Urrugne, Aquitaine, December 6, 2014
We left Seaford on Tuesday evening amongst the usual panic. Have we got everything? Is everything switched off? Did I pack my camera? Yes to the last, don’t know yet is the answer to the first two. The
trip round the A23/M23/M25/M20 was wet, dreary and busy.
I know it is the long way round, but having towed the caravan along the coast road through Bexhill, Hastings and Rye once before, I said never again. Besides, according to Tom-Tom the motorway journey might be twice as far but it takes much the same time. Or it would do if we hadn’t had to sit in a jam on the M20 for half an hour. Nevertheless we reached Folkestone in time for a quick visit to the facilities and a takeaway coffee before boarding the Shuttle for a very rough crossing. I don’t whether it is the quality of the track or the car suspension that is deteriorating, maybe both. Given the number of incidents in the tunnel over the past couple of years I suspect the track is not being maintained as it should be. Nevertheless we had time to eat our sandwiches during the journey and I was able to fit the continental deflectors to the headlamps.
We emerged at Calais to clear skies and bitter cold, and immediately filled up with French diesel, which even at motorway prices was only £1.01 a litre compared with an average of £1.23 in the UK during November. An hour later we were at the Aire de Baie de Somme, a large service area on the A15 just north of Abbeville. We had stopped here two years ago in a caravan parking area close to the service area, which was safe but a bit noisy. This time we went to the caravan area at the far end, well away from the trucks and noise, to find we had the car park to ourselves. Fine for our first night’s sleep, although it remained very cold and there was a frost overnight. I know it was frosty during the night as in spite of assurances from fellow caravanners that it was safe, I still woke at every noise. On one occasion in the early hours I heard a car creep up, without lights, and expecting the worst leapt out of the door, only to see a police car driving away. He was obviously being polite and not wanting to disturb us.
Wednesday morning dawned a bit grey and misty. The view across the fields and marshes was limited, but we did see a number of moorhen, rabbits and a couple of herons as we walked over to the service area for the loo. Then it was back onto the motorway for the long drag to Tours. Northern France has a number of interesting towns and it has a pleasant coast, but between these are mile upon mile of flat boring countryside, made even more boring when the crops have all been harvested and all is covered in wet drizzle. The highest temperature we saw on the car thermometer all day was 4 degrees.
Our target was Rouen, then the old toll- free road via Evreux, Dreux, and Chartres to Tours. However we stayed on the autoroute south of Rouen to get a coffee at the services which meant that to avoid doubling back on minor roads we stayed on the A13 virtually to Paris before doubling back to Chartres. Another long way round, it seemed, but Tom-Tom was happy with the route and it gave us an easier run on the toll road (apart, of course, from the inevitable accident and huge queues near to Paris). It also gave us a chance to try out our new SANEF toll pass, a little beeper gadget on the windscreen which communicates with the toll booth and opens the barrier, so we don’t need to stop and fiddle with cards or change. I suppose the downside will be the bill hitting my bank account at the end of December, and not really knowing before then how much it will be. A clever ruse, perhaps, to get more people onto the toll roads.
It was almost dark when we reached Les Acacias, the campsite 6km upstream from Tours. A nice site, what we have seen of it, with big pitches, spotlessly clean and warm facilities and a friendly receptionist. The downside is a busy main road close by, and, no fault of the campsite, the oak leaves and acorns falling non-stop. One of the staff was working all day with a leaf blower, but was fighting a losing battle. We never did get to see any of the Acacias though.
I know a couple of our readers enjoy the toilet sagas. Here they were typically French, having no loo roll, soap or hand dryers, but on the other hand they did have seats, which is not very French at all. The showers were spacious, with plenty of hanging facilities and shelves in the drying arena, and lots of hot water in the wet arena.
Wednesday too was grey and damp. Nevertheless we set out to have a wander round Tours. We started with the cathedral, which seemed oddly tall and thin, but contained some wonderful stained glass. Next door the Bishop’s Palace has been converted into the Musee des Beaux Arts, a very nice Art Gallery in rooms which still had some of the original furnishings. I am not sure if the pictures were from the Bishop’s private collection though. There seemed to be far more than usual depictions of naked female torsos and naked boys and girls, all in typical suggestive poses. Well, perhaps they were the Bishop’s private collection after all. There was also a special exhibition of the life and works of Edouard Debat-Ponsan. Who? You know, the celebrated French Impressionist/Pre-Raphaelite/Tissot lookalike and supporter of Dreyfus, who lived 1847 to 1913. No, we had not heard of him either, but his paintings were certainly worth seeing.
We lunched in an Alsace restaurant, the plat de jour of chicken fricassee and rice followed by clafoutis, washed down with some hot Christmas wine, then wandered round the old quarter and the market before returning to the car. As well as being the heart of the historic chateaux-on-the-Loire area with its own historic quarter, Tours is a very modern city. The main north-south thoroughfare is a wide, marble- paved, pedestrianised zone with an ultra-modern tram line running down the centre. It never ceases to amaze me how so many European cities are light years ahead of our own towns and cities in the UK. Leeds, one of England’s most prosperous cities, is told by the government that it cannot afford a tram line. Tours, a fraction of the size, a fraction of the wealth, has one. And it is no white elephant either. The trams, on a single north south route, were running every couple of minutes and every one we saw was well filled. The result is that the town centre is very free of traffic, is clean and is well looked after.
After a tour round the suburbs in search of a supermarket we found a large Carrefour, and then back to the caravan for Lesley’s favourite, French Merguez sausages followed by crème de marron.
Thursday we were up, packed and off early, continuing south towards Bordeaux. It was a better day, slightly warmer and drier, but still very grey. The motorway south was boring. We came off at Poitiers to take the old N10 which is just as fast and a bit more interesting. All along this route, both north and south of Poitiers, they are building a new high speed rail line linking Tours with Bordeaux. Another example of the Europeans being so far ahead of the UK. They make a decision and do it, and most of the population welcome it. They don’t have to waste twice the cost of the railway on public enquiries, solicitors and accountants, appeals and counter appeals, NIMBYs and petitions.
We reached the Bordeaux area by lunchtime and as the weather was again closing in decided we would not enjoy a day in Bordeaux at this time of year. We pressed on to Urrugne, close to the Spanish border, to Camping Larrouleta, still owned by the lovely old Basque man who has a beret welded to his head. Since we were last here in December 2012 the reception block has been completely rebuilt, and by, does it look smart. The rest of the site is still as it was, good sized pitches, a good turnover of overnighters, and still the same clean but unisex toilet and shower block. I will never get used to the idea of standing at a urinal while a lady walks past to the shower. This time was even worse as the lady had left her umbrella open, to dry out, over the urinals, while she was in the shower. Needless to say she then emerged to find me sheltering under it.
Umbrellas were certainly the order of the day. Not long after we had set up camp the heavens opened, and it rained more or less non stop through the night. We woke to a dry spell, clear long enough to see that the rain had fallen as snow on the hills, but any plans to go down to walk along the wonderful Basque shoreline were soon scotched when the rain started again. We spent the day the way so many old folk do, books, jigsaws, crosswords, sudoku, internet and a visit to the supermarket.
During the afternoon we had a visit from a neighbour, who came in for a chat. He was in a short sleeved black shirt and was obviously very, very cold. His name was Geoff, and he had been on the road for 8 years, following a “problem” back home. He claimed to be a journalist, although his knowledge of current affairs, politics and modern technology seemed very limited. He writes travel articles, but was unaware that Biarritz was not hot and sunny in the winter. Nevertheless we had an enjoyable chinwag.
Sunday morning dawned bright and sunny but with subzero temperatures, entailing a session chipping the ice off the car before we could pack up and head for Spain. France is a lovely country, but it needs time to sit and soak up the atmosphere and the weather to match. In winter, when trying to get from A to B, it is just a vast boring plain to be crossed as quickly as possible. That part of the journey has been completed now, and we breathed a sigh of relief as we crossed into Spain. Sadly that sigh had to be drawn back in as the weather system followed us and northern Spain proved just as wet.