The journey home

It was cloudy, cool and damp as we set off for our next campsite, Huttopia Royat in the Auvergne, in a strange area of extinct volcanoes famous for, among other things, Volvic mineral water.  As we drew nearer there was a break in the rain and the sun came out, revealing the extraordinary chain of volcanoes, including the highest, Puy de Dome. 

This was a campsite we had stayed at before, in 2008.  We had trouble finding it then, and again this time!  Having checked in, we had trouble finding a pitch that wasn’t in deep shade under trees.  Having found one, we discovered that the electrical hook-up didn’t work.  But when we reported it a very nice chap came and sorted it out.  We were even able to sit outside in the sunshine for a while – until it started raining again.  However, the fabulous toilet block more than made up for the weather.  In fact, it was so comfortable I could have cheerfully moved into it permanently.  First, it was heated, and had a door that actually shut.  (It’s amazing how many campsites wedge the door open permanently, making the interior uncomfortably draughty.)  Second, the loos had seats and paper.  Third, the washbasins actually had a hand dryer, a rarity in French camp sites.  And fourth, it was new, smart, and modern.  This meant that using the facilities was a pleasure, not a chore.

The next morning I enjoyed a decent shower for a change, and the sun was shining!! We drove to a nearby modern shopping centre where there was a nice café with a fantastic view (we’re quite high up here) and we sat outside enjoying the warmth, before doing our shopping in a large Intermarche.  Back at Huttopia we sat outside in the sun.  There’s always a bit of housework to be done in a caravan, and today it was time to change the beds again (hopefully for the third and last time!)  After a simple lunch of omelette we sat in the sun again, although it clouded over for a while. In the evening we had gilt head bream cooked on the Cadac, delicious.  I suppose we could have taken advantage of the good weather to see some of the surrounding countryside, but it was pleasant just to sit and relax in the warmth, and we’d been up Puy de Dome on our last visit.

Clermont Ferrand

Sadly, the next day it was back to rain and cool temperatures, so we drove into Clermont Ferrand and got a street map from the Tourist Office.  The rain had eased off, but it was by no means warm! We followed the route showing points of interest. Many of the buildings, including the huge cathedral, are made of black volcanic stone, and have a rather forbidding appearance, as if soot-blackened.  There were numerous fountains, no doubt fed by volcanic springs, narrow old streets, and lots of interesting little shops selling antiques or modern art works.  We came across a lovely old Romanesque church, Notre Dame du Port, tucked away among other buildings.  It was difficult to get a full view of the exterior, but there was a useful belvedere in a nearby modern apartment block.  We had lunch sitting outside in the main square (a little chilly!)Croque Monsieur for me, four-cheese bruschetta for John.  We were on our way back to the car when the rain started again.  Later in the day it got heavier and in the evening was torrential and drowned out the TV.  Unfortunately a very noisy group of school children staying in some nearby chalets were unfazed by the rain and ran around making a terrific racket until the small hours!

Bourges

The rain eased off next morning so we were able to pack up without getting too wet, but as we set off at 10 it started again and was very heavy for the next hour’s driving.  We stopped at services for a coffee but the designated caravan parking area was a long, wet walk away!  By the time we arrived at Camping Robinson in Bourges the rain had stopped so we were able to sit outside for a while, but there was an unpleasant smell from the drain on our pitch.  John poured a lot of Zoflora down it, which helped!  This is very much a no-frills site, mostly used as a stopover on the journey north or south, and very busy with lots of comings and goings.  We wanted to stay two nights so we could have a look at Bourges, which merited several pages in our Michelin Guide.

We were woken very early next day by someone close by packing up their caravan and leaving! But the weather was good, and it was a pleasant fifteen minute walk from the camp site to the centre of Bourges.  We started off with the cathedral, a Unesco World Heritage Monument, which dates from the twelfth century.  Entry was by the south doorway, which as usual was “guarded” by a beggar.  We were once pursued by one who thought we hadn’t given him enough money, so we gave this one a more generous donation!  It’s a wonderful cathedral, one of the largest in France and a masterpiece of Gothic art.  We’ve seen quite a few cathedrals in our timebut this must be one of the most beautiful.  There’s an amazing amount of thirteenth-century stained glass, in the most vivid colours.  Usually you have to crane your head up to see stained glass windows but these were quite low down and it was easy to pick out the details of various Bible stories. To add to the spiritual atmosphere, the choir was practising – the acoustics were excellent.  We went outside and admired the fantastic carvings on the West front, which has no less than five doorways.  Then – the cherry on the cake – the bells began ringing.  They were very sonorous, quite unlike English church bells, and it was quite spine-tingling.  It was easy to imagine oneself back in the Middle Ages.

Then we followed the route in our good old Michelin Guide, along the Promenade des Remparts behind the cathedral, and through passageways known as “casse-cou” (break neck!)  There are many well-preserved timber framed houses and grand stone-built town houses, or “hotels”, in the pedestrianised streets.  We stopped for coffee in the picturesque Place Gordaine, then headed for the Marais, a green oasis of canals and waterways where many residents have small garden plots.  Then we went back to the centre and finished our tour with the Palais Jacques Coeur, the grandest mansion of all.  We enjoyed a very late lunch sitting in the shade outside a small restaurant, then walked back to Camping Robinson, tired but happy (no doubt the pitcher of rosé wine with our lunch had something to do with it!) We decided it had been well worth staying an extra day, even in a rather unattractive camp site, to see such an interesting and pleasant town.

The last lap

Early next morning we set off for our final site in France, Les Tilleuls at Abbeville again – we know it’s got good facilities and it’s convenient for the Channel Tunnel.  The journey should have been routine but at one point in the circumnavigation of Paris we took a wrong turn, resulting in a long, stressful diversion, including having to reverse out of a slip road leading to a tunnel that was too low for our caravan.  We were unable to stop for lunch until after two o’clock, in an aire with few facilities and no shade.  Of course, it was a hot sunny day, now that we were on our way home!  We finally arrived at Les Tilleuls after four o’clock, and were able to relax in the shade with a cuppa.  But John had to go out in search of fuel, got lost again and then caught up in rush hour traffic, so he was away for so long I was getting seriously worried.  On his return we sat with a pastis listening to the birdsong, and were delighted to hear a turtle dove, even if we couldn’t see it.  Later I enjoyed a shower - I hadn’t liked the look of the ones at the Bourges site, although John said they were OK apart from a drainage problem.

 So next morning we packed up for the last time and arrived at the Tunnel early enough to go for a coffee.  The train was on time, and we were soon back in England, where it was raining, and had an uncomfortable journey due to the heavy rain and large lorries driving uncomfortably close to the caravan.  It was quite a relief to get home!