked lovely in the book but I knew that some of the towns turn off the power and water to their aires in the winter and I couldn’t bear the idea of driving all the way there and finding the electric switched off, so – oh me of little faith – I suggested to Shirley that we went to a campsite.

The chosen campsite was beside a chateau and, according to the book, would be open until the coming weekend.Getting to it involved an 85-mile drive followed by 15 miles on tiny country lanes. You can probably guess what’s coming. When we got there it was closed. Camping fermée it said at the gate. I said something much ruder. Looking tantalisingly beautiful, we could see the chateau right in front of us.

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There was only one thing to do. We got back on the road and drove to the original choice of Melay where we not only found the electric in full working order but also another motorhomer who helped us plug in.

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So here we are, beside the canal, the heating and the lights are on, it’s quiet and very beautiful and we’re too exhausted to watch a film. C’est la vie.

What a Lot!

The lovely French lady we met at Albi was very keen to share her knowledge of beautiful places with us, despite the fact that her husband was only interested in getting in to the space we were vacating. It seems to me that the ability to resist the sound of that big growling engine running behind you shows a certain strength of character. Undaunted she went back into the teeth of his disapproval to get her map and point out three places to us; Cordes sur Ciel, Cahors and St Cirq LaPopie.

“Magnifique!” she continued to call as we waved them goodbye and went on our way.

Cordes sur Ciel is a mediaeval city perched on a very steep hill. Motorhomes are instructed not to climb the hill but to park in the special Aire at the very bottom, even lower down than the main road. We had some difficulty finding it, mostly because we were diverted by the sight of a bunch of French motorhomes parked in a different car park. We’ve learned by now that French motorhomers rarely follow the rules and eventually we spotted the signs to the proper place to park. We’re glad we did. It was a wonderful spot with individual pitches between trees and lovely views in all directions. The cost to park here is 5€ for 24 hours and includes a token to be used for either water or electricity.

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We parked up and set off up the hill to find the city and we were not disappointed. Exhausted and sweaty but not disappointed. The streets of old Cordes are all cobbled and very narrow. The climb up is incredibly steep and it was unusually hot for November – around 28°. We were gasping for breath and dripping by the time we reached the top. We were also a little embarrassed to find a walking group for the elderly up there, chatting and laughing, completely relaxed and not a heavy breather in sight. It reminded me of something I once heard, that life is like climbing a mountain, you scramble and struggle your way up, wearing tough boots and carrying ropes and hooks, only to turn a corner and find a party of school kids in flip flops.

The effort is well worth it. It’s an amazing place and extremely popular with the French who are justifiably proud of their historic monuments.

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We took photos and scampered merrily towards Tourist Information only to find it closed, as were most of the shops and galleries in the place. We’ve noticed this about France. Sunday truly is a day of rest and businesses will close even on days when hoards of tourists are likely to be in town with money to spend. I admire that about them whilst at the same time being a little bit frustrated. We’ve become used to being able to shop in Britain at any time of the day and night. It isn’t like that here and I’m pretty certain that everyone’s wellbeing will be better for it.

On the way to Cordes we had stopped at a Patisserie – one of the few shops that open on Sundays and then only in the mornings – and bought a selection of outrageous savouries and cream cakes. Back at the van after the walk we flopped into our recliners with plates of goodies and cold beers. Wonderful!

As the afternoon wore on and the dogs woke up from their post walk nap we had to face the fact that Poppy needed a shower. She had gone from blonde to grey and frankly she wasn’t nice to be near. I had one of my good ideas at that point and with hindsight I have to admit that it wasn’t a great one. I decided to take her into the shower with me and wash her down in there. My plan was to strip off trousers and socks and get in wearing only a t-shirt and pants, the idea being that as she is so little it would only be my feet and hands that got wet. I forgot a crucial fact – dogs shake themselves when they’re wet. Another problem was the size of the shower cubicle. It’s amply big enough for one person but add a panicking small dog scampering around trying to avoid the shower and then shaking vigorously every time it hit her and you can visualise the scene. Thankfully once again Shirley didn’t get to the camera in time but I came out looking like I’d been in combat with an angry swan in the middle of a pond. Poppy sulked for the rest of the evening.

Somehow we managed to get the washroom back to some kind of order and dry a miserable pup without the benefit of a hairdryer and we all fell into bed exhausted.

Leaving the next morning we realized that we were a bit short on water and we had no more tokens to use in the machine. These token operated service points usually give 100 litres of water and very often that is more than is needed when filling up. In a situation like ours, where you don’t have a token and you need a bit of water, you can follow the previous motorhome onto the service point and collect the water they didn’t need. We’ve seen it done numerous times but so far have never tried it ourselves. We parked up behind a French man who was emptying and filling his tanks and waited for him to drive off. He was a careful kind of bloke who checked and double checked everything, wiping his hands meticulously after each job and going back to check that his various orifices were locked. We watched him carefully fill up his van with water and then locking his water tank and we waited – I was going to say patiently but in Shirley’s case that would be a lie. He didn’t move! Instead his wife opened the kitchen window and started handing out any available container, which he proceeded to fill with water. After about the tenth container was filled we realised the sad truth. He was going to use up his full quota of 100 litres even if it meant that his van was overloaded. He had the full range of bottles; fabric conditioner, laundry liquid, soft drinks bottles and an assortment of plastic bottles of various sizes. Every time we thought he was finished we saw his wife’s arm coming out of the window with yet another bottle. This, my friends, is the reverse of travelling with a little kindness but it was all going to work out for the best in the end.

The next stop on the French lady’s itinerary was Cahors. The town’s main attraction for me is that Enzo McLeod, the Scottish forensic detective in Peter May’s novels, lives there. According to our French friend it is a place not to be missed so we headed off there in good time on Monday morning. Once again we were delighted to find that motorhomes are well catered for in Cahors and we found ourselves on a pitch right beside the river Lot free of charge for up to three nights.

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Not only is the parking free but so is the water! We were able to fill our tanks to our heart’s content. After settling on to the last available parking spot we looked out of the window to see the man of the water bottle fame rolling up in his motorhome only to find that there was no room for him. Perhaps his heavy load had slowed him down. He’s ok though, just in case you’re concerned for him, there is a huge overflow car park 100 yards away where he can stay for free, it’s just that there is no water tap there.

As I write this we are still here; we are next to one of the many bridges that lead to the city centre. Cahors sits inside a big loop in the river Lot giving it the feel of a small island.

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It is a wonderful place, full of old world charm mixed with modern vibrancy.

Yesterday, on our first walk into the city we went into Tourist Information to ask for a town map. it was a duller day and we were looking for something that took us inside out of the damp air. The assistant was enthusiastic and helpful, speaking excellent English and we left armed with maps and leaflets and plenty of suggestions to make our stay interesting.

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We chose to go first to the Museum of the Resistance. It is a fascinating collection of information and artifacts explaining the role of the people of Cahors in the French Resistance. It’s a visit well worth making if you’re ever here, although you would need to be able to read some French to get the full benefit. We were left saddened and a bit traumatised by some of the things we’d seen but it’s important not to forget.

So this is one of the few times we’ve opted to stay in a place for the maximum allowed time – this is such a fascinating town and there’s something about the atmosphere that has us hooked.

This morning we walked into town to arrange to have our haircut. We picked a salon at random that looked quiet and not too posh. The stylist spoke a little English and gave us a double appointment for 3p.m.

Feeling pleased with ourselves we set off to look for the medieval bridge – one of the most famous sites in the city.

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Then back to the van for lunch – guess what – bread and Brie. I will miss this so much when we get home.

So, the haircuts are done. Here are the before and after photosIMG_0914

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A big thank you to Laure at Christian Coiffure in Cahors. Laure is lovely, friendly and kind and also a very good stylist. If you’re ever here and need a hair cut go and see her.

Not on the level

We needed a change. That might sound incredible when you consider that we’ve slept in different places every night for seven nights on the trot but the rhythm of our days have been pretty much the same. Get up, walk the dogs, shower, walk them again, choose our next stopping place, buy food, drive to the next place, settle in, walk some more, cook, eat, play cards, final dog walk then fall into bed and sleep like the dead. In between there are little gems like meeting interesting people and turning a corner to discover an incredible view. But we still needed a change, so we set about finding an entirely different kind of place to visit.

First of all we chose a place called Venerque. Judging by the pictures and description it looked like an interesting little town and we decided that it was a great place to go out for dinner. What a thrill! We could put something smarter than cargo trousers and t-shirts on and go out for a meal. Leaving Mazeres of the fish ladder fame proved to be as complicated as getting into it. The Satnav said we were only going about 30 miles but it was going to take us nearly two hours. We laughed. We shouldn’t have. We crossed the same railway line on three separate occasions, each time over badly constructed level crossings that shook all our dishes and nearly lost us some teeth. We entered a diversion that had no signs after the first one that sent us into the middle of nowhere and then about 10 miles later we finally got onto a proper road. It did take nearly two hours to get to Venerque and we weren’t feeling so chilled by the time we got there. Turning into the Aire de Camping Cars we discovered two problems. One was that there was a massive BMX event going on and the place was full of little boys and their bikes. The other was that the parents of the aforesaid little boys had taken all the space up in the Aire with their cars, picnic tables, assorted younger children and other family detritus so we couldn’t park up. We squeezed between two of them to get to the water, filled up the tanks and left again feeling disappointed. The town looked great.

To be fair we did get our own back by stopping in a place that prevented anyone moving their cars while we chose our next stop but only for about three minutes. I am quite scared of angry French mothers. I’ve never met one face to face but I’ve seen the look and it’s scary.

So we chose Albi. Albi is famous in France for having the biggest brick built structure in the world. It doesn’t sound very exciting but it is – trust me. It’s a cathedral and it is magnificent in a ‘My goodness, they built all that brick by brick’ sort of way.

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Albi astonished us by providing overnight motorhome parking, completely free of charge, in the cathedral car park. It is a town very reminiscent of York with lots of little cobbled lanes full of expensive tourist tat shops and very expensive clothes and shoes shops and it is packed full of visitors. Anywhere like that in the UK, if they did provide motorhome parking, would charge a princely sum for it and place it at a distance from the main attraction. Not here. We were literally in the shadow of the cathedral in an area of the car park designated for motorhomes only. You could stay there for 48 hours free of charge. There is no service point at the parking so our hard won tank of water from Venerque was much appreciated. As well as gawping in awe at the cathedral and wandering around the shops we found that we could get to the banks of the Tarn river directly from the parking and walk the dogs along there. It wasn’t a restful walk as it was popular with runners as well as other dog walkers. Despite the fact that the town provides poo bags free of charge some dog owners seemed to feel it unnecessary to pick up their dogs’ droppings so it wasn’t unusual to see runners taking sudden swerves and leaps to avoid mounds of doggy doo. Believe me there must be some massive dogs in Albi. Having said all that, the views on the walk were wonderful.

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We loved the town and the cathedral but we didn’t go out for dinner. It was just too touristy and to be honest, any menu we did look at had far too much emphasis on gizzards. We decided to have some left over Bolognese and several glasses of plonk and it was grand.

We’d managed to land an absolute peach of a spot to park Holly, right at the edge of the parking place and directly in line with the exit.

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This can mean the difference between leaving when you want to and waiting for someone else to come back to their van in a very busy Aire like this one. After we’d settled for the night we sat in the dark watching massive motorhomes trying to get into spaces you would think twice about in a small van. It was more entertaining than Strictly and we wished we had paddles to hold up so that we could give them a score and make comments. You reversed well as you came over to the corner but your clutch work needs refining – Seven! (If you didn’t understand a word of that don’t worry – you’re just one of the few people in the UK who doesn’t watch Strictly Come Dancing or you’re not in the UK)

There was a tiny space to one side of us and a nice wee French lady pulled into it in a very small motorhome. She asked us if it was ok and we were very happy to tell her she was fine there – after all, if it hadn’t been her it could well have been a 9 metre A class.

So, our verdict on Albi is this – a great place to visit, fascinating cathedral that is currently being renovated at a cost of 2 million Euros and some fine window-shopping. The Aire is good but we realized it would have been a lot better if we’d gone mid week instead of Saturday night when all the French motorhomers come out to play.

Given the heaving mass of humanity that was in town for the weekend we opted not to take our free second night and move on. As we were getting ready to leave a very pleasant French lady approached and asked us if we were going. We said we were and she explained that they needed a bigger spot – looking up I saw her husband easing their massive A class motorhome out of a miniscule spot and heading our way. She must have been waiting, hoping that one of the bigger spots would come free. She was a lovely woman and started to give us advice about other lovely places to visit… all in French but with the help of her map and both of us concentrating hard we managed to get the gist of three lovely spots to visit not far away. The funny thing was watching her husband behind her riding the clutch desperate to get into our place before someone else nabbed it. Thank you kind French lady because you told us about our next place and it’s fabulous – but more on that tomorrow.

One croissant short of a breakfast

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Before anyone asks, no I haven’t had a haircut yet. Deciding you need one on a Thursday evening is just about as sensible in France as it is in the UK. All the salons are full of people getting ready for the weekend. It’ll have to wait until Tuesday because the hairdressers are closed on Mondays. By then I will be causing elegant French women to weep in sympathy as they pass me in the street.

We almost got the dogs’ haircut organised until we realised that the appointment we’d made was for six days hence. It’s so easy to forget what day it is on a trip like this. We really couldn’t find enough to do in Montrejeau to fill six days so we had to abandon the plan. I took the chicken out method and sent an email to cancel, using Google translate in the hopes that it would make sense. It must have done because we received a lovely reply back wishing us well on our travels.

Anyway, here is the news on the touring front. We left Montrejeau after a pretty good night’s sleep, punctuated only by Poppy and Boo telling us whenever anyone passed the van. Fortunately the town went quiet at a reasonable hour otherwise I would have been lying about the quality of the sleep. There were no services at the Aire de Camping Cars so we set off to the nearest Intermarché where a service point had been thoughtfully provided. I got excited when I saw that there was a Flunch at the supermarket. If you don’t know Flunch I can recommend it. It’s the French version of a supermarket café and, as with most things French and foodie, it is on a different planet to the ones we have in the UK. You choose your main course and pay in advance, they give you a ticket that you hand to the chef and voila you are handed the meat or fish part of the meal. You then wander over to the vegetable table where you can serve yourself with as much as you want. It’s entirely your choice whether you fill up on French beans, ratatouille or chips. Or you can have all of them. Try to go easy on the chips though … I speak from painful experience. There is also a magnificent array of starters, desserts, drinks and – heaven help me – ice cream. A meal here will set you back somewhere in the region of 12€ depending on how many extras you buy. I love it! Anyway, we got the motorhome all emptied and filled up again with fresh water at the service point then we looked at the time. It was only 11.00 a.m! No self respecting Flunch will serve food at this hour. We had to make do with coffee and they’d run out of croissants. It was a low moment but once again I cheered up in the supermarket where we bought a French stick and yet more Brie. I fear I am developing a dependency as the mere thought of eating bread and cheese fills me with delight.

Back in the van we chose our next stop for the night. Mazares sur Salat is, as the name suggests, on the Salat River and the Motorhome park is right beside the water at a fish ladder. Shirley, being a keen fisher, was delighted by the prospect and to be honest we really wanted a quiet spot for the night. Two consecutive nights in towns left us with a desire for peace and tranquillity.

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Miss Molly, our Satnav who has behaved so well for the majority of the trip, caused us to miss the turning to the Aire and made it worse by inviting us to turn left half way over a river bridge. Getting back was very complicated as we were in deepest rural France where roads were never meant to carry large vehicles and certainly not to turn one round. Shirley was driving and there were a few choice words from behind the wheel but we managed in the end and found ourselves in a lovely spot with views once again across a river towards the mountains.

Bearing in mind this was November 6th we couldn’t believe the heat when we got out of the van to walk the dogs. It was roasting hot – too hot in fact. We had to go back into the van and cover ourselves in suntan lotion.

The rules of these Motorhome Aires are basically that you shouldn’t spread yourself outside the van. You are not supposed to set up tables and chairs or fire up a BBQ unless you’re on a paid Aire where they sometimes provide you with your own little patch of grass. This was a free Aire so the ‘no camping behaviour’ rule applies, however there was a large area of grass beside the river that seemed to be for general use so we got out our reclining chairs and settled down by the water.

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Not five minutes later another motorhome appeared and we were astonished to see that it was our Cornish neighbours from two night’s previously in Oloron. Another five minutes passed by and the Belgian family who had also been parked in Oloron turned up. What a grand coincidence! There’s often a great camaraderie amongst motorhomers and there was a lot of chat and laughter. The Belgian man spoke good English and I kept trying to divert him so that I could practice my French but he was having none of it. The chance to practice his English was too good an opportunity to miss.

We’d wanted a quiet spot and in many ways this was as quiet as you could imagine. The village was very tiny and had only a bar, a post office and a boulangerie and we were right out in the sticks but the noise from the water on the fish ladder was terrific. I wondered whether it would keep us awake but Shirley reassured me that it was white noise and we would sleep like logs – she was right. No-one stirred in our van until 7.30 a.m. when Poppy’s internal alarm went off. Her usual yip didn’t wake us so she started flipping the lip of the bin with her nose. Too clever by far that pup is. Shirley stumbled out into a beautiful morning and took them for a long run around a rugby field. They came back muddy and exhausted – the dogs of course, not Shirley.

In the quiet, while they were out and the world was still only half awake, I took my mug of tea outside to look at the water rushing down the steps of the fish ladder.

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I’m starting to feel a bit homesick. It’s just a little pang but it’s there just the same. I miss our family and friends; I miss our big comfy bed and the familiarity of home. I love this life but there’s no way I could do it full time like some people do. We’re heading north now and there’s still a lot to see – no doubt I’ll be sad when the time comes to get on the tunnel back to the UK but just for today in these quiet moments before the day begins properly I realise that there really is no place like home.